Saturday, December 31, 2005

Best of 2005: Music

This is the first in a series of three articles that will cover my favorite stuff of 2005, following this will be TV and then film. So, this post will cover my top 10 albums of 2005. In terms of new music, this was actually a really strong year. I know most top ten lists are supposed to say it was a weak year, but looking at this year's crop of stuff, there were another ten strong albums I could have thrown on here.

10. Sufjan Stevens - Come on, Feel the Illinoise!: This album was a big hit in blog circles and after listening to it, it's easy to see why. It's a 75 minute album that functions like a suite more than a collection of songs, with some themes returning in different songs and everything building to a great finale. It's such an ambitious work, with a lot of eclectic instrumentation and songs that vary from exclamatory marches to the quiet darkness of 'John Wayne Gacy Jr.' I've only listened to this a few times, but each time I like it more.

Standout Track: They Are Night Zombies

9. Rachel Stevens - Come and Get It: This is an unashamedly pop album, with each song serving as a potential top radio hit. It all sounds contemporary but at the same time crosses into 70s glam rock and 80s synth pop. Much like Gwen Stefani's solo stuff, it sounds like your idealized memory of what 80s pop is like, rather than the real thing. It's catchy, glossy and always fun to listen to.

Standout Track: I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)

8. Depeche Mode - Playing the Angel: Much like Morrissey's 'You Are the Quarry,' this album takes everything you loved about the group in the 80s and updates it to today with a standout album. I would actually consider this their best album, with a really dark, forboding feel. Right from the first track it's clear that this is a bit of an update for Depeche, and on 'John the Revelator,' things go off in a techno gospel direction. 'Precious' sounds like the lost Depeche single from the 'Enjoy the Silence' era. It's a very moody, atmospheric album, top notch listening.

Standout Track: John the Revelator

7. Bob Mould - Body of Song: This is basically a rock album, but with some great techno flourishes at time. The thing I love about good techno music is the way it's primarily based around loops, adding and subtracting elements as the song progresses. So much of contemporary rock seems to be about having everything at 11 all the time, with drums going to excess and the singer screaming. This music, like Depeche Mode, is pretty dark at times, but it's never ugly. Mould has fantastic guitar work and really catchy songs, like the anthemic 'Paralyzed' or 'Circles.' However, the top track is definitely the vocoder backed '(Shine Your) Light Love Hope.'

Standout Track: (Shine Your) Light Love Hope

6. Gorillaz - Demon Dayz: I loved the first Gorillaz album, but I was a bit concerned when I heard that Dan the Automator wasn't going to be producing this one. However, Danger Mouse has made an album that's much darker than the original and equally good. The album uses hip-hop style beats with a lot of elements that are more typically rock, a combination that works really well on the single, 'Feel Good Inc.' which has a fantastic rock chorus (that's remarkably similar to U2's 'Staring at the Sun') but also some excellent rapping, such that it really is the best of both worlds. 'Dare' is ridiculously catchy and 'White Light' is another highlight. However, the best part of the album for me is the closing suite of songs that starts with a bizarre Dennis Hopper narrated story and builds up to a chorus backed finale on the title track.

Standout Track: Feel Good Inc.

5. Doves - Some Cities: Doves' Last Broadcast is one of my favorite albums of all time and this was definitely a worthy followup. Doves are great at doing exhilirating rock songs and 'Black and White Town' and 'Sky Starts Falling' are full of energy and life. 'The Storm' has a very cool trip hop feel, it's something I'd love to use in a film. The best track by far is 'Snowden' which has some of the most beautiful guitar work I've ever heard.

Standout Track: Snowden

4. Moby - Hotel: This was a really hated album, but listening to this thing, I think it's brilliant. Moby moves towards a more rock sound, but keeps the structural principles of dance music, meaning that rather than lyrics providing the base of the music, it's the actual music. So, a track like 'Beautiful' or 'Raining Again' may have very simple structures, but the way they build to the chorus is incredibly rewarding, particularly the driving build on the latter. I guess what this album does is combine the sound of indie rock and techno with the songwriting style of stadium rock, building anthems around loops and dark guitar. I think it works wonderfully.

Standout Track: Raining Again

3. Annie - Anniemal: One of the best pop albums of all time, every track has a gorgeous sheen, backed by perfect production. Annie's voice isn't that strong, but within the synth and bass environment of the songs, it works perfectly, the whispiness floating over the instruments, whether on the goofy fun 'Chewing Gum' or melancholy 'My Best Friend.' However, the standout track is 'Heartbeat,' which uses a driving bass to represent her racing heart over the course of a night at a party. Lyrically, it's surprisingly nuanced and on the whole, it's a perfect pop song.

Standout Track: Heartbeat

2. United State of Electronica - U.S.E: A fusion of Daft Punk style vocoder techno and Polyphonic Spree style anthemic songs, this is basically the perfect band for me. The songs take the same anthemic style of The Spree, but with a more party feel than the psuedo-religiousness of The Spree. The opening track states that "It Is On" and indeed it is right from there. Every track is catchy and layered with great instrumentals. There's also a nice variation between tracks, most notably on the very disco 'Night Shift.' If this album doesn't make you happy, something is wrong with you.

Standout Track: Emerald City

1. The Raveonettes - Pretty in Black: Once again, a fusion of retro and modern to create something new. Listening to this album the first time, I was struck by how 50s it sounded, but a couple more listening revealed that this was much more than 50s pastiche, it's updating the sounds of 50s rock and 60s girl group music into something darker and contemporary. There's two really strong rockers 'You Say, You Lie' and 'Twilight,' which takes the Twilight Zone theme song as its bass line. Then there's ballads, 'Here Comes Mary' and 'Ode to L.A.,' the latter which features gorgeous ethereal vocals. However, the two highlights of the album are 'Sleepwalking' and 'Uncertain Times.' 'Sleepwalking' has a slo-mo chorus, which then breaks into a hyper rocking verse, combining the best of their rock and ballad stuff. 'Uncertain Times' is incredibly beautiful, with a reckless abandon. It's one of the best tracks of the year and this is by far the best album of the year.

