Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top 10 Albums of the Decade

This list will be the first in a series of lists I post in the coming weeks detailing my favorite music and films of the decade and of the year 2009. These are the top 10 albums released since 2000.

10. Revelling/Reckoning (2001) - Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco could very well be the most talented musical artist of this generation, and on the double album Revelling/Reckoning she shows the full range of her abilities as a writer, singer, and musician. It's one of her more subtle works; most of the songs simply feature Ani on her guitar in a room, and it feels very personal. While some of her early work didn't do justice to her talent due to poor recording quality, that is no issue here. It's a well produced, epic work of quiet poetic beauty.

9. Sound of Silver (2007) - LCD Soundsystem
The sophomore effort from LCD Soundsystem simply rocks. Heavily influenced by electronic music, this organic, rich album strikes the perfect groove. It's primarily a dance album, but it's filled with such personal emotion, raising it to a higher level.

8. One Word Extinguisher (2003) - Prefuse 73
Listening to this insane album is kind of like falling down Alice's rabbit hole, and while that reference is cliched, this album is an original work of art, a breath of fresh air. Mostly an instrumental hip-hop album, Extinguisher takes so many twists and turns that you find yourself spellbound by the sheer skill of Scott Herren, the real name behind one of his many aliases.

7. Simple Things (2002) - Zero 7
This has become one of my mainstays, always good for those occasions when you just need to relax with some quality atmospheric music. The great thing about Simple Things is that it works well as background music just as well as it works as intricate, smart music. The cool grooves wash over you, and the guest vocal performances are fantastic throughout.

6. Vespertine (2001) - Bjork
Bjork, known to most of America as 'that girl who wore the swan dress,' has been one of the most unique and talented artists of the last 20 years. While labeled as 'Pop,' she is constantly searching for new forms of musical self expression and artistry, which is often lacking in the genre. Vespertine is no exception, and it's arguably her best album. Each song flows into the next as kind of an extended musical poem.

5. Funeral (2004) - The Arcade Fire
While their second album, Neon Bible, might actually be just as good, ultimately this bold debut is my choice for this list. The talented ensemble created a beautiful piece of real, true, honest music, and it will likely go down as a classic. It's emotional, dynamic, and endlessly replayable.

4. The Reminder (2007) - Feist
I've once heard Feist's voice described as an instrument that only she knows how to play, and I couldn't agree more. The Reminder is a very simple album musically speaking, and with the sheer piercing quality of her voice she transforms it into something magical, putting other female pop artists like Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and even Christina Aguilera to utter shame.

3. Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) - Animal Collective
Animal Collective has released 8 LPs and a couple EPs over the last decade, making them one of the most active groups out there, possibly because they are never satisfied with where they are. AC is constantly redefining the limits of pop music, their music simultaneously accessible and bizarre. Their most recent full length album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, named in honor of the musical venue in my hometown of Columbia, Maryland, is their best effort to date, showing the group at the peak of their ability. It weaves catchy melodies with danceable beats and introspective lyrics, creating an all-encompassing, full-sensory experience.

2. Kid A (2000) - Radiohead
By the time Thom Yorke and Co. decide to call it a career, Radiohead will likely go down as the greatest rock band of all time. They are unmatched in their sense of artistic integrity, as their success has driven them to break new ground rather than to rehash the same material that made them famous. They followed up their groundbreaking classic OK Computer, with Kid A, a dark concept album, almost entirely devoid of all the conventions of rock music. Radiohead had made their name on guitar driven rock, and they followed up a universally acclaimed classic with an album where you can barely distinguish a guitar throughout most of the album. This gutsy move paid off big time, proving that Radiohead is a band that will continue to evolve and develop new sounds, and take on political topics with abstract art music.

1. Frances The Mute (2005) - The Mars Volta
Easily the best album of the decade, Frances The Mute deserves a mention in the conversation of the greatest albums of all time. After the promising band At The Drive-In broke up, The Mars Volta rose from the ashes as a progressive rock band for the new millennium. This magnum opus incorporates elements of latin music, jazz, progressive rock, and lyrics that jump from English to Spanish. Most of the tracks are well over the standard 4 minute length, and they flow into each other seamlessly. The album could be considered one coherent piece of music rather than simply an assortment of songs, and the final 30 minutes reaches almost unobtainable heights. This is essential listening for anyone who cares about good music.

The next 5...

The Black Parade - My Chemical Romance
The College Dropout - Kanye West
Haunted - Poe
Year Zero - Nine Inch Nails
Give Up - The Postal Service

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Since I've Been Gone

First, I must apologize to my loyal readers. I haven't written an article in over 2 months. After writing 21 articles in about 2 months I think I burned myself out. But just because I haven't been writing doesn't mean I haven't been keeping my eye on media over the last 60 days. Here's a rundown of what I've been up to...

