Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman”

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In the past few months, female-driven pop has been on a winning streak. While there were a few duds (Meghan Trainor’s dull sophomore record Thank You), 2016 has been graced with the presence of several pop gems from female artists. Australian songstress Sia continued her burgeoning notoriety with the powerful This is Acting, while Gwen Stefani returned to the music scene with her impressive comeback This is What the Truth Feels Like. The two biggest surprises of this year in music came from Rihanna and Beyoncé, both of whom released two records without much public warning: the jarringly inventive Anti and the politically conscious, deeply personal and all-around fantastic visual album Lemonade, respectively. That being said, there’s one artist who also seems to stand out from the pack: 22-year-old actress/singer Ariana Grande.

After her role as the naive redhead Cat on the kids show “Victorious,” Grande made her way towards the top of the music ranks with her sweet 2013 debut Yours Truly and subsequently established her place in pop with 2014’s stunning My Everything. Now, with her third record Dangerous Woman, Grande further sheds her innocent Nickelodeon child star image by evolving into a sophisticated, mature modern woman, ready to sink her teeth into newer, more daring material.    

Like My Everything, Dangerous Woman explores female empowerment and unrequited love through glossy production, catchy lyrics and Grande’s signature glass-shattering vocals. But instead of simply rehashing My Everything’s boldness, Grande pushes Dangerous Woman to edgier thematic and musical territory, in which the singer boasts a more feminist message about how women who are deemed “dangerous” are unafraid to speak the truth, especially when it comes to power, independence and sexuality. This unapologetic energy, coupled with Grande’s glowing ambition, is what makes Dangerous Woman a thrilling example of the many directions pop music is taking in 2016.      

The 11-song album, which includes four bonus tracks, experiments with different genres, such as R&B on the bouncy ‘90s throwback “Be Alright,” trap on the glittery, Future-featuring “Everyday” and reggae on the groovy, Nicki Minaj-assisted “Side to Side.” In addition to using beats from previous Grande collaborators Tommy Brown (“Honeymoon Avenue”), Ilya Salmanzadeh (“Problem”) and Kid Ink producer Twice as Nice, Dangerous Woman works well thanks to Swedish pop maestro Max Martin, who provides the album with his hit-making magic touch, both in its songwriting and sound. He layers Dangerous Woman’s instrumental skeleton with lush guitar riffs on the indelible title track, throbbing electro-heavy synths on the sultry club banger “Into You” and head-bopping horns on the record’s best song “Greedy.”

Though many songs off Dangerous Woman reach moments of profundity, there are some elements that bring them down a tad. The lullaby opener “Moonlight” (the alleged original title of Dangerous Woman) hearkens back to Grande’s tween pop roots with its twinkly strings and breathy harmonies, but its romantic, gooey core gives the song a sentimental, borderline cheesy appeal. The gorgeous, low-key hip-hop jingle “Let Me Love You” opens with a devastating line about post-breakup anxiety (“I just broke up with my ex / Now that I’m single, I don’t really know what’s next”) and continues with a slow, sexy and stuttering rhythm, until the song halts when an unnecessary feature from Lil Wayne pops up. Penultimate song “Sometimes” is so-so in its execution, with its acoustic undertones giving the track a bland sound.

Fortunately, those are minor issues given Grande’s musical prowess. While My Everything touched on cutesy double entendres and subtle suggestive references, Grande is much more explicit about her sexual conquests and self-image on Dangerous Woman, even drawing some parallels to In The Zone-era Britney Spears. The title song can be interpreted as both a confident girl-power anthem and a song about pegging (“Taking control of this kind of moment / I’m locked and loaded / Completely focused, my mind is open”). On bonus track “Bad Decisions,” Grande asks cheekily, “Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?”

Dangerous Woman could have simply been churned from the standardized conveyor belt of pop as another formulaic album. Yet Grande understands very clearly how to structure her craft that heeds to her audience’s desires while maintaining her own artistic integrity. Each track feels wholesome and complete, not only because of the spectacular production or Grande’s formidable vocal range, but also because of the ideas conveyed in each song. It’s not necessarily a thought-provoking or compelling album, but Dangerous Woman showcases Grande’s ability to shape a listener’s understanding of the importance of a woman’s choice to sing, dance and speak without being undermined by critics and sexist trolls.

Grade: A-

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The Work of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman

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Though Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are two different writer-directors, they both are frequent collaborators and their work often intersects thematically and visually. Having directed music videos for Kanye West, Sonic Youth, Björk, and Weezer, Jonze has an exceptional artistic range, even though he’s only made four movies. He possesses a distinctive taste for showcasing profoundly personal stories about love, loneliness, and the human condition. Similarly, Kaufman can transform ordinary stories into extraordinary ones, especially through his distinctive writing style, imaginative settings, contemplative characters, and introspective themes. His many acclaimed screenplays include one from my favorite film, Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. Whether together or separate, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are incredible, perceptive filmmakers with great attention to detail. I’m a huge fan of the two, so I decided to watch all of their films (three of which I had already seen) and here are my thoughts:

Being John Malkovich (1999, written by Kaufman, directed by Jonze)

