Celebrating 40 years of Queen’s A Night at the Opera

It has been 40 years since Queen released their definitive masterwork A Night at the Opera, and the world of rock has never looked quite the same. With the album reaching its 40th anniversary last week, I decided it would be a great time to dive into what is arguably my personal favorite rock album of all time.

The album opens on a viciously cathartic note with “Death on Two Legs,” allegedly lead singer Freddie Mercury’s hate letter toward Queen’s ex-manager. It could also just be seen as a really nasty ode to an ex-friend or lover (the male references throughout would even be keeping in line with Mercury’s homosexuality). Musically, it’s about as epic an opening as you could ask for. The melding of the piano with electronic beeps shows off the blend of old and new the band proved so adept at. Mercury’s voice drops in with an angry growl and doesn’t let up. And check out some of these lyric lines: “now you can kiss my ass goodbye.” “You’re a sewer rat encased in a cesspool of pride.” It’s a brutally efficient little number.

“Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” provides an immediate and jarring tonal shift, but don’t let the frivolous nature of the subject matter fool you—this is one brilliant little one-minute track. I love Mercury’s deliberately British-sounding vocals and Brian May’s lean guitar solo.

“I’m in Love with My Car” is the album’s most traditional-sounding rock song, with drummer Roger Taylor on vocals. His voice is raspier and more in line with a rock star than Mercury’s more theatrical sensibilities, and it’s a nice change of pace. Of course, the always on-point background harmonies still remind us that this is very much a Queen sound. The title obviously implies the content of the song, but I like the clever rhymes in lines like “Tell my girl I’ve got to forget her/I’d rather buy me a new carburetor.”

One of the most well-known and affecting songs from the album is “You’re my Best Friend,” Mercury’s sweet, sincere song about commitment. It’s an awesome feel-good song, one that reminds us to appreciate the loved ones we have in our own lives. Of course, there are some truly great vocal harmonies on display, and Mercury’s smooth, whispered “ohs” at the end of the track are simply infectious.

A song like ’39 begins to display the album’s epic tones as well as Queen’s penchant for grandiosity. The lyrics, sung by Brian May, are apparently about space travel. A group of astronauts embark on a year-long journey but return to find out 100 years have passed on earth time. The acoustic guitar work in the song is unique, and the lyrics invite contemplation. “Don’t you hear my call, though you’re many years away/Don’t you hear me calling you?”

“Sweet Lady” is the song that best shows off the band’s instrumental mastery. It features an incredible variety of rhythm and sound, starting in ¾ meter before switching to a lightning-fast 4/4. It really rocks, and what’s even more impressive is how effortless it all feels.

“Seaside Rendezvous” offers a switch back to Queen’s operatic mode, and the result is just insanely good. Taylor and Mercury’s vocals imitate instruments including a trumpet, clarinet, tuba and kazoo. It’s pretty mind-blowing stuff, and honestly sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard. It’s a tough one to describe, but it’s easily an album highlight.

It may be hard to imagine, but there is a song on A Night at the Opera that rivals “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “The Prophet’s Song” is it. It’s a candidate for most epic rock song ever recorded, as well as for my personal favorite. It’s a dark, long (over 8 minutes) and challenging work, speaking of dreams and prophecies and doom. “Oh, flee for your life/Deceive you not the fires of hell will take you/Should death await you.” The vocal round in the middle of the song is the true highlight, combined with an echo effect that is one of the coolest vocal tricks I’ve ever heard. It’s positively goosebump-inducing. The harmonic layering here is indescribably perfect. Thankfully, May’s guitar still has some room to wail here as well. The song ends on a more hopeful refrain (“Love is still the answer take my hand”) before its subtle and haunting denouement. If there’s such a thing as a perfect song, this is it.
*Note: Below is a really weird live recording that sounds totally different but is still pretty awesome.

“Love of my Life” is much softer but no less effective. Mercury’s beautiful, haunting, melancholic voice breaks with emotion. Bolstered by a melodic theatrical piano background, he strikes that brilliant and tricky balance between vulnerable and powerful as he sings about a love scorned, yet one he hopes to restore. It’s the kind of song Adele makes today. She certainly owes a debt of gratitude to songs like this.

“Good Company” is a clever song that recreates the sound of a Dixieland-style jazz band. May sings and plays ukulele. The odd lyrics seem to describe a man who comes across various people in his life but in the end discovers they were all imaginary. Songs like this once again show off the band’s immense variety and range.

And now we reach the granddaddy of all rock songs. What more is there to say about “Bohemian Rhapsody” that hasn’t already been said? Sometimes I wonder if the song has been spoiled by its perennial overplayed status on radio stations across the globe. Somehow, the answer to that question is always “no.” One does not simply tire of this song, ever. The song follows a man’s rumination on death row after having committed murder. The man expresses intense remorse as he sings to his mother. “life had just begun/but now I’ve gone and thrown it all away.” As he comforts her, he seems at first to accept his fate, but the chorus intercedes; some ask for mercy from the judge, while others condemn him. This one song contains more variety and emotion than 100 entire modern pop albums. There’s the chaotic call-and-response that echoes the narrator’s steadily decreasing sanity (“Mama mia let me go!”). He then turns to rage as the song kicks into rock mode with May’s legendary guitar solo. “So you think you can love me and leave me to die?” The narrator’s inner turmoil and back-and-forth emotional state is absolutely thrilling, but his bleak conclusion is still the same. “Nothing really matters, anyone can see/Nothing really matters to me.”

Oddly, the song ends with an efficient, short guitar interlude of “God Save the Queen.” It’s a nice, quiet ending to an album that is anything but.

A Night at the Opera is one of the most thrilling albums ever crafted. To call it Queen’s best work is to imply that there’s a runner-up somewhere in the vicinity. But this bad boy is in a league all its own. Iconic, both grandly ambitious and achingly intimate, it’s at obviously overblown and self-aggrandizing work. Queen was smart enough to only announce they were the best in the business if it were actually true. This album is proof enough that they most certainly were.

 

Ranking every Switchfoot album

A few weeks ago, I got to see indie rock musician Jon Foreman, the front man for the band Switchfoot, in concert. This led me to contemplate the many marvelous albums from my favorite band, and, like I did with U2 earlier this year, I decided to listen to them all and rank them. Switchfoot’s music is the kind that could literally save your life; words can’t adequately describe the impact their music has had on me since I was a kid. It’s the kind of music that makes me want to be a better person, that reminds me of my obligation to God and to others, and that love is the highest law of the land. Not to mention that their music flat-out rocks (and their music video’s are great goofy fun). Jon’s soulful vocals and guitar playing are backed by his brother Tim on bass, Chad Butler on drums and Jerome Fontamillas on keyboard as well as background guitar and vocals. Throughout their nearly 20-year existence, the band has amassed a formidable catalogue of seriously great music. All of it is worth listening to. Without further ado, here is every Switchfoot album, ranked.

  1. Oh! Gravity.

There is no such thing as a bad Switchfoot album, but there is such a thing as a disappointing one. This is it. Made toward the middle of the band’s career, Oh! Gravity finds the band trying to maintain their identity while simultaneously reinventing themselves. The result is a bit of a jumble; the songwriting is murkier than the band’s usual efforts and the themes are less clear and more inconsistent.

The excellent title song asks, “Why can’t we seem to keep it together?” lamenting the difficulty of keeping sane in a chaotic culture. The band’s penchant for scathing cultural critique is in full force with “American Dream,” where “excess is equated with excess.” “I want out of this machine,” Foreman sings. “It doesn’t feel like freedom to me.” The chaos tone of the album continues with “Dirty Second Hands,” which recalls the grungier sound of the band’s earlier work. “Awakening” is one of my favorite Switchfoot songs, a cry out for meaning and purpose. “I wanna wake up kicking and screaming/I wanna know that my heart’s still beating.” “Circles” is a deeper expression of inner chaos that still desires to hold on to truth. “Don’t believe that nothing is true. Don’t believe in this modern machine.”

“Amateur Lovers” describes the disease of “insufficiency of love.” “Faust, Midas and Myself” finds the band at its most metaphorical, which the band normally trades in brilliantly. This feels a bit too artsty though, and the result is unclear and unsatisfying. The same can be said for “In This Life.” I do like “Yesterday,” a softer song that feels like a goodbye song. “Burn out Bright” is another cry to restore passion. “Before I die I wanna burn out bright.” “4:12” is another interesting experiment, a song that is literally 4 minutes and 12 seconds. These kinds of gimmicks don’t make good songs on their own, however. “Let your Love be Strong” is a typical exhortation from Foreman to put love first. “Maybe I’m optimistic…that love could be a verb.”

Oh! Gravity has its share of excellence, but it’s balanced by some more forgettable tracks, and the album as a whole doesn’t come together in the way the band’s best work does.

  1. The Legend of Chin

The band’s debut album only suffers in comparison to their later work. On its own merits, The Legend of Chin is a remarkable debut. Switchfoot’s early sound was much grungier, Foreman’s voice a bit rougher around the edges. Their mastery of creative instrumentation and sonic variety was also more pronounced here than on later records. Even the lyrics were more playful, closer in style to contemporaries like Reliant K, as in the song “Chem 6A.” “I don’t wanna read the book/I’ll watch the movie.” “Underwater” is an emotional song about a girl adrift, perhaps in alcohol, or just apathy. The serious subject matter still makes way for a jazzy piano interlude. “Edge of My Seat” continues the album’s creative sound with trumpet accompaniment. “Home” is an album highlight about finding rest in the hope of heaven while praising the grandness of creation. “Someday I’ll see home.” “Ben Hur” shows off Foreman’s lyrical trickery and pop cultural savviness, but “Concrete Girl” is likely the album’s most affecting song. Foreman’s voice shows its vulnerability as he encourages a girl to find the purpose behind the artifice she sees all around her. “Concrete Girl, don’t fall down/In this broken world around you.”

“3/4 Chant,” perhaps obviously, plays creatively with ¾ time. “You” is about resting in God rather than ourselves and our own abilities. “I find peace when I’m confused/I find hope when I’m let down.” “Ode to Chin” encourages the listener to “doubt your doubts/And believe your beliefs.”

The Legend of Chin is a fun and creative debut album, a signifier of greater things to come from an immensely talented group of musicians.

  1. New Way to Be Human

The theme of New Way to Be Human seems to be transformation, and the album does a remarkable job of echoing that theme through the songs themselves, which display a pretty incredible variety. The great-sounding title track features immensely catchy whistling as Foreman sings about “a new way to be human,” which he later reveals is God. “You’re the only way to be human.” “Incomplete” encourages us to accept our weaknesses and allow God to make us whole. “Sooner or Later” reminds us that “sooner or later you find out there’s a hole in the wall.” We’re perfectly happy with life until something goes wrong, then we wonder what has happened. “Have I lost who I am? I threw it all away.” “Company Car” is one of my favorite Switchfoot song; a great sound featuring trumpet accompaniment is bolstered by a cautionary tale reminding us that man can’t serve two masters. The subject has everything he wants, including money, but he ultimately asks, “Have I won monopoly but forfeit my soul?” “Only Hope” is another of my favorite songs, a beautiful ode to searching, longing, reaching out and ultimately finding rest in God. Foreman’s voice rises along with his journey of discovery. “So I lay my head back down/And I lift my hands and pray to be only yours/I know now you’re my only hope.” “I Turn Everything Over” is similarly about giving things over to God. “Under the Floor” is a haunting closer about listening for God as he whispers in the quiet, intimate spaces of our lives.

New Way to Be Human proved that The Legend of Chin was no fluke. This is a confident, assured follow-up, with emotional, stirring tracks. You can sense a lot of grand, epic themes that would be perfected in later albums, but that doesn’t make what’s here any less great.

