Review: Woods of Desolation – As the Stars


Has it really been two years since I’ve reviewed a new album? The fact came as a bit of surprise, but here it is late October and I’m staring at a massive horde of 2014 releases that I’ve barely cracked. I was a bit more diligent about keeping up with these when I actually took the time to write about them!

I hope to jump back into this business in force, but in case I fail, I’ll not put off the cream of the crop. My album collection is starting to get overrun by “Woods of” X artists; it seems to be the most popular black metal prefix after “Dark” these days. But one among them might be destined to distinguish itself with my #1 album of the year pick.

Woods of Desolation – Unfold, from As the Stars

I spent a great deal of my late teens and early 20s basking in the polarizing glories of post-rock and black metal. The likes of Explosions in the Sky, Sigur Rós, Emperor, and Nokturnal Mortum pumped the residual poison of rock and roll out of my blood and raised me to higher expectations of musical fulfillment. I listened to them not with a care for technical precision or physical skill, but in search of an experience I did not fully understand. Both genres approached this through similar means, but fell short as social stigmata demanded modesty or brutality carry the day. As I grew into an adult, the ice was broken. Neige’s Le Secret whispered its meaning into my ears just as I was old enough to embrace it. He’d broken the Berlin wall of music, and what awaited beyond was strange and beautiful.

Post-black metal, shoegaze metal, “transcendental”, call it what you will. Ten years ago, this album–what the woefully uninformed all-purpose reviewers will write off as a Deafheaven copycat–was not possible. It emerged as many musicians with the same thoughts and greater talent than myself caught glimpse of that beautiful beyond and embraced it. You can name a dozen artists that might have influenced the Australian solo project known as Woods of Desolation, but this brave new genre demands our presence in the here and now. It calls on us to bask in glorious tremolo sweeps triumphant over entwined barricades of light and darkness. “Proud to be living in the echo–the mist of all things combined,” Krallice once wrote, and though they designed to crush it, we retain the luxury to return. When I hear a song this triumphant, that line always comes to me, and the albums that accomplish it are still few and far between. I still love Explosions in the Sky and their ilk, but they offer a different sort of grandeur. Theirs is an experience of climbing to the peak. Songs like “Unfold” allow us to explore the pinnacle at length, from start to finish.

Woods of Desolation – Like Falling Leaves, from As the Stars

To start at the summit and know where you stand. That might be post-black metal in a nutshell. What we can do there… that is still an on-going exploration. Where Liturgy and Primordial roar like lions into the jaws of death, “Like Falling Leaves” is something of the opposite. It accepts the end awaiting it. In this track we don’t hear any of the overarching optimism of “Unfold”. Instead, we’re accepting that something dear is gone forever, and we are held fast in that moment of realizing the fact’s finality. The bulk of the album seems in keeping with these two vibes, sometimes heightened, sometimes subdued, sometimes entwined. “Withering Fields” and “And If All the Stars Faded Away” seem peculiarly triumphant and longing simultaneously, while “Ad Infinitum” is pretty enough for a new Alcest album. Nearly every track bears a sufficiently memorable hook to sound familiar by the second or third play through, and at a mere 35 minutes, it does not waste much time dragging out build-up in between.

I don’t know that As the Stars will retain my #1 spot through the end of the year, especially if I start to pump out album reviews in force again. It is nothing remotely on par with my picks for the last three years, and it suffers from muddy production that can’t always do the song writing justice, but I stand by it as my favorite so far. This is one I’ll keep near and dear to me long after the bulk of my 2014 collection has been forgotten.

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Horror on TV: Sabrina The Teenage Witch 6.4 “Murder on The Halloween Express”


In this episode of Sabrina The Teenage Witch (which was originally broadcast on October 26th, 2001), Sabrina (Melissa Joan Hart) is upset to discover that none of her friends have the proper Halloween spirit.  So, Sabrina arranges for all of them to spend Halloween on a Murder Mystery Train.  However, it quickly turns out that the train is magical and now, Sabrina and her friends have to solve an actual murder!

Things like that always seemed to happen to Sabrina…

Incidentally, Salem was always my favorite character!  Are you surprised?

 

Film Review: St. Vincent (dir by Theodore Melfi)


St_Vincent_poster

It’s the craziest thing.

Every year, we get another Black List.  Despite the name, the Black List is not the annual list of actors and directors who need to be run out of America because of their political beliefs.  Instead, the Black List is a survey of the “most liked” unproduced scripts that are currently floating around Hollywood.

Now, of course, to a large extent, the Black List is basically just another marketing gimmick.  A lot of the scripts that have appeared on the Black List were already in development at the time that they appeared and, undoubtedly, there are clever studio execs who think to themselves, “Juno might be a difficult sell so let’s make sure it gets on the Black List!”

However, every year, there are a few films that are put into production directly as a result of the script appearing on the Black List.  What’s interesting is just how many of these films turn out to be, if not quite terrible, at least rather forgettable.  Transcendence, for instance, was on the Black List.  Cedar Rapids was on the Black List.  Broken City was on the freaking  Black List. Consider this: The Beaver would never have been made except for the fact that it was on The Black List!

