Saturday, August 29, 2009

Shades
of Gray

There
should be
no irony;
you are
invited by
the movie
to be total-
ly empathe-
tic with the
people in it. We would never talk down to or be condescending to them.
-- The thinking behind Two Lovers

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

My introduction to James Gray came through his second fea-
ture, The Yards, which screened at the 2000 Toronto Interna-
tional Film Festival with Gray and actors Mark Wahlberg and
Joaquin Phoenix in attendance (the film also stars James Caan,
Faye Dunaway, and an unrecognizably brunette Charlize Theron).

Gray was a little nervous about presenting such a personal film—
the title refers to the Queens railyards, where his father toiled—
in front of such a large audience, but he provided an eloquent
introduction, citing Rocco and His Brothers as an influence.



Phoenix, who is quite good in the movie, looked ill at ease
and said he was uncomfortable speaking in public. Wahl-
berg tried to get him to say more, but to no avail. After the
film concluded, Wahlberg, who couldn't have been more at
ease, threatened to launch into one of his Marky Mark and
the Funky Bunch raps if the audience didn't ask any ques-
tions. That got a big laugh, and people started to pipe up.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

The only thing that you can do is try to make sure
the film looks beautiful, better than you had imagin-
ed, as it slips away from you... If you hire the right
people, they can give you something better and
more beautiful than you’d ever imagined.
-- The thinking behind all his films

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Despite the favorable festival response, The Yards was a non-starter at the box office. It must not have been a priority for Miramax, as I don't recall much of a promotional push. If more people had known about it, I'm certain it would've done better.

Gray followed up with another crime film, 2007's We Own the
Night, which felt rote and lackluster in comparison, despite sol-
id, but not spectacular work from Wahlberg and Phoenix. (And
I don't want to lay too much blame at Eva Mendes' feet, but she's
no match for the other actresses who've populated Gray's pic-
tures, notably Oscar winners Theron and Gwyneth Paltrow.)

As with Luchino Vis-
conti's B&W Rocco,
The Yards may be
melodramatic, but
Gray is looking spec-
ifically to the classic
Euro-American me-
lodramas of the '60s
and '70s, and not just
amping everything
up for the hell of it.

The pace is stately but not lugubrious, cinematographer Harris
Savides' use of ochre and siena hues recalls the work of Gordon
Willis in The Godfather, and the actors make the Old Testament-
style dialogue ring true. Every decision can mean life or death
for these characters, and they usually make the wrong ones.

With 2008's Two Lovers, now available on DVD, Gray returns
to the Russian-American milieu of Little Odessa, which I caught on TV shortly after The Yards. Since his second feature was still percolating in my mind, I dashed off the following review.

For those new to his work, I recommend starting here before mov-
ing on to The Yards or Two Lovers. The latter operates almost as
a twin, and reunites the director with Phoenix, who imbues Lovers
with one of his strangest, most effective performances to date.

LITTLE ODESSA [***]
(James Gray, US, 1994, 98 mins.)

Only 25 at the time, James Gray wrote
and directed this depressing, but remark-
ably well executed debut. The soundtrack
that accompanies the small-scale drama is
particularly unusual in that it's mostly
hushed choral arrangements of Rachman-
inoff, Tchaikovsky, and Mussogorsky.

It's not what you'd expect from a post-Tarantino film about
a hitman, Joshua Shapira (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction
veteran Tim Roth), and the havoc his career wreaks on his
Brighton Beach-based Russian immigrant family (Maxi-
milian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, and Edward Furlong).



Like Elijah Wood, Furlong (Joshua's younger brother) looks as if he's here to stay. So many child stars disappear from the scene once they hit adolescence or make the awkward transition into adulthood with the hyper-critical eyes of the world upon them.

Such has been the fate of Macaulay
Culkin, a virtual has-been at the age
of fourteen. But Furlong has persever-
ed since he shot to fame in 1991's Ter-
minator 2: Judgment Day, by taking on more interesting and less commercial roles in films like American History X, and looks to have a good, long career ahead of him. Well into his teens by 1994, he plays a kid here, but this is definitely an adult film, in the non-pornographic sense of the word.

[How wrong I was about Furlong, whose last hurrah was Pecker.]

In Little Odessa, Furlong takes the lead, and not the better known actors who surround him, easily stealing the film right out from under Roth—who isn't bad, but this isn't one of his standout roles—and that makes the shocker of an ending all the more tragic.

Gray's first effort isn't for all tastes, but it's hard not to admire
the skill that went into its making, from the mournful soundtrack
to the moody camera work, which focuses on the snow-covered
Russian section of Brooklyn—the Little Odessa of the title—to
the economical script and, finally, to the naturalistic acting of
the entire cast. Little Odessa won the Silver Lion at the Ven-
ice Film Festival, and marks James Gray as a director to watch.


