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Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014)
First off: What a title! The phrase “Only Lovers Left Alive” dates back 50 years, to a science fiction novel in which adults have departed and left the world to be run by reckless, sexy teenagers. (This was not an uncommon theme in the 60s.) It’s a combination of words that’s as romantic or dark as you want it to be, and Jim Jarmusch wants it to hit both marks. In his movie, brilliant and beautiful people who have been undead for a long time are struggling with how to stay interested in the world and each other.

It’s slow-moving, like most of Jarmusch’s stuff, but the pace works perfectly. The first time we see Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton — also, get it?), they are lying flat on their large beds, listening to records, and the camera is slowly descending at the pace of a spinning LP.  Adam is a musician who was famous, or at least cult-famous, at some time in the past, but now he’s recording the same droning “funeral music” and asking a fixer (Anton Yelchin) in his abandoned corner of Detroit if he can find a wooden bullet “for an art project.” Eve lives in Tangier, reading piles of books — there’s a very nice touch in which she quickly runs her fingers down the pages, speed-reading, because she’s had centuries to master this — and wants to be reunited with her lover.

Vampirism, in this movie, is like being a grad student for all eternity. After Eve flies to Detroit, the two of them reminiscence about the great people they’ve known (“What was Mary Shelley like?” “Delicious.”) and take long drives as they wonder how human civilization will crumble.

“Everybody left,” says Adam of Detroit.

“But this place will rise again,” says Eve. “There’s water here.  When the cities in the south are burning, this place will bloom.”

“Do you want to see the Motown museum?” says Adam. “Well, there’s not much to look at from the outside.”

To me, that’s pretty funny. As is the scene when the lovers have to dispose of a corpse, and Adam grumbles that “it’s not like the old days when we could just choke them in the Thames alongside the rest of the tuberculous floaters.” These people (well, monsters) have witnessed centuries of human progress, and become bored and a little scared of the diseases that now contaminate blood. They are not in control at all — they are trapped amid their hobbies and attachments. But don’t they look good that way?

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)
On the way out of the theater, I overheard the lesson that someone else took from it: “Social media ruins music!” He wasn’t wrong. Approached one way, Frank is the story of a young man who wants to be a famous musician and succeeds for two minutes. When we meet Jon (Domnhall Gleeson, who like most red-headed male actors always plays the approachable but goofy character), he’s walking around his anonymous English town, writing bad lyrics for songs with chord sequences that he belatedly realizes are from Madness songs.

By black-comedy-luck, he’s eating a panini (which he tweets about, with the hashtag #livingthedream) by the seaside when the keyboard player for the Soronprfbs, a band whose posters are advertising a show that night, is trying to drown himself. As the keyboardist is gurneyed away, Jon is invited to sit in with the band. With no practice, he is told to walk onstage right before Frank (Michael Fassbender) arrives, wearing a wetsuit (which he doesn’t always wear) and a giant paper mache head (which he does). Frank is magnetic, the song is a noise-rock jumble of words and concepts, and Jon adds some Cs and Gs and Fs to the show before the power blows and the manic Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) erupts, ending the show.

Jon wonders if he’s lost his chance at greatness. Then he gets it: The old keyboard player is institutionalized, and Frank wants Jon to join the band. For what? A gig, Jon assumes, though when he jumps into the Soronprfbs van, he discovers that 1) Frank never takes the head off and 2) the band is actually renting a cottage in Ireland to record a perfect album. Jon uses his life savings to pay the rent, documents the madness with his iPhone, and gets the band booked at SXSW.

“Why does it say ‘two-three-seven-five-one” at the bottom?” asks Frank, looking at a YouTube clip Jon has uploaded.

“That’s the number of people who’ve watched the clip,” says Jon.

“Two-three-seven-five-one people are interested in us?” asks Frank.

Against Clara’s advice, and against the warnings of the (mysteriously French) band members, the band heads to SXSW. You can guess what happens. This movie is based loosely on a real encounter Jon Ronson had with a comedian/performance artist whose “Frank Sidebottom” persona played fractured covers of pop songs. It’s based more closely on the lives and critical moments of a few outsider artists like Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston. Johnston was a breakout star at a pre-corporate version of SXSW, and was too mentally distraught to capitalize on it, and at times Frank felt like a version of Johnston’s life with some tropes removed (unlike Johnston, Frank does not pine for an unrequited love) and some added. Like Johnston, Frank seems to write songs about whatever is running through his mind or in his field of vision at a given moment, and like Johnston he retreats to be with his understanding, supportive parents when the pressures of success destroy him.

This is the sort of movie that shows big, gaping seams while it’s playing, and feels much more taut and poignant when it’s over. Jon’s quest for fame is handled perfectly, because whether or not you like Frank’s music, you don’t disagree that it’s fascinating and could find an audience. You also can see that Jon is talentless, and jealous that he is not a genius. “Miserable childhood, mental illness… Where do I find that kind of inspiration?” he asks himself. It’s a laugh line when he says it, and a profound line after he meets the real Frank. That’s the other thing — Fassbender is completely spellbinding as Frank, conveying emotions with just his voice and body the way Tom Hardy had to when he slapped on the Bane mask. When Frank is in his element he’s loose and limber. When pressure drops, he seems to shrink in on himself, standing around like a cigar store Indian. It’s very recognizable behavior if you’ve met (or are) a depressive person, and Fassbender plays it just right.

Adventures in America, 1921-2014

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) Earlier this year, New York culture critics came up with one of those trends that’s unprovable outside Brooklyn yet sets the entire Internet on fire. “Normcore,” allegedly, was a “self-aware, stylized blandness” adopted by cool kids, who were eschewing high fashion. (Surely this had nothing to with living in a city so expensive that two-income couples are willing to flee to Jersey City.) They were putting no thought into their clothes, so they could focus on the rest of their lives.

