Whether you know it or not, Harold Ramis has bettered your life. With his passing earlier this week, I felt most saddened to hear person after person say “Harold who?” when I shared or discussed the news. These same people brightened quickly, before their faces dropped upon realizing the great loss as I listed titles from Harold Ramis’ career. His filmography is impressive. Even more impressive is the number of truly funny, talented people Ramis pushed forward into more name-worthy careers. But even this is to Ramis’ credit. He was a gentleman. He was a true comedian. And although the material was his, the jokes forming in his unique curly-headed brain, he always gave the best laughs to another man. Take Bill Murray, for example. Look at Stripes, Ghostbusters and its sequel, Groundhog Day, even Meatballs and Caddyshack. Lord, I don’t know the whole story between those two. Who knows the truth behind any story starring Bill Murray? But behind all those classic Bill Murray deliveries was a Harold Ramis script. The truth is that Harold Ramis knew comedy. He knew what was funny and who was funny. And he stepped to the side, into the alcove far too often, to let another voice deliver his material. Harold Ramis was one of the good guys. A fellow with a perpetual smile. A unique talent. An unfortunately stoic snot-balled voice. A man with a beloved fan-base of millions, many of whom never knew his name. God bless Harold Ramis for the laughter he shared, the brilliance he challenged, the humility he personified. And God bless his people.

Transgender_Dysphoria_Blues_cover_artAlright, let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the first Against Me! album to feature vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Tom Gables performing as Laura Jane Grace. Yes, Tom is a chick now. Yes, Tom’s journey to become Laura Jane is explicitly addressed on this record (check opening two tracks and the closer). No, that is not why this record is a front-runner for my favorite rock record of 2014.

If “controversy” alone determined the value of rock-n-roll, Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz would be topping Lorde’s Pure Heroine, which would be topping the new Beyonce porn-package, which would be topping this new Against Me! But we’re adults here (sort of), so we should be enjoying the music for the music. And, in the Transgender case, I only needed one play through the snare-snappy, rolling-riffs, angry Tom Petty-esque opening title track – “You want them to notice / The ragged ends of your summer dress / You want them to see you / Like they see every other girl / They just see a faggot / Hold their breath not to catch the sick” – to lay my dollars down. I’ve had it in constant rotation since it’s late January release.

Controversy and autobiographical journeys aside, this is good rock-n-roll. This is roll the damn windows down and let this record spin three times to Austin on a fine day rock-n-roll. This is curious, questioning, angry, fist and stiletto hells rock-n-roll. And it’s solid cover to cover.

Confession: I’ve never been a die-hard Against Me! fan. I left all that sweaty band-sticker-on-my-dashboard love to my buddy Pepe. But this record took me back through Against Me!’s discography, through records that felt familiar but still relatively fresh, and the experience won me over fully.

Transgender is a culmination record, capturing several different sounds Against Me! has charted and, at times, perfected. You like the The Eternal Cowboy and In Search of a Former Clarity brass-knuckle, bar-room, steel-toed era, you’ve got tracks like “Drinking With The Jocks” and “Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ” and “Unconditional Love”. You prefer the poppy, high-hat dance-ability of New Wave, you’ve got the title track and “True Trans Soul Rebel” and “Paralytic States”. You fancy the stripped down arena rock of White Crosses, you’ve got “FuckMyLife666” and “Dead Friend” and “Two Coffins.” Here’s a ten track retrospective album, picking up various licks and sounds from a fluctuating career.

But the clincher track here for me, the one that pulls the entire AM! canon together and simultaneously pushes it forward, capturing Laura Jane’s grittiest angst, is the closing “Black Me Out”. Opening with a simple strum, Laura Jane chimes in calmly before the entire track erupts – “I wanna piss on the walls of your house / I wanna chop those brass rings / Off your fat fucking fingers / As if you were a king-maker / As if, as if, as if black me out”.  The message here being that we haven’t heard the end or the even best from Laura Jane Grace, yet. There’s more clattering about in that shifting soul. Great. Bring it on. I’m already pining for the next Against Me! release.

