Sunday, December 29, 2013

Leo Wows in The Wolf of Wall Street

       Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese have formed a bond throughout the actor's career: Leo was the main man in 2002's messy but entertaining Gangs of New York, he starred as the mentally ill Howard Hughes in 2004's The Aviator, he was the major part of the great ensemble cast in 2006's The Departed, and he provided a haunting performance in 2010's Shutter Island. In Scorsese's new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, Leo stars as Jordan Belfort, an aspiring stockbroker who builds a company up from scratch to become a money-raining powerhouse. It's the best role of his career. Before seeing Wolf, it almost seemed like the Best Actor of the year award was a lock with Chiwetel Ejifor's portrayal in 12 Years a Slave. Not anymore: DiCaprio goes absolutely crazy in The Wolf of Wall Street, dominating every single scene with a drug-fueled excitement that makes the film one of the best of the year.
     The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that takes you by surprise: from watching the trailers that have been plastered over television screens for the past couple of months, you might think that it's a film about stockbrokers and big money deals. And it is about that too. But it's truly a story about addiction to drugs, addiction to sex, addiction to excess in general. It's a frenetic ride that--even with clocking in at just one minute under three hours--does exactly what every movie should do: entertain the shit out of us.
     Like many Scorsese films before it, Wolf helps us along the story with a cocky voiceover from its main star. Belfort begins his journey (after losing his entry-level stockbroker job on Black Monday) selling penny stocks at a sketchy backroom operation. He's a natural. He soon befriends Donnie (Jonah Hill, showing again that he is a damn fine actor), and they decide to form their own firm with a group of ragtag misfits that have experience selling drugs and scamming people. It doesn't take long before the group starts getting rich and the firm expands exponentially.
     The Wolf of Wall Street is packed tightly with vulgarity, sex and drugs. Everyone is high or naked in nearly every scene. There are gay and straight orgies, bathtubs worth of cocaine and enough Quaaludes taken to tranquilize an elephant. It might become overwhelming with a less skillful director: but Scorsese--at 71 years of age--is a master at taking lives of excess and turning them into cinematic gold. His signature use of music with editing and his masterful cinematic techniques keeps our interest peaked throughout the entire run time of the film. The group makes a lot of money as the firm grows--then they make more than they know what to do with. All of the drugs, yachts, hookers, and alcohol don't even make a dent in their bank accounts. But like Ray Liotta's character in Goodfellas, the higher these characters--especially Jordan--climb amidst a smorgasbord of illegal activity, the more attention it draws to The Man trying to bring you down.
     The FBI takes notice of the firm, and they assign a boy scout agent (Kyle Chandler) on the scene. It provides a couple of great scenes with Jordan, who thinks he can out maneuver the FBI since he's been winning at life for years. Jordan starts trying to figure out how to hide all of his money before it's too late. He gets too cocky, as characters like these always do, and it sets in motion drug-and-alcohol-fueled downfall that is epic in proportion and shocking in its depiction.
     The Wolf of Wall Street is such a wacky and wild ride. I'm almost out of breath just writing and thinking about it, it moves at such an insane pace. And it mainly comes back to Leonardo DiCaprio's performance; it's so damn full of energy: whether he's snorting boatloads of coke, drunkenly dancing up a storm at his wedding to a gorgeous model (like in the gif above), or getting hot wax poured on his back by a violent stripper, Leo lets us unabashedly love this charming jerk of a man. The Wolf of Wall Street is an epic story of American excess showcasing the best acting performance of the year.     (A)

Friday, December 27, 2013

My 10 Favorite Books in 2013

Only a few of these books were released in the year 2013. These are just my favorites throughout the year
in chronologically-read (January to December) order:

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Ben Fountain)


Fountain's debut novel was the first book that I read of the year, and it was a mostly downhill journey from here. Focusing on the Bravo Squad (mainly Billy Lynn) after they become war heroes because of an embedded Fox News crew broadcasting a blazing firefight against Iraqis, Bill Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a heartfelt and hilarious and heartbreaking look at American excess and culture. The Bravo boys are on a "Victory Tour", where the group gets shipped home for a period of time to get dragged around from different events like prized cattle. Bravo are soldiers, and the contrast between their rugged lifestyle and the glitz and glam of Hollywood Producers and NFL players and Beyonce is realistic, and only part of their problem. Billy Lynn makes us wonder if parts of our American culture (greed, excess, religion) are even worth fighting for. And Ben Fountain becomes a late-starting author whose every new book will be a major event.

Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)

Another first novel, another incredible debut. After writing a book of short stories, Karen Russell expands upon an idea in that collection (St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves) and builds a lush, swampy world full of vivid characters, beautiful imagery and innovative descriptions. The star of Swamplandia! is a ferocious 12-year-old girl, Ava Bigtree, whose family owns a rundown tourist attraction (aptly named Swamplandia!) in Southern Florida, where the main event is an exciting spectacle of alligator wrestling. The matriarch of the family, Hilola (also the star of the show) has died of cancer, leaving her husband, three teenage children, and the park in disarray. Swamplandia! focuses on Ava, but her siblings and father are all wonderfully drawn characters too. The novel is fantastical: Ava's brother, Kiwi, joins a rival attraction called The World of Darkness, and her sister Osceola falls in love with a ghost (is it real or her imagination?), yet Russell never lets fantasy get in the way of Ava's real struggles: learning to cope without such a shining star of a mother and the terrifying (and sometimes brutal) reality of growing up.

Room (Emma Donoghue)

Jack is a five-year-old boy. He has many similarities with other boys his age: the wondrous nature of every single new day excites him, he loves playing a variety of different games with his Ma, and reading books and occasionally watching television opens doors into his imagination. But there's one gigantic (and horrible) difference: Jack has never left the 11 x 11 prison cell of a room where he was born--it's the only thing he knows. When Ma was years younger, she was abducted by a repulsive man known as Old Nick, who still occasionally visits in the night time. And as Jack is becoming more aware of their unique situation, Ma knows that it's impossible to live in this confinement forever, so the two try and form a plan to release themselves from the bondage of Old Nick. Room has echoes of the horrible news stories of recent years--from the abduction of Elizabeth Smart to the three women in Cleveland--but Emma Donoghue makes the great decision to tell the story through the eyes of Jack, a boy that is slowly coming to the realization that something is incredibly wrong yet has never known anything different. And by focusing on a child, Room allows us to focus on moments of wonder and beauty and the hope of sunlight finally shining on Jack's face instead of the disturbing and grotesque actions of Old Nick.

NOS4A2 (Joe Hill)

Though we don't need a "new" Stephen King (the guy is still churning out great writing with this year's Doctor Sleep and Joyland), Joe Hill could be considered the "new" Stephen King. It helps that he has the same blood--he's King's son. And now's the time to start reading him, because he's sure to produce exciting and thrilling horror works for years to come. His two previous novels, Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, both contained moments of greatness. But NOS4A2 is a culmination of Hill entering the big scene with a disturbing and incredibly well-written horror of a novel. Though the title of the novel invokes an image of vampires, NOS4A2 is a modern twist on a vampire epic that is utterly engaging: the villain is a sick man named Charlie Manx who takes children on a long ride in his Rolls Royce to a mysterious place called 'Christmasland". Our Heroine is a badass chick named Vic McQueen who can ride her motorcycle across a wooden bridge to other places (like a warp). When the two meet, it sets in motion an epic battle that turns into the ultimate page-turner of the year.

The Painted Bird (Jerzy Kosinski)

Joe Hill's NOS4A2 is a disturbing horror novel. But Jerzy Kosinski's novel The Painted Bird is just plain disturbing. It's not a book you want to read if you're faint-hearted. Focusing on a young boy wandering from village to village during and after WWII, The Painted Bird shows the absolute cruelty and depravity that human beings can inflict upon one another during times of war (or any time, really). Abandoned by his parents, the boy is tortured and beaten by insane and depraved individuals and only rarely shown acts of kindness. No doubt that anyone in America today would feel privileged compared to this young boy's experiences. But it's not all bloodshed and brutality: Kosinski's vivid and poetic imagery--matched with the boy's undying resilience--never allow us to turn away from one of the most disturbing landscapes in all of the literature to come out of World War Two.

Speaker for the Dead (Orson Scott Card)

Orson Scott Card pisses me off. No, my Republican friends, not just because of his hateful anti-gay rhetoric and peculiar political views. It's his writing: his tense changes, his switching between 1st and 3rd person viewpoints, and his sometimes-corny dialogue have a tendency to drive me up the wall. It's more bothersome in the 3rd book of his Ender's Game series, Xenocide. The second book in the series, Speaker for the Dead, fared much better: it's one of my favorite sci-fi novels that I've read (which isn't too many). Taking place many years after the more simple and funny Ender's Game, Speaker is much more dense, focusing on thoughtful notions of atonement, redemption and race relations. It's incredible what Card can do with his writing--characters filled with empathy and kindness--when his real-life beliefs echo some opposite sentiment. I don't see how Speaker for the Dead isn't the crowning achievement of Card's career: I've only finished the third book in the series, Xenocide, and it was rather over-long and un-exciting compared to Speaker.

