Tuesday, March 28, 2006

In Like a Lion,
Out Like a Lamb

These are some of the
Lemmy-approved reviews
I'm working on this month.

Amazon CDs: Bird York - Wicked Little High (featuring the Oscar-nominated song
"In the Deep" from best
picture winner Crash).

Amazon DVDs: Police Woman - The Complete First Season
[six-disc set] (above-average detective drama with Angie Dickinson as undercover cop "Pepper" Anderson), MacGyver -
The Complete Fifth Season
[five-disc set] (my fifth MacGyver review--yep, I'm now an official "Mac" expert!), Huff - The Complete First Season [three-DVD set] (Showtime dramedy
with Hank Azaria and Emmy-winner Blythe Danner), The Flintstones - The Complete Fifth Season [four-disc set] (my
second Flintstones review), Imagine Me & You (Brit
rom-com--with a Sapphic twist), Latter Days (gay Amerin-
die rom-com--with a Mormon twist), and The Story of Qiu Ju
(Zhang Yimou and Gong Li...before the former took up with the
younger Zhang Ziyi, who starred with Li in 2046 and Memoirs
of a Geisha
...so I assume it's all good).

Seattle International Film Festival: Proofread
several documents for the next Reel News quarterly.

Seattle Film Blog: Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts (The Death
of Kevin Carter
, The Mushroom Club, God Sleeps in Rwanda,
and On a Note of Triumph, the deserving winner), Histoire(s)
du Cinéma
(Jean-Luc Godard's monumental video essay on a
life in film), Metal - A Headbanger's Journey (possibly the most
thorough metal doc ever made--devil horns!), Hair High (full-
length feature from award-winning animator Bill Plympton), and
Voice of the Beehive
(new print of the haunting Spanish reverie).

Note: Lemmy image from the AMG. The Motörhead front
man features in Metal, which has been extended at the North-
west Film Forum
: April 1st and 2nd at 7 and 9pm. Don't miss it!

Friday, March 24, 2006

In Praise of Spike Lee by Way of Inside Man

In Praise of Lee

The following paragraph
concludes Manohla Dargis's
New York Times review of
Spike Lee's Inside Man.

Mr. Lee, meanwhile, most
likely wants the respect that
has always been his due.
Consistently underrated and
underappreciated, this film-
maker is an erratic talent,
if no more so than many
ensconced in Hollywood, and his insistence that race matters
has cost him dearly with the mainstream (i.e., white) audience. He's right, of course, that race matters, which is why, in between
plot points and star turns, he gently and, at times, rather hilar-
iously, insists on reminding us that it does. He may have sublet
this "Spike Lee Joint" to out-of-towners, but it's good to see
that he hasn't left the neighborhood.

Man, this is exactly what I've been saying for years. I am so tired
of people badmouthing Lee all the time. More often than not, his
harshest critics tend to be those least familiar with his work, and
that ticks me off even more. I mean, really folks, there's a lot out
there, and it covers the gamut—wrenching docs (Four Little Girls),
powerful bio-pics (Malcolm X), scrappy indies (She's Gotta Have
It). Please give it a fair shot before you write the guy off.

Do I think Lee is targeted because he's black? No. Do I think it's
because he's black, inconsistent, and outspoken? God, yes. And
I certainly haven't agreed with everything he's ever said or done—
who has?—but there's no doubt the guy has passion, and that
his work means more to him than just another paycheck.

Spike Lee makes the movies he wants to make on his own terms.
As with other modern day mavericks, like Robert Altman and
Terence Malick, this means he can also be his own worst enemy,
but when you sit down to watch "A Spike Lee Joint," that's exact-
ly what you're going to get. In other words: truth in advertising.
Which brings me to a couple of other reasons he's become such an
easy target. He acts and spends time on Madison Avenue. This
makes him immediately suspect to some comers, although they're
just as quick to give David Lynch a free pass on the latter account.

