Sunday, December 25, 2016

Best movies of 2016

Image result for movie directorAnyone moronic enough to post a list purporting to name the best films of a particular year invites mockery, ridicule, insults and other such inappropriate responses, as well as a handful of thoughtful dissensions, points given to advance a conversation and, sometimes (if rarely) the codependent praise from someone who assumes the reviewer's happiness depends on readers being in complete agreement with the year-end assessment. 

Not that my views are anything a great many bother to check with , but it does bear saying that this is a listing of my favorite movies of 2016 and is not intended to be definitive nor to invalidate the views of anyone else nor demean their critical acumen. Pompous as that last sentence sounds ,I admit that it's an attempt to head off the "that's-just-your-opinion" crowd who offer that phrase so many times as if diminishes whatever critical remarks happened to upset them. I will admit that yes, it is just my opinion, subjective, personal, inconsistent and the whole shot, but while not necessarily adding myself into this equation, I  would respond only that not all  opinions are created equal.  Most reasonable film fans, avid or otherwise, can differ while having an actual conversation about these things and resist the urge to reach for the hatchet. That said, I hope you all had a good 2016 for movie seeing. There aren't a lot of remarks about the films due to the simple fact that I wrote far fewer film reviews  this year. What comments there on the films are excerpts from reviews I've posted elsewhere. Yes, a species of self-plagiarism.

1.Hell and High Water --Director David McKenzie brings a rock  solid sense of place in  this contemporary Texas-set drama. Two brothers, outraged that their recently deceased mother was being cheated by a bank holding an outstanding debt on the property she lived   on, a ploy they secured to attain claim to the property and reap huge profits from oil leases after her passing, devise an ironic plan to solve this  injustice. They commit a string of robberies of  the bank's branch offices, the goal being to pay off the bank with the bank's  own money. This is a reward for those who've been waiting for the old school notion of movie making to arise again, with credible and complex characterization, crisp and believable dialogue, a sense of humor amid the doings that drive the plot toward inevitable tragedy, a sense of resolution that does feel false the tale's end. Choice and balanced performances by Ben Foster and Chris Pine as the brothers, one the loose cannon, the impulsive one, the one with a natural instinct for larceny , the other more centered, cautious, motivated by a sense of justice . Pine is especially good, laconic and lean, a thousand miles from his admittedly  clever William Shatner impersonations in the current "Star Trek" revival. Add to  the fine  writing and casting is the film's visual feast, which captures the heat, dryness, and flat vastness of Texas as this wonderfully comic melodrama plays itself out.
2.Arrival-- The surprise here is that this a science fiction with actual science in it, at least on the theoretical level, or , at least, theoretical science that sounds legitimate. The additional pleasure is that the scientist characters who speak the science and theorize within the audience’s comprehension level (without any sense of talking down to an unwashed mass) sound like a couple of people any of us might know, talking shop between peers, spit-balling, trouble shooting, dedicated to solving the problem at hand, in this case attempting to translate the alien language of extraterrestrials who’ve taken to hovering over select spots over the earth in floating leviathans — before the nations of the world open fire with everything they have. This story does have an arc that takes a familiar turn toward the race — against -time, but the suspense is plausible and swift and it is gratifying to not lose the sense of what’s happening plot-wise . Coherence of premise and plot were not sacrificed in the interest of unconvincing visual inducements to get more anxious than we have right to be. 
4.Batman v Superman --Snyder goes a different direction and, though one needs to admit that his story lines are often muddied film to film, his visual style , from his dark , steely color schemes, his sense of alternating slow motion and rapid motion during action scenes, his ability to fluidly provide with a sweeping series of panorama camera moves that gives us a vision of a world where human kind is challenged by both heroes and defenders who's existence in the midst is terrifying on the face of it, effectively resonates with the dread caused by dark headlines from a world that is anything but serene . The fight sequences are splendid indeed, Ben Affleck may well be the definitive Batman for years to come, and Henry Cavil as Superman creates a subtly complex portrayal of super hero bedeviled by the negative results his attempts to help the mortal world result in. There are a number of well argued defenses of Batman v Superman one can Google that defend Snyder's style as applied to these icons, and which argue that BvS is quite a bit of a triumph and a breakthrough in the genre. I would recommend Mark Hughes' calm, thoughtful defense in the online edition of Forbes. The short and the long this set of paragraphs is to make mention that even with flaws, there is verve and flair, grit and brilliance in this movie and that anyone with a love of comic books in general owes themselves the gift of seeing a film that will be a game changer for how comic book movies are made;

