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Sunday, September 27, 2009

(Some of) my favourite films of this decade.

Here's yet another article, I did for my course:

As film budgets soar and creative bankruptcy plunges new depths (yes, I’m looking at you Michael Bay, on both counts), some movie buffs may well be tempted to write off modern cinema as a pale shadow of its former self. Indeed, as Hollywood’s unholy crusade to remake every 1970s horror movie, it’s hard not to look back at that particular decade with rose-tinted glasses. After all, that was the decade of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin. As for the big Hollywood blockbusters: can you get much more classic than Star Wars and Jaws? Can today’s films possibly hope to measure up to the heady days of the ‘70s? Or, for that matter, to those equally classic decades that surrounded it?

Well, yes, of course they can.

Oh sure, with the release of every new lame-duck comedy or overly noisy but brain-smashingly dull “blockbuster”, those previous decades can’t help but look like a true Golden Age for cinema. Still, even as the Wayans Brothers, Michael Bay and the ridiculously named McG send movie lovers running for the proverbial hills, this past decade is responsible for far more than its fair share of celluloid masterpieces. Aside for the emergence of some exciting new voices in world and independent cinema and the ever reliable output of some of cinema’s greatest veterans, there’s still more to mainstream Hollywood than its worse dross would seem to indicate.

Here then is a list of some of my favourite films from the last decade. Needless to say, this list will be driven by my own personal taste and by my own limitations. I am, after all, but a single film fan with neither the time nor the inclination to watch every one of the thousands of films released year after year. As such, take this not as a comprehensive list of all the great films released over the past ten years but as a small but varied peek at a decade that produced some truly wonderful filmmaking.

Returning Greats

While it is true that many great 20th century filmmakers struggled to live up to their best work in the new century, a number of them released some of their most exciting projects over the past decade.

Almost Famous (Dir: Cameron Crow, 2000)

Crowe’s semi-autobiographical, feel-good masterpiece is a love letter to rock and roll and a bittersweet farewell to innocence – both the music’s and his own. His director’s cut of the film is even better.

O Brother Where Art Thou/ The Man Who Wasn’t There/ No Country For Old Men (Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000/ 2001/ 2007)

Respectively: A zany, rambling quasi-musical comedy adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey; a quirky take on the noir genre and a smouldering meditation on violence disguised as a top notch chase movie, the only things these films have in common is their refusal to bow to convention, an off-kilter sense of humour and the sheer quality of the Coens at their best.

Big Fish/ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Dir: Tim Burton, 2003/2007)

Tim Burton’s gothic sensibilities were applied to two very different stories with very different, but equally breathtaking, results. The former, a highly spirited celebration of the imagination, the latter a gloomy tale of death and revenge – both could only have been made by Burton.

Mulholland Drive (Dir: David Lynch, 2001)

A heady and near-incomprehensible mix of dream-like reality, lesbian sex, fame and unsettling mystery, Mullholland Drive is David Lynch at his most Lynchian. And weird, offbeat cinema is all the better off for that.

Changeling/ Gran Torino (Dir: Clint Eastwood, 2008/ 2008)

2008 was, in every way, the year of the Eastwood with the veteran director releasing two of his most assured works yet. The former a gripping drama about loss and grief, the latter a moving yet laugh out loud funny capper of sorts to Eastwood’s Dirty Harry persona.

No Direction Home/ The Departed (Dir: Martin Scorsese, 2005/ 2006)

A double-barrelled return to form of the master of searing examinations of humanity’s dark sides. The first, a wonderfully engaging documentary about Bob Dylan’s earliest – and most important – years, the second a slightly superficial but rip-roaringly entertaining return to the sort of crime drama that Scorsese made his name on.

Bold New Voices

Not to be outdone by cinema’s greatest filmmakers, a new wave of promising young talent shook the decade with a selection of films that were fresh, inventive and, more often than not, more than a little quirky. Not all of them succeeded, of course but here are a few of those who did, garnering heaps of critical praise and even, on the odd occasion, solid box-office sales in the process.

Donnie Darko (Dir: Richard Kelly, 2001)

Come for the ridiculously oblique story; stay for the moody atmosphere, well drawn characters, evocative soundtrack, beautiful central romance and, of course, for the guy in the bunny suit. Avoid the director’s cut like the plague, though.

The Royal Tenenbaums (Dir: Wes Anderson, 2001)

Further cementing his status of king of the quirky, whimsical dramedy, The Royal Tenenbaums is Anderson’s finest moment to date. The story of a dysfunctional family of “eccentric geniuses” (read: nutters), the film somehow manages to walk – and indeed create - the thin line between deadpan humour and genuine emotional involvement.

