The Tyranny of Cinematic Spectacle (A review of The Hobbit 3)

battle-of-the-five-armies-smaug-dies-and-nothing-else-happensThe Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was finally released and I can only imagine what that must be like, or has been like, for the easily awestruck 12 year olds out there. My heart is envious of their youth and increased capacity for novelty. Though, I fondly recollect my own relative experience viewing the first Lord of the Rings trilogy in my late teens. I was 16 when the Fellowship of the Ring came out, working my first job at a Sam Goody music store; Northway Mall Anchorage, AK.

It was one of those REAL snowy days, but not blizzardy. The snowfall was slushy and water logged. For whatever reason, these conditions gave the family quest getting to the move on time an air of daring and mystery. Successfully traversing the odd road conditions and suction cup pockets of slush in the parking lots, we were now cozily huddled in a dark theater, ready to witness the beginning of what became the seminal theatrical experience of my generation.

Oddly, despite growing up as somewhat of a budding cinephile, I wasn’t all that aware of Fellowship’s release before hand. It may have been that first job, or school, or girlfriends — I don’t fully recall — but I was mostly ignorant of what lay in store. Fantasy movies hadn’t ever reached for the level of gravitas and dramatic impact which Peter Jackson achieved on a New Line Cinema production gamble. But, I doubt any of this was going through my mind at the time. It was more like, “oh, hmmm, family has tickets for a movie, family is picking me up from work, I’m down for a flick, I hope it’s good.”

The theater lights dropped and those whispers beckoned. Lady Galadriel’s voice permeated the dark space around us with poetic and ethereal presence, and then the strings played the theme of the ring. I was taken from this earthly realm, Middle Earth became reality for those near 3 hours. I hardly knew what this place was, having never read the books. I was perfectly primed for Fellowship to be an otherworldly spectacle having very few preconceptions. Put it this way, if no one had ever played for you Stairway to Heaven, had you barely acknowledged Led Zeppelin’s existence, had you never had to hear it played in a dive bar, and while driving late at night–randomly flipping on the radio–and before having even chosen a station–clear night with a mostly empty road–on a trip that allowed stretches of pensive contemplation, and you heard those first string moments of Stairway, taking that journey as ignorantly as possible; imagine what that might be like.

I would say my Fellowship viewing experience was something akin to that; novelty, majesty, mystery, beauty, tragedy, action, myth-making, world building, sagacious wisdom, philosophical concepts, moral dilemmas, sacrifice, love, friendship, the quest, the loneliness of despair…The Fellowship of the Ring will forever remain one of the greatest movie experiences I ever had and ever will have. They just don’t make them like that anymore…am I right?

Well, more so, my expectations are now primed in too many ways before attending movies as an adult. Too often, bombastic filmmaking is accompanied with worn tropes, a lack of subtlety, and obvious thematics. So, in attending The Battle of the Five Armies, there was no way the Fellowship experience of my youth could be matched. “It’s not you PJ, it’s me,” is what I’d like to say, but I cannot assert that as truth. “Peter Jackson, it’s definitely you that was the problem this time around.” The Hobbit trilogy was too often about Jackson’s need for spectacle, need for epicness, need for hitting us over the head with Middle-Earthisms (a tag I propose to describe the ways in which PJ tries so hard to make this finale feel like LOTR magic that it then loses its natural quality and becomes borderline absurd). The original LOTR trilogy–Fellowship, Towers, and ROTK–never felt absurd (with the exception of Legolas skating down a giant elephant trunk and his delivery of that line, “a diversion”).

The Hobbit films aren’t parody, per se, but they are most certainly pandering. As if Peter Jackson in his years away from the land of Middle Earth got it twisted that these films needed one specific quality, and that this quality is what made the original trilogy the fantastical bliss that it was. But that’s incredibly facile to infer, since so much of what was brilliant about LOTR comes down to nuances in storytelling. Battle of the Five Armies has ne’ery a moment of subtlety, and where the nice touches do exist, they are rare and only remind you of what possibly could have been.

Almost every one of these moments comes via the masterful performance of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. It’s hard for me to say, but even Gandalf became rather gimmicky. There is no moment on par with McKellan’s early master strokes: “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”, the sublime moment of his arrival at Helms Deep, his consoling Pippen before the battle for Minas Tirath. The best scemne we get Gandalf laboring with his weed pipe, next to Bilbo, after the orc hoard has been dispersed. Thanks, Peter Jackson, for reducing Gandalf’s significance and impact such that a humorous stoner moment feels like his most inspiring.

In other respects–acting, visual effects, awe, and wonder–Five Armies does make out pretty well. Thematically, unlike the other two, Five Armies also gets to the point. Although not much time is spent on it, the essence of why this story is interesting and has moral significance is touched on poignantly, even if, not nearly enough. Friendship transcends our differences and the world we come from. Bravery, love, and sacrifice can inspire great things in people towards acting in the interest of the greater good. Darkness overwhelms, but if compassion and wisdom are fostered, their capacity for changing hearts can be what drives people and cultures down a better historical path.

Though these messages can be pieced apart from Five Armies, it often felt too obvious, sensationalistic, and a cheap facsimile compared to the first trilogy. The Hobbit 1-3 felt like they were very much for the kids. I won’t even hesitate in suggesting that Jackson pulled a George Lucas here; granted these prequels were not so insulting to the intellect. The storybook and staged feel that exists in Five Armies may actually be intentional; something understandable but not necessarily defensible. Middle Earth for me worked much better when it had a sense of being lived rather than feeling like a grand stage for apocalyptic doom.

