Sunday, December 30, 2007

Pasolini: Art or Exploitation

(An alternate version of a story published in Vol. 2 of  ParaCinema Magazine)
It’s hard to say if being remembered for what is often said to be the most controversial film of all time is a good thing. Italian director Pierre Paolo Pasolini, who is one of the most misunderstood and fascinating filmmakers in celluloid history, to this day carries the cinematic burden of controversy; a burden that may have even been the catalyst for his murder.

Pasolini’s final film Saló O Le 120 Giornate Di Sodoma (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975) was banned in over a dozen countries upon its release (many of which still hold the censorship), often considered a dangerous piece of film. Original prints were at one point stolen only to be rediscovered, minus lost and now infamous footage. Critics have labeled it exploitative trash, with some tagging it the most disgusting film ever made (even today with genre films pushing the envelope of bad taste with violence and sex, Saló holds its shock value). 

Supporters argue for the film’s artistic merits and staunch political protest messages, particularly the director’s longstanding contempt with Italian fascism and his support of homosexuality. Hard to find DVDs of his films are coveted (The Criterion Collection’s short-lived 1998 release of Saló for example is one of the rarest DVDs on the market with copies on eBay and other online auction sites ranging from $500-$1000) and his films have been studied and debated for years. 

While the storm of controversy and mysterious cult following/curiosity-surrounding Saló will always leave it as Pasolini’s most notable film there is more to the brilliant and underappreciated director than merely his final film. 

In many ways its safe to say Pasolini was a poet first and filmmaker second. Poetry, theater, literature and political propaganda were the embodiment of Pasolini’s early career and in many ways opened up the doors for his film career (before Saló Pasolini had over 20 films under his belt). The director was always interested in the classics often adapting literary giants such as Chaucer, Boccaccio and in the case of Saló the equally controversial Marquis de Sade. 

His early films dealt with the Italian proletariats–everyday characters seldom chronicled on screen during his time. In 1962'sMamma Roma Pasolini weaves a tale of a middle-aged prostitute trying to break away from her unforgiving life on the streets of Rome and does it was a level of grace and compassion normally not given for such an “undesirable” sect of society. 

In 1969's Medea Pasolini tackled Greek mythology with the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece (a story often chronicled on film most notably in the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation cult classic Jason and the Argonauts). Like all the films in Pasolini’s cannon, this is not a kid's version of the classic tale but rather an adult themed take on the story.

Similarly to Medea, Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life–his penultimate trio beginning with cinematic interpretations of Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights, a loose adaptation of A Thousand and One Nights–was a unique and mature take on three literary classics, heavily exploring themes of sexuality (both hetero and homosexual). Pasolini’s films, particularly Canterbury Tales, also served as vehicles for his scathing criticism of religion, specifically the Catholic Church, an establishment commonly scorned in films during Pasolini’s heyday.
Then there is Saló, which deals above all with the themes of power, lust and greed. Upon its release viewers saw in the film Pasolini’s contempt for the Italian fascist regime. While one can easily pick out Pasolini’s overall disgust for the fascist movement, specifically the intolerance for homosexuality, Saló is more an exploration of the abuse of authority. The film examines the destruction of the human psyche and body and does so with dark and disturbing visual images that are not for the squeamish, but serve as an eye-opener to the mankind’s darkest capabilities (aspects of Saló are frighteningly similar to the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib prison back in 2004, which makes Pasolini’s vision all the more horrifying).

I was recently reminded of Pasolini, whose films I discovered during a film class in college, when I was reading an article on the numerous failed cinematic protest films released this year–RedactedThe KingdomRenditionLions For Lambs etc.–regarding the current state of Iraq and our presence in the Middle East. One of the biggest complaints by critics is that gone are the days when film served as a medium for true or effective political and social dissent. Sure Al Gore won a Noble Peace Prize and an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth but one could argue that not much has changed in the battle against global warning since its release and that the use of protest and controversy in art is fading. 

Pasolini was killed following the release of Saló. While the investigation into the homicide is still open many believe that Pasolini, like the late great and equally controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gough, was killed because of his art and the beliefs that fueled it. His final film was scathing towards Italy’s political infrastructure, the Catholic Church, and above all human intolerance. The film stirred things up but that was its point. 

Legacies are a funny thing. It’s unfortunate that Pasolini will no doubt always be remembered as “that director of that disgusting film” since there is more to the highly underrated director than merely a shroud of controversy surrounding his films’ visual content. On the surface many of his movies could be viewed as extreme or risqué but unlike the no-holds-barred torture porn tactics of the modern horror movie (SawHostel etc), Pasolini used this in-your-face form of filmmaking to comment on the grim state of the world. He was not alone. Fellow filmmakers like Spain’s surrealist auteur Luis Buñuel or French master Jean Renoir spent much of their careers making controversial films that weren’t afraid to criticize the state of affairs whatever the cost may have been. Seldom today do we see that kind of radical devotion to films with motives and seldom do films have the power to bring that kind of passion and anger out in audiences. 

Pasolini’s films are not for everyone but should be viewed with an open mind, despite the controversy surrounding them. Like all great art his films are difficult, require a lot from the audience but are important landmarks in cinematic history.

Friday, December 21, 2007

For Your Consideration, Reznor's Beginning of the End

This past week I, like many, was scoping out various magazines, blogs, newspapers and websites to check out the overall consensus of the top albums this year. While for the most part the obvious records were honored–Arcade Fire, White Stripes, Kanye, Spoon, Radiohead, Bruce Springsteen etc.–there was one landmark 2007 album that for one reason or another seemed to have been forgotten and has officially fallen under the radar. 

Nine Inch Nails’ sixth studio album,Year Zero, was released back in April to not only all around critical acclaim but also respectable record sales (Nails still has a loyal fan base out there). While casual listeners who are not familiar with NIN’s mastermind Trent Reznor’s past efforts may hear more of the same inYear Zero–that is to say, more of the fast-paced distortion rock and somber lyrics that Reznor is known for–the album is in many ways a breath of fresh air and one of Nails’ most unique and ambitious projects yet.

One could argue that Reznor has been creating “concept albums” ever since he jumped onto the scene with the gritty, “industrial incarnation” album, Pretty Hate Machine, however, Year Zero may be one of the most fascinating and true to form concept albums released in the past decade and maybe even in rock history. Sure the content matter is conceptual, focusing on a suffering dystopian society that Reznor apparently sees in our near future, but the most fascinating part of Reznor’s vision with Zero is the concept of how the album was marketed, released, and packaged. 

Zero was created on the heel of NIN’s fifth studio album, 2005s fairly sub par, With Teeth. Reznor is long known for taking his time between albums (it took five years for the follow-up to NIN’s masterpiece The Downward Spiral with the extremely underrated, epic double album beast The Fragile, and another six years after that for With Teeth) however, the concept and puzzle of Year Zero was unleashed on fans during the With Teeth tour. 

Reznor has said in interviews that Year Zero is just a small piece of an entire cross medium concept that he envisioned while on tour. Reznor planned Zero to be part of a grand alternate reality game that would include a companion video game, a remix album (already out in stores) and an eventual film/television project of sorts, all tying into the album’s scathing political themes and messages. The project also served as a vehicle for Reznor to toy with his fascination with the changing tides in technology, specifically using the internet and viral marketing to give fans tastes of Year Zero

This past year was quite monumental for the music industry in terms of the marketing and distribution of music. There were a number of file sharing lawsuits, record sales were slightly up but still disappointing compared to ten years ago, Amazon unleashed its online music store, possibly the only one fit to counter iTunes, and a little band called Radiohead decided to screw the industry middleman, opting to release their newest endeavor themselves, in many ways giving listeners a glimpse of the future of acquiring new music. Still with all this news very few people noticed or remember the fascinating and quite brilliant marketing/hype campaign unleashed by Reznor for the Year Zero release.
It all started back in 2005 when Reznor told the media of his intentions of working on new material while on the With Teeth tour. This was followed by a clever interactive world wide viral marketing campaign aimed solely at fans on tour. NIN tee-shirts sold this year featured the words “I am trying to believe,” which, if added to a URL enabled fans to discover a series of minimalist websites describing a futuristic dystopia called “year 0000.” After that concert goers on NIN European tour were treated to actual tastes of the music to come after a number of small USB flash drives were distributed in bathrooms and concert venues each containing more links to mysterious website, binary codes and snippets of music. 

