Friday, February 17, 2006
by Carlito de Corea
A strong ending makes up for what felt like a tedious and confusing film much of the time, revealing a greater degree of coherence than was initially apparent. The build-up toward that end, however, is complicated and at times seems so esoteric that we are left feeling almost inadequate, unable to get emotionally or even intellectually involved. Still, I recommend Syriana, with the reservation that the labor involved in trying to keep up with the multiple, often obscured, storylines might be too taxing for many viewers.
If “Syriana” bears any lexical relation to the term, “Americana,” then it means, “About the Middle East,” or “Things characteristic of the Middle East.” Syriana is told in a fleeting, almost stream-of-consciousness style, and begins by placing us in the center of scenes for which no context has been established, cutting from one set of characters to another, each occupying different, as-yet-un-discernable storylines. The film is written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who also wrote the screenplay for Traffic.
There are essentially five storylines, depending on how you divide them, which are all eventually brought together in the end: the story of Bob Barnes, the CIA assassin, played by George Clooney, who is being retired by the agency; the story of Washington lawyer, Bennett Holiday, played by Jeffrey Wright, and the merger between the Connex and Killen oil companies; the story of the emir and his two sons, Prince Nasir and Prince Meshal, both potential heirs to his kingdom and its oil fields; then there is the story of Bryan Woodman, the financial consultant, played by Matt Damon, who becomes a confidant to Prince Nasir; and finally, there is the story of Wassim and his friend, Farooq, the disenfranchised foreign workers who are ultimately influenced by radical Muslims.
The film jumps back and forth between these main storylines, presenting small parts of each narrative in succession, sometimes even taking the time to focus on a minor aspect of a larger storyline, like Bob Barnes’ problems with his son, or Bryan Woodman’s struggle to keep his family together. The film also jumps to the many geographic locations that each of the main stories brings us to.
To help explain the film a little, if that’s possible in a short review, it might be easier for anyone planning on seeing this film to consider the story of the emir and his two sons as the central hub through which the other stories flow, or ultimately converge. This narrative is never developed, but is rather implied, acting more as a conduit for the other storylines in the film, although much of the film and its various narratives are also implied. In any event, all roads lead to the Middle East (coming from Texas and Washington).
Bryan Woodman, the consultant based out of Geneva, is working together with Prince Nasir, portrayed as the better, more conscientious prince, to reform his country and reduce the bleeding of their profits to foreign interests. Meanwhile, Connex and Killen are courting the other prince, Prince Meshal, whom it appears they can control, and who it appears will be heir to his father’s kingdom. They are also trying to get him to break an existing contract the emir has with the Chinese government. Basically, I would advise looking at the film this way: Bennett Holiday, and everyone associated with his firm, and with Connex and Killen, bad; Bryan Woodman, and the forward thinking son, good. Then there is Bob Barnes, who is caught in the middle, and paradoxically, as an assassin, is our moral barometer in the film.
There are also the foreign, or migrant, workers who have been fired from their jobs at the oil fields due to a takeover by the Chinese (replacing Connex), and who are generally mistreated at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak. Their story only relates to the other storylines tangentially in the end, but not inappropriately so. In fact, symbolically speaking, it is precisely appropriate that their story is less integral, as they are part of the disenfranchised masses, irrelevant cogs in the capitalist machinery. In so being, they are also vulnerable to radical, ideological influences, and as Syriana shows, are the X-factor, the joker in the deck we cannot predict.
The effect of Syriana might be described as a mosaic of simultaneous imagery, where the five or more stories are almost, in essence, coming at us at the same time. By seeing a short part of each narrative in succession, the viewer begins to feel present in all the various places and storylines at once. The effect is a kind of ubiquity, as I might feel in a dream, suddenly finding myself in various locations within a short space of time, but where things also don’t exactly make sense. The film also employs a sense of realism, however, but a subjective realism. Oblique camera angles and hand-held shots contribute to this feeling. There often seemed to be the sense that we were viewing the central action through a corridor of visual obstructions, people left out of focus, or a simple column or cupboard crowding the edge of the frame, so that we are always looking past or along something. This gave the film an insular quality, the feeling of watching in secrecy, or perhaps experiencing the tunnel vision of a dream. This feeling is further enhanced by the use of natural sound, combined with an ambient background music that reminded me of the music of Tangerine Dream.
While the film is achieving this ambient, beneath-my-conscious-level feeling, however, it also left me with a sense of being lost, or disconnected. Information comes fast and fleetingly, often in the form of some apparently off-handed remark, or some mumbled phrase from one character to another, under their breath, but which also happens to be a key element of the plot. Important information goes by so quickly that it’s hard to keep up, and then we’re off to another location, to another set of characters.
Of course, Gaghan is trying to bring us into the film from the inside, so that he can eventually pull back to give us a wider view, perhaps to achieve some of the effects discussed above, or perhaps to increase the impact of the ending, rather than taking the usual outside-in approach. Syriana drops us smack in the center of things, for better or worse, leaving us to fend for ourselves, so to speak. But this up-from-the-inside approach, combined with the abundance of storylines and the obscure manner in which exposition is presented, makes the film hard to follow, and for much of the time I really had no idea what was going on, leaving me detached, and even bored at times. I just sat back feeling left out, like I didn’t have enough political knowledge to participate in the film.
As far as the acting is concerned, the only distraction, I felt, was Matt Damon. I really didn’t think he carried his weight in this picture. He seemed to pale beside his “Middle Eastern” counterpart, Alexander Siddig, at crucial moments, as when he is scolding the prince for having no business sense. Rather than impressing us as the frustrated but impassioned observer revealing the truth in brutal terms to his new client, the character comes across as melodramatic and petulant. His delivery of these key lines seemed out of place, reminiscent of the diatribes we saw in Goodwill Hunting. At times, however, he wasn’t bad, and frankly, Gaghan should have exercised better judgment, or at least control, over his actor. He simply shouldn’t have settled for the scenes as they were.
