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Friday, Nov 2, 2007
Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama by Maya Lin

Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama by Maya Lin

When I first started hearing reports on the protests by Burmese monks a couple of months ago Wayne Shorter’s musical portrait of the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi came to mind. Not the sparkling stillness of the version on the 1997 album he made with Herbie Hancock but the version recorded live on a concert tour in 2001, released on an album called Footprints - Live. It’s played faster and louder and momentum has gathered around the tune’s strong, clear heart.

Burmanet reports that internet access has been cut off within Burma and a man has been jailed for speaking to the foreign media:

A spokesperson of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy [Aung San Suu Kyi’s party], Nyan Win, who is also a lawyer, said that talking to the media is not illegal in Burma. However, there is also no real rule of law in Burma so people sometimes are sentenced to prison for talking to the media.

“The media gives information to people,” said Nyan Win. “Giving information to media means you are contributing to the good of society. If he was arrested for talking to the media, it is a big mistake.”

However, in Burma there are frequent reports of people arrested and sentenced to prison for giving information to foreign media and even for listening to foreign language news media, such as the BBC, VOA and Radio Free Asia.

Burmanet. Nov 1, 2007

In October, at the beginning of the recent series of protests by Burmese monks, which included marches past the house where Aung San Suu Kyi is being held under arrest, Pankaj Mishra wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian on the moral authority the monks inspire.

Certainly, the Burmese generals know the way the world works. Apparently isolated, they play shrewdly the game of international realpolitik, buying the silence of their two rising and needy neighbours, democratic India as well as authoritarian China, with oil, gas and timber. However, to such a ruthlessly amoral politics, based on purely rational self-interest, the moral and spiritual values of religion can and often do pose a challenge.

No doubt devotees of science and rationality will continue to call for a religion-free politics. But what the Burmese demonstrators prove is that, as Gandhi said, “those who think religion has nothing to do with politics understand neither religion nor politics”.

“I find it impossible to listen to music while writing, but I cannot imagine traveling or indeed almost doing anything else, without it. And nothing matches music’s ability to create specific moods, or briskly evoke places and times remote from me,” Pankaj Mishra said when compiling a playlist for the New York Times Book Review’s blog, Paper Cuts. On his list is music from jazz performers Billie Holiday, Dexter Gordon, Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane. Last week in The New York Times Pankaj Mishra reviewed a book about John Coltrane and the way that the personal hardships and spiritual yearnings that jazz musicians express in their music have become powerful symbols in struggles for freedom around the world. 

In his book Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Ben Ratliff writes:

His work became unofficially annexed by the civil rights movement: its sound alone has become a metaphor for dignified perseverance. His art, nearly up to the end, was not insular, and kept signifying different things for different people of different cultures and races. His ugliest music (to a certain way of thinking) is widely suspected of possessing beauty beyond the listener’s grasp, and the reverse goes for his prettiest music — that it is more properly understood as an expression of grave seriousness. There is more poetry written about him, I would guess, than about any other jazz musician. And his religious quests through Christianity, Buddhism, Kabbalah, and Sufism are now embedded, ex post facto, in his music. In pluralistic America, it has become hard not to hear Coltrane’s modal music — in which an improviser, freed from chordal movement, becomes free to explore — as a metaphor for a personal religious search.

Pankaj Mishra observes that John Coltrane’s later abstract compositions resembled the “scalar complexity of North Indian classical music more than anything in the Western tradition” and reports that Coltrane read widely, “from Aristotle to Krishnamurti, and borrowed from ancient Indian ragas as well as Western atonal music”.

Ratliff is too young to fall for the strident 1960s interpretation that Coltrane’s more maniacal music reflected black rage and frustration. Instead, he suggests, intelligently and persuasively, that Coltrane had, among other attributes, a “mystic’s keen sensitivity for the sublime, which runs like a secret river under American culture.” “Coltrane,” Ratliff writes, “was acutely self-possessed in his identity as an artist, at a time when a lot of celebrated American art had become seen as a kind of sanctuary, an escape from military conspiracies, war and television.”

