Algiers

by Matt J. Popham

At a time when so much popular music amounts to little more than premeditated, palliative product, Algiers seems to have sprung fully formed from the head of blind necessity. Though, in fact, the result of eight years of intense labor, the punk/gospel/industrial trio’s dramatic debut delivers an impassioned, incendiary, and irresistible indictment of our current cultural complacency with an arresting immediacy. “We’re the spirits you raised,” vocalist Franklin James Fisher intones on the album’s gripping opening track, “Remains,” and dammit if they don’t sound like Caesar’s ghost heralding our collective demise…

Eschewing gospel’s exultant ecstasies in favor of apocalyptic augury, for all Algiers’ hand-claps and call-and-response choruses, the album’s overall tone is dark, elemental, and austere. Building from a sinister thrum and slash of ambient electronica – so ominous, at times, it recalls a minimalist horror film score – spawning rolling basslines, slicing guitars, haunting keyboards, stings and stabs of post-punk feedback, and thumping, insistent percussion, each song rises up like a looming tidal wave and crests with Fisher’s soulful wails, which sound less like fervent zeal than the anguished pleas of a man caught in the undertow as the music seeps and swells around him.

Evincing an astonishing command of craft, the entire album delivers a slow, deliberate escalation of seething menace. Frontloaded with the band’s slower, more quietly threatening tracks, the first third culminates in the embittered lament “Blood,” which sounds like a chain-gang at a CIA black site, before accelerating into the fiery condemnations of “Old Girl,” “Irony. Utility. Pretext.,” and “But She Was Not Flying.” But even at their most furious and fast-paced, Algiers keeps things rivetingly controlled and contained. With each song, the tide swells but never breaks, often ebbing at the point of highest tension, leaving us stunned, suspended, stretched taut. After the tribal chants and garage rock attack of “Black Eunuch,” the album follows suit, quickly receding into “Games,” a strikingly beautiful dirge which evokes Al Green being haunted by Queens of the Stone Age, followed by the Pentecostal invocations of “In Parallax,” and, finally, the looping instrumental outro, “Untitled,” which cuts out abruptly, leaving only a ghostly echo in its wake.

The whole thing can feel like the musical equivalent of edge-play, but maybe that’s the point. “Death is at your doorstep and you’re still playing games,” Fisher admonishes in “Blood.” Algiers is not offering release or escapism. This is protest music, its punk/gospel fusion consciously freighted with all the historical, political, and cultural baggage of both genres. It might be too heavy to dance to, but – all deference to Emma Goldman – it’s less revolution than revelation. If Algiers leaves us at the brink, it’s because that’s where we’re already standing – culturally, environmentally, economically. And after opening our eyes and ears to our circumstances, our collective complacency, and what awaits us if we allow ourselves to be led over the edge, the next move has to be ours.

It might be unfashionable, these days, to describe a band as “important.” But if Algiers’ debut accomplishes anything, it reminds us that music is supposed to be. Algiers demands – and deserves – attention, not only for their passionate sociopolitical exhortations, or their intensely charged layering of diverse musical sensibilities, but the breathtakingly effective way in which they fold all these elements together, honing them into a powerful, precise, and poignant sonic attack. While a quick survey of the largely banal and barren pop music landscape reveals that, more often than not, we tend to get the bands we deserve, in Algiers, we may have gotten the band that we need.

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Whiplash

by Matt J. Popham

There might be a great film lurking in the green-filtered, Fincher-esque shadows of Whiplash’s Shaffer Conservatory, but it never quite makes its way to the screen. Written and directed by aggressively ambitious young filmmaker, Damien Chazelle, the film follows aggressively ambitious young jazz drummer, Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) and the brutal instruction he suffers (and, to a degree, seeks out) at the hands of his renowned conservatory conductor, Terry Fletcher (a reliably impressive J.K. Simmons). Using tactics that might get him hired at Guantanamo, Fletcher ruthlessly pushes Nieman, who ruthlessly pushes himself while ruthlessly pushing everyone else in his life away, all in the name of achieving “greatness.” Though a bit familiar, it’s a fertile formula for fierce drama, and Chazelle attacks his subject (and his audience) as mercilessly as Fletcher batters Nieman. But in his determination to flatten us, he also ends up flattening his film. Beating the worn and weary (and wholly spurious) drum of genius realized through relentless abuse, Chazelle eschews psychological insight in favor of hollow platitudes and visceral thrills, delivering a punishing, pummeling, exhausting portrait of two megalomaniacs who seem a hell of a lot more interested in themselves than in their art. It’s not just that the narcissistic shallowness of both Nieman and Fletcher – their inability to see music as anything more than a means of self-glorification – makes it a stretch for us to believe (as Chazelle seems to want us to) that they have any sort of greatness lurking within them, but that, for a film about music, Whiplash is almost suffocatingly joyless. Its dubious thematic assertions aside, the film is ultimately undone by its own hyperbolic humorlessness and swaggering sadism, which serve to sap both its dramatic potential and its artistic sincerity. Like the solos of Buddy Rich, whom Chazelle clearly adores, Whiplash clobbers you with its intensity, which makes it diverting enough in the moment; but in reflection, it fades into a blustery monotone.

