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Monday, December 29, 2008

Design: The Best Car Designs of 2008

This year turned out to be a true annus horribilus (Latin for bad anus) for the world's car makers. Designers continued to be creative though even as the year ended with the industry on a precipice. In no order whatsoever here were my favorite new designs of the year:

1. Mazda Furai Concept
Mazda extended their watery concept design language to a racing car platform to stunning effect. There is little possibility of production but hopefully some of these cues will work their way into vehicles anyone (with credit) can buy. The swirling lighting forms at the front and sides demonstrates the Mazda fascination with water flow and how it shapes sand and rocks.

2. Cadillac CTS Coupe Concept
Unlike many of these concepts this Cadillac has a good shot at making next year's list as a production car. Taking the sharp existing front end of Caddy's CTS from the A-pillar forward and grafting it to a radically splayed roofline that nearly results in a hatchback leads to one of the best examples of their current look. The side sculpting, protruding taillamps, and flared rear fenders leave a powerful impression. Let's hope GM has the money to build it.

3. Land Rover LRX Concept
Another casualty of bad times, Land Rover was sold off along with Jaguar to India's Tata motors. What seemed like an abrupt way for Ford to wash their hands of two promising (but cash sucking) divisions now looks like genius as Ford has enough cash to weather much of what ails Chrysler and GM. Still, Land Rover's attractive LRX suggests a reasonable solution to the problem of big expensive SUVs. This compact vehicle posits a Land Rover that competes with the high-end versions of VW's Golf and why not? The detailing is superb, particularly the sweep of the headlamps into the wheel arch and side vent. The greenhouse emphasizes the sporty stance, helping the LRX straddle the line between sport hatch, SUV and crossover. Something like this is sure to hit production - let's hope it's exactly like this.

4. Dodge Challenger Production
The Challenger is the rare production vehicle that actually looks better than the concept on which it's based. Most of this comes down to simple detailing such as the elimination of the Dodge target style grille. I resisted this mightily. The most retro of all the pony cars revived in the last few years, every inch of this car says it's the early 70s. Of course the lack of tucked under bodywork and comparatively large wheels and tires belie the fantasy but how can one look at this and not dream of those few years between 1968 and 1972 - before the reality of oil economics and safety and insurance rules sent the American car industry into the first of several tailspins. The car inspires lust and in this day and age that's enough to land it on this list.

5. Saab 9-X Concepts
GM trotted out the lovely concept above and an equally sweet convertible version. Too bad they have consistently dropped the ball with their Swedish Saab division and all signs point to this never making it to production. After all these are the same cues that have been popping up on Saab concepts for several years without ever finding their way to market. The money simply wasn't there then, and it ain't there now. Pity.

6. Ford Fiesta Production
Ford previewed much of this last year but it's gratifying to see most of it reaching the showroom floor - in Europe now but soon in the United States. It's a fun exuberant look with sharp lithe surfacing and details that say "Play with me."

7. Citroen GT Concept
Citroen has one of the richest design histories of any car company. The GT is unlikely to take a place next to ground breakers like the Traction Avant but the undulating lines and interconnected surfaces made it one of the stars of the Paris auto show.

8. Mazda Kiyora Concept
Another fine Mazda concept that continues with their thematic motifs. At this point they have an entire lineup of concepts which one hopes is meant to soften us up for the production application of the innovative flowing lines and side surfacing as well as lamp technology. Mazda produces some handsome cars for the public but none as interesting and desirable as these - neither their new 6 nor their 3 sedans made my list this year.

9. Nissan Nuvu Concept
A wonderful pure concept that explores all kinds of surface, glass and form treatments. It may look odd but it's a rewarding design to savor and delve into from the tiny detailing around the headlamps to the overall shape of the body.

10. Chevrolet Orlando Concept
There's nothing mind blowing here, just a handsome design that gives the optical illusion of a much bigger vehicle. Though this is only a bit larger than a PT Cruiser or Chevy's own HHR, the bold geometric forms give the sense of a mid sized SUV. This is also one of the best examples of the current Chevy "face". Probably a go for production.

11. Aston Martin One 77 Concept
The One 77 denotes that every buyer will get one of just 77 examples of this aggressively beautiful Aston. What's been revealed so far has no interior and un-detailed lighting areas but whoa, Nelly. I can't wait to see the actual production version sometime next year.

12. Chevrolet Camaro Production
Calling the Camaro the least retro of the current pony car crop is like saying someone is the world's tallest midget. Still the stance and detailing is clearly modernist while still keeping the intent and feel of the late 60s Camaro which is its inspiration. Only this is way better looking in my opinion. Be that as it may, much of the excitement has been sucked out by GM's overlong buildup to actual vehicles being delivered sometime next year. The time from concept to this year's production reveal has been filled with endless spy shots, teaser photos, and a starring role in a movie, Transformers, that functioned as a giant ad for the car a good two years before anyone could buy one.

13. Pininfarina Hyperion Concept
Though some of the detailing was a bit broad this Pininfarina take on a Rolls Royce convertible showed that the legendary Italian design house still had life in it beyond their Ferrari commissions. The classical long hood/ short deck shape recalls the golden age of 1930s coach building.

14. BMW GINA Concept
A wonderful bit of whimsy that was sequestered for several years inside BMW's advanced design studios before being made public this year. The fabric bodied roadster served as inspiration for a number of their most radical production and concept designs so it's fitting that as BMW turns again to more conservative shapes this touchstone should be shared as sort of an icon at the end of an era.

15. Honda Racer Concept
Designed as part of a Hot Wheels contest to come up with a new toy model, the outrageous Racer concept shows that there are living breathing designers amongst the engineers at Honda. It's easy to forget as so much of what they produce leans towards the blandly functional but this two seat dual fuselage wonder is great fun.

16. BMW M1 Homage Concept
Sadly the financial crisis seems to have scuttled nascent plans to build this beautiful tribute to the original M1, BMW's wedge shaped late 70s supercar. Like Chevy's Camaro this is a futuristic take on a retro theme - in this case the wedge is turned into an undulating curve.

17. Alfa Romeo MiTo Production
Ill-advised name aside, the MiTo is a lovely little hatchback that manages the tough trick of applying styling cues from a $100,000 + flagship to an entry level offering. Some designers have complained that the nose is a bit birdlike but this only adds to the distinctiveness.

18. Webasto LigHT Concept
Webasto is a parts supplier so you wouldn't expect them to come up with a full blown concept like this smooth convertible which echoes the old Fiat Spyder. The chiseled surfaces and simple forms combine into an eye-catching and unadorned shape.

