Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Music Review: Dirty Projectors [A-]

Music / Review

Dirty Projectors [BlogCritics]
Album: Bitte Orca
Year: 2009

No release this year better represents a realization of potential than the new album from off-kilter indie collective Dirty Projectors. That Animal Collective record we all know and love could be seen as a similar document in this regard, but whereas the triumph of Merriweather Post Pavilion is that of a band in peak form, exercising their long-established skill, the level of success Dirty Projectors attain on Bitte Orca is of a kind they've never before reached.

As chronicled in a series of eccentric albums, the odd EP and one truly confounding reproduction of Black Flag's punk landmark Damaged from memory (2007's Rise Above), lead Projector David Longstreth has proven himself a restless prodigy, delivering inconsistently brilliant collections with just as inconsistent a line-up of musicians under the Dirty Projectors moniker. It's always been apparent that his band, no matter what the incarnation, are a formidable indie-rock collective, but the material they've churned out in the past – wildly eclectic and often maddening compositions coupled with Longstreth's otherworldly falsetto – have made for a musical output much easier to admire than love. Shards of Longstreth's more crystalline art-pop tend to find themselves sandwiched between lesser experiments.

Take, for example, the meandering crashings of "Room 13" and the halfhearted sketch of "Untitled" surrounding perhaps the band's best track, "Rise Above," on the album of the same name. Or the David Byrne-aided "Knotty Pine" nearly drowned out by the mediocrity pervading the Dark Was the Night compilation it's a part of. Not so with Bitte Orca though, a collection of nine songs, each just about as good as anything the band's ever done.

This isn't just a great album, it's some kind of lightning-in-a-bottle miracle; Longstreth has managed to channel his tendency toward going-nowhere diversions into one song: "The Bride," the only weakness in this whole set which, in reality, is about as compelling as all the other doodles Longstreth has given us (which is to say it's no disaster). Complaints about this album end there, as no other major missteps occur in the 41 minute length between the electric guitar chime of opener "Cannibal Resource" and the fading synths which close percussive stunner "Fluorescent Half-Dome." That's not to say Longstreth and company have abandoned their more artistic impulses for catchy, streamlined pop; it's just that the more jarring moments on Bitte Orca always feel cohesive and never threaten the progression of the songs.

Consider the R&B-influenced "Stillness is the Move," which wouldn't be half as compelling and daring without the clipped guitar chords that give it an Afro-pop flavor (surely one of Longstreth's favorite musical stylings). It's one of two songs which make up the middle section of Bitte Orca, both sung by Dirty Projectors' dual female members.

Sighing siren #1, Angel Deradoorian, takes the mic for 'Stillness,' tapping into the same poppy vocal runs that make the best of Mariah Carey and Beyonce's output so winning. The track chimes nervously and clangs loudly until the appropriately angelic bridge hits: Angel's layered vocal is given front-and-center treatment backed only by a subtle bass pulse; each of the other elements of the track reenter the mix one by one, plus a swelling string section well-complementing Angel's high-pitched tenure, and the whole thing ascends into the heavens – and to the top of the list of 2009's best singles.

Amber Coffman, her voice of an earthier and huskier quality than Angel's, croons over the other feminine track of the set, "Two Doves," her voice gliding atop quivering orchestrations and Longstreth's intricately composed acoustic picking. "Kiss me with your mouth open," Amber insists, and at first the song seems like a love ballad, until the singer starts dropping words like "killer," and the real shocker: "Our bed is like a failure." The song ends with Amber pleading "call on me," her voice cracked and broken and her plea left unanswered. It's the album's most devastating emotional blow, and not without competition.

Longstreth-led pieces are just as impressive, if not more so. Like his talents as a composer, his skills as a guitar virtuoso need not be proven further, but Longstreth doesn't seem to be listening; he cooks up more than a few devilishly catchy and technically mind-boggling rhythms here, on "Temecula Sunrise" and on the album's most dazzling stand-alone piece, "Useful Chamber." Six and a half minutes of tempo shifts, surprise bridges, a fashionably late chorus and Yes levels of prog-rock cacophony make up "Useful Chamber," which has to be seen as the most successful meshing of Longstreth's restless desire to experiment and, um, listenability. The revelatory moments come fast and furious, but how about the sudden assault of layered electric guitars or the yelping of the album's title – didn't see either coming.

