Lissie’s “Back to Forever”: Album review

Lissie’s second studio album, “Back to Forever,” is not quite at the level of her incredible debut, but there are still plenty of driving and catchy songs on here, while a certain Fleetwood Mac feeling is much stronger here than previously. There’s definitely an 80s radio pop ballad element at work, and it works very well. Stand-out tracks include “Shameless” and “Cold Fish.”

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Sylvain Neuvel’s “Sleeping Giants”: Book review

A decently entertaining read by an author who has certainly immersed himself in mythological and ufological material, 2016’s “Sleeping Giants” tends to read a bit too much like the product of 80s action movies and 90s/00s sci-fi. In fact, some of the key elements seem overly familiar:

  • Aliens whose most striking physical characteristic is that their knees bend backwards: 1996’s “The Arrival” and its 1998 sequel
  • A massive robot warrior that requires two humans to pilot it because it’s so big, deployed as a planetary defense against possible planet-wide threats: 2013’s “Pacific Rim” and 2008’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (which itself was based on the 1951 film of the same name).
  • Ancient alien theory involving interplanetary races who seeded the earth in distant times, whose histories have come down to us as scattered fragments in butchered myths and legends, and whose offspring remain among us: pick your movie or book on this one.
    Combine all of those ingredients in a John Grisham / Dan Brown blender and you’ve got “Sleeping Giants.”

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Demonic Sweaters’ “Visitors”: Album review

Another great release from Demonic Sweaters!
The open strings of the opening guitar chord give the opening track “Days of Funner” a refreshing wide open feel despite how much interplay and melodic layering is going on, with multiple great hooks at work.
The synth pan pipes and the long drawn out synth drone notes of the second track conjured memories of playing “Shadow of the Beast 2” on my Commodore Amiga back in the 90s, so I was amused to see after several listens that the track is called “Role Playing Game.” In fact, this album continues a kind of chip tune sensibility that has persisted in some recent releases. I’m no chip tunes expert, but essentially you’re dealing with computer game music, music that might have been created back in the day to be playable on computer game consoles but is perhaps nowadays less designed to constraints but instead is intentionally made to sound as if it is built to those constraints. Or, built using old computer game console gear, which is a head-wrecker for me but after watching people literally fiddling with Gameboys hooked up to pedal boards and midi gear to play live tracks at a recent Pulsewave event at Babycastles in New York, I can kinda see how it works.
I’m reluctant to dive too much into chip tunes too deeply because it could be a bottomless pit. If you grew up loading computer games from cassette or floppy drive, which often failed or crashed, you remember the rush of success when the thing finally loaded and, especially if it was your first time playing whatever game of the day or week, heard the crazy lo-fi soundtrack that immediately set the mood for the game experience to come. Hearing some of those soundtracks now definitely evokes a nostalgia for more innocent times, and there’s something of that same feeling in these Demonic Sweaters tracks.
“Frost Bite” has a certain Aphex Twin element to it – listen to “The Waxen Pith,” “Wet Tip Hen Ex” or “Mookid” from 1994’s “I Care Because You Do” for example, and you’ll hear similarly otherworldly melodies and choices of synth patches.
The next few tracks pendulum between a pensive and introspective mood and quirkier moments as the quietude of “Mirror World” gives way temporarily to the lighter airier poppier feel of the title track “Visitors,” followed by the dreamy “The Flight of Marbon.” “Midiplus” takes us through some quirky territory before settling back into the pensive equilibrium, while “Marbon’s Mission” is both quirky, moody, and a touch on the dark side at the same time, insistent hi-hat marking urgent time in high tension.
The album rounds out with “Subcity Turnings.” While Justin Wierbonski‘s inventively compelling drumming lifts the synth-based tracks of “Visitors” out of the purely digital into an a more organic complexity, they are somewhat more pronounced and captivating in this final track.

