PM Pick

Fall Movie Highlights

Colin Covert - Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Burn After Reading (opens Friday): After their moody Oscar triumph No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers let their hair down with this spoofy crime farce. Two dimwitted Washington gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) try to blackmail a CIA agent (John Malkovich) for the return of a CD-ROM containing his memoirs. The duo treat their scheme more like a prank than a felony until the misanthropic spy gives them a violent taste of reality. Tilda Swinton plays the spook's irritable, unfaithful wife, George Clooney is her bumbling lover, and J.K. Simmons is an incompetent intelligence czar.

Ghost Town: After a near-death experience, testy New York dentist Bertram Pincus sees dead people and finds they're just as needy and pushy as the living. One pesky spirit wants him to break up the planned marriage between his widow and a dull suitor, and when Bertram falls for the lovely, intelligent woman, he enlists the ghost's help to chase her himself. On paper, it looks formulaic, but there's a raft of solid talent involved, from Ricky Gervais (of the BBC's The Office) in his leading-man debut to writer/director David Koepp (one of Steven Spielberg's favorite collaborators) to Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni as the ghost and his former wife. (Opens Sept. 19.)

Lakeview Terrace: In this racially charged thriller, a black LAPD officer (Samuel L. Jackson) takes increasingly threatening action to force out the mixed-race couple (Kerry Washington, Patrick Wilson) who move in next door. Director Neil LaBute delivers excruciating suspense as the feud escalates to dangerous violence. It's also observant about subtleties of discrimination and powerfully acted. Jackson seems to have taken a lesson from Denzel Washington's bad cop Oscar performance in Training Day. He's scary, ferocious, cunning and treacherous. (Sept. 19.)

W: Oliver Stone and politics go together like kitchen matches and kerosene. His quick, low-budget biopic of our commander in chief is guaranteed to be a partisan broadside; I'm hoping it'll be shamelessly entertaining, too. With a lawn-lacerating car accident, boozing and a brawl between young George and his dad, the trailer could pass for an Adam Sandler comedy. Josh Brolin takes the title role, but I'm most eager to see that irrepressible hambone Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney. (Oct. 24.)

Synecdoche, New York: From its obscure, tongue-twisting title to its reality-warping narrative, nothing in Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut takes the easy route. The story is a fable about creativity, imagination and aging, told through the life of a theater director creating an epic play on a lifesize set of New York City. The ever-astounding Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the lead, with a starry cavalcade including Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Hope Davis as the perplexing women in his life. Coming from the quirky Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), it's certain to be arty, elegant and more twisted than a barrel of pretzels. (Oct. 24.)

Zack and Miri Make a Porno: The new wave of raunchy-but-nice comedy reportedly ratchets up a few notches with the latest from a writer/director famous for his crude wit, Kevin Smith (Clerks). Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks star as longtime friends who decide to fill their empty bank accounts by shooting a blue movie in Pittsburgh with local amateur talent. While the film doesn't quite deliver on its title (it's rated R), it's definitely rude. The late George Carlin, one of Smith's mentors, would be delighted at the tone of salacious silliness. (Oct. 31.)

Quantum of Solace: The latest James Bond adventure reportedly takes off 20 minutes after the finale of Casino Royale, with 007 on a personal vendetta to punish everyone responsible for the death of his beloved Vesper Lynd. The trail leads Bond (Daniel Craig) to a ruthless businessman (Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) making a grab for Latin America's natural resources. If the film continues in the cool, high-energy path of its predecessor, the 22nd in the Bond series could be the movie that gets everyone to stop talking about The Dark Knight. (Nov. 14.)

The Soloist: Sometimes you have to get past the synopsis and put your faith in the talent. A disillusioned journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) befriends a schizophrenic, homeless musical prodigy (Jamie Foxx) who dreams of performing at L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Also on hand are Catherine Keener and Stephen Root, director Joe Wright (Atonement) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich). My fingers are crossed that this one will avoid Hallmark Channel schmaltz and soar to multiple-Oscar glory. (Nov. 21.)

Australia: No surfing, Foster's beer or glamour shots of the Sydney Opera House here. It's a historical-romantic saga from hipster auteur Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge). An English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman) who has inherited a huge cattle station recruits a rough-hewn stockman (Hugh Jackman) to drive 2,000 head across hundreds of miles of near-impassable terrain. There's high-society dancing, courtship and ferocious aerial attacks from Japanese dive-bombers as World War II erupts. (Nov. 26.)

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.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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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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