Sunday, February 18, 2018

Mini-Reviews for February 12 - 18, 2018

Good morning and welcome to my world of reviews! Hope you like what you find!

Movies

Last Flag Flying (2017)
Not having seen/read The Last Detail, it's hard for me to pinpoint exactly what's Ponicsan's and what's Linklater's here. But it's an enormously generous film in the way that only Linklater films tend to be—so generous, in fact, that it finds room for compassion for none other than Saddam Hussein. This is a movie about the horrific cost of war: not just the deaths that result but the lies we tell ourselves about those deaths, lies that perpetuate the national myth that lures our young to their deaths to begin with. Last Flag Flying spits in the eye of the patriotic rhetoric of "heroes" and "patriotism" that American governments use to prevent people from questioning that cost, but what makes it ultimately as compelling as it becomes is the way that even the characters doing the spitting—a trio of bitter and shaken Vietnam veterans—can't escape the allure of the aesthetics of military prestige. As cynical as Linklater and Ponicsan are about the greater powers motivating and commanding the military, they are resolutely ambivalent on the profound meaning that veterans (or at least, these veterans) find in their military identity. It's all lies—the uniforms, the stories, the "character-building,"—and damaging lies at that, but to what extent should we condemn these lies when they clearly mean so much to those who actually experienced the truth of military service? The movie refuses to answer this question, and while I'm sure this ambiguity (some might say "mixed-messaging") won't work for some, it worked for me. This is narrative generosity in its most difficult form. Grade: B+

Better Watch Out (2016)
For a horror comedy, Better Watch Out is willing to get extremely sadistic, and unlike a few other reviewers, I count that as a plus—it's threading a pretty familiar needle here, but the extent of the ruthlessness in the film's villain remains the film's most reliable surprise, even when it's clear what the movie's game is (which, not to spoil too much, happens about half an hour in). I'm not sure if the way the movie juggles the staring-into-the-abyss nihilism of its villain with the winky appropriation of famous holiday movie beats (the movie has an extended homage to Home Alone, e.g., and on the non-holiday side, there's a conversation piece involving Adventure Time characters that's like the adolescent hell version of Reservoir Dogs's "Like a Virgin" bit) is entirely cohesive, but it works more often than not, even if the characters are either incoherent plot devices or staid archetypes. Fun and cringey times to be had by all, I'm sure. Grade: B

Empire of the Sun (1987)
I guess we can call this a "problem" film? The movie's first hour, as the Shanghai International Settlement is sacked and occupied by the Japanese and young Christian Bale's Jim is forced to live alone in the ruins of his spoiled, imperialist upbringing, promises a masterpiece. It's a miracle of visual storytelling, featuring some of the best imagery in any Spielberg film ever. The middle hour, however, drops the ball majorly; the plot slows way down for an interminable internment camp sequence that not only tones down that incredible imagery but also begins to lose Bale's character in a crowd of dull secondary ones—it's maybe thematically relevant, given the drudgery and dehumanization of the camp, but lord is it booooring. Thankfully, the final half hour recovers a bit, ending the movie on a strong and complicated note that foreshadows where Spielberg's dramatic output would go in the '90s and especially the 2000s. In fact, it's not hard to view this movie as ground zero for some of Spielberg's future endeavors—the Japanese occupation scenes feel like Spielberg's audition for Schindler's List, while a lot of the crowd scenes and the itinerant children with morally complicated adult companions feels like a test run of A.I. (dunno if Kubrick was watching this or not, but it sure feels like it). Both of those movies hang together a lot better than Empire does, which is maybe part of my disappointment here. But also, there's enough greatness in Empire that I feel like we don't really need to critique it solely in relation to other films. It's a big, complicated movie in a way that, to me, more often feels complicated in a flawed way than it does complicated in a rich or complex way, but I'll give Spielberg this: it's his first attempt at interrogating his own sentimentalism, and it does so brilliantly and in a way that he has never been able to recapture since, for as much as he's tried to replicate it—when Bale's character sees (perhaps supernaturally) the flash of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, he assumes it's someone's spirit going to heaven, which is such a bitter, ironic inversion of E.T. and Close Encounters and every other "messianic bright light from the sky" moment in his filmography. In a way, the film as a whole is an attempt to stretch this feeling out to a full 2.5 hours (even, if I'm going to be really generous, using John Williams's cloying and frankly awful score as a counterpoint to the misery we see onscreen); it's not successful at all in doing so, but there are glimmers of the success that could have been. Grade: B

Watermelon Man (1970)
An outrageous satirical comedy from Melvin Van Peebles: racist white man wakes up as a black man one day, and the majority of the film is him trying to turn himself back white. It's a lot more grounded in traditional narrative cinema than Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, the only other Van Peebles I've seen—this is Van Peebles's only studio film, and it shows. But for a studio film, even one made in 1970, this movie is pretty strange. For example, Godfrey Cambridge, the lead, is in white face for the opening sequence of the movie before he "turns" black, and there are multiple points where the screen flashes strange colors or has these weird title cards, for no other reason except to be disorienting, in a way that anticipates Sweet Sweetback. It's also pretty unflinching about race—the (excellent) tagline is, "It won't happen to you, so you can laugh," which just feels like a gigantic middle finger to any white audience who might enjoy this movie. Grade: B+

Cléo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) (1962)
My first Agnès Varda movie, and I LOVED it. It's not much else besides a woman waiting two hours for the results of a potentially fatal medical diagnosis and the ways all the people around her react to her dread, but why would you need more? The casual surrealism underpinned by some truly harrowing emotional ground, all bound up in this vigorous existential philosophy that's at once clear-eyed and serious without ever taking itself too seriously... this is extremely my thing. Also, how is Corinne Marchand not an international star? She's radiant and wonderful in this. Grade: A




Television

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Season 3 (2017-18)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's always had, to paraphrase its first season's theme song, a nuanced relationship with the "crazy" in its title, and Season 3 basically makes that relationship its thesis. The show's third year is very pointedly and single-mindedly about Rebecca Bunch's realization and acceptance that she has mental health concerns—this is signaled by nothing less than the conceptually clever (if musically weak) theme song for the season, which plays with the various and conflicting definitions of the word "crazy" in pop culture. That Crazy Ex-Girlfriend takes Rebecca's struggle seriously should be no surprise, but it's disarming and often harrowing just how seriously it takes it, giving the most clear-eyed look at the realities of mental illness I've ever seen in a TV series, bar none. At this point, we all know what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's tricks are—bawdy comedy, piercing emotional insight, jaunty and parodic musical sequences—but the directions these tricks steer the show are consistently fresh. Last season's finale, with Rebecca swearing bloody vengeance on Josh, did nothing to prepare us for a season-long exploration of the personal and social implications of a mental health diagnosis, and I expect this season's finale (involving Rebecca going to jail [??]) to be entirely unrepresentative of where the show's fourth season will take us (there will be a fourth season, CW... right?). To be fair, this season could do a bit more with its increasingly crowded roster of secondary characters, and Paula in particular feels given short shrift. And while I'm at it, is it just me, or is this season less focused on the musical sequences than past seasons? Season 3 is the show's most inconsistent, but its highs are so high that despite that, it doesn't feel like much of a step down. Grade: A-

