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by Will Layman

13 Dec 2009

In the early 1990s, there was a glorious re-explosion of tuneful pop music, but it was pop music that came with an awareness that a healthy slice of edge can immunize a catchy song from seeming vapid. In simple terms, this meant that bands who loved the Beach Boys and the Beatles also loved the Velvet Underground and the Ramones. With a little bite added to the mix, these bands, largely working independently, were able to recapture the strength of great ‘60s pop. The Apples in Stereo were, and are, one of these bands. They emerged 18 years ago as part of the “Elephant 6 Recording Company”, along with Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, and a few other bands constructed from a small group of pop-crazed friends. #1 Hits Explosion is a compilation of the best, catchiest, and most irresistible stuff from the Apples in Stereo; the cherry on top of the pop sundae—an infectious gift for the pop aficionado on your list.

by Bill Gibron

13 Dec 2009

It’s a real quandary – how do you reinvent the war film, especially one that centers around Hitler, the Nazis, and the so-called “greatest generation”? For the most part, we all know the most intimate details of what happened. Indeed, when the History Channel and various other Discovery subsidiaries make their entire reputation out of giving you every nook, cranny, and complaint about the Allies, the Axis, and the various and sundry players in between, it’s hard not to. Hollywood spent the better part of the ‘50s and ‘60s reinterpreting the events at Normandy, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the last gasp unholy Hail Mary of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In between, the Swastika has become a shortcut for all encompassing evil, as well as a mark for easy enemy recognition and narrative villainy.

So the question comes again – how do you bring something new to World War II when everything is more or less known and knotted over? Well, if you’re Quentin Tarantino, the post-post modern mastermind of such brilliant cinematic deconstructions as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, you simply ignore history. Instead, you take the reality of the European theater in 1943, add in several conspiracies regarding the Fuhrer, film itself, and a fiery band of ass-kicking Jewish soldiers, and turn it into the ultimate expression of warcraft wish fulfillment. No one will ever argue that Inglourious Basterds is factually accurate. Heck, it’s not even reverent to the source title it’s stealing from (an entertaining Italian effort from the mid ‘70s). Instead, Tarantino is rewriting the rulebook in every regard – spiritually, situationally, and most importantly, symbolically.

As the recently released Blu-ray reveals, Inglourious Basterds is, in actuality, an elaborate hoax, a farce founded on the notion that one well crafted cabal – and a glib Gestapo officer willing to sell out to secure his place in the post-war world – can lead to a fantasy finale with the leader of the Third Reich ripe for assassination. All throughout the bonus material, Tarantino suggests that he was making the movie he wanted to see as a kid, with the Allies as anti-fascist superheroes, fierce fighting marauders righting the moral compass with fists, knives, and rapid fire automatic weaponry. Sure, it may all seem like a lark, the high spirits of a creative infant with too much time, money, chutzpah, and reputation to do anything small or simple. Indeed, if you look beyond the surface and remove all the inaccuracies, you’ll see something as true to the varying policies and philosophies involved as any WWII documentary.

There are at least five separate storylines at play here, each one seemingly unrelated but actually set up to smash into each other with cataclysmic precision. One revolves around famed “Jew Hunter” Capt. Han Landa and his attempt to clean Occupied France of its ‘Juden’ problem once and for all. Another has one of the few to evade him, Shosanna Dreyfus, hiding out in a Paris movie theater. With the help of her assistant/lover, she intends to hijack a screening of a famous propaganda film, using the occasion to kill hundreds of Nazis with a well-placed bomb. Then we have American Aldo Raine and his band of Jewish soldiers. Like Landa, they scour the countryside, terrorizing their targets – in this case, German soldiers. Finally, England decides to send one of their newest spies – a former actor – into the fray, hoping to hook-up with a turncoat Berlin actress who is sympathetic to the Allies cause. With her help, they plan on getting as close to the Fuhrer as possible, and end his redolent reign of terror once and for all.

As one of 2009’s best films, Inglourious Basterds remains a singular vision of mind-bogglingly delicious design. If Tarantino’s motives were to inspire the long dormant bloodlust of a nation that didn’t get the chance to nab “the bad guys’ before Nuremburg and a Lugar’s bullet rendered its own inert justice, he’s succeeded in unexpected spades. It’s the kind of film that gets your heart rate up, that pumps your adrenalin as it stokes your already hefty genre reference points. As he did with his Hong Kong homage Kill Bill (Vol.1 & 2), the filmmaker finds a way to make the vast catalog of modern moviemaking work for him. The materials with Shosanna and the Parisian cinema is all natty ‘50s New Wave and intellectualized form deconstruction. Raine and his band of Hebrew brothers reminds one of every John Wayne workout made by an apologist studio system. The UK scenarios sizzle with a kind of celebrated ‘60s swing, while the sequences with Landa are direct reminders of the unfathomable hideousness that one human being can inflict (or imply to inflict) on each other.

