Sunday, December 28, 2008

Rourke Returns to the Ring


Film Review: The Wrestler

Directed By: Darren Aronofsky

If you look back at the last four years of leading actors you may notice a trend of performances that early on managed to secure a sweep of all major acting awards, often times despite the overall merit of the film. Jamie Foxx in Ray, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, and Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, each won for their portrayals in decent but hardly perfect biopics. Last year Daniel Day Lewis turned in a masterful performance that towered high above the rest and was destined for glory at all major award ceremonies. While 2008 has a number of strong contenders a clear victor has already proved that this pre-award season Oscar hype trend is sure to be continued.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was labeled, rather prematurely one might add, as the comeback role of the once great Mickey Rourke. To be fair to Rourke the actor’s most surprising “back in the spotlight” role came in 2005 as grizzled Marv in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City. While not heralded as award caliber, Rourke turned in one hell of a scene stealing supporting performance in the highly stylized comic book film. What The Wrestler really captures is a deeply personal character study from an actor, who like the tragic, beat up wrestler he portrays, has had his share of highs and lows. To say that this is a career role is an understatement, in many ways it was the role Rourke was destined to play.

What’s striking about The Wrestler is that at its core its nothing more than an underdog sports film in the tradition of its boxing brethren Rocky or Cinderella Man, to name a few. It’s predictable–following the timeless formula of the tragic figure’s return to glory–but its clear that Aronofsky and Rourke understand this but don’t care. The film manages to be fresh thanks to Rourke’s turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson and the fact that the film inhabits a world most people don’t really know anything about.

In interviews with Aronofsky the director has expressed that early on in his career he envisioned a film entitled The Wrestler, since the world of professional wrestling had never been covered seriously in film. It’s in this film’s fascinating content that The Wrestler is more than simply a vehicle for a great performance (for example the aforementioned Ray or Last King of Scotland) but rather one of the better films this year.

While Rourke’s The Ram once inhabited the mega stardom world of professional wrestling in the 1980s–as seen through the character’s aging fans, personalized action figure, early Nintendo game character–The Wrestler is more concerned about what eventually happens to the once great players in an industry that has since lost its way.

Professional wrestling has always been staged and because of this falls in the realm of entertainment rather than sport. While arguably as popular in the 80s and early 90s as other professional sports, ever since the mass realization of its choreographed nature–as seen in its name change from World Wrestling Federation to World Wrestling Entertainment–wrestling has since become more niche and as a result more gritty. Ram’s glory days of the flashing spotlights, colored spandex, and roaring battles at Madison Square Garden have long been replaced with elementary school gyms, hardcore wrestling moves involving glass, staple guns, and self-induced wounds, not too mention a body that has seen better days.

Besides The Wrestler’s goofy subject matter (and the film is quite funny at times) The Ram is no different than any other once famous athlete who’s been forgotten and tossed aside. But unlike the forefather’s of say basketball or football who are embraced with hall of fame inductions, endorsement agreements, and an overall carefree retired existence, The Ram feels the sting of failure and loneliness.

It’s fitting that he finds comfort in his weekly lap dance with an aging stripper (played equally well by Marisa Tomei, an actress who here also turns in a career high supporting performance) both are professional entertainers in an industry with no respect and both are stuck in aging, occupation hindering bodies. A separate movie called The Stripper could also be made and would be equally as tragic and engaging as The Wrestler provided the right star and filmmaker were on board.

Aronofsky tackles this film and the world of wrestling much like a documentarian might. The supporting cast is made up of primarily real-life wrestlers, each of whom play off Rourke as if he were their equal. Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes take place early on with the behind the crowd pre-match pow-wows in which the performers discuss their upcoming moves and end games much like musicians discuss their setlists. We as the viewer are being sucked into a world most of us never think about and this is the beauty of The Wrestler. We realize wrestling is fake, but beyond that we are clueless to the time and thought that goes into each performance, not to mention the toll the profession takes on its players both physically and mentally. In a field like wrestling, stripping or any other questionable career in entertainment it’s easy to forget the people behind the characters. 

Rourke has his share of tender, teary-eyed moments, most memorably in scenes alongside his estranged daughter whom he attempts to reconnect with. Still it’s his ability to flawlessly transform into The Ram that will no doubt seal the deal for Rourke come award season. His beat up, steroid fueled body (Rourke’s prior foray into the brutal world of professional boxing not to mention questionable plastic surgery procedures no doubt helped his physical transformation), his second nature facial twitches, his lonely mumbling, and his charming interactions with fellow wrestlers, deli counter customers and young fans all enable this successful portrayal.