Survival Guide – Way to Go

by Matt J. Popham

“I may wear a smile, but you can hear that I speak with an edge,” Emily Whitehurst acknowledges on “Ugly Side,” the opening track from Survival Guide’s debut album, Way to Go. If you were plugged into California’s revitalized punk scene in the 1990’s and early aughts, you probably know Whitehurst from Petaluma’s pop-punk quartet, Tsunami Bomb. You also know she’s not lying.

Perhaps the finest vocalist to emerge from the late century punk revival, Whitehurst – back then, known only as Agent M – was almost equally renowned for her infectiously upbeat stage presence as her clear, confident voice. Her unapologetically melodic vocals flying high over the band’s crunching, muscular riffage, she would positively beam while belting out such cheerful titles as “Russian Roulette,” “Dawn on a Funeral Day,” and “My Machete.” Her next band, the underappreciated and disappointingly short-lived The Action Design, incorporated a number of buoyant pop, indie, and electronic elements into their singular sound, while still maintaining a punk rock edge. With Survival Guide, Whitehurst seems to have abandoned punk altogether, fully embracing her previous project’s synth-pop peregrinations to produce a hauntingly beautiful album that sounds more indebted to Depeche Mode than The Descendents. But, as she notes upfront, its deceptive delicacy conceals an audible edge that’s as hard and sharp as ever.

A dark, diaphanous swirl of ethereal keyboards, ghostly guitars, and of course, Whitehurst’s clarion voice, Way to Go transmutes its dreamy 80’s pop aesthetic into something uneasy, melancholic, at times, even ominous. Despite the prevalence of light and airy melodies, the bedrock of buzzing, bottom heavy keyboards provides a sinister harmonic – occasionally bordering on dissonant – counterpoint, creating an undercurrent of quiet dread, as in the hazy and hypnotic “Prohibition,” whose otherworldly lullaby is offset by its lurking tonal shadows (an atmospheric effect intensified by the creepy lyrical imagery, which seems to evoke The Shining’s infamously ill-fated twin sisters). The pensive pop of the album’s title track is perforated by a quiet, marching percussion, urging Whitehurst’s wistful vocals on with a weathered resolve. Even the pounding, punky chorus of “January Shock” – the album’s most optimistic and energetic track – sounds, for all its promises that the sun will rise again, more like approaching thunder than a new day dawning.

These layered contrasts are accentuated by the frequently mercurial structure of the songs. While most possess a traditional verse-chorus arrangement, they also shift and flow in unexpected ways, changing tone and tempo, seemingly existing in a not quite solid, not quite liquid state. “Shrouded in Steel” begins as an elegiac vocal showcase, then jolts into a portentous confrontation with the fear of death and loss. The hammering, guitar-heavy intro on “One to One” shatters into spooky silences. Instrumental accompaniments materialize and disappear, often ornamented with reverb and/or distortion, adding to the album’s overall atmosphere of unreality and apprehension. The only constant is Whitehurst’s assured, affecting voice which – whether delicately hovering or surging with emotion, offering hard-earned reassurances or probing dark psychic recesses – guides us steadily over the album’s elusive and illusory sonic landscapes.

And it’s here that Whitehurst’s punk past is most evident. For all its apparent liquidity, the album’s aural architecture and introspective lyrics betray a punk dedication to dramatic minimalism and unflinching confrontation. Survival Guide’s instruments and arrangements might not be as heavy or aggressive, its confrontations more inward and reflective, but they are no less passionate or resolute. Whitehurst hasn’t lost her edge; she’s just incorporated it into a larger, more expansive sensibility, using it to go one to one with her own feelings of grief, frustration, and fear, and the result is undeniable. Unsettling, unblinking, but ultimately uplifting, Way to Go seems to be offering just that: A way to go, a survival guide for taking on the ugly side.

Invictus

by Matt J. Popham

[Originally published in conjunction with St. David’s Jubilee Center summer film series.]