Books

Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O'Malley (2004-2010)
I didn't feel like reviewing all six volumes of this series one by one, so here's them all in lump sum. O'Malley's graphic-novel treatise on love, emotional baggage, and personal responsibility is a lot more fun than I just made it sound. In fact, it's great fun. Set in some surreal version of Toronto that's a confluence of mid-2000s twentysomethings' personal experiences and the culture they have internalized—especially video games, and the series tends to operates on video-game logic (Scott gets a 1-Up at one point and levels up at multiple points)—Scott Pilgrim is the sort of stylized, endlessly inventive narrative that the comics form was created to support (though to be fair, the Edgar Wright film adaptation of the series does a great job with it, too). At least as good is the characterization, which relies on slacker archetypes as its foundation but then builds each of its principals into full-bodied, complicated humans within that framework and, impressively, without losing any of that surreal, comedic voice until the final volume, which perhaps gets a little too video-gamey and high concept to make room for the small, well-observed character moments that made the first five volumes so rich. Best of all is the series's no-nonsense approach to its protagonist, Scott Pilgrim himself, and the way it's not shy about the uglier aspects of Scott's personality; I don't know if I've ever read a book that depicted the insidious ways in which meek passivity gets conflated with niceness and how that passivity can be just as douchey as some preening jock, but if I have, it's certainly never been as scathing as Scott Pilgrim is. Grade: A-

Music

Wilco - Sky Blue Sky (2007)
Back in 2007, some people saw this album as a disappointment, and I suppose after the art-rock freakout that was A Ghost Is Born, I can see how this might have felt like a step down at first blush. I certainly don't remember being very impressed the few times I listened to it back then. But guys, we were wrong. So wrong. So wrong, in fact, that we missed the part where Sky Blue Sky was one of Wilco's best, most mature releases. It lacks the noisy fireworks of Ghost (though Sky's songs are more deconstructive than they seem—they just unexpectedly bloom into pop-adjacent blossoms rather than scuzzy feedback; Nels Cline's guitar here is a lot more precise and clean than Tweedy's in the previous album, but it's no less exploratory [see the Cline showcase, "Impossible Germany"]), but in its place is a lyrical precision mixed with soul-music underpinnings that occupies an emotional and sonic space distinct from anything Wilco has done before or since. This is "dad rock" only in the sense that it captures the way that (I assume) it's a complicated and beautiful things to be a father. Grade: A

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Mini-Reviews for February 5 - 11, 2018

Nothing to see up here. Go straight to the reviews.

Movies

Risk (2016)
This movie wants to be a few different things: the kind of breathtaking fly-on-the-wall depiction of Julian Assange that Citizenfour was for Edward Snowden, a self-reflective text on why the sort of hero narrative Edward Snowden got out of Citizenfour is impossible for a man as compromised as Assange, a history of WikiLeaks behavior beginning in 2011, an Errol-Morris-type character piece defined by revealing Assange talking heads. All of these objectives are interesting to varying degrees, but none of them end up being super compelling, partially because the documentary is being pulled in so many different directions but mostly (I suspect) because filmmaker Laura Poitras's relationship with Assange was crumbling as the movie entered its second half, thus severing a lot of access to the man. There's a lot of voiceover by Poitras herself in this movie that tries to reflect on the act of documenting a man like Assange and the ethical/professional quandaries that presents, but honestly, it mostly just comes off as a thin attempt to salvage a project that was falling apart as it was being made. She got some good footage and interviews out of it, but it doesn't hang together as a whole. Grade: B-


The Hunting Ground (2015)
To be clear, my tepid grade of this movie has everything to do with my experience with this documentary as a documentary and nothing to do with critiquing the information it presents. Sexual assault on college campuses needs to be taken seriously, and The Hunting Ground takes it very seriously—I applaud that. The information and testimonies presented here are important. People need to be educated on this stuff if it's going to get better. HOWEVER: 1) as an educational experience, I didn't get a ton out of this, given that the documentary is now over two years old and I've done a decent amount of reading on the topic already; 2) as a documentary experience, it feels very much like a feature-length episode of 60 Minutes or something of that nature, and that's pretty much what it is, having aired on CNN—the talking head/infographic format doesn't do a ton to engage me, even if it's a reasonably clear method of presenting this info, and the few times the doc tries to capture, vérité-style, the experiences of the activists fighting against college administrations are too few and far between to create a weighty picture of activism in the modern age. I realize I'm basically critiquing this movie for being what it tries to be, but I believe I've made my ambivalence toward activist docs pretty clear on here, and the TV aesthetic really isn't helping things. Still, you probably shouldn't listen to me. This movie is good at doing what it does. Grade: B-


Honeymoon (2014)
It's probably not going to blow anyone out of the water, but this little horror film does a great job with its extremely modest production budget, essentially creating a modern fusion of Rosemary's Baby with any number of "out in the woods alone" horror movies. The scares are rarely (if ever) jumpy, and the pacing is very good, patiently doling out increasingly unsettling turns of events until it escalates in its impressively gross body-horror finale. A promising debut from director/co-writer Leigh Janiak. Looking forward to whatever she does next. Grade: B





Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
This movie's a minor miracle, because: 1) It's a mainstream American comedy that's consistently funny throughout; 2) It's a mainstream American comedy in 2007 that's only 96 minutes long; 3) It's a mainstream American comedy in 2007 that's tightly scripted; and 4) It's a mainstream American comedy in 2007 that's a parody that's actually good. The film's main mode is lampooning musician biopics (which, in 2007, was a much riper subject for ridicule than it is today, I'll grant) by bending their drippy sentimentality and predictable beats toward absurdity as the titular Dewey Cox goes through every musician biopic plot ever—drugs, daddy issues, love affairs, reunions with his children, a misguidedly ambitious studio session in the late '60s, etc. What's especially impressive here (besides the aforementioned miraculous elements) is that the film, while never really breaking its parody mode, manages to muster up some sincere emotions by the film's end, and I'd largely credit this to just how good the music is; this is as much a musical as it is a parody, and not only are the songs pitch-perfect mimicry of the various eras Dewey stumbles through (including, hilariously, an anachronistic moment of punk rock), they're also just good songs. There are times when the jokes in this movies are more of the "I see what you did there" variety than the laugh-out-loud kind, but even when that happens, the music provides a consistent through line and tone. In case you missed it back in 2007 (and, given its box office returns, you probably did), seek it out now; it's a good one. Grade: B+


