Thursday, October 20, 2011

Happy Halloween

In celebration, here's a piece I co-authored for PsycCRITIQUES, the weekly version of Contemporary Psychology, the APA Review of Books

It's on Super 8 and horror movies as a medium for nostalgic catharsis. (Oh, psychobabble: You're even creepier than Halloween.) 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The women of Bridesmaids made a zillion dollars; can we stop asking if they're funny now?

Part of the reason why some big, BS piece asking whether women are funny gets published anually is that every time a mainstream, female-driven movie that's not a traditional "rom-com" opens, we have a debate about whether anyone will turn out to see it. Surely men won't buy tickets, this apparently-real argument goes, because why would they want to watch some ladies talkin' about lady business for 90 minutes? That's a lot of weight on the shoulders of Bridesmaids co-writer/star Kristen Wiig, and the fact the film is being sold as "The Hangover for women" doesn't help in that regard.

If the bar was whether SNL star Wiig would be able to drive an R-rated comedy that non-niche audiences would find funny, she certainly clears it here. Unfortunately, Bridesmaids may not be able to overcome the inherent pressure of assembling such impressive talent, including Wiig's first script/starring role, a strong cast, director (and Freaks and Geeks creator) Paul Feig, and producer Judd Apatow.

Wiig's charming performance is strengthened by outrageous turns from Melissa McCarthy and Jon Hamm, but the loose sensibility of the screenplay, by Wiig and Annie Mumolo, often plays out more like a collection of (albeit often very funny) improv scenes than an interesting story in its own right. In that way, Bridesmaids is very much in the Apatow mold, following what's become a familiar Apatowian arc.

Still, the fact that Wiig anchors with aplomb a comedy of this size should translate into the kind of post-SNL success that your Will Fortes and Chris Kattans can only dream about. Here's hoping that her unique voice is next partnered with an equally unique project.

Grade: B

Saturday, May 28, 2011

2011's Best Picture Featuring Ghost Ape-Men

"My eyes are open, but I can't see," the titular Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) says at one point in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. "Maybe you just need time to adjust to the dark," another character responds. Viewers may similarly need some time to adjust to writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's fragmented and slow, but rewarding, sixth feature. Its striking, lyrical visuals propel a hypnotic tale about the ways in which life as we know it can interact with life beyond what we understand.

Based on the book A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Buddhist monk Phra Sripariyattiweti, Uncle Boonmee is the first Thai entry to win the Palme d'Or, which it did at Cannes last year. As he wrestles with his mortality, the terminally ill Boonmee encounters spirit forms of his dead wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) and long-missing son (Jeerasak Kulhong), while also reliving experiences from his apparent past lives.

The film is (necessarily) eerie, but also comfortable; its languid pacing allowing the plot—such as it is—to wash over the audience. In place of a score are great stretches of silence and a layer of spooky, atmospheric sounds that bolster the movie's meditative mise-en-scene. The collection of characters and interconnected vignettes that run throughout the primary story often appear random, but can't simply be dismissed as non sequiturs. Boonmee consistently grapples with big questions, but still allows for levity, establishing a natural tone that both enhances its mystical elements and occasionally threatens to bore.

Rich, often seemingly impenetrable, and always fascinating, Weerasethakul's is a singular vision whose images and mysteries stay with you long after the credits roll. Uncle Boonmee is haunting in all the right ways.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

You Have Died of Dysentery: The Movie

With their stories of intricate relationships framed against Oregon's harsh, beautiful terrain, 2006's Old Joy and 2008's Wendy and Lucy established writer-director Kelly Reichardt as a unique and powerful voice in American independent film. Reichardt's latest effort, Meek's Cutoff, navigates similar thematic and topographical terrain, but also manages to be her most ambitious and accomplished work to date.

