Reviews At A Glance

Sometimes, writing in-depth reviews of everything can become daunting, especially when you find yourself with little down time. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce a new segment called REVIEWS AT A GLANCE, a brief take on the movies and albums I’ve had in current rotation. It will mostly be newer stuff, since that’s what I focus on in terms of reviewing, but I might drop some old school gems in there from time to time.

What have you been watching and listening to?

December 21, 2014 by Jericho Cerrona

What I've Been Watching
Director Adam Wingard has crafted a self-aware and thoroughly entertaining thriller in the mold of throwback 80's John Carpenter with The Guest. The plot is bare-bones, centering on an ex-military drifter named David (ex-Downtown Abbey star Dan Stevens) who slithers into the graces of a New Mexico family and whose charismatic presence infects each member in different ways. Wingard, along with writer Simon Barrett (who collaborated on last year's horror pastiche You're Next), has made a monumentally silly film that both winks at the audience as well as subverts the 80's slasher/thriller genre, complete with a star-making performance from Stevens, who's devilish grin and hilariously detached line readings completely carry the day here. Meanwhile, Steve Moore's synth-laden, 80's-influenced score absolutely rules. The Guest

The Babadook is an Australian horror film that places cheap jump scare tactics on the back-burner in favor of chilly atmosphere, psychological terror, and motherly unraveling. Debuting filmmaker Jennifer Kent's picture is stylishly made and features a terrific central performance from Essie Davis as the beleaguered mother dealing with both her husband's death as well as obnoxious 6-year-old son Sammy (Noah Wiseman). Unfortunately, though there's some nice visual touches (the creepy Tim Burton-esque children's book featuring the mythical Babadook character is a highlight), the film doesn't go as far as it should in terms of racketing up legitimate tension, ultimately devolving into familiar horror tropes in the third act. Seen as a metaphorical dissection of how grief affects the mind, The Babadook is partially effective, but as something that wishes to deliver scares and an unsettling mood, the film feels surprisingly docile. The Babadook

Writer-director Jake Paltrow's narratively flawed, visually stunning western/sci-fi hybrid is a unique genre pastiche that could have been richer if it delved into the socio-political underpinnings of it's post-apocalyptic setting. Following a family of farmers living on a dusty wasteland featuring the likes of Michael Shannon, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Elle Fanning, Young Ones posits a future world where water is scarce and the combination of lo-fi and high-fi technology has met at an axis point. Paltrow's visual sense is wonderful, and his work with cinematographer Giles Nuttgens is especially awe-inspiring, framing many shots in epic widescreen format and smartly implementing CG effects (a robot assistant that walks like an animatronic spider is a nifty touch) into the realistic look of the environment. On the downside, the plot is little more than a familiar tale of retribution and vengeance; especially after the introduction of Nicholas Hoult's biker rebel outlaw, and the characters overall have a flatness that offsets Paltrow's unique cinematic sense. Still, this is an intriguing, and at times visually daring, combination of disparate genres. Young Ones
Wobbling uneasily between pathos and comedy, Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins has the distinction of two excellent performances in search of a script that can support them. SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig make a successful transition into the dramatic realm while still managing to provide moments of levity, as Milo and Maggie Dean, twins attempting to deal adulthood while still holding onto past trauma. Luke Wilson is also solid in a supporting role as Maggie's literal-minded husband, bringing unexpected undercurrents of warmth and humanity, but Johnson overcrowds his screenplay with faux-melodrama and a litany of contrivances. Had the picture been looser and more realistic, it could have been moving and wise rather than obvious and manipulative. Still, it's worth seeing for Hader and Wiig's finely tuned, exemplary performances. The Skeleton Twins