The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
There's a bus crash that kills 14 children. I thought I was going to be alright watching this movie, and then I saw the school bus disappear under the ice and I just lost it. This is strange, upsetting, and otherworldly cinema in the same way that The Virgin Suicides was all of the above. Some of the stuff with the pushy lawyer stirring up a class-action lawsuit against the school bus company feels a little stale (lawyers gonna lawyer, I guess), but even that is justified enough for the way it allows the bitter, spellbinding saga of the lawyer's relationship with his daughter. It's a diffuse movie in which not a ton happens outside of the central crash, but it's all tied together with a genuinely unnerving extended Pied Piper analogy and a score—an out-of-time fusion of medieval music with contemporary keyboard atmospherics—that's one of the best and strangest of the past few decades. Grade: A


The Visitor (1979)
For the first five minutes of this movie, you could be forgiven for assuming you were watching one of the myriad Star Wars imitators that rushed into cinemas following 1977—there's this Space Jesus dude in a Jedi robe, trippy space effects, the whole nine yards. But then it becomes a basketball drama, before becoming something of a rip-off of The Omen scored with the funk-soul brass flourishes of a blaxsploitation film. And then Space Jesus comes back. This is a weird one, y'all—not so much for any specific piece (most of the movie's beats, after all, have pretty obviously antecedents) but more for the fact that somebody thought to mash them all together into this transfixing suicide drink of a film. Grade: B


Television


Seinfeld, Season 9 (1997-98)
This season has some of the incontestable classics of Seinfeld's late-run era (most notably "The Strike," which contains Festivus, and "The Voice" [helloooooooooo]), and its willingness to get strange is basically unparalleled among network sitcoms of any era—for example, a major plot of the season premiere involves Newman fantasizing about cannibalizing Kramer. But as with the eight season, the post-Larry-David show is just far too dependent on silliness and forced catchphrases and parody to rival any of Seinfeld's peak. Which is okay, because no show (even this show) can be expected to produce the best American sitcom episodes week after week for its entire run. The final year of Seinfeld is still lots of fun. Still, it's hard not to wish for those earlier seasons at times, especially in the series-ending one-two punch of a clip show followed by one of the most notoriously unfunny sitcom series finales of all time. Grade: B

Books


La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (2017)
I'll be brief here, since it's entirely likely I'll someday revisit this to follow up on my His Dark Materials series from last summer. The first book in Philip Pullman's new companion trilogy to His Dark Materials has some very fun adventuring that mashes up a Cold-War-type espionage intrigue with folk magic in the novel's latter half. However, so much of this is tied to the original trilogy (and in ways that undermine the tension in this book's plot) that it sort of begs the question of why this story is being told—not enough fan service to reward attentive fans and too much interconnection to work entirely as a standalone. The next two books are supposed to take the story into timelines that aren't parallel to the original series, though, so I'm still holding out hope for Pullman to strike gold again. Grade: B-

Music


Jeff Rosenstock - POST- (2018)
The album's mix of shout-along punk and power pop is fun, and the touches of shoegaze/ambient are unexpected and nicely textured. I can't imagine this having much staying power with me over the course of the next year—it's a bit inessential, to be honest—but as of right now, this is by-default my favorite album of 2018. Grade: B

Monday, February 5, 2018

Prog Progress 1976: Rush - 2112

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.


Rush are trend-chasers.

This is less a condemnation and more just a statement of timeline fact. A cursory glance at their discography confirms. Their 1974 self-titled debut is a pileup of Led Zeppelin-inspired hard rock tunes released nearly a year after Zeppelin's own Houses of the Holy began to move the totemic band away from the sound of that remarkable three-year, four-album run that pretty much defined '70s hard rock; Rush's similarly Zeppelin-influenced sophomore LP, 1975's Fly By Night, came out only one week before Physical Graffiti closed the book definitively on Led Zeppelin's rock years. With their third album, Caress of Steel, also released in '75 [1], Rush began to pivot toward the spacier production and longer compositions of progressive rock, just as bands like Yes and Genesis were beginning their downward spiral after their early-'70s peak and bands like Queen were beginning to test the waters outside of the genre. By the time their fourth album, 2112 came out, the idea of side-long rock suites and sci-fi-epic lyrics were entirely passé. To put it another way, Rush's first four albums follow almost the exact same trajectory as Yes's—two blues-rock-indebted records followed by two increasingly big-idea'd records—only four years later.

This isn't really a critique of Rush; I like Rush (even if I find them much more inspiring as a hard rock band than a prog rock band [more on that later]). And to be fair, Rush's background gives more than enough justification for their place as the caboose of '70s prog—mainly, the fact that there was a whole "pond" separating them from the bubbling progressive rock scene of Great Britain. Believe it or not, the Canadian Rush are the first North American band this article series is covering, and that's not Anglo-centric bias [2]—as far as I'm aware, there's like nothing notably proggy going on in North America during any of the period from 1967-73, unless we're counting Zappa, who quite frankly (ha) seems like a genre of his own. Whereas England generally took psychedelia in otherworldly directions (with proto-freak-folk artists like Vashti Bunyan and, of course, progressive rock), North America seemed to distill the Summer of Love into the polar opposite camps of mostly hippie/post-hippie confessional folk (e.g. Joni Mitchell) and sludgy, jammy roots rock (Neil Young, Grateful Dead). None of America's '60s luminaries or their immediate descendants seemed interested in picking up the psychedelic torch in progressive directions, and it wasn't until 1974, when both Kansas and Rush released their debuts, that North America had much prog momentum.

Which is part of what makes Rush interesting as trend-chasers—they aren't chasing trends in the sense that they're slow on the uptake or opportunists; they (alongside Kansas, though the less said about them, the better) are one of the first second-generation prog groups, bands that arrived at the prog sound not because they breathed the same cultural air and booked the same clubs as the UK proggers but because they heard the established torchbearers of progressive rock and decided they wanted to make music like that. It's essentially the opposite of the '60s British Invasion, and like that earlier transatlantic invasion, Rush's appropriation of UK musical modes both smooths out and regionalizes progressive rock.

