31 December 2008
1. Sam Phillips – DON’T DO ANYTHING
Twenty years after the former Leslie Phillips quit being a contemporary Christian artist and adopted her childhood nickname, she’s still making unconventional, vital music. Several tracks on her seventh album firmly carry over the acoustic/cabaret vibe of her previous two releases (like the infectious, celebratory “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”); others feature some of her sharpest hooks in well over a decade – for instance, “Little Plastic Life” crosses the jazzy, supple swing of A BOOT AND A SHOE with the Beatles-fixated choruses of MARTINIS AND BIKINIS. But a good chunk of DON’T DO ANYTHING delves into new terrain: “No Explanations” startlingly kicks things off with just Sam’s voice and a distorted electric guitar before a loud, primal stomp comes in, giving the song an uncommon thrust. The title track, “My Career in Chemistry”, and “Shake It Down” also employ these elements to great effect, with the latter concluding in a delicate fury of clanging (yet not entirely cacophonous) percussion. Although this is Sam’s first effort without her producer (and now ex-husband) T-Bone Burnett, it feels not entirely correct to simply dub it her “divorce album” or to say she’s newly independent. Always an iconoclast, she’s forever pushing forward. She delayed this album’s release by a few months to work a little more on it, but instead of feeling smothered or hermetic, the twelve concise miniatures contained here exude spontaneity, a cutting wit, and a radiance that pierces through all the anger and sorrow.
Favorite songs: “No Explanations”, “Little Plastic Life”, “My Career in Chemistry”, “Flowers Up”, “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”, “Watching Out of This World”
30 December 2008
2. TV On the Radio - DEAR SCIENCE
I overrated this band's last album - in an especially weak year for new music, it earned bonus points for originality. However, it's also a rather uneasy, challenging listen. Although I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to someone who likes challenging music, I rarely feel the need to dial it up on the 'Pod these days. Thus, I approached this follow-up with some skepticism, weary of buying into the hype yet again. Fortunately, all my concerns dissipated within hearing the opener "Halfway Home" for the first time. The song itself is not a radical departure for the band, but everything about it - the handclaps, vocalist Tunde Adebimpe's euphoric "ba ba ba's", the extra guitars that crash in near the end - is so damn irresistible and inviting. Subsequent songs have that sense of immediacy even as they each sound like the work of a different band - one eclectic enough to make room for both "Dancing Choose", a half-rapped political song (with a bloodline you can trace back to "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues") and something as sublimely beautiful and moving as the hazy, soaring "Family Tree". In short, they're now using their powers for good instead of evil, and it opens up the music's possibilities while also strengthening its impact.
Favorite songs: "Halfway Home", "Crying", "Dancing Choose", "Golden Age", "Family Tree", "DLZ"
29 December 2008
Five years ago, if you told me a musician as unique and obscure as Stew (a portly, middle-aged African American who fronts a band called The Negro Problem) would one day star in an award-winning Broadway musical, I would have laughed in your face. And yet, the former Mark Stewart actually did it, slowly developing his autobiographical show from small clubs to slightly larger venues (both in Berkeley and Off-Broadway) to a brief but celebrated run this year at the Belasco Theatre. This long-awaited cast album was recorded live before an audience on the Belasco's stage, which is only appropriate given that the production often plays more like a rock concert than a traditional musical. But unlike his previous albums (which, in their effort to encompass a multitude of genres tended to sprawl unevenly), this is a solid, complete work. It still includes everything from gospel, psychedelia and blues to punk, soul and a little calypso, but a compelling narrative and a canny use of countermelody and reoccurring hooks and phrases adds structure to the many shifts in style and tone. PASSING STRANGE ends up mocking musical conventions ("The Black One" slyly parodies A CHORUS LINE'S "One"), while also making the best of them in showstoppers like the career manifesto "Work the Wound".
Favorite songs: "Amsterdam", "Keys", "We Just Had Sex", "The Black One", "Work the Wound"
24 December 2008
4. Goldfrapp - SEVENTH TREE
I thought Alison Goldfrapp had truly found her niche churning out an electronic version of glam rock on her previous album SUPERNATURE, but I was wrong: this quite different, gorgeous comedown of a follow-up is an even better fit. The gentle, pastoral, somewhat eerie opener "Clowns" sets the tone, and the songs that follow sustain it even as they add a slight bounce to its step ("Happiness") or wash all over it with a psychedelic wall of sound ("Little Bird"). The second half is even better: the single "A&E" conveys what could be a suicide attempt with an irresistibly uplifting surge, "Cologne Cerrone Houdini" stimulates with its lush, pretty nonsense, and "Caravan Girl" convincingly rocks out with momentum before it all comes crashing down on the devastating closer "Monster Love". I used to think SEVENTH TREE would make a perfect summer album, but it's proving effective throughout all the seasons.
Favorite songs: "Little Bird", "A&E", "Caravan Girl", "Monster Love"
23 December 2008
5. Róisín Murphy - OVERPOWERED
This is where the album/year distinction gets fuzzy. Ex-Moloko vocalist Murphy's second solo effort came out in Europe in 2007, and was supposed to receive a domestic release in 2008. As of this writing, it's still in limbo, but still rumored to come out at some point. Since I bought it this year (and didn't have to pay import prices for it), for me, it's a 2008 album.
