Friday, September 26, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones Review

A Walk Among the Tombstones
Directed by Scott Frank
Released in 2014

There is something to be said of knowing your job and doing it well. That is the draw of an old-school, R-rated thriller like A Walk Among the Tombstones, the latest installment in the ongoing and glorious ReNeesonance.

If you pity me enough to still be reading, know that Google returned no results for that word, so I’m claiming it. And we got to call the last few years something, right? Since 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has starred in an improbable number of action films, first as an Old Testament-angry father figure and then, with 2012’s The Grey and this year’s Non-Stop, as a disgraced enforcer who starts each film at rock bottom and slowly redeems himself through wit, instinct and shocking physicality. He smuggles a lot of pain into these archetypes, but these films keep getting made because, like all true movie stars, Liam Neeson does one thing the public wants to see again and again: He kicks ass.

Like the cult of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, the paeans to Neeson’s badassery have resounded through culture with queasy insinuations: Violence is awesome, morality is black-and-white and women are helpless or, in Skyler White’s case, shrill nags. This response has less to do with the texts in question than the appropriations of them, which strangle out any nuance with a macho fist. But as exhilarating as Taken was and still is, those readings stick, which is why the uptick in quality (a.k.a. complexity) in Neeson’s films since The Grey has been most welcome, if scarcely noticed.

A Walk Among the Tombstones, an adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel of the same name, suffers from a few careless lapses into cliché and does not set its ambitions too high to begin with, but it may be the most moral movie yet of the ReNeesonance (I just shuddered typing that again). Neeson plays Matthew Scudder, a former police officer and now unlicensed detective tasked with finding the pair of serial killers who kidnapped and, after taking a ransom, murdered the wife of drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens). The story goes through the procedural motions, but because Neeson and director Scott Frank know what they are doing, it is often unfairly compelling.

This is one of those movies to fail the Bechdel test (which only serves macro-industrial critique, not individual artistic analysis anyhow) for a reason. Look at the opening credits: The camera pans over a young woman’s pale, nude body, which is washed out from oversaturated lighting. A hand reaches into these frames to caress her hair and skin, and the sensitivity of his touch looks almost loving. Yet the woman does not move apart from breathe, and the single tear rolling down her face hints at something off. The final shot of this sequence tilts up to show us her mouth, which is silenced with duct tape, and for the first time we see both of her eyes, piercing us with terror.

Psychopathy, victimization, the male gaze, the opening titles from Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the shower scene from Psycho: many keywords apply. The credits upend expectation and frame the violence that follows as caused not by an excess of men but by an absence of women. Since the serial killers target drug traffickers only, due to their reluctance to phone authorities, camaraderie develops between the male criminals whose wives and daughters have been taken from them. They relish in the opportunity to harm the murderers, as shown when Kenny inspects a butcher’s cleaver just as the pair earlier fondled wire, handcuffs and linoleum knives in Dexter-esque slow motion.

This is all to say that you, the viewer, very much want these serial killers to die, too. Over a slow but deliberate 113 minutes, this film whips you into a bloodthirsty frenzy, where you eagerly root for Scudder to compromise his morality in order to realize brutal, satisfying ends. The movie gets darker and darker up to its seemingly saccharine final scene, which features a drawing by TJ (Brian Bradley), a droll, vegetarian, Raymond Chandler-quoting inner-city kid who becomes Scudder’s unlikely sidekick.