2112, though unmistakably proggy, is definitely not British. Casually, the album's six songs bear a lot of similarities to British prog: there's a side-long track about a sci-fi dystopia ("2112"), a song about drugs and Eastern exoticism ("A Passage to Bangkok"), some folksy sentimentality ("Tears"), a philosophical treatise ("Something for Nothing"), and a lot of other prog's usual thematic preoccupations. However, whereas the big UK prog bands are—at least on their major works—all thematically oriented around either mysticism (e.g. Yes) or specifically British class-consciousness (e.g. Genesis), 2112 is anchored by an obsession with the idea of "freedom." The sprawling title track is a suite that basically serves as a Randian parable about free thinkers rebelling against the socialist hell of a "Solar Federation" [3], while the closing track, "Something For Nothing," is full of lines like "You don't get freedom for free" and "What you own is your own kingdom." The members of Rush are well-known as libertarians, and while I suppose there's nothing about libertarianism that makes it off-limits for Europeans, it just doesn't seem like the kind of philosophical proclivity that would pop up on a European prog record; there's just something so "New World" about a prog rock concept album whose concept revolves around the importance of freedom over authority (rather than, say, class struggle or fear of fascism), and, if for nothing else, that makes 2112 important in prog history.

And honestly, there may not be anything else that makes this album important. Look, it's a good album, one that was undoubtedly Rush's most mature and fully realized yet at the time of its release. But it's not an especially innovative record, at least not in the way that this series has normally focused on prog albums as being. 2112 is what prog sounds like when stripped of almost every jazz and avant-garde impulse—it's basically '70s hard rock stretched out to prog song lengths with prog lyrical flourishes. That's nothing against Rush, necessarily; the instrumentation is virtuosic and fun to listen to, and it's clear that these guys know how to rock. But it's also straightforward and unsurprising in a way that's not been true of any of the major prog releases this blog has covered so far. Despite the "Solar Federation" lyrics, this is pretty grounded stuff for prog. It's not really Rush's fault that they arrived at the time they did, at the precise moment the major prog groups were falling into creative decline, but it's hard not to see the relative simplicity of the album as symbolic of the moment when progressive rock's sound ossified into the comfortable and unambitious extension of metal/hard rock that the genre is still having difficulty pushing past.

On the other hand, Rush's relative groundedness and disinterest in psychedelia and mysticism, along with the fact that they arrived when prog's influence was beginning to wane, may have been the best thing about Rush at this point. They, for example, weren't part of the conceptual arms race that eventually pushed Yes to Tales from Topographic Oceans, and neither did they fall into the air-headed hippyisms that made a lot of prog sound so silly once the sonic grandeur began to slip in the mid-'70s [4]. Rush was able to emerge from prog's implosion with basically none of the embarrassments that have marred the reputations of many other prog groups.

What's more, the fact that Rush kept one foot in their hard-rock roots meant that they navigate prog's dicey post-'70s future with a lot more agility than your average prog band. Rush made exactly three full-blown progressive rock albums—2112 in 1976, A Farewell to Kings in 1977 [5], and Hemispheres in 1978 [6]—before they pivoted back into more traditional rock territory with Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures (which you may have heard piecemeal on your local classic rock station), before going full-on synth rock/New Wave in the '80s. This is the same route that Yes and a few other prog mainstays would eventually take, but Rush managed that transition first and was definitely the most graceful in the transition, making their strongest albums in that early '80s period.

Most bands who adopt self-consciously prog attire eventually become either nostalgists or trend-chasers; that's just how it goes. Rush just happened to be good at the latter, whether it be chasing 20-minute prog opus trends or synth-rock ones. It's not a critique; it's a method of survival. And Rush survived. Of all the big prog bands, Rush is the only one to have maintained anything close to mainstream appeal up through the modern age; I may not be over-the-moon about 2112 in the way I've been about some of these other albums, but you're got to admire the band's consistency. It's hard to argue with results.

That's all, folks. I'll see y'all in 1977!


1] The prolificity of rock artists in the '60s and '70s never ceases to astound me.

2] Though the fact that this series hasn't covered any French, German, or Italian bands yet probably is evidence of Anglo-centric bias. It just sucks that pretty much every prog band in the continent of Europe peaked within the same three-year period.

3] Pretty much everyone agrees that this is basically a retelling of Ayn Rand's Anthem, and the liner notes credit "the genius of Ayn Rand" as an inspiration. However, as I'm sure we're all relieved to discover, Rush aren't Objectivists, and they don't even like Ayn Rand anymore, though how the phrase "bleeding heart libertarian" meaningfully distinguishes between Rush and other libertarians is beyond me—I guess they feel bad about not approving of government-aided social safety nets?

4] Though I suppose there's a healthy debate to be had about the silliness of libertarianism.

5] Probably the strongest Rush prog album, honestly, though less historically important (and besides, I have a different '77 album I want to cover next time).

6] Which, for the record, has one of the all-time silliest/best prog album covers.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Mini-Reviews for January 29 - February 4, 2018

January, the Monday of Months, is over. Long live February!

Movies

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
This is basically the epitome of a movie that's "interesting" without actually piquing my interest much. It's not for lack of trying. There are parallels to Greek drama, the Bible, and just plain ol' ethics a-plenty here, all filtered through the register of Lanthimos's typical black-comic absurdity with impressive deadpan—the fact that the characters all speak in the flattest of monotones, regardless of whether they are talking about murder, masturbation, or mundanity, feels like self-parody of the highest order, and it's probably the one Lanthimos technique that I felt invested in at all here (though I'll also go to bat for the bleached, angular cinematography, which doesn't feel as quintessentially Lanthimosian but fits the chilly humor of the film perfectly). The rest, sadly, is just not drawn with the razor precision of his earlier work, at least not enough to make the film much to wade through. "Don't you understand? It's a metaphor," one character says at one point, and you gotta admire the gumption it took to put a line like that in here but also, like, yes, I do understand but I just don't care—the movie in a nutshell. Grade: C+