The theatrical trailer

Endnote: Except for Little Odessa, Joaquin Phoenix has ap-
peared in all of Gray's movies, making him the Al Pacino to his
Sidney Lumet or the Robert De Niro to his Martin Scorsese,
comparisons a classicist like Gray would probably appreciate—
and that a tempestuous talent like Phoenix would probably dis-
miss. Images and quotes from ICG Magazine (picture by Anne
Joyce, words by David Heuring), Big Pond, and Moviemaker.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Those
Socks
Have
Secrets


Ken
Flagg,
The End
of Suf-
fering,
Incur-
able Eclectic Records [11/3/09]

Morning quivers like a Theremin.
-- Ken Flagg, "Those Socks Have Secrets"


On his 2006 debut, San Francisco multi-instrumentalist Ken
Flagg was mired in Paralysis and Denial. Now he seeks The
End of Suffering. On first track "Pieces," the sinking feeling
sets in that Flagg is yet another in a long line of sensitive sing-
er/songwriters, but then he rocks the hell out of "Mountain
Girl," and the feeling passes (I've just spent too much time
with heart-on-sleeve balladeers more interested in making
ladies swoon than in doing any serious emotional excavation).

Flagg continues to alternate between the soft and quiet, the fast
and loud, proving himself an eclectic talent who moves between
genres with grace. Whistle-infused closer "When the Sun Sets in
the Eastern Sky" is a particularly sublime take on bossa nova.




The Vivs, Mouth to Mouth, self-released [9/22/09]

Jonathan Richman lives on the astral plane. The
same one
where I go to meet you again and again.
-- The Vivs, "Take It on the Chin"


Led by Karen Harris, a mother
of two, this Boston quintet de-
livers harmony-laden pop-
rock with vivid guitar work
and subtle piano embellish-
ment. The most distinguishing
characteristic: Harris's clear, authoritative voice, remini-
scent of the singers in the Concretes and Bettie Serveert, which is ironic as they're Scandinavian, while the Vivs are American.

On first listen, Mouth to Mouth was too clean and bright for
my taste, but subsequent listens reveal hitherto undetected nuan-
ces, especially in the literate lyrics. Plus, it's hard to resist songs
that reference Jonathan Richman, Tom Verlaine ("Take It on the
Chin"), and the Damned ("I Just Wanna Show You My Garden").



Endnote: For more information about Ken Flagg, please click
here
; for the Vivs, here or here. Emblazoned with bizarre ani-
mation, Flagg's disc serves as a reminder not to judge a CD by
its cover. Images from his MySpace Page and Planetary Group.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

It Might
Get Wiggy:
Part Two

Click here for Part One: Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey


BRIAN WILSON: I JUST WASN'T MADE FOR THESE TIMES [***]
(Don Was, US, 1995, 70 mins.)


"I think he stayed in bed for two years."
-- His mother on her son's lost weekend

Like PBS pledge perennial Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black
and White Night (1988), this tune-filled television documen-
tary was shot in grainy B&W and looks artier than you might
expect from big-league composer/producer Don Was.

Was interviews a few surprisingly iconoclastic artists, as well,
such as the Velvet Underground's John Cale and Sonic Youth's
Thurston Moore, as well as the expected hitmakers: Tom Petty,
David Crosby, and Linda Ronstadt in full-on Mexican regalia.

So far so good, but unfortunately he repeatedly cuts from in-
terview segments to footage of Wilson performing updated ver-
sions of Beach Boys and solo material. I wanted to hear the or-
iginal numbers and would imagine most viewers feel the same.

The only new track that works well is a version of "Do It Again" featuring Wilson's daughters, Wendy and Carny, on harmony vocals and Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers on keyboards.


Wilson Phillips, one-hit wonders best known for "Hold On"
(with Chynna Phillips), might not have been anything to write home about, but the ladies have pleasant enough voices.

Also, Was explores Wilson's music more extensively than his personal life, though he openly discusses his drug problems and
hermit period. It's not that he's holding back; it's just not a focus.

Dr. Eugene Landy, however, doesn't merit a single mention, which
seems odd, although there might have been legal reasons for the
ommission—as in ongoing litigation. If not, it's a dishonest move,
since Landy (micro-)managed Wilson's career for almost a decade.


Trailer with irritating Don "The Voice" LaFontaine narration

I suspect Was made this documentary, his only full-length
feature, to prove that Wilson is healthier and more productive
than the rumors would suggest (see Theremin: An Electronic
Odyssey for a glimpse of the subject in nonsensical mode).

Fortunately, the former Beach Boy can still sing and tickle the
ivories with some degree of finesse. At times, I found him diffi-
cult to understand, but that's because he slurs his words, not
because he doesn't express his thoughts clearly. Worth a look.