I thought of this trend — again, it may or may not be real — when “Boyhood” opened with the fake-dangeous guitar riffs of Coldplay’s “Yellow.” The song arrived in America during the dark reign of rap-rock and Sisqo, and it seemed meaningful at the time, but no self-respecting snob would admit to liking it in 2014. Yet here was Richard Linklater, who was making Austin’s weirdness famous before anyone was willing to shell out for SXSW wristbands, putting “Yellow” on the soundtrack and starting a movie with a kid gazing at a bright blue sky.

Much smarter critics (critics who are actually paid to analyze movies) have dissected “Boyhood” like a science class frog already, so I’ve got little to add beyond amazement at normal it is. It was filmed in yearly segments over 11 years, and the music cues reflect what was generally popular among average white people at the time. (The official soundtrack excludes schlock by Sheryl Crow and Soulja Boy, but it’s perfectly used in the movie.) There are many scenes of young kids playing video games.

Some of the story cues are familiar: Every time a character is drinking booze in a strange setting, he will turn out to be an alcoholic. But the callbacks to details filmed over 11 years are either nonexistent or purposefully transparent. The only Big Speeches are given by characters who have reasons to give them, which is Ethan Hawke’s Mason, Sr gets the most memorable dialogue as he spends precious weekends with the kids he’s left his estranged wife to raise.

There is no subtext. At one point, Mason, Sr pulls over his 1968 GTO to inform his kids that they simply are not going to be one of those families where the kids have bland conversations with their biological fathers. Yet after you watch the already-famous scene in which Mason, Sr gives his son a two-CD compilation of post-breakup Beatles songs (“There is no favorite Beatle!”), you expect Mason, Jr to meaningfully plunk it into his truck’s sound system at some point. That doesn’t happen. You expect some dark consequence when Mason, Jr drinks and does drugs. That doesn’t happen, either — he’s a white kid living in central Texas, he gets away with that sort of stuff on the way to figuring out what kind of man he is.

See, this movie is a rich and strange experience because there’s nothing particularly strange about it. What would it have been had Linklater just cast a few actors of different ages to play the same characters over 11 years? I don’t think it would have worked at all. The metatextual details are everything. The 2005 bookstore party for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince reminds you that Linklater did not invent the idea of tracking a few characters over their difficult years, but realized how much more vicariously you can live through characters if you watch them live and age, instead of living through one crazy night or the aftermath of some crime, or other plot contrivance. Like Slacker, Linklater’s first movie (and one of my favorite movies, period), it’s about how interesting human beings can be when they’re being alive. And, yes. When they are enjoying the music of Coldplay.

The Immigrant (James Gray, 2014) And here’s a movie that’s all about contrivance and setting. Set in 1921, Gray’s melodrama begins when Ewa (Marion Cotillard, whose voice is the quietest in any scene she’s in unless she’s crying) and her sister are prevented from entering New York City via Ellis Island. Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the manager of a less-than-racy burlesque show, takes advantage of the situation and brings the beautiful, lost Ewa to his lair. Over the course of a few months, she’s degraded by her surroundings and rejected by her family and — well, I’d spoil it if I mentioned what happens with her love life.

It’s an old-fashioned melodrama, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I heard one critic describe Ewa as “the opposite of a Lars Von Trier character,” and I’d invert that — this is like a Lars Von Trier movie made by human beings who believe in strong women and happy endings. I ended up seeing this movie soon after Von Trier’s “Nymph( )maniac,” and funny enough I think Von Trier’s heroine asserts herself more fully. In the morality of that movie, sex is a pastime and a tool. In Gray’s movie, sex is like kryptonite to Ewa, depriving her of her destiny as a madonna finding her way in America.

The Movies of 2014: The Year of Seeing Fewer Movies

As I keep saying, partly to remind myself to go back to working on it, 2014 is the year I finish the progressive rock history that I’ve wanted to write since I was 20 or so. And 2013 was the year I should have done more work on this, the year I took a bunch of international flights, the year I decided (not sure why) to break my movies-per-year record. No such ambitions this time. My Netflix queue is half old movies, half new. I’ll probably end up seeing 40 or so movies this year, catching up a bunch once the book is handed in, but no longer feeling like it’s worth it to rent crappy movies because they count toward a goal that maybe six people on the Internet care about. I can live and die without ever watching that goddamn Transformers movie.

Anyway! Here’s what I’ve seen so far, taking into account that I need to see Boyhood. Should Snowpiercer count as a pre-2014 release, as that’s when Korea got it? Should Nymphomaniac count as two movies? Whatever, I’ll figure this out, but need a placeholder.

1. Boyhood
2. Jodorowsky’s Dune
3. Snowpiercer
4. Nymphomaniac Vol. I
5. Guardians of the Galaxy
6. Rich Hill
7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
8. The LEGO Movie
9. Frank
10. Only Lovers Left Alive
11. The Immigrant
12. The Unknown Known
13. X-Men: Days of Future Past
14. Joe
15. Nymphomaniac Vol. II
16. The Fault in Our Stars
17. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
18. Locke
19. Veronica Mars
20. Winter’s Tale This will hopefully end up rounding the list when I’m done come December. Honestly, the whole list is pretty strong, and this is the only move on it that I’d warn most people away from. It’s a fascinating failure, exemplifying for some future film school class what studios can do when they really want to option some material but don’t realize that what made it work was un-filmable, and don’t want to hand it to some weirdo who could run at least a fascinating experiment. It’s like a Jodorowsky movie but filmed by Ron Howard; aka, an Akiva Goldsman film.

Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)
If you’re the sort of geek or critic who relies on extra-textual information to judge a movie, Guardians of the Galaxy is simply too good. Which narrative do you choose? The likeable blockbuster that saved Hollywood after a dismal summer? The rise of Chris Pratt, comic foil-turned-leading man? The risks and ultimate successes of James Gunn, a proud genre-bender who rose from Troma schlock to ambitious failures like Slither to make a movie that some critics prefer to Star Wars? The redemption of a director who helmed a segment of Movie 43?

All right, nobody needs to go with that last narrative. But your beloved critics are right — this is a very good movie, which made little sense as a Marvel blockbuster until smart people grabbed hold of it. (Remember, this was announced as a future Marvel epic at the 2012 Comic-Con, where any nerd could have named 20 comics more deserving of a film. I wasn’t there but I’d go with “Black Panther.”) Like The Avengers, it takes the scale and structure of a superhero movie and weds it to farce.