Eventually websites were posted containing whole tracks to the singles “Survivalism” and “Capital G,” often released as midi files through Apple’s Garageband music producing software (much of Year Zero was created and recorded on a laptop while Reznor was on tour, a fairly interesting departure from the artist’s usual perfectionist and extremely detailed studio recording methods of past albums). These multi-track audio downloads also enabled/encouraged fans to remix the songs themselves, again promoting listener interaction. Reznor’s decision to release his music this way goes back to early sentiments favoring the welcomed change in how people get music. In interviews Reznor has expressed feelings that the CD medium as we know it is dying and that digital music IS the future, despite what the corporate recording industry says.

Finally, as a testament to Reznor’s embrace of the inevitable future of music, NIN made the album available for streaming on its MySpace webpage and website and promotional files were leaked through peer-to-peer networks, all before the official record hit stores. The concept of the final disc itself was also fairly noteworthy as it was printed with a special “thermo-chrome heat-sensitive” CD face, which changes the ink printing from black (when cool) to white (when heated after play), revealing yet more mysterious binary codes that in turn lead fans to yet another website clue in the grand Year Zero world. Technology is as much a character in the Year Zero storyline as the crumbling future society Reznor depicts. 

Now while the campaign and unique release of Year Zero is as noteworthy this year as the route Radiohead or any other band has taken, the musical content of NIN’s newest opus should not be overshadowed for it stands high with some of the best this year. 

Very few musicians working today can successfully write or create interesting music that is politically fueled. Reznor has long written songs that tread the waters of dark and macabre subject matter, but never before has he been so specific and angry with his comments on the current state of the world, specifically his concerns and anger for our current administration. Songs like the single “Capital G” are blatant references to Reznor’s disapproval with our current president and the concept of Year Zero is in many ways Reznor’s vision of what our bleak future may look like if we as a country don’t wise up. In one stanza Reznor belts out, 

The biggest problem with the way that we’ve been doing things is 
The more we let you have the less that I’ll be keeping for me

Musically NIN has never sounded better. Reznor helped define the industrial rock subgenre in the late 80s/early 90s yet he seems to have spent most of his career stripping down and transforming the sound he helped create–straying away from typecasting is Reznor’s forte. Year Zero features the signature NIN power drum tracks but mixes thing up by blending funk, dance, hip-hop and distortion rock sounds not to mention a curious lineup of instruments. On “The Greater Good,” an album highlight towards the end of the disc built around a throbbing funk drumbeat, Reznor tinkers with a number of bizarre instruments most notably a marimba, classical harp and what sounds like a Japanese Koto like string instrument. 

It’s easy to forget how talented and innovative Trent Reznor is in the musical arena. Very few people can truly master the “one man show” routine but time after time Reznor continues to reinvent his sound, while also writing songs that are angry, socially conscious and at times hauntingly beautiful. The Downward Spiral was a masterpiece and arguably one of the best records to come out of the nineties. While it’s safe to say that none of Reznor’s follow-ups have come close to the distinctive sound/vision of SpiralYear Zeroas an album and concept is a feat that most artists never come close to. For those who know what I’m talking about you may too be baffled about how easily critics and the “top albums of the year” scribes seemed to have forgotten about this stellar ‘07 release. 

For those who skipped it or have yet to discover NIN seek out this album in whatever method of gathering music you approve with. The way this album was presented to the world is as fascinating as Radiohead’s overly hyped stunt, the political messages showcased on the record best the opinions of most other artists working in the same protest genre, and above all the sounds that Reznor envisions and creates continue to impress, even after six noise infused albums. The last lines of the album’s closer, “Zero-Sum,” truly sum up Reznor’s vision of Year Zero.

Shame on us 
For all we’ve done,
And all we ever were
Just zeroes and ones

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Films You May Have Missed in 2007


 So it's the end of the year and you know what that means, the inevitable swarm of Top Ten lists. Whether it be a magazine, newspaper, or website, it seems anyone and everyone dealing with popular culture sums up the year with a series of rankings. For the most part, these lists are predictable and unanimous. In the music arena there is Kanye's Graduation heading off against The Boss' Magic or indie sensation, Arcade Fire's Neon Bible versus internet music marketing savvy Radiohead who kind of unleashed In Rainbows this year (this album may also be on next year's lists…). In the realm of cinema, people can't stop talking about the Coen's haunting return to form in No Country For Old Men or Oscar hopeful George Clooney's "proof that I'm more than just a pretty face" legal drama vehicle, Michael Clayton.
Now I could follow suit and provide a short-list of this year's highlights and award season shoe-ins but it would be more of the same. I've always been interested in shedding light on the films that for some reason or another fail to make the lists and are worthy of some attention. The following are ten films, in no particular order, that most people may have missed this year.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
It's easy to see why this film had a short life in the theaters and failed to garner any major attention. This is not the suave, ultra charming Brad Pitt that most moviegoers are used. This is why it's also one of his best performances. This film has been labeled a Western when in reality it's about an early form of stardom in American history and the obsession and corruption that comes with it. Pitt's performance is full of detailed nuances that bring both a sense of melancholy and fear to his take on the legendary James. The cinematography by one Roger Deakins (also behind No Country For Old Men) is some of most richly toned and distinctive in recent years and Casey Affleck's take on the Coward is one of the finest performances this year (seriously, he's ten times the actor his brother is). Still very few people actually saw this in the theaters, which is a shame since its also one of the most visually stunning films you'll see this year completely worthy of the $9 admission ticket.

The Lookout
This little indie film from last spring featured yet another scene stealing performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, arguably one of the better young actors working today (sorry Shia Lebouf). This small town bank heist sleeper is one part Fargo, one part Simple Plan, with a little Memento thrown in the pot and features a scene stealing performance by Jeff Daniels, one of this generation's most underused actors.

Danny Boyle is by far one of the most unique and diverse filmmakers working today who–and I know people will find fault in this comment–is likening his career to that of Stanley Kubrick. Allow me explain. Similar to Kubrick, Boyle continues to change his style up with every film. Trainspotting put him on the map with the same grittiness and eye opening themes and imagery as A Clockwork Orange28 Days Later was his foray into horror, helping to reinvent the zombie genre for this generation (Kubrick's The Shining remains one of the finest thrillers out there), and Millions showed he could do a children's story (Kubrick's A.I. would have been a similar venture). Sunshine, Boyle's sci-fi epic holds many comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey–beautiful special effects, moving score, and a things fall apart in space storyline–but is also an extremely unique film with a fairly believable premise, which also serves as scathing social commentary to that inconvenient truth that Gore was on about.

28 Weeks Later
Speaking of 28 Days Later, this surprisingly good sequel to Boyle's instant classic zombie nightmare film featured one of the best opening chase scenes of any scary movie in recent years, had a fairly original and unique storyline for a sequel and above all was as frightening as its predecessor. Still this film had a short run in the theaters but should not be missed if you're up for a good old-fashioned scare.

During the rush of Award season hopefuls it's easy to forget the films that were released earlier in the year. David Fincher has long been a master of the modern thriller but Zodiac was proof that he also had a knack for crafting a realistic investigation flick, in the same vein as All the President's Men. Add a stellar performance by the always-great Robert Downey Jr. and you have a forgotten slow burner from last spring that should be sought out on DVD.

Into the Wild
Sean Penn's faithful adaptation of Jon Krakauer's book of the same name may be my favorite film this year. Perhaps its because I've always loved a good road movie, or maybe I just have a certain level of admiration for the character of Christopher McCandless who in the early 90s set off on a major walkabout of the America's heartland. Penn has always had a knack for directing (seriously seek his little seen 2001 film The Pledge that featured Jack Nicholson's best role of the decade) and his young star Emile Hirsch joins the ranks of Gordon-Levitt as one of the best young actors working today.

