Malik Bendjelloul:"Searching for Sugar Man" (2011)

Searching for Sugar Man
Two South African music lovers embark on a mission to uncover the fate of an obscure, 1970s-era U.S. rocker whose debut album became a surprise hit in their home country, and uncover a shocking secret along the way. Sixto Diaz Rodriguez had the kind of musical career that every aspiring rock star fears -- lauded by critics but ignored by the public, he released two albums before unceremoniously disappearing from the spotlight. But while sales of Rodriguez's debut CD Cold Fact fell flat in the U.S., overseas in Australia and South Africa, the fans couldn't get enough. In apartheid-torn South Africa in particular, Cold Fact became something of an anti-establishment classic, eventually going platinum. Later, rumors began to swirl that Rodriguez had suffered a horrible death. When Rodriguez's second album Coming From Reality makes it's belated debut in South Africa, a pair of devoted fans take it upon themselves to uncover the facts surrounding the mysterious musician, and get the surprise of a lifetime while attempting to track the profits from his record sales.

Big Star:"Third/Sister Lovers" (1978)

Big Star Third/Sister Lovers
A shambling wreck of an album, Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers ranks among the most harrowing experiences in pop music; impassioned, erratic, and stark, it's the slow, sinking sound of a band falling apart. Recorded with their label, Stax, poised on the verge of bankruptcy, the album finds Alex Chilton at the end of his rope, sabotaging his own music long before it can ever reach the wrecking crew of poor distribution, indifferent marketing, and disinterested pop radio. His songs are haphazardly brilliant, a head-on collision between inspiration and frustration, and the album is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, each song smacking of utter defeat and desperation. The result is either one of the most vividly emotional experiences in pop music or a completely wasted opportunity. While the truth probably lies somewhere in between, there's no denying Third's magnetic pull -- it's like an undertow. Originally appearing under the name 3rd on PVC Records in 1978, Rykodisc's 1992 release is the initially definitive edition of this unfinished masterpiece, its 19 tracks most closely approximating the original planned running order while restoring the music's intended impact. In addition to unearthing a blistering cover of the Kinks' "At the End of the Day" and a haunting rendition of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy," it also appends the disturbing "Dream Lover," which distills the album's messiest themes into less than four minutes of psychic torment.


Pavement:"Brighten the Corners" (1997)

Pavement Brighten the Corners
There's a difference between accessibility and focus, which Pavement illustrate with their fourth album, Brighten the Corners. Arriving on the heels of the glorious mess of Wowee Zowee, the cohesive sound and laid-back sarcasm of Brighten the Corners can give the record the illusion of being accessible, or at the very least a retreat toward the songcraft of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. And the record is calm, with none of the full-out blasts of noise that marked all of their previous releases. It would be easy to dismiss the absence of noise as mere maturity, or a move toward more accessible songcraft, but neither statement is entirely true. Brighten the Corners is mature but wise-assed, melodic but complex -- it's a record that reveals its gifts gradually, giving you enough information the first time to make you want come back for more. At first, the dissonant singsong verse of "Stereo" seems awkward, but it's all pulled into perspective with the gleeful, addictive outburst of the chorus, and that is a microcosm of the album's appeal. The first time around, the winding melody of "Shady Lane," the psycho jangle pop of "Date With Ikea," the epic grace of "Type Slowly," and the speedy rush of "Embassy Row" make an impression, but repeated listens reveal sonic and lyrical details that make them indelible. Similarly, Stephen Malkmus' hip-hop inflections on "Blue Hawaiian" and the quiet beauty of "Transport Is Arranged" unfold over time. While the preponderance of slow songs and laid-back production makes the album more focused than Wowee Zowee, it doesn't have the rich diversity of its predecessor -- "Type Slowly" comes closest to the grand, melancholic beauty of "Grounded" -- but it remains a thoroughly compelling listen.

