Oliver Houston – Whatever Works

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It is unfair that this album came out while it is snowing in the NJ-NYC area. The feelings of happiness and living life are at their peak with this release as Oliver Houston put in a serious (yet obviously early) contender for the album to define summer 2017.  Whatever Works is the first full-length record out of these guys and it has been well worth the wait. The guitarist, Kyle, used to do his own thing under the name The Exploration which had (I believe unintentionally) built up a bit of a cult following. Various demos during this time period (including one single from a very early Oliver Houston) culminated in a final The Exploration EP that served as a goodbye to The Exploration as Oliver Houston took over, which is a full 3-piece project. The Dork Ages, an EP released by Oliver Houston in 2015, brought the feelings of happiness and summertime cheer wrapped up in a math-rock midwest emo package that they’ve clearly decided to build upon.

Pho sets the framework for the record, hitting many key components that make these songs what they are: a wall of sound with the feeling of being on top of the world right from the beginning, switching to a 7/4 time signature around the minute mark, and a guitar solo. Bernie gets going with the same feel, and I found myself already enjoying it (because I’ve loved the songs these guys have pumped out forever) but I felt myself getting skeptical about whether the songs would all blend together. Cue the section that starts at 1:15, which already allows breathing room and has marked itself individual from the first track, but climaxes with a “stay when you wanted, say what you wanted to know” in a similar same vein as the climax to Snowing’s Sam Rudich’s ba-da-das, as in, a vocal part on top of a more relaxed instrumental that you will scream along to at the shows and that you will scream along to when you are alone in your car. Tom Quad continues along hitting the same beats (all still in worthwhile ways) and has probably the most solo-y (read: not twinkly (I don’t even know what twinkly really means)) guitar solo, and it fits just as well as all of the twinkle. They also manage to squeeze in a few hits of a tambourine, and I’m always a fan of alternative instrumentation.

Concession already has my attention with the use of a what I assume is a vibraslap and background vocals before it fully kicks in. Lots of layers and groove cement it as a standout, but then comes the middle section. Oliver Houston fully reprises what was, in my opinion, the best part of their EP The Dork Ages. A magnificent layering of a lead guitar part being played in 6/4-8/4-6/4-12/4, with another guitar part layered on top in straight 6/4, yet it doesn’t feel jarring. This is the kind of thing that will make any fan of The Dork Ages geek out in a big way, so if you haven’t already listened to The Dork Ages, I recommend you check it out before getting to this record. This sort of thing doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like it to, the last time that I can think of it happening was Mamiffer’s Flower of the Field II after Flower of the Field (which already implies something in the name).

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Tough Luck starts less full blast, establishing a groove and gradually building off of that (including backing vocals that are used sparingly through the album which helps set it apart). When it gets going, it probably hits the twinkliest part of the album, I even find myself singing along to the guitar part (although I say that as someone who, as I said earlier, doesn’t fully grasp what twinkle is supposed to fully mean in the context of a genre, so take what I say with a grain of salt). Milk Door sees them playing around with the calmest sense of space on the record in an almost post-rock like sense (but still firmly in the sound that is Oliver Houston).

Whatever Works (the track) and Reprise continue to show that this band knows how to end an release. Whatever Works kicks off with a 6/4-8/4-6/4-6/4 introduction before establishing itself in a 6/4 groove to be jammed on, still with plenty of forward movement, for the majority of the song. Unlike The Dork Ages (the track), Whatever Works reaches a chord driven climax by the end. This works well, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t truly miss the alternative instrumentation they introduced on The Dork Ages (the track). That track focused around an acoustic guitar and ended up using tambourine, toy bells of some sort, and a French horn — and it was beautiful. Whatever Works has just come out, and I find myself listening to the final two tracks constantly (on top of the rest of the album), so I think my missing of the alternative instrumentation is simply me complaining about how the band is no longer catering to my specific biases (i.e. alternative instrumentation). The tracks are still killer enders.

This record makes you want to yell along, jam out, and just feel happy. Oliver Houston has given us the opportunity to learn all of the words before summer hits, if you know what I mean — woo!

Mike Mills – 20th Century Women

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Menstruation.

