March 18, 2018

Al's Review of 2017 in Film

It's funny how things change. Early in 2017, I came to the realization that movies were consuming my life too much, and I sought ways to detach myself from them. I started to look at new releases with scorn and skepticism, changing my expectations to the worst solely so that I wouldn't cling to Hollywood hype so easily and blow money and time on useless distractions I might forget about next year. I started to become a cynic.

And yet, I probably came out liking 2017 films more than I expected. With a plethora of sequels and franchise cash-grabs, I really didn't expect much. I even dodged all the Star Wars hype, becoming excited only after seeing the film on the big screen. The Last Jedi came out just when I needed it to--it's a film that point-blank challenges the audience and tears down their expectations and dreams, showing us that heroes we care about aren't always all that. It's as if the film is telling fans to lighten up, stop trying to kill what you hate and focus on protecting what you love. For me, it's also a reminder to not give into bitterness, cynicism, and outside pressures. I was reminded that I loved films, and I shouldn't feel ashamed for it. If the film wound up playing into audience expectations and standard tropes, chances are I would have walked out feeling more disillusioned. But since the movie did sucker-punch me in so many different ways, I became honest with myself. It's probably wise to be cynical, but not at the expense of being untruthful to myself.

Star Wars is probably the film I find myself thinking about the most, but it's not the sole highlight of the year. Other sequels have been surprisingly great--John Wick Chapter 2 boasts some of the most incredible action scenes I've seen in years, and as a sequel, it's a phenomenal and inspiring continuation. Blade Runner 2049 is surprisingly faithful, elegant, and thought-provoking. All those Marvel movies have been a blast--some might call them derivative or bland, but I appreciate the consistency and faithfulness to character and worldbuilding. Logan, War for Planet of the Apes, Kingsman: The Golden Circle all had things I could appreciate too.

If there's anything else that really wowed me lately, it's been thrillers. Get Out tops most people's lists, and for good reason--it's unexpected, twisty, original, and fairly well-made. Split is a pleasant surprise too. mother!, frustrating though it is, is an interesting watch as well. There are thrills to be had in other unique places too--Atomic Blonde and Dunkirk stand out in their respective genres thanks to their styles.

Most other movies have been about what I expected. Even the much-maligned Emoji Movie met my low expectations (at which point I just shrugged it off, along with most others). A lot of them I can simply take or leave, and nothing has left me feeling bitter or angry (yet). Some years ago, maybe I would have liked these movies more than I do now. But I'm learning more and more that the films I love have nothing to do with action, quality, actors, directors, franchises, or anything like that. The best films work because of strong scripts that make us care for the characters.

Which is why I decided to push Baby Driver to the top. It has a fresh style, plenty of action, and a hip soundtrack. But it's the character I admire the most, above even the cast of Star Wars. Baby Driver dedicates itself to one hero I wound up loving and rooting for, and it made the film's experience all the more bittersweet. Original, stylish, well-written, and a strong story--I couldn't ask for a finer film this year.

Compared to previous years, 2017 is rather weak--2015 is the last time I felt truly wowed by the quantity of good films that held up. Regardless, I am happy to scoop up the top handful of films this year, because they were quite satisfying in their own right.

For simplicity's sake, I'm going to limit this post to just the movies I liked and enjoyed.
Released films yet to see: The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Call Me by Your Name, The Disaster Artist, Justice League, Bright
Favorite film: Baby Driver
Least favorite film: Sharknado 5: Global Swarming
Favorite blockbuster: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Favorite arthouse film: mother!
Favorite science fiction film: Blade Runner 2049
Favorite fantasy/epic: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Favorite drama film: The Florida Project
Favorite action film: John Wick Chapter 2
Favorite superhero film: Thor: Ragnarok
Favorite comedy film: Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2
Favorite horror film: It
Favorite romance film: Baby Driver
Favorite documentary: What the Health?
Favorite animated/family film: The Lego Batman Movie
Favorite foreign film: Blade of the Immortal
Biggest guilty pleasure: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Most disappointing film: Alien: Covenant
Favorite male performance: Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver
Favorite female performance: Cate Blanchett in Thor: Ragnarok
Favorite line: "I'm Marry Poppins y'all!"--Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2
Favorite action scenes: John Wick Chapter 2
Favorite special effects: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Favorite film score: John Wick Chapter 2 (Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard)
Favorite musical sequence: Baby Groot dancing to ELO in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Al's Favorite 2017 Films
22. Brawl in Cell Block 99

What this film lacks in actual brawling, it makes up for in its tone, shock value, and straightforward storytelling. Crawling at its own pace, the film unravels layers to its characters and plot that slowly push everything towards the inevitable prison fight. When the violence hits, it's extreme, brutal, and unpredictable. Everything in between seems to flow in a strange, dream-like universe of its own. Perhaps it's better seen as a nightmarish descent into nihilism and damnation. It definitely elicits thought and feeling, which is far more than I'd expect out of a prison thriller (and it's especially refreshing to see Vince Vaughn rise to the challenge of the role, delivering what may be the best performance of his career).

21. Girl With All The Gifts

Note: even though this film was made in 2016, its widespread US release was January 2017.

A rather compelling twist on the post-apocalyptic zombie genre--all the action and terror remains, but the film commands sympathy for the undead. While films like Maggie attempted to pull this off, GWATG is more successful. The plot and characters keep the story interesting, especially when addressing the relationship between monsters and humankind, and whether there's a distinction at all.

20. Split

Note: even though this film is listed for 2016, its widespread theatrical release was January 2017.

M. Night Shyamalan finally returns to form, and he does so by returning to the style and genre (and even the universe) he previously mastered. His latest thriller is genuinely chilling, thanks to James McAvoy's dominating performance that commands over twenty different personalities. The story is taut as it is well-shot, and it'll be fascinating to see where these interesting new characters go next.

19. Get Out 

Thrillers with strange twists and occurrences seem to be in lately. Get Out treads on similar ground as recent flicks like It Follows or Don't Breathe, but with a more daring angle. With its focus on current racial issues, the film couldn't be more timely. All the bizarre encounters and tension-filled dialogue will keep you hooked, but its harrowing implications will lay dormant in your brain long after the credits roll.

18. mother!

Sometimes the best art is the most challenging. Darren Aronofsky set out to challenge just about everything in this extreme and abrasive allegory that ties up the history of man and nature into the confines of a home invasion thriller. The film will upset you, if for no other reason than horrible things happen and very little compassion is shown. But a dark and troubling truth emerges from the narrative that deserves discussion and study. Like it or not, mother! is a film that will leave its mark.

17. Ghost in the Shell

So real, so unreal--Hollywood has never had good luck adapting anime to the big screen, but this might be their best effort by far, because this film is so cartoony but also action-packed. Scarlett Johansson stands as the centerpiece, beautiful as she is tough, and her character's journey into seedy streets and the glimmering streams of virtual reality has enough twists to be compelling. In its own right, 2017's Ghost in the Shell is a solid blockbuster that looks true to the source. I only wish that there could have been more substance to this shell of a movie.

16. Atomic Blonde

This is one slick spy flick. Charlize Theron is badass as ever, giving John Wick a run for his money. The few action scenes pop with explosive resonance. The rest of the film oozes with enough style and attitude to give it its own identity. Charm and grit makes this a glowing, radioactive hit for action fans.

15. The Florida Project

This might be the most real film of the year. Its performances are so raw, they feel like real people captured in a documentary. As a film though, it straddles the line between realism and escapism, childhood and adulthood, paradise and hell, and it all adds up to a compelling and bittersweet view of children living in the shadow of poverty.