Gunn and Pratt et don’t exactly reinvent the wheel, as most big action movies are meant to be funny. Even the wretched Transformer movies are full of jokes and goofball casting — Shia LaBeouf, for chrissake. Guardians is just forward-facing in its kookiness, parodying a genre with full permission from the studio that invented that genre. It’s a movie that realizes the best parts of Star Wars are not the lightsaber fights, but the Cantina scene and Chewbacca’s grunt language.

Which is to say that it’s not exactly original. The five Guardians, based on characters from some of the more cosmic but less culturally relevant Marvel comics, fit neatly into archetypes. Pratt plays Peter Quill as a gym-sculpted ideal version of the space opera hustler. We meet him in 1988, when his mother dies of cancer and he’s immediately abducted by aliens. (Their reasons for abducting him are kept mysterious until the end of the movie, but they’re not obscure.) We skip right ahead to 2014 — there is no how-he-got-there montage — when Quill is a vain intergalactic “ravager” (like Han Solo) who goes on a treasure hunt without realizing he left a hot alien babe in the ship (like Captain Kirk might). Quill loves listening to the 70s pop mixtape that his mom left him, but apart from that he’s not damaged or out for revenge at all. Hell, the guy has a spaceship and has not bothered either returning to earth or trying to find his father. He seems more interested in establishing an identity as “Starlord.”

Hijinks ensue; Quill is hunted down by Gamorra (Zoe Saldana), an agent of the genocidal Ronan (Lee Pace, who’s buried under make-up), at the very same time he’s being hunted down by Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and his living-tree companion, Groot (voice of Vin Diesel). The four are thrown into the Kyln, a crowded space jail, but on the way out they’re joined by Drax (someone from the WWE who’s surprisingly great in the role), an alien whose family was killed by Ronan and comes from a planet without idioms. A sample Drax exchange:

ROCKET: If you use a metaphor it’ll go right over his head.

DRAX: Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too quick.

The five of them protect a MacGuffin, which turns out to be one of the Infinity gems that, as comic readers know, grant the users godlike powers. When Ronan finally obtains the gem, the heroes stop him. That’s the movie, but what thrilled me (and every critic) was the genuine delight everyone has in telling this story. The cosmic Marvel stories were full of pomp and drama, from the Silver Surfer’s space poetry to Adam Warlock’s battle against his evil future self. In Guardians, the only people who take this crap seriously are the villains (including Josh Brolin as Thanos and Karen Gillen as his daughter, Nebula), Gamorra, and Drax. And their seriousness is mostly played for jokes. Space is fun, alien worlds are fun, the stars are gorgeous — that’s the point of paying to watch this. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s head spins as characters survive being shot into space, but the audience gets to see a stunning sequence in which Gamorra floats amid debris and Starlord almost kills himself to save her. Ronan’s final assault is a strategic mess, but it allows all manner of characters to trade jokes and heroics.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2014)
Well, I didn’t mean to watch these movies back to back, but they cohere into a perfect double feature. In 1975, coming off the cult success of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky obtained the rights to the greatest sci-fi novel of all time. He set about finding “spiritual warriors” who could bring about his vision, for $15 million or so. These people, including Moebius, HR Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Salvador Dali, went on to create some the sci-fi nightmares we see when we close our eyes. But they didn’t get to make Dune; the movie exists in a storyboard, and in the mind of a director who never fully recovered from the debacle.

This is one of those documentaries that puts a bunch of talking heads onscreen to tell you one version of a story, with no rebuttal. Nicolas Wending Refn, the Drive director, asks us to imagine the world had Dune, and not Star Wars, been the first sci-fi blockbuster. Jodorowsky (who is immensely fun to watch, lapsing between Spanish and broken English) recounts his joy at seeing David Lynch’s Dune and realizing “it was terrible!” A montage shows us the images ripped off from the storyboards, which had been passed around Hollywood like the smart kid’s homework.

What’s funny — and what does not really diminish the movie, at all — is that the lost Dune looks like it might have been terrible as a movie. In Jodorowsky’s own words the script was made by “raping Frank Herbert,” and the plot details he added are baffling, like a sequence in which Paul Atriedes is conceived by a drop of blood making the journey to his mother’s egg, or the robot through which the Emperor (Dali, who was going to be paid $100,000 for each minute he was onscreen) spoke. Jodorowsky’s ambition was a movie that would spark a cultural revolution, a new religion, just like in the novel. It might have been four hours long. It might have been 12 hours long. Whatever the muses dictated.

You don’t listen to that and conclude “yeah, this would have been as big as Star Wars.” But you do appreciate the madness. Why shouldn’t a director try to start a religion with his movie? Why shouldn’t he try to hire Pink Floyd and Magma to write new music for each planet in the movie? Over the closing credits, we learn that the act of making this documentary put Jodorowsky back in contact with his old producer, and that this led to the 85-year old making his first movie in 23 years. It’s the best ending I’ve seen, or can imagine, to a movie this year.

Three Movies, Only One of Which is Canadian

Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998)
Somewhat forgotten in the (growing) canon of apocalypse films, this low-budget Canadian project has been ransacked for spare parts and rarely gotten credit.

The plot is simple: The world is ending at precisely midnight (eastern time), and a few colorful residents of Toronto are dealing with it in their own meaningful ways. Patrick (director Don McKellar) is moping around, stopping by then bailing on his family’s faux Christmas party so he can die at home. Sandra (Sandra Oh) is stranded after she makes an impulse champagne run and hooligans overturn her car. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) is running through a bucket list of sexual acts with volunteers he finds on an adorably antique Internet. Duncan (David Cronenberg) and Donna (Tracy Wright) are running the final shift of the gas company, because, shit, somebody’s got to.

