Reviews

'Cyrus': Less is Sometimes More

Benefiting greatly from its mumblecore medium, Cyrus finds its charm in its minimalist approach to filmmaking.


Cyrus

Director: Jay and Mark Duplass
Cast: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei
Length: 91 minutes
Studio: Scott Free Productions
Year: 2010
Distributor: Fox
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual material
Release Date: 2010-12-14

Easily the most commercially friendly film of the budding mumblecore movement, Cyrus only managed a little more than $7 million at the box office this summer. As a movie fan that follows every dollar spent on his favorite and least favorite films, I’m about to stray a bit from my past proclamations and say that’s OK. It’s OK that the Duplass’ brothers third feature film failed to connect with the wide audience it deserves. It’s OK that American audiences chose to spend more of their hard-earned dollars on Grown Ups, The Last Airbender and yes, even Jonah Hex. Why this exception to my fiscally relevant rule? Cyrus is actually better-suited for the small screen.

That, too, actually violates another personal rule (every movie is better in theaters), but Cyrus is all about breaking with convention. From its highly improvised script to its casually crafted shots, Mark and Jay Duplass have created a joyfully simple mini-masterpiece. The plot is familiar, but is usually relegated to a side story instead of a feature’s focus. Man meets woman. Man loves woman. Man meets woman’s son. Man does not love woman’s son (and vica versa). Problems ensue. The Dupli and their wonderful cast create vibrant, emotionally compelling characters out of what could have been shoddy characterizations, and (as a writer, I hate to admit this) it’s at least in part because of the chosen production aesthetic.

Mumblecore, an American-bred independent filmmaking technique marked by low-budget productions and largely improvised scripts, is a relatively new medium without a break out film to hang its hat on – yet. Cyrus, with its warm, highly relatable message and professional pedigree, could still be that film despite its lack of monetary support. Normally, with mini-budgeted films, it’s the shoddy production value a wide audience has to overcome. Not many people enjoy attached shadows, natural lighting, and digital video. Mark and Jay Duplass don’t ask them to – they force them. Each jostle, zoom, and any other hand-held identifier are carefully timed and executed to make you forget they even exist. Instead of walking out nauseous and dazed, I doubt many will remember anything but a warm fuzzy feeling.

This internal glow is helped along by some terrific turns from John C. Reilly (who has really upped his game in the past decade), Marisa Tomei (always in top form), and Jonah Hill (surprise!). Reilly turns down the comedic shtick he’s been somewhat successfully hawking since Talladega Nights, but still produces plenty of chuckles. Perhaps peaking in an early drunken sing-a-long scene, Reilly inhabits John (the character’s name) with both backbone and heart. Never too stern, never too silly, John is the perfect companion for Molly, a single mother who’s focused on her son her whole life. Long enough, actually, as we find Molly in desperate need of third-party intervention. John, a bit of an attention-whore himself, happily jumps into the mother-son duo’s odd bonding sessions only to soon find he may have moved in a little early.

Cyrus (Hill) is superlatively captured as always a day shy of too far gone. He’s surprisingly smart, constantly scheming, and devilishly pitting John and Molly against one another to earn back his mother’s sole affection. His Achilles’ heal is his inability to function outside this extremely limited world, and it comes back to bite him in some deep ways. Hill captures Cyrus’ simultaneous luster and insanity with an extraordinary amount of realism. At first, he seems a little off but still a sweet kid. Then the layers start to peel, and the illusion is shattered. Reilly and Hill’s ensuing battle of wits never leaves the realm of possibility, but is just as side-splitting as anything found in more mainstream movies (think Will Ferrell vs. Reilly in Step Brothers and Talladega Nights, but with intelligence and subtlety).

The one drawback to this otherwise wonderful DVD is an almost absent bonus features section. Only two deleted scenes are included, and, though good, they hardly cover everything surrounding this unique production. Mark and Jay provide detailed introductions for both scenes with legitimate explanations why they were cut from the final film and why they were included as bonus content for curious viewers. The first scene is engaging, funny, and pretty creative. The second is rough, touching, and a little bit too much, and both are explained away adequately the directing pair. I don’t understand why there aren’t more outtakes, alternate scenes, or extended cuts in a movie filled with improvisation, though. The disc also could have benefitted from a directors’ commentary track, a fact made more evident by the clear and solicitous manner in which the two brothers discuss their film before the deleted scenes.

Perhaps the Duplass brothers expect their little film to make it big, and thus excluded a lot of content in favor of waiting for the inevitable special edition a few years from now. If so, I truly hope Cyrus finds the audience it deserves and fast. It’s a wonderful film and a testament to what future gems the mumblecore movement can produce. If only it had the extras to match its main feature. After all, what good is a movie best made for home viewing if it doesn’t have a DVD package worthy of its pedigree? I guess it really was better in theaters. My bad.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

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8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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