All posts by Sara


TRACK MARKS: Best of 2015 – “Sapokanikan” by Joanna Newsom

Our Track Marks feature spotlights individual songs that contributors love. Looking back at the year, we’ve selected some of our favorite songs from albums that don’t appear on our Best Albums of 2015 list.

By this point it would be fruitless to come to a Joanna Newsom record with any expectations; she’s made a career of defying them. It can make her difficult for new listeners to approach but it’s also why she’s one of our most thrilling artists. There are constants throughout her four LPs thus far: the distinctive (some would say unbearable) voice, the ornate instrumentation, the GRE-vocab-level lyrics. Tagged as an elfin maid after her debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom zigged away from her freak-folk persona by putting out the sort of five-song suite that wouldn’t be out of place in the Renaissance, and her 2015 album sees her forging down another unforeseen path. Borne from the opposite inspiration of her previous record, 2010’s Have One on Me which was a three-disc eulogy for a dying relationship, Divers finds Newsom tackling another kind of darkness: the abstract, contradictory fear of loss that comes with being deeply happy.

This thematic through-line is perhaps least immediately evident in lead single “Sapokanikan” which both begins and ends with references to Shelley’s immortal poem of power’s futility “Ozymandias.” History, as the Trump-ian saying goes, is written by the winners, though Newsom’s not interested in known quantities but what lies underneath; the title is taken from a Native American settlement that, prior to the Dutch colonization of Manhattan, was located approximately in the area known nowadays as Greenwich Village (which is also where, in the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video, Newsom cheekily frolics.) Unfolding over a vast, unpredictable arrangement that recalls ragtime with a regimental beat, the lyrics weave a tale of empires conquered and chastened, lands recorded and erased, Newsom taking on various personas whose fate was molded and cast aside by greater unseen hands. “Will you tell the one that I loved to remember, and hold me?” she pleads at one point, but there is no answer for her as there isn’t for any of us.

If Newsom is interested in darkness here she’s also consumed by cycles, particularly those imposed by time, which marched on for those before us and will do so again. “The city is gone,” she sings at the song’s end, “look and despair.” But Divers is ultimately a tribute to love manifested as an echo, the final song “Time as a Symptom” cutting off in the middle of the word “transcend.” It’s startling at first but it’s also an invitation to turn the record on again, which begins with the word “sending,” thus closing the loop opened at the end. It’s an artist reaching out her hand to bring you back into her world, and ignore the advance of time a little longer.

Show Me An Anti-Hero: On HBO’s David Simon Series & PBS’s Wolf Hall

In the eventual annals of TV history, 2015 may very well go down as the year the tide finally turned on the white anti-hero protagonist. Which seems appropriate, given that Mad Men wrapped up its last episodes this spring, bringing to a close the story of the man who kicked off the whole trend. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but it can also be the quickest death sentence, as discovered by many shows that attempted to replicate that Don Draper feeling. So rather than continue in this futile vein, some limited series have pivoted to a more critical take on the popular TV archetype. It was there in the first seasons of True Detective and Fargo in 2014 but it found perhaps its most elegant expression yet in two excellent, underseen mini-series that aired this year: Show Me a Hero on HBO and Wolf Hall on PBS.
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HALFTIME REPORT: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013

With Halftime Report, your good friends at revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

There comes a point in all artistic endeavors when the project that one has toiled over must be turned over to the public to do with it what they will. This can have mixed results, particularly when one’s endeavor is ironic or satirical, as many rappers can attest (to take one recent example: Kendrick Lamar, whose song “Swimming Pool (Drank)”, an indictment of alcoholism in the projects, became a party anthem for white bros. And, to be fair to the white bros, it is really catchy, in a lethargic sort of way.) In the realm of film, Martin Scorsese may be one of the most co-opted artists of his time, whether it’s his method or his message. His seminal 1976 film Taxi Driver was condemned on release as a glorification of the violence it abhors and his elegiac, thoughtful religious picture The Last Temptation of Christ was picketed, sight unseen, by Christian groups as blasphemous. Both films are now rightly regarded as classics but suffice to say, the man knows a bit about having his work twisted by consumers. So perhaps he wasn’t surprised by the reception of The Wolf of Wall Street, his twenty-third feature film and one of the higher-grossing of his career.