According to early reports from The Hollywood Reporter Nicolas Cage was originally in line to star in The Wrestler. After watching Rourke come out of his hibernation with this performance it’s hard to imagine anyone else taking on this role, in fact the casting choices truly defined this film.

Rourke's toughest competitor this year will be the mighty Sean Penn whose mesmerizing turn as Harvey Milk was also a career defining performance. Still the sacrifices endured for taking on The Ram make this role all the more juicy. 

The Wrestler is a rare success of a film, one that features an untouchable performance while also providing a compelling look into a world foreign to most viewers. If the criterion for a truly great film is being able to transport viewers away from their comfort zone into the unfamiliar and ultimately change the way we perceive the unsung world being portrayed, The Wrestler is a masterpiece. If great acting is shedding all common real life presumptions and misconceptions by completely absorbing the character, Mickey Rourke is this year’s acting champ. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Band of Brothers Episode 1: "Currahee"


Episode 1: “Currahee" 

Directed by: Phil Alden Robinson

Written by: Erik Jendresen, Tom Hanks

Original Airdate: September 9, 2001

The most striking comparison between Band of Brothers and its shorter, elder brother Saving Private Ryan is the former’s focus on showing the journey this group of soldiers embarks on, from start to finish. Whereas Ryan opens with a gruesome punch to the gut, Brothers opens with our characters’ origin–in terms of The War, their pre-departure training.

Opening with personal interviews with a handful of living Easy Company survivors each telling their reasons for volunteering for the airborne unit (the use of real faces of this company is another brilliant technique that makes Band of Brothers so unique in the pantheon of war films) we instantly realize that the majority of the characters we’re about to spend the next ten hours with were more or less all there for the same reason. Unlike the war in Korea or future wars (our current predicament in the Middle East included) World War II united Americans to fight for a sole cause. Pearl Harbor showed the vulnerability of home turf and as a result men volunteered, often times (as was in the case with many airborne privates) in an outfit they knew nothing about. Many had no idea what the airborne division was only that it was an opportunity to serve and, as we discover, it paid $50 more than other outfits. One veteran perfectly sums up the national attitude of the times when he says, “We came from a small, small town and three fellows in that town that were 4F committed suicide because they couldn’t go. A different time.”

Currahee refers to a mountain in Georgia used as a training camp for American Paratroopers, the boot camp being the setting for Band of Brother’s first act. Like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, one of the finest and most underappreciated Vietnam War films, Band of Brothers spends its first hour showcasing the mental and physical preparation required to go to war. Basic training is more than just gaining physical endurance and learned battle skills. The rigorous nature of the training is more about preparing the mind for the utter horror the psyche is soon to endure. In Jacket Drill Instructor Hartman (played beautifully by a brash R. Lee Erney) appears at first as nothing more than an amusing caricature of discipline and routine. We later learn that his tactics, no matter how cruel or intense they may seem, are nothing compared to the true chaos of combat.

We meet Easy Company in basic training under the strict tutelage of Captain Herbert Sobel. The casting of ex-Friends player David Schwimmer as Sobel was scoffed at upon the series initial release and watching the first episode, which focuses primarily on his character, it’s easy to see why the choice was a bit odd. Besides physically resembling the real Sobel (as a quick Wikipedia search confirmed) Schwimmer is a bit distracting in the role–a superstar mug amidst a cast of otherwise unknown actors, many of whom are British. Like so many hit television stars Schwimmer will never be able to shed his pretty boy background and his presence is the one minor flaw in an otherwise stellar debut episode.

Sobel, while imperfect (as the viewer and the boy of Easy eventually find out), proves to be the right kind of tough when it comes to not only preparing the men for whatever might come their way but also bringing them together. He forces his men to run the extra mile and march at night while the other platoons are resting. Through his diligence the men become accustomed to dehydration, sudden surprises (as seen in a scene where the company, having just sat down to a heaping spaghetti dinner are summoned to run up Currahee mountain), and even a grueling crawling exercise through piles of rotting animal innards (an atrocious but as we know from Saving Private Ryan, a necessary routine).

As the episode progresses and we become aware of Sobel’s inefficiency in actual combat scenarios, we see the men of Easy bond in a manner that can’t be forced or taught. Sharing the common concern over their superior’s capabilities in the line of fire (and ultimately their survival), they join together in an act of mutiny to rid their company of its dead weight. Trust is a theme that resonates throughout the first episode and looks to be one that will carry through the series.

Sobel’s inabilities shed light on some of the stronger characters of the ensemble most notably Major Richard Winters (Damian Lewis), who early gains the trust of the men of Easy. His friendship with Captain Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston, the only other truly recognizable actor in the ensemble thus far, of Office Space cult stardom) is also hinted to in this episode, a primer for what looks to be another reoccurring part of the series.

