Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Noah

Soapbox time!

Full disclosure, reviewing Darren Aronofsky's Noah isn't exactly the first priority of this post. That will happen as a result of the real impetus behind it, which is mostly to rebut some of the badmouthing going around the internet and in certain circles. Put simply: I'm going get a little riled up about this, I'm going to rant about some of the hypocritical responses to this movie, and I'm going to fangirl (pretty hard) over it too. Most of you reading this know me well enough to know what to expect now, and will read on or move on accordingly.

Also, there will be spoilers. I can't really do this review necessary justice without them, especially considering much of the ire directed at this movie has to do with where Aronofsky and co. went "off-script," so to speak, from the Genesis account of Noah's Ark. So if you're interested in seeing this movie, I strongly recommend you see it before reading my little rant so as to fully appreciate the narrative craftsmanship.

Alright, enough disclaimers. Where to begin? I'm going to try to break this down into sections for ease of organization:


THE STORY

We're all familiar with the story, even to a fault. Shortly after creating Mankind, God decides that was a mistake.

The wickedness of the human race is so overwhelming, God decides to purge everything with a worldwide flood. Noah alone finds favor in the Creator's eyes, and as such is charged with building an ark in which he, his family, plus a male and female pair of all animals will survive. The deluge destroys everything, and once Noah and his family disembark from their journey, the Creator promises He will never again destroy the world with a flood by placing a rainbow in the sky as a sign of this pledge. It's practically a children's story; complete with cutesy drawings of a bearded Noah leaning on a staff as smiling, fluffy creatures parade passed him. But therein lies the first problem: it's really not a children's story at all - it's horrifying. The fact that we're so familiar with "Noah's Ark" has completely whitewashed the fact that it's about deliberate extinction. It's about the fact that the Creator was so "grieved in His heart," that He felt it would be better to drown every man, woman, and child than let us go on living.

Think about that for a minute. I don't mean to be patronizing, but it wasn't until I saw this film that I myself had even really thought about the sheer horror of this story. Picture it for a moment: your family, your friends, and you struggling to keep your head above water, your heart gripped by the panic of knowing these are your final moments...multiplied by the entire population of the entire world, because the God that created you would rather that be your fate than anything else. If that idea, even in the abstract, doesn't sober you a bit - you're not really contemplating it. At any rate, hold on to that idea for a moment - I'm going to come back to it.

The film opens - after a quick "backstory" sequence that establishes other familiar Biblical territory (like the Fall of Adam and Eve and the descendents of their sons) with a young Noah on the verge of being given his birthright by his father Lamech. Interrupting the ceremony is Tubal-Cain, a leader of Men who decides that the land Lamech stands on will be turned to a mine. Noah flees, and Tubal-Cain slays his father - establishing the interpersonal dynamics that will underpin the characters later on. Fast forward a few decades and Noah lives with his sons and wife apart from the rest of civilization. They gather from the land "only what they need" - Noah going so far as to chastise his son for attempting to pluck a flower simply because it looked pretty.

Noah then has a disturbing dream about the destruction of the world, and takes his family to see his grandfather Methusela in an attempt to glean from the old man's wisdom and insight. Along the way, they are at first prevented - then assisted - by Watchers; fallen angels who take the form of ill-shapen rock giants.

Don't remember the Watchers from the Bible? You're not alone. They only get name-checked briefly in Genesis 6:2, but Aronofsky still hasn't strayed too far afield. Noah gathers details from several non-canonical texts to flesh out its narrative, not the least of which is The Book of Enoch which contains The Book of the Watchers. For most, these texts are apocryphal and consequently "don't count" towards the overall Scripture-score Noah is tallying up. But I'm going to come back to that as well.

Methusela's counsel is somewhat vague in the familiar, Mr. Miyagi-like way. Instead of telling Noah exactly what his dream means, he says: "You must trust that He speaks in a way that you understand." Emboldened in his vision, Noah accepts that his dream foretells of the destruction of all life in a world-wide flood. After realizing Methusela has spiked his tea with a little something extra, Noah's vision takes on further detail and he comes to the conclusion that while "the storm can not be averted, it can be survived." Methusela then gifts Noah a seed from the original Garden of Eden, and from that single seed springs a forest. Taking the growth of the forest as further confirmation of his divine mission, Noah sets about building the Ark - assisted by the Watchers.

I know it seems like I'm describing this movie practically shot-for-shot, but bear with me. There are some powerful themes that are called back to later on the film, and the groundwork is largely laid in these moments. For the third and final time, I'll ask you to make a mental note of all this for future reference.


 Ok, we can speed things up a bit. Tubal-Cain makes a reappearance, and after seeing the birds and beasts flocking to the Ark believes that Noah's prophetic apocalyptic proclamations (potential album title there) will come true, and vows to take the Ark when the time comes. Tubal-Cain and his people make camp nearby, and soon Noah's son Ham begs his father to find a wife for him there. Agreeing, Noah visits the camp by night - only to confront the wickedness that has brought the Creator to His diluvian decision. There's rape, inter-personal violence, animals are torn apart - still alive - for the meat and Noah even sees a vision of his feral self (or someone who looks a hell of a lot like him) partaking of the debauchery. The experience changes Noah drastically, as he decides that the only reason the Creator has decided to spare him and his family is for the sake of the animals - which Noah refers to collectively as "the innocent." At the start of the film, Noah believed that he and his family were chosen because they were different - he now sees that the darkness is in all of them.

This ultimately leads to arguably the most incendiary aspect of this film. When Noah discovers that Shem's wife Ila is pregnant, he vows to kill the child once it is born. As if tensions on the cramped Ark weren't running high enough, eh? I've skipped over a few details of the movie, but they aren't entirely important for the purposes of this review. They are visually astounding though, likely consumed most of the film's visual effects budget, and kinda put me in mind of the Battle of Helm's Deep from The Two Towers. In short, the "epic" part of this Biblical epic.

Ila gives birth to two twin girls, and Noah seems still determined to end their lives. It's a very uncomfortable series of sequences, definitely closer to a slasher flick than your garden variety Bible movie. Noah goes so far as to raise the knife above the face of the sleeping babies, but (thankfully) can't bring himself to go through with the deed. Fast forward some more, everyone is off the Ark and the flood has abated. Noah spends his days drinking away his sorrows on the beach apart from his family. Ila soon confronts him about why he spared the children. Noah confesses: "I looked down at their faces, and all I had was love in my heart." Though he still believes he has failed in the mission the Creator gave him. Ila instead tells him that the Creator gave him the choice, and by choosing to show mercy he truly fulfilled the Creator's will. We then get our big dramatic closing scene, as Noah - reunited with his family - stands on top of a mountain and proclaims the promises of the Creator for the future of Mankind as rainbows emanate from the sun throughout the sky. It sounds cheesy, I know, but it's a beautiful and triumphant conclusion that fits into the narrative structure of the fantasy epic.


THE REVIEW

Here's the part of this post where I'm going to gush, because I really loved this movie. It's epic, thought-provoking, beautiful, thrilling, and ultimately uplifting.

