Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sean's 2008 Couchies - The Music

We don't delve too far into the music world here at RFC (Our Obligatory Music List is probably updated the least on this site, which is saying something), but it does play a significant part in our lives and if there were one area that's taken into consideration upon expansion, it would probably be music. 2008's year in music was cut short for me when my computer keeled over in November, taking my iTunes library with it. But thankfully I was lucky enough to have updated my iPod with 44 albums before the crash giving me more than enough to get me through to the day when that new Mac Mini comes out. Also, I corrected a wrong made many years ago and got that turntable at the yard sale this summer -- there's an ice cold cockle that is once again warm.

I can confidently say that 2008 was a solid year for my musical tastes. I'm still trying to decide if I can say the same for the year in film. It was a good year for new artists like Cut Copy and Lykke Li who made even crotchety old bastards like myself want to shake some ass. Mainstays like Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Silver Jews, Magnetic Fields, The Breeders, Spritualized, Stephen Malkmus and David Byrne released albums that while not quite reaching their greatest heights, were nonetheless excellent entries in some of the best ongoing catalogs of music. More recent discoveries over the past few years like M83, Okkervil River, The Walkmen, TV on the Radio and Deerhunter continued to make good memorable work, some better than others with the latter making an album that came damn close to being my favorite of the year. But that honor has to go to two (yeah two, what about it?) albums that came from nearly forgotten artists who both created unshakable achievements that instantly garnered a spot as the best in recent memory - not just this year. Both these albums not only improved upon subsequent listenings but practically demanded it and rewarded you with grand ambition that actually pays off.



Portishead's last album was their second (if you don't count that live one they released) and the self-titled, 11 year old release was a darker, even moodier set of songs than their first. Since both the albums came out in the mid-to-late 90's it's easy to blur the two together and think that they simply released two "trip-hop" albums. And since "tip-hop" was a dated term the second it escaped from some trend-spotters lips, there was certainly some question marks as to what Portishead would sound like in 2008 and certainly some backlash when the over-eager super-fan breathlessly listened to Third and was refused one of the swooning singles found on Dummy, their first and still most accessible album. But the truth is they've released three distinct and wholly beautiful, haunting albums. 2008's Third feels like such a natural, organic progression from 1997's Portishead that I was smiling from ear to ear through some seriously sad songs -- I couldn't help myself. Here was a band that didn't literally take 10 years off, I'm sure each member was working on something or other, but seemed to jump effortlessly right back to where they left off. Not only did they not miss a beat but changed the beat while keeping it unmistakably Portishead. Beth Gibbons voice is still worthy of devotion and even at it's most agressive, as with "Machine Gun" the album is so well produced that it never veers off from being beautifully hypnotic.



Effortless isn't what I would call Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! I mean, look at those exclamation points -- there's three of them!!! There's blood, sweat and tears in this music, man -- there's effort in every note. Now, I've by no means ever considered myself a Nick Cave fan in the past. I liked a few tracks on his "Best Of" album but for the most part felt he was way too preoccupied with a narrow selection of themes. While religion and death are certainly deep buckets to draw from, they can also be a bit of a drag and make your songs and albums indistinguishable from one another after a while. But for one reason or another I always give Cave another shot and with Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! I was rewarded with his strongest set of songs. No other album got me riled up quite like this one. The first two songs are a classic one-two punch that completely caught me off guard -- since when the fuck does Cave rock out like this? He's not crooning funeral hymns, sometimes ranting might be a better word and sometimes he's tossing out killer lyrics so quickly that you think he's coming up with this shit off the top of his head. While he's still in his usual concept album mode, it's just an extra bonus in this case. While we're following around a dazed and confused Lazarus (Larry), the songs stand perfectly strong on their own without any knowledge of the larger story -- which is pretty loose to begin with. And while there's a healthy dose of death and religion (um, it is about Lazarus after all) it manages to be something that hangs out in the background supporting the songs rather than standing front and center. The fact that the song "We Call Upon the Author" (to explain) is about The Bible and God isn't explicit, it just juices up what is already an explosively escalating song. It's a truly rockin' album, like I said it's the one that got me the most riled, fist-pumping and singing along to. And chances are, that album will always be tops for me.

Runner Up: Deerhunter - Microcastle; Spiritualized - Songs in A&E;

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sean's 2008 Couchies - The Actors

Best Actress

Ellen Page

This year I saw three films featuring three wildly different Ellen Page performances. Last year's Juno we are all well aware of, perhaps even sick of due to an omnipresent soundtrack, oft repeated catchphrases and a polarizing celebrity screenwriter. But unlike the contrived quirk of Napoleon Dynamite or the insincerity of Little Miss Sunshine, at it's heart is an amazing performance of a teenager coming out of her shell, growing up and chipping away at the wall of cynicism and angst that all teenagers build and allowing herself to become vulnerable. It's a touching performance that carries the film and makes her awkward romance with Jason Bateman worthy of repeat viewings. But I'll move on to what really wins the Couchie.

