Howlin Rain at The Garrison
Posted on April 20, 2012 | Permalink
A film doesn’t have to make complete sense to be engrossing. Visual style and a striking central performance carry Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill despite the director’s pronounced indifference to clarity. Hanada (Joe Shishido) is Japan’s third-ranked hit man and not a bit happy about it. (Suzuki never explains who compiles such rankings.) In fact, he doesn't even believe that the number-one assassin exists. The film follows Hanada through several hits, leading to the inevitable showdown with his nemesis (Koji Nanbara). Along the way, he indulges in S&M with his wife (Mariko Ogawa) and meets a strange, mysterious young woman (Annu Mari).
Posted on January 08, 2012 | Permalink
Alfred Hitchcock’s final British masterpiece, The Lady Vanishes is one of the legendary filmmaker's most entertaining films, and a template for several of his later films, most notably North by Northwest. All the elements of classic Hitchcock are here in abundance: suspense, romance, comedy, irony and sexual innuendo. When the English governess Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) disappears on a train somewhere in central Europe, no one on board will confirm that she even exists, despite the protestations of our heroine, Iris (Margaret Lockwood). Even when the handsome hero (Michael Redgrave) tries to help, obstacles keep blocking their path to the truth.
Posted on January 08, 2012 | Permalink
10. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
Starting with 2007's White Chalk, PJ Harvey has stripped-down her sound to a streamlined delivery mechanism for her resolute voice. On Let England Shake, that voice delivers a powerful statement against war. I'm unaware of any artist who has attempted this kind of album since Neil Young's Living With War and, due respect to Uncle Neil, but Polly Jean blows him out of the water with her passion, vitriol and artistry. As beautiful as this album occasionally is, this is inherently challenging music that does not necessarily invite repeat plays. According to Harvey, the fruit of England/America's imperialism is orphaned children. On the chilling stomper, "The Words That Maketh Murder," she rhetorically references "Summertime Blues" by asking, "What if I take my problems to the United Nations?" This is not war as an abstract, but stinking flesh rotting in dirty fields -- and it's among the most important albums of the year. -- KS
20. Tom Waits - Bad as Me
Over a career spanning four decades, Tom Waits has long since earned his lifetime pass. This year's offering is an even split of brawlers and bawlers, straight no chaser. Waits's best known styles are on display across thirteen odd tunes, containing some of the year's most quotable lyrics. (Any album that declares "Heavens to Murgatroid" out the gates is an instant winner.) The players are a welcome gallery of familiar names: Waits plays a mean piano, Mark Ribot weaves his signature snaky guitar lines and Keith Richards kicks ass on the Stones-quoting "Satisfied." Timeless romanticism mixes well with rough-hewn cynicism, proving there's room enough for all of Waits's many moods. Though every song leaves an impact ("Last Leaf" dampens eyes like nobody's business), it's "Hell Broke Luce" -- the gritty sequel to Real Gone's antiwar ballad "The Day After Tomorrow" -- that hits hardest. It's a harrowing take on war veterans' PTSD, equal parts poignant and disturbing. He who suggests Waits was the least bit "Bad" has either missed this marvellous record or should forthwith dislodge his head from his nethers. -- KS
30. Ducktails - Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics
Last January felt a little bit warmer with the release of this mellow gem from Real Estate guitarist Matthew Mondanile. Ducktails’ latest album sounds a lot like Mondanile’s other band -- before their slightly more polished sophomore LP (see our top 10) -- harkening back to their earlier, more fuzzed-out hooks, hazy vocals and other lo-fi trappings. Several of the standout tracks (“Killing the Vibe” and the Seinfeld-referencing “Art Vandelay”) would’ve been right at home on Real Estate’s debut, but perhaps they better suit Ducktails' consistently laidback track list, which makes this album stand out on its own. Comparisons between both of Mondanile’s projects are unavoidable, which is certainly not a bad thing, because they’re both exceptional. -- NK
Design for Living is not one of Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpieces, but this 1933 film is thoroughly entertaining and provides a wonderful example of the sexual content Hollywood could get away with before the advent of the Production Code. Beyond the title and the basic premise, the film has little to do with Noël Coward’s 1932 play. Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a commercial artist working for an advertising agency in Paris, meets George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Frederic March) -- a painter and a playwright respectively -- and falls almost immediately in love with both, while fending-off the advances of her stuffy boss (Edward Everett Horton). Some rash decisions are made, leading to misery for all concerned -- until an unconventionally happy fade-out.
Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game has had one of the most complicated histories of any famous film. Condemned by French critics and audiences after its 1939 premiere and shortened by thirteen minutes a few days later, the film was finally restored -- with an additional twelve minutes -- in 1959. Since this restoration was hampered by the destruction of the original negative during World War II, The Rules of the Game has never looked quite as good as it should. The Criterion Blu-ray edition is grainy at times, with a few scratches here and there, but Renoir’s use of deep focus has never been so clear. As the overwhelming number of extras on this disc explain, Renoir wanted to comment subtly on the rapidly approaching war through what appears to be an extramarital farce.
While some consider Wes Anderson’s films a tad precious and insular, few can dispute the charm of Rushmore. Released in 1998, the writer-director’s second film is one of the best ever about the pains of growing up, anguish which seems amusing only in retrospect. The life of fifteen-year-old Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is idyllic because of his involvement in a slew of extracurricular activities, notably the Max Fischer Players, a theatre group that stages flamboyant productions of films such as Serpico. Things become more complicated when Max finds himself vying -- along with millionaire Herman Blume (Bill Murray) and a doctor (Luke Wilson) -- for the affections of widowed teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). One of the film’s many highlights comes when Herman, overcome by his burgeoning love while delivering a message from Max, sprints away from Miss Cross like a cartoon character.
Regardless of how you feel about Kelly Reichardt’s films, you have to admire her audacity. She’s going to make them her way, an approach that couldn't be further from the rom-coms, comic-book movies and earnest indie films cluttering theatres. Meek’s Cutoff is slow, but it's action-packed compared to Reichardt’s Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Suggested by a real event, this film tells the story of a small group of settlers heading for Oregon in 1845 under the guidance of Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who proves to be an incompetent blowhard. Only the stubborn resolve of Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) keeps things from tipping over into complete chaos.
If you missed last week's Joan Didion Q&A at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre and desperately need to hear a muffled, lo-fi recording full of maddening audio interference and generally poor sound quality, you are in luck. Discussing Blue Nights -- a companion piece to 2006's The Year of Magical Thinking -- Didion exhibited the fragility and fatigue that she writes about so eloquently in this unsettling new memoir. Where a lesser writer might pander to readers with false levity, Didion confronts the perils of aging (she turns 77 on December 5th) and death (her daughter Quintana died shortly before the publication of Magical Thinking) with unflinching honesty.
Posted on November 18, 2011 | Permalink
Interesting fact: the "j" in Wooden Shjips is not silent, it's pronounced like a "y" (ie. Wooden Shyips). Enigmatic name notwithstanding, the San Francisco psych rockers don't offer the most nuanced or varied live experience, in spite of the musical evolution they exhibit on their new album, West. If their repetitive droning, affectless vocals and abrasive jams don't win you over from the outset, you may as well head home because there's a lot more where that came from. Of course, if you're going in with an informed enthusiasm, you won't be disappointed. Volume alone made the band impossible to ignore during their November 7th show at The Horseshoe, even if their detached demeanour suggested a certain indifference (or obliviousness) to the audience. No words were exchanged and the band elected not to return for an encore, but in terms of stellar musicianship, they got the job done. Eleven days later, I'm still a little deaf. -- JD
Posted on November 18, 2011 | Permalink
As a recording project, Neon Indian is almost exclusively the work of Alan Palomo. On the road, however, Palomo travels with a whole gang of musicians, leaving him free to focus on vocals... and dancing (he also finds time to occasionally fiddle with synthesizers and other electronic gadgets). Rather than simply recreate the tracks from his two terrific albums, Palomo and his band reinvent these tracks live. Below you'll see this practice in action in a pair of videos from the band's October 18th show at Lee's Palace. The first is set opener "Terminally Chill" (from 2009's Psychic Chasms) and the second is "Future Sick" (from this year's Era Extraña). -- JD
In the eyes of some, Pavement were to the nineties what R.E.M. were to the eighties: the decade's most consistent, influential and ultimately defining indie rock band. In the Pavement biography, Perfect Sound Forever, a diagram of the bands and albums that influenced Pavement was included -- and all six R.E.M. albums from the eighties made the cut. It's appropriate, then, that Stephen Malmus would offer some kind of formal response to the band's break-up on the evening that it was announced (September 21st, 2011). Band break-ups (and reunions) are old news to Malkmus, but on the night of R.E.M.'s big announcement, classic R.E.M. songs played before SM and the Jicks took the stage. The band also opened their encore with a cover of R.E.M.'s "Radio Free Europe". Other than that, most of the show was devoted to tracks from Malkmus' excellent 2011 album, Mirror Traffic, including "All Over Gently" and "Forever 28," which you can watch below (along with a video of opener Holy Sons). -- JD
Posted on October 15, 2011 | Permalink
Claude Chabrol's 1959 follow-up to Le beau Serge shows the director becoming more sure of himself and inching toward the crime cinema that would dominate his later career. Les cousins has the same stars as its predecessor, but this time they reverse their roles. Charles (Gérard Blain) is an innocent from the provinces, who comes to Paris to study law. While there, he stays with his decadent cousin Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy) -- also a law student -- in their uncle's apartment. Instead of studying, Paul stages an endless series of parties, while Charles struggles to avoid temptation. This becomes impossible when he meets Florence (Juliette Mayniel), who proves unworthy of his love.