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“The Second Arrival”: Movie review

Since watching Charlie Sheen’s “The Arrival” you’ve been dying to know what “The Second Arrival” might be like. You see it coming up on the TV guide and are thrilled when the gem is caught in your DVR net, and you allocate valuable time over two nights to take in the spectacle.
You know this film is going to be absolutely terrible right from the first shot in which a news broadcast grows louder then fades as the satellite carrying the signal gets closer and then floats away, as if (a) somehow sound is actually broadcasting over speakers on board the satellite and (b) this broadcast sound is passing through space despite space being devoid of any sound-carrying atmosphere.
On the earth’s surface the camera pans down the front of an office building while a cab arrives carrying our main character, Jack Addison, and a street-walking suit-wearing extra strolls past the front of the building to lend the scene a certain credible city-busyness which is shattered by the visible fact that the extra is quite obviously standing stationary as his upper body slowly creeps into frame at the bottom of the shot, awaiting his cue to begin walking so that he will be in the right place as the car pulls up. As the camera pans down further he moves into action from his stationary stance – but it’s too late. He looks like an extra too slow for the cue, or an extra following a bad cue too slow for the camera. How did that one escape the director, the cinematographer, and the editor? We’re off to a fantastic start.
The main character steps out of the cab with a just-so-carefully untucked shirt and a donut in one hand, rumpled coat two sizes too big like some kind of nod to Columbo, accosted by the security guard about being “only six minutes late today”: do you get it? Are the subtle clues coming through? He’s a borderline slovenly social outcast kinda guy who doesn’t care too much for niceties and superficialities like dressing properly or taking care of his appearance. He’s too beaten down and carrying too heavy a load, too much of an ill-fitter to bother with all that. In these respects he’s also a kind of carbon copy of Charlie Sheen’s character Zane in the first movie. I wonder how quickly Sheen turned this one down? As quickly as his own career was draining through the sluice gates, I imagine. Sheen’s absence from the movie is carefully explained in the first five minutes by a convenient news broadcast about his suspicious death – clearly them aliens got to him.
Cut to cute blonde girl in jock-tastic newsroom of guys laughing about the cute blonde girl in the jock-tastic newsroom. “Who’d you piss off now?” her colleague asks her because the only female that the male characters can respect (or the moviegoers for that matter, right?) is one who plays as hard as the boys, right? To keep the careful plot unfolding nicely along the cute blonde reporter awkwardly holds her newspaper up as if she’s raising an x-ray to a wall-mounted lightbox so that we can all read the heat wave headline. Ah yes – the alien terraformers from part 1 are still at it. In case you doubted it, an evil-bearded alien disguised as a human comes within an inch of being hit by a car, narrowly avoiding the car’s fender by activating those trademark knees-bend-backwards alien joints. Not only are the aliens still terraforming, but they’re keeping a close eye on Zane’s brother.
There follows a downright awful barroom flirtation scene where for absolutely no obvious reason one of Jack’s neighbors sidles up alongside him and launches into irrationally bad dialogue (cue camera shot climbing up actress’s leg: some truly creative thinking happening here behind the camera). This dialogue is like something co-written by an adolescent who’s watched a lot of action movies without really understanding most of the words and thinks this is what real talking sounds like. After a few woeful lines Jack is ready to confess that his brother has just died and that he hasn’t spoken with him in seven years. We’re not offered any kind of explanation as to why the two have not spoken, nor why Jack would volunteer this, tearily, during the first three minutes of a neighborly come-on.
“Come on, I’ll take you home,” she says suddenly.
“No I’m OK,” he offers and she shushes him.
The film has barely gotten going and we’ve been witness to some of the worst acting, scriptwriting and editing ever to bypass a cinema screen and go straight to video.
But don’t give up and walk away – you’ll miss so much more! The sheer stupidity of the bad guys leaving the car doors unlocked and their abductee insufficiently drugged so that he can wake up and kick the door open, flailing out into the road and groggily lurching into a train station to cue up a classic “is he on the train? is he off the train?” chase scene. Suddenly our tough reporter turns up in a car and rescues Jack, and when asked how she found him we’re fed the headcrushingly dumb answer that “I’m a reporter, remember?” and that when Zane contacted her she looked up everything about everyone who knew him. Yes but how did you know Jack would tumble half-drugged out of a car outside this train station, careen around inside, and then stumble back out onto the street at precisely this moment? It’s an important question to answer if you want to avoid this looking like deus ex machina.
Particularly noteworthy is a scene where Jack and the reporter must flee from his office, spotted by alien spies. As they race through the building lobby a security guard hits a lock-down button to seal the inner doors. Jack has plenty of time to pick up, carry, and then lob some random item (ash tray? flower pot?) through the plate glass of one of the inner doors – while the security guard dawdles out of shot, inexplicably not attempting to intervene. As we watch the glass shatter we can observe through the inner doors, and through the next set of outer doors, that the street outside is empty, and nobody is attempting to enter or leave the building. It’s just Jack and reporter.
A moment later the exterior shot shows Jack and reporter barreling through the outer set of doors – which for some reason are not on the same lock-down circuit as the inner doors? (great security!) – and suddenly there are a dozen passersby and extras in the street. Where did these all suddenly appear from? One of them is in fact emerging from the building through the outer doors, expressing surprise at Jack and reporter’s agitated escape. But wait – if the inner doors are locked, how did this guy get through them? This scene must surely be a masterpiece of continuity errors: surely there was a bet on set about how many continuity errors could be packed into a few moments. The only way to top this would be if the cream four-door car they arrived in had suddenly become a red Ferrari during the intervening scenes before they jump back into it.
Before we forgive this film’s achingly terrible CGI, mindmashingly wince-worthy soundtrack, and plain awfulness, on account of it being so old – gasp! 1998! – let us remind ourselves of some of the other work that was being done in the film arena at the time: “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” to name three movies. Before we say “well those were big budget movies,” “Run Lola Run” also came out in 1998 and was made for 1.75 million dollars, safely under the threshold for the “low budget” moniker. And as for “well it’s a schlocky sci-fi, you can’t compare it to ‘Private Ryan’” – so too were 1998’s “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” and this film crawled, passed out, and died of thirst in the desert long before reaching whatever scruffy movie oasis those two clunkers were found lying in, gasping for breath and box office receipts.