  1. Fading West

Fading West is an excellent album, but it suffers in comparison to some of its stellar contemporaries. Still, the album that functioned as a soundtrack to Switchfoot’s must-see surfing documentary of the same title is filled with soulful tracks. “Love Alone is Worth the Fight” establishes the album’s epic tone, and is a perfect encapsulation of the band’s recurring theme that love is the most powerful motivator we have. “Who We Are” is a generational chant featuring a children’s choir, a unique sound for the band. “There’s still time enough to choose who we are.” “When We Come Alive” is another one of my personal favorites, an extremely haunting track about living a life of passion and the way that comes to life in community. “We light the sky when we ignite/When we come alive.” “Say it Like You Mean It” seeks honest words in a politically correct culture. “The World You Want” is another haunting track, featuring tribal drums and Foreman reminding us that the world will be what we make of it. This leads to one of my favorite lyrical refrains that we all have something we worship. “What you say is your religion/How you say it’s your religion/Who you love is your religion/How you love is your religion.”

“Slipping Away” repeats an album theme of reflecting on the past and feeling the past leaving us. “BA55” jolts the album back into harder rock territory with a dark, arresting sound, searching again for that passion, that “fire that can burn me clean.” “Let It Out” is another powerful anthem song about letting things go and not fearing others’ opinions. “All or Nothing At All” encourages us to embrace the whole person—either ourselves or someone else—rather than simply the parts we don’t like, the same way God embraces us. “Salwater Heart” uses the ocean as a metaphor for God’s vastness. “Back to the Beginning Again” ends what is arguably the band’s most hopeful album by seeking a revival and going back to the foundation. “My hope is anchored on the other side/with the colors that live outside of the lines.”

  1. Nothing Is Sound

To call an album like Nothing is Sound ambitious is an understatement. This is Switchfoot embracing their true status as a rock band and claiming that they could tackle grand themes like the vastness of the universe, the afterlife, sex and politics. The most impressive thing about the album is that they were right.

“Lonely Nation” establishes a darker, more epic sound for the band. The song decries the isolation we often feel in an individualistic society. “Stars” may be the band’s single most epic song, contemplating the majesty of God while looking up at the heavens. The singer feels emptiness and loneliness, until he looks at the stars and sees “someone else.” But this someone else deeply affects the singer. “When I look at the stars, I feel like myself.” The song was immensely popular, and it’s easy to see why. A radio-friendly rock song that feels both epic and intimate at once is a very rare thing. “The Shadow Proves the Sunshine” is another one of my favorites, showing how we can often shine when things are darkest. Forman evokes the Psalms when he sings “Oh Lord, why did you forsake me? Or Lord, don’t be far away.” But he doesn’t stay in despair; he asks God to “let my shadows prove the sunshine.” “Easier Than Love” calls out our sex-obsessed culture. Sex is “easier than love,” and we often focus on it to the detriment of love. “The Blues” shows again how vulnerable Foreman’s voice can be; he’s willing to let his voice break. The song is about feeling down, but it cleverly has a bluesy sound as well (Fontamillias’ piano playing is particularly noteworthy here).

“Setting Sun” is a beautiful reflection on the hope of heaven. “Politicians” is another rock out song, not only a scathing critique of the fakery often inherent in politics but also how we all have become politicians, putting on our best face but unwilling to show our true colors to the world. “Fatal Wound” shows off some creative instrumentation with a killer harmonica part. “We Are One Tonight” is a great anthem song about casting aside conflict and coming together. The album ends on an unexpectedly soft note with “Daisy,” a song encouraging a girl to “let it go.” “This fallen world doesn’t hold your interest; it doesn’t hold your soul.”

Nothing is Sound executes that tricky balance of intimate and epic perfectly. It showed that the band could tackle almost any subject and spin gold out of it. The total effect is actually a bit exhausting, which is perhaps the reason why this album doesn’t rank higher. Still, it’s exhilarating stuff.

  1. Learning to Breathe

Switchfoot’s third album was the first I ever heard, at age 10. It holds a special place in my heart, because it had a profound effect on me. It was also the first album to show the band was more than ready for the mainstream.

It’s pretty safe to say that “I Dare You to Move” is the band’s most popular song ever. I doubt few people who turned on a radio station in the early 2000s didn’t hear it at some point (it was also one of several Switchfoot songs featured in the popular film A Walk to Remember). It more than earned its status as a classic song. The lyrics encourage perseverance through hardship and rejecting apathy, and Foreman’s vocals feel particularly haunting here. “Learning to Breathe” is an arresting song about trying to live a life of authenticity, and that such authenticity comes through our day-to-day decisions. “Love is the Movement” is a strong candidate for my favorite Switchfoot song ever. It’s an epic treatise on the transformative power of love, with a gospel chorus accompaniment. Here, love is much more than a feeling, it is something that necessitates action. “Love is the movement/Love is the revolution/This is redemption/We don’t have to slow back down…Get up/Love is moving you now.” “Poparazzi” is a catchy song about the shallowness of celebrity pop culture. The cult of celebrity is driven home through lyrics that conjure religious imagery like “This is a tune for the graven images of Marilyn Monroe.” The ending ends in cacophony, echoing the way our culture often sounds when everyone is trying to speak at once.

“Innocence Again” highlights some great acoustic work, and the brilliant way Foreman matches his voice to the lyrics. When singing the lyrics “Grace is high and low,” his vocals rise and fall accordingly. In “Losers,” Foreman sings about how, in God’s eyes, the losers are the winners. “Economy of Mercy” similarly turns things on its head; in God’s economy, the low are brought high through “the currency of grace.” “Erosion” expresses a desire for revival. “Spirit fall like rain on my thirsty soul.” “Living is Simple” sets up a contrast between living in the body and living in the spirit.  “Is this fiction or divine comedy/Where the last of the last is first?”

Learning to Breathe is an important album, an encouragement to live boldly and reject apathy as we seek God and navigate the waters of this world. It’s also just plain fun, with several radio-friendly hits that have some real substance to back up their popularity.

  1. The Beautiful Letdown

Now we’re talking. If Learning to Breathe proved that Switchfoot could play in the big leagues, The Beautiful Letdown showed the world that they were one of the best bands around. It’s an absolute stunner, one that took many of the band’s previous themes and codified them into a near-perfect album. The boys come out of the gate swinging with “Meant to Live,” an anthem song about living a greater purpose. “We want more than this world’s got to offer,” Foreman sings with a new found power he hadn’t shown before. “This is Your Life” asks listeners to examine their own lives. Are we living our greatest purpose now? “This is your life, and today is all you’ve got now/And today is all you’ll ever have.” “More Than Just Okay” continues the theme, emphasizing challenge and growth over stagnation. Chad Butler’s drumming really kicks on “Ammunition,” which calls out our culture of blaming. “Look What a Mess We’ve Made of Love” as a result of the verbal bullets we sling at each other. In “Alive,” Forman sings, “My fears have worn me out.” He seeks life, and finds it in Christ. “His scars are bigger than these doubts of mine.”

“The Beautiful Letdown” features a killer bassline from Tim Foreman, which gives the song a unique, laid back groove. The lyrics discuss embracing failure, for God can use us even at our weakest. I love the line, “The church of the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures and the fools.” “Gone” is another one of my favorites, encouraging the listener to let go of the things of this world. “Where’s your treasure, where’s your hope/If you get the world and lose your soul?” We only have so many days to make an impact, so let’s use them wisely, because “life is a day that doesn’t last for long.” “Fire” is a beautiful song about the passion God can spark in us. “You’re on fire when he’s near you/You’re on fire when he speaks/You’re on fire burning up in these mysteries.” “Adding to the Noise” seeks silence in a noisy world, aka “the symphony of modern man.” “Twenty-Four” is a brilliant closing track about how quickly life can change, capped by the powerful refrain “I am the second man now/When you’re raising the dead in me.” This lyric works on multiple levels. The second man may be referring to putting ourselves second to God, but it could also mean a new man, a born again man. Risen to life in Christ, a new man has taken the old man’s place.

Masterful lyrics like that are all over this album, which doesn’t really miss a beat. One could be forgiven for thinking Switchfoot would never make a better album, which is one of the reasons why what comes next is so extraordinary.

  1. Hello Hurricane

Hello Hurricane is an album that leaves me speechless every time I hear it. It’s a beautiful, soulful meditation on hope in the midst of pain, and a reminder that God can use us even in our weakness. “Needle and Haystack Life” introduces an epic, sophisticated tone that is unlike anything we’ve heard from the band previously. The searching lyrics complement the arresting sound perfectly. The album quickly veers into hard rock territory with the propulsive “Mess of Me,” a song that reminds us that we can’t fix ourselves on our own. “There ain’t no drug that they could sell/There ain’t no drug to make me well…The sickness is myself.” “Love is a Song” is a highlight on an album of highlights. In poetic language, it describes the all-encompassing nature of God’s love as a work of art. “Your love is a symphony/All around me, running through me/Your love is a melody, underneath me, running to me.” “The Sound” is, simply, a kick ass song, one that gives the band plenty of chances to show off. Foreman’s voice has never shown more raw power, and his guitar solo reminds us of his serious axe skills. The lyrics are a generational call, reminding us that “there is no sound louder than love.” We hear the other side of Foreman’s vocal range on “Enough to Let Me Go,” a vulnerable song about, well, knowing when to let someone go. “Free” is a more aggressive song about yearning for freedom from “the prisons of my mind.”

“Hello Hurricane” uses a metaphor of a storm for hardship, and is all about not letting these storms knock us down. “Hello Hurricane, you’re not enough…you can’t silence my love.” “Always” is a passionate song about clinging to hope when everything is falling apart. The epic string accompaniment really drives this one home. “Bullet Soul” is another rock-out song, one I remember being featured in movie trailers after the song came out. It’s all about injecting passion into life. “Love is the one true innovation/Love is the only art.” “Yet” is a moving song about holding onto faith through hardship. “I’m so confused what’s true what’s false/What’s fact or fiction after all…but you haven’t lost me yet.” The song also features one of my favorite lyric lines: “If it doesn’t break your heart it isn’t love.” “Sing it Out” is one of the band’s most haunting songs, asking God to allow our weakness to speak when nothing else can. “Take what is left of me…make it a melody…I need your breath in my lungs tonight.” “Red Eyes” conveys the desperation of looking, exhausted, for something greater. That exhaustion comes from searching for things that don’t ultimately satisfy. The album leaves us with a question: “What are you looking for?”

This is the kind of album that could save lives. I know it has certainly gotten me through tough times. We all need an occasional reminder that our lives are not meaningless, that there’s a higher purpose to our lives and to the universe as a whole. We shouldn’t fear weakness, for it is in our moments of vulnerability or desperation that our true colors can shine, if we allow them to. That’s an important message, and this is an important album, not to mention impeccably crafted and just plain impressive. It’s one of my all-time favorites.

  1. Vice Verses

You would be forgiven for thinking that Switchfoot could never make an album that could surpass Hello Hurricane, but you would be wrong. I know I was. In this case, I’m glad I was. If the band’s previous revolutionary effort was about how to be strong in the middle of our weakness, Vice Verses is a reminder that we don’t have to stay in that space. Life is a truly joyful thing to be celebrated.

That embrace of living a full, purposeful life is driven home on the opening track, “Afterlife.” “I wonder why would I wait ‘til I die to come alive?/I’m ready now, I’m not waiting for the afterlife.” The song really kicks, and reveals the band at their peak maturity and sophistication. “Original” features a different lyrical style for Foreman, closer to a rap or a shout. It would get old if overused, but it works here, especially when the song’s theme is about embracing your uniqueness in a world that wants to homogenize you. “War Inside” is a grungy, electric tune about dealing with inner conflict. “Every fight comes from the fight within.” “Restless” is a moving ode to the singer’s tireless pursuit of God. “I run like the ocean to find your shore, looking for you.” There’s a distinct U2/”Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” vibe here, undoubtedly one of Switchfoot’s major influence. The song earns that comparison; it’s that good. The lyrics of “Blinding Light” encourage an unnamed boy and girl to avoid giving into peer pressure or the temptation to fit into society’s standards of beauty or coolness. “We’re the nation that eats our youth.” The kids are asked to hold onto the hope that transcends those standards. “Still looking for the blinding light/Still looking for the reason why.” “Selling the News” brings back the band’s scathing cultural criticism, this time tackling not only the news media but a culture all too willing to exchange the truth for lies. It sort of like a modern version of Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry,” but this song is more layered and nuanced. “Opinions are easier to swallow the facts…The fact is fiction/Suspicion is a new religion.”

