Thursday, December 31, 2009

Borrowing a Ouija Board Is Different Than Buying One

I watched Paranormal Activity. My verdict follows this word.

Paranormal Activity (2009)
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat
Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

An even 10 years after The Blair Witch Project offered up a relatively fresh take on the horror genre, Paranormal Activity shows up to alter that formula ever so slightly. Much like the kids in Blair Witch, Katie and Micah find themselves hostage in a seemingly safe environment, and it's a place we can all picture ourselves being in: their home.

We find out early on that Micah and Katie have recently moved into a new home together, and that they've been dating a few years. Everything we see is taken directly from Micah's fancy new camera. It turns out Katie has been having strange things happen to her since she was eight years old, and just recently these incidents have been cropping up again after years of lying dormant. She thinks she has seen strange things and even heard voices. Micah's idea is to place his new camera in their bedroom so that any strange occurrences will be on tape for them to figure out. Katie isn't too fond of the idea, but she eventually lets him have his way.

Without giving too much away, strange things do continue to happen. Katie explains the full story of what she experienced as a child, and she starts to get more and more freaked out as things continue to go bump in the night. Micah, on the other hand, sort of thinks these developments are cool and interesting. He spends most of his free time on his laptop trying to analyze what was caught on camera the night before. He becomes somewhat obsessed, but he doesn't want any help. When a psychic comes over to give the couple some advice, he tells them that he senses an evil presence, and that they should make sure they don't anger it by calling it out (i.e. using a ouija board). Doing so could bring whatever is there into an angry state. Micah feels like he knows what's best for them, so he shuns these words of wisdom and goes on his own path. His bull-headed ways wedge a divide between he and Katie, and as things continue to spiral out of control, they don't even fully have each other to lean on.

Paranormal Activity, much like Blair Witch before it, preys on the viewer's imagination. This movie is scary because of the places it makes each individual mind go, not because it tells the viewer it is. You won't see the big, dumb, bloody scenes that dominate most horror outings these days. You will, however, see plenty of subtle, unnerving images that will make active imaginations drift into some dark places. After all, we can always imagine something far more terrifying than reality. I can certainly see how this film would be a divisive one, though. Those who are more visually-oriented might be bored by all the time the film's makers take in setting everything up and building tension.

Another similarity to Blair Witch lies in the way we view the proceedings. Everything we see is through the lense of Micah's camera. Thankfully, the camera stays mostly steady, so no one is likely to complain of a headache or dizziness like they did when viewing Blair Witch or Cloverfield. The movie also shuns true credits in order to make everything appear to be a documentary about a true event. Of course we know it isn't, but this adds to the "this shit could happen to anyone" aspect the filmmakers were going for. And ultimately, that's what makes horror tick. The viewer needs to be scared for the characters on screen, and that is usually accomplished by putting them in positions that could theoretically happen to anyone. It's for this reason that I'm much more likely to be creeped out by Paranormal Activity than some shitty, blood-soaked mess like Halloween II. While not on par with Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity still holds its own.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Big and Fucking Blue

I'm not talking about some sort of gigantic cookie monster float or anything. I'm talking about Avatar, James Cameron's 37 billion dollar extravaganza complete with 3D glasses and, well, huge blue aliens. Avatar represents the first movie I've ever seen in 3D, so I tried to make sure and not let the visual experience overpower the rest of the film. That said, Cameron himself has gone out of his way to pimp the 3D aspect of Avatar, and he's wise to do so. The visual strengths of the film do exist, so after further consideration, I'm factoring them in.

Avatar (2009)
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi
Rating: 7.0 (out of 10)

While all the hype surrounding Avatar might not be completely accurate, the much-ballyhooed visual effects and 3D wizardry are every bit the spectacle they were promised to be. All the fantastical elements of the film pop with authority in 3D, whether it be an expansive forest that is home to a unique culture, jellyfish-looking beings that float in the sky to signify importance, or even arrows flying through the sky. This movie is certainly a rare example in which all of the money spent to create it shows up in front of the audience. Everything here is just enormous, larger than life.

