Sunday, March 30, 2008

Record Score! - To Easter & Beyond



L-R:
Irakere "S/T" Lp (Columbia)
- Heavily percussive afro-cuban jazz from 1979

Pat Metheny & Ornette Coleman "Song X" Lp (Geffen)
- Blazing-tempos & racing, noodly melodies from Methany & Coleman along with some of my favorite rhythm players Charlie Haden, Denardo Coleman & Jack DeJohnett playing through the dark ages of the mid-80's

Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen "Jaywalkin'" Lp (Inner City)
- 1976 album licensed from SteepleChase from my favorite bassist. Pedersen as a composer and as a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio proved that he could handle bluesy melancholy and wild swing, showy solos and on-the-clock rhythm work, and he does it all with a very soulful personality.

Airto "Virgin Land" Lp (Salvation)
- 1974 album from latin percussionist Airto

Richard Sussman "Tributaries" Lp (Inner City)
- Great record from 1979 whose upfront Moog & deafening drumming just get better and better the louder you play it. The day I got this I was in kind of a funk and wanted to play some raw, hardcore hip hop to shake myself out of it but, because I currently can't play curse words at work, when I substituted "Tributaries" it did the trick.

Guns N' Roses "Appetite For Destruction" Lp (Geffen)
- I recently read some musings on the internet about "Appetite For Destruction" and it reminded me how much i liked the record when it came out (I'm pretty sure I was in 7th grade). Digging through records the other day i came across a really clean, early pressing on Geffen/Uzi Suicide and decided that it was such a big part of my history with music that i should own it. I honestly haven't put it on the turntable since picking it up but just looking at the cover has filled me with a ton of nostalgia for the music.

Nat Adderley "You, Baby" Lp (CTI)
- a subtle, warm & romantic album from 1968 with Adderly, Ron Carter & pianist Joe Zawinul really clicking

Mi Ami "African Rhythms" 12" (White Denim)
- This was a really pleasant surprise. I have a few records from the Philadelphia-based record label White Denim (www.whitedenim.com) (which for some reason I seem to doomed to forever mix-up with the Parts Unknown label) and it's a pretty diverse lot of noisy, DIY rock & hardcore. I grabbed this based on the review by my old friend Doug Mosurock (sic) on his excellent column Still Single for Dusted Magazine (www.dustedmagazine.com), which has turned me on to a lot of great stuff in its 3 year+ run. Mi Ami take a welcome left turn from the knock-off-work, jeans & Converse rock n' roll sound, building from a foundation of heavy african-inspired percussion & tight bass work, and adding screaming pscyh guitars & distant vocals as the tracks require. The 3 track, 45 rpm single manages to scratch a few itches with the 2 cuts on the A side bringing the noisy pound that quells the angry young man in me while the B side is much more relaxed, dubby and melodic and more to the speed of my current tastes. A great record.

Mama Cass "Make Your Own Kind Of Music" Lp (Dunhill)
- A reissue of "Bubble Gum, Lemonade And Something For Mama" with "Make Your Own Kind Of Music" added. I'm a big nerd for the TV show LOST and so this song has been in my head for a while and i finally gave in and bought the record. It turned out to be the perfect music to keep me company while i painted.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ocular Optometrical - Vol. 2: Recent Rentals

Too tired to watch subtitles lately, but made it through:


Joshua (2007)
- An enjoyable little horror-thriller starring Sam Rockwell & Vera Farmiga as a professional couple (very much from a yuppie template for the new millennium) coping with the birth of their new daughter along with Jacob Kogan, their slightly-off, over-achieving 1st born. The movie does a great job of twisting tighter and tighter as the family's life spirals out of control and you are kept wondering if everyone could just benefit from a little sleep, if the little boy suffers from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or if he's Rosemary's Baby part 2. The movie obviously doesn't have a huge budget, but smartly fits the story well within that framework and relies on a solidly creepy performance by Jacob Kogan to keep you guessing until the last frame. 3.5/5 stars.