George Clooney. George is an actor I don’t want to have any problems with. I like George. I’m always rooting for him, wishing he would be still, believe in his presence, which he does have, and much of that comes out beautifully in this film. At times, though, I felt I was seeing some of the usual George Clooney quirks coming through the performance, like his trademark head-bobbing. But much of the time, if not most of the time, Clooney was right on the money in this picture as the depressed CIA assassin being set out to pasture. But this was when he wasn’t trying so hard, relying on his presence and letting the character just be. The rest of the cast was strong, I felt. Jeffrey Wright was especially impressive in his understated portrayal of Bennett Holiday.
Storylines do begin to converge about halfway through the film, or later, and we finally begin to get the sense that the seemingly unrelated pieces of this complex mosaic are starting to make a larger picture, even if we don’t exactly understand what it is. Bob Barnes’ first return to Beirut marks a definite turning point in the film. Things pick up from there. At this point we begin to feel that Syriana is going somewhere, that the stakes are mounting and some significant resolution might take place.
Despite its complicated construction, I recommend Syriana. It is one of those movies whose ending has the retroactive effect of suddenly making the whole picture seem better, and making us realize that there was more to it than we may have initially realized, that beneath the confusion there was substance after all. For people who liked Traffic, you may already be inclined to enjoy Syriana, as both films were written by Stephen Gaghan, and bear much of the same structural approach to telling their story, with Syriana revealing government (American) corruption in the Middle East and Traffic showing the same thing in South America. As well, the film is visually satisfying, as I have described. There is a real sense of going on a journey, through a few dark tunnels, so to speak, and I enjoyed the “subconscious” feel of it.
In the end, I believe, I felt what director Stephen Gaghan wanted me to feel: stunned, and perhaps a little bit more aware, if I wasn’t already fairly suspicious, just how deep the connections run in Washington between the oil companies and espionage, between business and terrorism. I look forward to a second viewing of Syriana.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
by Fumo Verde
From the Green Isle comes a foursome where talent and harmonies abound. The Corrs latest album, Home, is a blend of music and story, as all good Irish songs are. Here Andrea, Sharon, Caroline, and Jim combine instrumental path with traditional storytelling in what comes out to being the new way of Irish folk rock. Home is an array of images described in song and melody that forms vivid daydreams of plush green valleys and white rolling hills with friendly people to meet you at every pub.
The Irish language itself has a rhythm all its own, and here the Corrs have taken that element one step further. "My Lagan Love" is the first breeze to blow off the album with its marching-drum beat and lone piano. "Like a lovesick lenanshee/She hath my heart in thrall/No life have I, no liberty/With love is lord of all". Here the Celtic rhythms of speech, along with the drum, joins with the gentle sounds of the string instruments to form a choir that echoes the sorrows of the past, yet brings about the hopes of today.
"Black Is The Colour" is the fourth song on the disc. It has a less traditional sound in the melody, yet the words of the song keep the old rhythm. "I write him letters just a few shor’ lines/And I suffer death ten thousand times". Here the wordsmithing brings the sorrows of the old Ireland to the realm of the new Ireland. Haunting and sadness is at the root of this song and Andrea's voice holds strong the whole way through. Just as it is on "Heart like a Wheel", another song of Irish sorrow, that can only be told by Andrea's sweet voice. As the piano plays gently with a few violins backing them up, "Heart Like a Wheel" touches anyone who's been in love.
"Buachaill On Eirne" and "Brid Og Ni Mhaille" are two tracks sung entirely in Gaelic; don't worry, the liner notes have the translations, but why bother. Both these songs have a beauty all their own. "Bucachaill On Eirne" is about a cocky Irish lad who would likes to charm the ladies, while "Brid Og Ni Mhaille" tells once again the sad Irish tale of love. These lyrics have no chorus, they simply tell a tale as the music sweetly rolls along. "Old Hag" is the only instrumental on the CD, and it is rooted in the old Gaelic style with whistles, drums, violins, guitars, and what sounds like a banjo. It reminds me of the fight scene in John Wayne's movie The Quiet Man. "Old Town" is the only non-traditional sounding song on the whole CD. It's up-tempo beat gives it a pop sound. It's a nice song with words in the "storytelling style" but it lacks the roots of the "old Irish" sound that is throughout the rest of the disc.
The Corrs have intertwined their pop-rock sound with ideas and images of their homeland, and that is why Home is a perfect name for this album. At home we know the hills and the valleys, the dirt roads and the busy streets, and like the Corrs our hearts yearn to be there. Home brings not only the Corrs back, but it takes us along for the ride.
This is Fumo saying..."Erin Go Bragh"
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
by Ladron de Tebeos
Born into Brothels is a documentary where photojournalist Zana Briski, while doing a story on prostitutes and drug addicts in the red light district of Calcutta, becomes friends with their children, who are fascinated by her camera. She teaches them how to use cameras, and then gives each of them one to use. This part of the film is interesting in that the children shoot and edit the world they know: the crowded, nasty and downright shitty conditions in which all of these people live. The rooms are packed sometimes with three generations worth of family members. There is garbage on the floor. The streets are dirty and the people are obnoxious, often cursing at the children for taking their pictures. Prostitutes stand “in the line” as they call it, waiting for customers. There is a lot of conflict in the red light district and we hear people cursing each other, using a lot of profanity. Briski then decides to try to help these children escape their fate of poverty and abuse.
She tries to obtain a passport for one of the boys so he can attend a photographic conference in Europe and runs headlong into a demoralizing bureaucracy, where people type away on old, worn-out typewriters in front of giant stacks of paperwork. She tries to get several of the kids enrolled in a boarding school, so they can have a chance at a real life, maybe even higher education and a professional career. The trouble is, most schools will not take these students because they are the children of prostitutes. She also runs into resistance from parents, relatives and guardians. The whole project becomes increasingly difficult.