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For Jonze’s directorial debut and Kaufman’s screenwriting debut, Being John Malkovich is an impressive feat. And considering that it was released in 1999 — “the year that changed filmmaking” — Being John Malkovich seemed like it came around the right time, even though its subject matter and trippy execution are light years ahead of modern filmmaking. Watching Being John Malkovich was a transfixing experience, one that I still have trouble wrapping my head around. The film works as both a psychological tragicomedy and celebrity satire, delving into many layers of the psyche literally and figuratively. It’s about Craig Schwartz, a lonely, washed-up guy (John Cusack), whose ambition to be the world’s greatest puppeteer becomes a reality once he discovers a portal leading into the mind of theater/movie actor John Malkovich (played by the Malkovich man himself). Craig can only see through Malkovich’s eyes for 15 minutes, until he’s dumped from the sky onto the side of the New Jersey turnpike. Fascinated by this and what it could do for his puppeteering career, he shares this information both with his homely wife Lotte (an almost unrecognizable Cameron Diaz) and his office crush Maxine (a devilish Catherine Keener). The two women become obsessed with this idea of being in someone else’s skin, especially that of a notable celebrity. Once Lotte decides to partake in this experiment, she discovers a new side to her sexuality, especially after she has a sexual encounter with Maxine while inside Malkovich’s body. Hilarious and devastating hijinks ensue and a subplot regarding the origin/truth behind the Malkovich portal further shows how Jonze’s meticulous direction and Kaufman’s loopy script work so well together. There are certain parts of the story that are so mind-blowing that they’re almost terrifying in how they impact the characters. John Malkovich eventually goes into the portal himself and finds that he’s placed in a nightmarish world where everyone looks like him and the only word that can be uttered is “Malkovich.” Maxine, the film’s most indecisive yet engaging character, becomes fixated on Malkovich, leading Craig to hijack the portal in order to woo Maxine. Told through a fantastic mockumentary-style montage, we see Maxine and Craig (as Malkovich) become engaged, Maxine become pregnant, and Craig live out his fantasy of being a puppeteer by capitalizing on Malkovich’s notoriety. But as expected, Maxine threatens to go back to Lotte, as the two share a true romantic connection, leaving Craig helpless. He ultimately leaves the portal and Malkovich regains sole consciousness for a second until he loses control completely, once a group of elderly immortals enter in the portal at the same time. Doesn’t that sound horrifying yet fascinating? Being John Malkovich is a strange and great movie, not just because it touches on themes of identity, fantasy, virtual reality, and sexuality, but also because it was entertaining to watch a story unfold in the most unexpected ways. It reminded me a lot of 1998’s fantastic “The Truman Show” and last year’s “Anomalisa,” which Kaufman also wrote and directed. This was definitely an impressive first feature for both Jonze and Kaufman and I will most likely watch Being John Malkovich again.

Grade: A-

Adaptation. (2002, written by Kaufman, directed by Jonze)

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I was fairly disappointed with Jonze and Kaufman’s second film, the zany meta-satire Adaptation. Like Being John MalkovichAdaptation made a lot of unexpected twists and turns in its plot. The film is about an exaggerated version of Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage), who encounters writer’s block when writing a movie adaptation of Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief. This was allegedly based on a real experience, in which Kaufman could not figure out how to make The Orchid Thief into a film without sensationalizing it into a big-budgeted Hollywood flick. Adaptation displays Kaufman’s frustration through Cage’s surprisingly excellent and honest portrayal of the writer/director. But watching the film is almost as much of a frustrating experience as Kaufman’s attempt to adapt The Orchid Thief, in that the film bounces around tonally and thematically. In addition to constantly feeling under pressure from a studio exec (a vanilla Tilda Swinton), the neurotic, socially inept Kaufman/Cage seethes with jealousy at his much more extroverted, easy-going twin Donald (made up by Kaufman), who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie can’t interact with anyone without feeling anxious and doubtful of his abilities, despite everyone praising his work. My main problem with this was not just that Charlie was overusing self-deprecating humor and material to poke fun at his real-life experience, but that the script digs such a deep, narrative hole that it often gets lost in itself. The other subplot in Adaptation deals with Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) experience writing her novel, interviewing her titular protagonist John LaRoshe (Chris Cooper, who won an Oscar for this role) over the course of two years and eventually falling for him. Like Charlie, Susan constantly deals with self-doubt and anxiety over her writing abilities, yet she is much less socially awkward and more driven to succeed. The two main stories, Orlean’s writing of the novel and Charlie’s trouble adapting it, ignite a lot of friction when juxtaposed together and they eventually intersect into a bizarre, mesmerizing final sequence. Despite my issues with Adaptation, I did love Cage, Streep, and Cooper’s central performances, some of Kaufman’s funny quips, and Jonze’s crazy direction. The final shot of the whole film also was a great scene, a time-lapse of blooming flowers set to The Turtles’ “So Happy Together,” simply because it smartly references two scenes in the movie. The blooming flowers points to a part where Charlie talks about how to show the true beauty of flowers in a genuine and profound way in his adaptation, which the last scene does. Donald sings “So Happy Together” to Charlie during one conversation, much to Charlie’s dismay, but the song sounds like something of a triumphant anthem. Even with the film’s flaws, the final scene represents the culmination of Adaptation‘s disarming plot, merging fiction into reality with one perfect sequence. I’ll try to watch Adaptation again, but I was not as won over with it as much as Being John Malkovich.