Following the more experimental RUBY BLUE, this is arguably the straightest pop Murphy's ever recorded, with a engagingly retro vibe that references dance floor divas from early Madonna and later Donna Summer to less iconic singers like Lisa Stansfield (check out the jazzy mid-tempo "Checkin' On Me"). Still, few of those ladies would ever think to open an album with a lyric as weird as "You're dating my daughter / the chromosomes match", or passionately sing "I wanna get you out of your cave, man" on the goofy, spooky, hypnotic "Primitive". Fact is, Murphy's personality shines so vividly throughout that even at her most accessible, she's neither derivative nor easily mistaken for anyone else--as if that album cover didn't already clue you in.
Favorite songs: "You Know Me Better", "Checkin' On Me", "Let Me Know", "Primitive"
22 December 2008
6. Portishead - THIRD
Their debut DUMMY continues to astound with each passing year, which may explain the decade-plus silence between their second and third records. If the second disappointed because it failed to match the first, THIRD succeeds because it takes a different approach. Almost entirely eschewing trip-hop and their usual film noir samples/facsimiles, they aim for something far more primitive and guttural. It's a bleak, difficult record, the kind I only want to play in rainy, miserable weather or when I'm in a foul mood. However, don't let that deter you from it, for THIRD is a fascinating listen. You can hear the band continually reinventing themselves with neat, sudden shifts in the music--like the Joy Division guitar riff that completely transforms "We Carry On" midway through, or the moment when "The Rip" morphs from an acoustic setting into an electronic one, or even the cowbell (!) that drives "Magic Doors".
Favorite songs: "Hunter", "The Rip", "We Carry On", "Magic Doors"
19 December 2008
7. Calexico - CARRIED TO DUST
After trying out a slightly more mainstream approach (with mixed results) on their last album, Joey Burns and John Convertino fully sound like Calexico again. Their Southwestern-noir take on indie rock never goes out of style mostly because they’re excellent songwriters (the Latin/Asian fusion of “Two Silver Trees” sports one of their most seductive hooks); they’re also resourceful in how they incorporate everything from dub-reggae (“Fractured Air (Tornado Watch)”) and icy electronics (“Contention City”) to breathless pop (“Writer’s Minor Holiday”) and country balladry (“Slowness”) into the mix. And like their best album, 2003’s FEAST OF WIRE, it all coheres into a singular, satisfying whole that makes more sense with each listen – no small feat in the iPod age.
Favorite songs: ”Victor Jara’s Hands”, “Two Silver Trees”, “Writer’s Minor Holiday”, “Fractured Air (Tornado Watch)”
18 December 2008
8. Aimee Mann - @#%&*! SMILERS
Apart from some extra keyboards here and a few less guitars there, she hasn't radically changed her sound, much less her subject matter--she's still calling out poseurs ("Freeway") and writing exquisite kiss-offs both cutting ("Medicine Wheel") and wistful ("It's Over"). Rest assured she hasn't settled into too comfortable a groove, as her best album since BACHELOR #2 is chock full of fun stuff like a song about doing a crossword puzzle that clocks in at a succinct minute-and-a-half, or a charmingly shaggy closing duet with Sean Hayes (the musician, not the actor). On "31 Today" she sings, "I thought my life would be better by now" with such immediacy you don't even care that she'll actually turn 50 in two years.
Favorite songs: "Freeway", "It's Over", "31 Today", "Ballantines"
17 December 2008
9. Vampire Weekend - VAMPIRE WEEKEND
I had to look past the hype, the sweaters, the desire to create a soundtrack for an imaginary Wes Anderson film to get at what’s really remarkable about this band: its rhythms. Whether exotic (made explicit in the title “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”) or merely unorthodox (the ska without horns of “A-Punk”), they’re almost always danceable, and they can even make a borderline annoying song like “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” tolerable. Although the singer is no David Byrne, early Talking Heads is a good reference point. They get props, however, for reveling in this very distinct little world while still making a generous effort to invite us all in.
Favorite songs: “A-Punk”, “M79”, “Walcott”
16 December 2008
10. Robert Forster - THE EVANGELIST
Two years after the untimely death of Grant McLennan, his ex-partner in The Go-Betweens, Forster resurfaces as mournful and elegiac as you'd expect: in the sorrowful "Demon Days" (which features some lyrics by McLennan), he sings "Something's gone wrong" and it's almost too much to bear. But Forster did some of his best work ever on the last Go-Betweens album, and much of this one feels like a new beginning rather than a closure. He even sounds jubilant on a few numbers and is still capable of a surprise or two: at first, "Don't Touch Anything" scans as an ode to complacency, before it reveals itself as a simple but touching love song, warped cathedral organ and all.
Favorite songs: "Did She Overtake You", "Let Your Light In, Babe", "Don't Touch Anything"
15 December 2008
Alphabeat - "Fascination"
It's too easy to copy the sound of another time and be done with it; this young, heavily '80s-influenced Danish sextet earns bonus points for also capturing the giddy excitement associated with the best pop songs of that era, and for being so darn infectious that they end up sounding more like today than yesterday.
The B-52's - "Juliet of the Spirits"
Gotta love Fred, but over the years, many of the B's best moments have been courtesy of Cindy and Kate ("Give Me Back My Man", "Roam", "Summer of Love"). Add this cascading, shimmering ode to Fellini and feminine awakening to the list - it's a highlight from their more-durable-than-you-would-expect reunion effort FUNPLEX.