“Thrive” may actually be my favorite Switchfoot song. A subtle, soothing bassline plays over Foreman’s agonized vocals. Here is a broken man, airing out his demons and desiring to live life to the fullest. There’s a distinct biblical Psalm vibe here, where criticisms directed toward God are leveraged with prayers. “Am I a man when I feel like a ghost?…I know that I’m not right…I wanna thrive, not just survive.” It’s an incredibly powerful encouragement to anyone experiencing a dark valley of the soul. “Dark Horses” is perhaps the band’s most successful anthem song, with a bit of an epic Bon Jovi vibe. The lyrics see the dark horses as those who won’t give up even when society has given up on them. “Hey, you can’t count us out/We’ve been running up against the crowd/Yeah, we are the dark horses.” “Souvenirs” is a song about looking back upon a life and seeing all the little moments that brought the singer to where he is now. It’s an inspiring celebration of life, both the good and the bad. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

“Rise Above It” shows off Foreman’s penchant for creative rhyming, with lyrics that talk about lifting ourselves above our circumstances. “Vice Verses” is a self-reflective, acoustic track, featuring only Foreman’s vocals and guitar. This feels closer to his actual solo work, as the singer looks out at the ocean while thinking about perspective. The singer is not an optimist or pessimist, but simply a realist. “You’ve got your babies, I’ve got my hearses/Every blessing comes with a set of curses/I’ve got my vices, got my vice verses.” The singer also asks some very Job-esque questions of God. “Where is God in the city life? Where is God in the earthquake? Where is God in the genocide?…Everything feels rusted over/Tell me that you’re there.” “Where I Belong” closes the album by expressing loss and displacement in a world which is not truly home. “I’m not sentimental/This skin and bones is a rental/And no one makes it out alive.” The singer sees a greater home, “Where the weak are finally strong/Where the righteous right the wrongs.” It’s a moving end to a moving record.

Vice Verses is literally breathtaking. As in, I find myself short of breath after I listen to it through. The songs here run the gamut of human emotions, and always leave me with a desire to live my true purpose. It’s a dark album that tackles heavy issues head-on, but the overall tone is one of hope. With God on the throne, what do we truly have to fear? It’s one of my favorite albums, period.

“Hard for a good soul to survive:” The legacy of Gorillaz’ Demon Days

The world would be forgiven for not knowing quite what to make of Gorillaz when they were first introduced to the music world in 2001. The collaboration between Blur front man Damon Albarn and Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett was an immensely weird and entirely new creation, one where visuals and music melded together in kaleidoscopic brilliance. Hewlett’s iconic music videos featured the exploits of the fictional band at the group’s center: 2D, the band’s zombie-like singer; Murdoc Niccals, the group’s moody bass player; Russell Hobbs, playing drums and frequently carrying around a dead pig; and Noodle (guitar, keyboard, background vocals), an unpredictable young Asian girl.

Gorillaz self-titled debut was a hit, introducing catchy tunes like “Clint Eastwood” and “5/4” to the world. That album featured what would become group staples: repetitive, trance-like beats, nonsensical lyrics, an emphasis on guest artist collaborations and a surprising variety of sounds and styles. And yet, the album feels ultimately inessential, a decided product of its time.

The same can’t be said for Gorillaz highly-anticipated follow-up, 2005’s Demon Days. Ten years later, it’s hard not to look upon this dark, moody masterpiece as anything other than a modern classic. When I first heard Demon Days (specifically, the popular track “Feel Good Inc.,” I instantly fell in love with the band, and the album remains one of my all-time favorites. Delve into the album with me to find out why.

Referencing the Beatles is a bold move for any music artist. Thankfully, the greatness of Demon Days justifies such a decision.

Referencing the Beatles is a bold move for any music artist. Thankfully, the greatness of Demon Days justifies such a decision.

The intro to the album sets the tone; it’s filled with low, subtle bass sounds. The sonic blend casts a hypnotic spell, and then fades away with the epic refrain: “You are now entering the harmonic realm.” The opening beats of “Last Living Souls” take over, as Albarn’s hypnotic voice asks: “Are we the last living souls?” The question sets up the theme of isolation on the album. It’s hard to know if the speaker’s isolation is self-imposed or a result of cultural influences. There’s also the possibility of a post-apocalyptic interpretation (literally, everyone else could be dead). The album seems to tease this possibility throughout, but Albarn respects his audience enough to avoid spoon-feeding us any one interpretation of his cryptic lyrics. Whatever the interpretation, the song establishes Albarn’s panache for taking a grab-bag of instruments and styles and allowing them to gel beautifully. This track alone features keyboard, piano, acoustic guitar and violin accompaniment.

The album slides further into chaos with “Kids With Guns,” which bemoans our culture’s blasé attitude towards violence. But the lyrics take things a step further by analyzing the motivations behind the kids with guns who are “taking over.” “And they’re turning us into monsters/Turning us into fire/Turning us into monsters/It’s all desire, it’s all desire, it’s all desire.” In an anything goes, do-what-you-want culture, one that idolizes the individual and seems to make promises it can never keep, we end up with a generation of “mesmerized skeletons,” walking corpses, if you will. “It won’t be long” before they explode. Such a message is even more relevant today than it was when the album released.

“O Green World” bemoans a different kind of violence, that which humanity is doing to the environment. The haunting background chants express a longing for a world that no longer exists. When I hear this song, I picture some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. Albarn expresses a desire to return to living a life of oneness with nature. “Oh green world/Don’t desert me now/Made of you and you of me/But, where are we?” It’s one of the album’s most creative and relevant tracks, as Albarn’s initially subdued vocals rise to a cacophonous cry along with the music, which starts and ends the song with utter sonic chaos.

“Dirty Harry” is probably the album’s coolest song, and one of my personal favorites. Continuing hints at a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the lyrics continue the album’s focus on cycles of violence. “I need a gun to keep myself from harm/The poor people are burning in the sun.” Gorillaz’ penchant for collaboration is featured here, with the San Fernando Valley Youth Chorus providing excellent background vocals and Bootie Brown busting out a wicked rap interlude.

There may not be much to say about “Feel Good Inc.” Everyone has heard it; it was the song that sparked my initial interest in the group. I can say that the music video is awesome, and the lyrics make no sense. My guess would be that the flying windmill featured in the video and referenced on the track is the band’s attempt to flee the chaotic violence of the world below, a sort of Noah’s Ark, perhaps. This is all wild interpretation, because the song gives few clues. “Windmill, windmill for the land/Is everybody in?” suggests a desire to fly away and leave everything behind. The creative, iconic rap by De La Soul helps the track maintain its more upbeat vibe. Oh, and did I mention that Jamie Hewlitt is an amazing artist? Seriously, check the video out. It’s good stuff.

The melancholy quickly returns with “El Mañana,” a haunting track that sees the destruction of the windmill of hope from the previous song. Safe to say, the song is a bit of a bummer, but it once again highlights the album’s staggering variety from song to song. I particularly appreciate the gorgeous string accompaniment here.

“Every Planet We Reach is Dead” delves into some much-needed funk, but the lyrics continue their strain of longing. “But God only knows it’s getting hard/To see the sun coming through/I love you…but what are we going to do?” The song is something of a masterwork, with a creative use of guitar, excellent strings and Ike Turner’s kick-ass, bluesy piano solo. It’s certainly an album highlight.

“November Has Come” is a more restrained but equally fun track. It opens with my favorite rap on the album, a subdued, sublimely rhymed poem from MF Doom. But Albarn still makes room for his melancholic questions. “Something has started today/Where did it go? Why you wanted it to be?/ Well, you know November has come when it’s gone away.”

The album’s sense of isolation reaches its apex with the aptly titled “All Alone.” The heavily electronic track is highlighted by a gorgeous, fanciful refrain from guest artist Martina Topley-Bird. “’Cause I don’t believe, when the morning comes/It doesn’t seem to say an awful lot to me.” I love the use of multiple voices to echo the repeated lyric “All Alone!” The staggered vocal effect seems to suggest the sense of isolation that can exist even in a crowd.

That aching feeling attempts to be filled with alcohol in “White Light,” which only contains the lyrics “white light” and “alcohol.” The chaotic, grungy guitar work suggests a descent into inebriated senses to help dull the pain. And, for this track at least, it seems to work; the track is frenetic but I believe purposefully lazy in its attempt to replicate the temporary, fizzy high of inebriation. It’s all style and absolutely no substance, but that seems more like a deliberate thematic choice than a simple case of poor songwriting.

DARE is a straight dance track, and almost prohibitively catchy. It’s tons of fun, with an entertaining vocal from Shaun Ryder. There’s not really much to analyze here, though I do feel like a broken record for reiterating that the music video is beyond amazing and, of course, delightfully weird.

I’ll admit I wasn’t initially much into “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head,” Dennis Hopper’s spoken word feature. But now, it’s probably my favorite track on the album. Hopper tells a complete story, one that highlights the dangers of greed and hubris. It essentially distills all of the album’s major themes into one track: our culture’s obsession with violence (and war in particular), our destruction of the environment and our celebration of the self over all else. Greed is particularly dangerous here, as it results in the destruction of the town where the “Happyfolk” lived. It’s a brilliant and haunting cautionary tale, especially when Albarn’s brief refrain chimes in. “Falling out of aeroplanes and hiding out in holes/Waiting for the sunset to come, people going home/Jump out from behind them and shoot them in the head/Now everybody dancing the dance of the dead.”

In my opinion, Demon Day’s final two tracks catapult the record from simple greatness into masterpiece status. The gospel-infused “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven” seems determined to try and find some peace or at least understanding amidst all the chaos the rest of the album dishes out. The London Community Gospel Choir does an incredible job here, as this brief interlude surveys the destruction the rest of the album has wrought. The cautionary lyrics that echo the song’s title are certainly open to interpretation, but seem to suggest a hope that the listener will not stay lost in high-minded thinking while ignoring the very real suffering in the world. That suffering is referred to as the “Demon Days” on the album’s closing track. “In these demon days it’s so cold inside/So hard for a good soul to survive/You can’t even trust the air you breathe/Because mother earth wants us all to leave/When lies become reality, you numb yourself with drugs and T.V.” But thankfully, the inspirational chorus is not content to leave us in the despair. “Pick yourself up it’s a brand new day!/So turn yourself around/Don’t burn yourself, turn yourself/Turn yourself around/To the sun.”

This hopeful ending refrain is incredibly powerful, especially because I’ve read the lyrics spelled as “sun” and “son.” Given the track’s gospel sound, it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me that the “son” referred to is Christ himself. Such an interpretation would echo a sinner’s redemption as he turns himself around to God and denies his old ways. I think “sun” is the more likely spelling, but perhaps Albarn left us to figure this out for ourselves, like he did on much of the rest of the album.

This is one of the many things that make Demon Days one of my all-time favorite albums. Albarn and his incredible team of collaborators are willing to have a ton of silly fun, but the album is at its best when it sometimes abruptly drops deep, meaningful truths. Many of these are open to interpretation, and that’s the way it should be. The group respects its listeners enough to come up with their own interpretations. Some may be more correct than others, but we may never really know. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for one of the most sonically diverse, thematically daring, original and downright inspired albums to ever grace the ear. That seems like a pretty good deal to me.

