Moving Pictures Reviewed: Moonrise Kingdom

Indie filmmaking darling and eternal retrophile Wes Anderson sets his heavily stylized lens on sleepy New England coastal communities in his new adolescent love yarn Moonrise Kingdom. Does this jaunt into 1960’s fantasy escapism mark a return to Steve Zissou-esque majesty or is it just another dull ride a la Darjeeling Limited?

It’s hard to believe it has been over a decade since Wes Anderson became a household name in the cineniche with The Royal Tenenbaums and, still, nearly fifteen since his first major breakout with appropriated celebrated Rushmore, especially in light of how fresh and glaringly hip those films continue to be even by today’s standards. Anderson’s story-book approach to the cinematic narrative that surrounds is wholly human and relatable characters often proves the perfect balancing act between the fantastical novelty of their circumstances and the sardonic commentaries about relationships that permeate and sizzle in each film with understated immediacy. In this sense, Anderson is a rare auteur capable, at his best, of incomparable storytelling satisfaction when it comes to character arcs, stylistic presentation, and ironic appeal. In other words, the guy’s a deserving hipster magnet.

He saved Latin… what did you ever do? (Wes Anderson)

That said, Anderson’s career hasn’t been without it’s fair share of missteps and mixed reception. 2007’s Darjeeling Limited, for example, proved relatively disappointing despite the exceptional cast and setting, mostly because it buckled under its own thematic pretensions. The same can be said, at least in my opinion, about Tenenbaums, where precocious and intriguing story-lines end up sacrificed for overly sentimental undertones midway through the film. In both cases, the films are eventually redeemed through excellent and bittersweet final acts, though, when held next to gems like Rushmore or the criminally underrated Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson’s crushing commentaries on the nature of broken family-life tend to overwhelm his lesser pictures, removing his audience from the sense of wonder and stylishly ridiculous excitement he is fully capable of bringing to the table.

Okay, where do we start?

Lucky for us, Anderson’s newest flick, coming-of-age fantasy Moonrise Kingdom is far and away better than Darjeeling Limited, and, in many ways, his most readily accessible film (yes, even more appealing to mainstream audiences than Fantastic Mr. Fox). Shot with his signature eye toward retro-stylism (aided by the 1960’s setting) and intimate attention to subtle human eccentricities, Kingdom is the rare movie that strikes its audience as elaborately constructed without ever feeling contrived; formulated without feeling formulaic. Sure Bill Murray mopes around and Bob Balaban offers whimsically informative on-screen narration every so often, but it never comes across as pretentious as much as it does engrossing and engaging in familiar yet novel ways.

“Oh hai, Bob!”

The set-up is simple enough: orphaned and jaded Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) runs away from his regiment with pen-pal/first-crush Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) as both seek solace from broken homes, bullying, and adults brushing their feelings aside. As their adventure is paralleled with the small-knit island community’s rally to find them, Anderson puts surprising emphasis and depth into seemingly cookie-cutter characters like Bruce Willis’ Captain Sharp and Edward Norton’s Scout Master Randy Ward charged with rescuing them, painting them less as antagonists and, rather, as kindred spirits capable of empathizing with Sam and Suzy even as they seek to tear them apart. The same can be said for Billy Murray and Francis McDormand’s performances as Suzy’s fractious yet aloof lawyer parents, who slowly grow to maturity, much like Sam and Suzy do, throughout the film. Yes, there are a couple villains sprinkled here and there: Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts agree early on to hunt him down with weapons against their Scout Master’s wishes; Tilda Swinton’s late-game turn as the ominously nameless Social Services plays bad with icy demeanor, but as her lack of name implies, she’s less of a character here than she is a looming, dangerous situation Sam has to avoid in the last 30 minutes of the film, leaving her character feel a little wasted in hindsight.

Cool cast, bro!

Moonrise Kingdom is, however, replete with Anderson’s noticeably eclectic and approachable humor: his situations are almost always brimming with humor and magic that manages to come across as both ridiculous and totally appropriate. Pairing absolute stylistic likability with sincere commentary about learning to love and live (and learning to love and live again), Anderson once again crafts a rewarding yarn that manages to both entertain and enlighten audiences. So grab a ticket when you can: I guarantee it’ll be an illuminating experience (okay, pun aside, you’ll dig it)!

