The Best Albums of 2017

First, a few words about Arcade Fire.

I never thought the day would come that I would be ashamed to like this band. 2017 in music proved that possibly only Beyoncé is sacred. Anything that you liked yesterday could just as well be fodder for infinite Internet memes today and tomorrow. If you’re not saying or doing something important right now, do you even still matter? Just ask Taylor Swift.

With their fifth album “Everything Now,” Arcade Fire sought to satirize and critique that Internet culture. And where Father John Misty succeeded and generated the right kind of controversy, Arcade Fire’s album rollout was hindered by a marketing campaign in which the band issued phony reviews and literal fake news. At one point they halted the sale of “Everything Now” fidget spinners because they had their own fidget spinners to sell. And every Internet gimmick that in one artist’s hand would be genius in another would be U2 dumping “Songs of Innocence” on your iPhone.

Arcade Fire may have been good once, but they’re now in the same cultural doghouse as U2, Coldplay and even Nickelback, undisputed fair game for whatever labels and jokes you want to assign. I don’t know whether Arcade Fire was ever “cool.” Hipsters certainly do not like them anymore. But “Everything Now” was an excuse for all the haters to come out of the woodwork. “This band has been bad since “The Suburbs!” And they’ve always been overrated!”

The problem is that the music itself didn’t rise above the online reaction and marketing rollout. “Everything Now” is their worst album, and on the whole, it’s not especially good. The lethargic reggae beat of “Chemistry,” the arrhythmia that is “Peter Pan,” the generic punk and country of both “Infinite Content” tracks: this is the worst stretch this band has ever recorded. And yet as I’ve sat with this album more, it’s grown on me. Songs like “Put Your Money On Me” and “We Don’t Deserve Love” are dreamy earworms that linger in your mind, but they’re not the soaring rock anthems that have traditionally served as Arcade Fire album finales. The title track and “Creature Comfort” are two of the best singles of the year, the first an upbeat indie dance jingle with melancholy lyrics about media saturation, and the second a violent track with a club beat and a message about suicide.

So it pains me when I have to pretend as though I’m wrong to call Arcade Fire my favorite band, as though they belong to some other cultural entity that isn’t woke to what’s actually good. Arcade Fire were great before, and they can be great again, but it doesn’t mean they’re worth ignoring now.

As for what I most enjoyed in music this year, I’m not a good enough judge of what’s fashionable to know whether any or all of these artists are actually cool or important, but I refuse to be ashamed about any of them. These are the Best Albums of 2017.  Continue reading “The Best Albums of 2017”

Marshall

Chadwick Boseman just can’t find a solid prestige picture

Marshall PosterPoor Chadwick Boseman. First he played Jackie Robinson. Then he portrayed James Brown. Now he’s NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall. This is the third prominent figure of 20th Century African American history he’s gotten the chance to play. And yet in each case, the movie he’s stuck in is a bland, insipid and worst of all whitewashed prestige picture.

Apparently Thurgood Marshall’s crowning achievement worthy of a biopic isn’t a story of how he became a lawyer or the racism he faced in his career. Reginald Hudlin’s “Marshall” cluelessly focuses on the one story in which Marshall is forced to be silent and cede his courtroom victory were it not for the one white man who stood up to save the day. Continue reading “Marshall”

The Trip to Spain

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan are still hilarious three movies later, the most consistent comedy franchise ever

The Trip to Spain PosterIf you’ve seen one of “The Trip” movies, you know what you’re in for: celebrity impressions, driving through the gorgeous European countryside, a bit of carpool karaoke, and lots of food porn. With “The Trip to Spain,” Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom have refined that formula even further. You have to wonder, what could possibly stop this franchise?

Well, they found it, in a hilarious gag to close out “The Trip to Spain” that might be about the only plausible capper to this delightful series. Because there’s nothing new to report about “The Trip to Spain,” it’s just more of what works.

