Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Film Review: Tyson


Film Review:
Tyson--R
Directed by James Toback
90 min Documentary
Sony Pictures Classics, 2009

Mike Tyson has always been one of those tragic prominent American figures whose achievements were unfairly overshadowed by his mishaps in life. Like Michael Jackson (from the incredible Thriller to his legal adventures in Neverland), Phil Spector (music revolutionary to big haired, gun toting murderer) or even President Bill Clinton (from the political arena changing “war room” to Monicagate), it’s easy to forget how incredible these individuals once were.

James Toback’s new documentary Tyson makes no attempts at debunking boxing champ Mike Tyson’s various conundrums over the years. Yes, he had a reputation for mistreating woman. Yes, he was a sexual deviant. Yes, he once bit Evander Holyfield’s ear, twice to be exact! In Tyson, Toback lets the cameras roll as Tyson reveals his remarkable life story from doomed street hood to an extremely young heavyweight champion of the world to gossip page luminary.

In 1986 at the terribly immature age of 20 “Iron Mike” won his first world title after knocking out Trevor Berbick in the second round. That prior to this monumental win Tyson had won 26 of his first 28 fights with a knockout, many within the first round, makes his early feats inside the ring all the more remarkable.

The first half of Tyson follows the same routine sports film formula, showing the contender rise from rags to riches through hard work, determination and a supporting mentor figure, in Tyson’s case, veteran manager Cus D’Amato.

He survives the perilous streets of his childhood and finds a constructive outlet for his anger with the gloves. The fight footage is enthralling (he truly was a powerhouse of a boxer) and his explanation of tactics like, "always trying to aim through the back of my opponents head, trying to find my punch going through and ending out the back of the head" is terrifying. When you realize how young and more importantly how naïve Tyson was when he was thrust onto the world stage, it’s a lot easier to find empathy in his downfalls over the years.

The father-like D’Amato brings out the confidence in Tyson but also unleashes the animal that made him such a ferocious force inside the ring. D’Amato’s premature death isn’t examined to great lengths in Tyson but it’s evident that it was a major catalyst for Tyson’s isolation in the world. 

Weaving together modern day interview footage with footage from his various fights, Toback succeeds in shedding the limelight on Tyson’s extraordinary rise. The latter half of the film focuses on Tyson’s rough maturation.

There is no excusing Tyson for his poor choices along the way (his sexual escapades, drug/alcohol abuse, violence outside of the ring), no matter how many teary eyed interviews Toback includes. In many ways the film’s failures are found in its glossing over of certain key events, most notably the Desiree Washington rape trial, which was a legal nightmare for Tyson who was notoriously misrepresented by the defense team chosen by Don King. 

Some of the film’s multiple screen editing with overlapping dialogue is distracting to the flow (especially considering Tyson's high pitched speech impediment), however, overall the film succeeds in its attempt to allow an older Tyson tell his side of his life story once and for all. 

For boxing fanatics Tyson may not be the most revealing film to document Tyson’s career. His notoriety within that world still stands tall, however, for those of us who primarily followed his career through the scandalous five o’clock news spotlights the film is a refreshing reminder of how prolific he was as a fighter (seriously, in one fight Tyson admits to sparring with his opponent while suffering from a nasty case of gonorrhea, which he may or may not of contracted from a hooker). 

The tale of the soul who threw it all away is a common one. With Tyson, Toback captures the tragedy of Mike Tyson’s career not by focusing on his misfortunes in life but of the little moments that shaped who he was and is today. By the time the film comes to his lackluster swan song in 2005 against contender Kevin McBride, Tyson appears relieved of the weight of having to be number one. While it’s hard to find admiration in his monetary cop out, fighting McBride solely for the payoff, void of any passion for the sport, Tyson seems wiser and at peace in his later years.

The film’s closing moment, set to Tyson’s somber wheezing breaths in the background, is terribly unglamorous for a film documenting a raging bull of a fighter like Tyson. Still the somber finale is fitting knowing what we now know about Kid Dynamite. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Television Review: Breaking Bad


Television Review:
Breaking Bad
Created by Vince Gilligan
The Complete First Season
AMC, Episodes 1-7

Shows like AMC’s surprise hit Breaking Bad beg the question, where else can television take viewers? 

Ten years ago it might seem absurd to believe that an audience would actually reserve time out of their daily grind for a show revolving around the cooking and dealing of Crystal Meth. Then again the same could be said about any number of mind boggling reality shows being churned out every year (how bout’ the short-lived 2008 dating series Farmer Wants a Wife, which is fairly self-explanatory). 

In the rapidly advancing television arena that gave viewers anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, or the testosterone fueled series Rescue Me, the mind numbingly complicated Lost, etc. etc. a show focusing on a flawed but empathetic family man cooking up meth is somehow not only tolerable but viewed as riveting dark humor. 

This is not to say there is something morally outrageous with a show revolving around a detrimental drug like meth, since one can find drama in just about any branch of life. What is most surprising about Breaking Bad is just how desensitized the modern viewer has become to the once risqué. Ten years ago meth was nothing more than scary new designer drug from the Pacific Northwest that was cheap to produce and reeked havoc on the human body and psyche. Today, besides being a creeping national epidemic, it’s the subject of an Emmy winning series on the American Movie Classics network.

The strength of Breaking Bad lies in its protagonist, Walter White (Bryan Cranson), an unassuming, average 50-year-old high school Chemistry teacher living in suburban Albuquerque. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn of Deadwood acclaim) is pregnant with an unplanned child, his son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) has cerebral palsy and if life couldn’t get any more complicated, White is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Cranson is the most unassuming choice for White. Prior to this series he was best known for reoccurring roles on Seinfeld as the slimy dentist Tim Whatley, and as the dopey father on the dysfunctional family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. In Breaking Bad he remarkably morphs into a tragic character coming to grips with his upcoming demise, his run of the mill lifestyle, his past regrets and his financial obligations to his family.

His character belongs in the same family as American Beauty’s Lester Burnham, Jeff Bridges’ character in Fearless and the protagonist of Kurosawa’s masterful Ikiru. Like his cinematic brethren, White’s character has recently awakened from the slumber of his routine life and decides to risk it all, live it up, or, as the title puts it, ‘break bad’. 