In certain ways it even cheapens how Fellowship begins. You’d think that Gandalf might be more aware that Middle Earth stood poised on the precipice of destruction, and not just swinging by Bilbo’s for tea and toast. But whatever, that only goes further to serve my ultimate point about Five Armies and the Hobbit flicks; they are incongruous to the craft and care that existed a decade ago.

What works? Thorin’s descent into madness was shown with considerable impact and visual pizzazz. The scene where he gets swallowed by a floor of mirror like gold was particularly effective. What didn’t work? Thorin’s sudden turn to fight with the rest against the Orcs was just another staged moment. I didn’t feel much sense that he and his band could turn the battle nor was I all that sympathetic since his madness was so selfish. I felt like Thorin had just been a deluded jerk. Contrast this with how clearly Theoden was influenced by otherwordly forces in the Two Towers, much more effective. What is the point with Thorin? That he has a dwarven greed at the essence of who he is; that this greed is dangerous and utterly self absorbed? I’m not sure, which is the source of my disappointment because his change back to being heroic wasn’t  earned. I will say, Richard Armitrage and Martin Freeman still play the key moments to perfection with the material that they’re given. Maybe the Five Armies extended addition will flesh out more of that psychological conflict. But as it stands, it’s thin and unconvincing.

What else worked? Legolas! Strangely, it’s as though Orlando Bloom came back primed to demonstrate his veteran status, while taking it up a notch with his dramatic presence. Legolas mostly serves one role: be a badass. Legolas is supposed to be younger in The Hobbit, though he neither looks nor acts younger. So take that for what you will, it’s hardly my biggest grievance.

Five Armies’ major weakness comes from an inability to decide who the main character is, and thus we really don’t have one. By the end, it would seem that Bilbo serves that purpose, after the first 2/3rds toyed with the Bard and Thorin in this role. I was mostly disinterested with the Bard’s leadership arc and the plight of Laketown. The entire Laketown saga came off as PJ’s excuse for extending the run time and justifying a trilogy. Smaug’s assault was visually impressive but lacked dramatic heft since the wind in those sails had long blown over from a years passing since Desolation. So he breathes his fire and dies in completely predictable fashion, tacked on as a limp prologue.

This “tacked on” feel demonstrates a strangeness that’s present in all three films. We jump from set piece to set piece as though Peter Jackson is ticking off boxes on his homage-to-Tolkien checklist. This is all less about a coherent story and more about squeezing out every last drop of spectacle. But he’s still TRYING to make story seem important. The elf/dwarf romance–the names of whom I can’t even conjure–, the Bard’s hero arc, Thorin’s madness, Gandalf’s foray to some uber scary tower, and in this installment the band of dwarven fellows who we’d grown fond of fade into the background completely. It’s like Jackson occasionally thought “oh yeah, characters matter”, but the thought didn’t linger for long before tossing the ball over to WETA for some more visual splendor. I daresay this could qualify as the advent of ‘Middle Earth porn’.

So why the naysaying and criticism? Well, Return of the King won the Oscar, that might be one reason. We’ve had it proven that high fantasy can work as both spectacle and dramatic brilliance. As a cinephile and a fantasy nerd, it would have been pleasing to see these heights reached for again. Alas, the LOTR films are probably just one of a kind. If you’re looking for high art in fantasy anymore, it’s going to be on HBO’s Game of Thrones, and that’s about it. Fantasy as film, in all honesty, may not exist to be taken with complete seriousness. Let it be known that The Hobbit in its own right is still an immersive and awesome theatrical experience, taking digital and technical mastery to a whole new level.

But here’s the rub with for me. I won’t watch the first two again for probably 5 years, if ever. Five Armies I might revisit when released in extended form, and for the fact that it felt more quintessential to what I expect from Middle Earth excursions. Yet, I won’t be revisiting it as any sort of study in dramatic craft or for getting creative inspiration. When it comes to movies and art, I want to know and witness genius. I want to ask myself what the creative intent was and consider whether it’s worthwhile or profound. And with The Hobbit 1-3, the genius just isn’t there.

The bare bones assessment: Five Armies should be seen in High-Frame Rate, on a large screen, while witnessed, beheld, and experienced in the way that one might experience skydiving. “WOOOOOOOO, exhilaration, but am I coming away a better human being or a more inspired artist?” I guess that’s for each viewer to decide individually. For me, the answer to that question is ‘no’. Nevertheless, I have zero regrets seeing the movie at least once in its full theatrical glory.

PEACE

Favorite Shtuff 2014 (A long read contemplation on the loads of good shtuff/art in 2014)

trophyFavorite Shtuff of the VO Review in 2014

5 Favorite Reads

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges is a polemicist. He’s a self righteous, feisty, and occasionally disingenuous far left intellectual that is so fed up with the corporate state that he discards any sense of responsibility for keeping a measured tone. Which is what makes Empire of Illusion so engaging as he takes aim on the deluded culture of American consumerism (broken down by chapter into the illusions of Literacy, Love, Wisdom, Happiness, and America itself). He’s shooting with urgency for a necessary wake up call, just don’t expect Hedges to play fair or give his targets leeway to defend themselves. There are very few shades of gray in his perspective, but that’s because the institutions complicit and active in creating our cultural delusions make it pretty easy to paint a stark picture.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kanheman
This is a fat volume and heavily researched. The mind is a master manipulator, that’s what I learned from reading this exhaustive breakdown by Kanheman regarding the two loose conceptual modes which our brains work in. We have to think fast, or we basically would be frozen by every decisions and all the data that comes our way throughout daily existence. But this instinctual lens through which we perceive reality is prone to bias and error. Our slow thinking is more deliberative and effective, but it takes time and gets bogged down in the details. You might come away feeling like you basically know nothing and that we as humans can’t be sure of much, and that’s true in many respects…but we’ve learned to live with it, often times because we’ve become very good at fooling #1, that is ourselves.