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“Bonfire of the Vanities”: Movie review

Sherman McCoy’s unstoppable rise to Wall Street riches is derailed when his mistress Maria Ruskin (Melanie Griffith) runs over a young black teenager. Sherman’s wife can tolerate just about anything, “but not TV,” and that’s exactly what’s happening as the public shaming comes down on Sherman’s head at the instigating of a mayor up for re-election and willing to toss any white rich guy into jail to secure black votes. The story breaks as a result of a tip given to a down-and-out hard-drinking journalist (Bruce Willis) on the brink of ruin, but as he climbs back to society and peer acceptance on the rungs of this gutter-raking story, he begins to realize he’s a pawn to something bigger.
Almost every single character in this story is an opportunist, on the look-out to turn the situation to their advantage: the cops, the judges, the lawyers, the mayor and his staff, the district attorney, the reverend, the newspapermen… Even the mother waiting by her coma-stricken son’s bedside has one ear open for the sound of possible monetary gain. Judge Leonard White (Morgan Freeman) is one of the few to keep a level head focused on facts and justice, but even his rousing speech near the end of the film is a little cardboard and full of showmanship. Sherman’s father (Donald Moffat) is in fact the only man with any real unwavering integrity in this story, and even he has a moment of facing a “leaser of two evils” scenario.
This adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s novel expertly and sardonically strips away the false pretenses of every strata and element of society. The dialogue is witty and fast-moving. The acting is comically ridiculous and farcical. The narrative paces along nicely to its highly satisfying closure.