This first episode takes its time introducing the faces of Easy Company while also giving a glimpse into the time and energy needed to prepare for war, and more specifically jumping out of a plane (after all this story is about Paratroopers, a terribly dangerous outfit). The episode’s cliffhanger leaves Easy on a plane out of a base in England on its way to a Normandy invasion. What’s fascinating about the way the episode ends is the realization that no matter how much training these men have attained nothing will truly prepare them for what’s in their near future. We the viewer know this and from the nervous looks on many of the company, they do too.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

--While David Schwimmer’s presence is a bit distracting his moments of confusion (while lost in a training exercise in the English countryside) and utter fear (seen during a parachute jump exercise) actually work thanks in part to his signature droopy-eye expressions. When he loses Easy Company, even though with high accolades for his training methods, you can see the desperation on his face. Respect and honor are what the commanders strive for.

--Schwimmer and Livingston are the most obvious faces but there are some pleasant surprises including Donnie Wahlberg who we catch brief glimpses of in Episode 1 but who will clearly become more of a prominent figure as the series carries on. Also present is one Kirk Acevedo, a terribly underused actor known among the HBO enthusiast circle as a memorable inmate on OZ but also for his role as a private in Terrence Malick’s mesmerizing Pacific WWII film, The Thin Red Line.

--Nice to see Brit Simon Pegg of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz acclaim pop up as Sobel's awkward right hand man. The ensemble so far has number of British acting leads, a casting tradition not at all foreign to HBO. 

--Including the episode’s prologue of interviews with the last remaining men of Easy was one of the best decisions Spielberg and gang made for this series. Much like Ken Burns’ recent documentary The War, hearing the story firsthand gives the viewer an entirely new perspective on just how monumental the War was. Americans stopping their daily routine and enlisting for a universal cause is something this country hasn’t truly seen since. After Spielberg made Schindler’s List he helped found an organization determined to interview survivors to hear their stories before they were all gone. It appears that he extended broadened this goal during the making of this series. While Band of Brothers is a dramatization anchoring each episode with these testimonials brings a human element to the story that very few traditional war films can ever achieve. 

Tackling the 'Band of Brothers'


A Different Time: An in-depth dissection of HBOs Band of Brothers miniseries

Steven Spielberg was on to something when he signed on to direct Saving Private Ryan. Craft the grittiest and most realistic World War II film ever made. To this day the film’s stomach churning opening scenes at the peek of the Normandy invasion remain some of the most startling pieces of celluloid ever made–a gritty, in your face cinematic experience that captured the true horror of warfare like no other film before it. It’s as if Spielberg filled in the now infamously lost Robert Capa D-day photos–the shaky camera, the soiled lens, the utter chaos of first couple hours of the invasion.

Saving Private Ryan as a whole, however, suffers from its lack of human emotion and personal perspective. While the film follows a company along its mission to seek out Private Ryan, the film never truly allows us into the minds of the characters or let’s us feel the true emotion of camaraderie, of triumph and loss–to this extent even though the film has a skilled ensemble of actors the characters lack back stories and building character arcs. While differing in its account of the war and its scope, the ten-part miniseries Band of Brothers is very much the well-needed extension to Private Ryan, focusing less of its attention on the brutality of war and more on its emotional toll.

Based on the true experiences of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment also known as ‘Easy Company,’ chronicled in Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same name, Band of Brothers is quite possibly the most epic war film ever produced.

It makes sense that Spielberg and crew (including Ryan star and producer Tom Hanks) chose HBO as the vehicle for their ambitious miniseries. Created on the heels of the network’s newfound success with its original series, films and documentaries, not to mention the wonderful award winning miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (of which Hanks also produced), Band of Brothers was too big for basic television. The censorship of primetime television wouldn’t suit the story’s need for authenticity. Advertisement breaks would distract viewers from the series’ flow, and a project of this breadth would call for creative independence, an appropriately epic budget, and above all the time and patience needed to get the job done. HBO is notorious for its artistic integrity, unrestricted content and persistently advocating for quality over ratings. 

Following in the footsteps of past HBO series and films, Band of Brothers was also the perfect match for the DVD niche market–a sprawling ten hours that could be savored piece by piece every Sunday night or inhaled in a more concentrated viewing schedule (the latter providing a more in-depth experience in regards to following complex storylines and tackling large character ensembles).