They do Mick Jagger talking about public schools, Marlon Brando doing Monty Python’s “Spanish Inquisition,” and do Roger Moore for just about forever. The difference is that these routines have some narrative built into them. Brydon does his Roger Moore impression long after it has become annoying to his co-stars, and you can feel the awkward tension just adding to the humor. Or when they revert back to their James Bond play acting, you genuinely want to see how this make believe exchange ends, with Brydon’s fork quivering as it comes up to his mouth as though he’s about to be poisoned to death.

Part of the charm of “The Trip” movies is that Coogan and Brydon are somewhat insufferable. In the first film it was clear they did not like each other, and that’s gone away. And “The Trip to Italy” might still have the most emotional heft. But it’s been replaced with playful one-upsmanship of Coogan constantly reminding he has two Oscar nominations for “Philomena.” “The Trip” movies in many ways are about masculinity, with their impressions and sarcastic one-liners a means of asserting themselves.

So it’s wrong to think these are just trivial comedies. Three movies in, it’s hard to find another comedy trilogy that has been so consistent, funny and even thoughtful. I have a feeling Winterbottom could still yet revive “The Trip” for a fourth film, and whatever joke they have to bridge the gap between movies will be hysterical. But if this really is the end, I’ll miss hearing how Michael Caine’s voice has gotten even more broken up. “She was only 15 years old!”

3 ½ stars

Cries From Syria

The HBO Documentary puts America’s own political climate in 2017 into an important context

Cries From Syria PosterIt almost goes without saying that the Syrian refugee crisis and Civil War is Bad with a capital B. Evgeny Afineevsky’s HBO documentary “Cries From Syria” is broken up into four chapters. It starts with the birth of the revolution in the Arab Spring, then the start of the Syrian Civil War, the rescue efforts as the situation worsens, and finally the ongoing escape efforts from the regime. It’s a film about how revolution spreads and what it’s like to live under constant turmoil and oppression.

And the imagery Afineevsky cobbles together from raw, handheld footage from many civilians and freedom fighters on the ground are grim and horrifying. “Cries from Syria” opens with a toddler lying dead face down on a beach, the waves washing over his body. A 6-year-old has a hole in his face where a sniper bullet has pierced through his cheek. The aftermath of a chemical weapon attack in 2013 resembles Holocaust imagery. Former prisoners recount how everyone among them was raped, beaten and tortured. And in their testimonials, Syrian civilians remember how wrong they were when they thought things couldn’t get any worse.

But it’s that last bit that stuck with me most of all. “We thought that was the worst that could happen.” Continue reading “Cries From Syria”

mother!

No explainer article can fully capture how truly crazy and demented Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” is to just watch.

MotherPosterIt’s a creation myth! It’s about how men gaslight women! It’s about climate change! It’s a bizarre human comedy! It’s a crazed mix of Luis Bunuel, Rosemary’s Baby, Black Swan and a dash of La La Land! Whatever mother! is, don’t forget those exclamation points.

I’ve already read way too much about Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, and if you’ve seen the film, you know I’m right. It’s best to go in relatively cold. Because every explainer and analysis that tries to paint it as a divine Biblical allegory isn’t wrong, but it never fully captures how flat out, bat shit crazy this movie is. Continue reading “mother!”

Logan Lucky

“Logan Lucky” is Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 7/11,” a sly heist movie with a hilarious Southern drawl and character that makes it a true surprise.

Logan Lucky PosterI was tinkering with an expression like “Backwater Ocean’s Eleven” or “Blue Collar Ocean’s Eleven” to describe Logan Lucky, but then sure enough, Steven Soderbergh, self-aware as ever, comes up with “Ocean’s 7/11.” It may look stupid and quaint, but just like the characters in this movie, it’s actually a lot smarter than you.

Logan Lucky is a pure heist movie, but set in Appalachia with a group of Good ‘Ol Boys subbing in for George Clooney and Brad Pitt. They’re planning quickly, we’re learning the stages of the heist on the fly, and just as in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s, the film slyly withholds the twist details of how they dunnit until everyone’s in the clear. But listening to these hicks talk and strategize, it’s as if they’re all stuck in molasses. It’s a hilarious departure from the Rat Pack slick act. Continue reading “Logan Lucky”

Columbus

The debut film from online video essay editor Kogonada, the lush and cinematic “Columbus” is a true surprise beyond its academic aspirations.