If only the other aspects of the movie held up quite as well. Avatar, on the surface, is the story of Jake Sully, a marine whose legs have been rendered inoperative after an accident. Following the death of his brother, Jake is given a very unique opportunity, an opportunity that could only occur in the year 2154, which it happens to be. Jake's brother was part of a military program that trained him to live in an avatar resembling the Na'vi, a race of people who inhabit the planet Pandora. Pandora is rich in resources, and of course the good people of Earth have decided it's their right to take them. The avatars are created for deception. Jake's brother was supposed to get to know the Na'vi, earn their trust, and then fuck them over. Jake is recruited to take his brother's place in the aforementioned program due to the similarities in their DNA, and if he succeeds, he is promised an expensive surgery that will allow him to walk again.

Jake's a very gung-ho individual, and it's this enthusiasm that accidentally lands him in harm's way. During his first day on Pandora as an avatar, he winds up having to flee from a giant triceratops-like creature. His escape from one danger leads him to another, as several small predators gang up on Jake, who has no real way to defend himself in an avatar body he isn't familiar with. Fortunately, a Na'vi female named Neytiri rescues him. She quickly figures out that Jake isn't a native, but she senses he is special based on her own intuition and the presence of the floating jellyfish creatures I mentioned earlier. Neytiri introduces Jake to her people, who eventually let him stay in order to learn to become one of them.

Needless to say, the powers that be back on Earth, namely a meathead colonel (Stephen Lang) and a sniveling government asshole (Giovanni Ribisi), are pleased. Now Jake can try to convince the Na'vi to head elsewhere so that the Earth dwellers can nab their bounty of resources. For a while, Jake happily spends his days in Pandora as an avatar, learning everything he can about the Na'vi, and then returns to his human body at night to record video logs and brief everyone on what he has learned. Things get more complicated when Jake begins to fall for Neytiri and the peaceful community she comes from.

The acting in Avatar is fine, but I have to stop there. No one steps up and delivers a memorable performance. Sam Worthington was more impressive in Terminator: Salvation, and it's not like Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi haven't done better. The screenplay gets a little annoying at times, as many characters are forced to say things that come across as lazy and/or contrived. None of this is too big a deal, though, as the movie tends to move quickly past its miscues.

Already being hailed by many critics and fans as an overwhelming cinematic achievement, James Cameron's long-awaited followup to Titanic feels more like a good movie disguised as a great one. While the story is solid enough, it's not even close to original. Jake is sent on a mission to infiltrate a foreign culture, he starts to see their side of things, he falls in love with one of their women, and then he is forced to decided which side of the line he stands on. This has been done plenty of times, most recently in The Last Samurai. The allegorical aspects of Avatar are strong as well, obviously referencing the damage that is constantly being done to the environment around us. All of this is good stuff, but is it groundbreaking? No. The visuals and technological advancements are amazing, but that's where the true acclaim has to end. Avatar is certainly enjoyable, and it doesn't honestly feel too long despite its running time (2 hours and 41 minutes), but it isn't 2009's best movie. It's a good pop song featuring a chord progression you've heard before and expert production.

Avatar's ending was something of a problem for me. The inevitable showdown between the evil Earth folks and the Na'vi looks great, but the direction taken is less than inspired. It seems like there was at least one alternate choice here that could've made things more interesting, and going that direction could've left a bigger emotional thumbprint on the viewer. I don't want to downplay Avatar's quality; most directors would have completely messed this up. I just don't think Cameron's latest should be canonized anytime soon.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New Design

Photographer/drummer/artist/beardface James Phinney said something about the white-on-black situation of this page being difficult on the eyes. Whether or not he was giving me shit, I made a change. You'll notice now that Illogical Compulsion appears as if a flamboyant candy cane exploded all over it. That said, it somehow is easier to read, and it's much easier to discern the words written in bold face. The verdict? I win.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Year's Best: The Top 15 Albums of 2009

How's it going, everyone? I've been extremely busy with the upcoming re-launch of on January 1st (go there/go there/go there), so I haven't really had the time to regularly update here. Then again, regular updates are sort of like my kryptonite. I did make sure to take the time to construct and organize my top 15 albums of 2009, so it's not like I'm a complete asshole. My other big idea is that I intend to revisit the past couple of years to let you guys know my formal top 15 from 2007 and 2008. I also want to do a sweet top 50 of the '00s list. Will I follow through? I might. Anyway, here are my favorite albums from the last year of this decade. I didn't take the time to include album covers, so if you really need that sort of thing, go get it yourself. I'm sick of waiting on you hand and foot.

15. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest

The first time I tried out Veckatimest, I was really pretty bored by the whole experience. I've liked Grizzly Bear since I randomly bought Yellow House a few years ago, but this wasn't really doing it for me. Because I'm stubborn and interested in giving albums a real chance (some of my favorites weren't well-received by yours truly at first), I gave this thing a few more spins and grew to really appreciate it. The songs here are calm and collected, but they're also nuanced and relaxing. "Two Weeks" is the real standout for me, as the chorus is just irresistable. "All We Ask" features a very nice change that makes the song work. Grizzly Bear aren't as exciting as a lot of the other bands featured here, but they're reliable and steady. They're like Mark Buehrle. And that's worth something.

14. Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind EP

I'm going to be the only person in the world who eats up indie music and doesn't have this band's newset full-lenth, Merriweather Post Pavillion, at or near the top of my year-end list. That's okay, though. I'll deal with it. Animal Collective's Fall Be Kind EP is another story. The bizarre instrumentation and enormous sonic soundscape on this five-track release just really took me by surprise. I've always liked Animal Collective, and I realize that this EP is sort of like MPP's little brother, but for some reason the songs here resonate much better with me. I don't know, maybe it's the smaller sample size. "What Would I Want? Sky" is the big winner here, as it really showcases the band's ability to hide irresistable melodies under a wall of effects, a trick that perhaps makes the song stay with the listener much better than it normally would. "I Think I Can" feels like some sort of alien abduction begging for exploration before managing to get even more obtuse. Fall Be Kind EP is really good, and it's really sneaky. Just listen to it half a dozen times and see what happens.

13. Russian Circles: Geneva

I'm not really sure anyone is better at the whole post-rock thing than Russian Circles. They do the whole emotive buildup thing as well as anyone, and they're simply more willing to get mean when they have to. Russian Circles have always been willing to wait around and tinker before doling out a really severe payoff. "Fathom" gets things going by sending chills up the spine and then proceeding to rip the spine out entirely with a smile and a growl. "Geneva" and "Melee" keep the thunder going, while "When the Mountain Comes to Mohammad" sort of creeps me out. Russian Circles aren't one to deviate from their central style, but when they sound this good it's hard to care. The timing and execution on display throughout Geneva is simply first-rate.

12. Built to Spill: There Is No Enemy

Built to Spill and I are developing quite the long, rich history. Perfect From Now On soundtracked a lot of my best and worst moments, Keep It Like A Secret let me get mad, and There's Nothing Wrong With Love reminded me that it's okay to shrug the bullshit off sometimes. So color me surprised that after a pair of good but not inspiring releases this decade, the aging band decided to release There Is No Enemy, something of a return to form. Complete with swirling guitars, epic forays into progressive experimentation, and the occasional perfect three-minute pop song, Enemy is a somewhat lesser version of what this band used to deliver in spades. "Hindsight" uses slide guitar and a great hook to stay firmly between the ears, "Pat" gets its point across in breakneck fashion, and "Things Fall Apart," well, falls apart. Then there's "Tomorrow," a classic album closer. This record sounds like it was made by a band that, while still solid in the meantime, took their collective finger off the auto-pilot button.

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It's Blitz!

It's Blitz! is so inappropriately named. The band's debut, Fever to Tell, was a blitz. Their second effort, the excellent Show Your Bones, was a well-balanced attack. This, however, is sort of a pain killer. This is what you listen to after you spent your day getting run over by the first two albums. Largely absent are the searing guitars, the barking, the overall menace. Instead, we're left with an album full of organs and keys and elegance. And hey, that works too. "Zero" was the first single off the album, and it was an excellent choice. It's activity is carefully controlled but effective, the calm before a storm that never comes. It also really sets the tone for a completely different Yeah Yeah Yeahs record. "Little Shadow" is soothing, while "Hysteric" is anything but its title. It's Blitz! kind of feels like a white flag, a symbol of peace. As good as the album is, I'm sort of hoping the band brings back the war on their next effort.