K Street (2003)
- This HBO series, a melodramatization of the real world of Lobbying firms, hooked me in the 1st episode by including presidential hopeful Howard Dean getting coached on his debate strategy. It just reminded me of how ludicrously railroaded out of that primary he truly was. Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brokovich, Oceans 11...), the series tracks James Carville & Mary Matalin, playing themselves, as they set up a fictional lobbying firm in DC and deal with the quid-pro-quos of the business. The characters bump up against a lot of real Senators, Representatives & media type and they make lots of gentle jabs at real issues. It's presented very dryly, with a lot of Soderbergh's telltales like hand-held cameras, mussed hair and desaturated colors, but the style suits it. Some of the storylines surrounding the fictional partners at the firm get a little too soap-opera sordid but the introduction of the ripped-from-the-headlines Plamegate really gives the 1-season show its anchor. 3/5 stars.


Night Of The Living Dorks (2006)
- A German, high school, zombie comedy, Night Of The Living Dorks doesn't really reach for the stars in terms of writing. In fact, it feels a lot like an episode of Saved By the Bell with the same broad acting and gags you see coming a mile away, but the humor dips into the crude American Pie territory. Of course it's different in that it's subtitled in German and the main characters become zombies. All said, it's pretty dumb and if you want horny, teenager zombies you're much better off with the underrated Idle Hands. 2/5 stars.


The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971)
- I've been watching a lot of documentaries from the 60's, and what i enjoy most about them is that while there is an obvious editorial hand at work in where the camera is aimed, they often have no omnipotent voiceover telling you what to think about what you're seeing. Like most great documentaries, The Murder of Fred Hampton didn't start out with its end product in mind. The Murder of Fred Hampton began as a film documenting the life of the famed Black Panther Party leader, capturing some of his speeches, big and small, some of his meetings with other Black Panther Party and local organizers, and his interactions with his community. It's great, raw footage, that may aim to further the politics of the Black Panther Party, but shows it warts and all. Scenes that demonstrate Hampton's overwhelming passion and his unwillingness to capitulate to entrenched political conclussions also illustrate his difficulty in sometimes communicating his platforms, even to sympathetic ears. When Hampton all but takes credit for the beating & robbing of an ice cream man to give the children of his neighborhood free ice cream, he takes pride in the story, believing it to propigate his Robin Hood-esque image, but it also illuminates the ambiguous moral space the Black Panther Party sometimes operated in. Then, halfway through filming, the Chicago police & the FBI killed Fred Hampton, and the documentary stops documenting a hopeful program for social progress and begins to sift through the debris for answers. 4/5 stars.


Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)
- I just read the graphic novels in preparation of checking out this animated movie from DC Comics. Even though I liked Darwin Cooke's art style and feel like he did a good job of conveying the story & had above average characterizations of DC's biggest super heroes, I also felt like it was just a rehash of every Silver Age Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Flash story I'd ever read, or seen on the Justice League cartoon. The fact that it all took place in the 50's & 60's and referenced real people & events was okay, but that's what made Marvel Comics special. DC had made a conscious decision to invent fictional cities and have fictional presidents so that their characters could be bigger-than-life pop icons, so it feels hollow shoehorning them into the social movements that Marvel was documenting when they were happening. Since I was slightly underwhelmed by the source material, it wasn't a shock to find out that I was underwhelmed by the cartoon adaptation where DC & Warner Brothers also scrub some of the edgier elements (like the story of John Henry fighting the KKK in the south) to peddle it to as broad an audience as possible. The designs loosely pay tribute to Darwin Cooke's retro/deco style but still fall pretty heavily to the Bruce Timm house-style that DC has used for Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, & The Justice League. I like that style (even though they haven't used the simplified geometric style to their advantage in terms of lighting & perspective since Batman: The Animated Series) but the art in The New Frontier was probably 70% of its selling-point and could have been referenced much more closely. All in all, Justice League: The New Frontier feels like a good multipart episode of the Justice League cartoon, which was often surprisingly mature, but doesn't really ascend to the level of a separate movie. 3/5 stars.


