Friday, May 27, 2005

Artists I've Been Listening To...

First off, the North American trailer for Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 is now available here. It looks great, and really captures the feeling of the film. I suppose I'd be inherently partial to it because it focuses so much on the stuff from the future sections of the film, which I'd consider to be the best thing WKW has ever done.

The film drops on August 5, but I already have the DVD. However, I will be seeing it in the theater very soon. On June 15, Wong Kar-Wai is appearing and doing a Q&A at a screening of the film at Lincoln Center. I've never seen a WKW film in the theater, and 2046 is a really astonishing visual experience, so that alone is worth it, but it's also WKW live. I always like to meet film people and hear them talk about the process, especially if they are total storytellers. While Martin Scorsese may have made some great films, he doesn't usually make the stories himself, so you can't get a sense of his whole process, whereas with WKW or Joss, they do everything, and are a lot more interesting to talk to. In the past few years, I've met a lot of my idols, and this is another one to add to the list. I'd still really like to meet Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, though that's not likely to happen unless I make it over to the UK.

So, that should be very cool. Now I'm going to quickly go over some of the music I've been listening to lately because I've definitely been branching off in some different directions.

Electric Light Orchestra - I've been listening to a lot of the Electric Light Orchestra, a band from the 70s that is most famous for their songs "Mr. Blue Sky" and "Evil Woman." When I was very young I remember hearing "Evil Woman" on some Disney special, over a montage of their villains, but I could never remember what the song was. This was when I lived in my old house before 1990, I don't know how I could have remembered this for so long, but last year I heard the song in Mocon and it came back to me. The song had remained with me for 15 years, it's a great song, but even so I found that pretty strange.

Anyway, I grabbed the song and some of their other stuff, but only started listening to the albums recently. I've been listening to a lot of A New World Record and Out of the Blue, both great albums, though I prefer Record. Electric Light Orchestra is an ancestor of a lot of the current artists I love most. Perhaps the best description of the band I could give would be a combination of Daft Punk and The Polyphonic Spree, probably my two favorite current artists, so ELO is understandably a favorite of mine. From Daft Punk they drew a synth based, quasi-dance sound, with frequent use of vocoder, the Electric part. From The Spree they draw the frequent use of big orchestration, with a ton of different instruments at work, the orchestra part. On their best songs, they rock hard, while sounding unlike any other band around.

Their most bizarre song is "Mission," about some aliens who come to earth. It's all over the place, and has the sort of over the top hyperbole that only 70s rock can provide. If you recall "Stonehenge" from Spinal Tap, this is the sort of song that was parodying. Definitely worth checking out. Other standout tracks are the really rocking "Do Ya" and "Livin' Thing," as well as the more subdued "Summer and Lightning" and "Turn to Stone."

Annie - Annie is a relatively new artist, who has put out just one album, Anniemal, which actually hasn't even been released here. Said album is awesome, an amazing pop confection, where pretty much every song is catchy, solid listening. She hails from Iceland, and has more electronic based production than your average album made here. I love the electronic stuff found in much of Europop, and this is one of the best examples of it. Her voice isn't that great, but woven into the music, it's phenomenal.

Her best song is "Heartbeat," which uses a pounding drum over the chorus to simulate her heartbeat as she gets to know someone over the course of a night. I love driving repeated riffs in a song, and the hearbeat drumming just propels the song forward. I think pop has gotten a bad name, and the perception is that albums that sound like this are just "commercial," while darker, less instantly accessible albums must be more artistically relevant. However, music is ultimately about sound, and this album just sounds great all the way through, perfectly constructed pop.

Belle and Sebastian - I really liked their soundtrack for the movie Storytelling and I finally caught up with their albums. So far, I've heard If you're Feeling Sinister and The Boy with the Arab Strap. I really like their sound, it's got a lot of varied instruments and similar to The Smiths, an interesting mix of heavy subject matter and light music. It's really pleasant sounding music, with a bit of 60s flavor. Their best tracks are "Stars of Track and Field" and "Like Dylan in the Movies."

Rachael Yamagata - She's another fairly new artist, with only one album to her credit, Happenstance, and it's a great album. Yamagata reminds me a bit of Aimee Mann in that she is a singer/songwriter, but places a lot of emphasis on the backing tracks and overall production. Too many singer/songwriters focus only on the lyrics, but her tracks are fully realized songs. She rocks pretty hard, and has a great range of darker stuff, like "Under My Skin," and light, poppy tunes, like "1963."

