Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Wishes...and 2 reviews

Holiday Wishes go out to my friends and fellow bloggers- Chris and Ojo, Moviezzz, Sam, Dennis, Adam, Evan, Brad and Craig.

Robert DeNiro's "The Good Shepherd" is a taut, complex, and relentlessly intriguing film that uses its main character to bear mute witness on the formation of America's Central Intelligence Agency. Following a disjointed timeline that shuttles back and forth between the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion (and the potential fallout of the government's participation) and Edward Wilson's (Matt Damon) involvement of the agency when it was a foreign intelligence group during World War 2, "The Good Shepherd" reigns in classical style and quiet, intense ensemble acting. As the double and triple crosses mount, this is a film that forces the viewer to pay attention to dialogue, inference and to catalog his or her own sense of documented history. Among the faces that crop up amidst the 30 year timeline are Alec Baldwin as an FBI informant who gives Damon his first break, Keir Dullea splendidly embodying a morally (and politically) conflicted Russian agent, Michael Gambon as a poetry teacher, William Hurt, Joe Pesci (in a scene stealing few minutes) and John Turturro as Wilson's partner. The tendency with a film like this- i.e. one that clocks in at just under 3 hours- is to either bore the viewer to tears or fastidiously churn through time and events with little regard for the implications these events initiate. Fortunately, neither happens here. While there's little chemistry between Wilson and his wife (Angelina Jolie), its established fairly early on that theirs is a marriage of convenience for a woman desperate to settle down with one of the Skull and Bones classmates of her brother- certainly not out of love. And Wilson is not a monk, of course. A majority of his guarded sensibilities that form later in the film seem to stem directly from an impotent early romance with a deaf woman (played with affection by Tammy Blanchard). The script, credited to Eric Roth, resembles the political and moral acuity of his previously penned flick, "Munich". Both films present a main character charged with the job of upholding political justice. What each character gets in return is a slowly eroding sense of self. While Eric Bana violently sheds some pent up frustration and emotion towards the end of "Munich", Damon's Edward Wilson is a hapless observer as the agency's methods become more and more violent and each accomplice becomes more and more shaded in ambiguity. We get the sense he's a time bomb waiting to go off. Both character arches are radical in their own way, and director DeNiro never forces any of the script's big moments. Roth and DeNiro also clearly understand the importance of suspense cloaked not in gunfire, but in whispers and furtive glances. "The Good Shepherd" feels right at home in the 70's, not in 2006 when everything is bigger and louder.

Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" is yet another charming but ultimately middling portrait of strong women. Perched somewhere between a sub-par Hitchockian drama and a televison weepie, "Volver" is less affecting than the previous 2 Almodovars ("Bad Education" and "All About My Mother"). Penelope Cruz is good, and the scene where she stops traffic with a song inside a restaurant should probably earn her an Oscar nomination, but I can't help but feel a little jilted in the story's mild mannered approach to five distinct women in Madrid, all desperately trying to escape one life altering event in the past that comes to reap in the present (and present generation). Almodovar has treaded on this territory before, often with much more intimacy and emotion.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

And the Lists Roll On...

Get yourselves over here quickly. Not only is GreenCine my daily must-stop for everything film related, but now they've got a daily tally of Top 10 film lists from all around the globe. Now's the time for us list-junkies to overdose. Enjoy.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Tops In Pops '06

While I'm still wading through a myriad of film releases, I feel prettty confident that I've listened to a good majority of music out there so far this year. The following are my favorite albums of the year. Now, granted, the scope of this list is pretty narrow and I can only claim these are favorites. I certainly have no room to contemplate a "best of" list in music when I've listened to probably 3% of the music released this year. See Rolling Stone for that exhaustive year end list!. After number 1, you can pretty much interchange any one of the remaining titles. Enjoy.

1. Thom Yorke, "The Eraser"- Dramatically low key and endlessly inspiring, Yorke's feature debut album after a break from fronting Radiohead showcases his emotive voice. I remember hearing rapper Ludacris cite Yorke's vocal prowess recently, stating he was one of the rapper's favorite artists because his voice shows "raw emotion". That's a fairly accurate way to sum up "The Eraser", an album that segues naturally between the electronica rock of Radiohead with more subtle and stripped-down singles that express voice and mood over sound. This album is pure bliss from start to finish.

2. The Appleseed Cast, "Peregrino"- I discovered this band early this year and immediately bought up everything I could find. From Kansas, this rock quartet carry on the somewhat cosmic sounds of Radiohead mixed with pop-tinged influences (I guess "emo" its called?). They don't sound like anyone else out there and the lyrics are often haunting. I urge everyone to check them out here and broaden your horizons.

3. Broken Social Scene, "Broken Social Scene"- This ensemble band from Toronto combine so many dazzling elements, their sound threatens to overwhelm. I've featured their work on a YouTube post on this blog before, scoring a minor hit on the soundtrack to the film "Half Nelson" back in the summer, which is where I first heard them. Their music (intermingling horns, Sonic Youth-frazzled guitars, a crescendo of voices) is unique in modern music, creating large and expansive songs that play like free form jazz pieces. As with everything else these days, the best exposure to their music is here on MySpace.

4. The Mars Volta, "Amputechture"- A bit of a letdown after the sprawling masterpiece that was last year's "Francis the Mute" (which is probably the best album I've heard in the last 5 years), "Amputechture" is still light years ahead of 99% of the other stuff out there. Their sound hasn't changed- The Mars Volta are still 10 minute plus jam freaks who love progressive rock and song titles like 'vicarious atonement' (so basically those who feel they whank off with their guitars too much will still think they whank off with their guitars too much). Don't listen to the words, but get lost in their complex arrangements and stunning use of vocal and sound.

