6 More Films From 2012: 4:44: Last Day On Earth, First Position, Flight, The Paperboy, Red Tails, and The Trouble With Bliss

Continuing my desperate attempt to review all of the 2012 films that I’ve seen but haven’t gotten around to reviewing yet, here’s six more reviews.

1) 4:44: Last Day On Earth (dir. by Abel Ferrara)

Whether it’s because of the Mayan calendar or the fact the Obama got reelected, people seem to be obsessed with the end of the world right now and it’s been the subject of several recent films.  4:44: Last Day On Earth is one of the more low-key entries in this genre.

Willem DaFoe plays a New York-based actor who deals with the impending end of the world by meditating in his loft, having sex with his much younger girlfriend, and having awkward conversations on Skype with his daughter.  As opposed to the characters in several other end of the world films, DaFoe doesn’t use the situation as an excuse to go on a quest for true love.  Unlike 2012, there’s no talk of escaping the apocalypse.  Instead, the world is ending and DaFoe has no choice but to accept it.  From a cinematic point of view, DaFoe’s passivity can be frustrating (4:44 is a film that’s willing to be boring to make its point) but, at the same time, it does force a viewer like me to wonder how she would handle the end of the world in a way that a film like Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World does not.

One interesting thing that distinguishes 4:44 from other end-of-the-world films is that, in 4:44, the world ends specifically because of the actions of mankind.  Whereas films like Melancholia and Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World presented a random apocalypse, 4:44 presents the apocalypse as the fitting punishment for the sins of humanity.  While I could have done without the scenes of DaFoe listening to Al Gore droning on and on about global warming (because, seriously, Gore always sounds like the creepy community college professor who you know is having an affair with one of his students), this still adds an interesting element to the film.

4:44 requires a bit of tolerance and a lot of patience but it’s still a film that’s worthy of being seen.

2) First Position (dir. by Bess Kargman)

First Position is a documentary about ballet so, of course, you know that I loved it.  The film follows six young dancers as they prepare for the Youth American Grand Prix in New York City and it brought back a lot of memories (both good and bad) for me.  First Position captures both the beauty and the pain of both dance and life.

3) Flight (dir. by Robert Zemeckis)

In Flight, Denzel Washington plays a cocky and talented pilot who is also an alcoholic and a drug addict.  In a truly harrowing sequence, the plane that Washington is piloting goes into a nosedive over Atlanta.  After Washington manages to crash-land the plane with only a few fatalities, he finds himself hailed as both a hero and also under investigation.  Working with a union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and a slick attorney (Don Cheadle), Washington tries to cover up his mistakes while, at the same time, romancing a recovering heroin addict (Kelly Reilly).

Flight has a brilliant opening and a strong ending.  Unfortunately, the middle of the film tends to drag.  Flight also suffers from the fact that cinematic addicts are always more fun to watch when they’re under the influence as opposed to when they’re getting sober.  On the plus side, the film itself is well-acted and the cast is always fun to watch even when the rest of the film is getting bogged down.  Washington is brilliant in the lead role and John Goodman has a great cameo as the world’s most helpful drug dealer.

4) The Paperboy (dir by Lee Daniels)

In 1960s Florida, Hillary Van Wetter (an amazingly sleazy John Cusack) is on death row for the murder of a small town sheriff.  His girlfriend, the flamboyant Charlotte Bess (Nicole Kidman), convinces reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) to return to his hometown and investigate the case against Van Wetter.  With the help of his younger brother (Zac Efron) and an arrogant colleague (David Oyelowo), Ward works to get Van Wetter off of death row but it becomes obvious that all of the film’s characters are hiding secrets of their own.

The Paperboy has a few isolated moments where it achieves a certain pulp poetry but, for the most part, Lee Daniels’ follow-up to his Academy Award-winning Precious is a total and complete mess.  Unfortunately, it’s not even all that interesting of a mess.  Nicole Kidman’s vampish performance and her white trash femme fatale outfits are definitely the film’s highlight.  As for Zac Efron, he’s not much of an actor but he’s pipin’, boilin’ hot.  It’s just  too bad the character that he’s playing isn’t that interesting.

In the end, The Paperboy showcases everything that didn’t work about Precious and nothing that did.

5) Red Tails (dir. by Anthony Hemingway)

Red Tails was one of the first “major” releases of 2012 and it’s also one of the most forgettable.  The film, which was executive produced and reportedly co-directed by George Lucas, is based on the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-Americans who served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II and who had to not only fight Nazis abroad but racial discrimination at home.  There’s undoubtedly an inspiring story to be told here but Red Tails is such a predictable and corny film that it feels as if Lucas and Hemingway essentially wasted the real life story of the Tuskegee Airmen on a painfully generic movie.