What’s particularly interesting is that the script was often the worst thing about these films.  These were films with overly complicated scripts that often tried too hard to be both crowd pleasing and quirky.  If nothing else, the Black List proves that being the “most liked” doesn’t mean that a script is good, interesting, or intelligent.  It just means that it covered all the bases.

Case in point: the new film St. Vincent.  St. Vincent sat on top of the Black List and was apparently so “well-liked” that screenwriter Theodore Melfi not only saw his script produced but he also got to direct it.  And wouldn’t you know it — the two biggest failings of St. Vincent are the script and the direction.

It’s easy to point out why the direction is bad so I’ll start there.  St. Vincent essentially looks like the pilot for one of those sitcoms that would be described as being edgy just because it was about a cranky old man.  There is no visual flair to the film.  The images just sit there flat on the screen.

As for the script, it would be likable if it didn’t try so hard.  St. Vincent is about a guy named Vincent, a war hero who is now a cantankerous old alcoholic and a pathological gambler.  His best friend is a pregnant Russian stripper.  He owes money to a violent bookie.  Every weekend, he visits his wife in a nursing home and he pretends to be a doctor.  His wife no longer recognizes him.  When the recently divorced Maggie and her awkward son Oliver move in next door, Vincent agrees to babysit after school.  At first, Vincent just does it for the money but, as the movie progresses, he teaches Oliver how to stand up for himself and Oliver makes Vincent a little less grumpy.  Eventually, Oliver has to do a report for a school about someone in his life that he considers to be a real-life saint and guess who he picks?

St. Vincent tells the type of story that would usually bring me to tears and I’ll admit that there were a few times when I did get teary-eyed.  But, ultimately, the script was too heavy-handed for me to maintain those tears.  I love crying at movies but, at the same time, I resent it when a movie demands that I cry just because it happens to be mashing down on all of the right buttons.  This is one of those movies that doesn’t trust the audience.  Instead of letting us react to the characters, it just keeps piling on development after development.  It’s not enough that Maggie is a single mother who feels guilty about not being able to pick her son up from school.  Instead, Maggie’s ex-husband has to suddenly sue for custody.  It’s not enough that Vincent is struggling to pay the bills.  Instead, he has to have a bookie who shows up at random and threatens to kill him.  There’s more to an effective dramedy than just having half of your cast act as if they’re in a sitcom while the other half acts as if they’re appearing in an old episode of Law & Order.

And yet, despite the script and despite Melfi’s direction, St. Vincent does work and it really works only for one reason.  Melfi has managed to assemble a truly outstanding cast.  In the role Maggie, Melissa McCarthy proves that she deserves better than having to spend her career making movies like Identity Thief.  Jaeden Lieberhrer is likable and sympathetic as Oliver.  Playing the pregnant Russian stripper, Naomi Watts does the best that anyone probably could do with that poorly written character.

But, ultimately, the film is totally about Bill Murray.  Bill Murray plays Vincent and he saves the entire film.  Whether he’s being funny or being serious, Bill Murray gives the type of great performance that justifies his reputation for being a national treasure.  When those tears did come to my eyes, it was all due to Murray’s performance.

St. Vincent is a deeply flawed film but it’s worth seeing for Bill Murray.

Review: Fury (dir. by David Ayer)


Fury

“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”

1998 saw the release of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

Prior to this most films depicted World War II as a noble endeavor that needed to be done to help rid the world of Hitler and the horror he was inflicting upon Europe (beyond if given the chance). It gave birth to the “Greatest Generation” that people still look up to even to this day. These were young men who volunteered for a conflict that would change history and for the millions involved. Yet, World War II films were always cut and dried. It was always the good guys (American, British, Canadian, etc…) fighting against the nameless and efficient Nazi war machine.

In time, so many of these films followed the same formula that character stereotypes came about. We always had the cynical, older veteran who becomes a sort of father figure to a hodge-podge group of young, untested soldiers. What these films also had in common was the fact that they remain bloodless despite the nature of the story being told. Some filmmakers would try to buck this time-tested formula (Sam Fuller being the most prominent), but it would take 1998’s Saving Private Ryan to set a shift in how we saw World War II.

Spielberg lifted the rose-colored glasses from the audience and dared to show that while noble, World War II was still war and it still had the horror and brutality that all wars have. 2014’s Fury by David Ayer would continue this exploration of the last “Good War” in it’s most gritty and blood-soaked detail.

The film shows the last gasp of the German war machine as Hitler gives one of his final orders for the German people to repel the invading Allies. It was to be a scorched earth defense. Whether by choice or forced into this desperate tactic, every man, woman and child was to take up arms to their last breath to defend the Fatherland. It’s in this nightmare scenario that we find the veteran Sherman tank crew led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier trying to survive these final days til war’s end. Their home for the last two and a half years since North Africa has been a modified Sherman tank they call Fury. It’s a crew that’s been battle tested from the sands of North Africa, the maze-like hedgerows of France’s bocage and now the countryside of Germany itself.