The Shining (Stephen King)

So much has been made of the film version of The Shining for the past years. Even a documentary, Room 237, released back in March, decided to delve into the cult-like following of viewers that try and dissect the intricacies of Kubrick's masterful horror film. The original Stephen King novel, released back in 1977, tends to get lost in the shuffle. It shouldn't: The Shining is one of the best novels that Stephen King has ever written, and it's a master class in creating a suspenseful setting where psychological horrors live around every one of the Overlook Hotel's corners. I read The Shining this past summer because King's first true sequel to a standalone novel, Doctor Sleep, was being released in the fall. Sleep--though solid--doesn't live up to the original, but it was a damn tough act to follow: focusing on Jack Torrance's inner struggle with alcoholism and self-pity, King's third book should be on every single person's reading list, and it's--dare I say--better than the treasured Kubrick (loose) adaptation of the novel.

Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

What can be said about Lolita that hasn't been said already? Just about nothing. So I'll keep in short and sweet: published back in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov's shocking and (yes) sexy Lolita is the king of books that contain an unreliable narrator. The middle-aged Humbert Humbert is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl (or "nymphet" as he likes to call them)--everything about her: her body, her smell, her looks, her naive personality. You name it. When he becomes her stepfather, it sets in motion a journey of questionable sexual escapades that both sicken and enthrall the reader on nearly every page. The narrative in Lolita is always in question: since we're hearing directly from Humbert, we never know exactly what to think. And when our sympathies start to align in his direction--even after all of the reprehensible acts that he was performed on the young girl--Lolita causes us to question our own morality.

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See (Juliann Garey)

I don't have bipolar disorder, but author Juliann Garey does, and her novel Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See is one of the best books to come out in 2013. Focusing on Greyson Todd, a movie studio executive with a young family, Too Bright never lets us look away from his world-traveling descent into near madness. The book spans years and places very quickly, never letting us feel settled or the least bit comfortable: and that works beautifully when you consider the thoughts (the incredibly-high highs and the agonizingly-low lows) that find a home in Greyson's head. With each chapter, we get to see a different side of Greyson, usually in a different city. Sure, a lot of the time--because of his mental illness--he certainly isn't an extremely-likable character. But that won't stop you from rooting for him or feeling incredible sadness when electroshock therapy may rid him of his only worthwhile memories left: the ones of his estranged daughter.

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

My book bud Ry Lowell always has raved about The Book Thief, calling it one of his favorite books maybe of all time. Some of my family has loved it too. They weren't wrong: Markus Zusak's The Book Thief is one of those novels for absolutely any age group that is absolutely timeless. Its trick is taking one of the most difficult subjects in human history--the Holocaust--and turning that subject into a story of hope and love. Narrated by the omniscient Death, who is extremely busy during the period of WWII, The Book Thief focuses on young orphan Liesel, a girl with a love for the written word. When her foster parents take in a Jew to live in their basement, it sets into motion a chain of events that changes Liesel's life forever. The beauty of Zusak's novel is that it's incredibly visual. The scene set ups are so simple and so vivid that they paint a picture in your mind--one that's very hard to forget. And for anybody that loves reading, it's always great to read a story in which books become precious treasures.

Honorable Mentions:

Dark Tower Book 4: Wizard and Glass by Stephen King--

The Man Suit by Zachary Schomburg--

A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones--

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson--

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Russell Continues His Hustle