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“It comes at night”: Movie review

What does? What comes at night? What’s the it that you say is coming at nighttimes? Is it coming in a sequel?
Obviously there’s been some kind of horrible world-killing plague, and now these poor saps are holed up in a remote cabin, burning grandpa’s infected body in a yard-hole and jumping at every sound in the night, when who should come barging on in through their barricades but some random guy claiming to be looking for water and supplies for his own family stranded in a random house many miles away. Should they let this guy and his family move in? Join forces? Who can trust who? Hey, who opened that door! What did the dog see! Why did he run off? Where did he go? What is the kid dreaming?
What comes at night?
Tension builds and builds. Tempers boil. Fear takes over. What do desperate people do when their families are threatened? Just how fragile is civilization when the chips are down?
And what the hell is coming at night? Tell me!

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Poppy.

With her mix of outlandish and vintage outfits and shoes, pre-teen overtones, pastel toned dresses and matching background, Poppy utters nonsensical and charmingly curious soundbites to a poignant réverbèrent ambient synth music background. With robotic gestures and a scripted voice, perfect smiles and perfect sad faces, doll-like postures, Poppy evokes a sort of ersatz product of some over-scrubbed never-never land of innocence stretched like a thin skin over a garbled interior of ill-fitting experiences of a wider world beyond innocence. Studying the Poppy phenomenon requires some degree of patience – how else can anyone sit through a ten minute video of her saying “I’m Poppy” and “I am poppy” in various tones; ten minutes of “Why don’t they listen? Why won’t they listen? I don’t think they’re gonna listen”; a thirty minute video of a repeating xylophone where two keys alternately play the same then different notes in a way that is both maddeningly irritating and compellingly difficult to skip or stop. While I admit I did not watch those videos fully, I have invested significant time in watching the majority of the others – given that most of them are a minute or less and easy to catch up on intermittently. That said, I did indeed watch the 49 and 24 minute videos of her reading from the bible non-stop. Something about that robot doll voice mindlessly intoning the impregnably lineage of biblical figures – it’s an easy target for easily offended sky-wizard worshippers, while plainly laying out the absurd notion that these texts, in and of themselves, are in any way magically charged with electric sacredness and wisdom. Poppy reading the bible (in two long Youtube clips that barely scratch the surface of that ponderous tome so often used to justify hateful acts and thoughts) becomes even more striking when placed along side Poppy cringing in discomfort because fuzzy objects are stuck to her.

Buried in the static and white noise are odd and arresting ideas laced with parody and deadpan seriousness: “I breathe new life into my phone with every charge. My phone defines me. When it’s dead, I am too.”
Poppy seems to mock and jeer at social media narcissism and device obsession with her meaningless but highly meaningful statements and rhetorical questions like “If it’s on the internet, it’s real! Do you believe everything that’s put in front of you?” and “What percentage am I? What percentage are you?”
She denigrates her viewers dismissively, racking up millions of Youtube views in the process: “You haven’t thought in a while, have you? Am I making you think?”
She comments on current affairs and politics, sounding simultaneously cluelessly infantile and somehow condescendingly derisive, such as during this conversation with a plant:
Plant: “It hurts when you eat us. You just can’t hear us scream”
Poppy: “What do you think – Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?”
Plant: “I guess I’ll vote for whichever one is gay.”
Poppy: “I think they’re both gay, hahaha.”

Elsewhere she proudly and righteously holds forth on how she will speak out for her beliefs, exposing the futility and misguided hopes of social media activism:
“I’m offended by something a famous politician said. I’ve chosen to use the internet to express my opinion about it. My beliefs were challenged and I will stand up for myself. I will mock the famous politician that I do not agree with on twitter. I’m doing my part by tweeting angrily at a famous politician. The famous politician will see my tweet and change their behavior. My followers will praise me for my beliefs because they should think the way I think. I’m making a difference. I’m doing my part. I’m part of the movement.”

Poppy regularly celebrates the emptiness of celebrity and popularity and the blind dedication of fans:
“Do you love me? Will you do anything I say? Is money the most important thing to you? This episode is brought to you by Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.”
“What does it mean to be famous,” she asks, “How many videos will this retweet get? Does that mean people will love me more?”
She effusively bubbles while partaking of social beautification rituals that are disconnected from the true value of the individual: “I am applying my make-up to become more beautiful. If I apply make-up people will find me more attractive.”