The children themselves are mostly upbeat and often happy despite all of this. At the same time, however, they have the wisdom to realize that their lives are likely to be as unpleasant as their elder family members. Any one of the children's stories could have been the subject of a very good, full-length documentary. But Briski and her co-director Ross Kauffman have decided to take a more all-encompassing approach, with each of the kids getting at least a few moments in the spotlight. The film also gives us a look at the lives of prostitutes in Calcutta. Needless to say, their lives are not like those of prostitutes depicted in Hollywood movies. These are not whores with hearts of gold. They are women who are working hard just to stay alive, and some of them don't make it. The worst part of all is that the children, with no other options available to them, are slowly pulled into a life of prostitution and crime themselves, part of an endless cycle. Some prostitutes want a better life for their children. Others, by their actions or inactions, doom their children to a life of prostitution, drugs and crime. The rest of society as a whole basically doesn't give a rat's ass and ignores them. I found myself really caring about these children and their stories and even took in the special feature “Where are they now” on the DVD copy. All in all, a very fine movie that I would whole-heartedly recommend.
In another feature, I will be psychically reviewing films from the future that have yet to be released. My first review will be The Pink Panther starring Steve Martin. My prediction is that this movie will suck much ass. Also, I predict that Steve, after the realization that he used to actually make great films way back when, (see, The Jerk, All of Me, etc.) will take a long hard look at the spectacular crap fest that he's been foisting upon the world lately (Cheaper by the Dozen Un et Deux) and in a flash of ironic creative comic brilliance, will take his own life, by, yes, jamming an arrow through his own head.
So, to quote Dr. Nick, bye Everybody
Sunday, February 12, 2006
written by Fumo Verde
Neil Young, the name says it all. Rock Star, Pop Icon, Musical Dissident, Legend. Whatever words you use, Neil Young by any other name is still rock and roll, the roots of rock and roll that is. Prairie Wind is being touted as one of, if not the best album Young has made. That's a hard call, but I can tell you that Prairie Wind is as basic and as close to home as Young can be. It's gentle slow waltz rhythms on songs such as "It's a Dream" to its rockin' rhythm of country blues on "Far From Home" show the diversity that has kept Neil a musical superstar all these years. Prairie Wind is no compilation album; its Neil Young at his purest.
The lead off song is "The Painter" (Critic's Choice- Time) which lays the groundwork for the rest of the album. Like wheat fields blowing in the summer wind, the melody takes you along for the ride, but the words warn otherwise, "If you follow every dream, you might get lost," certainly good advice.
The haunting song “No Wonder” follows it. This one gave me goose bumps as it played. Young's lyrics in this one talk of days past when birds blocked out the sun on their journey south and tell you why we are "losing time". It also had a line in there that has me wondering, after 9/11, what did Chris Rock say? This is Neil's political "gotcha" song where he just tells it like it is.
Other songs, such as "This Old Guitar" pays homage to the tool that gave him the keys to the car that has driven him all this way, and hopefully for a little while longer. "Prairie Wind," the title track, is another one of Young's gritty blues tracks that send messages such as, "You can see into the future, but it maybe a mirage/Like a new car sittin' there in your old garage". Young can feel the times changing around him, and he puts thought to what our world once was not that very long ago. "He Was The King" is Young's tribute to Elvis as he had seen him through the years.
The final track is "When God Made Me", this sure won't be Dr. Dobson's favorite, because it really asks questions about the way things are being presented. "...did He envision all the wars that were fought in His name?" Young never shies away from controversy, and in this hymnal melody with very simple words, Young challenges the religious sects from all over, asking "what makes you think you are so right." (That's not a line in there, but a feeling I got from the song.)
I wouldn't say this is his best album ever, because I hope he has more to come, but this is certainly one of his strongest. In a time where people are being fed fear from all directions, and you don't feel you can trust anybody any more, here comes Neil Young, not charging in like the cavalry, but approaching soft and quiet, ever-changing like a prairie wind.
A bonus edition comes with a DVD that features the recording of Prairie Wind.
If you like Neil Young, this is a must. Happy Winter Solstice, babies. FV
Saturday, February 11, 2006
written by Fumo Verde
My old man was heavily into his music, bands like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and of course, The Who. His songs became my songs, as we would do the old Father/Son things together, such as going to the hardware store to replace the nail gun I jacked up. So in 1989, when I got the chance to see The Who play live, I diverted "smoking funds" to "ticket funds" and had enough to buy not only a ticket to see The Who at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, but I also had enough to see them perform Tommy at Universal Amphitheatre.
The first disc of this three-DVD set is that show. I had a great time at the show, even though I was sitting in the way back, second row from the very back wall, but this DVD brought me right up front. This was way cool for me watching a show I had been too. It was a great show then and still impresses me today.
The story of Tommy opens at the end of World War I with Mrs. Walker giving birth to a young son, whose father, Captain Walker is missing in action. Years later after Tommy's birth and still no word on her husband, Nora Walker (played in the movie by Ann Margaret) marries Frank Hobbs. Captain Walker unexpectedly appears later, and in front of the eyes of young Tommy, Hobbs kills Walker. The effect on the young boy gives way to his illness, causing him to become deaf, dumb and blind. It seems that the only thing the boy can do is stare into the mirror and play pinball.
The movie was pretty trippy, but this live show cuts through the acid-trip visuals and brings you the music. On stage, the backdrop flashes scenes from the movie depicting either who sung the original song or what was going on at that point in the movie. Written captions also give the viewer who may have never seen the movie an idea of what is happening.