Camille, "Cats and Dogs"
"Cats and dogs are not our friends," trills this sweet-voiced french chanteuse over a swaying piano line recalling early Kate Bush, before fast forwarding to a THE DREAMING-era Bush freakout, as she giddily leads call-and-response meows and woofs amidst a fabulous cacophony of barnyard noise.
Fleet Foxes - "White Winter Hymnal"
The lyrics may reference the colder months, but the music of this neat, if somewhat overhyped Seattle band sounds positively, blissfully summery, with wide expanses of tom-toms and 12-string guitars filling up space between the song's attention-grabbing a capella harmony bookends.
Hercules and Love Affair - "Blind"
It's more-than-adequate revivalist disco until Antony's androgynous, otherworldly voice comes in and nearly steals the show. Yet, he works with rather than overshadows the backing track, and the yin/yang combo makes for an urgently beautiful marriage.
Marit Bergman - "Out on the Piers"
Concentrating on singles (via a subscription service) rather than albums, she's come up with an unconventional but agreeable assortment of stuff. This gem, a semi-sequel to 2006's "No Party", is a crisp, jaunty, impassioned rise-up-and-unite anthem that seems especially relevant this year.
Mark Brown feat. Sarah Cracknell - "The Journey Continues"
Yet another year without any new material from Saint Etienne, although this collaboration between vocalist Cracknell and producer Brown can't help but sound like a St. Et. track - fortunately, it's as catchy (the propulsive beat) and weird (the eerie, operatic vocal sample woven throughout) as one of their classic singles.
Martha Wainwright - "You Cheated Me"
I respected Wainwright's 2005 self-titled debut well enough but thought it could've used at least one song with a really memorable hook (even brother Rufus had "April Fools" on his debut). With this highlight from her second LP (the wonderfully titled I KNOW YOU'RE MARRIED BUT I'VE GOT FEELINGS TOO), she not only fulfills the criteria but knocks it out of the park. I've spent hours, days even with this song's terrific chorus stuck in my head, and I don't mind (or feel cheated) at all.
MGMT - "Time to Pretend"
Psych-pop that's more pop than psych, sharp rather than precious, less ironic than affectionate, and with a hook that's nearly as unshakable as that of "You Cheated Me".
She & Him - "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"
Over the length of an album, Zooey Deschanel's charming but somewhat flat tone starts to grate, but on one song at a time, it occasionally endears - especially on this single, and particularly towards the end when her multiple overdubs lift the track into retro AM-radio heaven.
Steve Wynn - "Manhattan Fault Line"
Wynn is one of my longtime favorite artists, and I'm still trying to figure out his latest album CROSSING DRAGON BRIDGE, an odd folk-rock detour recorded in Slovenia. But this single instantly connects, building slowly through wistful ruminations on the author's past and present until it practically explodes into a joyous, orchestral finale.
The Ting Tings - "Shut Up and Let Me Go"
You may have heard this one in an iTunes commercial. It's really catchy and kinda stupid and owes a sizable debt to Blondie (and maybe the Tom Tom Club). It stands to be this year's equivalent to last year's most co-opted, overplayed song (that would be Peter Bjorn and John's "Young Folks"). I still can't get enough of it.
12 more songs to download:
Alison Moyet - "A Guy Like You"
Cyndi Lauper - "Rain on Me"
David Byrne and Brian Eno - "Strange Overtones"
Duffy - "Mercy"
Elbow - "The Bones of You"
Kate Nash - "Foundations"
Magnetic Fields, "Drive On, Driver"
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Dig, Lazurus, Dig!"
R.E.M., "Supernatural Superserious"
Sam Sparro, "Black and Gold"
Sparks, "Lighten Up, Morrissey"
Super Furry Animals, "Baby Ate My Eightball"
11 December 2008
09 December 2008
In the meantime, check out the astonishing cover of Morrissey's new album, scheduled to come out in February. The venerable duo Sparks recorded a song this year called "Lighten Up, Morrissey" and I think he's taken that advice to heart or maybe has just lost his mind--either way, it got my attention.
02 December 2008
Six years passed between THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION (1985) and Jarman's previous feature film. However, he didn't exactly spend that period resting on his laurels. He devoted much time and energy to developing a screenplay and finding funds for what would become CARAVAGGIO; he also turned out an extensive body of work, including set design for a stage production of The Rake's Progress, a number of ultimately unfilmed screenplays (such as the sci-fi allegory NEUTRON, which almost got made with David Bowie in the lead role), his first memoir (Dancing Ledge), "pop promos" (music videos) for everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Wang Chung, and, as always, many Super-8 short films.
Following a retrospective of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, he finally managed to secure funding from the British Film Institute for CARAVAGGIO. But first, he diverted a portion of those funds towards a very different project that had far more in common with his shorts than his features. In fact, it's not difficult to think of THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION as a typical Jarman short expanded into a 77-minute tone poem: of the finished work, The Times duly noted, "The film seems like an excellent short spun out of control."