Paris, Je T'aime
It's hard to make a bad film about the beauty and magic of the city of Paris and sure enough this collection of vignettes from a crew of international filmmakers doesn't disappoint. Sure some film shorts are better than others but overall this is a beautiful and at times surreal look at the city of love. Highlight segments: "Quais de Seine" Gurinder Chadha's (Bend It Like Beckham) lovely boy meets girl story, which is sure to bring a smile to your face and the Coen Brothers' brilliant use of Steve Buscemi as a confused and unlucky American tourist.

Lucky Miles
This instant classic from Down Under has yet to get a wide release but was one of the gems I was lucky enough to see at Chicago's International Film Festival earlier this fall. In true indie fashion this film relies on a clever often-funny storyline, great performances by extreme unknowns and an important social commentary floating just under the surface. It's also a film that should be seen fresh without any prior knowledge of the plot so I'll leave it at that.

No End In Sight
Forget Sicko. If you see one documentary this year your time should go towards this scathing look at the Iraq war. Told by the people behind the downward spiral of our presence in Iraq, this film will/should make even the staunchest of conservatives second-guess our current administration.

Rescue Dawn
Werner Herzog is one of cinema's best-kept secrets. He's a natural filmmaker who isn't afraid to tackle some of the toughest and most fascinating tales and has a unique adoration for natural surroundings. Dawn joins the ranks of The Great EscapeThe Deer Hunter,Escape from Alcatraz and even The Pianist as one of the finest escape/survival films out there and is also a fascinating look at the pre-stages of the Vietnam war. Funnyman character actor Steve Zahn delivers a career best dramatic performance and Christian Bale proves that even though he stars as everyone's favorite caped crusader, he still has time for thought provoking and challenging roles.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Watch This Show!

As an aspiring writer interested in all things pop culture it is not my place to preach and tell people what to watch, read or listen to. It is not the duty of a critic to tell readers how to spend their time but rather make suggestions, however, every once in a while I find that it is important to inform people about certain parts of current popular culture–be it a stellar new band, an unknown indie film treasure, or a captivating television drama–that have floated under the radar for too long and quite frankly, are too good and/or important to be missed. HBO’s monumental original series, The Wire, is one of these examples. Consider this a plea to anyone interested in quality television who is dying to find a replacement for The Sopranos or who is tired of the mindless reality or sitcom dribble that currently fills the airwaves.

It may seem a bit peculiar to praise a show that has been around since 2002 and next month enters its fifth and final season. The Wire is hardly a breakout series, however, season after season the show remained relatively unwatched by the general public, despite universal critical acclaim (seriously some people have labeled it the best show on television, ever).

In the realm of HBO, The Wire has never brought in the same viewership figures as the network’s more popular landmark shows such as The Sopranos (11.9 million viewers for its series finale), Six Feet Under (average 4-5 million viewers over its five season span) and Sex and the City (about 3 million viewers average per season). During The Wire’s long awaited third season the show brought in a whopping 1.6 million viewers, a series high.

But enough of the numbers. Why am I so adamant about this series? Why devote an entire column to a show that is hardly recognized at the Emmys (one Outstanding Writing nomination in 2005), does not sport a cast of superstar actors, and for the most part is unrecognized and overlooked? Because people, television doesn’t get much better than this.

On the surface The Wire is a cop show, often poorly labeled as “HBO's gritty police drama.” At a quick glance the show’s main focus is the never-ending narcotics war between the police department and the criminal underbelly of urban Baltimore, Maryland, a struggling American city that is as overlooked and ignored in this country as this show itself.

With a description like this it’s easy to categorize The Wire with other good guy, bad guy cop shows such as the highly mundane slew of Law and Order or CSI series (seriously how many of them are there?). Upon a closer look and investment in the show one will quickly realize that The Wire is not interested with these primitive good versus evil themes. The Wire is interested at examining pure capitalism in action, focusing on the social, economic, judicial and political struggles and the overall downfall of the modern American city. Baltimore is its backdrop and there is a definite level adoration for the city seen on the show, however, one can’t help but look at Baltimore as merely an example of modern America and the dire civil problems that have been stewing for the past century.

The show’s creator David Simon, an ex-Baltimore Sun newspaper crime reporter, knows the city he’s lived in all his life like the back of his hand and sees The Wire as an expression of his anger for what it’s become–the political corruption, the deterioration of the many social institutions, and above all the notion that in this day and age the majority of people living in this country are worth less in the grand scheme of things. From the addicts struggling with addiction, the corner boys struggling with the hopelessness of avoiding life on the streets, the rogue cops struggling with a corrupt and unjust system above them, to the ambitious mayor to be realizing the mess of things, The Wire deals with the growth of a corrupt social infrastructure and the downfall of the individual or common man.

While fiction The Wire has always been rooted with in-depth investigative journalism, an aspect that truly sets it apart from other shows in the same genre, even though The Wire should create a genre of its own. The show’s writers, currently made up of crime fiction novelists such as Richard Price, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane among others, research their subjects with great care and detail, tapping into every sector of the city, whether it be life on the streets to life at city hall, no stone is left unturned. The shows producer, Ed Burns, served as a Baltimore homicide detective for years and later taught in an inner city middle school, experiences which lent themselves to the show’s continuing themes bringing a level of harsh realism seldom seen on television. This quest to tell it like it is can be hard to watch (The Wire is often devastatingly real) but it is meant to serve as an eye opener for the sheltered eyes of the average American.The show’s premiere season focused mainly on the ineffectiveness of the drug war, introducing the series’ core characters–the narcotic and homicide investigators and street level drug kingpins, soldiers and pawns. Above all the show’s first chapter showed the hard often unglamorous work that goes into a true police investigation. On The Wire, unlike the formulaic police dramas most people are familiar with, cases take months and often years to wrap, with paper work a mile long.

Season two proved that the series was truly interested in covering the city as a whole, radically changing the target and focus to Baltimore’s struggling and corrupt shipping port unions. Think On the Waterfront meets Traffic with some Greek tragedy thrown into the pot. It’s hard to imagine a 13-hour season that focuses on a group of disgruntled stevedores but take it from me, never before has an examination of this extremely overlooked and forgotten populace been so captivating.

The third season tackled the issue of reform, particularly of the drug trade seen on the street level and the drug war, seen through the political infrastructure. The show expanded its coverage of the city adding a political element and showcasing the fascinating vertical chain of command of the police department all the way up to the mayor’s office. If you thought The West Wing was intricate with its coverage of the presidents cabinet, check out The Wire’s take on the inner workings of an American city’s underbelly. Above all season three begged the question, is this war on drugs a battle we can realistically win?

Last year’s fourth season was the most critically acclaimed and again branched its focus out even farther covering Baltimore’s failing school system (a scathing look at “no child left behind”). This season was undoubtedly the bleakest and most sobering of them all because of its theme of hopelessness, its look into the corruption in the city’s political arena and portrayal of just how ruthless the streets have become, seen through the eyes of a group of naive middle school students living in a world gone terrible wrong. A homicide detective sums up the season and really the show in general when he says, “It makes me sick how hard we done fell.”

Little is known of season five’s plots other than the fact that the main theme tackled will be the media (the aspiring journalist in me is dying in anticipation), a fitting closer for a show that has served as a fictional looking glass into the happenings of one struggling American city.

For those who write praise for the series, it has become a bit cliché to liken The Wire to a great American novel, with every season adding a new chapter to the epic story. Like great literature this unique aspect of the show allows for the development of a large group of characters (the impressive cast of fairly unknown actors and their wonderfully crafted characters deserves its own column of praise), minor and major story arcs, and requires a level of patience and devotion that may discourage casual viewers but pays off for those willing to commit. The show has never been preachy and its messages are never presented up front. Similar to the shows diagetic use of music and lack of emotion stirring scoring, nothing on the show is spoon fed to the audience, which makes viewing the series so rewarding.