Grade: B

Synecdoche, New York (2008, written and directed by Kaufman)

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Like with many other films, I repeatedly watched the trailer for Kaufman’s hyper-realist directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, before I finally watched the film itself. During the time of its release, Synecdoche, NY received polarizing reviews, with some like Roger Ebert praising it for its originality and narrative scope, while others thinking it was depressing, pretentious, and incomprehensible. Luckily, I found myself siding more with Ebert. Even though parts of it are hard-to-watch visually and aurally, Synecdoche, NY is a haunting tragedy about a dying man’s journey to create something big only to discover that it was all meaningless. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the dying man, Caden Cotard, and gives an intense performance that would have been deserving of an Oscar. In addition to suffering from various physical and mental ailments (seizures, boils, restless leg syndrome, hair loss) Caden is a theater director who decides to build the world’s largest and longest play in an abandoned warehouse in Schenectady, in order to win back his bored artist wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener). Without warning, Adele moves to Berlin with their daughter Olive and Adele’s BFF Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to pursue her art career, which does she successfully. Meanwhile, Caden continues to struggle with achieving his vision for a play, leading him to create a play within a play, choosing actors to portray him and other people in his life while the real play itself is going on. The film touches on multiple themes and ideas, primarily ambition and death, and uses several overt and subliminal motifs. Fortunately, it still delivers by offering a poignant, mesmerizing story. For example, Cotard’s assistant/crush Hazel (Samantha Morton) buys a house that is constantly burning, knowing that she can be killed at any moment by fire or the heavily polluted air, but nevertheless decides to invest in it. It’s a weird but clever metaphor for how we all have the ability to make choices, even when we know the ultimate consequences of those choices. That’s what makes us human, which is a key thematic template in Kaufman’s movies. There are even split-second still scenes of clock drawings spread throughout the movie, reinforcing the film’s idea that our time on Earth is limited. Suffering also seems to be a large component in this film, as Cotard is chronically ill, yet everyone around him seems to die before him. He falls in love with almost every woman he encounters — Adele, Hazel, his second wife Claire (Michelle Williams), Hazel’s stand-in Tammy (Emily Watson) — but he can’t make enough of an effort to act on anything mostly due to his illness. The large cast of talented women is especially great, considering that they are very strong female characters instead of mere caricatures. And in addition to being very dramatic, it’s also very darkly funny. An interesting thing about Kaufman movies/scripts is when there’s miscommunication between characters, mostly through mishearing what one person said to another (this is evident in some Synecdoche scenes and in several Being John Malkovich scenes). Jon Brion (love this guy!) provides a stellar soundtrack/score to Synecdoche, NY. His lovely piano-assisted ballad “Little Person,” which plays in one scene and in the end credits, and the final scene’s string-oriented “Ok” are particular standouts. Despite the complicated narrative structure, Synecdoche, New York really does have a heart built into its core and what the story accomplishes — and the questions that are ultimately asked — make it a truly astounding piece of work.

Grade: A-

Where the Wild Things Are (2009, written by Jonze and Dave Eggers, directed by Jonze)

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Taking a break from Kaufman, Spike Jonze’s third film, Where the Wild Things Are, not only channels an adventurous, much darker take on the 1960s children’s picture book by Maurice Sendak, but also paves a road for Jonze’s own experimentation with screenwriting and storytelling. Co-writing the script with author/novelist Dave Eggers, Jonze pictures the world of Where the Wild Things Are as an unflinching, tender depiction of childhood angst and innocence. I figure many know what the story is, but for those who don’t: Max (Max Records) is the protagonist, a restless pre-adolescent with animalistic tendencies and a gooey heart. After he has a fight with his mother (Catherine Keener, ftw!), Max runs away crying and finds a boat that sails him to a mysterious island whose inhabitants include grotesque-looking quasi-animal creatures. I’d seen the film twice before, but I figured I would see it again, just to see if I noticed anything different, which I did. A huge underlying theme in the film is imagination, but there’s also a subtle father/son dynamic between Max and his creature friend Carol (James Gandolfini, also a great late actor). Forgive me if I’ve read too much into this, but perhaps Carol resembles Max’s father, who is not pictured in the film nor the book, but has some presence within Max’s subconscious. Considering that Where the Wild Things Are exhibits a child’s imagination, it can be argued that Carol is a representation of Max’s father: fun to play with, full of adventure, yet dealing with an impulsive, reckless behavior. This idea is further reinforced because of Carol’s relationship with another creature K.W. (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), who also resembles somewhat of Max’s mother. Carol and K.W. have a romantic connection, but the two constantly argue due to their differing worldviews. K.W. has a motherly appearance and mannerism, and she inhabits a type of motherly instinct for Max. The scene where Max runs away from a blindly angry Carol and hides inside K.W. for protection is especially evident of this family dynamic, primarily because Max can be figuratively seen as inside K.W.’s womb (forgive me if that’s also taking it too far in terms of interpretation, but I figure I’d give it a shot). The point here is the characters and their relationships in this story are not only potent and strong, but also impeccably told and crafted, especially for a kid’s movie. The rest of the voice cast is also incredible; it includes Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, and Chris Cooper. Hell, even Mark Ruffalo makes a cameo as Max’s mother’s new boyfriend (his only line: “He shouldn’t treat you like that!” Wonder how much he made off of just saying that). Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs compiles an aptly raucous soundtrack and composer Carter Burwell (frequent collaborator of Jonze and Kaufman) fills the score with warm percussive sounds and strings. By ending the film on a light, happy note, Where the Wild Things Are remains a beautifully shot and emotionally stirring tale of childhood.

