Tuesday, 30 December 2008

2008 round up: the year in movies

So since I bought a house, I've probably watched more movies than at any other time in my life. Danijela and I have been watching about two a week, often more, alongside some newly discovered television shows. Maybe it's nesting; maybe we feel poor; maybe we are just being lazy after all the work we've done at the house! Could be. It's very cozy here; and now that winter is upon us, there are even better reasons to stay indoors. I've just finished the major part of my Christmas shopping; now if only I could develop some sort of remote shovelling system.

Anyway, I thought somebody out there on the internet might find it interesting to know what I watched in the past 12 months; so without further ado:

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is a Frank Capra film, starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore. I'm not much of an older film connoisseur, but from what I have seen, I've found that the style, particularly the acting, is very different, and often difficult to appreciate. I think this film is actually remarkably modern, despite its hyper-sentimentality. The thing is, I just find the story to be so beautiful, and the performances to be so earnest, that the film creates a sort of nostalgic reality that feels right, regardless of its simple storytelling and black and white morality—it's got just enough dirt and meanness. It's a Wonderful Life is a Christmas story that doesn't need to be about Christmas—I'm not sure if the holiday is even mentioned—but it's definitely not about Santa Claus; and the spirit and reason for the season are front and centre in this one.

The Player (1993), a Robert Altman film, starring Tim Robbins and co-starring many others. Adapted from the novel by Michael Tolkin. It's an update of the noir style of film, but under the bright California sun. Altman uses incredibly long shots (the opening scene is over seven minutes long), and lots of tricks with light and shadow and close ups to create this Hollywood insiders thriller. It's full of satire, but not offensive enough to prevent half of Hollywood from doing cameos in the film. Very clever and entertaining; lots of talking makes it feel longer than its two hours; Entourage fans should enjoy.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997), written and directed by Atom Egoyan, and starring Ian Holm and Sarah Polley. Adapted from the novel by Russell Banks. This is a slow and ponderous film that has just enough weirdness about it to be clearly recognized as "Canadian". The thing mirrors The Pied Piper, with all but one of the children of a small town dying in a bus crash—but the question is "Who led them to their deaths?" There are a number of possible culprits of course, and none is clearly identified as the one, so the audience is left guessing. It's mostly well played; and Sarah Polley is excellent as the young teenager who survives the accident.

Mean Girls (2004), written by Tina Fey, directed by Mark Waters (whose brother wrote Heathers), and starring a very fresh-looking Lindsay Lohan at 18, alongside several Saturday Night Live alumni. While this movie clearly pays homage to Heathers, even directly copping some of the latter's scenes, it is definitely its own sort of beast. Mean Girls is far brighter and more optimistic—there are no murders, intentional or otherwise—and its satire is not so bleak. Still, it's very clever and well written, and it makes sense now in a different way than Heathers makes sense now. And Lindsay Lohan is very good, as is the rest of the cast.

Elf (2003), stars Will Ferrell as the title elf, and is directed by Jon Favreau. The movie also features Zooey Deschanel, James Caan, and Mary Steenburgen. This is certainly the best Christmas movie I've seen in years, which is not really fair, since I generally avoid them. Regardless, this one is fun and intelligent and somehow not at all sappy, which is the most important part of all. And the starring role—a wide-eyed fully grown man who grew up among Santa's elves but who travels to New York City to find his real father—is perfect for Will Ferrell's antics and gestures. I think the thing about Christmas movies now is that they're clearly pushing a secular version of the holiday, but the good ones at least also try to encourage some sort of Christmas spirit that is incredibly and increasingly hard to find among the consumption clatter. In other words, despite being very enjoyable, I'm not sure that Elf is a movie with any message at all, other than simply follow the Christmas spirit because that's what you're supposed to do, which cheapens the film to the level of something more crass like Bad Santa. Then again—and I'm afraid you'll have to see it to know what I'm talking about here—maybe the message is that we are looking for a Christmas spirit to believe in, and we don't really know where to look other than to that former-symbol-of-giving-now-symbol-of-consumerism, Santa Claus.