My 10 favorite films of the decade (so far)

It’s hard to believe that we’re halfway through this crazy decade we’re calling the 2010’s (Is that really what we’re calling it?) I started thinking about this when I noticed this list naming the top films of the decade so far as voted by film critics. The 25 movies, released between 2010 and 2014, offer a wide array, coming from around the world and from all types of genres. Then I started thinking about my favorite films of the decade so far, and somehow came up with a list. I say somehow because sticking to 10 is incredibly difficult, and any movie lover could include way more than that. But, I also like naming 10 because it forces me to pick out the very best of the best.

I’m calling this “my favorite” rather than “the best” because I readily acknowledge that there are many films I have yet to see. I hope to someday. But, in the meantime, here are the 10 movies that have stuck with me the longest from these past five years; they impressed me with their artistry, their innovation or simply the level with which they moved me. Here they are, in no particular order (because ranking them would be brutal).

INCEPTION 

Director Christopher Nolan’s films often reveal a fascinating struggle between the head and the heart. His Spielberg-esque emotions take over in movies like Interstellar, while the cold intellectualism of The Prestige and Memento bring to mind Paul Thomas Anderson or even Stanley Kubrick. The only film Nolan has made that I believe balances these two tendencies perfectly is his masterpiece Inception.

imagesNolan’s thrilling look into the dreamscape is both uncommonly intelligent and grandly emotional, dealing with complex themes and ideas through the accessible lens of a kick-ass action movie. Not one second of this cinematic wonder comes off as less than completely engrossing. It probably helps that it’s a technical marvel on the level of Star Wars or Jurassic Park. Seeing the city of Paris folding in on itself is a wonder of the highest order. Nolan has a great eye for actors, and he wisely cast some of the best, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe and Marion Cotillard. The best action film of the decade so far easily earns its spot on this list. Oh, and did I mention that the ending is amazing? Because it is.

HER

I regrettably didn’t see Her before making my top films of 2013 list, but if I had, it would have been right at the top. I’ve never been much of a Spike Jonze fan; Being John Malkovich was a bit out there even for my tastes, and Where the Wild Things Are lost me completely. But this one is just exquisite. Jonze imagines a very near future where every human has their own personal operating system (like a cell phone that can feel emotions and talk to you). Joaquin Phoenix gives a mind-blowing performance as Theodore, a lonely man unlucky in love who ends up developing a romantic relationship with his O.S., Samantha (brought to exhilarating life by Scarlett Johansson’s voice). What could come off as creepy ends up as an entirely sweet meditation on how far we are willing to go to feel loved in the digital age, and how isolated we will always be without real human contact.

There’s a scene where Samantha hires a “sex surragote,” a real woman who is willing to have sex with Theodore in order to simulate the contact he can never have with Samantha. It’s one of the saddest, most emotionally wrenching scenes in recent memory, and I was constantly amazed at how vulnerable Her left me feeling. Ultimately, the film is a vital reminder that life lived apart from community is not really life at all. That’s a message everyone needs to hear, and this is a film everyone needs to see.

THE TREE OF LIFE

This movie caused a good bit of controversy when it released, and understandably so. Terrence Malick’s ambitious meditation on faith in the midst of tragedy is likely the densest, most obtuse American film released so far this decade. It’s also an absolute masterpiece, in the strictest filmmaking sense. Malick’s propensity for ponderous nature shots reaches its apex here, with many gorgeous images having seemingly little connection to the main story at hand. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain give career-best performances as a couple reeling from the death of their son. It all comes off as a bit ponderous initially, but that’s kind of the point. Malick is reaching for something much grander than we’re accustomed to seeing. Through almost purely images and sound, he depicts the way that God’s grace is buried within the fabric of the universe itself. Our most spiritual filmmaker is using this small, intimate story as a springboard for a conversation on the meaning of existence. No pressure, right?

imgresThis conversation reaches its apex during a sequence that depicts the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present. It’s a breathtaking achievement, even if you’re not quite sure what it all is supposed to “mean.” The whole affair might have fallen apart if it weren’t for the pioneering work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who has not made his final appearance on this list). His camerawork is transcendent, much like the film itself. It’s perhaps the closest movies get to allowing us to experience God through the moving image. For that alone, The Tree of Life has my enduring gratitude and admiration.

THE MASTER

On the other side, we have a very different, even opposing spiritual meditation from master filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Is The Master as good as Anderson’s previous classic, There Will Be Blood? No, but few films are. No matter, this is still a masterpiece of the highest caliber. Anderson applies his impeccable craft to a relentlessly bleak look at how religious fanaticism can tear a life apart. That life belongs to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix again), a sex-addicted, drifting WWII veteran who seemingly finds redemption at the hands of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, never better), the leader of a philosophical movement known as “The Cause,” and his obsessive wife (Amy Adams, making her second appearance on this list beside Her). Freddie is a faithful follower until things start to unravel.

I wouldn’t want to say more, but, like all of Anderson’s other brilliant films, you’ll never see where this one is headed next. The Cause was supposedly based off of Scientology, and, if so, Anderson certainly has no love for it. The ending seems to suggest the unsettling but nonetheless true fact that some people are simply beyond redemption, following the latest fad philosophy as a dog chases its tail, searching for answers but never finding them. This is probably the second most obtuse American film released so far this decade after The Tree of Life, and rarely are films this emotionally challenging. It’s never icy, but Anderson is going for something so deep and so disturbing that it’s a bit hard to process it all. Give it time (and multiple viewings) and see if you can get it out of your head.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK

The Social Network may be my favorite David Fincher film. Given how much I love movies like Zodiac and Seven, that’s pretty high praise. But this potent satire of the ruthless business of modern technology earns it every step of the way. Fincher’s adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires looks at the founding of Facebook through the eyes of creators Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) as it charts their meteoric rise to fame and fortune, and the shattered lives they left in their wake. Zuckerberg doesn’t come off as particularly likable here (okay, he’s a jerk) but he does come off as human. How would you feel if the suave co-founder of Napster (an excellent Justin Timberlake) came up to you and told you that you were, in essence, a god? Might you start to believe him once you saw how much power social media actually holds over people?images

The movie is a cynical, biting critique of the way tech gurus are our new “gods,” in a way. We look up to them as a higher form of being as we grovel in submission at their life-changing products. I’m not saying Zuckerberg is a terrible person specifically, but a warped environment like this is bound to produce a few (filthy rich) monsters. Beyond the movie’s relevant themes, I’m a sucker for great cinematography and music, and this has some of the best of both. Jeff Cronenweth’s camerawork makes the movie look so much better than it should, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s Oscar for Best Original Score was well-deserved. A pity the film lost to the more regal Oscar-bait The Kings Speech. In 10 years, this will be the one people are still talking about.

TAKE SHELTER

Jeff Nichols’ incredible indie is the best psychological thriller so far this decade. There’s something to be said about a movie that can really entrench the audience in a particular mood, and Take Shelter does a great job of making us feel the encroaching, all-encompassing dread that main character Curtis can’t seem to shake. His apocalyptic visions of a catastrophic storm are disturbing, but become even more so once we realize the film isn’t going to give us the easy answer as to whether he’s crazy or prophetic. Not until the insanely good twist ending, that is.

This is a vicious little gut punch of a movie, a rarity that entertains on every level without ever dumbing down its craft or its themes. It also blessedly features Michael Shannon in a lead role, showing off the underrated character actor for the brilliant performer he is. It also features Jessica Chastain as Curtis’ frazzled wife, during the year when she was literally in every movie and was somehow never less than stellar. If you’ve overlooked this one, now is a great time to rectify that. You will not be disappointed.

12 YEARS A SLAVE

12 Years a Slave is very obviously a “dignified” film, which usually means treacly Oscar bait. And, while Steve McQueen’s based-on-true-events tale of the life of Solomon Northup—a free black man sold into slavery in the American south—did win the Oscar for Best Picture, it’s far more complex, savage and beautiful than its prestigious pedigree would suggest. Anyone who is interested in the power of film to move us, to change our hearts and to make us strive to be better human beings would be foolish to dismiss the film on these claims.

McQueen’s masterpiece is a bold, uncompromising vision, and it’s brought to life by some of the most wonderful performances and music in recent film history. Chiwetel Ejiofor is towering as Northup, a man who maintains his almost violent hope in the midst of the worst circumstances imaginable. Michael Fassbender is great as the vicious slave owner imagesEdwin Epps; he manages to make a monster believable, even human, a difficult task when it’s often easier to play a villainous stereotype. But it’s really Lupita Nyong’o, in an Oscar winning role as indomitable slave Patsey, who imbues the film with both its savage energy and its undeniable hope that humanity can strive to be better. From its nuanced performances to its impeccable filmmaking craft and powerful story, 12 Years is a hands-down classic. To ignore it is to sacrifice experiencing no less than a piece of film history.

THE ACT OF KILLING 

While we’re discussing historical accounts of the depths of man’s savagery, here’s a film even more disturbing than 12 Years a Slave. There have been a handful of great documentaries released so far this decade (probably enough to deserve their own list), but the one that will likely stick with you the longest is The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer’s buzzworthy doc focuses its lens on some of the major leaders of the Indonesian “death squads,” which are said to have killed over 500,000 people from 1965-66. Oppenheimer asked the men to reenact some of their murders in the style of their favorite film genres, including a gangster film and a musical. If this idea sounds appalling, that’s kind of the point. The men, including Anwar Congo, who is said to have personally killed 1,000 people, are at first too happy to oblige.

The film dives into some kind of horrific nightmare, where the audience is watching fictional, stylized accounts but very much thinking about the monsters who committed the real acts. This bizarre artifice leads to a viewing experience like no other, exploring the nature of memory, history and legacy in a manner never done before. What’s shocking is how little remorse these men feel, and worse, how their actions remain unpunished. They seem more concerned with protecting their image than dealing with any sort of guilt or reparations. That is, until the film’s climax: a horrified Congo, finally coming to terms with the weight of his actions, begins to vomit profusely. It’s sure to go down as one of the most shocking and memorable scenes in movie history. This film is an absolute knockout, barreling with a moral force as powerful as a runaway freight train. It’s strange and disturbing, and likely not for everyone. But for anyone who wants to see just how far the documentary form can stretch its artistic and philosophical limits, The Act of Killing is required viewing.

BOYHOOD

A film like Boyhood is a truly rare gift, a staggering achievement on every conceivable level. From concept to editing, music and performances, Richard Linklater’s bittersweet ode to adolescence defies every single expectation and averts every cliché you might fear a movie like this would contain.

The concept of filming actors over a 12 year period is an intriguing idea, but it honestly sounds like it would be a mess of a movie. Thankfully, Boyhood rises far above the hullabaloo over how it was made to achieve that rare sort of concoction: a movie epic in scope but painfully intimate in its execution. It’s the film’s small moments that work best, mostly because the movie is nothing but small moments. It’s the seemingly insignificant everyday conversations, the quiet moments of desperation and of joy, which define our lives, and this movie displays that concept brilliantly. It’s hard not to get all teary and nostalgic when I see main character Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) make his way imagesthrough many of the same grand pop culture moments that defined my childhood. But the movie isn’t just for millennials. During its nearly three hour running time, I can’t imagine a single person who would find absolutely nothing to connect to here. What makes Mason and his family’s story so enduring is that it’s firmly rooted in time and place, yet completely universal in its experiences and implications. Because it’s a movie about life, in all its hideous beauty, it’s a movie for everyone. And, for my money, an instant classic.

BIRDMAN

I have written quite a lot about Birdman, so I don’t know how much more there is to say. I recently bought the film on Blu-Ray, and watching it again I was enraptured anew in every brilliant second of this insanely ambitious movie. What I said about Boyhood holds true here as well; there’s no greater thrill watching a movie that technically shouldn’t work at all completely blowing away your expectations and making movie history in the process. It’s rare to find a daring original vision in modern cinema, but I’m amazed how far director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his amazing team of collaborators were willing to run with this patently odd concept.