Juno (Dir: Jason Reitman, 2007)

That Diablo Cody’s real life meteoric ascent from stripper to A-List Hollywood screenwriter, didn’t completely overshadow the film she wrote, is testament alone to just how charmingly endearing a gem Juno is. Teenage pregnancy has never been handled quite so warmly, wittily and apolitically as it is here.

In Bruges (Dir: Martin McDonagh, 2008)

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson shine as a duo of absurdly likable contract killers lying low in the sleepy town of Bruges, Belgium in this little-seen but unforgettable little crime film. Boasting a pitch-perfect mix of the darkest of humour, gentle, genuinely moving drama and visceral violence, In Bruges was already a brilliant film. Add Ralph Fiennes to the mix as one of the decade’s best screen villains, however, and you’re left with something damn-near perfect.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Dir: Michel Gondry, 2003)

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has always been an incredibly innovative and imaginative creator but it took his collaboration here with director Gondry to really bring out the humanity in his vision. Eternal Sunshine combines the usual heady Kaufman concept of mind-altering, heady science fiction with a genuinely poignant story about love, memory and loss, featuring a career-best performance from Kate Winslet.

Unassuming Gems

Some masterpieces make their presence felt with avalanches of awards, huge critical buzz and endless amounts of hype. Some, however, slip quietly between the cracks. These charming little films might not get the attention they often deserve but in their own way they are every bit as rewarding as their bigger cousins. Most of them could probably fit snugly in the other categories I mentioned but I can’t resist another opportunity to shine some slight on these often forgotten but thoroughly wonderful movies.

High Fidelity (Dir: Stephen Frears, 2000)

Probably the ultimate movie about men, John Cusack gives his all time greatest performance as an obsessive music collector who looks back at past relationships to understand why yet another girlfriend has decided to leave him. It’s an honest, hilarious and touching examination of the male psyche based on the similarly brilliant Nick Hornby novel of the same name.

Lost in Translation (Dir: Sofia Coppola, 2003)

A beautifully shot, if leisurely paced, character drama about two very different people at very different places in their lives drawn together by being alone in a foreign city and adrift in their respective lives. It’s light on plot but heavy on characterisation and mood. A must see for fans of the quieter, if no less poignant, side of filmmaking.

School of Rock/ Before Sunset (Dir: Richard Linklater, 2003/ 2004)

Indie darling, Linklater, struck gold with two of the decade’s unlikeliest cinematic gems. The former should be an overly familiar, clich├ęd take on a well-trodden family-film formula but through its performances, music, wit and charm it is instead transformed into THE live-action family film of the decade. The latter performs the double feat of not only making a sequel that betters the original in every imaginable way but also of making a film about two old lovers walking around Paris for an hour an engrossing, thoroughly moving affair.

Persepolis (Dir: Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

Based on Marjane Satrapi’s biographical graphic novels about growing up under a fundamental Islamic regime in Iran, Persepolis is a heady mix of imaginative hand-drawn animation, humour and pathos that examines a highly politicised topic from an entirely human view point.

Vibrant World Cinema

I have no doubt that this is by far the least comprehensive of the four fairly arbitrary categories we have here but these five films are both shining examples of what so-called “foreign” cinema is capable of and a perfect introduction to what is out there beyond English-language filmmaking.

Amelie/ A Very Long Engagement (Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001/ 2004)

Likable characters, a wonderful sense of atmosphere and a quirky wit are almost secondary to the true stars of these French films: the jaw-droppingly beautiful direction and cinematography, which are some of the very best to be found this decade.

The Devil’s Backbone/ Pan’s Labyrinth (Dir: Guillermo Del Toro, 2001/ 2006)

Nominally, “adult fairy tales”, Del Torro’s stone-cold masterpieces are two of the most emotionally engrossing, sumptuously designed and highly imaginative films you will ever have the privilege to experience, it really is as simple as that.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Dir: Julian Schnabel, 2007)

Based on Elle magazine’s editor-in-chief Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoirs, this hauntingly beautiful film captures Bauby’s attempt to dictate his life story using nothing but a series of eye-blinks after the rest of his body is paralysed by a stroke. It is, at first, an uncomfortable watch but the vivid cinematography, Bauby’s droll wit and the sheer humanity of the film soon turns it into a film that is genuinely life-affirming and uplifting in a way that most of Hollywood’s so-called “feel good” films couldn’t ever hope to be.

Genre Greats

It is often all too easy to write off genre cinema – basically all movies that follow prescribed generic conventions such as fantasy, horror, science fiction and noir - as lower entertainment in comparison to the loftier artiness of some of the other films on this list. When you consider just how much trash tops the box offices and overstuffs our movie chains, it’s really kind of hard not to. Nonetheless, look past the chaff and you’ll find some truly great films that are both expertly made and massively entertaining. As a case in point:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban (Dir: Alfonso Cuaron, 2004)

The best of the Potter films to date. A wonderfully controlled kids fantasy movie with great characters, captivating art direction and a tight as nuts time-bending storyline.