Idiosyncrasies aside, TJ feels like a plot device for most of the movie, but his contribution to the final scene indicts the self-mythologizing nature of most genre — action, crime, superhero, etc. — fiction. Just because Neeson growls into a phone again and this time says, “Motherfucker,” does not make him a model citizen. It’s too rough a world for another white hat versus black hat. A Walk Among the Tombstones knows that, but for the sake of getting you to pay to see it, it hopes you do not.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Aphex Twin: Syro Review

Artist: Aphex Twin
Released in 2014

Calling Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin, a genius is no bold claim, for it is a largely self-evident one. A self-described “music maker” since his early teens, James has remained unclassifiable while reworking or just straight-up inventing dozens of genres: acid house, glitch, drum and bass, garage, prepared music, ambient techno, ambient ambient, the all-encompassing “braindance.” He does funny-scary things with his face, plastering it on album covers, children (see the “Come to Daddy” EP and music video) and big-breasted women (ditto “Windowlicker”). He grants few interviews or public appearances, letting the work, and that grin, inspire the obsessive, odd-humored introverts that are his fans.

Yet James’ genius has very much to do with his music, more than his place in and around it. That aesthetic range defines individual Aphex Twin songs as much as his more obvious leaps of style between albums: “Girl/Boy Song” riddles spritely oboe and strings with tommy gun-fast polyrhythms to unexpectedly poignant effect, and that similar chill-crazy tension animates “Alberto Balsalm,” perhaps his most beautiful achievement. Even the songs that repeat ambient motifs over and over, like the 10-minute “Stone in Focus,” don’t do so aimlessly: They provoke mounting introspection as the patient (and again, probably introverted) listener navigates the song’s, and their own, vastness. For all his irreverence, there is arguably no electronic musician as sensitive as Aphex Twin, no one as committed to expressing his interiority through jagged and supple sonic landscapes.

Which brings us to Syro, Aphex Twin’s first studio album in 13 years. This is a satisfying hour-plus of music, visceral and industrious in ways that make you perk your ears and cock your head askew. After almost two dozen listens, I am convinced opening track “Minipops 67” starts before you press play — there is something so insatiable, so slick to its drive that anticipating it becomes as pleasurable as listening. At the end James incants warbly nonsense, through countless filters of course, and it works because that song’s foundation is already so beyond the limits of intelligible language.

Some, like my roommates and Sun colleagues who have been subject to repeated Syro blastings, will want nothing to do with this music. If Aphex Twin does not compromise to popular trends — even the bumping rave track, “180db_,” sounds like a feral cat got hold of the knobs — he’s not making new ones with this album, either. There’s no formal breakthrough on the level of Richard D James Album opener “4” or anything from Selected Ambient Works Vol. 1 or 2. Syro is a perfection of existing Aphex Twin elements, the whole myriad of them, but it is unlikely to speak to the unconverted.

Poor them, then, because this is the rare album to grow with each listen. On “Xmas_evet10,” Aphex Twin lays down a palpitating drum machine beat and plays with a Guitar Center’s worth of instruments on top of it: out-of-tune upright piano, milky synthesizers and, for a blissful five seconds at the 3:40 mark, crunchy paradiddles. You could say Aphex Twin is just messing around with his reported 138 pieces of gear for 10 minutes and 30 seconds, but the seamless way he phases in and out different sounds gives shape to his madness. Compared to the formulas of most EDM, Aphex Twin’s compositions are almost classical.

“Produk 29” starts in thick funk mode before introducing creepy, Twilight Zone-esque keys and flaring synthesizers. “Circlont14” fades in on a sparse, celestial soundscape straight out of Forbidden Planet and devolves into rancid glitches and bleeps and bloops that Sun Managing Editor Tyler Alicea ’14 saw fit to describe as “crazy robot sex” (sad to say he wasn’t a fan). After shredding through some extremely technical scales, “Syro U473t8+E” (how fun are these names?) finishes on a fuzzy, groovy outro that I swear features a police whistle once or twice. In every song, Aphex Twin covers a staggering swath of sound that is ecstatic in its excess.

Two tracks near the end of Syro call on the past in order to build to something new. “Papat4” pulses with the bubbly energy of the best off 1995’s …I Care Because You Do, riding on uplifting ambient texture and, naturally, gnawing it apart with filtered vocals and hyperactive breakbeats. But if that song mashes together its predecessors, then album closer “Aisatsana” whittles them down.