Special Review: Max Payne 3

Eight years after his “Fall” and twelve after his bullet-riddled introduction, tragic video game hero Max Payne returns for a third outing in Rockstar Games’ Max Payne 3. Trading the noir-tinged New York winters for the overstimulated intensity of São Paulo’s urban sprawl, does this vacation from hell carry the same heat its lauded precursors did or does it land itself in a body-bag?

Few games hold the sort of narrative and stylistic gravitas the iconic Max Payne franchise built its reputation on. Back in 2001, developer Remedy Games’ first series outing broke industry standards with clever implementation of the now somewhat overused “bullet-time” effect in its innovative gameplay, offering a uniquely cinematic experience gamers had drooled over in the wake of basement-dweller opuses like The Matrix. Paired with a staple film-noir atmosphere and an engaging, character-driven revenge-yarn, Max Payne rightfully found its way into the pantheon of highly celebrated video games. Likewise, its sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, found equal (if not even more abundant) praise two years later, deepening the narrative experience, bolstering player’s attachment to the tragic title character, and doubling out the amount of digital destruction and bloodshed to boot. Then, with Remedy’s sights locked on Alan Wake and publisher Rockstar Games focused on their numerous open-world titles, it seemed the days of Payne were numbered. However, eight years after the release of his “Fall”, Max is stepping back out of the snowy New York twilight and into the hazy, electronic simmer of sunny São Paulo circa 2012 in Max Payne 3.

Everybody’s favorite self-loathing, pill-popping anti-hero’s back!

With publisher Rockstar now in the developer’s seat, Max Payne 3 promises the same slow-mo bullet-ballet gameplay of its predecessors with the signature style and auteurism Rockstar is famous for thanks to big name franchises like the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead series. It is important to note, however, that while Rockstar’s track record with the open-world market is celebrated and practically spotless, its forays into the more linear action-genre have been notably less successful. Games like Red Dead Revolver and the more recent LA Noire boasted high quality production values and exceptional narrative construction, but sacrificed a honed focus on innovative gameplay for the sake of a cinematic experience. Where LA Noire gave players the option to explore the entirety of a meticulously detailed 1940’s Los Angeles, for example, it also barred its audience from interacting with it in meaningful ways outside the context of heavily linear investigations and the occasional 911 response encounter. As cherished a developer as they are with certain games that boast gameplay freedom, Rockstar has also earned a reputation for shackling experiences when it comes to more linear franchises, a rep that furrowed a number of eyebrows back when it was announced Max Payne 3 was getting developed in-house at the game studio.

Looks familiar enough.

For those of you who held your breath, however, its time to come back up for air: Max Payne 3 is easily the most rewarding action-game experience Rockstar has offered up outside its open-world titles and it’s every bit a worthy successor to the franchise that birthed it. Picking up nearly a decade after Mona Sax died in his arms, Max exists at the bottom of a bottle, drinking himself half to death in New Jersey as a washed up cop and a self-made mess. Lucky for us, the pity party takes a backseat to explosive gunplay quickly enough as Max is approached with a proposition to bodyguard a wealthy Brazilian businessman and his trophy wife. After a little more moping and absentmindedly shooting the son of a mob-boss, Max accepts the deal with entire New Jersey mob at his heel. Of course, trading the snow-tipped streets of Hoboken for the over-saturated glare of São Paulo proves less of a picnic when Max’s new hire becomes the target of drug-running kidnappers, ruthless paramilitaries, and favela-clearing death squad cops. Needless to say, conspiracies, plot-twists, and cleverly written narration quips mount with the body count as Max kills his way up the underworld food chain once again, offering a uniquely cinematic and wholly entertaining single-player experience that proves as engaging as it does brutal.

New look, same Payne.