It's almost unfair to point out this stuff, since a great deal of this album's allure is in discovering the unexpected directions it takes. This quality firmly aligns Bitte Orca with another of this decade's defining art-rock statements, 2004's mammoth Fiery Furnaces album Blueberry Boat. Both pride themselves on unpredictability, and making the listener an active participant with the music rather than a passive one.

In this sense, the comparatively predictable progression of the album's last three tracks ("No Intention," "Remade Horizon" and "Fluorescent Half-Dome") could be seen as a flaw. But "No Intention," a decidedly more relaxed Longstreth tune, also ranks as one of the artist's more soulful vocal performances, his "Two Doves" moment of emotional rawness. And check that wacky bridge; dueling guitars fight for supremacy, complemented by Amber and Angel's alternating "woos" and "oos." It's followed by "Remade Horizon," probably the album's most cryptic moment lyrically, but no less inventive and engaging musically, further elevated by the playful vocal interplay between all three principles. And finally, "Fluorescent Half-Dome," the most spare track here and an appropriately subdued closer which relies heavily on propulsive, meticulous percussion, a recurring theme of this album exemplified more here than at any other time on Bitte Orca.

In performance, the giraffe-necked Longstreth is a twitchy mess of tics, refusing to sit still; in interviews, he's even worse. In the studio, we can only imagine. It remains to be seen if Longstreth has actually gotten his shit together or if this is indeed a fleeting moment of brilliance to be followed by the same uneven work we've come to expect from the artist. But really, it doesn't matter; we'll always have Bitte Orca, Dave, and for that I'm sure we can tolerate whatever bonkers thing you choose to do next – The Beatles' White Album played backwards, perhaps?

Film Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 [C]

Film / Review

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 [InRO]
Director: Tony Scott
Year: 2009

Despite my general indifference toward Tony Scott's taut, but largely uninspired remake of the 1974 thriller “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” I'll be one of the first to stand up and defend the director, and to champion some of his most critically reviled offerings. In fact, I'll anger the naysayers one better: Tony Scott is an artist who brings more verve, originality and overall quality to his medium than his overrated older brother, Ridley. The younger Scott has been continually criticized for his hectic visual aesthetic; speed manipulations, whip-quick editing and breathless camera hurtling are his bread-and butter. But his films are among the few pumped out by the Hollywood machine that earn and are even strengthened by their hyperactive pacing and stylistic choices. A consummate auteur, Scott is nearly always in control of his own special-FX maelstroms. See 2005's “Domino,” a flawed and convoluted, densely plotted actioner-on-steroids that succeeds by the sheer force of stylistic fervor it musters; it's fueled by a myriad of aesthetic modulations and a striking use of color that directly correlates to the emotions of its characters. And take 2006’s “Deja Vu” (a film I myself underestimated when reviewing it on its release), which relies on ghostly sci-fi visualizations to fuel its emotional conflict in ways that far best brother Ridley's own psychological sci-fi favorite “Blade Runner.”

“Deja Vu” is a particularly relevant point of reference when discussing Scott's latest, which alters the original's title slightly; now “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.” Both are elevated by the considerable talents of Denzel Washinton in their respective leading roles, an actor who possesses stoic humility and quiet strength that well-compliment the modest means of Scott's storytelling and classically drawn characters. And, like “Deja Vu,” ‘Pelham’ revels in technological advancements with a focus on surveillance – a theme that pervaded both the former, essentially an exercise in voyeurism, and “Domino” in its Reality TV show commentaries – that informs the aesthetic choices Scott makes. Take, for example, the claustrophobic and humiliating nature of its central character's desk job, emphasized via a massive glowing billboard symbolic of looming responsibility. It's an intentional aesthetic choice that many will write off as mere flashy distraction.

Washington plays the soft-spoken Walter Garber, an NYC subway dispatcher who becomes inescapably entangled with a bombastic hijacker calling himself Ryder (John Travolta, tattooed on the neck with eyes and veins abulge), tasked with negotiating a hostage situation. The set-up again speaks to “Deja Vu,” where Washington's detective developed a relationship with the object of his investigation through a futuristic screen, allowing him to peer into her past life. The communication between Ryder and Garber is also limited, this time by the auditory connection between the subway's radio and the dispatcher's microphone. It's a noteworthy emphasis on the distorting or even damning effects of communication through technology. The near entirety of ‘Pelham’ keeps this focus: the film is largely comprised of the ongoing dialogues between its two principals, their faces shot in intense close-ups (an annoying visual motif Scott would do well to ditch). Through their conversations, we learn that Garber was once an MTA big shot who was demoted after accepting a bribe. Even though Washington doesn't leave his cubicle for at least two thirds of the film, he ably conveys Garber's internal struggle as he wrestles with moral responsibilities. And each time his character plaintively insists, "I'm just a guy," his every-man statement could be read as thesis for the film's dramatic pulse.