5. Blood Father--Mel Gibson is controversial and , besides other annoying traits, a bit of a ham actor who prefers his characters to be in some continual, which is to say routine state of emotiona upheaval. Still, the man can do some good work, and in Blood Father we find himself in a variation of The Searchers. In this instance, a convict recently  released from prison and trying desperately to remain clean and sober finds himself in a slippery situation as he goes off to rescue his estranged daughter when she vanishes , kidnapped by a nasty Mexician drug cartel she'd taken up  with. Gibson, prone to snarl, cry and foam at the mouth , reins it in and gives a measured   performance of a man with a past that cannot be forgiven trying to redeem himself by protecting the only thing that is more precious than his own needs. Lean narrative, curt and crisp dialogue, nothing so over the top that makes so likely to suspend your suspension of disbelief, Blood Father is a splendidly rendered genre thriller, directed with sharp effiency by Jean-Francois Richet.
6.The Nice Guys
7.Dead Pool --To his credit director Tim Miller doesn't lose his place in all the unfolding, but for all the bells, gunshots, explosions and Snyder-style use of quick juxtapositions of slow motion and normal time to accentuate the power of all of those explosions flying glass, beheadings and on-the-beat snarkery coming from Deadpool's sheathed mouth makes you yearn for a movie that didn't think it was so clever. Ryan Reynolds gets his career saved from that looming fate of being known as the actor who destroyed the hip factor in DC's Green Lantern character, although he portrays the hyperactive Wilson with many of the same mannerisms. ticks, bobs, gestures and verbal rhythms.  
10.Don't Think Twice
11.Hail Caesar! --Hail Caesar! is a shaggy dog story , of course, quirky , elegant, slap stick, stammering, screwball and acidly satiric at various turns of plots and subplots. Joel and Ethan Coen thrive on going against expectation , with an uncanny sense of timing of when to do so. They are adept of getting you hooked on a notions being played out on the screen and then interrupting it with zany intrusions that are their subversive way of telling us that the movie makers are only telling stories that are supported by an audiences willingness to stop arguing long enough with the ill-logic of movie's premise and enjoy the brief respite a good yarn avails us to. The point of a shaggy dog stories is that there are not points, that once a story begins and proceeds through related incident and complication as new locals and characters of all sorts are introduced over the course of the fictional journey, one expects a great punch line, a profound moral, illustration of life - affirming platitudes, or some horrible, inevitable tragedy; shaggy dog stories aren't like that though. The end of them are usually some small pun for which the build-up was more intricate than it needed to be, but that's the point. Everything winds up where it's supposed to be by forces more subtle  and more incidental than we can imagine. What the subtle forces maybe are unknown at any given point , and the Coen Brothers don't speak to that. They make movies, though, that have us laughing and scratching our heads at the same time, evidence of genius in my view. Hail Caesar! is a funny, busy, puzzling and literate screwball comedy, compelling in it's engrossing mixture of sweetness and cynicism. Very fine stuff indeed! 
12.Eat the Question.-- Eat That Question :Frank Zappa in his Own Words  was a generally good representation of Zappa the social critic and Zappa the serious musician. The interview segments, which are abundant, span his career , as does the generous inclusion of live performances with The Mothers of Invention. He was extremely intelligent, actually iconoclastic and gifted as a composer, but like many others with vast talents that prefer no constraint and mouths that prefer no editing, you get he feeling he indulged his worst habits as often as he did his best talents. There is a repetition of ideas in his asides, rants and excoriations, a set of notions that he honed and delivered continuously over the years, libertarian-genius bromides that wear you down toward the end of the film. Still, despite the repetition, you do marvel at the way in which he cuts away the fat and gets to the crude, stupid heart that is pulse of consumerist culture.But as a fan of Zappa's music, I was very happy, as the film includes generous portions from live performances that make us realize that above all else, Zappa was an artist, a genius of some sort. Even die hard fans and scholars of his work have complained that Zappa didn’t challenge himself nearly enough and often times released albums that were sub-par, highlighting musical ideas from bygone decades that no longer seemed fresh, riveting, or daring. His satire, as well, ceased being funny or witty in large measure and was, for a good number of records released through the Seventies and even through much of the Eighties, merely mean spirited. His cynicism had conquered his inspiration , likely because he realized that he could make money being this cartoon character “Frank Zappa”, becoming the man his fans wanted him to be. It was about making money in order to finance his larger orchestral projects, and the irony that he needed to compromise his principles and act the way new fans with disposable income expected to behave was likely not lost on him.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

On Writing

There is nothing I do better or with more joy than write, and yet I hate writing.