Aside from the satisfyingly explosive story, Max Payne 3 does a fantastic job capturing the mechanics of the original game’s “bullet-ballets” while integrating new gameplay innovations (such as the now seemingly inescapable cover-system pre-requesite) to fit current-gen standards. For the most part, Rockstar deserves ample cred for introducing some truly unforgettable action centerpieces here, particularly in close quarters situations that ask the player to utilize space strategically with well-timed slow-mo jumps and aiming precision (free-aim is the way to go). Rockstar has proven no slouch on the presentation side of things, either: the visuals pack quite the punch, with stunning character animation, destructible environments, and visceral particle effects bolstering the experience. The appropriately vibrant and detailed environments are pure eye-candy. The percussive, atmosphere-soaked score from LA-noise rockers HEALTH adds a lot to the game’s unsettling, dark vibes, offering an abrasively endearing marriage between the look and sound Rockstar aims for. “Tears”, the closest thing the band gets to pop-structure, particularly highlights the outfit’s musical strengths, but is sadly underplayed as a whole. It was kind of a bummer.

He may be slumming, but Max’s adventure is far from poor.

For everything Max Payne 3 has going for it, though, certain issues do shine through the immaculate presentation and relentlessly intense firefights. As polished and well written as the story-line is, Rockstar’s decision to trade loading-screens for fully-rendered in-game cutscenes ends up feeling like a cheap diversionary tactic in subsequent play-throughs. This becomes all the more apparent once players realize how much the first half of the game’s cutscenes are spent observing Max drinking alone in his cruddy apartment (the first three are great for setting up how far Max has fallen, but after a while it becomes pointless filler). The initially novel neon flash-effects used to highlight the super-stimulated feel of São Paulo’s electric-tinged metropolis quickly become a tired motif, and, paired with the screwy design choice to have random bits of internal monologue litter the screen during cutscenes, the look and feel of what could’ve otherwise been a totally tasteful traditional approach is diminished by Rockstar’s attempts to take narrative-design integration to annoying new heights (jeez, what a mouthful…). Rockstar’s decision to occasionally offer players wide open shooting-ranges in certain outdoor levels also downplays the game’s strengths when it comes to contained and elaborate combat maneuvering. Often times these moments are still very playable, but lack the same strength and memorable character of intense corridor-to-corridor shoot-outs.

Looks pretty cool… till it invades your screen every 3 minutes…

On the plus-side, though, Max Payne 3 offers a surprisingly robust and rewarding multiplayer experience for players looking to stray from the sometimes constricting single-player experience. Taking hints from Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV‘s multiplayer, game-types run the gamut (sans the unnecessary open-world aspects of those titles) and an XP-system that earns players new tools for destructive goodness. Perhaps the most impressive gameplay innovation Rockstar brings to the table, however, is the newly implemented bullet-time system that allows certain players to go head-to-head with one another at crucial moments, dueling mid-air in a deadly dance of digital death. It’s a crowning moment for Rockstar, who’ve managed to offer something once thought impossible to do on the multiplayer side of things.

Don’t tell me you don’t want to play this dude…

So, while it’s not a perfect experience, Max Payne 3 rises to meet its predecessors as a worthy followup to a franchise built on pixelated blood, sweat, and countless tears. A harrowing tragedy and raucous revenge-ride, Max’s third outing offers ample playability, unabashedly cinematic presentation, and all the carnage you’d expect out of a Rockstar package while retaining the signature feel of the franchise it came from. Who says an old dog can’t learn new tricks?

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Kill List

Genre-bending UK thriller Kill List has been turning heads on the festival circuit for a while now. Does this independent darling bring the goods to match the hype or does it buckle under the weight of its own twisted ambitions?

Hearts in darkness: hitmen of Kill List caught in a deadly, nightmarish game.

Ever since catching websphere rumblings about Ben Wheatley’s hitman-horror hybrid back in March, I’ve kept my ear close to the ground when it came to Kill List and its eventual theatrical release in the states. Well, despite a lengthy delay, the film has finally made it to limited release here in the US, and, rest assured, the wait has been worth it.

Every bit a disenchanted love letter to two of film’s most iconic (and maligned) genres, the seedy underworld/hit-man narrative and 1970s psychological-horror, Kill List immediately sets itself apart from the contemporary cinematic crime exploration in tone and (pun intended, I guess…) execution. Twists, turns, and torment abound, Wheatley daringly takes narrative niche on a slow-burn to the maniacal, the likes of which have rarely seen comparison.

That "Oh sh*t..." moment you get when you realize this isn't the movie you thought it was going to be.