Shaun of the Dead/ Hot Fuzz (Dir: Edgar Wright, 2004/ 2007)

Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s post-modern takes on the zombie film and the buddy cop movie respectively somehow manage to lampoon, pay tribute to and reinvent these age-worn genres with an endless supply of wit and vigour.

The Incredibles/ Wall E (Dir: Brad Bird/ Andrew Stanton, 2004/ 2008)

Pixar’s reign as the kings of digi-animation remained entirely unchallenged this decade but it is these two masterpieces that shine brightest. The first is simply the best superhero film to date, the second a hilarious, moving account of a lone robot on what remains of a decimated earth.

Spider-man 2/ The Dark Knight (Dir: Sam Raimi/ Graham Nolan, 2004/ 2008)

Superhero comic book adaptations were all the rage this decade and these two, in many way polar opposite blockbusters, were the best of the lot. The Dark Knight gave us a powerful crime film that made full use of the dark and twisted psychology that have made Batman and the world he inhabits such endearing modern day myths. Spider-man 2, on the other hand, has all the teenage angst and colourful sense of fun of the best Spidey comics.

Serenity/ Star Trek (Dir: Joss Whedon/ JJ Abrams, 2005/ 2009)

Whatever you may think of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, it’s hard to argue that they had the same sense of b-grade, adventure serial fun that the originals had. It’s odd then that the old Star Wars spirit would show up in the least likely of places: a reimagined Star Trek film that not only returned the franchise to its glory days but amped it up with some genuine space operatic goodness. If the new Trek didn’t have the philosophical depth that was such a staple of the franchise, you need only turn to Whedon’s criminally unseen feature film version of his short-live TV show Firefly for a “science fiction horse-drama” that was as funny as it was exciting as it was unafraid to deal with Big Ideas.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A review of Pixar's Up.

Here's another quick review that I wrote recently for my course:

As I walked out of the mid-afternoon showing of Pixar’s latest sure-fire winner of the Best Animated Film category at next years Oscars, I was left with a slight feeling of, dare I say it, disappointment. The worst part was that I wasn’t entirely sure where that disappointed came from. Up had everything that I have come to expect from Pixar: the lush, at times breathtaking animation; the well rounded characters; the faultless voice actors; jokes that work for people of all ages; the simple but effective plot and, of course, oodles of heart. How could I possibly be left disappointed by so seemingly perfect a piece of filmmaking?
A few hours later and after far more time spent dwelling on my feelings about the film than is probably healthy, I came to a surprising conclusion: Up is a wildly uneven affair. Of course, it’s uneven in a way that only a Pixar movie can be. It’s not that the quality of the film fluctuates wildly between being good and bad as much as that it fluctuates between moments of mere (very) goodness and moments of jaw-dropping, knock-you-on-your-ass perfection.
Much like Wall E before it, the opening sections of the film are, in every sense of the word, wonderful. I challenge you not to have a big goofy grin on your face as our, at this stage, young protagonist watches a film about his hero, a dashing adventurer before he goes on to meet a fellow young adventurer wannabe: the girl who would become his wife. As if this wasn’t charming, funny and heart-warming enough what follows is a profoundly beautiful five minute, dialogue-free montage that charts their relationship over the years. The sweet, tender notes of, mark my words, this year’s very best film score emotionally punctuates every scene as we see the couple growing old together with all the joy and heartbreak that that entails before our protagonist finds himself as a directionless, lonely old man.
What follows is a grand sweeping adventure as the old man sets off with an unintended young stowaway in tow to embark on one last adventure to find the mythical Paradise Falls. The rest of the film contains everything from exotic creatures; embittered, old adventurers; great set pieces and a flying house kept afloat by a few thousand balloons but the only times the film really matches its opening minutes are when it turns its attention to the relationship between the old man and the young stowaway and, most profoundly, as we watch our old protagonist find new purpose and meaning in his autumnal years.
Up is, in the end, a film of two halves, one that will resonate most with adults, the other clearly aimed more at kids and the young at heart. That the two halves of the film are both separately so good makes it an easy film to recommend to people of all ages but this isn’t quite Pixar at its age-gap-balancing best.

Monday, September 21, 2009

How to write crap books and make fortunes.

OK, so clearly I haven't posted here for a while but then most of my writing has gone towards my actual journalism course. Still, I figure that some of my "day job" writings would make decent blog posts and here's the first of them: a less than favourable review of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People:

Dale Carnegie is a perfectly readable writer.