Like HBO's other niche dramas, the mysterious dust bowl era set Carnivalé, the “gritty western” Deadwood, or even the newest sensation, the “polygamist lives next door” family drama Big LoveThe Wire is a show that requires a certain level of sophistication and patience that will no doubt turn away passive viewers who find comfort in “anything but” reality television or formulaic cops and robber crime shows. HBO has long been the true bastion for original no holds barred series that rivals the in-depth quality and style seen on film but has always had a leg up to its cinematic counterpart due to the vast possibilities of having a multiple season, countless hour platform to work with.

The Wire is a program that will not appeal to everyone. Its honest look at what is happening to the American city is harsh and difficult to stomach at times, however, it is this foray into the realties facing our country that makes it an important series. A friend of mine once said that he feels like a better person after watching the show because of its window to the world we really live in, the one we don’t see or read about on a daily basis.

I wrote this column because next month the show enters its fifth and final chapter, and unlike The Sopranos, a pop cultural phenomenon that will without a doubt go down in history, The Wire may be one of those overlooked gems that will be forgotten in time. Despite its wonderful cast of actors (it has the largest African American cast of leading actors of any show period) and first-rate writing, the show has never received any love from the Emmys (an awards sweep next year, honoring the show as a whole would be refreshing, but is unlikely). This past week marked the release of the fourth season on DVD (it should be noted that this show works best on the DVD format where viewers can soak up multiple episodes at a time), and HBO subscribers will no doubt be treated to aWire marathon before the final season premiere. And with the cold of winter here to stay now is as good a time as ever to dive in.

Like I wrote earlier, it is not my place to tell people how to spend their time, but for those who don’t know about this series give it a shot. In my humble opinion it is the best show currently on TV and quite possibly the best series television has ever seen (sorry toSopranos fans). So the next time you find yourself at a video store or searching aimlessly through the majority of the trash being broadcasted on TV, unsure of what to watch consider The Wire. I wouldn’t lie to you. Quality, captivating television drama has never been better.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Beauty and the Gray

For most people conceptual or “modern” art is either hit or miss. Some find the subtleties and minimalism of this style to be fascinating; others see it as simply uninspired or lacking true art aesthetics. Whatever your feelings may be there are certain figures in the contemporary art arena whose work and unique style and technique stands strong with the best. 

The Art Institute of Chicago, in collaboration with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of art, is currently hostingGray, a major exhibition chronicling the work of American multi-faceted artist, Jasper Johns from some of his selected periods. Focusing solely on the artist’s work with gray tones, the exposition is an extremely comprehensive overview of John’s fascination with the simplicities of the neutral color over five decades of his career.

Johns has been labeled many things–abstract expressionist, pop artist, and neo-Dadaist–none of which truly define his work. His fascination with the range and tonality of color (and with his gray work, the definition and neutrality of color) has always been present. Similar to pop artists of past and present, Johns has always utilized familiar images and themes (his two most famous pieces, Map and Flag, both focus on visual everyday emblems that we are familiar with thus forcing the viewer to look past the subject). Finally he sees his canvases and works as objects, often utilizing sensations such as texture as well as three-dimensional found objects (usually everyday items such as balls or clothes hangers). 

This exhibit is divided into the different themes and epochs of his gray pieces, beginning with early abstract oil paintings circa the 1950s, which focus on the shades between the monochromatic polars, black and white. The final room is devoted to Johns’ most recent pieces, theCatenary series (1997-2003), which marked a return to his gray form and focused on line and plane utilizing string and other fully dimensional objects that jump off the canvases. While these early and coda works are important to the exhibit’s overall theme and evolution, the work during the middle years, particularly his gray drafts and re-workings of some of his most famous pieces, truly make the strongest lasting impression. 

In the same vein as Map and Flag, both of which have whole series and studies devoted to gray, Johns fascination with numbers and letters are some of the exhibits finest specimens.  Focusing again on everyday iconography (the letters A-Z; numbers 0-9), Johns takes something the eye is familiar with and strips it down to a raw form. 

The bulk middle years, including the MapFlagLettersNumbers and Target series, also illustrate Johns fascination with multiple mediums for the canvas, everything from drawings and sketches, oil paintings, printmaking and stenciling, to the most fascinating; the encaustic paintings and collages. The encaustic technique, which Johns used throughout his career and brought to the forefront of modern art, involves the blending of color pigments with hot wax, which, when layered, creates a one of the kind texture to the canvases. In regards to his use of the canvas as an object and entity of the work Johns has said, “The canvas is object, the paint is object, and object is object. Once the canvas can be taken to have any kind of spatial meaning, then the object can be taken to have that meaning within the canvas." 

Also featured heavily throughout the exhibit are Johns ink on plastic works, which pair up perfectly with his gray themes and create a one of a kind effect, particularly his re-workings of his Target series (large scale bulls-eye forms) in this unique medium. Similar to the encaustic technique, the ink on plastic pieces create a finish and an allusion to texture that jumps off the white walls, which they are hung. 

The most curious and bizarre part of the exhibit (also the easiest to miss) is the tucked away room containing some of John’s early ventures into sculpture. The handful of gray painted bronze busts also focus on common icons such as household objects like light bulbs, which, despite their minimalism, are fascinating illustrations of his talents outside the canvas. His bronze sculpture, The Critic Sees, a scathing critique of scathing art critics (Johns had his share of negative reviews) is one of the more underappreciated highlights of the exhibition that should not be missed. 

Featuring roughly 130 different works covering a range of different mediums Gray may seem a bit daunting at first but as you flow through the various rooms and watch the evolution of the artist’s work unfold, it’s difficult not to find a certain level of beauty beneath such a stale, achromatic color. For spectators not familiar with the work of Jasper Johns, Gray may appear as a bit of a specific introduction since much of his work is vibrant with color. That said, Gray encompasses themes of Johns work that he has explored all throughout his career and since the exhibit spans five different decades it’s a perfect way to witness an artist’s transformation and maturation. 

Jasper Johns: Gray will be at The Art Institute of Chicago’s Regenstein Hall until January 6, 2008 and will run at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 5 to May 4, 2008. For more information visit

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cinema For the Holidays

Festive string lights are going up all over town, Christmas trees are hanging off the roofs of cars and consumers are lining up ready to be hearded into various retail giants like sheep. Yes it’s safe to say that the Holiday season is officially in full swing. Normally I get turned off of all the post Thanksgiving holiday mayhem, however, one part of this season that is consistently a high point for me are holiday movies, particularly holiday comedies. Just as Thanksgiving marks the beginning of shopping nightmares or the eating of foods with words like nog and log, the television waves are chock full of holiday films of present and yesteryears. Some are good, others not so good (anyone know why the savvy individuals in the DVD industry decided we needed a reissued special “Family Fun” edition of Gov Schwarzenegger’s Jingle All the Way) but one thing is for sure, certain holiday films can be revisited and enjoyed year after year. The following is a short-list of some of my favorite holiday flick picks. 

A Christmas Story
Okay so this one goes without saying. Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up watching this film and have seen it more times than I can remember but for me this is the best Christmas film out there. Where to begin: Ovaltine, the little orphan Annie’s secret decoder ring, the furnace fighter, the luminescent leg lamp, Skut Farkus’ red eyes and yellow teeth, the Chinese Christmas, and of course the Red Rider bee-bee gun. This is a classic that actually spawned a sequel, the lighthearted, “It Runs in the Family.” Please seek this movie out if you haven’t had the pleasure yet. Standout scene: the creepy department store Santa Claus and his posse of nasty elves..

The Ref
Released when Kevin Spacey was still a great character actor, this Holiday dark horse about a fast talking burglar (the always good Denis Leary) who takes a highly dysfunctional family hostage on Christmas eve is one of the most honest looks at the stress of the holidays on the modern marriage. The film is also a wonderfully scathing look at life in suburbia made long before CAmerican Beauty. Standout performance: Glynis Johns as one of the vilest mother in-laws ever brought home for the holidays. 