After discovering most of HBO’s flagship series on DVD (never until recently having access to the paid cable service) I missed Band of Brothers initial airing back in 2001. I steered clear of its censored basic cable, commercial heavy syndication on The History Channel and only until recently picked up the series on DVD. Rather than review the series as a whole I thought I would carefully pick apart the series chapter-by-chapter, episode-by-episode. As is the case with most miniseries of this nature some of the best moments often end up being the most forgotten tidbits–a short interaction between two characters or a bit of back-story perhaps–with this in mind a more in-depth look at Band of Brothers was in store. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ten Great Albums of 2008



It was a great year for music with lots of destined to be classic albums to pick from. This shortlist represents the records that will no doubt be stand the test of time. Vampire Weekend had a good year but will the whitest band around really be remembered twenty years from now? Lil Wayne stirred things up but was he the best Hip Hop had to offer this year?

We’ll see how this list stands up to time. Until then here they are, Ten Great Albums of the year in no particular order.

Portishead, Third

Of all the comebacks and regroupings–Guns and Roses’ overly hyped Chinese Democracy, My Blood Valentine’s magnificent tour but lack of new material, or The Smashing Pumpkins unnecessary half-reunion–the most rewarding return came from Portishead. After two equally exciting trip-hop outings from the early 90s, the Bristol, England trio went on a twelve-year hiatus destined to drift into nostalgia. The group’s third record, appropriately titled Third, showed a musical maturation that few bands ever achieve. Instead of resurrecting its trip hop roots Portishead went an entirely different route blending carefully orchestrated electronic harmonies and rhythms with Beth Gibbons’ ethereal pipes. While each of the album’s tracks stand out in their own way the absolute moments of brilliance come with the opener, “Silence,” guided by a driving bass and drum beat and featuring an otherworldly vocal sample (in this case a recording of someone speaking in Portuguese) and “The Rip,” a dreamy ballad with a crescendo of electronics and vocal range that make it the album’s one true repeat track. That Johnny Greenwood and Thom Yorke of Radiohead both covered this song extensively during the sound checks on their last tour only adds to the song and this album’s genius.

Q-Tip, The Renaissance

Sure Lil Wayne will probably steal the thunder of best of Hip Hop this year (and Tha Carter III is indeed a great album) but one of the most exciting and rewarding albums to be released was from one Jonathan Davis, known around the Hip Hop community as Q-Tip. It seems like ages since A Tribe Called Quest disbanded and it’s been a striking nine years since Q-Tip’s first solo album, Amplified hit the streets. The Renaissance is a closer venture to Quest’s jazz funk influenced, socially conscious hip hop than Amplified and shows that Q-Tip still remains one of rap’s best lyricists–nasally, sarcastic, and electrifying. The album features a number of guests most notably from Norah Jones whose appearance on “Life is Better” dwarfs her work on Outkast’s The Love Below. “Believe” makes good use of D’Angelo’s still active pipes while Raphael Saadiq (whose 2008 album The Way I See It is just shy of being a top contender) shines on the hook of “We Fight/Love.” Q-Tip has long been a hip hop favorite but has been out of the spotlight in recent years primarily landing guest spots on other artist’s records. The Renaissance may not end up being as important or timeless as The Low End Theory but amidst other hip hop artists working today it’s nice to see that one of raps pioneers still has what it takes. 

Brian Eno & David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

Much like Radiohead’s pleasant internet download surprise with last year’s In Rainbows, David Byrne and Brian Eno’s unexpected collaboration and subsequent internet stream/release of new material was the stuff of music geek’s dreams. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is a testament to just how perfect some musical matches are. Absent were the now predictable African polyrhythms and worldly samples of the duo’s previous collaborations–the stand alone project My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the three peat of Talking Heads masterpieces culminating with Remain in Light–instead loyal fans were treated to a rare mix of uplifting electro pop gospel songs the likes of which neither musician has ventured towards before. Sure a bit of nitpicking would find flaws in the album’s two minor tracks–the penultimate “Poor Boy” or “Feel My Stuff,” a track that needs to be heard/seen live in order to truly appreciate–but overall this is one of the most enjoyable albums of the year. “The River” alludes to early Heads quick hit pop tunes. “Strange Overtones” brings the duo’s appreciation of groove and funk to the forefront and the album’s title track–a heavenly ballad anchored by the album’s hopeful money line From the milk of human kindness/From the breast we all partake­­­–is quite simply a joy for the ears. Both artists have continued with solo and producing careers over years but nothing comes close to matching the masterful music they produce together.  