Grade: B+

Her (2013, written and directed by Jonze)

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There are so many great things to say about Jonze’s fourth film, Her, that it’s hard to jot down all in one blog post. But I’ll try to articulate it in the best way I can. Originally conceived in the early 2000s, Her is a wonderful film with a romantic story that possesses the emotional honesty and gravitas uncommon in many movies. It can be perceived as an anti-technology allegory, but I beg to differ; it’s way, way more about how love transcends everything, the giddy excitement of being in love, and coming to terms with the harsh reality when a relationship doesn’t work out the way you want it to. The film’s lonely protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is also the film’s flawed hero. He calls up a late-night sex hotline, looks at scandalous pictures of a nude celeb, and makes disarmingly personal comments. But at heart, Theodore has a sensitive, perceptive soul, even when he struggles to recognize the dissipation of his marriage with his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). That is, until he installs an artificially intelligent operating system that evolves in real time; his OS is named Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson. I kind of hate how people say this movie is really just a guy falling in love with Siri. Yes, a human male falls in love with a disembodied voice, but honestly, who cares? Pretty much every element of Her works well: Jonze’s sensitive direction, his amazing, Kaufman-esque screenplay — which rightfully won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2014 — the incredible acting (Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson’s voice, yeet!), Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett’s numbingly beautiful score (probably the best of the last few years), and the exquisite cinematography (great close-ups and panoramic shots of Los Angeles and Shanghai). The production design also deserves recognition, from the costuming to the lovely, colorful visual palette (everything looks so bright and pretty in future L.A.! There’s even a light-rail system!). Her can also be an uncomfortable film to watch, and even after seeing three times, I still get slightly irked when Theodore essentially has extremely graphic verbal sex with Samantha. But once the storm quiets down, Her remains an artful, post-modern masterpiece that continuing to prove the underrated skill and originality of Spike Jonze’s work. Her also has a very balanced mix of comedy and drama, the best scenes being the funniest and saddest. Her is arguably Jonze’s best film and there’s no doubt he will continue to make great films.

Grade: A

Anomalisa (2015, written and directed by Kaufman)

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Last year, Kaufman returned to directing with a much less polarized sophomore effort, the stop-motion adult drama Anomalisa. The movie was adapted from a stage play Kaufman wrote in 2005 and took almost 3 years to make as a film, but all the work seems to pay off. The animation looks gorgeous and works very well with the story and its themes. Like many of Kaufman’s works, Anomalisa has a lonely male protagonist, this being unhappily married customer service guru Michael Stone (David Thewlis), who seeks an answer to all the nonsense in the world and something to calm his anxiety. In particular, Michael can’t seem to shake the feeling that every person he sees has the same blank expression and talks in a drab, monotonous voice (voiced by Tom Noonan). He is what psychologists would describe as having Fregoli syndrome, which funny enough is the name of the Cincinnati hotel he’s staying at for a conference (“The Fregoli”). Even with each scene being filled with mundane acts like ordering room service, taking a too hot/too cold shower, and smoking a cigarette, Anomalisa is nevertheless compelling to look at. Even though Michael is supposed to be the film’s protagonist/hero, he comes off a bit like an asshole; he’s angry, misanthropic, impatient, indecisive, and slightly oblivious (he mistakes a toy store for a sex shop). But who should blame him? After re-reading a 10-year letter from his ex-girlfriend, he decides to call her up and ask her for a drink. The conversation obviously doesn’t go well, his ex berating him for his selfishness and Michael wallowing in his doubt. Michael is hopeless and fearful, until he hears a voice from another room that isn’t monotonous. He rushes to find the voice and its owner, who happens to be the film’s protagonist Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an insecure customer service operator from Akron who’s attending the conference Michael’s speaking at. He’s immediately enamored by her and every one of her aspects, both physical and personal. They get a drink, with her friend tagging along, and eventually he asks her to come to his room for a nightcap, much to Lisa’s surprise. Some might pose this as creepy, but consider this: Lisa and Michael are two extremely lonely, self-conscious human beings, who both are attracted to one another and should allow themselves one moment of happiness, even if it’s just for a night. Lisa discusses her life and sings a devastating English and Italian cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” all the while Michael admires everything she says and does, hence he nicknames her “Anomalisa,” a portmanteau that even Lisa acknowledges as clever. Their much-talked-about sex scene is actually quite realistic and honest, even though it’s essentially two puppets that are being moved one frame at a time to fuck. Regardless, it’s still a stirring, eye-opening scene that takes cinematic intimacy to a whole other level. The rest of Anomalisa continues to be fascinating and strange, with Michael having a nightmarish dream where everyone wants to be with him and not with Lisa. In a moment of true artistry and peculiarity, the bottom half of Michael’s face falls off while he runs in desperation to escape the hellhole of his mind. He delves into frustrated angst and loses his faith in humanity once again, delivering a cynical speech at the conference. He returns home, seeing and hearing everything in monotone. But what amazed me about Anomalisa was how not Michael but Lisa became the true hero of the story. In the last scene, she writes a letter to Michael optimistically as she drives home with her friend, who we see as looking normal compared to Michael’s version of what perceived. Echoing some of Michael’s words from his speech, “Find what is unique about every individual. Everybody has a soul, everyone has aches.” As a writer and director, Kaufman knows that each person is innately similar yet distinctive in their own. This kind of philosophical paradox is one of the many reasons why, unlike many filmmakers, Kaufman has a deep sense and uncommonly perceptive outlook on life, which makes Anomalisa all the more rewarding in the end.

Grade: A

 

Death Grips’ “Bottomless Pit”

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Despite having a relatively new career, Death Grips have already made a name for themselves. The Sacramento trio has released five records, two instrumental projects, an EP and a mixtape in the past six years, completing each in almost rapid succession and occasionally without any prior notice to the public. Their music has attracted the attention of Icelandic singer Björk, “Twilight” ’s Robert Pattinson, and even Adidas. Through mixing genres of metal, punk, hip hop industrial, and electronic, Death Grips have become one of our generation’s most compelling music phenomenons, which is strange considering that they decided to call it quits after they released their “final album,” The Powers That B, in the spring of 2015.