Jarman made many of his shorts as a communal activity, a simple but creative means of filming his friends, and THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION was born out of this intent. The project began when, at a bar, Jarman met and was taken with Paul Reynolds, a young archaeology student. Reynolds did not reciprocate Jarman's feelings, but when he expressed interest in Philip Williamson, another young man at the bar, Jarman decided he would film what he witnessed (and, to an extent, imagined to be) their subsequent affair. The results follow a trajectory of sorts: Reynolds and Williamson are both shot separately for the first half, then come together to share the frame as they physically embrace, only to be shown apart again during the final sequences.
Most of the film is shot in Super-8 and projected in slow motion (approximately 5-10 frames per second), giving it both a dreamlike, somnambulant feel and an exceptionally glacial pace. As expected from Super-8 stock, the images are grainy and are also often washed out with earth tones and orange and beige filters. A few fleeting sequences are in regular motion and their sudden appearance startles nearly as much as, say, the one fluid shot amongst the still frames of LA JETEE.
There is no dialogue and possibly no sync-sound (it's often hard to tell); in their place is an electronic, ambient score by Coil, an extended snippet of Benjamin Britten's "Sea Interludes" from Tammy Grimes, and the occasional voice-over reading of Shakespeare sonnets by Judi Dench. One could offer up a detailed analysis of how the sonnets add meaning to the imagery and are Jarman's way of advocating the theory that they were written out of some homoerotic intent, but in all my viewings of this film, I was less struck by the words than by Dench's reading of them. Her tone is cool but not without urgency, and it's a perfect match for the swirling, clanging, alternately soothing and jarring noise surrounding her interludes.
For anyone accustomed to the narrative-centric structure (no matter how loose or stretched) of Jarman's first three features, THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION might seem completely alien. Even on my second viewing of it this year, it took me a good fifteen or twenty minutes to adjust to its challenging style. Jarman counters this somewhat by stocking the film with motifs that will register with anyone familiar with his work: the sound of water and its calming presence; reoccurring images like a rotating radar and a burning car; the bold, fluid reflection of a mirror against sunlight; the flame of a lit flare, this time slowed down into an abstraction.
One of his most gentle and pastoral films, it is also nearly unprecedented in Jarman's oeuvre as a paean to the male form, although not straightforward or bluntly rendered enough to be considered erotica or even kitsch. Instead, it plays out like a series of closely observed rituals. Reynolds and Williamson spend much of the film building up a head full of steam overflowing with longing and extended gazes (sometimes at each other, but mostly directed from Jarman). However, when they finally touch, they do so as a slow-motion wrestle that seems less tender than defensive and aggressive. Their first explicitly tender embrace is briefly shown at normal speed, before Jarman slows it back down and it plays out like a series of tiny, isolated gestures--a holding of hands, a chaste kiss on the lips, the reaction and turn of a face.
The "story" here is told almost entirely through such images, but left wide open in terms of a literal interpretation. We don't know why the lovers are apart at the end, whether the circumstances are tragic or not. What matters is they are apart - their placement and the suddenly icy music that envelops them tells us as such. In this sense THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION is not only Jarman's most intimate film but also, perhaps, his most inscrutable. Naturally, such a "difficult" effort was the one film he was apparently most proud of and felt truly represented him. It undoubtedly requires an openness on the viewer's part to look past its abstractions and approach it as one would poetry instead of prose. For me, it's not a breakthrough nearly on par with the work he'd be doing in another two years, but certainly a stepping stone towards a truly independent, personal, original cinema.
28 November 2008
Like most puppies, she's alternately a sweet cuddly dog and a little terror - she just loves to bite on her pee-pee pad and run away with it in her mouth (with Steve and I usually chasing her in exasperation, like the opening of the "Saturday TV Funhouse" credits).
Here's her proud papa Steve, holding her on Thanksgiving.
And here's her other proud papa, me.
21 November 2008
16 November 2008
After checking out of our third hotel in three nights (the wedding reception was in a Chicago suburb), we took a ride down to the lakefront, stopped by Alterra at the Lake, drove through the East Side, and made our way over to one of my longtime favorite places, the Milwaukee Art Museum.
In 2001 (four years after I moved to Boston), the museum opened a brand new wing. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, it dramatically transformed what was previously a fairly nondescript structure (as you'll see below). This new wing includes an atrium, a long exhibition hall, a footbridge, and a retractable roof that when opened abstractly resembles a swan's wings.
Below are a few close-ups of the roof:
Inside, the atrium is nearly as spectacular. Open and airy, it is a work of art in and of itself, and inviting to many photographers (like Steve below):
It also provides one with a lovely view of Lake Michigan:
In the above photo, one can also see the new Discovery World children's science museum next door.
As an extension of the lobby, the atrium is a quiet, serene space. However, it does allow for one artwork from Dale Chihuly:
Below is the long exhibition hall that leads to the original museum. The latter is home to most of the galleries.
The museum takes up the bottom half of that vast slab of concrete; the top half is the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. Both celebrated their 50th anniversary last year.
We'll be back, hopefully in warmer weather.
03 November 2008
29 October 2008
02 October 2008
1. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939, dir: Victor Fleming)
Arguably the most popular film of all time (it's the highest grossing U.S. film ever, adjusted for inflation), I feel like I've seen it without ever having actually seen it--think of all the quotable lines and parodies throughout history unto infinity--and besides, who has four hours to kill? I missed it during its last theatrical release ten years ago; perhaps I'll soon get another chance to see it on the big screen during its 70th (or 75th) anniversary.
2. WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957, dir: Ingmar Bergman)
I've always admired rather than adored Bergman--I sympathized with Jonathan Rosenbaum's infamous New York Times piece that had the gall to suggest that maybe the Swedish auteur was a tad overrated. I see the greatness in PERSONA and SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE and respect at least a half-dozen other Bergman classics, but I find so much of his work too cold and austere. However, many people I know consider this film about a teacher looking back at his life in existential dread as essential, so it sits waiting patiently for me to move it out of Netflix queue limbo.
3. IMITATION OF LIFE (1959, dir: Douglas Sirk)
I went on a mini-Sirk kick two years ago, watching WRITTEN ON THE WIND and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS in quick succession after a viewing of Todd Haynes' loving, bold homage FAR FROM HEAVEN. I think Rock Hudson's absence has kept me from making the time to check this one out--after viewing the other two films, Sirk w/out Hudson is in my mind unthinkable--but it'll have to do until MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION gets a DVD release.
4. HIGH AND LOW (1963, dir: Akira Kurosawa)
I almost saw this as part of the Friday Night Screening/Speaker series I worked on at BU a decade ago, but it was replaced at the very last minute by a work-in-progress-screening of Errol Morris' MR. DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUTCHER, JR. with the director in person. Kurosawa is another auteur I never really "got" until I saw his somewhat atypical IKIRU a few years ago, and I'm ready to sit down and take in this kidnapping thriller.
5. THE GODFATHER, PART II (1974, dir: Francis Ford Coppola)
During my first year in Boston, I rented on average four movies a week from the now-shuttered Allston Videosmith. "Film Club" members were entitled to two-for-one rentals on Tuesdays, provided you rented from a specific genre chosen every month. That October, it was "widescreen" film (funny to think that was a genre in the pre-DVD age), so that's how I ended up watching THE GODFATHER for the first (and to date only) time. I liked it well enough, so I don't know why I never got around to its highly regarded sequel.
6. FINGERS (1978, dir: James Toback)
The premise intrigues: A young man (Harvey Keitel) is torn between loyalties to the mob and dreams of becoming a famous concert pianist. I probably would have made more of an effort to see Toback's film by now if not for the very good 2005 French remake, THE BEAT MY HEART SKIPPED with Romain Duris in the Keitel role.
7. THE RIGHT STUFF (1983, dir: Philip Kaufman)
I read Tom Wolfe's account of the U.S. space program's early years back in 2002. This film adaptation, underrated and a flop at the time of release, has a great cast (Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Barbara Hershey), and a 3 hour plus running time. Oh, how I used to have a higher tolerance for lengthy flicks--ten years I ago, I remember seeing LA DOLCE VITA, ULYSSES' GAZE and Tarkovsky's SOLARIS (all 3 hour flicks) over the course of one Columbus Day weekend!
8. LOCAL HERO (1983, dir: Bill Forsyth)
I never heard of Forsyth's comedy before I moved to Boston to study film, but since then, I've heard nothing but great things about it. And given that I loved his neat 1987 adaptation of Marilynne Robinson's novel HOUSEKEEPING (why isn't that one on DVD?), I have to make time for it soon.
9. SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993, dir: Steven Spielberg)
I don't care if it's his mature masterpiece--I'd rather sit through the horror of CRASH again (Haggis, not Cronenberg even!) than have to watch another film about the holocaust.
10. WHITE (1994, dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski)
On the list because I saw BLUE and RED a decade ago but for some reason, I never got around to this one--and it even has the lovely Julie Delpy in it! At this point, I might as well watch all three in order.
11. PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997, dir: Hayao Miyazaki)
Out of all these unseen films, there's absolutely no excuse for this one, given how much I love SPIRITED AWAY. Maybe the film's action/adventure slant has kept me at bay, or maybe I don't have too strong of a jones for Japanimation, and Miyazaki's an anomaly.
12. BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (1999, dir: Wim Wenders)
As I repeatedly discovered throughout grad school, Wenders is wildly uneven. For every WINGS OF DESIRE or little-seen masterwork like the epic, demented KINGS OF THE ROAD (another three hour film!), there's crap like TOKYO-GA or THE END OF VIOLENCE. But this doc about Cuban musicians frequently pops up on best-docs-of-all-time lists. So when I'm next in the mood for a little Cuban, I'll consider it.
16 September 2008
In 1974, Philippe Petit, an impish, excitable young Frenchman did an impossible thing—he managed to string a tightrope across the roofs of the World Trade Center twin towers and walk on it (although "dancing" seems a more fitting description). James Marsh's (THE KING, WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP) documentary explains how he did this.
Structured like a heist film, MAN ON WIRE recounts in-depth the planning and preparation that went into pulling off such a stunt. It's both an edge-of-your-seat thriller and an oral history of sorts, consisting of modern day interviews with the ever sinewy Petit and his accomplices—most of whom are nearly as entertaining as Petit, from his still-in-awe ex-girlfriend Annie to two perpetually stoned Americans (bluntly described by the others as "losers") who were corralled in to string the rope.
Marsh supplements these interviews with archival footage and reenactments. The latter might be the least cheesy ever: impressionistic and mostly in silhouette or shadow, they're delicately folded into the story and rarely register as jarring or distracting. Still, the archival footage is astonishing, from Petit's prior tightrope walking feats across the Sydney Harbor bridge and the Norte Dame cathedral to his prep work in the French countryside—his irreverent spirit there is summed up by a puckish handmade road sign pointing the way to the "World Trade Center Association" with a crude stick figure drawing at its side of Petit walking across the towers.