Jonas Ã…kerlund:"Spun" (2002)

Spun (2002)
A crystal-meth addict struggles to get his next fix as he obsesses over a recent breakup in Spun, a black-comic drug drama from music video director Jonas Akerlund. Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman stars as Ross, a young man who finds his maniacal world crumbling around him over the course of one long weekend. Spun chronicles Ross' travails as he tries to score from his regular dealer, Spider Mike (John Leguizamo), who realizes during Ross' visit that he's misplaced his stash. Indisposed by the frantic drug search, Spider Mike's girlfriend, Cookie (Mena Suvari), enlists Ross to pick up her stripper friend Nikki (Brittany Murphy) from work, and when he grudgingly agrees, he learns that Nikki might have an inside line on some of her own speed, courtesy of The Cook (Mickey Rourke). Meanwhile, two bumbling cops are onto Spider Mike's trail, and in his paranoid-delusional state, he sets out to find out who set him up. Spun premiered at the 2002 CineVegas Film Festival before securing berths at the Sundance, Toronto, and South by Southwest festivals.


Gordon Parks:"Shaft" (1971)

Shaft (1971)
Richard Roundtree cuts a startlingly new and powerful heroic figure as John Shaft, "the cat who won't cop out, when there's danger all about" in Gordon Parks' seminal action film, Shaft. John Shaft is a black private eye with a small office near Times Square. On his way there one day, he gets pumped for information by Lt. Victor Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), a friend of his on the police force, about something big going down in Harlem involving black crime kingpin Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn). Shaft can't help him and leaves, only to just miss being waylaid by two of Bumpy's strong-arm men at his office, one of whom ends up dead on the pavement eight floors or so below. Squeezed by the cops, who are holding a potential manslaughter arrest over his head, Shaft contacts Bumpy, who reveals that his teenage daughter, whom he's always kept away from his business, has been kidnapped. There's been no ransom demand and no clue as to who did it, and he wants Shaft to find the culprits, insisting that he start with a group of Harlem-based black militants led by Shaft's onetime friend Ben Buford (Christopher St. John). No sooner does he find Buford, holed up in a decaying part of Harlem, however, than his friend's comrades are mowed down by submachine gun fire, and Shaft and Buford barely escape. With Shaft angry and out for blood, everyone is forced to come clean -- Bumpy knows that it's the Mafia that kidnapped his daughter, as they want in on the Harlem drug trade that he controls; they're holding her somewhere else outside of Harlem, where his men are no good to him, which is why he wanted Shaft to hook up with Buford. Androzzi tells Shaft that a dozen Mob trigger men from out of town have been spotted in Greenwich Village. He doesn't know why they're there, but he does know that if fighting breaks out between Bumpy's men and the Mafia, it's going to look like a race war, and the whole city could erupt. Shaft doesn't like the way he's been manipulated, but he sees Androzzi's point -- he links the trigger men to the kidnapping and finds the girl, but loses her again, getting shot in the process. Even though he's wounded, Shaft heads for a final confrontation with the kidnappers, supported by Ben's friends in an armed assault on the building where they're holed up.

Isaac Hayes:"Hot Buttered Soul" (1969)

Isaac Hayes Hot Buttered Soul
Released at the tail end of the '60s, Hot Buttered Soul set the precedent for how soul would evolve in the early '70s, simultaneously establishing Isaac Hayes and the Bar-Kays as major forces within black music. Though not quite as definitive as Black Moses or as well-known as Shaft, Hot Buttered Soul remains an undeniably seminal record; it stretched its songs far beyond the traditional three-to-four-minute industry norm, featured long instrumental stretches where the Bar-Kays stole the spotlight, and it introduced a new, iconic persona for soul with Hayes' tough yet sensual image. With the release of this album, Motown suddenly seemed manufactured and James Brown a bit too theatrical. Surprising many, the album features only four songs. The first, "Walk on By," is an epic 12-minute moment of true perfection, its trademark string-laden intro just dripping with syrupy sentiment, and the thumping mid-tempo drum beat and accompanying bassline instilling a complementary sense of nasty funk to the song; if that isn't enough to make it an amazing song, Hayes' almost painful performance brings yet more feeling to the song, with the guitar's heavy vibrato and the female background singers taking the song to even further heights. The following three songs aren't quite as stunning but are still no doubt impressive: "Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic" trades in sappy sentiment for straight-ahead funk, highlighted by a stomping piano halfway through the song; "One Woman" is the least epic moment, clocking in at only five minutes, but stands as a straightforward, well-executed love ballad; and finally, there's the infamous 18-minute "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and its lengthy monologue which slowly eases you toward the climactic, almost-orchestral finale, a beautiful way to end one of soul's timeless, landmark albums, the album that transformed Hayes into a lifelong icon.