Certainly Coltrane was serenely indifferent to the easier commercial and political temptations of the 1960s. It was after acquiring a mainstream audience with “My Favorite Things,” a big radio hit in 1961, that he expanded his experiments with modal music, which he then interrupted to record some beautifully melodic ballads. Anyone committed to confronting a white middle-class audience with the musical equivalent of Bobby Seale’s speeches wouldn’t have recorded “Lush Life” with Johnny Hartman or so wonderfully and definitively reconfigured “In a Sentimental Mood” with Duke Ellington.

Yet John Coltrane also reported clearly and unambiguously on that often explosive territory where religion and politics meet. His song,

John ColtraneAlabama, is a tribute to four young girls killed in the bombing of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

In 1963 Martin Luther King decided to launch a non-violent assault on Birmingham, Alabama—the bastion of segregation. Within days 2,500 protesters swamped Birmingham jails. After ten days the authorities caved in. Birmingham was the civil rights movement’s biggest victory. The protests had a massive impact—there were 758 demonstrations against racism and 14,753 arrests in 186 US cities in the ten weeks that followed Birmingham, culminating in the historic march on Washington.

Coltrane never described himself as a political activist—he was a musician first and foremost. He was also a deeply religious person. But it was his deep-seated humanity that drew him towards the civil rights movement. In 1964 Coltrane played eight benefit concerts in support of King. He also recorded a number of tracks inspired by the struggle—‘Reverend King’, ‘Backs against the Wall’ and his album Cosmic Music was dedicated to King. Events in Birmingham would also move him to write ‘Alabama’.

On the Sunday morning of 15 September 1963 a dozen sticks of dynamite were planted by white racists in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. At 10.45am the bomb went off, killing four young black girls aged between 11 and 14.

Coltrane wrote the song ‘Alabama’ in response to the bombing. He patterned his saxophone playing on Martin Luther King’s funeral speech. Midway through the song, mirroring the point where King transforms his mourning into a statement of renewed determination for the struggle against racism, Elvin Jones’s drumming rises from a whisper to a pounding rage. He wanted this crescendo to signify the rising of the civil rights movement.

Martin Smith. Socialist Review. October, 2003

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in Spike Lee's 1992 movie

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie

Jazz Demands Action Now

Contemporary jazz musicians Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis wrote and performed music for the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s movie about Malcolm X and all three have commented upon and become involved with reporting on the way Hurricane Katrina broke the heart of New Orleans. Spike Lee made the documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts”.

An interview with Spike Lee runs on the HBO website.

HBO: What was the thing that devastated you more than anything, about what happened in New Orleans?

Spike Lee: The thing that’s very hard for me, and I think’ll be hard for any filmmaker who has to ask difficult questions, especially when you’re asking people who’ve lost loved ones, is that, as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, it was my job, it was my duty to ask some difficult questions that I knew would stir up feelings…that would make people break down. Now, that was not my intention. But we have people talk about how their whole life has been changed.

So it’s very important that the audience, not just here in the United States but all over the world, hear these stories from these individuals, these witnesses, who saw the horror of what happened in New Orleans.

HBO: There were so many stories, and I’m sure even today you still hear stories that you haven’t heard that just horrify you. How did you decide which you were gonna go with?

Spike Lee: Well, when you choose the stories a lot of it depends who’s telling the story and who can convey that story. Everything you shoot cannot make it into the final film. So, myself along with my editor and producing partner Sam Pollock, we thought long and hard about what goes, and what stays.

Branford Marsalis, his father Ellis and brother Wynton are all jazz musicians and the family is from New Orleans. Terence Blanchard is also from New Orleans and he and Wynton Marsalis are featured in “When the Levees Broke”.

Musician Wynton Marsalis considers music to be central to the everyday lives of New Orleaneans, saying, “The reason music came from us is we had a lot of ceremonies that required music. We have produced great musicians in every type of form you can think of - jazz, blues. It’s all a part of people’s everyday lives.”