Jonathan Raymond's (co-writer of Wendy and Lucy and author of the book Old Joy, which the movie adapted) screenplay is based on events surrounding the actual Meek's Cutoff, a branch off the Oregon Trail named for guide Stephen Meek, who led a group of pioneers on a harrowing trip along the route in 1845, despite his apparent unfamiliarity with the area. As the party's journey grows increasingly daunting, Meek's (chillingly played by a captivating Bruce Greenwood) motivations and abilities are questioned, especially by the headstrong Mrs. Tetherow (Michelle Williams, in a typically commanding performance). Group dynamics are further fractured when they encounter a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) whose intentions are also debated.

Initially quiet and serene, while alternately hinting at nature's brutal reality, the film is beautifully shot by Chris Blauvelt (who did camera work on the similarly striking Where the Wild Things Are, A Single Man, and Zodiac, among others) in a pale, Malickian color palette. Reichardt's camera lingers and mesmerizes, her editing rewarding viewers' patience with an earned, deliberate pace. The raw tone she achieves — reflected in Jeff Grace's appropriately sparse, haunting score — gives the proceedings an immediacy, rather than period piece stiffness, effectively capturing the settlers' eventually agonizing experience.

Meek's Cutoff is a movie about communication and understanding, a common theme for Reichardt, though writ large here. We experience events though Williams' eyes and ears, literally: POV shots of the wagon trail are often obscured by her enormous bonnet; when the men of the group discuss plans, they stand just out of earshot of the group's women, so that the viewer hears as little of these important conversations as Williams does. Greenwood often speaks in a nearly unintelligible growl of axioms and tall tales; The Indian (as the character is credited) doesn't speak English, but leaves signs on rocks that the viewer — and the settlers — don't understand. There are political allegories to be found here, if you're looking for them, but the film (and its ambiguity) succeeds without needing to strain for metaphor.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Trailer Watch: Summer movie alternatives

I'm as excited for Super 8, Captain America, and Harry Potter as the next nerd, but as temperatures climb and the summer blockbuster juggernaut starts to become oppressive, you may find yourself craving the sweet, character-driven relief of the art house. Thankfully, Trailer Watch is here with a few antidotes to the popcorn flick fare of this coming season.

First up, a film that's as hugely anticipated among certain segments of the moviegoing population as anything Marvel can throw at us, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life:

Any entry from the legendary—and legendarily unprolific—writer-director is enough to garner widespread attention, but when the proceedings are this epic (much has been made of the film's dinosaur segments), expectations run high, indeed. I, for one, refuse to tamp them down. Tree of Life opens May 27, and I can't wait.

Next is the Rodman Flender documentary Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, chronicling Coco's gleefully vaudevillian 2010 national tour:

The doc, which got a warm reception when it premiered at SXSW this spring, reportedly offers a warts-and-all glimpse of O'Brien's post-NBC life and work, without making him unsympathetic (or, perhaps more important, unfunny). Can't Stop received a multi-platform distribution deal, becoming first available to AT&T U-verse subscribers before opening in theaters June 24.

Finally, the haunting Martha Marcy May Marlene, which took Best Director at Sundance:

Martha marks the feature debut for writer-director Sean Durkin, and was, interestingly—along with Vera Farmiga's Higher Ground and Kevin Smith's Red State—one of several films to deal with religious cults at Sundance this year. Also somewhat surprisingly, the thriller stars Elizabeth (sister to Mary-Kate and Ashley) Olsen in a breakout role as the titular Martha, alongside recent Oscar nominee John Hawkes, bringing that creepy warmth he so effectively employed in Winter's Bone. Very eager to check out this one, which opens July 10.

Well, these ought to adequately cleanse your palette from all the 'splosions of the multiplex. Which movies have you ready for summer?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

It's alive (screening)!

Today's the last day that Chicagoans can catch a screening of Danny Boyle's thrilling Frankenstein, which recently ended its sold out run at London's National Theatre. The play is currently on a broadcast tour of movie theaters around the world, including local treasure the Music Box.