M83, Saturdays = Youth

Often donned this year’s ultimate homage to the 1980s, M83’s latest album is much more an ode to the teenage wildlife. Musically the album carries on the torch of electro and synth pop outfits like The Orb and dream pop pioneers like Cocteau Twins, while lyrically referencing adolescent angst, naïve love and wonder. On “Kim and Jessie” M83’s chief Anthony Gonzalez sings, Kids outside worlds / They are crazy about romance and illusion behind a blanket of keyboards and thunder drums. “Up!” alludes to cosmic travels of two characters who may or may not be carefree intergalactic vampires (of the galaxy we fly we feed we suck we bleed we need...), while “Skin of the Night” feels like a forgotten soundtrack to the countless fantasy films of the 1980s, from Labyrinth to, as a friend hinted to in her enthusiasm for the album, Ridley Scott’s “so bad it’s good” Tom Cruise vehicle Legend. Saturday = Youth is the ultimate ode to the synthesizer, a relic from the advent of sampling and electro pop that has seen a resurgence in years past mainly in the hip-hop world (Common’s recent lackluster release, Universal Mind Control is very much a similar wink and nod to the electro funk forefathers) but rather than merely a silly collection of dated melodies M83 gives us fresh, modern take on the 80s electro pop glory days.


TV on the Radio, Dear Science

TV on the Radio’s follow up to the universally celebrated Return to Cookie Mountain somehow got lost in a sea of other new albums and failed to get the monumental release it deserved. Sure it was instantly a critic’s darling with many claiming that it improves on its predecessor by straying away from the dark undertones and ultimately being more accessible musically but in terms of popularity it didn't make as big a splash. Dear Science is proof once again that there are few groups working today as unique and innovative as TV on the Radio. Musically trying to classify the songs that make up Dear Science is a futile exercise for Radio has always been a band to just soak up and experience. Funk, hip-hop, art-rock, EMO…the list could go on. Lyrically the messages on Dear Science aren’t as bleak as its predecessor but still manage to convey a level of political and social unrest. 

TV on the Radio is a band that doesn’t require adoration. It has realized its place in modern music and is currently in the state of simply showing off the extents that it can take its sound. “Halfway Home,” arguably one of the best opening tracks to any album in recent years (world’s apart from Mountain’s terribly bleak opening “I was your lover, before this war”), is a promising start to what ends up being a flawless album from start to finish. “Family Tree” propelled by an electronic symphony of strings and reverb drenched piano is a heartbreaking love song set, one would assume, during times of slavery, alluded to in the verse, “And in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree / There's a hundred hearts or three / Pumping blood to the roots of evil to keep it young.” “Crying” returns to the band’s penchant for commentating on society’s woes with lead singer Tunde Adebimpe crooning, “Gold is another word for culture / Leads to fattening / Of the vultures” while the album’s closer “Lover’s Day” may be the closest thing to an unadulterated, uplifting love song the group’s ever released–a highly erotic and exuberant tribute to the physical act of love. TV on the Radio established itself as the “IT” band to keep an eye on with Return to Cookie Mountain. Dear Science secures their future legacy as one of the few bands that mattered during the 00s. 

Gnarls Barkley, The Odd Couple

Like TV on the Radio’s follow-up to their massive hit The Odd Couple didn’t make nearly as big a splash as its predecessor, St. Elsewhere. Much of this might be attributed to Barkley’s refusal to provide another runaway hit single. “Crazy” was arguably the song of 2006 and up their with “Hey Ya” as possibly one of the best of the decade. Many viewed Elsewhere as nothing more than a vehicle for “Crazy,” an attitude that hindered an otherwise triumphant debut record. 

The Odd Couple continues Barkley’s mission of blending psychedelic rock with soul, funk and hip-hop in a bizarre melting pot of sounds and influences. To truly respect what these two innovators are doing you have to appreciate Cee-Lo’s soulful pipes and DJ Danger Mouse’s tight production. The Odd Couple is not only better than its predecessor but arguably one of the forgotten gems of the year. The lyrics are more poignant (i.e. “Got some bad news this morning / Which in turn made my day”), the production more varied and interesting and Cee-Lo’s vocals have never been better. Add this to a bizarre internet download leak of the album played backwards in its entirety from the group themselves and you have one of the year’s most weirdly rewarding releases from a band that proved its beyond a mere one-hit-wonder legacy.