Fellow New Orleans native and jazz musician Terence Blanchard, a musician and composer on several of Lee’s films, including WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, believes artists will find inspiration from Katrina. “Out of this experience there’s going to come some amazing music, because the musical culture of this city has never been driven by anything other than pure honesty and pure passion,” he notes. “And with the artists that are from this city, there’s going to be some amazing things that’s going to flourish as a result of this.”

HBO synopsis for “When the Levees Broke”.

Within a year Terence Blanchard had released “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)” based upon the music that he wrote for Spike Lee’s documentary. And on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina Branford Marsalis became the first guest editor of the jazz magazine, Downbeat, and reflected upon how the disaster had affected the musicians of the city. He asked the New Orleans Times Picayune writer Lolis Eric Elie to write about how the architecture of New Orleans has influenced the city’s music, in the way that the houses were built close together in New Orleans, allowing parades led by musicians to gather a big, fast “second line” following a wedding or a funeral.

“The term ‘second line’ is an evolving one. Years ago, brass bands accompained funeral processions in many parts of the country. New Orleans was different, though. After the traditional dirges accompanied the body and its mourners to the graveyard, we processed back to the church social hall with the sound of happy, dancing music. The family and the band, they were the official parts of the procession, the first line if you will. The second line was that group of folks who chose to join the procession as dancers and onlookers. Eventually the term second line was being applied not only to these people but to the dance they did and to the whole parade itself. In other parts of the country the tradition of lively music at funerals died out. Here it evolved and strengthened. These days, most second line parades are organized by social aid and pleasure clubs strictly for fun, not funerals. Still, one of the bumper stickers you see around town reads, “New Orleans: We put the ‘fun’ in funeral”.

Lolis Eric Elie. Downbeat. September, 2006

In May this year NPR reported that many of the marching bands in New Orleans are short on funds. One of the most successful bands to have come from this tradition, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, re-interpreted Marvin Gaye’s essay on the civil rights era, What’s Going On?, song for song, as a response to Hurricane Katrina and to raise money to help their local musical colleagues. 

“It just made sense in light of all that happened with the storm,” says trumpeter Gregory Davis, who with fellow Dirty Dozen co-founders Roger Lewis (baritone and soprano sax), Kevin Harris (tenor sax) and Efrem Towns (trumpet, flugelhorn), make up the group’s core.  “But even beyond that, to ask ‘What’s going on?’ in the world makes sense.  What happened with 9/11, what happened with the tsunami, what happened with the earthquakes over in Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s happening with the so-called war.  What’s really going on?”

“It’s a timely question,” adds Harris.  “What the hell is going on?  It’s been freaky out there.  Bad enough when human beings are snapping at each other left and right, but when nature is drowning thousands of people with tsunamis and hurricanes and scourges?  Things are changing, getting strange.”

Dirty Dozen Brass Band website

Joni Mitchell and jazz musician Charles Mingus

Joni Mitchell and jazz musician Charles Mingus

Joni Mitchell. For Free.

I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free

Now me I play for fortunes
And those velvet curtain calls
Ive got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if youre a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free

Joni Mitchell. “For Free.”

About five years ago Joni Mitchell explosively bowed out of the mainstream recording industry but not music itself, and her new album Shine seems to receive more press for the fact that it’s on the Starbucks recording label (which has had hits with albums by Ray Charles and Paul McCartney) than its content. The critics debate whether a multinational chain of coffee stores is more or less ethically bankrupt than the multinational entertainment conglomerates. Paul Sexton, writing in The Guardian in May wrote that Mitchell’s first venture with Starbucks was selecting some of her favorite jazz standards for a compilation album for them in the late 1990’s. “Her rebirth came about, improbably, when she asked her management if they could arrange for her to compile a CD for Starbucks’ Artist’s Choice series,” he writes. Mitchell ... “listened to everything I ever loved, to see if it held up, and much did. So I put together one that starts with Debussy, then takes a journey up through Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, and then Louis Jordan. That joyous music was conceived in such terrible times - and it was such a great relief to the culture at the time. That’s the trouble with now. Now we’ve got a horrible culture, horrible times and horrible music.” Sexton identified the ultimate hopefulness of Shine. “But Mitchell is determined that, concerned though she is about the state of the world, her return to recording does not come across as embittered heckling. It shouldn’t. Pieces such as “Shine” and “If” (inspired by Rudyard Kipling) emanate bruised but unbroken optimism, not to mention an absolute refusal to be musically classifiable: one moment she’s jazz, the next classical, then occasionally pop.”