14. War for the Planet of the Apes

Not as much "war" as one would expect, but it is surprisingly engaging thanks to its earnestness. It boasts exquisite cinematography, a dedicated cast, and a story that focuses on integral themes of savagery and violence. The film is at its best when it shows the apes contending with their animal selves in the face of human brutality.The journey of Caesar and his renegade apes continues to inspire sympathy and tears as they war for the planet, survival, family, and ultimately their own souls.

13. Logan

Logan offers a bitter and brutal swansong for Hugh Jackman's sprawling legacy in superhero lore. Rooted firmly in strong character development, the film delivers what the other stand-alone Wolverine movies tried hard to bank on: personal stakes deep enough to elicit sympathy. Painted with western-influenced backdrops and tropes, it is a punchy and gritty film mature audiences everywhere can soak in and feel for. This might be the best Wolverine movie of the lot.

12. Blade of the Immortal

Seriously, who wants to live forever? The sheer amount of blood and chopped limbs in this film might deter most from immortality. But it is refreshing and compelling to see one determined hero cling to life for the sake of love and redemption. It is a good story with well-drawn characters and plenty of thematic depth--almost enough to rival Logan. With a premise that feels like a spinoff of Highlander. The only thing holding this film back from reaching those same heights is the pacing.

11. Wonder Woman

Capitalizing off of the best qualities of previous DC films, the stand-alone Wonder Woman movie presents Gal Gadot in role that's as dazzling in aesthetic as it is in charm and physical prowess. Diana is a heroine worth rooting for, not only because she kills so many Nazis, but also because of everything in between the fantastic action scenes. It's really cute to watch the fish-out-of-water dynamics, but it's also captivating to see her rise up in a man's world and grow into empowered heroine. It's a seamless exploration of social issues, which makes Wonder Woman timeless and inspiring.

10. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man has come home to Marvel studios and finds a pretty decent comfort zone. Action is as grand as ever, but doesn't flaunt it quite as blatantly as the older movies did. Instead, the film becomes something of a high-school comedy that hinges on superhero identities and stakes. It is an endearing blend thanks to the fantastic cast, interesting themes, and charming levity. Best of all, it's a smooth and focused effort, which makes the older films look choppy by comparison. There's a little bit of everything to this film, making this one of the most effortlessly entertaining flicks of the year.

9. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

Star-Lord and his gang of misfits are back to save the galaxy again! Now with more 70s tunes, more cool weapons, baby Groot, and a lot of emotional baggage in tow. Plot threads come together to break the team apart, where each character gets a chance to reflect and dive deeper into themes of family. It is often insightful and charming, even if the film dips into some low-brow jokes. It's an action-packed thrill ride bursting with color and personality.

8. Thor: Ragnarok

The end is nigh! The third Thor film takes all the loose ends from the last couple of movies (as well as some of the other Marvel flicks) and ties them up into a colorful and epic space fantasy with a lot more zing and humor than before. The combination of eye-popping action, levity, and theatrics is precisely the makeover Thor needed--his adventure to save Asgard has never been more palatable. The characters are a blast to watch. The story is engaging. It manages to carry enough dramatic weight to redeem the weaknesses of previous films--the wait for Ragnarok turned out to be worth it.

7. Dunkirk

Intense. This film is a drab, loud, oppressive thrill ride that places viewers side-by-side with soldiers stuck on a beach, waiting for salvation or death. The non-linear narrative is highly experimental, but the experience is what makes this film so vivid and valuable--it successfully bombards the audience with pulses of tension and fear. For a historic event I was otherwise oblivious to, the film seems faithful not only to events, but to the horrors of war.

6. IT

Stephen King's classic novel is finally given better treatment on the big screen. It's a familiar tale, but remains no less captivating and scary. Each character is given life and depth, with a lot of dark and surprising twists that inevitably bring them together to fight a truly scary villain. Themes of fear are stronger than ever, and with competent skill, the film tells this tale anew with gravitas, depth, and suspense.

5. Your Name.

Makoto Shinkai always knew how to marry beautiful, vibrant animation with romance, sentiment, and a certain sense of whimsy. All his usual trademarks collide with dazzling results in Your Name, a cute and colorful take on a typical body-swap comedy. There are laughs to be had, but the film manages to balance its plot, which moves into somber and sentimental directions. It gives life to the characters and makes the story fresh. Of all the wonders this year's films have presented, this is the most heartfelt.

4. Blade Runner 2049

35 years after Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece, Dennis Villeneuve brings top-notch talent together and delivers a worthy cyberpunk procedural that matches its predecessor. The tone, mood, and style are spot-on. There are thrills, but the film also takes its time unraveling the story, which brings intriguing new directions to the characters and gives enough meditative space for audiences to contemplate the greater issues of realities, fabrications, illusions, and humanity itself. With the slick backdrop of 2049, this is probably the purest sci-fi film I've seen all year.

3. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Star Wars--it seems that nowadays this series will either delight or infuriate fans. The latest installment managed to do both, because it does one thing nobody wanted or expected: it's a postmodern deconstruction that takes the audience on a thrill ride through unfamiliar territory. The laughs and excitement remains the same, but this is not your daddy's space adventure. It's a gritty struggle not only against good and evil, but against expectations. Classic heroes lose faith. Plots and plans fail. Villains triumph and may not be redeemed. Sacrifices are not always honored. And the Force, though constrained by fundamental laws, is also much bigger than we originally thought. These aren't easy truths to swallow, but I appreciate Rian Johnson for offering a challenging new view on a universe that's always in danger of becoming stagnant. It even offers messages of overcoming failure and staying positive--for me, these themes came through at the perfect time, reminding me to protect what I love and not to give into hate. No matter how loathed this film becomes, I will always value it for its inspirations.

2. John Wick Chapter 2

Whoa, what a continuation. John Wick Chapter 2 wisely harnesses all the great things that made the first film work--character, worldbuilding, action choreography, an understated script--and cranks it all up with a bold new set of escalating actions and reactions. It becomes a sprawling revenge thriller on a mythic level. New territory opens up, giving the characters endless space to settle old grudges and challenge old beliefs. At the center is the same ol' John Wick, who remains a captivating antihero we can root for. The last scenes promise a heck of a finale to come.

1. Baby Driver

This flick gives you all the things you need to be thrilled: the music and the road. Set with a killer playlist, the movie roars ahead at full speed, delivering fast car chases, shoot-outs, and lots of color. The cast is phenomenal, with each player adding personality and flair, even in the grittiest of scenes. Ansel Elgort stands out as the centerpiece, filling the shoes of a deep, charismatic character. His world of love, loss, crime, and redemption is a compelling arc that makes the story engaging and delivers a sumptuous payoff. Tied together with a great script, the film stands out as one of the most captivating car chase films I've seen, and an easy contender for my favorite of the year. Easy like Sunday morning.

Other great titles worth renting:
  • Beauty and the Beast: One of the better live-action Disney adaptations. Great musical numbers, and any changes to the story don't take much away from the experience.
  • Detroit: Wasn't a fan of the pacing or style, but the film's content is hard-hitting and compelling. Deserves to be seen.
  • The Fate of the Furious: Yeah, you should know what you're getting with this. Few good story twists, mostly just brainless fun. Plenty of heart still.
  • The Lego Batman Movie: Has its moments and a few good laughs.
  • Lost City of Z: Slow, but very well-made and interesting.
  • My Life as a Zucchini: Cute and solid animation with plenty of heart and nuance.
  • Okja: A little weird tonally, but it has some strong moments.
  • What the Health?: A fairly convincing food documentary on Netflix--worth a look.