Visually, this film is stunning, and I'm not just talking about the visual effects - though those are thoroughly impressive as well. Taking cues from his previous work in Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky utilizes the rapid-cut "hip hop montage" effect a handful of times in Noah - and the result is hypnotizing. At one point, Noah recounts the tale of creation as an aforementioned montage charts the beginning of the earth with the Big Bang all the way to the evolution of life on the planet; billions of years condensed into a few brief and riveting moments on screen.


Elsewhere, Noah expounds upon the wickedness of Mankind beginning with Cain slaying Abel. The silhouette of Cain then morphs according to yet another such montage; in the span of a few seconds shape-shifting into warriors from throughout world history striking a blow against the silhouette of Abel, who similarly changes shape according to the rapid intercutting of innumerable warriors throughout the eons. In this way, Noah frames its own narrative outside of a specific time period, calling our attention the fact that we are - universally - a fallen people.

Noah has been speciously accused of poor characterization and bad plotting. Nothing could be further from the truth. The movie sets up a narrative and a world that is inherently challenging to put yourself into as an audience member, but that's because of the complexity of its characters - not in spite of them. Noah goes from an optimistic prophet to a cold, reaper-like figure after seeing just how depraved the world of Men has become. It's an uneasy transition, but it's supposed to be - he goes from being a hero to anti-hero (even villain) rather quickly and Crowe handles the transformation with convincing menace and despair. Layered on top of that, he manages to convey the sense of doubt that Noah wrestles. Throughout his character's ups and downs, I always got the sense that just behind his eyes he was wondering if he was wrong all along, if Methusela's words still haunted him.

Tubal-Cain, played to mild villainous caricature by Ray Winstone, gives voice to an entirely relatable anguish towards the Creator. He quotes the curses spoken over Adam and Eve when they were cast out of the Garden - to work the land by the sweat of their brow, etc. - and resolves: "Damned if I don't do what it takes." Later on he turns to the sky and asks the Creator why he has not found favor in doing what he and his people were cursed to do. But, as usual, the "shout at the sky" gesture doesn't move the Creator to respond - so the villainous persist, feeling vindicated in their violence.

This is hardly the material of bad characterization or relentless stereotype. I understand that some people just won't like this movie, and there's nothing wrong with that. But make no mistake, Noah is a superb piece of cinematic craftsmanship, and I could go on about it for hours. But instead I'll jump ahead to the juicy stuff...


COMMENTARY AND CONCLUSIONS

Ok, so that's the movie. Now on to the controversy.

Namely, why? Why has this movie so thoroughly upset so many people? It's not like it's a commercial or critical flop. It's currently in the mid 70s on Rotten Tomatoes and took in over $44 million opening weekend in North America alone, so what gives?

The "environmentalist agenda" seems a good place to start, and I'm still scratching my head over that one. Of all the people on this planet, I would think that those who cling to the belief that a loving Creator hand-crafted everything - as opposed to those things having evolved over billions of years - would actually be more passionate about taking care of the planet and the creatures with whom we share it. Where's that wacky stereotype? The tree-hugging Christian who cites the fact that God said "and it was good" as sufficient cause to get involved? That makes a lot more sense to me than the Christian who treats capitalism as some kind of sacred cow. So while I can point to a lot of aggression directed at the movie on those grounds, I'm still unable to understand how that undermines the true message of the film or the story on which its based.

What else? Oh yeah, the whole infanticide thing. That's not anywhere in the text of which I'm aware, apocryphal or otherwise. So why put it in?

Let me answer that question with a question: what is the Biblical story of Noah really about? After all - that's what everyone's got their panties in a twist over; that this movie has obscured the true message of the story with all its peripheral agendas, right? I suppose everyone will have their own take on Noah's homily, but I don't think it's a radical reading to say that the story of Noah is meant to serve as a parable about the nature of God - even to foreshadow the prophesied coming of the Messiah. The God of the Old Testament is a vengeful figure who craves justice above all else (re: Punishment via World-Wide Flood), and this is further emphasized early on when Noah tells a hunter that what he wants is simply "Justice." But even in such extreme wrath there is mercy. It's a comparatively minor mercy, which is largely a consequence of the culture in which it was transcribed and passed along. But since Noah does not personify God in the form of a voice or additional VFX shot, it's necessary to mirror the dichotomy of extreme justice giving way to ultimate mercy in some more tangible way. And that is accomplished in watching Noah wrestle with what he believes the Creator wants him to do, but then deciding against it. So, in that sense, Noah becomes a kind of personification of the presence of the Creator in the film.

But all of that inter-Scriptural interpretation is really up for grabs. It largely depends on how seriously you take the story of Noah; if you believe it's meant as a literal story to be treated as history, or a parable whose ultimate purpose is to impart a lesson. For me, it's the latter - the ultimate virtue of Noah's Ark is as mythology. Here I'm not asking you to agree with me, because I know plenty of people in various faiths who regard this story as literal. But even if you regard Noah's Ark as historical fact, I don't think you can deny its power as a parable as well. As a myth, the story allows believers and non-believers alike to partake of the wisdom it has to offer. This is Noah's greatest strength. Rather than force atheists and agnostics to scoff at the lack of physical space to accommodate all the animals, Noah invites everyone - regardless of religion or lack thereof - to inspect this tale for lessons we can apply to our every day lives. Again, this is something that Aronofsky did deliberately in order to highlight the universal truths embedded in the narrative. But in order to be efficacious, even the most fantastical myth needs to be grounded in a measure of reality. And that's where the characterizations become essential. They have to be believable, realistic.

So put yourself in Noah's shoes - you've had a prophetic vision of worldwide annihilation, and you're literally listening to the world shriek in abject terror outside the walls of the boat you built to survive the same storm that's destroying them. You wouldn't wipe your forehead in a gesture of mock relief, then wink at your family and smile. You'd be fundamentally scarred by that experience, psychologically damaged even, and the next few months confined to that Ark would only amplify that damage. Noah has to become the personification of the Creator's vengeance, and it's more than he can bear - it shouldn't be surprising that he cracks towards the end of the film. Frankly, he had to be just a little cracked in the first place to take his own prophetic visions seriously. So while the detour into homicidal tendencies isn't Scriptural and makes everyone really uncomfortable, it makes perfect sense in the context of the narrative as a film and as a myth. Moreover, it further draws attention to the mercy he ultimately chooses, which in turn reflects the mercy of the Creator in sparing Noah and his family.

There are plenty of other details to deconstruct and defend, but this post is already a bit longer than I initially intended. So here's my point: judge this film based on your own opinions and convictions - not those of pundits and bloggers who went into this movie with their confirmation bias-goggles on. You might hate it, you might love it, you might be somewhere in between. But the people who seem to be most vocal in their opposition to Noah are largely those who also seem to know the least about it, or can't resist the urge to be snarky and oh-so-clever in their reviews.

Matt Walsh accuses the film of being nothing more than a "marketing strategy," and that every creative decision guiding its production was made by "they" (meaning the studio) to stir up controversy, because "controversy sells." Never mind that Aronofsky was given final cut by the studio, or that he repeatedly emphasized that adapting this story has been his dream since he was a kid. Barbara Nicolosi over at Patheos seems to be under the impression that the positive critical reaction is thanks to the "shameless, agenda-driven critics over at RottenTomatoes.com..." - either completely unaware of how RT actually works (aggregates of professional critics and user scores) or deliberately ignoring it. And she's hung up on the "rock people" too.