Standout Track: Uncertain Times

Friday, December 30, 2005

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the conclusion of Chanwook Park's 'Vengeance Trilogy,' which includes one of my favorite films of recent years, Oldboy. Oldboy is a stunning piece of pop excess, with the violence and filmmaking all taken to their limits. Lady Vengeance has more in common with the first film in the trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. I just finished the film a few minutes ago, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about it yet, it's definitely a great movie, I'm just not sure how great.

The first really notable thing watching this movie is just how phenomenal a director is. Every shot is absoultely gorgeous, the framing accentuating the narrative content within a beautiful environment. At one point Lee Geum-Ja says she wants everything to be pretty and in this film, even when ugly things are happening, it looks good. It's much like a Wong Kar-Wai film in that way, that the environments and shots are so beautiful, just watching it as a piece of visual art makes for a satisfying experience.

I loved the stripe design in Lee Geum-Ja's apartment, the isolation of the farmhouse and the white of the bakery. The opening credits were stunning, reminding me a bit of Edward Scissorhands. I also really loved the outfit she wore throughout the film, the leather functioning like armor and also positioning her as a bit of a dominatrix, inflicting violence on those who displease her. Wearing it, she looks beautiful, but always haunted and cold, distanced from everyone, even her daughter. I also liked the way he used her eyeshadow as a further element of her war uniform, it signaled her complete transformation into this woman in search of vengeance.

Early in the film when she first gets out of prison people are constantly telling her that she seems like she's not herself. Watching this at the time, I assumed that she was putting on this persona in prison, of the good person, but in actuality, the eye shadow would imply that the violent woman is the false persona that she puts on. While her good deeds in prison are done in service of her plan, the way she behaves when seeking revenge implies that it isn't really her.

Whoever she was before is completely destroyed when she goes to live with Baek. When she is forced to take the fall for him, she puts her life on hold so that she can seek vengeance against him. She works within the system, devoted her entire life to destroying this guy, and that's why the fact that Mo-Wan wasn't the only child he killed is so powerful.

When she first gets out of prison, she seeks to recover the self she left behind when she went to prison. When she has sex with her co-worker, she makes note of the fact that he's how old she was when she went to prison, and probably how old Jenny's father was as well. However, when she goes to Australia, she sees that Jenny has a life, she's moved on, Lee Geum-Ja's sacrifice was successful in getting her a new chance at life, but it also means that she will never really view Lee Geum-Ja as her mother.

The scenes with Geum-Ja and the parents reminded me a lot of Clean. In both films, the mother has difficulty reconciling the fact that the child is hers, but has moved on and has other parents. Geum-Ja doesn't know her place in the relationship and that's why she hesitates to bring Jenny to Seoul. She also hesitates because she knows that what she has to do could get nasty. When she does get back, she tries to recreate the family she could have had, but it's difficult because her co-worker simultaneously represents Mo-Wan and her lover. So, he is simultaneously Jenny's brother and her father, something made explicit in the scene where he's teaching her Korean.

The whole first half of the film is very interesting from a technical standpoint. The opening scene kicks things right off, I love her saying "Screw you," then putting on the sunglasses. She is actively rejecting morality to become a crusader for vengeance. The overlapping voiceovers are effective in conveying narrative information and developing the little background characters. Also, I really liked the mingling of present narrative and prison stuff, gradually revealing the extent of Geum-Ja's plan. I loved the tableau presentation of characters, with many frequently speaking directly to the camera.

Anyway, when she finally gets Baek, she's all set to get her vengeance and move on, however, she soon realizes that Mo-Wan wasn't the only child, there were four more. At this point, Geum-Ja recognizes that though she certainly was wronged, at least she still has Jenny. For the other parents, things turned out much worse, and though they've moved on to some extent, the wounds clearly fester.

One of the main issues I had with the film on this first viewing was that I was expecting some Oldboy level joyous carnage, and you just don't get that here. There's very little of the joy in pain that was evident in Oldboy. Oldboy takes place in an essentially cartoon universe, while this film brings vengeance down to reality. This is most evident in the videos of the kidnapped children. I think those scenes were designed to demystify the violence, this is real harm being done to innocents, and those videos are pretty disturbing.

From here, we watch as a bunch of rational people decide that a man deserves to die. Baek is undeniably evil, but the characters seem to take little joy in what they do, rather it's cathartic. For all the parents, killing Baek is the chance to finally put to resolve their issues and move on. So, they kill him in an orderly way. I really liked how the police officer had to explain how to use a knife, and the neccesity to hold off on killing him until everyone got a turn.

Here, the actual act of vengeance isn't the climax of the film. Geum-Ja watches it from a distance, jealous of the fact that these people finally have found peace. Even though what was done to them was awful, by the time they reach the table, they've moved on to practical matters, like getting their money back. They were victims, and time had already healed most of their wounds.

However, Geum-Ja has to deal with the guilt of her complicity in Baek's plans, because she took the fall for Baek to save her own daughter, these parents lost their own children. So, looking at Jenny, she has to wonder if her life is worth the price of the four who died. And she also has to deal with the fact that thirteen years of her life were taken from her, and now she's left with nothing, when Jenny leaves, she'll be completely alone, without the vengeance to push her along. And watching the other parents take revenge, she feels unworthy of being involved, her daughter is still alive, so she doesn't deserve the vengeance.

In Oldboy, Lee Woo-Jin commited fifteen years of his life to finding vengeance, and when he had finally acheived his revenge, he killed himself. There was nothing left for him because he had built his life around destroying Oh Dae-su's. Geum-Ja was similarly committed to vengeance, and at the end of the film, it's left uncertain whether or not she'll be able to move on.