Princess Cyd (2017)
It's a movie full of great incident and generous characterizations, and there are so many moments that I watched and found so precisely human. So I enjoyed it a ton based on those pieces. I mean, some of this stuff seems genetically engineered to appeal to me: for example, the characters have a soirée in which people tell stories and read excerpts from "The Dead" (though to be fair, at least two of the characters are totally bored by this, which seems about right). However, it's also a movie so strangely devoid of conflict that when conflict does appear, it feels really joltingly out of place—e.g. there's a subplot about a murder-suicide that I'm really not sure at all belongs in this movie. Still, it's great on a hang-out-type rubric, and the two leads (Jessie Pinnick as the titular Cyd, a by-turns endearing and monstrously inconsiderate teenager, and Rebecca Spence as Cyd's aunt, who hosts the soirée and that's probably enough to let you know about her) are tremendous and have this wonderful natural chemistry. However meandering it was, I definitely don't begrudge my time spent with the film. Grade: B

Lost in Paris (Paris pieds nus) (2016)
It's pretty much a Chaplin movie, only every character is a Chaplin character. Plus Wes Anderson's visual sensibilities. Your mileage with this movie is probably going to depend exactly on how much you like either of those filmmakers (and especially how appealing you find the prospects of their combination to be), but I'm digging it a lot. Grade: B+







The Last Unicorn (1982)
It's really obvious what isn't good about The Last Unicorn: the songs are bad, sounding like the kind of music '70s prog rockers would have made in 1982 if they hadn't discovered New Wave; the animation is undeniably cheap-looking; the score is overbearing and schmaltzy. But there's a lot to like here, too, or at least a lot that I like. First of all, the voice acting is great, particularly Mia Farrow as the titular unicorn and Christopher Lee as the late-breaking villain. And then there's the screenplay, which, written by Peter S. Beagle (who wrote the excellent novel on which this movie is based), is quietly poetic and melancholic in a way that children's fantasy rarely is. And best of all are the character designs, which don't look great in-motion due to the aforementioned cheapness but do look great as designs; this was sort of a golden age for idiosyncratic character designs in American animation, the sole moment in the history of American animation when Disney's dominance over the market waned for long enough that animators didn't feel like they needed to aspire to the round, cuddly Mouse-House templates. This is the same environment that allowed for the brief, bright flourishing of Ralph Bakshi, and the images we're presented in The Last Unicorn are similar: lumpy and stern characters that range from the innocent (the aspiring magician) to the grotesque (Angela Lansbury's witch character) to the viscerally frightening (the harpy, the red bull), all superimposed over elaborate backgrounds—though instead of Bakshi's urban decay, The Last Unicorn goes for evocative, medieval-art-influenced landscapes. It's a strange and uneven movie, but it's also capable of striking beauty, too. Grade: B

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
This movie flat-out wouldn't work without Bowie. Everything about him—his mid-'70s otherwordliness, the casually dashing costuming draped over his cocaine-drained body, his oddly vulnerable line readings, that carrot-orange hair—is perfectly calibrated for the specific needs of The Man Who Fell to Earth, and if there was one role David Jones was born to play, it was that of a mesmerizingly handsome alien lost among the strangeness of human routine. Don't get me wrong: Roeg is doing great work here as director, and Graeme Clifford is maybe even doing better work as editor—this is a film full of, if nothing else, arresting imagery, and it's strung together compellingly (if at times a little shakily). But Bowie grounds the movie; while the plotting and other characters can be opaque, it's his performance that gives the film its form, weighing the character with a heavy sense of tragedy. This is, above all, a movie about how the bizarre rituals of modern human life are inherently corrupting, and Bowie, who in his own personal life was on a particularly rough downswing from the excesses of modernity, embodies that sentiment more profoundly than any stunt-casted celebrity has in a film role before or since. Grade: B+

How to Steal a Million (1966)
Lots of fun, though much more so in the early goings when the power dynamics between Hepburn and O'Toole are more evenly distributed. Once the heist begins, O'Toole definitively takes the reigns of the plot, and the film loses a lot of that repartee in favor of wide-eyed adoration toward O'Toole's character. It's still enjoyable, and the heist sequence is by turns tense and funny. But something of the spark gets lost along the way, mostly on the Hepburn end. That's said, if all a movie gives you is Hepburn's egg-shaped driving hat and goggles, then it's still a win in my book. Grade: B




Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)
An early Irwin Allen disaster film. The premise is amusingly ludicrous (a meteor makes the sky catch on fire across the world, and a super submarine must shoot a cruise missile into the sky to blow the fire into space), and for a while, I was thinking that I'd be happy just watching this stupid science play out. But alas, it quickly devolves into a reeeally dull chamber drama with the submarine crew, and aside from a few sort of exciting setpieces (there are not one but two sequences involving tentacled sea creatures), it ended up being a drag. Grade: C




Television

The Good Place, Season 2 (2017-18)
Improving everything that was good about Season 1 and pretty much jettisoning the few things that didn't work, The Good Place's second year is a phenomenal testament to everyone involved in its creation. With the first season's twist out of the bag, the series's second season has been able to spend a lot more time world-building and exploring the bizarre mechanics of the fanciful afterlife that the characters inhabit, and the absolute best moments of this season are when the show pushes its premise right up to a cliff and then jumps—for example, in the season's third episode, "Dance Dance Resolution," in which Michael reboots the show's world literally hundreds of times, or in the last few episodes of the season, in which the show unexpectedly turns itself into a low-key thriller. Most impressive is that as chameleonic as The Good Place has proven itself to be, it never feels like it loses its identity, and this is largely a credit to the actors, who ground the show in an increasingly warm and slightly melancholic emotional space. Ted Danson remains the best in show, of course, but the rest of the cast steps up tremendously as the show throws increasingly complex character entanglements at them. It's all very lovely and hilarious and still like nothing else on television right now, and I can't recommend it enough. Grade: A

Music

Air - Moon Safari (1998)
The thing about Air is that they really just want to be the French electronica version of Pink Floyd, if Pink Floyd were considerably less morose. Moon Safari is Exhibit A, beginning with what basically amounts to an upbeat "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" and hitting those same vibes several more times over the course of the record's 44 minutes. Once you figure this out, there really isn't that much to the album besides the prog-blues antecedent, so your enjoyment of the album is couched almost entirely on whether or not you find this prospect interesting. Lucky for me, I love this sound. Grade: A-

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Mini-Reviews for January 22 - 28, 2018

Hey, all! I was on the Cinematary podcast this week, and I discussed several of the movies I'm reviewing here. If you're interested, you can listen here. I'll let you know in the reviews which movies I discussed, too.