Here's what it comes down to: I can't fathom why people will accept - wholesale - a story in which an impossible number of creatures can miraculously fit into an impossibly tight space for months, but draw a line at fallen angels chipping in to help out. Fallen angels that, again, are mentioned in both canonical and apocryphal texts. I don't understand why the collective "church" in America is so vehemently opposed to a message of environmental responsibility and stewardship - a principle that is 100% Biblical. (Genesis 1:26, Job 12: 7-10, Revelation 11:18...just to name a few) So when I hear these voices hurling random insults that don't even apply towards this movie, the result is the not-very-funny series of paragraphs you've just read - or skimmed.

I've got no problem with people who just didn't like this movie. What I have a problem with is people acting like they're entitled to outrage over the changes made to their preferred version of a story that's been making the campfire rounds for thousands of years. Civilizations all over the world have flood stories and Noah-like figures, many of them pre-dating the Genesis account and containing plenty of differences. So to assert that your version is superior to theirs is socially arrogant and historically ignorant.

This film is simply another incarnation of an epic myth handed down through the millennia, and Aronofsky has crafted a piece of intensely personal film-making well worth the while.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oscar Predictions 2014

It's that time of year again, folks!

This year, I set out to top my previous Oscar warm up by seeing every nominee before the ceremonies. Spoiler alert, it doesn't look like that's going to happen, but not for my lack of trying. Still, I have gotten a chance to see more of the nominees this year than ever before - only missing out on the Documentary Shorts, and one or two of the Best Foreign Film nominees - which largely makes up for the somewhat lackluster feeling overall I have at this year's pool of nominees.

I know we're all supposed to be over the Oscar snubs by now, but having now seen the films occupying nearly all of the major category spots I have to admit I'm still a bit steamed. I mean, Tom Hanks basically spoiled me for the real Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks...I was profoundly moved by almost every minute of Blackfish...why is Frozen not nominated for Best EVERYTHING!?...you get the picture.

Don't get me wrong, this year's list is still chock full of fantastic films and fantastic performances, I'm just not as enthusiastic about them as I've been for year's previous. SO. As with my previous Oscar predictions post, I'll be choosing Predictions and Favorites in some of the major categories. But enough about me, let's get down to business...(♫ to defeat...the Huns! ♪)



BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

PREDICTION: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer's Club)

Aaaand we come to the first of my lackluster predictions. I'm making this one purely on the fact that McConaughey took the Golden Globe and the SAG Award for it. Had he also landed the BAFTA (which went to Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave), it would practically be a foregone conclusion. But even without the BAFTA, it seems a win for McConaughey is still pretty solid. Don't get me wrong, his performance was fantastic and the movie overall was quite strong. But McConaughey still kinda played McConaughey, as he usually does, and I think there are other nominees more deserving of the award this year. Who? You might ask...


FAVORITE: Bruce Dern (Nebraska)

I'm still pulling for Leo to win one of these days, and I almost put his name here in the hopes of maybe sending a wish out into the universe on his behalf. Honestly, all of the other nominees in this category turned in superlative performances - in my opinion, better than McConaughey's to a man. But Bruce Dern's performance in Nebraska is so completely disarming and genuine that it would be a crime to let it go unsung. As the increasingly senile but good-natured father figure, Dern allows you to sympathize with a character who would otherwise be reduced to a cartoonish cliche in a film of lesser quality. It's one of my favorite performances from the entire year, and undeniably the heart of what makes this film so great.



BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

PREDICTION: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

She's swept the Golden Globes, the SAG awards, and the BAFTAs; that's an accomplishment in itself. But if you've seen Blue Jasmine, you're well aware that the real accomplishment is her performance. I haven't seen all of Cate Blanchett's filmography, but after watching Blue Jasmine I'm confident it's a singular entry in her career. Throughout the entire film, the titular character is essentially a collection of shattered pieces held together by only the barest threads of alcoholism and a pill addiction. She's thoroughly neurotic and occasionally even psychotic, but strangely vulnerable at the same time, and Cate completely disappears beneath layers of denial and delusion. Off the top of my head I can't think of a performance or a character in recent memory that comes off as so wholly repulsive yet completely compelling - Blanchett deserves every inch of that statue.

FAVORITE: Galadriel - Lady of the Light



BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

PREDICTION: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer's Club)

Whereas with McConaughey's prediction for this film I was unenthusiastic, Leto's nomination (and hopeful win) here comes with my eager approval. His performance was truly the best in this category, and that's not to demean any of his fellow nominees. In fact, Barkhad Abdi's BAFTA win in this category gives me a little pause. But Leto did win the SAG award (and the Golden Globe), and his turn as Rayon was the best performance in the entire film. Without straying into caricature, Rayon's presence provided the movie with some minimalistic comic relief and not only rounded the narrative as a whole, but brought a level of authenticity to Dallas Buyer's Club that I don't think it could have achieved any other way.

FAVORITE: The 30 Seconds to Mars guy



BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

PREDICTION: Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of J-Law, mainly because it's no secret that basically everyone is. Incidentally, I'm not a big fan of something that everyone else happens to love, and that something is American Hustle. I honestly do not understand why that film is getting all the attention it's currently receiving. I didn't hate it, I don't think it's a bad film by any stretch, but if I had seen it without context - just pulled it out of Redbox at random - I wouldn't have thought "This film should be nominated in all the major cateogories!" Having said that, Jennifer Lawrence's performance in that film was basically my favorite thing about it - and a bit of a departure for her. She's always a joy to watch because she's just so good at what she does, but in American Hustle she really shines opposite her co-stars as the vapid and vindictive wife of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Plus she took the Golden Globe and the BAFTA in this category, so she's got a pretty strong lead.


FAVORITE: Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)

I'm going to be honest, this is a bit of a cover-my-ass move. That's not to take away from Lupita's devastating performance as Patsey, which was as powerful as it was gut-wrenching...like basically everything else about 12 Years a Slave, come to think of it. Lupita won the SAG award in this category, and historically that can be a stronger indicator of a future Oscar win than a Golden Globe or BAFTA win taken by themselves. Plus, the Academy enjoys bestowing its blessing on the talented up-and-comer from time to time. Lupita is every bit as deserving of the critical acclaim she's received for her performance, which is why I'm putting her here, and it wouldn't really surprise me to see her take the win despite Lawrence's statistically stronger lead. So I'm confident the award will go to one of these two actresses - and while I think that J-Law's going to get it in the end, Lupita would be just as deserving.




BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

PREDICTION: Frozen

Big surprise here. This movie should have been nominated for Best Picture in my opinion (there's an open slot, after all!) but that's beside the point. You can read my full brain-thoughts on Frozen here if you'd like, so I won't belabor my point much further. The long and short of it is that even if the other nominees in this category were iron-clad, Frozen deserves this win. It's fun, it's fresh, it's forward-thinking, and frankly it just makes me happy to think about it. And while I'm not posting my predictions for Best Original Song in this post, it should go without saying that "Let It Go" deserves to take home the gold on Oscar night.