Girls Season 2 review

Hannah Horvath is getting her act together. If she can.
Hannah, the twentysomething heroine of Girls (played by the show’s creator, writer and director Lena Dunham) spent much of the HBO comedy’s first season alienating every person in her life — including many of the viewers who didn’t see the appeal of a show built around a young narcissist fumbling her way through the world. By the season’s end, she had chased away her best friend Marnie (Allison Williams), her boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) and was alone on the beach at Coney Island, with a piece of wedding cake her only companion. 
As we enter the second season (it debuts Sunday at 9), Hannah has gotten off the sand and attempted to break with bad old patterns. She’s in a new relationship with Sandy (Donald Glover from “Community”) and declares, "I'm going to make logical and responsible decisions when it comes to you." With Marnie moved out, Hannah is now living with gay ex-boyfriend Elijah (Andrew Rannells from “The New Normal”) and taking on airs of maturity and worldliness.
Of course, these airs tend to only betray her ignorance. — when Elijah says he wants to turn their party into a French salon, Hannah replies, "I've always felt I was secretly really good at cutting hair” — because what fun would “Girls” be if Hannah stopped being an epic screw-up?
The new episodes occasionally nod to some of last year’s criticism. Donald Glover seems there partially in response to the complaints that this was a very lily-white cross-section of Brooklyn — but also because Donald Glover is fantastic and fits seamlessly into this world — and in a marvelously uncomfortable scene in the second episode, he gets to give voice to the viewers who find Hannah (and her world) vacuous and narcissistic.
But there’s a difference between a character who’s oblivious and spoiled, and a show that is. And what continues to be clear about “Girls” is that it is incredibly smart and knowing — and, even more than last season, funny — in how it depicts the many ways that Hannah and friends inadvertently wind up hurting each other. 
Take Elijah, for instance. The performance Rannells is giving here isn’t too far removed from what he’s doing on “New Normal.” The difference is that “New Normal” doesn’t seem to realize that his character comes across as an obnoxious brat, while “Girls” not only knows it, but embraces it. The new season’s third episode has Hannah agreeing to use cocaine for the first time for a website writing assignment, with Elijah along for the ride. The episode starts out as farce, and an illustration of how Elijah’s presence encourages all of Hannah’s worst instincts, but like the best “Girls” installments, it’s capable of turning on a dime and getting to a great emotional truth about its characters.

The second season digs deeper into the relationship between Hannah’s fellow barista Ray (Alex Karpovsky) and her neurotic friend Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) in a way that humanizes Shoshanna without taking away the raw comic energy Mamet brings to the role. The most pleasant surprise of last season was the role reversal between Adam and Hannah, where at first their relationship made her look bad for wanting to be around this disgusting oaf before our sympathies pivoted and we began to wonder why he was with her. Season 2 brings with it another shift, and an opportunity for Adam Driver to continue giving one of the more memorable, strange performances in all of TV comedy. And though the impulsive marriage of Hannah’s obnoxiously bohemian pal Jessa (Jemima Kirke) to a wealthy Wall Street type still feels slightly out of key with the rest of the series, it inspires a great set piece where she gets to meet her husband’s horrified parents, played by character actors Griffin Dunne and Deborah Rush.

But the drawing card remains Dunham, who’s only grown more confident as both a writer and actress. She’s more aware of what she can get away with having the characters say and do, but there’s even more vulnerability and more bite to her performance, as well as a greater willingness to go for physical comedy.
It takes an enormous amount of talent to make a show about a character this annoying be this watchable, and funny, and touching. Fortunately, Dunham has that kind of talent. “Girls” was one of the best shows on television last year, and based on the first four episodes, it has a good jump on the competition for 2013. 
 By Alan Sepinwall

David Fincher:"Fight Club" (1999)