Arguably, Lee has stuck to his guns in a way such independent-
minded directors as Martin Scorsese and Terry Gilliam haven't
been able to, i.e. by working with the Disney-owned Miramax,
for instance, they haven't always had complete control over cer-
tain decisions. (Read Gilliam on Gilliam for the story behind
the casting of Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys
or Dreams and Nightmares regarding The Brothers Grimm.)

I don't just admire Lee's passion, I love it. Let's face it, a lot of
directors—especially Hollywood directors, which the Knicks-
loving Lee is not—lose their fire once they hit middle age. Lee
(born 1957) will never lose his fire. Also, from day one, each of
his films has been about something, has had something to say.
That sort of approach to filmmaking has been declassé since
the 1980s—you know, just when he was getting his start.

So, do I think his movies are entertaining? Again: God, yes. They
also look good, sound good (thank Terence Blanchard and Public
Enemy, among other artists), and frequently feature strong per-
formances from strong actors. Increasingly, they're becoming
more integrated, as well as more genre-oriented, but he con-
tinues to work with the best, regardless as to race.

This transition began with Clockers (1995) and Son of Sam (1999),
both of which feature a number of prominent white/non-black
actors (Harvey Keitel, John Leguizamo). And not just white, but
mostly Italian, as in two of his best known "black" films: Do the
Right Thing (Danny Aiello, John Turturro) and Jungle Fever
(Annabella Sciorra). He did grow up in Bed-Stuy after all.

Lee is also a canny spotter of talent. Jungle Fever (1991) featur-
es Samuel L. Jackson, four years prior to the Oscar nom, and Hal-
le Berry, eleven years prior to the Oscar win (both convincingly
portray drug addicts). Jackson and Lee, with Quentin Tarantino
as the other point in the triangle, have since had a public falling
out over the "N word"—the former utters it numerous times in
Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, and Lee's no fan—so it's doubt-
ful they'll collaborate again soon, but I'd love to see him re-team
with Berry. (And it's worth noting that Jackson once said, in
regards to Get Rich or Die Tryin, that he would never work
with 50 Cent, and now they're starring in a film together.)

Lee also discovered ER star Mekhi Phifer while casting Clockers. Phifer has been working steadily ever since (and if you haven't seen Tim Blake Nelson's prep school-set Othello, O, by all means, please do). Then Lee worked with a tall drink of water named Adrian Brody (Son of Sam again), who didn't just go on to win the Oscar--but got to soul kiss Halle Berry in the process. It's tempting to say Lee made all this possible. A gross exaggeration, perhaps, but he was definitely part of the process!

Now, of course, Lee is moving on to actors of British descent. Again, regardless as to race. And if that means such charismatic talents as the Oscar-nominated Clive Owen (Closer) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Serenity, Four Brothers), who can blame him? While I'm at it, I'd love to see him work with Eamonn Walker (Oz) and Idris Elba (The Wire). Many people probably think they're American. They're not, but they can do pretty much anything, if films like Buffalo Soldiers, Lord of War, Duma, and Sometimes in April are anything to go by.

Speaking of great actors, black or otherwise, how can I not mention Denzel Washington? Neither of his two Oscars (Glory, Training Day) stem from Spike Lee Joints--he was robbed for X--but this star keeps coming back for more. He doesn't have to. Washington can work with whomever he wants, and he has, but he's been with Lee ever since Mo' Better Blues (1990) and continues to do some of his best work for the guy.

Scorsese, on the other hand, hasn't worked with Harvey Keitel or Robert De Niro for ages and I think his work has suffered for it. (I like Leonardo DiCaprio, I really do, but I just don't think he's in the same weight class, either literally or figuratively.)

Speaking of Scorsese, Inside Man marks the first time Jodie Foster (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver), another two-time Oscar winner, has worked with Lee (first time for Christopher Plummer, too). Like Tarantino, Lee has long claimed Scorsese as an influence, so it makes perfect sense that both men would want to work with members of Marty's old repertory company.

But back to Lee's films. They're never just "mere" entertainments. Even his worst have something to recommend them, and are worth checking out. Take She Hate Me, for instance. The latter is possibly his most misguided effort yet, but it's still eminently watchable--faint praise, to be sure, but praise nonetheless.