20th Century Women was possibly my favorite movie of 2016, rivaled only by Moonlight. It came out in late December in NYC, and even though the IMDb page says it was officially released this past week, it somehow got nominated for best original screenplay.

Starting at the beginning, Mills continues his use of montage the way he had in Beginners. In a seemingly Amelie-style (just rewatched so it is on my mind) he goes through the backstories of the characters with incredibly specific and almost odd ways of describing them, but they shed so much light on who the characters are at their core while saying so little. In this regard, the film, to me, screams vulnerability and intimacy in this regard.

There was a prominent emotional theme of dancing. It was displayed as this physical expression of emotion that could be expressed to anyone or no one. It was consuming on an individual level for each of the characters, and we saw them all get lost in different dancing to different music (Art Fag vs. Black Flag) in different spaces (someone’s bedroom, hardcore punk show, club, etc.) It is a very common occurrence to hear someone say, “I don’t dance,” or, “I don’t know how to dance.” The movie directly answers this with the comment on punk music. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen the movie, but the line was something to the effect of: These are people who have emotions and passions that are bigger than the tools they have to express them. So someone with a guitar and microphone could have no idea how to play anything and know zero music theory, but they still have something to get out of them. This felt like a distinct parallel to dancing, and how even if people “don’t know how to dance”, it doesn’t matter, because you can totally feel the emotion of dancing in whichever way you experience.

When a family goes through two cars in one film, something is going on. The opening scene has their car burst into flames as it is sitting in the parking lot, and later on, the replacement car is covered in vilifying profanity. These different eras of cars are representing the changing time periods (of both the relationships involved and society on a whole). The characters in the film are constantly evolving their relationships with each other which are sort of synced with each new era of car. As for the societal parallel, the film is showcasing the rise of feminism and its impact.

Vehicles on a whole (cars, skateboards, etc.) are usually showed in a fast-forwarded speed, complete with rainbow colored effects. This is further establishing the sense of time passing. However, the final scene with Dorothea on a biplane feels very purposefully not sped up. That is the final moment. We aren’t changing anymore.

The dinner scene is one of the best scenes of the film, with each character sort of radiating their individual personalities without clashing. The dialogue is incredibly well-done, with Abbie and Julie speaking to the whole table, and Dorothea speaking to people individually, and Jamie sort of just soaking in everything around him. His experience of growing up. His role models.

The ending sort of loops back to the use of montage use of telling the story before this point. This is more akin to the series finale of Six Feet Under, where after you have connected with the characters so much, they are given definitive endings, ones that go beyond the scope of the film’s central story.

After reading this article in the New Yorker, it was interesting to find out that Mills specifically wanted to cast a 14-year-old for the role of Jamie, as he thought by 15 their sexuality would be too actualized.

I found this film to be a huge step up from the prior film, Beginners. Beginners won an academy award. I’m not sure if the cutoff dates made things confusing (somehow it got nominated for original screenplay) or if the notoriety of the competition was just too big before this movie could take off, but it feels weird to me knowing that Beginners, from purely an academy award stance, will likely be more accomplished. That being said, here is an excerpt from that same article in the New Yorker:

He was getting a stream of e-mails from the film’s distributor, A24, about “tastemaker” screenings, to position Annette Bening for a Best Actress nomination. July had told me that she’d reminded Mills “that the Oscars could be seen as a major artistic fail—that being beloved by the really homogeneous, conservative group that votes on them would be bad.” Mills said, “That’s where Miranda’s a savior. I felt dumb that I was falling for the competition.” But a moment later he added, “If we don’t get a nomination now, it is perceived as ‘You’re not worthy of seeing on Friday night.’ ”

I’m left to wonder if he would want an Oscar.