Basquiat (1996), was painter Julian Schnabel's first film. It stars Jeffrey Wright in the title role, as well as Benicio Del Toro, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, and too many others to list. Schnabel is very talented at creating pieces of art out of movies; and over three films and 10 years (I haven't seen Berlin), he has clearly improved in his storytelling. Basquiat drops the viewer right in the middle of the story with next to no context, which works well given the subject and the time in the art world. There's a lot of neat stuff here, and regardless of how true it is, it seems to offer a realistic glimpse of the new-expressionist movement of the 80s in New York. But the film is worth seeing just for David Bowie playing Andy Warhol!

Pineapple Express (2008) was written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Judd Apatow, and stars Rogen and James Franco. The plot of this stoner buddy movie is simple, and it contains a lot of stumbling and bumbling around à la Superbad, which makes it easy to enjoy. But there's not a lot of depth, not that one should expect much from this type of movie. If you like these guys' work, you'll probably like this. It is funny, and occasionally surprising, but don't expect even the same sort of light social commentary that one can usually hope for from this crew.

Heathers (1988) was written by Daniel Waters (brother to Mark, who, as mentioned, directed Mean Girls), and, most importantly, stars Winona Ryder (at 17), Christian Slater (at 19), and Shannen Doherty (also 17). This film is in my mind probably the ultimate teen movie, and it is as relevant today as ever, particularly in the frightening new context of school killings. There's no doubt that it's a farce, but that doesn't make it feel any less real or powerful. In addition, it is clearly influential—I'm sure it influenced my young and impressionable mind when I saw it, probably on CityTV's late great movies—but a movie like this one can't help but be influential. It's incredibly written—smart, droll, bitter, funny, and satirical, all somehow without being over the top; and remarkably acted by such a young cast, none of whom, if I may say, went on to really fulfill her potential.

The Dark Knight (2008) was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, and stars Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and too many others to mention. While I will certainly not buck the trend by saying that Heath Ledger's was not great, I will say that I didn't enjoy this sequel as much as Batman Begins. The sequel has all the great darkness, violence, and gadgetry of the previous film, and the cast is as good, if not better, but I think Nolan tried to force too much material into the project. Actually, I know that's what I didn't like about it: the entire Harvey Dent/Two Face story was rushed and badly developed, and I began to get the feeling that Batman could simply buy his way out of everything. It's a shame, because I really wanted to like it a lot, mostly due to Nolan writing and directing, but I guess you can't win 'em all. Still, I won't say you shouldn't rent it.

Batman Begins (2005) was directed and written by Christopher Nolan, and stars Christian Bale, Michael Cain, and Liam Neeson, among numerous others. This version is a fitting tribute to the Batman that I grew up reading. I was confused by the story at first, because I knew nothing about Ra's Al Ghul or Henri Ducard, nor had I ever read any version of Bruce Wayne's early training; but I caught on quickly. I'm a bit of a sucker for the type of story that involves lengthy training to avenge some sort of wrongdoing in the protagonist's early life. Kill Bill is a good recent example. Actually, I think I've got a thing for revenge movies in general. Anyway, it works here, against the backdrop of a crumbling Gotham faltering under the weight of bureaucracy and corruption and organized crime, desperately in need of a hero. Many of the comic book move tropes are used here: darkness pervades, steam comes from nowhere, people are afraid and paranoid, but somehow struggle through their daily lives. It's a very good effort, and better than the sequel. I hope Nolan keeps it simple for the next one.

Stand By Me (1986) is a Rob Reiner film, based on a Stephen King story, featuring several future stars, all 16 or younger: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O'Connell, and Corey Feldman; and it's got Kiefer Sutherland, too! I saw this for the first time in 2008. I don't know how I went 22 years without seeing this film. I read the Mad magazine spoof when it came out, so I pretty much knew how the thing went; but it always had a certain mystique about it, which it pretty much lives up to. It's got most of the elements of a Great American Story: a gang of friends, a journey, nostalgia, friendly conflict, poor vs. rich, school smart vs. street smart. It really is great, with excellent performances from all involved—better than Feldman and Sutherland would give the next year in Lost Boys, but that's a different thing entirely.