Reminiscent of drukqs pieces “Jynweythek” and the Kanye-sampled “Avril 14th,” “Aisatsana” is a triumph of restraint. With birds chirping outside his window, James sits at his piano and repeats a few permutations of a simple minimalist melody. He allows each phrase to fade to near silence before starting the next, whereupon a little pressure applied to keys breathes life into another world of unconsummated expression. Indebted to Cage, Satie and Chopin, the song is also pure Aphex Twin, for it approaches clarity only through the extremities of sound.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How to Read a Movie

Courtesy of Nils Axen
“It’s ironic that a critic trying to establish simple ‘objective’ rules as a guide for critics who he thinks aren’t gifted enough to use taste and intelligence, ends up — where, actually, he began — with a theory based on mystical insight.”
I quote Pauline Kael to remind myself how ridiculous a column like this is. In 1963, the New Yorker film critic took on her contemporary Andrew Sarris, whose auteur theory, she claimed, reduced criticism to a game of ready-made formulas and minutiae (i.e., “Because Howard Hawks directed this, it, by default, has value and speaks to and with his other works, inspirations, obsessions, etc.”). Kael valued her visceral response to a film over any post-viewing theoretical posturing, be it astute or not.
It is wrong to praise a film that leaves you cold just because it has neat camerawork or you find in it some interesting commentary. A good movie involves you in its stakes and in its world — even a stark, “cold” movie like Caché does such a thing. I don’t think there is one movie I’d call a masterpiece that does not, at least, bring me close to tears (Okay: Hot Fuzz is an exception). Writing about a masterpiece is so tough because to attempt to translate its effect — not its story, images or sounds, but the whole package — into words is to butcher it. Most of the time, the secret to appreciating great art is to let it be its own witness.
But, by virtue of the bell curve, most movies we watch are not masterpieces. That sacred, silent response to Vertigo gets real tiresome if applied to all the movies. And the “Well, that sucked!” response does us little good, either, as easy and satisfying as it is to say. If we hope to be discerning consumers and reasonable thinkers, we can start by bringing to movies high, nuanced standards of evaluation (“That was good/bad because…”) and analysis (“That said [insert theme here] by…”).
There is no one way to go about this. But I know my way, so how about I list it, as if it’s fact:

  1. Story is not enough. The tighter and more decisive a protagonist’s arc, the less I take it seriously. Not many agree with me, and it’s an especially contentious position to take in this golden age of “quality TV,” or serialized narrative. Perhaps I’m suspicious of the possibility of true heroism, or else bored by it. Whatever the reason, I find most meticulously plotted movies to gloss over human qualities like doubt, fear and contemplation. A story needs to halt for quietude to set in, and that pause can be jolting when it arrives. The rapid-fire Grand Budapest Hotel defines itself in its plotless moments, like when Zero dutifully recites Gustave’s poetry at dinner or when a key light switches on by the dinner table to illuminate old Zero’s crying face. A film’s worldview can click through such a throwaway gesture.
  2. Cherish movement. In the end, a director’s most basic job is to make a film look interesting. Sometimes, he accomplishes this by wringing a manic energy from his actors, as Mike Leigh does, or she coasts her camera over objects and bodies in a sensuous way, as in the case of Claire Denis. We are watching “moving pictures,” so there better be movement within and across frames. Movement can take its time, as it does in the little-seen 2010 western Meek’s Cutoff, where protracted dissolves morph landscapes, people and colors to hypnotizing effect. Action movies and art films alike should flow from one image to the next; if that flow breaks, it should betray a twist in the story or, better yet, a character’s psychology, not sloppy filmmaking.
  3. Have fun with colors. Color cinematography may appear more “real” than black-and-white, but there is no reason filmmakers, at least fiction ones, should feel obligated to capturing doors, walls and jackets as they actually look. Two of this year’s finest thrillers, Non-Stop and A Most Wanted Man, set their moods and tell their stories through colors alone: The former’s ocean blue airplane cabin speaks to modern slickness yet brings out the disparate colors of the passengers’ skin, which fits its critique, while the latter film color codes its settings (stifling office quarters are fluorescent yellow and streets are melancholy blue) to match the perspective of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s protagonist. When a movie with the resources fails to toy with its palette, like the new Captain America, it is a letdown indeed.