Where The Wild Things Are

This film, directed by Spike Jonze is easily one of the best of 2009 so far. Mark Harris, in a recent editorial in Entertainment Weekly, argues that WTWTA is worth seeing, if for no other reason, because it is a film that divides the audience. It is one of the few recent big budget, Hollywood films that is worthy of having an argument over. Some will say it shouldn't be a kids film, and others (like me) will say it's exactly what a kids film should be. Max, the central character, is a kid who's very angry, as many kids are, and that's an issue most stories intended for a juvenile audience won't explore. Max is angry at his sister for not standing up for him. He's angry at his mother and the strange man she has over for dinner, and he runs away to create a fantasy land in his imagination, to help him cope with his anger. WTWTA deserves credit, if for no other reason, for having the guts to see the world honestly from a child's point of view, and dealing with real emotions. Lucky for us, that's not the only good thing about the movie. It's incredibly well shot and edited, and all the talent involved is at the top of their game, even if we only hear their voices, and since the Best Picture category in the Academy Awards has been increased to a field of 10 this year there's a good chance this will snag a nomination. 10/10.

Whip It

Drew Barrymore pulled a rabbit out of a hat in her directorial debut. Whip It is the surprise great film of the year. It stars Juno's Ellen Page as a misfit youth who discovers a passion for the all girl sport of Roller Derby. She practices, tries out, makes the team, and soon becomes a surprise star in the league because of her speed on the track. Her mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden, disapproves, instead wishing she would participate in beauty pageants like she did. Her father, played by the great (and underworked) Daniel Stern, just wants his daughter to be happy even though he does get mad at her for lying about what she had been doing with her spare time. All in all, it is a very well produced film that combines great personal drama with fantastic sports action. 9/10.

Paranormal Activity

I'll just admit it right up front... I was scared. This micro-budget film cost only $11,000 to produce and was shot in one week in the director's house with unknown actors found in an open casting call, using only a home video camera. It's about a young couple living together for the first time who begin to experience strange activity taking place in their house. They use a video camera to film themselves sleeping in an attempt to get to the root of the problem. It's a film that is terrifying because it plays off what scares so many people the most. Your house, and your bed in particular, is supposed to be your sanctuary, and when an invisible force violates that safe place it creates a primal fear that has been lacking from Horror films lately. Like the Blair Witch Project before it, Paranormal Activity will go down as one of the most profitable films of all time. 8/10.

In The Loop

This small British political comedy is a complete farce... or is it? It's about the British and U.S. governments trying to decide if they will go into war together, which of course involves a lot of behind-the-scenes intrigue and closed door negotiations. It's all done with incredibly snappy dialogue that is at once hilarious and sad. Hilarious because those Brits sure have a unique sense of humor, and sad because it would all seem completely unrealistic if it weren't for the intelligence failures that lead to the war in Iraq. 9/10.


9, the second of three films coming out in 2009 with a '9' in the title (District 9, Nine) is an animated film produced by Tim Burton. It's based on a short film of the same name, and features some of the most most detailed animation I've seen in some time. 9 feels like a live action film in how it is paced and edited. From the opening frames I knew it would be a special film because it never feels rushed. While it is an animated film, it's NOT for little kids. It does include some intense action, and the decisions the characters make do have actual life and death consequences, which sets it above other animated features which exist in a universe where nothing bad ever happens to the principle characters. It's about a little creature called 9 who comes to life in a strange, post-apocalyptic world, where he eventually meets more of his kind. Soon they run into danger and have to fight for their lives as they are relentlessly chased by terrifying robots. 9/10.

Jay-Z: The Blueprint III

Jay-Z is the most successful rapper of all time, and is quickly becoming one of the most successful musical artists overall. At this point, however, it seems that Jay is on cruise control, relying on reputation more than actual skill. The Blueprint III is a sonic experience for sure, and features a ton of guest appearances from high-profile artists, but Jay seems to drift into the background. Kanye West did a fantastic job producing the vast majority of the music, but Jay's rapping seems so unskilled for someone who has reached the pinnacle of success. He has entire verses where he rhymes the same word over and over again rather than coming up with new and interesting schemes in the way that Lupe Fiasco or Kanye West himself would. This effort of course sold a ton of copies, reached #1 on the charts, and it does have some memorable material. However, taken as a whole, it's very underwhelming given the level of hype surrounding every new Jay-Z album. 6/10.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

America's 'Judge'

Mike Judge has been around for a quite while now, lurking behind the scenes, quietly making fun of America. He created the animated TV series Beavis and Butt-head for MTV in 1993 which was a comment on America's dienchanted youth and King of the Hill for FOX in 1997 which was an insightful look into rural family life. He also wrote and directed the films Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996), Office Space (1999), Idiocracy (2006). His new film Extract hit theaters this weekend.
Office Space was a flop at the box office upon its release in 1999, grossing a mere $10 million, which barely covered the cost of producing the film. Since then it has become a huge cult hit on DVD, selling almost 6 million copies. It was a skewering satire of the corporate American workplace and the futility of the daily grind the American worker puts themselves through in order to make money just so they can afford a house that's left vacant all day and a car to take them back and forth from work. While the white collar crime aspect of the plot might have been fun comedy on the surface, it demonstrated the emotional desperation and frustration of the office worker that comes with sitting in the same cubicle every day, doing meaningless, unfulfilling work, and going home to get a few hours of sleep only to wake up and sit through traffic on your way to doing a job you hate. It was a film so many could identify with, and that's why it's still an enduring favorite in home theaters 10 years after its release.