Frankenstein, fairly closely adapted by Nick Dear from Shelley's novel, marks a return to the stage for Boyle, who began his career in English theater before attaining the "celebrated filmmaker" status he now deservedly enjoys. The show stars Boyle's Trainspotting cast member, Jonny Lee Miller, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who has the distinctions of both playing the BBC Sherlock series' titular hero, and being hilariously, Britishly named.

In a stunt that initially seems gimmicky, Miller and Cumberbatch alternate roles as both Frankenstein and his monster, delivering powerful performances that ultimately accentuate the story's themes of duality and creation. Naomie Harris (28 Days Later, Pirates of the Caribbean) and George Harris (Harry Potter) co-star.

Unsurprisingly, Boyle mounts a visually dazzling production, propelled by a driving soundtrack from UK electronic duo Underworld (who also scored Boyle's Sunshine and provided songs for Trainspotting). But appropriately, the show's chief takeaway is its moving story, as relevant now as it was nearly 200 years ago — probably more so.

Friday, April 15, 2011

This week in Chicago fun

Now that Marine One has taken POTUS out of fair city (and the warm embrace of Mayor-elect Emanuel), Chicagoans may find themselves seeking other local distractions. Well, look no further, friends: On Tape's Friday Fun Time Round-Up is here to show you what's what!

Chi City's own psychedelic rockers The Clams headline at Quencher's tonight, with openers The Deloreans (out of Louisville) and fellow locals House Sounds. You can also catch The Clams on Monday, opening for This Is Cinema at hipster haven The Whistler's free CHIRP Night – bar proceeds for which will benefit the Chicago Independent Radio Project.

Tomorrow brings the fourth annual Record Store Day, with plenty of local stores participating. Expect in-store performances, giveaways, sales, and rare/specialty releases to be featured. Hooray for vinyl!

Also on Monday, Bill Tucker brings his brand of Chicago folk rock to Panchos, along with other locals Warehouse City, Transmontane, and headliners Secret Cities. Pick up Tucker's latest LP, the great Mythological Creatures, at Reformer Records.

Finally, Northwestern University will host "Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus," a free conference on the state of film criticism, from Thursday, April 21 to Saturday, April 23. The conference's screenings and panel discussions will focus on the history of film criticism, the role of the film critic, and how those traditions connect to the current questions surrounding criticism (print vs. online, blogger vs. professional, etc).

Among the conference's many respected speakers are the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips, the New York Times's Dave Kehr, the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, NPR's Wesley Morris and Alison Cuddy, The A.V. Club's Scott Tobias, and Ebert Presents At the Movies co-host Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. Should be interesting.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Arcade Fire support NGOs, Lauper

If you missed out on tickets to see Arcade Fire this spring and want to do something good for the world, you're in luck: the band is recruiting volunteers for dates on its upcoming tour. In exchange for free admittance, these honorable folks (and/or cheapskates) will promote Haiti-focused nonprofit organizations Kanpe and Partners in Health to the assembled crowds of hipster kids standing with their arms. Folded. Tight.

No strangers to Haitian advocacy (co-leader Régine Chassagne's parents are Haitian immigrants), the Grammy heroes played a small, surprise show this week in Port-au-Prince — evidence of which can be found in this video of the group performing "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," for some reason.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beard Rock & the Bean

Despite its recent gutting, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs has unveiled its 2011 Downtown Sound: New Music Mondays lineup, and it's a doozy. Building on last year's solid schedule, the free Millennium Park concert series will feature Iron & Wine and The Head & the Heart, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Blonde Redhead, Justin Townes Earle, and Low, among others. (Note the distinct lack of hip hop acts, following last year's Kid Sister kerfuffle.)

Meanwhile, with another "meh" Lollapalooza lineup (rumored headliners include Eminem, Foo Fighters, and Muse) and a lackluster Ravinia schedule this year, Pitchfork again provides the hippest bang for your sweaty, summer buck, with performers Animal Collective, TV On The Radio, Fleet Foxes, Neko Case, James Blake, and Das Racist, to name a few. (A headlining list that, had I not stood through Animal Collective's uncharacteristically boring Lolla '09 set, would have me more enthused.) Still, those looking to enjoy free Chicago shows while they still can will have a great festival alternative in the New Music Mondays series.