Starting off the guests list is Steve Winwood as the Hawker, played by Eric Clapton in the movie, who sings "Eyesight to the Blind". This is a great opener, with Winwood playing the lead guitar on this section just like Clapton did. Next is Billy Idol, who at the time was on the top of his game. He plays and sings the song "Cousin Kevin". At the time I didn't think he did a very good job, looking back now, well, I guess I just don't like Billy Idol. Next up is Patti Labelle singing the song made famous in the movie by Tina Turner, "The Acid Queen", who is supposed to help the young boy regain his vision and hearing.
In the movie, Tommy is pushed and pulled towards all these characters, in the stage version, the characters come to Tommy. Even the "Pinball Wizard" himself, Elton John, the only person to appear in both versions, strolls in to pay homage to that "...deaf dumb and blind kid...' who "...sure plays a mean pinball." Both LaBelle and John put out great performances, but the best was Phil Collins. Taking over the roll of Uncle Ernie, originally done by Who drummer Keith Moon, R.I.P. Collins came out in boxers and a bathrobe, touting a bottle of what looked like J&B scotch, and grabbing his crotch as he sings his song "Fiddle About".
The Who themselves play all the other parts as they did before. The music is invigorating and the crowd can feel the energy and the excitement, maybe because I was there. However it may be, this version of Tommy is a great way to see it.
The second disc gets better. Quadrophenia, The Who's other great rock drama, was the story of Jimmy Cooper a boy, growing up during the turbulent 1960's, who was so desperately trying to fit in with his crowd of friends. Jimmy has a slight problem; the doctor says that while he's not crazy, he has a split-personality disorder made of four people. Along with the pills and the gin, Jimmy launches himself into the world of the "wild ones" where fights between the Mods and the Rockers erupt at every meeting.
The way The Who did this one was amazing. The performance of Quadrophenia, taken from their 1996-97 tour, blends live music with footage of what was really going on at the time of these riots in England. It also features Alex Langdon as Jimmy, who appears on screen and tells parts of the story as it rolls along. Other artists in include P.J. Proby as the Godfather in the song "The Punk and the Godfather", Simon Townsend as the Bus Driver in "Dirty Jobs" and Billy Idol, once again, playing the Ace Face.
Quadrophenia was also a movie, but more so than Tommy. The music was a soundtrack that helped the movie images flow from scene to scene. On this DVD, it's the images that help out as the music tells the tale. Quadrophenia is Townsend's story, yet not only his, but also his band mates as well. The four personalities in Jimmy are the four personalities of The Who. One of the albums most famous songs, sung by Daltrey is "Love Reign O'er Me" which closes out the movie as we see Jimmy drive his Vespa over the white cliffs of Dover.
The third disc in this set is a collection of live songs The Who did after both shows and a couple of other dates. By selecting a second camera angle, Townsend and Daltrey appear onscreen like The Ghosts of Rock Past, offering up insightful commentary about the proceedings.
When The Who stopped touring after the US festival in 1981, they hit some financial problems so they came up with a reunion tour and the idea to do Tommy live. The tour helped their money situation and in turn it gave us this collection. Tommy was produced as a pay-per-view event and with the intention of being released, but the Quadrophenia show was made for The Who's own archives. Looking back now, I was very lucky to see it performed live, and now I'm lucky to relive it again in a different light with a better view. I also get to see Quadrophenia performed live too. Moon and Entwistle have passed. Daltrey and Townsend aren't getting any younger, but no matter what, the music The Who gave us can still light the fire in the hearts of the rebellious. "I hope I die before I get old". It's not about age, but the spirit, which lives on these discs.
keep on rockin', Fumo Verde.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
by Carlito de Corea
Misogyny is the theme in North Country. Based on a true story, the film tells the story of Josey Aimes, who takes on the Pearson Mining Company over allegations of sexual abuse. The story begins in the courtroom, where Josey, played by Charlize Theron, is answering a series of degrading questions. The film flashes back to where it all began, intermittently returning to the courtroom until the story is under way.
The story proper begins with Josey leaving home, with her kids in tow, to stay with her parents because of domestic abuse. The husband in this case is generic. We never see him, except obscurely when Josey is fighting with him on the lawn of her parents’ home almost immediately after leaving him. This scene is a strong indicator of how things will go, both for Josey, and for we the viewers, as her father watches without helping and makes cynical remarks about her being a troublemaker. The tone is heavy from the start and never lets up, until the end, when it swings wildly in the other direction, to a sentimental catharsis in court that ultimately ruins some small ground the film was beginning to regain.
Back in the courtroom, the company’s attorney asks Josey when she first started working at the mine. We flash back to a local bar where she first meets her friend Grace, played by Frances McDormand, a union rep and employee of the Pearson Mining Company. Over a beer and a game of darts they become friends and shortly thereafter Josey is also working at the mine. From here the film describes excruciatingly the degrading conditions the women at the mine have to endure: endless litanies of derogatory, sexually explicit remarks and unwanted advances by their male co-workers.
A recent court decision has forced the Pearson Mining Company to allow women to work at the mine, and, as a result, new female recruits experience open hostility and resentment. They are also subject to the constant threat of rape. “Cunt,” one man says under his breath, passing Josey in a hallway as she is being led to her first assignment. “Who’s gonna be my bitch?” another man says just after this, as their foreman turns them over to another employee for work detail.
Things get so bad that Josey is forced to quit her job at the mine. She decides to take legal action and enlists the help of Bill White, played by Woody Harrelson, a lawyer and friend, and one of the only two males realistically portrayed in this film. Josey encounters resistance from everyone, including her own family—namely her father who himself has worked at the mine for most of his life—and from the women who still have to work there and don’t want to make waves. She tries to get her fellow employees to stand with her, to stand up for what’s right and make it safe for women to work at the mine. She only needs three more women to join her and her case can be filed as a “Class Action” suit, setting a legal precedent and giving them a better chance of winning.