With the good bits out of the way, let’s move onto why Carnegie’s “classic” self-help book, How To Win Friends and Influence People, encapsulates everything that’s so wrong with the so-called self-help genre. First published in 1936, How to Win Friends and Influence People (or Balderdash, for short) is generally accepted to be the first self-improvement book ever written. One could only wish that it was also the last.

Nominally, aimed at young business-people, Carnegie’s “insight” into human nature promises, as the title does indeed suggest, a guide to mastering your social domain. It is a book that essentially promises even the most socially awkward misfits a chance at popularity, friendship and the kind of social acumen that is usually reserved for the most successful of world leaders.

Sadly, what it promises and what it actually delivers is a rather different matter. How to Win Friend and Influence People veers wildly between the blindingly obvious, the excruciatingly banal and the embarrassingly superficial. Carnegie’s failure to grasp even the most readily apparent complexities of human nature is matched only by his asinine advice for improving social standing, including such gems as smiling when you talk to people, addressing them by their names and listening to what other people say.

It’s not that there isn’t some truth in what he says - indeed it is blindingly obvious for a reason – but it is so devoid of nuance and invention, never mind epiphany, that it is rendered useless to all but the most anti-social of serial killers. The entire book could probably be summarised into a fairly rubbish list of social do’s and don’ts so it’s especially annoying that each chapter is padded out with the most banal of, ha ha, “case studies”, which achieve nothing more than turning an irritating book into an unbearable one.

The book’s front cover may bear the boastful claim of “over 16 million copies sold” but, unlike with Elvis, it does appear that 16 million Dale Carnegie fans can, in fact, be wrong.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Superhero Smackdowns? Who Needs 'Em?

Superman Returns, the most recent attempt to bring The Man of Steel to the big screen was a relative box-office failure and drew more than its fair share of criticism from fans and casual movie goers alike. Personally, I rather enjoyed it (note: as of 2012, I can honestly say that this is not a movie that has aged all that well so take the next bit with a pile of salt) thanks to some wonderful direction, spectacular set pieces, good performances and a real grasp of the sense of wonder and hope that Superman should elicit. Sure enough though, on a script level, it was a bit of train wreck. I am more than willing to take on board that the script was illogically structured, badly thought out and featuring some real head-scratching decisions in the form of Lex Luthor's moronic masterplan and the distracting inclusion of the Super-kid.

On the other hand, one criticism that has been levelled at the film time and time again that I have absolutely no time for is the idea that it was a weak Superman film because it didn't have enough moments of him trading punches and heat-vision blasts with some "big bad". Why precisely do superhero stories need massive punch-ups? Don't get me wrong, I get that the visual aspect of having fully grown adults running around in brightly coloured tights tends to lend itself to epic action scenes. To be honest though, the thoroughly thrilling sequence of Superman saving the free-falling plane in Superman Returns leaves even the biggest action scenes in even the best of the other superhero films in its dust.

I say this because even though it's clear that there is far more to the comic book - an art form that has been garnering more and more "mainstream" acceptance in recent years thanks to the growing popularity of graphic novels - than superheroes, there is still a tendency to underestimate just how powerful a storytelling device the superhero actually is. While the detractors of superhero comics write the whole lot off as nothing more than "juvenile wish fulfilment", characters like Superman or The X-Men are, at even the most cursory of glances, used as allegories for all sorts of real-world concerns. Superman is a particularly interesting case as he has meant a wide variety of different things to different people over the years from displaced refugee to a Christ-like saviour to a Moses-like leader to an assimilated immigrant and back again. It is on that note that we come to what is very easily my all time favourite Superman story, a Superman story so perfect that it doesn't even need to technically have Superman in it (more on that in a bit): Superman: Secret Identity.

Let's make no bones about it, Superman: Secret Identity is probably never going to be mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen, Sandman or Maus and perhaps understandably so. Aside for not having the popularity of those comics, it certainly isn't anywhere near as ground-breaking as those genre-redefining masterpieces. Personally though, I love it just as much as those seminal works and even if it doesn't exactly reinvent the art form, it embraces the metaphorical nature of the superhero with a dexterity that is all but unmatched by even the greatest superhero classics.

The clue is in the title but Superman: Secret Identity explores a superhero trope that is as tightly affiliated with the genre as capes and tights: the secret identity. Most impressively, it doesn't simply take a meta-textual look at what the secret identity means to the fictional world of superheroes but gives it far more resonance and relatability by using it as a metaphor for the inherent complexity of every human being. It's a metaphor that is so blindingly obvious in its genius that it is something of a wonder that it hasn't been worked into every other superhero story published in the seven decades since Superman's first appearance.