Judge's next film, Idiocracy, has also earned a cult following on video and TV despite barely being released and getting virtually no marketing support whatsoever. It paints a picture of a future where the stupid and ignorant have taken over the country through excessive reproduction, virtually breeding all intelligence out of society. A man and a woman of average intelligence by today's standards are accidentally sent to the future where they are now the smartest people alive. While Idiocracy is not a great film, it's an interesting premise that was executed well under the circumstances.
Social commentary is Mike Judge's forte, and he's back at it again, this time using blue collar work as the backdrop for Extract. However, unlike Office Space, Judge doesn't seem to be out to satirize the fundamental nature of this workplace. He seems to have much more respect for the manual labor needed to create a real product than the mindless paper-pushing of the office. Jason Bateman plays his standard everyman role as the owner of a company that produces various extract flavors. He proudly built the company from the ground up but his non-existent sex life at home is causing him to go through a mid-life crisis of sorts. He plans to sell the company to a large corporation so he can retire, but an accident on the floor injures a worker and puts the deal on hold.

In the meantime, a new temporary worker is hired, played by Mila Kunis, but she is really a con-artist out to steal the settlement money from the injured employee. She catches the eye of the owner (Bateman) and in an effort to pursue an affair with her without guilt he hires a gigolo to bait his wife into cheating. In the meantime, the sexy temp (Kunis) is trying to persuade the injured worker, played by Clifton Collins Jr., to sue the company, which would cause its bankruptcy. The workforce is scared by the prospect of the company being sold to a corporate entity and they attempt to rally support for a strike in order to leverage management into giving them a piece of the profits from the impending sale. They fear they might lose their jobs under new management and think it's unfair for the owner to make a huge profit when they are the ones doing all the hard work. It's hard not to think of the struggling economy and the millions of people who are desperately trying to support their families under difficult circumstances when we see the situation these assembly line workers are faced with here.

However, In the end, Extract likely won't join Office Space as a cult classic despite the fact that it will probably make much more money during its theatrical run. Unlike Office Space it doesn't ever quite connect with any one specific message, feeling, or overriding theme. While there are some parallels between Extract and the current economic crisis ultimately there's not much to inspire repeat viewings. It has its humorous moments, most of which involve Ben Affleck as a bartender who seems to "know a guy" for every situation that arises, but most of the jokes fall a bit flat. While Judge is usually so skillfully able to satirize American stupidity, here it's almost like he couldn't quite decide what to make fun of. Some of the plant's workers are depicted as lazy, racist, and stupid, but you come away with the feeling that Judge respects the work they do. Perhaps with the right focus the film could have been an indictment of America's economic system that forces people into low paying, dangerous factory jobs, but in the end it feels like America's Judge wimped out for the first time.

Extract (2009) 7/10

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Taking Woodstock: 40 Years Later

It's been 40 years since the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair in the summer of '69, an event ingrained so deeply in our culture's subconscious that sometimes it's easy to forget how much of a miracle it really was. An event like Woodstock taking place today is almost unfathomable, but in '69, despite the war and madness of the time, it seemed anything was possible, and an unlikely series of events lead to the defining moment of a generation, proving to the world for a few short days that peace and love were still possible in a world gone crazy.
It is fitting that Ang Lee's new film Taking Woodstock is being released now as we pause to look back at those "3 days of peace & music." It tells the story of how the greatest music festival of all time came to be and shows the impact it had on the local families, their community and the world. It was called "Woodstock" because it was supposed to take place in Woodstock, NY as a much smaller event. As the project grew the location was changed to the town of Wallkill, NY, but when the local government of Wallkill banned the festival the promoters began to look for yet another location. Elliot Teichberg, the central character of the film, saw a newspaper article about the festival being banned in Wallkill, and, having already acquired a permit for an outdoor music festival, contacted Woodstock Ventures and offered to host the event in Bethel, NY.
Having been originally designed as a for-profit investment, Elliot's family motel is granted exclusive rights to distribute passes to the event, and a few people begin to straggle in looking to score the "magic tickets" while construction crews begin to build the stage and prepare for the concert. But soon the town is overwhelmed by a flood of hippies after word accidentally gets out that it was a free concert featuring Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and many others. Having little time to prepare, the organizers cut the fence and acknowledged they would take a huge financial hit as they had no way to sell or collect tickets for the mass of humanity that was arriving in greater numbers by the day. The result, while unlikely, was magical.

In the end over 500,000 people would show up, causing traffic jams over 100 miles long. The music, while amazing in its own right, almost become secondary to the true meaning of what transpired there. People came together in celebration of peace and formed a massive makeshift community of love. They survived in the mud on barely any food, and no one cared or complained. Some set up tents to help people on bad acid trips and others gave out food for free. While some people in the town were looking to cash in, the people who came didn't care about money, they only cared about the experience and the community. They wanted to make a statement to the world, and merely by their peaceful presence, they did.

Taking Woodstock picked up on this, and that's really what the film is about. The concert itself is never shown and exists only as the backdrop for the story of the Teichberg family and their property that became a temporary home for many of the people there for the festival. Elliot, played by Demetri Martin, is the person through which the audience sees the Woodstock experience. He runs around, trying to help where he can, forced into situations over his head, and deals not only with the hippie invasion but also with his own parents, played brilliantly by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman, both of whom deserve Oscar nominations for their roles. They are elderly immigrants and don't fully understand what is going on around them, and they rely on their son to hold everything together.