6) The Trouble With Bliss (dir. by Michael Knowles)

Morris Bliss (played by Michael C. Hall) is the type of guy who always seems to show up in quirky independent films.  He has no job, he has no money, and he lives in a tiny apartment with his father (Peter Fonda).  Since there’s nothing more attractive than a middle-aged guy with no future, he finds himself being pursued by an 18 year-old (Brie Larson), who also happens to be the daughter of a former high school classmate, and his married neighbor (played by Lucy Liu).

I have a weakness for quirky indie films but the nonstop quirkiness of The Trouble of With Bliss feels less like narrative imagination and more like total desperation.  Michael C. Hall’s a likable actor but he essentially turns Morris Bliss into Dexter Morgan and, as a result, I kept expected for the trouble with Bliss to turn out to be that he had about a few dozen bodies hidden away in a closet somewhere.

Now that would have been a quirky film!

Review: Ihsahn – Eremita

Vegard Tveitan released his fourth solo album this year, giving “Ihsahn” a discography almost as extensive as Emperor’s. Eremita offers the eclectic and exquisitely well-executed sound we’ve come to expect from him in recent years. What it does not offer is very much in the way of black metal. This was a predictable turn, as his sound continued to evolve and incorporate more and more progressive elements. Eremita continues from the major shift taken on After.

Arrival, the album’s opening track, is something of a caricature of everything I don’t really like about Eremita. (Considering the almost total lack of Eremita references on youtube, I have no doubt this video will be removed pretty soon for some copyright nonsense, but the guy who shared it’s account is still active for the time being if you want to go explore the album more thoroughly before buying it.)

The power of the driving opening riff is obviously lost in a youtube sample. Don’t let that be a turn-off. But it’s still a relatively unvaried chug-a-chug, with Ihsahn’s unique distorted vox intermixed with soft, sung breaks. Shortly after the 3 minute mark the song explodes into a pretty wild 30 second guitar solo, and then it’s back to what we started with. I do think Ihsahn’s eclectic guitar doodling is pretty impressive. That’s something I’ve yet to tire of. The getting there, however, is kind of a tedious path for me. Prog bands so often lose focus of the importance of creating an overall vibe, and I fear that “Arrival” too runs the serious risk of amounting to little more than a stereotypical build-up to wankfest. Pretty consistently throughout this album I struggle to get into the moments where not much is going on. I never had any such issue with After, despite its equally drastic break from black metal.

On another note, I loved Ihsahn’s vocals when he was doing black metal. Something about their lack of depth always came off as exceptionally more sinister than the stylistic norm. But when they’re taken out of that context, they just seem to clash with the rest of what’s going on. When he layers them it tends to work, but the single vocal track that characterized a lot of The Adversary does not function as well here. It’s an odd comment coming from a black metal fan, but I really wish there was a lot less screaming and a lot more singing on this one.

That being said, I think Eremita starts off with one of its weakest track. The aspects that make me yawn are somewhat less prevalent further in.

“The Eagle and the Snake” is a good example of what works exceptionally well on this album. The return of jazz saxophonist Jorgen Munkeby is a huge plus, making the breaks between Ihsahn’s outstanding solos valuable in their own right and not merely means to an end. The passage from 2:30 to 3:00 is rescued by the subtle addition of a second distorted vocal track to flush out the screams and avoid the sometimes grating contrast in “Arrival”. The song structure doesn’t feel pre-determined, and the dark, jazzy vibe glues the whole thing together. Ihsahn here offers some of his most imaginative guitar solos to date, in a context appropriately conditioned to present them without feeling forced.

Ihsahn doesn’t forget about black metal altogether, either. There’s nothing on Eremita as wild as “A Grave Inversed” (which, I think, might be the best song of his solo career), but “Something Out There” definitely satisfies any cravings to hear some old school Ihsahn in the mix. Ihsahn also takes frequent dives into the realm of death metal, especially on “Departure”. To me, the really pleasant intro/outro and occasional sax appearance aside, this track runs all the same risks as “Arrival” with no epic solo pay-out at the end to reward you for listening to it. But then, there is a reason I don’t like death metal.

Right now, having listened to Eremita attentively maybe four times, I can honestly say I don’t like it. The sort of mood and atmosphere Ihsahn is attempting to create is just completely lost to me on tracks like “Arrival” and “Introspection”, while “The Eagle and the Snake” is more the exception than the norm. But except where something is exceptionally bad (and nothing on Eremita is), it is always hard to put your finger on exactly what you don’t like about it; it is not as though we are in any position to say “the artist should have done this instead”. Ihsahn is a metal legend deserving of the title, and plenty of other people seem to love this album. For me, the difficulty lies in engaging it; I struggle to sit back and give most of the songs my undivided attention without feeling impatient. Eremita lacks a consistent driving force to hold everything together.