 I do not like writing, but I love writing the lines that tell you I am loathe to compose a fanciful phrase in sequence with other turns of expression that bring light to what might have remained dark and ambiguous corner of my thinking.

 My writing takes me in its embrace, kisses me on the lips, stabs me in the back, awards me headaches and worry, makes my blood hot and my limbs become electric and glow.

Music is sweeter and the kitchen noise keeps me nervous, the conversations are exciting adventures and nerve-shredding careens on the creakiest carnival rides.

 Writing tells me to go away and never darken the door again with my formless oatmeal of being, but next time to bring more of what I had ready this most recent time at the keyboard.

 It was good, writing says, it was nasty, you fucker, you asshole, see you next time when you're reticent, twitching and impatient to punch the keys, make things up, live without a mattress, nothing to lose and a universe at stake

Monday, December 12, 2016

TED NUGENT: death rattle and roll

Ted Nugent is a conservative asshole who's politics are more head line hungry than thought provoking; he's been emphasizing his gun toting , quasi-libertarian survivalist side for so long that virtually everyone has forgotten what a good and unique rock and roll guitarist he is. This video, from an Amboy Dukes reunion of a kind, demonstrates that he can still play that angular,needle point style of his with the same back stabbing swagger that he had in the Sixties and the 70s, when he shut his mouth long enough to remind people that he used to be taken seriously as a musician. Here, the hatted one, still smirking like someone who just came back to the party after schlonging your girl friend behind the garage in the dank tool shed discretely wedged between the trash cans and the aromatic compost heap unleashes some major E chord damage and continues with a ridiculous flurry and fury of notes that it is like nothing else other than a blood lusting intersection when the traffic lights fail and every piece of metal gets twisted and every driver gets a headache, if they're lucky. That image news well with Nugent’s zeitgeist of preference, social Darwinism, the spirit of the strong and the armed taking what they need by force and the will to do so, attaining provisions and pleasures from the weak, the downtrodden, the unlucky and the losers who cannot defend their patch of the earth against invaders, marauders, hunters and rascals of nastier inclination.
Survival of the Fittest Live.jpg

This is the culture of bullying laid bare and blatant, a world view that  has absorbed the worst aspect of the warrior ethos and has used the habit of mind as a rationale sanity that goes to the marrow , that each and every act of belligerence, aggression, corrosively applied vulgarity and punch in the face is a matter of course, each an act of bravery, honor, of maintaining a natural order of things. Poet and essayist Robert Bly tried to humanize this mythology with his book Iron John, wherein he argued that men, as part of the species, need to reconnect with a fuller philosophy of their masculinity, not merely more the warrior, but also embracing and accepting and internalizing the responsibilities of being the father, the teacher, the leader who recognizes his obligations to the greater community of families his family is privileged to live in. Nugent’s cannibal-spirited libertarianism has none of that inconvenient consideration in its desires to make the world and the people in it cower in front of more than his guitar skills.

  Being weak, sick, not of the war mentality was your own  tough shit and no one was obliged to give you aid. A telling title in Nugent’s time as Amboy Dukes leader was an album called Survival of the Fittest .  While generally a kick-ass session of Nugent’s distinct guitar work—ambivilence creeps in hear because even I , an enemy of bullies and the like, have to admit this blathering sociopath can play that guitar pretty damned well— the title of the record, and the cover image of Nugent with arrow and bow, answers the question as to why we should be glad that artists are not the ones in charge of making social policy.The only social agreement for this grubby school  yard punk is that if you give him your lunch money , he will let you live long enough for you get more lunch money.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Music at the Outskirts a bracing mix of hard rock, funk, free-jazz and the will to power