Low's appearance there will come on the heels of their Lincoln Hall show next month, just after the release of new album, C'mon (which you can stream fully now, if you pre-order). In celebration, here's its first single, "Try to Sleep" — because nothing ushers in summer like slow-core, right, folks? Download the song free here.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Putting 2010 to Bed, Pt. 3

Somewhat surprisingly, yesterday's list of 2010 movie favorites was made up of mostly "mainstream" Hollywood hits. Since I'm not a completely uncultured swine, there were plenty of other movies I liked last year, some of which flew a little lower under the radar...

Honorable Mentions
Jacques Audiard's A Prophet may not have been released stateside until 2010, but it's officially a 2009 picture (hence, its Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination that year). Had it not been, the dynamic French crime saga almost certainly would've made the favorites list. And we'd be hypocrites to champion movies that show us stories we haven't seen before and not mention Dogtooth, Giorgos Lanthimos's uncompromising tale of extreme parental control (and Greece's Best Foreign Language nom this year).

The year saw many "What's-reality-and-what-isn't" documentaries — Catfish, I'm Still Here, and Marwencol among them — but none on as potentially big a scale as Exit Through the Gift Shop, Bansky's history of modern street art/possible elaborate prank. But scripted features had a pretty good year, too: Aaron Sorkin's Social Network was a lock for Best Adapted Screenplay, but were it most other years, the Coen Brothers likely would've taken the Oscar for their inimitable dialogue in True Grit. Both films were (decidedly different) celebrations of the English language.

I'm glad that Natalie Portman took Best Actress, but I was equally enthused when Winter's Bone's Jennifer Lawrence was nominated. Directed by Debra Granik, the film featured some of the best, most subtle, performances of the year, anchored in Lawrence's star-making turn as a new breed of noir hero. (Claire Danes's Emmy-winning portrayal of the titular Temple Grandin in Mick Jackson's rousing HBO biopic was another of the year's standout Best Actress contenders.)

Performances may not have been the focus here, but when looking back on the year's visual achievements, it's impossible to discount Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void, the French provocateur's latest nightmarish vision. The movie, a two-and-a-half-hour recreation of the hallucinogenic drug experience, certainly isn't a contender for the year's best writing, but its cinematic innovations make it absolutely unlike any other feature length film (and served as the basis for Kanye West's seizure-causing "All of the Lights" video). Similarly, albeit in a much lighter context, Edgar Wright's (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) comic book adaptation, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, brought us video game-inspired visuals never before achieved on film.

In another kind of visual achievement, the year offered some impressive animated features that weren't Toy Story 3: Sylvain Chomet, the writer-director behind 2003's outstanding Triplets of Belleville, adapted an unproduced screenplay by the legendary Jacques Tati for The Illusionist. Set in 1950s Scotland, the movie is a whimsical, if melancholy, semi-autobiography of Tatischeff, a lonely, aging magician/Tati stand-in.

Illusionist was among the Best Animated Feature nominees at the Oscars, to which Bill Plympton is no stranger, having been nominated several times for his well known animated shorts. The writer-director's first feature (entirely hand-drawn by Plympton alone), the film noir morality tale, Idiots and Angels, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008, but was released theatrically last year. The picture, fueled by Tom Waits songs, provides an ample platform for Plympton's singular, incredible work.

Finally, I'm not sure whether something kept My Dog Tulip out of the running for Best Animated Feature, or if the short-sightedness of the Academy is to blame. Writer-directors Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's adaptation of author J.R. Ackerley's 1956 memoir utilize sketchy animation, a beautiful color palette, and narration by Christopher Plummer to render Ackerley's touching, yet unsentimental account of life with his beloved German Shepherd.

Alright...thanks for the memories, 2010. As always, outrage over anything I've egregiously omitted can be expressed in the comments.