Guilty Pleasures:
  • Kingsman: The Golden Circle: Not nearly as punchy or fresh at the first film, but it does entertain.
  • Kong: Skull Island: Vibrant and cartoony, but the film does pack some impressive punches in its action scenes.
  • Transformers: The Last Knight: Oh man, this is such a mess, but it's such a gorgeous mess it's hard to look away. I actually found this more enjoyable than Age of Extinction, but the series has definitely been played out by now.
  • Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets:  The YA tropes might be a little off-putting, but the film is as gorgeous and imaginative as they come.
  • The Void: Shallow, perhaps, but still a respectable invocation of cosmic horror tropes.
Coming 2018!

Honestly, I'm not looking forward to much in '18. Sure, there will be more comic book adaptations of all kinds, but most other titles look like ones I could personally take or leave. Here are the ones that actually have my attention:
  • Annihilation: Should be good on the merits of Alex Garland's direction and penmanship. He won my heart over with Dredd and Ex Machina--any other sci-fi, I will trust him with.
  • Avengers: Infinity War: So many films have built up to this--it will be huge. 
  • Battle Angel Alita: Don't let the big eyes throw you off. This was a really cool anime and manga to begin with, and I've been yearning for James Cameron's adaptation for years. Now that it's gained traction under Robert Rodriguez, I expect the movie to be fun, plain and simple.
  • Black Panther: Why not? Black Panther's debut in CA: Civil War was pretty awesome, so his stand-alone movie should have as much punch as Wonder Woman did.
  • Ready Player One: The book was fantastic, warts and all. Under Spielberg's direction, this should be both a blast from the past and a rocket to the future. In other words, pure imagination.
  • Soldado: The sequel to Sicario, one of my top favorites of 2015 and one of my top favorite modern thrillers. Even though it was a complete story in itself, I welcome more.
  • Solo: A Star Wars Story: Odds of this being bad? Never tell me the odds with a Star Wars film. Chances are good I'll enjoy this no matter how messy the new franchise becomes.

Film Review: The Florida Project

Kids will make a paradise out of anything. Even cheap motels--it doesn't matter. The Florida Project is the paradise that a group of children make for themselves on the outskirts that orbit Disneyland, and despite all the rainbows and sunshine, it's a troubling backdrop for very real, harsh struggles.

For most of the film, the camera follows Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), a typical kid just being a kid with other kids. They run around, screaming, bugging people, spitting on cars, playing with everything they get their mitts on, breaking stuff, finding free food and cash. Life is good, right? Except for the parents--the whole time these kids run amok, Moonee's dipsh*t mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) seems to live an equally carefree life, the motel room her only home. A woman who respects nothing and nobody, but is constantly demanding special attention, exception, and handouts. Her mere presence sets off a downward spiral that endangers her, her daughter, her so-called friends, their kids, and the whole "magic kingdom" they're trapped in.

It's as bittersweet as a film can get. All the colorful buildings and sunny vistas paint a pleasant picture, and it's not hard to see the magic that all the kids see in an otherwise trashy environment. It's a testament to the resilience of children's minds and imaginations--it's both touching and spot-on. Overshadowing this, however, is the world of adults. A world of structure and rules, which Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe, in a performance that might be one of his absolute best, playing perhaps the most likable character in the film) dutifully upholds, despite being at odds with showing compassion towards the needy denizens of the motel. This is also a world of late-night parties, drugs, fist-fights, hustles, and overall poverty.

Captured with solid photography and snappy editing, the whole film is stitched together with many short vignettes that collectively show how getting the two worlds mixed up leads to trouble. Hally is a character I just love to hate--she has no desire and makes no attempt to earn a genuine living (in contrast to one of her friends, who distances herself after the kids did something very naughty--drama galore happens). Hally shrugs responsibility, disrespects authority, throws fits when she doesn't get her way (even if she blatantly breaks the law, which she does repeatedly). If she has any charm, it's any time she has fun with Moonee, and it seems like that's all she wants for the whole runtime. But her attitude and criminal behavior poisons the environment, to the point of driving away everyone else. It does not end well. Some might say that the film's ending is itself bad, dumb, stupid, or whatever--I think it's a metaphorical culmination of the whole story, suggesting that genuine paradise can only be achieved by breaking away from the spiral of poverty and the toxic environments of selfish people.

The film does succeed on many levels--it's a fairly compelling story with very real-looking performances and locales. Stylish, but not in-your-face about it. Equal parts charming and infuriating--it's simply too hard to look away or ignore. There is a subtle balance between the worlds of children and adults at play, but it avoids fairy-tale cliches and shows both kids and parents at their rawest. My only gripe about the film is that, in terms of pacing and plot momentum, it's a little herky-jerky.

The Florida Project--chances are good you'll either love it for seeing the children playing, invoking nostalgia for the times when we all made our own kingdoms out of whatever mudhole we were in at the time, or you'll love it for the grittier adult drama surrounding these poor kids. Both collide with a somber outcome.


February 7, 2018

Film: Interpreting mother!

I started making Darren Aronofsky a part of my regular cinematic diet once I tasted the bitter tears of Requiem for a Dream and Pi. They are potent, and above all they kept me thinking and feeling long after I beheld their last frames. While his future films ventured into different (maybe less memorable) territories, I did find them valuable for one reason or another.

So in 2017, I was naturally interested to see mother! I saw it on the big screen while I was moving from Utah to Georgia (back to back with Kingsman: The Golden Circle--what a strange marathon). There was me and maybe several other people in the theater. Two older ladies got up and left around the infamous baby scene. I couldn't blame them--this was an oppressive film full of horrifying violence and suffering. By the end, I walked out feeling like I had my head beat in--partly because it was such an intense experience, but also because the movie was so bloody confusing.


A house with a living, beating heart? What was that gold stuff J-Law kept taking? How could hundreds of people fit into this 7,000 square foot house and literally do everything in it? Seriously, one minute the house is a dance club, and the next it's a warzone. How could Javier Bardem's character survive all that fire? What's with the glass heart? Why does this heart magically repair the house? Seriously, what the hell is going on with this film?

mother! What Is This Film?

Before I get into all the details about what I think this film is about, here's a recap of the story. The film starts with this scary image of a woman in flames, staring into the camera. She closes her eyes, a single tear drips. The title appears (all lower-caps, handwritten, an exclamation point). Then a man appears (Javier Bardem). Among the ruins of his burned-down house, he finds this glass heart and places it in some kind of setting. The whole house repairs itself and all the ashes vanish. Yes, even in the opening scene it's all weird.

In the bedroom, the guy's wife suddenly appears on the bed (Jennifer Lawrence). She looks for her husband (henceforth known as Him, per the credits). We see that their house is a large, rustic, octagon-shaped place in the middle of the country. They are surrounded by grass and trees, and cut off from any semblance of human society. Him surprises her, they go through the motions of acting like a happy couple. She devotes everything to Him and his house. While painting, she touches the wall to get a sense for how things are going--she can sense a literal heart beating in the house, and it's healthy.