In this 2004 film, Lee sends up the way wealthy urban professionals add babies to their lives as if they were designer handbags. (The idea of kids as accessories makes my blood boil.) He also gives Anthony Mackie (Million Dollar Baby) one of his few leading roles--and the guy runs with it. Why don't more directors give him that chance? Then again, this is one of the most naïve films you could ever hope to see about the "lesbian lifestyle," i.e. give a gay woman a hot stud like Mackie, who impregnates them for a fee, and they'll turn straight--at least for an hour. Lee, my friend, you've been watching too many pornos!

If you're reading this, no doubt you've seen 1989's Do the Right Thing. I've watched it at least three times now, and it never fails to move me. That Ruby Dee, especially: A career high point.

There's a good chance you've also seen She's Gotta Have It and Malcolm X. If you found anything of value in those films, I would also recommend School Daze (easily his most underrated), Crooklyn (the blueprint for Chris Rock's Bed-Stuy-set Everybody Hates Chris), Get on the Bus, He Got Game, Bamboozled, The Original Kings of Comedy, and 25th Hour. There are still a few I haven't seen, like Girl 6--featuring Quentin Tarantino, no less!--but I intend to fill every gap. To quote Lee hisself, "Sho nuf!"

Postscript: Inside Man is a Universal production, so doesn't qualify as an indie, but it's definitely a Spike Lee Joint. Although his films haven't always done well at the box office, I predict this'll be one of his biggest hits. It's a smart, funny, surprisingly non-violent thriller. Washington and Foster are rarely allowed to have this much fun on screen--and they take full advantage. The movie's a little over-long, perhaps, but that's a small price to pay for quality entertainment. [03/26: According to the AP, Inside Man "debuted as the No. 1 weekend film with $29 million--the best opening ever for both the filmmaker and his star."]

Note: Images from The New York Times.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

From Missouri to Minnesota (by Way of Memphis and São Paulo)

I guess I'd rather be judged by twelve / Than carried by six.
-- The Plastic Constellations, "Best Things"


The Bottle Rockets, Zoysia, Bloodshot (6/6/06 release date)

Zoysia just goes to prove what a diverse studio Ardent has become. Back in the 1970s, Al Green, Big Star, and all the great Stax acts layed their mellifluous sounds down at the renowned Memphis studio. Earlier this year, Cat Power released The Greatest, which was recorded there with some of Green's most celebrated sidemen. The result is one of her finest recordings. Well, the Bottle Rockets don't sound like any of those artists and yet their eighth full-length was recorded at Ardent with Jeff Powell (Alex Chilton, the Afghan Whigs). Okay, so "I Quit" has a bit of that patented Memphis groove to it--female back-up singers and all--but the rest of the record has more of a Midwestern country-rock feel (with the possible exception of pretty ditty "Where I'm From"). According to the press notes, singer/guitarist Brian Henneman used to roadie for Uncle Tupelo, played on their March 16-20, 1992 album, and was backed by Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy on the single he cut the same year. Not too surprisingly, Zoysia sounds a little like Tupelo or Son Volt, but it's rootsier and more "downhome," for lack of a better word. Not bad, but I'd probably enjoy 'em more live. No doubt they bring it in a major way--and you can catch 'em on tour with Bobby Bare Jr. this summer.

Fellini, Amor Louco, RDS [Brazilian import]

I first made the acqaintance of this São Paulo quartet-turned-duo via Nao Wave: Brazilian Post Punk: 1982-1988. In the liner notes, compiler Alex Antunes compares them to Wall of Voodoo. I'm not sure who I'd compare them to, but Stan Ridgway's LA combo isn't the first that comes to mind. It isn't entirely off-base either. I've listened to Amor Louco several times now over the course of several months, and I'm still having trouble deciding who Fellini sounds most like. Why should it be so hard? I guess because the songs are catchy and yet there's a certain indefinable darkness to them. It isn't a noirish darkness, like Voodoo's "Mexican Radio" (or Ridgway's Rumblefish anthem "Don't Box Me In"), and there's nothing gothic about it, but there's an air of melancholy to Fellini's off-kilter pop. REM, circa Murmur, is one possible comparison. A couple songs are in English, however, and the lyrics aren't particularly Stipe-like. Take "Love 'til the Morning," for instance, which consists entirely of the following: "O love 'til the morning / Love all the night / Love all the time." That's it. Of course, pop merchants can also be depressives, and that's what I hear on Fellini's 2000 comeback--upbeat music made by downbeat folk. Or is that upbeat music for downbeat folk? Something like that.