If the ominously etched rune introducing the film doesn’t cue you into the devious intents lurking just beneath the surface of the first half hour or so, than you’re in for way more than you probably bargained for. Nestled in an unassuming British suburbia, Jay, an Iraq War veteran who’s turned to contract killing to make ends-meat for his family, finds himself deep in paralyzing emotional turmoil after an enigmatically botched job in Kiev. With the fam in dire financial circumstances and Jay unable (or unwilling) to find work since the incident, tensions run high between him and his wife, Shel. Explosive spats during listless days and dinner parties leave Jay seeking refuge in best friend/partner-in-homicide, Gal. At said dinner party, Gal propositions Jay about a potential job, eventually convincing Jay to get out of his psychological rut. All the while, Gal’s new girlfriend is stealthily carving runes on the back of Jay’s bathroom mirror, and the “WTF”-fest begins!

Deals with the devil? Explorations on the cunning nature of evil in "Kill List".

What follows includes blood-pacts, necrotic wounds, clergy assassinations, overzealous fake-swordfights, mercilously beating the sh*t of a pedophile with a hammer, droning chants, enough cult-based weirdness to make Kubrick cringe in his coffin. Wheatley goes heavy on violence, light on the dialogue, mysterious on the backgrounds, and deep on the connotations: who are the guys Jay and Gal are working for? What happened in Kiev? Do the desired ends justify the deplorable means? The film’s at its best when exploring the complexities of human relationships (whether familial or fraternal) under terrible ethical circumstances, and engrosses with a convincing portrayal of man split between his morals and his job. The horror aspects, which play significantly into the narrative in the latter half of the film, are quite effective and intense, though less impressive than the preceding melodrama. The finale in particular, while shocking, desperately lacks satisfactory conclusion, leaving the audience with far more questions than answers. That said, its obvious Wheatley’s aims for such an abrupt and brutal ending were meant to leave the film feeling shrouded and hauntingly mysterious.

Oh that crazy last half...

While it does some things better than others, Kill List is nonetheless an unnerving jaunt into unique film-making territory. Grounded by a strong cast, jarring style, and unsettling atmosphere, it definitely managed to surpass my expectations and slay the stale image of the cinematic hitman saga with brutal effectiveness. Consider yourselves warned!

A Year for Growing Old? 2012 and the Advent of the Maturing Indie

As we enter the 12th year of the 21st century, an increasing number of young independent recording artists are shedding their “bratty” images. Are these true moves toward a “matured” sound or just away from the risks of cliche?

Best Coast promises a "grown up" record (preferably with less words like "baby", "crazy", "lazy", "hazy"- ... you get the picture...

(Classic Best Coast track: “Crazy for You” [mp3])

It had to happen eventually: Bethany Cosentino is giving up on words that end in “y”, writing a “grown up” record that’s apparently less about lethargy and cat obsessions and, rather, more “emo” (which I guess she’s trying to tell us is an album about feelings… whatever that means…). In her recent interview with Pitchfork, the Best Coast front-woman mapped out her plans to release a more matured album sometime later this year, describing her work with producer Jon (Mr. I-scored-I ❤ Huckabees-what-did-you-ever-do?) Brion and a significant step away from the simplistic songwriting that both drove and diminished her highly listenable first LP. While Crazy for You was a pop gem, it lacked the lyrical prowess and compositional complexity needed to truly warrant the artistic acclaim in managed to garner. It felt more like a guilty pleasure than a fully realized masterpiece back in 2010, and while it catapulted Best Coast to the forefront of indie’s most popular acts, one couldn’t help but ask whether Cosentino’s bratty lo-fi tunes were worth hailing her the queen of the scene.

Totally ready for a mature followup record... totally... (Tyler, The Creator)

Best Coast is hardly the only indie mega-act looking for a little adult credibility. One of 2011’s most controversial and unapologetic indie fixtures, Tyler, The Creator of Wu-Tang Clan part-deux (aka Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), is reportedly in the works of a followup to last year’s Goblin LP. Having built his career (or hype, as it were) around an aggressively nihilistic image of contemporary youth culture, rampant disregard for authority or self-reservation, and disrespect for just about everyone and anything around him, the idea of a human-caricature like himself turning away from lyrics about rape, killing people, and generally acting like an all-around a**hole seems to go against the unrelenting pseudo-realist aggro-principles he’s built his image around. While Cosentino’s move toward mature songwriting at least hints a step in the right direction, Tyler’s works against the only thing going for his buzz-machine: unrestricted mania and a dedication to shock-value.