She does a great job of writing lyrics that sound good when sung. "Be Be Your Love" has a great chorus that might not read well, but sounds great in the context of the song. Similarly, "I'm loving you like it's 1963" paints a picture of the world the song is trying to evoke and sounds great as a chorus. While I do love Aimee Mann, her songs are rather similar, while these have great variety, both in terms of music and in terms of theme and atmosphere they are trying to evoke.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Review Revue

Being break, I've been watching a bunch of films.On March break, I watched a string of absoultely phenomenal films. I loved practically everything I watched. On this break, I have not been so lucky, I've seen some good films, but everything I've watched has its flaws.

This is the only Richard Linklater film I had not seen, largely because it has not been released on DVD. However, the library had the VHS, so I broke one of my major rules and watched a pan and scan presentation of the film. Despite those bad viewing conditions, I was pleasantly surprised by this film, and feel like it's a major piece of the Linklater canon. Linklater's films are notoriously talky, so it's appropriate that he should adapt a play.

The film touches on a lot of classic Linklater themes, chronicling the existence of a group of high school friends, who still live in the town where they grew up, even as they long for something better. It's quite similar to Slacker in that everyone talks big, but always ends up just talking, never doing. The film resonated for me because I am in a similar situation as the characters are, and even though I am going to college, that doesn't change the fact that I'm basically just hanging around.

These people are contrasted with their high school friend, Pony, who has made it big with his band, and is touring. They first sort of skirt around the issue of his success, but eventually it comes to the surface and the other characters are forced to confront their own lack of progress when they see how much Pony has done. Linklater is the master of talky films, and he gets great performances from his cast here, and keeps things interesting despite the fact that not that much happens in the film. I think it does a good job of capturing real life dynamics between friends and people who are drifting away. I'd imagine Linklater felt a lot of what Pony did when he returned home as a successful filmmaker. I feel like Linklater has a better handle on what my generation and the people slightly older than me are going through, and his films reflect the reality of our lives.

Miller's Crossing
I also watched the Coens' Miller's Crossing. Now, this is a film that has been quite acclaimed, with some people calling it their best. I don't know, but I just didn't like this film. I didn't feel the inventiveness and energy that is present in the Coens' other films, and it reminded me a lot of Richard Linkler's really weak Newton Boys. Both films seem to use a period setting as an excuse for not doing anything else interesting visually or with the narrative. This film was just a series of extended dialogue scenes as we moved through a whole bunch of double crosses that don't really lead anywhere. I didn't like the lead character, Tom, and tommy guns and fedoras alone cannot save a film. I really feel like I missed something with this film, because I don't understand how it could be so acclaimed. Perhaps in a few years, I'll give it another look, but for now, it goes in the bad column.

The Last Temptation of Christ
This is a film I've been wanting to see for a while, ever since I saw the X-Files episode, Amor Fati. This was an episode written by David Duchovny as an homage to Last Temptation, and it's arguably the best episode of the series, as well as one of the most interesting symbolic narratives I've ever seen. It took me five years , and two library checkouts to finally see the film, and it was a bit of a letdown after all that. The idea behind the film is to show Jesus' human side, his weakness and temptation, but the central piece, a fantasy sequence in which he marries Mary Magdalene is a very small piece of the film.

The vast majority of it is a fairly standard Jesus biography. I know that story so it wasn't too exciting to see all those scenes acted out again. I know about the water into wine, I know about Lazarus, and that stuff takes the focus away the film's core. The movie is too long, at 163 minutes. At least 20 minutes could have been cut out without hurting the story. And, the fantasy sequence is too short, that's the core of the film, but it comes about almost as an afterthought. I guess the X-Files episode might have skewed my expectations, but I feel like that episode used the premise a lot better than the film did.

That said, the film looks great, and really places you in a different world. Scorsese always makes good looking films, and this is no exception. Willam Defoe is great as Christ, but Harvey Keitel just doesn't work in this movie. He seems to be from New York not Jeruselam and his performance punctures the illusion of this world.