After discovering the cancer plaguing his smoke-free lungs and learning about the big bucks in the meth game from his DEA brother-in-law, White seeks out help from a former student he once flunked, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). When the series pilot commences and concludes (the show’s sharp editing is worth noting) the ill-matched duo has been cooking up inside a R.V. in the middle of the desert, White is stripped-down to his everyman white underwear and he is toting a handgun as the sirens approach from the distance.

The meth lab scheme that White proposes to Pinkman is both a sign of desperation (he needs to save up a lump sum of cash for his family’s future) as well as White’s way of letting loose during his potentially final months on earth. In one of the season’s best moments White erupts in a family intervention aimed at coaxing him into chemo treatment and spells out exactly how he wants to live his life. When the show wants to be sentimental, White’s true to life cancer realities get the job done. 

White’s chemistry background remains mysterious throughout the first season. We learn that he was once a brilliant and prosperous mind at CIT but somewhere along the way strayed off this fruitful path and now lectures to detached high school students for just shy of $45K a year.  

He knows his way around the substances needed to concoct the highly potent, highly addictive pipe fodder and seems to have an unhealthy fascination with the dangers and anarchy of chemistry. As the series unfolds its clear that there is a little hell-raiser lurking behind the eyes of this average Joe. 

To this end the show is also very much a tutorial of some of the more curious outlets of basic chemistry in the same way House M.D. enlightens viewers with viruses and diseases. It’s not surprising that Breaking Bad’s most memorable moments are found in the various make-shift labs that White and Pinkman set up or when the two get creative with their scheming (a darkly comedic gross-out moment involving a corpse, hydrofluoric acid and an unstable porcelain tub is the kind of scene that will either turn viewers away or permanently suck them into the mayhem).

Despite the series’ somber storyline, Cranston brings a level of welcomed dark humor to the role. His witty banter and sarcastic outlook on his predicament pairs well with White’s underused intellect and bottled up rage towards the life he’s chosen. His interactions with the naïve Pinkman, a thugged out, wannabe player who is also in desperate need of more character development, showcase some of the show’s finest writing. Then there’s the larger than life Latino drug dealer named Tuco Salamanca (played with gleeful exuberance by veteran character actor Raymond Cruz) who gives viewers a hell of a cliffhanger during the season finale.

Breaking Bad’s first season, a meager seven episodes, is not without its flaws. A great deal of time is spent detailing the production and business side of White’s meth trade, however, little attention is reserved for the drug’s societal effects. White manages to cook up an extremely pure batch of “glass,” which according to a character can keep you high for days, however, the series fails to show the users who are filling White’s wallet. Programs like HBOs The Wire, which to be fair belongs in its own category of television series, succeed by channeling all sides of the drug war. In its first season Breaking Bad takes a timely social issue like meth abuse, brings it to suburbia but fails to show the bigger picture. For anyone privy to crystal meth’s effect on this country, it is widely known that it is hardly a petty drug.

Besides being terribly addictive (addiction is ripe for dramatic television), meth remains one of the most physically harmful drugs available, one that few are able to successfully recover from. That this side of Breaking Bad is still a mystery (after all the show’s is currently in its second season) is an aspect of the series that is fairly bothersome and irresponsible.

White is clearly throwing caution to the wind since learning of his cancer and his actions are seldom those of a completely sane man, however, through Cranston’s refined performance and the little background info available, it’s safe to say White has a good head on his shoulders. To believe that he wouldn’t concern himself with the repercussions of his highly potent meth formula–both on his family and the drug using community–is the one aspect of Breaking Bad that is a bit hard to swallow and hopefully will be developed/remedied further on down the road.

Television as a medium has come a long way since the early days of three major networks, a handful of nightly newscasts, and the occasional prudent sitcom. There was a time when the riskiest moments on TV were live prime-time disasters (Elvis Costello going against the corporate grain on Saturday Night Live), controversial episodes (Seinfeld’s notorious “Puerto Rican Day Parade” turn for example), or the Godfathers of Reality TV, Cops and America’s Most Wanted. To think that in this day and age a gripping dramatic series about a middle age man cooking up Crystal Meth would be as engrossing as your average hour-long drama is yet another indication to the endless directions writers can take television, truly rivaling that of its more revered cinematic and literary counterparts. 

Breaking Bad is as gritty and risqué–censored language, blood soaked scenes of violence and even a bit of backside male nudity–as other envelope pushing cable network series like The Shield or AMC’s other golden child, Mad Men. The acting is polished and, in the case of Cranston, very surprising. At a paltry seven episodes, the series’ first season has a few glitches to work out, hopefully in the current second season but overall it is a unique shining light of a program amid an overly saturated market of bad sitcoms and mind numbing reality offerings. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bob Dylan Album #7, Blonde on Blonde


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #7, Blonde on Blonde
Columbia Records, 1966

Blonde on Blonde has often been called the first truly great double LP. The album (and its subsequent tour) marked the arrival of Robbie Robertson and The Hawks, later to be appropriately named The Band, Dylan’s most fruitful backing band. It also was the culmination of an incredible progression of records in Dylan’s career before his infamous motorcycle accident triggered change, once again.

Still while it’s widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time it is hindered by quite possibly the most jaded and out of place opening tracks in rock and roll history.

“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” with its funeral procession horns, mournful piano rolls, silly background shrieks and tired “Stone You” chorus, might have worked well tacked on towards the end of Highway 61 Revisited or merely as a B-Side or single but on Blonde feels terribly misplaced. For an album showcasing some of Dylan’s finest moments of musical genius, it’s a shame that this remains one of his easiest to skip over.

Musically the song is straightforward blues, in the same vein as many of the other tracks on Blonde. Lyrically the song was controversial for its intentional and fairly playful embracement of drug use. Add to this background laughs and Dylan’s giggling interruptions, and “Rainy Day Women” is a bizarre departure from the tightly woven songs that follow.

“Pledging My Time” features a funkier side to Dylan’s ever-improving harmonica chops (he’s always been a terribly understated harp player) and is a more refined blues ode to drug use than its predecessor, detailing the hangover aftermath, meeting with the dealer and an eventual overdose.

“Visions of Johanna” belongs on the short list of Dylan’s greatest songs. It’s a forlorn tribute to true love and the pains of knowing that these feeling are no longer mutual. It’s difficult to say who or what the song is referencing, however, its surreal lyrics and mysterious duo of lovers–tempting Louise; absent Johanna–are Dylan at his poetic best. Despite all temptations and desires to rid the mind of a past love, “these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.”