There are too many strokes of brilliance here to write about, but here’s a couple. The genius of casting Michael Keaton in the role of an actor who once played a superhero attempting a career renaissance on Broadway cannot be overstated. If not for the film’s playful fantasy elements, I could hear the concept of this movie and imagine it to be some kind of documentary. It’s certainly filmed like one. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar for his work) films the movie as if it were one long take, with scenes and character interactions melding together into one complex rollercoaster of emotions. It’s an artificial technique that somehow manages to feel startlingly realistic. I’m still trying to figure out how they pulled that off.

Every acting choice here feels right, every shot framed for maximum impact, every line of dialogue hits with either its hilarity or its tragedy. The percussive soundtrack is one of the best ever. This is a movie that wears every conceivable hat and is amazing at everything it tries to do. There are no failures; nothing in this crazy grab-bag of cool rings false. It all adds up to one of the most thrilling and polished movies in a long, long time. I can’t wait to see what Inarritu and company do next, but this one will be tough to top.

The Top 10 Films of 2014

Was 2014 a great year for movies or what? There’s a few naysayers out there calling it a weak year for film, but I just don’t see it. Everything from big summer blockbusters to buzzworthy indies impressed, and I can think of very few movies I walked away from disappointed (keep in mind I try hard to avoid bad movies).

Critics often look for a movie “theme” to sum up a year, but art is unpredictable and can’t always be so easily categorized. This year, however, was easy: many films explored obsession; the way it drives us to greatness and, in some cases, the way it can ultimately destroy us. I saw many movies I liked this year, but kept a special eye out for the ones I loved. The ones that moved me the most, made me think the hardest or connected me most directly to this thing we call life are the ones that made their way here. Of course, it goes without saying that most of them are also entertaining. After all, isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place?

10. THE LEGO MOVIE

Although it didn’t feature a Pixar masterwork (we’re getting two hopefully great ones in 2015!), this year was actually an exceptional one for animated features. From Studio Ghibli’s bittersweet swansongs The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya to the magnificent How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Disney’s effortlessly entertaining Big Hero 6, we didn’t want for high-quality animated spectacle. imagesThe best of the bunch, however, was, to my great surprise, The Lego Movie. Funny, endlessly creative and visually spectacular, this movie is just a complete joy, and the voice acting is through-the-roof amazing. Beyond that, it features a potent message on the power of creativity and thinking outside the box, and features one of the best endings of the year. Kids and adults alike looking for something a little different are sure to find something to love in this original delight.

9. FOXCATCHER

A sure sign of a great film is that it leaves you with complex emotions you can’t quite explain. That was true of Bennett Miller’s first two features, Capote and Moneyball, and it’s true again here, in what is perhaps the least inspirational sports movie ever made. Based on one of the strangest true stories of all time, I could never quite see where this disturbing film– which chronicles the bizarre relationship between billionaire John DuPont and Olympic wrestling brothers Mark and David Shultz– was headed next. Miller has always had a keen eye for actors, and Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carrell deliver some of the finest performances of the year. Carrell, in particular, is mesmerizing in a rare dramatic role; he commands an unexplainable but chilling presence every time he’s on screen. It’s a truly incredible thing to behold.

8. GONE GIRL

The year’s best thriller is also one of the best adaptations I’ve ever seen. Gillian Flynn did a bang up job bringing her twisty, unwieldy novel to the screen, cutting out the extraneous material and sharpening the book’s essence to a fine-toothed edge. The results paid off, because Gone Girl cuts deep. Ben Affleck gives perhaps his best performance as a down-to-earth writer with a few things to hide. And Rosamund Pike, who I really hope snags a Best Actress Oscar, gives an arresting performance as “Amazing Amy,” who, in imagesboth appearance and feminine wiles, reminds me very much of a Hitchcock bombshell blonde. And then, of course, there’s David Fincher, who is one of the best directors in the business and can seem to do no wrong. His stable set of cinematographers, composers and editors all turn in stellar work here, making this one of the best looking films of 2014. Those who haven’t read the book will find much to be shocked about here, and those who have will find themselves grinning sadistically over just how good this extremely messed up movie turned out to be.

7. SNOWPIERCER

It was a killer year for comic-based films, including an incredible hot streak for Marvel (the sci-fi extravaganza Guardians of the Galaxy just missed this list). But my favorite is the one that seems to have gotten the least attention. Snowpiercer easily earns a spot as one of my new all-time favorite action films. Korean director Joon-ho Bong makes his English language debut here, and the result is as bonkers as anyone familiar with Korean cinema might expect. Although the entire film takes place on a high-speed train endlessly circling an uninhabitable earth, the filmmakers never run out of creative visual ideas. Each train car has a unique theme, and, as the oppressed masses make their way to the one percenters up front, the film does a great job of alternating between action-packed rooms and more contemplative moments (one gorgeous train car is a giant greenhouse). And look at this cast: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, John Hurt and Octavia Spencer. That list along should inspire you to check this one out, but the polished filmmaking, exhilarating action and potent political subtext are what pushed this far beyond other explosion-filled efforts I saw this year.

6. WHIPLASH

Make a movie about the physical and emotional turmoil of jazz drumming and you’ve got my attention. Turn it into a psychological horror film featuring world class acting and you’ve got one of the best movies of the year. Miles Teller gives one of the more physically grueling performances in recent memory as the ambitious and talented drummer Andrew Nieman, who comes under the tutelage of J.K. Simmons’ imposing imagesconductor Terence Fletcher. This is one of the best films I’ve seen about modern musicians, perfectly portraying the drive many musicians have for greatness and how far they’re willing to take that feeling. In Nieman’s triumphs as well as his failures, we’re reminded of Fletcher’s words regarding Charlie Parker, widely regarded as the greatest musician of the 20th century. He was miserable, but he made some damn good music.

5. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

I readily admit I’ve never been much of a Wes Anderson fan, but that all changes here. This is the kind of movie I’ve always wished he would make. It’s smart, sophisticated and edgy, but still has that likeable laid-back charm that stamps all of Anderson’s efforts. This film does an incredible amount of genre flipping, from romantic comedy to coming-of-age tale to spy thriller to prison break drama, and it rocks at being all of them. Rarely is a movie that wears this many hats such a joy to watch. The plot is convoluted but never dull, the bright visuals are the best an Anderson film has ever achieved, and the central relationship between Ralph Finnes’ famed hotel concierge and his ward (played by newcomer Tony Revolori) is hilarious and heartfelt. This movie has a big, beating, infectious heart, and for once the Wes Anderson-isms actually help the story, rather than hurt it. Also, Jeff Goldblum is in this movie, and that’s something we can all get behind.

 4. SELMA

It’s a rather shocking fact that we’ve never gotten a true movie about Martin Luther King, Jr. from a major studio until now. It was definitely worth the wait, although Selma isn’t “about” MLK in a traditional biopic sense. Chronicling the charge MLK led in gaining equal voting rights for American blacks in 1965, Ava DuVernay’s impeccably crafted film avoids all of the tropes I’d expect a film like this to fall into. It’s harrowing and inspirational not because it beats the audience into submission with its emotions, but because it trades so well in subtlety. Similar to Steven Spielberg’s excellent Lincoln, I love the way this movie focuses on the practical and political aspects of its subject: in this case, the MLK-led march from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama. How does one organize such an event and emphasize it for maximum publicity? These backstage dealings and intimate discussions are more interesting than any grand epic moments the film could have tried to force feed us. This is sobering, powerful stuff, as close to essential documentation as movies get, and it features one hell of a performance from David Oyelowo as Dr. King, who nails the troubled psyche of the famed civil rights leader as well as he does the moments of grand speeches. It’s the performance of the year.

3. CALVARY

Every year tends to feature one major movie that fell completely under the radar but I loved so much I can’t help but urge everyone to see. This year that movie was definitely Calvary. The highest compliment I can imagine paying a film is that it feels like a Flannery O’Connor story come to life. Like the best of that great writer’s work, Calvary features a startling mix of the sacred and the profane. Brendan Gleeson gives my personal favorite performance of the year as a troubled Catholic priest in a small Irish town. As Father James attempts to live a life of a higher calling, he is constantly distracted by a populace whose open debauchery and sinful living fly in the face of all the work he’s trying to do. Add in a suicidal daughter and a man threatening to kill him and you’ve got one troubled imagesclergyman. What emerges from scene after scene of quiet desperation mixed with indescribable hope is one of the more potent meditations on faith in the midst of suffering I’ve ever seen. Gleeson maintains that balancing act between piety and insanity so perfectly it comes off like breathing. This is the kind of spiritually profound, challenging filmmaking Christians should be demanding more of, though the film’s raunchy language and bleak ending will turn away some. But Calvary’s grand spiritual themes combined with its lush Irish setting have me hoping this will at least be considered some kind of cult classic, if not an outright masterpiece in years to come.

2. BOYHOOD

There’s so much brilliance in Richard Linklater’s sprawling Texas-set portrait of adolescence that it’s hard to know where to begin. If you don’t know the background, Linklater filmed Boyhood over a 12-year period, as the actors grew up along with the central character. Ellar Coltrane gives a groundbreaking performance as he ages from age 5 to 18 along with his character Mason in the film. As I watched the film, I grew up with him. There have been few movies that have truly captured what it means to be an adolescent millennial in this country, and none anywhere near this ambitious. I especially love the little period details in the film; Harry Potter book launches, Halo gaming sessions and lengthy discussions about the Star Wars prequel trilogy were an integral part of my adolescent years as well. These moments also help to ground us in time; we can roughly  tell in what year a certain scene was filmed when, say, Mason is playing a Game Boy SP.

The supporting performances are all pitch-perfect, especially Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason’s divorced parents and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as Mason’s sister Samantha. But what stands out the most about Boyhood is the way it finds meaning in the small, sometimes mundane moments of life. It is truly these moments, Linklater argues, rather than life’s grand epiphanies, which define our existence. When the credits rolled, I felt I could keep watching Mason’s story forever, desiring to see him grow into a man and, eventually, old age. Boyhood is the closest art comes to approximating real life. There’s never been anything like it.

1. BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

There’s probably no such thing as a perfect film, but I can’t think of one thing I’d change about Birdman. I’ve only seen it once, but I remember it vividly, one long scene played repeatedly in my mind. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s drama, set almost entirely in a Broadway theater and filmed as if recorded in one long shot, is the kind of bold cinematic artistry we so rarely get in contemporary cinema. I was thrilled by the boldness of the filmmaking, but I was even more entertained by the cast of characters Inarritu and company have drawn up. Filling a building with eccentric, egotistical theater types and watching them try to make great art together is a blast, and the performances really seal the deal. Michael Keaton, as Riggan Thompson, an actor who once played a superhero imagesgrasping at his last chance for artistic relevancy, delivers one of the most insane yet somehow nuanced performances I’ve seen in ages. Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifinakis deliver some of their best work ever, but the true revelation for me is Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter, fresh out of drug rehab. She truly holds the emotional center of the film, and her existential tirades about all of the artifice she sees around her are both wickedly funny and heartbreakingly tragic.

I loved every second of this darkly funny insider tale, and I think it has some valuable things to say about humanity’s innate desire to be remembered for doing something great, even if the road to greatness is paved with heartache and shattered lives. Watching this film, I couldn’t help but think of another movie that so perfectly balanced an epic scale and innovative filmmaking with intimate portraits of memorable-yet-relatable lowlifes: Pulp Fiction, which I often reference as my all-time favorite film. The fact that I would mention Birdman in the same breath as Tarantino’s masterpiece confirms what a rare and special treat it is. It is, in my book, and instant classic, and likely my favorite film of the decade thus far.

 

 

Mel Brooks Monday: History of the World: Part I

There is no History of the World: Part II. How funny you find that fact may largely determine your enjoyment of Mel Brooks’ odd grab bag of history-themed shorts, History of the World: Part I.