By combining so many different facets, Tarantino does more than tell a tale. He manufactures myth. He creates a whole new reality, revitalizing the genre and the genre types in the process. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is so universally amazing, especially when it come to the two main male leads. Christoph Waltz, as Jew Hunter Landa, is so spellbinding, so slyly wicked and worrisome, that when he thwarts expectations in the third act, you kick yourself for not seeing his subterfuge earlier. Indeed, what Waltz does is so defining, so undeniably engaging and entertaining, that you find yourself rooting for the bad guy – in this case, a very, very bad guy. He’s not the villain you love to hate – he’s the rogue whose so malfeasant he’s magnificent!

Brad Pitt also sparkles as Raine, a remote Southern dandy (from Tennessee) who allows his gentlemanly accent to cover-up an equally vicious streak. He and the other ‘Basterds’ are not so much a force to be reckoned with as a means of addressing the Holocaust without showing mass graves or billowing smockstacks. As he reads his victims the riot act, explaining to them the rationale behind his men’s sadistic means of revenge, we feel the anger. We recognize the mean-spirited mischief, especially when Pitt stares directly at the camera and give a sinister little smirk. As the yin to Landa’s far more determinative yang, both represent the extremes of war – the inability to uncover the enemy even in the face of their colors. It’s these contrasts, and the various clockwork mechanics within the actual plotting, that make Inglourious Basterds so special.

With its behind the scenes significance, the bevy of material meant to contextualize Tarantino’s approach, the Inglourious Blu-ray is excellent - with one small exception…there’s no commentary. That’s right, the man more than happy to riff on Edgar Wright’s Spaced series, or Eli Roth’s Hostel films, but apparently felt his wicked war romp needed no discussion - at least, not now. And that’s a shame. When a movie is as ambitious and audacious as this, when it practically dare you to defy its brilliance, it more or less mandates a few words from the artist. The home video format may simply be a substitute for sitting in a theater full of cretins, but it’s also a medium for preservation. Perhaps after the necessary Oscar run (Waltz especially), a revamped “Ultimate Edition” will find the filmmaker talking. When faced with the daunting task of addressing antiquity head on, Quentin Tarantino found a fresh way of converting the legitimate into legend. Inglourious Basterds is a masterstroke of mischief.

by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2009

Parables are supposed to explain the world, not make it more complicated. We are supposed to gain insight and wisdom from religious allegory, not reel with confusion while suffering from heartburn and headaches. Yet this is the world created by Joel and Ethan Coen, the amazing American auteurs who continue to aspire to greatness while typically achieving same. Focusing on a Jewish college professor and his troubled life in the late ‘60s, what we wind up with is A Serious Man, one long, masterful, misguided rabbinical fable as fairytale. When it comes to turning any subject - writing, parenthood, greed - into something both formidable and frightening, hilarious and hackneyed, no one does it better than the Coens. And with faith as their focus this time around, they deliver once again.

Larry Gopnik teaches physics at a small college. He is up for tenure and believes he deserves it. When an Asian student complains about a failing grade, the confrontation begins a surreal snowball of personal catastrophes for the mild mannered teacher. First, his wife leaves him for another man. Then, his useless brother is arrested for various crimes. Even worse, the Columbia Record Club keeps calling him, demanding payment. Hoping to gain some insight into his growing troubles, Larry seeks guidance from the local synagogues. Sadly, each rabbi is more perplexing than the next. With his son about to be bar mitzvahed and his interpersonal life falling apart, our hero hopes that God will show him the way. What the Lord has to offer, though, may be much, much worse.

With a minor hitch between 2003 and 2006 (let’s face it, Intolerable Cruelty and Ladykillers aren’t really worth mentioning now, are they?) the Coen Brothers have been the most consistently arresting and entertaining filmmakers of the last 25 years. Ever since Blood Simple in 1984, they’ve continued to redefine the artform while staying wholly reverent to the medium’s mandates. They are superb storytellers, create clever and endearing characters, and use individual panache and stellar filmmaking flair to turn simple celluloid into radiant works of art. They have made some of, what are arguably, the greatest films of all time (Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and Miller’s Crossing among them) and have a consistency which, slight stumble at the beginning of the millennium aside, defies explanation.