Of course, that isn’t the case, as they announced late last October that they were embarking on a world tour and were in the process of creating their newest album, Bottomless Pit. Though they continue to showcase a tireless ambition and impeccable craft, it was only a matter of time for Death Grips’ music to become predictable. In addition to being the band’s most chaotic and harshest record to date, Bottomless Pit lacks the captivating hooks, hard-hitting lyrics, cohesive thread and gravity-defying heights of their previous efforts.

For a band that is known for having an erratic, experimental sound, Death Grips keep their material relatively polished. Yet Bottomless Pit feels like an unfortunate misstep, with 13 songs piling on top of one another and creating a numbing, messy listening experience. Tracks like the heart-stopping opener “Giving Bad People Good Ideas,” the unnervingly noisy “Spikes” and electro-punk thrasher “Three Bedrooms In a Good Neighborhood” are irksome compared to songs from 2012’s The Money Store and 2013’s Government Plates. Like their past works, these tracks are injected with a nihilistic abandon and an abrasive sound, but they don’t seem to push hard enough to break Death Grips’ thematic and sonic mold. Promotional single “Hot Head” starts with a promising muzzled synth loop, which is then gradually drowned out in a muddled heap of raucous guitar riffs and twitchy electronic blips. “BB Poison” is similarly frustrating, building off an irritating warped sample that verges on giving a listener a migraine. The zany “Bubbles Buried in the Jungle” weaves in and out like a dangerous driver on the freeway as it changes tempos unexpectedly twice within the song.

However, Bottomless Pit is not without the strengths and creative talent of its producers, drummer Zach Hill and instrumentalist Andy Morin. With frontman Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett’s feral roar and stream-of-consciousness raps, the three Death Grips members elevate the album’s tired formula on certain tracks. Jittery highlights “Eh” and “Trash” finds MC Ride voicing his frustrations with society, the former thrusting him in a sea of problems he could care less about and the latter venting about the negative effects of consumerism. The album’s shortest song, “Ring a Bell,” is also its best, exhibiting all of Death Grips’ best qualities while adding a shimmering guitar riff to boot.

Undoubtedly, Death Grips will continue to perplex, amaze and mystify audiences. Though Bottomless Pit may not be the ideal example of their current state as artists, Death Grips don’t seem to be stopping anytime soon — unless they momentarily disband again. Perhaps if they shift and tweak their conceptual focus, Death Grips can propel forward into much darker, more emotionally taut territory.

Grade: C+

The Work of Paul Thomas Anderson

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A goal I hope to achieve for the first half of this summer is to watch at least one movie every day, going by director. I’m hoping to watch films by Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Robert Altman, Wes Anderson, Joel & Ethan Coen, Steven Soderbergh, Tim Burton, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Wes Anderson, and perhaps more. This past week, I watched every film of Paul Thomas Anderson. Almost all of his movies are different from one another, but each share deeply flawed characters; similar cinematic techniques, such as long, uninterrupted takes and rapid camera movements; nostalgic American backdrops; themes of loneliness, alienation, the disintegration of familial relationships, and a surrogate/blood father/son dynamic between its protagonists. Below are my thoughts on each film:

Boogie Nights (1997)

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After watching the trailer several times throughout high school, I was excited to finally watch “Boogie Nights” for the first time and I was pleasantly surprised. Though it is rather lengthy and over-the-top, “Boogie Nights” is a charming, poignant film that’s part sex comedy, part coming-of-age story. A young Mark Wahlberg, who was then simply known as the frontman of the hip-hop group Marky Mark and The Funky Bunch, shines in his breakout role as Eddie Adams, a neglected youth who becomes a famous porn star named Dirk Diggler after catching the eye of porn producer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). The father/son relationship is immediately established, especially since Eddie wants to escape from his disdainful alcoholic mother and impotent father. Wahlberg is then gradually joined by an incredible ensemble cast that includes Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Luis Guzman, William H. Macy, and Heather Graham. The film is set in the 1970s and the production/set designers did a really great job of recreating that period, both in its aesthetic style and political atmosphere. The engaging soundtrack was also a great fit for “Boogie Nights,” using tracks from The Emotions, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, and other ’70s bands. As mentioned in the trailer, the late ’70s was a time when “sex was safe, pleasure was a business, and business was booming.” Business, of course, was referring to the burgeoning porn industry, which eventually went through a drastic change when, at the beginning of the 1980s, analog film was converted into videotape, the “future” of porn. Thus, the plot shifts into darker territory, as life becomes less glamorous and the characters lose touch with reality. Every character, whether small or big, has a magnetic personality, as well as some flaw that marks them as both realistic and relatable. Doing drugs and committing acts of violence seem more dangerous than fun. But, of course, Eddie/Dirk and the rest of the cast realize sooner or later that things need to change. Anderson really has a firm grasp of creating interesting, nuanced characters through tantalizing dialogue, all the while immersing the viewer into the lives and worlds of those characters. He didn’t rush at all with character development or focus on pushing the plot along. In addition to his wonderful direction, the camera and actors did most of the work and that’s all “Boogie Nights” really needed.