FAVORITE: *insert favorite lyrics from favorite Frozen song*







BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

PREDICTION: La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty)

Italy's nomination in this category (courtesy of Paolo Sorrentino) is a real tour-de-force, on a couple of levels. The first thing you'll notice about this film is how kinetic it is; the camera is rarely still - instead swooping and panning around scenes and vistas with a fluid ease and aplomb. And of all the cities in which to set a cinematic style like that, Rome has to be near the top of the list - so the aesthetic is an ideal one. Following writer Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo) after his 65th birthday, the film - right along with its protagonist - muses on love and loss, romance and regret, life and death, while in and among iconic monuments of the city to which all roads lead. The film is lush and grand in its presentation, while still maintaining a keen sense of romanticism even in its most cynical moments. With a title like that, you have to wonder...well, what is "the great beauty," after all? Is it Rome itself? Or love? Or life? Or chocolate? The film never fully answers this question, leaving the audience to sift through its many glimmering moments for their own meaning. So yeah, it's that kind of foreign film - but for what it's worth, I didn't feel like it was too overbearing in its drive to be philosophical. Having said that, there were one or two ambiguous moments in the film that had me Googling around for a moment after the movie was over to get a better idea of what exactly had happened. The Great Beauty is elegant, beautiful, and abstract, and a bit morose - which makes for ideal Best Foreign Language Film bait. And the fact that it's won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA in this category gives it next to a guarantee. But for all that, my loyalties in this category still remain elsewhere...


FAVORITE: The Broken Circle Breakdown 

I have a confession to make, and it's a bit of a doozy: I did not really care for Inside Llewyn Davis. Believe me, that came as a shock to me too. It's not a bad film, and I generally love the Coen Brothers films; off the top of my head I can't think of one I didn't really enjoy apart from the aforementioned. So maybe that's part of why I loved The Broken Circle Breakdown so much. While their stories are worlds apart (Inside Llewyn Davis follows a folk musician in the 60s, The Broken Circle Breakdown chronicles the lives and love of a bluegrass musician and his tattoo-artist lady love), they both feature a healthy dose of American folk music - though Broken Circle Breakdown is more geared towards gospel and bluegrass. It was really interesting to see a group of European musicians playing music that I've grown up hearing my whole life, and it gave me a new appreciation for it - almost as if I was hearing it for the first time. Moreover the actual story of the two main characters is tragic and beautiful, even haunting in a way. This is one foreign film I fully intend to purchase for repeat viewings - and I've been revisiting the soundtrack for the better part of the past two days. If you see any of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees, this is the one I'd recommend.



BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

PREDICTION: The Act of Killing

A few weeks before the nominees were announced, I had already banked on predicting Blackfish for a win in this category. So when Blackfish got completely snubbed, I had to go back to the drawing board. The Act of Killing was the next one up in my mental ranking, and it has a pretty decent amount of momentum behind it. Namely, it took the BAFTA for Best Documentary, and in a category where public awareness/popularity actually does seem to affect the outcome, The Act of Killing has enjoyed a pretty decent spot in the public eye over the past few months. And in order to avoid sounding completely mechanical with this decision, the film itself is really powerful and moving to watch and sheds light on an issue (the violent slaughters of suspected communists in Indonesia during the 60s) that's gone completely unnoticed by the West. Having said that...


FAVORITE: The Square

The Square is a strong contender for its own set of reasons. To begin with, Jehane Noujaim took the DGA award for his work on this film. Historically, the Director's Guild has been a fairly strong indicator of a win - but it's usually coupled with a bit more exposure and peripheral momentum that The Square has only gotten thanks to its nomination, as opposed to the other way around. But I think The Square is more deserving of the award here, because it deals with something a bit more historically and politically relevant than its primary competition. Like several other entries in this list, I could see it go either way without it being an upset. It's the first nomination for Netflix (who distributed the film) though, so frankly I would love to see an Oscar get thrown their way this year.






 
BEST WRITING - ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

PREDICTION: John Ridley - 12 Years a Slave

This category is probably the toughest to call. Looking at the usual metrics, there's no consensus: the WGA award went to Captain Phillips, the Golden Globes don't have an "Adapted Screenplay" category ("Best Screeplay" went to Spike Jonze for Her), and the BAFTA went to Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope for Philomena. So much buzz surrounded 12 Years a Slave, and particularly Ridley's script, that I'm hoping to see a win here. I don't think 12 Years a Slave is going to take home very many awards come Oscar night, so this would be a good way to spread some of the love around, and certainly not without good reason. Ridley's script was measured and powerful, and made room for some intriguing character development - which is no small feat considering its ensemble cast.





FAVORITE: Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope - Philomena

Winning the BAFTA was a bit of an upset for this movie, but not an undeserved one in the slightest. I absolutely adored this film, and unlike 12 Years a Slave, this category seems to be just about the only one where a win is remotely likely for Philomena. I could see this one going either way and I don't feel an overwhelming amount of loyalty to one over the other. Having said all that, I have an instinctive desire to root for the "underdog" on this one. But to complicate things a little further, a win for 12 Years a Slave in this category would be a first for Ridley - so he's a bit of an underdog too, hence my hesitance to pick a clear frontrunner.



BEST WRITING - ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

PREDICTION: Spike Jonze - Her

*whew* 

Back to an entry that's much easier to call, for a couple of reasons. First off, Spike took the Golden Globe and the WGA award for Best Original Screenplay; taken together, those are a very strong indicators of his chances for success. On top of that, Her is a film that is truly brimming with originality - on top of its wealth of solid writing. The story is intriguing, the characters are well-defined, the dialogue is crisp and authentic; it's just thoroughly well-written on every level. So not only do I think the movie is deserving because of how well-written it is, but also because of how uniquely original it is. The category is filled with worthy contenders this year, undoubtedly. But Her is one of the best films of the past several years, my second-favorite film of 2013, and an upset in this category would make me...well...upset.

FAVORITE: Spike Jonze - Her



BEST DIRECTOR

PREDICTION: Alfonso Cuarón - Gravity

Even without the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, and the DGA award for this film he's already locked down, Cuarón would unequivocally deserve this Oscar. Gravity - apart from being easily one of the greatest films of the past decade and my favorite for the year - was an incredible achievement in directing. Some films require a director to act like an conductor - orchestrating the various pieces so they come together correctly, but not necessarily the creative heart of the work. Other films require an extra helping of directorial aplomb to be added to the usual list of cinematic ingredients, and Gravity is without a doubt one of those films. Without Cuarón, this film simply does not exist - and that should be the ultimate criterion for this category. In the hands of anyone with a less potent vision, Gravity might have been an alright film, at best. But it's Cuarón's direction, his singular vision, that takes Gravity into the stratosphere (pun gratuitously intended).