19. Ford F-150 Raptor Production
Ford and Dodge both came out with new versions of their best-selling pickups that were handsome evolutions of their existing designs. Ford's new Raptor variation on their F-150 goes one step further by embracing the go-anywhere ability that made pickups great - this ain't no Eddie Bauer Edition. What makes this thrilling from a design perspective is the huge difference some fender flares and a new grille can make. This comes across as a totally new look for Ford with the bold letters embedded in the grille replacing the venerable blue oval for the first time in decades. The integration of the skidplate with the lightweight bumpers along with the face sunken into the bulged bodywork all speak to the truck's abilities.

20. Morgan Life Car Concept
Morgan is best known for building the same wooden chassis car by hand in their British assembly factory as they have for decades. Over the years a few models have come and gone to join it but they are resolutely old school. Thus the hybrid Life Car came as a shock - a gorgeous interpretation of classic Morgan themes given a retro futurist treatment out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis with the most modern of eco-friendly power plants.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Music: The Best Albums of 2008

At first blush 2008 seemed like a, well, sucky year for new music. As I listened more it turned out to be less sucky, if still not a high water mark. Here are my top 40 favorite albums of the year - with a special shout out to my top 10. You can also see my best archival music of the year here

1.  Deerhunter – Microcastle
Deerhunter's Cryptograms, released last year, along with their debut album suggested a band in thrall to art punks like Swell Maps complete with song fragments and experimental interludes. Some of that spirit shows up on the bonus disc of Microcastle entitled Weird Era but the album proper is stuffed with amazingly tuneful songs bracketed by the occasional introspective short instrumental. The songwriting and arranging is spot-on and the chugging guitars seem to meld Velvets drone with bratty Pavement melodies.

2.  The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
Here's a band that by all rights should have been a novelty act. Craig Finn, former vocalist with Lifter Puller, made his mark on Hold Steady's 2004 debut Almost Killed Me as more of a ranter than a singer. His sing-songy cadences and clever clever lyrics were fun over one album of standard issue bar band tunes but this is album number four - how'd they get to be my 2nd favorite of the year? Mainly by growing in leaps in bounds from each release. The band is tighter with better, more complex arrangements and killer choruses. Finn actually carries tunes here and his stories have the weight, economy and sadness of prime Raymond Chandler. Harpsichords are bought in, reggae beats are toyed with and I'll be damned but it all works as the sing-along record of the year.

3.  TV on the Radio – Dear, Science
Their last album had some great songs but the production was stultifying and it wasn't a rewarding experience to revisit. Like Radiohead's In Rainbows though the latest from TV on the Radio opens up their sound to let the songs breathe, leading to the first album to reward the promise of their debut ep. For a change their sense of humor and their sexiness is allowed free reign and at times there are hints of vintage Talking Heads - a pop art musical touchstone.

4.  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig Lazarus Dig!!!
Nick Cave ought to be off writing his goth novels and screenplays for his Australian cowboy films but he keeps coming back to making music. Last year's Grinderman side project showed him moving from balladeering back to raw guitar noise and this one splits the difference a bit with the Stooges quoting "Today's Lesson" jostling with the beat poetry of "Moonland." It's Cave's most vital album in years, and one of the best in his catalog.

5.  Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping
A sequel of sorts to last year's artistic breakthrough, Skeletal Lamping finds Kevin Barnes giving his hedonistic impulses full flower. Beyonce may have Sasha Fierce but Barnes has Georgie Fruit, a bisexual soul singer who gives this album the sound of Beck circa Midnight Vultures crossed with the ADD songwriting of The Fiery Furnaces. As awful as that might sound, it's a paradise of hooks, pumping rhythm, weird falsettos, and sleazoid lyrics.

6.  Neon Neon – Stainless Style
Super Furry Animals guy Gruff Rhys has seen his band abandon the earlier electronica flourishes that made them one of the best britpop bands and embrace increasingly uninteresting beardy psychedelia. For his Neon Neon side project he fully embraces  that which has been rejected with the help of producer/collaborator Boom Bip. The album's unlikely subject is disgraced swinging car entrepreneur and would-be coke dealer John DeLorean. Somehow it works, with great songwriting and beats underscoring the need for a chin implant in "Michael Douglas" and even room for a side trip to Star Wars love in "I Told her on Alderaan."

7.  MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
If you don't like a song on this Brooklyn band's audacious debut wait, the next one is likely to sound completely different. Though this does little for coherence, the songs themselves range from good to amazing. The comparisons have been to The Flaming Lips, and they share a producer in David Fridmann, but that fails to embrace their LCD Soundsystem -worthy "Let's Pretend" in which they imagine themselves as rock stars with model wives who eventually choke on their own vomit or "Electric Feel" where they channel classic late 70s disco sounds.

8.  The Knux – Remind Me in 3 Days
 The long sad decline of hip-hop continued this year but The Knux suggested a jury rigged hybrid where indie punk and indie rap meet halfway. Dressing like throwbacks to the fat gold rope days, playing their own instruments and laying down rhymes, The Knux suggests a way forward for an ossifying genre. And you could shake your ass to it too.

9. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles
There was some good electronica in '08, and then there was Crystal Castles which melded an Atari 5200 sound chip into mind bending melodies and  hypnotic beats. They get a surprising amount of variety from what could have been a limited palette. Named after an arcade game but anything but toylike.

10.  Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Modern Life
What could be wrong with a band who's name so threatened the New York Times that Ben Ratliff's review referenced a band named ------ --. Aside from being the funniest music review in the paper since, well, ever, it was obvious what band he was talking about. Taking the shouty vocal chord shredding vocals and pummeling beat of hardcore punk, Fucked Up spikes it with guitar washes and subtle melodies that entice and draw the listener in.

And the rest...

11. Department of Eagles – In Ear Park
12.  Lambchop – OH(Ohio)
13.  Nas – Untitled
14. Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer
15. Apes – Ghost Games
16. Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
17. Girl Talk – Feed the Animals
18. No Age – Nouns
19. Flying Lotus – Los Angeles
20. Joan as Police Woman – To Survive
21. Chandeliers – The Thrush
22. Dr. Dog – Fate
23. Martha Wainwright – I Know You’re Married but I’ve Got Feelings Too
24. The Breeders – Mountain Battles
25. Murs – Murs For President
26. The Fall – Imperial Wax Solvent
27. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Lie Down in the Light
28. Be Your Own Pet – Get Awkward (UK Version -avoid the censored American release)

29. Alias – Resurgam
30. Blitzen Trapper – Furr
31. Okkervil River – The Stand-ins
32. Plants and Animals – Parc Avenue
33. Portishead – Third
34. Randy Newman – Harps and Angels
35. RZA as Bobby Digital – Digi Snacks
36. Santogold and Diplo – Top Ranking
37. Stephen Malkmus – Real Emotional Trash
38. Truckasaurus – Tea Parties, Guns and Valor
39. Atlas Sound – Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel
40. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

Friday, December 12, 2008

Music: Best of 2008 From the Archives

This year showed that the box set - due to price and lack of material - is on it's way to becoming a rarity. Where New Order or The Replacements could have boxed up their notable songs with a bunch of rarities and called it a day, they instead went with the catalog re-issue route - fleshing out their original releases with bonus tracks and discs. This isn't necessarily a bad thing and it's probably more lucrative for the artist and labels.