Waking Up by Sam Harris
Sam Harris, a controversial figure for saying things that make sense or presenting something with a little more nuance than people are comfortable with, takes a very personal approach with Waking Up. Regardless of how someone feels about Harris – I once was very critical of him before learning how woefully misrepresented his views were by a couple of sycophantic attention seeking quasi-intellectuals – anyone can be fascinated by Waking Up as it delves goes deep into theory of mind, neuroscience, and the nature of the self. Spirituality has a relevant potency for human beings, and we can actually tap into and understand it without taking on dogmatic or delusional beliefs, which is Harris’s basic thesis. This book put me onto meditation and mindfulness. I hesitate to say it changed me, but I read it while in the right place and in the right frame of mind and thus it does not feel hyperbolic to characterize my reading experience of it that way.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
This “biography of cancer”, along with The Panic Virus, this year illuminated for me the potential storytelling power that the history, conflict and study of medicine possesses. Maladies will likely be remembered as integral for raising the public awareness and consciousness about cancer as a disease. At the very least its an unmistakable milepost for showing us the progress we’ve made, and we can revisit its tale every 5 or so years for this purpose. Maladies is laden with science, politics, and a fascinating cast of characters. If you can get past the unavoidable medical terminology, there is a raw and beautiful heart coursing at the center of it all. Maybe that’s why it won a Pulitzer…just maybe.

Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
It’s difficult to express how profound this book was for me. If I try to describe the power that I feel is possible with a good study of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work here, I fear I’d do it a serious disservice. It worms into the psyche and inspires change with compassion and subtlety. Heaping praise on it would prime too many expectations. Most of the advice regarding mindfulness and meditation is rather simple, nevertheless poignant. I suppose I would just say read it, and given the right circumstances and readiness, Wherever You Go has the potential to be a greatly inspiring, bordering on life changing, read for anybody.
5 Favorite Films:

Particle Fever
We built the particular accelerator in Switzerland, not completely sure what utility it held, other than gaining some elemental and maybe ‘first mover’ glimpse of the universe. It was an international and human effort on par or exceeding flying to the moon. But it involves science and machinery that boggles the mind and isn’t immediately accessible for society to grasp its profundity. But they indeed spotted the Higgs-Boson, and it provided ambiguous information regarding the nature of reality and the cosmos. But perhaps it’s the process, the cooperation, and the questions it challenges humanity to ask that makes it worth it. These are the things watching Particle Fever had me thinking about.

Grand Budapest Hotel
In the past, Wes Anderson’s style kind of irritated me. It felt too eccentric in its aesthetic choices; too deliberately quirky. But I still respected his films, and could enjoy the wit and dryness with varying degrees of satisfaction. Even though Grand Budapest might visually be the most committed to Anderson’s characteristic style, the acting and story felt less wooden and more human compared to, say, Moonrise Kingdom or A Life Aquatic. Ralph Fiennes and his co-pilot Tony Revolori probably had a lot to do with this more engaging effect. And Fiennes’ work as Monsieur Gustave H. reaches comedic transcendence.

Gone Girl
For my thoughts on GG, I direct you to my earlier review.

Only Lovers Left Alive
It may have been the music. It may be my personal obsession with the already dystopic landscape of Detroit that gives the film its realness. But most the credit probably goes to the peculiar and endearing performances from Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as they play philosophical foils to one another in this totally unique future-fiction tale. The word that came to mind all throughout while I considered how pleasant Only Lovers Left Alive’s was for me, was ‘hypnotic’. It’s one of the most unique viewing experiences I’ve had watching a movie in quite some time. When a movie can make you feel something truly novel, and take your mind into a strange reality, I’d say it delivered as a piece of artistic expression.

Boyhood
Richard Linklater is one of those directors, for me, who can do no wrong. His films span all sorts of genre’s but still always feel established outside of any genre distinction. He even defies any obvious quality that makes me think “awww, yes, this is a Linklater joint”. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a clear artistic voice, I’d say he’s just not overly concerned with making his movies about one signature style. He seems focused often onn opening the minds of his characters through organic and engrossing dialogue. The scenes often take on a free associative element that is more akin to how human interaction occurs in the real world. Boyhood puts that on full display, and will likely be the film that is tagged as his masterpiece. Filmed over 12 years with the same actors, and the same boy from age 6 on, it’s a totally new way of experiencing character drama. The concept could have been a gimmick, but instead it really does feel like you grow up with Mason Evans Jr. Throw in career capping brilliance from Ethan Hawke with his supporting role, and you have yourself one of those movies that gets at the essence of what it feels like to be human – confused, hopeful, and searching.