It all builds to the event itself, which unfolds in a series of still shots of Petit on the rope, 100 stories up from the ground, accompanied by Erik Satie's gorgeous piano piece "Gymnopédie No.1" (as effective here in its starkness and simplicity as it was in FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON). What's so appealing about the film is that it examines an artist who puts on a show, rather than one merely showing off. Petit's walk comes off not only as a challenge to realize or an act of rebellion, but as work of art, something full of grace and beauty.
Neither Marsh nor his subjects make a single direct reference to 9/11, and they don't need to. Just the sight of the towers themselves resonates differently than it once did. The towers' presence on screen haunts and their absence adds weight to Petit's accomplishment. Reminiscing on Petit's walk and its aftermath, one accomplice starts to say, "This was the end of something" before he breaks down in tears, and we immediately understand the dual meaning behind his words. MAN ON WIRE derives much of its power from being equal parts celebration and requiem.
14 September 2008
05 September 2008
1. My uncle once: worked for Harley Davidson.
2. Never in my life: have I attended an NFL game.
3. When I was five: my maternal grandfather died.
4. High school was: painful for the first two years and much more enjoyable the other two.
5. I will never forget: the time my father made me laugh so hard at an Italian restaurant that Sprite came out of my nose (it *burns*, by the way).
6. Once I met: the prince of Cameroon (or so he claimed).
7. There’s this girl I know: who currently lives in Hawaii and whose last name is Sinatra.
8. Once, at a bar: in Winona., Minnesota, I was 21 and likely the only person of age (and w/out a fake I.D.) present.
9. By noon, I’m usually: nursing the few remaining sips of my iced coffee.
10. Last night: I ate Crispy Orange Chicken and saw FROZEN RIVER.
11. If only I had: more time (and motivation) to write.
12. Next time I go to church: violent thunder will probably light up the sky.
13. What worries me most: President Sarah Palin.
14. When I turn my head left I see: a disheveled pile of receipts on my desk.
15. When I turn my head right I see: a picture of my cute boyfriend.
16. You know I’m lying when: it sounds far too good to be true.
17. What I miss most about the Eighties is: top 40 radio of the era.
18. If I were a character in Shakespeare I’d be: possibly Rosencrantz and/or Guildenstern.
19. By this time next year: I hope to have a better sense of what my profession is.
20. A better name for me would be: dork or any variation thereof.
21. I have a hard time understanding: why anyone would vote for McCain.
22. If I ever go back to school, I’ll: do it if I don’t have to pay any more tuition.
23. You know I like you if: I talk your ear off.
24. If I ever won an award, the first person I would thank would be: my mom.
25. Take my advice, never: see the movie CRASH.
26. My ideal breakfast is: light, fluffy pancakes, crisp savory bacon and coffee, coffee, coffee.
27. A song I love but do not have is: "Got to Give It Up" by Marvin Gaye.
28. If you visit my hometown, I suggest you: see the Milwaukee Art Museum.
29. Why won’t people: who drive respect cyclists and share the road.
30. If you spend a night at my house: I would keep you up drinking and watching DVDs far too late.
31. I’d stop my wedding for: nothing.
32. The world could do without: "Brangelia" (and any variation thereof).
33. I’d rather lick the belly of a cockroach than: um... sorry, I can't think of anything more disgusting than that!
34. My favourite blonde(s) is/are: Sarah Cracknell (female), James Dean (male).
35. Paper clips are more useful than: binder clips.
36. If I do anything well it’s: make a delicious sweet potato bake.
37. I can’t help but: have (or at least think of having) a nice, cold cocktail after a loooonnggg (or in this case not so long) work week.
38. I usually cry: at the end of A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (yes, I admit it!).
39. My advice to my child/nephew/niece: don’t let any adults talk you into a hobby or social activity that you have absolutely no interest in.
40. And by the way: go see MAN ON WIRE if you can.
28 August 2008
01. Bebel Gilberto, "Simplesmente"
02. Sam Phillips, "Five Colors"
03. The Free Design, "I Found Love"
04. Rufus Wainwright, "Gay Messiah"
05. Tamas Wells, "Even in the Crowds"
06. The Shins, "Saint Simon"
07. Sufjan Stevens, "Sister"
08. Black Box Recorder, "The New Diana"
09. The Weakerthans, "One Great City!"
10. The Poppy Family, "Free From The City"
11. Steve Wynn, "Morningside Heights"
12. Fiona Apple, "Extraordinary Machine"
13. Ella Fitzgerald, "Black Coffee"
14. Saint Etienne, "Former Lover"
15. Junior Boys, "Teach Me How to Fight"
16. Tompaulin, "Slender"
17. Paul Brill, "Indian Summer"
18. Arab Strap, "Devil Tips"
19. Brian Eno, "Everything Merges With the Night"
20. Ivy, "Back In Our Town"
I already commented on Part One of this double disc mix; I did not intend for two whole years to fly by before writing an entry on Part Two, but so it goes. This disc is the comparatively chilled, come-down cousin to the other disc's frenzied, let's-get-out-of-the-house-and-party soundtrack. I wouldn't go so far to describe myself as a homebody or a wallflower, but I think in personality terms, I'm more Part Two than Part One, although I was aiming for some kind of balance between the two halves.
