Tuesday, August 22, 2017

"Adore" captures the blissful ache of infatuation

Even though "Adore" was released as a single in 2016, the EP it ended up on, Amy Shark's "Night Thinker," didn't come out until 2017. And until this year, the Spokane area's premier indie rock station, KPND, wasn't playing it. So I'm tempted to consider it my favorite song of this year thus far. Back in 2016, after all, most of the people who fell in love with Shark's spare, sharp lyrics and achingly expressive music were her fellow Australians. Now we in the Northern Hemisphere get our shot.

"Adore" begins with three fraught guitar chords, then adds Shark's bruised-sounding voice, supported by a simple beat and subtle backing vocals. The song builds in urgency and vulnerability, all the while maintaining a loping, mid-tempo feel. The first three lines capture something vital about the desperation that accompanies a serious crush:
I'm just gonna stand with my bag hanging off my left arm
I'm just gonna walk home kicking stones at parked cars
But I had a great night, 'cause you kept rubbing against my arm
In a quick but emotionally rich three minutes, Shark communicates volumes about romantic attraction that may or may not be requited. Eleven years ago, I wrote for Seattle Weekly about the agonies and, well, further agonies of the unrequited crush. It's a universal theme, but it's the rare song that honestly describes the torturous state of wanting someone who doesn't want you back.

In "Adore," Shark certainly shows both the overflowing passion ("I want the entire street out of town just so I can be alone with you") and combative spirit  ("Watch me watch him talk to girls / I'm known as a right-hand slugger / Anybody else wanna touch my lover?") of someone who isn't entirely secure in her bond with the object of her desire. That's part of what makes the song so great: Obsession has a mighty undertow, a dark pull that can make otherwise reasonable people do unreasonable things. No unrequited-crush song worth its salt tries to pretty up the ugly side of asymmetrical attraction.

This gorgeous, pained love song would be a terrific fit for "13 Reasons Why," a show similarly concerned with infatuation that exists in tension with darkness. 2017 is far from over, but I'm not sure anyone is going to top "Adore" for raw emotional power.

Curative power

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Always nice to get feedback

Not only did Grace Rex read my post about her film "This Is She," she was kind enough to tweet back, as follows:

I'll see if I can swing an (email) interview with her to post as a follow-up.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Gimmicks, tropes, and why we love them

Two horror trailers have grabbed my attention this year, but not because they're teasing some kind of innovative, genre-busting, or intellectual take on scary movies. It's because they demonstrate a combination even more addictive than Trader Joe's peanut butter cups: high concept and lowbrow. "Wish Upon" and "Happy Death Day" both set up either marginally likable or somewhat unlikable heroines using a tried-and-true trope, and it's catnip to me.

"Wish Upon" re-configures Richard Matheson's old "Button, Button" premise in which protagonists get their wishes granted, at the price of someone's death each time. Richard Kelly's "The Box" made something heady and fairly interesting of Matheson's concept, as befitted the writer-director of "Donnie Darko," but "Wish Upon" is aiming decidedly lower: at teens, and maybe even tweens who somehow sneak a horror rental into a sleepover, if those still even happen.

Star Joey King is best known for playing Ramona Quimby, fer chrissakes, so she's pulling a Selena Gomez-in-"Spring Breakers" and darkening her rep. Based on the trailer, pro tip for poor Sherilyn Fenn: Keep yer damn braid away from the garbage disposal next time! Anyway, King's character goes from zero to popular girl, lotsa people die in gratuitously gruesome ways, etc. I likely won't actually watch this dreck, but why do gimmicks grab me -- us -- so persuasively? Why do I even slightly want to watch this movie?

Maybe the answer can be found in the trailer for "Happy Death Day." Meet Tree, played by Jessica Rothe. Tree is a popular, bitchy, probably somewhat vapid sorority-type college student. Tree has a big birthday, everyone who's anyone attends, and somebody in a super-creepy mask kills her dead.

Roll credits? Nah.