Australian composer and music writer Andrew Ford, who is a skilled and warm interviewer on The Music Show on ABC Radio National, wrote a review of The Joni Mitchell Companion edited by Stacey Luftig, for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2001. He wrote that the difficulties Joni Mitchell has encountered in being taken seriously for her excursions into jazz may lie with how she was perceived early in her career when young women took her music deeply to heart in the way that they’d also embraced Sylvia Plath’s poetry. The soft and tender musical enthusiasms of these young women wouldn’t have extended to jazz. “But the female artists—Mitchell, Plath, and Elizabeth Smart, the author of Grand Central Station—explored human feelings with searing honesty, exposing their emotional nerve endings in a manner that would first have embarrassed then terrified most men,” Ford wrote. “And who was it that, for the most part went on to become music critics?”

On Court and Spark she recorded “Twisted”, Annie Ross’s famous verbalization of Wardell Grey’s saxophone solo, and she did it as though born to the jazz purple. Now she began to work regularly with jazz musicians such as John Guerin, Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Don Alias and the Brecker Brothers. The climax of this period was her collaboration with the dying jazz great Charles Mingus. Taking a handful of Mingus’s instrumental compositions, Mitchell put her own words to them. For the most part, they’re rather wistful numbers (melodically and lyrically), but on “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines”, there’s a playfulness in Mitchell’s vocalese that reminds one of “Twisted”.

It was not, perhaps the wisest change of direction ever taken by a pop singer, since it disaffected precisely the two groups of people whose support was needed if the move into jazz were to succeed. On the one hand, and notwithstanding Mingus’s seeming approval of Mitchell, the jazz aficionados sneered, as jazz afficionados will. And of course on the other hand, the college girls were terribly disappointed. They had spent the early 1970’s memorising Joni’s songs, learning to play them on their retuned guitars and growing their hair. For their pains they were now being offered Wayne Shorter’s saxophone solos.

Andrew Ford. Sydney Morning Herald, 2001.

When he released River: The Joni Letters, an album of his interpretations of some Joni Mitchell songs recently Herbie Hancock told the Associated Press: “She has the courage to express what she really feels and believes in,” he said. “She’s not afraid to openly voice her viewpoint on the crises of the era ... and she does it in such a beautiful and imaginative way. ... And so as a humanitarian, Joni Mitchell really reflects her belief in the dignity of human life and its relationship to our environment.” He includes two instrumental pieces that he suggests link Joni Mitchell to jazz: “Solitude” from a Duke Ellington collaboration with Max Roach and Charles Mingus in 1962, and “Nefertiti” which Hancock and Wayne Shorter first played with Miles Davis in the 1960’s. 

In February Joni Mitchell talked to David Yaffe of the New York Times about a ballet based around her songs, called The Fiddle and the Drum, that she was collaborating on with Canadian Jean Grande Maitre of the Alberta Ballet.

She thought about how the Maya calendar ends in 2012, about the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. What, she wondered, what do you write at the end of the world?

“I haven’t written in 10 years, and what’s coming out of me is all sociological and theological complaint,” she said while staring at the lighted end of an American Spirit cigarette. She sees herself as a proud heretic: “At first I thought I was going over new territory, but then I realized that many of the people who went over this territory were killed.”