Erykah Badu, New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)

Those who said the neo-soul movement was ancient history were only half correct. It seemed fitting that the artist who helped start this budding genre would be the one to help propel it in a completely new direction. It had been eight years since Erykah Badu’s last proper album, five since her 2003 EP Worldwide Underground and fans were starting to fear Ms. Badu had gone the way of D’Angelo. New Amerykah: Part One is the first of what appears to be a series or duo of albums with Part Two: Return of the Ankh slated for release next year. The album is a hodgepodge of sounds from soul’s varied past brought to a modern, politically fueled stage. Its opening track “Amerykahn Promise” sounds like a forgotten piece of the Parliament catalogue featuring sirens, sound effects, driving funk guitar and dance rhythms unlike anything Badu has ever done before. What follows are a series of wildly varied tunes borrowing sounds and styles from damn near every genre even remotely linked to soul and R&B. “The Healer/Hip-Hop” takes the album down a notch to a dark bumping groove, while on “Me” Badu dishes out a down to earth personal message about getting old and becoming one with herself and her surroundings. New Amerykah is one of the early albums of 2008 that may have been forgotten amidst what followed it. Its release marks a new day for Badu and a radically different musical direction that is not only fascinating but also welcomed. Part One’s only flaw is that we must wait till sometime next year to see how she continues this new project.

Sigur Rós, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

Sigur Rós continues to release music that can’t really be described with words; it must be experienced firsthand. Much of the band’s success over the years is its blending of traditional and new sounds with lead singer Jónsi Birgisson’s signature falsetto. To say that Sigur Rós is a bit of a one-note wonder may be a bit of a stretch but the fact is album after album they continue a formula that consistently works. A little ambient pop, a bit of building crescendo for each song and lyrics that are only familiar to Icelanders and sometimes solely the band itself. If one were to categorize Með suo… among Rós’ other albums it could be described as the most stripped down and folk oriented release to date. There are few songs that utilize the band’s signature bowed electric guitar sound instead the group rely on acoustics and an array of live horn arrangements. Sigur Rós will remain one of those rare groups that are embraced no matter what they put out. Ranking this album among the rest is pointless. They are band to see live, a band whose albums should be listened to whole, and preferably with good headphones, and so far the group can’t seem to go wrong.

She & Him, Vol. 1

The move from music to acting has always been an easier feat to accomplish than the opposite. Zooey Deschanel is the last person who you’d expect to be part of one of the best albums of the year but here we are. Deschanel is the She of the duo with indie darling Matt Ward wearing the shoes of Him. Together they have crafted one of the most enjoyable albums of the year–a collection of pure, unadulterated catchy throwback pop tunes. Unlike other actors making the jump to music (Scarlet Johannson’s failed Tom Waits covers album comes to mind) Deschanel has long been an amateur songwriter with a voice of gold. On Vol. 1, which is comprised of all original songs (may written when Deschanel was younger) and two memorable renditions of standards, Zooey sings of love lost, broken hearts, love found, dreams come true, and being “alone on a bicycle for two.” M. Ward’s music mixes acoustic folk rock with the big sound production of yesteryears, fully equipped with string arrangements, female backup singers and plenty of “ooooohs,” “lalalala’s,” and “oooh dum dee-das”–enough finesse to make The Supremes proud. “Sweet Darling” feels like a time capsule from the wall of sound production days, “I Thought I Saw Your Face” features some of the best whistling solos of any album this year, and the duo’s acoustic picking cover of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me” is enough to send shivers down the spine. There have been many throwback albums from female artists in recent years, particularly post Amy Winehouse but none feel as honest or unique as She & Him’s debut. Deschanel and Ward have both stated in interviews that Vol. 2 is just around the corner and will be even better and it’s in the opinion of this writer that they just keep ‘em coming. 

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

It’s fitting that Nick Cave, a well-seasoned veteran who’s been writing and performing for over thirty years now is currently making some of the best records of his career. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! comes on the heels of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ side project Grinderman and its eponymous debut album and is in many ways its continuation. Gritty guitar heavy garage rock married with Cave’s densely written lyrics, and Ellis’ penchant for traditional instrumentation. Cave has always been an intriguing writer with his lyrics and crooning voice being his trademark. At 51 Cave is at the peak of his talents. The album’s opening title track alludes to the tale of Lazarus set in modern day with the subsequent tracks referencing other biblical common themes–love, war, murder, sin, etc. Cave has always been a storyteller first and foremost and the tales he weaves song after song are fascinating. Venturing into the Southwest on “Albert Goes West,” and tackling the day in the life of a hooker in “Today’s Lesson.” On “We Call Upon the Authors” Cave references his influences in the literary world, fellow storytellers who use the written word to comment on the world around them. Musically Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! showcases the influence that Warren Ellis has had on The Bad Seeds since his arrival in the band in the mid 90s. The multi-talented musician shines on the album’s most tender moments, primarily when he’s behind the viola and mandolin. The two have gotten closer than ever over the years having collaborated on side projects including Grinderman and two memorable film scores, most notably for The Proposition. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! may not be as personal as past Bad Seeds efforts (The Boatman’s Call comes to mind) but its refreshing testament to just how well Cave has aged and matured over the years.  