And now we have their latest masterwork, A Serious Man. Imagine a saucy, raunchy Joe Sarno suburban sex drama without the faux fornication or sleaze, a post-modern meditation on sour suburban belief retrofitted into one man’s descent into a personal Hell. Like a symbolic game of misery one-upmanship, the Coens create a classic nebbish in Larry Gopnik (expertly played by stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg), give him an equally iconic family (stoner son, adulterous wife, loser relative, rebellious daughter) and then unleashes the worst of real life upon him. He’s like Job without the Biblical significance. With the Jefferson Airplane continuously playing in the background (not just as a point of nostalgia, but with real meaning to the narrative) and the constant reference to Judaism and dogma, the brothers take their own Hebrew teachings, skew them, and turn the clichéd self-loathing Jew into something spellbinding.

At its core, A Serious Man is about perspective. It’s also about peace - of mind, of spirit, of self. It’s about coming to terms with your place in the world, and recognizing that you may never get the answers you seek. For Larry, religion is both a benefit and a burden. When troubled, he is told to turn to church elders. When they come up short, he is suddenly adrift. The parallel between the rabbi visits and the entire movie itself is stunning. We being with the tale set in “the old country”, a dybbuk visiting grief on an unsuspecting husband and his suspicious wife. Another scene tells a story of miraculous teeth. 

Both are as meaningless and yet faux figurative as everything in the Coens’ film itself. When Larry asks for an explanation, all he gets is a troubled, almost dismissive look. The movie functions in the same way. We are supposed to learn from what the filmmakers fail to show us - the raging counterculture, the war in Vietnam, the sexual revolution, the change in the media - more than the trials and tribulations of a college instructor.

There is also a sly nod to Anti-Semitism present, to the unending persecution of a people based solely on their religious beliefs. Larry lives next door to a man who expresses his racism in subtle, stinging ways (like mowing part of the Gopnik’s grass or ignoring obvious property lines and deed restrictions), while the college treats him with telling kid gloves. For the Coens, Jewishness is a combination of the mystical and the manic, tradition trumped by the misinterpretation and misapplication of same. All throughout A Serious Man, the notion of God and His plan is batted about like a conversation over cocktails, never given the seriousness it seems to demand, always abided by even when it seems illogical and unappealing.

That’s the great thing about the Coen Brothers - they never make things easy. A Serious Man is complex and intricate, requiring an attention span longer than your typical ADD addled viewer can offer. Multiple viewings also bring out the inherent majesty in their work, a tendency toward hiding their heroism in the smallest of indirect details. With cinematography that screams the ‘60s without showing us any of the fake flower power precedents of the era and a truly memorable musical score, this film is fantastic. From the fashion to the flat look of the suburban sprawl, Larry Gopnik’s world is the real rebellion, as far away from the mainstream as the Establishment fears it is.

In fact, the same can be said for the Coens themselves. While their movies are steeped in the traditions of old world Hollywood, and they love to play with the conventions of film, the truth is, they remain mavericks in a universe of commercial conformists. Even with all their Oscars and acknowledgments, the Coen Brothers are true idiosyncratic originals. One look at A Serious Man and you’ll instantly understand why.

by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2009

If truth is stranger than fiction, what is the fictionalized version of reality? More normal? Less special? That’s the quandary facing Clint Eastwood and his latest grab for end of the year accolades, Invictus. It indeed tells the real story, circa 1995, of newly elected President Nelson Mandela, a South Africa deeply divided by racial and economic tensions, and a miserable national rugby team that inspires nothing but yawns from its few remaining fans. Seeing an opportunity to unite black and white under a common cause, Mandela - ably plaid by Morgan Freeman - decides to “inspire” the players into winning the upcoming World Cup (ironically enough, being played on their home turf).

To this end, he enlists the help of the team’s disgruntled captain Francois Pienaar (an able Matt Damon). Through individual outreach, some unusual policy, and a traditional belief that right always wins out, the controversial leader struggles to garner the favor of a wary citizenry - especially one that associates anything linked to rugby as part of Apartheid and the days of white power. To make matters worse, the team is just terrible, losing game after game in an uninspired and lackluster manner. Of course, by the time the actual tournament rolls around, Pienaar has turned them around, Mandela is sensing victory, and all eyes are on South Africa as a country learns the power of forgiveness, and the strength in a common bond.