As their dinner ends, the parents move out into the snow, into a clean, white world. However, Geum-Ja stays inside, unable to move on. In the bathroom, she sees Mo-Wan, and when he leaves her, she finally feels free enough to move on. The narrator says earlier that she wanted desperately to see him, and now that she has, she is able to wipe off the eye shadow and move out into the white that she had previously rejected.

The final scenes of the film are incredibly beautiful. The falling snow, white contrasted against Geum-Ja's darkness is such a striking, powerful image. Emotionally, it's very powerful stuff, Geum-Ja breaking down while her daughter offers her the cake, the chance for redemption, to not sin again and instead build a new, clean white life. Geum-Ja accepts it, but she's too broken by her ordeal to take it in a conventional way, rather she smashes it. Burrowing in the cake provides a very ambiguous conclusion for the character. The way I see it is that she's emotionally broken at this point, collapsing into the cake because her desire for redemption is so strong. She wants a new start, but at the same time, she destroys that which would give her the new start. Geum-Ja has been reduced to an innocent, a child, seeking forgiveness. The roles are reversed here, and it's her daughter who gives her the chance to start over. Geum-Ja is left with the realization that without the vengeance, she doesn't know who she is. The person she once was has been destroyeed by the violence, and even though Baek is dead, she can never get back that which was taken from her.

Emotionally, at the end I was drained. The final scene was so beautiful and sad, as was the whole film. Though there were a lot of funny bits, it's a much more melancholy film than Oldboy. This was about being pulled to Earth rather than rising to the supernatural operatic heights that that film acheived. Even in the score you can see the difference, both use driving strings as the base element, but Oldboy backed it with pulsing club beats, while SFLV merely lets them stand alone. Both scores are amazing, they're just different.

This is one I'm going to be watching again in the next couple of days, but even from this first viewing, it's clear that Park's filmmaking is way beyond nearly everyone else out there. The images he captures are primal and powerful, evoking strong emotions. It's not as strong a movie as Oldboy, but it's still a masterpiece. Comparing this film to yesterday's Munich, it's striking how much more you're drawn into this movie. Munich always kept you at a distance, never making you feel what was happening. In this movie, there were a number of moments that had me gasping, and more importantly, throughout the whole thing, there was an energy of anticipation. I wanted this movie to keep going because it was such a beautiful world to move through.

I'll close with a statement from Park that summarizes what makes his revenge films so special, such thoroughly engaging, exhilirating and draining filmgoing experiences.: ""Basically, I'm throwing out the question 'When is such violence justified?' To get that question to touch the audience physically and directly - that's what my goal is. In the experience of watching my film, I don't want the viewer to stop at the mental or the intellectual. I want them to feel my work physically." With Lady Vengeance, the mission was accomplished.

X-Men: Inferno (240-243)

Inferno was designed as a deck clearing exercise, to get rid of a bunch of long standing plots, most notably the confusion surrounding Jean Grey and Madelyne Pryor. Maddy Pryor was created as a replacement for Jean Grey, someone for Scott to be with who was like Jean, but wasn't her. When she first appeared, there was a bunch of mystery surrounding her, and unfortunately, we'll never know what Claremont's original plans for Madelyne were because the editors at Marvel decided to bring Jean back, thus rendering Maddy obsolete, both for Scott and for the editors. To them, Maddy was just a replacement for Jean, and with the original back, she can go.

However, that view ignores the fact that Claremont wrote her into an amazing character on her own terms, one who I would argue is much more interesting than Jean. Maddy is someone who's been through a lot of awful experiences, what with her husband leaving her, her son being kidnapped, her identity erased, and the attempt on her life, it was a tough couple of years. But, rather than retreat into either a normal life or total depression, she decided to join up with the X-Men and become a member of the team, despite the doubts about whether or not she belongs.

For me, the dramatic highpoint for the character is Fall of the Mutants. While the X-Men are heroes and feel an obligation to sacrifice themselves to defeat the adversary, Maddy is just an ordinary person and it would be easy for her to just leave, however, instead she chooses to sacrifice her life too, becoming a hero even though she has no special powers. As I mentioned earlier, there's some serious issues surrounding that crossover, but the most effective emotional moment was when Maddy says goodbye to Scott and her son.

At this point, I think Maddy was the most interesting character in the book, because she was really uncertain about her place, but still trying to do the right thing. However, in the 230s, things start to get odd for the character. Now, it's difficult in this case to evaluate the work, because from what I understand, Claremont was not fully behind what happened with Maddy, yet at the same time, he did write the book, so in evaluating it, some of the blame for what goes wrong certainly falls on him.

At this point, the whole story of what happened to the character becomes incredibly meta. The editors seem to have decided that Maddy needed to go, seeing as how she's nothing more than a clone of Jean, ignoring the fact that she had taken on her own identity in the interim. Thus, Maddy's greatest fear is realized in the actions of the editor, the idea that she really is just a spare Jean Grey. She's unable to recognize that she has taken on a unique personality beyond being Jean, but she can't see beyond it, and as a result, a story is set up that will get rid of Madelyne while at the same time absolving Scott of his guilt for abandoning her to be with Jean. So, if Maddy goes out as a hero, Scott would have even more guilt, so we get the emergence of the Goblin Queen.

The whole business with Maddy here was rather confusing. At some point in the 230s, Maddy makes a deal with a demon to get powers that will help her get her son back, that's her primary motivator throughout all the previous issues. Yet, when we reach Inferno, she's decided to kill her son. It's this inconsistency in the presentation of the character that bothers me. It was clear that the intent was first to turn Maddy evil, and having her try to kill her son was clearly the easiest way to do this. The point where she hurls Nathan off a cliff and Scott saves him is a bit ridiculous, because Scott was the one who walked out on Nate in the first place.

So, the major issue I have with the storyline is the fact that it's basically a character assassination piece. Madelyne had become a really interesting character, and there were a lot of directions they could go with her, certainly having her involved with Havok brings up a lot of issues for both Scott and Alex, however, a logical exploration of that conflict is lost because Maddy goes crazy, meaning that Havok has to apologize for trying to comfort her.