We can see right from the start that this crew has been through hell and back many times and already resigned to going through hell many more times before they can eveb think of getting back home. It’s a crew that’s already lost one of it’s own minutes into the film. Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) looms over his crew like a weary father figure. This ragtag group consists of Bible (Shia LaBeouf) as the born-again Christian who sees their survival battle after battle as a sign that God’s grace is upon Fury and her crew. Then we have Gordo (Michael Peña) who has been so traumatized by the war and what he has had to do to survive that he has numbed himself from these memories by being in a constant state of drunkenness. Lastly, we have the tank’s loader Grady (Jon Bernthal) whose misanthropic attitude comes as a crude and brutish counterpoint to Bible’s religious fervor. Into this misanthropic soup of a crew comes in the replacement to their recently killed comrade.

Logan Lerman’s character, the young and naive clerk typist Norman Ellison, becomes the audience’s eyes in the brutal world of Fury and her crew. We’re meant to see the war’s brutality and horror not through the jaded and cynical eyes of Wardaddy and his men, but through a young man who has never killed an enemy or even fired a weapon in anger. Norman becomes the surrogate through which we determine and decide whether there is such a thing a nobility and honor in war.

Honor and nobility have always been used by those always willing to go to war to convince the young and impressionable to follow them into the breach. Fury takes these two words and what they represent and muddies them through the muck and gore left behind with each passing battle and tries to see if they remain unchanged on the other side. Norman is a literal babe in the woods as he must adapt or die in a war nearing it’s end but also becoming even more deadly and dangerous than ever. His very naivete quickly becomes a hindrance and a real danger to Wardaddy and his crew. He’s not meant for this world but has had it thrust upon him.

The film treats Norman’s humanity as a liability in a war that strips it from everyone given enough time. We see Wardaddy attempt to speed up the process during a tense sequence where Norman’s being forced to shoot a German prisoner. It’s a sequence of events that’s both unnerving and disturbing as we see the veteran soldiers encircling Norman and Wardaddy cheering or looking on with indifference in their eyes. They’ve all been in something similar and one can only imagine what they had to do to make it this far.

Fury straddles a fine line between showing and explaining it’s themes to the audience. It’s to David Ayer’s skill as a writer that the film’s able to use some finely choreographed scenes both violent and peaceful to make a point about war’s effect on it’s participants both physically and mentally. Whether it’s through several well-choreographed battle scenes to a sequence of tense and quiet serenity in the apartment of two German women that bring back the plantation segment from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux, the film does a great job in showing how even when stripped down close to the bone, Wardaddy and his veteran crew still has semblance of humanity and the honor and nobility they all began the war with.

As a war film, Fury brings a type of combat to the bigscreen that has rarely been explored and never in such a realistic fashion as we watch tank warfare at it’s most tactical and most horrific. Ayer doesn’t fall for the jump cut style that many filmmakers nowadays sees as a way to convey the chaos of battle. Ayer and cinematographer Roman Vasnayov have planned every sequence to allow the audience to keep track of the two opposing sides and their place in the battle’s geography. And just like Spielberg’s own Saving Private Ryan, Fury shows the very ugly and bloody side of World War II. There’s a lot of bodies being blown apart and torn to chunks of meat yet they never seem to come off as gratuitous. Every bloody moment makes a point on the horrors of war and the level of inhumanity that another man inflicts on another man.

If there’s something that Fury does lag behind on it would be some of the narrative choices dealing with Norman’s character. The film takes place literally over a day’s time and the quick change in Norman’s mentality about the war seem very sudden and abrupt. While this day in the life of Fury and her crew worked well in Ayer’s past films (both as writer or director) here it puts Ayer stuck in a corner that made it difficult to fully justify Norman’s sudden change of heart from babe in the woods to hardened Nazi-killer. We can see throughout the film that the war is affecting him in ways that could lead up to this change, but to have it happen in just under a day really stretches it’s believability to the breaking point.

Yet, despite this the film is able to stay on course and recover from this misstep on the strength of Ayer’s direction and the performances of the ensemble cast. Brad Pitt has been the focus of the media campaign leading up to the release of Fury, but every actor who comprises the crew of Fury leave their own mark in the film. Shia Labeouf has had a tough past year both professionally and personally, but one has to admit that performances like the one he had in Fury is a reminder that he’s a damn fine good actor. Whether this film has become the path to his redemption in the eyes of the public is irrelevant. One doesn’t need to like the man to respect the talent he’s able to put up on the screen.

Awards season is in full swing as Fall 2014 arrives and Fury makes it’s case known that genre films (and make no mistake this is a genre film) can more than hold it’s own with the more dramatic life-exploring films that critics tend to put on the pedestal as examples of great filmmaking. While Fury is not perfect it is a very good film full of great performances that just misses being great.

 

Horror On The Lens: Horror Express (dir by Eugenio Martin)


Today’s horror on the lens is the 1972 classic Horror Express!

You can read Arleigh’s review of this film here.

And you can watch it below!