As it turns out, Him is a writer who's lost his inspiration and can't write anything new (hey, a movie about writers, awesome). Then some stranger knocks on the door. Him lets the stranger (Ed Harris) in, and they chill. The wife is as hospitable as she can be, but something seems vaguely off as Him chats the guy up and goes out of his way to show compassion. Him seems more interested in this stranger than his own wife. So the old man stays the night. But not without a few quibbles--even though the wife asks the guy to stop smoking, he smokes like a fiend all the same. Eventually, the old man's wife shows up (Michelle Pfieffer) and acts like a total lush. She goes on to pry into the relationship between Him and the wife, acting like she knows more than they do and everything. Basically, boundaries are crossed and the wife feels disrespected by all the messes and social faux pas that occurs. Among the worse of them, the couple finds the glass heart in Him's office, and they break it. Him kicks them out of the room in despair.

Things only get worse when the strange couple's kids show up, and they instantly have a big fight over what they found in the old man's last will and testament. Inevitably, one of the kids kills the other right in front of everyone. The murder left some blood on the floorboards, which seeps down the house and reveals a hidden chamber in the basement. Him's wife manages to break through and find a barrel of oil. We'll get back to this at the end of the movie. A funeral reception happens at the house. People just keep coming in, one after another--Him expected them, his wife did not. She tries to lay down some rules, to stop people from invading the office, the bedroom, and breaking things. Among the craziest of things, some folks decide to repaint the house, without permission or anything. Things reach their boiling point when some jerks break the sink and water bursts everywhere. Party's over.

Him and the wife talk, and she challenges Him with the truth: he seems more interested in feeding his own narcissism by inviting and caring for strangers rather than returning her love and bearing her child. He fixes that pretty fast, and she wakes up pregnant. She just knows, no test or morning sickness or anything. Him is inspired and he writes the best thing ever.

As the wife reaches her third trimester, Him gets his words published, and every copy sells. People come to the house in droves. What starts as a few people looking for a bathroom turns into an all-out invasion. People just start roaming around every room. They all want a piece of Him and his work, so they loot everything. They re-arrange the furniture. They yank stuff off the walls. They start hammering. More repainting. Suddenly, there's a rave. And the whole time, the wife wanders around, lost and helpless in the sea of people that suddenly take over the house.

It just won't stop. Before long, people are fighting. Shots are fired. Cops show up, busting through windows and doors with guns blazing. A riot breaks out in one room, complete with batons and molotovs. Mass executions occur. Sick and dying people line the floors. Just about every horrible thing that has happened to people happens in the house. The dizzying onslaught of people and violence whisks the wife to another room.

Eventually, Him gets back with the wife and they retreat to the office, and they hold back the zealous crowd. The wife gives birth, and she's determined to hold and protect their new son. But Him wants to share his son with the rest of the world. He waits it out, until she falls asleep. When she wakes up, the jerk took off with the baby. Sure enough, he loses the baby to the crowd--they carry and hold him up, while the wife's pleas to be careful and give him back go unheard. Inevitably, the baby's neck snaps and everything falls silent. When the wife cuts through the crowd, she comes across a priest-like figure who assures her that everything is fine. The baby is dismembered, and the crowd is eating the flesh and blood.

At this point, the wife loses it and fights back with a shard of glass. After killing a few of these f*ckers, they throw her down and beat her viciously. Him manages to cut through the crowd and pull her back up. There is no going back from this though--she freaks out and retreats to the basement. She comes across the lighter the first stranger had, and she takes it to the barrel of oil she found earlier. She bursts it open and lets oil spill everywhere.

Despite Him's insistence to stop and forgive all the people, she drops the lighter and everything explodes. Literally. Fire washes over every single person, before the house bursts into a giant fireball and the surrounding field is ignited. In the middle of it all, the mother looks into the camera while on fire. She closes her eyes, a single tear drips. Sound familiar? Yep, just like 2009's Triangle, this is one of those crazy loop movies where the end is the beginning and it just goes on and on. Sure enough, Him retrieves the glass heart from the burnt body of his wife, sets it in its setting, and the house restores itself. A new mother appears on the bed, and it all begins again. Credits roll and Fallout 4 music plays.

lol, wut?

Ever since walking out of the theater, I couldn't stop thinking over the movie and trying to figure out what's really going on. On the surface, it's an extremely hyperbolic home invasion film with a lot of scenes that don't make sense or can't be taken at face value. Not unless you can accept that a house can have a beating heart, or that one explosion can kill so many but not the two main characters, among other things.

On the other hand, arthouse films knows no boundaries. As someone who did sit through and enjoy Eraserhead, Naked Lunch, 1977's House, and more, accepting this film's absurdities shouldn't be a problem. After all, some movies (especially confusing arthouse ones) don't really operate on real-world rules, many stories operate on their own rules in their own little universes. Surely, if I can accept that Donnie Darko can bend space and time and fly through tangent universes, mother! should be acceptable on its own terms, right?

Except it isn't. Most movies succeed in suspending disbelief through consistency, and mother! is not really consistent. It wavers constantly from grounded realism to insane hyperbole that just can't work in grounded reality. In the movie's making-of featurette, Aronofsky admits that the film is a strange and odd experience precisely because he sought to make it grounded, but slowly lift the realism away and turn it into a fever dream. So it's by design, but I'm not wholly convinced it works. The problem lies in the film's main intention: to be an allegory.

What Does It Mean?!!

Aronofsky and Lawrence both claim online and in the movie's featurette that the film is an allegory that captures the entirety of human existence. Darren penned the original script in just five days, channeling all the outrage he felt over all the injustices and horrors of mankind. He spent another four months with the cast workshopping the script and rehearsing in a warehouse in Brooklyn. So when the actual filming started, all the action was already blocked and the camera moves were already figured out.

With everybody on the same page, Darren and the cast made it clear publicly what the film is really about. Lawrence's character is mother nature. And there are obvious hints to support this: she spends the whole movie in costumes that emphasize her natural body, to the point where some of her gowns are see-through, and she is barefoot most (if not all) of the time. The house she maintains is as rustic as they come--the kitchen looks like a beast, with a simple, blocky fridge that looks like it's made of wood or something, big sinks with big pipes that spew water, big wooden pieces of furniture everywhere. Everything is painted in earthy colors--brown, green, yellow. All the food she prepares and serves are simple, natural-looking dishes--no pizzas or burgers or anything, just good wholesome breads, fruits, veggies, cheeses, milk, and the like. Given the decor, colors, styles, etc., I came out of the film believing the house is Earth (although I'm not sure if that fits--more on that later). Surely, the oil in the basement is a pretty clear parallel to the oil we dig out of the Earth daily--oil that has substantiated war in recent decades, and many warn that oil and its burning will ruin the ecosystem and lead to our own demise. The film's final (or opening?) scenes show this very explicitly.

Him is God, obviously. The biggest tip-off to me was the moment when his art drew in all the people--as it was written in the Bible, it was the Word that breathed life into the world, and sure enough that's what we see. God's word is what made the first stranger make his pilgrimage to the house in the first place. He writes new words that are so awesome, they bring in everyone. Thus, the poem that accelerates the plot must be the Bible itself. You can even go so far as to suggest that the publisher who goes on to frame the poem may represent the people who sought to translate, re-translate, alter, distribute, print, and spread the Bible over the centuries. This culminates in that scene where the publisher walks up and down with a pair of guns, shooting hooded victims on the ground. She sees mother nature and says "The inspiration!" Then she turns to one of her goons and orders, "Finish her." This same woman was so nice to nature in earlier scenes, but now she's a total villain. What provided the inspiration for the original words was to be wiped out, while the authority that framed and presented the words goes around killing in His name. This brings to mind historic atrocities such as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem Witch Trials--instances in which the holy word was used to justify widespread murder and suffering, while loosing sight of the original intent or "inspiration" behind God's words.