Molly Joyce – Lean Back and Release

Spoiler Warning: The Leftovers season 2

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Michael Hamad said in his article, “Joyce chases intersections between the seen and the unseen, how solo performances aren’t really solo performances, the way backing tracks push back on a performer, and maybe a few other ideas.” When I went and saw the record release to Vicky Chow’s A O R T A, it was a pleasure to see her perform the work composed by Joyce entitled Rave (personally it was my second favorite piece of the album behind Vick(i/y)). Hamad’s words resonate with me as I think back to that performance. At first, I was put off by the use of a backing track; I was wondering to myself why they didn’t just have another performer join Chow on stage. By the end of the piece, I had been so blown away that I hadn’t thought back to it until I read this article by Hamad. I’m now putting together that this was intentional by Joyce. And you know what? That’s awesome. This is a space that, not only do I not see currently being pushed (at least within my limited sphere of experience) but I was also so quick to dismiss it of being a section of music that should be explored (see: my internal reaction at Chow’s record release). I don’t want to stay on Rave too long as I’m excited to get into Lean Back and Release, but I’ll just say that the melody line that appears at around 7:49 in the higher register of the piano is such a resolving climax that gets me amped up every time I hear it.

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Lean Back and Release: Joyce’s first release to her name on New Am Records (of which everyone should subscribe to). Right out of the gate the solo violin came out at a piercing register, yet I found the melody to be catchy enough to be a theme (that I do not believe ever gets revisited). Very quickly the piece settles into its groove with the backing tracks that I am now familiar with Joyce using. Around the 3 minute mark, the backing track reaches a point where it is as prominent as the violin, and in doing so, echoing Hamad, pushing back against the performer. It is only after that part dies down around 4:15 when the violin is back in the spotlight do I first realize how far down the pitch has traveled (even with the knowledge that there is a descending theme at play). During a relisten, I reached that part and then immediately restarted the piece to clearly hear how large the difference is, and it is enormous. When the piece seems to be centered around descending through these tones, I expected for a more blunt and in-your-face way of accomplishing this, but this was fluid. As an aside, within the fiction reading that I do, there is a ton of work that sets out to accomplish something, but the characters are just a vehicle. They don’t feel real or have emotions that resonate deeply, and it becomes obvious that they are a vehicle for whatever the author is trying to accomplish. Even if Joyce set out with the intention of this descending-of-tones piece, it didn’t feel fake. It didn’t feel like this composition and instrumentation was merely a vehicle for that intention. This is something she pulls off again with the following track.

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Shapeshifter. Every time I put this on, I get lost in the piece and don’t realize when the backing track has taken on long tones and the live violin pizzicato. That to me is a sign that this piece is just as fluid as the last, able to showcase the transfer of control without being abrupt in the manner by which it is presented. The ending, starting at around 5:55, is very emotional to me. When the live violin has conformed to the pizzicato of the backing track, it’s almost like witnessing a successful mind control after hearing the violin resist during the previous minutes. The first piece of a cross-media parallel I can think of is the end of season 2 of The Leftovers, specifically around 38:30 of the finale. Evie is revealed to be a part of the Guilty Remnant and the screen just focuses on the emotional turmoil that her parents are going through, all sound being cut except for Max Richter slowly building behind them. To her parents, it appears that the Guilty Remnant have brainwashed her, and to see Evie just staring away from her mom, not caring at all, not speaking, dressed in all white, smoking… It evokes the same emotions that I felt at the end of Shapeshifter. Those were season-long emotions that were built up over time and reinforced across multiple mediums, and for Shapeshifter to hit those same emotions makes me very excited for Joyce’s future output. Whether or not my own perception is skewed by having felt those emotions and being moved by them is up for debate, but regardless, this EP was great. Not only was it great, but it doesn’t sound even slightly similar to what was accomplished with Rave, which means I have no worries about whether or not she will be a one-trick pony (not that New Am has ever put out stuff by any such people before).

Shane Carruth – A Topiary

Spoiler Warning: Primer and Upstream Color

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A Topiary is the name of Shane Carruth’s project that made it to script but never to screen. Coming off of Primer, a science-driven science-fiction movie on barely any budget, A Topiary bit off more than it could chew as far as what Carruth was able to gather financially. The project has officially been put to the side; after all, he ended up doing Upstream Color (my favorite movie) and is now working on The Modern Ocean (last I heard).

Due to Upstream Color being my favorite movie, it was only a matter of time before I picked up A Topiary to give it a proper read through. My initial reaction: I can say with confidence that I will absolutely be reading this script a second time. One reason being to relive it because it was phenomenal, the other reason being to get a better grasp on everything that went on.