Rocket Science (2007)
- A decent indie comedy about Reece Thompson as a stuttering high school outcast who is recruited to the debate team to fill the shoes of its legendary debater who quit mid-competition in a fog of spiritual crisis. The unlikely new competitor joins the team because his recruiter is a pretty, motivated classmate who may be one of the 1st people in his life to pay him any attention, especially anyone of the opposite sex. The high school setting dictates much of the tone, but if you enjoy Heathers, Clueless or even a little bit of Welcome To The Dollhouse, Juno & Rushmore, you can probably get down with Rocket Science. The story is unique, and even though there is a slightly hightened quirk to the atmosphere & characters, there are some honestly hard life lessons for the protagonist. The movie definitely felt like it was aimed at a slightly younger audience than me, high school upperclassmen & the college set, which wafts the dust from my craggly, old tear ducts just a little. 3/5 stars.


Sunshine (2007)
I was excited to revist this film, and I have to say that it holds up quite well. The ending still really detracts from what is otherwise a great space film in the tradition of Solaris, 2001 & Alien but the stunning visuals and strong performances from the cast hold strong. The DVD has 2 entertaining commentaries, one from director Danny Boyle and one from the technical science advisor, and they both make very good cases for the film, even quieting some of my misgivings about the 3rd act. 4/5 stars.

If you're interested in befriending me on Netflix & checking out my ratings on 2,568 movies & counting, you can just follow this link: http://www.netflix.com/BeMyFriend/P63xnvp60MZXY118Ci4G

Friday, March 21, 2008

Record Score - Birthday Edition 3-15-08



Dear Mom & Dad,
This is where those birthday checks go.

This week's score (L-R):
Jackson Conti "Upa Neguinho / Casa Forte" 7" (Kindred Spirits)
- Jackson Conti is Madlib with Mamao from brazilian jazz-funk masters Azymuth.

Lee Mason & His Orchestra "Shady Blue" b/w Jack Arel & Jean-Claude Petit "Psychedelic Portrait" 7" (Jazzman)
- The Lee Mason track is a nice, slower, bluesy funk instrumental but the real reason i got this was for the Jack Arel track. I've had "Psychedelic Portrait" on CD forever since it was featured in The Prisoner TV Show in the extra-trippy episode "The Girl Who Was Death." It's got a HUGE swinging drum break & none of the diggers are up on it because France's Jack Arel was primarily a studio musician and vinyl for his music is ultra-rare. I think my CD version might be slightly longer but it's good to have this on vinyl to screw with all of the real heads.

School Of Language "Rockist Single" 7" (Memphis Industries)
- Tour-only single that I picked up from Thrill Jockey. Interesting cut & paste, indie-rock by David Brewis of Field Music gone solo.

Andrew Hill "Smokestack" Lp (Blue Note)
- NY-USA pressing of Andrew Hill with Richard Davis, Eddie Khan & Roy Haynes

Sleep Walker "Wind (Feat. Yukimi Nagano) / Quiet Dawn" 12" (Especial)
- The only Sleep Walker record I was missing, because it's been sold-out in my previous attempts to grab it. "Wind," with its vocals kind of leans more towards a soft vocal-house ballad, but "Quiet Dawn" is the precise Japanese jazz that's been killing it for me.

Build An Ark "Sunshine EP" 12" (Kindred Spirits)
- Outtakes from the "Dawn" Lp with a bunch of short, improvisational numbers plus a long, really boisterous, live cover of Coltrane's "A Love Supreme"

Shuya Okino "United Legends Replayed By Sleep Walker EP" Lp (Especial)
- I never heard the original record, but with Sleep Walker making live-instrument reinterpretations i was on it. All of the tracks feature vocalists (Josh Milan (Blaze), Diviniti, Navasha Daya (Fertile Ground), and Yukimi Nagano) that i've heard and liked enough on house tracks. At first I was a little disappointed that it's pretty subdued for Sleep Walker, but after 5 or so listens it's starting to grow on me

Exploding Star Orchestra "We Are All From Somewhere Else" 2xLp (Shortwave)
- My anger over this being a CD-only album has luckily been squashed with this 500-copy, 180gram pressing. Having this on vinyl might bump it up a few notches on my best-of list.