Girls-Against-Boys-2012-Movie-PosterPerhaps it’s tempting to lean on exploitative visuals to tell certain stories or explore particular ideas. For instance, I Spit On Your Grave is now a three film “franchise”, featuring the Meir Zarchi original (1978) and two modern retellings / reimaginings. These films are known for pushing the boundaries of cinematic acceptability over the edge into blatant exploitation. The film-makers justify the exploitative imagery by pointing to the themes of the films: how else could / should the story of a woman’s violation and need for vengeance be told except explicitly? And shouldn’t the cinematic portrayal of the woman’s violation be just as explicit and vile as her cinematic acts of vengeance? Isn’t cathartic cinema valuable? And how dare the audience shy away from merely seeing such a violation when so many women actually experience similar atrocities?

Yeah, I don’t know about all that. All I know is that I’ve seen all three I Spit On Your Grave films, and I walked away from each one feeling that justice and awareness and communication weighed far less than amplified shock value in the filmmaker’s process. I could be wrong, but these films felt more pornographic – in their treatment of both violation and vengeance – than honestly cathartic.

Girls Against Boys, despite its dramatic title and provocative poster, does not rely on exploitation to explore similar issues of violation and vengeance. It’s more akin to films like Teeth and American Mary, working more in visual subtlety, relying more on the strength of the narrative and the precision of good performances, which is a far-cry from simply being “tasteful” in dealing with a delicate situation.

Girls Against Boys tells the story of Shae (Danielle Panabaker) who befriends Lu (Nicole LaLiberte) shortly after a nasty break-up and immediately before falling victim to a new possible love interest. Shae reaches out to family and friends for support, but no one proves available except Lu. And if hell truly hath no fury like a woman scorned, Lu gladly saddles up alongside Shae as fury personified. The girls quickly become a Thelma and Louise pair hell-bent on vengeance, but inevitably the vengeance reaches farther than anticipated.

On the surface (and by mere appearance), Girls Against Boys looks like a simple bad-girl-with-a-gun B-grade sleeper, but there’s some real heart to the telling of Shae’s story. Kudos to writer / director Austin Chick for rising above the possible trenches of genre trappings and avoiding simple exploitation maneuvers. He’s created, instead, a unique character study of a young woman caught a painfully dichotomous mindset. Not to mention, I never imagined the nonchalant enjoyment of Captain Crunch could be so creepy. Girls Against Boys gets a solid 3.5 geisha blades out of 5. Here’s proof again that the viewer’s imagination and sympathies are far more vicious than any camera’s eye.

Layout 1Reviewing art affords a unique form of meditation. To communicate a personal interaction with a text – be it a book or film or record – the reviewer must turn inward to inspect the new path coursed by the text. In fact, I rarely feel I’ve engaged a text until I’ve reviewed it somehow, using concrete language to exercise my abstract interaction, which surely will change after a few new interactions, and then change yet again. Still, you gotta start somewhere.

Such meditations are particularly helpful with an album like Guiltless (released April 2011 on Relapse Records) from Chicago doom-metal maestros Indian because, after several dozen listens, I still don’t know what the hell to think. I’m not even sure I like Guiltless as much as I feel oddly drawn to it, compelled to endure it again, even to shut down the lights and fall either into it or it into me – of which I’m convinced neither direction can be too healthy. Regardless, I can’t go more than a week without cranking Guiltless again.

Here’s one thing I do know: Guiltless scares the shit out of me. Even now I feel uneasy with the title track pouring through my earbuds into my body. (What else falls in alongside it?!) I’m the only one awake in my house. The doors downstairs are locked. And as the guitars dig like rusty trunk keys and the vocals pierce like broken pigs (beginning of track 4: “Guilty”), I can’t help feeling the urge to look over my shoulder into this (thankfully still) empty room. Guiltless is sinister, doom-metal murky-bottoms business. A musically maniacal Frank Zito on a lady-scalping spree, for sure.

But there’s something undeniably beautiful about this record, too. Maybe the honesty? The unencumbered anger? The sudden awareness of a distant light while trudging swampy clipped limbs away from an assailant’s slow muddy-booted pursuit? It’s there. Something is there that keeps calling me back despite my hesitations.

If it seems odd to review a 2011 record at this time, I do so to prepare my review of Indian’s newest record, From All Purity, next month. I realized after a few listens of From All Purity that I needed to back the truck up. Step in one stumpy toe at a time. And as I went backwards into Indian’s discography, I found myself stuck on (in?) Guiltless. It’s a demanding record that I do not recommend as much as urge you there with your happy reading face to experience. Take, for instance, the opening track, “No Grace”, which begins with teeth bruising brutality, then simmers into a sludgy vat of churning vocals and fuzzy blasts, before masterfully ascending into a buzzard swirl of black, calculated riffs. Such distinctly fluid movements in a mere six minutes offer assurance that you’ve found something special, something worth noting.