If you took every sports movie cliché, combined it with a relatively revealing look at the early days of the Nelson Mandela administration, and tossed in enough racial tension to remind us of the stakes at hand, you’d have Invictus. Director Eastwood, who has consistently produced some of the new millennium’s finest films, doesn’t reinvent the wheel here. He’s fully ensconced in the whole biopic/big game cinematic dynamic. Everything here founded in formula, leading up to the big match between South African and mighty force New Zealand. All narrative strands set us up for the typical us vs. them resolution, and nothing is left to chance. Eastwood even pads the premise with some of Mandela’s personal struggles (his long prison term, his family difficulties) though it does little but color the backdrop. Without a real sense of suspense (Google will do that to you), it’s all down to a matter of execution.

And this is where Invictus stumbles, if only a little. Everything that’s wrong - and its just a few elements here and there - can be summed up in a single, silly scene. As the players prepare in far off, mountain surrounded practice field, Mandela boards a helicopter to visit them. As majestic peaks and valleys fall away in front of the camera, an incredibly hackneyed power ballad pours out of the speakers. It’s so syrupy it should come with a side of pancakes. It screams “Important!”. It shouts “Symbolic!”. It literally jumps up and down and demands you take it ultra-seriously. While endemically old school in design and execution, it’s also antiquated in it effectiveness. We don’t need Eastwood reminding us that what we’re witnessing is historic, or significant. What we want is to become immersed in the situation, to see it from both the political and the personal angle - and that just never happens.

Damon’s character is also a problem. Pienaar is seen as passive most of the time, idly sitting back as his teammates slack and complain, wandering around his family home (with plotpoint maid in the background just ripe for manipulation) like a buff zombie pin-up. He seems to have no real opinions, no honest belief, and in the end, when forced to inspire his comrades, no real shift in personality. Damon delivers the necessary earnestness, the willingness to sacrifice and suffer, but that’s about it. Of course, since Pienaar is a real person, maybe the actor is just mimicking the truth. But in a film built on so many already established motion picture archetypes, Damon is allowed to let loose. He could have made Pienaar inspirational. Instead, he’s merely efficient. 

But a lot of the ‘good, not great’ blame falls squarely on Eastwood’s shoulders. There is no denying the film’s craftsmanship or polish. It isn’t sloppy or second hand. But it is also aloof and distant, defying the audience to understand the game it is supposed to embrace (rugby gets a mere cursory “explanation” during a player’s outing with some school kids), while failing to fill in some necessary geo-political components. Indeed, Mandela’s rise to power is infinitely more intriguing than the predictable back and forth of the mixed race security squad employed. By constantly thrusting the narrative toward the magnitude of the big game, Eastwood undermines the little moments. Even when the aforementioned servant gets her chance to shine, we see it coming as part of a preplanned tug at the heart, not a realistic portrait of a country coming together.

In the end, Invictus is like any other reenactment - authentic without necessarily being artistic or inventive. It works, but it doesn’t redefine our appreciation. Of course, one imagines that Eastwood understands this. He probably also understands that he couldn’t get away with ignoring the final match, creating a quasi-villainous character in New Zealand’s man-mountain player Jonah Lomu. In fact, all the opponents - on and off the pitch - are generic and underdeveloped, and Mandela’s ability to win them over seems calculated and created solely out of a Hollywood screenplay.

One senses that the actual transition of power, the inability to initially reach out to the angered white population, the questions about his family life (and, specifically, his wife) as well as the horrid years spent in prison could provide more context here than a scrum or a ruck. Mandela is a man who literally went from political prisoner to savoir of his nation. Like the leader it portrays, Invictus had the power to change the way we view the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Unlike Mandela, the movie is only partially successful.

by Karen Zarker

11 Dec 2009

Michelle Obama is in good company, fashion-wise.  Recall her outfit at the 2009 inauguration of the President? Now imagine Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice gussied up thus. Strutting beside them; Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter and Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights.  Fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo illustrated gorgeous covers for these three classics, making this special Penguin collection an irresistible lure for the haute couture-minded book collector. (Ruben and his wife, Isabel, worked together on Obama’s gown, and together they were recipients of the 2005 Cooper-Hewitt Design Award for their work in fashion. You’ve seen his work in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, among others.)  Classy covers for classic books; they’ll wear well for a long time.

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