That last running gag demonstrates what’s great about the movie. Using a ruler and pen, Duncan slowly notches off the names of customers, leaving each of them a nice voicemail about how the gas will keep running. It’s the little things, like the home movies Patrick’s family watches and the concert recital that his friend has “finally!” booked at Toronto’s classiest space and the never-explained crazy woman who jogs the streets announcing how many hours are left before oblivion and the DJ who spins his horrible countdown of “the all-time top 500.” (The film’s theme song is the schmaltzcore 5th Dimension classic “Last Night (I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All.”) The cause of the apocalypse is never actually explained — it’s always bright, and Patrick “misses the night,” but it’s not sweltering or anything.

Before renting this, not by any grand design, I’d seen some rip-offs. The meandering and pompous 4:44 and the strangely mean Seeking a Friend for the End of the World take some of the themes, but make the error of explaining the cause of the apocalypse. (Global warming in the first movie, an asteroid in the second.) McKellar’s film owes a little to Miracle Mile, which puts two lovers in Los Angeles on a nuclear countdown. But the Canadian film is… well, Canadian. It’s small. It’s funny. It’s poignant, even if some of the heart-tugging comes from unrealistic character run-ins. (By the end, everyone is connected.) The final shot, which I won’t spoil, is instantly unforgettable, and leaves you happier than the death of six billion people really should.

Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952)
I’d been meaning to watch more classic movies, and a successful author friend assured me that it made a good break from book writing (“stretches the storytelling muscles” — fabulous), so I polished off one of the legends of movie musicals.

It’s okay. The problem with rediscovering a film like this is that it’s been parodied or homaged for so damn long that you’re not sure if you’re watching the discovery of fire or someone lighting a cigarette butt they found on the ground. Don (Gene Kelly) is a marquee star who’s always paired up with the odious Lena (Jean Hagen). He’s going to star with her in a movie scored by his old vaudeville buddy Cosmo (Donald O’Connor), but he’s a little bored until he meets cute with Kathy (Debbie Reynolds), a talented kid who’s just starting out. Complications arise when the public goes wild for “talkies,” and squeaky-voiced Lena becomes all wrong for a romantic picture. What to do?

Everybody knows the plot, right? It was inspired (sort of unfairly) by the fate of some silent movie stars, and decades later it was inverted for the new-silent film The Artist. It’s schmaltz, stringing together iconic musical numbers (songs actually taken from prior, forgotten films). They hold up. You cannot bleed red blood and not smile when Gene Kelly duck-walks through the puddles (that we now know gave him a cold and ruined his suit).

But the scenes don’t always make sense. What does the “Broadway Melody” scene have to do with anything? The company needs one more musical sequence for its baroque-era romance, so we cut to an enormous day-glo soundstage? Why? The songs are fine, but Nacio Herb Brown is no Rodgers or Sondheim or Cohan.

Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas, 2014)
Watching this, I finally understand what normal people must think of all the superhero movies that us nerds conquered the world with. Put me in a theater playing an X-Men film and I can point to all the easter eggs and callbacks. Put me in front of my TV watching the beloved Veronica Mars cast reuniting, and I see… a pretty okay detective comedy with a slightly overwritten narration?

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with this movie. A short sepia montage starts the proceedings, informing us that Veronica (Kristen Bell) left the “seedy beach town” of Neptune, California, and with it her hotheaded boyfriend who we assume she’s destined to be with. Veronica’s about to nail a high-paying law firm job in New York, where she lives with her public radio boyfriend (this results in an Ira Glass cameo) and happens to see (via a TV in an American Public Media office) that the aforementioned boyfriend is wanted for the murder of his pop star girlfriend.

Am I spoiling if I say he didn’t do it? The mystery is well-constructed, the characters who I assume were on the TV show are funny, but I didn’t fall in love with any of it, lacking the context of 66 (right?) episodes. Gaby Hoffman, the much-eyebrowed child actress who’s made a comeback recently, blows most of the TV actors off the damn screen even when her character is making no sense. A big setpiece set at a (sigh) high school reunion feels especially like fan service, and ends exactly how you think it will once you see that the bitchy popular girl showed up. Wonderful that we have a movie that was Kickstarted by fans, but that’s all this will be known for.

Lloyd Cole

My waking life is largely being spent writing a history of/argument for progressive rock. I’ve wanted to write this thing since at least 2002, and it’s harder than you’d think to polish off a project with that kind of inspiration. But not too hard. When I write, I often listen to relevant music with my headphones’ volume half-turned up. The exception to that “often” — usually, the solo records of Lloyd Cole.

How’d I come upon Lloyd Cole in the first place? It was definitely during the lost age of the record store, in that period — a decade? — when the Internet could point you to new music but couldn’t put it instantly on your title computer-phone. I’d gotten into Matthew Sweet in high school, and when I ran out of new Sweet records (he released nothing new from 1999 to 2003) I discovered that my mopey power-pop star had previously been a bassist for someone named Lloyd Cole. More research. Robert Quine, the man who made such disturbing sounds on Lou Reed’s renaissance albums, had played guitar with this guy!

So I trekked down to Mr. Wax or Jeremiah’s or some such place and bought the “wrong” album. I got 1990′s “Lloyd Cole,” the first solo effort by a 29-year old who was, in rock terms, nearly a has-been. In the mid-80s, Cole had been the front man for the Commotions, a pop group with all the miserable lyrics of the Smiths (“Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?”) and all the guitar jangle of Orange Juice. In 1990, he’d broken up the man and moved to New York and recorded a suite of depressing songs about cocaine and heartbreak and betrayal.

“Generally, my overview of life is that optimism is fairly redundant,” Cole told an interviewer at the time. “Certainly it leads to more unhappiness than a realistic, pessimistic approach to life. I don’t think I expect that much from life.”

The dude was married and pretty successful, but the record was bleak. And there on the single “No Blue Skies” was Sweet’s voice, unmistakable, singing a lyric he could have written: “Baby, you’re too well read.” Other lyrics were clearly the work of a sad, handsome Englishman: “You’re falling back into the English way of feeling only guilt ‘cuz you feel no pain.”