Emile Hirsch and Liev Schreiber also turn in outstanding supporting performances. Hirsch is a young Vet back from Vietnam, struggling to readjust to life without war and Schreiber plays a former Marine turned transvestite who provides "security" for the Teichberg family. Taking Woodstock is a very brave film, never shying away from showing things exactly as they were, full frontal nudity, sex in the bushes, and acid trips in vans included. When Director Ang Lee used split-screen sequences in his film Hulk (2003), based on the comic book series, it came off as cheesy, but here the technique comes off as homage to the documentary Woodstock (1970), and it effectively demonstrates the massive scale of the event depicted. The film manages to be more than simply a feature film version of the famous documentary, which may disappoint some, but ultimately it was a wise choice to focus on the back story rather than the musical performances.

The most striking thing that the film illuminates, indirectly, is that something like this would be impossible to achieve today. Promoters and organizers would plan it better, make sure to charge a ton of money up front, and there wouldn't be a groundswell of cultural support. The youth today is fragmented, isolated by the internet and on-demand television, and there are no overriding, unifying ideologies that drive movements in the same way there was in '69. Even just a few months after Woodstock they tried to replicate the magic by holding a free concert in California called Altamont which was a complete disaster, as was Woodstock '99. It just shows that you can't force magic to happen, it has to be a natural outcome from the right set of circumstances.

Taking Woodstock (2009) 9/10

Friday, August 28, 2009

(500) Ways to Change the "Rom-Com"

After seeing the new film (500) Days of Summer my first thought was how terrible and cliched most Romantic Comedies are compared to this fantastic new film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. It's about the entire romantic history between two people that meet in the workplace, which is not an entirely atypical scenario in the modern Romantic Comedy genre, but it's the way the story is told that makes this the most refreshing film of the year.

We've all seen plenty of "Rom-Coms" and by now we all know the formula by heart. Boy meets girl, they hit it off at first, then there's a big misunderstanding and the relationship goes in the tank, each principal character hangs out with their friends to go over what went wrong and figure out how to move on with the rest of their lives, and then the rest of the film is a big build up to the couple getting back together in the end. It's been done countless times, and yet, for some reason, people keep paying to see the same movie played out with different actors in different settings over and over again. Why?

Subconsciously people seem to like knowing that everything will work out in the end. It's comforting during the "big misunderstanding" phase of the Rom-Com formula to already know that Girl will forgive Boy and they will live happily ever after. It's predictable, easy, and keeps the stress level down. Afterall, we work hard enough and think hard enough all day long, right? Why subject ourselves to something that might have an actual impact on our emotions?

Hopefully, (500) Days of Summer will help show some people what they've been missing. It only makes sense because love is emotional. It's not always neat and pretty and, in fact, often relationships are downright messy and difficult. Perhaps that's why the opening narration of (500) Days warns the audience that "this is not a love story." In fact, it's the story of a young man named Tom (Gordon-Levitt) who works as a writer for a greeting card company. He's grown up believing that he will never be fulfilled as a person until he meets "the one" special girl he's destined to spend his life with. Enter Summer (Deschanel), the new girl in the office. Tom falls for her at first sight and believes his destiny has finally found him.

Summer, however, isn't so smitten. She doesn't believe in True Love and doesn't want to have a serious relationship. Her parents were divorced while she was a young girl and she, unlike Tom, grew up believing that happiness through romantic love is impossible to achieve. However, over time the two forge a relationship, despite the fact that Summer tells Tom up front that she's not looking for anything serious. Tom of course pays no attention, convinced that in time she will fall for him. It's destiny afterall, and that's exactly what would happen in any Romantic Comedy he watched throughout his life. But while Tom believes he's laying the foundation for his dream life with his soul-mate, Summer just finds Tom "interesting" and just wants to have a good time.

The film, directed by newcomer Marc Webb and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, jumps back and forth through time, showing us various days in the relationship from Tom's point of view. Because it is revealed within the first few minutes of the film, it's no spoiler to tell you that the relationship between Tom and Summer does not end in a "happily ever after" fairy-tale, and the film then goes on to tell the story of why it didn't work. Fragmenting the narrative in this way adds a level of emotional connection to the characters that we otherwise might not have. Every time we see a day from the beginning of the relationship when everything is going so well, in the back of our minds, we know that he's heading for heartbreak.

Gordon-Levitt turns in another great performance and has proven himself to be one of the best young actors working today, able to portray gleeful joy and dismal depression with ease. Deschanel is also perfectly cast as the alluringly beautiful, yet not obviously "hot," object of Tom's desires. This truly is a special film that is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. It finds a way to break the standard conventions of the genre, making a real, meaningful movie in the Rom-Com format. Fractured narratives that jump around through time are nothing new (see 21 Grams for a real heavy hitter) but the technique is not at all common in the Romantic Comedy genre. While in some cases it can be a gimmick, here it illuminates the emotional content and heightens awareness of smaller details. As you experience Tom and Summer's relationship, one day at a time, you may find yourself struggling with whether or not you believe in Destiny and True Love. If you're paying attention, the film reveals its position on the matter, and that I won't spoil.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Quentin Tarantino is a 'Basterd'