Fight Club
In this darkly comic drama, Edward Norton stars as a depressed young man (named in the credits only as "Narrator") who has become a small cog in the world of big business. He doesn't like his work and gets no sense of reward from it, attempting instead to drown his sorrows by putting together the "perfect" apartment. He can't sleep and feels alienated from the world at large; he's become so desperate to relate to others that he's taken to visiting support groups for patients with terminal diseases so that he'll have people to talk to. One day on a business flight, he discovers Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a charming iconoclast who sells soap. Tyler doesn't put much stock in the materialistic world, and he believes that one can learn a great deal through pain, misfortune, and chaos. Tyler cheerfully challenges his new friend to a fight. Our Narrator finds that bare-knuckle brawling makes him feel more alive than he has in years, and soon the two become friends and roommates, meeting informally to fight once a week. As more men join in, the "fight club" becomes an underground sensation, even though it's a closely guarded secret among the participants. (First rule: Don't talk about fight club. Second rule: Don't talk about fight club.) But as our Narrator and Tyler bond through violence, a strange situation becomes more complicated when Tyler becomes involved with Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), whom our Narrator became infatuated with when they were both crashing the support-group circuit. Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club was directed by David Fincher, who previously directed Pitt in the thriller Seven.

The Slits:"Cut" (1979)

The Slits Cut
Almost as well-known for its cover (the three Slits are half-naked and covered in mud) as for its music, Cut is an ebullient piece of post-punk mastery that finds the Slits' interest in Caribbean and African rhythms smoothly incorporated into their harsher punk rock stylings. Ari Up's wandering voice (a touch like Yoko Ono) might be initially off-putting, but not so much so that it makes listening to the record difficult. Six tracks are revamped from earlier Peel Sessions and sound better for the extra effort (especially "New Town" and "Love und Romance"). With its goofy charm, gleeful swing and sway, and subtle yet compelling libertarian feminism, this is one of the best records of the era.


Alfred Hitchcock:"North by Northwest" (1959)

North by Northwest (1959)
While having lunch at the Plaza Hotel, advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) has the bad luck to stand up just as a "George Kaplan" is being paged. From this point on, Thornhill's life is turned upside down. He is abducted by three mysterious men and whisked away to the palatial home of enemy spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Denying that his name is Kaplan, Thornhill is at a complete loss when Vandamm begins grilling him for information. Finally, Thornhill is forcibly intoxicated, tossed into a car, and sent careening down a treacherous mountain road. He escapes this death trap only by attracting the attention of a couple of cops in a squad car, but must bring the car to a sudden halt, and is promptly rear-ended by the car and arrested for drunk driving. Unable to persuade the law that his stories of kidnappings and enemy agents is true -- he can't even convince his own mother (Jesse Royce Landis) -- Thornhill takes the cops back to the mansion where he was held prisoner, only to find that Vandamm and company have cleared out, and that the house is really owned by United Nations ambassador Lester Townsend (Philip Ober). Tracking down Townsend at the UN building, Thornhill tries to get the man's attention -- whereupon Townsend is knifed to death, and the nonplussed Thornhill left holding the weapon. Now a fugitive from justice, Thornhill tries to escape via train. En route, he meets the cooly beautiful Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who graciously hides him from the police. The apotheosis of Alfred Hitchcock's Hollywood career, North by Northwest is fast, funny, and exciting. The film contains far too many highlights to detail in this limited space; standout bits include the crop-duster dusting where there aren't any crops, the riotous auction scene, and, of course, that nail-biting Mount Rushmore finale.

The Pogues:"Rum Sodomy & the Lash" (1985)

The Pogues Rum Sodomy & the Lash
"I saw my task... was to capture them in their delapidated glory before some more professional producer f--ked them up," Elvis Costello wrote of his role behind the controls for the Pogues' second album, Rum Sodomy & the Lash. One spin of the album proves that Costello accomplished his mission; this album captures all the sweat, fire, and angry joy that was lost in the thin, disembodied recording of the band's debut, and the Pogues sound stronger and tighter without losing a bit of their edge in the process. Rum Sodomy & the Lash also found Shane MacGowan growing steadily as a songwriter; while the debut had its moments, the blazing and bitter roar of the opening track, "The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn," made it clear MacGowan had fused the intelligent anger of punk and the sly storytelling of Irish folk as no one had before, and the rent boys' serenade of "The Old Main Drag" and the dazzling, drunken character sketch of "A Pair of Brown Eyes" proved there were plenty of directions where he could take his gifts. And like any good folk group, the Pogues also had a great ear for other people's songs. Bassist Cait O'Riordan's haunting performance of "I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day" is simply superb (it must have especially impressed Costello, who would later marry her), and while Shane MacGowan may not have written "Dirty Old Town" or "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," his wrought, emotionally compelling vocals made them his from then on. Rum Sodomy & the Lash falls just a bit short of being the Pogues best album, but was the first one to prove that they were a great band, and not just a great idea for a band.