Related reviews: You're Gonna Miss Me and Scott Walker: 30 Century Man



Endnote: As with Theremin, this piece is slightly revised from the original text. Also, it just occured to me that the director's name appears in the title, i.e. I Just WASn't Made for These Times, a song that appears on Wilson's 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds. Images from The Gentlebear and I'm Starting to Feel...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

It Might
Get Wiggy

Every
year, I
review
dozens and
dozens of
music doc-
umentar-
ies. Most focus on a particular artist or genre, but every once in awhile a film arrives to focus on a specific instrument.

Davis Guggenheim's upcoming It Might Get Loud, for instance,
celebrates the electric guitar from the perspective of Jimmy Page
(Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2), and Jack White (the White Stripes).

In honor of Guggenheim's follow-up to the Oscar-winning An Inconven-
ient Truth, this seems like the ideal time to post a review of the follow-
ing, one of the better music documentaries to play the Seattle Interna-
tional Film Festival—and SIFF screens a lot of music documentaries.
It Might Get Loud opens at Seattle's Egyptian Theater on 8/28.

THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY [***1/2]
(Steven M. Martin, US, 1994, 83 minutes)


"As long as we're doing something eerie today,
why not get real eerie and put a theremin on it?"
-- Brian Wilson on "Good Vibrations"


Although it could've been tightened up more in the editing
room and the sound isn't always as clear as it could be, Ther-
emin: An Electronic Odyssey offers a fascinating look at
the world's first electronic instrument and its multi-faceted
creator, Leon Theremin, KGB captive-turned-inventor.

Fortunately, the occasion-
al sonic deficiencies don't
detract from the fantastic
music—of vital importance
in a film about an instrument—
but some of the interview
segments with various for-
eign-born individuals pre-
sent interpretive challenges, particularly the legendary Clara Rockmore, theremin virtuoso and inventor's muse, whose segments would've benefited from a few subtitles.

Among the many highlights: film clips featuring Theremin
soundtracks from such anxiety-fueled classics as Alfred
Hitchcock's Spellbound, Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend,
and Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still, possibly
composer Bernard Herrmann's most celebrated score.

The funniest scene features Brian Wilson talking about his use of
the instrument on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." Director
Steven M. Martin must've conducted this interview during one
of Wilson's infamous lost years, because he goes on and on a-
bout "children of God," has great difficulty getting to the point at
hand, and clearly wasn't trying to be funny. (Wilson is consider-
ably more coherent in I Just Wasn't Made for These Times.)

By contrast, Robert Moog, in-
ventor of the instrument which
bears his sci-fi-sounding name,
provides illuminating commen-
tary about the history and de-
velopment of the Theremin and
electronic music in general.

Now that demand is on the rise a-
gain, as evidenced by the popularity of Stereolab, Combustible Edison, and other retro-futurist acts, he's been manufacturing them
through his Big Briar company. Alas, Martin doesn't pro-
vide him any time to discuss the equally illustrious Moog.

Professor Theremin died not long after Martin finished film-
ing (and Rockmore followed suit a few years later). He had been
living in his native Russia at the time and was in his mid-90s.

Martin came to town for the Seattle International Film Festival premiere accompanied by music coordinator Hal Willner. To add further interest, they brought along one of Moog's hand-crafted Theremins so audience members could check out the bizarre contraption for themselves (players don't actually touch the instrument; instead, manipulating the air around the box).


The theatrical trailer

Unlike most music documentaries, Theremin: An Electronic
Odyssey might appeal even to those who don't normally gravi-
tate towards the form. Watch in amazement as experimental mu-
sic meets political intrigue, kitsch meets class, and a mysterious
Russian pries open the sounds of Heaven for the citizens of Earth.

Click here for Part Two: I Just Wasn't Made for These Times



Endnote: It's fortunate that Martin made his film when he did,
since Moog passed away in 2005. Theremin would still prove
valuable without all the great interviews, but it certainly would-
n't be as good. Images from Dan Blogs, Synthtopia, and MrMule.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Pacino in the '90s: Part Two

Click here for part one

One of my favorite actors in
the 1970s (The Godfather, Dog
Day Afternoon), Al Pacino
started to slip in the '80s
(Author! Author!, Revolution),
but then regained his footing
in the '90s (Glengarry Glen
Ross, Heat), only to lose it
again in the '00s (88 Minut-
es, Righteous Kill). Here's a
look back at two of his fin-
est '90s performances, one widely celebrated, the oth-
er unjustly maligned. This review has been slightly revised from
the original 1997 text and was never previously published.

THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE [***]
(Taylor Hackford, US, 1997, 144 mins.)


Vanity is definitely my favorite sin.
-- John Milton (Al Pacino)

Al Pacino, enjoying a career high after his bravura performance
in Donnie Brasco earlier this year, is perfectly cast as John
Milton, the head of a rather devilish law firm in New York City.