This weekend Quentin Tarantino released his long awaited film Inglourious Basterds, starring Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, and Christoph Waltz. Tarantino has been working on this film, in one form or another, for a decade. The script has gone through multiple incarnations, at one point so long it could have been filmed as a trilogy. Tarantino admittedly struggled with finding a way to end the story, set in Nazi occupied France during World War II, but he kept working on the script between doing other projects and vowed to one day release what he hoped would be his epic masterpiece.
The final product, after all the anticipation, certainly is epic, clocking in at 149 minutes, but whether or not it's a masterpiece isn't quite as certain. The film is about a group of Jewish-American soldiers who are dropped into occupied France in order to wreak havoc behind enemy lines before the rest of the Allied military makes its main assualt inland. Tarantino is a difficult director to evaluate objectively. His films are uniquely his own, despite the fact that he borrows so much from his various inspirations. This is the contradiction that is Quentin Tarantino. He is a well known lover of "genre cinema" which is a way of saying that he has spent a lot of time watching B-movies designed purposely to fit within the conventions of a specific genre, and these films directly influence his work. Some would say he outright steals from them.

However, there really isn't anyone out there quite like him, which says a lot in an industry that often stifles creativity and individuality. Tarantino writes and directs his own material and his films are just popular enough to get his budgets approved (Basterds cost $70 million), so he's in the rare position to do literally whatever he wants. And he does, even if that means purposely misspelling both words in the title.

Inglourious Basterds is vintage Tarantino, most distinctively showcased through his habit of utilizing split narratives, chapters, and extended sequences of dialogue that slowly build tension, punctuated by quick bursts of action. From the very beginning, he has formatted his films as if they were novels, presenting something familiar from an unfamiliar angle, and he sticks firmly to that here. Back in 1992 he broke onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs, a heist film that never shows the heist, and now Tarantino has directed a War film without the war. The first time the audience meets "the basterds" in action they have already killed an entire squad of Nazi soldiers and are now trying to get information from one of the three left alive.

But Tarantino's narrative sensibilities are as much a curse as they are a blessing. While it's refreshing to see material from an atypical point of view, sometimes the film gets bogged down in upholding some of his cheesier conventions. Things like putting text on screen to introduce characters and quick flashbacks to give background information, often in a humorous context, might be crowd pleasers, but they keep the film from becoming truly great because it takes credibility away from the otherwise serious nature of the story. Tarantino has created a film that perfectly highlights his personal contradiction. Is it serious or is it a joke?

Inglourious Basterds has some truly brilliant moments. The opening sequence at the dairy farm and the rendezvous at the tavern are two of the best scenes in any film so far this year, and the acting is excellent all around, especially from Christoph Waltz as "The Jew Hunter," the personification of Nazi evil. Brad Pitt also turned in a performance that is sure to become iconic over time and Diane Kruger has proven herself to be more than just a pretty face. French actress Melanie Laurent also turned in a strong performance holding together the emotional center of the film.
In the end, the audience has to make a simple choice. You can be continually disappointed that Tarantino will probably never make an entirely serious film without incorporating some element of parody or homage to genre cinema, or you can choose to accept him for who he is and appreciate his rare skill as a writer and his ability to show us a side of storytelling otherwise unavailable in the mainstream. It's up to you.

Inglourious Basterds (2009) 9/10

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Avatar: Perfecting the Art of Hype

Today, August 20, James Cameron released the teaser trailer for his new film Avatar, and unless you've been living under a rock for the past 5 years, you've probably heard something about this film already. If you haven't, you will soon, and this is no accident. Cameron, who has not made a feature film since Titanic (1997), has perfected the art of how to build hype around his projects before their release.

Titanic, 12 years after its release, is still the most financially successful film ever made, and considering the inflation of ticket prices since '97 this is most impressive. To put it in perspective, the most successful film worldwide since Titanic is Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), and in order to match Titanic's $1.8 billion gross it would have needed to make an additional $700 million. That's the entire amount the hugely successful film Transformers made worldwide in 2007.

James Cameron is no dummy, and he learned a lot from his Titanic experience. A lot of factors went into making Titanic the massive phenomenon it became. Everyone knew the story behind the making of Titanic before they ever saw a single frame. It was the most expensive film ever made, had one of the most complicated productions of all time, and featured two of the biggest rising stars on the planet. It was also the subject of rumor and speculation long before principal photography had completed. There had been talk in Hollywood that the film wouldn't get finished due to massive problems on set, and the fact that it took so long to produce added credibility to the rumors. The release date was pushed from July to December 1997, and by the time the film came out there was such anticipation that everyone just had to see what all the fuss was about. Now Cameron is recreating some of the same factors that helped make Titanic a success.

He's learned that the story behind the story is just as important, and he's been writing the tale behind Avatar for a long time. Cameron first envisioned Avatar 15 years ago as a sweeping Sci-Fi epic filled with adventure, romance (sound familiar), and mind blowing special effects that blend reality seamlessly with fantasy in 3-D. He realized that the technology required to fulfill his vision did not yet exist, so he waited. He made Titanic, worked on TV documentaries and did screen tests until he felt conditions were right to begin. And while it may be true that technology has come a long way in the last 15 years, the length of time between Cameron's major projects has helped feed the hype narrative. This is not to suggest that he delayed purposely just to build a backstory. Conventional wisdom would have been to complete another film quickly in order to capitalize on the success of Titanic, but he knew that waiting would only help in the long term.