Listening to it now, Part Two feels a lot like a warm-up to a mix I made the following year, which has the same reasoning behind the song selection, but expands on the continuous flow and unwavering mood. However, like Part One, Part Two opens with a powerful one-two punch: light as air but resounding through its gossamer layers and simple piano chords, Bebel Gilberto's song gives the mix a stark, attention-grabbing first few moments before it effortlessly segues into Sam Phillip's even simpler acoustic strum and impassioned vocal.
From there, it jumps around a veritable cornucopia of themes and genres. The Free Design's vintage sunshine pop sits next to Rufus Wainwright's clever, blasphemous come-on; The Weakerthans snidely love/hate their hometown while fellow Canadians The Poppy Family long for release from an undisclosed locale; Ella Fitzgerald sings the blues but not before Fiona Apple reinvents them as an eloquently warped production number from an alternate universe evil Disney cartoon; Steve Wynn and Paul Brill both sit back and take it all in stride, while Junior Boys use the opposite approach, grafting an impassioned, 1980s-ready dramatic ballad over a busy, intense but pensive rhythm.
I won't argue that everything here sounds like it belongs--after all, what ended up here was basically anything too peppy for Part One. Still, I think it concludes as well as it begins. The Arab Strap song was taken off a compilation I had to review, and it sounds like little else I've heard: a Scotsman slurring over a delicate guitar arpeggios and two exceptionally sinister violins. The Brian Eno song is the second-last one off of ANOTHER GREEN WORLD, and the Ivy song is the closer on their best album, so sue me for putting them in the same sequence on my mix--it works.
13 August 2008
(Pause for collective gasp from the blogosphere)
For most people, that revelation would not seem abnormal, but when it comes to movies, I'm not exactly normal. I usually catch something on the big screen at least once a week if not twice. And I work at a theatre, for christ sakes. So why has my movie-going dropped off so dramatically?
It's not as if I don't want to go to the movies- there's always something to see. In fact, my "films to see" spreadsheet currently has at least four or five titles on it. However, I can think of a good excuse for not making the effort to see each one: THE DARK KNIGHT and MAMMA MIA! require a trip to the multiplex, which, like a good film snob I tend to avoid as much as possible (although the latter is playing at the Kendall Square, go figure); BEFORE I FORGET is at the MFA, so the showtimes are few and far between; TELL NO ONE is playing where I work, but lately the last thing I want to do is stay there an extra three hours at the end of the day.
Actually, the real problem may be that I'm not dying to see any of these films, much less other titles I have some interest in (THE LAST MISTRESS, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS). Late summer tends to be a fallow period for moviegoing in general, but this year seems especially slim. Fortunately, there's great stuff (that I've already seen, natch) currently playing at both the multiplex (WALL-E, which begs for a big screen) and art house (MAN ON WIRE, not only the best documentary of the year thus far, but one that could've easily made this list). A few promising things are also on the horizon, like Woody Allen's VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (which opens at the Coolidge this Friday), Isabel Coixet's ELEGY (which, like the Allen film, also stars Penelope Cruz), and Sundance winner FROZEN RIVER.
I doubt I'll ever get sick of or - god forbid - stop going to the movies. If this downtime has one advantage, it's that I have more time to make a few extra dents in my Netflix queue. I've spent the last few weekends getting caught up on the slightly overhyped but quite enthralling TV series MAD MEN, and am about to watch the final season of THE WIRE. Also saw Wong Kar Wai's much maligned MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS, which was okay despite a shallow screenplay and Norah Jones' flat performance. Much better was Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS, a surreal, economical caper of the sort I wish he'd return to... plus, it has a inimitable, delightfully deranged, ice cream truck-driving Catherine O'Hara in it.