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—Remember when John Hughes was a master of the family and teen comedies of the great 80s? Remember how funny, charming, and warm the late great John Candy was? This may be one of the funniest films ever and is without a doubt the best comedy about the horrors of holiday travel. Set right before Thanksgiving, this odd couple story of a family man (Steve Martin) who partners up with a highly obnoxious shower curtain ring salesman (Candy) with hopes of getting home for the holidays by any means of transportation possible. Made long before Tommy Boy, a somewhat similar travel comedy, this situational comedy is a classic that has aged well. Standout performance: Character actor Dylan Baker’s brilliant bit role as Owen, the tobacco-chewing hillbilly who drives the duo to Wichita. 

Home For the Holidays—Paired with the above mentioned, this is another classic Thanksgiving film that also shows the stress and horrors of large family gatherings. Directed by Jodie Foster (weird huh), this film is about how even in the most dysfunctional, chaotic reunions families can come together and embrace what they have. While this film is a dark comedy it is also a very mature and realistic look at what goes into dealing with a family and the love that is often overshadowed. Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft and Claire Danes all shine still the one standout performance has to go to the always great Robert Downey Jr. who was apparently struggling with his addiction to drugs during the filming. 

Scrooged—Richard Donner’s brilliant 80s comedy starring Bill Murray in his prime is a modern retelling of Dickens. While the film deals with greed and bah humbug Christmas spirit, it is the film’s portrayal of absurd commercialized televised Christmas specials that really makes this film a gem. Murray’s Frank Cross, a wretched network exec out to milk as much money from the holidays by commercializing/butchering Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol is priceless. Besides the extremely funny casting of spry gymnast Mary Lou Retton (remember her) as Tiny Tim, Cross’ Carol for the modern age is an intense big budget disaster with the tagline, “acid rain, drug addiction, international terrorism, freeway killers. Now more than ever it is important to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Don’t miss Charles Dickens’ immortal classic, Scrooge. You’re life just may depend on it.” The network also has a TV spot for Robert Goulet's Old Style Cajun Christmas. Priceless. Standout performance: 80s comedy icon, Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present.

There you have it. All of these films are on DVD and most will no doubt be littering the cable networks during the upcoming weeks before Christmas.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Malick's America

“In this world, a man, himself, ain’t nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.”
“You’re wrong there, I’ve seen another world.”
—The Thin Red Line

There are a number of master filmmakers working today, untouchables you might call them, who continue to make the crème of the crop and whose films are judged not in terms of good or bad but rather by levels of brilliance. Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Spielberg, possibly Tarantino, at one point Francis Ford Coppola, are just a couple names that come to mind. Then there is Terrence Malick who, despite having only four films under his belt and lacking the notoriety of the latter names, is one of the finest, critically acclaimed, and most mysterious American filmmakers alive today.

It’s hard to warrant calling someone a master with such a limited film canon; still few filmmakers are as unique and majestic in their craft as Malick. Jumping in the spotlight with 1973’s Badlands, a Bonnie and Clyde-esque epic starring a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Malick quickly established himself as an up and coming visionary due to his unique visual style, passion for natural settings, and a harsh but honest portrayal of the America way of life, the country’s history, and the stark realities of the “American dream,” a theme that carries on through all his films.

Badlands, which was based on a real life murder account set in the Midwest, is a film that deals with two characters’ boredom with the social realities of the America they live in–the normality of Sheen’s character’s dead-end job, the unfair class infrastructure and finally the desire to escape to the vast open spaces of our country. 

I was recently reminded of Malick, whose movies I revisit at least once a year–his films are a sort of mesmerizing experience that only seem to improve with age–after renting Malick’s recently re-released sophomore film, Days of Heaven. Beautifully restored with time and care by the brilliant people over at the Criterion Collection, the only true bastion of the preservation of cinematic classics on DVD, Heaven is one of the most beautifully photographed films of all time. 

Arguably Malick’s most eye opening motion picture to date, Heaven is a film that deals with the American frontier dreams as seen through the eyes of some young, ambitious laborers circa the early 20th century. Richard Gere (quite possibly his only substantial role) stars as a young troublemaker who is forced to flee Chicago after a tussle at his factory job, and moves with his girlfriend and her sister to the Texas panhandle to find work as a farm laborer. While the story involves a vicious love triangle and deals with people who try to take the easy road to fortune and prosperity, it is the film’s visuals, particularly the wide angle shots of the American plains set on a backdrop of dawn/dusk half-light that truly makes this film a masterpiece. Watching the film is like witnessing a Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, or Ansel Adams photograph come alive in brilliant color, accompanied by a moving score.

Few filmmakers rely so heavily on stunning cinematography and the use of au natural setting as a major entity of their work as Malick does time after time. He has been labeled a frontier filmmaker for his fascination with the evolution of this country. His work is often riddled with metaphors and underlying philosophical meanings, a facet of his films that often deters viewers who are quick to label him pretentious. Above all though, his films are visually breathtaking, often working with the finest cinematographers and scouting the most picturesque locations.

By capturing the natural beauty of this country and later with the rest of the world (as seen through the South Pacific Islands of The Thin Red Line), Malick is able to showcase the clashing of people and the environment in a way that few filmmakers have ever done. Days of Heaven is a film about frontier Westward expansion and the greed and corruption that came along with it. The scenes of the laborers working in unity as a sort of machine are visually beautiful thanks to Malick’s unique eye but are also saddening because it shows the fast pace of change and expansion that transformed and in many ways destroyed this country’s natural order.

After Days of Heaven, which was well received, even garnering a controversial Academy Award for cinematography (two notable cinematographers, only one recognized); Malick became a J.D. Salinger-esque recluse, vanishing out of the public’s eye for twenty years. Many speculated that Malick was working on the great American novel; others believed he was writing an epic screenplay, some even speculated that he had died. It wasn’t until 1997 that he made his highly anticipated return in the form of The Thin Red Line, an epic Asia-Pacific theatre World War II film with a brilliant cast of notable and up and coming actors. Loosely based on the novel of the same name (supposedly a much longer, “true to the book” cut of the film is out there with narration by Billy Bob Thornton), Line chronicles the U.S. army’s takeover of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific during the war with Japan. Paired with Spielberg’s brutal but mesmerizing Saving Private Ryan (released curiously enough around the same time), this is the finest World War II film ever made. 
While not set on U.S. soil like his two prior films, Line is as much a film about America as it is about ‘the War.’ The many characters featured in the film each cling to the memories of the comfortable America they have in the back of their minds while the realities and chaos of the war around them provide a harsh wakeup call to the fact that the world is lot bigger than the their innocent small town life they’ve come to know. A couple soldiers, particularly Private Witt (played wonderfully by future Jesus Christ superstar, Jim Caviezel), see the grandeur and beauty of the world that they are helping to destroy but are slowly sucked back into their mission. Like all his films, Malick uses images of the vast natural surroundings to show serenity, beauty and the pulsing lifeline of our planet and then depicts its vulnerability through the mayhem of war and man’s devastating footprints. Few films are as affective at showing the absurd, chaotic, and futile nature of war than The Thin Red Line

In 2005 Malick returned to a script that he had been working on since the 70s (possibly what he was toying with during his twenty-year hiatus) about the landing at Jamestown and America’s “unofficial” conception. People were quick to label The New World a retelling of the Pocahontas and John Smith story, sans talking raccoons and boisterous river canoe songs, when in reality (again like all Malick films) there was more to the film than just the love story. 

The New World is in many ways an extension of all of Malick’s previous works and is also a precursor to the American theme he’s worked with throughout his career. The film chronicles America’s first hour and the slow, inevitable downward spiral that followed. It deals with expansion and the birth of modern civilization paired with the slow destruction of the preexistent natural order. The film’s gorgeous opening five minutes set to the stirring string and horn crescendo of Wagner’s beautiful “Vorspiel Prelude” from Das Rheingold is a scene that, in the same vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is the perfect pairing of imagery and sound. 