Mary Lou Williams "Free Spirits" Lp (Inner City)
- I love Inner City & SteepleChase records because they feature that 70's soul-jazz with really beautiful sound mixes. Pittsburgh's own Mary Lou Williams' trio sounds amazing covering Miles Davis, Buster Williams, Jelly Roll Morton & knocking out a few originals, with really clear separation between the piano, bass & drums.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk "The Return Of The 5000 Lb. Man" Lp (Warner Brothers)
- With a different line-up on each track, this isn't entirely cohesive as an album, but Roland Kirk covering "Giant Steps" is a no-brainer.

Horacee Arnold "Tales Of The Exonerated Flea" Lp (Columbia)
- Drummer Horacee Arnold leads a big ensemble, including a bunch of ECM heads, through some gritty, break-heavy soul-jazz. Ths is some serious musicians' music, with the players grinding the gears for each other more than anything else. Some really satisfying sounds.

Lou Donaldson "Possum Head" Lp (Cadet)
- I love Lou Donaldson but as soon as I saw John Patton on organ I snatched this up.

Eric Dolphy "Out To Lunch" Lp (Blue Note)
- Eric Dolphy with Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis & a young Tony Williams! Score!

Roland Kirk "Volunteered Slavery" Lp (Atlantic)
- Classic Roland Kirk killing it with the sax, flute, nose-flute, gong, whistle & vocals, sometimes all at once. A prime example to dispell the myth of jazz as somber, studious music.

Archie Shepp "Things Have Got To Change" Lp (Impulse!)
- Shepp with Cal Massey getting politically heavy with 3 heartbreaking cuts with vocals dedicated to the spirit of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Richard Davis "Muses For Richard Davis" Lp (BASF)
- I love the sound of the accoustic bass and Richard Davis always puts himself front & center even when he's joined by legends like Freddie Hubbard & Roland Hanna.

PS. Have i mentioned how good Erykah Badu's "New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)" is?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ocular Optometrical - Vol. 1: Top 10 Movies Of 2007



The movies I saw that I think qualify as 2007 movies:
28 Weeks Later / 30 Days Of Night / 300 / 1408 / American Gangster / Angel-A / The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford / Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters / Black Book / Black Sheep / Blood And Chocolate / Blood Car / Bourne Ultimatum / The Bridge / Bug / Cashback / Children Of Men / The Darjeeling Limited / Daywatch / Death Proof / Eagle Vs Shark / Eastern Promises / Fido / Flight Of The Living Dead / The Good Shepherd / Gone Baby Gone / Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix / Hellboy: Blood & Iron / Hostel: Part 2 / Hot Fuzz / I Am Legend / King Of Kong / The Kite Runner / Knocked Up / Live Free Or Die Hard / The Lives Of Others / Michael Clayton / The Mist / No Country For Old Men / Oceans 13 / Once / Pan's Labyrinth / Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End / Ratatouille / The Reaping / Rescue Dawn / Resident Evil: Extinction / Rise: Blood Hunter / Rocket Science / Sicko / The Simpsons Movie / Spiderman 3 / Sunshine / Superbad / Talk To Me / There Will Be Blood / This Is England / Transformers / Wasted Orient / Wristcutters / Zodiac

I included There Will Be Blood, even though Pittsburgh didn't get a chance to see it until well into January because it, like Pan's Labyrinth this year, will look stupid on a 2008 list. I understand there are economists that have crunched the numbers and have somehow determined that Evan Almighty 2 gets rolled out to every multiplex in the world but a highly anticipated movie by a proven director gets limited release for months. I understand that Wild Hogs made more money than No Country For Old Men. It doesn't sting any less.