The jokey title suggests that Brooks is spoofing the classically overstuffed historical epic, so large and unwieldy that it had to be split into multiple parts. In aping these types of films, the movie itself is a bit of a jumble; it never settles on a consistent tone, and alternates between brilliantly hilarious and maddeningly unfunny.

History of the World is Brook’s strangest film by a mile. It’s essentially a tour through the history of man (or the first half of it anyway), narrated by Orson Welles. The initial humor comes from the dichotomy of Welles narrating the events as serious fact while the actors are doing very goofy, stupid things. The movie has five main segments, from the dawn of man to the French Revolution, and I think it’s best to review the film by discussing each of the segments.

The first segment concerning the dawn of man is rather short, but pretty amusing. It follows a group of cavemen discovering fire, creating art (and, in a hilarious scene, the art critic) and hunting. It’s funny enough and makes good use of Welles’ narration, although, at this point in his career, you would think Brooks could afford some decent looking effects and costumes. Everything looks laughably cheap and fake, and I’m not sure if that’s due to budget constraints or somehow it’s part of the joke. If so, it’s not very funny.

The second segment, The Old Testament, is literally one joke, starring Brooks as Moses. It’s a classic Brooks gag, but if you’ve never seen it, I won’t ruin it for you.

The third segment, focusing on the Roman Empire, receives the most time and attention, and is easily the film’s highlight. Brooks stars as “stand-up philosopher,” Comicus, who, along with his agent, Swiftus (Ron Carey), befriends a black slave named Josephus (Gregory Hines, channeling Blazing Saddles’ Sheriff Bart). After the trio offends Caesar (Dom DeLuise) during a stand-up routine, they are sentenced to death in the arena. They attempt an escape with the help of a Vestal Virgin named Miriam (Mary Margaret-Humes) and her boss, Empress Nympho (a magnificent Madeline Kahn).

This segment is just plain fun, even as it cribs jokes straight from Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Brooks has gotten to a point in his career where he can start ripping off his own jokes. No, they’re not as funny the second time, but there are plenty of other original jokes that land big laughs (like when Josephus creates a giant doobie to “mellow out” his pursuers and throw them off the chase). For every tired, unoriginal joke, there’s a funny and surprising one. It’s a strange brew—a bit of a head-scratcher, actually, but it works.

History of the World is a strange brew; sometimes funny, sometimes dull and forgettable.

History of the World is a strange brew; sometimes funny, sometimes dull and forgettable.

This is also Brook’s raunchiest movie, and it shows throughout. I’ve always thought that Brooks was one of the original masters of the dick joke. Today’s comedies, thanks to the likes of Judd Apatow and the like, are too obvious with their phallic humor, putting them out for the world to see. Brooks understood well that penises themselves are not funny, but the subtle suggestion of them is. It’s almost like the audience gets to lean in on a secret: “did they really just say…was that joke really about…?” They may not immediately grab the attention like in today’s raunchy hits, but they’re infinitely funnier and well-earned.

The Roman Empire section ends with a great joke involving Comicus’ encounter with Jesus during the Last Supper, but then, just as the story is getting interesting, we’re whisked away to the Spanish Inquisition. It’s a jarring shift, but it’s hard to complain when Brooks manages to make something as grim as the Inquisition so damn funny. Here, Brooks leads an elaborate musical number as the infamous Grand Inquisitor Torquemada. In its cheery interpretation of tragic events, it recalls the classic “Springtime for Hitler” number from The Producers, and deserves mention in the same pantheon of classic Brooks moments. It’s a brilliant number, and Brooks is having so much fun, it’s infectious. This is the kind of offensive-yet-warm, biting, genius humor that is missing from so much of the rest of the film.

Speaking of which, the final lengthy segment, set during the French Revolution, is actually pretty terrible. Here, the movie stops being funny and just gets distasteful; the sex jokes go into overdrive, and the humor takes a big nosedive. It’s essentially a take on The Prince and the Pauper when the French King Louis XVI (Brooks again) finds a “piss boy” who looks just like him and, under the advice of the Count De Monet (a tragically underutilized Harvey Korman) switches places with him, so he can run away while the peasants, caught in the fervor of an uprising, cut off the head of the doppelganger instead.

Would you ever find a gang rape funny? Well, there’s one here, and it’s supposedly played for laughs. I found it incredibly mean-spirited and pretty graphic, a complaint you can’t level at most Brooks films. It doesn’t get much better. I’m kind of baffled at how tone-deaf this section is, and how much of a drop in quality it is from the rest of the film. Harvey Korman is literally playing the same cheesy villain he did in Blazing Saddles, and the movie uses all of the same jokes (no one can pronounce his name right, he attempts to kiss a woman but bumps his head instead; the list goes on). Cloris Leachman should be typically brilliant as revolutionary leader Madame Defarge, but she is given precious little to do.

The sorry affair attempts to end with a meta-joke on the level of Blazing Saddles, but it isn’t nearly as successful. In fact, much of History of the World seems like an attempt at recreating Blazing Saddles in a different setting, but the majority of the effort rings false. There’s only so much you can do when you’re copying yourself, and this movie has none of the warmth, heart or originality of that far superior comedy.

History of the World is a strictly middle-of-the-road Brooks film. It works well as a collection of individual scenes, but falls quite flat as a complete film. Brooks seemed confused about the kind of movie he wanted to make, and the result is an occasionally brilliant, maddeningly inconsistent mess.

It might save you some time and frustration to skip the movie and just watch the amazing Inquisition musical number, which you’ll find below:

Birdman, Whiplash and the percussion of passion

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” –Thomas Merton

“My passions have killed me, and my passions have made me live.” –Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It may be a coincidence that two of the year’s best films feature heavily percussive scores, but it’s an intriguing one. Both Birdman and Whiplash follow the lives of artists who, for good or ill, find their entire identities inextricably linked to their passions for their professions. The increasingly quickening drum beats reflect the characters’ relentless pursuit of perfection in their craft, and the sudden cymbal crash of disappointment when they can’t reach their own impossible, self-imposed goals.

The similarities between Birdman and Whiplash don’t end there. While very different films, they both have something vital to say about what Rousseau and Merton wrote. Great art—the kind that inspires true passion and the desire for perfection—can destroy us, but it can also teach us what it truly means to live. Art is an inherently risky endeavor, and if it does not carry the simultaneous potential for birth and death, creation and destruction, then it is not true art.

Birdman features a relentless, stylized percussive score by Antonio Sanchez. It gives the film a nervous energy that perfectly matches Emmanuel Lubezki’s innovative cinematography, in which the entire film (through some creative editing) is filmed as though it were all one shot. The drum fills click alongside the constantly moving camera, which swirls, dips and pans around its eccentric cast of characters, afraid to miss one breathless moment of the drama that unfolds before us.

What initially seems like an artsy-fartsy gimmick actually reveals itself as a powerful artistic reflection of the minds of its characters. The primary player is Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), who, as an actor attempting a late-career grab at artistic legitimacy, is staging a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. As both director and star, he hopes to prove to the public that he is a “serious” artist. But, as various complications threaten to derail the production before it even opens, the spirit of The Birdman mocks Riggan’s artistic legitimacy and his sanity. Like Keaton himself (who played Batman in Tim Burton’s original films), Riggan has difficult living up to (or living down) his role as a famous superhero. As his identity is torn between artistically fulfilling work and commercial success, the movie begins to blur the line between reality and fantasy.

Thankfully, Birdman is about far more than Riggan. Taking place entirely in and around a New York theater, the camera captures plenty of other fascinating subjects in this oddball theater community. There’s Riggan’s exasperated agent (Zack Galifianakis, funny but more subtle than normal), his demanding co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), his other co-star and lover, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and his daughter Sam (a brilliant Emma Stone), fresh out of drug rehab and helping out as a production assistant. This tight-knit group is rocked by the arrival of big-shot actor Mike Shiner, who is brought in last-minute to play a lead character and begins to bring out the best and worst in his fellow actors.

Birdman looks at the value of true, lasting art, and how the pursuit of it affects both individuals and communities of artists.

Birdman looks at the value of true, lasting art, and how the pursuit of it affects both individuals and communities of artists.

In Birdman’s community of artists, no character feels “supporting” or “minor.”  Because the nonstop camera frequently leaves characters in the middle of conversations to go spy on others, we get a fascinating milieu of emotions and perspectives as all the characters get to speak their mind and share their perspectives. Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu seems very much occupied with artistic identity, and the way that a community can be wrapped up, body and soul, in a common artistic goal. Of course, opinions vary wildly over how that goal should be met.

The film also reminds me of Billy Joel’s classic album The Stranger, and the way we all wear masks of some sort to hide our true selves. In particular, Mike only feels truly “alive” when he is on stage (in a hilarious segment, he gets a little too into an on-stage bedroom scene, after commenting that he hadn’t been able to “get it up” in years). In varying ways, these actors have become so reliant on their artistic identities that they have difficult functioning in real, human relationships. Riggan’s obsession with his own ego and artistic legacy pushed away Sam, who turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with an absent father. We get the feeling that these characters have possibly lived entire lives of artifice, but, during two thrilling hours, everything is put on the table.

A true sign of a great film is when every scene feels important, and Birdman passes this test with flying colors. Every conversation, every throwaway line, contributes something; if not to the plot, then to the internal lives of the characters. I suppose not much happens plot-wise, but we still get the distinct feeling that, for these characters, nothing will ever be the same. Birdman is a thrilling testament to the power that art can have in both bringing people together and dividing them, in inspiring the kind of passion that thrills and the kind of passion that kills. It’s all wrapped up in one of the most exciting packages all of modern film has to offer.

Whiplash is about jazz musicians the same way Birdman is about the theater, which is to say that the movie’s commentary on artistic identity goes much farther than its subject matter.

But, as a jazz musician myself, I was immediately drawn to this intimate tale of a young, aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and the relationship with his intimidating and impossibly demanding mentor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). While Birdman is very much interested in the identity of artistic communities, Whiplash feels much more intimate and less sprawling, focusing primarily on the way that the relentless pursuit of artistic greatness affects the life of one young, ambitious 19 year old.

Andrew Neiman, a new student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music, desires to be an all-time great jazz drummer. He spends his days practicing his licks and his nights listening to Buddy Rich records. His goal is to catch the eye of Fletcher and become the go-to drummer for his world-renown jazz ensemble. Soon, Fletcher sees potential in Niemen, and pushes his both psychologically and creatively to be the best he can be. Fletcher’s methods are unorthodox; he screams at his trombone players for not knowing if they’re sharp or flat, and throws chairs at his drummers for not keeping on “his time.” As Fletcher’s ruthless tactics push Niemen to a breaking point, he begins to literally bleed for his art.

In its examination of the pursuit of perfection inherent in many young, passionate musicians, Whiplash is one of the great films about modern musicians; it deserves mention alongside the likes of Once and Almost Famous. As Niemen grows in his craft, he pushes everything else aside, including his promising relationship with his girlfriend and his connection to his father. We see that music, particularly jazz, is an all-consuming beast, commanding the entirety of a musician’s focus to the detriment of everything else.

Whiplash examines the all-consuming passion music can inspire in us, and the disturbing lengths artists can go to to achieve greatness.

Whiplash examines the all-consuming passion music can inspire in us, and the disturbing lengths artists can go to to achieve greatness.

The shadow that hangs over the entire film is Fletcher’s story about the” greatest musician of the 20th century,” Charlie Parker. Parker may have never become “Bird” if a drummer hadn’t thrown a cymbal at his head and told him he sucked. If the drummer had told Parker “the two most dangerous words in the English language: Good job,” Bird may never have been. Fletcher believes that all great art is born of strife, struggle and hardship, but he seems to discount the fact that music, and jazz in particular, can elicit tremendous, indescribable joy. The question for us is whether we agree with him, and does Niemen? We only have one life to live, and the two choices, according to Fletcher, seem to be either miserable and memorable (Parker, a heavy drinker and drug user for most of his career, died at 34) or content and forgotten. The creation of great art, in other words, ruins lives, but its legacy saves many more.