The baby that Him and nature have is Christ. He is given to the world, and is sacrificed. Him insists "We have to forgive them," even as the multitudes eat the baby's body and blood--this is obviously a reference to the Holy Communion, in which Christ's body and blood are consumed in the form of bread and wine. Only the movie turns this literal, to drive the significance of Christ's sacrifice home in a more horrifying light. As it is with The Passion of the Christ, mother! is a movie that forces us to ask ourselves what has mankind done to God's one and only son.

Given these symbols, then it stands to reason that Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve. They were the first in the house (world), and it's their sons (Cain and Abel, played by Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) who introduce sin into the house. Sin becomes represented by this blood stain that sinks into the floorboards and just won't go away. It seeps down, rotting away wood and flooding a lightbulb that explodes and reveals the secret room with the oil (thus, maybe suggesting that sin will be our undoing). As the movie goes on, the blood stain is reference again and again. When the original group of strangers leave, nature is able to cover up the blood stain with some new wood, and it seems to go away. But more blood seeps through the rug when the new group of invaders show up, and it becomes a gaping hole after a while. At one point, some of the invaders snap selfies next to this thing, maybe suggesting that people are drawn to sin and will glorify it on social media. Think about that next time you go out clubbing and you want to take a selfie while drunk and doing something stupid. Sin does creep up every time Adam and Eve are on screen though--Adam is a smoker and a drinker, and it seems to take a toll on his body. Eve seems drunk and vindictive all the time. The two are always on the juice, while nature sticks with tea. The one time Eve makes lemonade, it happens to have booze in it, they just can't help themselves (and it's especially bothersome to nature, since they took something as simple as lemonade and corrupted it with man-made alcohol). And just moments after breaking the glass heart, they do the nasty in some other room.

Oh yeah, remember that glass heart? Considering that Adam and Eve burst into God's office (and nature told them they shouldn't be in there) and they shattered it, then it must be the Tree of Knowledge from Genesis. Just as it happens in the Bible, God sees what happens and casts the two out of...well, His office. At the same time, He doesn't cast them out from the world. Nature tells Him to, but He just says, "Oh yeah? Where will they go?" Him is always asking this and using it as justification to keep them around, and invite more into the house. Even though He judged mankind, He shows enough compassion to keep His front doors open.

Except, is compassion really His goal in the movie? He seems so open and friendly, but He winds up severing ties with nature. This is visibly seen when the beating heart of the home slowly withers, blackens, and finally stops beating. The living heart was fueled by the healthy relationship between God and nature, but humans cut between them and humans started feeding God more of their love and adoration. They fed His ego, and it was never enough. That line pops up constantly, "It's never enough." Nature tells Him this in the end--she gave Him everything, but it was never enough. Him owns up to it by saying "Nothing is ever enough. I couldn't create if it was. And I have to. That's what I do. That's what I am."

It's All About Him Isn't It?

This relationship is one-way only, always pouring from others into Him. In the beginning, nature gave Him love, but it wasn't enough to create the Word and fill the house with life like He wanted. So He found mankind. The more attention that was stolen from nature, the more episodes of pain would occur. She warded the pain away temporarily with this gold medicine she took (although I have no idea what the gold stuff is supposed to be). But for the story's purposes, it kept her going all the way through the funeral reception. Once she was pregnant, she ditched the gold stuff--she probably shouldn't have, because the whole world came into the house next and her relationship to Him just kept plummeting. People adored Him, but constantly disrespected her. They pushed her to the extreme, and they all paid for it, because He was too absorbed in himself and all the love people showered onto Him to see what was happening to His wife, the house, and everything. Only when the heart of the house shriveled to nothing did nature realize the truth: that she would always keep giving, He would always take, and it was never going to be enough.

This relationship is apparent in the twin posters for the movie. On one, nature is holding her own heart out as if it's an offering. In the other, Him is surrounded by flames and holding his hand out as if to take something. Put them together, and that's what their relationship is--one gives, the other takes.

The narcissism doesn't end there though. Just about everybody who pours into the house is there to take something away. Nobody, not even Adam and Eve, offer anything in return to Him and nature's hospitality. Worst of all, every time nature tries to lay down some reasonable rules (like not breaking the sink), she's ignored and everybody acts like they know better. Mankind becomes narcissistic, and all their shenanigans turn the house into a ruin by the end.

Him struck me as a frustrating man to put up with. Not only did he take and take to the point of valuing strangers over his wife, but he also kept hiding things from her. There's a passing scene where Adam seems to suffer, and we briefly see a wound in his side (Adam's rib). Once nature sees it, Him covers it up and shoos her out. What's there to hide?  Later, when certain things happen (like the publisher calling, the people showing up at the house), Him seems to know exactly what's happening, whereas nature (and us by extension) are dumbfounded that He is letting all this stuff happen without telling anybody. Not to mention, He winds up losing track of nature, and is unable (or maybe even unwilling) to help her put her foot down and stop the looting and violence. The fact that Him and nature never united to lay down the law kinda ticked me off--it's just so flaky.

But that's the point--we're not meant to know what Him knows, and not even nature is privy to His secrets. So mankind does pop up unannounced, and He just lets them in the house without a fuss for reasons we can't really comprehend. He might even know how it all ends (especially if this cycle always repeats itself). But nature doesn't, and we don't (at least on the first, unspoiled viewing). To further emphasize how above-and-beyond He is, take a good look at his office. He has a good load of books lining the walls, as if surrounded by knowledge. This is also one of the rooms that's exclusive to Him and nature. Only Adam and Eve have been there before, but they were cast out--later, the baby Christ comes out of this room and enters the world. Could it be that this room is heaven? Or Eden? Or both?

But wait, wasn't the house supposed to be the Earth?

The Problems With Allegory

As fun as it is (at least for me) to analyze each scene and figure out what part aligns with what Biblical or historic piece, it doesn't change the fact that this film is fundamentally screwed-up. One of the biggest reasons is the allegory--I'm not convinced it actually works or fits correctly with the given story.

This is another frustrating aspect of the movie (which is something I tried to explain above with regards to arthouse cinema): the logos of the story should stand on its own, independent of the symbolism. It doesn't in mother! You need to know the allegory in order to understand and accept it. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of impossible things that happen for unknown reasons--I'm sure many viewers gave up trying to figure the movie out and just dismissed the whole lot as stupid, precisely because they may not have understood it. Which is why Aronofsky and the gang tried so hard to make the allegory known. But does an allegory really need to be spelled out by the artists? Shouldn't they have let the film speak for itself?

Look at other allegories. Hemmingway's Old Man and the Sea can be accepted in two ways: a simple story about a geezer who catches a big fish, or an allegory to Christ. If you don't know it's an allegory to Christ, it doesn't stop you from reading it and accepting it as just a fishing story. Same goes for Moby Dick, the godfather of allegories, which can be seen as either a sprawling hunt for a whale, or a study of humanity, good and evil, God and Satan, damnation, and lord knows what else. These classics are packed with symbolism, but if you don't know or understand them, it doesn't stop them from being accepted on the surface level.

With mother! the story can't be accepted on the surface because most symbols that appear have a lot of attention drawn to them. Hearts are a big motif--the house has one, there's a glass heart, there's a heart-looking thing in the toilet in one scene. If this is just a regular home invasion movie, these scenes become meaningless. Then why put them in the movie to begin with? Some would call this pretentious. I say it simply lacks subtlety.