See, Tree is stuck in a "Groundhog Day"-inspired time loop. She dies, she wakes up the morning of her "death day," and the whole kit and caboodle starts all over again. Fun fun! Tree has to solve her own murder, etc. ("I Don't Know Who Killed Me" -- alternate title?) Anyway, this one looks targeted at a slightly more sophisticated audience, in light of the fact that Blumhouse produced it. And it might be good fun, especially since bitchy vapid Tree gets help, evidently, from clean-scrubbed, geeky male classmates with whom I have to believe, if anything is sacred, she will mightily hook up with once he helps her save her own life from Masky McStab-Stab. But again, why is this trailer taunting me with its movie's theoretical entertainingness? Why do I want to see "Happy Death Day"?

I suspect it's mostly this: Tropes = comfort. When Blumhouse waves this particular product in front of our figurative and collective nose, we know what they're selling. So we have a general sense of the likelihood that we'll like it. That's something that's distinguished mainstream film from so-called art film for at least a few decades now. "Tree of Life" guarantees views nothing except multiple WTF moments. "Boo 2! A Madea Halloween"? The trailers are pretty much two-minute versions of the movie, and a bargain at the low, low price of free.

And yet... a movie like "Happy Death Day" also promises to have some wit up its sleeve. I wrote about horror-comedy recently, and how it's an ever-loving hassle to pull off. Well, "Happy Death Day" promises us it'll mine the existential-comedy antics of "Groundhog Day" while also tapping into the popcorn-y meta-horror of "Scream." As prepackaged products go, that sounds mighty tasty. Most moviegoers, I hope, don't want total paint-by-numbers gruel when they go to the theater or illegally download or whatever. But a familiar formula shot through with some offbeat humor -- or at least humor that's somewhat funny -- and an intelligence level that exceeds what is fundamentally necessary to plot and dialogue a film, well, that's sometimes exactly what the cinedoctor ordered. (In action, see: "Kong: Skull Island.")

We who love originality and realism in movies can also love watching old beats being skillfully hit. Not every horror movie needs to be "Get Out," and even there, Jordan Peele played with tropes. How can you not? Horror is one of cinema's tropiest genres. The worst horror flicks are built with tropes, zip ties, and fake gore. The best are much classier and, sometimes, sassier, but they're not from an entirely different family. Jump scares are scary! Shadows are shadowy! Icky-looking figures wandering slowly but unswervingly toward you are very unsettling!

Even arguably the best horror movie of the 21st century, "Cabin in the Woods," paid loving homage to the tropes it was upending. Ultimately, Pauline Kael was right: "Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them."

Friday, August 11, 2017

That new Arcade Fire album

Okay, so yes: Arcade Fire's new album, "Everything Now," is their least impressive outing in 13 years of being unparalleled indie-rock darlings. In 2004, when "Funeral" turned Pitchfork and much of the indie-admiring world weak-kneed, I'd been in Seattle (and working for Seattle Weekly) for a couple of years and was becoming aware that a few lucky indie bands, whether several albums in or after a single release, blow up. This was, after all, the year of Modest Mouse's "Good News for People Who Love Bad News" (their fourth album), whose massive smash single "Float On" elevated them to indie royalty (for a few crazy years). That same year, Franz Ferdinand's self-titled debut exploded, too. And, oh yeah, the Killers' "Hot Fuss." Holy crap was 2004 busy for indie fans. And "Funeral" added a powerful measure of dreamy, almost otherworldly storytelling and sound that was also, somehow, profoundly moving and relevant and ridiculously millennial. Album of the 2000s, and maybe of the young century thus far, thou art "Funeral."

In 2007, Arcade Fire somehow surmounted the unbelievable pressure of following up "Funeral" by releasing "Neon Bible," which was darker, satirized religion, and consisted almost entirely of irresistibly escalating, triumphal anthems (or anti-anthems, in the case of the haunting "My Body is a Cage" and "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations"). I was at the Seattle Times by then, and I still remember the version of "Neon Bible" I listened to obsessively in my trusty Discman. The track listing was markedly different from what ended up being the final, official one. "Intervention" started that alternatively ordered album, and it still seems much more appropriate than "Black Mirror" (second on that disc) as an opening track. Anyway, I fell madly in love with the gorgeous, doomy "Neon Bible," and though I will probably find, as I revisit "Funeral" now, that it's at least as strong as its predecessors, on some level Arcade Fire's sophomore set may forever be my favorite album of theirs.