I've listed my favorite archival releases of 2008 below, in no particular order. Enjoy!

1. Big Dipper – Supercluster
Underknown and underappreciated during their late 80s heyday Supercluster collects their first two albums and ep, plus  abonus disc of an unrecorded esarly 90s record - leaving out only their major label misfire on Epic Records. It's not missed, as their indie material was far superior and presciently hinted at the sound of later bands like Pavement and Wolf Parade.

2. Mission of Burma – reissues
The core of Big Dipper were refuges from ex-Mission man Peter Prescott's follow-up band, Volcano Suns. Though the Suns were pretty good Mission of Burma is essential listening for anyone who is serious about post punk or indie rock. The key records here are Vs. and Signals Calls and Marches - an EP expanded here to album length with the crucial addition of the band's first single and bonus tracks. Pristine production helps define the band's gargantuan sound and effortless dynmics, with tunes that span the gamut from hardcore to power punk with a touch of progressive rock styled time-signature trickery.

3. Willie Nelson – One Hell of a Ride
Willie Nelson is the perfect artist for a box set and One Hell of a Ride shows why. 4 Discs of prime Willie from demos of songs he wrote and were made famous by others to 70s outlaw classics to his standards period to his sometimes cheesy star duets this has it all.

4. The Replacements – reissues
The catalog of Minneapolis' finest rock band finally resides under one roof at Rhino, which has done a fantastic job of reissuing their Twin/Tone and Sire albums with lots of juicy bonus tracks, including sessions produced by Alex Chilton. If you're not sure where to start, the trio of Let it Be, Tim, and Pleased to Meet Me are the band at their most consistent. A huge influence on bands like Wilco, The Hold Steady, and the usual punk emo crowd who could learn a few tricks about songwriting from Mr. Westerberg.

5. Steinski – What Does it All Mean?
The first track I ever searched for back in the days of an unfettered Napster was Double-Dee and Steinski's Lesson 1 - the grandaddy of all sampling. Only it was done before there was such a thing as a sampler. Every song snippet and line of movie dialogue had to be done by hand with a razorblade and audio tape. Steinski went on to make many more incredible tracks and most of the great ones are here. Even better is the second disc which is an extending radio show that shows the depth and breadth of his style. Essential for fans of Girl Talk.

6. Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue
Tragic Beach Boy Dennis Wilson is often overshadowed by equally tragic but still living brother Brian. Dennis started coming into his own a as a sonwriter as both Brian and the Beach Boys entered their long period of decline. Frustrated with the band's conservatism he struck out on his own with this brillianst slice of 70s gritty singer songwriter rock.

7. The Jesus and Mary Chain – The Power of Negative Thinking
Mining their b-sides for gold, the Jesus and Mary Chain give fans and newbies a treat. The quality of these outtakes are uniformly high and essential tracks like single "Sidewalking" make this a must have for any JAMC lover.

8. Roy Orbison – The Soul of Rock and Roll
This is why box sets were invented - a stunning career overview with all te highlights that puts an extraordinary talent in perspective. From fascinating early recordings alone and with the Teen Kings to his last album and cuts with supergroup The Traveling Wilburys this is a revelation.

9. The Clash – Live at Shea Stadium
Their opening gig for The Who at cavernous Shea Stadium isn't the concert gig I've been dying to hear from this legendary band but it's pretty great nonetheless, right down to Joe Strummer scolding the typically New York audience for yammering. I'll always prefer Topper Headon as a drummer but Terry (Tory Crimes) Chimes acquits himself well, even with the newer material. The recording quality is superb. Now how about those Bond's Casino shows?

10. Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs
Dylan's Bootleg Series jumps around as much as his autobiography did, this time taking in recent outtakes and stragglers. Luckily he's been in a purple patch of late and his alternate versions of tunes always fascinate as he never plays the same way twice. Boo on the ultra-expensive 3-disc version though.

11. New Order – Reissues
Fascinating re-glimpse into one of the 80s best and most innovative bands. Out of the ashes of Joy Division came a band that at first hewed to the mopey rock of their earlier incarnation but soon fell in thrall to club beats and synthesizers. The albums have been smartly packaged with their contemporaneous singles which were often more poppy and innovative.

12. Various Artists – Love Train – The Sound of Philadelphia
A fine collection of 70s soul that finds room for some late 60s and early 80s tracks and doesn't hew overly closely to its theme. The meat is some great moments from the Spinners among others that showed those MFSBs what the TSOP was all about.

13. Belle and Sebastian – The BBC Sessions
Alternate radio versions of some great B & S classics plus a later live show. Not the place for non-fans to start but for those who already know what's in store, pleasure awaits.

14. R.E.M. – Murmur
One of the greatest debut albums ever is finally remastered, showing anew the deep strangeness and great songwriting and playing of what many still consider to be this band's finest album. Disc two adds an amazing period live club show. It's hard to remeber how much R.E.M. owed to Wire and P.I.L. until yougo back to this early stuff.

15. Pavement – Brighten The Corners –Nicene Creedence Ed.
Matador continues their superlative Pavement re-issue series with this underrrated gem. as is the costume, the value of my rare singles is droppe dby appending them as well as previously unheard bonus tracks and obscurities.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Movie Review: Slumdog is a Dark Fairytale - The Best Kind

Slumdog Millionaire is unusual in that it’s a fairytale built on a core of the real misery and struggle that exists in cities like Mumbai. Then again, maybe it’s not so unusual – the Grimm’s fairtytales had some extremely disturbing elements and at a time before urban sprawl and centralized law and order staying out of the forest was probably a wise idea. There is also a trace of Dickensian London, a mass of humanity with different rules for different classes.

Director Danny Boyle shoots everything with bold colors and a panoramic eye, unstinting in the depiction of life in Mumbai slums but never wavering from the focus on character. The aptly named Chris Dickens edits each sequence perfectly so that the movie has a rapid pace but without sacrificing meaning or impact.

