Kanye West's new single suggests a new direction for the talented rapper. The Broken West raise their game with Now or Heaven. And Keira Knightley isn't the best thing about The Duchess.
You know Kanye West is a major talent because he inspires such impassioned discussion from both his fans and detractors. You also know he's a major talent because when he releases two versions of the first single from his upcoming album, it's big news.
Kanye West, “Love Lockdown” (from the forthcoming 808’s & Heartbreak, Roc-a-Fella) This is as good an excuse as any to mention that I may have finally turned the corner on Graduation, Kanye West’s album from last year. It’s still too brash and empty, but its showmanship – which initially turned me off – is truly a thing of beauty. My initial hesitation came from my unwillingness to accept West’s determined transition from thoughtful underdog to world-beating (although, if you listen close, still thoughtful) colossus. So maybe I’m overcompensating now, but when I heard the initial version of “Love Lockdown” – the one everybody else hated – I was really impressed. Spare and haunted, it was like almost nothing else in his catalog, and at this point I’m willing to trust his ears over mine. “Love Lockdown” wasn’t anything major and certainly wasn’t on the level of a “Gold Digger” or “Stronger,” but I dug it and couldn’t wait to hear more. The tweaked “official” version, which is currently leading the iTunes singles chart, is great, too. Though it’s less brazen than Graduation, don’t think for a second that showmanship isn’t the song’s major selling point – “Love Lockdown” is what an established artist makes when he’s not worrying about his next check and just wants to try something different. Its emo vibe is charming, and, hey, the man’s singing about love, which is a development a lot of us have been waiting for since The College Dropout taught us to expect the moon and the stars from this guy.
The Broken West, Now or Heaven (Merge) I tend to undersell debut albums from hyped bands – I like them, they’re fine, we’ll see what they do next. So what invariably happens is that when the sophomore disc comes out, I gush about the artistic advances while everyone else has moved on to something new. But I get suckered in sometimes, too. I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On, the Broken West’s first album, was ripe with promise and I overrated it a tad, hoping for the best from the group. But I needn’t dissect its limitations – the band’s new album does that for me. Now or Heaven is a far trickier, more intricate beast than the power-pop I Can’t Go On, and at first it seemed needlessly complicated and willfully difficult. Then it clicked in its entirety. If before they wanted to be Teenage Fanclub, now they’re setting their sights on Spoon – really, though, they just want to match that band’s readiness to try anything within the strictures of indie rock. And while the sound may have gotten denser, frontman Ross Flournoy and his crew make sure the songs have lift to them – unlike a litany of bands that tried following Radiohead’s example and ended up with sonic mashed potatoes, the Broken West are all about pleasure. Which means they’re still power-pop, I guess. That and a whole lot more.
The Duchess (Paramount Vantage) I'm indifferent to Keira Knightley. She's not untalented and she doesn't rub me the wrong way – she's mostly just a pretty thing that shows up in movies on occasion. The Duchess is probably her best role, although I still think she's too young and vague to have much fire. Mostly, she's great decoration – she doesn't stick out, she blends in nicely. The Duchess is another story of romantic desire having to give way to societal duty, but I enjoyed how the film went through its paces – not too stuffy, not too cheekily irreverent. Mostly I just really liked Ralph Fiennes as the boo-hiss duke ruining Knightley's life. This is a familiar archetype, but what Fiennes does very right is play the character as a monster who deep down wants his stubbornly independent bride to like him despite how terrible he is to her. It's impossible to watch the film with its political backdrop of a nation looking for change and not think about what's going on now. But like everything else here, it's done lightly – so lightly that you'll sorta kinda remember it but not in any meaningful detail.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Magnolia Pictures) There’s little to say about a movie that’s so gentle and (mostly) effortless in its design – how it makes you feel can’t quite be described because it’s all so ephemeral. A tale of a Chinese father visiting his distant, distracted American daughter, director Wayne Wang’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is an understated look at generation gaps and culture clashes that becomes a quiet little rumination on the immigrant life almost by accident. It’s a short film – 83 minutes – and it has nothing profound to offer the world. But it’s very effective in its way, although I do wish it didn’t become one of those dramas where a family’s buried secrets come bubbling out in a third-act talkathon. That’s the only moment where Wang pushes at all. As the father coping with the Pacific Northwest, loneliness and an unhappy daughter, Henry O is the model for why subdued, near-invisible performances never get recognized at awards time – the point of the performance is to be invisible, so if you succeed no one remembers it. I don’t want to oversell A Thousand Years – it’s a little flicker of a movie – but despite its modest means, I do find myself still thinking about it. Jellyfish (out Sept. 30 on Zeitgeist DVD) If directors Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret's film about a series of women going through minor life changes had been your typical American indie, would folks care as much? Probably not – it would just be dismissed as another vaguely poetic, warmly sympathetic doodle about the put-upon fairer sex. Instead, Jellyfish is set in Tel Aviv, which gives the film a certain whiff of international prestige. This movie is no big anything – at 78 minutes, it still feels elongated – but what saves it is a general sense of oddness that cuts through the copious amounts of preciousness elsewhere. It's slightly cutesy, slightly moving, slightly amusing, and slightly mysterious. If it doesn't tell us anything earth-shattering about marriage, old age, divorce, suicide, or the artistic temperament, at least it doesn't insult our intelligence, either. But is it slight.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.