"The Suburbs," in 2010, leaked out to me track by track via YouTube. "Rococo" struck me as pure, beautiful Arcade Fire bombast, a heavy, rolling destroyer of a song that more or less kicked off the band's ongoing reflection -- sometimes pretentious, sometimes self-lacerating, occasionally both -- on fame itself, and what it's like to be The Most Important Band Ever all of a sudden. "The Suburbs" won the album of the year Grammy, and it is indeed a lovely, ambitious project. As a suburban kid, and especially as one who spent most of his first 10 years in a classic American suburb (Warren, Michigan), I do think a lot of this quasi-concept album captures vital things about suburban life, including the sadness and isolation that can persist despite everyone's houses being built so damn close to each other. Parts of "The Suburbs" still grab me, but as a whole it didn't hit me as hard as the band's first two records.

"Reflektor" came out in 2013, right around the time Liz and I bought our house. I took immediately to "Joan of Arc" and "Normal Person," both of which riffed memorably on the notion that being a nonconformist misfit sucks, but the only thing worse is being a rigidly conventional, boring bully. (Basically: the plot of "Carrie," minus the firestorm.) "Afterlife" served as a lovely climax near the end of the album's dance-y, angst-y arc, and I loved the use of rhythms and sounds of Haiti (co-lead signer Regine Chassagne's ancestral homeland, which the band name-checked with a song title on "Funeral") throughout the record -- especially on "Here Comes the Night Time." After the big concept and epic sprawl of "The Suburbs," "Reflektor" couldn't help but feel like a more minor album. Still, the work and care that went into it was evident, and it had plenty of that Arcade Fire ache -- the emotional charge, the yearning, the thrilling interplay between sadness and joy.

"Everything Now" has some of it, too, but not nearly as much. Think of it as an extended EP: "Everything Now," "Creature Comfort," "Electric Blue," "Put Your Money On Me," and "We Don't Deserve Love," and you're pretty much good to go. Even critics who've ragged on the record as a whole admit that "Creature Comfort" has some of that old-time Arcade Fire magic, what with the "everybody sings at once!" wall-of-sound moments and the lyrics about body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, and suicidality. (The midsong reference to "Funeral" that so many critics found annoying strikes me as a fair poke, on the part of the band, at their debut album's long shadow and vaunted reputation as the emotional expression of an entire generation's collective angst.)

However, it's "Put Your Money On Me" and "We Don't Deserve Love" I keep coming back to. Sure, "Money" has a mix of great and dodgy lyrics ("Above the chloroform sky"? Sure! "Clouds made of ambien"? Yeah, not so much). Then there's this breathtaking run:
I know I've been different
My skin keeps shedding
My mother was crying on the day of our wedding
Trumpets of angels call for my head
But I fight through the ether and I quit when I'm dead
Oh, man. The song builds and builds and by the end the harmonies are ethereal, and yet somehow it still sounds like 21st-century ABBA. It's a mesmerizing, beautiful song. It sticks in my head.

"We Don't Deserve Love" works similarly, though it's musically pretty different. Here's where the lyrics really take off:
Mary roll away the stone
The men that you love
Always leave you alone
Go on Mary
Roll away the stone
The men you love always leave you alone
You hear your mother screaming
You hear your daddy shouting
You try to figure it out
You never figured it out
Your mother screaming that
You don't deserve love
The very band that skewered evangelical Christianity on "Neon Bible" has taken the age-old story of a mourning Mary and lifted it up movingly in its own unique style. Lead singer Win Butler's voice has always been highly expressive, but here his prolonged falsetto feels unusually vulnerable. Critics we'll never see the likes of "Funeral" again from Arcade Fire, and I understand the disappointment that surrounds their release of a decidedly nonessential record.

But the spark hasn't died out completely. From 2004 to 2013, the band's albums met me at what now seem like crucial points in my life. It's okay that many of these new songs falter. After producing so much music that's filled with passionate but ambiguous feelings and surprising, creative stories and ideas, these guys deserve some grace. And hey, three new songs that stand up to repeat listening are definitely better than none.

"Watch Out" and the way humor works in horror

Humor and horror can make for a queasy mix. Too many straight-ahead horror movies treat human lives like trash, thanks in part to the "Saw" and "Hostel" franchises but going back to Z-grade slashers and gorefests from many decades past. Trying to blend humor with horror tropes can make a fairly insensitive, dehumanizing horror flick seem downright mean-spirited.