Poppy offers inspirational-meme-worthy life coaching advice: “You’re in control and you have the power to succeed! Take it from me: happiness comes from within. Success: you + opportunity = success. What does it mean?”

A cult of conspiracy theories and conjecture has grown around Poppy, with claims she is a puppet of the Illuminati (her and Lana Del Rey, I suppose) and is using gestures of the Illuminati and other secret societies to plead for help or communicate mind control cues. Poppy appears to playfully stoke these ridiculous ideas , such as a video featuring a robot voice ordering “You will pledge your allegiance to Poppy. You will do anything Poppy says. Poppy loves you and will always love you… Prepare yourself for Programming Sequence 2.”

Poppy even deflects commentary, such as her “Poppy reacts to kids react to Poppy,” in which Poppy takes the established Youtube concept where kids are shown anything from old computers to clips of Metallica and their hilarious and enlightening reactions are recorded, and somehow turns the experiment around by ‘reacting’ to it by layering herself back over the original audio until finally sitting motionless in a gradually darkening studio. The kids are disquieted and confused. “She’s like a creepy doll!” one of them accurately notes. This was my first introduction to Poppy, suggested by the Youtube “you may also like” machine after being entertained by kids reacting to rotary phones. In a subsequent video the kids were captured reacting to Poppy reacting to them reacting to Poppy. Most of the kids appeared perturbed and anxious to learn Poppy had been in the room they were in, sitting in the same seat. Just this month the kids were invited to a virtual Q&A with Poppy, the concept spawning offspring and multiplying in the vacuous content portal of the internet.

Reading back through the various blog posts and forums and trudging through the puerile poorly put-together ‘exposes’ and fan videos, one can begin to assemble a quasi background on the Poppy character. The brainchild of Titanic Sinclaire, Poppy seems to be a re-boot of a prior concept wherein both Titanic and pre-Poppy robot doll Mars Argo traded odd and nonsensical quips and earnest gibberish statements against a white background between 2009 and 2014. In addition to the strange videos about deleting your Facebook account and rejected Mountain Dew commercials, Mars and Titanic posted videos of incredibly well-crafted, decently performed, and catchy indie-pop tunes on their channel grocerybagdottv. Combing through the Mars Argo / Titanic Sinclaire backlog, you get the impression of a sort of art project aimed at parodying mainstream celebrities. Mars and Titanic parted ways in 2014. The music and videos ceased, and apparently Mars removed most of the back catalog, leaving only three behind, but much of the content has surfaced. It’s not bad music, and worth checking out.

Against this backdrop, many foaming-mouth online commentators have been straining at their leashes to accuse Poppy of fakery, plagiarism, and unoriginality. Those same folks will watch a Spiderman reboot tomorrow with no complaints. Other careful Youtube sleuths are excited as they shakily announce how they have followed the bread crumb trails to discover that Titanic Sinclaire is the director and producer of Poppy’s videos, as if this is some secret plot being uncovered. But it’s not a secret plot, just a continuation and revamping of an interesting concept with a new lead actress. Poppy is also a musician, yet comparatively her songs simply do not match up in any way with Mars Argo. Poppy’s covers and unreleased tracks on Soundcloud are, however, not bad, and much better than her official releases.
A phenomenon like Poppy cannot exist with the puerile gullibility of the viewing masses with their eyes wide open at the data sluice, ready to drink the unfiltered overload. Only in a world hooked on the emotion-quashing influx of networked mirror-commentary and fleeting online attention can Poppy inspire this kind of obsessive curiosity and drive to be expert fans, the mindless insistence on some great conspiracy underpinning her existence, the desperate clawing to uncover the deep-seated Meaning within the bubble-gum posts with their mild social commentary.
As a phenomenon, she’s fascinating. As an example of the odd corners of the internet, she’s illustrative. As pure content, it’s entertaining, I’ll say that much.
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