     Director David O. Russell started his studio career with a few peculiar films that were enjoyable (Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees) yet lacked that special something to propel his name into the pantheon of great American filmmakers. Things have changed in recent years, namely with his story of Mickey Ward's boxing life in The Fighter and one of the greatest romantic comedies in a decade with last year's Silver Linings Playbook. These films showed that his vibrant direction could be gamely applied to any kind of story if they contained a sharp script and impeccable acting. With his new film, American Hustle, he yet again proves that he's capable of making good movies with all-star casts. But I left feeling a little underwhelmed: Hustle contains some very strong performances from its lead actors (some of the better of the year, in cases), but it focuses too much on its 1970's setting and its not-quite-exciting-enough narrative prevents it from becoming one of the year's best.
     In American Hustle, everybody hustles: the con-men, the congressmen, the police and FBI--everyone does what they need to get by and provide for their families. These are complicated characters, and they're the film's best strength: they have many different motives for every action they perform. We first meet Irving (Christian Bale), a chubby schlub with a nasty comb-over and an ability to scam people into giving him money. He quickly falls for a much more attractive Sydney (Amy Adams) at a party and the two bond and instantly make a connection. Irving's never had a solid partner in crime, and Sydney is game right from the start, turning on a British accent and becoming a key factor in upping Irving's game to a bigger league.
     Now they're taking even more money from unsuspecting people in a scamming loan business. So that draws the attention of Richie (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent whose main goal in life is being the "Quarterback" of a major bust involving powerful people, so he can make a name for himself and stop being a doormat to his family and superiors. He comes up with a seemingly great idea: instead of busting these small-timers, he enlists their cooperation in a major sting involving the New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner, surprising in a different role than his norm), Irving's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a fake Arab Sheik, mobsters, and congressmen who are willing to take bribes to perform illegal actions.
    Bale is wonderful as Irving: the actor has always had a knack for fully becoming characters, and he shows a desperation and nervousness here that he's never shown before. It's like he's channeling a Scorcese-era depressed Robert De Niro with a heart problem. Cooper brings back bits and pieces of his performance in Silver Linings: his obsessive outbursting nature sometimes brings him to the brink of sanity. The women are the true stars of American Hustle, though (and no, not because they're consistently baring their cleavage): Amy Adams sheds accents and characters as often as she does 1970's-era dresses. She's sexy and damn good in her manipulating-men role. And America's Sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence steals scenes in yet another film, a running theme in such a young and impressive career.
     Alas, not everything in American Hustle is perfect. With a cast performing so admirably, as I just mentioned, this statement is tough, but: occasionally the proceedings were a little monotonous. Stories like these have been before, and that's okay, but Hustle never surprised me and too rarely made me think I was witnessing something great (a problem I didn't have watching Silver Linings). Take Argo for example, a story with comparably-similar subject matter. I was excited the whole time when I saw Argo, and I even knew how the story was going to end--with Hustle I didn't know how it was going to end and it still didn't have my butt planted on the edge of the seat.
     American Hustle has echos of an early Scorcese film: the use of the time period's clothing, style and music to bring you into the setting (it's often focused on too much in Hustle), a messy (in a good way) plot that jumps around and never lets you feel comfortable, voice over narration that ebbs and flows with each character's motivation. But it never comes close to reaching those highs that a film like Goodfellas brought to audiences. There's never a feeling of true danger. It's almost as if David O. Russell, as incredibly skilled as he is, was focused too much on the glam of the 1970's story and each actor's performance instead of a cohesive narration with true tension. Before the first scene of the American Hustle, some words flash onto the screen: "Some of this really happened." I have no doubt that it did--I just wish it had been more exciting.     (B)

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Desolation of Smaug: A More Concise Hobbit

     Plenty of people complained when Peter Jackson decided to turn J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit into two (and then, finally, three) films. Considering the book's length (300ish pages) and the fact that Jackson turned the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy into only three films, some more caring fans sniffed out some potential studio money grubbing like Gollum sniffs out the Ring when it's nearby. And after witnessing last year's introduction into the Hobbit universe, An Unexpected Journey, many of the fan's concerns were warranted: Journey was overlong and suffered from far too many false starts towards the actual "Journey". At the end of my review for that film, I stated that Jackson "left plenty of room for improvement." And with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson improves immensely. The middle portion of The Hobbit trilogy is a much more compact affair, and it's filled with an actual sense of purpose and a destination that is finally within reach.
      When we last left the main characters--Bilbo (a comfortable Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellan, who could perform this role in his sleep), and a company of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage)--they were journeying to the lair of dragon Smaug to retrieve an ancient and powerful relic (called the Arkenstone) that would allow the dwarves to shower the land in wealth and supplies. Since the characters have already been introduced in the previous film, Jackson wastes no time throwing us back into the journey, and Smaug is all the better for it. Unlike An Unexpected Journey, the feeling of darkness and actual tension starts right from the beginning of Smaug, as the characters make their way to the dangerous forests of Mirkwood.
      Jackson has always had a knack for creating intricate set pieces where danger lurks just around the corner (like the Ring Wraiths in Fellowship or the Orcs outside of the gates in The Two Towers), and though the first Hobbit incarnation lacked any memorable excitement, The Desolation of Smaug has a couple of scenes that are extremely notable: Mirkwood is full of giant spiders that any arachnophobe would lose a night's sleep over. You can almost feel the sticky web as our characters are captured and cocooned. Some fans were also worked up over the fact that Legolas (Orlando Bloom, who hasn't missed a beat) and a new she-elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, not nearly as annoying as when she was on Lost) have entered the picture. They weren't in the original Hobbit novel. But I am surely not complaining: The Desolation of Smaug contains one of the most entertaining scenes in the entire Middle Earth film universe, where Bilbo and the dwarves are floating down a rapidly moving river with Orcs in pursuit and the two elves picking them off like archer champions. It's Peter Jackson-directing at its best.
     But one could claim that the film's titular character, the dragon Smaug, is the real star of the show. Deliciously voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch (who shined brightly in this past summer's great Star Trek Into Darkness), Smaug hordes his gold and jewels in his massive ancient layer, almost begging someone to try and make off with a little bit of treasure. When Bilbo enters the scene, like a horror-movie teenager slowly entering the basement down the creaking steps, it sets up an enjoyable interplay between the man and the beast, where each character thinks they can verbally outplay the other one.
     This Hobbit film is still nearly three hours, much like the first, and though it barely drags at all compared to the mostly-set-up of An Unexpected Journey, it's still only one third of a trilogy based upon one (relatively) short book, so some filler is inevitable (namely the dungeons of the Elves and the lake town of Esgaroth). But there's a big difference between the filler of The Desolation of Smaug and An Unexpected Journey: the scenes that slow down this second entry in the series actually set up great action and excitement instead of just more walking...and more walking...and more walking....And though Smaug ends on a cliffhanger that sets up an important scene in the next film (titled There and Back Again), Jackson's ability to put the focus on much more specific and concise plot points allows The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to rise far above the Journey of the first film.     (B+)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Top 10 Albums of 2013