I have more items in mind (“Good movies don’t need to be P.C.”; “Sometimes, ambiguity is just bullshit”; “Anything with Dwayne Johnson is automatically great”) but I sense I am running out of space. It must be reiterated that the most important evidence of a film’s quality comes from the gut. While these parameters provide a loose system for evincing one’s enthusiasm or disapproval, they still kowtow to that initial response. It can be disheartening to know that words will always fail to do justice to the most transcendent experience, but at least most of the movies out there aren’t so perfect, and therefore leave us with plenty to quarrel about.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Trip to Italy Review

The Trip to Italy
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Released in 2014

Despite its reverence for ancient architecture, Romantic poetry and mid-century Italian cinema, The Trip to Italy is very much grounded in the here and now. It stars two funny British men, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves eating, laughing and griping their way through the not-so-fictional travails of middle age. The effortless comedy between Coogan and Brydon concerns mortality, irrelevance and depression, of the chronic, unassailable kind. While the film is hilarious and sunny and beautiful, the sadness beneath it all is tough to shake, especially with the deaths of Robin Williams and “adulthood,” as New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently argued, weighing on our minds.

The Trip to Italy does more or less what The Trip did in 2010, except writer-director Michael Winterbottom trades the dreary pastoral of northern England for the immaculate shores and cliff faces of western Italy. As in the last film, The Observer hires Coogan and Brydon to tour the country and eat at gourmet restaurants under the pretext of writing a review, which only Brydon ends up doing. Who knows why a national newspaper would hire two comedians who know nothing about food to write criticism of it, but it gives them carte blanche to trade celebrity impressions, Lord Byron and Shelley trivia and bizarre hypotheticals at the table. For instance: In the event the two of them were stranded without food after a plane crash, Coogan admits, “I’d eat your legs before Stephen Hawking’s,” but he’d savor the physicist’s brain before even digging into Brydon’s.

Like The Trip, this 108-minute film is condensed from a six-part series that aired in April and May on the BBC. That explains the loose nature of the editing, which covers gaps in conversation with cutaways to kitchens where chefs prepare incredible-looking meals like pot-roasted rabbit, grilled octopus, stuffed onions and lots of pasta. If some of the craft feels haphazard, it only complements the banter, which feels off-the-cuff and ingeniously silly. The dueling Michael Caine routine returns, with the two parodying Caine’s yodel-like crying in The Dark Knight Rises. (“I’ve buried 14 Batmans, with their little pointy ears.”) Because they are in Italy, expect a lot of Pacino and Brando from The Godfather, the latter of whom, according to Coogan, sounds like a “deaf person” when Brydon attempts it.

The hostility between the two men has waned since the first movie, and one detects a palpable ease when they are singing along to Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill, the only CD in the car, away from failed or failing marriages back home. More often than not, Brydon and Coogan behave like little boys, which is why the introduction of their agent Emma (Claire Keelan) and other intelligent women who prefer Mary Shelley to Percy Bysshe threatens to ruin their fun. Competition also gets the best of Coogan when Brydon auditions for “a starring role” (he’s actually an accountant) in a new Michael Mann film. For his audition tape, Brydon steals a kiss from a young waitress reading with him, and Coogan almost loses it when she says she enjoyed it.