His performance is larger than life, but in a good way, unlike
Michael Mann's still-spectacular Heat, where he put his theatric-
al training to such bad use, making Robert De Niro look like more
of a genius than he already is (when he applies himself, that is).

Pacino never sprouts horns or a tail or any of the other usual de-
vil accoutrements, but the audience knows from the start who he
is and what he wants from Keanu Reeves: his soul, of course. The
reason why, however, isn't made clear until the end of the picture.

Reeves plays Kevin Lomax,
a hotshot Gainsville, FL de-
fense attorney. After win-
ning his latest seemingly
unwinnable case, a mem-
ber of Milton's firm (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) approach-
es him about joining their particularly well paid team.

Though Reeves looks the part of a slick young lawyer, Charlize
Theron, as his supportive spouse Mary Ann, easily upstages him.
She's the Mia Farrow to his John Cassavetes, soliciting more sym-
pathy than her husband, her neighbors, or anyone else in the film.

Theron's Florida accent is fairly believable, too, but Reeves' atro-
cious attempt mars what might otherwise have been a pretty de-
cent performance. Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman)
should've made him drop it altogether—the same goes for Francis
Ford Coppola, who cast him as a Brit in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The credits list two dialect coaches, but they appear to have split
their time between Reeves, Judith Ivey (Kevin's scripture-quot-
ing mother), and Theron—a native South African—when they
should've focused exclusively on their accent-challenged lead.



As for Rick Baker, he concentrates his make-up magic on
members of the firm and their designer-clad wives, recalling his
effects for Jacob's Ladder. The thunderous score and baroque
set design, particularly Milton's office, are exceptional, as well.

I enjoyed the overall story, but it's certainly not for all tastes.
Reeves' Adventures in Law Hell are about as preposterous as
you'd expect and more sadistic than necessary in regards to the
fate that befalls his wife, but things never get as preachy as they
could have,* and the supporting cast, namely Craig T. Nelson
and Delroy Lindo, plays it straight, which adds to the drama.

* So I wrote at the time. In revisting the clip below, I beg to differ.

The twists at the end
contribute to the evil fun.
First you get one, and then
another. Though this indi-
cates that some things nev-
er actually happened, the
ambiguously circuitous
structure still satisfies more than the cop-out ending that conclud-
es the otherwise intriguing Jacob's Ladder in which Tim Rob-
bins' vet can't tell if demons are after him or if he's going crazy.

The kind of risky, go-for-broke enterprise that falls into the dread-
ed "neither fish nor fowl" category, i.e it isn't strictly a legal thriller
or a horror movie, The Devil's Advocate will probably appeal
most to those who've absorbed a few John Grisham adaptations
in their time and are looking for something that starts off like
The Firm before taking a sharp detour into Anne Rice-by-
way-of-Roman Polanski territory and stays there.


Major spoiler alert

Postscript: Where I saw risk, others saw a craven attempt to
court two audiences for the price of one. Fair enough. It's hard-
ly a critical darling, but if you're in the mood for some A-list
camp, you could do far worse. And if you've always wanted to
see Pacino as the Devil singing Sinatra while executing some
soft-shoe moves—and believe me, you do—look no further.



Endnote: Now famed for Michael Clayton and the Bourne
series, writer/director Tony Gilroy assisted with The Devil's
Advocate script. In the years since, Taylor Hackford would go
on to marry Helen Mirren and to direct Ray. Mirren, meanwhile,
would go on to win the Academy Award, for Stephen Frears' The
Queen, and to collect a DBE from Elizabeth's son, Prince Charles,
making Hackford a Royal by proxy. Nice work if you can get it.
Images from Velvet Peach, All Movie Guide, and UGO.com.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Pacino in
the '90s:
Part One

One of my
favorite
actors in
the 1970s
(The God-
father, Dog
Day After-
noon), Al Pacino started to slip in the '80s (Author! Author!, Revolution), but then regained his footing in the '90s (Glengarry Glen Ross, Heat), only to
lose it again in the '00s (88 Minutes, Righteous Kill). Here's a look back at two of his finest '90s performances, one widely celebrated, the oth-
er unjustly maligned. This review has been slightly revised from
the original 1997 text and was never previously published.

DONNIE BRASCO [****]
(Mike Newell, US, 1997, 127 mins.)

After directing one of the most successful British films of all time,
Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mike Newell could've coasted on
his success with another rom-com set in the English countryside.
Instead he entered the seemingly alien terrain of the New York-
based Italian-American Mob with this gritty, yet heartfelt drama.

Comparisons to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas are inevitable, and
original UK helmer Stephen Frears (The Grifters) was well aware
of that fact when he showed the script, written by Paul Attanasio
in 1989, to Newell. Although Scorsese saw more differences than
similarities ("Mine's about the life, and yours is about relation-
ships" he said, according to the 2/97 issue of Sight & Sound), the
team decided to wait awhile before putting their project together.