It’s never anything less than misguided to measure the quality of a fact-based film by its level of historical accuracy. A work of art is not a faithful reproduction of reality, but a distillation of something essential within it, and Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is no more an exacting recreation of the events surrounding the 1995 Rugby World Cup than Picasso’s Guernica is a photojournalistic depiction of Operation Rugen. And yet, for all that Invictus is a distillation – and admittedly, an entertaining one – there is something problematic in its purity.

Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham have chosen an extraordinarily complicated historical moment as their subject: Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), a former revolutionary with no governmental experience is elected the first black chief executive of South Africa, a country that, even post-apartheid, was still struggling with entrenched institutional and cultural racism, and whose population was seething with tension and enmity. Meanwhile, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), captain of South Africa’s Springboks, the national Rugby team that had come to symbolize white oppressive rule, struggles to whip his pitifully performing team into shape. Seeing an opportunity to further his goal of national reconciliation, Mandela champions the Springboks and urges nationwide support for the team, while encouraging Pienaar to push his players towards a symbolic World Cup victory, but meets with outrage and opposition from South Africa’s black population, including members of his own family and security detail.

And it’s here that the film’s historical edits become questionable, both philosophically and dramatically. Invictus wants to demonstrate the value and importance of forgiveness and unity, but in order to do that within the context of its narrative, it must portray a cruelly oppressed people as its story’s antagonists. Which is not to say that Eastwood and Peckham are entirely unsympathetic to them. From the film’s first shot, Eastwood presents the grotesque inequalities inherent in the South African system. But he glosses over the commonplace viciousness and violence that were endemic to apartheid, as well as the revolutionary politics of much of Mandela’s inner circle, making it a little too easy to regard their resistance as petty and resentful, rather than rooted in honest, valid considerations. Rather than taking the opportunity to explore the friction between forgiveness and justice, the film sidesteps in favor of easy moralizing.

Similarly, Morgan Freeman makes a wonderfully charismatic and convincing Mandela, but it’s the same saintly and sanitized Mandela the media has been selling since his release from prison. He delivers so many nuggets of wisdom so often that, at times, he seems less like a three-dimensional human than a cross between an internet meme generator and Yoda. Mandela was a master of public image and there’s no question the portrayal is faithful to his outward conduct, but there was a private and more complex man behind the image, a former prisoner of his own government, who, no doubt, faced his own internal struggles with forgiving his oppressors. Unfortunately, the film seems to have little interest in exploring those depths.

For all that, Eastwood is a capable filmmaker and he’s crafted an absorbing, if overly-long, inspirational drama. It would be unfair to chide the film simply for failing to stick to the historical facts. But by divorcing these characters and events from their complex and difficult historical context, he not only undercuts his film’s thematic message, he oversimplifies its drama, leaving us with a good film instead of a great one.

The Blind Side

by Matt J. Popham

[Originally published in conjunction with St. David’s Jubilee Center summer film series.]

George Lucas once sardonically observed that if you want your audience to feel something, you need only strangle a kitten. That John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side egregiously indulges in the worst kind of feline throttling goes a long way towards explaining its Academy Award nominations and popular appeal.

A smug Republican fantasy cloaked in white liberal guilt, the film ostensibly presents the true story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a gentle giant from the Memphis projects, whose adoption by a wealthy white family paves the way for him to become a football star. At best, a cynical exercise in audience manipulation, The Blind Side wrings every last lucrative tear from its story with all the subtlety and profundity of a Hallmark card, often at the expense of dramatic logic. But a closer read of the film’s strategies reveals the repugnant propaganda lurking beneath the surface.

Much has already been made of the film’s “White Savior” narrative, and there’s no arguing that The Blind Side is less a dramatization of Michael Oher’s struggle than an ode to the supposed moral benevolence of Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), the matriarch of his aforementioned adoptive family. The film makes no attempt to address the entrenched systemic problems that necessitate Michael’s “rescue,” and, in fact, vilifies those characters that do. There’s even the implicit suggestion that Michael’s less innocent, but equally impoverished kith and kin are somehow less deserving of a better life due to their moral failings (Michael is good-hearted and therefore belongs among white people…).

But where The Blind Side really crosses from irresponsible to irredeemable is in its celebration of the commodification of a human being, both in theory and in practice. Barely a character, either on the page or on screen, Hancock uses Michael as a dramatic device, a blunt instrument, and a socio-political tool, mirroring the behavior of his adoptive family, to whom he is, at various times, a project, a badge, a pet, and a toy (a scene in which Michael is manipulated by Kathy Bates into choosing Ole Miss over Tennessee is made all the more nauseating by the fact that it’s played for laughs). Ultimately, if the film seems less interested in Michael than it is interested in the people interested in Michael, it’s because it treats him much the same way they do: as a means. But while Hancock’s a canny enough filmmaker to anticipate these objections, rather than answering them in any probing or meaningful way, he simply buries them in heaps of saccharine.