Before (The Walkmen's "bratty" beginnings...)

After (now that's how you do it RIGHT!)

The idea of the “mature” followup has been in place as long as recorded music has been a medium, and the move toward softened songwriting is an omnipresence especially in the independent music scene. One of my personal favorite groups, The Walkmen, jump-started their career with garage-rock revival and now stand as one of the most thoughtful and “grown-up” acts in the scene (along with bands like the National or *shudder* My Morning Jacket… The Walkmen are exponentially more poignant than both). The late Jay Reatard took similar strides toward a matured sound with Watch Me Fall and even the recently disbanded LCD Soundsystem saw significant maturation after their first record (let’s be honest, guys: “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” pales in comparison to just about anything on the two latter LPs or subsequent EPs). Still it’s often difficult to gauge how ready an act is to truly move past “bratty” songwriting: take for example Cloud Nothings’ new record (which you can read a review for HERE). Where their first true LP was an energetic blast of youthful songwriting, the second album drags under an ambitious emotional weight the band simply can’t carry yet.

(The Walkmen [doing it right] – “On the Water” [mp3])

Why'd you boys have to go and get grown up on us (Cloud Nothings)!

At risk of saying “if it ain’t broke…”, I do feel like many acts (especially in the independent music scene) feel pressured to move past the workable styles and structure of previous records merely out of a fear of losing relevancy with contemporary audiences. And while tastes have certainly shifted towards the quieted sounds that dominated critics’ and listener review polls last year (Bon Iver, I’m looking at you… drowsily…), hasty departure from a sound and vibe that compliments the actual maturity of the songwriting (and songwriters) can only stand to detract from the credibility of a “matured” followup, and in turn, its relevancy. So don’t feel like you have to plug us with a “grown up” record, guys: just do what you do best, and take it in strides. After all, most of you have only been with us for less than three years anyways!

Records in Review: Cloud Nothings – “Attack on Memory”

Hard-working, hard-rocking indie outfit Cloud Nothings return with Steve Albini-produced Attack on Memory. Is front-man Dylan Baldi ready for “serious” songwriting?

"Attack on Memory" (2012) - Cloud Nothings

One of the more auspicious young indie-rock acts of the past three or four years, Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings have made a name for themselves with a feverish energy that surges through each of their punky-pop songs. When the band’s eponymous sophomore LP dropped on Carpark Records last year, front-man and songwriter Dylan Baldi generated some impressive buzz for the catchy tunes and searing riffs that drove the album to the top of many “Best of”-lists in 2011. Despite not even being out of his teens, Baldi was quickly rising to the forefront of indie rock’s most prized and promising talents in an age where the guitar-based music of yesteryear was giving way to throwback chillwavers on synths and samplers.

As evidenced in both 2009’s killer comp Turning On and last year’s S/T effort, if there was one thing Baldi knew how to do extremely well, it was write energetic and engaging guitar-pop. So when I got my first listen to Cloud Nothing’s new, Steve Albini-produced “No Future/No Past”, I was a little befuddled. Trading directed, understated songwriting for ventures into instrumental and structural experimentation is one thing, but trying to pull off a five-minute long, slow-burning angst-fest is something completely different. The songwriting was one-note and repetitive to a fault. Within half a minute of this single, I was already skeptic about the direction one of my favorite bands was heading in.

Fortunately, Cloud Nothing’s third full-length, Attack on Memory, isn’t quite the disappointment “No Future/No Past” teases at it becoming. Sure the album starts on a meandering note with both the previously mentioned misstep and “Wasted Days” (which, at a grating and repetitious eight minutes, is a coincidentally telling song title), but energetic and tightly composed tracks like “Fall In” and “Stay Useless” are kept short and fiercely performed, catering to the band’s strengths. Instrumental “Separation” hints at a solid marriage between the pop gems of the group’s finer work and Albini’s noise rock-leaning influences, but fails to rise to the occasion mainly because of a distinct lack of Baldi’s vocal presence, which, despite his recent turns to whiny-ness, often counteract the tedium endured through the rest of the piece’s three minutes. “No Sentiment” plays like “No Future” should have: a minute and half shorter with a chorus to break up the monotony.