In Hard Candy, a mind-boggingly twisted movie from a few years ago, Ellen Page and future Nite Owl Patrick Wilson go tete-a-tete for a blistering 100 minute study of moral ambiguity. The movie is built upon a series of plot twists and reveals so it's best to go into it with as little knowledge of the outcome as possible -- which is to say, here be spoilers. Page plays a 14 year old that meets Patrick Wilson's 32 year old in a chat room out in the wilds of the internets. They quickly set-up a meeting at a coffee shop where a brainy, articulate Page flirts her way into convincing Wilson to play his copy of a bootlegged Squarepusher concert at his secluded house in the hills. But before Wilson can do anything more than allow her to drink some of his booze, he finds himself drugged and strapped to a chair by Page and being accused of being a child molesting pedophile and worse. Wilson points out that Page made all the advances and he certainly seems like a nice enough guy -- but what was he doing chatting with and meeting up 14 year olds in coffee shops? Does she know something we don't or does she have the wrong guy? It's a brilliantly paced psychological nightmare of a movie. Every ten minutes your alliances are shifting -- is she a bonkers vigilante or a righteous crusader or a little of both? Is he just a lonely, confused sad sack or the worst kind of criminal? At 17 or 18 years old, Page gives a performance that's like her character, far wiser than her age should allow for. Both Wilson and Page are frighteningly convincing in what basically amounts to a one-room play, they're in every scene - practically every shot, and Page delivers a force-of-nature performance from her Tiny Canadian frame. To look in her eyes you're both fearful and worried for her at the same time. The movie left me slack-jawed for the duration and about 100 minutes afterward as well.

Another sledgehammer performance was given in this year's The Tracy Fragments. A film that could accurately be described as a dual performance piece. One from director Bruce McDonald's work in creating literally a moving collage of a film and the other being Page's haunted performance as a troubled, delusional, lost girl trying to run away from a big mistake -- a mistake any teenage girl could be caught making. This is not a Great Film. But even on its surface it is infinitely more interesting than the majority of the films that saw wide release in the theaters this year. Just because an experiment doesn't provide every result your looking for doesn't mean it's worthless. There's a lot to like about The Tracy Fragments and Page's performance is right there on the top of the list. For many obvious reasons she has the ability to exploit a viewer's natural instincts to want to take care and not see harm come to her, but the real work is in the commitment she gives to the role. There's a scene midway through where she completely breaks down in a phone booth, lashing out at reality -- kicking and punching the inside of the phonebooth with the intensity of a trapped wild animal. In the hands of a lesser talent it would come off like a desperate bid for attention. Look at me act! But it's pure character work here, even the worst lines of vioce-over narration she's given comes from such an honset place that Page makes it work. I honestly can't think of any other actors her age that disappear into their roles quite like she does and none of these three roles are anything like the other. What's even better is that none are attempting to be a cute, America's Sweetheart type of role. Even though due to her size, Page will probably be stuck with teenager roles for years to come, I hope she continues to leave the sweethearts for someone else.

Runner Up: Isabella Rossellini (Green Porno); Samantha Morton (Mister Lonely)


Best Actor

James Franco

Last year was owned by Casey Affleck. Similarly, this year, another actor who had a lot of question marks around him, stepped up and with two choice roles hit every note so gracefully it boggled the mind that there was ever any doubt. It all hinges on Pineapple Express for Franco. We knew he had some comedy chops from Freaks & Geeks, but all his roles since then have basically been playing off of that tortured, conflicted, deeply serious guy that may have been perfected in James Dean and was certainly getting old by the time Spider-Man 3 came to town. Knowing that David Gordon Green was directing didn't lessen the surprise that Franco gave a fully-formed, complex, fragile, sympathetic pot-dealing guy named Saul within the confines of an anarchic summer-time action flick. Watching Saul's reactions to being thrown into the middle of a drug war is some of the purest joy I've experienced this year. Saul is the heart and soul of the movie and what's unexpected is that Pineapple Express should have such a big heart. While this is a trait of the Team Apatow productions, doing it successfully and without it feeling phony or forced is still a noteworthy achievement, and surely Rogen and (especially) Green had a lot to do with it but the wild-card is the winner. Like Ellen Page's performances, you don't feel like you're getting a version of Saul -- Franco is Saul.