Claude Chabrol's 1958 debut is often called the first French New Wave film, primarily because the director was previously a critic for Cahiers du cinéma, along with future nouvelle vague luminaries Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut. However, Le beau Serge is more traditional than the early efforts by these filmmakers. François (Jean-Claude Brialy) returns to the village of Sardent after a long absence and is shocked to see how much his friend Serge (Gérard Blain) has declined, falling far short of his ambitions and weighed-down by his marriage to Yvonne (Michèle Méritz). Between confrontations with Serge and the local priest (Claude Cerval), François has a brief affair with Serge's teenaged sister-in-law (Bernadette Lafont, then married to Blain).
Before he established himself as a genius with Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick made three low-budget films (Fear and Desire, Killer's Kiss, The Killing) and this is easily the best: tightly constructed, with fully developed characters, quotable dialogue and beautiful black-and-white cinematography by Lucien Ballard. Visually, this is one of the most striking examples of fifties noir -- Ballard gets startling effects from lamps and bare blubs -- but Harris claims that the cinematographer hated the director. Many of the images resemble the photographs of Kubrick and they have a beautiful clarity in this new HD transfer.
While TIFF made it impossible for me to be as thorough about WIlco's Massey Hall shows as I was in 2009, I did manage to catch most of night one. As always, Wilco's affably raucous live show elevated the material from sixteen-plus years of (remarkably consistent) albums. Even the band's now familiar tropes (Nels Cline's guitar freak-out on "Impossible Germany," the tentative fan singalong on "Jesus, Etc.") felt fresh and the new material proved worthy of the old. Below you'll see a video of "Born Alone," one of the stand-out tracks from Wilco's terrific new album, The Whole Love. -- JD
In the midst of the chaos at TIFF 2011, Mudhoney rolled-through town to play a pair of shows with Pearl Jam. During a night off from that giant arena tour (while their tour mates were enjoying the attention surrounding Pearl Jam Twenty), Mudhoney played a much smaller gig at The Horseshoe, site of another unforgettable Mudhoney show just three years ago. Once again, crowd surfers were in evidence -- though there was no ceiling fan for them to tear down this time -- and Mudhoney treated the crowd to several classics from the grunge era. See/hear two of their most memorably deranged tracks ("Touch Me I'm Sick," "Suck You Dry") below. -- JD
In spite of the abundance of visual imagination in Ken Russell's Tommy, there are three reasons I've never fully embraced it: 1) its proggy, parodic soundtrack pales in comparison to the original, 2) most of the characters are too cartoonish to have any real dramatic impact and 3) its surrealism is too motivated and comprehensible. Complete with a mystical, Jordan Belson-ian psychedelic intro, this rare trailer suggests a more irrational version of the film, filled with suggestive, open-ended imagery. After revisiting Tommy on Blu-ray recently (an eye-popping experience, particularly when compared to this visually-degraded trailer), the conclusion I've reached is that Tommy is best-served in small doses -- and this trailer is just the right size. 8.5/10
Rather than expand on the brief Twitter reviews I wrote of the films I saw at TIFF 2011, I'm just going to continue in the tradition of 2009 and 2010 and re-post those reviews. In most cases, I've also included a trailer or clip, which generally say far more than I could in 280 characters (2 tweets). The obvious exception is The Descendants, which has a bizarrely misleading trailer. Also, if I'm not mistaking, there isn't a single note of music anywhere in Outside Satan, so try to pretend that (somewhat effective) cue isn't there. -- JD
Into the Abyss - Less obviously mystical and poetic than other recent Herzog docs, but full of peculiar behaviour and anecdotes. A bit too conventional and clear about its moral perspective. Strange, appealing combination of pathos and humor. 7.8/10
Posted on September 19, 2011 | Permalink
In several recent reviews (Diabolique, Life During Wartime), I've become preoccupied with the effect of repeat viewings. High and Low is another intriguing case study, as its exhausting suspense is largely dissipated on a second viewing. When I first saw this film years ago, I was convinced that it might be Kurosawa's best (to be honest, I've had this reaction to several Kurosawa films), but when you watch High and Low with an awareness of its outcome, its greatest virtue (suspense) is lost. To be clear, I don't think this is a weakness, just an unfortunate fact for those of us hoping to re-live that amazing first viewing. If you're gearing-up to see this incredible film for the first time, consider yourself lucky.
Posted on August 28, 2011 | Permalink