Love in the Time of Cholera (2007) is an adaptation of the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, starring Javier Bardem and Benjamin Bratt. I am not happy to admit that of Garcia Marquez's books, I've only read one, and it's not this one; it's One Hundred Years of Solitude. So I can't say how accurate the depiction here is, but with the little knowledge of the author's style that I have, I feel confident saying that the film misses the mark. I'm going to blame the directing here in the main, because the writing is okay, and acting is okay. But the story has no magic, and the characters share no chemistry. To the film's credit, the cast is almost entirely Spanish—even the leads—even though they speak in English. It bothers me when a film set in a non-English locale is full of English or American actors, made to look foreign and speak in awful accents.

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In the unlikely event that you've made it this far, you might have guessed that this exercise is quintessentially new dilettantish. That may not be clear since nowhere have I bothered to explain what that means to me.

Well, it's one thing to post an online journal, simply as a vehicle for thoughts, opinions, and daily exploits, whether the author intends it for general consumption or personal; but it's another thing entirely when those thoughts and opinions presume to extend into the realm of criticism or journalism, without the benefit of a professional background or the hand of a skilled editor (preferably both). In the former case, you have probably the majority of bloggers—random posts on personal topics, and possibly some specific theme of personal interest—in the latter, you have "citizen journalists" (like myself)—probably mostly aspiring writers, artists, or general self-promoters, all of whom feel they have sufficient knowledge on some or many topics to write on them with credibility—most probably don't.

This is the Dilettante: the person who has not gone to the trouble to acquire proper training or education in a small range of activity or field (those would be professionals, specialists, or connoisseurs), who retains only superficial knowledge of anything, but can speak at length about many topics. The dilettante is a product of the bourgeois revolution—at least on the grand scale. There was no time for amateurs before then, among the masses.

And now we are experiencing a new middle-class revolution, which has blessed us with more leisure time than ever and more entertainments to fill it; and, apparently, a desperate need to express to others just how we are using that time, and several means to do so. There's nothing wrong with that. But it is the circumstance of the New Dilettante: adrift on a sea of unimportance, she uses her blog as a life preserver—a beacon in the vast blue. With luck—and much self-promotion—her words might shine out like a flare and draw attention her way.

Don't get me wrong: the name of my blog is not ironic. It's merely a statement of my situation and our time. For all the talk of "democratizing" journalism—which is great in some ways—blogs are generally soapboxes for people who may have informed opinions or may not, but regardless, they have opinions that they feel they must share with the world. Case in point: this rundown of the movies I watched in 2008, featuring short, utterly unprofessional, and uninformed reviews. I don't do scholarly research—the reviews are all based on my feeling looking back on the films. But is there a point to all this babble on the internet? Is there a discussion going on?

For me this is merely an exercise. I suppose I don't expect anybody to read this; but certainly I, along with the legions of other blogger journalists, hope people will. And, as a writer, I cannot help but hope they'll enjoy what they read; for I also have the dream of being discovered—preferably by some reputable and established magazine or newspaper—but really by anyone who will pay and spread my words. But please, read on!

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27 Dresses (2008) stars Katherine Heigl as a traditionally romantic young professional woman, and James Marsden as her cynically modern young professional foil. In other words, she desperately wants to get married, and he desperately doesn't. The movie is light and fluffy, and has a happy ending—definitely a product of the time. And one might argue that it is (along with other recent movies like Juno and Knocked Up) pushing a traditional moral agenda in which the arguments of modern cynics will always come up short—could be. But I wonder about the writers of these fluffy, but cleverly written things. Has the supposed cynicism of Gen X turned to traditionalism? Was it always so? Anyway, there are a number of generational themes tied up here: for example, workaholism and over-ambition, and a new-ish take on finding true love on the other side of all the cynicism. And I think it's worth watching.

The Heartbreak Kid (2007) is a film from the Farrelly brothers, featuring Ben Stiller, Rob Corddry and Jerry Stiller as men who refuse to grow up. On a whim, Stiller's character decides to marry an even less mature woman whom he hardly knows, and queue the pissing jokes. I only watched this because I was in Cuba with cable, and Danijela and I were exhausted from too much fried food, but it wasn't bad. In short, it's a lighthearted comedy about love and fate and tough decisions, and Rob Corddry and Jerry Stiller are two hoots. I wouldn't have paid to see it though.