10. Kanye West--Yeezus

Everybody goes through a rap phase. It's that time in high school when you think that it's cool to roast tires and blast the clunky base from your shitty factory speakers. I never would have guessed that--over 10 years later--the year 2013 would prove to reinvigorate some of my first passion with the musical style. And I never would have guessed that I would be enjoying a Kanye West album. But, alas, I bow down to the cockiest of cocky rappers, whose album Yeezus is short and sweet and totally rips your throat out with its aggressive beats and angry rhymes. This is not the Kanye West that sang "Gold Digger" (thankfully). Its a completely reinvigorated and reinvented Kanye: it only takes a few seconds into opening track "On Sight" to realize this. It's quite a step, producing an album that's so ugly for a casual listener such as this, for a rapper that has compared himself to many current and past historical figures, including God himself on the track, "I Am A God". And sure, Yeezus is full of misogynistic and politically incorrect rhymes, and sometimes the lyrics are laughably simple ("Hurry up with my damn massage / In a French-ass Restaurant / Hurry up with my damn Croissants") and that's partially the reason why the album works: matched with the abrasive and distorted electronic fuzz beats, Yeezus seems like the psychotic Id of the world's most egotistical rapper, an album stripped down to his basest wants and desires.

Listen to Kanye's "New Slaves" Here.

9. Foxygen--We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic



     Foxygen is one of those bands that has a distinct trait that makes them very hard not to enjoy, no matter your musical tastes: familiarity. Building upon their short LP (released last year), Take the Kids Off Broadway (containing one of their best tracks, "Make it Known"), We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic never falls into the trap of being too "retro" for retro's sake. It sounds like a band that has been influenced by dozens of different styles: from the weed-hazed buoyancy of hippie music to thrashing acid rock to the best aspects of current pop, Foxygen surprises around every turn of the next track, like when the steady and funny "No Destruction" changes gears into the tempo-switching "On Blue Mountain". No doubt Foxygen, and specifically lead singer Sam France, have an undeniable swagger and carefree attitude that make the album's nine tracks fly by seemingly without effort--and rumors have circulated that the success of the band has been causing tension between the two main members, with France becoming a bit of a loose cannon on stage. So there's no better time to be listening to Foxygen than right now, before they crash and burn. Though they invite comparisons to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Foxygen have found a creative niche--experimental retro rock that gives you that ol' familiar feeling.

Watch the video to Foxygen's "No Destruction" Here.