FAVORITE: Alfonso Cuarón - Gravity





BEST PICTURE

PREDICTION: 12 Years a Slave

Full disclosure, I hope I'm wrong about this. Not because I begrudge 12 Years a Slave at all - it is an exceptional film. It's the kind of movie I think everyone should see at least once. But if you're anything like me, one viewing is probably just about as much as you would care for. 12 Years a Slave is really more education than entertainment. That's not to demean the movie or Steve McQueen's accomplishments therein - I had a profoundly visceral experience watching it. But I think the Best Picture of the Year should go to a movie with a little bit more longevity as a piece of entertainment and art. 12 Years a Slave is an artful masterpiece; but because of its subject matter - and the honesty with which it approaches that subject matter - the film is decidedly not entertaining. But I think it will win for a few reasons: if it manages to take Best Adapted Screenplay, that could be a small "consolation prize" of sorts for being a Best Picture win without a Best Director win - a historically anomalous occurrence. Secondly, it has plenty of momentum; it took Best Picture at the BAFTAs and Best Drama at the Golden Globes. Thirdly, it's classic "Oscar-bait" material. I can't stress this enough, that I don't say any of that to deride the film or call it out for some kind of aesthetic nepotism. But 12 Years a Slave is the kind of movie that wins Best Picture, in a way that several of the other nominees this year simply are not. It will certainly be deserving of the honor if my prediction holds up, but it's just not the film that I would personally have elected if they left everything up to me. Speaking of...


FAVORITE: Gravity

Genre prejudice: it's a real thing, and it keeps perfectly astounding sci-fi films from winning Best Picture of the Year time and time again just because. Do you know what won Best Picture at the Academy Awards for 1977? Annie Hall. Guess what other film came out in 1977? STAR WARS, freaking STAR WARS. Without a doubt, Annie Hall is a great film, but a greater film than Star Wars? What, you don't think the first installment was that big of a deal? Fine - even non sci-fi fans agree that the Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time. It wasn't even nominated for Best Picture.

Even the very best science fiction has to offer, and I consider Gravity unquestionably among the best, simply does not stand an actual chance for Best Picture at the Oscars - statistically speaking. A sci-fi film even getting nominated for that award is a rare enough occasion on its own, despite the fact that the genre contains some of the most iconic, well-remembered and best-loved films of all time. So even with a win for Best Director practically a foregone conclusion, it seems an equally foregone conclusion that Gravity won't take Best Picture. Making predictions based solely on what has actually happened, a sci-fi movie taking home that award is less likely than me having a chat with Mark Wahlberg over the phone.

But. Having said all that...I really, really hope I'm wrong.


Thanks for reading! See you March 2nd!

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Lego Movie

I've wanted to be a filmmaker for just about as long as I can remember. And the first incarnation of that dream was a series of stop-motion movies I made around 10 years old with the family's Sony camcorder and my Legos. I still have those tapes, and I like to break them out every once in awhile to remind myself of the countless carpet stains caused by the spilled blood of fallen troops...or what you might call "ketchup."

When I saw the first trailer for The Lego Movie, I was ecstatic. It felt like a personal win for me even though I obviously had nothing to do with it - but the combination of nostalgia and optimism for this movie immediately overwhelmed me. And not only did the film promise a friggin' LEGO movie, it looked like the story was set to parody the beats of your run-of-the-mill action movie with wit to spare.

Emmet (voiced by the lovable Chris Pratt) is your average guy living in the city, following the instructions President Business (Will Ferrell) has handed down for everyone to be happy. Every day, he watches the same show ("Where Are My Pants?") as everyone else, listens to the same song ("Everything is Awesome!!" by Tegan and Sara - admittedly, a song worth getting stuck in your head), pays exorbitant amounts of money for coffee and generally goes about his life in a thinly-veiled critique of modern life - more concerned with fitting in than actually being himself. Until one day... *record scratch*

After accidentally falling into a hole in the ground and getting attached to a fabled "piece of resistance," Emmet is believed to be "The Special" - a long-prophesied hero destined to rescue the world from the clutches of President Business's diabolical schemes....


THE PROS

I love satire, and I really love a really good satire. The Lego Movie scores above-and-beyond in this department, lampooning just about every action movie trope you can think of. When WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks) first explains Emmet's supposed calling to him, she dramatically intones "...the prophecy states that you are the most important, most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person...in the universe." And that's barely even the tip of the iceberg. Once Emmet's adventure gets underway, this movie pulls out all the stops combining and crossing over franchises and pop culture references (Batman in a Millenium Falcon? FINALLY) with an ensemble cast to rival any other. Just to name a few...

Will Arnett's take on Batman keeps all the darkness and brooding alongside a relentless narcissism that makes damn near every single line of his dialogue laugh-out-loud...Nick Offerman voices Metalbeard, a giant mechanical salty-dog bent on revenge and always ready with a quip...Jonah Hill's Green Lantern keeps trying to ingratiate himself with the much cooler Superman (Channing Tatum) to the latter's continued annoyance...Alison Brie's "Uni-kitty" (Unicorn-Kitty) is all bubbles and sparkles and rainbows on the surface but clearly hides a hilariously homicidal dark side...Charlie Day's "1980-something space guy" is exactly what you'd imagine a high-strung Charlie Day Lego character might be...and the list goes on and on. Like Morgan Freeman as a wise old mystic, Jorma Taccone as a nay-saying William Shakespeare and...well, you get the picture.

I initially thought this film was exclusively a stop motion venture, but after seeing it and doing a little extra research I discovered this was not the case. That in no way diminishes the spectacle The Lego Movie brings to the table - in fact it makes it even better. The animation employed, however, is intentionally made to look like live stop-motion and succeeds on a level I never expected. It's even used to break the fourth wall a bit - like when a ghost appears on screen dangling from a plainly visible string suspended just off camera. The Lego Movie plays to all the strengths of its animation style, exploiting advantages of joint-movements and facial expressions while maintaining the more humorous limiting aspects of Lego design (their little claw-hands twitching back and forth to make air-quotations being such a moment) and the result is as visually impressive as it is clever.


THE CONS

This is another one of my reviews where I don't have much to put in this section because The Lego Movie delivered exactly what I was hoping for. The only gripe I have is that in a few of the action scenes, all the flying bricks and lightning-quick movement make it hard to puzzle out just exactly what's happening - but I imagine another viewing or two will clear that up.

Towards the end, the movie's pacing suffers a little bit for the sake of a subplot, but it's hardly enough to warrant more than a single sentence's mention.


THE VERDICT

In the words of the movie's theme song, "EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!!!"

No, seriously.

The Lego Movie was that rare movie-going experience where I went in with sky-high expectations and came out completely satisfied. The film is laugh-out-loud funny, the characters are well-defined and well-developed, the spectacle of the film is undeniably stunning and inventive, and the whole thing is just a whole lot of fun from start to finish.


And before I neglect the heart of the story, The Lego Movie carries a very important message about being true to yourself - and I know that sound kitschy. But it's not pandering or patronizing in its homily because it spends its entire run-time practicing what it preaches. The movie exhorts viewers to cultivate and invest in their own strengths and what makes them unique for everyone's benefit...in the middle of a feature-length Lego movie wherein Abraham Lincoln rides around on a spaceship platform, just to name one thing about this movie you won't find anywhere else. The Lego Movie takes itself just seriously enough to be a well-constructed and engaging film, let's the rest just be flat-out fun - and the end result is a movie as infectiously enjoyable as it is singularly unique.

I can't wait to see it again. 


Friday, December 20, 2013

After the Burial - "Wolves Within"

How would you like your blog today, folks?

Perhaps I can interest you in one of our signature dishes: a choice selection of adulatory paragraphs directed at a band on whom I clearly have a massive man-crush. That comes with a healthy side of the narcissistic obsession I have with my own words, lightly drizzled in a pretentious musician sauce. All of this of course served on a bed of my relentless fixation with all things relating to heavy metal. And for dessert, the meal is topped off with a piping hot cup of critical commentary about the metal scene and what's wrong with it today, served alongside a slice of self-righteousness - marinated to perfection in pop culture references.

