Thursday, April 29, 2010

Show review: Alcest @ Cafe Nine, New Haven CT

Whenever black metal elitist pricks get angry, it makes me smile. Alcest has been doing a good job of that since 2007, with the release of the shoegazey, ambient slice of heaven "Souvenirs d'un autre monde". It's not troo or kvlt, and that's pretty much what I look for when I'm listening to this stuff.

This project is really a one-man band; Neige (also of Peste Noire and Amesoeurs) writes and records all the instruments and vocals himself. For this, Alcest's first American tour, Neige hired some of the guys from his other bands
to fill out the lineup.

What I was most interested to see is how (or if) the band could match the atmosphere and ambiance of the album. It's a very "open" record, which is one of its strengths. It's drenched in echo and recalls the countryside, open fields of flowers and all that. Cafe Nine is extremely small, but ironically the tight quarters made the songs better. The drums were loud but not overpowering; Neige and the hired-gun rhythm guitarist complemented each other perfectly. What makes Alcest truly engaging live is how effortless they make everything look. These songs are complex and layered; the band makes it seem easy.

Being French, stage banter was limited to several quiet "Thank you"s from Neige. Even if English was their first language, the post-rock/shoegaze jams don't really lead to cracking one-liners or any stereotypical frontman quips. There was no feedback between songs, only silence from the enraptured crowd. There was a girl in the audience that flew in from Denver for this show; that's what this music means to some people. I'm fairly certain that everyone there knows they were part of something special.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Film Review: Crazy Heart

Everything about this movie screams "Oscar fodder", and maybe it is, but that doesn't prevent Crazy Heart from being a fantastic piece of work. Jeff Bridges owns the lead role; he's not so much acting as living the part of Bad Blake, an aging journeyman country singer trying desperately to hold on to something that resembles a future. Part of the film's appeal is its simplicity; the previous sentence sums up the plot. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's predictable, but from the start this is obviously a redemption story. You might know what happens next, but it's how the characters get there that keeps you involved.

Many people have referred to this as a country music version of The Wrestler, and there is some merit to that. Bad Blake is over the hill, broke, and doing gigs that are beneath him. Along the way he meets a woman (more on that in a bit) that gives him a glimmer of hope, but like everything else in his life it goes wrong.

No one but Jeff Bridges could have played this role. His appearance is full-on Nick Nolte: disheveled, haggard and rambling. The fact that Bridges is a singer/guitarist himself helps tremendously during the band scenes. There's nothing I hate more in a movie than when an actor obviously has no clue what to do with an instrument. Bridges delivers Blake's lines like I imagine he would if you were to meet him on a street corner in real life. Crazy Heart has that '70s indie cinema downer feel, the lovable loser audiences have been rooting for since Paper Moon.

Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell turn in great supporting roles; Farrell was unexpected (he wasn't top-billed and barely glimpsed in the trailers) and only in two scenes but showed that when he wants to be, he can be a great actor. He plays Tommy Sweet, Blake's popular protege and sonic rival. The music itself should be considered a lead role; T-Bone Burnett crafted some amazing songs for this movie, and both Bridges and Farrell sung the songs in the film.

The only gripe I have is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean, Blake's love interest. She's an OK actress but, as a friend once put it, her face looks like it's painted on a kneecap. I suppose the bar shouldn't be set too high though, considering Blake is a 57-year-old alcoholic burned-out country singer.

First-time director Scott Cooper has set the bar high for his future; not since P.T Anderson's Sydney has a director shown so much potential right out of the gate. Cinematographer Barry Markowitz must be given his due as well. The large expanses of open country are captured beautifully, giving the film almost a Western feel at times. And really, that's what Crazy Heart is: a lone cowboy, searching the land for redemption.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Film Review: Youth In Revolt

Michael Cera has built a pretty successful career around being awkward. From Arrested Development to Superbad to this film, playing the gawky kid has worked to his advantage. Even though it was only released a few weeks ago, Youth In Revolt has all but disappeared from theaters and hasn't even recouped the cost of production yet. Odd, considering I would say this is Cera's best acting performance in film to date. Let me explain.

Most people want to see the Michael Cera from Year One, another George Michael Bluth character to set up in awkwardly funny scenes. There is plenty of that in Youth In Revolt, but it's everything else that will turn off the masses. Really, if you describe his Nick Twisp character to the average moviegoer ("he's a sixteen-year-old who loves Sinatra and Fellini, and he makes fun of futurist poetry!") they're going to be confused, not amused.

But a big part of why this movie works is that it wasn't made for everyone; it really feels like it was made for writers. The characters speak with an overly-abundant vocabulary for no particular reason, everyone writes in journals and lines are delivered with all kinds of wordplay. The plot is simple enough - eccentric boy meets eccentric girl, girl rejects him, boy creates psychopathic split personality - but it takes the old standard story and puts it through a grad school writing group. Think of it as a nerdy teenage Fight Club.

Unfortunately Youth In Revolt will probably get lumped in with the lesser Napoleon Dynamite, but it's so much more than your typical "quirky indie comedy". The pace and timing are spot on, and with dialogue like this - "
I'll only ask once that you and your adorable sweater step away from the door. " - it's a necessity. Zach Galifinakis, Fred Willard and even Justin Long turn in great supporting roles, and Ray Liotta apparently reprises his Asshole Cop role from Observe & Report. See this movie.