5 Favorite TV Shows:

Cosmos (FOX)
After watching Cosmos, Caitlin developed a nerd crush on Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I might have one too, mostly driven by the fact that he rocked blue jeans with a sport coat on Bill Maher. Seeing the wonder, excitement, and enthusiasm with which he describes the known universe, this galaxy, the planet we reside on, and the history of science is truly inspiring. Cosmos also has stunning and cinematic effect, a quality that rarely gets pared with educational television. It’s not just a delivery of dry factoids, it’s a journey of discovery and an effort to have the audience connect with scientific concepts the same way someone might feel while meditating or reading holy scripture. But, lest someone suggest that Cosmos is a quasi-attempt at making science religious, the experience is merely evoked because of the expansiveness and nature of the topic and the genuineness with which Tyson expresses it. Secularists, agnostics, or the non-believer do not seek converts. They simply look for wonder in the world just like anyone else, and find it very often right underneath their feet when wondering how it is that the ground they walk on came to be constituted in its current form. Cosmos is one of the most impressive examples of these insights being detailed and produced for a mass audience. Can be streamed on Netflix

Game of Thrones (HBO)
Season 4 of GOT saw the showrunners, writers, and actors all coming together with singular focus on taking this epic drama to a level of artistry which the source material was begging for. Not to say that this hadn’t occurred occasionally in the first 3 seasons, but nearly every scene this season seemed intent on reaching that level as we explored the cynical landscape of Westeros in 2014. The Red Wedding went down, where possibly could we go from there? Some critics feared and even telegraphed a message that Game of Thrones stood on a precipice of losing its focus in the wake of such earth shattering events; as though Season 4 couldn’t possibly wield the same narrative heft anymore. And, as the entertainment and internet media is wont to do, they trumpeted many forms of faux-controversy and nit-picky critique on GOT because…well because people click on that stuff. For awhile I allowed myself to be irritated by this, but over the course of the season I let the naysayers naysay and wisely began ignoring GOT articles. Weekly, I permitted myself to marinate in GOT’s now established stylistic sophistication. From the Taratinoesque Road Inn scene with Arya and the Hound, Sophie Turner’s next-level-coming-out-of-her-shell work as Sansa, small but poignant moments even provided to minor characters – such as Dontos tenderly offering up his last valuable possession -, witnessing Maisie Williams become one of the most engaging and chilling performances I’ve even seen from a young actor, to Game of Thrones finally stepping into the territory of high fantasy with Bran’s journey or the goosebump inducing scene where we witness the citadel of the white walkers; we’re now on a plane of dramatic storytelling that other shows and even films rarely reach. Sure, maybe most of the good guys are dead now, and the world is looking more and more bleak, but GOT was at its highest level, and sustained it, throughout Seson 4.

Hannibal (NBC)
Hannibal is on network television. This is very strange. It’s also on the weakest of the networks, which they would seem to be the least amenable to taking this kind of risk. Hannibal continues to get lowish ratings, but its become a cult hit online and a critical darling. So it’s sort of NBC’s prestige project, even though they don’t play much of a role in the production process of it anyway. Even more odd is it being the most disturbing and gorey show on television – even surpassing Game of Thrones – although they compete heavily for the title. Hannibal has concocted what is basically a new genre. I’d call it Lynchesque-‘fever dream’-art house-gore-hypnosis-horror-drama. The gore on this show is positively beautiful and I admit that’s uncomfortable to say. The lead performances from Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelson are on point to a level where it pierces the mind in such a manner that you’ve hardly noticed being impaled by theatrical brilliance. Yeah, I’m HEAPING praise on this show because it’s that strange, arresting, and awesome. They’re exploring a new philosophical angle on the nature of psychopathy that leaves behind the trope and gets at basic questions of what makes someone human, what constitutes moral action, and asks if one were as self aware as Hannibal, does his behavior constitute an evolution in individual will that doesn’t even cross into the realm of normal human ethics because we simply can’t understand what drives him? I don’t think the show is interested in asking whether Hannibal is good or evil, compassionate or disdainful. He’s utterly alien, but the writing of his character focuses the viewer in such a way that we can’t help but ask questions about what instincts drive us and what depths of madness are okay to explore in an effort to better understand ourselves.

Fargo (FX)
Fargo has the sort dramatic craft that rarely exists on television. It knows how to build tension, explore darker themes, humanize characters without justifying their despicable actions, and has just enough of the Coen Bros aesthetic to pay worthy homage to the 90s film while remaining its own animal completely. Apparently the show will be continued under the anthology format that True Detective also chose – a trend spearheaded by the American Horror Story folks. This is new territory in television drama, basically giving us 10 hour films as they often have the acting klout, the stylish flourishes, and contained storyline that film posses. In time, I could see it becoming an often used middle ground between the two mediums. It gives creators the freedom of time as well as the focused vision of knowing their beginning middle and end. Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, along with a coming out performance from Allison Tolman and a career shifting turn from Colin Hanks, showcase some of the best ensemble casting and acting I’ve ever seen in a TV show. Kudos to FX for taking a chance here.

True Detective (HBO)
Some folks on the internet wondered if TV goers were becoming prisoners of the moment when it came to True Detective’s surprising popularity. I don’t think there was any question that the show would bring in fans of crime drama and psychological thrillers, but there was an upswell of fascination with the central mystery of the TD plot that was a surprising for people who keep up on pop culture. Which might give a critic the perception that a gimmick lay at the center of TD’s growing respectability. I toyed with such a thought, but even with a surprisingly hopeful and oddly tidy conclusion to the mystery of the Yellow King, my critical analysis of True Detective. It challenged me, it took risks with its narrative structure, it had a salient and powerful emotional arc, it forwardly explored concepts of existential and nihilistic philosophy, and evoked performances from veterans Woody Harrelson and Matthew McChonaughey that basically put them in Bryan Cranston territory. Can they make a buddy cop dynamic, have it be clever and occasionally hilarious, as well as explore questions of meaning, masculinity and the nature of reality itself? Why yes, yes they can.