When dark humor works well in horror, however, the results can be thrilling, as in remarkable films like "The Cabin in the Woods" and "Get Out" and honorable mentions such as "Ginger Snaps" and "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil." In the best-case scenario, humor makes the horror more palatable while also developing and humanizing the characters and delivering a more memorable, and meaningful, narrative. When horror-comedy works, it really works; when it doesn't, well, sometimes we get "Leprechaun in the Hood."

"Watch Out," a short film available on Hulu via the NBCUniversal Short Film Festival ("a bicoastal program seeking the next generation of writers, directors, producers and actors, while celebrating innovative storytelling from diverse backgrounds"), isn't "Cabin in the Woods"-level awesome -- but hey, few movies are. However, it deftly presents itself as one thing -- straight horror -- before downshifting to some surprisingly light-on-its-feet comedy, then lingering in the Venn diagram overlap space for a bit longer than you expect.

"Watch Out" takes a simple premise -- definitely a "Why didn't I think of that?" kind of setup -- and makes considerable hay. The film succeeds primarily because it follows the No. 1 rule of horror-comedy: Violence itself is rarely funny, but people's responses to violence, and its direct aftermath, definitely can be. Situational and/or character-based dark comedy goes a much longer way, most of the time, than trying to make plain ol' gore hilarious.

"Dawn of the Deaf" is quite something

British filmmaker Rob Savage's 12-minute short "Dawn of the Deaf" is gutsy, efficient, and hard not to think and talk about. It swiftly winds together four separate narratives that converge when a mysterious pulse has a devastating effect on the hearing population of a city. I want to avoid giving away more than I need to, as the film's brief run time includes a remarkable number of surprises and twists. It's not for the faint of heart, more due to some difficult subject matter than because of gore, but if you're a horror or sci-fi fan, it may well be worth your time. Also worth checking out: Savage's other shorts "Absence" and "Sit in Silence," both similarly refreshing takes on familiar horror subgenres.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Reflecting on a step forward for local Jewish-Muslim relations

On May 12, 2017, Temple Beth Shalom invited Spokane’s Muslim community to an evening Shabbat service and dinner. At the time, SpokaneFAVS reported on this extremely well-attended and inspiring event, so I don’t intend to rehash the facts. A little more than a week later, on May 20, a significant contingent from the Jewish community attended SpokaneFAVS and the Spokane Interfaith Council’s “Meet the Neighbors” event at the Spokane Islamic Center.

At “Meet the Neighbors,” members of the Muslim community showed the same degree of hospitality the Jewish community had displayed the previous weekend. There was a presentation on some basic elements of Islam, a Q&A session, and a delicious and bountiful meal. For Spokane, two opportunities for Jews and Muslims to break bread together in less than 10 days is a big deal. As far as I know, such intentional interfaith bridge-building has never happened here between these two communities.

I am heartened by these events particularly because I have witnessed firsthand, at times, the opposite of such open-mindedness in Jews’ views of their Muslim neighbors. A couple days after the Shabbat service and dinner, a Jewish friend of a friend expressed skepticism that Jews and Muslims can find common ground. He even went so far as to say that Muslims don’t love their children as much as Jews do.

Although he claimed to have personal experience that supported his point of view, this person’s comments sounded sadly familiar to me. Especially when the topic is Israel/Palestine, it’s not uncommon to hear comparisons of Jews and Muslims that purport to stand up for one group by dehumanizing the other. It’s no more productive for Jews to engage in this behavior than it is for Muslims to do so. Nobody wins when we follow this path.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues its anti-immigrant rhetoric and policymaking, and some Inland Northwest organizations promote Islamophobia under the banner of “national security.” Despite these destructive forces, my hope is that something new, powerful, and promising blooms from May’s two interfaith events. And I think there’s reason for hope: After all, these were instances of unprecedented connection between communities that have so often, and so profoundly, misunderstood each other.

