27 December 2006

THE BEST MUSIC OF 2006

TOP TEN ALBUMS

This was a profoundly mediocre year for new albums: nothing here is fit to spit-shine the shoes of my top five or six from last year. Maybe I'm finding more solace in mixes and shuffles these days. Anyway, I admit I had difficulty selecting a single favorite LP this year. What ended up # 1 did so because I continue to get more out of it on each listen.

1. TV On the Radio - RETURN TO COOKIE MOUNTAIN

Not an entirely original choice: practically every best-of list I've scanned over this year has a place for it. Whatever--this finally lives up to the promise of their wonderful debut EP from three years ago, and then some. Still adventurously constructing their own meta-genre as they go along, this stuff is dense, demanding, draining and ultimately exhilarating, reaping vast rewards for those willing to spend a little time finding out what's all there.

2. Belle and Sebastian - THE LIFE PURSUIT

Having stopped trying to make another record like IF YOU'RE FEELING SINISTER last time out, they continue to hone and perfect their stylistic dexterity. From swaggering bubble-glam and blue-eyed soul to new wave brit-pop and squishy '70s funk, nearly every song here could be a single. And if the very best one (the resonant, chiming "Dress Up In You") could still neatly fit on SINISTER, it proves they haven't at all lost what made them so special and worthy in the first place.

3. Regina Spektor - BEGIN TO HOPE

Somehow this lovably quirky expatriate Russian singer/pianist remained under my radar until she released her third album this year. Her first for a major label, it makes no qualms about wanting to sound more commercial and produced than what came before. All the more impressive then that she remains as much of a kook as ever (the way she spurts out, "So cheap and JU-cee!" on "That Time") while the radio-friendliest songs (especially "Better" and, ahem, "On The Radio") convey a great deal of artistic growth as well.

4. Roisin Murphy - RUBY BLUE

Beguiling and often frightening ex-Moloko vocalist Murphy works with innovative producer Matthew Herbert and makes the forward-looking record Madonna should have done instead of the comfortably-retro one she ended up doing. Of course, this is all old news to everyone but us Americans (it was released in Europe last year), but better late than never that we get to revel in the 21th Century disco of our slinkiest, snappiest dreams.

5. Paul Brill - HARPOONER

The best singer-songwriter you've never heard of continues the sonic experimentation he began on his last record, and pushes it almost to the point that his pop songs are sound collages and vice versa. Every time he comes this close to losing us in a sea of layered effects and tape loops, an old-fashioned melodic hook pulls us back in, like the sea shanty chorus of "Don't Tell Them", which itself is a refreshing plea for not giving every single thought away.

6. Neko Case - FOX CONFESSOR BRINGS THE FLOOD

Following an eye-opening live album and ever more astonishing stints with The New Pornographers, her songwriting finally begins to match her peerless siren of a voice. It's also harder to determine exactly what genre her music falls into (Alt-country? Alt-pop? Alt-gospel?)--always an encouraging sign for an artist destined for timelessness. The best lyric of the year: "I leave the party at 3 A.M., alone, thank God."

7. Nellie McKay - PRETTY LITTLE HEAD

She got dropped from her Major Label because she refused to prune this 23-song sophomore effort down to 16, and good for her. It plays like a bizarro-world cast recording for seven or eight musicals stitched together, many of them fabulous. Oddly enough, I adore the silly throwaways most, like the meow-saturated, 56-second-long "Pounce" or the self-explanatory "Yodel" (I dare Gwen Stefani to come up with such a hummable hook!), though nobody in their right mind could possibly hate the excellent Cyndi Lauper and K.D. Lang duets.

8. Junior Boys - SO THIS IS GOODBYE

Although it loses steam towards the end (despite a Sinatra cover!), the first six songs make for a compelling sequence that rivals anything on this list. As heartbroken and seductive as ever, this mostly eschews the start/stop rhythmic crunch of the first record for cool, smooth, majestically perfect synth-pop meant for middle-of-the-night, drown-your-sorrows-in-gin listening. The grand exception: the itchy, pulsating single "In the Morning", which doesn't stick out so much as expose the turmoil (and burgeoning enlightenment) within.

9. James Hunter - PEOPLE GONNA TALK

Singer/guitarist Hunter isn't exactly an original; just as Chris Isaak worships at the altar of Roy Orbison, this guy bows down to Sam Cooke, Ben E. King, and all the other greats of post-Elvis, pre-Beatles R&B. But Hunter more than knows his stuff--he writes sharp songs, he never overplays, and he keeps the arrangements clean, crisp and subtle. That he's both white and British is unexpected and yes, fascinating; it's also irrelevant when the music's this strong and affecting.