And in keeping with the theme of honoring an actor who diversifies, you don't get much different than going form Pineapple Express to Milk. Now Milk is an excellent movie for so many reasons that it's obscene and of course up there on that list is Sean Penn. But the reason Penn will probably win the Oscar over Mickey Rourke is that Penn is amazing at sharing the spotlight in this film. Everyone who shares a moment of screen time with Penn in Milk is catching a huge acting updraft and soaring right alongside him. From the moment we meet Franco's Scott Smith on the stairs of a NYC subway station, I'm basically sold on the movie. It's one of the first scenes -- Penn meets Franco, talks him into bed, soon their in a relationship and headed to San Francisco and setting up a camera store in the Castro. A lot happens in the first 15 or so minutes of the film and it's pretty important that you buy the Penn/Franco relationship if you're going to get invested in the story. And as unlikely as a believable romance between characters played by these two actors sounds, it works amazingly well. While the role of Scott Smith isn't a very unique one on film, he's treated with care by Van Sant and Franco. You can see through Scott's eyes what's special about Harvey just as you can see how much Scott means to him. Since we meet these two characters at the same time it's crucial that there's a connection and Franco rolls with Penn with such ease it's practically grace personified. While it's Sean Penn's show without doubt, and Diego Luna and Emile Hirsch turn in showier performances, James Franco does a fantastic job of creating the foundation on which the rest of the movie takes off.

Runner Up: Diego Luna (Mister Lonely, Milk); Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Tropic Thunder)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On Citing One's Sources

So one would think, working at the same paper and all, that Manohla Dargis could have at least acknowledged the intellectual debt she owed to A.O Scott in her recent review of The Reader.

Here's how that piece ends:

Although the commercial imperatives that drive a movie like this one are understandable — the novel was a best seller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, for starters — you have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard. You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.

To anyone who read Scott's fine piece - Never Forget. You're Reminded - from November 21st, this would seem quite familiar.

“Schindler’s List” undoubtedly gave rise to a new pedagogical and commemorative impulse. It also, however, helped to domesticate the Holocaust by making it a fixture of American middlebrow popular culture. Which I don’t mean entirely as a criticism, since that culture is better than a lot of the alternatives. But Hollywood trades in optimism, redemption and healing, and its rendering of even the most appalling realities inevitably converts their dire facts into its own shiny currency.

...

More often the reality of mass death gives way to yet another affirmation of life, and even faithfully rendered true stories are bent into conformity with familiar patterns, themes and conventions: forbidden love; noble sacrifice; victory against the odds. The Holocaust is more accessible than ever, and more entertaining.


...

For American audiences a Holocaust movie is now more or less equivalent to a western or a combat picture or a sword-and-sandals epic — part of a genre that has less to do with history than with the perceived expectations of moviegoers. This may be the only, or at least the most widely available, way of keeping the past alive in memory, but it is also a kind of forgetting.

Dargis Review
Scott Piece

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Happy David Lynch Day

December 3rd is, of course, David Lynch Day in the people's republic of Cambridge. While this is a fairly new holiday, it is one that ought not be overlooked, but rather propagated to other cities and states so that we may continue to bring joy during this delightful holiday season. There are many ways to celebrate and share the Lynchian joys with those you love. Perhaps the most obvious is to enjoy the Twin Peaks Gold Box, a bountiful indulgence of gratuitous proportions that until it actually showed up on store shelves seemed impossible to achieve. (Speaking of which, if you want a free, unopened dvd set of the second season, drop me a line and I'll send it to you.)

There are of course his films... Eraserhead. Perhaps the most striking debut feature ever, made at exactly the right time. While we still have The Rocky Horror Picture Show kicking around in cities across the world, there was actually a midnight movie audience throughout the 70's, before the VCR become a household item, theaters had time and a place and an audience for oddities like Eraserhead and these movies would play for months. And believe it or not kids, there was a time called the 90's where finding a decent copy of the movie to put in your VCR wasn't an easy thing to come by. So now, on David Lynch Day, is a good time to count your blessings and watch that crisp digital 2000 DVD version and remember that you're one lucky bastard.

Elephant Man. To me it seems like it's his forgotten movie. But it's also his most beautiful. Let's set the stage... Mel Brooks has the rights to the story and needs to find a director (wisely enough he knows he's not the man). By some happenstance he ends up watching Eraserhead -- perhaps he heard it was a hit on the midnight movie circuit and it was in black and white. He knew from the get-go that Elephant Man was going to be a story told in black and white -- certainly the make-up would be a whole lot easier to deal with. With Eraserhead you have a movie that knows how to make a striking B&W image and knows how to create a palpable atmosphere. And hey, this David Lynch with his one feature will no doubt be inexpensive. Oh, to be able to hear that first conversation between Mel Brooks and David Lynch.