The basic premise is hoary: a slum kid makes it to the final round of India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. No-one can figure out how he can know the answers to many of the questions he gets right so the police question him, often using enhanced tactics that will seem familiar to Dick Cheney.

This device provides a framework to explore the love triangle between slumdog Jamal, his brother Salim, and Latika, a girl from the neighborhood. Unusually it’s Salim and Latika who vie for Jamal’s affections throughout the movie. The three are orphaned at a young age when their families are victims of anti-Muslim violence. It’s a sequence that yanks the film out of distant observational interest and firmly ties it to the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai – it’s nearly too much for the confectionery story to bear.

It does manage the load, helped along by an extraordinary sequence that takes place on a train which is stunning in its visual beauty and storytelling simplicity, all the more so following as it does the darkest most Dickensian vision of a Mumbai orphanage.

The child actors are simply incredible and despite the tragic surroundings of their lives their joy in simply surviving is palpable. Though I always have a little trouble with multiple actors playing characters at different ages it mostly works here.

If there is a flaw it's that the third act feels a little bit rushed and that can diminish the magic (and indeed magical realism) that Boyle aims for. Still, if  great movies show you people and places that you might never get to see ordinarily. Slumdog Millionaire fits this bill perfectly.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Music: If You Don't Love This Video There is Something Wrong With You

The BPA fet. David Byrne and Dizze Rascal, "Toe Jam". Is it any surprise that Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook is involved in this?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Movie Review: Rachel Getting Married Hitches Great Performances to Revitalized Demme

Rachel Getting Married is a film that, by description, promises studio indie cliché by the boatload. Big name director (Jonathan Demme) and a big star (Anne Hatahway) looking to show her Oscar chops in a drama set around a big dysfunctional family gathering. Plus, the star plays an obnoxious off-putting sourpuss. Cue Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding with Nicole Kidman as the obnoxious sister arriving for her sister's wedding, or Katie Holmes in Pieces of April.

The gratifying surprise then is that Rachel Getting Married is a revelatory gem, a naturalistic film in both acting and photography that never devolves into melodrama. The aces up its sleeve are a remarkable cast and a re-energized director. This is Demme’s best film since Silence of the Lambs, and is also the best screen performance to date by Hathaway, who is mesmerizing and unsparing. Her big eyes seem to swim around in a way that appears predatory but eventually registers as deep wariness, searchlights scouting for the next enemy plane.

The characters are never allowed to devolve into archetypes or one-notes. Yes, Hathaway’s Kym is a needy, dramatic screw-up who can suck the oxygen out of a room, but we get to see enough layers to understand that she is desperately fighting to shoulder the weight of what other see when they look at her.

There is a dark family event that tugs at the corners of the truly happy joining of the film’s title, and Demme doesn’t toy with the fact that Rachel is at its center. It’s neither sprung as an “Aha!” moment nor used as an excuse but it’s present for everyone in subtle and profound ways.

Hathaway is matched by a trio of stellar performers. Bill Irwin as the girls’ father is drawn into Kym’s drama helplessly, ever protective to a fault. His sweetness and crinkle-eyed gaze give him the aspect of someone stunned. Underneath his caring exterior there is brittleness and deep pain. It's a transformative role for a man better known for onstage clowning and movement.

The titular Rachel is played by Rosemarie DeWitt, seemingly plucked from life. There is nothing contrived in her performance or her character. She struggles to make her wedding the centerpiece of attention, as it should be, just as she struggles to get some of the attention mopped up by Kym. Her anger is as palpable as her love, both for her damaged sister and for her husband to be, played quietly by TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe.

Finally there’s Debra Winger as the mother keeping her family at arm’s length to protect herself. Both daughters desperately want her attention – it’s clear that her distance may have been emphasized by divorcing Irwin but started much earlier – perhaps was always there. It’s a brave, nuanced performance – she’s not a monster. Just deeply hurt and self-protective.

This is an unusual film for Demme. He thanks two major directors, Sidney Lumet (whose daughter Jenny wrote the screenplay) and the late Robert Altman, and features his mentor Roger Corman as part of the cast. Of the three his style here is most influenced by Altman and his A Wedding (1978) as well as Dogma 95 films like the classic The Celebration (1998) by Vinterberg.

The feel is of improvisation, though the structure of the movie and the overall subtlety suggest that most of what happens and what’s said was scripted. The camerawork is of the handheld digital variety and Declan Quinn’s cinematography makes much use of natural light. At first it can be a bit off-putting and also can be a bit of a cliché but it begins to serve and heighten the story. The framing and shot choices are anything but arbitrary.

Some have seen this as a return to Demme’s classic 80s style, but despite the welcome presence of offbeat previous Demme stars as Sister Carol East and lazy-eyed Paul Lazer and the liberal use of musicians interwoven as actors and doing their stuff on their instruments (including Robyn Hitchcock) this is light years away from his candy colored breakneck 80s films like Something Wild (1987) and Married to the Mob.(1988) There is a touch of the humanity of Melvin and Howard (1980) but it’s still on a much more intimate scale.

Nor is Rachel Getting Married similar to his big-budget 90s Hollywood stuff typified by the excellent Silence of the Lambs (1991) and the awful remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). What does tie this in with Silence of the Lambs in particular is Demme’s fascination with women’s lives (something he shares with Altman), and the nuances of character detail - something increasingly getting lost as he’s gone from the 90s through the present decade. If anything this has more in common with his smaller scale documentaries like Cousin Bobby (1992) ove rthe past few years.

It will be a shame if this gets lost in the hoopla at awards time. Rachel Getting Married shows a director returned to full force and mining new territory, ably aided by a great cast. At the end of the day there is no "happy" ending and the closure that Kym wants is not necessarily what she gets, at least not in totality. Still the audience is left with the idea that the far-away island of happiness that Rachel has found in Hawaii may be in reach, someday for Kym too.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Movies: 2nd Annual Thanksgiving Turkeys Bad Film Fest

Welcome to our annual Thanksgiving turkey strangle - ten films that give bad a new name.Here are last year's Turkeys part one and part two. Every year we pick some of cinemas low flyers for special shame and ridicule. To the list!

1) The Wicker Man(remake)

The remake of a well regarded film is not an uncommon species of turkey, in fact this list sports several. However It must be said that the dropoff from the creepy Edward “The Equalizer” Woodward starring original to this Neil LaBute helmed crapfest is mighty steep. Aside from the nonsensical plot the main attraction for J.G. Ballard-esque car wreck fans is Nicholas Cage’s performance, a masterclass in frantic, pointless scenery chewing that reads like a bad Nic Cage impersonator “doing” Nic Cage. LaBute naturally focuses his attention on the evil women who run the mysterious island where cop Cage has gone to look for his ex-paramour’s missing child. Never has gynophobia seemed so downright silly.You'll root for the murderers.