What mother! fails to do is marry the symbols transparently into the story. Instead, they stick out and distract from the narrative, confusing the audience and disrupting attention from the story. Consider other stories that work: in the examples I had above, the symbols were interwoven seamlessly in each story's action and environments. You don't see Captain Ahab crawling on the deck of his ship, checking the pulse of an invisible beating heart that only he can see. But his last scene where he's dragged beneath the ocean by the whale--now that means something, but it's also a natural outcome of the events.

What happens in mother! happens only because the allegory demands it. On the first watch, I wondered constantly why Him doesn't put his foot down on everybody looting and ransacking His house--no rational person would put up with that. But knowing that Him is God (and a narcissist), we understand that He permits all this chaos because He is swimming in their love and adoration. This story could have gone any number of directions, but because it's meant to encapsulate all of human history, it goes against the current of common sense and becomes frustrating.

Even the allegory side of mother! falls short. For one thing, if we accept that the house is Earth, then what is everything outside of the house supposed to be? Outer space? Where did everybody come from? The original couple is Adam and Eve, but they weren't created by Him as Genesis lays out--where did they come from originally? And everyone else afterward?

This could boil down to understanding Aronofsky's world view, which we got a glimpse of in 2014's Noah. That was a challenging and frustrating experience in its own way, because he rejected the classic telling of Noah's Ark and focused on Noah experiencing survivor's guilt. That also meant Noah couldn't interpret God's message directly--they were vague and disturbing visions. And in one of the movie's most interesting scenes, the story of creation is juxtapose to images that depict the cosmos developing over eons, and life coming naturally to the Earth via evolution. So, could it be that mother! suggests that people simply evolved on their own in the wilderness, then came to the house of God?

But (at least as I understand it), once God and man came together, they never really parted ways. God was always watching over us, guiding us, and giving His only son at the right time. That's not what happens in the movie though--man and God are separated repeatedly. God and Adam take a walk and leave nature alone in the house, so she and Eve can chat it up. What point in history is this supposed to represent? Did Adam literally leave the planet? Absences continue to happen, first when Abel is killed and everybody leaves to find a hospital, and then again between the Old and New Testament phases of the movie. Where did all these people go when they leave the house? Where did they come from when the Word gets published?

There are a few instances in which the phone gets used. Who are the people on the other end supposed to be? One is a publisher--is this supposed to be the prophets? Or is the phone like a "radio for speaking to God?" Does that mean the phone is the Ark of the Covenant? I do like to think that all the looting in the movie are efforts for people to find and take holy relics (which brings to mind the lost ark, the Spear of Destiny, and the Shroud of Turin). One person declares, "I have to have something of His!" The sheer zeal in these scenes really drive the point home that God and his Word were so great, everybody wanted a piece of Him. At one point, nature picks up the phone to call the cops, crying out "They're taking everything!" Now wait a minute...who are the cops? They're outside the house, which is Earth, so...are there space alien cops somewhere? And the hospital everybody went to earlier...what is that supposed to be?

Chances are these aspects are beyond the scope of the allegory. But that's the same problem in reverse: now the literal side of the story is screwing up the metaphor. The line is too blurred and it's hard to reconcile the symbols with reality in this movie. All you can do is just shrug it off. Unless you really want to accept that the cops and hospital represent space aliens.

I will give the film some benefit of the doubt--it's possible the house is not meant to represent the Earth. Especially if one room of the house is supposed to be God's domain (as explained earlier, the office seems to be His domain of knowledge and nobody else is allowed in). It might be a better fit for the story to say that the house is God's house, or the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than Earth. This fits some things--it explains the people's absences, because people do sway farther away from God then come closer. It's also a little more messed-up, because this suggests that mankind's actions have tainted, mutated, and ruined God's kingdom. It is easy in the film to see how God's Word and teachings are warped to justify violence, looting, and disrespect for nature. But wait, if the house isn't Earth, then all the Earth parallels that were established wouldn't mean anything anymore. Unless you want to accept that nature may be a tenant in God's kingdom, and she maintains His house through her love and devotion.

The more I think about it, the more I believe this interpretation jives better with the story and themes. Alas, Lawrence confirmed on TV that the house is indeed the Earth. Which still makes sense because she, nature, takes care of it, and it's the oil from the bowels of the house that unleashes literal Hell. So we just have to accept that it's a partial fit.

Unfortunately, the religion is also a partial fit, likely due to Aronofsky's own views. The biggest thing that made me scratch me head was the baby--Christ exists in the movie as the offspring between God and nature. Unless you want to say that nature became the Virgin Mary for just that one scene. And that might be the intention, given the movie's title--J-Law is there to represent all mothers, including the Holy Mother, not just nature. Or, maybe because Christ is born from nature, he is also born from man, so the allegory could fit regardless. But given that our two leads are established as entities above and beyond mankind, this felt like an odd relationship, when Christ should be a bridge between Him and everybody invading the house (in which case, I wondered if it would have worked better if He had a child with a random stranger, who would then become the Virgin Mary).

Few other pieces of the Bible are totally absent. For one thing, there is no Satan. At least not in the flesh. You could argue that evil is present in men and their actions (and there's plenty of it in the film). But without Satan, there is no direct antagonist for Him, and the whole point of the Bible is to chronicle the ultimate triumph over evil. The film takes the opposite approach, suggesting that cycles merely repeat themselves and nothing will ever change. There is no Devil, just men, and they will always be evil and irredeemable. I guess that's fine for the movie, but it is a dark and troubling message (and that's something I'll get to in a minute).

There are no angels. No demons. God and nature exist in a vacuum, according to the movie (although, funnily enough, I think I did spot an angel on the wall in this screencap).

The movie really doesn't need the whole multitudes of the heavenly host to make its points known, but it does diminish the allegory slightly. Consider another film seeped heavily in Biblical allegory: Only God Forgives, a bizarre crime film from 2013 in which a vengeful cop goes after an underground Thai boxer and his crazy mother (what is it with these films and mothers?). This is another film that's hard to swallow on its own merits, unless you accept that the cop can kill lots of people with swords and chopsticks without so much as a reprimand. But if you accept that the cop is actually God (per the movie's title), then things start to make sense. Guess what? He had an entourage: every other cop around this guy were angels. And in all those weird karaoke scenes, this was the film's way of referencing the holy choir of angels. This is the only film I know of that symbolizes such a thing. And yet, OGF is a film that suffers the same problems mother! does--it doesn't hold up unless you apply the allegory and accept that Chang is God. Frankly, I think Refn improved his allegory skills in The Neon Demon--it might not be subtle, but so long as you can accept monstrous cannibal models, the film holds up both ways. In regards to mother! all the theology seems stripped to the bone. It wouldn't have been hard to throw in a nanny or two and make them symbolic angels. Suppose one of them decides he hates Him and doesn't like Him showing affection to these strangers coming to the house--he could leave, then come back and try to rile up the other people to do awful things to the house. Boom, that could have been Satan. It doesn't happen that way though.


Character is what makes or breaks any story. Strangely enough, character manages to do both with this movie.

What works in the film is how closely it sticks to the main character. The vast majority of the picture has only three types of shots: over-the-shoulder, close-ups from the neck up, and point-of-view shots. We see, hear, and experience every passing moment the character does. This is a blessing because we immediately connect to her and her experience becomes the same as ours.

It's also a curse because so much happens in the film that it invokes feelings of outrage. Part of it is the way others treat the character--there's hardly ever a moment when the character is treated with niceness, so we spend most of the movie wondering why everyone is such a jerk and what their problem is. It's also frustrating watching Him through her eyes, as he consistently lets people into the house while she wants them out. Everything that happens is outrageous, so the film invokes feelings of outrage.