10. Emm Gryner - THE SUMMER OF HIGH HOPES

After two interesting albums of covers and a slightly overproduced one of originals, Gryner finally delivers another solid album of her own material--perhaps her best to date. The overall mood is slow and sparse, which is not to say it's reserved or minimalist. "Girls Are Murder", "All Time Low" and "Queen of the Boys" are all ringing, anthemic pop while "Almighty Love" could be her greatest composition to date: if its soaring, magnificently warm invitation of a chorus doesn't give her a deservedly larger audience, nothing will.

ALSO RECOMMENDED (in alphabetical order):

The BellRays - HAVE A LITTLE FAITH
Calexico - GARDEN RUIN
Cat Power - THE GREATEST
Goldfrapp - SUPERNATURE
Herbert - SCALE
The Hidden Cameras - AWOO
Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins - RABBIT FUR COAT
Joanna Newsom - YS
Pet Shop Boys - FUNDAMENTAL
Puffy AmiYumi - SPLURGE
Sparks - HELLO YOUNG LOVERS
Sufjan Stevens - THE AVALANCHE
Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 - TICK, TICK, TICK

MIX: BEST TRACKS OF 2006
all tracks are from the albums listed above, unless otherwise noted:

01 Marit Bergman, "No Party" (single/mp3)
02 The BellRays, "Third Time's The Charm"
03 Regina Spektor, "On The Radio"
04 Neko Case, "Hold On, Hold On"
05 Hot Chip, "Boy From School" (from The Warning)
06 TV On The Radio, "Hours"
07 Belle and Sebastian, "The Blues Are Still Blue"
08 Puffy AmiYumi, "The Story"
09 The Hidden Cameras, "Awoo"
10 Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, "Rise Up With Fists!"
11 James Hunter, "People Gonna Talk"
12 Paul Brill, "Don't Tell Them"
13 Camera Obscura, "If Looks Could Kill" (from Let's Get Out of This Country)
14 Emm Gryner, "All Time Low"
15 Roisin Murphy, "Through Time"
16 Sufjan Stevens, "Dear Mr. Supercomputer"
17 Nellie McKay with Cyndi Lauper, "Beecharmer"
18 Calexico, "Cruel"
19 Junior Boys, "In The Morning"
20 Pet Shop Boys, "Integral"

LOSER OF THE YEAR:
Why, The Village Voice, of course. No one looked good when they fired veteran music critic
Robert Christgau (plus half of their film critics). Thankfully the Consumer Guide has been since resurrected.

20 December 2006

20 DOCUMENTARIES

Time for another Chlotrudis poll: following favorite horror, foreign language, and arty films (see LISTS to the right), this year it’s documentaries. And my top twenty are…



01 The "Up" Series (dir: Michael Apted, 1964-2005)
02 Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, 2004)
03 Double Dare (Amanda Micheli, 2004)
04 Grey Gardens (Albert Maysles et al, 1975)
05 Sherman's March (Ross McElwee, 1986)
06 Dig! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
07 Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
08 I Like Killing Flies (Matt Mahurin, 2004)
09 Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2003)
10 The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, 2000)
11 The Case of the Grinning Cat (Chris Marker, 2004)
12 Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
13 Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994)
14 This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick, 2006)
15 Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, 1980)
16 Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)
17 OT: Our Town (Scott Hamilton Kennedy, 2002)
18 Harlan County U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976)
19 Murderball (Henry Alan Rubin et al, 2005)
20 Hell House (George Ratliff, 2001)

When I started thinking about this list over a month ago, I knew right away what would be number one. Michael Apted’s conceptually brilliant project tracks the lives of dozen subjects born in the UK in 1956 by interviewing them once every seven years. It was originally conceived as 7 UP, a one-time television show about a selection of seven year-olds culled from different classes and cultures. With each installment (7 + SEVEN, 21, 28 UP, 35 UP, 42 UP, and 49 UP), we flash back between the past(s) and the present, literally seeing these people age and evolve before our very eyes. I’ve only viewed the three most recent films, but I don’t think you need to see them all to comprehend what an immense achievement the whole is. Currently an unfinished but rich and revelatory symphony, like the best docs, it encourages us to examine these lives and hold them up as mirrors to our own.

Nearly 70% of the remaining films come from the past decade, which is apt since I wasn’t much of an active cineaste before then. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that documentaries have also enjoyed a spike in popularity and quantity since then. Credit breakout hits like the work of Michael Moore or Errol Morris (though # 15 is probably still the latter’s least-seen, most cultish feature), but also acknowledge the advent of digital video. Either way, since I began making year-end top ten lists in 2000, I’ve made room for at least one doc just about every time, from Jonathan Caouette’s non-paralleled autobiographical collage to Jeffrey Blitz’s cross-section of American pre-teens sifted through the lens of a very particular talent.