In the meantime, the prolific Mr. Newell directed five pic-
tures, including Four Weddings, and stepped in when Frears
stepped out (voluntarily, I would presume). Attanasio went on
to create Homicide: Life on the Streets with producer Barry
Levinson, received an Oscar nomination for Quiz Show, and
scripted Levinson's Disclosure, but the relationship doesn't
end there since Levinson also produced Donnie Brasco.

The burnished look of the film even resembles Sleepers, his lat-
est directorial effort (lensed by Goodfellas cinematographer Mi-
chael Ballhaus), although it's set in a different era. Peter Sova, who
worked on Levinson's Diner, served as Brasco's cinematographer.

Further connections to Levinson can be evidenced through the
casting of Bruno Kirby, Shakes' abusive father in Sleepers, in the
"Joe Pesci role"—a mobster with a funny haircut—and Homi-
cide's Zeljko Ivanek (attorney Ed Danvers) as an FBI agent.

In terms of the disco music
and wide lapels, the 1978-
set Brasco more closely re-
sembles Brian De Palma's
Carlito's Way, which also
takes place in the '70s
and stars Al Pacino.

Like Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco draws inspiration from the experiences of a Mob in-
former, but although it taps into the same milieu, it doesn't feel
like a Scorsese film. It's more economical and less flashy in terms
of camera angles and editing, and plays more like a cross between
Sidney Lumet's taut Serpico (also based on a true story and top-
lined by Pacino) and Quentin Tarantino's stylish Reservoir Dogs.

Once the hulking Michael Madsen, Dogs' sadistic Mr. Blonde,
hits the scene as Lefty's boss, Sonny Black, it's hard to suppress
a brief flashback to Tarantino's first feature. Further, Johnny
Depp's part as Joe Pistone, AKA Donnie Brasco, has more in
common with Tim Roth's police informant Freddy, AKA Mr.
Orange, than Ray Liotta's mobster-turned-informer Henry Hill.

These comparisons to previous crime films aren't meant to
suggest that Newell has manufactured a mere pastiche, but to
place it in its proper context. The movie stands on its own mer-
its, but serves inescapably as part of a well defined tradition.

Maybe I'm naïve, or maybe I've seen too many crime films—
more likely a combination of the two—but it's impossible to craft
a completely original crime film, particularly a Mob film, in 1997.
Donnie Brasco is hardly sui generis, but it does have a heart;
more than those that get the details right about "the life", but
neglect to invest the scenario with any genuine emotion.



As usual, Depp is very good, but Pacino, an increasingly mer-
curial talent, steals the show. This isn't Depp's fault; there's a
coldness to his character and a warmth to Pacino's. As the ten-
sion increases, and events hurtle towards their inevitable con-
clusion, Brasco grows chillier towards his neglected wife (Ann
Heche), while Lefty grows more vulnerable and sympathetic.

To some extent, Depp has the more difficult task since he's
essentially playing two parts. As the lead, he also puts in great-
er screen time, but Pacino makes you care more deeply about
the fates of this two-faced son and his surrogate father as their
personal lives become dangerously entwined and the line be-
tween their two seemingly opposing career paths blurs.

Chances are, you already know what happens. While watching
Quiz Show, which also drew from actual events, I knew how it
was going to end, but got sucked in anyway. Donnie Brasco is
similar in that the foreshadowing begins immediately and, even
if you can predict what's about to transpire, you may not know
how; consequently, you're compelled to stick around to find out.

On first viewing, the film's
biggest fault is that it builds
and builds in tension, but
never fully releases it. This
curious momentum also re-
calls Attanasio's script for and, by extension, Robert Redford's direction of Quiz Show, which never took off at the
box office the way I thought it would. I suspect that Donnie
Brasco may disappoint some viewers for the same reason.

Although I respect Attanasio and Newell for taking the higher
ground, as it were, I left the theater feeling slightly unsatisfied,
while still convinced that they had produced a mostly-terrific
picture. Basically, Newell turns away from a crucial, fate-seal-
ing act of violence. Had he handled the scene ineffectively or
melodramatically, it would've marred the movie in a big way.

By not showing the act at all, though—just alluding to it—it
felt as if Newell were chickening out. The sense of closure is
insufficiently complete. Still, the thoughtful, yet cynical way
he ends the film caused me to think about it more afterwards
than I would have otherwise, so I've made my peace with it.



Paul Giamatti alert!

Sensitive ears should be forewarned that there's as much pro-
fanity in Donnie Brasco as in Lumet's Network, Scorsese's
Raging Bull, and any film with the Tarantino imprimatur.

Further, the violence—two scenes in particular—is brutal in the
extreme, but doesn't last as long as in the average Scorsese Mob
movie. And it's in no way played for laughs, as is sometimes the
case in Tarantino's work, particularly Pulp Fiction. There's also
just enough humor to prevent the atmosphere from growing un-
bearably heavy or depressing, but Donnie Brasco is still one
of the more straightforward crime films I've seen in some time.