It's unclear the extent to which the demon possession affects Madelyne's psyche, it seems like her involvement with Nasrith brings out the evil within her, but it's basically set up so that we can reach the point where Jean can kill her without guilt. So, she constantly does bad things to turn our sympathies aganst her, but it's so contrived, it doesn't really work.

The big finale for the storyline occurs in X-Factor 38, where Jean battles with Maddy and we get a very convoluted thing involving the Phoenix and memories being transferred to Jean as she fights Maddy. There's some really cool layouts here, covering the fact that there's an absurd amount of exposition here. I do enjoy the stuff with Mister Sinister, and there's a lot of interesting issues surrounding Jean confronting her clone, a darker version of herself. I think the intention here was to have Jean atone for what she did as Dark Phoenix, by defeating Madelyne, she's one and for all showing that she has control over the dark side of herself. However, the bizarre thing here is that Marvel would want their heroes to be free of guilt. As Morrison shows in his run, Scott is a much more interesting character when he's treading on the dark side, and having Jean completely absolved of everything is just a bizarre choice.

What the end of the story seems to imply is that all of Maddy's memories are absolved into Jean's head, which would primarily be an excuse to make Jean work as Nathan's mother. This story seems to be designed to get rid of the complication of Maddy, so now we don't have to worry about the issue of the kid's mother.

I've got a lot of issues with the retcons in this chunk of the storyline. Past events are reconfigured to excuse Scott for walking out on her. The most ridiculous is the idea that Maddy was influencing the fight between Scott and Storm in 201, to ensure that Scott would be with her. For one, during that issue, she had just had a baby, who Scott was showing no interest in. At that point, Claremont's agenda seemed to be to show Scott as flawed in his belief that he needed to be a leader and the point of the story was to puncture his belief that the X-Men needed him, so he could go off and be with his family. Now it's reconfigured as Maddy selfishly wanting him only for herself, which isn't even that ridiculous considering she'd just had a baby. Shouldn't she want Scott to be with her? And yet at the same, Scott is now seen as the one so committed to his child, while Maddy is the reckless one.

In X-Men 243, we find out that Maddy now apparently exists in Jean's mind. This entire sequence is rather confusing because first we see her in her pilot outfit and it's clearly her, yet as the conversation proceeds, she's wearing Jean's X-Men outfits, yet still speaks like she's Maddy. This issue does provide some redemption for Maddy, who is portrayed much more like she was prior to the whole Goblin Queen business. I do really like the shifting outfits and locations on the mental plane and the way the memories are depicted as shards of glass is stunning. So, the entire time Madelyne was led to believe that she inferior, created only to serve the manipulator Sinister, however, at the end, she finally rejects him and wielding the power of the Phoenix knocks him out of Jean's mind and saves the X-Men. I'm not sure if that's how it's supposed to be read, since Jean is notably absent during this sequence that takes place in her own mind, yet going over it a couple of times, it would appear to be Maddy who finally shows up Sinister, and if I had to guess basically moves on after her Phoenix show.

So, that's the end of Madelyne Pryor. I thought she was a fantastic character and even though this was a really strong, epic storyline, it was marred by how she was dealt with and disposed of, sacrificed to absolve Scott and Jean. Though I imagine part of my bias towards her may be the fact that I've only been reading the X-Men issues, and as a result only see her side of the story, and don't really know what's going on with Scott and Jean in their book. But still, the fact that someone who abandoned his wife is canonized, while Maddy is villified is very poor storytelling.

The thing I really did like about the storyline was just how epic it was. Even though there were two previous crossovers, this was the first where the plots really do crossover and both teams are together. The threat they're facing justifies this massive involvement, and all of the characters actually get something interesting to do during the storyline. It feels like they really earn the victory when it's finally acheived.

After the demon infested New York business, we get a big finale when the X-Men get to finally confront Sinister the mastermind who's been manipulating their lives, or at least Scott's. While Sinister is very cool, their best foe other than Magneto, the issue does seem to indulge in a lot of retconning to excuse Scott's actions. So, not only was he abused as a child, but Maddy was sent in to harvest his DNA, he was programmed to be attracted to her, and what he did is even more excusable.

Sinister's death comes a bit quick, considering how much critical stuff in Scott's past was just revealed. However, the scene itself really works, particularly Havok getting out some of his rage at Scott for abandoning Maddy and letting her become the Goblin Queen. He clearly feels that Scott is at fault, even if the sentiment of the story seems designed to excuse him. When Sinister is blown apart, there's a strong sense of resolution, even though I know that he'll be coming back eventually. With Sinister's death, plot threads dating back to the Mutant Massacre are laid to rest, and with Maddy's stuff, going back 75 issues is resolved. If the story was designed to wipe the slate clean, it certainly acheived that.

Some random notes on Inferno. I found it weird how they were constantly talking about how Infero had changed their appearance, the costumes seemed basically the same, though maybe Rogue's hair was a bit more ridiculous. Also, I found it weird how the X-Men went dark, there was no real explanation for why they did and X-Factor didn't, other than just the fact that the writers wanted to have the two teams fight. Also, the Goblin Queen outfit was a bit ridiculous, in terms of gravity, the top piece makes no sense, definite wardrobe malfunction potential there. Similarly, you'd think Alex would have some issues with his Goblin Prince outfit. And there are similar absolution issues over in the New Mutants chunk of the storyline, where Ilyana is returned to childhood, thus absolving her of guilt for all her actions as the Darkchylde.

On the whole, it's a really strong storyline, marred by the way that it deals with the characters. It's nonsensical to want to get rid of Maddy Pryor, because she was one of the most interesting characters in the book, but still, she had to go. And from here, it's a mere 35 issues to the end of Claremont's run.