Cameron is a legendary perfectionist, a larger than life figure who gets exactly what he wants, and nothing less, no matter what. For the last 5 years he's been working night and day to make Avatar exactly the way he envisioned it almost 2 decades ago. Unlike Titanic, this time Cameron has taken a page from Star Wars and hired a cast of virtual unknowns, led by Sam Worthington. Cameron was the visionary behind the Terminator franchise in the early 80s, so perhaps it's fitting Worthington just broke out as the surprise star of Terminator Salvation, overshadowing Christian Bale. Worthington shot his Avatar performance before Terminator, which is yet another indication of how long it's taken to finalize the film.

Controversy is one of hype's closest allies, and to no surprise Avatar has had some. There was a bit of a dispute between studios over the rights to the name "Avatar." M. Night Shyamalan directed an adaptation of the animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, but when they attempted to register the name "Avatar" with the MPAA they discovered Cameron had beaten them to the punch. Shyamalan's film was renamed The Last Airbender and it's due out Summer 2010.
The biggest piece of hype, however, is the film itself. Cameron is a master at making his films a can't miss event. Tomorrow, August 21, is officially "Avatar Day." The trailer released today on Apple.com will be released in theaters around the world, along with special limited screenings of a 15 minute preview, and the unveiling of the video game and toys to coincide with the film. If all goes according to plan, by the time December 18 rolls around just about everyone will feel compelled to see the film. Today the public got their first glimpse of the rumored mind-blowing effects, but you can bet that Cameron is keeping the most amazing footage under tight wraps so that the audience leaves the theater feeling like they've just witnessed something they've never seen before. The key to Titanic's success was word of mouth recommendations and repeat viewers after the first wave of people came away captivated. You can bet Cameron is banking on the same thing happening for Avatar.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9: The Rebirth of Smart Sci-Fi

Good Science Fiction almost always has something of value to say about society. Because Sci-Fi's subject matter is often fanciful and other-worldly it's the perfect vehicle to showcase very real social issues through metaphor. Recently, mainstream Sci-Fi has largely abandoned this practice, opting instead to wow audiences with special effects rather than with social commentary, and we're left with worthless garbage like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Fortunately, District 9 is here to save the day, providing both jaw dropping action AND the social commentary that makes Sci-Fi important and worthwhile.

Written and Directed by newcomer Niell Blomkamp and Produced by Peter Jackson, District 9 might be the most politically charged and socially significant film of the year. Blomkamp was slated to direct a Jackson produced live-action adaptation of the video game Halo, but when the studios killed the project Jackson helped him develop his own original idea. And things couldn't have worked out better. Halo would have been exactly the type of empty Sci-Fi/Action film that's been all too prevalent of late, and instead District 9 is just what the doctor ordered.

The film opens at a brisk pace and never slows down for a second. Shot mostly in a documentary style, complete with interviews and grainy news footage, the 20 year back story is quickly explained before seamlessly blending into the present day action. An alien spacecraft practically the size of a city, reminiscent of Independence Day, arrives over Johannesburg, South Africa. Eventually humans fly up to it and take a look inside only to find the creatures inside weak, unorganized, and starving to death. Seemingly with good intentions, the aliens are taken from their mothership and placed in a camp called District 9 where they can be brought back to health. However, problems begin to mount as alien-human relations begin to go South and the rehabilitation camp becomes a locked down slum designed to keep the creatures separated from the rest of the city.

The setting of the story, South Africa, is significant in that the story seems to be an allegory of Apartheid. The aliens are given shacks for shelter and the means to survive, but they are segregated, discriminated against and exploited out of fear. But after all, they are, well... alien, and naturally don't interact well with humans. What they perceive as playful fun humans see as disruptive violence, and instead of making an effort to integrate them into society they are locked away and despised by the human majority. Under the guise of trying to help the creatures, an agency called MNU, sort for Multi-National United (whose trucks look more than a little bit like UN vehicles), are secretly trying to discover how to use alien weapon technology for their own gain, and all other ethical considerations are of no importance.

It is not an easy film to watch by any means. The violence is graphic, at times almost literally in your face, and there are several medically related scenes that make even the most jaded movie-goer a bit squeamish. Plus, it's actually about something. Unlike Transformers or Independence Day the political, moral, and ethical questions posed in the film make the experience all the more harrowing because the themes relate back to the real human experience. When the humans casually "abort" the eggs of the aliens it's almost impossible not to conjure images of ethnic cleansing. Violence is meaningless and ineffectual when there's no substance, message, or character development behind it, but here we truly feel empathy for the characters, both human and alien, when they are beaten, experimented on, or blown to bits.

Produced for only $30 million, District 9 will surely make a huge profit due to the buzz generated by its underground style marketing campaign, but audiences might not be prepared for what they're getting themselves into. More than a few people got up and left the theater within the first 30 minutes during the screening I attended. This film is unflinchingly brutal and is almost guaranteed to make you think and question your own set of moral values. Some people want to go the the theater only to be entertained, and while this movie doesn't lack spectacle and action, it's far from the mindless eye candy many have become accustomed to, which is a much needed change for the modern Sci-Fi genre.

District 9
(2009) 9/10

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Year of the 9

This is the year 2009 and maybe it's no coincidence that three films with the number "9" in the title will be gracing the silver screen in the coming months. The first of these, District 9, will be released today (August 14). Next out will be 9, to be released cleverly on 9-9-09, followed by Nine, due out November 25. What may be even more amazing than three "9" films coming out in short succession is that they all actually look quite interesting.