Side one of Blonde on Blonde is closed out with “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” a fairly literal open letter to a former fling (once again, quite possibly addressed to Edie Sedgwick of “Like A Rolling Stone” fame). Lyrically the song doesn’t leave many mysteries to ponder but musically the song is one of few on Blonde recorded with The Band, the troupe that would help take Dylan in a different direction musically during the Basement Tape years. Robbie Robertson taking helm of lead guitar is one of the great musical collaborations and is rooted in this album.

The back-to-back duo of “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “Just Like a Woman” are also allegedly aimed at Edie Sedgwick and on a grander scale, the materialistic and shallow New York City socialite scene. The former remains one of Dylan’s finest live tunes and continues in set rotations to this day. The latter’s infamous line, “You break just like a little girl,” set to lulling classical guitar picking and Dylan’s almost satirical crooning vocal style, is one hell of a sting from a former lover. When Dylan later sings, “Till she sees finally that she's like all the rest” it can be assumed that “Just Like A Woman” also aims to debunk the notion that the elite is any different than the majority. Without her “her ribbons and her bows” the starlit at hand is a naïve child, alone in the world.

The up-tempo, organ drenched “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and the blues ramblings of “Obviously 5 Believers” are snippets of the type of musical arrangements that Dylan would later craft with The Band. Sandwiched between the aforementioned tracks is “4th Time Around,” the unofficial ode to The Beatles (inferred from its similarities to “Norwegian Wood”), which could just as easily be viewed as a satirical parody to Dylan’s Liverpool contemporaries. Genius.

Along with “Visions of Johanna,” “Sad Eyed Lady from the Lowlands” is Dylan at the pinnacle of his songwriting. Covering the entirety of side four upon its original LP release and clocking in at 11:20 this is one of Dylan’s epic compositions, a love song waltz for the ages. It is also the perfect closing track.

During this time few of Dylan’s songs were referencing his then wife Sara, the woman who would truly give Dylan a glimpse into heartbreak and who would ultimately trigger the recording of his other masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks. “Sad Eyed of the Lowlands” is far too surreal to be officially about Sara, however, Dylan hints later in the remorseful breakup song “Sara” that he was: Stayin' up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writin' "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" for you.

Whoever the song is intended for, the song’s beautiful imagery idolizes the subject at hand. It does so in an appropriately unsappy manner, paying homage to the complexities of his adoration for her. The details, it’s all about the details in this song. 

You don’t get much more romantic than: “your silhouette when the sunlight dims / Into your eyes where the moonlight swims” and “your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes.”

Blonde on Blonde is a near flawless album. If you take into account its length it's hands down one of Dylan’s most ambitious LPs. Even the outtakes during its recording–most notably “I Wanna Be Your Lover”–remain highlights in his massive bootleg catalogue.

As a single “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” is not a horrible song but as the opener to one of Dylan’s finest albums it falls short of properly setting the stage. Controversy sells but it doesn’t always warrant praise. The whimsical side of Dylan has always been present throughout his records and Blonde is hardly the exception, however, there’s a fine line between whimsical (see “All I Really Want To Do”) and stoner stupid.

In a perfect world “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” which opens side three and would later be used to open Dylan’s legendary tour with The Band (see Before the Flood), would have trumped “Rainy Day Women” as the album’s true opener. Still it’s unfair to fault Dylan for something as simple as a mediocre opening track since the collection of songs featured on Blonde on Blonde are among the best in rock and roll history. There is a short, short list of ambitious double albums that truly work and this towers above the rest.

The album completed one of finest recording runs, ever (unprecedented at the time, save The Beatles), and its musical diversity sums up perfectly the breadth of Dylan’s career thus far. Its Nashville roots (the album was recorded in the musically rich city) would enable Dylan to later branch out to the country realm (see John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline). It gave listeners the first glimpse at his musical possibilities with The Band. To bring it all back home, Blonde on Blonde, along with Highway 61 Revisited, The Basement Tapes, and Blood on the Tracks, is a must own album for anyone even remotely interested in Dylan or rock and roll in general.

9.7/10

Essential Tracks: “Visions of Johanna,” “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” “Just Like a Woman,” “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”

Monday, April 13, 2009

Film Review: Sin Nombre


Dreams of El Norte

Film Review:
Sin Nombre
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
96 min Feature, 2009
U.S.A/Mexico

The gang members portrayed in Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, are among some of the most frightening real-life villains ever to be fleshed out on screen. Covered from head to toe with tattoos (not to mention painfully endured initiation ink on the inside of the lower lip) and toting menacing homemade pipe guns, the Mara Salvatrucha family in Sin Nombre live in a world of devastating carnage and hopelessness. 

Sin Nombre was a runaway hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is an ambitious debut feature from a talented new director to keep an eye on. At times the film is an adrenaline-fueled amalgamation of Fernando Meirelle’s brutal exposé of Rio de Janeiro’s gang warfare, City of God and Gregory Nava’s 1983 border crossing odyssey El Norte. One half carries the same thrills that made City of God so exhilarating–fast paced cat and mouse chase scenes and gritty moments of violence. The film’s other side is reminiscent of the socially poignancy of El Norte, a film that would make anyone reconsider the U.S./Mexico border dispute and the grueling journeys so many hopeful immigrants undergo.

When we first meet Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia) the leader of the Tapachula, Mexico syndicate of Salvatrucha he has recently kidnapped and beaten a member of a rival gang. Without hesitation he enlists a young, rising thug, El Casper (Edgar Flores) and his even younger minion El Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), to shoot the young hostage in the head with a makeshift gun, yet another initiation task to show his cajones. The body is then mutilated and fed to a pack of equally vicious dogs. This is only the first of many tests and grueling exercises that the young recruits must endure. 

While El Casper and many other Tapachula youngsters are establishing their loyalties, a young Honduran girl, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), begins the arduous journey north to the Texas/Mexico border with her estranged father and uncle. She realizes there is nothing for her in Honduras and is told of a better life in New Jersey, far off the folded Central American map the trio refer to throughout the film.

The Honduran’s odyssey starts in the jungles of Central America, segues to the corrupt Southern Mexican border, and ends up on the crowded roof tops of various freight trains headed north to the U.S. crossing.

Eventually the two worlds depicted in Sin Nombre merge as El Casper and Sayra are entangled in a dangerous race to reach the border. The love story, dramatic music and chase thrills that fill Sin Nombre’s latter half weigh the film down a bit, pulling away from its social realism. Still the meat of the film, particularly during the perilous train journey, is a heartbreaking glimpse at the trek so many people make to the promised land in The North. 