Secret Identity is driven by the typically wonky old Silver Age premise of "Superboy Prime". For those who aren't steeped in old superhero geekdom, Superboy Prime was basically a kid named Clark Kent who grew up in our "real world" and to whom Superman was just a comic book character until one morning he wakes up with powers just like his fictional namesake. As a concept it's just as baffling, ridiculous and charmingly creative as you would come to expect from a time when superhero comics were aimed almost exclusively at young boys. It's also a concept that has recently been resurrected with a much less innocent slant in DC's regular superhero comics. In Secret Identity, however, it is simply the springboard for a story that is beautifully layered, emotionally involving and all too human.

Originally released as a four-part mini series before being collected into a single-volume graphic novel, each of the four parts deal with different stages in this version of Clark Kent's life. The story begins with our protagonist as an insecure teenager, burdened by the constant teasing and bullying that comes with having such an unlikely name. It isn't long, however, before things become much more complicated as he finds himself suddenly endowed with powers not far off from the Superman with whom he shares a name. It turns out though that real life isn't quite as simple as the comics. While the fictional Clark Kent may be able to preserve some semblance of a normal life simply by switching between a brightly coloured costume and an ill-fitting suit and glasses, our young hero quickly comes to the realisation that he will need to keep his superheroic identity just as tightly under wraps as his civilian identity - especially after a run-in with some less than benevolent government agencies.

While the rest of the graphic novel unfolds wonderfully from here in terms of plot, the true heart of the story lies in the thematic exploration of the two sides of this Clark Kent: his unassuming, for all intents and purposes "normal" exterior and the far more unique, powerful personality that hides behind the surface. It is not, however, a story of identity confusion, as it perhaps could have been in the hands of a more cynical scribe. What writer Kurt Busiek spends the ensuing 200-odd pages exploring is an idea that is both far more profound and far more common place. Busiek uses the extra-human events of the comic to examine the relationship between the parts of a person that he or she exposes to the rest of the world and the real person within.

Clark shows himself to the rest of the world to be a thoroughly decent, well accomplished human being but the thing that makes him truly special, the aspects of himself that truly defines him as a person is something that is hidden from outside eyes. It is a side of himself that is so precious and so important that he, ironically, doesn't dare show to anyone else. Before long, however, Busiek goes on to introduce a Lois Lane to this Clark Kent and love, unsurprisingly, quickly blossoms. At this point Clark is introduced to a truly life-altering dilemma: does he continue to safe guard his secret at all costs or does he dare risk sharing this invaluable part of himself with someone else? The answer to this dilemma drives the story through to its perfect, beautifully handled conclusion.

As is pretty much par for the course with such fantastical fiction, I am, of course, reasonably sure that most of us do in fact not have super powers, nor indeed do we have dangerous government types chasing after us (though I am slightly less sure about the latter). Nonetheless, like the best fables, parables and fictions, the themes that underline Secret Identity, could scarcely be more profoundly realistic. Indeed, from the elegant narration to the well rounded characters to the pitch-perfect dialogue, the comic is pretty much perfect on a writing level alone but its Stuart Immonen's breathtaking art that truly makes it soar. Immonen's soft, painterly style is as adept at showing human emotion as it is at presenting spectacular moon-lit Kansas vistas.

Superman: Secret Identity is simply the sort of comic that encapsulates everything great about the artform. Its combination of art and language work in tandum to create a superb piece of storytelling with an almost palpable sense of warmth and humanity. No comic book collection is complete without it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

So, About That Canadian Americana... Also Some Belated Thoughts On That Jackson Fella.

Just to finish off my review of my favourite stuff from a few weeks ago, here's a few thoughts for my music pick of the week: Tonight at the Arizona by The Felice Brothers.

As anyone who even remotely knows me might be able to tell you I generally prefer music from the 60s and 70s to what's being produced today. I do need to stress the word "generally" though because I am finding more and more stuff recorded more recently that I really enjoy - though, sure enough, very little of it gets much in the way of play on mainstream, Top 40 radio or MTV. One complaint that I still have about a great many of these newer acts (and indeed, new releases from many music veterans) is that even if I really like the music the way it's recorded leaves a lot to be desired. The latest and greatest in recording technology should in theory make music sound better than ever but a hell of a lot of the time it makes things a whole lot worse. Far too many albums released in this digital age are plagued by some really off-putting problems in the way they are recorded. Well, to my ears anyway. That clean but organic sound that was present on even lesser recordings from the late 60s, early 70s have been replaced with a sound that is either lifeless, too loud, cluttered, overbearing, undynamic or, as is all too often the case, a mixture of all of these.

The best thing about Tonight At the Arizona isn't the pitch-perfect arrangements, beautiful melodies, evocative lyrics, excellent musicianship or even its irresistible blend of various strands of American roots music, though these are all present and accounted for. It's not even that every song here is a fully formed gem in its own right or that the singer sounds like a more technically competent Bob Dylan. No, the thing that I love most about the Felice Brother's second (?) album is the way it sounds.