The worst list AKA someone owes me an apology:
- Michael Clayton
I like George Clooney's unshakeable Armani-suit-wearing character (see every movie Clooney has ever made) as much as the next guy but this movie was ALL style and zero substance, and the style wasn't even that remarkable outside of a Michael Mann movie. Apparently the story was based on true events but while translating it all to the screen, director/screenwriter Tony Gilroy whitewashed any traces of real malfeasance, inventing a terribly generic conglomerate to inflect some sort of environmental crime on a helpless and nameless community. I get that the focus is on the grey moral space that the titular character operates in, and that the company & crime aren't the focus, but stripping the movie of any context you end up with "some people, somewhere, are doing terrible somethings to somebody and they're willing to kill to cover it up". On top of that, if you have watched any Hollywood-agenda film in the last 20 years, you've seen these stereotypes played out before in cartoons and episodes of Blossom. The final straw is the film's dependence on out-of-sequence scene shuffling to give the movie any sense of tension.

- Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters
I really like the TV show's absurdist humor, but even it's 10+ minute running time can sometimes feel like an hour when the humor gets too juvenile or 'baked.' So the full length movie felt interminable and like some sort of psychological test where you either win for enduring the entire thing or for being smart enough to walk away at the earliest opportunity. If this movie was even passably watchable i'd have loved it simply for the excellent Frazetta-esque poster & the guerilla marketing campaign that got Comedy Central hit with terrorism charges.

- Resident Evil: Extinction
The 1st Resident Evil movie is a really fun action/horror flick with some great boobytrapped haunted house moments and good modern zombie, and it stars Milla Jovovich who i love because she's painfully attractive and she uses that as a pass to have a lot of dorky fun like starring in sci-fi movies and fronting a band. The 2nd installment had an obvious falloff in the quality of the script, with pivotol fight scenes happening simply because the film grinds to a halt and characters are pitted against eachother like a boss-stage from the video game. On the 3rd film, I was still holding out hope for a fun action film with Mila kicking some zombie ass, but instead it's a joyless checklist of post-apocalyptic set pieces, monsters from the game, and characters being Hollywood badasses by delivering their lines with the most dead-eyed monotone they can muster. Still, pit Milla against zombies, and i'll be there again in a heartbeat.

- Rise: Blood Hunter
I feel a little bad putting this on the list because it had no right being good in the first place, and I was kind of taking an outside bet that it could be the sort of fun diversion I was desperate for at the time. I'd just watched the entire run of The Shield and so Rise co-star Michael Chiklis had earned himself a little bit of cache with me as well. All I can say about this mess of a movie is that it must have been a hell of a poker game that put all of this Hollywood talent on the hook for this crap. It's the sort of wrongheaded remedial gorefest that Cristufuh from the Sopranos might coax an unwilling pool of talent into, complete with an abundance of topless Lucy Liu. As best as I can remember, there are a bunch of leather trenchcoat wearing euro-vampires, Lucy Liu is a halfbreed (or something) hunting them down with fancy crossbows, and Chiklis is a cop. There's probably a prophecy in there somewhere too. Yeah, it's that movie again.

- Transformers
I grew up with the Transformers. I was from that generation of kids buffeted from all sides with the toys, cartoons, comics, and puffy stickers. Still, I'd grown out of them a few years before the 1986 animated movie hit theaters, and i wasn't at all miffed that Michael Bay & crew had to change up some of the characters & designs to fit a live-action flick. In fact, I can't fault the effects in Transformers at all. They are spectacular. I thought Shia LaBeouf did an admirable job carrying the film too with a nice combination of innocent and rogueish charm. Once again, the fault lies with the bloated summer-blockbuster script that introduces entirely too many characters and pointless subplots in a misguided attempt to make the film feel epic. If, for every minute the worthless "hackers" were on-screen, the writers had made a halfhearted attempt to figure out the logic of the film's major contrivances and conclusion, we might have had a lasting action classic. Instead we have American Godzilla 2: Mecha Godawful (zing!).


The Best:
10. - Ratatouille
The art design in Ratatouille is jaw-droppingly brilliant. The color design, the lighting, the texturing all works towards a common aesthetic which is then scurried through with astonishing squash & stretch animation. Once again, the technical aspects of a Pixar film are pushing the boundaries of the medium in full support of the finished story. Ratatouille is a tightly structured film too with imaginative twists unfolding naturally in service to very strong themes about the role of work in a fulfilling life. Unfortunately there's something about the story that lacks charisma. I never felt truly invested in whether the rat makes the bougie food or not. I like food, but I'm as happy with a good cheese pizza as I am with an 8 course dinner, so the threat of a bad food critic review didn't feel terribly dire.

