Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

Love. Life. Freedom. That is what every being longs for. The struggle to find all in one’s lifetime, that is the battle beyond each being, that binds years, generations and descendants together in a tight tapestry through time.  This is the story of Cloud Atlas, the film by Lana and Andy Wachowski & Tom Tykwer, adapted from David Mitchell‘s 2004 novel.  It’s several stories, actually, all interconnected and featuring the same actors in various roles throughout the time lines and across races and genders.  But the connections and conflicts all battle for the same goal, to find freedom, life and love.

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The official synopsis for Cloud Atlas describes the film as: “An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”  The interconnected stories are interwoven in the narrative, and can be quite confusing as the editing jumps between stories and time periods.  The mental gymnastics are done for greater emotional effect. You realize how one character’s actions in the past cause the reaction in the future, how we constantly face the same struggles and as Halle Berry‘s character states, “make the same mistakes over and over.”  The film is 164 minutes long, explores several themes and variations, but never bores and ultimately becomes a beautiful tale about the human experience.

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Cloud Atlas is amazingly ambitious.  The Wachowski’s were given a copy of the novel while filming V For Vendetta, by that film’s star, Natalie Portman.  The directors loved it, but the story was considered by many as unfilmable – the dense narrative and broken stories would be nearly impossible to translate to the big screen.  Tom Tyker joined the project, and financing was secured independently as the $140-million project frightened the conventional studios.  As the budget was spread across several investors, the film nearly stalled and died several times.  The Wachowski’s credit Tom Hanks as the driving force behind getting the crew, investors and other actors rolling in to production.  His commitment to the project shows through his roles, playing each of his characters with real strength, despite some weak accents.

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The film definitely has some problems, some that critics and audiences could not see past.  The makeup, in particular, was one horrible hurdle that was never quite reached. In many segments, the actors must play various roles with a variety of neoprene noses and questionable contact lenses, which makes them an object of distraction instead of a part of the order.  In addition, some segments of the story do not have the same emotional drive as the others.  But on the whole, I would rather watch an earnest, zealous attempt at something new in film over a safe, calculated collection attempt at a theater-goer’s pocket book. Any day. Any time. The high-reaching Cloud Atlas may not quite accomplish all that it attempts for all viewers, but it is still a beautiful, interesting, emotional, impressive, determined, soaring cinematic experience.  Because looking past “the same mistakes,” this is one film that really reaches for the stars to share its love, life and freedom with the world.

Frank Ocean – Changing the ‘Channel’

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Frank Ocean‘s debut album, “Channel Orange” uses its title to reference the neurological phenomenon grapheme–color synesthesia and the color he perceived during the summer he first fell in love.  When Ocean was 19 years old, he first fell in love with a man, and the record details the fall, longing, rejection, heartache and other characters and imagery to create the color perception of that summer.  Not much has been made of Ocean’s sexuality, which is outstanding since it should be essentially a non-issue as art is about the universal human experience.

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Ignoring caution about his sexuality, his past, and his bankability for his label, Def Jam, Ocean dove in to unconventional urban musical waters.  Sounds slip and slide around his songs, standard song structure only occasionally being employed in his compositions. The tracks flow more free-form than your average Hip Hop/R&B artist.  This sounds more like Soul music via Animal Collective.  His songs are carefully crafted compositions, the sounds surrounding the lyrics, the smooth shiny cover to the words within.  In an interview with the magazine, Rap-Up, Ocean said of his record, “It succinctly defines me as an artist for where I am right now and that was the aim. It’s about the stories. If I write 14 stories that I love, then the next step is to get the environment of music around it to best envelop the story and all kinds of sonic goodness.”