Of course there are also classics of the genre: the Maysles Brothers’ unforgettable portrait of forgotten lives whiling away in a decaying mansion, Ross McElwee’s groundbreaking personal essay/travelogue, Barbara Kopple’s depiction of an isolated community and its struggles to be seen, heard and understood. I could rattle off another twenty worthy candidates, from the Soviet silent-era MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA to the contemporary Cameroon judicial system of SISTERS IN LAW. The films that made the cut, however, did so because each one compels and entertains as much as it informs and represents.

13 December 2006

WALDEN UP CLOSE

These were taken on November 5: the last vestiges of Autumn giving way to the long hibernation ahead. I've taken my share of wide-angle shots of Walden Pond on past visits, so this time I focused more on light, shapes and patterns.









08 December 2006

FOUR GOOD BOOKS

I don’t read nearly enough to compile a decent top ten list, but I can name four exceptional new books I read in 2006. Two are memoirs that couldn’t be more different, and that goes for the other two as well, both of them novels.

Everything I'm Cracked Up to Be (Jen Trynin)

Sounding like a beguiling cross between Chrissie Hynde and Joni Mitchell, Boston-based rocker Trynin released two critically acclaimed but little heard albums in the mid-1990s, and then abruptly disappeared. Those few fans (like me) clamoring for an explanation finally get one in this massively entertaining memoir where Trynin relates her rapid career trajectory. She progresses from suddenly rising star to hot property in a major record label bidding war to exhausted has-been seemingly overnight, with enough booze and drama to jam-pack five episodes of BEHIND THE MUSIC. However, Trynin’s riotous sense of humor and refreshing lack of self-pity go beyond that well-worn template. She also has much detailed insight as to how the music industry works—or doesn’t work, unless you have lots of hits and genuine support from your label. Trynin’s sharp prose is enough to make one long for another album from her, although I now totally understand why she’d rather just write.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Alison Bechdel)

Best known for her long-running comic strip DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR, Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir should appeal to anyone lamenting the late TV series SIX FEET UNDER. Similarly an equally comic and morbid confection, the title comes from the family business, a funeral parlor in small-town Pennsylvania. Bechdel’s story primarily concerns her father, a part-time English lit teacher and a closeted gay man who died mysteriously (he may have committed suicide) when she was in college. Using that as a jumping-off point, FUN HOME ambitiously sifts through memories and old diary entries (all meticulously re-created through her clean yet intricate style) and makes literary allusions to reveal and comprehend her father’s secret life and find some catharsis. Flowing effortlessly, it’s as rewarding and engaging as the best work of Art Spiegelman or Chris Ware, yet it also comes from a decidedly original voice.

Lost and Found: A Novel (Carolyn Parkhurst)

At first, Parkhurst’s follow-up to her intense debut novel THE DOGS OF BABEL feels much lighter: a clever satire of reality television, but nothing more profound than your average beach read. Tracking the contestants of a scavenger-hunt type show that bears more than a passing resemblance to THE AMAZING RACE, each chapter is narrated first person, confessional style (a la THE REAL WORLD). Among the tag-team duos are an estranged mother and daughter, two former child TV stars struggling to extend their celebrity into adulthood and a married couple made up of a man and a woman who met each other through the ex-gay movement. Parkhurst lithely nails the genre’s conventions and quirks so as not to feel at all contrived, but she also digs a little deeper than you’d expect. She recognizes how a reality TV series needs drama and suspense in order to thrive, but she doesn’t forget to make her characters relatable or humane.

Winkie (Clifford Chase)

The titular protagonist here is a teddy bear accused of terrorism. That sentence alone should either pique your interest or send you running for the hills. In Chase’s unclassifiable and odd yet incessantly fascinating first novel, we get drawn into the thoughts of an inanimate object that eventually comes to life. However, this ain’t PINOCCHIO. Sometimes WINKIE is a simple fable filled with fuzzy but not altogether warm reminiscences about the bear’s past; other times, it is an exceedingly cartoonish allegory on the war on terror, with a stuffed toy as a scapegoat, a receptacle for society’s ignorance and cruelty. Sometimes Winkie is male and at other times (or simultaneously?) female, giving birth to a philosophy-dispensing cub who may be divine. WINKIE similarly swerves between the ridiculous and the sublime: it’s an extraordinary act of chutzpah and often hard to put down (in both senses of the term).

04 December 2006

INLAND EMPIRE



Instead of filming a completed screenplay, David Lynch took a piecemeal approach to making INLAND EMPIRE: encouraged by the physical freedom a toy-sized digital video camera allows, he would think of an idea, write it down, and then immediately film it, letting the story develop with each individual fragment or improvisation. It's essential to consider and understand this means of composition when approaching the finished work, and irrelevant to dismiss it for not making sense. This is an avant-garde film that favors texture and feeling over logic or linearity. The director's most experimental effort since ERASERHEAD, it's a challenging ride, but one worth taking.