NOTABLE RUNNER UPS

The Roots, Rising Down-The talented lineup from Philly continues to release poignant, socially conscious hip hop that reflects the past and present. Musically they remain the crème of the crop in instrumental hip-hop.

Raphael Saadiq, The Way It Is-Motown harmonies and production blended with modern day, adult-themed vocals make this yet another successful throwback to the past.

Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes-Stunning debut album from some of best vocalists working in the indie rock arena.

King Khan and the Shrines, The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines-Technically a compilation album this first official wide release from Khan and his funk star orchestra is the most fun dance record you’ll find this year. James Brown style soul combined with often slapstick dirty lyrics makes Khan a rising name in the genre bending psychedelic rock genre.

AC-DC, Black Ice-The hard rocking album Axel Rose wishes he could put out. AC-DC does, well, AC-DC, again. But it’s still some of the best sounding roadhouse rock around. 

Girl Talk, Feed the Animals-The second best dance record this year. 50 minutes of the finest mish-mosh of pop music history money can’t buy. 

Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts I-IV-It was a good year for Trent Reznor. This collection of inspired instrumental cuts shows NIN is currently making the most of its independent musical freedom. 

Two albums that will undoubtedly be appreciated more with time: Kanye West, 808’s and Heartbreak, My Morning Jacket’s, Evil Urges 

Best stand along song: The so good its worth buying: “I will Possess Your Heart” Death Cab For Cutie, Narrow Stairs

Best Underrated Release From an Underrated Musical Powerhouse: The Black Keys, Attack and Release

Best Epic Album Closer of the Year: “Kissing the Beehive” Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer

 

 

Monday, December 1, 2008

Revisiting 'Baraka'


DVD Review 2-Disc Special Edition of Baraka

Few films are able to truly show our world for what it is better than Ron Fricke’s Baraka. From its mesmerizing beauty to its often-troubling complexities, Baraka is a universal masterpiece of filmmaking. To this end the film is essential viewing for any and everyone even remotely interested in the bigger picture

To appreciate Baraka one must appreciate the complexities of the world we inhabit. One must be able to be in total awe of its splendors while being equally as disgusted in its horrors. The film is a testament to how beautiful and how horrific this planet and those who inhabit can be and furthermore how despite our many differences people share the same common thread of being human.

The word ‘Baraka’ has various meanings and is a staple in a handful of global languages. Ron Fricke has often spoken of its Arabic and ancient Sufi roots, roughly translated to “the thread that weaves life together.” The daily grind of life–both at a natural pure level and man-made–is the film’s focus. The globetrotting editing, the fast time-lapse photography and the film’s depictions of humans as tiny parts of a vastly bigger whole offer viewers a glimpse at how immense but also how united this planet is. When it’s all said and done life is what ties this world together.

Shot over the course of 14 months at 152 locations of 24 countries, on six major continents, Baraka is also a traveler’s dream project–a hypnotic trek of the planet and its many cultures told simply through the marriage of motion pictures and music. From a cinematographer’s standpoint Baraka may be one of the finest photographed films ever made, revolutionizing preexisting large format motion picture technologies (the film was shot in the 65mm Todd AO format then transferred to 70mm print stock, resulting in extreme widescreen shots originally used for epic films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s).

Baraka was released in 1992 and has since then fallen into the depths of cult film status–unfortunate considering the film’s timelessness and international appeal for viewers. Its relevance today is marked by its recent re-release on DVD and Blu-Ray hi-def format, a technological feat that makes the film even more impressive than its past home video incarnations. For the first time ever the film was scanned at 8K resolution, a revolutionary digital transfer process designed solely for Baraka, which may end up becoming the standard for future hi-definition film releases. The scan, which supposedly took three weeks to complete (a post scan detailed digital restoration would take even more time), presents Baraka in the way the filmmakers intended–with an all-encompassing widescreen presentation and with just the right amount of color and image rejuvenation.

As for the hi-def format of the film (which, sadly this writer has not yet been able to experience) if ever there was a reason to invest in Blu-Ray–clearly the future of home video entertainment–Baraka is it. Supposedly the level of detail and vibrant color saturation makes the eye candy images of the Planet Earth hi-def series look like child’s play. But enough with the technology focused DVD marketing.

Much like watching a sunset Baraka has the ability to put the viewer in a trance the minute the film begins. It is also a film that resonates long after its initial viewing with those who have seen it rarely experiencing the film only once.

Opening with sweeping shots of the planet’s highest points at the Himalaya mountain ranges the film is then taken down to earth as we glimpse into the daily routine of the rare Japanese snow monkeys living in the moment. The camera closes in on the sole creature enjoying the nearby natural hot spring, simply being; living in a Zen like state. From the epic ceiling of the planet to the simplest of its inhabitants, before the film’s title shot in front of a perfect lunar eclipse, one gets the notion that Baraka is going to be a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience.