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Thinkin Bout You” is his biggest hit, and for a popular song is surprisingly minimalist.  Soft synths, a bass drum and digital rimshot are about the only backing to Ocean’s singing.  It’s the song that made people sit up and listen, as Ocean sang about that first love, the tornado of emotions and the joy/pain that comes with every moment.  In his “Bad Religion,” the lyrics are Ocean’s emotional confession to a taxi driver about a love affair on the down-low. With sweeping strings, bigger percussion and a blowout chorus by the end, it shows the similarity between religious devotion and romantic emotion.  The Motown-throwback, “Forrest Gump” uses the titular literary and film character to allude to a teenage crush, and is a clever tongue-in-cheek take in both music and words.  The centerpiece of the record, and the true gem of this album is the track, “Pyramids.”  The track is essentially two songs in one, the first half being a dancy funk song using the Egyptian/Biblical story of the fall of Cleopatra VII as a love song. But then the synths slow down, the harmonic elements shifting into a different take on the tune, the Cleopatra character now being a present-day working girl, who dances at a strip club called ‘The Pyramid’ to support her superficial, meretricious man.  The song is so catchy, so moving, and the instrumentation so polished, that it becomes one of those tracks that you never want to end.  The Pyramids fade out slowly, and becomes the pillar of the emotional record.

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Channel Orange appeared on numerous critics’ year-end top albums lists. It was named the best album of 2012 by The A.V. Club, Billboard, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Consequence of Sound, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, musicOMH, The Sydney Morning Herald, Now, Paste, PopMatters, Slant Magazine, Spin, The Washington Post, and Jon Pareles of The New York Times. The album was also ranked number two by Allmusic, Ann Powers, BBC, Complex, Exclaim!, Filter, Mojo, Pitchfork Media, and Rolling Stone, number three by Clash, Jim DeRogatis, NME, State, and Time, and number five by Uncut.  In his top-10 list for the Los Angeles Times, Lawrence K. Ho called it “the most magnetic record of the year” and wrote that it “feels like a work that as the years pass will only grow in stature.”  It was definitely one of my favorite records of 2012, it won the Grammy for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” and deserves some serious attention as an art piece.

Upstream Color

Upstream Color

Another experimental film.  Another film more concerned with experience and emotion than with a driven narrative.  Don’t think there’s no story to Upstream Color, because there is – and it’s fascinating – but it’s so hidden and dissected that it takes some time to mentally reassemble.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that the film is written and directed by Shane Carruth, who directed the 2004 mind-blower, Primer.  And here, Carruth also serves as producer, actor, cinematographer, editor, composer, casting director, production designer and sound designer.  That level of auteurity is pretty staggering.

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The story might be a little dense to try and describe, so I will quote directly from the film’s Sundance Film Festival program guide: “Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.”  It is science fiction, and body horror, but to an astonishingly controlled degree.  It is a cerebral, emotional thriller, but with none of the flash-bang of recent mind-benders like Inception, District 9 or Looper.  Those are all essentially intelligent action sci-fi films, with conventional adventure set pieces, archetypes and set pieces.  Upstream Color has none of those.  Its conflict is so internal, the battle in body and brain, that with editing we can assume what is happening, but have zero assurances.

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That said, if you have the patience, this is a film to be experienced.  It is a beauty to view, and amazingly was shot on a “consumer-grade” camera, a Panasonic Lumix GH2, with Voigtlander and Rokinon lenses.  From The Hollywood Reporter, “the experience of watching the film… is highly visceral and sensuous; the images possess a crystalline clarity that is exquisite, and they’re dispersed in rapid rhythmic waves in a way that’s especially mesmerizing during this first section,” and  “Carruth’s is a cinema of impressions and technique, not overt meaning.”  The sound design and score is equally as impressive, carefully edited and toned to balance and brand the images.  As one character is composing music to the microscopic madness, we realize how bound is the brain to tone, timing and theory.

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As Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times said, “Color is somehow at once emotionally direct, while narratively abstract.”  It reminds of the intimacy of image of Terrence Malick, the internal horror of David Cronenberg and the philosophy of ‘reality’ of Béla Tarr.  With a little time, a little devotion, a lot of concentration and discussion once the film has finished, Upstream Color could become one of those movies you never fully understand and ultimately never forget.

Lana Del Rey – ‘Paradise’ Found

Lana Del Rey

I admit, I am late to the party. Late to jump on the bandwagon. Late to love the Lana.  Late to learn that Ms. Del Rey (AKA Lizzy Grant) is actually one of 2012’s top-selling artists.  But of late, I have also learned for all her sales and acclaim, a LOT of people have still never even heard of her.