Onward and upward!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Putting 2010 to Bed, Pt. 2

In part one of this long overdue recapitulation of 2010, we discussed our favorite music of the year. The exciting next chapter finds On Tape combing through half-formed thoughts on the movies I enjoyed most among last year's cinematic crop:

5.) Shutter Island
Critics be damned; I had as much fun watching this creepy genre picture as Martin Scorsese seemed to have making it. Granted, the director could release two hours of paint drying, and it'd likely end up on my best-of list. (Probably wouldn't be much different from Kundun, am I right, people?) My enjoyment of the film comes much more from the experience of watching Scorsese let the mystery unfold than in the actual mechanics of its plot structure, and I'm a sucker for masterful filmmakers' takes on B-movies. Which brings us to...

4.) Black Swan
Yes, the dialogue can be corny, the characters are familiar, and many of the twists along the way aren't unexpected. But again, Darren Aronofsky so envelops the viewer in this haunting psychological thriller that, ultimately, the movie is wholly original. (With the possible exception of Shutter Island, there was certainly nothing else like it among the year's hits.) Natalie Portman's well deserved Oscar and Aronofky's lauded direction bring a welcome prestige — and larger audience — to independent horror filmmaking.

3.) The Social Network
As much as I enjoyed the Facebook pseudo-biopic upon its opening, I didn't have it pegged as potential Oscar fodder. Man, was I wrong. At this point, there's not much I can add that hasn't already been discussed among the praise that's been heaped on director David Fincher's sleek, punchy drama. It wasn't a shock that the Academy went with the Best Picture nominee tailor-made for their sensibilities in The King's Speech, but the fact that, in all likelihood, this thoroughly modern film was the runner-up speaks volumes about the resonance it had with its wide audience. As newly minted Oscar winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has explained, the movie's setting and focus may have its finger on the pulse of today, but its themes and character motivations — jealousy, betrayal, ambition, power — are ancient.

2.) Toy Story 3
I could put in some kind of caveat here, like, "Isn't it crazy that an animated kids movie made it this high on the list?" but by now, it should be a given that Pixar's films are among the most sophisticated and well crafted in American cinema. (Wall-E and Up were my respective favorite movies of the two years before this one.) What's actually somewhat surprising is that a "threequel" — less respected than the already questionable sequel — made the list. But as I've said before, I should just stop resisting the studio's ability to tell some of the best stories in modern filmmaking, and assume that whatever they're offering up at a given time will probably be among the year's best. (The fact that Pixar's next effort is a sequel to my least favorite of its entries, Cars, is somewhat worrisome — but just to be safe, I should probably reserve a spot for it now on my Best of 2011 list.) I can't think of a picture that I had a stronger emotional investement in all year.

1.) Inception
I go to the movies for all sorts of reasons, but mostly, it's to see something that I never have before; to experience the kinds of storytelling that only film can conjure. Ever since the first time I went to see Memento, I've delighted in the elegant cinematic trickery that writer-director Christopher Nolan employs to bring his cerebral tales to the screen. Nolan is that rare creature: a filmmaker with a keen understanding for what audiences want to see, as well as the artistic ability and integrity to present it in an unpatronizing, challenging way. That he was able to do so in 2010 with an original property that's neither an adaptation nor a remake is particularly impressive. Months after its release, I'm still discussing with friends the ending's meaning, its intentional ambiguity inspiring passionate debate upon repeat viewings. This exciting, complex, visually enthralling meditation on dreams is everything that I'm looking for when I head to the movie theater.

So, what are your favorites?