There is lot of film history running through The Trip to Italy, in its dialogue, title and very construction. The men idolize Bogart, Pacino, De Niro and Marcello Mastroianni, and Brydon even dreams in Godfather cosplay. The title echoes Rossellini’s Journey to Italy and sure enough, Coogan and Brydon visit Pompeii for an existential crisis rivaling Ingrid Bergman’s own. Emma refers to Godard’s Contempt when she jokes about “that Brigitte Bardot film” that plays its romantic theme over and over again as we hear Richard Strauss’s similarly majestic “Im Abendrot” on the soundtrack for the umpteenth time. She says this while they ride a motorboat along the rocky Italian coast, as in Antonioni’s L’Avventura.

This all amounts to little more than cinephile miscellany, but this awareness of and devotion to the past packs a bit of weight onto what could easily be paper-thin YouTube comedy. The stop at Pompeii, in particular, marries the dark with the light: Gazing upon an ash-covered mummy preserved behind glass, the two men belittle his choice of sandals and guess at what he was doing before he died. Brydon asks the corpse himself in a virtuosic routine where he answers his own questions with the nasal, muffled voice of a man stuck in a glass box. For some reason, this crosses the line for Coogan, who storms out of the hall. But Brydon carries on, unloading his friend’s problems and his own onto this devoted listener, who happens to be dead. It’s funny because, well, what else could it be, but it reminds us one man’s entertainment is another’s sole channel of release.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Released in 1968

If you don’t believe in God, you might as well believe in the movies — where you can be God. British critic Raymond Durgnat once said something to that effect, and it’s not hard to parse what he was getting at: All movies, even the bad ones, unfold before an all-seeing crowd of voyeurs, each free to judge characters when they fail and feel responsible for their success. 2001: A Space Odyssey, which will screen at Cornell Cinema tonight and Sunday evening, pitches this thesis into the infinite vastness of space, where the all-seeing viewer does not judge or relate but sees, for the first and possibly only time, through the eyes of God.

That may sound like a brooding, moralistic slog, but the genius and lasting beauty of 2001 is how light it is on its feet. For a famously accurate film that interrogates mankind’s technical progress, from the first bone-as-weapon to the spaceship that realizes our species’ ultimate Manifest Destiny, the action and ideas embedded within play like music, not polemics. Indeed, 2001 transfixes in its use of music, like when Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube turns a lengthy spaceship docking into a waltz, or when early hominids shriek at a black alien monolith as the discordant creepiness of György Ligeti’s “Requiem” gets under our skin. These moments are brimming with ideas — think about the spaceship’s lyrical movements compared to the hamster wheel dynamics of the astronauts — but you need not mine for meaning to get the full experience, which is to feel awe at the magnificent and fear at the unknown.

Director Stanley Kubrick, who wrote the script with Arthur C. Clarke, had a thing for symmetry and one-point perspective, so that staring at a corridor or wormhole is to stare down its endlessness. The forced compositions betray a meticulous mind, for one, as well as a perceptive, knowing eye behind all the space politics, antagonistic A.I. systems and otherworldly encounters. When we watch astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) navigate their spaceship, we are not looking at human movement so much as automated motion through narrow, fluorescent spaces. There is no room for choice, and thus error, in the ship’s spectacular, streamlined design, and the symmetrical cinematography drives home both the efficacy and inhumanness of this advanced technology.

This explains why Bowman and Poole are utter blanks — anyone who has a bone to pick about the “bad acting” here is missing the point — and HAL 9000, the task-managing supercomputer on board, is genteel, wise and terribly sentient. 2001 doubles as a cautionary tale for how the human brain can only process so much knowledge, and when our species hits that prophetic “singularity,” we will kneel just as the apes at the film’s beginning did before their monolithic master. Perhaps the most novel and inspiring twist in 2001’s plot involves a certain choice (which I will not spoil, if for some reason you are still reading without having seen the movie before) Bowman makes in a dazzling red room. Bowman’s decision exercises tremendous courage and agency, but its protracted, elegiac aftermath may be one of the saddest scenes in American film. How could [insert climactic event] be such a tragedy? 2001 proposes that once humans hit a point in our applied intelligence, we entrust humanity onto technology and forfeit ours in the process.