It's been well recorded (or at least as well recorded as it can be for such a seemingly obscure band) that the Felice Brothers hail from the same place as their most obvious influence - and Canada's greatest musical export this side of Neil Young - The Band and I'm certainly not going to argue that point. I'm also not going to argue that much like the band, they have the kind of understanding of traditional forms of American (as in, from the USA) music that most born and bred American musicians would be envious of. In fact, this is probably even more impressive in the Felice's case seeing as how the Band did have in drummer/ mandolin player/ singer/ guitarist (talented bunch them Band members) Levon Helm someone who came from the very heart of US cotton country, which was also right at the heart of many of America's great musical movements.

Tonight at the Arizona doesn't merely display this intricate understanding of the United States of America's rich musical heritage so much as lives and breathes it. It is one of those all too few albums that sounds genuinely timeless. Admittedly, it does sound like it was probably recorded after the invention of decent recording equipment sometime in the middle of the 20th century but beyond that it is pretty much impossible to date. It was recorded some 40-odd years after the release of Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, which was clearly something of an influence on The Felice Brothers, but it sounds for all the world like a contemporary work. Hell, it wouldn't even be hard to imagine it pre-dating that landmark album by a few years.

Admittedly, comparing Tonight at the Arizona to Blonde on Blonde is probably a bit of a stretch as it displays none of the originality or ambition of Dylan's masterpiece but as a rich slice of classic Americana, it more than stands up.


Moving about as far away from classic Americana as it is possible to get, a few words on the death of Michael Jackson.

I have to admit that when I read the news, my initial reaction was hardly one of shock. Michael Jackson has over the years abused his body in a way that would shock even Keith Richards. Well, perhaps not, Keef is another story all together but the fact that his heart finally gave in was ultimately inevitable. Beyond that initial thought though, I felt some sadness that he did die so young but, I have to admit, that as someone who never really cared for the man's music, his death didn't really affect me in the way that, say, George Harrison's or John Entwistle's did.

Regardless of my feelings however, I am still shocked at the amount of media attention Jackson's passing has received. Oh sure, Michael Jackson's obvious mental instability has made him a fixture of lowest-common-denominator tabloids over the past decade at least but I would have thought that as a pop-icon, his peak as an artist, performer and popular figure would be little more than a distant memory to most. I would also have thought that his sometimes shocking apparent behaviour and appearance would have turned many fans against him as the decades passed.

Apparently not.

What I really have trouble with however is the way the media has reacted to his death. You really need look no further than Jackson's life and death to see exploitative, sensationalist junk journalism at its absolute worst. As Michael Jackson, beloved pop prince, receded spectacularly from public conciousness to be replaced by Michael Jackson, psycho freak, the media were there to chart every pathetic moment of his hideous fall from grace. They sneered during his scandalous lawsuits, jeered at his financial destruction and laughed at his outlandish behaviour. "Wacko Jacko" had the jackals salivating at his every move since the mid-90s as he clearly became an image of public ridicule, all the while his sanity allegedly nose-dived, his talent faded and his life fell apart.

Who knew that all he needed to do to get into everyone's good books again was to kick the proverbial bucket. The very same mind-pulverising tabloids and abominable "entertainment news" programs that went out of the way to ridicule Michael Jackson's every living move, suddenly but not expectantly, turned tails and turning him into a mighty heroic legend in death. Jackson was clearly a complicated person and an important, if not necessarily great, music personality with more than his fair share of demons but from all the duplicitous, hypocritical media coverage of the past days, all I'm really left with is a strong sense of distaste.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Week That Was: Classical Composers, Canadian Americana, Lipstick Lesbians, Crime-Scene Cleanups and Naff Holocaust Films. (Part 2)

OK, so, as per usual, I've fallen a bit behind here. The week that was is quickly becoming the week that was two weeks ago. As such, I'm going to keep the reviews of the three films that I want to talk about rather short - at least for the first two, any way.

Film of the Week: Sunshine Cleaning

Every poster, trailer and promotional item for this film have made it abundantly clear that it is by the same producer as Little Miss Sunshine. They even included the word "sunshine" in the title just in case you didn't yet understand that this was by the same people who brought you (in this case supplied the financing for, rather than actually making) that Oscar-nominated little indie flick from a few years back.

The good news is that it's actually a better film than the somewhat overrated Little Miss Sunshine. It is also much more noticeably a drama than its not-really-predecessor and I don't really understand why so many people have labelled it a "black comedy". Granted, it is a film about two sisters whose lives are somewhat less than idyllic that, in order to make ends meet, open up a cleaning service that specializes in mopping up the often gruesome messes that come in the wake of violent crimes, suicides and long-undiscovered dead bodies. As such, yes, there are some morbid - and some not so morbid - laughs to be had but the film's primary focus is on the two sisters, their relationship with each other and those around them and the way they find meaning in such an unsavoury occupation.