The Plastic Constellations, Crusades, Frenchkiss

My first reactions, in order, were: 1) Cool band name, and 2) Boy, are these guys good at what they do...I only wish I liked it more. The Minneapolis foursome are so damned tight, however--they can stop and start on a dime and arpeggiate like nobody's business--that I decided I should give their third long player more of a chance and the more I've listened, the more it's grown on me. Granted, it'll never quite be "my thing," but this CD sounds better and better with each spin. The late Tacoma band Seaweed is one analogue that comes to mind, but these kids (they're all in their mid-20s) have a more emo/prog-oriented approach--like an indie rock Rush (sans Geddy Lee). As with Seaweed or Fugazi, the lyrics are yelled rather than sung--all join in--but I rarely felt I was being hectored or harangued. Granted, I can't always tell what the Plastics are going on about, although they do have a song called "Quixote" and another called "Sancho Panza." (Gotta dig that.) Sometimes loud music just works best with loud vocals, the opposite of Slint or My Bloody Valentine, in which whispered/spoken lyrics were frequently overwhelmed by the wall of guitars. Crusades is metal for the alt-rock set.

Note: Plastic Constellations T-shirt design from their website, Amor Louco image from Clique Music.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Artists Aren't Really People

Here are my favorite lyrics and quotes by/about musicians.

"A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast 'n' bulbous, got me?"
-- Captain Beefheart, "Pachuco Cadaver" (1969)

"[Serge] Gainsbourg has been cursed by an attribute which has proved a more powerful hindrance to rock stardom that being blind, tone-deaf or dead: that most fatal of adjectives, French."
-- Robert Chalmers, The Independent

"And if a ten-ton truck / Kills the both of us / To die by your side / Well, the pleasure -- the privilege is mine!"
--The Smiths, "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" (1986)

[While living in Blighty in '86, I had "the pleasure -- the privilege" of seeing the Smiths at the Brixton Academy.]

"Artists aren't really people. And I'm actually 40 percent papier maché."
-- Morrissey (the Smiths)

''She saw so far into the future that she could afford to take 10 years off and not say another word.''
-- Sandra Bernhard on Patti Smith, Without You I'm Nothing (1989)

"Garrett and McManus would be perfect for an Aki Kaurismäki buddy road movie about a couple of nuns turned rockers."
-- Howard Hampton on Mr. Airplane Man (2004)

"I was eating...lots of sugar and carbs."
-- Avril Lavigne, on the cause of her former angst (2004)

"This shorty has more cheek than Dizzy Gillespie, never mind Dizzee Rascal."
-- Robert Christgau on Lady Sovereign (2005)

Note: Mozzer image from the AMG. For a list of my favorite general quotes, click here. Click here for movie quotes.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Talkin' With Lucinda Williams

Part Two: My Own World

This is the second part of an interview from 1989. Unfortunately, I lost the published version, so I'm glad I kept the original draft. It's typewritten and dotted with Liquid Paper as this was before I had access to a computer. As mentioned previously, I've cut quite a bit of text, which means my rambling--if heartfelt--intro, but I haven't made any other changes, so please forgive the awkwardness of the writing. When I get the chance, I'll transcribe a few of my other Wire interviews, which include Bill Frisell, Jon Spencer, and Dinosaur Jr.

Click here for part one.

Wire: How do you feel about being on a label that's known for, not so much 'punk' music, but 'alternative rock' music? Does that seem strange to you at all? Do you think it's a sign that they're broadening...

Williams: Well, yeah. I don't really think too much about it.