9. - The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Casey Affleck's performance as Bob Ford secured this movie it's place. He is fantastic in the role, delivering a performance heavy with mannerisms but never chewing the scenery. He feels genuinely uncomfortable in his own skin and his actions feel properly motivated from beginning to end. In fact, it's my favorite performance of the year. Everyone else in the film did a serviceable job. Sam Rockwell does the Sam Rockwell thing, which I was impressed by in Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, and enjoyed enough here. Similarly, Brad Pitt wears a crooked grin and talks quietly in every scene, as though the producers & director equated Pitt's charm with that of Jesse James and called it a day, only half fleshing out what made the legendary gunslinger worthy of the history books. Helping to hold the film together is beautiful cinematography that doesn't simply rely on expansive landscapes, but really fills the frame with frozen plains and close quarter gunfights alike.

8. - Sunshine
After Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later & Millions, Danny Boyle had proven himself to me enough that I wanted to see Sunshine knowing absolutely nothing about the plot. I managed to make it to the theater knowing only that it was a sci-fi film and I was excited. I think there is a pretty unanimous consensus that the last 3rd of the movie is a disappointment, and its a mistake that you can see coming from a mile away, but I loved the beginning enough that this movie still ranks no. 8. The visual effects are beautiful, imaginative but based squarely in hard, speculative sci-fi. The cast is strong, and they pull off the cold, detached atmosphere of 2001, making the fate of the human race as much about if they can best impossible odds and whether they're worth saving. It's hard to forgive the shift in tone towards the end, but i will probably watch the 1st half again and again.

7. - Death Proof
I didn't get to the theater for the Grindhouse experience and I still haven't caught Planet Terror (I'm not a very big fan of Rodriguez or Rose McGowan), but I really had a great time with Death Proof on DVD. Seeing Kurt Russell on screen finally allowing himself to play a jerk again was great, almost immediately washed away decades of terrible romantic comedies. Tarantino's dialogue got to me a couple of times, like the weakest white guy you know trying to sound hard in embarassing stereotypical and slightly out of date ebonics, but it still had that propulsive rhythm that keeps the scenes bumping along. Aside from Russel's performance the real joy Death Proof was the live action car chase & stunts. I love a lot of CGI imagery and the way they've blown the lid off of the limitations of fictional worlds, but there's no doubt that they have appreciably deflated a lot of action sequences by removing, even just subconsciously, the immediacy of the threat. By actually strapping Zoe Belle to the hood of a car and launching real automobiles off of ramps, Death Proof delivered the visceral thrills.

6. - No Country For Old Men
It might be a little bit of peer pressure that's landing No Country For Old Men at no. 6, because I have mixed feelings about the film. I love the Coen brothers, and I was definitely looking forward to the movie all year, but I was severely underwhelmed by its plot. A heartless assassin stalking a man who, in a moment of weakness, involved himself in a bit of bad business is not a new plot, & the fear of ammoral super-criminals is pretty much what's keeping the lights on in Texas these days. Throughout the entire running time of No Country, i couldn't stop thinking "I've seen this a million times". Still, at the end of the film I had to acknowledge that I never lost interest. As cartoonish as Anton Chigurh & his employers seemed, Javier Bardem was definitely a presence on the screen. As many times as i've heard Tommy Lee Jones deliver a bit of grizzled, salt-of-the-earth, too-tired-for-this-shit dialogue, it still struck a nerve. I never stopped wanting Josh Brolin to escape & live happily-ever-after. I have to give it up to the Coens & their cast for powering through a trite plot & message with superior craftsmanship.