Next time: the exciting conclusion, in which I share I my considerable list of cinematic honorable mentions. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Putting 2010 to Bed, Pt. 1

With the Grammys and Oscars having come and gone, now well on their way to being mercifully erased from our collective memory, it's time to wrap up 2010 for good. (Yeah, I'm late on a couple things...big whoop, wanna fight about it?) Without further ado, here's On Tape's favorite music of the year:

Best Songs
10.) The Hold Steady, "The Weekenders"
9.) The Roots (with Joanna Newsom), "Right On"
8.) Janelle Monae, "Tightrope"
7.) Cee Lo Green, "F**k You"
6.) Kanye West, "Power"
5.) Johnny Cash, "Ain't No Grave"
4.) Sleigh Bells, "Crown on the Ground"
3.) Arcade Fire, "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)"
2.) Vampire Weekend, "White Sky"
1.) Cloud Cult, "Running with the Wolves"

Honorable Mentions
Jónsi, "Go Do"
The National, "Bloodbuzz Ohio"
John Legend & The Roots, "Hard Times"
M.I.A., "Born Free"
Sufjan Stevens, "I Walked"
The Chemical Brothers, "Another World"
Broken Social Scene, "All to All"
LCD Soundsystem, "Dance Yrself Clean"

Best Albums
5.) Cloud Cult, Light Chasers
The orchestral-indie rockers' ninth LP may be slightly reduced in scope and variety than compared with previous projects, but it's also more focused and less frenzied. The results are a continuation of the group's substantial ability to craft perfect pop songs (hence, their number one ranking in the "Best Songs" list above).
4.) Sleigh Bells, Treats
One of those rare cases where a buzzed-about new band lives up to the hype. The Brookyln duo exploded onto the dance/noise rock scene after becoming the third act to sign onto M.I.A.'s N.E.E.T. label on the strength of their self-titled 2009 EP. Producer/guitarist Derek Miller (formerly of Poison the Well) and singer Alexis Krauss specialize in fuzzy beats that threaten to blow your speakers while retaining a feel-good pop sensibility.
3.) Vampire Weekend, Contra Another Brooklyn act whose five minutes of buzz began with the release of their self-titled 2008 LP, the indie-chamber rock quartet has managed to sustain the deserved attention with an assured album that sidesteps the sophomore slump entirely. The record builds on the group's breezy, Afropop-by-way-of-Paul-Simon energy established on their debut, while being unafraid to employ complex arrangements and song structure.
2.) Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Fresh off an Album of the Year Grammy win upset, the Montreal collective is currently reaching what is, for them, an unprecedented audience. The band's third LP is a great introduction to the group for the masses: an initially, deceptively simple collection of genre-defying songs that confidently infuses their baroque rock with 80s synth-pop, punk, and country elements. As usual, the material veers from eerie to euphoric, this time focusing on the claustrophobia of adolescent suburbia. It's certainly the peppiest, catchiest meditation on the apocalypse this year.
1.) Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The title of West's fifth LP says it all: hyperbolic, overblown, enticing, daring. A true pop icon, the producer/MC's ego and image constantly threaten to overshadow his work, only to somehow have his music continuously match the bluster and bombast. As with his last effort, 2008's 808s and Heartbreak, the record is conceptualized, first and foremost, as a piece of art; here, however, the project is less cold experiment and more vivacious celebration. Each track stands on its own, but works best as a cohesive experience, chronicling the World of Kanye through an innovative pop album that exists comfortably in the realm of hip hop, but is satisfied only when pushing the medium forward.

Honorable Mentions
Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me
Jónsi, Go
The Hold Steady, Heaven is Whenever
The New Pornographers, Together
Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
Reflection Eternal, Revolutions Per Minute
Big Boi, Sir Luscious Left Foot... The Son of Dusty Chico
The Roots, How I Got Over
John Legend & The Roots, Wake Up

What did I miss, friends? Let me know in the comments...

Up next: highlights from the many hours wasted last year at the cineplex.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Happy Belated Holidays!

On Tape spent all month hungover, so we're just now managing to get to the Great Holiday Wrap-Up of 2010! As Sesame Street taught us, we should keep Christmas with us all through the year. So, in that spirit of delayed gift giving, here are some yuletide treats you may not have seen...

In an interview with David Bazan, holiday music blog Festive! (by KEXP's DJ El Toro) revealed that the depressing Christmas carol aficionado plans to compile all of his occasionally-annual Christmas vinyl singles onto one album, to be released in time for the 2011 holidays. The interview also features some interesting insights into Bazan's tumultuous experiences with Christianity, and how they've shaped his feelings about Christmas and its music.