The scope of A Topiary is monumental and Carruth respects this fact by throwing it in at the very beginning. The script starts off by putting us in a car filled with a family. We spend a few pages with them, and then he kills them off (as far as the script is concerned). This isn’t some flashy way of grabbing a reader’s attention nor is it a way of him trying to break rules by killing off all of the characters as quickly as possible. For me, this runs very similarly to the story of Upstream Color. In Upstream Color, the main character isn’t Kris; it’s the life cycle of the worms. We experience that through Kris, but this includes the Thief and the Sampler as well. In A Topiary, who is the main character? The glint. Where does the glint start? The intersection (at least as told through Acre despite their being many places the glint starts, the same way there were many pigs in Upstream Color but we experienced the story through Kris). Why is that intersection important? It had the highest amount of accidents. What makes Carruth’s stories so interesting to me is that starting it with that car crash makes perfect sense in the context of the story (the story of the glint), but due to our conventional story-telling rules it almost feels like a gimmick at first. We expect the story to be about one of those characters in the car, not about a glint or an intersection.

Let’s reign this back to the point I was getting at: the scope of A Topiary. In Primer, the scope was between two people and the trust issues that ensue when something so lifechanging is added to the mix. In Upstream Color, the scope was the life cycle of a worm, and how that cycle in nature connected different people. A Topiary is also very much on board  with nature and the being-connected train, but the scope is the entire universe, and a life form that in this case is not a worm but rather a life form that is almost a property of nature itself. Bear with me.

Acre’s story revolves around how all areas of science, with application to nature, lead to the same place. Acre got there by following the glints doing his traffic related job. It was so embedded in nature and his surroundings that it led him to the same place as everyone else just by counting birds flying across a street, or bicycles being left outside on the hour. Once he was joined with everyone else, it was seen that everyone there had gotten there themselves by being some sort of expert in their individual field, and followed the signs to the same place. This was the idea of connecting all of these fields together through nature. Being a non-practicing trained audio professional (hooray), the concepts of finding audio clips that were identical to other sources in nature was mind-blowing to me. It felt original, it felt well-executed, it felt exciting to read about, and I will likely be waiting years to hopefully experience it on the screen.

Having all of these experts in different fields of science was something that A Topiary had in common with Primer. Primer showed that the audience doesn’t need to be an expert in a field to enjoy seeing experts thrive in their own environment. Hollywood likes to dumb things down for the average (or below average) consumer, and then spoon feed whatever is going on with deliberate exposition. Seeing people talk like they belong in that field adds a feeling of genuine realism, but one that can only accomplished if the story can still be felt despite the audience not being an expert in the field. Upstream Color goes a different route, and instead of having people talk as if they belong there, there is almost no dialogue at all. But both of those styles are accomplished by doing the same thing, making the audience feel the story before anything else. The very first time I finished Upstream Color I was overflowing with emotions, but I had no idea what I had just watched.

All of the properties of nature led beings, that through evolution achieved consciousness (the obvious example being humans, but this extends to any beings throughout the nature of the universe), to the same place. This place can be called gbpa, or glint—>bifurcation—>poem—>apologue. This place brought about the construction of robots(?) that, if we assume a food chain exists, are ranked above humans.

The main chunk of the story is the boys, despite how amazing the Acre section is. All of the boys have six letter names, almost homogenizing them together. They represent the entirety of the human species. This section of the story is about human nature and its place within nature itself, and how it ultimately leads to the same place as well. Using the boys as the main characters here lets us examine human nature from a tabula rasa stance, but it also allows the audience to understand this complex subject at the same pace, with all of the hands-on learning that comes with being a child.

I am still left a bit confused over a few points of the story, mainly the eating of the detritus allowing the experience of what seems to be the ubiquity and omniscience of the choruses. Is there a realm where, given the same universe as this story, humans could modify themselves to be more like choruses through detritus eating? I have no idea. I will sit on some of these questions during further readings and any additional online research that I do.

This story involves robots(?) being a part of nature, the development of consciousness, nature being connected from various fields of science overlapping, and I believe it pulls all of these things off to incredible effect. This is what I mean when I say the scope of this piece is enormous.