Sunshine Cleaning is a small, unassuming film that puts a very human, down to earth spin on an odd premise that could have spun wildly out of control. It is at times unfocused and messy and it doesn't go too far out of its way to tie up its loose ends but, in a way, that only makes it all the more human. It is sharply written and the direction is effective, if, again, unassuming but it's the performances that really sparkle. Alan Arkin, as the sisters' lovably off-kilter, if troubled father heads up a great supporting cast but the film really belongs to Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as the lead characters. That Amy Adams was terrific is of absolutely no surprise to me - after all, in Doubt she managed to hold her own onscreen against veteran heavy-weights, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep - but the equally excellent Emily Blunt was a real revelation for me as I've somehow managed to miss most of her past performances.

Sunshine Cleaning may not be to everybody's tastes but if you're looking for a break from those soulless, mindless American summer blockbusters that are out this year (by the looks of things, aside for presumably Pixar's Up, this blockbuster season should have ended with the absurdly enjoyable Star Trek reboot), you could do far, far worse.

DVD of the Week: Amadeus

Milos Forman's excellent, if lengthy - though the director's cut is even longer - biopic about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may be twenty-five years old but it overshadows even the best of today's music biopics. I may not be the world's greatest classical music fan - though, as long as its purely instrumental, I do like it - but I'm amazed at how much more lively this film is in comparison to something like the dreary Ray Charles biopic, Ray. Forman brilliantly abandons any and all of the seriousness and sobriety that is all too often associated with classical music. Amadeus is a rollicking, inordinately entertaining film as Mozart is portrayed as being every bit as much a character as the biggest personalities in popular music.

Most importantly, while the final hour does occasionally fall into the nasty trappings of the genre (substance abuse, failing relationships), Forman wisely keeps the focus on Mozart's music than his personal life. He does this by telling the story not through Mozart's point of view but through the eyes - and indeed ears - of Antonio Salieri (played superbly by F Murray Abraham), a man who loved and appreciated Mozart's genius like no other but who, as a composer himself, was at the same time murderously jealous of him. It's a fascinating and incredibly poignant point of view to tell the story from and it turns what could so easily have been a shallow telling of Mozart's story into something far deeper and far more profound.

Amadeus is not without its flaws but as both a massively entertaining piece of celluloid and a powerful, intriguing exploration of, among other things, music, genius, jealousy and love, it is a must see for lovers of both music and film.

Rant of the Week: The Reader

Just so we're clear, before I even attempt to rip the bloody thing several new ones, The Reader is a very well put-together and solidly acted film. I can't see this ending up on anyone's worst of the year list and, lets be honest, worse films than this are released pretty much every week of the year.

The Reader isn't a bad movie by any means but that certainly doesn't mean that it's a particularly good one. And it certainly doesn't mean that it deserved to be nominated for the best picture, actor, screenplay etc. of last year's Academy Awards over far more deserving fare like The Dark Knight, Wall-E, Persepolis, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or two excellent Clint Eastwood films.

The Reader is a thoroughly mediocre bit of drama that commits the twin cardinal sins of thinking that it's far better than it really is and of being monumentally dull. It is the absolute worst kind of Oscar-baiting tosh that features a bum-numbing running time, a period setting, failed relationships, the Holocaust and that nauseating mixture of endless longing gazes at nothing in particular and earnest whispers. Oh yes, and totally silly faux-German accents that could sully even a good performance from someone as wonderfully talented an actress as Kate Winslet so clearly is. Speaking of Ms. Winslet that she won for acting in a holocaust film should come as a bitter dose of irony to anyone that has ever watched Extras - something that Ricky Gervais picked up on himself.

The film itself is entirely without even a spark of humour, its sincerity starting off dull but well intentioned before soon becoming teeth-gratingly obnoxious. It features characters that I don't care about, entering into relationships that I don't believe in, spouting dialogue that is as stiff as the direction is lifeless. It doesn't even bother to follow up on the occasional themes of interest that it does fleetingly raise in between all the lingering gazes and rubbish failed romances.

Ultimately The Reader is the sort of film that promises much but delivers very little. If you want a great holocaust film, there's an abundance of better options. Failed romances? Court-room dramas? Films of redemption and tragedy? For all of these there are far better options than the Reader.

As for the great Kate Winslet performance? Come on, we all know that she should have won for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Week That Was: Classical Composers, Canadian Americana, Lipstick Lesbians, Crime-Scene Cleanups and Naff Holocaust Films. (Part 1)

Here, basically, are some of my favourite comics, movies, DVDs and albums of the week of Monday 22 June 2009. Also, a bit of a rant for a very undeserving multi-Oscar nominated Holocaust-related film.