Knocked Up (2007) is a film from recently overexposed writer and director Judd Apatow, starring Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogan, along with much of Apatow's standard crew. None of that is bad. For the most part—that is, among the Apatow films that I've seen—he is a clever and funny writer, a combination of traits that seems to be missing from straight-up comedy these days (see The Heartbreak Kid above). Here the issue is unplanned pregnancy between unlikely strangers. The real unlikely factor is that they choose to try and continue their relationship and keep the baby, not knowing whether they actually like each other. Is it realistic? No. Is it protesting abortion? Maybe. Do either of these things take away from the writing and the performances? Definitely not. The premise of the film is that the woman gets knocked up; knowing that, we should probably expect before watching that she might go through with it.

Juno (2007) stars Ellen Page and Michael Cera, alongside a great supporting cast including Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. It was directed by Jason Reitman, son of Ivan, so it is basically a great big Canada love-fest. It's also a sort of companion film to Knocked Up, but in high school. A young girl gets pregnant by her best friend and decides to keep the baby, but give it up for adoption. I'm getting back to near the beginning of '08 here, so I don't remember Juno especially well, but the performances are very good, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Despite its heavy subject matter, it has a light feel,

To come:

The Lost Boys
Weird Science
Iris
3:10 to Yuma
No Country for Old Men
Blades of Glory
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo
La Vie En Rose
The Golden Compass
Narnia
There Will Be Blood
Control
The Prestige
The Savages
Away From Her
Eagle vs. Shark
Read on..!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Beautiful songs: Under Pressure

Like many members of my general age group, I'm sure, my first exposure to "Under Pressure" was not via the original Queen and David Bowie version, but another artist: a white rapper called Vanilla Ice, which (correct me if I'm wrong) basically translates into "Whitey White" or perhaps "Whitey Cool". In his hit single of 1990, "Ice Ice Baby", Vanilla Ice used a modified version of the bass and finger snap line (lacking the piano) from "Under Pressure", after which I'm sure it must have been one of the most recognizable bits of music of the 90s. It was certainly an extremely popular song, being the first rap song to reach number one on the Billboard pop music chart, spending several months on that chart, selling upwards of 15 000 000 copies, and reaching gold or platinum in several countries.

To preteens, without broader knowledge and greater discernment of the quality and depth of music—especially rap music—the song was great: it has a fun tune and beat, it's lyrics are easy to sing along to, the video is cheesy in a way kids can appreciate, and so on. And who at that time could tell that Vanilla Ice was basically a fraud? At 12 I just didn't have a deep background in hip hop music to base my judgments on!

By an interesting coincidence, another hit rap song came out that same year that sampled another 1981 song. The artist was MC Hammer, the current song was "U Can't Touch This", and the sample was from "Superfreak" by Rick James. Only time will tell which, if either, of these artists history will be kind to.

The point is, when I first heard Queen and David Bowie's performance of "Under Pressure", I was completely shocked. I'm pretty sure that it was in fact my first real exposure to Queen, as Wayne's World was still in the future. It was such a moment that I remember the scene pretty clearly: I was sitting in the living room at my parents' house, with all of my family, I think. I was probably 13 at the time. The television was on—I can't recall whether this was before or after we had a TV with remote control—and the video came on, incredibly, since we didn't have cable. (I guess that it was channel 11 (CHCH from Hamilton, Ontario), because they used to show music videos between programs at random times during the day. I recall seeing INXS's "Guns in the Sky" a lot for some reason.)

The image I remember from that moment is of a building collapsing in black and white. That image has probably defined my perspective on the song since then, though no doubt at 13 I could hardly appreciate the message. It was the performance that touched me. I guess, if I wanted to get all McLuhan on everybody, I'd say that the performance is the medium and the medium is the message; or, at least, the message is implied through the performance. I've never studied McLuhan though, so I wouldn't want to embarrass myself by getting into that. Regardless, the song's message, I believe, is one of humanity—my very favourite theme.

"Under Pressure" is remarkable for many reasons: coming during what was a decadent transitional period for both parties—Bowie had recently come out of his "Berlin period" and kicked the heroin habit—maybe—and Queen had begun experimenting with synthesizers and dance music—the ultra-group created something graceful, deep, and simple, which resulted in a strikingly original and powerful performance. It is the kind of performance that only seasoned and experienced artists can produce, and despite their decadence—and the spontaneity of the recording session—all were clearly at their best.