Revenge! Man on Fire and Munich

Over the past couple of days, I've seen two rather different revenge films. Some of my favorite films from recent years have been revenge movies, each dealing with the genre in extremely different ways. Oldboy and Kill Bill use a revenge plot as an excuse for an absurd amount of near cartoonish violence, though each ultimately fall to Earth in their own way. Irreversible is a deconstruction of the genre, altering the narrative structure to alter the audience's emotional experience of events. Man on Fire and Munich are more conventional revenge films, Man on Fire is basically a 70s exploitation movie made today, while Munich engages with the traditional contradiction of the genre, simultaneously exulting in the violence and condemning it.

Man on Fire was the film where Tony Scott reinvented his style and became basically the ultimate MTV-style filmmaker, with a style that uses constant cutting and image manipulation. The culmination of this style was Domino, which I loved. Man on Fire falls between that style and a more conventional style, and you can see Tony pushing at the boundaries of what he can do with the medium.

The really interesting thing about this movie is the fact that Scott does not condemn the revenge. Most revenge movies end with the ultimate realization that seeking vengeance wasn't such a good idea, often creating a cycle of violence that wrecks the lives of all involved, as seen in Irreversible, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Munich. Man on Fire either takes place in an alternate film world, where such violence is okay, or it's making a really odd comment on reality. This is a film that's so gleeful in the violence the characters enact, it would be easy to imagine the filmmakers condoning the act. However, I think it's more that the filmmakers are taking the joy in the filmic depiction of the violence.

Tracking back a bit, after a hyper opening sequence, the film slows down to a pretty normal speed and for about 45 minutes is the story of Creasy bonding with Pita. This stuff is all pretty effective, and you really feel that the bond is earned, largely because so much screentime is invested in it. When he's riding in the car with her and won't answer her questions, it's tough to watch because you want him to embrace her. After the really cool attempted suicide scene, things pick up and we get some nice scenes of the two of them bonding.

The fact that we believe in the bond that they form is essential because it provides the emotional justification for Creasy's revenge quest. I read a couple of reviews that criticize the screentime spent on their relationship, however to cut down on that time would remove the primary emotional component of the film. When Pita is kidnapped, you really do want Creasy to go out and get her.

Once she's taken, the film takes a dramatic shift in tone and style, becoming a series of increasingly violent and sadistic scenes as Creasy goes around taking vengeance on the people who kidnapped Pita. The film has a very 70s exploitation feel, there's no attempt to provide a moral counterpoint, when Pita's mother condones the revenge quest we're basically at a point where anything's acceptable, and this excuses the film from dealing with any of the moral questions that arise from what Creasy is doing. As the viewer, you're aware that he's going way too far right around the time he implants a bomb in someone's ass. Seriously.

But Scott is making a film that's purely devoted to showing this violence in the coolest way possible. It's basically updating the archetypal Death Wish or Dirty Harry story, girl kidnapped and wronged, police won't deal with it, so our hero takes it into his own hands. So, unlike Tarantino who created the ultimate 70s exploitation film with Kill Bill, Scott is just updating the setting and style, but keeping the narrative on roughly the same level.

The thing that really makes this film interesting to watch is the filmmaking. A lot of people will call the style gimmicky or "distracting," but the style is the film. Considering that he chose to follow up this film with a practically non-narrative movie, it's clear that Scott was really interested in how he was showing what he was showing. I think this film's style is more open to criticism because it's so jarringly removed from what had come before, whereas Domino was united in terms of tone and style.

The film reaches its peak with the incredible rave scene. When I heard that Creasy had to get someone who runs a rave, the film instantly took up a notch. The thought of Tony Scott visual style in a rave was almost too much to contemplate and the scene certainly delivered. Rave scenes are one of my personal favorite filmmaking things, and this one was full of energy, hyped up with effects and cutting. This was the best example in this film of what Scott did a lot in Domino, and that's build the film to suit the music, really integrating the cutting into what was going on with the track. The sequence is sensual saturation and is certainly the highlight of the film, particularly the ending where the whole club blows up and everyone just keeps raving outside.

The thing about Scott that a lot of people criticize is how hyperactive the films are, the fact that dialogue will just appear on screen, but I think it's great. I don't think every movie should be made like Tony Scott, but watching this thing or Domino, it's a really unique film experience. The story of this movie is decent, but in the second half, it's really the style that keeps things going. At his best, the editing and images create a rhythm to the point that it becomes more like visual music than a narrative. It's interesting that some of the most avant garde, unique stuff in the medium is being done within the context of these really average narrative, Hollywood studio films.

The film is basically about going more and more over the top. At the point where Creasy fires a rocket at a car out in the street, you basically choose either to reject this as absolutely ridiculous or just go along with it and accept whatever happens. The afforementioned anal-bomb scene is another example of this. After the father killed himself, the film started to drift for me. Two and a half hours for this type of movie is a bit much, and I felt like that moment was the big reveal, when you saw that her father betrayed her, there was really nowhere left to go from there.

However, they did go further and it turns out that Pita is in fact alive. From a narrative point of view, this certainly makes sense, but thematically, it seemed like it was there to justify Creasy's actions throughout the film. If he's with Pita for 45 minutes and kills people for an hour and a half, we might get a bit morally skewed at the end. However, by having Pita actually be alive, and having Creasy's actions save her validates the entire vengeance quest, meaning that everything he's done over the course of the film has had a purpose. It's been about saving her rather than avenging her.

So, it felt a bit weird that the film seemed to wallow in this violence without real motivation and then at the end chose to validate it completely, rather than question at all his decision to kill all these people. Unlike most revenge films, this one allows you to enjoy the violence without the pesky conscience. It's certainly more emotionally engaging than Domino, but the need to stick to a narrative seems to constrain some of the more experimental filmmaking. It was clearly a neccesary step, but I think Domino is a better film. Man on Fire is so sadistic, it becomes a bit depressing, whereas Domino presented a more fun, glossy fantasy world that you could enjoy.

So, switching gears from the genre ghetto to the uptown neighborhood of the prestige film. Munich is a more issue based film than most revenge movies, and that causes some problems. By taking a global focus, we're deprived of the personal emotional investment than usually motivates a revenge film. However, that was likely the intention, to throw the characters into a morally ambiguous world where revenge is something they're supposed to seek, even if they're increasingly unsure about whether they want to.