Wire: I think of Rough Trade as 'post-punk' in that a lot of the bands on Rough Trade...[were] kind of influenced by that.

Williams: There's some pretty alternative stuff on there.

Wire: Do you feel you were influenced at all by anything that came out of the punk movement?

Williams: Um...[thinks].

Wire: Or did that not affect you?

Williams: It sort of went right by me, to tell you the truth. I really didn't... I don't know--the seventies was a weird time, you know. The only stuff I really got into--and most of the, like, 'new wave'-type stuff I didn't really get into either--the only thing that I did pick up on was, like, the Pretenders. And the Talking Heads. That was a big--those definitely influenced me quite a bit. But I was listening to a lot of my 'own' records in that period. I was listening still to a lot of blues and old folk stuff and whatever. I've always been kind of living in my own world, I guess, as far as that type of stuff goes.

Wire: Kind of more 'timeless' music?

Williams: Yeah, yeah. And I'm always real--and this isn't necessarily a good thing--I'm just kind of skeptical of anything new, you know. It's sort of like--'cause for me music sort of has to be, it has [to have] a real attachment to it. And the stuff, the records that I listen to go way back, because they remind me of a certain time in my life or something. So it's really hard for me to listen to new stuff, like when it first comes out, 'cause I can't really grab hold of it.

At this point, we started talking about trends, scenes, and movements--particularly the whole "female singer/songwriter" trend into which Williams has often conveniently been placed, even though she's been doing essentially the same thing now that she was before Tracy Chapman or Michelle Shocked even picked up an acoustic guitar for the first time.
Williams: It doesn't really affect what I do or anything or what I think. I sort of just take things more on an individual basis and I--it just is another thing that I'm kind of skeptical of.

Wire: That's probably good.

Williams: Anything like that, that sort of screams out, 'This is a new trend!'

Wire: Yeah.

Williams: And I'm already finding myself kind of caught up in that just by virtue of the fact that I'm, you know, a female singer/songwriter. It's like all I can do to fight that tendency to put me in with that.

Wire: It seems to me, to some degree, it's like we've kind of moved backwards, because there were more female singer-songwriters that were just accepted, and people didn't question anything.

Williams: Yeah, and it wasn't a big deal.

Wire: And all of a sudden, it's like strange again. And it's like, why is this strange?

Williams: What about Joan Armatrading? She was already doing this before. How come--see, I don't understand it. How come all of a sudden...

Wire: That's the problem I have with it, too. It's like--

Williams: --this whole big new thing.

Wire: --what's so new?

Williams: And see, that's insulting to me. I find that really offensive, 'cause it's like, in a way, they're saying, they're making a big deal out of the fact that women can actually write serious songs and sing songs with some kind of, with important lyrics and what have you. So? But you know, it's not a "big new thing." It's just, once again, it's that the media [is] hyping something up. They're creating this whole big trend.

Wire: Is it true that you got more response from retail than radio...people started buying it even though radio wasn't playing it?

Williams: Yeah. The album got virtually no airplay except for college radio... It's not just country radio. Mainstream radio, in general, is in a horrible state right now. I mean, where are you gonna hear it, where are you gonna put it? It's either country stations, classic rock--it's taken over the airwaves... Classic rock has taken over where [you] used to have serious alternative FM radio that would've played my record and Michelle Shocked and whoever. There's no room for it anymore.

But there is, really. Lucinda Williams is proof that the best stuff isn't always what you hear on the radio or see on MTV. Sometimes you've got to do a little research if you want to know what's really going on...'cause there's good stuff out there, but if it's not slick enough or promoted by a major label or conveniently trendy--you're not gonna hear it. Although Williams has been frustrated by this fact, it hasn't stopped her from making the kind of music she wants to make, and regardless of what musical changes take place in the future, I'll bet she'll still be doing her own thing. So when today's "new music" starts sounding stale, her take on a "timeless" American sound will, I think, still sound fresh.

Note: End part two. Image from the AMG. Sweet Old World was the record Williams was working on at the time of this interview, but it wasn't released until some time after we met.