Movies

Phantom Thread (2017)
So in a just world (which, I should stress, we do not live in), this should win all the Oscars, right? Picture, Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Supporting Actress (Leslie Manville), Director, Score (Jonny Greenwood's score—it's magical), Costume Design... and in an even juster world, it should have been nominated for even more (at least Screenplay and Actress [Vicky Krieps is terrific]). If it's not already abundantly clear, I am head-over-heels for this movie. It's as subdued and formally pristine a movie as Paul Thomas Anderson has ever crafted, but with a writhing, roiling underbelly that makes the ostensibly stuffy period trappings and muted acting choices all the more hilarious and fragile a shell to encase the truly unhinged psychosexual comedy that Phantom Thread actually is. The veneer of class and society that these characters inhabit is in each moment of the film at the brink of bursting at the seams to release the raging pathology at the heart of each individual. To be human is to be sick. Easily PTA's best film since There Will Be Blood and, if I were going to re-do my Favorite Movies of 2017 list, a shoo-in for #1. See it in a theater, folks, and let the exquisite composition of this work of art melt over you like so much butter over asparagus. Grade: A

Mudbound (2017)
A sprawling character drama that has a lot of good stuff—cinematography, acting, editing—but perhaps the best is the way that Mudbound crams what is surely 4 hours of regular movie plot into its relatively spry 2 hours and 15 minutes without sacrificing a bit of character depth. The secret sauce, I think, is the copious use of voiceover, something I would usually bristle at but here becomes a tremendous tool for the film to glide from POV to POV and time period to time period in a way that recalls Faulkner in general and As I Lay Dying specifically. The best Netflix movie I've seen yet, and perhaps the only one to get so close to greatness. (I talk about this movie in more detail on Episode 180 of the Cinematary podcast, which you can listen to here.) Grade: A-

Call Me By Your Name (2017)
As with Guadagnino's previous feature, A Bigger Splash, I'm finding it very difficult to find an emotional doorway into this film, and also like A Bigger Splash, I only really felt things when those feelings were delivered via music—this time in a duo of terrific Sufjan Stevens songs, deployed appropriately at the film's two emotional climaxes. Call Me By Your Name is the kind of arthouse movie that's never been my favorite, the kind where the drama is super internal and everything is a symbol (memorably, an apricot), and while this is a particularly wistful version of that with some very nice shots, it's not enough to sustain interest over 132 minutes. And I mean, this thing kind of lives and dies by how much you root for the central couple, and I'm just not feeling it. It's not just me, right? Armie Hammer's character is kind of a prick, right? Well-acted, well-shot, fantastically soundtracked, but just not something I felt strongly for when Sufjan wasn't on. Grade: B-

Marjorie Prime (2017)
Very indie sci-fi, right down to the concocting of a premise that doesn't need any special effects (though I know it was the original play that cooked it up first). In this one, people have developed technology that allows for families to create holographic versions of deceased loved ones, only the family then needs to educate the hologram about what the original person was like. This is a movie that's about ideas, ideas I wasn't really finding all that compelling until the final stage of the movie, at which they become very compelling, so hang in there until the end. Grade: B




Eagle vs Shark (2007)
This is the laziest comparison to make, but really, I only needed one Napoleon Dynamite in my life, and my affection for that one is mostly running on nostalgia now. Given that I'm just now seeing it, I'm not nostalgic for Eagle vs. Shark, so sorry, movie! It's not entirely without its charms—the animations are nice, and some of the mundane back-and-forth and comedic self-delusion hint at the genuinely excellent and melancholically hilarious stuff Taika Waititi would do just a few years later in Boy. But as a movie on its own... ehhh. Grade: C




The Nutty Professor (1963)
Beginning my Jerry Lewis exposure with The Bellboy and then moving on to It's Only Money and then to The Nutty Professor is like being invited to the house of an acquaintance whom you'd long suspected was part of a pyramid scheme but when you arrive, he's really polite and even puts on a Radiohead album, so it can't be all bad, right? But then he's asking if you're happy with your job, and then all of the sudden he's pulling out pamphlets and telling you how much money you can make a year if you get ten people to sign up a month. The Nutty Professor is a muddled, unfunny Jekyll/Hyde riff that can't even seem to decide who much we're supposed to be rooting for Jekyll or Hyde, and what's worse, it can't quite commit—despite pegging a weirdly sincere, weirdly long speech to the movie's end that explains that it's not good to be a douchebag lounge-rat hipster—to putting its foot down that it's a bad thing that Hyde tries to rape women. The movie is undeniably amazing-looking—Lewis knows his way around a camera, and the primary-colored outfits and lab equipment make for a sweet backdrop for a sour movie—and his comedic worldview is certainly singular. But I'll leave the singular-but-wretched worldviews to the academic auteurists who've taken also to Michael Bay. As for me: goodbye, Jerry Lewis. (I talk about this movie in more detail on Episode 180 of the Cinematary podcast, which you can listen to here.) Grade: D

Music

Funkadelic - Free Your Mind... and Your Ass Will Follow (1970)
The direct forebear to one of my favorite albums of all time, Free Your Mind feels every bit a stepping stone to Maggot Brain from Funkadelic's self-titled debut. Like most Funkadelic at this stage, the album begins with a 10-minute, spoken-word, space-funk-jam showcase for guitarist Eddie Hazel, followed by a series of shorter tracks tethered more closely to traditional song structures. Unlike Maggot Brain, however, Free Your Mind's shorter songs never really lose their shaggy psychedelia, and the result is an album that feels much looser and stranger than the one that succeeded it, if a bit less successful overall. This is strange stuff—a concept album of sorts about the intersection of money and liberty that's at once a salute to and a parody of African-American Christian spiritualism—and not all of it works ("Funky Dollar Bill," the album's most traditionally grounded song, feels kind of one-note, for example). But when it does, it's pretty special. Grade: B+

Monday, January 22, 2018

Favorite Albums 1-100


Not sure anyone cares/remembers, but back when this blog hit its 100th post, I celebrated by making a list of my 100 favorite movies at the time (which the morbidly curious can read here). Well, now this blog has reached its 200th post (fanfare! fireworks! you get a car! and you get a car!), so I thought I'd celebrate with another 100 list—this time my favorite albums.

As with the movie list, I just want to stress that this is not a list of the best albums; nor is it a list of the albums I have listened to most or have always loved the most. This is simply a catalog of the albums that, at this particular moment in time, I would count as my favorites. This was very difficult to whittle down to an even 100—ask me tomorrow, and you'd get a much different list, the day after and you'd get an even more different list still. Also as with the movie list, this list is alphabetized, not ranked (and even lazily alphabetized at that—if I were being rigorous here, I'd have organized the artists by last name, but instead, I just listed them in the order that they are on my iTunes: Kanye West right before Kendrick Lamar, etc.).

