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Thursday, Sep 18, 2008

Fall finally settles in with a batch of big titles. Of course, some unlikely efforts (Igor, My Best Friend’s Girl) weren’t screened for all critics. Still for 19 September, here are the films in focus:


Trouble the Water [rating: 10]


By picking up on this personal story and serving it up in a way that plays commentator, not critic, the filmmakers allows Kim and Scott to speak for themselves. The results are astoundingly brutal and beautifully honest.

Survival is instinctual. It goes to our very nature as life loving beings. It can be mistaken for desperation or arrogance, but the need to stay alive usually trumps all other basic necessities. When Hurricane Katrina flared up in the Gulf of Mexico, moving from minor storm to an Armageddon like presence preparing to devastate New Orleans, the rest of America looked on with disdain. From the settled suburbanite to the doofus President they reelected, no one really cared if the levees would hold, if city services would respond, or if anyone was left behind. But for Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott, there was no option. There was no leaving or getting to safer shelter. All they had was themselves, their extended family, and their will to survive. They also had a camcorder.  read full review…


Man on Wire [rating: 9]


As the subject of James Marsh’s brilliant documentary…, Petit proves that there can be joy in doing what others would consider to be insane.

A daredevil, by definition, defies death. He cheats the Grim Reaper at his own particular brand of bluffing. This also means, by reciprocal inference, he or she embraces life. Granted, it does appear to be a contradictory condition. By pushing the very limits of existence to the points where you could end it, one looks to be laughing in the face of mortality. It’s seem the very definition of a fool’s paradise. By his very giddiness alone, wire walker Phillipe Petit would be the perfect illustration of this ideal. He sees nothing wrong with finding a location, stringing up a line, and doing his risky, refined dance with destiny. And he worships the moment as he does it.  read full review…


Ghost Town [rating: 7]


Skillful and subtle, with enough hilarity to match its equally ample heart, Ghost Town is the Fall’s sunniest surprise.

Hollywood used to excel at what could best be described as the “little” movie. You know the type - small in scope, limited in appeal, and never overreaching beyond its certain purpose. Prior to the high concept ‘80s, lots of films were ‘little’. But ever since stars became commodities to market like cinematic stock, Tinsel Town has taken the “bigger is boffo” attitude with almost everything. A drama must deal with issues of interpersonal earth-shattering design. A comedy must be over the top and hilariously hyperactive. All of this works against Ricky Gervais and his latest effort, Ghost Town. Anyone coming to this movie thinking the Office/Extras star is out to create a wacky spook show is in for quite a disappointment. Instead, this is a little film that easily achieves its entertainment aims. read full review…


Lakeview Terrace [rating: 6]


This is the kind of movie where every bad guy has his decent side, every hero is merely half-hearted, and the genre beats we except from the story come buried in sidebars of dense characterization and unnecessary sideways subplotting.

Even with years of consideration and compromise, race remains a far too risky hot button topic. No matter how you present it - comically, dramatically, satirically, metaphorically - the corrupt cloud of prejudice tends to trump most artistic aspirations. There’s just too much baggage with bigotry, decades of discrimination and social acquiescence to same that it appears impossible to overcome…at least initially. And no, changing the ‘color’ of intolerance doesn’t redefine or reconfigure the argument. That’s the problem facing Neil LaBute and his latest effort, the slow burn thriller Lakeview Terrace. While it looks like dozens of films that have come before, the independent icon - responsible for In the Company of Men and Nurse Betty - tries to instill some novelty via a unique approach and a controversial villain. For the most part, he stumbles as often as he succeeds.  read full review…


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Thursday, Sep 18, 2008

Hollywood used to excel at what could best be described as the “little” movie. You know the type - small in scope, limited in appeal, and never overreaching beyond its certain purpose. Prior to the high concept ‘80s, lots of films were ‘little’. But ever since stars became commodities to market like cinematic stock, Tinsel Town has taken the “bigger is boffo” attitude with almost everything. A drama must deal with issues of interpersonal earth-shattering design. A comedy must be over the top and hilariously hyperactive. All of this works against Ricky Gervais and his latest effort, Ghost Town. Anyone coming to this movie thinking the Office/Extras star is out to create a wacky spook show is in for quite a disappointment. Instead, this is a little film that easily achieves its entertainment aims.


