Bob Dylan's late-career comeback has been an absolute pleasure to behold, but that doesn't mean Modern Times is at the same level as some of his other recent gems. Elsewhere, Ben Affleck steals the show in Hollywoodland, and Neko Case works her voodoo on a terrific new album.
The scores of rave reviews that greeted Modern Times are more a testament to rock critics’ love of Bob Dylan than an accurate gauge of his new album’s merits. I love him, too, but I can still tell a good album from a truly transcendent one.
Bob Dylan, Modern Times (Columbia Records)
Contrary to the legend, you can go to a Bob Dylan show any random night and experience the occasionally unamazing, unrevelatory performance. While I’ve only had the misfortune to witness one near-bad show, I know they can happen, which is why I sorta chuckle at those who want to perpetuate the myth that a genius is a genius no matter what. Same goes for his recent terrific albums, of which this one is the least good. Working in a quieter, more worn-out vein after the straight-up miracle of Love and Theft – a record whose acceptance of mortality and heartbreak was couched with dirty jokes and the best pure music of his entire career – Modern Times will annoy newbies who will get frustrated that they’re missing something and take it out on the fawning press and the artist himself. Instead, think of this as an off night – evidence of blues mastery and sweet balladry, sure, but not in the same league as the real special occasions. Don’t compare it to Love and Theft or Time Out of Mind but instead pull out your dusty copy of 1989’s Oh Mercy, where he sounded equally grizzled and resigned and mortal.
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-)
Just like the guys she helps out with her stormy voice in the New Pornographers, Neko Case makes songs that hit the ear as all of a piece. Her songs are about their sound and how she sings them – the lyrics fit together in the mind just fine even if on paper they’re a bit of a muddle – and this album is full of tracks whose titles you can’t name but nonetheless know and love as "the one about John the Baptist" or "the one about Pauline" or "that really beautiful one," which might be any one of six or seven. Her backup vocalists marshal a power and emotional facility to complement her own skills. Her sense of atmospheric country pop – is this alt-country? Neko in Memphis?– is so thick and sexy and yearning that no one can call this stuff arty or mere experiment. And her musicians are mostly from bands that I’ve liked and admired but never really came to care about until right now. Did they just need her presence and her pretensions to really fly? On the evidence here, absolutely.
Amy Millan, Honey from the Tombs (Arts & Crafts)
I find Stars to be a little too intellectual to embrace their sonics – they think too much to rock – and Amy Millan’s adventure in twang has the same limitation. It’ll help if you’re not paying attention – her voice is pretty, her strumming is pleasantly delicate, and the songs cover the many different ways that love will make you weepy. But the album doesn’t have much heft to it; Honey from the Tombs sounds like a summer diversion from her regular band, which it basically is. But when she talks about those lips she’d like to spend a day with on the casually sultry "Skinny Boy," you want to alert Liz Phair that there’s someone muscling in on her turf.
Wolfmother, Wolfmother (Interscope)
I get the joke. It’s Jack White fronting Led Zeppelin. It’s spot the reference: the tom-toms from "Sympathy for the Devil," the rainy keyboards from "Riders on the Storm," that damn Jethro Tull flute. And, yeah, a few of these songs really rock – not rock in quotes, legitimately rock. But seeing how they’re not joking, this makes these guys more artful but less fun than Andrew W.K. At least they’re not the umpteenth new band trying to cash in on the culture’s renewed interest in ‘80s hair metal.
Half Nelson (ThinkFilm)
Has it been such a terrible movie year that this ambitious-but-not-quite-all-there film gets so many accolades simply by default? Not that I dislike Half Nelson – a film by white people that can create a reasonable facsimile of lower-class black life (while at the same time sticking it to liberal do-gooders) is an impressive enough feat. Plus there’s Ryan Gosling’s dazzlingly oft-kilter performance as a good teacher who means so well but can’t overcome his own chemical dependencies and personal weaknesses. And in its half-formed way, Half Nelson might be a defining time-capsule statement on the economic troubles of our cities and the failures of conscientious people to do anything about it – if the Iraq War ever ends and Bush ever leaves office and things start to improve, maybe we’ll look back at this film and shudder at how it used to be. As for now, Ryan Fleck’s movie is extremely impressive thematically, but in its self-conscious attempt to upend the inspirational-teacher tropes we’ve come to know and hate, Half Nelson seems to stumble around for a strong narrative direction. It knows what it doesn’t want to do plotwise, but it never firmly establishes what it wants to do.
Hollywoodland (Focus Features)
Ample amounts of old-school L.A. noir will probably be enough to get people into the theater – who cares if the murder mystery loses the scent after a while and just starts sniffing around in circles? But if Adrien Brody’s good turn isn’t a surprise, then Ben Affleck’s might be. For the record, I’ve always liked Affleck – I hate everything about Good Will Hunting, but otherwise he’s agreeably self-effacing, slightly apologetic about his good looks, and not one to ram his aspirations down our throats. That’s why his George Reeves is so poignant – he seems to understand a guy who was happy to have a career but wasn’t quite sure if it’s ultimately the career he wanted. If the actor wasn’t Ben Affleck, you’d say he was a guy worth keeping an eye on.
Factotum (IFC Films)
My disinterest in alcoholic writers with delusions of grandeur remains high – both in real life and at the movies – so the best thing about Bent Hamer’s adaptation of the Charles Bukowski novel is that while it captures a world drenched in booze, even gets you to understand how it works, it doesn’t expect you to think these scoundrels have life figured out any more than the squares around them. Factotum is as small and no-big-whoop as its characters’ lives; unlike, say, California Split, it doesn’t distill the deadbeat existence into something universally profound. But the film is never less than totally honest about its characters, and with Matt Dillon and Marisa Tomei both giving one of their best performances, you accept it on its terms. And then you move on with your life.
CSA: The Confederate States of America (Genius/IFC Home Video)
A fascinating film that’s unfortunately not very good, CSA presents a parallel reality where the South wins the Civil War, Jefferson Davis becomes president, and the country goes to hell. Presented as a faux British documentary chronicling the history of the Confederate States, Kevin Willmott wants us to understand that this imaginary country (with its racism and thirst for empire) isn’t so different than the one we know. And while the movie is genuinely upsetting – it simultaneously reminds us that America’s policies could be much worse and that they actually are much worse than we realize – I can’t think of another example where a movie’s shoddy execution so torpedoed its intentions. Working with amateurish actors, an increasingly less compelling story, and awkward recreations of the look and tone of TV news reports and other familiar media images, Willmott makes his political points more by suggestion than by verisimilitude – you get what he’s going for, but the film’s so low-rent you find yourself resisting it on simple aesthetic terms.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.