2) Under the Rainbow

It’s hard to know what anyone involved in this awful film were thinking. Set in 1938 it involves 150 midgets in town to film the Wizard of Oz, Chevy Chase as a secret service agent, Carrie Fisher as the midget’s chaperon and a lot of convoluted plotting involving Nazis and fake European countries. Like A Fish Called Wanda, the cardinal Hollywood rule of avoiding dog deaths is overlooked. Unlike Wanda, it’s simply not funny here.

3) The Jerk, Too

Some of you might remember ABC’s short-lived Saturday Night Live knockoff Fridays, which in the early 80s introduced a small audience to Michael Richards and Larry David. One of the breakout stars was Mark Blankfield, whose over-the-top pharmacist character propelled him to this ill-considered remake of Steve Martin’s 1979 classic The Jerk, barely 5 years after the original.

4) Employee of the Month

My wife and I valiantly attempted to watch this excrescence on cable, just to see at what point one of us would cry chicken and call the whole thing off. What we didn’t bargain for is becoming literally mind-boggled by a seemingly interminable scene talking place high up in the stacks of the giant warehouse store where Dane Cook and his co-workers, well, work. The plot involves some meaningless bullcrap about Jessica Simpson and Cook – two “actors” notably devoid of charm here, and some desire by Cook to date Simpson who only dates employees of the month so Cook has to…snnnnnOOORRK!When my wife and I came to, we felt like Betty and Barney Hill - the couple who knew they were kidnapped by aliens because they had experienced chunks of missing time from their lives.

5) Stepford Wives (remake)

The original Stepford Wives was no great film, just a campy sub-Rosemary’s Baby vamp on The Feminine Mystique. Frank Oz’s ill-considered re-make is a mess, overstuffed, over-budgeted and over-plotted. Bad remake queen Nicole Kidman (of future turkey entries Invasion and Bewitched) does her accent from To Die For and generally fails to look like the kind of woman a man would want to upgrade with a robot/lobotomy or whatever it is they are supposed to be. Bette Midler does her loud earthy shtick and Christopher Walken does his creepy weird-line-delivery shtick. Oh yeah, and Matthew Broderick throws down his super nebbish routine. Did I mention that the movie doesn’t even know if the housewives are being lobotomized, or turned into robots, or what? The one surefire lobotomy victim is the viewer after watching this dreck.

6) The Nude Bomb

Before Steve Carrell was tapped to do a remake of the classic Mel Brooks and Buck Henry created spy spoof TV show Get Smart, the show itself was turned into a movie in 1980 – the aptly named Nude Bomb. Only Don Adams, the original and best Maxwell Smart, returns from the TV cast. Sylvia Kristol better known as soft-core star Emmanuelle is the love interest (!). Vittorio Gassman gets roped in, presumable to pay the electric bill. Deserves the cone of silence.

7) Moving Violations

Police Academy mastermind Neal Isreal transported his already Xeroxed transposition of Animal House antics to traffic school in this comedy tribute to nepotism. Lesser-known Murray sibling John Murray is not asked to imitate brother Brian Doyle in this film but other brother Bill, to slim returns. He’s up against Stacy Keach’s brother James Keach who is tofurky to Stacy’s Thanksgiving meal. These two sibs are balanced out by Jennifer Tilly, who had not yet eclipsed sister Meg. Also, Don Cheadle shows up ever so briefly. It’s entirely a movie by association, if you liked Police Academy, Ghostbusters, and Mike Hammer, you’ll hate Moving Violations.

8) Heartbeeps

Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters star as robot domestics who escape and fall in robot love. Vincent Canby’s original review notes that “The makeup worn by Mr. Kaufman and Miss Peters looks formidably uncomfortable.” So do the actors and everyone remotely associated with this mess.Walks the fine line between boring and subtly disturbing.

9) Memoirs of an Invisible Man

Two of the most inexpressive actors in cinema, Chevy Chase and Daryl Hannah team up in what sadly is an action adventure. Even Chase’s vocal inflections in the invisible scenes are blah and poor John Carpenter is reduced to wishing Kurt Russell had been available in this listless special effects extravaganza. Sam Neill’s mole has more range than the leads and Carpenter seems to try to get him on camera as much as possible to no avail. Note how the trailer attempts to sell the film as a comedy and then undercuts the whole thing with " A John Carpenter Film"...

10) Zardoz

Ladies love Sean Connery but one look at his over-exposed furry body in the weird bondage-gear outfit he’s forced to wear in this pretentious sci-fi bloatfest and they may rethink the lust factor. Or not. It’s like parachute straps, a diaper, the mustache from the leather guy in The Village People, and boots and hair from Crystal Gayle all combined. If you can get past the look (and I can’t frankly) the movie is incomprehensible at best. Sample dialogue? “The gun is good… The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life, and poisons the earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the gun shoots death, and purifies the earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth and kill!” Did I mention that this comes from a flying stone head?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Art: Artist Guy Peellaert Dies - Designed Album Covers, Created Rock Dreams

Guy Peellaert was the Dutch-born artists responsible for illustrating the book Rock Dreams (1976), a tome that introduced me at a young and impressionable age to the history and more importantly the mythology of rock and roll. His dreamlike, paintings were filled with the humor, lust and grandeur of rock - I always wished that he and writer Nik Cohn would update this masterpiece to cover the crucial years after 1977 but this was not to be the case.

In a sense this is as it should be, for what Rock Dreams enshrined was a canon of music that would fragment in the wake of punk into a million jagged pieces with narratives that spoke to an increasingly specialized audience. Still, I like to think that some of the visual storytelling he employed found it's echo in the early videos of the 80s which codified easy to swallow personas for stars like Cyndi Lauper, Billy Idol,  ZZ Top and Madonna.

His visual style owed a debt to Edward Hopper, with a touch of photorealism and occasional collage elements woven in. His post Rock Dreams work continued his obsession with pop culture and Americana mythmaking with images of Betty Hutton and George Raft amongst others. His later works expanded his scope to take in the entirety of 20th century pop culture and world history.

He's also well known for doing the covers for David Bowie's Diamond Dogs album (famous for having to emasculate the Bowie/canine hybrid) and the Rolling Stones' It's Only Rock N' Roll album.

Here are some of his best pieces:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

POSAS: This Year's 2nd Annual Sexiest Man Dead

Let the elites over at People Magazine have their Sexiest Man Alive issue - Hugh Jackman? Whatever...Here at POSAS we are all about the Sexiest Man Dead. Last year it was hunky decomposing actor Cary Grant. In light of the election we thought we should go with a hot political choice - a uniter, not a divider. Believe me when I say that the staff here were simply salivating over the Presidential pulchritude we had to choose from but we knew this year it had to be tall glass of water Abe Lincoln.