Kubrick ejects the tension between humans and technology out the thematic airlock once the final act arrives, with its most memorable title, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” The events that transpire here are unforgettable, for Kubrick and special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull discard plot in order to depict something approaching the ineffable. It’s odd how some people approach the “Star Gate” sequence as a puzzle, and are thus frustrated how it refrains from spelling out its secrets. It’s not “about” much anything, except perhaps sight itself. This acid-washed spectacle elapses over a wordless 10 minutes, and it’s worth keeping in mind the literal time of Bowman’s journey probably takes an eternity longer. This sequence and the uncanny one after approximate mankind’s final achievements, if we ever reach them, and how we will no longer just be Homo sapiens once we arrive at the other side.

Exploration has always brought with it violence and, to excuse the violence, moral hierarchies. What 2001: A Space Odyssey, an easy pick for the greatest of films, posits is that the arrogance of man sustains only by the limits of our understanding, and that when our brave rocket man clears that final hurdle, be it literal or metaphorical, the rest of us will answer not to death rays but a deafening coo.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Education Through Exploitation

Courtesy of Nils Axen
If empathy is a sorely lacking human virtue, and if “movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” as Roger Ebert once said, then why does a Hollywood movie diet leave us so empathetically barren?
I long took it at face value that ‘the movies’ — the popular, American ones — reflected life in a truthful fashion, bad parts included. For the ‘bad parts’ find attention and awards at the Oscars, where a certain fusion of trite liberalism and belittling sentimentalism thrives. Every year I watch a number of new films that claim to engage with ongoing issues, racism being number one (because this is America). The Help, for instance, would very much like its bourgeois viewers to think that they now know what true racism is, when really its plot boils down to a binary conflict between good and evil that precipitates a best-selling memoir by Emma Stone.
But can a preachy Oscar-movie do good? If it falls short of subtle artistry, can it wield its cudgel of enlightenment toward open, discursive ends? Last year gave us an abundance of awards-caliber films about black American life, such as Fruitvale Station, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave, which all happen to be helmed by black directors. I’m still arguing with myself over the greatness I saw in The Butler, where the story pits an obsequious but hardy breadwinner — Forest Whitaker’s White House butler Cecil Gaines — against his militant, proudly black son, played by David Oyelowo. That dialectic, and the ennobling and tear-jerking way it resolves at the end, flirts with the profound on its own, and it is the rare melodrama to take a firm stand on politics, only after taking a hard look at the pros and cons to both sides.
Yet I worry if I praise the film because it flatters some white middle-class-ness in me, and then I worry if I should be worrying. I recall my initial reaction, which I shared with a friend after watching it, was that I learned about 1960s civil right history from that film. I had known about sit-ins, Freedom Riders and the Black Panther party since middle school, but I did not grasp their do-or-die importance until seeing three-dimensional characters enact them and quarrel over their implications. Part of this belated education no doubt owes to my largely homogenous areas of residence, yet I imagine that, for some few younger black viewers, too, the film filled an embarrassing gap not of information but of empathy for the brave players in this era of history.
The same can be said of 12 Years a Slave, only more so. It’s not a perfect movie but it is one of the few truly necessary ones, for it renders a pre-cinematic American institution in all its aloof and unceasing savagery. I was angry to find the film such a revelation, for how surprised I felt that slavery was, indeed, this bad and that my public education up to that point had failed to drive that point home on its own. That’s white guilt, I guess, and no doubt the film seeks to wring that out. By tearing a free man, Solomon Northup, from comfortable suburbia, where he kisses his children before bed, and abandoning him, alone, onto a plantation to fend for himself, the script does not force identification with a lifelong slave but with a man whose vague, given notion of freedom reflects that of the viewer, be him black or white or brown.
12 Years a Slave or The Butler should age well, since they already take place in the past, but it can be fascinating to see how Hollywood addressed systemic problems in problematic times. A week ago, Cornell Cinema screened 1968’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, inaugurating a semester-long series on Blaxploitation. In her introduction, Prof. Cheryl Finley, history of art, clarified that this Oscar-winning film directed by Stanley Kramer does not qualify as “Blaxploitation” — it’s too middlebrow, too restrained, too Hollywood for that.
But it’s an incredibly valuable text, more so than its creators likely intended. That is not to dismiss its superficial, Hollywood pleasures: Sidney Poitier’s awkward laugh, Beah Richard’s trenchant monologue, all the expected tears and fire from Katharine Hepburn. It’s good entertainment. But it’s the story of a rich white girl who brings home a black man, so it’s clearly trying to say something. There are some delicious complications: Her shocked parents, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, raised her a liberal; he is a rich, philanthropic, genius doctor, whose only ‘problem’ appears to be the color of his skin. It is a given that they both love each other very much.
The film builds to a treacly ending where Matt (Tracy), the girl’s father, approves of this interracial union because, as he says, “The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel, for each other.” But with stuck with me is not his words but the way he went about them. By that point, the women in the house (including Poitier’s African-American mother) needed no more convincing; the burden of change lay on the men. It is Matt who sits the two families down, tells them to “Shut up,” and gives them that climactic spiel on the power of love. It’s good writing, but it betrays the patriarchal view that the final, and right, word belongs to the man, and the white man, of course.
I’d get up in arms about this conclusion if not for the fact that it’s true, and that regardless of what Kramer intended, his film offers a remarkably clear-eyed, self-incriminating view of white privilege that is almost Frederick Wiseman-esque. I’m not sure the average viewer would come to this same conclusion — especially with the Wiseman namedrop — and the movie has fallen to legitimate claims that it’s part of the problem, not against it.
Yet there was something to Matt’s arrogance that prohibited me from swooning over his final speech. Due to the film’s construction, my political inclinations or maybe just my useless white guilt, there stood a barrier of empathy between me and this powerful man on-screen. I became aware that, to the end, the simple nuances of Matt’s behavior, not even his words, prevented others from having a voice. I thought of myself. To watch and revere a film that empathizes with the victims of history is one thing; to see the bad guys for who they really are, family men who have no clue of their own aggressions, is another education entirely.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Spoon Concert Review