The film’s title translates to “nameless,” referencing the often-disposable soldiers that make up these urban gangs and the hundreds of souls trying to cross into our country on a daily basis. While it’s easy to view these people as a singular faction (or if you believe in the Lou Dobbs doctrine, an epidemic), Sin Nombre gives these faces a story, albeit one with devastating results. While the issue of immigration remains a hot talking point in politics and in living room cable news debates, there are thousands of people risking their lives every year just for the chance of somehow making it. They leave families, friends and their familiar life for the promise (or illusion) of bigger and better.

Films like Sin Nombre, or better yet the immortal El Norte, are made to show the unspoken side to the immigration debate. They are released as pieces of fiction but are rooted in the style of documentary realism. More often than not they sneak by the mainstream but should be seen with eyes wide open.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Bob Dylan Album #6, Highway 61 Revisited


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #6, Highway 61 Revisited
Columbia Records, 1965

And with the single snare drum stroke, Bob Dylan finished his metamorphosis and released one of two flawless masterpieces. He also managed to change the face of rock and roll. 

Highway 61 Revisited is another example of how history and reputation can get in the way of just how brilliant a song or album really is. It’s easy to take a song like “Like a Rolling Stone” for granted, knowing now how important it is viewed in the history of contemporary music. It’s one of those songs and moments in times that I truly envy those buying the record upon its release, dropping the needle, and getting blown away by the eruption of organ and drums for the first time. 

Enough has been said about “Like a Rolling Stone” to warrant further dissection. It should be noted however, that while this remains one of those immortal anthems that most people know the lyrics to by heart, few take the time to realize how scathing a song it really is. To this end it’s also brilliant. Dylan unleashes his usual piercing lyrics set this time to uplifting, guitar and organ heavy rock and roll. Gone are the straightforward, spoon-fed lyrics of his folk messiah days. Enter Dylan, the rock and roll messiah. 

While Dylan belts out the song as if trying to bring down the house, the story being told is very much a nasty commentary on the privileged, the spoiled, and the ignorant, basically yet another wagging of the finger at society. From riches to rags, top of the world to scum of the earth, Dylan projects. It’s the kind of anger the punks would later embrace, the kind of anger to open your eyes.

Written during or right after Dylan’s soirée with Andy Warhol’s muse/socialite Edie Sedgwick, the song has also been viewed as an unrelenting jab at his former fling. That this troubled starlit would eventually succumb to drug addiction and later die an intoxicated death only adds to the song’s darker side.

Opening an album with a song as audacious “Like a Rolling Stone” sets the bar high for what follows. With Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan delivers.

“Tombstone Blues” is a hodgepodge of nonsensical images set to the kind of hard-hitting blues Dylan had been working towards. Written from a surrealist’s point of view, Dylan takes a simple blues formula, deconstructs it, adds a dose of wild west iconography and creates something completely his own, a world “where Ma Raney and Beethoven once unwrapped their bed roll” and “the sun is not yellow it’s chicken.”

“Ballad of a Thin Man” has garnered a wide-range of interpretations, each holding merit. In the broadest sense the song is yet another chapter in Dylan’s anti-establishment catalogue. It may be the finest scolding of elitist know-it-alls of the world. Possibly aimed at a journalist, easily suited towards crooked politicians, the song alludes to the capitalist machine Dylan lamented about previously on “It’s Alright Ma.” Others view the song as a comment on a closeted homosexual coming to grips with his own identity and society’s intolerance–“one eyed midget,” “sword swallower,” and “give me some milk” all back this analysis. Whatever one infers, the song remains one of his most puzzling.

On the album’s title track, a rip-roaring piece of Americana blues-rock, Dylan makes quite possibly the best use of the slide, penny whistle, while at the same time name dropping biblical passages, alluding to incest (“But the second mother was with the seventh son”), and a final verse that is a frighteningly similar story to the former Bush administration’s “selling of the war,” not to mention the financial gamble of certain timely banks.

“Just Like Tomb Thumb’s Blues” is a return to the more whimsical side of Dylan. Featuring a funky electric Pianet, a bit more of the honky-tonk last found on “Black Crow Blues,” and Dylan’s first Southwest themed offerings.

At over 11 minutes, “Desolation Row” tends to stand out like a sore thumb in Dylan’s repertoire. It’s also the perfect closer to a flawless record, matching the intensity of “Like a Rolling Stone” with some of the finest lyrical storytelling he’s ever crafted.

For starters the acoustic guitar work on “Desolation Row” is a welcomed departure from the record’s previous electric compositions.  And musically the classical guitar picking chops featured on the song (played by country-blues guitarist Charlie McCoy) are breathtaking, in many ways setting the stage for the more refined songs on Blonde on Blonde and the country exercises soon to come on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline.

Lyrically “Desolation Row” is a pastiche of little stories and character studies that is at times surreal but also is on point when referencing a number of Dylan’s literary idols (“Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot Fighting in the captain's tower”).  Of all of Dylan’s songs this remains one of the few truly puzzling pieces, making it all the more intriguing to close your eyes and get whisked away to.

Highway 61 Revisited is one of the great records in the pantheon of rock and roll. The hype surrounding songs like “Like a Rolling Stone” is warranted and this album’s notoriety is safe. Like all truly complete LPs, it should be listened to in one sitting either through a vintage pair of ear muff size headphones or blaring from the speakers of a fast car driving through the back roads of America, this album’s proper setting.

10/10

Essential Tracks: "Like a Rolling Stone," "Tombstone Blues," "Ballad of a Thin Man," "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," "Desolation Row" 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bob Dylan Album #5, Bringing It All Back Home


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #5, Bringing It All Back Home
Columbia Records, 1965

Then came the alienation. A kind of reverse protest from fans when Dylan “went electric.” To be fair to his dissidents one couldn’t of asked for a more elegant transition from one style to another than with Bringing It All Back Home.

With two radically different sides–the first electric, the latter a return to the acoustic/harmonica formula that so many adored–the though the songs were stark reminders of the end of an era–Dylan proudly proposed to listeners, and now for something completely different. A brilliantly conceived concept that was years ahead of those living in Dylan’s then tired past. Still for those naysayers who cringed at the opening electric blues lick of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dylan went ahead and turned in three of his finest acoustic tracks to date on side two of Bringing It All Back Home’s.