Another organizational note: In order that this list didn't consist entirely of R.E.M., David Bowie, and Miles Davis, I limited any one artist to no more than three albums. Otherwise, this list would have definitely been just R.E.M., David Bowie, and Miles Davis.

Anyway, I hope this inspires people to share their own favorite albums here. I'm a white male music nerd who has counted rock as his musical genre home base for most of his life, and this list definitely reflects that hardcore, so I'd love suggestions that push against my demo. As I've mentioned frequently, the point of lists (as I see it) is to share new or neglected works of art with others, so please view this list as an opportunity to do so! Or maybe you love all the same albums as I do, in which case we can just revel together in the awesomeness of Carly Rae Jepsen or Funkadelic. Or maybe you hate Carly Rae Jepsen and Funkadelic—that's cool, you can call out my taste for being bad, too. Really, when you think about it, all music is bad.

Some stats before we begin:

  • The oldest album on this list is Miles Davis's Kind of Blue (1959).
  • The youngest album on this list is Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith's A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (2016)—list is bookended by jazz, woo, I'm a cool cat.
  • The most represented decade is the 1970s, with 24 albums.
  • The least represented decade is the 1950s (just Kind of Blue).
  • The most represented artists are Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Miles Davis, R.E.M., and Radiohead, all of whom hit the three-album ceiling.


The List
Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014)
Alice in Chains – Jar of Flies (1994)
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)
The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)
Big Star – #1 Record (1972)
Björk – Homogenic (1997)
Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Bob Dylan – Modern Times (2006)
Brad Mehldau – Elegiac Cycle (1999)
Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (1985)
Bruce Springsteen – The River (1980)
Can – Tago Mago (1971)
Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion (2015)
Carol King – Tapestry (1971)
Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap (2013)
The Clash – The Clash (1977)
Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)
David Bowie – Hunky Dory (1971)
David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
David Bowie – Young Americans (1975)
David Crowder Band – A Collision or (3+4=7) (2005)
Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)
Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest (2010)
Echo & the Bunnymen – Crocodiles (1980)
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (2015)
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012)
The Flaming Lips – Embryonic (2009)
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (2011)
Florence + The Machine – Lungs (2009)
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (1971)
Genesis – Selling England by the Pound (1973)
Grimes – Art Angels (2015)
Iggy & the Stooges – Raw Power (1973)
Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid (2010)
Joanna Newsom – Divers (2015)
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (1965)
Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark (1974)
Kanye West – Late Registration (2005)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
King Crimson – Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)
The Knife – Shaking the Habitual (2013)
The La’s – The La’s (1990)
Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver (2006)
Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy (1973)
The Mars Volta – Frances the Mute (2005)
maudlin of the Well – Part the Second (2009)
Miles Davis – In a Silent Way (1969)
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (1959)
Miles Davis – On the Corner (1972)
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)
The National – Boxer (2007)
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York (1993)
Oasis – Definitely Maybe (1994)
Patti Smith – Horses (1975)
Pavement – Wowee Zowee (1995)
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975)
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (2011)
PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love (1995)
Queen – A Night at the Opera (1975)
R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992)
R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
R.E.M. – New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
Radiohead – Amnesiac (2001)
Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)
Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
Regina Spektor – Soviet Kitsch (2003)
Robert Glasper – Black Radio (2012)
The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (1971)
The Roots – Things Fall Apart (1999)
The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow (2003)
Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988)
Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space (1997)
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (2011)
Sun Kil Moon – Benji (2014)
Sunn O))) – Monoliths & Dimensions (2009)
Talk Talk – Laughing Stock (1991)
Talking Heads – Remain in Light (1980)
Television – Marquee Moon (1977)
Tindersticks – Tindersticks (1995)
TV on the Radio – Dear Science (2008)
U2 – Achtung Baby (1992)
U2 – Pop (1997)
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
The Verve – A Northern Soul (1995)
Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith – A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (2016)
Vince Guaraldi Trio – Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus (1962)
The White Stripes – White Blood Cells (2001)
The Who – Who’s Next (1971)
Wilco – A Ghost Is Born (2004)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell (2003)
Yes – Fragile (1972)

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Mini-Reviews for January 15 - 21, 2018

Lots of snow days today means lots of reading, watching, etc. Woot woot!

Movies

The Post (2017)
A companion piece, of sorts, to Lincoln. If every 4-5 years Spielberg has to drop in and create a tightly scripted historical film stealthily (or not so stealthily, in The Post's case) about the state of the current executive branch, I'm cool with that as long as they're this good—good enough, even, that I'm willing to forgive how both of these movies have ended on final scenes that are entirely too cutesy. I'm also a sucker for movies about journalists doing journalist things, and honestly, I could watch a whole movie that was just shots of the Washington Post typesetting process and people with leather patches on the elbows of their tweed jackets shuffling through paper archives. Luckily for everyone who doesn't have my particular journalistic fetishes, The Post is all that plus electrifying plotting and dynamite actors chewing through some crackerjack dialogue. Grade: A-

Happy Death Day (2017)
"Groundhog Day, but a slasher" is a premise so easy and appealing that it's a wonder that it's taken this long to materialize (and apparently it's not been as long as it seems—this movie has been in production since 2007). Nevertheless, here we are, and the resulting film is consistently entertaining, though certainly not great—the characters, for starters, never really break out of the stock-character mold they're introduced in, and with the exception of one third-act twist that's incredibly fun and subverts the usual trajectory of these Groundhog Day movies perfectly, the movie isn't really doing a ton of new or interesting things with its format. Still, the script is entertaining enough throughout and the acting winsome enough that these quibbles are easy to dismiss in favor of just enjoying a moderately engaging variation on the familiar. Grade: B

Mary and the Witch's Flower (メアリと魔女の花) (2017)
A good—if a bit generic—fantasy coming-of-age from Ghibli-alum Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Imagine Harry Potter, but if McGonagall was Dr. Eggman from Sonic. There are some gorgeous and inventive character designs in the woefully brief magical Endor College tour, and overall, the movie is nicely animated in exactly the way you would assume a film from ex-Ghibli-ers to be. There are some narrative problems—most notably, the way the movie has essentially two first acts and no second act, though I'm not sure which first act I'd cut to add a second, since they're both rather lovely—that make the movie feel slight and a little underdeveloped even within its pretty standard genre fare, but none of them are fatal, and the things that are nice about this movie are quite nice. Grade: B