Sleeping at Last did something similar, compiling their annual, free holiday mp3s into an eight-song "Christmas Collection 2010," which you can stream here. (Expect another batch of free downloads this December.) Additionally, the band's new, original Christmas song, "Snow," is featured on their December EP, part of the group's Yearbook project, in which they're releasing a three-song EP each month for a year. The video for "Snow" is comprised of fan-submitted footage:

No stranger to Christmas music, Sufjan Stevens officially released two holiday tunes featuring Arcade Fire's Richard Parry and The National's Aaron and Bryce Dessner. But for those keeping count, these tracks already became (unofficially) available a few years ago, when the never-formally-released Songs for Christmas, Vol. VI: Gloria! made the rounds online.

The only other Songs for Christmas EP to have seen any light since Stevens's box set of volumes 1-5 was 2008's Vol. VIII: Astral Inter Planet Space Captain Christmas Infinity Voyage, which gave us some insight into just how electronic and weird his next non-holiday album, last year's The Age of Adz, would be. Assuming Stereogum is correct in reporting that 2010 was an "off year" for a Songs for Christmas release, that means the only EP that's never shown up is volume 7. (Anybody got it?)

Meanwhile, Suf's buddy, Daniel Smith, released his Sounds Familyre label's third annual free holiday compilation, A Familyre Christmas - Volume 3, featuring Stevens and Vesper Stamper's "Up on the Housetop," as well as new tracks from Danielson, Half-handed Cloud, and others.

And who better than Zooey Deschanel to remind us that the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear? Conan musical guest She & Him rocked a few jams backstage with Coco, including this rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas":

Finally, everybody's favorite weirdo holiday duet, Bing Crosby and David Bowie's "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy," gets the homage it dearly deserves, thanks to John C. Reilly and Deschanel's Elf costar Will Ferrell:

Happy super-late holidays, everybody! .

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Dude meets The Duke

With dreck like Little Fockers dominating the box office, it feels good to be able to say that the Coen Brothers are currently enjoying, by far, their biggest commercial success. A number of factors have likely led to True Grit's considerable ticket sales, but the fact that it's easily one of the writer/director/producer duo's most "mainstream" films is probably a significant contributor.

Based on Charles Portis's 1968 novel of the same name, True Grit is Joel and Ethan Coen's second adaptation, following their 2007 Best Picture winner (and second biggest hit), No Country for Old Men, and their first attempt at a straight-ahead Western. As we've come to expect from the brothers, it's beautifully shot by regular collaborator Roger Deakins, compositionally elegant, and at times, a bit strange. However — though I suspect this is due to its source material more than anything else — the movie could stand for some more of that signature Coen weirdness.

Like the rest of the duo's work, the picture is violent (how this is rated "PG-13" while The King's Speech gets an "R" is beyond me), funny, and poignant, with dialogue that pops and flows poetically in antiquated Old West language. But its striking visuals — like that of an approaching, bearskin-wearing medicine man who initially appears to be a bear on horseback — are sometimes overshadowed by surprisingly non-off-kilter (on-kilter?) tropes like the obvious music cues and voiceover.

The story concerns hardheaded 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who enlists the aid of crusty US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the outlaw who killed her father. Cocky Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is already on Chaney's trail, and the three will have to work together to find their man. Naturally, there are several setpiece obstacles along the way. The proceedings are anchored by the supremely confident, charismatic performance from newcomer Steinfeld. She more than holds her own with Bridges, who exudes screen presence in the role that earned John Wayne an Oscar for Henry Hathaway's 1969 adaptation.

The disappointing ending's lack of heft and the absence of a deeper Coen imprint on the material keep True Grit from becoming an instant classic in the manner of some of their other work. Regardless, this is strong filmmaking from artists who have long since earned the right to make whatever kind of movies they desire.

Grade: B+