Image result for strange storm darrin james band
Strange Storm--The Darrin James Band
Strange Storm, the third album from the Detroit based Darrin James Band, is truth-telling of the bitterest sort, ten tracks naming the slights we do each other, intended and otherwise.  Following suit, Darrin James, principle songwriter and singer, growls, rasps, sneers and bellows through the trouble-minded lyrics. James, of course, hasn’t the market cornered in outrage, but he’s not one to wring hands and resign himself to regret and rumination.The album isn’t a mere scolding for the sins society commits against fellow citizens, but also a grand and roiling work out by an instrumental troupe that cuts a rapid and confident path through a heady number of approaches, be it traditional folk/protest, hard rock and polyrhythmic , through a grainy brand of fusion and wrenching excursions in dissonant free-jazz wailing. It’s refreshing, it’s bracing, it’s a welcome relief from the prepackaged reflexes that dominate the chatter in the major music media. These guys get your attention and don’t waste your time once they have it. The band is adroit, with mastery of varied grooves and rhythms. Generous chunks of hard rock guitar balance against the quick reflexes of a funk and fusion-honed rhythm section underpins the James’ snarled ire. Hardly a droning list of the evils of wealth, power and status seeking; the songs are varied, the rhythms are sharply executed, venturing from more traditional folk protest style as in the opening “Walking in the Footsteps”, through the hammering downbeats and stuttering Meters-style funk of the title track.Suitably, it’s not just lyrics that characterize the outrage, but also the music, especially in two instrumental tracks, “Downdrafts Cold Fronts” and “Covert Mission Anthem”. With nods to P-Funk, Zappa’s more crowded orchestrations and the anguished improvisations of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, this a swerving ride between over lapping modes and moods, subdued textures and light embellishments morphing into angular, off-center progressions , with sharp guitar riffs and arguing horn and reed solos traipsing through the coarse density. The abrasive layering of trumpet and sax effectively match James’ excoriations. Strange Storm has impressive brilliance in their harnessing anger and railing against injustice.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Potent, If Predictable Wallop

The Grand Trine -Color You

Color You, an alt-rock unit residing in the sparky interiors of Los Angeles , awards its new album the heady appellation The Grand Trine. Stepping beyond the title’s intent to perplex and bewilder, we learn through a swift Google search that the phrase indicates “ …a planetary pattern composed of three or more planets in a chart located at the vertices of an imaginary equilateral triangle. Usually all three planets are in the same element (fire, earth, air or water)…”
 The attraction to the phrase and the concept it allusively describes is understandable, as it’s been an unwritten rule since rock and roll became abbreviated to the more serious brevity of “rock” in the Sixties and young bands , taking after the cowpoke existentialism of Dylan and the elegant gentrification of the Beatles’ music and lyric approaches, need to conceptualize on a more ambitious scale: esoteric thematics, abstruse lyrics, bits of incidental noise and anything else that saves the 4/4 from being mere dance music decorated with moon/June cliches. As with most bands trying to get across something more between-the-lines than curb-side specific, the Color You’s idea to suggest something metaphysical is afoot separate from what’s happening in the street is a tad pretentious , and the band’s decision to include what sounds like spoken word snippets to bookend the start and finish of this album underscores the impulse to seem profound .

It’s an empty gesture, and unneeded, but we’re fortunate that as alt-rockers fashioning themselves after power chord savants like the Pixies, Nirvana or Modest Mouse at their most engaged, Color You has the flair,the panache, the raining megaton guitar grit to move the reluctant listener quickly past their objections and land them in a hook-heavy stream of fine, riffing teenage angst, confusion, ire and irony. 

There are no bold innovations in the form here, no musical adventures geared to dismantle and reconstruct rock and roll as we know, and that is an aspect that is the band’s strength. Members Ben Ross (vocals/guitar), Brian Han (bass/vocals), Drew Stutz (drums) and Theo Eckhardt (guitar/vocals), above all else, put together first-rate rockers, propulsive guitar riffage that propels, sweeps along and drapes over the material , major , minor and diminished keys highlighted as the materials’ simple but effective demand, with a solid thump and push of bass and busy drums making this wall of sound tilt, swerve and rock in turns of emphasis that are unexpected and wonderful. Superb lead vocals from Ben Ross make the difference as well, the array of approaches being convincingly servile, nervous, raging, or crooning romantic as need be, often times in the same song.

Ross’s singing provides a focal point through this album's sweetly distorted chord variations, apply a tangibly human expression to the constant grind of a hard rock tirelessly replicating the dynamics of a world that will not stop because you’re confused, angry, hurt, or even in love to the bone. Ross is the voice of a young man making sense of his life through whatever paces daily life can put him through. Down to it, Color You is credible mainstream rock, unpretentious, riveting, varied, packing a wallop. I am hoping their penchant to package themselves as deep thinkers pass. For rock and roll, whatever the pedigree, it’s best to keep it real than to make it profound.

Friday, December 2, 2016

more regarding Leonard Cohen

(This originally appeared in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).
In my mind there was a decades long-debate as to who the best rock and roll poet was, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Being the kind of ersatz pundit who argued passionately for the minority opinion, my champion was Cohen. Critics and audiences and what used to be called Mass Media reached a consensus that gave Dylan the Keys to the Kingdom. All is to say that Dylan has Tin Pan Alley throwing a large shadow over his work. And now, with the death of the Canadian-born poet, novelist songwriter and recording artist on November 10 at age 82 gives the lie to the nonsense of pitting the two songwriters against each other in hypothetical grudge matches; that was the stuff of high school bull sessions, teen age certainty at its most insufferable. Ironically, Cohen’s music was about growing up and, eventually, growing old, if not with grace but certainly with full intent of living fully to the last. This was the rare instance where his work became more profound as I aged, deeper, more nuanced as personal experience matched the literary craft of the songs I admired long and enviously.