Columbus Movie PosterLet me get out of the way the one thing you’ll read in every review of Columbus. This is the debut film of Kogonada, a Korean film critic who specializes in making thoughtful video essays for the web. Critics adore his work because he makes meticulously edited pieces of criticism that break down how a film works and why it matters.

Columbus has the same academic construction and attention to film theory that critics like myself adore. At one point it seemingly argues for the value of slow cinema, and its economical framing and lush cinematography would be catnip to anyone who has been to film school or, better yet, watched one of Kogonada’s videos. But Columbus has heart and intimacy far beyond its pretentions, and it’s one of the better surprises of the year. Continue reading “Columbus”

The Beguiled

Sofia Coppola’s minimalist take on sexuality and power is more thoughtful than the Clint Eastwood original but far less fun.

The Beguiled Poster The original Clint Eastwood adaptation of “The Beguiled” was a crazed, pulpy drama of sex and temptation. It’s a bit too nuts to take it truly seriously. That’s where Sofia Coppola comes in, whose gifts with minimalism can take even the wildest of subject matter and rope it into something contemplative and profound.

In her take on “The Beguiled,” Coppola has given the Civil War story a dusky air of dignity and style. She’s reframed it as a woman’s story of pent up frustration and emotion and how people cling to certain ways of life, rather than a man’s revenge tale against, as Colin Farrell puts it in the film, “vengeful bitches.”

That’s all well and good, but I like the crazy-eyed sexiness of the Don Siegel/Eastwood version. Coppola’s film has the themes and drama in the right place, but does her “Beguiled” have to be so buttoned up? Continue reading “The Beguiled”

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

The Netflix documentary “Nobody Speak” examines the Gawker and Hulk Hogan trial and how this is an example of an attack on the First Amendment.

Nobody Speak PosterOne of the things I’ve had to contend with in the last six months of Donald Trump’s presidency, as well as through the whole 2016 campaign, was justifying my outrage. I had to step back and ask myself, “Is this all really as bad as I think it is?” It’s been very easy for Republicans to now turn around and point the finger at liberals for being hypocrites. Everything they were panicking over eight years ago, now we’re losing our minds. It’s been an endless back and forth of hypocrisy and hysteria.

The Netflix documentary “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” is a good barometer for that paranoia. It’s a movie that argues, quite convincingly, that recent events have set the wheels in motion for the richest individuals to silence speech and press they don’t like and to use money and power to influence the truth and the message in the media. Director Brian Knappenberger believes this is a direct attack on freedom of the press and the First Amendment.

So is he right, or is he cherry picking and stoking more hysteria? I’d like to approach this review from the perspective of someone who might genuinely be dismissive of it, the type of person who uses the phrase “the media” as a pejorative, the type of person who takes pleasure out of drinking liberal tears, or the type of person who wouldn’t bother watching a documentary like this in a million years, let alone exist in the same universe of logic to argue rationally about it. Now I’m getting ahead of myself. Continue reading “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press”

Okja

“Okja” is a scathing commentary of the food industry and an outrageous, cartoonish thrill ride full of hyper kinetic action and colorful social satire.

Okja PosterSatire, not drama, has been the primary way to provoke change and discussion in the 21st Century. So if you want to get a huge population to think twice about where their food comes from and maybe even think about going vegan, don’t show them a depressing torture reel; show them a farce. To paraphrase of Tilda Swinton in the opening scenes of “Okja,” Bong Joon Ho’s film isn’t just monstrous, disturbing, eye opening and surreal. “Most importantly, it needs to taste fucking good!”

“Okja” scathingly critiques the food industry and the perils of a corporate culture that exploits food consumption. But it does so in the guise of an outrageous, cartoonish thrill ride full of hyper kinetic action and colorful social satire. The premise is absurdly fascinating, the characters are extreme caricatures, and the film moves at a blistering pace. Continue reading “Okja”