My Favorite albums this year (quick, before it changes in the next 5 minutes)

10-6 tie cause distinguishing after the top 5 feels pointless:

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of  Dead – IX
These dudes just deliver. You get straight rock, arena rock, loud and wall-of-sound guitar riffs, and a epic progressive and conceptual framework. They don’t make mediocre music and are a consistent go-to for me when I’m needing a combination loud and epic rock experience that still delivers in a simpler rock & roll kind of way.

Lucius – Wildewoman
This sort of dropped out of the sky. I had never heard of them, saw that the album was getting a warm reception, and I gave it a shot. This is one of those finds that comes from looking for new stuff to listen to, and its always encouraging to land on a gem like this. Awesome female vocals, great songwriting, and very memorable, listen on a road trip kinds of songs.

Robert Plant – Lullaby…the Ceaseless Roar
If you liked Robert Plant’s work on ‘Band of Joy’, there will be plenty of goodness to revel in here on his latest effort. I guess this is considered his album with a new band called The Sensational Space Shifters. There are more experimental quirks that some might find out of place, but I actually appreciated some of the electronic and psychedelic touches.

Strand of Oaks – Heal
It’s odd because I don’t know that I can give a real tight critical analysis of this album, but I know that I’ve come back to it as much as any other album this year asides from my top 5. It’s rock music, but has unique and genreless elements that allowed it to stand apart from the robust selection of great music that came down in 2014.

Jozef Van Wissem – Only Lovers Left Alive OST
Films have been doing a lot of unique things lately with their scores and music. The music in Only Lovers Left Alive becomes one of the characters, and is a big part of setting the mood that made this one of the most hypnotic and unexpectedly great moves I saw all year. It makes for stellar regular listening as well, good for creative inspiration.

My best of 2014 ranked in order 5-1

5. Sylvan Esso- Sylvan Esso
sylvan-esso1-608x608
Another difficult to describe project that I would nevertheless return to with frequency. It took me outside of my normal range of tastes, but they made it a pleasure to challenge my listening habits. 2 or 3 of the best songs I heard this year are present on this self-titled gem.

4. Woods – With Light and With Love
homepage_large.b854982a
Folksky, psychedelic, singer/songwriter rock music…I’m down. Too many memorable tracks not to love this album and a  I-feel-like-I’ve-heard-this-before-and-I’ve-always-known-it-was-classic-even-though-its in-fact brand-new quality to all of it.

3. alt-J – This is All Yours
Alt-J_-_This_is_all_yours
Here I sit with feelings of indignation about the treatment alt-J gets from some critics. To be sure, alt-J is mostly embraced as an innovative and brilliant new outfit. But their subsequent rise to popularity, and some fool in the UK calling them the next Radiohead, naturally brings out the contrarians. Pitchfork did their nonsensical pseudo-analytical-too-many-big-words-that could-have-been-small-words review and gave them a 4.3 because that’s what Pitchfork does. When they’re feeling like being the tastemaker, they go and shit on some band people are respecting because it seems sophisticated to do so. I don’t like being my indignant self, but I will stick up for alt-J as I have Arcade Fire. They are stepping into that realm of next-level artistry. This is All Yours has some at times bizarre seques and various atmospherics that might seem like gimmicks or otherwise as though they didn’t know how to filter ideas from their jam sessions, but I would disagree that this what’s going on, that to me the music on comes across deliberate in its compilation. A full album experience in the truest sense. They’re weird, and still somehow make really catchy songs that flirt with the mainstream. Anytime “out there” stuff gets serious recognition, I will applaud that and defend it from those who wish to prematurely lay down labels like “sell out” or “pretentious”.

2. EMA – The Future’s Void
ole-1054_ema_the_future_s_void

It feels strange considering that this album was indeed released this year. I’ve nearly forgotten that for the first half of 2014 it was my go-to listen. You can put it on and let it go without skipping a track. Here we have a timely mishmash of 90s angsty female fronted rock, gritty underground electronica, with a penchant for taking her tracks up to a fully expansive scale that conjure visions of William Gibsonesque, cyberpunk, dsytopic landscapes <<<< that was my best Pitchfork impression of a sentence. It’s an awesome album, plain and simple.

1. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
RunTheJewelsRTJ2

Killer Mike and El-P possess some serious jewels to open up track 1 ‘Jeopardy’ with Killer Mike vociferously spouting sans music “I’m finna bang this **** the **** out…you might wanna record the way you feelin’ like history being made”. It’s almost as though they’re challenging a listener immediately to check their perception as a shouting black man’s braggadocious and vocal swagger, unsullied by any backing track, is presented for first impressions. And, rest assured, let up on ferocity it never does. Here is the uncorked ‘id’ of an admitted misanthrope and a political and social justice activist. The most unlikely pairing of rap artists I think anyone could have conjured now taking the game down by breaking all the rules. Release album for free, entreaty street artists around the world to market your trademark fist and gun imagery, reinvent yourself at 40 and plant yourself atop the king-of-the-hill mountain of rap emcee’s; accomplishing all of this by hardly acknowledging the normal industry process of getting the word out on your shit. If you’re going to do these things, it’s best you make sure that the album is suitably badass, but also poignant and necessary.