It was a loping, moping suite of music with some brilliant touches made by someone who was trying to rattle himself into a new mood. “Loveless” (you can guess the lyrical content) began with the sound of a falling can; “A Long Way Down” began with a brief, melodic orchestral piece. “Ice Cream Girl” relied on a guitar hook that never stopped shimmering. The record raced from style to style, something that was not true of the next album, which should have been Cole’s breakout. And it sort of was — people actually bought the hit single, sung from the vantage point of an angry man veering toward misogyny.

He thought that women and drink would make a man out of him
But the extent of his studies left a jaded man
So as she led him to the altar he was easily led
And when they asked him if he did, well, then this is what he said

“She’s gotta be the stupidest girl, I’ve ever seen
She don’t care who, why, where I’ve been
She’s got a right to be with all that’s wrong with me
But she doesn’t wanna understand that she’s a girl and I’m a man”

There was a hominess and safeness to the record. Side one moved quickly; Side two was stuffed with ballads. Cole grew a bit more experimental on Bad Vibes, an album whose song titles told the story that the album cover already told — Cole slumping handsomely in a lonely corner. “Love You So What.” “Can’t Get Arrested. He even sequenced a rocker called “So You’d Like to Save the World” — a jeer at a snobby environmentalist who, among other sins, is ignoring the narrator — with a ballad titled “Holier Than Thou.”

Bad Vibes was Cole’s worst-performing album, hitting with a thunk in a British music market that was starting to embrace the sounds of Suede and Ride and Blur (and soon, Oasis.) Cole returned in 1995 with Love Story, a record as apparently saccharine as the other records were sour. For the first time, Cole himself did not appear on one of his solo album covers. The record buyer saw a pleasant if slightly cloud seascape, and when he hit play he heard a warm, acoustic guitar tune playing under a hymn to whom Cole professed love for. Sort of. The song, “Trigger Happy,” kept on taking turns:

You know that gun is loaded
Sure you do
Summertime blue, summertime blue
Yes, you know that gun is loaded
Sure you do if not for you

Love Story‘s leadoff single, “Like Lovers Do,” took him back to the top 40. Small wonder, as it ran on an arresting melody of major and suspended chords chased by a chorus of minor chords. Her was a golf-loving husband, closing in on his 40s, still writing mournful and fingerpicked ballads.

And there he went. Cole did not release another album for five years, the longest pause (still) he ever took. He appeared here and there on compilations, but he was in an experimental mood. This was learned from 2000 to 2003, when in a flurry Cole released two studio pop albums, one album of outtakes and b-sides, and one of ambient music — a first for him.

The run started with The Negatives, a one-off gloom-pop supergroup — Cole, Jill “I Kissed a Girl” Sobule, Michael “Eve’s Plum” Kotch, Dave “film composer” Kirby, and Raja “future real estate broker” Maciejack. (Really, he is. He might be the richest of any of them.) Cole’s sound regained the heft of the Commotions, with 20 extra pounds and a girdle. I mean this in the best possible way.

The Negatives’ album starts with four perfect pop songs. I immediately loved the way the fretboard scraps in “Past Imperfect” remained on the track. “Impossible Girl” was cleaner; the scraping returned for “No More Love Songs”; with “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” the arpeggiating was accented by an out-of-nowhere keyboard. It was fantastic. None of its songs became hit singles.

In 2001 came the ambient album, “Plastic Wood” (which I like but don’t relisten to often), and the helpfully titled outtakes album “Etc” (which contains a Blood on the Tracks cover that captures everything Cole adds to the singer-songwriter canon). In 2003, Cole slowed way, way down — Music in a Foreign Language was very self-consciously slow and adult. The only electric sounds were moody guitar slides that accented the soft acoustic wrist-slashing ballads. “No More Love Songs” was reworked with more warmth. As if warmth could change a line like this:

“Rather than you,” she said, “I prefer solitude.
Rather than company, I prefer cigarettes.”

Did this mark a new direction? Sort of. In 2006 Cole returned with (hold the laughs) Antidepressant, a little chippier than the last record but not straying far from its front room production style. The only difference was the humor — the title track was an entirely literal story about two sad hipsters finding each other in a cafe.

I said I’m trying to write my novel
She said Neither am I
And either way I saw you reading No Depression
You’re doing nothing I’ll come over 
We’ll watch 6 feet Under
And then we’ll maybe get around to your condition
With my medication I will be fine

The courtship turned immediately into panic, and fear of commitment:

First she’s going to tire of my fixations
Then she’s going to tire of my face
I’m going to need a new affectation
I’m going to need a new one everyday

And Cole kept writing. In 2009 he released four CDs worth of outtakes, containing everything from Leonard Cohen covers (“Chelsea Hotel No 2″ done up with his standard wry detachment) to Burt Bacharach covers to remixes of the singles that had not quite been hits. He followed a year later with Broken Record, which gave every confidence that he could record songs like this forever. “Do you have nothing to do on this fine afternoon,” he asked in the single, “but write?”

But you’ve got nothing today so you crank out
Another screenplay

About a writer without ideas
And her lover she pushes away when he gets too near

You can get a beat from a broken heart
You could write the book while falling apart
You can have it all save the one you want
Going for a song

Thoughts that Make You Think: Cruise Edition

The reasons arrayed against me ever going on a cruise were legion. I don’t like being trapped in one setting; I add to my girth by trying new restaurants, not squatting at buffets; I read that one David Foster Wallace essay that everyone’s read; a great-aunt last her husband to food poisoning on a mid-1990s cruise. Yes, she got a settlement, but I don’t have any dependents right now, so the death-by-cruise possibility carried little appeal for me.

Still, I went on a cruise. With the dual purposes of writing an article and filling out the first chapter of my book, I joined the second annual “Cruise to the Edge,” giving me a week in close quarters with 2500 fans of progressive rock and some of their favorite bands. Yes! Marillion! PFM! Tangerine Dream! Several bands consisting of an old group’s members, but not legally able to use the group’s name! (Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited, Soft Machine Legacy, Three Friends [The Music of Gentle Giant].)

Briefly, before I write the words I get paid for, it kicked a little ass. Among the things I learned:

- People over age 50 have trouble believing that a magazine with no paper version is real. (Apropos of nothing, the Chinese government feels the same way, and will only grant media visas to non-TV/radio organizations which publish print versions or syndicate in print media.)