Yes, this year's Sexiest Man Dead is Abraham Lincoln.

The reasons? At 6 ft. 4 in., all scruff and biceps, Abe Lincoln looms large in The Civil War, which he says kept him "dirty 95 percent of the time" and left people stammering, "Oh ... my ... God," according to General and dead President Ulysses S. Grant, who adds, "Women's jaws drop when Abe walks into a room."

"Abe is tough and romantic at the same time," says deceased Vice President Seward, "Illinois men are a different breed. They're rugged and they sweat."

Abe Lincoln. Sexiest Man Dead for 2008.

Music: How Rock Band Ruined R.E.M.

When I was in high school, back in the Paleolithic era known as the 80s, there were finely hewn dividing lines between music tastes (even if these lines were privately breached all the time). I had transmogrified from a 60s championing throwback via The Velvet Underground into what was then called “modern rock.”

Even there though there existed a schism roughly divided between British bands and American bands. Being a patriot for the most part I stayed with the American bands – The Replacements, Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Husker Du and R.E.M. who all seemed so much less…fey…then their British counterparts in New Order, The Smiths and Depeche Mode. On this too I would come around – partly through the intercession of The Jesus and Mary Chain.

R.E.M. were the great American art rock band, especially for guys like me who had been listening to the Byrds and The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield (The Replacements satisfied the Stones side of me). They put out a string of very good to great albums from 1983s Murmur through 1987s Document before signing to Warner Bros. like Husker Du before them. They were at the apogee of cool.

The first layers of discontent with the band emerged with their debut for Warners, Green, a rich glossily produced White Album –like agglomeration of everything in the band’s arsenal. For the first time the band sounded like they had money. The single “Stand” compounded this by being silly and twee just as the po-faced melancholia that would culminate in grunge was beginning to flood the alt-music scene.

After their big breakthrough record, Out Of Time, which was a commercial if not aesthetic success they cranked out another masterpiece with Automatic For The People, but already the cool was fading away.

After countless albums, some bad (Around the Sun) some underrated (Monster, Up) and some just meh (Reveal) the band is about as loved as, say, the Moody Blues. Not bad, but hardly first rank.

I was kind of psyched for the boys from Athens when I saw that they had a song on hit awesome video game Rock Band – the ultimate music marketing tool for the next generation of fans. Perhaps this would bring them back into the first tier. So what song do they choose? “Orange Crush”.

Now I like “Orange Crush” very much, the slicing guitar riff and the soaring vocals make it feel like perfect anthemic Rock Band material. The reality is it’s a pain in the ass to follow along to, especially to sing, and the annoyance and frustration at the weird double vocal between Stipe and Mills that’s so thrilling to passively hear turns to hatred of the song when trying to perform it.

If I wanted to restore the band’s luster via Rock Band I would choose something like “The One I Love”, simple, punchy, fun to sing and play, or “Begin The Begin.” If it simply must be from the Warners years “What’s The Frequency Kenneth” is one of their best songs and rocks with a nice wallop. Or “Turn You Inside Out.”

Thanks to a bad licensing decision, countless young music fans will hate R.E.M.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Movies: Flashback - The Best Movies of 1988 Part 3

Here is the third and final installment of the Best Movies of 1988. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.

11) The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Underrated auteur Philip Kaufman had the bad luck of being a great 70s style American director in the 1980s. After his magnificent adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff stiffed at the box office he turned to Milan Kundera's novel of the 1968 Prague Spring The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It's a film that entwines sex with living and passion with politics - deeply erotic and deeply felt at the same time. 20 years after the events portrayed the Soviet regime depicted stood on teh verge of collapse and the Czech's stood on the precipice of freedom. Also, young and intense Daniel Day Lewis, alluring Lena Olin and  sexy Juliette Binoche all give terrific performances.

12. Hairspray
The original non-Travolta-ed non-musical is still the best version of this. At the time it was further proof that rebels like John Waters who once celebrated poop eating and glue sniffing were entering the mainstream. Maybe so but this was pretty offbeat and saturated in the kitschy goodness that is Waters' trademark. There's also his best leading lady, Divine, an underrated actor who along with pre "club kid" obsessed Ricki Lake make a touchingly creditable mother daughter pair. There is also a lot of heart in the autobiographical material based on the Baltimore of Waters' youth.

13. Dangerous Liaisons
Sharp-eyed director Stephen Frears finds the perfect tone for the classic French story that has spawned numerous versions including the teenybopper Cruel Intentions but none as finely judged as this. Getting stellar performances from Michelle Pfeiffer (having a breakthrough year) an icily cold Glenn Close and an even colder John Malkovich this story of nobles behaving badly is wonderful high class trash.

14. Bull Durham
Perhaps the best sports movie ever, this is fun watching even for those who could give a squat about baseball. The triumvirate of Kevin Costner (in a role that he found hard to escape from), Tim Robbins (playing dumb brilliantly) and Susan Sarandon (on the comeback trail) create sparks in the story of one ballplayer on the way down, another on the way up and the woman who has passion and brains to burn.

15. Big
The body switching film was all the rage in the 80s. Was this a longing for Yuppie America to find the empathy for others less fortunate amidst Reaganomics? A simple need to broaden the demographic of a given film by casting, say, Charlie Schlatter for the kids and George Burns for the octogenerians? Either way Laverne's film  Big was best of the bunch - both funny and surprisgly touching with a great turn by Tom Hanks. Hanks was getting stuck in the kind of films Jim Belushi would put his stink on but his winning portrayal as a child trapped in a man's body struck a chord. Also, don't miss the awesomely jaded Elizabeth Perkins.

16. The Last Temptation of Christ
From a boy trapped in a man's body to a three-person diety embodied in the form of a man. Martin Scorsese's film brings the grit to the bible. Unlike the over-top siliness of Mel Gibson's vision of Christ Scorsese raises uncomfortable questions about sacrifice, humanity, and what it means to be die for other's sins.Also, Willem Dafoe rocks as Jesus.


17. The Naked Gun 
The Zucker-Abrams-Zucker team turned to their failed TV series Police Squad to finallt cement Leslie Neilsen as a comic star after his breakout turn in their awesome '80 comedy spoof Airplane. There have been so many crappy approximations of their style that its a thrill to watch the real thing and laugh out loud once again at their Mad Magazine approach to nonsensical gags. Plus, Ricardo Montalban!