“How did you get out of there?” Bullock’s Tuohy asks Michael, at one point, regarding his impoverished background. “When I was little,” he replies, “if something awful was happening, my momma would tell me to close my eyes.” It’s a strategy that effectively reflects the film’s. Because whatever it might make you feel, one of art’s primary functions is to ask difficult questions. And for all its predatory pathos, The Blind Side offers only the most hollow and complacent reassurances.

Argo

by Matt J. Popham

[Originally published in conjunction with St. David’s Jubilee Center summer film series.]

Ben Affleck’s Argo is a diverting piece of 70’s revivalism that effectively captures the aesthetic of that esteemed cinematic decade, but ultimately fails to channel its passion or spirit. Based on actual events, the film recounts a CIA operation in which six diplomats were rescued from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis by disguising them as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for an upcoming science fiction film. Its split narrative alternates between the diplomats, who have taken refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), and CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Affleck, himself), who hatches and executes the rescue plan. Adopting a gritty visual style reminiscent of classic 70’s thrillers like Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View, Affleck – in his third and most assured directorial effort – keeps the pacing tight, the tension high, and, like so many actors turned directors, elicits strong performances from his ensemble cast. He even capably exploits the comedy inherent in the film’s premise, without puncturing the drama or suspense. But though well-crafted and consistently enjoyable, Argo also instructively illustrates the limitations of Hollywood’s overdetermined focus on “story” and the pitfalls of reverent imitation. Affleck tells a good tale and tells it well, but the films he is emulating were charged with an immediacy, an innovative energy, and a personal investment that Argo lacks. It might look rough and daring, but it can’t hide its Hollywood polish, or its want of any kind of cohesive and compelling artistic vision. Though certainly not the worst film ever to win a Best Picture Oscar, Argo is solid enough, but it’s not the sort of electrifying entertainment or affecting work of art you’ll find yourself rhapsodizing about days later. Which wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t so badly want to be.

Becket

by Matt J. Popham

[Originally published in conjunction with St. David’s Jubilee Center summer film series.]

A flawed film about flawed men, elevated by two majestic performances, Peter Glenville’s almost perfect rendering of Jean Anouilh’s Becket is alleged to be one of the few film adaptations of the playwright’s work that he looked upon favorably.

Dramatizing the schism between King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) that pitted the power of the church against the British throne, both the play and the film are rife with nonchalant historical inaccuracies, which hardly matters since, at its core, Becket is a tragedy of unrequited love. Which is not to say that the film’s driving philosophical and political conflicts are mere pretense. On the contrary, Anouilh, a survivor of the German occupation of France, had a profound understanding of how ideology and interpersonal relationships can inform one another, sometimes tearing people – and nations – apart.

Imbued with an incandescent mercurial glee, O’Toole ‘s spoiled and sensual Henry needs the cooler, more cerebral Becket, as both a trusted advisor and close companion (the play’s homoerotic subtext remains readily apparent despite being toned down for the film). Becket, however, much as he loves his king and is momentarily content to serve him, is in need of something else: a sense of honor. When Henry appoints him Archbishop, thinking he will eliminate his opposition in the church, Becket finds his true path, and their relationship is dealt a fatal blow. Burton plays Becket with a guarded, intellectual detachment that evolves (in certain moments, a little too quickly) into an austere sense of purpose, only to be eventually weighed down by a noble fatalism as he comes to understand where his path is leading. It’s an intense, icy performance that contrasts perfectly with O’Toole’s manic fire.

But while there’s no question that Anouilh’s sympathies were with his title character, Glenville and screenwriter Edward Anhalt occasionally make the mistake of leaning a little too obviously on Becket’s side, dulling some of the play’s arresting ambiguities. Henry is petulant and selfish, but his genuine love and respect for Becket should catch us off guard, evoking our sympathies. Conversely, for all his courage and integrity, we should never lose sight of how unsettling easy it is for Becket, who may be utterly incapable of human attachment, to devote himself to the divine. But, especially in the film’s latter half, Glenville and Anhalt flatten Anoulih’s complex, passionate conflicts between the honor of God and the love of man, ultimately reducing its troubling and tragic climax to a simple solemnization of martyrdom.

Given the film’s overall qualities, these are quibbles. Becket remains an engaging, entertaining effort that retains much of its source’s grandeur and impact, its minor missteps more than compensated for by the transcendent talents of its leads.