In addition to criticisms over his stylistic choices, Scott is also often accused of "cliched" depictions of modest characters undertaking heroic acts for the sake of their own atonement. However, it's evident in Scott's filmography that there is a very spiritual undercurrent to his work. In this sense, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” can be seen as the conclusion of a trilogy that began with 2004's “Man on Fire” and continued with “Deja Vu.” In each film, Washington takes on the role of Scott's morally conflicted characters, haunted by prior sins or transgressions, and in need of redemption. There's a very Christian ideology present: the need to redeem the spirit through selfless, righteous action. ‘Pelham’ takes its religious convictions one step further than the prior two films; where Washington struggled against largely faceless evils before, here Scott introduces a struggle of faith between both his two principles. (This is evident in Ryder's observation that his cramped, commandeered subway car "reminds me of a confessional.") Unfortunately, this provocative thematic implication never really ignites or goes anywhere; instead, we're left with Travolta's frustratingly one-dimensional and shrill "villain." Ryder is a cartoon, he practices a dubious code of conduct and lectures about stock trades and corporate corruption – relevant economic commentaries only name-checked here.

Further perplexing is Scott's comparatively staid visual style in this film, at least in regard to all that takes place between its amped-up opening credits (a characteristically bonkers assault of aesthetic tweakery) and a last act so frenetically assembled that it's difficult to determine what exactly is going on (not unlike many other Scott productions). The majority of ‘Pelham’ though is not driven by special-FX at all; instead, Scott favors a succession of talking heads deliberating over the various conflicts of this procedural's plot. Tension is maintained throughout (a byproduct of those claustrophobic close-ups mentioned earlier), but it's tough not to compare ‘Pelham’ to Spike Lee's hostage-negotiate-er “Inside Man,” which bests Scott's film both stylistically and in the inventiveness of its plotting. But the most egregious of missteps here manifest in noticeably forced action scenes – on the way to deliver the requested sum of 10 million dollars to Ryder, there are not one, not two, but three police car crashes. And in a dubious approach to violence, as Scott undercuts his own morally-conscious ideals. (One scene of ludicrous brutality witnesses two of Ryder's cronies being shot to pieces in super slow-motion.) Again though, this is the norm in a Tony Scott movie: over-the-top displays of action making for sometimes uncomfortable bedfellows with earnest sociopolitical commentaries (a formula paramount to this filmmaker since at least 1998's “Enemy of the State”).

Under less scrutiny, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” succeeds as a tense thriller, ratcheting up suspense and keeping the stakes high as it barrels toward its appropriate finale, and is further admirable for placing emphasis on the struggle of its every-man protagonist over the clipped rhythms of its plot (a headache-inducing complexity which, if one really considers Ryder's motivations, is pretty silly). It's a well-made film mostly of a consistent and agreeable style, and it rarely suffers from pacing problems. But it's derivative (it is a remake after all) and lacks the jolt of energy and enthusiasm that invigorates Scott's best films (1993's “True Romance,” as well as the aforementioned Washington-Scott collabs “Deja Vu” and “Man on Fire”). But those who dislike Tony Scott's prior films may find his latest more digestible; it is, after all, the least characteristic film from this divisive auteur in quite some time.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cannes Reviews: "Antichrist" [B] & "Mother" [B+]

Film / Review

Antichrist [The Playlist]
Director: Lars Von Trier
Year: 2009

"Antichrist" is an exorcism of the foulness and unmitigated hatred stewing inside notorious provocateur Lars von Trier. It's production follows a crippling depression which stifled the Danish master's output for two years, following completion of what could be described as the filmmaker's only conventional film, 2006's office comedy "The Boss of it All." This new work finds von Trier coming out the other side of the woods and leading us in: "Antichrist" is set in the heart of a forested landscape known ironically as "Eden."