Most of it centers on Nikki (Laura Dern), a Hollywood actress starring in a remake of a film whose original version was never completed because the leads died of mysterious circumstances while filming. Many early scenes revolve around Nikki, her co-star Devon (Justin Theroux) and their director Kingsley (Jeremy Irons) as the shoot begins. However, it's not long before Nikki becomes unable to differentiate between herself and her character. From there, it's a slow glide through Lynch's rabbit hole: we see Dern as Nikki but also as a housewife in a mid-20th century tract home and an Aileen Wuornos-like figure in a dingy interrogation chamber where she confesses lurid incidents to a silent bespectacled man. We also see strange, enigmatic sequences shot in the snowy, industrial Polish city of Lodz, snatches of an eerie nuclear family sitcom (complete with laugh track) populated by a cast wearing, well, rabbit suits, plus dancing whores and Laura Palmer's mother, too!

As a long-awaited follow-up to the monumental MULHOLLAND DRIVE, this is not exactly a retread, although it's hard to imagine it existing without its predecessor. Those infuriated by MULHOLLAND'S fascinating final third will probably be annoyed that this one plays like a three-hour extension of its dream logic and shifting personalities. But where that film focused on a dreamer slowly awakening into consciousness before succumbing to encroaching insanity, this one explores more in-depth how a persona gradually shatters and dissolves, its world becoming ever more abstract, with layers of recurring motifs piling up until they resemble something close to madness.

Although this film lacks some of its predecessor's tenderness, it retains its adventurous, twisted spirit. Few directors can still match Lynch in terms of gorgeously sinister imagery, elaborate sound design, and utter originality (and creepiness). An actress I've always admired, Dern is just phenomenal here; she's bravely willing to reach out to the furthest possible limb to display a complexity of emotions, from amiable and heroine-like to frightening and downright ugly. Towards the film's ethereal, almost rapturous conclusion, Lynch temporarily pulls the rug out from under us, offering a fleeting explanation for what we've seen, only to pull back again and offer more reasons to doubt that one exists. INLAND EMPIRE can be frustrating for sure, but Lynch's openness and seemingly endless creativity makes for one compelling experiment and experience.

29 November 2006

THE KING and others

One regular-sized review and a slew of bite-sized ones (otherwise I'll never catch up). Now with grades instead of stars!

THE KING: In one of his first (good) English-speaking roles, Gael Garcia Bernal is a young man who has just finished a stint in the US Navy. Named Elvis (hence the film's ironic title), he rolls into Corpus Christi, Texas, and immediately looks up his father, David Sandow (William Hurt). Sandow once had a fling with Elvis' mother, a Mexican prostitute. Shortly thereafter, he found God and is now pastor of a fundamentalist Christian church. He also has a wife, Twyla (Laura Harring) and two teenaged children: Paul (Paul Dano) and Malerie (Pell James). Upon meeting a grown-up Elvis for the first time, Sandow rejects him and forbids him to have any contact with his half-family. However, that doesn't stop Elvis from pursuing a clandestine affair with Malerie; nor does he reveal to her whom he actually is.

It's a shame the trailer for this film makes it look like the usual torpid, pretentious, hot-button topic indie trash; on the contrary, it's an unpredictable, spare, subdued, near-poetic character study. Previously best known for the documentary WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, director James Marsh is well-adept at sustaining a mood and building intensity but not at the expense of losing the plot or lacking substance. Bernal, Hurt and Dano (very different here from his role in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE) are all good, but THE KING is most remarkable in its moral ambiguity toward its characters. Sure, you could debate whether each one is "good" or "bad" (and most viewers certainly will), but what matters more is the possibility of redemption, and how difficult (or easy?) it is to earn. Grade: B+

*******

BABEL: Not nearly as bleak but slightly more nervewracking than 21 GRAMS. Three stories here, but it’s really two completely different films--the Japan sequences have at best tenuous links to the wrenching Brad and Cate drama in Morocco and the border-crossing shenanigans between Mexico and the US. Beautifully conceived, thoughtful and poignant, the Japan story is the best part, by the way. B-

CASINO ROYALE: Daniel Craig isn’t the best Bond (yet), but he’s inarguably the catalyst for what has to be the most emotionally complex, character-driven 007 film in decades. He remains a left-field choice, showing more brawn and physical acuity than savoir-faire, but his presence suggests realms of new possibilities for the franchise. The film’s a half-hour too long and the dialogue’s occasionally cheesy, but the damn thing still entertains and, at the very least, is a vast improvement over the spoofy ‘60s Peter O'Toole original--I didn't even think of Austin Powers once. B