The thing to admire about mother! is how the narrative POV succeeds in invoking the right feelings. In this sense, the film is a success. It makes audiences so angry, many will leave the theater and decry it as the worst movie ever.

Aronofsky's handling of pathos has been more successful in the past. It was probably at its best with The Wrestler--you really couldn't help but to feel for the main character thanks to its script and performances. Unfortunately, Aronofsky fumbled it with Noah, on account that he characterized one of the Bible's most faithful characters as faithless. In mother! it seems to work too well, because we are so close to all the horrors of the movie that it pours out of the screen into the audience.

The Void

One of the most poetic lines in the movie happens during the funeral reception, where Him delivers a speech to honor Abel's death. He asks everybody to stop and listen for the voice from the void. "That is the sound of life. That is the sound of humanity." Mother (and we by extension) hear nothing. But everybody weeps all the same, and they claim to hear the voice. All of this is repeated at the end during the baby scene. It's something of a sermon that people clung to.

Knowing Aronofsky's work, I can't help but to see these lines as the unifying theme to the movie: nihilism, in the sense that the universe is cold, uncaring, and indifferent, and humanity derives its own meaning in it through faith. Only the faith presented here seems perverse--Him's words are mutated and used to justify the murder of His own child. Above all, the only sound we hear is the crying. If there is a voice calling out from the darkness, it's only our own.

It's a somber reflection, but not one I find particularly appealing. What these lines suggest is that the "sound of life" and the "sound of humanity" has no sound at all. Does that mean Him's words have no substance either? In the funeral scene, He clearly says these lines as a way to comfort the family, so does he really hear a voice or is it just a way to help them cope?

The film ends with hopelessness. Even though Him wants to forgive mankind and keep them in the house, even he can't stop nature from unleashing her wrath. This is not how the Bible itself plays things out though--by the Bible's end, evil is vanquished and a new paradise is established. Granted, all of Revelations has to happen first, which does include horrible natural disasters, but it's a whole mess of events that wouldn't have fit into mother! in any good way. At the same time though, the film rejects the Bible's one-way tracts and goes for the looping method, suggesting there is no hope or salvation. History will always repeat itself, mankind will always ruin the world, and nothing stops evil (nothing can, because evil is implicit to man and has no personification).

For Better Or For Worse

mother! is a film I struggle to reconcile with. If for no other reason than it's a frustrating watch, since we behold a good character suffering so much disrespect, and eventually abuse and terror, while her own husband fails to stand by her side and people continuously cross lines. Given the closeness of the POV, the effect is amplified. Plus, the film is loaded with surreal visual clues and motifs that defy rational explanation and can only be substantiated by allegory, which in turn drives the plot. This is frustrating if you aren't familiar with the symbols. Even if you are, it's hard trying to reconcile all the pieces between fantasy and reality.

Admittedly, I'm probably being too harsh with the film. I might be looking too deeply and critically at each symbol and trying to make them fit in places that they're not supposed to. Accepting it on its own merits is possible, so long as you accept that the film's sole purpose is to express a nihilistic message that mankind will suffer the wrath of mother nature--maybe even repeatedly--and not even God can help us.

Personally, I find the message too bleak, and I don't believe it accurately conveys the same messages the Bible itself carries. But then, maybe it's not meant to--the film emulates the events of the Bible, not its message, thus offering an alternate take (or maybe an anti-thesis) on the meaning of our existence. Either way, I find myself disagreeing with it, but that's only my personal disposition which is naturally optimistic. Even I won't deny that the film succeeds in its purpose: to incite outrage and relay a dark message of hopelessness.

Ultimately, I do value the film most of the way and see it as an interesting piece of art. Not one I particularly enjoy, and it's still my least-favorite of Aronofsky's work so far. Somehow, the experience did stick out in my brain and compel me to see the movie again and study it deeper. Maybe someday, my appreciation will rise as all the issues I griped about become non-issues. If nothing else though, it's been a fascinating mental journey for me to look at all the symbols and see what works and what doesn't.

This is how I should write all the things...

January 3, 2018

Al's Review of 2017 in Music

I don't think I've listened to pop music on the radio in years. Just about all the albums and singles I collected in 2017 stemmed from familiar genres and bands I knew I'd enjoy. Surprisingly though, there's been a lot of them.

I've been following new releases by the FiXT label like a fiend. Main man Klayton has produced a crap ton of thrilling new music this year, and I soaked in as much as I could. Celldweller's latest album turned out to be a pleasant surprise--not a rip-roaring space adventure like the last couple of albums, but a gentle, somewhat ambient and relaxing arrangement of older, familiar songs. I found the direction very satisfying. Of course, Klayon also put out a new Transmissions album (now rebranded as FreqGen--I guess that makes sense), a drum album, and more Scandroid singles leading up to a new album (including covers of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and John Williams' "Binary Sunset" theme from Star Wars--they sound okay). Blue Stahli put out some retrowave of their own (now rebranded as Sunset Neon, I noticed). Combine all this with the new Depeche Mode album and the movie soundtrack for Atomic Blonde, and I swear I was living in the 80s right now. It is a pretty cool groove though.

I wish I could say I was down with more metal, but this year I realize I haven't collected much at all. NIN put out an EP, but I haven't even found time to listen to it (which is inexcusable on my part). I did hear the new Alestorm album. Yep, more of the same: pirate shanties in metal form. Have the latest Xandria album, barely listened to it though. New Collide album sounded fair. Ayreon's new album sounded like more of the same. Biggest standout for me has been KMFDM's Hell Yeah, which does have some good, kick-ass songs on it. One of the biggest shocks to the metal scene this year was the passing of Chester Bennington. Linkin Park delivered one last album--one seemingly devoid of all aggression (and guitars for that matter). It's a jarring shift, but in light of Bennington's passing, it does carry sobering weight.

What really captivated me this year was rock, plain and simple. Not hard rock necessarily. Most of the songs I wound up clinging to have been slower and gentler. Songs with mood and feeling. And a lot of them have resonated with me personally this year, since I had to rebound from feeling down and make a cross-country move. Anathema's The Optimist might as well be the soundtrack to my year--the songs seemed to suggest themes of moving on in life, and that's exactly what I've done. Although, UNKLE's The Road is seems to bear similar messages, especially in the notion of choosing your own destiny and following your own path (hence, the road). Between these two albums, I've felt thoroughly empowered and inspired.

Other rock albums have pleased me. Beck's Colors boasts superb beat and vibes. Villains by Queens of the Stone Age is loaded with interesting hooks. Halestorm's latest EP (more covers) is quite hard-hitting, and their rendition of "Fell on Black Days" is just as powerful and compelling as the original. Greta Van Fleet, despite having such a short EP, manages to overshadow all these bands with fresh and energetic talent. I've seen folks compare them to Led Zeppelin, and I think the comparison is apt.

Picked up a few good electronica albums--new music by Bonobo and Tosca are nice. Thievery Corporation never disappointed me, and their latest (Temple if I & I) is consistently superb. I listened to Barclay Crenshaw's self-titled album on an airplane--I wound up becoming so engrossed by it, I purchased a copy and listened to it a few more times. So strange and different.

As always, I indulged in a lot of film scores and soundtracks too. The trend of repackaging older music continues with Baby Driver, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, and Atomic Blonde. All of these do have groovy tunes, old and new, that will make you feel like you're in a different time and place. As far as orchestrated music goes, it doesn't get harder or heavier than the John Wick Chapter 2 score, which is just as awesome and punchy as the first movie's score. Thor: Ragnarok has some interesting twists (the "Grandmaster's Jam Session" is just so goofy). The score for Split is surprisingly elegant, and the score for War for the Planet of the Apes is surprisingly classy.