18.  Akira 
 If Stanley Kubrick was Japanese and directed a version of The Wild Bunch with set design by the guys who did Blade Runner it still wouldn't approximate the crazy rush of Akira.

19. Let's Get Lost
Fascinatingly depressing, fashion photog Bruce Weber's documentary on jazz great Chet Baker is shot in black and white so lovingly deep you could swim in it. Yet the story it tells is of one man's dessication, despite talent and fame.

20. My Neighbor Totoro
The first out-and-out masterpiece from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, who is viewed at home as a combination of Walt Disney and George Lucas. His lush animation brings an abiding reverence for nature to life in amongst a superbly detailed suburban existence. Death and sadness exist here as in all great stories for children, mixed with wonder and humor. His later films were more epically scaled but this one is a real gem. Avoid the English-dubbed version.

Music: Marnie Stern is Awesome

Marnie Stern continues to shred on the guitar like nobody's business and unlike, say, Joe Satriani she can write songs too. See the adorableness that is her new video "Ruler" here:

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Movies: Flashback - The Best Movies of 1988 Part 2

Here is part two of the best movies of 1988. You can see Part One here.

6) Cinema Paradiso
A nostalgic entwining of film and history, this gem spans the tough post-war period in Italy and the way memories get tied up in imagery. Deftly handled movement through time helps ground the characters and sets up a superbly emotional ending set in the (then) present day. Avoid the much-longer bloated directors cut if you can.

7) Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Like Cinema Paradiso an ode to the power of film but here it's to the classic characters of animation. Director Robert Zemeckis stages a cartoon noir with Bob Hoskins as the down and out private dick and a Roger Rabbit as his client. Amazingly the stars of Warner Brothers, MGM, and Disney all interact and an alternate reality where "toons" are an oppressed minority living in their "Toontown" ghetto is created. The plot is a weak spoof of Chinatown but there are cleverly queasy nods to race relations and to the holocaust. A must for any noir or animation fan.

8) Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Pedro Almodovar's first big international hit, this packs in the crazy transgressiveness of his early films with a classic farce backbone to reach hilariously dizzy heights. Terrorists, fires, laced gazpacho, and young and hunky Antonio Banderas add up to a great ride indeed.

9) Die Hard
The movie that made Bruce Willis a star and one of the greatest action movies ever. There's not an ounce of flab on a story that finds humble NYC cop Willis in L.A. to visit his estranged wife just as her workplace is taken over by mysterious terrorists. Did I mention that Willis is afraid of heights and wife Bonnie Bedelia happens to work high up in a skyscraper? Sheer fun.

10) Dead Ringers
In its own way as fun as Die Hard but the laughs are way queasier. David Cronenberg directed this fact-based tale about twin gynecologists and the woman they share (unbeknown to her). Their twin kinship gets deeper and more twisted as the two brothers, wonderfully delineated by Jeremy Irons, begin to pull each other down into madness and addiction. Not recommended as a date movie.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Movies: Flashback - The Best Movies of 1988 Part One

Continuing my Flashback series we go back twenty years to 1988. It was an election year but a very different one with a Bush on the ticket, a dimbulb veep candidate (some things don't change) and a little guy named Dukakis. These were the best films of the year, in no particular order.

1. Married to The Mob
Before Jonathan Demme became a big Hollywood director with Silence of the Lambs but after he had graduated from Roger Corman schlock like Crazy Mama he made a string of distinctly quirky American comedies culminating in this offbeat treat. With the bright colors and quirky rhythms of new wave (he was the perfect director for the classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense) he brought a distinct New York "downtown" sensibility to what on paper could be pretty worn material. Michelle Pfeiffer is terrific as the wife of a rubbed out mobster - decked out in neon and chewing gum but with a spunky good heart. The mob boss, played by Dean Stockwell with thick eyebrows and an appraisers squint, wants to get into her spandex. Matthew Modine is the FBI agent who charms Pfeiffer without letting her know who he is. Finally Mercedes Ruehl nearly hijacks the film as the mob bosses jealous wife, crazy eyed and off-balance yet steely with moral outrage. It's as much about Pfeffier's independence against all of these mobbed-up men who try to control her.

2. A Fish Called Wanda

A transcontinental comedy that bridged humor on both continents Wanda is a rollicking culture clash of uptight Brits like John Cleese and stuttering Michael Palin and outrageously crass and libidinous Americans Jamie Lee Curtis and a never-better Kevin Kline as a pretentious moron with aspirations to intellect. It's all hung around a classic heist plot that manages to weave in the ultimate cinematic taboo - the killing of canines. Several times. Hilariously. Jamie Lee Curtis is phenomenal in one of the few roles that allows her to show her great range.

3. Beetlejuice
Tim Burton's cinematic vision was first widely seen in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure but the casual Surrealism and candy-coated darkness was hard to discern as being distinct from the Pee-Wee Herman universe. Beetlejuice was Burton's own baby, with even more goth-baiting gloom in the form of young Winona Ryder, a mind-bending and unique view of the afterlife, and a cast in tune with his wacked-out sensibilities. Catherine O'Hara could be from a contemporary Demme film as an art-world diva, Jeffrey Jones is great as her nebbishy husband and Michael Keaton was suitably borscht belt macabre as the titular character. Sadly Alec Baldwin is asked to play it straight with Geena Davis as the nice young dead couple who insist on haunting their dream house.

4. The Vanishing
Another view of death and the mystery of life entirely and a far bleaker one is George Sluizer's original version of The Vanishing , later re-made with diminished returns by the director in English. A man's girlfriend is kidnapped suddenly and he becomes obsessed with learning her fate. His obsession becomes a subject of fascination for her kidnapper, who offers to supply the insight the boyfriend is so desperate to acquire.

5. The Thin Blue Line
From the imagined crime of the Vanishing we move to the real life crimes surrounding Errol Morris documentary The Thin Blue Line. This was the first documentary I ever saw in the theater, my father taking me to see it in Lincoln Square Cinemas after a rave in The New Yorker. It remains as one of the best documentary films ever made with chillingly clever recreations, Philip Glass's hypnotic score, and the words of those involved unfolding a story of justice denied by Texas legal system and the possibility that an innocent man would be executed.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Music: Halloween Edition - Scary Musicians!

Just in time for Devil's Night, here are some of the scariest musicians I've ever heard. That criteria excludes stuff like Swedish death metal, Nazi punk bands, and Joe The Plumber (he's signing a record deal y'know.) If you've heard scarier, let me know! To the music!

1) The Misfits
Sure Glenn Danzig's eponymous band was a little scary but the Misfits were the best in horror punk - like the Ramones raised on a steady diet of b-movie slashers. Beneath that poppy punk are lyrics about wanting those sweet little girls...for their skulls!