Knowing now the direction that Dylan was going with his music, Bringing It All Back Home’s is a perfect transitional album and a worthy precursor to the bombshell of Highway 61 Revisited. Even the record’s cover, the first truly iconic image in Dylan’s career, alludes to tossing out the old, bringing in the new. Dylan is framed within a distorted lens surrounded by remnants of his older self–record sleeves from influences like Robert Johnson, a magazine cover featuring a new President, Lyndon Johnson, and even a copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan hiding in the corner.

Upon its release, however, the twangy guitar riff that erupts into “Subterranean Homesick Blues” must have been somewhat of a shock to the anxious listener placing the needle on the groove of record number five.

It could be wishful thinking to link the free form rants on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with that of early rap music, however, it’s safe to say that both R.E.M (with “End of the World”) and Billy Joel (with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”) owe a great deal to this firecracker of an opener.

“Look out kid / You gonna get hit,” is a punch-to-face commencement of Dylan’s radical new direction. For the first time in his recording career Dylan’s songs went from musically simple to fast, crowded, and loud with the addition of an electric rock band. Still beneath the garage rock is still Dylan, the poet.

“She Belongs to Me,” which rightfully follows “Subterranean,” couldn’t be more different from its brethren on side one but is key for showing the more tender side of Dylan’s instrumentation choices. It’s been said that the song is a loving ode to his contemporary (and sometime musical partner) Joan Baez, and what a loving homage it is. When Dylan sings in his harmonious voice (an early sign of where his vocals were headed on the crooning of Nashville Skyline) “She can take the dark out of the nighttime
 / And paint the daytime black” it’s a startling reminder of what a stunning wordsmith he is how even an electric guitar can radiate beauty.

Of course Dylan carries on with “Maggie’s Farm,” a protest anthem set to electric blues guitars and swinging cymbal crashes. Much has been written about the lyrics to this song, which remains another of Dylan’s immortals. His repetition of certain verses throughout is in synch with traditional blues structures and it is widely agreed that Maggie’s farm is a reference to Dylan’s old persona as the protest poster child. In the opening stanza Dylan sings: “I got a head full of ideas
 / That are drivin' me insane / 
It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor” possibly referencing a fire inside of him to stir things up and tear down the house with his music but a public facade holding him back. The song could be viewed as his official departure from the folk/protest scene.

“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” floats along on guitar harmonics, Dylan’s whimsical vocals and lyrics like, “she’s true, like ice, like fire,” and is on the short list of Dylan’s most ga-ga romantic songs.

The latter side of Bringing It All Back Home opens with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a decent song later made immortal (like many of his songs) by Roger McGuinn and The Byrds. The surreal song references Dylan’s experimentation with drugs (though he often says he never wrote “drug songs”) and the escapism that comes with it. “With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, / 
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” Since the song is more recognized from its covers–both The Byrds and Sonny and Cher–the original is easy to overlook but Dylan is at his most abstract in its lyrics.

The real gem on side two is “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” a magnum opus of poetry and a true sign of the times. The song features some of Dylan’s most puzzling and philosophical verses of any of his songs, with fifteen verses dissecting society’s ills in America and, in reference to the now infamous line “That he not busy being born / 
Is busy dying,” Dylan’s views on Capitalism’s hold over our lives.

An entire column could be written about this song’s breadth of lyrical brilliance and its links to future dissident genres–punk for example, or how about socially conscious rap–and each verse could be studied and pondered over. And people do.

Throughout the song Dylan wags his finger at the pitfalls of materialism (“toy guns that spark
/ To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark”), media manipulation (“Advertising signs that con you
/ Into thinking you're the one”), the immoral marriage of church and state (“principles baptized
/ To strict party platform ties
/ Social clubs in drag disguise”) and the money line on greed (“money doesn’t talk, it swears”). Dylan later closes:

And if my thought-dreams could be seen

They'd probably put my head in a guillotine

But it's alright, Ma, it's life, and life only

There is some hope buried between the fleshed out maladies. His notion that life needs to be lived, despite the temptation to get lost in suction of the political and social machine that is capitalism., offers a bit of solace in an otherwise desolate song.

In a 2004 interview with 60 Minutes' Ed Bradley, Dylan commented on the magic that occurred while writing "It's Alright Ma" and how that magic is gone. It's one of those songs that's so hypnotic, so well-written it amazes even Dylan himself, who, after 500+ songs in the bank, still marvels at it.  

It’s crucial to note the song order on Bringing It All Back Home. Besides the obvious separation between side one and side two, Dylan carefully follows an A-B-A-B formula on the electric half. The surreal lyrics and barn dance guitar work of “Subterranean” are followed by the gentler jazz guitar of “She Belongs to Me,” while the traditional blues found on “Maggie’s Farm” are followed with “Love Minus Zero/No Limit’s” soft guitar and tender lyrics. As if Dylan intends to blow your mind then take things down a notch. It’s one of Dylan’s more angry records disguised as an exercise in rock and roll. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is the nail in the coffin, a harsh blow to the psyche that is then followed with another warm sounding ballad, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

While on it’s surface the song could be perceived as another breakup song, referencing the end of a passionless love affair, however, the song, like all of its predecessors on the album, is about moving on. It’s as big as F-U to the critics and disgruntled fans of the electric change as “Maggie’s Farm:”

“The vagabond who's rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

Strike another match, go start anew”

 Carefully positioned as the albums closer it really heralds the message of ending one era and starting something new, truly bringing it all back home.

9.5/10

Essential Songs: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Maggie’s Farm,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Film Review: Everlasting Moments


A Life Caught on Film

Film Review: Everlasting Moments
Directed by Jan Troell
131 min. Feature Film, 2008
Sweden

Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments is a period piece without the overtly glamorous costumes ubiquitous to its genre. It is based on a true story but in the most unassuming manner, that is to say, straying away from the familiar subjects–the famous, the regal, and the important. It’s a foreign film but it could be set anyplace with an underclass. To this end Everlasting Moments fits the formula for a tedious subtitled piece set in a forgotten time but is ultimately one of the most intimate, honest and uplifting portrayals of the proletariat in a time of inequality since Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.

Set in Southern Sweden circa the early 1900s, Everlasting Moments follows a working class family as they struggle to survive through political unrest, a world war, and their father/husband Sigfried's ill-fated alcoholism. At its core the film is about a woman’s dreams of escaping her surroundings and the camera that helps fuel this desire.