His songs were an impetus for me to do the same as he, a callow seventeen impatient, in some sense , to grow up and experience heartbreak so that I might wallow in a notion that mine, too, was a life lived fully, if not well, as Cohen seemed to convey in his lyrics. Dark rooms full of teenagers , a thick odor of pot and incense , Leonard Cohen’s voice, a rumbling monotone that made you think of a man speaking low or softly who had just then raised his volume just enough so that you suddenly heard him speak with alarming clarity of phrase and image, a constant, three chord strum on a guitar, this was my first encounter with the songwriter, an artist that planted the seed in many of us to go into the world and experience it deeply, to contemplate those experiences closely and completely, and to write the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. How many of us actually did anything remotely like that is unknown; jobs, marriages, wars have serious ways of side tracking or eliminating careers as poets. But Cohen managed it, in a career that began in 1956 with the publication of his first book, The Spice Box Of Earth.

The sacred and the profane were subjects that were constants in his writing, not so much mashed together, the arbitrary fusion of unlike propositions , but rather intermingling, the aspects of sensuality and solemnity weaving and through each other, elements of the human spirit’s need to experience feel fully alive. Cohen’s chronicle of how he followed his muse over decades, in songs, poems, novels reveals a man who , I think, obviously believed in God, a deity, though, who might possible not have a Grand Plan for good people after this life surrenders us to darkness. His Higher Power, though, has a subtle and power sense of Irony. If God is in the details, He is in laughing, smirking at least, wondering what is we might learn from the collected experiences a life time accords us.

What inspired the poet in me to come alive and chase the muse of learning how to create suggestive sentences was the expansive flashiness of Dylan’s writing, vernacular fireworks that, in their best expression, made no literal sense but still left you with the chilling effect that something was happening that needed a new language to describe the vibe. His songs were public, his lyrics were cast in broad swaths of angular, cubist-bent non sequiturs that were perfect for a generation of youth that vaguely wanted a destiny that would form as all utopias theoretically would, by consensus, without rules, distortions, based on cooperation, in harmony with a natural order that had gotten lost in the rapid shuffle of change since World War 2. Cohen was the other extreme, personal, isolated, reflective to the degree that you felt as though you were invading a private space as you played the albums, the effect of walking into a room you thought was empty only to discover someone in there staring into a dark corner of the space, talking to themselves. Cohen felt deeply, considered his affairs, his pilgrimages, and his constant search for experience that might allow him to grow spiritually and so uncover a more profound notion of a love that does not die.

In poems and especially in songs, songs like “Suzanne”, “Hey , That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”, “Hallelujah “, and “Tower of Song”, Cohen artfully balanced two sides of a persona , the soul scarred and deepened by profound happenstance, and the observer, who wittily and with enormous amounts of bemusement recounting a new subtle lesson or a lesson that needed to be learned yet again. This isn’t to say Cohen is philosophically ponderous or didactic; although his songs are prone to many stanzas, Cohen’s lines and images are crisp, ironic, a masterful use of the snappy line no less agile than what Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe would offer. “Tower of Song”, I think, gives full evidence of this songwriter’s ability to be honest and curtly honestly with his allegories and yet it keep it comical.
Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
 I ache in the places where I used to play
 And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
 I’m just paying my rent every day
 Oh in the Tower of Song
 I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
 Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
 But I hear him coughing all night long
 A hundred floors above me
 In the Tower of Song
I was born like this, I had no choice
 I was born with the gift of a golden voice
 And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
 They tied me to this table right here
 In the Tower of Song
His songs, which I fine the finest of the late 20th century in English–only Dylan, Costello, Mitchell and Paul Simon, have comparable bodies of work–we find more attention given to the effect of every word and phrase that’s applied to his themes, his story lines. In many ways, Cohen was a better writer over all. Unlike Dylan, who has been indiscriminate for the last thirty ways I would say Cohen is a better lyricist than Dylan because he’s a better years about the quality of work he’s released, there is scarcely anything in Cohen’s songbook that wasn’t less than considered, pondered over, measured for effect and the achievement of the cultivated ambiguity that made you yearn for the sweet agony that accompanies a permanent residence in the half lit zone between the sacred and the profane.