It should be noted that the film’s editing is as impressive as the photography with Fricke and team sporadically transporting the viewer all around the globe from frame to frame. Baraka does not feature any dialogue nor is it rooted with a traditional storyline. Besides the beautifully scored music the only natural sounds heard are those of certain tribal songs and the ambient sounds of nature. What’s striking about Baraka is despite the film’s non-traditional structure and flow a central narrative somehow emerges.

One moment we’re viewing a primitive aboriginal tribe perform a funeral ritual, ten minutes later we’re taken to modern day Tokyo, a bustling, densely populated metropolis world’s apart from the aforementioned primordial setting. Later as the camera surveys some of the planets most visually breathtaking sites–Western U.S. rock formations, Brazil/Argentina’s Iguazu waterfalls, the mount Bromo volcano range in Indonesia–the viewer is then transported to mankind’s uglier side.

The slums of Rio de Janeiro and the endless garbage dumps in Calcutta, India serve as reminders of the chaos that somehow balances out the harmony. From flourishing life in a remote Kenyan tribe where villagers dress in vibrant garments to the bleak realities of Cambodia’s killing fields, Baraka doesn’t shy from highlighting our planet’s lightest and darkest moments. 

Baraka carries a spiritual message as well and could be perceived as a bit preachy at times. Still, nitpicking aside, it’s hard to deny the film’s central messages. Being one with nature seen through the Tibetan monks in prayer, the hypnotizing dance of the Dervishes, or the elderly Japanese peering out at a seamlessly perfect rock garden is key to understanding the film. Throughout Baraka there are plenty of moments showing the planet’s chaos–from the densely populated streets of pedestrians and toy like cars, to the shots inside endless factories and sweatshops–and also its grandeur. Watching the film it’s easy to get blown away by just how immense life and this is very much its intention.


Film has always been a universal medium still there are very few films that should be essential viewing for all.
Baraka without a doubt fits the criteria as a must see film. Its scope reaches for beyond simple nature documentaries (while similar in terms of photographical achievement Baraka is far more important and ambitious than BBC’s epic Planet Earth miniseries) and somehow manages to be more impressive than its sister films, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy–comprised of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi–of which Ron Fricke first made his presence known as cinematographer for Koyaanisqatsi.

The recent DVD release of Baraka should have received more attention and praise than has been bestowed (apart from its notoriety among cineastes alike, Baraka’s foray into the Blu-Ray market should spark the interest of any and all people in the retail industry interested in selling this new technology) but alas its release was overlooked. Besides its crystal clear picture (which one would assume is even more stunning in hi-def), lush color saturation and digital soundtrack remixing (an entire essay could be written in praise of composer Michael Stern's score for the film in conjunction with Lisa Gerrard, of Dead Can Dance and the Gladiator soundtrack), the two-disc special edition of the film features a fascinating behind the scenes making-of documentary. Chronicling the film's extensive shooting schedule (which followed the lunar full moon cycle so as to ensure night shots were well lit) the mini-featurette provides fascinating insights into how Fricke and his crew selected and attained rights to film at the various sights. Interesting tidbits regarding the homemade camera equipment and time lapse system are also worth noting.

For those who have seen the film now is as good a time as ever for its revisit. For those who have yet to experience Baraka the film exceeds any and all written praise for its power lies in its ability to suck the viewer in.

It might be wishful thinking to hope that the new DVD release might also prompt the film’s return to theaters (a transfer to IMAX, a medium that Fricke worked with for his second feature film Chronos, would also be welcomed) but if ever there was a film to be seen on the big screen this is it.

It should also be noted that Fricke has supposedly been filming an unofficial sequel to Baraka called Samsara, which, according to a press release from the filmmakers at http://www.spiritofbaraka.com/samsara-press.aspx, will be released sometime in 2009. The film will continue Baraka’s tradition of spiritual undertones this time focusing its attention on the cycles of life on the planet. According to reports the filming has taken Fricke and his team to over 20 different countries and the film has been shot in a new 70mm HD format that subsequently “will be the ultimate showpiece for both the HD format and high-resolution digital projection, as well as standard film projection.”

Baraka is not a conventional Hollywood film and will not be the first film to jump off the shelf at your local video store still its an important piece of art transcends all prior conceptions of what films should be. The film has the almost mystical ability to draw you in unlike any movie-going experience before and after its release. While some may find its unconventional format distracting, it’s safe to say that those who experience it gain a new outlook on life and a newfound intrigue towards this planet’s cultural diversity.