I think the film was very effective in creating a morally uncertain world. Even as the mission begins, it's clear that not everyone is totally on board for what they're doing. As things go on, they make more and more compromises, willing to kill civilians, and also taking out people on the periphery. The very act of killing loses its taboo status, something that Avner makes explicit when he says he doesn't even think about it as he's going to sleep. Yet, at the same time, each member of the crew is starting to question whether or not what they're doing makes any difference, and gradually they each fall away from the mission.

By killing others, they make themselves targets, and in the best sequence in the film, end up having to kill a woman assassin, solely out of their own desire for vengeance, with no connection to the general mission. The reason why that sequence is so powerful is because it's the primary crossing the line. There's no political reasoning behind this killing, it's just a pure desire for revenge.

That's the primary arc of the film, showing the dehumanization due to their violence. So, my primary issue with the movie was we never got a really strong moment where Avner reacts against this and reclaims his humanity. The ideal place to do this would have been after they're chased out of the Salemeh compound. This is the first time that Avner's life is really in danger, and confronting that would have allowed him to recognize the seriousness of what he's doing. Thematically, it's definitely conveyed, and we see him rejecting the original quest, but you never get that strong moment where he chooses to put down the sword and choose peace over the cycle of violence.

I guess the moment I'm looking for is like in Return of the Jedi, when Luke chops off Vader's hand, and then stops, recognizes what he's become and throws down the saber. That's one of the best moments of the film, and you miss it here. The entire character arc is building to this moment and it's not shown. Now, this may have been deliberate, it would be tough to do, but I just felt emotionally incomplete after the film ended.

The intercutting of the sex with the murder of the athletes provided some emotional impact, but the sequence didn't directly comment on Avner's actions. I suppose you could read it as Avner seeing himself in the terrorists, it certainly works on an intellectual level, but not emotionally.

It's a really strong film, but it stops just short of greatness. Part of this is because it's putting forth the exact same theme as Irreversible, and Irreversible absolutely immerses you in the violence, to the point that you literally cannot imagine wanting to seek revenge. This film presents things from a more de-dramatized perspective, telling us at the end that violence creates cycles, so we understand the idea, but we don't feel it. Part of what's preventing me from really embracing the film is just that Irreversible took the same themes, but told them in a much more exciting, personal way.

Now, you may say that Munich isn't a revenge film in the same way those are, but thematically and narratively, it is. It has the same structure, and a film with this much violence certainly belongs with those others. Just because something's about historical events doesn't automatically exclude it from genre classification. It's a much more socially responsible film than Man on Fire, but the two films are not that far removed.

Filmmaking wise, this is a really well made film, but it doesn't immerse you in the world. Revenge stories are so simple that they're the perfect excuse for stylistic excess. My beloved revenge trinity (Irreversible, Oldboy, Kill Bill) are three of the most exhilirating movies ever made, constantly wowing you with the shot and music choices. That's the difference between a well made film and a virtuostic masterwork, a well made film you respect and admire, whereas a masterwork draws you in and makes you gasp at watching the medium used in a new way.

There seems to be a conception that any film that uses over style or editing is somehow cheap and gimmicky. People put them down as all style and no substance, but all substance and no style is no fun either. I want that moment where you are just in awe of the film, and that's what this was missing. I would consider it a compliment to the movie that I'm talking about it in those terms, since it means it nailed everything else, it just couldn't go the extra mile to greatness.

Vengeance continues when I get the DVD of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance from Hong Kong, which should be in the next couple of days. Oldboy was one of the best films of recent years, and I'm a big fan of films with women killing people, so it should be quite the film.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Looking to '06

The year is almost over and 2005 has not turned out to be a great year for film, in large part due to the fact that a lot of the films I was really looking forward to got pushed back to 2006. But now that we're almost at 2006, this has become a good thing, and there's a whole bunch of movies I'm really looking forward to next year. Once again, some of these films might not make it out next year, but hopefully they all will and hopefully they'll be great. So, here's my ten most anticipated films of 2006.

12. The Departed - This is Scorsese's remake of the fantastic Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. Normally I won't condone remakes, but in this case, it's such a great premise, it almost begs to be told again. I think IA was fantastic, but there are a lot of different things you can do with the basic premise, and it sounds like Jack Nicholson is going insane on this project. I think this picture speaks for itself. Hopefully he's going to give the kind of performance that makes this something unique, different from the pre-existing film.

11. Miami Vice - Once again, a remake, but this time it's Michael Mann updating his own TV series, so again, it's taking a basic premise and doing something different. Mann is always good, but I wasn't totally excited about this project until I saw the trailer, which is very cool, and features some very cool looking club scenes. The high point of Mann's Collateral was the shootout in the nightclub. Plus, it's got Gong Li, of 2046 fame, it looks to be a really stylish action film, regardless of whether or not it's pastel t-shirt under that suit jacket.

10. V For Vendetta - This is a movie I'm a bit wary of, Alan Moore disowned it and initial script reviews were weak, but the reviews coming out from early screenings are all exuberant, citing it as not only a great film, but an important cultural event. Moore's book is one of my favorite graphic novels, and there's certainly the potential for a good film. It's true that it's even half as good as the book, it'll be a strong film, and this looks like it'll be the biggest stretch of Natalie Portman's career, hopefully bringing back some of the steel resolve she had in Leon, when she gave one of the best performances in any film ever.

9. Angel-A - Speaking of Leon, Luc Besson has his first new film in six year coming out. It was actually released in France last week, and will hopefully make it over here next year. It seems to be an action/comedy/romance, filmed in striking black and white. Besson's stuff is always visuallly interesting, and the plot seems to play to his strengths, his films always feature strong women in action, and the title character here will definitely fill that role. Watching the trailer, the film looks to have some of the spirit of Amelie, but a bit darker, and most notably, it's got some very, very strong images. If Besson can come close to the level of The Professional, we'll have a great film.