The films of Terrence Malick are not for everyone. His use of long shots, voice-over narration, and scripts that dabble in philosophical prose often leave viewers befuddled. Despite casting big names like Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Sean Penn, George Clooney etc, his movies are not your average popcorn epics. I remember attending an opening night screening of The New World with a group of college friends and being the only one to leave the theater even remotely satisfied (they hated it that much). Still he is an important filmmaker who continues to create unique movies that stand alone, and with a new project, the mysterious The Tree of Life, on the horizon, it’s evident that Malick is eager to contribute more to the world of cinema.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Art Rock

Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is currently hosting Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967, a comprehensive and at times fascinating look at the meshing of visual art and rock and roll over the years. The exhibit, which runs until January 6, chronicles the relationship between artists and rock music across the globe while also tapping into a number of subgenres. 

Named after the Rolling Stones hit single offBeggar’s Banquet, a curious choice since the Stones are featured sparingly, the exhibition is broken up into several different wings, each paying homage to a different significant rock and roll hub. From New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, London and Manchester in the U.K., Cologne, Germany, the multi platform art displayed represents certain elements from the cities and their unique sounds. Album cover art, promotional poster sheets, music videos and video art, rock and roll photography, traditional 2D paintings and drawings, and even sonic art soaked in via headphones, surround sound loudspeaker rooms and even a makeshift sound recording booth that can be reserved by anyone out to make a demo tape. 

While true art snobs may find the exhibit to be underwhelming, rock purists may be unforgiving for the lack of attention given to certain genres and equally important music scenes, and casual rock listeners may become jaded after the first couple rooms, the exposition is affective at examining how art was once a major influence on the music world and vise versa. The one troubling aspect of the exhibit is how little there is about the use of art in recent rock and hip-hop movements.

Sure the exposition covers obvious art-house favorites such as avant-garde guitar shoe gazers Sonic Youth (band member Kim Gordon is featured heavily throughout the exhibit) but little more is covered post the early 90s alt rock and punk epoch. While this lack of attention given to my generation left me a bit baffled I began to realize that in many ways art is no longer as significant to rock music as it once was. 

I remember as a kid discovering my parent’s massive record collection and immediately being drawn to the dazzling visuals that were featured on the LP covers. From the famous Andy Warhol crotch zipper on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, the mysterious naked children figures perched on the sea of rocks on Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy LP, the washed out distorted faces of Talking Heads on Remain in Light, the Dalí inspired surrealism of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, to the Beatles, an art conscious band that released some of the most noteworthy cover art in history. The use of art in rock albums was at one point as big a focus as the fine-tuning of sound, the poetry of the lyrics and appearance/persona of the band or musician. Lately though I think it’s safe to say that the link between rock music and the art world is growing thin. 

It could be said that the death of vinyl and the slow but steady demise of CDs are to blame for a downfall of album art, with more attention spent on the marketing and methods of selling and distributing music there is less attention or care given to the art (I mean iTunes packages albums with “digital booklets,” but I can’t help but think it is a noble but poor replacement for liner notes). 

This argument goes well beyond merely cover art, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the best place to look for a band’s visual art influences. One of the most fascinating parts of the MCA exhibit dealt with underground punk bands of the 80s and their use of cheaply made and distributed promotional posters, many of which were artistically and politically creative. While the “do it yourself” underground music mentality is still alive today we rarely see promotional poster art, the kind that made you stop on a street corner, since we now have Myspace pages and websites (don’t get me wrong, one could make a strong argument for the advantages of the internet and the many artistically designed sites out there.)

Then there are music videos, which during the 80s and 90s became a controversial yet extremely popular way of mixing art with music. Some people argued that spoon feeding listeners images to go along with the lyrics of a song was a poor replacement for your imagination, however, there were many conceptual artists who used these shorts in creative and fascinating ways. 

Most people know about the handful of unique film directors working today who got their starts in music videos and commercials. There were certain videos that we as music lovers actually looked forward to watching, videos that took our favorite songs in extremely unique directions. I remember watching Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” song premiere after The Simpsons (corny I know) as a young lad, waiting in my friends basement for Nirvana’s “Heart Shape Box” video to come on, crossing my fingers for the VJ to play Beastie Boys’ hilarious “Sabotage” video or yearning for that next Beck video to come out, a musician who overlooked/visualized the majority of his highly stylized and brilliant videos.

Today it’s hard for me to remember the last truly great video I saw (Mark Romanek’s ultra bizarre but extremely wicked modern art museum inspired video for the Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” song may take the cake). Sure artists like Radiohead, Bjork, Muse, Missy Elliott, Beck, Franz Ferdinand or Jay-Z still put out fairly unique, eye opening videos and certain artists still take great album cover art seriously (I may be the only one who dug Pearl Jam’s minimalist avocado cover on their last album), but for the most part music these days seems more concerned with the “to steal or not to steal” debate than extending their creativity past simply the music. 

What struck me as interesting about the MCA exhibit was how important the use of art once was. To have your photograph taken by someone like Robert Mapplethorpe (he did Patti Smith’s Horses album) or be sponsored by a visionary like Andy Warhol (who himself was idolized by musicians and artists) was something to aspire to. Bands like New Order (there is a fascinating look at the design of Order’s Power, Corruption, & Lies floral still-life album cover on display at the MCA), Funkadelic, 70s era Miles Davis Frank Zappa, or the slew of progressive rockers from the 70s (ELO, Yes, Asia, Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, almost all these groups relied heavily on visual art often using up and coming surrealist portrait artists like Roger Dean or ahead of their time graphic designers like Storm Storgerson) had a passion for art that went beyond the notes they played. Today though it seems like the biggest aspirations a musician can have is to work with a hotshot producer (uh hum, Glen Ballard) or have there song featured on whatever ridiculous “Laguna Whore” reality show is the fad that week (note that this statement does not cover every musician working today because there are some keeping the marriage of sound and vision alive. Just the majority).

Walking around the MCA I was curious as to what a similar exhibit might look like 20 years from now. How will future generations view the current state of music we’re in? Sure there have been advents in technology and I fully support the internet’s role in distributing music but I can’t help but think that we’re losing something with this change. There was something aesthetically pleasing about walking around the Sympathy exhibition. Seeing the full size carefully drawn posters, seeing how certain album covers were designed or walking over the room of vinyl records (you’ll see). The MCA exhibit is worth checking out (Tuesday is a free day so how can you not!) for anyone interested in learning about a fascinating piece of rock and roll history.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Forget About Jason, Forget About Freddy: Halloween Cinematic Thrills

With Halloween just around the corner I thought I would use this opportunity to discuss my favorite part of America’s true beloved holiday, scary movies. There is something exhilarating about absorbing a truly frightening film or for that matter passively watching a bad horror movie with friends. While some people seek thrills by climbing mountain faces, jumping out of airplanes, or fleeing from angry bulls (seriously, can anyone truly explain Pamplona, Spain’s Running of the Bulls gala of insanity) the majority of us turn to cinema for our adrenaline fixes. Since the dawn of the celluloid filmmakers have been dishing out films reserved for those with a taste for the macabre. 

Horror movies are some of the most consistent pieces of the film industry. Sure there have been highs and lows in the genre, resurgences have come and gone, but one thing remains true; people will always yearn for those cinematic chills. The demand, however big it may be, is always constant with horror films. The golden age of cinema through the 60s brought on big studio monster movies, sly noir thrillers, and of course, Hitchcockian suspense (a subgenre respectively). The 1970's, arguably the paramount epoch of cinema, period, saw the expansion of the horror genre and gave filmgoers some of the best nail biters out there. The creation of VHS and movie rental houses triggered a massive wave of low-budget, schlock video nasties from across the globe during the 1980's and helped spawn the current highly exploitative, gross-out horror phase that horror movies are stuck in now. Then there were the 90s, which began with a slump in the genre followed by a fairly lame return to teen slasher films–the 
Party of Five horror heyday, as I like to call it. 