So the performance itself is simply excellent (a facade of objectivity prevents me from saying brilliant). Freddy Mercury's falsetto and Bowie's baritone complement each other in a way that I'm not sure I can compare to any other performance, and their passion is evident. The two lower and lift their voices at a moment's notice, giving the song its urgency and compassion, as well as softness and humour. And Bowie does backup vocal duties, too, which is a role he always does incredibly well (though usually to his own lead). His soft and purposeful voice ascends behind the lead, quietly supporting it and elevating it.

The music is simply terrific, managing to be both isolating, meditative, and inspiring, creating a great rush of emotion before the chorus: "It's the terror of knowing...". But there's nothing to it really, beyond two notes on a bass, two on a piano, and some light guitar picking, and building to a crescendo at the bridge that crashes into great timeless guitar rock. It creates the mood of the song, and the template against which Mercury and Bowie sing (particularly the scatting bits), while at the same time staying out of the way of the vocals. But it is undoubtedly there in its softness and hardness and underlying power, and I wouldn't change a thing about it.

As with most songs, at any given time, I recall only a few lines of "Under Pressure". Sometimes, when I read the lyrics of a song and sing along to it a lot, I'll remember the whole thing, but usually not. So I've heard "Under Pressure" probably hundreds of times—and there are not a lot of lyrics to begin with—but in a number of places I didn't hear the lyrics quite correctly:
Pressure, pushing down on me, pushing down on you, no man has fault
Pressure, the kind that builds with time, splits a family in two, puts people on streets
Close, but not quite (see below). But the first bridge, oh dear! I always had that right on. It's clear as day:
It's the terror of knowing what this world is about
Watching some good friend scream: "Let me out"
Pray tomorrow gets me higher
Pressure on people, people on streets
I mean, wow. It may not show up in the lyrics alone, but to me, rarely have so few words expressed such a great amount of anguish; and Bowie's smooth and tainted voice seems to express the pain of the world—or at least the pain of the world as understood by a 13-year-old boy and a 30-year-old man.

And the scatting says nearly as much as the words, tempering the tough subject matter with its playfulness and mirroring of the bass and piano line. But it's the crashing climax that brings the message home:
'Cause love's such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night
And loves dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves
This is our last dance; this is our last dance; this is ourselves
Broadly speaking, there are two sides to humanity: the fundamental "terror" that we experience in the face of life itself—the face we spend so much time trying to hide from—and the "love" we feel for others and ourselves in spite of it—the love that is so hard to feel when we are hiding. The terror makes us want to escape; the love makes us daring; and the eternal tension between them we call life. At the same time, "this is our last dance": this life is our chance to love and care and dare. "This is ourselves": this is who we are—human—and if we don't dare, this dance is our—humanity's—last. Or, it's always humanity's last dance: there is no other moment but this one, and why should we spend it in fear? And, then, what are we afraid of? This is us; why should we fear each other?

"Under Pressure" measures the musical modesty of Bowie's "Changes" and the breathtaking emotion of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". And while it doesn't employ the humour of either of those songs, it does have their playfulness and optimism, and avoids any self-indulgence, criticism, and irony. To me, the performance and song come off as completely honest, devoid of pretense, existing for no other reason than to be a great song.
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Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you no man ask for
Under pressure: that tears a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets
It's the terror of knowing what this world is about
Watching some good friend scream: "Let me out"
Pray tomorrow gets me higher
Pressure on people: people on streets

Chippin' around: kick my brains around the floor
These are the days it never rains but it pours
People on streets
People on streets
It's the terror of knowing what this world is about
Watching some good friend scream "Let me out"
Pray tomorrow gets me higher high high
Pressure on people: people on streets

Turned away from it all like a blind man
Sat on a fence, but it don't work
Keep coming up with love, but it's so slashed and torn
Why, why, why?
Love love love love love
Insanity laughs under pressure we're cracking
Can't we give ourselves one more chance
Why can't we give love that one more chance
Why can't we give love give love give love give love
give love give love give love give love give love
'Cause love's such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And loves dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure
Under pressure
Pressure
Read on..!
 
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