5. - Superbad
Speaking of trite plots, we've got the highschool dorks desperate to lose their virginities & make those 'best-years-of-our-lives' ring true. There are a few things about Superbad that really hit home with me. First, and foremost, Michael Cera's awkward teen character, used to great effect in Juno & TV's Arrested Development, is amazing, and I can't get enough of it. Secondly, I really like the fact that the creative forces behind the movie didn't feel the need to make a post-modern comedy like Wet Hot American Summer (which i liked), making obvious references to the teen screwball movies of the 70's & 80's, and instead had enough faith in the material to just make a simple, one-crazy-night comedy. Much like Richard Linklater's Dazed & Confused, Superbad took a well worn plot and approached it with enough warmth & embarassing honesty to make it fresh again. Judd Apatow has a real knack for casting characters and basically letting the actors play themselves, which is why his television shows "Undeclared" & "Freaks & Geeks" have lasting value even though they also treaded very familiar ground. It looks like Seth Rogan & Greg Mottola paid attention while working with Apatow and adopted this winning formula. I think I hate that Jonah Hill kid, and I'll be surprised if McLovin's Christopher Mintz-Plasse becomes a steadily working actor, but the characters are written to their strengths. They contribute to the movie's laugh-out-loud moments, as well as the mushy parts.

4. - Zodiac
David Fincher is another proven entity. Even his missteps like Panic Room & Aliens 3 are interesting enough to warrant picking through again. Much like No Country For Old Men, Zodiac has a slow, hypnotic pace that leads you by the nose through the dark world of a serial killer, and, like No Country, it's easy to mistake the main plot as being about the boogyman at the center of the screen instead of the characters at its edges trying to stumble through whatever life throws at them in search of a good, honest existence. Watching Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith lose focus on his career & family because some nutjob is sending clues in a gruesome scavenger hunt to the newspaper is painful. You want to yell at him through the screen equally when he's stumbling around a dark basement, vulnerable to attack, and when his wife pleads with him to put down the ransome note for a second and give her a little bit of his attention. The movie has a solid cast that carries the film through a long run time, a few shifts in tone & era, and the unsatisfying realities of the Zodiac Killer case, to deliver a solid, engrossing look at how different personalities deal with what is ultimately a puzzle.

3. - Bug
Director William Friedkin was a force to be reckoned with in the 1970's. The French Connection, The Exorcist, Cruising... were very important parts of the decade's gritty & experimental edge, but in the last 2 decades Friedkin has been quietly releasing nuts & bolts Hollywood fare like Rampage, The Guardian, The Hunted... It's a shame then that his return to tense, paranoid & neurotic material with the adaptation of Tracy Letts' play Bug didn't really capture the audience it deserved. A deglossed, Ashley Judd stars as a barmaid sliding by with a lonely life of waitressing & hanging out at her motel apartment with friends from work. One day a harmless drifter (Michael Shannon) shows up and shares with her his world of government experimentation & surveilance. Together they retreat into the motel room, reinforce eachother's neurosis & fight off the toxic outside world. With the singular setting of the motel room, and the small cast, the movie retains the feeling of a chamber play, and it becomes very easy to accept that there is nothing for Judd & Shannon beyond their door. It left my skin crawling and my grasp on reality a little tentative, much like The Exorcist.

2. - The Lives Of Others
Set in the dusty, cold war era of the 80's, when East Germany felt like a lost continent, surrendered to history, The Lives Of Others follows an artist couple, actress & playwrite, as they quietly buck at the institutional oppression of state-sanctioned theater. The way the bureacracy felt so complete & every word was measured with a fear of reprisal, it was easy to forget that the Minister Of Culture wasn't reporting to Adolph Hitler, and outside of their Stasi-controlled East Berlin, the world was tailgating at Bon Jovi concerts. It's a heartbreaking & tragic film, but it's beautifully realized. The actors all turn in wonderful performances, and the characters are subtly shaded grey, corrupted by the small rationalizations that make life easier. The score is also very powerful and heartbreaking in its own right. It will leave you with a heavy heart but i highly recommend The Lives Of Others.