10. From Monuments to Masses: On Little Known Frequencies

This certainly isn't the best name for a band, or for an album, but since when has that mattered? From Monuments to Masses specialize in sweeping post rock, which of course means things get epic as fuck here and there, and that the drummer can do whatever he wants. "(Millions Of) Individual Factories" starts out with a funky swagger and winds up heaving its heft all over the place like a prize fighter. "An Ounce of Prevention" covers just about every turn one could hope for, while "Checksum" eschews grace. All of this combines with spoken word samples that are almost eerie at times. Here's to hoping we hear more from these guys.

09. Girls: Album

I really didn't expect much from Album despite all its glowing reviews and happy hype. Most music described as "sun-soaked summer music" sounds terrible and boring to me. I've been so disappointed by those adjectives in the past that I've been conditioned to simply think the words must have a different meaning to me than they do others. Girls get it right though, as Album gives me a wistful feeling that I'm not often struck by. Opening track "Lust For Life" is just so jangly and lively, while "Laura" is sad and lamenting underneath its harmonies. The songwriting here is top-notch, and the little things don't go unnoticed. The vocals are so distant on "God Damned" that you can feel the whole thing just sort of slipping away. "Big Bad Mean Motherfucker" sounds like what might happen if the Beach Boys all lost their minds and started punching holes in doors. "Hellhole Ratrace" oozes hazed-out beauty while reminding the listener that being a sadsack really isn't fucking worth it. If this is summery pop music, then sign me up. Otherwise, I'll be listening to what winter has to offer.

08. Atlas Sound: Logos

Atlas Sound main man Bradford Cox is that emaciated little bastard you always see on all of the indie web sites. He sings for Deerhunter as well, and all accolades aside, this guy can really craft a song. Cox is known primarily for his work with Deerhunter, but his songs on Logos are impressive in their own right. Electronic effects hum and circle the listener while Cox plays beautiful guitar-driven melodies and coos his sweet, sweet harmonies. Right from the start, Logos feels like a dream. "The Light That Failed" feels like the soundtrack to a tender moment in Six Feet Under, while "An Orchid" is just achingly beautiful, some sort of fucked up lovechild of Elliott Smith and Animal Collective. Reverb is all over the vocals here, but the guitars and electronic effects are right up front. It's as if Cox's words feel too damaged to rival his music. This approach works well, as Logos produces some truly goosebump-inducing moments.

07. Mastodon: Crack the Skye

This isn't Blood Mountain, my hindsight pick for Album of the Year 2006, but then again, what the fuck is? Crack the Skye makes no apoligies for itself, using truly unusual symoblism and insane riffing to push past what anyone could reasonably have expected for a followup to such a great record. "Oblivion" and "Divinations" chug and pummel along, paving the way for "The Czar" to unravel. Everything here is excellent, but it all sort of feels like its a warmup for "The Last Baron," a complete mindfuck of a barrage that jumps all over the place and honestly leaves the listener feeling a little bit tired. Mastodon isn't quite as brutal on Skye as they have been in the past, but the chops are most certainly still in place, and the future is bright. For a full review of Crack the Skye, check this site's April archive.

06. Cymbals Eat Guitars: Why There Are Mountains

I feel kind of silly saying this, because basically every review of this album I've read has already said it, but Why There Are Mountains does a phenomenal job of capturing the energy and excitment of the early work of some of indie rock's elderstatesmen. While not really sounding the same, Cymbals Eat Guitars manage to hearken back to the day when Modest Mouse or Built to Spill would just lose their shit and give everything they had to a song, whether it was practical or not. The vocals get intentionally sloppy and impassioned, the guitars shriek in all the right places, and the musical sensibility is impeccable. "...And the Hazy Sea" starts the album out on such a high note that there isn't really much of anywhere to go but down; this is a truly awesome song that I really can't get enough of. Fortunately, the fall down to the bouncy "Some Trees" isn't far, and "Indiana" impresses as well. I really had fun listening to this the first time, and I still do.