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Until a few months ago, all I had heard of Lana Del Rey was an abysmal SNL performance.  How did I miss her debut album, “Born To Die,” which sold 3.6 million copies?  Or the even more impressive EP, “Paradise“?  I am not sure how these records slipped under my radar, but either way, I now got Lana firmly in my sights.  She has a new song featured on the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” and it has broken its way in to the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

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But what makes Lana great is not that she’s a chart or sales success. It’s that she does her own thing. Her sound, although it may be calculated and controlled, is thoroughly her own.  She wanted to create a gangsta Nancy Sinatra, a Britney Spears-meets Elvis-via-Janis Joplin persona and vibe.  And she sounds nothing like her peers, who have all sold out for the same old generic club crud that would have been laughed at a decade ago.  What Lana is creating is a cinematic, soulful sound which has an urban swing and suburban flings about love, lust and longing for something more.  Love her or hate her, there’s no denying that Lana is doing something different than all the other cut-and-paste record label cash cows, and a serious, solid listen to “Paradise” and “Born to Die” will prove it.

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Holy Motors

Holy Motors

A movie about movies is not new.  But Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” is not “Day For Night” or “The Last Picture Show.”  It is not a narrative melodrama highlighting the process of production or the struggles of the stars.  It is not about the movie within a movie.  It is about cinema. It is about role playing.  It is about acting, be it in art or the many faces we wear in our everyday lives.

Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) is driven in a white limo to various appointments throughout the day, transforming himself from beggar to motion-capture artist, to monster, to dying uncle and more. Acting each part as assigned, but never to a camera. Never to an audience. Never to a conclusion. Each part is brief and unexplained.  The why is never answered, the film only shows the how.  But even the how becomes unclear as Oscar escapes police, judgment and even death without an explanation.  The typical tools of cinema do not apply in “Holy Motors,” as the vignettes of Oscar’s scenes flip from horror to gangster to musical.  Archetypes are abandoned and the narrative a mosaic of fractured pieces, only realized days later after hours pondering the picture.

This type of film, which leaves you thoroughly entertained but thoughtfully perplexed, is extremely rare. The intellectual engagement it requires is part of the risk and reward of the viewer.  Casual viewers will hate it.  Committed cinephiles should love it.  And, most astonishing in our media-saturated society, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it.

Slow Magic – ‘Triangle’ Takes The Square

Somewhere buried in label-land, a new subgenre of Electronic music is invented with each slight shift of subtle variation and divergence. These labels don’t offend me, but they also have become so minute and marginalized that a movement like “post-rock”, “chillwave” or even “dubstep” is deemed dead, practically stillborn. A style that is seen as new and inventive is often quickly rejected and then reviled, as if a listener should be embarrassed that they ever enjoyed something so… square. So welcome the new subgenre to be hip to be square and soon to be listed in the obituaries (probably by the time I finish this sentence) – Glow-fi.

Like Chillwave, Dream-pop, Nu gaze or any other myriad of names you give this electronic music, Slow Magic is another digital band which embraces elements from the ‘80s and ‘90s electronic music scene and adds distinctly millennial flavors. The production is really polished and crisp, and unlike a lot of other acts right now, keeps the fuzz and distortion down. It is essentially an instrumental album, with vocals and samples so deep in the mix, lyrics are not the focus here, the sounds, rhythms and melodies are the heart of ‘▲’.

‘Triangle’ or ‘▲’ is a short album, which is actually a re-release of Slow Magic’s EP, fleshed out with five additional tracks. The tracks do not feel tacked-on, though, it flows from piece to piece like a wholly-conceived concept. Like all great instrumental music, the pieces use sonics to place images in the mind of a listener, and while every image plays differently in the mind’s eye, some sounds conjure shared planes. ‘▲’ feels like its front cover, summer washed out in warm sunshine. Its protagonists, celestial versions of you and me. A feel-good album that never feels forced, ‘▲’ is a sunshine record that ignores the fact that it may be square, keeps its atmosphere light, and spins around my turntable and hard drive like an endless circle.