Excellent choice, if I may say so. Coming right up!


THE PROS

This is going to sound bad, but After the Burial is one of those bands I keep forgetting about. Not in the sense that I completely forget the day I bought In Dreams or the week I had "Aspiration" (Rareform re-release version) basically on a loop. But when I think of bands I want to listen to during my commute or at the gym or what have you, I just keep forgetting they're in the mix somewhere waiting to be queued up. Me, of all people!



But that forgetfulness allowed me a pleasant surprise: hearing about their latest album only a few short days before it was to be released. Instead of months of crossed fingers, I had less than a week to enjoy the two tracks they had already posted: "Of Fearful Men" and "A Wolf Amongst Ravens." These two tracks made me genuinely hopeful for the quality of this release, and I'm happy to announce that Wolves Within delivers the goods like a really good good-deliverer.

"Anti-Pattern" kicks things off with a half-second of bending guitar strings that almost sounds like the revving of an engine before a quick drum solo smashes the door down like an axe-wielding lumberjack. Then the guitars jump in to a staggered pattern of riffs that are as heavy as they are head-bobbingly catchy, and the hypothetical lumberjack from the previous sentence announces he's traveled 500 miles to bring you his seed.

A reference for this reference.
And that's just the first track. Next up is the previously mentioned "Of Fearful Men," which had already pleasantly surprised me with its brief, jazzy interlude - one of the more experimental moments in After the Burial's discography, and a welcome ingredient. Later on, "Nine Summers" opens with a complex riff that leaps back and forth between needling high notes and sweeping low-end chugs in a sequence that reminded me of the opening to "Luck as a Constant" from Periphery's sophomore album - a release whose praises I have already sung at length. Elsewhere, "Neo Seoul" opens gently on a soft bed of ambient musical textures before the guitars ninja-chop their way into the song while maintaining the chord progression established. And in a wonderful example of musical symmetry, the smooth melody I just mentioned returns toward the end of the song while the rest of the instruments are still going strong - adding a beautiful depth and resonance to the piece.

There really is a lot to love about this album, but my personal favorite track is the last - "A Wolf Amongst Ravens." When I first heard the track a few days before the album was released, I kinda fell in love. It's easily my favorite song out of After the Burial's entire discography, which means I'm scheduled to have a very difficult conversation with "Aspiration" in the near future.

"A Wolf Amongst Ravens" perfectly encapsulates what After the Burial brings to the table. The main groove barrels along like a muscled juggernaut launched from a polymetric cannon while the second guitar layers a complimentary lead over the proceedings. It's a song that gets your blood pumping in an almost trance-like way, as the interlocking rhythms and riffs envelop the listener in an ocean of energy and focus. This is of course saying nothing of lead vocalist Anthony Notarmaso, who flawlessly alternates between the high-pitched shrieks of a mutant panther and the low rage-growls of a battle-ready berserker. (A wild reference appears!)


THE CONS

Guitarist Trent Hafdahl performing the crowdpleaser: "Split Ends"
After the Burial has been something of a "song-by-song" basis kind of band for me. I loved 3 or 4 tracks from Rareform, I loved 3 or 4 tracks from In Dreams. I didn't dislike the rest of those albums, I just didn't find them terribly compelling. With Wolves Within I've found the After the Burial album for which I've waited - with basically a complete set of songs I enjoy without feeling the need to skip ahead.

However, one thing I was slightly dismayed to see was the absence of any clean vocals, and I know that might sound a little heretical. In Dreams featured a very light amount of clean vocals, primarily on "Pendulum" and "To Carry You Away." I felt those moments - brief though they were - added a dimension to the album that would have been lacking otherwise, and frankly I expected to see it return on Wolves Within. It's hardly a deal-breaker, but I was hoping for a little more variety in that department.


THE VERDICT

Without question, Wolves Within is my favorite After the Burial album to date. The band seems to have found the perfect blend of metal ingredients, and have managed to arrange them in such a way as to sound distinctly unique. Each piece taken by itself - the blast beats of "Virga," the quirky bass interlude on "Parise," the standard uptempo metalcore pace that appears in most of the songs, simple palm-muted breakdowns accompanied by complex palm-muted polyrythmic grooves - isn't strikingly remarkable when compared with what plenty of other bands are doing these days. But when all those elements come together the way they do on this album, the result is immensely satisfying.

Anyone who's read my blog before knows I like to pontificate about the state of the metal scene and decry how everyone seems to want to decry everything else. It's a bad habit, but it has its uses; for example, sometimes you can use the lack of negative response to a given album as an indicator of its quality. It's not a perfect measurement, some people will always find something to be upset about. But when a new album drops and you're actually hard pressed to find someone drinking the Hater-ade, you know you've found something exceptional. From what I've seen, response from fans and critics alike has been overwhelmingly positive towards Wolves Within....turns out there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo; and it's worth fighting for.

There are a few moments on Wolves Within that reminded me of other artists - "Disconnect" reminded me of some of Volumes' work, for example. And the mix in several places put me in mind of Monuments' debut album Gnosis. None of that should imply that After the Burial is "ripping off" anyone else; quite the opposite. One of the strengths of Wolves Within is how deftly different defining qualities emerge and evolve throughout its run time - there's even a vaguely Iron Maiden-like hook in "Virga" right after former lead vocalist Nick Wellner's guest spot (right around the 1:43 mark).

I made this, I want everyone to see it, and I couldn't really think of a clever way to work it into the rest of the review so, here.
Wolves Within is the kind of album that from moment-to-moment very definitely fits into one genre or another. This part here is very metalcore, this part over here is classic djent, this moment is your typical Nazi-face-melting-before-the-Ark-of-the-Covenant-core, etc. But After the Burial manages to bring all those elements together on Wolves Within and bind them together with their own signature sound. I've already said this album is my favorite After the Burial release, but I'm going to one step further; Wolves Within is the best After the Burial album to date and you'd be a fool not to go pick it up right now.

Besides, doesn't your grandma need some new tunes to jam while she's making jam?

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Traditions are important.

Say, for example, waiting until the Saturday of opening weekend for The Desolation of Smaug in order to enjoy a Denny's Hobbit-breakfast beforehand. Such traditions mean that the timeliness of my review might suffer, as did my digestive tract after that trip to Denny's. But also like the mild gastrointestinal discomfort I experienced, the delay in getting this review posted was well worth the trouble of a little change in routine - and that's as much thanks to the film itself as anything else.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug picks up where movie number one left off. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Bilbo (Martin Freeman), and the dwarves (a bunch of dudes in costume and makeup prosthetics) are continuing their journey to Erebor - the former city of dwarves that was stolen from them by the evil dragon Smaug (voiced to chilling perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch) ages ago. Another evil has been gathering across the land in the interim, and it's not long before Gandalf is called away to confront that evil in the ruins of Dol Goldur. A few pit stops in spider pits, several non-canonical characters' appearances, and some thrilling visual effects sequences later - we conclude on a cliffhanger ending that leaves you perfectly primed for the third and final film.