Quentin Tarantino:"Django Unchained" (2012)

Django Unchained (2012)
A former slave and a German bounty hunter become unlikely allies in the battle against a tyrannical plantation owner in this western from visionary director Quentin Tarantino. Two years before the Civil War pits brother-against-brother, German-born fugitive hunter Dr. King Schultz (Academy Award-winner Christoph Waltz) arrives in America determined to capture the outlaw Brittle brothers dead or alive. In the midst of his search, Dr. Schultz crosses paths with Django (Academy Award-winner Jamie Foxx), a freed slave and skilled tracker who seeks to rescue his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie (Academy Award-nominee Leonardo DiCaprio). Once Django has aided Dr. Schultz in coralling the Brittle brothers, the two team up to capture some of the most wanted men in the South. Meanwhile, Django never loses sight of his mission to free Broomhilda from the treacherous slave trade before it's too late. Upon arriving at Candie's nefarious plantation, dubbed Candyland, Django and Dr. Schultz discover that slaves are being groomed for gladiator-like competitions by Candie's malevolent right-hand man Billy Crash (Walton Goggins), and together they skillfully work their way onto the compound for a closer look. But just as Django and his partner locate Broomhilda and plot a daring escape, Candie's house slave Stephen (Academy Award-nominee Samuel L. Jackson) catches wind of their plan, and informs his master of the betrayal. Now, as a clandestine organization attempts to back them into a corner, Django and Dr. Schultz will have to come out with pistols blazing if they ever hope to free Broomhilda from Candyland and the clutches of its vile proprietor.

The xx :"Coexist" (2012)

The xx Coexist
In the years between their debut and Coexist, the xx's sound took on a life of its own, thanks in large part to Drake's hit duet with Rihanna, "Take Care," which sampled Jamie Smith's collaboration with Gil Scott Heron, We're New Here. That single embodied and popularized the xx's aesthetic to such a degree that on first listen, Coexist can sound like demos for a potential follow-up. In turn, these songs lay the trio's R&B roots bare, with an extra emphasis on that last word: while second albums are where bands usually add more elements to their sound to keep things interesting, the xx go even darker and sparer than they were on their debut, which was pretty sparse and dark to begin with. On the lovely album opener "Angels," elegantly serpentine guitars -- which recalled the Cure and Durutti Column on xx but are now entirely their own -- echo into spectral shadows, and fragments of beats and melodies hang unresolved in the air, surrounded by vast expanses of nothingness. Any track here makes "Basic Space" or "Crystalised" sound like an Arcade Fire song by comparison, but the xx walk the fine line between minimalism and incomplete-sounding confidently. All that silence throws the album's subtle sounds into sharp relief, highlighting the luminous keyboards and percussion on "Try" and "Tides"' undulating bassline more effectively than cranking up the volume on them would have. Coexist's barely-there arrangements mean that singers Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft do most of the heavy lifting, but they're both more than capable of carrying the album's intimacy and humanity. While their solo tracks show how much both of them have grown as singers since xx, Sim in particular has become more polished and emotive, sounding even sadder and more seductive on "Fiction" when he sighs "last night the world was beneath us." However, Coexist's heart lies in Sim and Madley Croft's duets. The pair sounds more entwined than ever, and whether they're close together in Coexist's vast spaces, as on "Our Song"'s final glimmer of hope, or separated by them, as on "Chained," they share an intimacy that makes listeners feel like they're eavesdropping. But while there's no question that this album is more accomplished than xx, it's also less accessible; these songs just aren't as immediate as the band's debut, and at times, these tales of love gone wrong or gone away threaten to become repetitive. Still, there are so many moments of spine-tingling beauty, such as the way "Reunion" blends almost imperceptibly into "Sunset," or Madley Croft and Sim's shared sigh on "Unfold," that they're worth a little patience from the listener. Coexist's exploration of isolation and intimacy is demanding and rewarding in its bold subtlety and eloquent simplicity.

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