The sounds cooked up from the mind of El-P are spooky, futuristic, with the occasional fusion of jazzy trumpets and guitar strings paying homage to the sounds he grew up on. That might seem brow raising were it not for the fact that the ferocious instrumentals only let up here and there to allow listeners to contemplate that this isn’t just dick measuring and street swaggering. They utilize the in your face tropes of battle rap and competitive fervor to speak not about their stacks or the keys they got in the trunk, but to tell people they’ve swallowed the red pill and what they now see is absurd. Those who remain complicit or blind to it are certifiable f*ckboys. This is as entertaining, head nodding, and feeling-awesome as social commentary will ever get…until the next Run the Jewels album. I bequeth unto it my #1 slot not only for sound but also for the manner in which they got the word out; simultaneously the best and most necessary album of 2014.

On my bubble or otherwise should be mentioned:
Spoon – They Want My Soul, FKA Twigs – LP1, Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Hozier – self titled, Pharoahe Monch – PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Kate Tempest – Everybody Down, St Vincent – self titled, Ty Segal – Manipulator, Lanterns on the Lake – Until the Colours Run, Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence, Wildbirds & Peacedrums – Rhythm, We Were Promised Jetpacks – Unraveling, Vince Staples – Hell Can’t Wait, Barrows – Red Giant, Sharon Van Etten – Are We There, Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, and I know I’m forgetting other stuff…its been a great year for music.

2013 albums that had serious staying power:
Danny Brown
– Old, Darkside – Psychic, Run the Jewels – self titled, Forest Swords – Engravings, Arcade Fire – Reflektor, Chelsea Wolfe – Pain is Beauty


Forward to good art and entertainment in 2015!

Is Nolan Who We Think He Is? (A VO Review of Interstellar and its director)

interstellar.black_.hole_
Spoilers are VERY minor with story elements and devices only hinted at.

Often after seeing a major release from the likes of Christopher Nolan, my first inclination is to defend the work. Without question, when it comes to Nolan, my critical sense is in what I would term ‘High Art’ mode. His films have their various flaws and his technique is at times clunky, but I have my theories for why this is the case and why these are insufficient for disputing his greatness as a director. Chris Nolan, often with his brother Jonathan Nolan in the writer’s seat, makes ambitious and praiseworthy overtures towards bridging the gap between mainstream, big budget fodder and a more sophisticated artistic vision. Naturally, this brings out the trolls, contrarians, and the hyper-critical.

Soon after The Dark Knight was exalted by critics and audiences alike, there were detractors who felt a special need to temper the conversation with a “hey now, folks, hold your horses.” Some did it tastefully and brought appropriate realism to the consensus of what Nolan’s work means in the public conscience and consciousness. Others were in full on take-Nolan down-a-notch mode, and invariably their go-to zinger went something like, “Nolan is no Kubrick”; delivered as though they’d been personally insulted. It’s easy enough to respond to such contempt by saying, “well no shit.” Neither are The Black Keys any sort of Led Zeppelin, but they are still pretty damn great. It seemed to be a commonplace demonstration of intellectual grandstanding following Inception for someone to write or tweet “Inception wasn’t THAT mind blowing, I understood the WHOLE thing” or “the reason your mind was blown was because of the Earth sized plot holes you didn’t catch onto, so you FELT like it was deep and epic! But if you were smart enough, you’d know better.”

So before delving into my own critical breakdown of Interstellar, I’d like to address the issue of minds being blown and glaring logic loopholes. Firstly, spotting plot holes doesn’t always entail that you were the smarter viewer. On repeat viewing of Nolan’s films, which are often packed like puzzles, it becomes clear that he and his brother are very particular and most questions are answerable or purposefully left ambiguous. I will admit that his pacing and degree of explanation is sporadically suspect; an issue of editing and cutting down to digestible size I imagine. But simply because I’m unsure exactly what transpired in a scene, or because I didn’t gather why so and so did such and such in scene ‘A’ or ‘B’, doesn’t give me free rein to accuse a director or writer of laziness or speak of those who enjoyed viewing it scornfully.

Secondly, when it comes to Nolan’s work, viewers run a high risk of becoming prisoners of the moment. I know this was true of me when it came to The Dark Knight Rises; which in retrospect I now see as being Nolan’s most flawed effort, paling as compared to TDK. However, when I first saw it I was convinced it was superior; that he’d taken his TDK template to that next epic level. I was a POM to the IMAX experience and the mythic/epic Chris Nolan overtones. TDKR had a certain level of hubris, the auteur attempting to elevate the pulpy comic book action movie to the plain of legendary. To Nolan’s credit, this vision was mostly realized. But, on additional sit downs with TDKR, I started noticing its glaring blemishes. Nolan’s shortcomings became more readily apparent: a telegraphed twist, clunky and disengaging action sequences, Shakespearean and dramatic flare occasionally drifting into silliness, pacing issues, and distracting editing. But let’s remember why the susceptibility for being caught up in Nolan’s magic exists in the first place; he indeed makes magic on the screen and often evokes transcendent and sublime emotionality.

So, I went into Interstellar with my bias detectors as fully in check as I could muster. But I still possessed the sort of giddiness that a youthful me had whilst attending Jurassic Park or Return of the King for the first time. I was stoked. So as I hunkered down for the feature presentation, I was of two minds. Despite Nolan’s flaws, he still creates awe inspiring movies that equate to what I would only describe as ‘spiritual’. With Interstellar, some of his directorial tics show through again, yet, in the IMAX setting is wholly engaging in the ways that Nolan is known for. This is why I go to the theater. These are the kinds of movies I hope for and rarely ever see.