And lest it seem too straightforward, Newell isn't afraid to be as
tacky as he wants to be. Unlike the hip, tasteful soundtracks of
Scorsese, Tarantino, De Palma, et al, there's some pretty exec-
rable stuff here, notably Neil Diamond's schmaltzy "Love on the
Rocks," but then, these aren't slick mobsters like the young Pa-
cino's Michael Corleone. These guys are low-rent—just wait till
you get a gander at Lefty's velour tracksuit and gold chains.

The Academy is notorious
for ignoring films released
from January through
March come Oscar time,
but they should make an
exception for Pacino's Lefty
Ruggiero. Depp is likely to
be overlooked regardless,
because he gives the kind
of low-key performance
that allows his co-stars to
shine even while he carries
the film, as was the case
with Leonardo Di Caprio in
What's Eating Gilbert
Grape? and Martin Landau
in Ed Wood. But Pacino's
tendency towards exaggerated gestures and verbal ejaculations is not in evidence here: Donnie Brasco shows he's back on track.

At the very least, Mike Newell deserves a best director nod for
defying expectations in a truly admirable way. Just as Taiwanese
director Ang Lee segued so surprisingly successfully from films
like The Wedding Banquet to Jane Austen's England in Sense and
Sensibility, Newell has segued from a series of films that felt like
the height of Englishness—Enchanted April, An Awfully Big Ad-
venture, etc.—to a truly American one. For better or for worse. Which is to say that the Mob is far from the best America has to offer the world, but it continues to afford talented filmmakers some of the most dramatically compelling material around.

Click here for Part Two: The Devil's Advocate



Endnote: Now available on DVD, the extended cut clocks in at
147 minutes; this review refers to the theatrical version. Also,
though Attanasio received Academy Award consideration for his
screenplay, Pacino went home nomination-less. Images from Ain-
ulindale
, Screaming Blue Reviews, and Twenty One and Quiz Show.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Chaos
Ensues:
Part Two

Click here
for part one

From time
to time, I'll
be excavat-
ing reviews
that aren't
otherwise available online. Before I started freelancing for Amazon, I us-
ed to contribute customer reviews. In 2000, I reviewed Jesus' Son.
Since then, the DVD has gone in and out of print. On the off-chance
it disappears from the site altogether, this review also lives here.

JESUS' SON
(Alison Maclean, US, 1999, 107 mins.)


It's hard to believe Drugstore Cowboy first made its debut 20
years ago. Just as 1996's Trainspotting has sometimes been de-
scribed as a "Drugstore Cowboy for the '90s," it's tempting to
describe Jesus' Son as a "Drugstore Cowboy for the '00s."

Like Gus Van Sant's now-clas-
sic film—I consider Danny Boyle's a classic, too—the story revolves around two heroin addicts (Billy Crud-
up
and Samantha Morton, both excellent), it takes place in the not-so-distant past (the 1970s instead of the '60s), and it draws from a pre-
existing literary source, in this case, Denis Johnson's
1992 short story collection
of the same name.

Despite everything—mostly bad—that Crudup's Fuckhead experiences throughout the film, Jesus' Son is more of a character study (FH, as he's known, also serves as narrator).



Like Portland's Gus Van Sant, Ottowa-born director Alison Maclean refrains from judging FH, but she isn't as concerned with his drug use as much as his character, his nature—his very essence, if you will. And if you can't find anything to like about the hapless FH, you'll probably feel the same way about her darkly comic adaptation (after the well received, but little-seen Crush).

As in High Fidelity, Jack Black provides
much of the humor, although Crudup,
anticipating his work in Almost Famous—"I am a Golden God!"—proves equally adept at comedy during some choice moments. Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary, and Holly Hunter (in a well acted, but not particularly convincing part) also star.

Fans of Jeffrey Schatzberg's jittery The Panic in Needle Park (featuring Al Pacino in his first leading role), Vincent Gallo's loopy Buffalo 66, and especially Drugstore Cowboy should find much to enjoy.

Joe Henry's fine soundtrack only serves to sweetens the deal,
the highlight of which must surely be Tommy Roe's funky "Sweet Pea," to which Morton's Michelle does quite the dance, drawing FH into her dangerously druggy world without saying a word.


The theatrical trailer

Incidentally, the Velvet Underground's "Heroin", in which Lou Reed feels "just like Jesus' Son" when he's "rushing on [his] run," is conspicuous by its absence, but then again: why be so obvious?