District 9 is a film about aliens being held captive on Earth in a locked down slum. It's produced by Peter Jackson, shot in a documentary style and appears to be loaded with social commentary. Based on the trailer it appears the humans won't allow the aliens to leave Earth until the secrets behind their weapon technology is discovered. All good Sci-Fi finds a way to reflect society's social issues, and hopefully District 9 will not disappoint and live up to that tradition. Trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6PDlMggROA

Next up, 9, is set at some point in a post-apocalyptic future in which seemingly all humanity has been destroyed. Small creatures with numbers for names seem to be the only remaining life and they battle giant machines for their survival. It's a computer animated film produced by Tim Burton, and at least appears to be worth a look. Trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnoJecu9e7c

Finally, Nine, will be released just in time for awards season. It's a remake of possibly the greatest film ever made, Fellini's Italian classic 8 1/2 (1963), but this time it's being done as a musical. It's directed by Rob Marshall, who brought the Oscar winning Chicago (2002) to the big screen. It seems to star everyone in Hollywood including the amazing Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Fergie, and Sophia Loren. Personally, considering the source material, I will be most critical of this film out of the three, and from the trailer it's difficult to determine how good it will be. Trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_5_lzags3I

Only time will tell how good these three films will be, and really, other than their titles they seem to have almost nothing in common. But I felt it was worth previewing them for my loyal readers. Stay tuned for my thoughts once I see the films.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Julie/Julia Project

Julie & Julia (2009) is a chick flick "based on two true stories" about women from different eras linked by their common interest in food and the men who stood behind them on their journeys to fame. The film takes the slightly unconventional choice of telling two stories that never directly intersect. While not common in mainstream cinema, this technique has been tried before, most notably in The Hours (2002), which also starred Meryl Streep.

Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams, is a young woman living in New York in 2002. She has a stressful and heart wrenching job dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 from a cubicle. She comes home every day and cooks for herself and her husband as a way of dealing with the stress. Her friends are upwardly mobile social elites moving up the ranks of the business world while she remains professionally stagnant. Julie envisions herself as a writer but she gave up on her novel, unable to maintain interest in a long term goal. What she needed was some inspiration.

This is where the "Julia" half of the story comes in. The film also tells the story of how Julia Child, the famous chef, author, and TV personality rose to prominence in the late '50s. She arrives in Paris with her husband and while she loves the city she quickly becomes bored and begins looking for things to do. After realizing hat making wasn't her true passion she decides to take cooking classes. She starts out in a beginner's a class with other women but complains to the school's administrator that she was looking for something more challenging and enrolls in an advanced, all male class. She soon outshines her classmates with her fearless mentality and bubbly charm. Eventually she meets two other female chefs Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle and the trio begins work on a book designed to teach french cooking techniques to American housewives.

Back in New York, Julie, like Julia, realizes her true passion is food, and with the help of her husband she decides to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book Julia Child is struggling to get published in the other half of the film, and write a blog about it as she goes. She gives herself one year to cook 524 recipes and along the way she has a series of "meltdowns" as she struggles with the enormity of the task she has assigned herself. However, as she labors day after day her blog begins to take off, becoming one of the most popular on the internet, giving her mission a purpose.

Both stories could have been adapted into feature length films in their own right, but when put together they become stronger. As the film shifts between stories, each getting about and hour of screen time, we can see parallels forming between the two women. The most important of these is how their husbands played such an important role in helping them accomplish their missions.

Paul Child, played by Stanly Tucci, quietly supports Julia in everything she does, no matter how crazy it sounds to anyone else. He obviously and openly loves her and encourages and inspires her to continue to follow her passion. Eric Powell, Julie's husband played by Chris Messina, is the one who originally helped her get the idea to blog about cooking, but as tension builds and meltdowns begin to pile up he gets through the frustration and continues to support her. Without both of these men standing behind their wives the female lead characters would have likely been unable to accomplish their goals. Julia might have given up on her book without Paul's encouragement and Julie might not even have started, let alone finish without Eric. The film deserves a lot of credit for clearly expressing this point since it would have been much less risky, considering the intended audience, to make it a film all about "girl power" overcoming all obstacles.

Streep and Adams both do very well with their respective co-lead roles, especially with the cooking scenes, which must have been very difficult to train for and shoot from a technical perspective. Overall it's a good film, but maybe not quite as emotional or inspiring as it could have been. The plot flattens out a bit in the middle and you may catch yourself checking your watch once or twice, but for the most part it's a quality story and production about the determination to reach goals and the support support structures that help along the way.

Julie & Julia (2009) 7/10

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Dark Side of Comedy

Comedy, to the outside world, is all smiles. Famous comedians seem to have it all. They get paid an enormous amount of money to travel the country, and all they have to do for work is get up on stage for a few minutes every night and try to make people laugh. The lucky ones make even more money starring in movies and TV shows, usually playing a slight variation of themselves.