1. - There Will Be Blood
I'm a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. On all of his films prior to There Will Be Blood, i enjoyed them immensely in the theater & discovered that my affection for them grew with each new viewing. I was looking forward to There Will Be Blood, and, like I mentioned above, sweated through an annoying limited-release schedule, biding my time while critics celebrated it as the best film of the year. When I finally got to see it, stuck off-center & way up-front in a packed multiplex theater, the massive hype still felt insufficient. In spite of all of PT Anderson's previous successes, There Will Be Blood felt like a new level of achievement, something on the scale of Stanley Kubrick's best work. Daniel Day-Lewis is a giant on the screen and well-deserving of his awards for the role. Every line he speaks booms and rattles the sets. Plainview is unquestionably the central character, sometimes threatening to swallow the rest of the production, but the story is a character study and every aspect of the film works in conjunction with Day-Lewis, propping his performance up, making him larger than life. I also loved Dillon Freasier's HW Plainview, the son as awed & threatened by his father as the rest of the world. Impossible to overlook, Johnny Greenwood's score is fantastic, perhaps Plainview's only competition in the film. I enjoyed most of the films I saw this year, but there was no question when the credits roled for There Will Be Blood that it was my favorite.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Empirical Evidence - Vol. 1: Human Bell Lp


Human Bell - S/T LP (Thrill Jockey)

See, I knew that Top 10 music list would come in handy. If you go all the way back 2 posts, you will clearly see that i am a big fan of both Lungfish & Arbouretum. This is relevant because Human Bell is the team-up of two Baltimore indie-rockers, Lungfish bassist Nathan Bell & Arbouretum's frontman, guitarist & singer, David Heumann, playing gently sweeping guitar duets.

When I bought this record, I was pretty confident that I would love it because there are a lot of indicators that this would follow the Chicago post-rock formula, a genre of music i have a deep weakness for. Everything from the Thrilljockey record label, to engineering by John McEntire, to the odd black & white photo on the cover, suggested that this would sound a lot like Arial M, Pullman, Brokeback, Directions In Music, and any number of other accoustic-centered, Windham-Hill-sounding, melancholic instrumental artists who hung up their tight jeans & aggressive haircuts for sound-engineering day jobs & a new found appreciation of bluegrass & traditional Americana arrangements. It's true too, it sounds just like that, but in the most consistently mediocre fashion possible.

I want to love it. It has so much potential. All of the songs are built on solid ideas. The 2 guitarists play against each other expertly & for 30 seconds at a time it's a beautiful record, but the songs lack direction. Nathan Bell constructs the sort of straight looping guitar lines that would fuel any Lungfish track & Heumann scatters more wandering melodies on top, but they ride the ideas into the ground. Often they promise a building crescendo only to chicken out in the end and leave the track in anticlimax.

Thrilljockey supplied free MP3 downloads with the vinyl, a practice that I cautiously approve of, so these tracks will come up in shuffle. I will wonder which Do Make Say Think album these grey-morning instrumentals are from until they lumber along for a bit too long. So here's to hoping that the Human Bell project isn't abandoned all together, but they take a hard look at the record and think about crafting songs with a little more structure.

(www.myspace.com/humanbell)

RANT!>
I really like the cover of the Human Bell album. It's an odd photo that suggests a lot about the music inside but maintains a mysterious distance. I appreciate the minimal take on the design, letting the black and white photo speak for itself, but designers need to include the name of the artist and album on a record cover!
Half of the challenge of doing graphic design is coming up with elegant solutions to design problems. I don't know how many times clients ask me to design flyers or record covers and they want me to put a phonebook of text on the thing. Bad designers simply click 8pt text and go town. The challenge is making the text work as part of the design, emphasizing the important words, making the big points clear from a distance and rewarding closer inspection with more detail. Album covers have only 2 important pieces of information to convey, the name of the artist and the name of the record, and if the record label has to slap a sticker on the shrinkwrap to tell the audience that modicum of knowledge, you failed.
I don't mean to pick on Human Bell with a bad review of the record and then a rant about the artwork. It's just that this seems to be a growing trend in cover design and it needs to be addressed.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Reasons This Blog Is Slow To Roll...

If you're wondering why this blog is thin on posts at the outset, before I even get a chance to get complacent and negligent, look no further than the big move of my record store 720Records.

We're opening our doors this Saturday and i've still got a ton to do in the meantime. If you're ever around the Pittsburgh area, stop by, the Jerry's/720 amassment is going to be awesome!