Endnote: Slightly revised from the original posting. Since the
release of this film, Maclean has concentrated on premium cable,
directing episodes of The L Word and The Tudors. Images from
All Movie Guide, Internet Movie Poster Awards, and Joe Bow-
man's Fin de cinema. At his site, Bowman notes, "Lionsgate will
release Jesus' Son on 23 June. Universal previously released
the film on DVD in 2001." He also names the cast members I
didn't: "Michael Shannon, Mark Webber, Ben Shenkman and
Will Patton, as well as author Johnson and Miranda July."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Movie
of the
Month:
Part Nine

I recently
reviewed
the follow-
ing film for
Video Lib-
rarian
, and thought the results were worth sharing.


GLOBAL METAL [***]
(Sam Dunn & Scot McFadyen, Canada, 2008, 93 mins.)

In their follow-up to Metal - A Headbanger's Journey, co-
directors Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen explore the effects of
globalization on heavy metal. Simply put: why is a genre with
roots in the working-class West so popular around the world?
They find that it has a lot to do with the newfound freedom to
express oneself and to live a life unencumbered by tradition.

The duo starts in Brazil, where Dunn visits a metal mall, looks
back at the Rock in Rio Festival and speaks with Sepultura's
Max Cavalera, who was so broke in the band's early days that he used batteries to duplicate a bullet belt (in their commentary, Dunn notes that this interview actually took place in Arizona where Cavalera now lives with his family, including son Igor).

In Japan, Slayer's Tom Ar-
aya and Kerry King recall
unhinged shows in the East,
though fans tend to live di-
vided lives: rowdy at concerts and in Karaoke bars (where Deep Purple rules); quiet at work. Journalist Yoshiyuri Ohno even compares KISS to Kabuki Theater, which explains, in part, why their outlandish look met with such little resistance.

In India, Dunn chats with metal heads in Mumbai who feel al-
ienated by the pervasiveness of Bollywood ("It's nothing") be-
fore moving on to China, Israel, and Indonesia, which has, sur-
prisingly, welcomed a number of major metal bands (the film-
makers include footage of Sepultura and Metallica in concert).

Though Iran authorities deny his visa application, Dunn still
manages to talk to a number of outspoken Iranian, Saudi Ara-
bian, and Egyptian musicians at Dubai's Desert Rock Festival.

If Global Metal seems like a case of cashing in on a successful
predecessor, it stands alone as a music documentary with abun-
dant appeal for metal lovers and cultural anthropologists alike.
Special features include commentary, extended interviews, and
outtakes. In 5.1 Dolby Surround and Stereo 2.0. Recommended.

Note: Slightly revised from the original text.



And here's a short version of my Metal review (click here for the long version).

METAL - A HEADBANGER'S JOURNEY [***1/2]
(Sam Dunn, Jessica Joy Wise, & Scot
McFadyen, Canada, 2006, 96 mins.)

While The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal
Years looked at the platinum likes of Aerosmith and Poison and
while Some Kind of Monster looked exclusively at the monolithic
Metallica, Dunn, Wise, and McFadyen take a different tack in Met-
al - A Headbanger's Journey. Narrator Dunn and his compat-
riots paint what may be the most comprehensive portrait yet.


From the outset, Dunn explains
that his background is in an-
thropology, so he breaks heavy metal down into its constituent parts by starting at the beginning and moving up to the present, using interviews, timelines, and archival footage.


During the course of the trip, he travels from his Victoria, BC
hometown to the UK to interview Black Sabbath's Tony Iom-
mi, Germany to attend the annual Wacken Metal Fest and to con-
verse with Ronny James Dio, LA for Mötley Crüe's Vince Neil,
and Norway for the current crop of Norwegian black metallists.

Other subjects include Geddy Lee, Bruce Dickinson, Dee Snider,
and rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie, along with members of
Girlschool, Voivod, and the leather-faced Slipknot, while top-
ics include class, gender, sexual orientation, and censorship.

By seeking out well-spoken
individuals like Dickinson and
Snider, it may seem as if Dunn
is attempting to defend metal
from its detractors. He is. For-
tunately, his tone isn't defen-
sive, and he gets an assist
from such non-stuffy aca-
demics and scribes as Deena Weinstein and Chuck Klosterman.

Dunn also speaks with fans to bring their perspective into play,
but there's no way he can cover everything in 96 minutes. While
he does an admirable job, for instance, in looking at women in
metal, sexual orientation gets short shrift and race isn't mention-
ed at all. (It should be.) Nonetheless, Dunn has helped to craft a
film that treats the object of his affection with dignity and respect.

Click here for Movie of the Month, Part Eight: Scott Walker - 30 Century Man



Endnote: Images from Heavy Metal Universe,
Metal Sucks, Spokane Examiner, and Tartarean Desire.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Transcendence in Mind












"Possibly the greatest Brit-pop band to ever come out of Seattle."
-- Devil in the Woods


The Purrs, Amused, Confused, &
More Bad News, Big Damn Deal Music

Formed in Seattle in 2000, the Purrs sound more like British
shoegazers from the 1980s or '90s, such as House of Love or the
Verve. Then again, paisley-patterned rock once ruled the Emerald
City, too, as embodied by Pure Joy, Room Nine, and Ron Nine's
Sub Pop spin-off Love Battery, but the Northwest variant never
broke as big as the UK or West Coast models, i.e. Rain Parade, the
Three O'Clock, and the Plimsouls (Jason Milne's guitar-playing
on "Baby I Want You Back" recalls "A Million Miles Away").