THE PROS

You may recall that back when the first film came out, it wasn't terribly well-received. But being a longtime Tolkien fan and confrontational internet blogger, I predicted that critical response to the series would warm once the next film came along, as viewers and reviewers alike saw that Jackson was very slowly bridging the gaps in style that characterize the source material. After all, The Hobbit was meant to be a children's book, while The Lord of the Rings was written for a more mature audience. From what I can gather, my assessment was accurate - and the critical reception to this film has already been much more positive, and with good reason.

Having done away with the majority of the more laborious exposition in the first film, Peter Jackson can get right down to the more fun aspects of in The Desolation of Smaug. There are an almost overwhelming number of characters to keep up with as nearly everyone from An Unexpected Journey returns; in addition to the coming of several new characters. First off, readers of the books will note that Legolas (Orlando Bloom) does not make an appearance until The Fellowship of the Ring, and the character of Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) exists nowhere in the Tolkien canon whatsoever. Having said that, Elven-king Thranduil (Lee Pace) is very much a part of The Hobbit and since he is Legolas' father - it's hardly a stretch to fill in the gaps and write ol' blonde-hair-and-blue-eyes into this movie.

"I just felt a great disturbance in the Force. As if millions of ovaries cried out..."

As for Tauriel, the bottom line is that without her, the extras are the only female characters to appear in this particular installment. And since it should be a given that adaptation from page to screen means some liberties have to be taken, we should judge additions and subtractions by how well they serve the story and not simply whether or not they're canonical or cool. So I was on board with Tauriel as a character since it was announced she was going to be added to the cast, and Evangeline does a great job with the material supplied.

One of the things I was a little unsure about going from book to film is the scene where the dwarves go over a waterfall in barrels. In the book, it's a downright silly moment that reflects just how much of a children's story Tolkien was trying to create. In the film, it's arguably one of the most thrilling and exciting sequences of the entire series - including the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Rolling over foaming waves and bobbing along the current, the dwarves have to be nimble and well-coordinated to defeat an army of orcs that have the tactical advantage and high ground. And even in this edge-of-your-seat roller coaster moment, there's still plenty of room for laughs and pratfalls amidst the high-wire stunts. Seriously, it's just about worth the ticket price for that sequence alone.

Or to see the craziest "Previously on Pushing Daisies..." EVER.
And what of the titular dragon? (Hehe..."tit") Jackson's been teasing us with glimpses and peeks ever since An Unexpected Journey and Smaug does not disappoint, ladies and gentlemen. It takes us most of the film's run-time before we even get to meet him, but trust me; it's worth the wait. And it's not just the visual spectacle that he provides, nor the spine-chilling resonance of Cumberbatch's vocal performance: Smaug himself is very much an active character in this film, rather than simply a narrative obstacle for the heroes to overcome. His dialogue reveals the inner workings of a mind as narcissistic as it is sadistic, and the film doesn't miss a beat bringing us an "anatomically realistic" dragon that also talks; something I feared might skew too far towards the light-hearted, children's book tone of the source material.

Oh yeah, and Stephen Colbert's cameo...That definitely goes in the "PROS" section of my review.


THE CONS

Split Ends: The Movie
No matter how much these films try, there will just always be moments that seem impossible to render with a straight face. The Return of the King has one of the most cringe-worthy moments at the end, when everyone is coming to visit Frodo in his elven bed and all the hobbits are jumping on it in jubilation and Gandalf is giggle-snorting in slow motion... Everyone commits to the bit, and it almost-sorta-kinda works considering everything that came before - but ultimately it still feels awkward and weird. The Desolation of Smaug suffers a similar fate at one point. There's a scene where Tauriel is attempting to heal one of the dwarves, and I think Jackson was trying to draw a visual comparison between this moment and Arwen's introduction in Fellowship of the Ring. Both ladies - breathtaking and lovely - are backlit and haloed by the light. Their voices echo and reverberate as they chant in sultry Sindarin, and they look into the camera with eyes that sparkle with elven might and magic. For whatever reason, it totally works in The Fellowship of the Ring and I find myself transfixed in that scene. But in Desolation of Smaug, the moment feels cheesy and almost hackneyed, despite the best intentions of everyone involved.

Some of the Laketown sequences, while completely appropriate, also felt strangely out-of-place in the film. Again, this is simply a limit of the source material - and it's certainly not like Laketown was poorly designed or the time spent there doesn't serve the story. But there was something strange - vaguely anachronistic - about the production design of those sets and costumes that almost took me out of the story. Maybe it's just me.

SPOILER...ish:

I'm a bit torn over the budding romance between Kili (Aiden Turner) and Tauriel. It seems a bit too obvious; as if it's been placed in the story to keep the stakes and tensions up, and in that sense it kind of succeeds. But it also feels strangely on-the-nose...like some fan-fiction indulgence run amok. Again, I'm torn and having a hard time expressing my feelings over it; I don't hate it, but I don't love it. Having said that, I'm pretty sure Tauriel is going to perish in the third film (gotta write her out of the way somehow), and I am eager to see how that aids some of the character development down the road. So I'm fully reserving judgment until the final chapter in this trilogy. Check back here in another year or so for the final word on that development.


THE VERDICT

If you know me, you know I don't mind tooting my own horn from time to time. And after watching almost everyone change their tune critically speaking from the first film to this one - like I thought they might - I'm just gonna take a moment to do that, if you don't mind.

Pictured: Me, totally
But it's not only a victory for snarky bloggers like myself! It's a victory for the franchise as a return to form - aesthetically and critically. The Desolation of Smaug covered way more ground than I expected going in, which means managing a lot of characters and their development. True to form, Jackson manages to pull this off like it's the easiest thing in the world - introducing us to the intimidating skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), letting us get familiar with the calculating and morally ambiguous Thranduil (Lee Pace), engaging us with the noble struggles of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), etc. All of this while clipping along with the central conflict of the entire series - the corrupting influence of the Ring - and the numerous character arcs that we need to keep track of. Considering the limits of the source material, this movie really is almost perfect in the balance it strikes between cinematic license and fidelity to canon.

The Lord of the Rings is - for me - synonymous with Christmas holiday celebrations. If I'm not watching the movies I'm reliving them through the soundtracks or thumbing back through the books or watching the making-of featurettes on my Extended Edition BluRays. I feel indebted to Peter Jackson for bringing these movies into my life over a decade ago in the first place, and further blessed to enjoy fresh fruits from his vision. The Desolation of Smaug brilliantly builds upon what came before in An Unexpected Journey, and continues to showcase the gradual steps by which Jackson is bringing this trilogy from its roots as a children's book into one of the greatest and most epic film franchises of all time.

And even if you're not a big Tolkien aficionado, this movie really is just a fantastic piece of cinema to look at; breathtaking in its scope and scale, and truly inspiring in its commitment to quality film making.

To sum up, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug makes me feel like this:


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Disfiguring the Goddess

It's rare that you'll find me listening to non-cold weather music in cold weather. When the temperatures drop, I like to crank a lot of symphonic metal, or black metal, or power metal, or folk metal...or any genre that combines those, really. Wintersun, Nightwish, Within Temptation, Amon Amarth, Eluveitie - this is the music that accompanies me into the biting frost mainly because so much of it talks about the biting frost anyway. For me, it's as much a part of the holiday season as Christmas music - and it feels just as weird to hear it during warmer temps (which in Texas is most of the year).