I was ready to passionately disagree with Fletcher’s conclusion, until the film’s haunting final scene, where J.K. Simmons’ brilliant “I told you so” smirk takes on an entirely new and troubling dimension. Why are so many legendary artists also remembered for how miserable they were? Although the “mundane” things in life (family, faith and community) are often those that bring us the greatest joy, they’re often the first things many artists forgo in pursuit of their passion. Why is the choice between life and legacy such a dichotomy for so many?

These questions are beyond what any one film can answer, but rarely have they been raised in such a memorable and thought-provoking way. Birdman and Whiplash seem to understand the mind and soul of an artist better than almost any movie I’ve ever seen. Art, whether it lifts us up or destroys us, is important, and both films take both their artistic implications and their own brilliant filmic artistry very seriously.

There’s one more important thing that great art gives us: a thrill, an exhilarating rush like no other when we realize we are witness true greatness. In great film, like in great theater or great music, we can hear the distinct drive of our hearts beating to the rhythm of awe.

As a bonus, here’s Antonio Sanchez’s incredible percussion work for Birdman.

Mel Brooks Monday: The Producers

Along with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks, no other filmmaker has had a larger influence on the history of movie comedy than Mel Brooks. Throughout his impressive body of work, Brooks deftly mixed socio-political commentary, pop culture references, slapstick and the kind of deep, guttural belly laughs that can only be produced by a true comedy genius.

I recently came across a complete collection of Brooks’ films, and am curious to see which of his films hold up best. Which of his films deserve the title of “comedy classic,” and which ones are best forgotten? Join me for a (hopefully) hilarious retrospective every week for Mel Brooks Monday!

 

All of Mel Brooks' 12 films in one convenient collection.

All of Mel Brooks’ 12 films in one convenient collection.

Although Mel Brooks is perhaps best known for his various spoofs and genre parodies, his first film is actually one of the most original comedies of all time. Released in 1968, The Producers is, in some ways, still shocking by today’s standards. It’s the dirtiest, most politically incorrect movie I can imagine being made at that time. Like Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, I watch it today and wonder, “how did they get away with that?”

The relatively thin (though not by Mel Brooks standards) story follows Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), a struggling Broadway producer hungry for his next big hit. To make money for his plays, he has taken to (ahem) “entertaining” rich, randy old ladies. Soon, accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), who has been hired to do Max’s books, arrives at his doorstep. During a hypothetical ramble, Bloom convinces Max that, through some “creative accounting,” they can make more money with a Broadway flop than a hit. With dollar signs in his eyes, Max coerces Bloom into helping him find the worst play ever written, even though it’s, you know, technically illegal.

Many are probably familiar with this story through the musical re-make starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. The songs are catchy, but the only real version in my mind is the original. That is, in major part, to the brilliant lead performances. Mostel’s gregarious blowhard is perfectly pitted against Wilder’s neurotic, sheltered hypochondriac. These guys have never been better, committing two of the funniest performances ever seen on screen. Wilder is probably best known for playing the warm, gentle Willy Wonka, but I much prefer his edgy, comically uninhibited performance here.

The Producers is a brilliant introduction to the madcap insanity suffused with potent cultural commentary that is the hallmark of Brooks' best work.

The Producers is a brilliant introduction to the madcap insanity suffused with potent cultural commentary that is the hallmark of Brooks’ best work.

The duo’s eventual choice, Springtime for Hitler, is every bit as jaw-droppingly offensive as it sounds (song lyrics include Don’t be Stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party), but I think the very Jewish Brooks realized how therapeutic laughing at Nazis could be, even when the atrocities they committed were only a few decades behind and still very much in the forefront of global consciousness. A roomful of actors (including beach bod Hitler) auditioning for the role of the fuhrer is probably funnier than it has any right to be.

This madcap classic is bolstered by one of the funniest supporting casts in movie history. Kenneth Mars is perfect as Franz Liebkind, the German writer determined to “clear the fuhrer’s name” through his work. Christopher Hewes kills as “eccentric” theater director Roger De Bris, and Dick Shawn as LSD, the play’s “perfect” a.k.a. “worst” Hitler? Well, that’s something I wouldn’t dare ruin for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

Several Mel Brooks staples could be seen in his debut film, although some of them would never be used to quite the same success again. His trademark mixture of gleeful subversion and old-fashioned, almost retro fun is in full swing here. The occasionally shocking content never gets in the way of the humor, proving the age-old rule that being offensive is okay—as long as it’s funny. It also gave us a good dose of Brooks’ Shakespearean sophistication, from comical asides to biblical allusions and grand speeches. We can always tell that there is a fiercely intelligent mind underneath the potty humor.

The Producers remains Mel Brooks’ most manically unpredictable movie, maybe because it’s not exactly skewering a genre; there are no jokes we expect, so everything remains a delightful surprise. But the film, thankfully, still has plenty to mock, from the money-hungry world of Broadway production to Nazism to the “high class” clientele that would pay to see a play called Springtime for Hitler in the first place. To say anything else about the plot, characters or jokes would spoil the experience for anyone seeing this true comedy classic for the first time. I say stick to the original and avoid the inferior remake.

Virgin Territory is a refreshing look at modern relationships

I know what you’re probably thinking: a show about virgins? On MTV? Yikes. That was my initial reaction when I heard the network responsible for the likes of Jersey Shore and Teen Mom would be airing a reality show that follows a rotating cast of young adults who have not yet had sex.

I expected the show to not only feel forced, but for MTV to present these hard-working young people as freaks, as those who have waited too long and just want to “lose it” as quickly as possible. And, while some obnoxious MTV-isms certainly remain, I have been pleasantly surprised by the show’s refusal to put these complex people into boxed categories or present them as walking clichés. The show shares with us the lives of those seeking real, authentic relationships, whether they include sex or not, and I think my generation especially can learn a great deal from them in a culture that, as one cast member says early on in the show, “throws around sex like a basketball.”

As anyone who has called themselves virgins for any significant length of their adult life can attest, Virgin Territory contains a great deal of talk about sex and very little of the actual deed. In fact, in the first five episodes, only two have actually “lost it.” Somewhat ironically, the first one to lose it on the show was the one who waited until her wedding night.

Lisa, a Christian who waited until her wedding night, is the first to actually "lose it" on the show.

Lisa, a Christian who waited until her wedding night, is the first to actually “lose it” on the show.

Lisa is a strong Christian who is waiting for her upcoming wedding night to have sex with her fiancé, Nick. Hers is the most traditional religious outlook on the show so far, and it’s refreshing to see that MTV took her story seriously in all of its glorious complexity. To put it simply, waiting for the wedding night is difficult even for a committed Christian. Lisa and Nick are both excited and apprehensive; in a wonderfully candid scene, Lisa asks Nick if he’ll want to do it “20 times a day;” his prototypical male response: “Why not?” Lisa’s story also first reveals the show’s complexity when it comes to sharing the cast members’ full lives, and their struggles outside of relationships. Lisa’s father has recently fallen ill and she’s not sure he will be able to make it to the wedding. A scene where she chats with her father about her anxieties while he lies in a hospital bed is a tearjerker, but it never feels emotionally manipulative.

Lisa’s wedding does come, and it is a lovely affair. When she describes the “morning after,” it is both adorable and a little gross (let’s just say there was lubricant involved). Lisa’s story is over after the first episode, but many other cast members don’t have it quite so easy.

Next we are introduced to the glorious enigma that is Dominique, an energetic 19-year-old black woman from Maryland. She loves the nightlife, is a bit of a party animal and is constantly hit on by guys. But her motto remains, “no ringy, no dingy.” Her reason for waiting until marriage involves the type of family life she grew up in. She comes from a broken home and is still dealing with the repercussions of her parents’ divorce. Her cousin is also a single mom, and she has seen her fair share of unstable and broken families as a result of sex being taken a bit too casually. “I don’t want to repeat the cycle,” she says.

But she has her own relationship issues; she’s “too picky,” and seems to cling to her romantic ideals of finding the perfect guy. I love Dominique’s story because she shows that people are saving their virginity for marriage for reasons other than religion. There’s no indication that she comes from any sort of Christian household, but she is seeking authentic relationships and a stable family life. That includes reconnecting with her increasingly distant mother and avoiding turning away a new romantic interest who seems very respectful of her decision to wait. Her story ends with her still a virgin, but she leaves us with a finishing line worth reflecting on. “I’m very comfortable in my sexuality,” she says, “but that does not mean I’m sleeping with anyone.” Our culture broadly paints adult virgins as people who are insecure with their sexuality in some way, but Dominique shows us that we can be confident in our bodies regardless of our sexual status.

My favorite long-running story so far, and the one I most readily connect with, has been that of Luke, a 22-year-old Christian attending Liberty University and getting ready to graduate. His story covers all the beats of going to a Christian university; the impossibly attractive women and the incredible temptation that comes from the casual college hookup culture that permeates even a college as religiously grounded as Liberty. It helps, perhaps, that Luke’s father is a pastor, and is constantly encouraging him to stay physically pure in his relationships. Luke talks about his “future wife; I don’t know who she is, but I’m excited to meet her.” But Luke is a bit of a commitment-phobe, and has a reputation as a player, because he’s kissed a lot of girls. “If I wasn’t a Christian, there’s no way I’d be a virigin,” he says. He does admit he has had blow jobs that he has “regretted.”

Luke is a Christian committed to saving sex until marriage, but that doesn't mean the road is easy.

Luke is a Christian committed to saving sex until marriage, but that doesn’t mean the road is easy.

Luke’s story is refreshing for several reasons, the major being the fact that he is a MAN who is abstaining from sex until marriage. Our culture puts a high value on female virginity, but not on male virginity. Luke also shows us how important religious convictions can play in fundamentally altering the way we live our lives. It seems people like to paint Christianity in particular as something that has little impact on our behavior, but if we look past the hypocrisy, we see people like Luke, who is seeking a truly God-centered relationship, even as multiple girls have offered to “take” his virginity. His adherence to his convictions is de-stigmatized and given the full weight and respect it deserves. Bravo, MTV, for showing us that, indeed, real men can be virgins too.

Luke does overcome his tendencies as a “player” and finds himself in a stable three-month relationship with Madeline, who writes him letters expressing her excitement over being “the future Mrs. Luke Conger.” Yes, Christian kids tend to move fast when it comes to serious relationships. Really fast. Luke buys her a “promise ring,” expressing his commitment both to her and his decision to abstain from sex until marriage. But his story is not over, and I really do hope he can fight his tendency to play the field and the temptation that seems to surround him; he’s done a good job so far. May he continue to follow the Bible verse from 1 Corinthians 6:20 that he has tattooed on his back: “Do you not know that you were bought with a price? Therefore, honor God with your body.”

No one else on the show seems particularly interested in honoring God with their bodies, but that doesn’t mean that they’re keen on following their peers by treating sex as no big deal. Kyle, the other male featured on the show, takes his virginity seriously, though he does want to lose it. A 20-year-old built weightlifter going to school in Florida, he plays along with his friends who seem to exemplify the “men think about sex every 3 seconds” cliché. Kyle’s conflict is unique because he has never told his friends that he is a virgin. Unlike them, he “wants it to be special.” He describes himself as a more romantic type of guy, but he really has no idea what to do around women. In a hilariously honest moment, he describes buying condoms and “making balloon animals out of them.”

Kyle tries to take a girl out and “treat her nice,” but his romantic tendencies clash with his awkwardness, and a moonlit horse carriage ride does not go as planned. Dating can be really awkward, especially someone who desires to be intentional in his relationships, and many conversations and feelings can remain uncomfortably unresolved. He says he’s waited because he had to take care of his dad, who was ill and eventually died, and he’s had a hard time dealing with his dad’s loss.