This quartet keeps those traditions alive on their fourth, reverb-
drenched full-length, which means you can probably predict what
Amused, Confused & More Bad News sounds like, but there's
nothing wrong with a little predictability, especially when it's ex-
ecuted with this degree of finesse. Plus, they throw a few small
surprises into the mix, such as the Beatles-esque "Mostly" and
minor-chord "Good Times to Come," which veers into bad-trip
psychedelia, as opposed to the happy-go-lucky Tommy James
model—or maybe I should say sad-trip, since the Purrs never
plunge into the same sort of abyss where the Black Angels dwell.

Next to Curious Mystery's Rotting Slowly, Amused is the
strongest psych-pop record to emerge from Seattle so far this
year. To quote the band's own "Feeling Fine," "The beat is pure."

Round Mountain, Windward, Red Shield Music [10/20/09]

Maybe the trouble that surges
through our lives is built into us
with its own transcendence in
mind. We just need to survive the
burning, like the water that must un-
dergo evaporation to become rain.
-- Char Rothschild


Soothing, but not somnabulant,
this Santa Fe duo has been around
for awhile and shares sonic similarities with higher-profile outfits like Andrew Bird and Devotchka who work gyspy and klezmer in-
fluences into their alt-pop, so they're not bandwagon jumpers as much as zeitgeist jumpers, to coin a (rather awkward) phrase.

Further, Windward hues closer to the falsetto-fueled folk end of the spectrum. On "I'm Gonna Dig," they come on like Canned Heat without the blues or Will Oldham with some of the rough edges sanded away, while "I'm Gone" brings images of the Incredible String Band to mind—if that twosome had emerged from Scotland rather than Britain (wavery vocals plus highland pipes will do that). Recommended to aficionados of any of the aforementioned.




Endnote: For more information about the Purrs, please click
here or here. You can also catch them at the Sunset Tavern on
8/29, while Round Mountain plays Egan's Ballard Jam House
on 10/30 and 31. Images from The KEXP Blog (© 2006 Justin Dylan Renney) and Round Mountain (Jennifer Esperanza).

Thursday, August 06, 2009

August Reviews

These are the reviews
and other pieces I'm
working on this month.

Amazon DVDs: Echelon Conspiracy with Shane West, Ed Burns, and Ving Rhames, Psych - The Complete Season Three [two-disc set] (click here for a review of Season Two), and This American Life - Season Two (click here for Season One).

Amazon Profile: James Garner for Armchair Commentary.

Still playing: Chéri, Cold Souls, Food, Inc., Public Enemies, State of Play,
The Stoning of Soraya M., Summer Hours, and Sunshine Cleaning.



Siffblog: Tony Manero and the conclusion of a chat with
Barry Jenkins
. I also fixed the links for The Bridesmaid,
Innocence
, Tales of the Rat Fink, and You're Gonna Miss Me.

Video Librarian: Second Skin, Made in U.S.A. (click here
for my Siffblog review), Global Metal, River of Waste - The Haz-
ardous Truth About Factory Farms, 2 Turntables and a Micro-
phone - The Life and Death of Jam Master Jay, Little River Band -
Live Exposure, Audience of One, James Dean - The Fast Lane, The
Lola Falana Show, These Old Broads, Hurt, Hot Flash - The Docu-
mentary, Blitzed by Menopause, Good Days, Bad Days, Sea Kind-
ly - Windjammer Wisdom for Everyone, and A Sense of Wonder.



Endnote: Jim Rockford image from The Salt Lake
Tribune
. For Amazon, I've reviewed three seasons
of The Rockford Files: Two, Three, and Six.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Reelin' in the Years: Part One

Chapter Two: 1990s-00s (click here for Chapter One)













Not sure when this was taken, but it was probably
around 1991. I volunteered at KCMU between 1988-
92, serving as music director for three of those years.
Here, I'm with Mike D of the Beastie Boys and some
fellow DJs, including Rob Green in his trademark
KGB t-shirt. I'm wearing my KXLU "More
Punk, Less Junk" tee. We wuz stylin'.












Not sure when this was taken, but I rem-
ember the location: the photo booth in
the Broadway Market on Capitol Hill.












Same story as above.












Cider at the Blue Star, circa '05.












At the 'Star again, around the same time.












Party at the Baranof, circa '08.












SIFF closing night part, '09.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Endnote: Click the links for Reelin' in the
Years:
Part Two (film folk), Three (cats),
Four (more film folk), and Five (relatives).