The film's proverbial Adam and Eve (the cast lists them as "He" and "She") are played by the willowy Charlotte Gainsbourg and previous von Trier collaborator (in 2005's "Manderlay") Willem Dafoe. The couple recently lost their only son (a tragedy depicted as the couple has unbridled sex in the film's heavily-stylized black and white prologue, arguably the most accomplished passage of film this director has ever produced), and the wife has been stricken with inconsolable grief. Her husband (who is also a therapist that arrogantly decides to treat her) attempts to console and rehabilitate his spouse, repelling her sexual advances and embracing her firmly each time she awakes from vivid nightmares. But after the Doc's usual tricks prove largely ineffective ("make a list of what scares you" and "exhale on the count of five," he instructs) it's decided that he must pursue a more severe approach and face her terrors head-on. He leads his wilting wife into a cabin in the woods - into the forest of Eden, the place she fears more than any other.

Unsurprisingly, what the couple find in their foliage-ensconced retreat is nothing less than hell on Earth; a fiercely primal series of brutal acts which She inflicts upon Him in some kind of possessed fury and misguided vengeance. Lars isn't fooling around: within the first five minutes, brief penetration is shown on screen (goodbye R-rating), and later on, one character is forced to ejaculate blood and another takes a pair of sheers to their genitals (hello NC-17). All this ultra-violence is given some context through Gainsbourg's pained whisper of a warning: "Nature is Satan's church."

Sentiments like these are more than appropriate considering that von Trier has dedicated "Antichrist" to Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky (a dude who seems really popular all of a sudden) whose films were always heavily influenced by their natural environments. Acts of carnality and physical abuse are suggested to be provoked by the influence of Eden's foreboding landscape, which complements the film's primal urgency (especially in regard to the un-sexy and desperate sexual encounters, of which there are many). It's frustrating then that von Trier introduces a more academic motive for the wife's horrific behaviors: we learn that she was working on her Masters Thesis regarding the mistreatment of 18th century woman, suggesting that all this mayhem is the result of some kind of demonic possession (and or just some good ol' misogynistic statement on his part).

And then there's 'the three beggars,' a trio of recurring woodland creatures (a deer, a fox and a crow) who pop up in horrific succession during the film. Their implication here is riotous: a fox actually talks at one point (the only point, "Chaos reigns!" he groans, covered in blood from eating himself alive) which understandably was met with hysterical laughter at the premiere screening (and all others for that matter). This is a consistent failing of "Antichrist": the more serious and provocative moments are too ridiculous to be taken as such, and thus often come off as comical, and we have to assume that's not what von Trier was aiming for (though who knows with this guy).

Yet however dubious the usually on-point von Trier's symbolic implications may be in this equally dubious return to the horror genre (isn't he past this phase of his career?), his craft is still undeniably accomplished. Both the opening and closing sequences of "Antichrist" have an elevating quality to them that could easily excuse whatever comes between, but von Trier further stuns with his impressionistic therapy sessions, which find the husband instructing the wife to visit the forest in her mind and let it absorb her body-- a sort of catharsis before the storm.

When the tempest of brutal, unrelenting violence does hit (like a brick to the dick-- no, literally) von Trier's depiction is just as arresting as it is in his more leisurely sequences. It's a nasty bit of business for sure, frankly depicted without an ounce of irony, and sure to be the cause of many a sleepless nights and heated debates between cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike (that is, if people are actually given a chance to see this thing; I can't imagine "Antichrist" scoring much of a domestic release, what with its likelihood of making the straight-laced MPAA lose their shit).

We've been known to bemoan the popularity of the torture-porn genre fervently, so we would feel hypocritical endorsing "Antichrist" and excusing it of similar transgressions. However, the fact is, this is moving cinema; whether you're moved to love it, moved to hate it, or it just churns your stomach with wretched bile, "Antichrist" will undoubtedly inspire a passionate reaction among those who see it.

So even if Lars von Trier isn't the "best film director in the world," as he so boldly and, we would assume, tongue-in-cheekily proclaimed in a recent press conference, he's still unquestionably the boss of it all-- a unique artistic force who plays by his own rules and answers to no one.

"Antichrist" is, appropriately, an exorcism of hatred and malice from the grimiest bowels of Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, ending a career stifling depression. One question: if this is the aftermath of the director's episode, how fucked up was the real thing?