Most movies are just that, movies (crude and entertaining). Christopher Nolan still adheres to this ambition of making FILMS; not simply moving pictures that assist the popcorn going down more smoothly. He often manages to deliver on both fronts. Interstellar, however, might alienate the more casual tenants of weekend features. More than any of his other projects, the Nolan brothers are firmly in the driver’s seat and were given ample amounts of leeway to try the patience of standard movie goers; not only in its mood but with its near 3 hour length. Movie goers that are likely more accustomed to the Marvel comic freneticism, hokey one-liners, and a predictable cadence of rising conflict, climax, and clean resolution. This isn’t a criticism of movie going audiences as much as it is an acknowledgement that a certain style of filmmaking is going extinct, and Nolan refuses to let it die. Of this I am grateful, because that style is a beautiful thing.

From the get go, another brilliant score from Hans Zimmer sets the tone for a journey that is grand in scale. The aesthetic of the film is clean and noticeably free of obvious digital doctoring and clutter. The setup for the premise does require patience, but I didn’t feel any annoyance watching it unfold. A number of plot devices are left unclear, and at times might frustrate. Here, I’d suggest, is a known problem for Nolan in general. In an effort to save some of the big reveals, we are kept in the dark maybe too much. Conversely, he is prone to expositive info dumps that are unusual for wide audience releases. I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks felt that they were sitting through a science lesson that, even though laden with dialogue, left them scratching their head for having not brushed up on their cosmology and astrophysics. I didn’t have a problem here, but I’ve taken an interest in these subjects most of my life . This isn’t a tooting of my horn, I readily admit that Nolan could have done better explaining some stuff.

As Interstellar takes off into space, Nolan’s nods to Kubrick’s 2001 are so obvious that it can hardly be levied as a criticism. He is PURPOSEFULLY paying tribute to particular aesthetic touches from one the greatest sci fi films of all time. He has said himself that “you can’t pretend 2001 doesn’t exist when you’re making Interstellar.” But these are mostly visual and not tonal or thematic similarities. The storytelling and manner of how the plot unfolds is almost entirely unique to Nolan with the exception of what I would term Interstellar’s ‘monolith moment’. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan felt the need to inject humanity into this epic space opera and also grants the audience a sleek resolution, rather than leaving them like a quivering fetus in space contemplating their existential insignificance.

I anticipate that some will say the resolution was predictable, cheesy or too tidy. Without giving it away I can still express understanding of where these criticisms would come from. I had my moments of skepticism and I wasn’t in love with the ‘monolith moment’ myself, but the epilogue of the film largely erased my doubts. I left feeling respectful of how Christopher Nolan chose to solve his little puzzle. He’s one of those artists that seems deliberate and calculated enough that I trust his choices without over thinking whether I completely agree with it. This allowance of artistic latitude when it comes to exacting scrutiny is a conscious choice, and honestly it has made most movies and shows more enjoyable for me. I have spent too many days being prudish and pretentious in pursuit of something searing to say as a demonstration of my intellect. I think it doubtful that anyone else could have managed a better denouement without just leaving the end ambiguous, which is often the typical route taken by art house or more idiosyncratic filmmakers of the Lars Von Trier variety. There is a reason those movies often don’t get wider releases. They might be cool and interesting, but they’re weird, even awkward, and they often conceal their intentions and message to a maddening extent.

Interstellar is not for everyone and that doesn’t mean it’s not still great and admirable in most respects of these words. Lovers of the Dark-Knight-Nolan are going to get something worlds apart from those installments. The Inception crowd will have its patience tried as Interstellar is light in the action department. Where it tries to create tension with action, the movie slips considerably. A middle act devolves into an awkward astronaut fight that felt forced while also attempting to overlay poetic flourishes that frankly didn’t work. But this was brief and the film then moved onto its epic finale. This is mostly a character drama set in space that saves the bombast for the key moments. The meanwhile-on-earth plot gets significantly more screen time towards the latter end of the picture, and the editing choices with that were at times clunky, frustrating, and less engaging.

I would suggest this film be witnessed in the full IMAX glory, but I imagine it’s still great in other formats. Chris Nolan is one of the few filmmakers actually choosing to utilize the IMAX cameras during principle photography, so the entire geography of the screen is covered for most of the running time — no doubt looking spectacular. The non-IMAX intercuts are in a narrower aspect ratio, noticeably darker and less vivid; perhaps bothersome to purists or perfectionists. I await the day that the IMAX cameras and film are more affordable and versatile so Nolan can just have the entire experience be properly wide and tall, as the ambitions of his films demand it. But I’m also hearing that the format might altogether be retired, and this could very well be some of the last times we can witness this preferred Nolan medium.

Some will go in expecting life altering and world changing cinematics. Many of these folks will probably prisoner-of-the-moment their way right to that desired conclusion. And more power to them, it’s awesome to feel like your life was altered and your world was shattered and reformed in a 3 hour span. Others will go into it expecting epic action and coolness, and I imagine some of these cravings might be left unsatisfied. There are also those who will attend looking to depreciate Nolan’s stock with a how-dare-anyone-compare-him-to-Stanley chip on their critical shoulder. Admittedly, there are poetic and romantic touches that Nolan paints with that sometimes come across more silly than intriguing; but he hits far more often than he misses. I’m not going to let one badly delivered Matt Damon pontification spoil the experience. And yes, Matt Damon is in this movie…I’m not getting my Matt’s mixed up.