5. Black Tie Dynasty, "Movements"- This Dallas based band covers the 80's scene pretty well. Cashing in on the much heralded success of bands like The Killers and The Strokes- bands that mine a groovy 80's sound with a retro makeover- The Black Tie Dynasty are something more than that. The seem genuine in their lust for the past, plus they put on one helluva show. While their best known hit, "Tender" is probably their weakest, this is a band that I'm sure will continue to expand their sound into somemething special. You can learn more about this band at their site. One glance at their influences tell you all you need to know.

6. Muse, "Black Holes and Revelations"- Epic in every word, from the opening chords to the last. Invoking spaghetti western sounds (that seem to come from the long lost vaults of some Ennio Morricone music sheet), political commentary and brash vocals, Muse's lastest album feels playful and direct.

7. People In Planes, "As Far as the Eye Can See"- Originally from Cardiff, Wales, the vestiges of 70's hard rock seem to remain in distant parts of the world (see the next band as further proof). They scored a minor hit early n the year with a song called "If You Talk Too Much, My Head Will Explode", which has to be the best song title ever. There's nothing flashy about People In Planes. You've got straigh-forward rock that echoes back to the influences of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. And this is the one band that I was less than 100 yards away from seeng, but didn't. They were the first band to play on the second stage, which was way before my friend and I even knew where the hell the second stage was. I heard they rocked, though. Give them a spin at their website.

8. Wolfmother, "Wolfmother"- See above. Pure unadulterated hard rock. Great stuff.

9. The Killers, "Sam's Town"- Noy quite as relevatory as their debut album, but The Killers carry an unmistakable style that causes a nice discussion. Are they 80's rip offs or new wave extraordinaires? Either way, I dig their unprentitious rip offs of 80's hits.

10. Bands I picked up this year that would've made the list if these albums were released this year- so sue me for shameless plugs!:

Fair To Midland, an excellent Dallas band whose album features some of the best (and worst) tracks I've heard from a local band in a very long time.

The Twilight Singers, former Afghan Whigs front man Greg Dulli's band. Listen to their rendition of Bjork's "Hyperballad" and be in awe...

Bands and albums I've overlooked that deserve much more listening- TV On the Radio, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (I loved their first album), Dylan's Modern Times (to see what all the fluff is about), Surfjan Stevens, The Arctic Monkeys, new Tom Waits (his past album are very hit and miss with me) and Midlake.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

On Recent Comedy

Watching 3 new comedy films almost back to back over the last week gave me a rare adrenaline rush during this time of the year when my movie-going experience is saddled with heavy handed drams (i.e. Oscar and Christmas season)- Broken Lizard’s “Beerfest”, Christopher Guest’s “For Your Consideration” and Larry Charles’ “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”. While one is much more subtle than the others, all three hit their intended marks… they made me laugh… and laugh a lot. “Beerfest”, the one that probably received the most contemptuous reviews, is also my favorite of the three. I’ve long been a fan of the Broken Lizard crew (yes, I’m the one guy who loves “Club Dread”) and while “Beerfest” pulls no punches, it still showcases the pubescent (but at times wryly intelligent) physical and verbal comedy that has the magnetic ability to charm several tiers of the movie-going population. Simply put, I think Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Paul Soter, Eric Stolhanske and Steve Lemme amuse and entertain the 17 year old as well as the 30 year old. And why wouldn’t a film about naked women and mass beer consumption do well for any age?

Christopher Guest’s “For Your Consideration” continues his delicate observation of ensemble comedy by charting the humorous intricacies that plague a film when the word “oscar” is tossed around lightly. Unlike the frontal assault of “Beerfest”, Guest’s films are all about minor laughs… and neither is wrong. They just go about their agendas in wildly different manners. While there are fewer laughs in “For Your Consideration” than say “Waiting For Guffman”, its still a film that raises more intentional laughs than 90% of the films that exist as ‘comedy’. I still crack up everytime I think of the scene where an aloof publicist (played to perfection by John Michael Higgins) walks up to two people having a conversation and offers the prophetic line of “you know, they say it’s not the apple on the tree that causes problems but the pear lying on the ground.” Its just that type of non-sequiter dialogue, plus the hamming-it-up performance of Fred Williard, that gives a Christopher Guest comedy the oomph needed to outlast its comedic counterparts.

And then there’s the cinematic whirlwind of Sacha Baron Cohen and his “Borat” impersonation. Unfortunately, this is a film that needs to be seen without the hype, and while I appreciate his lambasting of society (specifically his playing on stereotypes to elicit frank commentary from the participants in his scenes), it’s the way in which he ingratiates himself with an almost subliminal manner that elicits the greatest laughs-the fact he’s come to America with just several small possessions as well as “a vial of gypsy tears to protect me from AIDS”. Or the way he buys his hated neighbor an IPod mini because “everyone knows mini for girls!” Plus, just watch the scene when he enters a gun store and asks for something that will help kill Jews. The way he snarls “die Jew” and plays with the gun, while the owner barely bats an eyelid, ratchet up the humor onto so many levels. It’s rare that a comedy can illuminate the diversions of thought, hatred and paranoia with such lucidity. And I’m certainly glad to live in a country where “women can vote, but horses, no!”

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

INLAND EMPIRE official trailer

The true stuff of nightmares. I can't remember the last time I was this excited about a Lynch film.