To be fair to his critics, the movie walks an extremely fine line between inducing rage and adrenaline. While watching it, I shifted how I felt about it from moment to moment; it’s so much fun to experience and yet everything that happens in it is ugly. What might be most infuriating about it is that its central figure, Jordan Belfort (played by a game Leonardo DiCaprio,) is, essentially, a bro-tastic good time guy that’s easy to latch onto. He’s not particularly smart but he knows how to harness the energy in a room and game a vulnerable system. And boy are the United States’ financial institutions vulnerable. This film came out a scant five years after the Great Recession started and depending on what side you were on (or wanted to be), The Wolf of Wall Street plays very differently. Much like Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street before him, Belfort could be seen as either a savior or a destroyer, someone to aspire to or despise. Scorsese, to his immense credit, never plays his own hand openly though if one knows anything about him, it’s not difficult to figure out where he stands. Still, that didn’t stop many viewers from seeing Belfort’s splashy exploits as an endorsement of their own repulsive behavior.

The other major critique of the film was its length but in hindsight that seems purposeful, the rigor of the runtime matching the strenuousness, often amphetamine-aided, of its subject until it feels like a party everyone should have left a long time ago. For those who think of DiCaprio as a mechanical, joyless actor, I highly recommend a YouTube viewing of the sequence where Jordan is on Quaaludes, an incredible feat of physical comedy that acts as a bit of a funhouse mirror to the contorting of his more self-serious performances. By the end you’re practically begging for this prick to finally get his comeuppance but this is America and it doesn’t work like that, as anyone at Goldman Sachs can tell you. In many ways the closing shots are some of Scorsese’s most disturbing: the camera turned back on the audience, gazing on Belfort, now a motivational speaker, in adulatory awe. There are plenty of monsters in Scorsese’s back catalogue but Jordan Belfort may be the scariest because he’s a villain without a moral compass – even the gangsters of Goodfellas had a code – and he knows for most people that doesn’t matter if you’re saying something they want to hear.

“You’re a Funny Girl”: Greta Gerwig, Mistress America, and Dangerous Women

At a recent double-feature at the IFC Center, Greta Gerwig, who was there to present her new film Mistress America, mentioned the idea of the “dangerous woman” in cinema as one of the inspirations for the script, co-written with director Noah Baumbach. I was intrigued, not least because the two ’80s films she highlighted, Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (which she screened alongside Mistress America) and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, happen to be personal favorites of mine – though I’d never thought to put them together in that way. In the weeks following I kept turning the phrase over in my mind, trying to think of modern examples of the trope outside the action and horror genres and coming up blank. Was the dangerous woman a relic of its time? Or has our idea of a feminine threat shifted to something a little less overt but more idiosyncratic? In these third wave, MRA-plagued days, it seems worth dissecting.
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TRACK MARKS: “The Bleeding Heart Show” by the New Pornographers

Having your song used in commercials is a double-edged sword for artists. For many indie bands, I’m sure the royalties are welcome and hard to turn down, but it’s also the sort of thing that can follow an artist around for life (exhibits A, B, C, infinity: just about anyone who’s been featured in an Apple spot). A good pairing, though, can elevate something potentially mechanical and soulless to memorable, even transcendent. It helps, of course, if the song itself reaches those heights already. Such is the case with the New Pornographers’ anthem “The Bleeding Heart Show,” whose spangly hey-la hey-la chorus is best known for being prominently featured in a commercial for the for-profit educational center University of Phoenix, of all things. It’s also one of the most perfectly constructed pop songs of the past decade.

The album it comes from, Twin Cinema, was released a decade ago, and though the band has released many ear-wormy delights since then, “The Bleeding Heart Show” has become one of their signature songs. The New Pornographers are something of an indie supergroup, spearheaded by A.C. Newman trading vocals with Dan Bejar of Destroyer and the volcanically talented Neko Case, backed up by other journeymen and women. They’ve put out six records since first forming in 2003, and each one harnesses the alchemical joy of a group of good friends getting back together again. It’s like The Big Chill, except without the Boomer moping and everyone’s singing songs they wrote together instead of Motown classics.

As a band, The New Pornographers seem incapable of making something without a hook. On paper “The Bleeding Heart Show” has a classic three-part structure, but that’s liberating for the song rather than limiting. It begins quietly with the plaintive chords of a lone piano. The drums kick in with Newman’s vocals, the lyrics somewhat nonsensical but seeming to detail the hazy morning after a rager, an impression reflected in the music, which sounds like it’s fumbling toward what it wants to be. But it moves swiftly after two verses into the bridge, the drums escalating as Newman and Case build in urgency and solidarity, joined by a melodica, the harmonica’s carnival cousin. Then Newman drops out and a chorus of “oohs” takes over, carrying us as the instruments begin locking together and surging forward, exploding into the “hey-la” finale. It’s a fist-pumping, chest-swelling blast of emotion, and for the next sixty seconds it seems the band may go on forever, backing up each epic moment in your life.