24 July 2008
22 July 2008
12 July 2008
1975 - Nashville, Robert Altman
1976 - Chinese Roulette, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
1977 - Annie Hall, Woody Allen
1978 - Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick
1979 - All That Jazz, Bob Fosse
1980 - 9 to 5, Colin Higgins
1981 - Reds, Warren Beatty
1982 - Tootsie, Sydney Pollack
1983 - A Christmas Story, Bob Clark
1984 - This is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner
1985 - My Life as a Dog, Lasse Hallstrom
1986 - Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen
1987 - The Last of England, Derek Jarman
1988 - High Hopes, Mike Leigh
1989 - The Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieślowski
1990 - Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese
1991 - Edward II, Jarman
1992 - The Long Day Closes, Terence Davies
1993 - 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, Francois Girard
1994 - Ed Wood, Tim Burton
1995 - Safe, Todd Haynes
1996 - Trainspotting, Danny Boyle
1997 - The Sweet Hereafter, Atom Egoyan
1998 - Rushmore, Wes Anderson
1999 - Beau Travail, Claire Denis
2000 - Yi Yi, Edward Yang
2001 - The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson
2002 - Y Tu Mama Tambien, Alfonso Cuaron
2003 - Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola
2004 - The Return, Andrey Zvyagintsev
2005 - Me and You and Everyone We Know, Miranda July
2006 - Duck Season, Fernando Eimbcke
2007 - There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson
2008 (so far) - One of these ten
07 July 2008
1975 - Brian Eno, Another Green World
1976 - Joni Mitchell, Hejira
1977 - Brian Eno, Before and After Science
1978 - Blondie, Parallel Lines
1979 - The Clash, London Calling
1980 - Talking Heads, Remain In Light
1981 - ABBA, The Visitors
1982 - Kate Bush, The Dreaming
1983 - R.E.M., Murmur
1984 - Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain
1985 - Kate Bush, Hounds of Love
1986 - XTC, Skylarking
1987 - R.E.M., Document
1988 - Everything But the Girl, Idlewild
1989 - The B-52s, Cosmic Thing
1990 - Concrete Blonde, Bloodletting
1991 - Seal, Seal
1992 - R.E.M., Automatic For the People
1993 - Pet Shop Boys, Very
1994 - Portishead, Dummy
1995 - Pizzicato Five, The Sound of Music by Pizzicato Five
1996 - Belle and Sebastian, If You're Feeling Sinister
1997 - Ivy, Apartment Life
1998 - Saint Etienne, Good Humor
1999 - The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs
2000 - The Avalanches, Since I Left You
2001 - Steve Wynn, Here Come the Miracles
2002 - Tori Amos, Scarlet's Walk
2003 - The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow
2004 - Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans
2005 - Saint Etienne, Tales From Turnpike House
2006 - Regina Spektor, Begin to Hope
2007 - Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala
2008 (so far) - Sam Phillips, Don't Do Anything
02 July 2008
That's not to say THE TEMPEST is an outright flop (although Vincent Canby's infamous New York Times review effectively sunk its prospects in the States). But it may be the only Jarman film I don't entirely get. I can appreciate his sometimes ingenuous tweaking of the source material, I can applaud the actors' individual accomplishments, I can revel at the striking visual scheme (interior darkness alternating with a blue-filtered exterior), but for the most part, it just doesn't move me (with the exception of one scene I'll discuss later in this essay).
I've never read Shakespeare’s final play nor seen a production of it, so I’m uncertain how faithful an adaptation it is—not that Jarman’s overly concerned with historical accuracy. This was the play's first ever feature-length film version (Paul Mazurksy would direct his own very different, but equally idiosyncratic TEMPEST three years later). To forgo the excessive costs of visualizing the play’s desert island setting, Jarman transports it to a candlelit gothic castle, where a younger-than-usual Prospero the Magician (Heathcote Williams) holds court with his daughter Miranda, his slave Caliban and the angel Ariel (JUBILEE cast members Toyah Willcox, Jack Birkett and Karl Johnson, respectively).
Structuring the film as the dream of its lead character, THE TEMPEST is where Jarman begins to explicitly, gleefully fuck with period piece-related physical conventions (he did this a little in SEBASTIANE, but to nowhere near this extent). Rather than setting the action in one particular, well-defined era, the film compresses the clothes and artifacts of multiple eras into an instinctive, fluid whole. It pops and fizzes with such deliberate anachronisms as Miranda riding a hobby horse, sudden merry-go-round music, an indoor badminton match and Ariel’s very 20th century white jumpsuit. Those who complain about the lack of historical accuracy are, in Jarman’s mind, possibly missing the point: to favor the feelings and emotions of a text over its literal construct is to breathe life into and examine it from an emotional, psychological and personal viewpoint.
Although he remains sympathetic to the play’s basic outline and thematic structure, Jarman alters just about everything else. To mold a four-hour play into a 95-minute feature, it’s expected that he’d cut out a lot of dialogue and a few soliloquies, but what remains is fairly minimal. The few words spoken do not get in the way of the guttural, subterranean ambient score, which features found sounds (like manipulated breaths) more than actual music. In contrast, a scene with Caliban cradled in the arms and suckling on the tit of his naked, grotesque witch-mother Sycorax is straight out of a vintage John Waters film, though it feels far less in-your-face than Waters would have ever allowed.
Like JUBILEE, the film plays like a series of sketches, but instead of building momentum toward some sort of cathartic break-and-release, it just meanders along. There are some neat, succinct little scenes, such as the wonderfully childlike Miranda play-acting a courtship ritual with herself on a staircase. But as a dream film, much of it doesn't fully connect to the degree that his later, even more personal (and it must be said, more challenging) works do.
But then there's "Stormy Weather":
The film's climax comes with Miranda's wedding to Ferdinand, which, in keeping with the structure, is played as pure fantasy. It kicks off with a chorus of twenty or so youthful male sailors dancing a giddy, florid stovepipe, followed by a showering of rose petals. However, that's just an appetizer to the main course: regal, decked out grande dame Elisabeth Welch (rather resembling a septuagenarian, space-aged Patti LaBelle) stops by to serenade the lucky couple (and more explicitly the admiring sailors) with a show-stopping rendition of the song "Stormy Weather". The sequence is a little audacious and more than a little camp, yet oddly touching--it's rather affectionate without lapsing into parody. It's also more jolting and memorable than most of what preceded it, and it makes for a lovely bridge into the quiet, graceful final scene, where Ariel is set free and Prospero, alone, is left to exit one world and enter the next.
Appropriately enough, THE TEMPEST also left its director at a crossroads. One could entertain an alternate reality where Jarman immediately continued making similar works. Instead, Thatcherism and a transitioning British film industry intervened: he would not complete another feature for six years.