8Art School Confidential - This is Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes' followup to one of my favorite films, Ghost World. I loved the stuff with Claire in art school in season three of Six Feet Under, the odd dynamic of simultaneously working together and yet being each other's competition, wanting to top other peoples' work. There's a ton of potential for the cold, sarcastic characterization seen in Ghost World in this environment, the stuff with Illeana Douglas would seem to be a preview. There's not that many movies actually about the creation of art, but this would seem to be one and I'm hoping it'll be a biting dark comedy.

7. Fast Food Nation - This is one of two Richard Linklater films coming out next year, and I'm hoping it'll be a return to greatness after the weakness that was this year's Bad News Bear. Nation will apparently be a big ensemble piece, and that's definitely one of Linklater's strengths. Dazed and Confused did Altmanesque better than Altman himself ever did, and this film will likely touch on a lot of the alienation that D&C had. This will also be Linklater's most political film yet, all of his movies are concerned with big issues, but he's never done an issue movie to the extent that this one is. I'm hoping that he'll be able to create really strong characters so this isn't just an intellectual exercise, like Traffic was, but rather it's a really difficult emotional experience.

6. Clerks 2 - This is another one I'm not sure about. Smith hasn't made a really strong film since Chasing Amy, but I'm hoping that a return to low budget filmmaking will help curb some of the badness that plagued his last two films. On the one hand, it's a bit ridiculous to make a sequel to Clerks, it would indicate the failure to come up with anything new and a bottoming out after his attempt to go mainstream. But at the same time, Before Sunset showed how powerful the ten years later sequel can be, and if Smith does something along the lines of that film, we could have a great movie here. The early buzz sounds pretty good, but I'm going to have to reserve judgment until I've seen the film.

5. Marie Antoinette - Sofia Coppola is one of the most exciting voices in American film right now, and I basically trust that whatever she makes will be great. Normally, I'm not a fan of period pieces, but watching the trailer for this, the characters feel very contemporary and real, in the same way that the people in Barry Lyndon did. The whole thing has a very Lyndon feel, with characters who crash against the absurditities of their society. It's an interesting cast, and I'm really confident that this will be a great movie, we shall see.

4. A Scanner Darkly - Another Linklater film, it's great to see one of my favorite filmmakers adapting a book by one of my favorite authors. As Linklater's speech in Waking Life shows, he's a big PKD fan, and this project is definitely suited to his philosophizing stoner sensibility. PKD wasn't about glossy futures, as seen in Minority Report or Paycheck, he was much more about dirty, gritty lives that are inherently tied to the 60s and 70s society he lived in. This film seems to embrace that style, even as he uses the sci-fi technology. Plus, if anyone's ready to played a burnt out detective with an identity crisis, it's Keanu.

3. The Science of Sleep - Gondry's music video work is some of the most astonishing filmmaking you'll ever see, and Eternal Sunshine is one of the best fusions of crazy dreamlike filmmaking with a really strong emotional throughline. Science of Sleep follows along the lines of the video for 'Everlong,' which chronicles a man's attempts to save his girlfriend as he moves through a world of dreams. Other than the weak anomaly that was Human Nature, everything that Gondry's done has been fantastic, and this sounds like his most personal project yet, seeing as how it's written and directed by him. Gondry's done so much good work in the past, I'll see pretty much anything he puts out.

2. INLAND EMPIRE - After a five year wait, we'll at last have a new Lynch film. This is another one that has some concerns, for one it's shot on digital at Lynch's house, and he's been filming on and off for two years. This would not seem to lead to a cohesive film, however MD had a similar on and off production and that worked well, so hopefully this will too. The other potential holdup is his quest for world peace, which may make him feel a bit guilty about chronicling depression, death and violence. However, I'm confident that Lynch the filmmaker will remain seperate from Lynch peace crusader, and hopefully we'll get a great film here. The man is on a roll with Lost Highway and MD, I'm really excited to see what he does next.

1. The Fountain - This is a movie that's been in the works forever, and hopefully will finally make it to theaters next year. Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream was one of the most intense pieces of filmmaking I've ever seen, you don't walk out of that final montage unaffected. With this new film, Aronofsky goes off into three different time periods, with stories that connect across time and space. This seems like it might be the most mind blowing sci-fi film since 2001, the only film to approach the blend of sci-fi and metaphysical truth that makes Kubrick's film one of the best ever made. The Fountain seems like it will touch on practically all my favorite topics, metaphysics, large cast, multiple time storytelling, and groundbreaking filmmaking. I need to see this movie.

So, it's looking like a pretty good year. There's the chance we could have a Paul Thomas Anderson film as well, and a very remote chance that Wong Kar-Wai will finish The Lady From Shanghai. But even with just this, it's looking like a great year. Looking at my preview of 2005, I only had seven films and three of them didn't even come out, so it's understandable it was a weak year, but with 06, if even half these films hit, it'll be a great year for cinema.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Review Revue

With winter break in full swing, I'm busy working on my new film, and also watching a bunch of films. So, here's the latest stuff I've seen.

King Kong - There was a really great movie in there, but I feel like there was way too much fat to make it an enjoyable film experience. First, it took way too long to get to Kong, there were a ton of scenes that felt like stuff I'd usually see in a deleted scenes section and say "Yeah, I can see why they cut that."

I feel like the dinosaurs took away from the majesty of Kong. If we've already got a giant ape, why do we need dinosaurs, it just felt gratuitous and added nothing to the film's emotional center, which was Kong and Ann Darrow. The stuff with the dinosaurs was completely pointless, not cool enough to justify its existence, and certainly not relevant to the narrative.

I think Naomi Watts was phenomenal in this movie, they used a lot of very tight closeups on her and you could see everything that needed to be said in her face. And Kong too was amazing, totally convincing. The stuff with the two of them worked wonderfully, and the ending sequence was a real highlight. The sensation of height was conveyed so well that I was actually feeling uncomfortable, with the shot of Ann on the broken ladder as a particular highlight.