- Human beings are constantly at risk of killing each other with disease. Every communal space on the ship featured a warning about contamination; bathroom doors carried signs asking those exiting to cover their hands with paper towels before grabbing doorknobs.

- You’ve got to have some bland food available, because some people simply want to eat that way. The one scheduled excursion I took (to Mayan ruins, joined by Edgar from Tangerine Dream) featured a pretty solid Mexican lunch. A Cruise to the Edge crew member who’d brought his family on the excursion loudly complained, and asked why they didn’t “at least have some hot dogs.” Also, bland food –> less diarrhea. (Potentially.)

- The Mayan descendants who lead some tour groups are really bitter about the whole civilizational destruction thing.

- The happiest man in the world is the man who watched Tangerine Dream live on a boat while he sits in a hot tub. (Note: This was not me.)

- Buying the drink vouchers in advance saves you money and makes you a popular man/woman when you realize you need to give some of them away to the folks you like.

The Movies of 2013 (That I saw): The List (with Comments)

UPDATED on February 1, to reflect some more garbage that I shot at my eyeballs.

114. Paradise
113. Sharknado
112. Phil Spector
111. Salinger
110. After Earth
109. The Hangover Part III – Not so much a movie as the dramatic cashing of many paychecks. First there’s Todd Phillips, who scratches out (and directs) a script that wrings 100 minutes of plot out of the element that worked as a strange ethnic joke in the first movie. Then we have that element, Ken Jeong, who in not one but two franchises has become a parody of a “fan-favorite” character. (He’s gotten similarly insufferable in “Community.”) On to the cast, from Justin Bartha’s willingness to be set aside — again! — for the entire drama, to Bradley Cooper’s theory that he can say “what the fuck?” and “are you fucking kidding me?” and call it a performance. Even Mike Tyson figured it was worth skipping this one, and he’s Mike Tyson. One hundred minutes of watching Galifinakis et al actually cash their pay stubs would have been more entertaining.
108. Oz The Great and Powerful – Not long after this steaming pile was plopped into theaters, the wise men at Red Letter Media crafted a compare-and-contrast between Sam Raimi’s latest and one of his best cult films, “Bruce Campbell vs. The Army of Darkness.” Long story short — they’re the same damn movie, only one brings some scrappy charm to the proceedings and one is a mawkish slog. The goofball plotting that worked in Raimi’s earlier movie, like the magical corruption of Campbell’s girlfriend, is played for metaphorically ruinous horror here.
107. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
106. Mama
105. The Brass Teapot
104. CBGB – On some dull afternoon, when I was younger and had poorer taste, I turned on VH1 to watch most of a Meat Loaf biopic. Yes: The music channel turned around a 2-hour film about the life of everyone’s favorite obese balladeer, starring the guy who later played Swearingen’s sidekick on “Deadwood.” It was terrible, like it sounds, but it prepared me mentally for deadening adventures like this one, which casts a bored Alan Rickman as club founder Hillel “Hilly” Kristal.
103. Admission
102. Jug Face
101. Girl Most Likely – Kristen Wiig is typecast in a film that apes “Bridesmaids” without ever cracking the code of why that movie worked. Both films start with songs by Blondie, both make Wiig a pathetic has-been whose talent was wasted by her 30s, both introduce a female nemesis — they’re the same movie, though only “Bridesmaids” gives you characters to care about.
100. jOBS
99. The Butler
98. Only God Forgives
97. The Family
96. Dealin’ With Idiots
95. The Canyons
94. Olympus Has Fallen
93. Oblivion
92. How I Live Now
91. The Sapphires – Your standard “it was the 60s, and racism was bad” story, with two twists. One: The put-upon black people are aborigines. Two: They’re in a girl group put together hastily to play for American soldiers in Vietnam.
90. Man of Steel
89. Our Nixon
88. Stoker
87. To the Wonder – Terrence Malick directs a perfume commercial.
86. Beautiful Creatures
85. Jack the Giant Slayer
84. Somebody Up There Likes Me – Magical realist indie schlock about a young, bored man who gets divorced, gets married, has a kid, and exchanges many sarcastic lines with Nick Offerman. Offerman (who’s brought along his wife, Megan Mullaly, as he did in the similarly okay “Smashed”) makes it worth watching; the rest is lost somewhere between Wes Anderson and an average episode of Arrested Development.
83. White House Down
82. Lovelace
81. Welcome to the Punch
80. Dead Man Down
79. The Iceman
78. 42 – Surprisingly dull drama about how racism, despite what you might think, is terrible. A solid first act gives way to a plod about Jackie Robinson’s first year with the Dodgers, during which he changed the hearts of many a redneck.
77. Machete Kills
76. Evil Dead
75. About Time
74. Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie
73. Elysium
72. Star Trek: Into Darkness
71. Kiss of the Damned – Xan Cassavetes, scion of the great indie director John, slaps together a vampire love story that’s all atmospherics and little momentum. I enjoyed the jokes about how intolerable and snooty the eternal living dead are — they’re Eurotrash, basically — but apart from the raw sex scenes it’s nothing you haven’t seen in another vampire film. (On reflection, maybe the raw sex scenes are enough.)
70. The Look of Love
69. Black Rock
68. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – “The second happening has not happened.”
67. The To-Do List
66. The Lords of Salem
65. Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus
64. The Wolverine
63. Koch
62. Warm Bodies – A nonsensical but cute romantic comedy about a boy-turned-zombie who falls in love with a girl after eating her boyfriend and consuming his memories. It’s best when it’s dark, worse when everything works out for humanity — though Rob Corddry, as the hero’s zombie drinking buddy, is on a three-laughs-per-scene roll.
61. Drinking Buddies
60. Much Ado About Nothing
59. Kon-Tiki
58. The Bling Ring – Sophia Coppola adopts a magazine profile of a wealthy, shallow gang of robbers into an amusingly meta and unadorned culture study.
57. World War Z
56. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
55. Don Jon
54. V/H/S/2
53. Prince Avalanche
52. What Maisie Knew
51. We Are What We Are
50. Sound City – Two-thirds of a great documentary about a lyrically dilapidated studio in Los Angeles where some of the great rock era records (Rumors, Nevermind, Working Class Dog) were recorded. One-third of a yawner VH1 special about Dave Grohl buying the boards from the closed-down Sound City and recording a by-numbers album with a bunch of rock star pals. Around 10 minutes are spent watching Paul McCartney and Grohl “jam” on a song eventually titled “Gimme Some Slack,” and you’d trade these 10 minutes for any 10 at the dentist’s office.
49. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
48. Call Me Kuchu – A simple, affecting, and surprising documentary about gay activists in Uganda. Pushed down the list as I’ve read unsettling things about its selective portrayal of facts, like how the killing of David Kato is portrayed as a hate crime when it might have been a murder over a scam gone bad.
47. The East – A contractor (Brit Marling) who works undercover for the feds infiltrates an eco-terror group run by a startlingly charismatic freegan (Alexander Skarsgard).
46. The Spectacular Now
45. War Witch
44. The Kings of Summer
43. The Great Gatsby
42. It’s a Disaster – A group of thirtysomething couples, greying adolescents, gather for brunch at the longest-lasting couple’s home. At this inopportune time, a dirty bomb explodes in downtown LA. The lovely, un-duct-taped Victorian house will be the couples’ sepulcher.
41. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
40. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – A brisk sequel to the era-defining (really! No Ricky Gervais without Steve Coogan) TV series. Alan is ensconced at Radio Norwich, co-hosting Mid-Morning Matters, and resisting — for purely selfish reasons — the arrival of a conglomerate which intends to downsize the station.
39. We Steal Secrets – Wikileaks declared total war on this Alex Gibney film, a fairly straightforward introduction to the Assange/Manning saga, paced by interviews with the people who sold them out. Gibney clearly comes away critical of Assange’s messianism — he’s harder on him than he was on Eliot Spitzer in his documentary about the fallen politician.
38. Side Effects
37. Wrong
36. Blue Caprice
35. The Way Way Back
34. The Square
33. The Conjuring
32. Behind the Candelabra
31. John Dies at the End
30. Dirty Wars
29. Thor: The Dark World
28. Byzantium
27. Iron Man 3
26. Trance
25. The Place Beyond the Pines
24. Blue Jasmine
23. The Wolf of Wall Street
22. Mud
21. Stories We Tell
20. Dallas Buyers Club
19. A Hijacking
18. Room 237
17. A Band Called Death.
16. This Is The End
15. Gimme the Loot
14. Pacific Rim
13. Fruitvale Station
12. The World’s End
11. American Hustle
10. Frances Ha
9. Spring Breakers
8. No
7. Captain Phillips
6. Upstream Color
5. Gravity
4. Her
3. 12 Years a Slave
2. The Act of Killing
1. Before Midnight