Grade: A-

Magnolia (1999)

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In addition to “Boogie Nights,” I was also very excited to watch “Magnolia,” though I was apprehensive due to its 3-hour long length. Nevertheless, I was awed by it. “Magnolia” is a sprawling, epic, and ambitious piece of work, a spellbinding creative mess that can be seen as both a religious allegory and a haunting melodrama about shattered families and children. Its plot focuses on the intersecting lives of depressed Los Angelenos living in the San Fernando Valley. Similar to “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” possesses a fantastic ensemble cast and each performance is exceptional and dynamic. The film shifts and moves at a deliberate pace, making each character’s face seen and voice heard. There’s no real protagonist, since almost all of the characters have an equally divided amount of screen time. There’s Tom Cruise’s T.J. Mackey, an intense, overtly masculine self-help guru who teaches men how to “respect the cock” and “tame the cunt,” essentially telling them how to attract women at their own will. He’s the son of a dying TV producer named Earl Partridge (Jason Robards, in his final film role before his death in 2000), who left T.J. when he was a kid. Partridge’s vulgar, mentally unstable gold-digger wife is Linda, played ferociously by Julianne Moore. Partridge’s TV show “What Do Kids Now?” (similar to “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”) is hosted by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who is diagnosed with cancer and struggles to grapple his mortality and his own inner demons. His estranged, cocaine-addicted daughter Rose (played a little too aggressively by Melinda Dillion) wants to escape her shitty life as well. A contestant on Gator’s show is the shy boy genius Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), who’s being bullied by his heartless father to win, win, win the contest. William H. Macy plays an ex-contestant named Donnie Smith, whose past glory as the show’s “Quiz Kid” fades quickly in his adulthood, where he’s so unhappy with himself that he wants to invest in braces in order to woo a buff, brace-faced bartender. I don’t want to give too much plot description; there’s plenty of it on Wikipedia and from the film’s trailer. But you start to notice a thematic pattern here that seems unprecedented, especially since they all seem to be connected through coincidences and certain circumstances. Yet, as pointed out in “Magnolia”‘s poetic opening montage, things don’t just happen based on coincidence or chance. There’s always some reason and it doesn’t always have an explanation. But when people need help, take the opportunity to help them. John C. Reilly plays police officer Jim Kurring, who becomes enamored by Rose, despite his blatant obliviousness to her drug tics. He helps her find a purpose to live, as well as with Donnie in a later sequence. Philip Seymour Hoffman (damn, I freakin’ miss this guy) inhabits the role of Partridge’s tender nurse Phil Parma, who patiently listen to the old man’s desires, distresses, and regrets. “Magnolia” is filled with intense moments, accentuated by Aimee Mann’s somber soundtrack. One standout music moment comes when Mann’s “Wise Up” plays during a montage, as the camera captures each main character reciting and singing the lyrics, each of them alone and isolated from the world yet connected through song. Some of those intense moments don’t really reach full clarity until later, particularly during a surreal sequence towards the end, where frogs fall from the sky. It can be interpreted in several ways, but Anderson’s use of ambiguity works in “Magnolia” because it makes the film’s meaning that much more rich and intriguing. Even the title suggests a double entendre: it’s both a street name in Los Angeles and a yellowish/beige flower that unfolds to reveal a hidden inner beauty. Certain aspects of “Magnolia” still sort of bother me, particularly Moore’s overuse of cuss words, Dillion’s annoyingly desperate character, and the fact that it’s 3 hours long. Yet the enigmatic “Magnolia” was still wonderful to watch and perhaps I’ll watch it again one day.

Grade: B+

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

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I instantly fell in love with “Punch-Drunk Love,” not just for its refreshing simplicity — it’s spans only 95 minutes, Anderson’s shortest film —  but also for the genuinely touching romance between the movie’s central couple. In what is probably the best performance of his entire career, Adam Sandler triumphs as Barry Egan, an introverted but caring man who wears a blue suit for the entirety of the film (except for one scene, in which he has a bathrobe on). Barry has sporadic fits of intense rage, usually provoked by the emotional and verbal abuse of his demonic 7 sisters, who constantly remind him of the childhood nickname they gave him (“Gay Boy”) and when he threw a hammer at a window as a kid. But even when he’s not smashing windows, Barry is working hard at a plain job that involves selling novelty toilet plungers. Throughout the first half of “Punch-Drunk Love,” the camera focuses on Barry’s loneliness, positioning his figure adjacent to an empty space. During the first sequence, he witnesses a strange car crash in the wee hours of the morning and an unrelated mysterious vehicle screeches by, dropping off a harmonium on the sidewalk. There’s no explanation for this, but we would probably react the same way Barry did: walking up to it, then running away from it, and hiding behind a corner to see if it’s still there. A few moments later, Barry meets the lovely Lena (played by a stunning Emily Watson), who asks if he can watch her car in the company parking lot for a few minutes while she runs an errand. Their relationship continues, once it’s revealed that Lena is a co-worker of one of Barry’s sisters, perhaps the most emotionally abusive one. But Barry runs into an issue early on, a subplot that elevates “Punch-Drunk Love”‘s romantic dramedy setup. During one lonely night, he calls up a phone-sex line and later receives a call from the same woman, who threatens to extort money from him. Despite his aforementioned rage and inner turmoil, Barry remains calm, cool, and collected and decides to ask Lena on a date. Their date is an incredibly orchestrated and well-acted sequence — definitely my favorite of Anderson’s — and shows Sandler’s understated acting range. First, Barry quietly explains to Lena a loophole he found in Healthy Choice products as a means of acquiring millions of American Airlines frequent flier miles. She’s fascinated by this, but when Lena reiterates a story from Barry’s childhood to lighten the mood, Barry becomes visibly triggered, excuses himself from the table, and goes to destroy the restaurant’s bathroom. He comes back, only to be asked to leave for destroying the bathroom. It’s a truly captivating sequence, hilarious and devastating all at once. To get away from his troubles with the phone sex worker, Barry decides to go to Hawaii with Lena and their romance blossoms from there. When they return, he’s no longer afraid. As Sandler says so eloquently in the film, he has a love in his heart and it makes him stronger than anyone can imagine. When you think about it, love really does make you feel invincible. He says this to the sex worker’s boss Dean Trumball, a Utah mattress store owner played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though Hoffman only appears in the movie for less than 10 minutes, his presence is very welcoming, offering both comic relief and gravitas. The other elements of “Punch-Drunk Love” also work very well. Jon Brion — my favorite film composer — constructs the beautiful, sweeping minimalist score of “Punch-Drunk Love,” which I listened to endlessly way before I even saw the film. Color and tone play an important role in the film, Barry’s blue suit contrasting against Lena’s red outfits, suggesting a yin and yang balance in their relationship. The blue suit also blends in with the colors of Barry’s workplace, indicating a monotony in his life that is subsequently broken by Lena’s appearance. There’s no Andersonian father/son dynamic, but there are fantastic long takes, sumptuous wide shots, and intimate extreme close-ups. The harmonium is a visual motif that remains rather ambiguous, but it holds a thread between Barry and Lena’s romantic connection. Overall, “Punch-Drunk Love” is a beautiful, poignant film that I would honestly recommend to anyone, even those most cynical towards Sandler.