I would have liked to see about 45 minutes cut, to bring the focus on Kong and Darrow, without the distractions of the other people. The crew was never particularly developed, but there was a ton of time spent on them, and then they just disappeared once the movie went back to New York, meaning there was no payoff for all that time spent. It's like two seperate movies, one about King Kong, the other about random people fighting stuff.

Heavenly Creatures - Mixing it up, I checked out some earlier Peter Jackson. This was made in 1994, before he rose to fame with Lord of the Rings, and even though it's a much more conventional drama, you can see a lot of both the stylistic and narrative trends that would flower in his work on LotR. The film's about a very close relationship between two girls who together create a fantasy world. The thing that makes the film work is the depiction of the relationship, it sets up a really strong us vs. the world vibe, as the two girls become closer and closer. This was one of Kate Winslet's first roles and she's great, you can see why she would go on to become a star. Whenever she's on screen, the film has a lot of energy.

The main thing holding the film back from greatness is the sort of haphazard narrative progress. A whole bunch of events happen, but becuase things take place over such a long period of time, it's sometimes difficult to piece together exact cause and effect, meaning that a lot of events pop up out of nowhere. However, pretty much every issue is redeemed by the haunting ending, particularly the final titles which leave you with a really odd feeling. So, it's not Lord of the Rings, but it's a disciplined, character based emotional film, that does have a large scope, even though it's just about two people.

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc - Continuing with the slightly insane girl theme, I also saw this film. Messenger was directed by Luc Besson, who directed Leon: The Professional, one of my absolute favorite films ever made. Messenger was not well received, but I really liked it. Cinematically, the story of Joan of Arc is most notably represented in Dreyer's Passion of Jeanne D'Arc, a really powerful silent film. However, that film focused on her trial, while Messenger takes a wider view, showing her rise to glory and ultimate fall.

The thing that made the film effective for me was the innovative filmmaking. There's a lot of dream moments, and the imagery in these is phenomenal, some cool time lapse and lush lighting. Towards the end of the film, Dustin Hoffman appears as some kind of supernatural being, who forces Joan to question all her beliefs. She believes she's doing God's will, but he basically poses the idea that she is actually insane, and has tried to see God where there is nothing but coincidence. Throughout the film, Joan is rather emphatic, believing herself to be God's servant and not considering an alternative. So, at the end, her self doubt is logical and interesting to watch.

The more conventional parts of the film are also interesting. It's got a lot of medieval action that recalls Braveheart or Lord of the Rings, but it's all well done and entertaining. Most importantly, the action is used as a way to develop Joan's character, we're more concerned with seeing the men get behind her than seeing her actually win. It's like the real battle is making them believe that they can win, if she does that, then the actual fight is easy. The film is a bit long, but the images are so strong that I was never bored. Besson shoots in a really dynamic, engaging way, so that the emotion of the visual moment is more important than the narrative. When every frame has interesting construction, there's always something to engage with.

Naked Lunch - This is David Cronenberg's take on the William Burroughs novel. I haven't read the novel, so I'm not sure if this is a strict adaptation, though I read that a lot of the film's events were actually taken from Burroughs' own life. Regardless of whether this works for a Burroughs fan, it's also got to work as a film too, and I feel like this movie runs into a lot of the issues that plagued Last Days, where you need to know a lot about the person going in. However, I feel like Last Days is enhanced by knowledge of Cobain, whereas this movie just doesn't make sense if you don't know about Burroughs.

Now, I love films with difficult, symbolic narratives, but the thing is, you need to have some kind of grounding. In Lynch's work, it's usually emotion. So, we might not be sure what's happening in the last episode of Twin Peaks, but we understand where the characters are emotionally, same thing in Mulholland Drive. However, here things just make no sense and you have no idea of where Bill's hallucinations begin and the real world ends. This means that it's difficult to engage with the movie. The unreality serves no purpose other than to just put forth a bunch of strange things. The film is so deliberately impenetrable that it's impossible to relate to the characters emotionally, and that means that we wind up just watching a bunhc of stuff happen, with little knowledge of what is real or unreal.

This wouldn't be such a problem, except the movie isn't particularly good looking. There's some wacky stuff, like the typewriter monsters, but on the whole, it's conventionally shot and designed. That means that you've basically got a standard movie, except with no logical narrative or characters. Basically, with a film, you've either got to have a good narrative, good visuals, good characters or a good emotional hook. With at least one of those, you'll have a good film, and when you've got two or three, you've got a great film. This has none of those characteristics.

This is definitely one of those be careful what you wish for movies, since I always said, why couldn't Lynch make a film that's all like Club Silencio, however without the narrative grounding, that scene would be meaningless, like this movie.

Days of Heaven - This is a film from Terence Malick, who's got his new movie, The New World, out this week. Days of Heaven was made in 1978, and has a lot of hallmarks of American cinema from the 70s, de-dramatized narrative, focus on individual visual moments over strict service to the narrative. I loved this movie, the first thing you notice is that it's absolutely gorgeous. Malick shoots the farm were events take place as a paradise on Earth, a beautiful field of endless wheat, where at first, it seems like there's no problems.

The central conflict of the film is underplayed, but is even more emotionally devestating for it. None of the characters ever really say what they feel, meaning that the emotions fester under the surface, and also means that we get some really strong visual storytelling. So, when we see the farmer looking at Bill and Abby from a distance, we know what he's feeling, the jealousy evident on his face. Abby is caught in a really difficult emotional place, because she loves both men, and if she were to choose one, it could mean losing them both once the deception is revealed.

As things come crashing down, we get more phenomenal images, the burning field at night, the locusts and ultimately the stark images of Bill and Abby on the run. The whole film is underscored by a voiceover from Linda, who speaks in a really odd accent. Her words give things a more epic feeling and unify things a bit. Like Heavenly Creatures, it's a film about things that are relatively small in big picture terms, but for these people, the things that occur are massive.