Let haters hate and allow some people to have a fleck of bitter taste ruin an entire heaping pile of delectable, satisfying, intellectual and creative desserts. This is the way of the modern movie goer and hyper-critic: to feel like they are owed what they want or expected. Those who don’t get it will haughtily levy labels like “overrated” and “pop sci-fi” against Insterstellar more as an expression of their dislike for Nolan and people who revere him. There are relevant criticisms of this and his other work; that they are “pop” or “silly” are not some of them. I also anticipate that the media narrative will paint the response as more polarized than it actually is. But there will be yay-sayers and naysayers, as immutable a fact as time itself…wait, is time immutable??…

I for one was satisfied to a large extent. There were a handful of moments that created that undeniable upswell indicating that I was witnessing greatness. I wouldn’t want to belittle that with minor grievances. Christopher Nolan has done for the medium in its early 21sty century form what is otherwise not granted by major studios to most other filmmakers. This sort of freedom and ambition should be applauded, even when it doesn’t match all of our expectations. Otherwise, we’ll be condemned to a smattering of Michael Bayesque CGI orgies, Judd Apatow knockoffs, and overextended franchise money pits; with the occasional bright glimmers like Edge of Tomorrow or the Hungers Game series. Even those often lack the same ‘high art’ aspirations that Nolan and his team clearly hold themselves to. Color me fooled or hoodwinked by the magic, but I see the sophistication present in his craft as being real and achieved, not some hallucinatory mindtrick of cinema. Go forth and enjoy, and do not over think all the over thinking I just did with regards to Christopher Nolan’s Insterstellar. PEACE

Gone Girl (A VO Review of the film and Fincher coolness)

gone-girl-tc-DI-to-L8

Warning: Minor Spoilers

I no longer have doubts walking into a David Fincher flick. I have a fanboy trust in his skill as a movie director. I recognize that someday he might let me down, but for now, I’ll ride the wave and admit to my unabashed admiration for his craft and style. When it comes to the early 21st century internet/tech age, when we look back 30 years from now, we should point to Fincher films as statements for the time. Paired now with the creeping dread coolness of Trent Reznor scores, it’s basically blissful.

Gone Girl continues the legacy of coolness. Sometimes while enraptured by the said coolness, there is a dissonance, as though a great film shouldn’t excite or thill this much, as though I should be taking it more seriously. Gone Girl, however, can easily be viewed with a wry smile throughout. It’s Fincher’s most comedic and satirical work since Fight Club. To be sure, the comedic tone is black. It’s a critical rumination of marital superficiality, suburban and small town life, and the 24/7 news cycle. At times the players involved feel like caricatures. When this occurs, however, it’s in the service of getting the point across. When the film drifts into this hyper-real storytelling, the experience is hypnotic rather than disengaging.

Ben Affleck plays the glib but likable white man with fleeting and mediocre ambitions. We’ve all met this sort of guy, the one whose style we dig while maintaining the feeling that we wouldn’t mind smacking him. So, Affleck basically plays himself…and it works. Rosamund Pike’s role as the leading Amy-Elliott-Dunne borders the closest to cartoonish. Eventually, though, it’s understood that this is a part of the trick. She can play any character at the flip of a switch if it advances her twisted machinations. The interplay between the leads is witty, fascinating, and when appropriate, chilling.

Gone Girl could be a lot of different things for a lot of different people; a thriller, a mystery, black comedy, small town drama, mildly soap operatic. For me, it was a contemplation on the duplicity inherent in human nature (I guess that would make it a mystery) but it’s more about the psychology and mind tricks than purely being about ‘whodunnit’. The film is masterful at arousing discomfort as viewers consider the competing and contradictory narratives.

I came away unsettled, but completely satisfied. There was definitely a psychological hangover lingering for the rest of the day. That’s often when I know a movie made an impression. It will be interesting on repeat viewings to better pick apart how Fincher pulled off this clever ruse.

Random appearances from Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris worked to great effect. They reminded me of other bold choices like the casting of Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, or the recent trend in television of comedians in small dramatic roles. You wouldn’t have thought of it yourself, but when seeing it on screen, it’s an unexpected stroke of casting genius. It’s these subtle strokes that elevate Gone Girl from pulpy thriller to biting and brilliant social commentary.

From a social and philosophical perspective, Gone Girl I think is asking to what extent the gawking and voyeuristic media has cheapened or made real human connections feel stilted, awkward, or trivial. Also, toying with the audience, challenging them to consider which relationships in their lives might be built on dishonesty or half truths. The more cynical moral of the story might be that many people are living outright lies, perfectly willing to maintain the facade as an act of self preservation.

David Fincher is easy to take for a misanthropic auteur. But, there is a lightness to his touch that allows us to glimpse these darker human impulses without recoiling. Seeing this darkness can serve simple entertainment purposes or allow us to better recognize darkness in ourselves and in others. In doing so, we might prevent slow destruction via self deception. It might not be for everyone to look into the dark heart of humanity, but for those willing to explore and understand it, a self aware artistic examination from an artist like David Fincher can be a powerful tool. It doesn’t have to be taken too seriously though, as Gone Girl on the mere surface is wildly compelling.

VO Review Score: 4 ½ * out of 5 *

Quick hits

Great Album That Came Out of Nowhere: Unravelling by We Were Promised Jetpacks

New Effort to Keep Myself Sane: Turn my smart phone off and hand it over to Caitlin

Bad Habit to Break: Laying in my bed to read books…less effective

Stuff to Be On the Look Out For In Self and Others: Narcissistic self righteousness