Tom Ford – Nocturnal Animals

Spoiler Warning: Funny Games

nocturnalanimalsI just walked out of the theater and I am still recovering. This was a terrifying movie experience that I knew nothing about before heading in. The first scene where we see Jake Gyllenhaal feels reminiscent of Haneke’s Funny Games. The aggressors keep pretending like everything is fine, like they have a good reason for their behavior, like they aren’t the crazy ones — and that genuinely rattled me. In Funny Games, it was all about wanting another two eggs, and then another few, and then another few. The dread could be felt, but the situation itself didn’t seem to necessarily warrant that dread, which is why Naomi Watts keeps giving more eggs, and it is why everyone is tense when things start to go wrong because it seems like people are overreacting. With Nocturnal Animals, the aggressors kept pounding inside the family’s heads that they are supposed to pull over after an accident as if this whole situation was their fault. Then they offered to fix the flat tire, which they proceeded to do. If a police officer popped up at the scene and asked for statements, there is nothing that could be said that could replicate the dread that everyone in the car, and everyone in the theater, was feeling. All of the scratches on the car would be due to the accident they refused to pull over for.

Let’s back up for a second and establish that there were three main timelines going on in this film. There was the past (where Susan and Edward had their relationship), the present (where a long-time ex-husband Edward sends Susan his manuscript), and the story that is in the manuscript, acted out as a representation of the feelings Edward is communicating to Susan. One parallel that was used to establish the dynamic of Tony being Edward and his feelings was the line, “you’re a good man,” said by Susan to Edward about how he should call her brother and later used in the story timeline by Bobby the cop in the diner.Despite the opening and closing scenes of this movie being centered on Adams’ character, this movie was about Edward, not Susan. Even though we are never shown Edward in the present timeline, his absence is deafening. Susan goes behind Edward’s back to abort their baby in the past timeline. The entire story timeline, the story that Edward wrote and dedicated to Susan, was his feelings on that matter. As Tony (Gyllenhaal’s character in the story Edward wrote) was yelling out that he should have stopped it, the novel was breaking the fourth wall. In the story, the line is setup to mean Tony should have stopped the aggressors from kidnapping, raping, and killing his wife and daughter. This was Edward speaking directly to Susan through Tony. Edward feels like he lost his wife and his child and that it was within his power to stop it from happening, but he didn’t. What makes the story bite is the fact that we know Susan left Edward for another guy and we know Susan did the abortion behind Edward’s back. Susan was the one who took away his wife and child, and he has held onto that anger for a very long time. This book that he wrote, Nocturnal Animals, was meant to harm her.

At the end, we catch Susan in a place where she is willing to step outside of her marriage. This new guy and this new life aren’t satisfying her. She is acknowledging that what she had with Edward was actual love. The writing made sure to include that parallel. Susan is asked near the beginning of the film if she loves her new guy, and she dodges the question. Near the end of the film, she is asked if she loved Edward and she matter-of-factly remarks with a yes. Or maybe these are just new feelings that are occurring as a result of reading “Nocturnal Animals”. After all, she seemed to be distraught by the way Edward was demonstrating the events that had transpired between the two of them. Susan does note that she had been thinking about Edward recently before the manuscript arrived, and we see Susan’s new husband already in an affair, so I do think it is fair to say she had been having these feelings before reading the book, and not as a result of reading the book. So we have the emotionally not-okay Susan reaching back out to Edward after she is confronted with her feelings and actions head on with Edward’s cathartic vilification of a novel, and Edward agrees to meet with her. I genuinely felt the movie was at the midway point, and they were going to introduce Edward into this present timeline, but no. Edward didn’t all of a sudden feel better after writing it all out. He sent the manuscript to Susan with the intention of letting her feel hurt the way he felt hurt, echoing what Tony yelled at Ray, wanting to feel the hurt that his wife and daughter had gone through. I often find myself getting lost in a movie, in the narrative the writer and director are trying to tell, so I did not expect for Edward to blow her off, but it made sense. This was another blow he was dealing. He is still pissed and upset, at himself for not stopping it, at her for taking it all away. And because we watch this all through Susan’s POV, we feel the pain of stepping outside of your marriage only to have them not show up.

I enjoyed the final emotional payoff of feeling the way Susan felt. It resonated with me through the credits, as I left the theater, and still does now.