“The Fiddle and the Drum” features two of her new songs: “If,” based on the Rudyard Kipling poem about war and stoicism (“Just about my favorite poem,” she says), and “If I Had a Heart, I’d Cry,” criticizing what she calls the current “holy war.” The rest of the ballet, named for a 1970 antiwar ballad from her second album, “Clouds,” is dominated by material from her ’80s and ’90s albums, which are more rhythmically charged (and hence better for dance) than her earlier work.

The backdrop is composed of stills from Ms. Mitchell’s mixed-media art exhibition. One night while she was flipping through “The Gold Diggers of 1937,” CNN and the History Channel on her ancient television (she is something of a Luddite and only recently got a decent stereo system), her screen went on the fritz, blurring images and turning everything a radioactive emerald. Faces melted away, and lines of bodies seeped into the frightening indistinctness of nightmare, as though the malfunctioning television were offering a metaphorical political commentary. She could no longer tell soldier from chorus girl, battle casualty from lover, the dancer from the dance.







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Friday, Nov 2, 2007

MARTIAN CHILD (dir. Menno Meyjes)

Some stories don’t need reforming. They are fine just as they are. When openly gay writer David Gerrold decided to adopt a foster child with deep emotional problems, the challenges he faced—both personal and social—were immense. Yet he dealt with the situation as only an experienced science fiction author could.  He created a game between himself and his new son, using the ‘stranger in a strange land’ concept to make a connection that seemed impossible before. Since his fledging days with the original Star Trek series, the speculative has allowed Gerrold to envision a world free from the prejudices he often experienced. It’s a part of who he is. Oddly enough, the big screen translation of his autobiographical novella, Martian Child, is missing any mention of Gerrold’s lifestyle. Instead, we get a hokey, homogenized look at a hot button issue, marred by a mediocre approach to parent/child challenges.

After the death of his beloved wife, a successful sci-fi author named David finds himself in a major funk. It’s been a couple years, but he remains locked in a spiral of depression that has produced a bad case of writer’s block. Problem is, his pushy agent has promised their publisher a sequel to his recent bestseller. Adding fuel to his ‘feel bad’ fire, a local adoption agency is calling, wondering if he’s still interested in the adoption he had planned with his late partner. After a series of psychological slides, David meets Dennis, an odd little boy who believes he’s from Mars. Hiding in a box to avoid the sun, the child states, matter of factly, that he is on a mission to study humans and must complete it before being called ‘home’. David is initially taken aback. He’s sure he can’t handle such an unusual and needy kid. But as they begin to bond, the scribe realizes that Dennis is the perfect boy for him. He too felt like an outcast when he was young, and while the ersatz ET may be taking it to an extreme, David feels a solid, loving bond. Now he has to show the rest of the world the same.

Maudlin, mawkish, and slightly misunderstood itself, Martian Child is the perfect example of good intentions wrapped in Hollywood-lite logistics. It gives John Cusack a role that fits his pleasant if perplexed persona expertly, a supporting cast that sets off his performance well, and an unusual narrative conceit—a kid who thinks he’s an alien—to make its rather obvious points. As a foster child, shuttled from home to home like an easily returnable catalog item, little Dennis has every right to feel displaced and disconnected. But by using such an extreme illustration of this concept, the movie sets itself up to fail. Unless the boy is really from another planet, which itself reeks of narrative desperation, you end up with a clichéd conceit that’s predictable from the moment we see him onscreen. It will require extra smart writing and superbly skilled direction to make this potentially implosive mix work. Sadly, Menno Meyjes and his pair of novice scribes can’t deliver on said challenge.

There are moments when this movie feels like an underage version of Rain Man, Dennis driven in 15 different directions by the made-up mandates in his head. This is especially true of the mandatory custody hearing where, in order to stay with David, our anxious little boy simple regurgitates maxims his wannabe dad delivered several scenes before. We’re supposed to find it clever. In fact, it’s slightly distressing. If Dennis is only capable of communicating via the rote repetition of things he barely understands, what is going to happen if he’s never fully “cured”. Martian Child really never takes a stand on the kid’s obvious psychological issues. It merely treats them as a slightly unsavory eccentricity and leaves it at that. Even worse, David is an enabler of the worst kind, caring more for love substitute than the object of said affection. It’s only when he ‘accidentally’ kisses costar Amanda Peet that we recognize he may actually try to help the boy.