The only pop song I've heard all year is Taylor Swift's "Look At What You Made Me Do." I like the beat. But I can see how folks would be disgusted by the song, and I'm pretty sure we'll all forget about it by this time next year. I got a feeling I'm not missing much else.

Al's Favorite 2017 Albums
Generally in order from most-favorite onwards. Only listing the ones I've heard in full and really loved.

01: UNKLE - The Road Part 1

I started following this group because of their beat, and the beat doesn't disappoint in The Road. The tunes aren't particularly heavy, but they are fairly catchy, the guitar work is great, and the vocals/lyrics are elegant. The album covers a spectrum of styles and moods, and it all seems to tell a story with inspiring messages about living life. Even if you listen to the instrumental-only tracks (available in the deluxe edition), the music is still captivating. I consider it a very consistent, pleasing, inspiring listen. It's been seven years since UNKLE last put out new material--the wait was worth it.
02: Celldweller - Offworld

The tunes are familiar (some stretching to Celldweller's debut album and Klayton's Scandroid songs, plus one or two covers), but the mood is very different. The rip-roaring industrial beats and metalstep guiars are gone--this is sorta acoustic, with gentler beats and occasional crescendos of guitar, but to my ears it sounds 100% ambient. The mood is mournful, and I couldn't help but to feel some sorrow as the music seemed to reflect my own feelings at the time. I think this arrangement is very elegant, and it's something I feel anybody and everybody can (and maybe should) listen to. Even if the music doesn't resonate, it might just make you feel like you're going offworld.
03: Anathema - The Optimist

I got into this band by pure chance, blind-buying Weather Systems, but I was hooked by their elegant blend of harsh metal, beautiful vocals, and elegant instruments. The Optimist offers more of the same, but with fresh new hooks, fantastic guitars, and a lot of uplifting feeling. Even the lyrics, which suggests a continuing story from their debut album, carries an uplifting message. As I said above, this became the soundtrack for my life for a while, as I felt like I moved on and became the optimist, just as the music seemed to go. Combined with the top two albums above, and you've got a very potent trio of albums full of emotion and inspiration.
04: Thievery Corporation - Temple of I & I

Surprisingly gentler than I expected, but the styles and grooves are consistent with the band's previous work. I can listen to all of their albums beginning-to-end without skipping, and this is no exception--every track is good, plain and simple. Great beat, style, lyrics, and everything.
05: Greta Van Fleet - Black Smoke Rising

It feels like the second coming of Led Zeppelin. Maybe it's the vocals, which sounds so similar to Robert Plant. Maybe it's the guitars, loaded with catchy and skillful hooks. Maybe it's the overall rock n' roll groove, which sounds so classy and firm. Whatever it is, this is good rock, plain and simple.
06: Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard - John Wick Chapter 2 Film Score

The movie rocked, and so does its music. The actual score is full of hard-hitting rock cues, just like from the first movie, and they're always a blast to hear. In between there's a few odd rock songs, including "Fool" (that song played in the middle of the movie that just sounds like a vampire melting or something, I dunno, it's just so creepy and dark).
07: Queens of the Stone Age - Villains

When I first got this album, I listened to it again and again and again nonstop, simply because I loved the melodies and hooks that much. There's as much grit as there is elegance to this album--the guitars are decent, but it's the structure, lyrics, and overall tone that makes this one of the band's best.
08:  Blue Stahli - Antisleep Volume 4

Some of this was released before, but then more tracks came out this year. I dunno, it's just more cool instrumentals. Some of it hits the same retrowave groove as the Scandroid/Sunset Neon stuff, other tracks are industrial. It's all pretty cool and each track delivers a unique theme. A must for anybody who really needs more metal, more spy music, more futuristic electronica, or anything else your imagination demands.
09: Various Artists - Baby Driver Film Soundtrack 

You wanna beat your tinnitus and rock out the same way the guy in the movie did? Baby (or rather, Edgar Wright) sure knew how to pick them. His playlist boasts a pretty decent array of hard and soft rock, with occasional pieces of genuine soul, jazz, and funk in between. Among the highlights, the soundtrack features two versions of "Easy" (the original by the Commodores, and Sky Ferreira's version sung for the film), "Bellbottoms" (heard in the film's thrilling opening scene), a pretty mellow version of "Tequila," and plenty of motown. You can even hear the "Is He Slow?" jam. It's all pretty fun, hip, and energetic. Above all, it's brimming with soul.
10: Beck - Colors

Beck's music has rarely failed to deliver solid beat, even if everything else becomes kooky. Colors is a decent listen--it's consistent and even, never becoming too aggressive or noisy, but still full of energy, style, and unique structures. Set to a firm beat, the songs become quite uplifting and groovy. At times, inspiring.
11:  Jason Nesmith - Smash the System

This is an act most people would have probably never heard of, unless you follow FiXT and drill deeper into the non-Klayton and non-Blue Stahli material. Nesmith's work sounds like the perfect video game score--a cool blend of rock, electronica, and score music. The guitars add grit, but aren't overbearing at all. If you crave cool score music with beat and modern instrumentation like I do, this album is a must.
12: KMFDM - Hell Yeah

This might be the most exciting KMFDM album I've heard since WTF? As usual, the band delivers hard-hitting beat, guitar, and vocal power with strong political and counter-cultural messages. The hooks are great though, marrying perfectly with the beat and the electronica. All I can say is, hell yeah.
13: Collide - Color of Nothing

Collide's music has always capitalized the most off of Karin's ethereal voice, and it's just as elegant here as ever. Hooks gentle, but have a surprising ability to get under your skin and stick. The beat and tone are decent. Makes for a pretty decent, laid-back listen.
14: Scandroid - Monochrome

If you've heard their self-titled debut from last year, then you should know what to expect. It's 80's style synthwave, made all the better with firm beats and Klayton's voice (although, I gotta say he overdoes it a bit with "A Thousand Years"). The latest album includes interesting cover versions of the "Force Theme" from Star Wars, and Michael Jackson's "Thriller." But the single that really wowed me the most was "Rendesvous"--it's just so catchy and nice. Everything else is pretty consistent and just plain good.
15: Tosca - Going Going Going

Relaxing, as expected, although not quite in the same vibes their previous albums exuded. This one has more of a nightclub feel--the beats are constant, but not aggressive, much like Groove Armada's Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub). Most of the songs are harmonious, atmospheric, and just plain good.
16: Bonobo - Migration

This might be the most chill album of the year. So slow, mellow, but pleasant thanks to its eloquent use of instruments and soft beats. Even when it picks up some, it feels so airy. If you follow the band, then you should know what to expect--the album is a must.
17: Various Artists - Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Volume 2

Second mix for the second movie. This round of 70s jams includes a few must-have classics: ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky," Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," and all the other groovy hits you hear in the movie. Can't say they all appealed to me, nor was this as consistently soulful as Volume 1. I do get a kick out of "Fox on the Run" and the end credits "Guardians Inferno" song (featuring the Hoff himself...Starlord would be proud).
18: Ayreon - The Source

Very familiar style and sounds. This album carries over all the strengths as Ayreon's previous work: decent guitar, powerhouse vocals, high tempo and high power. The album tells a story (a prequel to 01011001) concerning an apocalyptic calamity and interstellar migration. There's lots of good talent and ambition to soak in--can't say I enjoyed this as much as their other albums, but it's solid.

Al's Favorite 2017 Songs