8. Earl Sweatshirt--Doris


     California rap group Odd Future are only getting more popular: led by I'll-Say-Anything-For-Shock-Value Tyler, The Creator, Odd Future have become the new Wu Tang for young skateboarding kids--each member has a distinct personality and rapping style. None of them have a greater flow than Earl Sweatshirt. Doris, Earl's first studio album, cements his status as the most worthwhile member of Odd Future. Featuring production by himself, Pharrell, and RZA, Doris contains beats that trend more toward underground samples and base thumps than poppy radio hits. His lyrics and rhyme schemes are even better, and instead of relying on shocks and horror like Tyler and Eminem do more often than not, Earl's raps deal with his real-life issues--sitting on his sofa smoking weed, wondering if his father still loves him, and pondering on the success of his rap career that just began. Take his opening verse on "Chum": "It's probably been twelve years since my father left, left me fatherless / And I just used to say 'I hate him' in dishonest jest". Or listen to him show off his funny and intricate rhyme scheme on the 2nd verse of "Whoa": "On the hunt for clues, more food, and some floozy women / Bruising gimmicks with the broom he usually use for Quidditch / Gooey writtens, scoot 'em to a ditch, chewed and booty scented / Too pretentious, do pretend like he could lose with spitting / Steaming tubes of poop and twisted doobies full of euphemisms". It's this combination--Earl's delivery of flow and well-written rhymes--that make Doris the best rap album of the year, a wordplay puzzle that I keep coming back to.

Watch the video to Earl Sweatshirt's "Hive" Here.

7. Bill Callahan--Dream River

     I have a confession: I had never listened to Bill Callahan before downloading Dream River earlier this year. That's pretty incredible, because this is his 15th studio album (the 4th released under his own name--he used to record under the name Smog). If Dream River is any indication, I've been missing out: with eight songs that contrast Bill's beautiful baritone voice with incredibly vivid arrangements that feature guitars, flutes, fiddles, and congas, the album is the perfect bookend to any cold winter day as the sun slowly sets below the horizon. Callahan is a storyteller with simple lyrics that evoke America and Americana in its natural beauty and splendor. Whether the song focuses on a summer spent painting names on boats ("Summer Painter"), seasons changing and sensuality ("Spring"), or a contemplative winter ride home ("Winter Road"), Callahan is a master at slowing us down and having us take in a moment. He can be funny too, like in the opener "The Sing", when a man in solitude states that "The only words I said today...were 'beer'...and 'thank you'". Dream River is music as eloquent poetry, as a transfixing painting, as a goddamned work of art.

Listen to Bill Callahan's "Summer Painter" Here.

6. Pissed Jeans--Honeys

     I'm not sure if we could take music in a more opposite direction, from Bill Callahan to Pissed Jeans. If Callahan's record is good for a thoughtful and contemplative look at the simple things in life, Pissed Jeans' Honeys is the guy that walks up behind you, screams in your ear, and kicks you squarely in the nutsack, telling you to man up. A noise rock / punk band from Pennsylvania, Pissed Jeans makes music for when you feel trapped in the monotony and hilariousness of our messed up world. No punk band is worthwhile without a talented and charismatic lead singer, and that's never more true with Matt Korvette and his ear-piercing shrieks, vein-popping enthusiasm and truly funny and head smashing song subject matter. He sets his male gaze on many daily situations, no matter their importance, and shreds them with sarcasm. Feeling like he "won the Superbowl" upon hearing about the death of an office co-worker in "Cafeteria Food", sneezing because of cat allergies in "Cathouse", or staying healthy by avoiding the doctor in "Health Plan"--Korvette's shows that he's master of picking apart daily life with his noisy rock. Honeys is the 4th Pissed Jeans album, and it only feels tighter and more compact--36 minutes of music that--if you dare approach it--rewards a listener with a smile and bleeding eardrums.

Watch the (hilarious) video to "Bathroom Laughter" by Pissed Jeans Here.

5. Speedy Ortiz--Major Arcana


      I saw Speedy Ortiz open for Pissed Jeans at The Sinclair in Cambridge, MA, and in the days post-show I found myself thinking more about the opening band than the main act: hailing from Western Massachusetts, Speedy Ortiz is an indie rock band led by front woman Sadie Dupuis, and their album Major Arcana is an assured debut that shows that the band has major staying power in the New England rock scene. This album doesn't try to impress or show off: it's just straight up great tunes with gnarly riffs and clever lyrics. Dupuis tackles subjects with a wit and originality that is rare in the douchey indie rock scene. Take "Tiger Tank", where she states that her "mouth is a factory for every toxic part of speech I spew", or the insecurities of a young woman in "Plough": "I was never the witch that you made me to do be / Still you picked a virgin over me"--it's this vulnerability mixed with humor that propels Dupuis into a class of indie rock singers that actually add positives to the band. Supposedly, Dupuis fronts an all-female Pavement cover band called Babement, and though I'm not a fan of the band, one can't argue their status as Indie Rock Gods. Speedy Ortiz will probably never make it that high: but with Major Arcana--their first try--they're giving it their best shot.