Dennis does remain the film’s main pitfall. Precociousness, by its very nature, is equally ingratiating and aggravating. There’s simply a very fine line between bewitching and beating on the brat, so you have to be careful how you approach said subject. Child actor Bobby Coleman plays his interplanetary prodigy in a lilting, feather light whisper that’s supposed to suggest fragility, but really reads as scarred and scared. With a face full of sunblock and ruby red lips jutting out from behind a pair of oversized sunglasses, he’s a pre-teen Roger Smith impersonator. His highly unusual quirks—taking photos of people, collecting artifacts from their lives (otherwise known as stealing), and fretting to the point of breakdown over idle events—aren’t really endearing. In fact, the way he holds onto them can be downright disturbing. The boy has clearly lost his grip on reality, and yet Martian Child finds this cutesy. If anything, it’s cloying.

Cusack comes across much better, if equally deprived. Substituting grief for homosexuality is a ruse that’s almost unforgiveable. In fact, it removes a crucial theme about tolerance that could have been effectively explored. Since the whole film is really focused on learning to love someone despite their implied social flaws, divesting the story of such subject matter smacks of PC thuggery. Even worse, it excises a mandatory parallel between Dennis and his Dad. Whose separation from the real world is more understandable—a grieving man (two years and counting) or a gay man? One is three hanky manipulation. The other is a Red State rallying cry.  By failing to have the nerve to address Gerrold’s preference, Martian Child makes a calculated artistic decision. It’s possible the filmmakers didn’t want to cloud the connection between parent and child by mucking things up with sexuality. An enlightened viewer can’t help but view the choice in less than noble terms. 

Of course, this isn’t the only problem the production faced. Martian Child is one of those ‘on the shelf’ specials that went through massive reshoots when the ending tested less than positively. Even then, it took almost another year before the movie made it into theaters. Clearly, the focus groups were less than impressed with the results. If you don’t mind your family drama on the decidedly ‘melo’ side, if you couldn’t care less about the real story behind this superbly saccharine schmaltz, if all you require of your entertainment is simply sketched characters, a formulaic set of obstacles, and a good cry at the end, then this film clearly delivers. Those wanting insight into the issues facing adoptive parents, especially when dealing with emotionally damaged juveniles, need to look elsewhere. This isn’t Child of Rage after all—something the movie itself makes us well aware of.

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Friday, Nov 2, 2007


Suicide is a slippery cinematic slope. Introduce it into a narrative and you imply issues you may not be willing to deal with and consequences that are next to impossible to fully illustrate. Self destruction contains too many indecipherable facets to completely capture within a standard 90-minute film. Trying to force the angst driven act into a comedy therefore seems unfathomably foolish. And yet all of these wasted days and wasted nights notions are used to intriguing effect by the Indie dark comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story. Focusing on a paranormal plane where suicide victims go to wait out their undetermined destiny, Goran Dukic’s quirky, original effort is marred by a sense of plaintive precociousness. But if you get to the meat of his meaning, you’ll find an uplifting tale on your hands.

After carefully cleaning his room and organizing his affairs, Zia takes a razor to his wrists. His girlfriend has left him, and his life seems extra pointless. Unfortunately, the supposed finality of his desperation leads to an afterlife way station where other suicides spend eternity toiling away at meaningless jobs. Lucky enough to befriend an entire Russian family, Zia spends his days making pizza and wondering what went wrong. When he learns that his gal pal offed herself as well, he decides to go on a journey to find her. Corralling his Ruskie rock star friend Eugene into driving him, they head off onto a nameless road. Along the way they pick up Mikal, a recent arrival who claims she’s been unfairly brought to this dimension. She’s looking for the PICs—the People in Charge—to right the wrong. Eventually, they wind up at a magical commune run by Kneller…and smack dab into the middle of a battle with a false Messiah who wants dominion over the perplexed populace. 