05. The xx: xx

The first album from The xx, appropriately titled xx, sort of looms above like a big, black crow. The bass lines are scarily dark and clear, while the lead instruments chime and prod. This is an indie pop record stripped of all its happiness, a sad but hopeful experience. The xx don't seem to feel all that playful, but they're wishing that better days lie ahead. This band employs a pair of singers, one male and one female, and neither of them ever stretches for anything above basic range. It just wouldn't make sense on songs this subdued and focused. "VCR" acts like it's going to eventually bring the joy, but it doesnt ever bother. "Crystalised" is a fantastic track that uses its lead guitar part to string the listener along a bumpy road. "Islands" shifts gears late for a nice but not obvious emotional payoff, while songs like "Infinity" and "Stars" leave a lot of sonic room for interpretation. The production here is crazy crisp, and repeat listens don't ever lessen the experience.

04. Japandroids: Post-Nothing

Technically amazing music always makes me raise my eyebrows, but something like Post-Nothing (which is well-played; I don't want to give the wrong impression) does a little more for me. Japandroids deal in fuzz, feel, and vocals that sound like they're recorded by a guy who's just sort of letting it all out in the other room. This band isn't afraid to let songs take their time to unravel, and they spread the duration of their debut over just eight tracks. "Young Hearts Spark Fire" is sort of gorgeous without trying to be, "Crazy/Forever" is brilliant in its simplicity and universal appeal, and "I Quit Girls" is an exercise in blunt frustration. Everything about these songs is big, whether it be the guitars, the cymbal crashes, the raw themes, or the shouting. I was a little thrown off by Post-Nothing upon first listen, but after a couple more it was clear to me that Japandroids had done something memorable.

03. Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Phoenix fall into one of my wheelhouses. They make hook-laden pop music with electronic leanings, and they do so with varying song structures and unique vocal ideas. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is really fucking great, with the opening couple "Lisztomania" and "1901" probably representing the album's early pinnacle. Both these tracks are instantly catchy, but it's not until several listens later that the full quality of the songwriting becomes entirely evident. "Love Like a Sunset Pt. 2" is a beautiful and abbreviated measure in open space and anticipation, while "Countdown (Sick for the Big Sun)" gets back to clawing its way to the center of the senses. Phoenix is as capable a band as there is at making worthwhile pop music, and I can't wait to see where they head from here.

02. Baroness: Blue Record

Baroness is so badass. I love Red Album to death, but I like Blue Record more. Still mired in southern animosity, Baroness bring some new elements to the table this time around. Yeah, the dual guitars still crunch and blare like hammers and sirens, but the song structures here seriously have something of a pop sensibility about them. Baroness just doesn't give a fuck what you think, MetalFan88. There are moments of honest-to-God quiet here, with desperate vocals somehow in the forefront. There are catchy riffs masked with spite and venom, but made of candy underneath. I don't know if this is just me, but I sort of feel like Blue Record is turning some sort of genre-bending corner. If I don't get lazy/busy, I intend to post a proper and full review of this one later on.

01. Sunset Rubdown: Dragonslayer

So I like most everything Spencer Krug does with Wolf Parade, but I had never really taken the time to listen to Sunset Rubdown for any meaningful length of time until Dragonslayer came out. This is progressive pop at its finest. Bizarre changes happen with regularity, great vocal harmonies come out of nowhere, screeching electric guitar bursts come at you from the bushes. It's just a lot of fun to listen to. Opener "Silver Moons" is plenty exciting right up until a change near the end that really makes the song. "Idiot Heart" follows this game plan as well, while "Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!" uses a beautiful guitar line to lead into alternating male and female cries that work immensely well. Then there's "Black Swan" with its starts and stops, its silence and its loudness. My favorite, though, is probably "You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)," which uses a silly but infectious keyboard intro to propel itself into an epic, unforgettable climax. It's always nice to get taken back this much by a record I wasn't even particularly anticipating before the year began. I'd wager that this is the collection of songs I returned to most often over the past year.

Anyone want to disagree? If so, send me a list and I'll post it here. Please do it. I'm lonely.