Just gimme Indie Rock!

Luckily, Attack ends strong: “Our Plans” and “Cut You” are easily the most memorable tracks of the outing, highlighting Baldi’s ballad-sense and riffage. That said, the songwriter’s questionable choice to focus his talents on brooding, lumbering pieces like he has here spotlight a level of immaturity in his talent. At 20, Baldi has plenty of time to write dark pieces on love-lost and hopeless, dire situations. For now, though, he should be focusing his skills on doing what he does best: writing from the standpoint of a youthful musician with the world in his corner and buzz in his pocket. Save the tears for another four years and bring back the energy I fell for back in 2009!

Stand-out Track: “Stay Useless” (mp3)

*Bonus! Probably still the band’s best track: favorite tune of 2009!

Review: Guided By Voices – “Let’s Go Eat the Factory”

Let's Go Eat the Factory (2012)

Let's Go Eat the Factory (2012)

The original line-up of lo-fi luminaries Guided By Voices have produced their first album in nearly 20 years. Does it live up to their own massive legacy?

The boys at Penn's Landing (down in Philly)

For a line-up that hadn’t played with each other in nearly two decades, the Guided By Voices I saw this past summer was a tight rock n’ roll muscle-machine. Front-man and ceaseless song-writer Robert Pollard could still pull off a mean jump-kick. Mitch Mitchell still chain-smoked during the entirety of the three hour-long set. Greg Demos still knew how to rock pajama pants. And Tobin Sprout still seemed really serious when he sang “Awful Bliss”. The music growled the way it should have. The beer flowed freely, and the Tequila was drank heavily. For a few twilight hours, an otherwise awkward match-up of indiecentric Gen-Yers and blue-collar, middle-aged men huddled around Penn’s Landing in mutual joy that the boys were back together and rocking just as hard as ever.

Pollard fueling up...

When I heard GBV was making a new record (a first for the original line-up since 1996’s Under the Bushes Under the Stars), I knew it was going to be amazing. These were the dudes who pretty much established the lo-fi rock scene and were responsible for some of the most memorable and endearingly well-written albums of the 90’s. I was even more thrilled to learn the band was returning to a 4-track sound, something Pollard had set aside (along with most of the original band members) in the latter half of the group’s career. With the prospect of becoming a worthy followup to Alien Lanes or Bee Thousand of the 21st century, Let’s Go Eat the Factory had a lot riding on it from the very start.

Rocking into their mid-50s...

The band’s 17th record starts off promisingly enough. The raucous growl of “Laundry and Lasers” recalls some of the driving rockers of the group’s late-80’s records with youthful energy rarely heard from dudes teetering on senior citizen status. The following set of songs are classic GBV affair, short and sweet, if somewhat unassuming: as passable as these mini-ballads may be, they lack the pop-y punch of their progenitors on earlier albums. “Spiderfighter” is something of an enigma: though it starts with a classically distorted, repetitive riff it abruptly collapses into a piano-based finale. While this thoughtful second half of the song aims for emotional peaks, it’s jarring transition mars the final product. “Hang Mr. Kite” relies far too heavily on ugly Moog compositions where guitar-based attacks are clearly needed.

Hard at work?

Still the record finds footing on certain stand-out tracks. “God Loves Us” is fantastically anthematic and “How I Met My Mother” recalls some of the better burst-rockers of the band’s stand-out records. “Waves” showcases Sprout’s writing capabilities, as well as the band’s flair for eccentric sound manipulation. “Chocolate Boy” stands amongst the best balladry Pollard has produced in 20 years. If not for some head-scratchingly weird underwater-esque vocal-distortion and volume manipulation on “Cyclone Utilities (Remember Your Birthday)”, the song harks to the better aspects of the badass-ery in classics like “Hit” and “Hot Freaks”. The finale, “We Won’t Apologize for the Human Race” is both the record’s longest track and most intriguingly realized, featuring full breakdowns and an evolving composition rarely seen in most of the otherwise dwarfed songs of Factory.