Grade: A

There Will Be Blood (2007)

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Alas, I was excited to watch “There Will Be Blood,” knowing that it drew acclaim upon its release and was considered a masterpiece and one of the best films of the 2000s. It certainly lived up to the hype. Despite some flaws within the film’s framework (lack of female characters for one thing), “There Will Be Blood” is a harrowing period portrait of early American capitalism, seen through the journey of greedy, misanthropic oilman Daniel Plainview (played marvelously by Daniel Day-Lewis). Spanning several decades between the late 1800s and the late 1920s, “There Will Be Blood” twists and turns, spurring as much intense drama and Aristotelian tragedy as the oil Daniel discovers underneath the American soil. Plainview plays a father figure, literally towards his adopted son H.W. and figuratively towards a devoutly religious preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, arguably one of the most underrated actors of our generation). With both “sons,” Daniel showcases his hatred towards others, using H.W. as a business front for his “family man” persona and taunting Eli simply because he wants to bless a water well that Daniel has built in Eli’s town, Little Boston. This starts a chain of events that only makes things worse for Plainview, even though he becomes successful with his oil business. H.W. goes deaf after an explosion at the well, whom Daniel believes is now useless and thus sends his to a school for the deaf in San Francisco. Eli becomes increasingly annoying to Daniel and their relationship becomes even more turbulent when they meet again in 1927 towards the end of the film. Day-Lewis’ incredible portrayal of Plainview is both grueling and captivating to watch, balancing a charismatic appeal with an outward bitterness. One could argue that, unlike other Andersonian characters, Plainview doesn’t have any redeeming qualities whatsoever, considering that he abandoned and later disowned his child, publicly humiliated Eli, killed a man posing as his long-lost half-brother, and generally being an asshole towards those who threaten his oil empire. But there is one small, silent flashback scene towards the end that does show Plainview has a heart deep down, as he is seen playing with a pre-deaf H.W., suggesting that perhaps he did love the boy after all, but that his ambition blinded him from living a happier life. Other aspects I liked about “There Will Be Blood” include the ominous score created by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, the consistently ravishing cinematography, and the religious undertones. Oh, and spoiler alert for those who still haven’t seen this film: there was indeed blood. A lot.

Grade: A-

The Master (2012)

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Again, “The Master” is another P.T. Anderson picture that I was very excited to see and I was not let down. Set in the late 1940s, “The Master” is a beautifully shot, supremely well-acted tale of post-WWII depression and anxiety in America and the beginnings of dogmatic religious groups (it’s based loosely off of L. Ron Hubbard, the leader of Scientology). Joaquin Phoenix — another incredibly talented actor and one of our generation’s best — stars as the sex-obsessed, raging alcoholic drifter Freddie Quell, who is reeling back into reality after fighting in the war. He finds a job at a department store photographer, but gets in trouble after assaulting a customer. He gets another job as a migrant worker, but accidentally poisons a co-worker from a self-made alcoholic beverage (think a mix of moonshine and Jungle Juice). Wherever he goes, bad things seem to follow Freddie, especially when he becomes a stowaway on a ship commandeered by the titular character Lancaster Dodd (played marvelously by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is the “master” of “The Cause,” a movement of sorts whose core message is to help rid people of their inner demons and provoke within them a spiritual, personal awakening. Although many hate Freddie for his recklessness and feral behavior, Dodd takes an interest in him and the two develop a father/son relationship, in which Dodd is the stern but loving father and Freddie is his childish son. Over the course of the film, Freddie enters into the lives of Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), their deceptive daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), their skeptical son (“Breaking Bad”‘s Jesse Plemons), and their devoted son-in-law (“Mr. Robot”‘s Rami Malek). Themes of repression and loneliness come to light, especially during one intense sequence between Dodd and Freddie, in which Dodd asks a series of invasively personal questions to Freddie, who must answer them in rapid succession. We learn that Freddie’s father died, his mother was institutionalized, he had an incestuous relationship with his aunt, and didn’t return to the love of his life after the war like he said he would. Phoenix plays this scene so well and acutely, and continues to do so throughout the rest of “The Master.” This film contains also perhaps Anderson’s best cinematography; it was shot on 65 mm film, giving “The Master” an exceptionally authentic and crispy aesthetic. The production/set design doesn’t disappoint either, capturing the mood and fashion of the 1940s, making each character look as picturesque as their historical counterparts. Jonny Greenwood returns as the film’s composer, mixing operatic strings, angelic harp plucks, and percussive tones to evoke the film’s sense of dread and seriousness. Even though “The Master” has an ambiguous, somewhat head-scratching resolution, Anderson continues to show that well-crafted characters, dialogue, and imagery are enough to make a movie thought-provoking and interesting, even when the plot doesn’t reach full coherence.