Watch the video for Speedy Ortiz's "Tiger Tank" Here.

4. Future of the Left--How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident

     One day, a few years ago (maybe it was six or seven), I was randomly searching the Internet for some new music to buy. Sometimes your daily selection just seems stale, and you need something new and exciting to spice up your day. I happened upon a review of a band called Mclusky and their album Mclusky Do Dallas. That day, my life changed (and my face melted off). Led by frontman Andy "Falco" Falkous, the welsh post-hardcore band rarely left my CD player for months on end. There was a minor problem, though: Mclusky had broken up before I had even gotten into their music. Fortunately, realizing that the world (me, anyway) couldn't deal without their tasty riffs, Falco and Mclusky's drummer formed a new rock band, Future of the Left. How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is their 4th (and 2nd best) album. Future of the Left have always had a slightly different feel than Mclusky--especially the use of a synthesizer. But Falko has always kept his trademark humor and biting aggressiveness. It's never more apparent than here, on tracks like "Singing of the Bonesaws", a humorous look at the absurdity of modern civilization, and opener "Bread, Cheese, Bow and Arrow", with Falco sneering "I'm Just a Man!" in a take on modern masculinity. Both Mclusky and Future of the Left have always been political, never afraid to share their opinions while the listener is carried by a kick-ass bass line. And Future have never been more Mclusky-ish than they are here: funny, brutal, and surprising.

Listen to FotL's "Bread, Cheese, Bow and Arrow" Here.

3. Arcade Fire--Reflektor

     How does one of the best bands of the past 10 years follow up their Grammy-Winning (not that the Grammys mean anything at all) album, The Suburbs? Apparently, by releasing a double album of 13 epic-length songs produced by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy. When the band released the video for the title (opening) track "Reflektor" prior to the album's release, I was blown away: it was a perfect combination of Murphy's sonic skill with electronic rhythm and Arcade Fire's married lead singers' (Win and Regina) call-to-each-other lyrics, all with a relevant wink at social media. And that's just the beginning: throughout the span of both discs, over an hour of some of the year's best music comes forth. The first disc showcases the funky groove of "We Exist", the Haitian influences of the beautiful "Here Comes the Night Time", and the most-rocking "Normal Person". Disc two becomes more ethereal and expands sonically, though it still totally rocks: "It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)" features Regina at her best, "Porno" continues a funk that's even funkier, and standout "Afterlife" is Arcade Fire at the top of their game, one of the best songs of the year. Though I doubt that I'll love any Arcade Fire album as much as their first, Funeral, Reflektor reveals that the band is not playing it safe and the direction they are heading in is an unequivocally exciting one.

Watch the video for Arcade Fire's "Reflektor" Here.

2. Savages--Silence Yourself

     Seeing Savages at Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, MA was my live highlight of the year (if not of many years), and their corresponding debut album, Silence Yourself, solidified itself as one my favorites of the last 12 months only a couple of weeks after first listening to it. A post-punk band from England consisting of four incredibly talented women, Savages' debut album is fast and furious and nearly every track is a killer exercise in rocking skill. Two of the women shine in the spotlight a bit brighter: guitarist Gemma Thompson's skillful vitality propels most of Savages' songs like a The Bends / OK Computer-era female version of Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, and singer Jehnny Beth's anarchic charm boils down to her animal-like ferociousness and lyrics that immerse you into the music rather than cause you to think too hard. Savages are not classified as easy listening: the guitars and base are forceful and fast-moving, and the percussion slams and shakes and propels the songs forward quickly (except for the three slower--yet still stellar--songs, "Strife", "Waiting For a Sign" and "Marshal Dear"). All of the elements come together best in the albums three best tracks: "City's Full", with its androgynous and sexy lyrics, "She Will", where "She" gets hooked on loving hard and forcing the slut out, and "Husbands", which completely pulverizes. Savages state that their music is "best heard loud and in the foreground". I happily agree.