The New Pornographers play Prospect Park on Saturday, July 10th, for free, if you’re in the area.

HALFTIME REPORT: Margaret (2011)

Strictly speaking, Margaret was never supposed to be a film of this decade. Principal photography began back in 2005 but ballooning budgets, disagreements between the studio and director Kenneth Lonergan over cuts, and multiple lawsuits had many wondering if it would ever see the light of day at all. By the time it received an extremely limited theatrical release in 2011, lead Anna Paquin was three seasons into her True Blood reinvention as an actual adult, and what was intended as a more immediate exploration of the emotions roiled up by the tragedy of 9/11 became a cinematic curio, sampled by critics and rubberneckers alike and mostly discarded as the year drew to its close, apart from a few “#TeamMargaret” diehards on Movie Twitter. While the critics may have been looking for a masterpiece and the rubberneckers hoping for a disaster, Margaret didn’t quite turn out to be either. What it is is messy, in the best possible sense — and the cult around the film, in particular the director’s cut that adds a half hour to the already bloated 150-minute runtime, has grown.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: there is nobody named Margaret in the movie. The title is a reference to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “Spring and Fall” which opens with the line “Margaret, are you grieving?” and is read in the film by Matthew Broderick, who plays the teacher of the lead character, Lisa, a high schooler on the Upper West Side who is the inadvertent cause of a bus accident that kills a pedestrian. The poem and the film are about youth’s first reckoning with death and a realization of the world’s existence beyond themselves; when Lonergan wrote and conceived of the film, emotions over 9/11 were raw and even many years on it has a nervy energy, a sense that at any minute it might run off the rails. It unfolds in an operatic register in a way that risks turning off many viewers. But this is true to the film’s characters who may be “small” people but don’t live small lives, at least not to them. This is reflected in the film’s sound design, which is Altman-esque: the conversations of passersby are constantly muddying the main soundtrack, imbuing the city with a sense of liveliness that many other films would take as a given. And like Altman at his best, this is a generous film (perhaps to a fault), allowing every character, even the most minor ones, a voice and depth. The camera is constantly lingering on the New York City skyline, panning across gleaming buildings and slow motion citizens, as if to capture it all before any of the rest disappears. There’s something oddly refreshing about watching Lonergan spread his cinematic paint everywhere, even if it isn’t always conventionally satisfying.

It’s also refreshing to see a film grapple so fully with a young woman’s tumultuous coming of age. Lisa is a melodramatic, selfish person in the way most teenagers are melodramatic and selfish, and the realism of her character may be unpleasantly confrontational for some viewers; it can be difficult at times to watch how she manipulates and tortures those around her. The film’s true trajectory reveals itself as Lisa’s simultaneous wish to become a good person and realization of how often the world makes that challenging for adults. We never hear Lisa’s thoughts on the Hopkins poem; the camera cuts right after Broderick speaks her name. And anyway, how she feels about it will likely evolve. It’s part of growing up. Margaret, which experienced its own pains to get to the screen, knows that above all and is all the more rewarding for it.

HALFTIME REPORT: Young Adult (2011)

With Halftime Report, your good friends at revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

Pop culture is both an immensely subjective and personal obsession. It can be difficult not to feel slighted when an artist whose work you’ve enjoyed goes in an unexpected direction. Perhaps no filmmaker experienced such an abrupt turnaround in the past few years as Jason Reitman, whose sardonic, satirical early work has recently given way to laughably out-of-touch melodrama, at least according to a lot of film critics, sometimes validating any lingering doubts they held over his earlier, snappier movies. I’ve yet to see either Labor Day or Men, Women and Children (and doubt I will anytime soon) but I remembered his 2011 feature Young Adult with great fondness and was curious to revisit it in light of Reitman’s sudden fall from grace.

Even in this age when unlikeable characters are popular thinkpiece subjects, Young Adult‘s Mavis Gary (played without an ounce of vanity by Charlize Theron) remains bracingly caustic. I was not popular in high school but the film was still primed to play on my greatest fears about myself as someone who moved away from a small town and still has the occasional bout of unwarranted contempt and pity for those who stayed behind. More often than I care to admit, I’ve flippantly told someone I can’t imagine what it’d be like if I still lived there, as Mavis does early in the film. “Yeah,” her friend says flatly, and unconvincingly. “We’re lucky we got out. We have lives.” In case the opening scenes didn’t make it clear, the credits drive the point home elegantly: Mavis keeps rewinding the high school mixtape her then-boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) made her back in the day, to play “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub over and over. This woman is stuck in a past she believes is still her present.