Dentist Bertram Pincus hates people. It’s one of the main reasons he enjoys his chosen profession. A major misanthrope, he spends his days delivering pain, his nights avoiding everyone around him. When a routine medical procedure goes awry, Dr. Pincus discovers an unusual side effect - he can see dead people. Actually, they are the ghosts roaming around Manhattan, looking for someone living to help them complete their Earthly business. One such apparition is Frank Herlihy. A horrible womanizer when he was alive, he now wants Dr. Pincus to help him break up his widow’s impending marriage. If our hero doesn’t agree, Frank will allows the rest of New York’s spirit population to persistently hound him - and with such a large metropolis, there’s a lot of spooks to go around. Of course, once he gets to know Gwen, Dr. Pincus finds himself falling in love. This only complicates things for both the living, and the recently deceased.


Skillful and subtle, with enough hilarity to match its equally ample heart, Ghost Town is the Fall’s sunniest surprise. Going in, we expect the standard star driven vamp, Gervais given free reign to work his wise-ass magic on us unsuspecting Yanks. Even with a script from accomplished scribes David Koepp (who also directs) and John Kamps, we keep waiting for the anarchic adlibbing to step in and swamp everything. Yet aside from a couple of clever confrontations, our lead is in likeable loser mode. He’s not meant to overpower the plot. Instead, Dr. Pincus is a pawn in a much bigger cosmic comedy. Koepp and Kamps keep the humor low key and realistic. We don’t get goofy ghost-busting gags or sequences of sci-fi special effects. Instead, this movie makes its point via characterization and emotion, two things we don’t expect from such a seemingly high concept creation.


Again, Gervais is quite remarkable here, his face gestures reminding one of an uncanny combination of both Laurel and Hardy. Even within a completely contemporary setting, the pear-shaped Brit reminds one of film legends past. It’s not only his demeanor, which comes across as cultured if crazy. No, everything about Pincus, from his sour world view to a reluctance to embrace his supernatural situation screams Hollywood’s Golden Age. The only way we know we’re visiting 2008 comes whenever Greg Kinnear’s pesky specter comes along. With his used car salesman patter and constant Blackberry fidgeting, he instantly brings Ghost Town up to date. As a character, his cruel adulterer is hard to embrace. But since he channels his needs through Gervais, we end up empathizing with his paranormal position.


Indeed, a lot of Ghost Town is centered on helping the dead “settle” their spirits. Koepp sets up the potentially maudlin moments of closure in such a way that they feel organic, not forced. In fact, there are a few handkerchief sequences spread out across the movie’s many narrative threads. Co-star Tea Leoni makes for an easy to accept love interest, her openness matching Gervais’ closed off creep perfectly. There is a great chemistry between the two, an easiness and clear compatibility that answers any romantic questions the audience may have. This is not a movie centering on passions or lust. Instead, Ghost Town wants to travel in tenderness and smaller triumphs. It manages this material with ease.


Certainly, some will see Koepp’s spiritual sense as a little pat. This is the kind of movie that explains human/spirit interactions with an unexpected sneeze, and the flaring of available light the post-modern equivalent of an angel earning its wings. There is no discussion of God or the afterlife, no link up to religion, faith, or a sense of the sacred. The phantoms here are like leftovers from Poltergeist, desperate to reconnect with their loved ones (or in one hilarious case, their bitter rival) before falling into the realm beyond…whatever that is. Indeed, the references to other cinematic spook shows, from the Murray/Akyroyd classic to calmer entertainments like Ghost, keep the film from floating away on its own New Age artifice. Of course, it helps to have Gervais at the center. He could defuse the most potent source of saintly mumbo jumbo with a simple comic stare. 


In fact, for those not familiar with his intercontinental cult status, Ghost Town will be a revelation. As a supporting player in such films as For Your Consideration and Night at the Museum, he never got a real chance to shine. Instead, he appeared pigeonholed in a predetermined cameo conceit. But here, Gervais elevates Dr. Pincus into one of the better leads for a revisionist RomCom. It’s rare to see the schlub succeed, to watch the man with the thicker waistline and jowly demeanor win over the women with the sheer force of his prickly (if hilarious) personality. Of course, established star power can overcome any physical (or psychological) limitations, but Ghost Town is one of the rare films that earns its humble happy ending.


All of this adds up to a film that manages to make its way deep into your heart without feeling overly manipulative or mannered. Indeed unlike another similarly styled movie from 1993 (the trite Robert Downey Jr. effort Heart and Souls), Ghost Town controls all its facets - fantastical and otherwise - to deliver a decent ‘little’ entertainment. Remember, if you’re looking for outsized scope or a dimensional dissection of the supernatural, you’ll need to focus on other films. But if you want to see a great comedian giving a true performance within a movie that works both comically and emotionally, this film will definitely satisfy. It’s nice to see that Hollywood can turn out the well meaning minor gem when it wants to. Here’s hoping Ghost Town‘s shine inspires others to drop the pretense and aim a little lower. As this movie proves, such an undersized focus can produce a refreshing big screen experience.