While the story and theme in North Country are interesting, and the film is at times moving, its portrayal of misogyny is unfortunately too cynical and exaggerated. From the start we are subjected to a constant barrage of unrealistic male characters. With one or two exceptions, the men in North Country are all menacing sociopaths, one-dimensional characters with no moral fiber whatsoever, their behavior more closely resembling that of prison inmates. So much focus is put on describing men as leering, salacious pigs—it seems like there is one waiting around every dark corner—that the portrayals become cliché, over the top, and we are no longer interested in them, except as comic book villains whose only purpose it is to draw us cheaply and reflexively into condemning bad people and cheering for the hero of the story.
The pitch of negativity reaches its climax at a company meeting devoted entirely to deriding Josey and further ensuring that everyone remains against her so that she doesn’t win the lawsuit and everyone can keep their jobs. Bobby Sharp, played by Jeremy Renner, Josey’s primary nemesis, and part of a subplot which I won’t reveal, delivers a speech full of derogatory expletives directed at Josey that has the entire town hall hooting and hollering over her demise. Josey enters the meeting with her lawyer and friend, Bill White, summoning the courage to speak out and demanding her right to speak at the microphone, whereupon she is booed and jeered and told to get lost. Determined not to give up, Josey carries on, making her way to the podium amidst the deafening clamor of crude remarks. She tries to appeal to the hardened crowd, delivering an emotional speech that for a moment seems to be having an effect. Surprisingly, the miners stop booing and we wonder for a moment if she might not turn the crowd in her favor. But once again the jeering starts.
“Hey Josie, show us your tits,” one man shouts, triggering another deluge of lewd remarks.
Having had enough, Josie’s father, Hank, played by Richard Jenkins, walks to the podium and instructs his daughter to hand over the mic. Crushed and no longer able to defend herself against what could prove to be the ultimate final insult, she stares at her father helplessly, pleadingly. Is he really going to silence her, we wonder. Or might he possibly, finally defend his daughter against this lunacy. We are overcome by a long needed release of tension when Hank takes the microphone from his daughter and rather than walking away takes a place beside her at the podium. Both Theron and Jenkins deliver powerful performances in this scene, and like Pavlov’s dog I responded to it. But I did so begrudgingly, aware all the while that this basic and obvious component of compassion was artificially withheld from me in order to achieve this effect.
This scene also had the unfortunate effect of reminding me why much of what I had seen so far was now even more implausible: HER FATHER WORKS AT THE MINE AND HAS FRIENDS THERE!!! Most men do not badger and sexually harass their friends’ daughters, or their colleagues’ daughters, and most likely would not put up with it from other people as well. I personally don’t know any men who wouldn’t at least say, “Hey watch your mouth,” when someone was calling his friend’s daughter a bitch and a whore. The scene also ends with another unlikely occurrence. Everyone starts clapping after Hank delivers his speech, in which he told them how ashamed he was of them all and that he had no more respect for them. Why would you cheer your own denunciation?
At this point, however, complaints of inconsistencies at the town hall meeting aside, I felt that the film was becoming more reasonable and might become more interesting. That is to say that some of the key characters were becoming human, finally, and the film, subsequently, more realistic. There is a nice moment when Josey is back at home with her father and mother, played by Sissy Spacek, and the family finally seems to be coming together. Her father gets up from the table at one point to embrace her when she breaks down and says she doesn’t know if she can take any more. As well, there is a tender moment between herself and her oldest son, Sammy, who finally seems to relent after feeling resentment and hostility toward his mother for the pressure that her infamy has put him under. Unfortunately, however, the film then swings too heavily toward the sentimental, delivering a soppy courtroom ending that borders on the absurd, and shows as much insight into courtroom proceedings as it does into male psychology.
A good cast makes much of the exaggerated treatment of this subject bearable, and I admit to being drawn into the story at times, but, unfortunately, I found myself too often wanting to be drawn in more than I was being drawn in. Too many exaggerations and a constant sense that the chips were unrealistically stacked against Josey kept me from warming up to North Country. The depiction of men in this movie was also disappointing. The type of aggression toward women described in the film should perhaps have been characterized as the exception rather than the rule, if for no other reason than to create a greater degree of tension in the film, a greater degree of balance, even if the events described really happened and the majority of the men at the mine were evil and cowardly in real life.
Sunday, February 05, 2006
by Fumo Verde
This one's for the Deadheads in the house, but first a little history lesson. Live/Dead, considered one of the band's best albums, was released in late '69 and was recorded over a four-night period from February 27 to March 2, 1969 at the Fillmore West. It was the first-ever, 16-track stereo, live album ever made. At the time of this recording, most albums were recorded in two-track. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded in three-track. Folks such as Tom Dowd at Atlantic Records were dabbling in eight-track, so for the Dead doing this in 16-track, it was a major breakthrough, technology-wise. The Dead pretty much wrote their own ticket after that and the rest is Dead history.
This new release from Rhino Records revisits their legendary run at the Fillmore and expands on it, even featuring different versions of tracks that appear on Live/Dead that are as clear as they can be for a live show recorded some 30 years ago. This whole album captures a time that was not only a turning point for the Grateful Dead, but it marked a turning point in music history.
The doors to the past are opened for us with songs like "Cosmic Charlie", "Turn on Your Love Light" and that blues staple "I'm A King Bee" along with some feedback and crowd noise. Light up some of that Trainwreck that's making the rounds and I'm there, babies. With the 23-minute "That's It For The Other One" and the 25-minute "Jam" section, this album unchains the band from what most other artists at the time were trying to break free of. These tracks give the Dead a chance to let their hair..ah...down, or flow as the case maybe, and it shows how good they could really be. Any Deadhead who has a few shows under their belt will tell you, "when they are ON, they are really ON, but when they aren't, man, it really shows." The shows at the Fillmore West were some of the best.