Shot in the grainy 16mm film stock of yesteryears (the film was then transferred to the normal 35mm for an extra gritty look), the film is in many ways an ode to the old school tactics of filmmaking. Set during the advent of the personal, plate loaded camera and a time when a Charlie Chaplin would tickle the delights of a family’s imagination for an entire evening, the film, like Giuseppe Tornatore’s whimsical Cinema Paradiso, pays homage to the wonders of photography.

Maria Larsson (a masterful, full of vigor Maria Heiskanen) plays a loving mother and an understanding wife who, after winning a camera in a lottery, finds comfort in a new love for capturing images of the world around her. While her husband drinks his way through a work strike (and the English strike breakers brought in), an affair, and a countrywide dabbling in communism, Maria is able to appease her concerns and misery with an eye for the beautiful frozen moments amidst the chaos and sadness of her day to day life.

One day while trying to pawn her prized camera a local photography shop owner, Sebastian (Jesper Christensen), befriends her and offers to teach her how to use the camera through an endearing act of kindness. Seeing Maria’s glowing fascination with the glass-eye gadgets that line the shop walls Sebastian encourages her to follow this newfound passion and ultimately gives her a new lease on life. As their relationship grows from professional admiration to minor crush to a full blown window into a life of true love and happiness, Maria is forced to make a series of choices regarding her loyalties to her abusive husband, her dignity as a member of the nobody lower class, and her feelings towards Sebastian. 

Christensen, the Danish actor best known for his villainous turns in the recent 007 films, turns in a restrained but memorable performance as Sebastian who adores Maria but whether or not this fascination is out of lust or pity remains Christensen’s charm with the role. 

Eventually Maria, having a true gift for the medium and an ability to see what most don’t, begins to document those around her and is able to make a petty living for her passion, a first for her character and an advent that brings on jealous rage from her husband. 

Much of the film’s screenplay was taken directly from the photos that Maria took during her life and from her daughter’s personal account. This authenticity and Jan Troell’s love of old school cinematography gives the film the look and feel of a documentary. She shoots a historical gathering of the three Scandinavian Kings, earning her a photo in the newspaper. Through rising notoriety she takes portraits of the neighborhood families, including her friend’s daughter with Downs syndrome, and captures a chilling candid moment of a group of children mourning their recently deceased friend.

This film, like the memorable photographs it honors, is about capturing a moment in time, in this case pre-war Sweden. Maria’s story is the vehicle for a larger tale of a port town’s growth through the ages and the effects that world tensions were having on the lives of the working class.

Everlasting Moments was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Gold Globe Award, but failed to make the more prestigious Academy Award shortlist. The film also failed to garner a wide-release here in the states and will most likely be ignored by even those knowledgeable of independent films, a tragedy bestowed on so many offerings in global cinema. It’s the epitome of what a great period film should be, a flawless window into a world not so foreign to our own.

Heiskanen is so convincing in the role of Maria that it’s easy to forget that she, along with her fellow cast members (watch out for Mikael Persbrandt’s complex turn as Maria’s abusive husband Sigfried), is a contemporary actress.

The film is about the heartaches that come with the weight of the world, the complexities of love, family and forgiveness, and above all the magic of photography, an art form often taken for granted in the age of Photoshop and camera phones. There are moments of great sorrow, particularly in a harrowing scene involving Maria’s son who is born with polio. Persbrandt’s Sigfried is at times a monster who still manages to gain our sympathy. Despite its more difficult themes the film is also an uplifting tale of a woman who appears to have nothing but ultimately has everything thanks to an iron will, a love for her family, and a beautiful, dual lens camera.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Bob Dylan Album #4, Another Side of Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #4: Another Side of Bob Dylan
Columbia Records, 1964

It’s fitting that Another Side of Bob Dylan was released immediately after the scathing political anthems of The Times They Are A-Changin’. In danger of being completely typecast as that radical, protest songwriter, Dylan truly gave listeners another side to his musical persona by expanding his musical prowess (one more step closer to the electric circus that would follow) and returning to some of the humor and playfulness found on Bob Dylan

Throughout Dylan’s career he has tried desperately to move away from being labeled by his critics and fans. It’s part of the reason his canon is so varied and his path so curious. If The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’ were the albums that established Dylan as a voice not to be reckoned with, Another Side of Bob Dylan was a cue that listeners had only heard a taste of what was yet to come.

The record opens with “All I Really Want To Do,” a lighthearted guitar/harmonica number that completely sheds the rebel folk singer skin of the album’s predecessor. When Dylan croons and yodels his way through the lyrics, “No, and I ain't lookin' to fight with you, /
Frighten you or uptighten you,
/ Drag you down or drain you down,
/ Chain you down or bring you down. /
All I really want to do /
Is, baby, be friends with you,” he could very well be referring to the women in his life but more likely it’s a plea to his listeners to shatter their messiah like view of him.

“Black Crow Blues” is in many ways a throwaway track if it were not for Dylan’s newfound penchant for the piano. Playing a saloon style honky-tonk, with a hint of train howling harmonica licks, Dylan returns to the straight blues of his musical upbringing but does it in a manner completely his own.

With “Chimes of Freedom” and “My Back Pages,” Dylan returns to the protest anthems of Times but does so (as seen in “Pages”) with a fair amount of resentment for the political folk movement that he helped jumpstart. 

“Chimes” is a wonderfully weaved, albeit fairly general, testament to the underdogs of war and social unrest. An ode to “the gentle and the kind,” “the guardians and protectors of the mind,” “the mateless mother and mistitled prostitute” and “the lonesome-hearted lovers,” its no wonder the song remains one of Dylan’s most trumpeted live songs not to mention most covered from artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen to the Senegalese Afro-Pop star Youssou N’Dour.

A song like “My Back Pages” must have come as a bit of shock to the loyal followers of Dylan’s former political outlook. The song, while heralding his days in the rebel limelight, expresses a fair amount of doubt towards his prior beliefs and facade. “Ah, but I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now” is one of the most poetic realizations of his place in the world that Dylan has ever written. It’s that rare moment of self-aware maturation.

By recording an album like The Times They Are A-Changin’ at the tender age of 22, Dylan was ambitious and helped to motivate an entire generation of young minds but he realizes with “My Back Pages” that his political angst was without merit (“Using ideas as my maps”) and that despite his supposed romantic enlightenment he was a bit naïve. In many ways the song debunks his self-built myth of being THE rebel voice of his generation and is a subtle precursor to his electric transition that would ultimately estrange many of his followers–focusing less on guitar/mic formula, more on the music. The song remains the most important and poetic on the record, and is one of his many career-defining moments.