REQUIEM: This low-budget German indie immediately renders all other films about exorcism irrelevant (yes, even that one). Based on the same case as THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, this offers a more realistic, ambivalent take. Sandra Huller is simply astonishing as the lead and if half as many people saw this as those seeing THE QUEEN, she’d get award nominations up the wazoo. Bonus points for painstakingly (and lovingly) recreating the early ‘70s without a hint of kitsch. A-

SHADOWBOXER: Lee Daniels’ audacious thriller probably never played your town because the mainstream critics trashed it. While not an undiscovered masterpiece, it’s pretty fascinating if you allow yourself to believe that Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. could be assassins/lovers, that Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Mo’Nique could be a loving couple, and that Macy Gray could be a cracked-up whore (ok, that last one’s not too far out). But this is a crafty little film that has something to say about families and how knowledge and behavior is learned within them. Daniels’ dreamlike palette and loping editing rhythms make me look forward to the second film I hope he gets to make. B

SHUT UP AND SING: Dixie Chicks’ feisty, lovable lead singer Natalie Maines is nearly up there with Timothy Treadwell (GRIZZLY MAN) and Little Edie (GREY GARDENS) as an Utterly Fascinating Documentary Subject (only she’s not crazy). Not since DiG! has there been such an insightful film about the music business. Concerned with how politics can radically rearrange your audience base overnight, it’s lucky for being in the right place in the right time, and noteworthy for recording and analyzing a historical moment with such depth and feeling. A-

VOLVER: Following the accomplished but oddly remote BAD EDUCATION, Almodovar sinuously tempers the well-wrought melodrama of his recent work with the salacious, rapid-fire comedy of his vintage period. Penelope Cruz is outstanding, but the real return to form comes from Carmen Maura—it’s no coincidence that this may already be my favorite film of his next to the last picture he made with her, eighteen years ago. I’ll surely write more on this treat of a film in my year-end top ten. A

10 November 2006

06 November 2006

MIX: I'VE NEVER BEEN WRONG... I USED TO WORK IN A RECORD STORE*

July 2006: CD-R

01. Tompaulin, "Slender"
02. Ivy, "Get Out of the City"
03. Jen Trynin, "Better Than Nothing"
04. Black Box Recorder, "The Facts of Life"
05. Nellie McKay, "Ding Dong"
06. Stew, "Giselle"
07. Sufjan Stevens, "Chicago"
08. The Shins, "Saint Simon"
09. Weakerthans, "One Great City!"
10. Marit Bergman, "Tomorrow is Today"
11. Andrew Bird, "Fake Palindromes"
12. Belle and Sebastian, "Dress Up In You"
13. Sam Phillips, "I Wanted to Be Alone"
14. TV On the Radio, "Young Liars"
15. LCD Soundsystem, "Losing My Edge"
16. Goldfrapp, "Number 1"
17. The New Pornographers, "The Bleeding Heart Show"
18. Saint Etienne, "Teenage Winter"
19. The Futureheads, "Hounds of Love" (listed as "BONUS TRACK")

I have a friend named Bruce in New York City who always puts me up whenever I visit. I met him in my film group, and he's probably one of the few people I know who sees more movies than I do. He also used to be on top of new music, but hasn't listened to a whole lot in the past decade. Earlier this year, Bruce asked me to make a mix for him, and this is what I came up with.

Before I began gathering selections, he sent me an e-mail impressively detailing his tastes, dividing favorite songs into categories representing what he responds to in a piece of music (such as "clever lyrics", "complicated lyrics", "unique instrumentation", or just plain "sexy"). I skimmed through his e-mail twice and then went to work. I limited the selections to the previous decade or so (the oldest song is from 1994) to get him up to speed on what he's been missing. It also seemed natural for me to stick with the past decade because that's when my musical tastes blossomed and matured.

The title comes from a line spoken in LCD Soundsystem's epic, music-obsessive minimalist masterpiece--clocking in at nearly eight minutes, it sets a knowing tone that reverberates most strongly in Black Box Recorder's emphatic yet unsentimental ode to burgeoning adolescence. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, it's also present in Saint Etienne's poignant reflection of youth wistfully fading away.

Other than those slight echoes, there's no particular theme. Most of these songs are personal favorites that I remember falling in love with the first time I heard them: Tompaulin's gradually-building-in-momentum opener (also the first track on my introduction to the band), Ivy's breezy road trip anthem, Marit Bergman's exuberant, wall-of-sound proclamation, TV On the Radio's irresistible clash of soulful, guttural vocal and icy, sterile soundscape.