YouTube videos of Savages do not do the band any justice. Here are two anyway:
Performing "Husbands" on Jools Holland
Performing "She Will" Live at KEXP

1. The Drones--I See Seaweed

     The Drones, Australia's best band, notoriously don't receive much fanfare from the Yanks in America. Their last few albums were released on an American label (most notably their 5th and 6th studio albums, Gala Mill and Havilah), but their newest, I See Seaweed, was released independently and can only be obtained through special ordering or on ITunes. It's an absolute shame: I See Seaweed's eight epic rock songs are arguably some of their best to date, and there is no music in the year 2013 that is better written or more relevant to the world that we all share. In only takes the opening line of the title (and first) track to see that The Drones are not a band with frivolous or meaningless lyrics--"I see seaweed on the lawn / There's no point coming here no more". Echoes of the world coming to end (whether by war, disaster, or global warming) have always been a prevalent force in The Drones' apocalyptic rock songs, and on their newest, it's still pushed to the forefront. The album is bookended by two of the best written songs of the year. "I See Seaweed" builds to a goosebump-inducing crushing rock explosion with its over-population theme, and closer "Why Write A Letter That You'll Never Send" is powerful enough--with its spitball lyrics that cover no less than the Holocaust, the Pope, and people not giving a shit anymore--to bring tears to your eyes. The middle six tracks are far from forgettable: two in particular, "A Moat You Can Stand In", about people standing on their high horse and spouting garbage, is brutal and pounding, and "Laika", about the first animal (a dog) shot into space, is full of loneliness and regret. Many people simply can't get into The Drones due to singer Gareth Liddiard's unique delivery and (very) thick accent. My advice: get over it. No one in music today is writing better and more relevant rock songs.

Listen to The Drones' "I See Seaweed" Here, the title track off of their new album.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Jumping into Out of the Furnace

     Out of the Furnace is much like last year's great Killing Them Softly: both ultra-violent tales consist of gritty characters dealing with the undercurrent of less-than-favorable economic conditions, and both films have wonderful acting, making sure the viewer never looks away from the screen, even in the most brutal of scenes (And Out of the Furnace, in particular, has plenty of blood-soaked bodies to mention). But Out of the Furnace feels even more realistic--taking place in a rusty ol' mill town, Braddock, PA, you can almost feel the soot and grime entering your lungs through the theater screen. It helps having this set of actors, too:  Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, and Zoe Saldana are all completely electric, and Woody Harrelson's backwoods psychopath is one of the most frightening performances of the year. It all adds up to a really good movie, a thriller that is constant with human suffering and despair yet still full of excitement.
     What Out of the Furnace is ultimately about is a bond that a family shares--particularly brothers--and their relationship to their hometown. Russell (Christian Bale) is a mill worker with a beautiful girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) who is just trying to make ends meet. Though he clearly doesn't have the money, Russell tries to pay off Rodney's (Casey Affleck, portraying his younger brother) debt with a local bookie snake, John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Not long after, Russell begins an extended stay at a prison for an unfortunate event, and it changes the family's life forever.
     Everything is different for Russell when--years later--he's released from prison. Rodney, who served numerous tours with the military overseas and is a loose cannon because of it, has gotten involved with a bare-knuckle boxing crime ring. Russell realizes how far Rodney has gone into the deep shit pile too late: once he gets mixed up with backwoods "inbreed" Harlan DeGroat (a sadistic Woody Harrelson), it sets into motion a chain of unfortunate events that leads Russell and his aging uncle on a crusade into Appalachia, full of run-down meth labs, tattooed freaks, and drugged-out, violent men.
     Out of the Furnace is a dark movie: and not just because of the dim and gritty sets and scenes that director Scott Cooper (his second film after Crazy Heart) puts onto the screen. The subject matter is depressing and violent, and around every bend is a shocking scene that tries to pull you down into its despair. But--luckily--the cast's skill of electrifying every minute of the run time never allows to the film to go into full pity party mode. Bale, as always, shows an incredible apptitude to transform into intense characters. In Out of the Furnace, he's the lone source of hope for the viewer--it's his journey that keeps our heads above water. Casey Affleck is great too, and it's clear that with his past films (Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and now this, Affleck is more of an actor than his older brother. And Zoe Saldana is heartbreaking in her limited screen time--you really feel for her tough situation. But Woody Harrelson is the true standout in Out of the Furnace. Why doesn't this guy act more? Stealing every scene that he's in (and showing up with an explosion in the first scene of the film), his Harland might exemplify some cliches about back country Appalachia criminals. But it doesn't matter: he's damn exciting.
     None of the characters in Out of the Furnace have it figured out: they're all trying to get by, either by clocking in at the mill or participating in criminal activity. Their stories of vengeance, of retribution, of redemption all criss/cross into a cat and mouse finale filmed with the morning sun just coming up over the horizon. It's one of the few beautiful scenes in the film, and--like the previous 100 minutes--it ends in an act of violence. The film is not perfect: its melodramatic but still charming because of the skill of its actors. And a few coincidences are a tiny bit eye-rolling, specifically a pocket-dial on a cellphone. But these instances don't take away from Out of the Furnace, a dark and well-acted Mill Town saga.     (B+)