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Thursday, Sep 18, 2008

Even with years of consideration and compromise, race remains a far too risky hot button topic. No matter how you present it - comically, dramatically, satirically, metaphorically - the corrupt cloud of prejudice tends to trump most artistic aspirations. There’s just too much baggage with bigotry, decades of discrimination and social acquiescence to same that it appears impossible to overcome…at least initially. And no, changing the ‘color’ of intolerance doesn’t redefine or reconfigure the argument. That’s the problem facing Neil LaBute and his latest effort, the slow burn thriller Lakeview Terrace. While it looks like dozens of films that have come before, the independent icon - responsible for In the Company of Men and Nurse Betty - tries to instill some novelty via a unique approach and a controversial villain. For the most part, he stumbles as often as he succeeds.


When interracial couple Chris and Lisa Mattson move into a new LA subdivision, they soon learn they are living next to a real piece of work. Abel Turner has been a policeman for 28 years, and though his record with Internal Affairs is spotty at best, he receives nothing but respect and loyalty from his fellow officers. A strict single father with an unflappable moral code, Abel takes an instant dislike to Chris and Lisa - and it’s not because they represent liberal leaning politics. No, it’s because he is a white man married to a black woman, and thanks to recent events in Turner’s life (and the psychological scars they’ve left), he cannot forgive such a setup. So he starts to sabotage the duo, keeping his overly bright security lights on all night, dismantling their air conditioner and landscaping when the mood hits him. At first, the pair suspects nothing. But as Turner turns more violent, Chris and Lisa realize they have to protect themselves - or pay the price for not doing so.


In some ways, it’s impossible to boil Lakeview Terrace down to a single salable element. This is the kind of movie where every bad guy has his decent side, every hero is merely half-hearted, and the genre beats we except from the story come buried in sidebars of dense characterization and unnecessary sideways subplotting. At almost two hours, it’s 20 minutes too long. And for something that’s supposed to inspire an edge of your seat reaction, we spend way too much time sitting back with lots of inferred individual conflict. All three main actors are excellent in their roles, with Patrick Wilson standing shoulder to shoulder with Samuel L. Jackson. Indeed, the Pulp Fiction prophet is so good here that you often forget he’s supposed to be playing the villain. Instead, Abel Turner is more like a determined devil, unable to show his true wickedness until its far too late for the film or its audience.


Of course, it’s all LaBute’s fault. The playwright turned filmmaker is not necessarily out to deliver the stereotypical shivers. Instead, he wants to explore motive and meaning, to look beyond the aspects of race to focus on more universal themes like family, duty, law, and order. Turner is not really the neighbor from Hell. Instead, he’s more a partner in purgatory, wildfires raging just behind his fancy property lines. We are supposed to see that a similar blaze is rampant within his character, and a revelatory bar scene suggests a more than capable rationale. But in the end, when our baddie actually threatens life (he calls on a local hood to do his disgusting, deadly dirty work) Jackson can’t save Turner. And then he turns into a baldheaded Jason with a badge. It’s as if LaBute drops all the pretense of the previous 105 minutes and simply let’s the narrative devolve into pedestrian payback mode.


Another issue here is the script. Instead of exploring the many conflicts that constantly rise up out of the dialogue, the film simply skirts the problems and moves on. Turner is seen harassing locals for his own unscrupulous means. It goes nowhere. Lisa’s snooty father (a welcome return for Barney Miller‘s Ron Glass) constantly demeans her white husband, and yet we never get to the crux of why. Even our supposedly happily marrieds find themselves struggling for a connection when an unplanned pregnancy comes along. Chris’s objections and his spouse’s equally sour response seem like moments from another movie. Indeed, with Wilson in the lead, Lakeview Terrace sometimes plays like Todd Field’s Halloween revamp of Little Children, without the former’s superior sense of subject and storytelling.


This is the kind of film destined to disappoint all who come to see it. Anyone wanting Jackson in full bore bad ass mofo mode will, instead, get a troubled man who uses his street smart lawbreaking ability to torment a couple of crass, somewhat deserving yuppies. While there is some dimension to the character, anyone hoping for a more serious dissection of discrimination also needs to look elsewhere. LaBute and company seem too afraid to scream narrow-mindedness. Instead, they allow conversations to beat around the bush, even dropping the N-word now and again as a show of subject matter solidarity. Granted, watching Sam the Man chew his lines with manic glee is a joy to behold. But outside the nervous laughter, Lakeview Terrace doesn’t offer up much suspense.