Some say the new millennium has been a breath of fresh air for the genre with an overall rise in popularity of no holds barred gore fests (
Saw, uh hum, IV opens this weekend I believe along with some ultra violent arctic vampire movie) and a surge of film curiosities coming from East Asia, aka. the “fear the black haired ghost chick with eerie feline larynx” genre. Personally I think horror of today is more focused on shock than on scares. Still over the years despite a saturated market of genre films there was a fair share of gems that managed to break through to stand the test of time. 

Now I could use the rest of this column to list the obvious horror film masterpieces–
The ShiningThe ExorcistHalloweenAlienWait Until DarkA Nightmare on Elm St.Texas Chainsaw MassacrePsychoRosemary’s Baby etc etc–but I thought it would be better to discuss the sect of underrated, overlooked, and forgotten gems in the genre that are just waiting to be discovered

Italian Suspensia
Similar to the current, “Asian Extreme” horror subgenre as I believe it’s being referred to, there was a slew of gritty international slasher films coming out of Europe, specifically Italy, during the late 70s and 80s. While there are a number of classics from this wave there is one pinnacle film that stands proud with the best of the best as one frightening cinematic experience. Dario Argento has been called the European Hitchcock for his unique sense of visual style, use of wonderfully creepy soundtrack scoring and a diverse canon of thrillers behind him. If this statement is true then 1977's 
Suspiria may be his Spellbound crossed with Psycho. This eerie supernatural thriller relies on stunning cinematography, intense sound effects, a brilliant use of color, unusual setting (creepy German gothic dance school in the woods) and sheer gothic atmosphere for its scares, rather than simple gore tactics (although the film is pretty brutal in its own right). While the film may seem dated thanks to horrible overdubbing (a standard norm during its filming) and some rather silly low-budget special effects during its finale, this movie lives up to its corny tagline–“The Only Thing More Terrifying Than The Last 12 Minutes Of This Film Are The First 92”–as one of the most frightening roller coaster rides you’ll ever encounter. Also check out Argento’s Tenebre and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, and Mario Bava’s Black Sunday

Psychological Thrills 
Some of the scariest films out there aren’t necessarily categorized as horror, but rather psychological thrillers or dramas. Surrealist auteur David Lynch is a master of building scenes of sheer suspense, and has long used this tactic in just about every film he envisions. Still his freakiest film to date has to be the curiously overlooked 
Lost Highway. While the film itself is a bit of a WTF thanks to Lynch’s devotion to not spoon feeding his viewers meanings or intentions, it features some of the most intense and spine chilling moments of any film he or others have done, particularly thanks to a creepy performance by Robert Blake as the pale-faced Mystery Man who lacks eyebrows and videotapes people while they’re sleeping. 

Adrian Lynes is often labeled as an erotic thriller filmmaker thanks to films like 
Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful but his true masterpiece is a little sleeper circa 1990, Jacob’s Ladder. Tim Robbins (in his best performance) plays a Vietnam Vet who is forced to deal with some inner demons, literally, and some haunting discoveries about his past. The film deals with paranoia, the use of mind altering drugs, the collapse of the human psyche and even more serious issues such as government experiments on American GIs in Vietnam. Going more into the plot might spoil the movie, which is best viewed fresh. Other good psychological gems to add to your Netflix, The Wicker Man (original), Roman Polanski’s brilliant Repulsion, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, & Brad Anderson’s Session 9

Monster Mash
Today most people associate horror movies with the knife/axe/power tool wielding slashers that have flooded the market over the years; however, some of the original and best horror films are those dealing with the classic tale of monsters. Fan of the early Japanese monster movies like 
Godzilla or Rodan? If so check out the recent Korean gem, The Host, a film that not only redefines this corny genre but is a pretty suspenseful movie. Always adored the dark horror comedy, An American Werewolf in London? Check out another fun British werewolf film Dog Soldiers, which is a high-octane cat and mouse chase film set in a creepy English forest. Think vampire films are cool? Check out the cool 80s bloodsuckers in the desert road movie, Near Dark, starring a baaddasss cast of 80s actors including a memorable Bill Paxton. 

Recent Greats
Forget the countless 
Saw films, the pointless torture porn of Hostel, the recycled Japanese PG-13 ghost story movie remakes and pointless sequels/prequels to classics. Since 2000 there have been a number of quality frighteners creeping past the mainstream eye. The extremely scary, keep you on the edge of your seat 2005 spelunking nightmare film, The Descent relied on Alienesque claustrophobic suspense, creepy creature effects and fast-paced cinematography to create what is hands down the scariest movie in a long time. Before remaking a lackluster Wes Craven 80s horror cult favorite, The Hills Have Eyes, Frenchman Alexandre Aja made an extremely disturbing and chilling slasher, High Tension, which, despite a critically disparaged finale, is a pretty frightening film experience. Two Spanish speaking up and coming directors took the classic ghost story in brilliant directions with The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo Del Toro) The Others (Alejandro Amenábar). Japanese shock filmmaker Takashi Miike has made a number of cult gross-out films but none compare to his slow burning suspense masterpiece, Audition, which features one of the most F’ed up and terrifying endings imaginable. 

For anyone looking for a fix of chills this Halloween or whenever for that matter, seek out some of these titles. Sure there is a time and a place for the fun, goofy, and campy horror films of past and present, but there is no denying that wonderful feeling you get from a truly unique and frightening piece of cinema.

Friday, October 19, 2007

That Actor, From That Movie

Character Actors

For every leading A-grade actor, every tabloid luminary there are countless, equally talented character actors stealing the show from their more mainstream costars. These actors often have heavily padded resumes and work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. While moviegoers usually recognize these actors many will often have trouble matching a name to a face. This “what’s that actor’s name?” commonality is probably amusing to the actors (Being John Malkovich shed light on this with satirical brilliance) and quite possibly embraced in the acting community, however, it is important to credit and praise these talents.

It could be said that “character acting” is kind of a redundant term since the essence of acting has always been taking on the form of different characters and personas and making it your own. Still since the dawn of celluloid this title has been reserved for a certain sect of actors and actresses who devour every role they’re handed. Classic legends such as Peter Lorre (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon), Ernest Borgnine (The Dirty Dozen, Marty) to more contemporary greats like Steve Buscemi (quite possibly a modern day Lorre), the impeccable Gary Oldman (seriously this versatile and terribly underrated actor has played it all and brings shear brilliance to each role), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joey Pantoliano, Harry Dean Stanton and Paul Giamatti to name a few, are versatile actors who slip from role to role with care and ease, always putting out a stellar performance even in the bleakest of films.

Many of these character actors have hit it big landing more leading roles and garnering award attention, however, the truly great ones continue to pick their roles wisely and despite their new found fame are persistent with their scene stealing ways. Widely known examples such as Kevin Spacey and Benicio del Toro in The Usual Suspects, John C. Reilly in P.T. Anderson’s Hard Eight and Magnolia, Frances McDormand in Fargo, Chris Cooper in American Beauty, Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, Danny Aiello in Do The Right Thing, Julianne Moore in Short Cuts, to name a few, may now sound cliché but are still prime examples of highly skilled actors stealing the show with small character roles.

I was reminded of the allure of great character actors this past week after I saw three great new releases, all of which featured stand out performances from a number of new and veteran character actors.

Michael Clayton, the new legal drama and George Clooney vehicle shows that yes, Clooney can act and is more than just a pretty Hollywood face, however, while his acting chops were top notch it was two of his supporting thespians that truly caught my attention. Tom Wilkinson has been making films (usually out of the spotlight) since the 70s but only recently garnered the attention and diverse roles he deserved. He’s played the devastated, vengeance filled father (In the Bedroom), the light-hearted comedic role (The Full Monty), the quirky human psyche specialist (Eternal Sunshine on a Spotless Mind) and even stole the show with a small but memorable role in Shakespeare in Love. With Clayton he masters his role as a crazed legal genius going through a bizarre mid-life crisis who comes to a startling realization and questions his morals. His performance, along with co-star Tilda Swinton, who plays a conniving corporate lackey, is so strongly executed that event he finest of details (body language, eye contact) are brought to life strengthening two fairly minor but important roles.