Dune. You know, this might be one of those movies where I've seen parts -- many parts -- I've probably seen the entire thing, just not in one sitting. It's a hell of a movie. A hell. Of a movie. That's not to say I don't enjoy it. Well, maybe enjoy is not the right word. I do find it fascinating. I also find it pretty fascinating that Alejandro Jodorowski was going to helm this beast before Lynch. Which is my segue into this little treat.





The combination of a David Lynch produced Alejandro Jodorowski directed movie featuring Nick Nolte can get me pretty excited even though I'm probably a luke warm Jodorowski fan at best. I mean, that interview gave me no misgivings about thinking the guy is a narcissistic, pretentious filmmaker but I can't be anything but happy to see that in this day and age he's able to make the uncompromised movies he wants to. That is what it's all about.

Blue Velvet. The Hardy Boys Nightmare. The movie that really set the tone for everything that would follow. As good as it gets? I could certainly see, and possibly agree with, that argument but I would postulate that his next work, the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, which aired before Wild at Heart, is the real masterpiece. Taking everything that has come -- Lost Highway, Straight Story, Mulhulland Drive, Inland Empire -- Twin Peaks, the television series, still serves as a beautiful Lynchian bouillabaisse.


Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The film that followed the series is like the best punk rock kick to the teeth. It's a kick that you could see coming if you watched the last episode or read his daughter's book. But the film is Lynch at his most severe. Twin Peaks the series, at least during the first season, is him welcoming you into his world with only a few reservations. Fire Walk With Me is what the bouillabaisse looks like when it's been left on the stove for a week. It's an unfairly maligned film, something that couldn't possibly satisfy fans of the series looking for answers or Lynch fans looking for another Wild at Heart. But it is a wonderfully didactic tour through the land of Lynch.


As far as the rest of his filography goes, I think most of us are familiar enough. I leave this tribute with my Netflix summary of Inland Empire that I wrote some two years ago -- the movie that spawned Cambridge's dedication to this fine filmmaker...


"I'm not one to say that all movies should be considered art – but cinema should be considered an art form and there should be more people out there pushing the medium experimenting and testing its limits and doing this within the mainstream. No one out there does more to further the art of cinema while playing in the Hollywood swimming pool than Mr. Lynch. And just like other pieces you might find at gallery or museum – you don’t have to understand it to appreciate it. You might find the story interesting (as I did) or a bunch of nonsense, but cinema is a visual medium and this is how this story is being told. Sadly I don’t think this movie will work quite as well in a living room as it did in the theater but people’s living rooms are getting close to matching the quality so I hope for the best. Turn off the lights let it creep you out and think about the story afterwards (The rundown: There’s a dead actress watching INLAND EMPIRE on tv. There’s a living actress, Laura Dern, playing the dead actresses roll in this movie, a remake, that she just got the part for. Soon the roll she’s playing and her own life and the life of the dead actress start to blend. At the end of it – perhaps it’s just the process she went through in her head to nail the part? Maybe.) – or don’t think about it at all. It doesn’t really matter, it’s a wonderful experiment and it’s too bad there aren’t more people out there doing this type of exploration and pushing cinema forward. Oh, and Laura Dern is amazing."


But perhaps the most direct way to celebrate David Lynch Day is to spend some time with Mr. Lynch's own website where you can get possibly the coolest Lynchian product known to man: the Lime Green Collection, the most disturbing ringtones known to man and get to know the Rabbits... yes, the Rabbits.






It's all pretty darn swell.

On How Not To Be Inspired

From one Tim Carr, describing how he came to direct a film on former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf:

Carr said what drew him to Leaf's story was the fact he was born just 10 days after Leaf in 1976, the newspaper reported.

"So I started to think, what would I do if I was in that situation?" Carr said, according to the report. "When he came out [for the NFL draft] he was 22, and when I was 22 I was a knucklehead, big time. So you've got to think, if I was a knucklehead and I had the keys to the kingdom, what would I do?

"Looking back, now that I'm 32, I can say, 'Well, I would have done this and this and this.' But that's a 32-year-old man talking about what I would do 10 years ago. You start to think about that and that's sort of what got me in that direction," Carr said, according to the report. "I was inspired [to] maybe tell that story like 'Husbands and Wives' but through the eyes and ears of fans and writers and players."

Story