State Theatre, Ithaca, N.Y.
August 29, 2014

Is there a better live band than Spoon? If you attend concerts often, you likely have seen shows as great as theirs; for me, TV on the Radio at this year’s Governors Ball and The National at State Theatre last May come to mind. These bands, and very few others, are the best of the best, having hit a peak of skill, presence and professionalism in their performances that defies even the most hairsplitting criticism. If you were one of the many buzzing students, locals or out-of-towners packed into the State Friday night, you’d agree that Spoon, brought here by Dan Smalls Presents, treated Ithaca to a couple of perfect hours of spirited music that permitted only one response, and that is love.

This warm, communal feeling settled over the crowd once the opener, Eric Harvey, walked on stage. Harvey, Spoon’s keyboard player and a multi-instrumentalist in his own right, hails from the region and recruited some of Ithaca’s most talented musicians to join him for a varied, though consistently beautiful 45-minute performance. “Varnishing Day” — a shimmering acoustic ballad with the refrain, “Better hold your head up high” — showcased Ithaca cellist Hank Roberts, who dialed the song down to a hushed whisper and then crescendoed for a stirring finish.

During a cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” which featured Mary Lorson on harmonies, Harvey forgot to retune his guitar and said of the slip, “[This is] just a coffee shop gig, for a forgiving audience.” His low-key, forthright music fosters that kind of intimate atmosphere, and indeed the whoops and applause from the crowd assured him this was a night for building up, not breaking down. Rock-oriented instrumentalists closed Harvey’s set with a few basic, effective numbers, one of which ended with a ridiculous keyboard solo by Mike Stark. The local revue spirit of Eric Harvey’s group made it the rare opener that was impossible to ignore, and even rarer, one of which to feel proud.