Grade: A-

Inherent Vice (2014)

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Speaking of lack of coherence, “Inherent Vice” is one of Anderson’s films that I had certain issues with, in terms of its confusing, convoluted plot and its irritating narrator (voiced by Joanna Newsom, whom I still love as a music artist and as Andy Samberg’s wife). Adapted from Timothy Pynchon’s 2009 novel and set in 1970, “Inherent Vice” plays out very similarly to 1998’s “The Big Lebowski”: it’s a bizarre neo-noir stoner comedy with a satirical take on the American lifestyle, but doesn’t really have a clear sense of what direction it’s going. Nevertheless, Anderson hearkens back to his early films with another incredible and surprisingly diverse ensemble cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Katherine Waterson, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, and Josh Brolin, as well cameos from Anderson’s wife and “SNL” alum Maya Rudolph and “The Wire”‘s Michael K. Williams. Phoenix plays the hippie dopehead P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello, a man with a liking towards cannabis and wacky hairstyles. He becomes mixed up in the crime underground, tackling three different mysterious cases that involve four missing people. One is Glen Carlock, a white supremacist ex-con who owes Doc’s client money; another is saxophone-playing police informant Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) who wants to drop out the operation he was tasked to do in order to return to his wife (Jena Malone) and their daughter; the last two are the film’s most prominent victims, Mickey Wolfmann, a missing real estate millionaire believed to be in an insane asylum, and his girlfriend and Doc’s ex Shasta (Katherine Waterson). Doc does his best to acquire as many details as possible, even though he keeps getting caught up with other surprises like a psychotic pedophiliac dentist (Martin Short) and Doc’s flat-topped cop frenemy “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (an excellent Josh Brolin). The tone and pacing of “Inherent Vice” match Doc’s, moving in several directions while following clues that lead to dark places. But then again, like “The Big Lebowski,” this film is less about plot and more about characters, dialogue, and atmosphere, which Anderson succeeds in capturing. “Inherent Vice” recreates the early 1970s almost immaculately, not just in costuming but also in post-60s paranoia, where cops became worried about Charles Manson-esque cults. Next to “Boogie Nights,” “Inherent Vice” is another sexually frank and violent film. There’s one very long, continuous take shot at an uncomfortable angle, in which a fully nude Shasta sexually teases Doc until they finally mate. Even with moments of darkness, “Inherent Vice” has a tender center, which is especially apparent in one wondrous flashback scene where Doc and Shasta run in the rain to Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past.” I would say that I was disappointed by “Inherent Vice” during my initial viewing, but I hope that I can watch “Inherent Vice” again to just simply watch and enjoy it instead of scrutinizing its ambiguity.

Grade: B

Hard Eight (1996)

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I decided to watch Anderson’s first feature film, “Hard Eight,” last, since I was eager to watch “Boogie Nights.” However, “Hard Eight” unexpectedly became my favorite Anderson film by far. Like “Punch-Drunk Love,” I loved “Hard Eight” for its simplicity, its stirring dialogue, low-key cinematography, and above all, its compelling characters. Philip Baker Hall gives a wonderful performance as Sydney, a mysterious elder man who finds John Finnegan (John C. Reilly), a down-on-his-luck drifter who’s lost everything. Sydney offers his help, despite John’s hesitancy, and slowly the two become close friends — perhaps a surrogate father/son — over coffee and cigarettes. They travel to Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, where Sydney teaches John how to make money at casinos without paying so much or even gambling. Cut to two years later and John seems to be back on his feet and still close with Sydney, even dressing like him and ordering the same drinks as him. They meet Clementine (Gwenyth Paltrow), a flirty cocktail waitress/prostitute who wins the affection of John, and Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a security worker whom Sydney immediately distrusts. Hall’s portrayal of Sydney is so authentic, honest, and layered, his character speaking with a precision and verbal dexterity that makes him engaging. But as “Hard Eight” unravels into much darker territory, Sydney slowly unravels as well, with his open regrets and violent side showing that there’s more than meets the eye. This makes Sydney (and Hall’s performance) all the more emotionally complex. The other performances are great as well, especially a young Reilly and Jackson. There’s even a small but intriguing cameo from Philip Seymour Hoffman as an arrogant hothead who challenges Sydney in blackjack. This film works on many levels, not just as a slow-burning drama, but as an intricate look at father/son dynamics and taking risks for the sake of protecting the well-being of others. Composers Michael Penn and Jon Brion contributed another great original score. Aesthetically, “Hard Eight” is gorgeous to look at — a casino has never seemed more flashy and glamorous. Even though this was Anderson’s first film, “Hard Eight” was an awesome last film to watch.

Grade: A