As I wrote last year, the first mix you make for someone is always risky. Fortunately, Bruce liked this one; apparently, so did a few of his friends and neighbors, as I found out when I visited him two months later. His favorite track ended up being the one by Belle and Sebastian. Probably my own favorite track of this year so far, I love its intricate lyrical twists, rich chord changes, and still classic-sounding (for a decade-old band) trumpet solo. Yet, I wasn't sure Bruce would-- you see, it was a last minute addition.

*(By the way, I've never actually worked in a record store.)

31 October 2006

THIS IS NO DREAM! THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING!


I found this wonderful behind-the-scenes photo on my computer, and I don't remember where I acquired it. Anyhoo, I just re-watched this movie last night, and it remains one of the best horror films of any era. No excessive violence, no gore, very little blood, yet chilling, disturbing, unsettling and even hilarious on occasion. Here's something I wrote about it on the old blog. Happy Halloween.

30 October 2006

4

This is one of the strangest films I've ever seen (and if you know me, that's saying something). 4 begins with a piano-tuner, a prostitute, and a slaughterhouse worker. Strangers to each other, they meet in a Moscow bar and converse for at least twenty minutes. All three create elaborate false identities for themselves as a half-awake bartender refills their glasses. One speaks about a Soviet human cloning conspiracy and the significance of the number 4. This part of the film is formally rigid and disciplined in its editing and composition.

Afterwards, the three patrons leave the bar and go their separate ways. A good chunk of the film follows the prostitute, Marina, who travels miles and miles to a remote village where her twin sister has just died. At this point, 4 gradually starts to descend into a surreal, nearly grotesque madness, teeming with hand-held camera shots, drunken, demented old ladies and handmade dolls with faces composed of chewed bread (yes, chewed bread--you can't make this stuff up). All the while, patterns of four appear on screen: four sisters, four airplanes, four tanks, etc;

Director Ilya Khrjanovsky is a talent to watch. He's clearly (and intelligently) commenting on the cultural divide between Western and Eastern Russia, and how repetition and disclosure relate to it. 4 makes a relatively polished Russian film such as THE RETURN look like LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, which is to say, it's not for everyone. Although it tested my patience at times, it's also fascinating and bewildering like a 1970s Werner Herzog film and that's a compliment... but I'll just give it 3.5 stars (out of 5)

26 October 2006

LITTLE CHILDREN and MARIE ANTOINETTE



Alexander Payne’s sharp, wickedly funny adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel ELECTION remains one of the best-ever book-into-film conversions. A long-belated follow-up to his great directorial debut IN THE BEDROOM, Todd Field’s adaptation of another Perrotta novel doesn’t scale the same heights, but it’s solid and far from a disappointment.

Superficially, LITTLE CHILDREN is another malaise-in-suburbia critique. Both Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson) are thirtysomethings who have young children, are in mismatched marriages, and aren’t entirely sure how they ended up there. Sarah has a Master’s in English but is now merely a housewife who can’t relate to the other, clone-like mothers at the neighborhood playground (or Richard, her older husband who has issues of his own). Brad is a stay-at-home dad and ex-law student half-heartedly trying to pass the bar exam after failing it twice. He gets little attention or genuine support from his wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a career-preoccupied documentary filmmaker.

Following a series of playmates with their two children, Sarah and Brad fall deep into an impulsive, passionate affair and discover a connection that vindicates something lacking in their lives. However, what elevates the film beyond such well-tread territory is a near-total dearth of melodrama or Hollywood hokum. Perrotta co-wrote the screenplay with Field, and it retains the author’s understated satiric prose with subtlety and directness. Slightly frumpy but still beautiful, Winslet’s good, but Wilson is the standout—he’s exceptionally well-attuned to nuances and contradictions of his character. Dubbed “The Prom King” by the adoring neighborhood moms, Brad is the hunky ex-jock within grasp of an ideal, fulfilling life, but he doesn’t have the drive or self-confidence to go forward. Instead, he desires only to look back for approval from substitutes for the boys clubs of his youth (including a police football team he’s drafted into and a ragtag group of skateboarding teens).

Intertwined within all of this is a secondary narrative about Ronald (Jackie Earle Haley), a middle-aged man who has just served a prison term for exposing himself to a child. He is sent home to live with his aging mother in Brad and Sarah’s neighborhood; fear and disgust surface when he returns. This paranoia is most eloquently expressed about forty minutes into the film when he unexpectedly makes his first appearance onscreen that isn’t one of his mugshots plastered all over town. It’s one thing to witness the community’s collective revulsion (orchestrated in a scene worthy of Hitchcock); it’s another to see just how alarmingly aged and emaciated Haley looks thirty years after his BAD NEWS BEARS heyday. Fortunately, his presence goes beyond stunt casting and he gives a chilling, touching performance.