I'm going to break this down into seperate posts in order to ensure that this comes out before mid-August. Starting off with:

Comic of the week: Batwoman in Detective Comics #854.

A few years back, there was something of a fuhrer whipped up by the mainstream press in America about the debut of an all-new all-"lipstick lesbian" Batwoman. Presumably it was a slow news day as she was hardly the first gay mainstream comic book character but, for some unknown reason, a very big deal was made out of this.

Brilliantly, DC Comics responded by totally downplaying her character by limiting her to various small supporting appearances. Now, with this non-news story far behind them DC have finally turned the spotlight onto this mysterious character with an (at least year long) starring role in DC's longest running title, Detective Comics. Detective Comics has primarily been home to Batman himself but after a long series of events that I really don't feel like getting into right now, Batman is missing/ presumed dead and Bruce Wayne's large supporting cast have been thrust into the spotlight, each taking up one or two of the 6,823 Batman comics that traditionally come out every month. All I can say is that if these comics maintain the levels of (from what I've read) these re-tooled Bat-books so far, I'm all for the "real" Batman being out of commission for quite some time.

We may only be one issue in but Batwoman in Detective Comics has quickly jumped to the top of my must-read pile. On the writing front, the book was given to Greg Rucka and considering his greatest strengths lie in crime comics, street-level superheroics and strong female characters, I can't think of a better guy for the job. And, man, does his first issue not disappoint.

To be sure, there's nothing wildly groundbreaking about his first script and there aren't any of the kind of explosive, surprising moments that first issues so often like to use to hook new readers. What we have instead is simply a master scripter doing what he does best: a beautifully controlled story with intriguing characters and note-perfect dialogue that has you eagerly awaiting to read what happens next. There's a great balance between quiet character moments and the more story-driven noir/ superhero elements and, best of all, Rucka steadfastly refuses to give into the exposition-heavy pratfalls that plague so many opening issues. Kate Kane, our titular protagonist is still something of an enigma but already it's easy to see that she is far more than her sexual persuasion and even if we don't really know her yet, it's pretty clear that Greg Rucka does. He could have started off with an origin story, instead he's apparently saving that for later instead offering us a glimpse of the character in action - both in her shambolic personal life and her more assured role as Batwoman.

Simply put, Rucka delivers a thoroughly satisfying start to what promises to be an extraordinarily well-written comic for however long it lasts. Astonishingly though, brilliant a job as Rucka clearly did here, his writing isn't even the main attraction of the comic. No, that honour belongs to artist extraordinaire, JH Williams III. He has long been one of my favourite artists but his artwork here defies even the highest of expectations. This is, in no uncertain terms, the best looking comic I've read this year. It's the kind of art that you would expect to find limited to hugely hyped, special once-off comic products, not on the 854th issue of a monthly series.

I barely even know where to start with his artwork here so I'll start with the part that has nothing to do with JH Williams himself. The first thing that you would probably notice as you crack open this issue is Dave Stewart's vibrant colours be it in the grittier, darker "action" pages or the softer character pages. Colourists are often overlooked when it comes to evaluating the quality of the art in a comic but without Stewart's superb work here, William's art wouldn't be anywhere near as striking - and that's really saying something when you consider just how great a job Williams has done here.

Williams is a guy who is known for his experimental page layouts but this issue takes it to a whole other level. While the quieter moments are laid out in a fairly conventional manner, the pages that feature Batwoman in action forgo conventions grid-layouts entirely, as you can see in these sample pages I've included. Most importantly, however unconventional these pages look, they're never hard to follow and his storytelling is pretty much impecable. His fairly realistic figure work is also faultless, as are his highly detailed backgrounds with each pannel being "directed" with a world-class cinematographer's eye. As if all this wasn't enough to set him apart from his contemporaries, he also does something which is very unusual for a superhero comic: he changes his style dramatically between the pages featuring Kate in her civillian guise and those featuring her as Batwoman. It's such a seemingly obvious and yet highly effective choice that it's hard to believe it isn't a tecnique that's used more often. Perhaps after this, it will be.

As if all this wasn't enough there's a whole other story that's part of DC's new/ resurrected co-feature program featuring a character who has been constantly linked with this new Batwoman: Renne Montoya, The Question. Again written by Greg Rucka and with art by Cully Hamner, this co-feature is a great addition to the comic though it was too short to really form an opinion on yet. Rucka's writing seems to be hardly any less impressive than it was on the main feature and while Humner's art isn't as strikingly brilliant as Williams', the fact that he isn't completely overshadowed speaks volumes about just how impressive his art is in it's own right.

This was really everything that superhero comic books should be.

(All Images taken from the preview of this issue on