And right there, in those last few sentences, the review’s meditation took hold: yes, I like Indian’s Guiltless. And, it seems now, the gravity I feel to return here so often is an appreciation for someone else’s expression of a personal conviction. Who knew? Maybe I didn’t want to.

The-Call-2013-movie-posterHands,

They put Halle Berry on the poster, but The Call is totally Abigail Breslin’s movie. Little girl’s hardcore! She performed two thirds of the film in the trunk of a car and the last third strapped to a table. Even with all these confines, she made Halle Berry look like a mannequin. I guess without the pressure of being under Billy Bob, Halle Berry ain’t got much to offer. Put the Oscar winner in a trunk, yo!

Also, those first two-thirds are nail-biting awesome-sauce. I got suckered in against my will when I walked in on Abigail Breslin beating the tail-light off the car from inside the trunk. Little girl is bad ace! But it all dissolves to a ridiculously forced female superhero scenario when Halle Berry decides X-Men’s Storm ain’t enough action figure fodder for one career.

Overall, The Call gets 2.5 fully clothed Morris Chestnuts out of 5. You can skip this entirely, unless your spouse brings it home from the RedBox.

– kiki

Boys_love_laneJohn,

I’m addressing this to you because I cannot fathom for a moment that Grave or Dr. Wertnz would be much interested in an indie-flick (by Jonathan Levine, director of 50/50 and Warm Bodies) that collides a John Hughes highschool drama and an early 80s slasher-whodunnit so masterfully that I cheered at the end, spilling a sleeping pug from my lap onto the floor. Oh, and Amber Heard, before she was a lesbian or dating Johnny Depp, leads as Mandy Lane – the Amanda Jones of scream queens if Some Kind of Wonderful had been a slasher. Reasons to watch All The Boys Loved Mandy Lane keep stacking like bodies on a weekend woodland getaway!

There’s some indie-film lore surrounding this film about it making the tiny theater circuit back in 2006, then somehow landing on underground video (online or VHS, I’m not sure), and the rights were greatly debated for a spell until the director Johnathan Levine finally made name enough for himself with Warm Bodies to interest a distributor in releasing this thing to your local RedBox and BestBuy. I probably got all that wrong, having read about it in an Entertainment Weekly during a morning constitutional, the details are fuzzy at this point. What I do know is that the release of this sucker is considered a high-fiveable victory for indie-film, and film-buffs in the know were stoked. I tend to trust film-buffs in the know more than critics, and this time it worked in my favor.

This film looks and feels amazing. The music is creepy perfect, swimming all the way in-between Robert Earl Keen (who makes a cameo at a gas station) Texas country to the Go-Gos to Beethoven and back to something you’ve never heard but that fits the visual tone like a Nintendo PowerGlove that actually works. Levine choreographs a few montage scenes that lift the film above its horror genre trappings, tricking the viewer into believing this is all a sweet, Sundance coming-of-age drama rather than the kind of film where girls are slaughtered by shotguns literally shoved down their throats. The gore is good. The kill scenes are fun. And the acting is above expected par. Amber Heard is always great, even when the film sucks lobotomized brain balls (ie. John Carpenter’s The Ward).

But what makes this movie is Levine’s direction and Jacob Forman’s script. Again, Levine pitches this thing perfectly, allowing tensions to build while flinging red herrings like a Seattle fish market pro. My only complaint with the direction was Levine’s necessity to fill 90 minutes. Time swam around a few supporting characters’ existential crises, which felt laborious. Fortunately, this made the audience cheer for certain deaths all the more, so perhaps it worked afterall. Forman’s script is interesting because his characters are paper thin. However, combining the script and the direction – which shows us the majority of the story from Mandy Lane’s perspective – the viewer begins to wonder if they’re seeing the actual character or Mandy Lane’s impressions of each person. It gets a bit meta (as the kids are want to say these days), unless I’m just reading too much into it. The latter is usually the case when it comes to films like this.

Overall, I gave All The Boys Loved Mandy Lane 4 roof high swimming pool dives out of 5. This film was a pleasant surprise, convincing me all the more that the nerds know more than the critics. And since we’re nerds, that puts us on the winning side.