Mavis, who ghostwrites for a Sweet Valley High-style book series, is on a mission to get back Buddy, now married and a new father. Starting with waking up hungover and interpreting an invitation to a baby shower as a cry for help, Mavis proves herself a delusional wreck: alcoholic, depressed, interacting with the world through a thin veil of disdain, unaware, or uncaring, that everyone can see right through it. In scene after scene the script (by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody) mines this disconnect for discomfort comedy of a kind not often seen in American film, particularly with a female character as the catalyst. For a movie with a protagonist so ostensibly shallow, Young Adult is surprisingly complex, especially when it comes to the behaviors and influences that trap us in destructive cycles. As the film goes on it becomes clear that Mavis is painfully conscious of her own shortcomings. “Stand up for yourself,” she upbraids her ex’s wife in the climactic scene. “Why are you covering for me?” And yet it only takes one conversation with a starry-eyed local to spur her back on her previous path — at least temporarily. “Life, here I come,” the closing narration says. But it’s the image of Mavis’s busted car fender that lingers. Even if Reitman is done with such damningly ironic comedies, at least Young Adult endures.

Halftime Report: Winter’s Bone (2010)

This is our first installment of Halftime Report, in which your good friends at revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

Sitting down to watch Winter’s Bone for the first time since its theatrical release, I was most curious to see how Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout turn held up. In the years since she’s become a perennial awards favorite, star of multiple franchises, and America’s favorite “cool girl,” but her performance here is still bracing, alive with the sense of a major discovery. Playing Ree Dolly, a teenaged girl in the Ozarks in search of her fugitive, meth-cooking father, she exudes a toughness and sensitivity that she’s glossed up considerably as her profile has risen. I came away surprised by her anew and confident she’ll surprise me again soon.

The film itself remains one of the strongest of the new decade for the light it shines on the dark pockets of America, places most people would probably rather forget exist let alone spend any time in. But director Debra Granik demonstrates a meticulous attention to detail, from the detritus scattered over everyone’s yards to the secondhand clothes to the proper technique for skinning a squirrel, not to mention an unsparing but compassionate eye when it comes to the poverty the characters endure.

That same meticulousness is there in the plotting, too. At a brisk hour-forty, Winter’s Bone wastes no time, with a lean structure that recalls both ’40s noir and classical mythology. Tasked with ensuring her bailed-out father makes his court date or lose the family land, Ree’s dilemma could have become a by-the-numbers quest but Granik, and author Daniel Woodrell who wrote the source material, are interested in much more than that. This is a place of codes, not only of criminals or families, but between men and women too, and as Ree starts to navigate the world around her, the film becomes a fascinating inquiry into the power dynamics of this very particular corner of humanity. The women may answer the doors and the men may profess to have knowledge they’re not sharing, but it quickly becomes clear which gender is actually running the show and the climax plays almost like a grotesque initiation ceremony for Ree. But for most of the film she’s a young woman alone in an inhospitable environment; it’s a premise with inherent danger but Granik’s stripped down style refrains from pushing this too hard, preferring to showcase the starkness of the landscape and the emotiveness of Lawrence’s face rather than flashy technique. This was only Granik’s second feature film and while she did recently secure a release for a documentary, she’s yet to make a narrative follow-up. It’s one of the most disappointing, and damning, developments of recent years, and I hope to see another project from her before the decade closes out.

The Ten Best Parks and Rec Episodes

Parks and Recreation made an inauspicious debut on April 9, 2009 as a potential heir to the throne of NBC’s only big hit comedy at the time, The Office. This was only fitting as the two shows shared a creative team (Michael Schur and Greg Daniels) and a similar mockumentary format. But throughout its seven seasons, Parks and Rec remained the little show that could: underperforming in the ratings (never, in fact, outrating its well-sampled pilot episode) but beloved by critics and loyal viewers. And in retrospect, that seems right. As can often be in the case in the actual government, the best work done on television is dependable, less flashy, and ultimately rewards the long game. Should Leslie Knope and company ever get to see the show that’s ostensibly been made of their own lives, I’m sure they’d be proud. It’s been a wonderful six years and in honor of this week’s series finale, we’re counting down the top ten best Parks and Rec episodes, as chosen by Sara, with our litany of Parks and Recreation fans on the roster ready to chime in via the comments section.
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