Film / Review

Mother [The Playlist]
Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Year: TBA

Following his crowd-pleasing, box office record-breaking monster movie "The Host," which premiered at Cannes in 2006 as a Midnight Screening, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho returns to the genre of his second feature film, the "Zodiac"-esque mystery thriller "Memories of Murder." The director's latest Cannes entry (premiering in Un Certain Regard) is another procedural, this time concerning a widow's attempt to clear the name of her mentally handicapped, 28-year-old son, who is accused of brutally murdering a young woman.

All of Bong's films (even the director's loopy rom-com debut, "Barking Dogs Never Bite") are notable for their riotous entertainment and their equally pointed socio-political commentaries, and while "Mother" certainly brings the entertainment (like Bong's other films, it's brisk and breathlessly suspenseful, with twists manifesting at all the right moments to sustain the tension) it doesn't seem to be pushing any broad message or moral. Instead, the picture's primary theme is one of maternal devotion: As the title suggests, this is a film about a mother, one whose role as such takes precedence over anything else.

"Mother" sometimes recalls Akira Kurosawa's early noir "Stray Dog," as it surveys a small town rote with secrets and latches on to the desperate, human struggle of its inexperienced detective. Our gumshoe is the titular mother, Hye-ja, played startlingly by middle-aged actress Kim Hye-ja, whose facial contours and wide, sad eyes communicate her character's exasperation. It's a performance that channels the ferocious femmes of Pedro Almodovar's best films with fervent, melodramatic intensity.

Another South Korean genre film at Cannes this year, Park Chan-Wook's noxious vampire thriller "Thirst" (which is infuriatingly in the competition section at this festival), dumps heaps of self-serious exposition in effort to explain the motivations of its protagonist. Bong, too smart and skilled a craftsman to waste a second, opens "Mother" with a surrealist sequence (the first of two bookending passages) which tells us all we need to know about his fickle heroine-- her strength, grace and even her loneliness-- absent the heavy-handed lecturing of Park's film.

From here, "Mother" immediately kicks into high gear, leading into a hit-and-run incident which sends characters scurrying about their small, rural town and sows the seeds of a hard-boiled procedural.

Do-joon (Korean television star Won Bin), Hye-ja's mentally handicapped son, is hit by a passing Mercedes Benz and convinced by his headstrong friend to take revenge. The two track the automobile to a golf course, where they think they've found the culprits (a group of unsuspecting yuppies), and then proceed to bash their faces in. This understandably earns the attention of the police, and when a later crime is committed (the death of a promiscuous schoolgirl), Do-Joon, who was even seen at the scene of the crime, is convicted and jailed.

Convinced of her son's innocence and angered by law enforcement's unsympathetic response to his condition, Hye-ja turns to a pricey lawyer and a friend on the force for help. But when no one seems to give a damn about her and Do-joon, all it takes is some bold advice to make Hye-ja take matters into her own hands: "Don't trust anyone...you go out and find the real killer yourself." Bong's film then quietly segues into the realm of a vigilante picture, akin to Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" (a Cannes official selection last year) but with much more narrative focus and a decidedly sharper characterization of its distressed parent.

"Mother" sits well alongside Bong's other films and acts as a sort of compromise between the absurdist fantasy elements of "The Host" and the more plot-driven social-realism of "Memories of Murder." It's not this talented Korean auteur's best film to date, but it does help solidify his status as one of the most gifted directors of his generation (even with only 4 films to his credit). Bong looks to the age-old genre of the film noir for inspiration, but unlike so many filmmakers who obsessively recreate the look and tone of the noir, Bong instead applies his own thoroughly modern aesthetic, but taps in to the same moral gravity which invested Kurosawa's most effective genre films ("Stray Dog," and also one of our favorites of the Japanese master's works, "High and Low").

Bong's "Mother" isn't flawless (it's probably a few scenes too long, with one too many plot twists piling-up towards the end), and its depiction of the mentally handicapped (or, rather, Won Bin's bug-eyed and cartoonish, one note rendering of his imbecilic character) takes away from the resonance of the film's central relationship. Still, as always, Bong's filmmaking skill is totally on point; his sweeping camera movements and evocative colorization complement the overall seething atmosphere of this often Hitchcockian thriller. And one scene, in which a major revelation takes place as a character stumbles backwards out of the frame, punctuated by a goosebump-inducing scream, is actually worthy of the overused Hitchcock comparison.

In any case, especially compared to the other films we've seen at Cannes '09 -- again feeling like a weak year so far -- "Mother" probably should have been accepted into the official competition selection.