"Ouija: Origin of Evil," or: The Horror Trope That Really Freaks Me Out

I'm not sure why, but distorted faces freak me out. I learned this the hard way back in 2003, when a friend and I rented the American remake of "The Ring." Note to self: Don't watch a horror movie on DVD if it's about a cursed VHS tape. It doesn't take much for a "Ring"-addled mind to worry that a DVD has just as much power to kill its viewers as any videotape. I insisted we take the foul object back to the Blockbuster store (remember those?) whence it came. To be specific, here's what did me in: the film's jolting, unexpected, second-long reveal of the corpse of the teen girl killed in the film's opening minutes: cowering in a closet with, as my friend put it, a "boiled face." Just thinking about it still gets to me a little.

Distorted faces in horror movies still freak me out, damn it. "The Ring" was only the beginning. In 2005, a different friend basically dared me to see "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" in the theater. Like the "Ring" remake, "Emily Rose" has its flaws, but it's genuinely creepy at times. The moment that a recently possessed Emily glances at a classmate and thinks his face is melting? 😢 To my supreme chagrin, for quite a few nights after that fateful trip to the theater, I woke up at 3 a.m., supposedly the terrible hour that possessions happen (because Christ was crucified at 3 p.m. and this is the inversion of that, hence Satan's time, blah blah).

And then there's "Ouija: Origin of Evil." At this point, I think it's safe to say I'm a Mike Flanagan fan. I've now seen three of the writer/director's horror movies: "Hush," "Oculus," and "Ouija," and at some point I'll figure out how to watch "Absentia," an earlier work. Like the rest of his oeuvre, "Ouija" features smarter writing and better character development than the average horror film. It also includes a chilling scene in which an unsuspecting teenager is reaching for something inside a basement wall while a possessed little girl watches intently, standing just far enough away to be a little out of focus. And then her face gets all weird and her neck bends and her mouth starts opening and closing ghoulishly.

Stupidly, I watched this while my wife, Liz, was out and the baby slept in the nursery -- at night. The moment her possessed, distorted face started moving around, I stopped the movie, but it was too late -- I was freeeeeaked out. Later, in the kitchen, I looked over my shoulder nervously as I did some dishes. I glanced at the darkened window between the kitchen and laundry room. I hoped my wife would get home soon.

Why do distorted faces freak me out so much? Why are the one of the only reliable horror movie tropes to really get under my skin? I talked about this with Liz once. She suggested it might have something to do with the baseline unnaturalness of seeing a human face warped into strange, boiled, stretched, or otherwise out-of-whack variations. True, it's unnatural, but so are a lot of things you see in horror movies: compound fractures, whitened eyes, flesh-eating -- that sort of stuff.

What is it about melty faces that gets me? I'll have to keep thinking about it. For now, though, I wish the MPAA would consider making an addition to its rating reasons. Can't you just picture it? "Rated R for violence and disturbing images, including melty and/or stretchy faces."

"This Is She"

Just a quick plug for Grace Rex's 2014 short "This Is She," an enigmatic piece that uses some horror tropes but is more of a mystery/drama (dramstery?) than a fright flick. More obliquely and cleverly than many filmmakers have, Rex uses an unexplained, shape-shifting blob on the unnamed protagonist's apartment wall to represent depression.

We get small hints of this symbolism throughout the film's 10 minutes. For example, a person we assume to be the woman's mother calls to make sure she's doing okay, using a tone and language that implies she's recovering from some kind of difficult, or even traumatic, experience. At one point, the woman scrolls through pictures of, presumably, her previous apartment, which looked horribly colonized by some kind of black mold... which bears a resemblance to the little blob she's currently interacting with. When you move, from a chapter of life or an apartment, or both, a little bit of your depression inevitably follows?

After she breaks a mirror by accident, the woman picks up a piece of the shattered glass and contemplates it for a moment. But perhaps it's her interactions with the strange blob during the film that clues us in the most. Initially startled, then curious, the woman soon decides to do battle with the blob, covering it up and pretending that means it's gone. Ultimately, she comes to a relatively peaceable arrangement with her odd little housemate.

"This Is She" reminded me of "The Babadook" in its suggestion that even if we can't completely shed our most deep-seated demons, we can at least learn to live more harmoniously with them. Ideally, we can accept that a smaller, more manageable version of them is somehow part of us and will therefore be with us, in one form or another, forever.