Indeed, the lack of dread and accompanying release will be the biggest sticking points for what is an otherwise halfway decent drama. LaBute is so comfortable handling the confrontations and awkward silences that we really wish the whole rogue cop conceit had been tossed aside for more personal byplay. Jackson and Wilson have some wonderful moments together, and while she holds her own admirably, Terry Washington’s presence seems linked to her ability to look sexy and confused at the same time. With the unwelcome inferno billowing in the background, the weird one-upmanship that seems stolen out of a lesser film (say Unlawful Entry), and the entire concept of interracial romance relegated to the very rear of the back burners, Lakeview Terrace becomes an incomplete experience. It should be better than it eventually is. But considering how cheesy and unchallenging it could have been, we should probably embrace its deficiencies.


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Thursday, Sep 18, 2008

John Lennon was famously battling a cold during the recording session for Please Please Me. While the illness wasn’t major, even a pedestrian cough might have derailed his vocal efforts. Not so in this case. Instead, John’s at times hoarse and untamed delivery proved a fitting complement to the energy of the Beatles’ musical backdrops.


“Twist and Shout”, of course, is the most memorable instance of this. But even on the emotive mid-paced ballad “Anna (Go to Him)”, which was recorded before the effects of his cold were so strikingly evident, the dash of roughness in John’s voice seems to add enlivening texture. Written by Arthur Alexander, a country-soul artist of the ‘60s and ‘70s, “Anna” centers on a relationship that is failing because the girl (Anna) has found someone whose love for her surpasses that of her current man’s. The spurned boyfriend ultimately declares his willingness to part from Anna (not the typical reaction of a lover in a pop song) but not before he lays bare his imperishable love for her (much better). The lyric is thick with desperation: “But every girl I’ve ever had / Breaks my heart and leave me sad / What am I / What am I supposed to do”. In the original version, Alexander sings in a clipped fashion, which lends his rendering an almost matter-of-fact quality. John, conversely, stretches out and emphasizes more notes to arouse greater conviction from them. Especially on the segment between the standard verses (sampled above), his less-than-silky delivery injects the song with an aching passion that might not have come through so stirringly if not for the illness. Pain seems to dwell in the husky edges of John’s voice.

Overall, the Beatles’ version is an improvement on its source. The original features a jangling piano line at the lead which gives off too much playfulness for a song about inner conflict. George’s guitar-work is a better match: less spry and excitable but still tuneful. It combines with Ringo’s offbeat percussion and Paul’s stingy bass to construct a groove that, light and limber, doesn’t get in the way of John’s bruised vocal.


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Thursday, Sep 18, 2008

The launch of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in Australia has attracted a little attention—partly for the two substantial $100,000 awards and partly for the fact that the PM himself has final say.


Most people are unconcerned by this role, but Gail Jones in The Guardian finds it troubling:


But should the Australian prime minister have a say in “his” award? Emphatically not. Judging panels are contentious enough without prime-ministerial opinion inflecting adjudication. The winning text risks being seen as content-endorsed, or in some way charged by political approval.


In part this is a hangover from the previous administration, where PM John Howard was something of “culture warrior” and had a tendency to weigh in heavily on art and literature he considered biased to the left.  New PM Kevin Rudd has shown a more hands-off approach.


The bigger question is surely “What do politicians know about books?”  Politicians will occasionally write works of political science and policy—and at the end of their public life will often write scurrilous memoirs—but few engage in serious literature.


There is some hope here in my state of New South Wales, where the new Premier, Nathan Rees, has a degree in literature.  His predecessor was widely seen as a philistine, although the one before that (Bob Carr) was a self-confessed book nut—so much so that he recently wrote a book entirely about reading.  To tell the truth, I’m not sure that the writers of Sydney have really noticed the difference.


But what of the contenders in the current US Presidential campaign?  Barack Obama has written his own memoir and a manifesto of sorts.  John McCain has written a few books about his life.  McCain’s daughter Meghan has written a hagiography of the Republican candidate.  As for Sarah Palin… well, she’s expressed interest in banning a few books in her time.


I’m not sure any of them has much time for contemporary literature.  Maybe Obama does, but you can bet he won’t be discussing the merits of Junot Diaz as he campaigns for the votes of working-class Ohioans.


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