I've been going through Stanley Kubrick's film, seeing the ones I've missed, and last night I arrived at Spartacus. This was another long film, at 3 hours, 16 minutes. Watching this film was sort of strange. I was never particularly emotionally engaged with it. Classic Hollywood films were designed to minimize the evidence of the filmmaking, editing and camera movement were not supposed to draw attention to themselves. However, I feel like this also prevents the filmmakers from using these tools to draw you into the story and put you in the headspace of the characters. Now, Kubrick was never someone known for the high emotional content of his films, though I would dispute that in a few cases. However, this film adheres to classical Hollywood norms and as a result you're firmly put in the observer category, and never really engage with the characters.

That said, I was never bored by the film over its really long run time. Watching Miller's Crossing, I found myself checking the watch a number of times, but here I was just going through it, enjoying the film, but not loving it. I find it difficult to analyze most of Kubrick's pre-Strangelove stuff because he seems so tied to classical Hollywood convention, his films lack the personal input that's evident in his later films. Basically everything after Strangelove is either a great film, or a film that aims very high and doesn't quite make it, but is still essential viewing. But his early stuff doesn't particularly stand out from your typical classical Hollywood film. The one scene in this film that seemed different was the really bizarre snails and oyster scene, where an old man propositions Antoninus, asking him if he eats snails, oysters or both, with 'eating snails' a clear reference to gay sex. The scene seems out of place, but is also really entertaining, so I'm glad it's there.

The film remined me a bit of Revenge of the Sith, the Roman political machinations were a clear inspiration on the narrative of Star Wars. Also, the acting style really is quite similar to that of the prequels, which is what Lucas said. As much as I love those movies, this acting style is not the best. The characters are not emotionally engaged with the material here, and the ridiculous love scenes here are such a contrast to the astonishing emotional subtlety of something like Barry Lyndon. There truly was a revolution in 70s Hollywood, and I'm really glad it happened, because movies like this are good, but not great. And, the acting in Sith is so much better than the awful line delivery here. So, even if he is modeling things on the classical Hollywood style, Lucas is doing a much better job than they were. This film did fulfill the classical Hollywood doctrine of making an accessible entertaining film, but unfortunately sometimes the bigger the audience you target, the less personal the film is.

Breaking the Waves
So, today I went from the compromised populism of Spartacus to the extremely personal, challening filmmaking of Lars Von Trier. Von Trier is a filmmaker I had mixed feelings on going in. I loved Dogville, it's one of the most creative and rewarding films I've ever seen. However, I really disliked Dancer in the Dark, which seemed like an exercise in cruelty.

Von Trier's films are all revisionist melodramas, updating the idea of the suffering female hero. That's the one thing all his films, that I've seen at least, have in common, and in this film, there is a lot of suffering. The primary thing that made me like Dogville over Dancer was the fact that in Dancer in the Dark, we just watch a series of awful things happen to the main character and there's no variation, it's just a series of awful events. Dogville uses a similar narrative structure, but at the end, upends the idea of the suffering heroine, and allows her to get revenge for what she's gone through. That revenge is so powerful because we're conflicted. What she's doing is wrong, but after so many awful things happened to her, can we really let this town off the hook? Also, Grace was very smart, while Bjork in Dancer was borderline retarded.

Bess, the lead in this film, also treads on that border, she's mentally unstable. However, I think the characters in this film are much truer than those in Dancer. Bess' actions are motivated, we understand what she's doing, but she's laboring under the false belief that what she's doing can save her husband. It's a pretty harrowing film, and Bess' final fate is not easy to watch.

The style of the film is really intersting. Von Trier uses a constantly roving handheld camera, a style I happen to love, as well as a lot of jump cuts. He's clearly someone who was made for digital filmmaking, though I belive this was shot on film, it's got a grain that makes it look like most digital films. I really like the chapter headings, placid nature scenes with 60s and 70s rock music playing in the background. They're a nice contrast from the handheld, dogme world of the film. Von Trier uses no score, all the music is source.

The last scene has me a bit confused. I think Von Trier intended to show that Bess had made it to heaven, but I guess it's something to ponder. It's a good looking shot whatever the meaning was.

Ultimately the film sort of bothers me because of the level of suffering Bess goes through. The entire narrative is just bad stuff happening to her, and there's not that catharsis that Dogville offers. However, she is more relatable than the Bjork character, so this film falls somewhere in between the other two Von Trier films. Von Trier, like Gaspar Noe, makes films that challenge you, and I'm really glad I watched this movie, even though I do have a lot of issues with it.

Well, there you have it, next on the to watch list are La Dolce Vita, Velvet Goldmine, Three Kings, The Killing and A Fistful of Dollars.