Active Child – ‘You Are All’ Going To Love This

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Harps pluck, beats funk, and synths sigh and grind in-between Active Child‘s vocals by Pat Grossi, floating falsettos in electronic soundscapes.  Grossi’s electronic-folk-funk seems reminiscent of James Blake or How To Dress Well, but the songs on “You Are All I See” are more accessible, harmonic and memorable.  The flow of the record is its greatest strength, a cool stream going through a broken cathedral in rich, amber-autumn forests. You can appreciate the flow, the glow of light and ambient sound off Child’s cathedral walls, or the electronic landscapes of lush leaves and beats.

Some highlight tracks are “Hanging On” and “Playing House”, but the record flows effortlessly, so it will be hard to choose a favorite while listening to the entire album.

Washed Out – ‘Within’ The Chill Wave

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The Chillwave subgenre has become the hipster-hater’s punching bag amongst music snobs.  Its retro instrumentation and honored homage to the musical aesthetics of all-things-80s has inexplicably caught their ire, lighting fire to scathing reviews for almost every lo-fi glo-fi record to roll out since the term was coined five years ago.  While traditional classical, blues, country, jazz, rock and other genres can be as retro as they want without an eye batting, the chill wave faces shrill hate from many, many purists and critics.

Perhaps it’s the fact that so much of Chillwave is produced by music geeks in bedrooms on laptops instead of in groups, bands or orchestras.  The isolation and solitude in the sound alienating consumers who feel that music isn’t real unless it’s produced by committee.  The singular style and unpolished compositions polarizing listeners now accustomed to shiny-sounding ones and zeros.  Whatever the reason, a great Chillwave album usually starts out with a losing record among the elite.  But if the slate were washed clean, Washed Out would gleam – a saturated summer love note which washes over the listener in a wave of reverb and sunshine.

With vocals so buried in reverb and chorus, the lyrics are not the stars of “Within and Without,” they take a back seat to the dense synths, basses and laid-back beats of Ernest Greene.  The lyrics and melodies become a lead-string line in an immense symphony, the tone, flow and emotion of each line the real voice to convey the stroke of the composer.  Greene is assisted by Ben H Allen in the production, who has helped produce “Merriweather Post Pavillion” for Animal Collective and engineered Gnarls Barkley.  But make no mistake, this is Greene’s baby.  His rich instrumentation and fuzzy warm production that marked his underground EPs are front and center again in his debut LP.  While not quite huge enough to be a life-changing record, it is one that will get played for years and years and years. By making an ambiguous homage to albums faded and dated, the timelessness of Washed Out’s sound can live on for decades to come.

M83 – ‘We’re Dreaming’ For the Record of the Year

From the opening soundscapes slowly seeping into sonic seas, the vast and deep musical voyage in this double-LP record is one of the greatest records one may ever experience.  The album is wonderfully realized, masterfully produced, and is like a vinyl record of a time-long-passed, where an album was like a novel – meant to be explored and enjoyed as an entire work.  With the advent of the iTune, listeners are now accustomed to single downloads, compressed audio, and produce-by-numbers pop shots.  In ‘Midnight City,’ M83 has a brilliant lead single, ready for radio, trailers and yes, even falling Victoria Secret angels.  But M83‘s Anthony Gonzales wasn’t just aiming for a hit single, he crafted an ambitious, enveloping record which is so much greater that the singles of its parts.

While working on the record, Gonzales himself stated that the album would be “very, very, very epic.”  Gonzales did not disappoint.  With 74 minutes of music,Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” plays like a composer’s concert and deserves a seated listen.  Slip in the CD, start the tape or spin the vinyl – a wholly developed synthetic symphony is about to begin.  The instrumental pieces connect and enhance the vocal songs, the tracks themselves vast and different.  The vocals are washed out and processed, but are stronger than any previous M83 record.  Gonzales and fellow vocalist, Morgan Kibby, weave in and out of their lines and melodies, raindrops on windshields.  A record, a truly “epic” record, should aim to be an experience on the whole. A hit single, a club-friendly tune, or a clip to fit a Honda Fit commercial are the aim for some, but M83 recalls the days of Pink Floyd and Ziggy Stardust – the record requires attention start to finish, the sign of an absolutely perfect record.

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