Basic Instinct (1992)
Gender-flipping Psycho seems like a lateral movie, as far as LGBT sensitivity goes, and I'm honestly not sure of the point of it, thematically, though it does lead to some clever moments. Cleverer still is the way that the movie finds Psycho by way of Vertigo, and I won't lie that I find this kind of experimentation—not just genre experimentation but experimentation with the narrative forms of specific genre hallmarks—pretty fun. The movie might go over much better if Basic Instinct had anything better than a monumentally dumb screenplay, but, well, it's monumentally dumb. As it is, Sharon Stone (in a deliriously hammy villain performance), Michael Douglas (in a perfectly nasty noir-protagonist turn), and score composer Jerry Goldsmith are doing a lot of heavy lifting here, and I'd ultimately guess your enjoyment of this comes down to how you feel about Paul Verhoeven's trademark "This doesn't exactly feel like satire, but that's the only possible explanation for some of these directorial choices" approach. I like Starship Troopers, so that puts me in the positive camp. Grade: B

Duel (1971)
Gotta love a movie that knows exactly what it is—in this case, a movie about a killer truck—and leans way into that. Some really fantastic shot compositions and lighting, too. Be the best you you can be. Grade: A









The Bellboy (1960)
I don't know what I was expecting from my first Jerry Lewis feature, but a 70-minute series of barely related and often surreal sketches is not it. In a brief prologue, the supposed "executive producer" at Paramount Pictures assures us, the audience, that The Bellboy is a movie with "no story and no plot," and the film makes very good on that promise. At one point, Jerry Lewis plays himself, harangued by a crowd of sychophants—he has about two scenes, and then we never see him again. At another point, the protagonist, Stanley (the titular bellboy, also played by Lewis), takes a flash photograph at night, and the flash literally turns the nighttime into day, despite only being 3:30 in the morning. In another scene, Stanley finds himself in the middle of a marital spat and gets beaten by both husband and wife. Elsewhere, Stanley flies a plane. And so on. These bits are tied together only by the tenuous connection that they all take place at or around the same Miami Beach hotel and mostly involve Stanley, and many of them seem to be inspired by the goofy wordplay, physical humor, and flights of fancy of Lewis's vaudeville-performing childhood. The result is something like the intersection of Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges, and the dream sequence in Sherlock Jr., though of the three of those, the overall sensibilities lean heavily in the Curly-Larry-Moe direction. It's all very silly, and as with anything as relentlessly episodic as this is, there's a lot of dead air. However, most of the bits are less than a minute long, so it generally skates by on the same principles that float Aaron Sorkin dialogue, moving fast enough that the bad patches are quickly replaced by the good ones before they linger too long in your mind. And beyond that, I don't think I can stress enough just how strange this movie is willing to get, often without any sort of explanation. There's a kitchen-sink approach to the comedy here that makes room for everything from musical interludes to meta humor, and the final package is endearingly bewildering. I can't say if this is representative of Jerry Lewis's output in general (his reputation suggests not), but I'm interested to see more. Grade: B

It's Only Money (1962)
Eh, okay. Lacking the go-for-broke absurdity of The Bellboy, all this Jerry-Lewis-starring feature is left with is Lewis's physicality, and that wasn't nearly my favorite thing about The Bellboy, though Lewis is admirably committed to it. I might be a little more admiring of it if Lewis wasn't so shouty and rapid-fire moron here, but I guess that's sort of his thing in his non-Bellboy performances. Honestly, the funnier part of the movie to me is the Ladykillers-style plot involving some no-gooders repeatedly failing in their attempts to murder Lewis's character. The escalating ridiculousness of it is fun, though the movie doesn't ever commit to it enough to make it actually Ladykillers-level enjoyable. Grade: C+


Television

Orange Is the New Black, Season 4 (2016)
Finally a season of Orange Is the New Black without any glaring flaws. Oh, there are little ones, to be sure, most notably in the way it still insists on keeping one foot in sitcom mode when dealing with non-major characters (something that manifests itself most troublingly in the way it depicts the new crop of white supremacist characters, which, with the bitter aftertaste of 2017 still on my tongue, feels far too glib and divorced from the reality of the actual white supremacists who have been running amok in this country). But this sitcomminess isn't nearly the problem it was in previous seasons, and most of the rest of the recurring OitNB issues have been relegated to the periphery (Alex and Piper), gotten rid of entirely (Daya and Bennett—THANK YOU LORD), or incorporated as vital thematic units of the season arc (the racial stereotyping, which the show turns cleverly on its head by ratcheting up the racial tensions—and even intra-racial tensions—within the Litchfield environment and making them a function of the prison context and not the show's storytelling). In lieu of these usual stumbling blocks, we're left instead with the series's most structurally ambitious and thematically cohesive year yet, a deftly (and okay, occasionally clumsily—this is still OitNB, after all) woven narrative about corruption and innocence and idealism and privilege. It's the first season of the show that actually seems to be trying to say something about Society in general, and while after the previous seasons, I would have said that this is a show not nearly well-equipped enough to handle that sort of scope, Season 4 manages it commendably (the aforementioned hiccups aside), building a complex tragedy that argues as well as any TV series has since The Wire that The System is both an unstoppable force and an accumulation of individual actions and prejudices by autonomous people. Grade: A-

Books

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (2017)
A discursive and directionless novel about a Harvard freshman feels directionless and alienated by academic pretensions and undergraduate socializing. It's basically a comedy, but a very dry one, and while there's a ton to like here (the motif of our protagonist, Selin, nodding along as she listens to some self-impressed academic blather on about his pet theory while she internally feels deeply confused or gets distracted by errant thoughts feels deeply accurate to me and is never not hilarious), I do kind of wonder if the novel could have had a bit more direction—or at least something to grab onto among all the detached and wry observations. I kind of feel like a stick-in-the-mud here; maybe I'm getting old. It's an easy novel to walk through, but for all its humor and stylistic precision, it's a hard novel to get any closer to than arm's length. Grade: B-

Music

Margo Price - All American Made (2017)
My favorite new country artist doesn't write anything as immediately Great as "Hands of Time" on her sophomore release, but All American Made, a less showy album than Price's debut by most accounts, finds Margo Price and frequent co-writer Jeremy Ivey pushing their songcraft in exciting new directions this time around. The soul inflections of "Do Right By Me," the tempo shifts and structural strangeness of "Cocaine Cowboys," and pop-country string-based production of "A Little Pain" are all welcome additions to Price's retro vibes. The album stumbles a few times, most significantly on the mariachi-tinged "Pay Gap," which melds a questionable musical idea with bland social commentary, but all is forgiven when we get to the mournful and masterful closing title track, a stealth contender for Price's best song yet and easily one of last year's best songs, period. Grade: B+