As in the novel, this is where the film becomes slightly problematic—the two storylines don’t always comfortably coalesce. Both Sarah and Brad develop somewhat tenuous links to the second narrative, and Ronald seems to be in this film just to say something about Sarah’s nature. LITTLE CHILDREN doesn’t arrive at an entirely convincing conclusion; it’s more like a head-on collision of comic and tragic outcomes. But Field and Perrotta at least treat all of their flawed characters with compassion—that very quality lifts this smart, intense film above the rest of its ilk.
(4 stars)

**********

Had I seen MARIE ANTOINETTE ten years ago, I would have walked out the theater flushed and excited, declaring it my favorite of the year. Now, I know a little better to lavish such praise on what is an interesting experiment, but nothing more. Of course, Sofia Coppola already made her masterpiece with LOST IN TRANSLATION (and THE VIRGIN SUICIDES comes close). Her unconventional biopic isn’t a complete failure; I’m not sure if it even knows what it wants to be.

The most thrilling parts involve music. I’ve always adored anachronisms in period pieces (it’s what keeps most of ‘em from being stodgy), and the moods Coppola conjures up here are exquisite, even transcendent, especially the parts scored to “Hong Kong Garden” or any of the three songs by previously unknown dream-poppers The Radio Dept. You couldn’t ask for a better Marie than Kirsten Dunst, who has managed to retain her luminous child-like qualities without seeming childish. Also, get a load of that great supporting ensemble: Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Rip Torn, Judy Davis, forever gravelly-voiced Marianne Faithful (as Marie’s mum!) and Asia Argento in an head-turning turn as Madame du Barry.

The film is more concerned with fabulous d├ęcor and the pressure on Marie to give birth to an heir (no thanks to wet blanket Louis XVI, played an appropriately aloof Jason Schwartzman), than the impending French Revolution, which barely figures in here. Coppola has made an opulent, swooning spectacle that’s highly distinctive, daring, loads of fun, but lacking much of the weight of her first two features. And in the end, it’s not radical enough; although something close to a train wreck in parts, MOULIN ROGUE already did this sort of thing with much more feeling.
(3 stars)

12 October 2006

THREE GRAVES (AND ONE HOME)

Forest Hills Cemetery, Labor Day 2006.







02 October 2006

THE QUEEN

I'm convinced that Helen Mirren is capable of anything: She can quietly steal scenes in a Robert Altman ensemble piece (GOSFORD PARK), turn a recurring role into an icon (television's PRIME SUSPECT) and even survive an embarrassment like CALIGULA (I still can't wait to see her as an assassin in SHADOWBOXER). One year after her award-winning portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in an HBO miniseries, Mirren fearlessly takes on Elizabeth II in director Stephen Frears' intriguing film about Princess Diana's untimely death in 1997 and the strange days that followed.

Not really a biopic of Elizabeth (or Diana), Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan have instead crafted an intense, revealing examination of the British political climate of that time. Just months before the accident, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) became the country's first Labour Prime Minister in nearly two decades. When he first meets with Elizabeth at the film's onset, he's not entirely familiar with the precise customs required between the Queen and her subjects, exemplifying how the public's attitude towards the monarchy has shifted in the late 20th Century. As national mourning over Diana swells, the monarchy's refusal to even submit a public statement about the dead Princess they've disowned (she and Charles divorced only one year before) makes them appear remote and out of touch. At Blair's urging and guidance, it's up to Elizabeth to address the public, respond to their outcry against her and reassure them during this national crisis.

Frears deftly incorporates a lot of news footage into the film, giving it a chilling, unforced authenticity. It also provides an interesting, if sometimes jarring contrast to the delightfully wrought conversations between Blair and Elizabeth. The screenplay has that carefully composed eloquence and wit of a stage play which most of the actors nail perfectly—especially Sheen (a breakthrough performance that aims to restore the success and idealism of Blair at his first term), James Cromwell (wonderful as grumpy, snide Prince Philip) and Heather McCrory, a scene-stealer as Blair's smart, acid-tongued wife Cherie. Still, Mirren effortlessly towers above them all. It's a role of a lifetime that she inhabits with subtlety and complete control. Her Queen is not a doughy Monty Python stereotype but a woman capable of driving a Range Rover across rugged terrain. Elizabeth II was born into a lifelong "job" she didn't entirely want, and here she's believably baffled by her country's reaction to her non-action. She eventually emerges triumphant, but not unscathed, and Mirren makes her small but significant transformation a beautiful thing to witness.
(4.5 stars)