I initially found Kyle’s arc one of the more engaging ones, but I think he betrays his character by the end. He had hoped to have sex with a girl from back home, Amanda, for some time. He eventually does, and his morning after confessional is kind of adorable, but then he drops her like a hot potato and takes off back to Florida. It admittedly tears him up to do this, but he tells her he doesn’t desire a long-distance relationship, and wants to go live his life. He says his first time was “extremely special,” but it apparently wasn’t with a girl special enough to keep. It’s disappointing that Kyle seems to have given into peer pressure just so he could “have a real story” to tell his friends.

Kyle in one of his candid webcam confessionals.

Kyle in one of his candid webcam confessionals.

Mikaela is the kind of girl you want to hug and tell that everything is going to be okay. She is “actively looking” to lose her virginity, and her friends (none of them virgins) talk about sex quite a lot. But she is continually disappointed by her relationships. The group takes a road trip from their home in Oregon to L.A. where Mikaela hopes to meet someone, but the fake, sex-obsessed guys they find at the L.A. party scene are a huge turnoff. Maybe it’s the obnoxious MTV-style over editing and slow-mo designed to try and convince us that everyone is having so much fun, but I wouldn’t want to run into any of these creeps in the supermarket, let alone a dark, booze-soaked club. It really shows the caliber of people that frequent these places, and it’s probably not the best place to look for someone interested in a serious, respectful long-term relationship (though I’m sure it has happened).

Mikaela’s story ends relatively uneventfully, with nary a boyfriend in sight, and I can’t begin to describe how awesome that is. Hollywood and the porn industry have conditioned young people to expect a satisfying climax to all of our story arcs (pun definitely intended), but Mikaela’s story feels so real because so much of relationships (and life in general) is waiting in that uncomfortable middle. And, encouragingly, Mikaela is hardly dismayed by the prospect. “When it happens, it happens,” she says, which may sound pretty laissez-faire, but actually strikes me as a profound counter-cultural statement, aimed not at sex itself but at the prospect of finding the right guy first. “I don’t think virgins should be made out to be a big deal—like we’re an alien species or something,” she says.

I hope shows like Virgin Territory can help people take Mikaela’s sentiment to heart. I’d like to think that we young adults are all seeking authentic relationships, but our culture has conditioned us to take the easy way out by engaging in a harmful “hook-up culture” that treats bodies as commodities and souls as another casually tossed undergarment. The thing that everyone on the show has in common is the desire to find and maintain true, lasting relationships apart from sex. Believe it or not, that statement is not an oxymoron. I would not go so far as to say the cast members are role models, but they are real people whose reasons for waiting are multifaceted. It helps that the show they’re on is sometimes funny, sometimes sad and sometimes awkward; but, most importantly, it takes every aspect of these virgins’ lives seriously. That’s something I never expected from MTV, but I’m glad I was pleasantly surprised.

So do yourself a favor by turning off Naked Dating and watching Virgin Territory instead. It airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on MTV. Check out the pilot episode below.

The prophetic imagination of Foster the People

“For beauty I will gladly feed my life into the mouths of rainbows, their technicolor teeth cutting prisms and smiling benevolently on the pallid hue of the working class hero.”-From the Supermodel album cover

Rock music is no stranger to songwriters who double as modern-day prophets. From Bob Dylan to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin to Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, U2, Pearl Jam and Mumford & Sons, one could argue that many truly memorable modern songwriters have a bit of the gift of prophecy indwelling within them.

The latest and, for my money, most refreshing addition to that tradition comes from an unexpected source. The alternative rock band Foster the People already put themselves on the map with their first album “Torches,” spearheaded by the effervescent, catchy and deceptively dark single “Pumped up Kicks.” But it’s their second album, Supermodel, released in March, that truly catches the prophetic imagination in unique and sometimes startling ways. If it appeared that Foster was headed toward instant super-stardom, their sophomore effort will likely perplex or even anger some fans of their earlier work; and that’s just one reasons why Supermodel is one of the most complex, challenging and, yes, prophetic works of art to emerge from contemporary rock music in quite a long time.

In discussing the prophetic tradition, it’s important to define what we mean by “prophetic.” In the history of humanity, prophecy goes back a long way. Nostradamus made prophecy chic in the 15th century, but the most famous examples of prophecy stem from the biblical Old Testament prophets, in particular Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.

Prophetic voices may differ on the source of their inspiration, but one thing they all share is a dissatisfaction with their surrounding culture. Often, this leads to a warning, an exhortation that if we do not change the course we have set for ourselves (and, in the biblical example, turn ourselves toward God), calamity in some form will ensue. “As I live, declares the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, o house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11).

In that same vein, modern prophetic songwriters write lyrics that dream of a better world, that convey a dissatisfaction with the way things are and perhaps even dream of ways we can make things better.

The thrilling thing about Foster is that their prophetic voice is often filtered through the explicit language of old-school biblical prophecy. Their vision is uncompromising, sometimes even impenetrable upon first listen. Such an approach can be off-putting but, much like the prophets of the Old Testament, their message is profound and well worth exerting a bit of intellectual effort for.

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That effort is put into overdrive on Supermodel’s first track, “Are You What You Want to Be?” which finds the band experimenting with Afro-Cuban inspired chants and drum beats. Any illusion that the band is gunning for another easy-listening, radio-friendly hit is shattered by lead singer Mark Foster’s staggered lyric. “The right words in the hands of dissidents with the fire/Will rip apart the marrow from the bone of the liars/Well I’m afraid of saying too much and ending a martyr/But even more so I’m afraid to face God and say I was a coward, yeah.” The song speaks of waiting for “revolution,” which, in the spirit of prophecy, is a very anti-establishment thing to say.

But what exactly is Foster rebelling against? Foster gives us an idea in a revealing interview with the L.A. Times.

“For me, a lot of the record is about Western culture, consumerism and the ugly side of capitalism,” Foster says. “I don’t want to hit you over the head with it, but those are the major topics. One thing I find really interesting is our worship of celebrity or politicians. We love to put people on pedestals. Look at reality shows. These people become giant stars. I find that fascinating. ‘Supermodel,’ for me, represents the age we are living in.”

Foster’s revolution may be cloaked in violent language, but their desire appears to be to increase understanding, creating a quiet revolution by rejecting the vanity inherent in the cult of celebrity and instead focusing on the “biggest question,” and it all starts with deciding “Are you what you want to be?”

The band’s philosophical inquiry grows more explicit in perhaps the album’s high point: “Ask Yourself.” The song suggests that we can’t do our part in making the world a better place if we resign ourselves to simply dream big; being who we want to be takes something more. “And you say that dreamers always get what they desire/But I’ve found the more I want the less I’ve got/Is this the life you’ve been waiting for/Or are you hoping that you’ll be where you want with a little more?” The subject of the song “Never needed the proof/Just followed the rules,” but found that “I’m always falling behind/Just floating the lines.”

But human endeavors to improve ourselves can only take us so far, if “Coming of Age” is any indication. In the prophetic tradition, Foster says that we cannot find true peace within ourselves because we are, in so many words, wicked. In biblical prophecy, this condition is more directly referred to as “sin,” a concept songwriters have been utterly fascinated with ever since the first guitar chord was struck. If anything, it’s a bitter answer to the last song’s charge that hard work alone leads to improvement. “You know I’ve tried to live without regrets/I’m always moving forward and not looking back/But I tend to leave a trail of dead while I’m moving ahead.” Lyrics like this are a rejection of philosophies like Buddhism, which say that we can reach salvation (or at least inner peace) by searching within ourselves. Our default state is failure after failure after failure; and such seemingly fruitless striving can take its toll.

The eerie “Never Mind” serves as the band’s rejection of moral relativism, or the idea that an absolute “Truth” is unobtainable and therefore not worth pursuing. “You have your truth and I have mine,” as the mantra goes. Foster expresses his confusion over this muddled philosophical view. “Yeah it’s hard to know the truth/In this post-modernist view/Where absolutes are seen as relics/And laughed out of the room/And I’m scared to say your name.” The band is concerned about a culture where they fear to even mention God’s name due to the fact that they may offend someone whose “truth” doesn’t cop to the idea of a deity.

In the album’s trippiest track, the seemingly drug-induced fever dream “Pseudologia Fantastica,” the band goes further in calling out post-modernist thought as “Another weekend massacre of opinion” before calling to memory some of the most powerful and challenging words Jesus Christ ever spoke. “Don’t be afraid of the knife/Sometimes you have to cut the limb to survive.” In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus was referring metaphorically to cutting off anything in our lives that may cause us to sin; Foster seem to be referencing a more philosophical rejection of anything or anyone that sacrifices a desire for ultimate truth on the altar of opinion.

images“A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon” offers the band’s most challenging lyrics, as well as the deepest philosophical subtexts. It’s here where their use of direct biblical language is most obvious. Foster goes directly after those phony people who do things for show and talk about nothing but trivial matters. I’m coming for you giants and your liars and your chariots of fire/You charmers with your anecdotes have started to show your true colors.” The language gets even more old-school. “We’ve been crying for a leader to speak like the old prophets/ The blood of the forgotten wasn’t spilled without a purpose, or was it?” It seems to me that Foster is clamoring for more prophetic voices to speak the truths that no one else wants to hear. Looking at the history of prophetic music, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lack of people with wisdom to impart, but, rather, a lack of reception from the people who need to not only hear their messages, but be transformed by them.

The album’s last two songs drive its message home powerfully. “The Truth” reaffirms the idea that there is a Truth (singular) even while “floating within your walls of opinion.” The song goes on: “There is a Truth, there is a light if you’d follow me there/I’ve been searching for the directions and/I’m convinced the world doesn’t know what it needs/There is a hope for the hopeless/I can promise you that.” The band again takes the emphasis off of our own actions to “discover” what life means, and rejects the idea that the object of our searching is forever out of reach. “The truth stands in the end/While you’re deciding what to do.”

The soft, pleasant acoustic album closer “Fire Escape” is actually the album’s most bitterly ironic song. It’s an outraged cry to the band’s hometown of L.A., a place of “pimps and prostitutes” who “wave you down at stopping signs.” Foster sings, “Los Angeles, I’ve been waiting for you/To pick yourself up and change.” The song repeats the refrain: “Save yourself, save yourself, yourself.” Of course, the city can’t save itself from its wickedness, just as we can’t save ourselves from ours. When the troubles of this world turn on the heat, we think we can jump out of the fire escape unsinged, but the rest of the album has shown that attempting to save ourselves is a fruitless exercise that leads to pain and defeat. So, the biggest question the album leaves us with is, if we can’t save ourselves, who can?

Supermodel is already an underrated album critically, mostly because it does not feature a catchy radio-friendly counterpart to “Pumped up Kicks.” That’s a great song, and Torches is a great album, but Supermodel takes the listener to places I never thought they could go. Not every song is immediately catchy, but every song is, in its own way, essential to the band’s inspiring contribution to the imagination of the prophetic voice.

In a philosophical slap in the face to most popular music, Foster the People says things are not okay, we are not okay, and our post-modern culture’s search for ultimate meaning is so grounded in the individual self (just think of all the popular songs that seem to find ultimate meaning in romantic love) that it has lost nearly all of its value. Mark Foster contemplated this as the band’s popularity grew. He told the L.A. Times, “I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with no kitchen. I lived paycheck to paycheck. Then suddenly my life changed. We had people helping us. We had money. We could see the world. I traveled and saw how other people lived, and it left me brokenhearted.”

“I felt guilty for how my life had changed.”

Our culture places a high priority on finding a truth, but belittles the idea of the Truth, with a capital T. What is that bigger Truth, and what is our part to play in it? I believe that bigger Truth rests in God himself, and I have a sneaking suspicion Foster does as well. Nevertheless, a culture that refuses to even ask that question is living blindfolded, stumbling around in the dark and headed for self-destruction. And, if we find out someday that Mark Foster was correct, and we chose to ignore his pleas, at least he can be comforted by the fact that no one ever listened to Ezekiel, either.