I heart you, John Barber, more than Keith hearts Watts, but not in a I’m-giving-you-my-future-in-the-form-of-earrings kinda way,

– kiki

1. GRAVITY – we walked into the theater thinking this was a movie about people stuck in space. we were wrong. my wife sobbed most of the film. we went with two friends and we all huddled in the lobby afterwards and declared viewing this film one of the more powerful cinematic experiences we’d ever had. IMAX 3D didn’t hurt. if sandra bullock does not win an oscar for this, i will puke on my own shoes.
2. MUD – loved this for obvious arkansan reasons. local boy. local scenery. the character of neckbone. the return of matthew mcdoucheanay. this film is perfect. PER-FECT. nichols could only improve on this film by putting it twice on one dvd.
3. FRANCES HA – this was the last film we saw on our netflix, and it was a gorgeous punctuation on a slippery chute of slothfulness. God, i loved this movie. and for multiple reasons. but the main two: one, i can’t get enough of greta gerwig. when i saw her in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL i thought, “oh crap, i might have a new favorite.” and she owned FRANCES HA in incredible, old-school hollywood great actress ways. two, i think noah baumbach – minus his last two films – is the shit. he’s so dedgum pretentious that i can’t help but feel drastically endeared to him. i think my pretentiousness is drawn to his pretentiousness. we would coffee well together. so good. i can’t wait to see it again.
4. 12 YEARS A SLAVE – it lives up to the hype. steve mcqueen is a beast. i’ll watch anything he makes, even as soul-pulverizing as it may be. i’ve seen his other films, but this is the first one i felt comfortable recommending. there are several scenes here that make you want to recoil, record, and applaud eveything on the screen simultaneously. masterpiece.
5. THE CONJURING – yes! this blew my mind! and it’s not just a solidly amazing horror film: it’s a solidly amazing film. everything falls into place here creating a new genre classic that easily transcends the genre. with that being said, THE CONJURING did freak my shit out. i was all over my theater chair, gripping the arm rest, covering my eyes, even squealing a little bit. i love a film that makes me want a cigarette and a nap afterwards.
6. THE WAY WAY BACK – my all-time favorite cinematic genre is the coming-of-age story. and this one is near the top of my list. there’s not a lot of coming-of-age stories where the kid and the parent grow up together. but it happens here. also, i’m cuckoo for cocoa puffs for both toni collette and allison janney. they do no wrong in my book.
7. FRUITVALE STATION – the fact that this no-name filmmaker could make a feature length film, in which the entire audience already knows the ending, completely enthralling from beginning to end is a huge feat of storytelling and artistic confidence. yes, michael b. jordan killed it here. but ryan coogler’s filmmaking is what immortalized oscar grant’s story and created a prophetically day-numbering experience for audiences.
8. THIS IS THE END – it’s no secret that i dearly love seth rogen and bathe in his laughters. he’s my number one hollywood dude crush. and now that i’ve watched the first three seasons of EAST-BOUND AND DOWN, danny mcbride is a close second. with that being said, i walked into this movie with some raging nepotism. still, THIS IS THE END is honestly one of the top ten films of the year. super funny. super dorky. super dirty. and super more theologically sound than any of that LEFT BEHIND bull-shonkish. this is the apocalypse done right: with earth ending before michael cera becomes the next hugh hefner.
9. AMERICAN HUSTLE – best thing christian bale has done since AMERICAN PSYCHO. best thing amy adams has done. period. and best reality show housewife performance in a major picture by that glorious hot mess, jennifer lawrence. this movie was fucking delightful.
10. THE GREAT GATSBY – skip everything in the movie before and after gatsby. nick carroway is not that interesting and neither is baz luhrmann’s ego. but all the stuff with gatsby is golden. and the lana del rey montage of daisy and gatsby swimming and golfing and throwing shirts is reason enough for me to own the DVD. there’s plenty of crap in this picture, but luckily it’s all sandwiched on the outer edges for easy avoidance. but the stuff here that works worked better than the entirety of most films i saw this year.
WORST FILMS OF 2013: i saw a bunch of stinkers this year. but three films had me running to the ticket counter begging for a refund.
1. TRANCE – God bless danny boyle, but not even a fully cherubic rosario dawson could make this film one bit titillating.
2. SPRING BREAKERS – pointless and overly glorifying of the gluttony it hoped to demonize. and, no, i’m not getting old. this movie just sucked.
3. ELYSIUM – shamefully obvious and paper-thin. THE PURGE preached the superior “anti-1% sermon” this year.