This was also a time when Robert Hunter started his treasure trove of a relationship with the Dead, by helping to write the words to "Dark Star", a pivotal song for the Dead, that when played live would open up many different musical avenues for the band to travel down. It was a signature piece of Dead performances for the next half of the century. Here, they create 20 minutes of musical magic before delving into the majestic "St. Stephen."
The three discs are incased in a hardbound booklet, with the decorative artwork in a black and white setting that gives it that "historical look back" style. Inside treasure awaits. The 60-page book explains how the Dead managed to pull off such a feat as this album, and that the release of Live/Dead saved the Dead from financial disaster. It's also filled with about 30-odd pages of just pictures of the band in all sorts of aspects and views. The boys at the time were still boys from the Haight Ashbury scene, Phil, Jerry, Bob and Pigpen. There is also a picture of the original set lists with red pen marks that indicate the songs and sets that were put on this album.
Fillmore West 1969 is a perfect collector's item for any Deadhead this holiday, or any time. The music is strictly Dead, and the booklet itself is worth the money. As the band gets older more things that we may or may not have heard before will probably rain down upon the record stores or in the form of digital downloads so that we may buy them, but its going to be hard to beat this set. Hearing the Dead live, and looking at the photos from way back when brings one's mind back to a time when rock 'n' roll meant something and the only hassle at a show was just trying to scalp a ticket to get in.
The Dead were a band of innovators, a band who pushed itself to the limit, sometimes too far, but they always brought it back for the fans. With this three-CD set you not only get to hear the Dead live, but you get a backstage pass to read what was really going on behind the scenes at those shows live at the Fillmore West back in 1969.
Saturday, February 04, 2006
by Carlito de Corea
If you like to watch films that reflect the difficulties of ordinary life, the pain of true loss, and then some hard fought redemption, or perhaps resulting ruin, something that you can relate to, see your own suffering in, then Cameron Crowe's new movie, Elizabethtown, will not be for you. If, on the other hand, you simply like to escape daily life and enjoy a good movie with a good story, then…no, maybe Elizabethtown still won't work for you.
The film begins with Drew Baylor, played by Orlando Bloom, making his way toward an expensive looking corporate office, the headquarters for Mercury, the shoe manufacturing giant for whom he works, perhaps a parody of Nike. We realize something is not right for him as he enters the building and makes his way through the palatial concourse toward one of the building's boardrooms, where we sense some terrible fate awaits him. “I'm ok,” he says repeatedly to some of the people he passes. This peculiar behavior sparks an urge to laugh out loud, as it clearly implies the opposite, that he is not okay, and that he is walking toward some monumental disaster. I have to admit that this movie did hold my attention for a few minutes, and that I did laugh out loud. I wondered what in the world was going to happen to him. I was ready to sympathize, to empathize, as yes, we too feel the weight, daily, of the corporate bullies crowding us out, shrinking our burgers and raising the prices on everything we come near. And we don't even dare to think of actually working for them. Yes, this could be good. Drew is our whipping boy. Go get 'em, brother.
After sort of being informed by his boss, played by Alec Baldwin, that he would be taking the fall for a particular line of shoe that has lost the company nine hundred and something million dollars, and to which he was closely linked, if not entirely responsible for, Drew returns to an expensive home, as progressive looking as his office, and begins to rig his stationary exercise bike with a huge kitchen knife that will stab him through the chest when he turns the machine on. The tension is humorously released when his cell phone begins vibrating on the kitchen table. Annoyed and not even able to commit suicide properly, he succumbs and answers this one last call, only to find out that his father has died and that his family is now relying on him to go to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, to take care of funeral arrangements, and straighten things out with his father's side of the family. Unfortunately, the initial feeling that any number of incredible and unexpected things could happen to this character soon gives way to a litany of trite, uneventful circumstances. The pathos in this early sequence is never returned to again, and soon after it the film begins to lose its integrity.
His suicide postponed, Drew is now forced back into the arena of life, and so embarks on what is the main narrative of the story, heading into the past while trying to work out the present, and meeting Claire, played by Kirsten Dunst, and falling in love with her. He arrives in Kentucky to a heartfelt, near-parade of a welcome, accompanied by nostalgic music and some cool images of small town America as he cruises through Elizabethtown in his rented car. But instead of settling down into a heartfelt journey of self realization, or personal hardships and conflict, Elizabethtown digresses into an assortment of styles and loosely arranged scenes that barely cohere. We see problems early on when Drew arrives at his father's wake and the film tries to achieve a deadpan quirk, a la The Coen Brothers, laying it on thick with dumb lines and heavy pauses between them to accentuate the stupidity of the characters, of small town folk as it happens, a cliché that small-town folk, maybe even from Elizabethtown, won't much appreciate, I'm guessing. Many scenes in the film seem to be all about the attempt at this type of humor, becoming the focus of purposeless moments, like the drunken newlywed man Drew encounters while stealing beer from one of the rooms at his hotel, a scene that is not only self-conscious and contrived, and patently unfunny, but poorly acted as well. The film slips in and out of this type of irony and realism, returning to Crowe's more usual sentimental tones when the film returns to its focus on Drew and Claire.
Getting the most out of his actors, or even concern over the acting in this film at all, doesn't seem to weigh heavily on Cameron Crowe's mind. The casting of Orlando Bloom, for example, is questionable, although a whole lot better than his purported first choice, Ashton Kutcher. At times Bloom seems uncertain whether to add to the effect of irony Crowe is often trying to achieve with his own expressions, or to hold back and play it straight. But worse than this, Bloom seems throughout to possess an irrepressible confidence, even smugness, that undermines the desperation Drew is supposed to be feeling. He is simply too glib, and as I watched the film I wondered whether he might not be more comfortable with a quiver of arrows on his back or a sword and some swashbuckling pirate's outfit, winking at the camera with that confident gleam in his eye. He lacked the inner turmoil we have seen from actors like Cruise in previous Crowe films, or John Cusack in many of his performances. Bloom is a decent actor, but is perhaps miscast, or at least misdirected, in this film. He just exudes too much confidence for a man on the brink.