The newest addition to this wonderfully welcomed new-wave Western revival, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, featured a great performance by Brad Pitt (a star who is best in projects that he’s no doubt passionate about) and an even better one by Casey Affleck (a longtime superior actor to his older brother), however, it was some of the minor roles that truly caught my eye, specifically by one Garret Dillahunt. In James Dillahunt’s character is minor and merely serves to aid the plot, however, his few scenes with Pitt’s Jesse James are spellbinding to watch due to the actor’s patience with his character and brilliant attention to the finer nuances of his slow-witted character (see the movie to understand this). This actor has a short film list to credit but is quickly becoming the go to man for Western and early American History period pieces thanks to his outstanding performances (he actually plays two different roles during two different seasons) on HBOs brilliant short-lived Western drama, “Deadwood.” With an upcoming role in the highly anticipated modern Western No Country For Old Men and two more films in the works Dillahunt seems to be on the right track towards a promising acting future ahead of him, one where he will no doubt wear many different faces.

Finally I was awe struck by veteran character actor Hal Holbrook’s (All the President’s Men), moving performance in Sean Penn’s must see film, Into the Wild. Here’s a movie that features a number of fine bit roles from a number of great actors including Catherine Keener, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden and even a toned down Vince Vaughn (if you ever saw Return to Paradise you’ll know Vaughn is more versatile then people think), who all shine with small but juicy supporting roles. Still it’s Holbrook’s turn as a complicated, deeply saddened nobody whose eyes of the world are reopened by a young vagabond that truly stands out.

I could probably throw out an even longer list of great character actors working today–for those curious here are some others: Javier Bardem (his creepy role in the upcoming No Country for Old Men has people talking already), Danny Huston (Angelica’s gifted brother; see The Proposition), Danny Trejo (go-to-man for crazy Mexican desert biker roles), Alfred Molina (from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Frida, he’s done it all), Dylan Baker (go to man for square everyman, oh, and creepy pedophile), Ted Levine (chilled audiences with his flawless portrayal of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs and still pops up in film and on TV), and Billy Bob Thornton (ok so he’s a bit mainstream but some of his early roles, specifically the indie sleeper A Simple Plan, are simply jaw dropping). People joke about the universal “What’s that actor’s name?” discussions when talking about character actors but what’s interesting about this is that these are the faces that we continue to remember from past movies. More often than not we favor the smaller roles over the obvious star performances.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Musical Reinvention (Madonna Puns Aside)

Within the past month there have been a number of monumental releases kicking off the fall music season. There was that intense Kanye vs. Fitty 9/11 showdown, last week Bruce Springsteen released Magic, his newest record with the E Street Band, and this past Wednesday fans around the globe were treated to a rare musical milestone with the internet release of Radiohead’s highly anticipated seventh album, In Rainbows. Amidst all the publicity and hoorah for these monumental releases (for the record, Kanye’s Graduation and Magic are both surprisingly great records, and as I’m writing this Radiohead’s newest opus is blaring through my headphones for the fourth time) it was easy to overlook some other smaller but equally rewarding album returns from a number of talented musicians including, ether-worldly vocalist Sam Beam aka Iron and Wine, guitar sultan Mark Knopfler, and ex-Eurhythmics siren Annie Lennox, to name a few. The most startling, overlooked, and finest album to jump start the fall is by one PJ Harvey.

Polly Jean Harvey has been releasing beautifully crafted and radically unique albums since the early nineties. She made a splash with records like 1995's To Bring You My Love, and 2000's Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea both of which earned her well-deserved praise and a small but loyal following. What ties all of Harvey’s albums together, despite her furious and versatile voice, is the common theme of reinvention. Her recent musical contribution, White Chalk, is Harvey’s most bizarre transformation yet but it also might be her best.

Fueled by a dependence on minimalist, lullabyesque piano melodies, a surprisingly welcomed move away from the usual fiery blues electric guitar sound of latter records, and a rather haunting change in vocals, White Chalk is a puzzling album that asks a lot from its listener, but is nevertheless and instant classic. Part concept album (Harvey channels a number of different beyond the grave ghostly voices on this record), part shift into the realms of goth folk rock, if such a genre exists, Chalk is arguably the weirdest transition of Harvey’s career and raises the question, what’s next for Ms. Polly Jean?

Artists have been shedding their musical skin for years, drastically changing their sound, style and in some cases completely reinventing music, as we know it. White Chalk is by no means as prolific as when Dylan picked up an electric, or The Beatles helped coin the phrase “art rock,” but I can’t think of a more perfect recent example of how the best musicians working are the chameleons who strive to evolve through change.

While listening to White Chalk (the album has been a staple on my iPod all week and has yet to leave my car’s CD player) I started to conjure up a list of other notable radical musical reinventions from artists over the years.

Miles Ahead—It’s become a bit cliché, at least in the jazz world, to say that Miles Davis changed the face of jazz on more than one occasion–always looking forward, never looking back. Still when you look at this legend’s career and the choices that he made it’s hard not to play along with this statement. The three obvious Miles milestones were 1949's Birth of the Cool, which took Bebop a step further living up to the album’s title; 1959's Kind of Blue, the first true modal, atmospheric jazz experience; and 1969's In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, fusion records that brought on the wave of free jazz and helped link rock and roll to jazz. In reality Davis continued to reinvent his sound album after album until the day he died (Davis’ final album, the critically panned Doo-Bop, is proof that had he continued making music Davis might have helped to bridge the short gap between hip-hop and jazz) despite being ignored and lambasted by so-called jazz purists.

Cha-Cha-Cha Changes—David Bowie was at one point the most capricious musician working in the industry, bending genres and sounds at every chance he could. From early Brit pop singer songwriter (Hunky Dory), to glam rock pioneer (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane), dark goth rocker (The Man Who Sold the World, Diamond Dogs), and the shamefully overlooked (1. Outside), R&B crooner (Young Americans), experimental ambient kraut rock (Station to Station, The Berlin Trilogy: Low, Heroes & Lodger), proto punk (Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) dance pop (Let’s Dance, Black Tie White Noise) and even a stint in bass and drum heavy electronica (Earthling), Bowie’s androgyny and shape shifting persona went far beyond simply his appearance.

Under African Skies
—During the 80s a number of big name artists shed the familiar sounds of their back catalogue and explored the varied rhythms and styles coming from South Africa’s afro-pop scene and the Caribbean reggae wave. In almost all cases the musicians who went the worldly route in lieu of the synth-pop heavy music of the time created some of the finest records of their career, often introducing audiences to musical sounds being created outside of the mainstream. In 1986 Paul Simon ditched his humble singer songwriter persona with the release of Graceland, a record that dabbled in a slew of bicultural sounds–African acapella, Louisiana gospel R&B, Tex-Mex guitar rock, to name a few. Talking Heads seemed to change their style on every record but it wasn’t until the out of left field, Afro-pop influenced masterpiece, Remain in Light, that they let their true artistic visions best the demands of 80s pop music norms. Add fellow contemporaries such as Peter Gabriel (Melt, So) and even Michael Jackson (1979's Off the Wall may have helped jumpstart this intercontinental melting pot trend) and it’s hard to deny that the 1980s were more than ever a time where popular music was transforming into a global medium.

The Crooked Beat—It’s safe to say the Clash had been evolving and broadening their musical range ever since their self-titled debut, however, 1980s triple LP monster Sandinista! was the record that truly went all out thanks to an interest in damn near every style they could come up with–dub reggae, classical chamber concertos, disco, and even bizarre Eastern European folk dance (listen to “Lose this Skin” for this comparison to make sense). The release transported The Clash well beyond the simple “punk band” title they helped coin and would unfortunately be there last truly great contribution.