“American Hustle” and “The To-Do List”

“American Hustle” (David O. Russell, 2013)
Let’s count the ways in which this movie could have failed. One: It fictionalizes an insane real-life story, the “AbScam” sting in which FBI agents bribed members of Congress and the mayor of Camden, and removes the fascinating question of whether the intelligence community was striking back after a decade of investigations from Washington. Two: It casts waspish Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Christian Bale as, respectively, loudmouthed Italians and a loudmouthed Jewish con man. Three: Under its old title, “American Bullshit,” it was considered messily un-filmable for years. And as good as this movie ends up being, you can see the seams, and feel yourself drifting during some moments before the plot gets truly gonzo.

But everything else works — even the casting works. Russell has juggled the casts of his last two films (“Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter”) and set them against each other. It opens on the first phase of AbScam, as Bale’s con man Irving, his accomplice Sydney (Amy Adams, who I hope doesn’t give a boring Oscar speech), and the FBI agent (Cooper) are attempting to bribe the mayor of Camden (Renner) on video. The agent, Richie DiMaso, screws it up by being over-eager; Irving runs out of the room to fix things.

Roll: A voiceover and flashback that completely evokes the start of “Goodfellas.” (It was a good idea to begin the movie with a flash-forward, to avoid just cloning Scorcese’s masterpiece.) Irving and Sydney meet at a pool party, bond over their love of Duke Ellington, and quickly expand his nascent loan-scam business. When DiMaso shows up in the office, we know he’s about to collar them, and he does after handing a check to Sydney. In a perfect scene, a mannered, puffed-up DiMaso confronts Sydney in her prison cell (“Why’s there no bed in here? I asked for one. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I wanted you to be uncomfortable. I’m a wild card like that.”) and tries to convince her that Irving let her take the fall. Separately, he talks Irving into working with the FBI — get them four arrests, and his own case vanishes.

The two con artists go with the plan, seemingly revealing everything they feel about each other in a late-night argument, then agreeing to do the FBI’s con while trying to con the FBI. Irving guides Richie through the AbScam plan. Richie wants to play it on New Jersey politicians who are desperate to bring capital to Atlantic City. (The New Jersey angle is accurate, though all the names are changed.) Everything escalates from there — Richie becoming more arrogant and violent without learning any competence, Sydney manipulating one (or both) of the paramours, Irving becoming a nervous wreck who keeps dramatically collapsing and sucking down heart medicine. The mayor of Camden, whom we’re meant to like from the second he’s introduced, gets exploited by the Venn Diagram desperation of the criminals and the ambitious agent.

It’s thrilling, most of the time. The “hustle” is the sting itself, but also the strangely all-American way that Irving and Sydney have thrived on scamming people. That’s the definition of “hustle” that the historian John McDougall uses, non-pejoratively, to praise the industry of America’s earlier settlers, killers, and businessmen. Russell has taken a story remembered as the downfall of a few greedy congressmen and made it about how the surveillance state and the shadow economy exploit otherwise decent people. I can’t recall a movie in which the mafia comes off better or wiser. I think that’s on purpose. When Richie tells Irving that an America run by people like him, con men, would be a banana republic, Irving barks that it’s really the FBI goons ruining the country. “We get over Watergate and you want to bring down a bunch of politicians!” Bullshit, but like every character in the movie seems to say: You believe what you want to believe.