2) Happy Flowers
Firstly, you need to know that one of the band's two members is named Mr. Anus. The other member? Mr. Horribly Charred Infant. And what are the titles of some of their songs you may ask? "They Cleaned My Cut Out With a Wire Brush", "Pull Off it's Head", and the big non-hit "If This Gun Were Real ( I Could Shoot You and Sleep in the Big Bed With Mommy)." This song, "Colors in the Rain", is perhaps a bit too poppy for their core audience:

3.Charles Manson
So yeah, Charlie Manson wrote songs, recorded them, is said to have auditioned for The Monkees and even hung out with The Beach Boys who placed his ditty "Look at Your Game Girl" on a b-side. And yep, still scary!

4.Aphex Twin
Aphex Twin is kind of funny scary, and still fun to listen to. But "Come To Daddy" and particularly the video still sends chills down my spine. Could it be Richard D. James grinning scary face?

5. Laibach
Laibach embrace fascist symbiology in order to undermine it. Or so they say. I see stuff like the video for their thudding disturbing cover of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For The Devil" below and imagine them reanimating dead Nazi soldiers from the bottom of Swiss lakes. I know, fear kind of makes no sense...

6. Skinny Puppy
 Sampling horror films and titling songs stuff like "Deep Down Trauma Hounds," this was a deeply unsettling band at the forefront of industrial music. To be fair though, they had heart. Bloody, still beating heart freshly chest-plucked.

Pretty much the first and only band in the brief "horrorcore" rap scene Gravediggaz were in reality the creation of Rap production genius Prince Paul, RZA, and a few other folks. Scary good stuff!

8. G.G. Allin
G.G. Allin wasn't satisfied unless he shit, cut himself, peed and received oral sex onstage. Nowadays we call that performance art but he insisted on making music as well. This dead junkie was revolting sure, but also scary - zombified as much in life as in death.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Politics: Surviving an Attempted PUMA Mauling

Added to the usual stress of a New York City commute this morning was a sweet faced older lady who turned out to be that rare but oft-mentioned species: The PUMA. PUMAs (party unity my ass) are people who, quite simply, put gender before actual issues. This is the essential danger of out of control rampant identity politics - something Republicans have latched onto with Palin after criticizing Democrat minority candidates for years as being nothing more than vote repositories for folks who feel disenfranchised. Here's how the PUMA attack went down:

Older lady on bench at 3 train station: Want to see MY pin?

Me: Sure

She opens her palm to reveal a post-it note(!) that says "NoBama."

Me (edging away): Well...good luck!

Older lady: Want to know why?

Me: I can't imagine...

Older lady: Oh I think you dare he deny a woman like Hillary the nomination. An important leader who should be our President! (getting loud I might add)

Me: You can't rewrite history (shrugs)

Older lady: Hillary ought to be our President!

Me: So you are going to vote for a ticket that stands for the opposite of everything she's worked for?

Older lady: I don't care. You know on election day there are going to be riots and cries of "Kill Whitey" if he doesn't get in...(She actually said this!)

Me (stepping into my mercifully arrived train): I've met Hillary and she'd be disgusted by that comment...

So I managed to escape with my life and dignity intact but beware! PUMAs are loose in New York City's subways. And they are vicious...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Films: Netflix Roundup - What Have I Been Watching?

With my busy eastern media elite schedule I haven't had the time I'd like to give you, my tens of readers, the movie reviews that I've promised. So here are some capsule reviews of what I've been watched over the last few weeks courtesy of Netflix. I've also helpfully added the stars I gave them in my Netflix rating for easy unhindered digestion.

I Want To Live (1958) (3 Stars)

Susan Hayward plays what was once known as a blowzy broad in this early anti-death penalty flick. The first half hour where she goes from one seedy situation to another is great pulpy fun but her hard boiled overacting takes center stage by the more earnest second half. The inside look on how the process works for death row inmates holds some interest but the increasing desperation of her situation begins to seem more comical than tragic as we await the umpteenth call from the gov.

California Split (1974) (5 Stars)

Robert Altman's incisive and tricky buddy film was unappreciated on release but shines as one of his best movies. Elliot Gould is in full sardonically muttering Elliot Gould mold and George Segal is at his best as two inveterate gambling addicts going after the big score. As I got deeper into the characters- and this is a marvelous character study- the resemblance to John Huston's legendary Treasure of the Sierra Madre struck me. Two guys in thrall to a dream of deliverance through riches that becomes the empty pursuit of specie. Though Gould never goes to the extremes that Bogart does in the Huston film he is just as hooked on the chase. A terrific film.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) (4 Stars)

Ivan Dixon, who died earlier this year, was best known for his supporting role on TV's Hogan's Heroes. As a director though he made this fascinating and tough gem that subverts the blaxploitation genre and asks some tough political questions. In a set-up that clearly plays on the screens inside the minds of the McCain campaign at this very moment, the film takes the premise of the CIA recruiting blacks to divert scrutiny of their actions. The one guy who makes it through is tough and quiet and happily toils away making copies and doing other low level tasks while soaking up all of the counter insurgency methods the agency was honing overseas. Retiring with honor he goes to Chicago to become - you guessed it - a community organizer. Only he ends up passing his training along to black power advocates and gang members - teaching them to lay off drugs and get started making bombs. This section plays like a cross between Fight Club and Shaft before ending abruptly. Well worth seeing.

Hard Eight (1996)  (4 stars)

This early film from Paul Thomas Anderson has the hallmarks of most of his work - beautiful framing and photography, characters that are more flawed than lovable, and a distinct milieu - in this case the gambling underworld of Las Vegas. Philip Baker Hall, one of Anderson's favorites, is terrific as the father figure card sharp to John C. Reilly. Reilly is more of a problem - he finds everything that's whiny and irritating in a dipshit character. It becomes hard to see why Hall would give two squats about him, even after the later plot machinations grind through. Tipping this into an extra star though is a brilliantly jaded turn by Gwyneth Paltrow - it's perhaps her best performance and very different than what she's typecast as now. Then there's the delicious turn by Samuel L. Jackson as a particularly annoying friend of Reilly's.

Smiley Face (2007) (1 Star)

Anna Faris is an attractive and game comic actress in search of a vehicle to really shine. This ain't it. A stoner comedy full of jump-cuts, every cliched "stoned" POV shot in the book, and a mis-judged central performance that hits one spaced-out note interminably, this is one to skip. What's most shocking is that this sub-par take on the far superior Go was directed by the talented Greg Araki, who should know better. Watch Harold and Kumar instead.