So it comes as a surprise - even to me - that what I'm really enjoying right now is the sickening slam of Disfiguring the Goddess. A one-man act courtesy of Cameron Argon (who also produces curiously different music under the moniker Big Chocolate), Disfiguring the Goddess is among some of the most brutal and hard-hitting music IN THE UNIVERSE.

Haha! Screw you, READING!

I had been eagerly anticipating his latest release - Deprive - for as long as he had been teasing tracks from the new album on his Facebook page. Then Cameron went and did something pretty damn cool: he released a second album on the same day entitled Black Earth Child.



Normally with these album reviews, I like to take Pros and Cons point-for-point where possible. But slam metal is one of those subgenres you either love or hate. It's not the kind of genre with enough diversity for squeamish listeners to cherry pick one or two songs they like while not caring for the rest, unlike more colorful subgenres like progressive metal. Your brain either craves these anthems of the underworld dredged up through the graves of the unjustly slain, or it doesn't. And I'll be the first to admit that a lot of slam metal "sounds the same," but Disfiguring the Goddess is one of those artists that has managed to exist completely within the genre's confines while somehow still transcending them.

For those of you who come to this blog to occasionally learn more about metal out of morbid curiosity, allow me to jump right into this edition of Metal 101:

Death metal is a fairly large subgenre of metal that houses a number of subgenres in itself. One of those subgenres is "slam," so named for the characteristic musical device that defines much of its sound. Slam still uses the guttural and unintelligibly terrifying vocals that characterize much of death metal, and other ear marks of the genre (blast beats, for example) can be found in spades as well. But again it's these slams that set it apart from, say, deathcore. "Slams" are simply sequences of palm-muted transitions that wander around (usually) the first four frets of a heavily down-tuned guitar. So you know that deep chug-chug-chug sound that you hear in a lot of metal? When that chugging stays in one place and counts a rhythm in time with the drums, that's usually called a breakdown. When that chugging wanders up and down and all around - sometimes with the drums synchronized to it and sometimes not - that is how a new slam is born.

As with any genre label, it's dangerous to get too attached to those definitions.

From The Heavy Metal Handbook: Chapter 5 - "How To Not Be A Dick About This Music"


So what's up with Disfiguring the Goddess? What makes this guy so special, huh?

First off: that's a super awesome name, no? Up a few notches on the death-metal-bandname scale from the likes of Morbid Angel, but still below the overtly-intended-as-shock-value Aborted Fetus. And with a name like that, you'd probably guess that Cam was an imposing persona, evincing homicidal rage and terrifying inner turmoil.

He disfigured a LOT of goddesses that day.

Secondly, Cam's vocals are the definition of brutal. I don't know if he uses any effects or electronically enhances them in any way, but frankly I don't care even if he does. The raw brutality and aggression of the sounds coming out of his vocals cords just light up something in my brain that defies explanation. Imagine if the T-Rex from Jurassic Park was behind the mic, chunks of the lawyer's khaki short-shorts still dangled from its jaws.

Deprive
Last but not least, the music. Oh, such sweet sounds of savagery... Deprive and Black Earth Child both showcase an increasing level of polish and mastery of the production process that wasn't present earlier in his work. His first two releases - Circle of Nine and Sleeper - progressively improved on what was an appropriately dark and chaotic sound. After all, death metal isn't normally a genre overly concerned about making sure the minutia of instrumentation comes across. The whole point of death metal is to be unintelligible and antagonistic on every level, even for its practitioners and fans. But as I've mentioned before on this blog, for better or worse, I like production values in my music. So I appreciated Circle of Nine and even enjoyed Sleeper when I was in the mood for something almost comically extreme, but I wouldn't go so far as to call them favorites. With the coming of Deprive and Black Earth Child however, Cam has managed to take the production values through the roof while still maintaining a relentless musical assault on the listener.

Black Earth Child
Elements he hinted at in Sleeper now take a greater amount of the spotlight (though not so much as to be distracting), like the choral arrangements that weave their way in and out of the chaos of "Death's Head Mask" or "Home of the Dollmaker." At once haunting and epic, they bring to these songs - otherwise fantastic examples of the merciless qualities that endeared me to Disfiguring the Goddess in the first place - aspects of sophistication and theatricality that I crave in my music. There are nods to Middle Eastern acoustic instruments with "Industrial Quarter," and the mournful string arrangements that bring "Old Man" to its conclusion are among my favorite moments of Disfiguring the Goddess's entire musical career. Ethereal soundscapes creep into "Suffer Square" that immediately transport the listener into some cosmic void before hurtling them back before a firing squad armed with nail guns and chainsaws. And in a similar vein with "Old Man," "Phantasmal Tempest" slowly decays into an ominous ocean of brass-like instruments, accented by a choir-like sound effect that makes the song sound like some ancient portent of doom. And those are just some of the highlights - in between and all around these more experimental moments are mountains of breakneck speed and ferocity, valleys of murky growls and sledgehammer guitar work, and every dark and disturbing sound that ever made you fall head-over-heels in love with this grisly genre in the first place.

And by releasing two albums in one day, he's managed to overcome my major gripe with his music thus far: the run-time. Sleeper clocked in at just over 20 minutes. And by itself, Deprive is even shorter: a measly 17 minutes and change. But tack on the 24+ minutes of Black Earth Child...baby you've got a stew going!

It's a testament to just how good this music is that it doesn't have many "haters." Pick a metal band, any metal band, and go check out their Facebook or the comments section on their YouTube videos. It's practically an extended tantrum interrupted by peaks of enthusiasm and joy. It's like most metalheads these days can't enjoy one band unless they first unload all the things they don't like about it, and I'll admit I've been guilty of this too. But check out Disfiguring the Goddess's Facebook and/or YouTube and/or any other social media presence - the voice of the hater is but a whisper, if ever breathed at all. Cam has achieved a feat almost impossibly rare in the metal scene; he's changed. His music has evolved, by degrees but still noticeably, and he seems to have actually gained approval in the process. If you're not a big metalhead, you may not realize just how impressive that is - headbangers are notoriously fickle and difficult to please. At once they're condemning a band for "too much 0-0-0-0" and then in the same breath cursing them for "not sounding enough like ________" where that big blank is usually their debut album or some other release deemed more "brootal" and by extension, better. The message is as confusing as it is hypocritical: "be different but also exactly the same."
He disfigured even MORE goddesses on this day.

Disfiguring the Goddess has charted its own course throughout its musical career, and Cam seems content to make the music he wants to make no matter what his fans/anti-fans might say. And by some miracle he's managed to evolve slam into something a bit more experimental and varied while still preserving the gore-drenched heart at its core. I'm still stumped as to how he's pulled that off yet still grown his fan base. But however he's managed to do it, my hat is off to him.

With these releases, Disfiguring the Goddess has officially become one of my all time favorite metal acts. If you've been wandering the aisles of your local record store, aimlessly searching for some new tunes with which to damage your hearing...wander no more! Deprive and Black Earth Child have cascades and avalanches of raptors wielding assault rifles swirling through Sharknadoes just waiting to devour you and spit you out the other end like so much eviscerated gristle.

And that, my friends, is the true meaning of Christmas.