“The To-Do List” (Maggie Carey, 2013)
Sometimes a book or movie or lover’s poem falls way, way short of the mark, but you can’t bring yourself to criticize it. The intentions were good. We’d rather live in a system where someone tried then one where they couldn’t. This is my pretentious way of saying I’m glad Maggie Carey got funding and a great cast to put together a sex-positive feminist teen comedy, but disappointed at how lame it is.

Aubrey Plaza, a 29-year old actress who has merged sullenness and cuteness in ways no behavioral scientist could have imagined, plays Brandy, who we know is a virgin because someone yells “virgin” at her valedictorian speech. Brandy’s en route to Georgetown (I’m disappointed that they didn’t go with the “Risky Business” reference and send her to Princeton), but she’s hopelessly awkward. The first time she gets drunk (on Apple Pucker), she accidentally starts hooking up with mansculpted hunk Rusty Watters (Scott Porter), but he realizes he’s found the wrong girl in the wrong dark room and leaves her. The lesson Brandy takes from this is that she needs more sexual experience. Why? Because the movie is called “The To-Do List.”

Brandy’s experimentation is a complete success, and the movie ends after she and a group of nerdy boys (Donald Glover, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) have learned plenty about hooking up. No one is exploited, least of all Brandy. Teens screw around. That’s okay. Some of them are lousy at sex. That’s okay, too. There’s almost none of the shaming that defined “Easy A,” which was actually a much funnier movie — oh, and that’s where the problems start. Carey’s written a lesson into a pastiche of teen comedy tropes and 90s references.

Other critics (by which I mean actual critics, who don’t just write on their blogs while procrastinating on longer assignments) have puzzled at the amount of 90s references that stud this movie. I get why the movie is set in 1993, because cell phones have completely changed the relationships teens have with each other, the ease of hook-ups, the ease of making or breaking plans. In 2013 (or 2003) a girl confused about sex could spend a night clicking through porn sites: Education complete.

But too often, “hey, it’s the 90s!” is the only joke on screen. One character gets paged, on a pager! Brandy has lots of pictures of Hillary Clinton! Her dad reads Rush Limbaugh’s book! Someone apologizes for not answering an “electronic mail!” And so on, like a Buzzfeed listicle come to celluloid life. The beats of the plot that aren’t about sex are often borrowed from successful 80s comedies, down to a “poop in the pool” joke. Giving Brandy and most of the supporting cast summer jobs at a pool made the trope-ing too easy. It’s a cute story, but simply not funny enough to support its length.

Another Couple of Movies

Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua, 2013)
There are movies that I watch when settled into a dark theater, ignoring all distractions, feeling my temper rise when someone checks the fucking football scores on his fucking phone. And there are movies I put on distractedly, because they came out in the year 2013 and I’m trying to take advantage of my single life by consuming as much pop culture as possible, even if doing so means just looking up occasionally at the action onscreen.

All of that is to say: I knew this movie would suck wind, and I put it on because Netflix started streaming it. No one ever really needs to see “Olympus Has Fallen,” unless it’s for the lulz that come when a director telling a hack story about a North Korean (why is it always the North Koreans?) assault on the White House shoots everything like an episode of “The West Wing,” all booming string sections and walk-and-talks and pans of the realistic sets. Also funny: The plot device that gives the president a high-level meeting with “the South Korean prime minister,” i.e. the man who does not actually South Korea’s head of state. (Like us, they elect a president. The PM is sort of like a chief of staff.) Funnier: The cargo plane assault on D.C., in which two Korean pilots with blank expressions manage to kill hundreds of civilians, blow up several F-22s, and crash into the Washington Monument.

It’s too bad for Fuqua that “White House Down” was released months later and had some actual fun with this conceit. Oh, I haven’t seen “White House Down” — it’s not streaming yet! — but it teams up Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, whereas “Olympus” gives us a team much less known for its comedic chops, Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart.

Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013)
I don’t have young children and am not, personally, a 14-year old girl, so my introduction to and full knowledge of “The Hunger Games” series came from the 2012 movie. I dug it. Haters complained that the conceit was ripped off from the classic bonkers Japanese manga/movie “Battle Royale,” but it really wasn’t — it took ingredients from that story and blended them with “The Lottery” and “Murderball” and [insert dystopian fantasy] to fine effect. It ended with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, of course) manipulating the vile Capital and its celebrity/game show machine into letting her and her childhood friend Peeta both survive the game, then returning home as the oppressed districts start to churn with revolution.

The sequel starts strong, because the whole Hunger Games “industry,” an on-the-nose parody of reality TV country, remains well-realized. Katniss’s win got her and her family out of the District 12 holler and into the district’s underpopulated “Victors Village,” a row of McMansions that looks as dank as your average abandoned Florida development circa 2009. We see the squalor inhabited by Hamish, the only living District 12 victor. I liked this bit, and I liked the surreal Victory Tour embarked upon by Katinas and Peeta. How fucked up must that be, to be brought to the city square every year to celebrate the people who killed two of your district’s innocent (or, you know, semi-innocent, as they had maybe killed people) children?

But the plot unravels quickly. I don’t think this site’s limited pool of readers will care if I spoil anything, so: A mysteriously normal-looking man takes over the Hunger Games, and proposes that the 75th round be culled from the winners of previous rounds. They come and train in scenes that take advantage of the sequel’s higher budget, and they play a less-threatening version of the game, one where threats are spilled out against the gamers every hour. The “board” is shaped like a clock — oh, hey, you can see when the threats are going to come down. But it doesn’t matter, because the whole game was a ruse to liberate a few of Panem’s best fighters and thinkers, after some of them were, you know, murdered during a Hunger Game.

I was wrapped up in this plot as it unfolded, but by the end I was deeply perplexed. There was no other way to liberate Katniss Everdeen from her celebrity role, and lead the revolution? Did Panem need to see another bitchin’ Hunger Game in order to be whipped up for the rebellion?