A short 30 minutes and drastic stage redressing later, guitarist Alex Fischel, drummer Jim Eno, bassist Rob Pope, Harvey and Spoon mastermind Britt Daniel sent the orchestra audience out of their seats and rushing toward the stage as they launched into “They Want My Soul,” the title track off their excellent new album. Daniel, Fischel and Eno wore all black while the rest beamed in all white, a simple color dichotomy that complemented the simplicity of the stage arrangement (just a few tall, white fabric walls) and the dazzling array of lighting set-ups. Some songs rolled by in near darkness, like the second, “Rent I Pay,” where blue spotlights threw Daniel’s spindly shadow onto the surrounding walls. Others went all out with strobes or a spinning disco pyramid (like the ball, but a pyramid), while a few songs illuminated a specific mood, such as “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” with its fitting blood red colors.

Daniel announced early on that this was the first show of their tour, which is an honor that sometimes comes with taxing handicaps, especially in an insular town like ours. There was no dress rehearsal throat-clearing Friday night — just a spectacular, undeniably complicated production fastened to the ground by Spoon’s confidence and likability. “Confident” and “likable” could also be used to describe the most naïve of mainstream rock bands, but Spoon brings too much carnal energy to the stage to be written off as some fleeting confection. The locked-in rhythm guitar of “Who Makes Your Money” or foot-tapping bass of “I Turn My Camera On” belies Fischel’s spontaneous guitar freak-outs and Daniel’s ronin wanderings about the stage. The band fields nothing but pleasure through its individual elements, but taken together, it swerves through a show that is surprising, atomic, unhinged.

If there is a simple way to explain this quality of Spoon’s art, it is this: Britt Daniel is cooler than you. His sandpaper voice must be one of the most indestructible instruments in the business. He sounds like John Lennon did in “Twist and Shout,” except Lennon could only log one (amazing) take before going hoarse and somehow Daniel just stands firm at that precipice, unchanged, throughout a two-hour set.

He also harbors a more punkish, experimental sensibility than his band’s popularity may imply. At the end of “Inside Out,” a recent cut, he milked a minute of Flaming Lips-esque ambience through spacey keyboards, and at the close of “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” he did something similar with raw guitar feedback, manipulating it while on his knees. This was not one of those play, finish, “1-2-3-4!” play again concerts, for Spoon engineered a most entrancing flow.

A brickish thud and a sound engineer’s muffled cries were heard (OK: probably, regarding the second item) when Daniel dropped his mic so that he could fetch a beer during the overplayed “The Way We Get By,” the third song of the encore. Suddenly, those much-copied piano chords did not sound so twee; Daniel somehow found an edge to that one. He pulled a Bob Dylan when it came time for the band’s biggest hit, “The Underdog,” by improvising new rhythms and lagging behind the audience’s enthusiastic downbeat claps. Old becomes new yet again.

These antics were all playful, for Daniel was — and I imagine thoroughly is — not the least bit contemptuous. He thanked his crew, of all moves. The most charming moments of the evening came whenever Daniel acknowledged the demonstrably excited man flailing about just below his microphone stand. Instead of ignoring or avoiding him, Daniel, in his typically inclusive way, sang to him on his knees, let him snap a picture and, after the man briefly disappeared at the start of the encore, heralded his return to the front row. He turned what could have been a visible distraction (the guy enjoyed shaking his fist like it was a maraca, which is, like, mesmerizing) into part of the show, part of the Spoon family.

Near the end, Pope announced, “This is the only time we’ve seen a theater crowd standing the whole time.” Who knows if that is actually true, but the unceasing gratitude, heard not only through whistles and applause but actually seen through an absence of smartphone screens, camera flashes and crowd disturbances, grew out of the preternatural brilliance of Spoon’s performance. It was a concert good enough to bring the audience, like Daniel, to its knees; but then again, we didn’t because we’d be missing the show.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here