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).
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.