The remaining songs on the LP juggle between the somber and the humorous. “I Shall Be Free No. 10” is a bizarre follow-up of sorts to Freewheelin’s closer, “I Shall Be Free.” Like its sister song, “No. 10” is a hodgepodge of nonsensical lyrics with Dylan name dropping everyone from Cassius Clay, who will get “knocked clean right out of his spleen” if he doesn’t run, to Barry Goldwater. The song starts off as a testament to just how normal Dylan really is (“It ain't no use a-talking to me / It's just the same as talking to you.”) but quickly unravels into one of the weirdest songs in Dylan’s catalogue.

“Motorpsycho Nitemare” is the first of many story-songs, a comical romp of seduction from a raging farmer’s daughter and the car breakdown from hell. At 8:17 “Ballad In Plain D” is one of his longest compositions and continues the remorseful love entanglement between Dylan, Suze Rotolo and her “parasite sister.” This is clearly Dylan at his most callous, albeit somewhat remorseful. He repents: 

"Beneath a bare light bulb the plaster did pound


Her sister and I in a screaming battleground.


And she in between, the victim of sound,


Soon shattered as a child 'neath her shadows."

 During this epoch in his career Another Side of Bob Dylan may be the unjustly ignored of this string of releases. The record’s sole memorable single is its closer, “It Ain’t Me Babe,” a painfully sad tale of rejection, which would ultimately become a heartbreaker’s weapon of choice for gently telling someone, no. The remaining tracks make up one of Dylan’s most complex albums to date one that showed great strides in his artistic evolution. Setting down the guitar in lieu of a piano was just a hint of the more radical changes (and fan alienation) to come, and his refusal to play into the title as “voice of his generation,” showed ambitions far beyond most musicians in his heyday.

9.3/10

Essential songs: “Chimes of Freedom,” “My Back Pages,” “Motorpsycho Nitemare,” “Ballad in Plain D.”

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Film Review: Two Films by Kelly Reichardt


Film Review: Two Films by Kelly Reichardt
Old Joy, 76 min Feature Film, 2006
Wendy and Lucy, 80 min Feature Film, 2008
Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Few contemporary filmmakers are as well-versed in the art of cinematic minimalism as Kelly Reichardt. From the natural sounds of birds chirping and water flowing, to the crescendo of trains setting off into the distance, Reichardt is a filmmaker who enjoys the beauty and mystery in seemingly everyday life. Her first two feature films, 2006’s Old Joy and last year’s Wendy and Lucy, share the same affection for lingering shots of nature, restrained dialogue, and characters whose silences and mannerisms speak volumes of who they are. The films are also intimate studies of aging, finding one's place in the world, and the changing face of this country.

In Old Joy Will Oldham and Daniel London star as buddies who have gone their separate ways but reconnect for a two-day excursion into the Oregon woods in search of a secluded hot spring. The film opens with Mark (London) meditating in the backyard of his rundown, Portland bungalow. The message machine picks up a call from Kurt (Oldham) who is in town and has ‘big, big news.’ A look of worry washes over his wife’s face.

Accompanied by Mark’s dog Lucy, the two hit the winding roads of rural Oregon in search of Kurt’s “off-the-map” hot spring. The two reminisce of old friends, now extinct old haunts, and catch up on where their lives have taken them.

Old Joy is in many ways a buddy, road trip film, with a dash of social realism; specifically in the way people drift apart over the years. Reichardt excels at not giving us official backgrounds to her characters but through their mannerisms (Oldham and London’s facial expressions alone speak volumes of their inner thoughts) and tidbits from their past it’s clear that Mark took the somewhat traditional route in life, whereas Kurt, having “never gotten involved in something he couldn’t get out of,” is still on an unsure path. 

Oldham, who also carries the alter ego as musician Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, shines as Kurt who comes off as the harmless, free-spirited soul most of us have come across at some point in our lives. Despite his casual, live-the-dash mentality it is clear he carries a weight of sorrow with him. 

His rundown van, faded clothes, light wallet and lack of a solid life foundation come across as almost childish to Mark, who at one instance belittles Kurt over the phone to his wife but then gently plays along with Kurt’s plan to somehow rekindle their friendship. 

As Kurt regales his buddy with long-winded stories about beach parties at Big Sur and hot spring excursions in Arizona, Mark’s complexion falls somewhere between jealousy and indifference. Mark appears content with his life–a baby on the way, a new direction in his carpentry work–but it’s obvious he too is hiding something. 

As their trip progresses frustrating scenarios arise, awkward confessions are professed (mainly by Kurt who misses the golden days of their friendship), and a terribly true-to-life barrier between these once seemingly close friends continues to rise. 

Between their ramblings on work, dreams, the physics of the universe, and Mark’s baby on the way, Reichardt fills the screen with shots of the stunning environment, set to the equally lulling music of Yo La Tengo. There are long moments of silence between the two, especially during the film’s pinnacle hot spring soak, which, again, furthers the notion that these two can’t seem to reconnect. 

When they return back to the reality of their separate lives we are left with Kurt as he wanders the Portland streets at night amongst other drifters, homeless, and others who are seemingly lost in the conventional world around them. 

Like Old Joy, Reichardt’s follow-up/companion piece Wendy and Lucy doesn’t follow a traditional beginning, middle, and end story line but rather meanders through its characters’ journey, in this case a young woman and her dog.

Michelle Williams, in undoubtedly her finest and most unexpected performance to date, stars as Wendy, a quiet, tomboyish drifter on her way to Alaska. After her weathered Honda hatchback breaks down in a sleepy Oregon town (the doting attention given to the Pacific Northwest in her films is another of Reichardt’s cinematic traits), Wendy experiences a series of unfortunate events that include getting arrested for shoplifting, paying a substantial amount of money from her dwindling Alaska fund, and in turn losing her beloved companion Lucy (the same Lucy, Reichardt’s mutt, from Old Joy).

Along the way she encounters a group of fellow youthful nomads at a pseudo hobo campfire (including a memorable cameo by Oldham as a free-spirited wanderer named Icky), befriends an elderly K-Mart security guard, barters with a surly mechanic and has a scare with a ranting homeless man. All while searching for her lost dog, leading up to an emotional breakdown in a gas station bathroom. 