At least they still kick ass live!

Unfortunately, despite the occasional standout, Let’s Go Eat the Factory is less of a triumphant return to a band on the top of its game than a struggle to re-adapt to the genre they were birthed in. While GBV have adequately mimicked the lo-fi sound they are famous for, they have as of yet to prove they can write a truly memorable song fit for the new century. To be fair, these guys haven’t written cohesively in over 20 years, so the rust is completely forgivable: let’s just hope the next go-around they’ll be back in full-swing, offering those awesome hooks worthy of jump-kicking and drinking tequila to.

Stand-out Tracks: “God Loves Us” (.m4a)

“Waves” (.m4a)

Hidden Gems of 2011 (or 2010, if you wanna get technical…): Hesher

Hesher (2010)

Scalding to the touch (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eponymous miscreant)

The past couple years have been particularly kind to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. For an actor who had his career jump-started on syndicated TV face-palmers like Roseanne or 3rd Rock from the Sun, Gordon-Levitt has risen above the two-dimensional caricatures of the 1990s teenager and into the more diversified and weighty shoes of the post-2k twentysomething. Despite the stereotypical pratfalls many actors of these niche roles often take to (inexplicable wealth and undeserved senses of self-importance, I’m looking at you), Gordon-Levitt has a seemingly magical ability to convince an audience that he, as a person, is just as fiercely intelligent, charming, and empathetic as his characters are written to be. So it’s easy to see where his decision to take up the titular role of a nihilistic, violence-prone, anti-authoritarian metal-head in Hesher might inspire a few heads to start scratching.

Definitely not 500 Days of Summer.

The film itself (which made its festival circuit in 2010 but didn’t see theatrical release till this past year) plays out less like a story about Gordon-Levitt’s character than it does a vehicle for him to drive head-long through your HD-TV, leaving a sparks and jagged pieces of shrapnel flying in his wake. The bulk of the narrative is focused, rather, on T.J. (Devin Brochu), an angsty pre-teen with a gnarly bowl-cut and a royally f*cked-up family situation. After his mother dies in a car-accident, T.J. has devoted himself entirely to recovering the newly impounded station-wagon she lost her (and, as he believes, his own) life in. T.J.’s dad (Rainn Wilson) has retreated into a state of reclusive, strangling depression, wandering around the family home in tighty-whities and a bathrobe for a majority of the film, and T.J.’s live-in grandma battles dementia and arthritis with medical marijuana (to space-tastic results). As T.J. finds himself increasingly isolated both at home by a family caught up in their own problems and at school where bullies seem to prey off his recent tragedy, he gets increasingly frustrated and eventually lashes out at a nearby housing construction site, throwing a rock through a window… unfortunately for T.J., Hesher’s been squatting in the house.

TJ! Watch out! There's a totally crazy, badass metalhead behind you!!!

From there Hesher descends into a blur of dynamite, lighter fluid, Metallica-worship, and all-around nihilistic mayhem. Gordon-Levitt’s deadpan, dead-serious, and dead-on character study is wholly engrossing: to think an actor usually caught in cardigans on-screen could pull off a long-haired, shirt-ripping, perpetually anarchistic metal-head is utterly fascinating, not only because it defies logic but because Gordon-Levitt does it so well. Beyond the chaotic fun to be had with the eponymous character’s antics, the film also manages to put its heart on display despite the insanity at the centerpiece. As Hesher becomes a forced fixture in T.J.’s life (literally invading his home and going on a personal crusade to terrorize T.J.’s bullies), his pattern of destruction becomes something more along the lines of therapy, allowing T.J. a chance at moving past his mom’s death through learning how to live on his own again.

Nothing quite like rolling your grandma's corpse down a public street to get your spirits up. Thanks Dr. Hesher!

Overall, the film is fantastically realized and darkly hilarious. The cast, which also includes Natalie Portman as the object of T.J.’s ill-directed affections, are all well suited for their roles but rarely push their characters past the narrative moment. Gordon-Levitt, on the other hand, is nothing short of phenomenal: his uninhibited performance leaves a mark you won’t soon forget. A must watch for anyone who’s looking for a little therapeutic chaos in their lives.

Leaving his mark.