20 September 2006

THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED

I approached this documentary with some skepticism, given the hype and glowing praise a number of my friends gave when they all saw it in Provincetown in June. Well, believe the hype--this is an absorbing film that will resonate with anyone who champions independent cinema. Director Kirby Dick has made a smart, provocative and ultimately disturbing expose of the MPAA. He examines the organization from all angles, using everything from the infographics and talking heads interviews to hiring a private eye to reveal a slew of alarming discrepancies between what the censors think we should see and what the public actually wants. His investigation is balanced yet intensely personal. The result is like a Michael Moore film without the cheap shots and incessant narcissism. Don't miss it. (5 stars)

14 September 2006

HALF NELSON

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), a young, white history teacher and girls’ basketball coach in a mostly black Brooklyn middle school would seem like the ideal mentor. Eschewing the required curriculum, he genuinely inspires his students to think about and apply historical events to their own lives. Lest you think this is going to be another DANGEROUS MINDS, however, it’s not long before we find out that Dan is also a drug addict. He tries to keep these two worlds separate, but isn’t always successful—before long, one of his students, tough, stone-faced Drey (Shareeka Epps), walks in on him getting high in the girl’s locker room after a game. Drey doesn’t rat Dan out, but she does tenuously forge a friendship with him.

The film’s crafty title refers to a wrestling move that consists of an opposing, interlocked force between two players that’s nearly impossible to break out of. We easily see the metaphor in Dan’s struggle to isolate (and compromise) his professional and private lives; it also applies to Drey. With her father’s absence unexplained, her mother working double shifts as an EMT, and her older brother incarcerated for dealing drugs, she drifts between Dan and her brother’s friend Frank (Anthony Mackie). He’s a fellow dealer who reaches out to her as a father figure, but like Dan, he’s not an entirely appropriate one for her.

After writing this film’s screenplay, director Ryan Fleck and his producer/co-writer Anna Boden adapted it into an exceptional short film called GOWANUS, BROOKLYN which I saw at the Independent Film Festival of Boston in 2004. Focusing primarily on Drey rather than Dan (Epps was in it but Gosling had yet to be cast), it was refreshing to see a filmmaker taking a cue from the minimalism/realism of Jim McKay’s wonderful OUR SONG, and it left me with high hopes for a feature-length version.

Fortunately, HALF NELSON doesn’t disappoint. With his brave, intricate, award-worthy performance, Gosling proves himself the ideal match for this material and newcomer Epps is a real discovery: both are so assured, yet so natural to the point of disappearing into their roles that they each seem startlingly real and make a challenging premise plausible. Mackie is also impressive; he gives depth to what in a lesser film would be just the rote part of the charming drug dealer. Tina Holmes (best known as Maggie from SIX FEET UNDER) is also good in a small role as Dan's ex-junkie ex-girlfriend.

Fleck has noted that the screenplay was born out of a frustration with the malaise hanging over America following Bush, 9/11 and the Iraq War. It’s referenced explicitly just once and subtly numerous times (particularly in a superb late scene where Dan visits his suburban family that’s absolutely heartbreaking for being so restrained yet dead-on), but this bleak, intelligent character study is not really about placing the blame for this malaise on anyone. For Dan and Drey, possible redemption and mere survival comes down to the strength and balance a friendship can provide. That the film carefully reaches this hopeful conclusion without ever seeming bogus or lapsing into cheap sentiment is what truly inspires. (5 stars)

07 September 2006

HOMETOWN TRAVELOGUE (PART 2)

As promised, more pictures from my Milwaukee trip. We return on an idyllic Sunday morning devoid of the previous two days' humidity and overall grey milieu.


A stroll down Lafayette Hill towards the Lake, blocks away from my parents' first apartment.


Alterra at the Lake, a coffehouse in what was once the historic Milwaukee River Flushing Station.


The newly opened Milwaukee Public Market: certainly the city's most striking recent addition since the Calatrava wing at the Milwaukee Art Musuem.


The Boerner Botannical Gardens in Hales Corners. Perhaps the most beautiful, serene place I know...


Particularly this meadow, which makes me want to run off and frolic through it for days.


Finally: What the world needs now is submissive flora.


Scout Lake Park in Greendale: you can just imagine how lovely the autumn foilage is.


Downtown skyline from a passenger seat window on 1-94. The smokestack in the right foreground has an ad for Sprecher, the city's finest microbrew (and root beer).


Sadly, all the super-cool vintage shops are closed on Sunday evenings.

Some are permanently out-to-lunch on Mondays, too.

Speaking of lunch, we dutifully saved some room for homemade blueberry pie at Lulu's diner in Bay View. Not to mention some Sprecher root beer.

As glorious as any old ocean, in my opinion.

Treasure awaits those who seek it in the otherworldly ravines of Grant Park.
I leave the park and the city, anticipating strange, new adventures and possibilities.