Funny People (2009) is about one of the really lucky ones, the fictional actor and comedian George Simmons, played by real life famous actor and comedian Adam Sandler. Early in the film he learns he is dying from a rare form of cancer, and he beings to reflect on his life. He wanders through his massive house, watches his old movies on several flat panel TVs at once, and realizes that he is friendless and his life is devoid of any real meaning. He recruits a struggling stand-up comedian named Ira, played by the ubiquitous Seth Rogan, to help him write jokes and be his personal assistant. What he's really done is bought himself a friend in the same way he would have bought a new car or an expensive rug.

It's not long before it becomes apparent that this is not a simple laugh-out-loud comedy. What director Judd Apatow is doing here is exploring the dark side of comedy, the side the public doesn't get to see. Comedians, despite the humorous face they show to the world, often live very lonely lives and use their ability to make others laugh to cover deep seeded pain. Their only "friends" are often other actors and comedians, all fighting over the same laughs every night. This point is emphasized by the film's huge number of celebrity cameos. Like Sandler's George Simmons, comedians can become very rich and famous, and yet, due to the nature of their working lifestyle, have literally nothing of real value, like friends and family, to fill their houses.

Sandler does a good job with this aspect of the character. Through most of the film he wears a slight expression of contempt when interacting with other people, as if it's a chore he has to put up with. Ira, his new assistant, is treated more like a piece of property or a pet than a human being. Simmons is so lonely he can't fall asleep without someone there to talk to him at his bedside. But as he's dying, he begins to understand the empty shell of a person he's become and he seeks to reclaim his humanity by getting back the girl he lost long ago, now married with two children, even if it means breaking up her family.

The idea that Apatow is trying to express here is that our laughter comes at a price: the souls of comedians. Simmons, after becoming so famous for making mediocre movies, like Sandler himself, has been isolated in the center of his own world for so long that he no longer understands basic morality. When he wants something, he just gets it, no matter the cost or the damage it may cause to others.

Ira seems to represent the conscience of this film. He is riding Simmons' coat tails to fame, opening for him every night, but hasn't yet reached a point where he can't determine right from wrong. But already, even so early in his career, his friends aren't really his friends, but rather his rivals, both personally and professionally. We can see that one day, possibly, he could end up a casualty of the comedian lifestyle, just like Simmons.

Overall, Funny People mostly hits the right notes. Like all Apatow movies, it doesn't follow a conventional comedic formula, which is refreshing, but the third act does drag slightly. Despite this minor pacing flaw, it's possible it could go down as a classic in the vein of The Graduate. It's likely time will be favorable to this film because of the way it speaks to the psychological effects of fame and explores themes of isolation and mortality.

Funny People (2009) 9/10

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Messages From the Coffin

At this point, it's no secret vampires have again recaptured the imagination of the public. The phenomenal success two book series, the Twilight Saga and the Southern Vampire Mysteries have planted vampires firmly back into our collective consciousness. I was planning on writing an article about the recent revival of vampires in popular culture at some point down the road, but Entertainment Weekly beat me to the punch and did a cover feature on the subject for their August 7 issue.
Twilight was adapted into a feature film last year, and it's soon be followed by the first of three sequels, New Moon, in November. Southern Vampire Mysteries, also known as the Sookie Stackhouse novels, was turned into an HBO series by Alan Ball called True Blood. The stars of the Twilight films have been all over the tabloids for months and True Blood has been gradually winning over an audience since its inception.

But while the Twilight and True Blood phenomenon has raised popular vampire mythology to new heights, it had never really disappeared. What the screaming Twilight fans might not realize is that vampires, even sexy vampires, are nothing new. Before Twilight's Edward Cullen and Sookie's Bill Compton, Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles spawned the feature films Interview With The Vampire and Queen of the Damned. Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a feature film that was later adapted into the campy TV series and its spin-off Angel. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez brought us From Dusk Till Dawn and Kate Beckinsale in a tight leather outfit starred in the Underworld films. And let's not forget Wesley Snipes in the Blade trilogy, which also crossed over into a TV series.

Vampires have long been a strangely alluring subject, and have always appealed to a strong female audience. It could be because vampires are such a good narrative device through which to explore so many themes. They are outsiders, dark, mysterious, immortal, and have an ancient history and acquired wisdom. Forbidden vampire-human sexual desire far pre-dates Edward and Bella, going back to the days of Dracula in 1897. But vampires are capable of more than playing off your deepest fantasies.

Take True Blood for example. In my mind, the most compelling aspect of the show is how vampires are used to illuminate society's social issues, such as gay rights. It's no accident that the church is in that story to point out how dangerous narrow-minded bigotry can be. Sometimes it's more effective to get a message across when you're expressing it through parallels and symbolism, and since vampires aren't exactly human the possibilities for social satire are endless.

It's in this area that Twilight seems to fall short, as it doesn't seem to have much social conscience or underlying message beyond love overcoming obstacles. Many believe that perhaps Bella is a bad role model for women because her entire existence becomes defined by Edward. I don't know if I completely agree with that sentiment, but it would have been nice, considering how popular the story is among the youth, if Stephenie Meyer had more fully realized the potential vampire stories have for social relevance.

History has proven that vampires are here to stay. Right now they just happen to be en vogue with a teenage audience, which has heightened the hysteria which has long existed. Let's just hope that while vampires have the collective attention of the youth, as they swoon over Edward and Bella or Bill and Sookie, they also happen to notice a few of the deeper themes just below the surface, or learn to see when the story is lacking in that area.