Before arriving in Kentucky, Drew has encountered the already-loyal, undyingly enthusiastic Claire, the only stewardess on a flight where he is also the only passenger. This encounter, which most of us can of course relate to, signals perhaps the biggest problem with this film. There is utterly no conflict. In Elizabethtown everything works out, and nothing acquired comes with any difficulty. Drew simply breezes through one scene after another with everything falling into place as he goes. There is no loss, no pain, no catharsis. Where's the recoil from the loss of a billion dollars? And Claire, despite being an airline hostess whose job it is to travel all over the country, always manages to be there beside him at his hotel in Kentucky, where he is either in the process of preparing for the memorial for his father or arguing with his father's side of the family over whether to cremate his father's body or have him buried in the traditional way. And she understands him…fully. Throughout the film we simply watch them come to like each other more and more. The closest their relationship ever comes to danger is when Drew appears for perhaps fifteen seconds to be distancing himself from her because of his inner turmoil over losing Mercury a billion dollars. She responds, as with all things she discusses, by basically saying she understands everything. Problem solved.
The film crescendos with a banquet, where the tension of a vague subplot relating to some long held feud between Drew's mother, played by Susan Sarandon, and father's side of the family, is finally released. But this moment only highlights, once again, that Crowe has little control over his material, or has poor material he is trying to give meaning to. The latter seems closer to the truth. The film at this point is supposed to have some cathartic significance, with Sarandon's character delivering a speech in the form of a comedy routine, because…she's been taking standup comedy classes…because…well, she's been working stuff out. Somewhat on their own among the Kentucky side of the family, Drew's immediate family experiences a collective catharsis, as Drew and his sister sit at a table at the front of the hall surrounded by the slightly hostile relatives and nervously watch their mother deliver a eulogy that comes dangerously close to being inappropriate and threatens to pull them even further out of the family's ambivalent graces. Fortunately, however, their mother wins everyone over with her routine and once again everything works out. The only problem is that Sarandon's comedy routine is inappropriate and completely unfunny, so idiotically inappropriate and unfunny that the only way any group of people under any circumstances would have laughed at it is if they had been under the influence of LSD.
As with many “nice” moments in the film, they often seem to have been conceived separately, and based rather on a preference for particular songs than on concern for the overall coherence of the work. Crowe almost seems to direct around his desire to highlight some of his favorite music. Claire and Drew's musically accompanied skip through the graveyard, for example, seemed particularly irrelevant to the film. The music itself too often seems to be the film's lead character, and one gets the impression that ideas for his movies come to him while he's listening to a particular song, and that he can't resist putting those scenes into his films, along with the songs that inspired them. Admittedly, some of the images are beautiful and combined with his taste in music, which is also good, create moments that lift us up and make us want to rock out with the picture, with his sentimentality. Unfortunately, there is nothing to fall back on. We realize, after time, that the picture is just that-a lot of rock and roll imagery without much substance.
Of course, through all of this non-turmoil Claire is waiting in the wings, but, for god knows what reason-there having been no real indication in the film so far that he would choose not to be with Claire-we are now made to understand that Drew is just not sure of what the future holds, and needs to go off on his own. Do some soul searching. Claire, ever-faithful, bids him good luck and sends him on a rock and roll Easter egg hunt across the country. She has left him with a selection of music and directions for great rock and roll landmarks to visit, accompanied with her ragamuffin scrapbook full of sentiments and philosophies, as well as a trail of clues toward the end of his journey that will lead him back to her, back “home.” The final clue, a note left in a running shoe-yes the very one he is infamous for-in some shopping mall or market, has him turn around to see Claire standing there in the crowd, waiting for him as always.
This final, irrelevant touch is simply too much, and hits us with the force of a Vogon poetry reading. Elizabethtown is unbearable. Even for people with a sweet tooth, I don't think this film will work. By the end, the sugars from my snacks were coagulating in my blood and I was looking for the exits. Elizabethtown is so insipid, such a maudlin tour de force, that when the end came I was shaking my head in disbelief, desperate to get out of the theatre, to go and do something about the sickly sweet feeling coursing through my veins-take some medication, walk it off somewhere, discuss it with an anger management group, or maybe even talk to a police officer to see if there was any legal recourse, some way to retrieve that ten dollars. “Hey, man, those guys just ripped me off.
Friday, February 03, 2006
by Caballero Oscuro
Margaret Cho completists now have an opportunity to pick up her short-lived sitcom from the mid-90s, All-American Girl. The DVD set has a few notable extras including commentary for a handful of episodes by Cho and co-star Amy Hill, as well as a brief retrospective also featuring Cho and Hill where they discuss the impact of the show and their perspectives on its run.
All-American Girl was loosely based on Cho’s experiences growing American in a traditional Asian family. While certainly noteworthy as the first US network show to feature an Asian cast, the comedy itself was dreadfully shopworn and commonplace. Cho has since gone on to great acclaim as a sharp, insightful standup comedian, so it’s a bit of a letdown to find her talents so woefully hidden in this production. However, she and her supporting cast are game and pleasant enough, especially Amy Hill as her TV-addicted, comically accented grandma.
The series is a classic "fish out of water" story, with Cho’s American attitudes continually clashing with her family’s traditional views on topics such as dating, employment and education. Her mother is her primary antagonist, while her father is the calm mediator. A couple of brothers and Cho’s girl friends are also along for the ride, but rarely contribute much more than throwaway one-liners each episode. The grandma gets the best material, usually via her comments during her time channel surfing through every possible bad show on the air. In one of her funniest episodes, she becomes a Nielsen rating participant, ultimately allowing her to offer the observation that ratings shouldn’t be the only deciding factor to keeping shows on the air, quality should count for something as well. Unfortunately, the show was just starting to show hints of quality at that point, so there was no apparent redeeming value to keeping it on the air. The series was struggling for survival at the time and was cancelled around a month after this episode aired.