William's spoken dialogue throughout the film is limited but she makes up for her character's reserved nature with an unprecedented knack for emotionally saturated facial expressions, mannerisms, and a complex world behind her mesmerizing eyes. It is said that Williams, who did the film for practically nothing, was so involved with the character that she resisted from bathing or washing her ratty clothes and was never once recognized during the shoot.

Reichardt only hints at Wendy’s back-story, mainly seen through a telephone call made to a relative in Indiana. We don’t know why she’s headed to Alaska or what she’s running away from? That she’s on the move is all that really matters. In the manner Williams carries her character it’s evident that she’s a bit lost in life but determined nevertheless to reach her Yukon goal. 

While the camera closely follows the increasingly forlorn Wendy, another character to develop is the town she stumbles upon.  Set during the Bush administration in small town America, Wendy and Lucy’s slow pace mimics the malaise of a dying part of this country. While set in Oregon, this could be anywhere U.S.A. In one scene the security guard mentions the town once had a functioning mill but since it shut down the town is light on work. He comments, “I just don’t know what the people do all day.” 

Unlike Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy lacks a transitioning soundtrack but rather drifts along to the diegetic hum of trains, the preferred mode of transportation for a great deal of drifters in the U.S. The film reaches one somewhat major climax but begins and ends much like an authentic chapter in one’s life. Shot in the moment, without any allusion to past or future, the film gives a new meaning to the term realism. 

With only two feature films (both of which were based on short stories and are concise, clocking in at a perfect 80 minutes each) under her belt, Reichardt is just beginning what will hopefully be a fruitful film career. Her background is in film studies, and her knowledge of the medium shows for a fairly novice filmmaker. Wendy and Lucy, which topped many critic’s top-ten lists last year, will be the film most interested viewers will gravitate towards, however, Old Joy is not to be missed. Both films, while different on the surface, share similarities warranting an easy back-to-back pairing. Reichardt intentionally leaves her stories open-ended with the characters embarking into the unknown, however, this lack of closure gives the films a resonance that carries with you long after the credits roll. o:p>

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Film Review: Kicking and Screaming


Film Review: Kicking and Screaming
Directed by Noah Baumbach
96 min Feature Film, 1995

Here’s a joke: How do you make God laugh? Make a plan. ~ Chet 

If Rick Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is the pinnacle exercise in ‘good-old-days,’ high school nostalgia, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. 

Baumbach’s debut film hits at the heart of the grand ‘what now?’ conundrum that undergrads awaken to upon graduation. In addition the film deals with some of the shallowest people–archetypes of the liberal arts, Gen-X crowd of no-it-alls–and manages to make them surprisingly endearing and relatable in their naiveness towards life. Whereas Linklater’s immortal classic invokes a longing for the days of sex, drugs and rock and roll, Kicking and Screaming is set during the unsure time many people would rather forget.  

Set in the mid nineties when long parted hair, corduroys and plaid shirts we’re the essentials of any pre-hipster era twenty-somethings, the film revolves around a handful of recently departed academics. There’s the hip English/Creative Writing major Grover (Josh Hamilton), the surly philosophy scholar Max (Chris Eigemen), and the immature, highly neurotic movie buff Otis (Carlos Jacott). Playing the Dazed role of elder Wooderson is Chet (the wonderful Eric Stoltz), a nonchalant intellectual pushing 30 who is blissful as a tenth-plus year senior. 

Opening at a the kind of posh graduation cocktail party well-suited for the stereotypical privileged Ivy Leaguer, the gang sit sipping their drinks contemplating the next step. Grover’s equally witted girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo) is off to Prague for a year, leaving the film’s protagonist bitter and alone. Otis is scheduled to start Engineering school in Milwaukee but chooses to defer the acceptance to stay with his friends and work at a video store. Max finds it necessary to analyze and rip apart the gang’s monotonous conversation pieces while ripping through the daily crossword like a paycheck depends on it. 

Released in the wake of the Pulp Fiction casual dialogue craze, and amidst the rise of the Seinfeld sitcom, the characters in Screaming drone on about film trivia, pointless ‘what if’ scenarios and casual observations of the incoming freshmen of the opposite sex. The screenplay at first comes off as a bit too polished for its so-called casual dialogue but as the film progresses the characters quickly become parodies of the hipster culture. On a number of occasions auxiliary characters even go as far as to say to the group, “you know, you all talk the same.” In one scene when Grover scoffs to his father (a memorable cameo by Elliot Gould) that he never got into “the whole coffeehouse scene,” it’s evident he’s lying. 

The mindless banter of Kicking and Screaming is postmodern but in the most unpretentious sort of manner because Baumbach realizes how naïve and hypocritical his characters are. While they verbally dissect those around them and maintain an elitist attitude towards their individual predicaments–that is, not knowing what the hell to do with their newly appointed degrees–they realize they need each other more than they would like to admit.

The level of comedic uncomfortableness that arises in Kicking and Screaming, particularly with Max, who strives to be smarter than everyone else in the room, is a theme that would carry on to Baumbach’s 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale (see the Jesse Eisenberg character’s casual plagiarism of a Pink Floyd song and his father’s (a serpent-like Jeff Daniels) argument for its artistic merit). Academics, who are completely in love with themselves but ultimately are clueless to life’s master plan, seem to be the archetypes of Baumbach’s work.

As the film comes to a close few characters come away on top, although a number of loose ends are tied and a certain monologue at an airport leaves Grover with some hope for reaching enlightenment. Meanwhile Chet’s barside argument for his lifestyle choices may be the finest explanation for why some people ignore the career driven life in lieu of casual bliss. Overall the film closes on a somber, albeit true to life note. 

The Squid and the Whale, an overly bleak portrayal about the consequences of divorce, quickly established Baumbach as a filmmaker to keep an eye on, however, Kicking and Screaming is his understated masterpiece. Cinematically the film is a mix of low-budget camerawork and effective flashbacks that are so uniquely stunning it’s a shame the technique of freeze frame to live action isn’t utilized more often. And the film’s various locales–from grunge music clubs, townie bars, tight dorm rooms and the stale dark wood interiors of off campus houses–create the perfect mise en scéne for any college backdrop.

For viewers currently suffering the unsure limbo of life out of college the film is a refreshing eye-opener to the ubiquitous dilemma. For the older/wiser viewer the story may recall–with a grin and a chuckle–the immature, naïve years that most go through and how these experiences often necessitate the maturation process. In Baumbach’s eyes we’ve all kicked and screamed our way through life’s obstacles at some point.