A free-form, stream of consciousness ode to the Italian horror genre known as giallo, Belgian husband and wife team Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet have crafted an erotic, narratively jumbled, and stylistically bombastic feature that's unabashedly all style and no substance. There's a surreal murder mystery, a frantic businessman, a shadowy detective, and dopplegangers wielding sharp knives, but mostly The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears plays like a heightened genre exercise. Though the frenetic editing, extreme jump cuts, and wildly changing color palette quickly grows repetitive, there's something insidiously watchable and downright creepy about the aesthetic here that could very well endear it to a whole new legion of cult-ready followers. The Strange Color of your Body's Tears
What I've Been Listening To
When New Brigade came out of nowhere three years ago, Danish post-punk/New Wave four-piece Iceage were thrust into the spotlight as the new saviors of rock 'n roll. The fact that they were only teenagers at the time, coupled with the sheer energy and aggression on display, meant that their breakout success was chalked up by many as a youthful lucky accident. 2013 followup You're Nothing disproved this notion, though, and saw the band leaning heavily on the bridge between hardcore and melodic college rock, ala Hüsker Dü. On Plowing Into The Field of Love, Iceage continue their sonic maturation by slowing down the tempo and making way for piano, trumpet, and acoustic guitar arrangements while still somehow sounding aggressive. There's definitely a Nick Cave thing going on here too; particularly in the way singer Elias Ronnefelt belts out spoken-word style laments, as well as the blues and folk influence. However, despite the band's undeniable ambition and penchant for taking all of these instruments and twisting them so they sound ugly and sinister, there's nothing that memorable in terms of individual songs here; just a messy stew of disciplined chaos, as if a bunch of early twentysomethings are trying really hard to come off like world-weary misanthropes. Iceage Plowing Into The Field of Love 6 out of 10
Chicago-based, self-professed "minimalist rock trio" Shellac emerged in the early 90's and have been bucking popular rock trends ever since. Known for asymmetric time signatures, angular guitar work, heavy repetition, and sardonic lyrics, the band have always marched to the beat of their own drum (in this case, the rhythmically astute work of Todd Trainer). On their fifth full-length Dude Incredible, they forgo some of the more long-winded forays into prog-influenced excess, such as "Didn't We Deserve a Look at You the Way You Really Are" from 1998's Terraform. Instead, they craft each song around cyclical grooves and massive riffs, subtly shifting dynamics to appropriately fit the confines of each composition. The results are wonderfully knotty and lean; with Steve Albini's angular guitar and Bob Weston's pulsating bass accompanying Trainer's meticulous drumming with startling clarity. Shellac Dude Incredible 8 out of 10
There's something very reassuring about Seeds, TV on the Radio's sixth album, and first following the death of bassist Gerard Smith in 2011. For a band that's been consistently straddling the line between accessible pop and the avant-garde for over a decade, the need to step back and reassess their career, especially in the light of such a significant loss, is understandable. However, though there are hints of the density and challenging song structures throughout Seeds, the album overall plays like a simplifying of their sound, narrowing everything into the confines of pop-friendly uplift and predictable compositions. This is where the reassuring part comes in; as there are undeniably pleasant moments here, playing almost like a greatest hits compilation of the band's discography, minus the strange detours and art-rock stylings. The results are a well-produced, though decidedly neutered, version of power pop that never quite harnesses the lyrical or sonic punch it needs to transcend the genre. TV On The Radio Seeds 5 out of 10
Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, has always existed somewhere in the netherworld where hip-hop, jazz, funk, and electronic madness coexist. On his latest brilliantly tripped-out genre collage You're Dead!, Ellison literally throws out the playbook and writes his own rules. The sarcastic, serious, and surreal all get the treatment here, sometimes in the breath of the same song, and the list of collaborators--Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dog, Niki Randa, Herbie Hancock, among others--give him the room to riff on what is essentially an album about the afterlife. Though there's a maddening amount of ambient noodling going on here; with sharp slabs of distorted electric guitar, Technicolor-imbued beats, celestial background choirs, and an array of obtuse sounds making the rounds, the record is never boring. Twisted, gorgeous, euphoric, and at times even irritating, You're Dead! will test the patience of even the most ardent admirers of Flying Lotus' bombardment of auditory expressionism. Flying Lotus You're Dead! 8 out of 10
Baltimore-based quartet Dope Body gave listeners some raw noise-rock on 2012's Natural History, an album that felt messy and unhinged in a way that didn't quite hold together, even as it's pure aggressive energy had it's charms. On Lifer, the band move even further away from their arty post-punk/noise roots and dive into some unabashed 90's alt-rock bombast, to mostly enjoyable effect. Vocalist Andrew Laumann continues to yelp and howl like a madman, but his rowdy vocals feel almost like an Anthony Kiedis homage this time; and truthfully, formative Red Hot Chili Peppers isn't that far off as a reference point here. There's also a 90's-era grunge influence in the vein of Mudhoney, with plenty of off-kilter guitar work and pummeling drumming. The explosive choruses, meanwhile, are often the highlight of any given track, showing that Laumann can do more than simply bark and holler like a Neanderthal. Dope Body Lifer 7 out of 10