The show seems extremely dated now and actually seems like it must have been dated even then, with laughable fashion for Cho and her friends and a horrendous soundtrack that sounds like it was lifted from an 80’s comedy club backup band. ABC had many similar sitcoms airing at the time (I’m looking at you, entire “TGIF” lineup), but for whatever reason Urkel and the Olsen Twins were allowed to prosper while All-American Girl folded. By far the most surprising aspect of this show is that in spite of its many shortcomings, it’s still watchable. It’s certainly not essential viewing by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a bland yet enjoyable serving of comfort food for your TV.
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
by Fumo Verde
Dick who, Fumo?
Dick Cavett, babies, he was “the” hep cat everyone wanted to be seen talking to back in the 1970s even though Johnny Carson ruled late night television. For example, Joni Mitchell didn't attend Woodstock because her manager was worried she might miss her appearance due to the bad traffic, and in a bonus feature we see The Rolling Stones perform at nine in the morning at Madison Square Garden because Cavett was the only interviewer Mick Jagger would let come and record the group.
Cavett was a comedian and a one-time writer for Jack Paar, Carson's predecessor on The Tonight Show. He went on to host a show for ABC, which eventually became, surprisingly enough, The Dick Cavett Show. He won an Emmy for the show, which was canceled, but then brought back to life more than once. He also won praise from his colleagues, not because of the people he had on his show, but because of the questions he asked and the way he listened. That is a rare concept....listening. Cavett did it and did it well making his guests feel much more comfortable.
That's sounds cool, Fumo, but Rock Icons, what's up?
Ok, this is kind of like a documentary, but it's not. It's a collection of Cavett's talk shows that aired during the years between 1968 and '74. He had all types of people on from rock stars to pro athletes to congressmen, and since the backdrop of the times were drugs, music and Vietnam, everybody from presidential possibilities to timeless actors had a voice on Cavett's show. The rock stars didn't just perform; they were interviewed and got to ask questions of other guests like everyone else did.
On disc one, when Sly and the Family Stone perform, the funk is out in force, and so is more noticeably the cocaine. If you look closely you can see it slide out of Sly's nose. This segment contains one of the oddest talk show interviews ever. It has got to be seen to be believed. I can't ever start to explain the madness that ensues during the interview.
Another moment I found to be funny is when Jefferson Airplane along with Steven Stills and David Crosby are jamming, Cavett turns to the camera and shouts for the young crowd surrounding him, who are watching the musicians intensely, "We'll be right...ah, we...oh you know." The show comes back with the band still jamming. Once again, Cavett looks at the camera, this time waving goodnight as the credits roll while the music keeps on coming.
Of historical significance is Jefferson Airplane's performance of "We Can Be Together". Obviously, the censor was an old man who had the job for a while and knew nothing about the long-haired freaks who sang rock 'n' roll because this DVD contains the first, and possibly the only time, the word MOTHERFUCKER was ever said on network television with the lyric “Up against the wall, motherfucker.” Hell, I would buy it just for that.
Disc Two is dedicated to Janis Joplin, who loved being on the show and liked Cavett a lot. On all three shows Janis sings her heart out. She makes one wonder where her spirit in music could have brought her if she hadn't passed on so young. In one episode there is an appearance by the comedic group the Committee, who Janis and Cavett both get to participate with in "Committee Chorus of Emotions"-- this was crazy, it almost topped the Sly Stone adventure as participants sang in different emotions.
Disc Three is an all-time classic. It starts out with Stevie Wonder, who at the time was about to turn 21 and didn't dig being called "little Stevie Wonder" any more. Of course, Cavett asks why. Stevie plays "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours", which was coming off his next album. The liner notes explain that it was the name of the album, but the song itself never made it to that vinyl cut. It eventually became a B-side.
Next up is George Harrison, the first Beatle to hit number one on the record charts as a solo artist, promoting his new album and soon-to-be-released film Concert for Bangladesh. He brings a film clip that shows a performance of "Bangla Desh" and in it you get to see Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr amongst others. Also in Cavett's enclave is sitar genius Ravi Shankar and guitarist/vocalist Gary Wright who was from the English band Spooky Tooth. Both of these men played with Harrison during this legendary concert, the very first rock charity concert, and since Harrison wasn't the spotlight hog as others can be, when he was done promoting his film, he let Shankar and Wright do their thing.
Paul Simon appears next playing songs such as "American Tune", "Love Me Like A Rock" and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters". During the interview, Simon gives a little sample of what he is working on next, and for those of you who like Paul Simon, try to guess what song it later becomes.
This DVD set has some great performances, but first and foremost, this set is a collection of The Dick Cavett Show episodes. After the band or artists play their two or three songs, there is still 45 minutes of show to sit through, and if you are not a history nut, such as I, then you will definitely be happy that your DVD player can access just the music scenes.
It is a very interesting look back on American culture, and what was happening at the time, but the name Rock Icons is a little misleading. Instead of entire episodes, they could have cut a bunch of rock star segments together and really made a Rock Icons classic, but they didn't and that's too bad.
Don't get me wrong; the musicians are great. Each performance is moment in time itself, and even though the show itself has other great and enduring guests, it just takes so long to get through. Dick Cavett appears and sets up each segment; what happened, when it aired all that, but the show itself can get slow and choppy because they burned it right for the original tapings, chopping out the commercials. If you don't mind looking back into talk show history, then take a seat, cause this will be a long ride.
This is Fumo, saying...safe holidaze, babies.