Though it goes a bit wonky toward the end and seems to travel a very long way to drive home a rather simple point, Wristcutters: A Love Story remains a wonderfully evocative experience. Part sci-fi, part emo shoe gazing, it’s the perfect companion piece for the cynical, post-millennial Gen-“?” crowd. Anyone whose lived more than, say, 25 years on and in the real world known as planet Earth will have a hard time relating to the aimless romanticism presented, and there are aspects of writer/director Dukic’s vision that run head long into aggravating artistic dead-ends, but when the filmmaker is motoring, the journey is a joy to behold.  By setting up his own unique universe, inventing rules that help supplement and support the points he’s making, he finds a way to take troubling subject matter and make it open and inviting.. This doesn’t mean everyone will get it, but if you pay close enough attention, you can see the message hiding among the deadpan performances and grim gray landscapes.

While the notion that suicide leads to a post-existence world of mindless bureaucratic doldrums has been done before (Beetlejuice more or less covered that topic), Dukic’s does offer up something that smacks of originality. This button down, going nowhere fast ante-existence definitely reeks of the way we view our current career choices, but by adding the logistically limiting factor of self-destruction, we get a much narrower view of said rat race. As part of his particular philosophy, Dukic’s doesn’t have many problems with conformity. All throughout Wristcutters, we see the status quo supported and celebrated—that is, until it becomes a bit like brainwashing. Indeed, the amazingly mixed message offered could be best described as “learn how to be yourself, so that you can better assimilate into a world overwrought with such individualized perceptions.” Neat.

This is best personified by Eugene. While he definitely diddles to his own drummer, the former frontman for a failed Euro-Czech fusion band believes in tradition. That’s why his whole family wound up in Wristcutters’ weird realm. They just couldn’t imagine a life without each other. Zia, on the other hand, struggles against such ideals. For him, parents are a pitfall, someone you have to answer for and explain your purpose to. When he meets Mikal, he constantly chides her desire to change her lot in (after)life. Yet he’s after his ex-girlfriend, hoping to rekindle in this plane the connections he created in the real world. There are some sobering, insightful conversations about these topics sprinkled across Wristcutters’ road movie moxie. It helps get us over some of the film’s more bonkers, blank verse variables.

Unlike other films of this type, where specific rules and regulations are used as a foundation for their satire/social commentary, Dukic appears to be making much of this up as he goes along. While it is based on a short story by Etgar Keret, Wristcutters tends to wander off into its own insular parallels. When we finally meet up with Kneller and his magic commune, we wonder why the movie took us here. While on the move, the narrative was taking us along for the ride. But the minute we see the cult buster laying prone in the middle of the road (expertly played by musician turned madman, Tom Waits) he distracts us from the other character’s purpose. And then the whole third act mirrors the same cinematic switcheroo. We want to see what happens to Zia, Eugene, and Mikal. The added influence of Kneller’s crusade, a failed Jim Jones, and his psycho sect seem widely out of place—even if the ending tries to divine a purpose to it all.

Thankfully, whenever we feel flummoxed, the actors step up and deliver some creative comfort. Though he still resembles his Almost Famous teenage persona, Patrick Fugit fills out the angst driven needs of Zia quite nicely. He’s never too morose, and tends to equalize his ennui with a cutting sense of humor. Shannyn Sossamon, on the other hand, has an eerie, otherworldly quality that makes her Mikal seem that much more out of place. While she tends to play her scenes with a kind of ballsy, no bullshit attitude, we can sense there is something really troubling inside her. For the role of the heavily accented Eugene, Tallahassee native Shea Whigham gets good and lost. From the Eastern Bloc hairdo to the tongue tied way of speaking, he never once delivers a false note. And then there’s Waits. Using his magnificent rasp for all its inherent wisdom and indulgence, he turns a nothing part into something quite solid.

As for Dukic, he deserves some legitimate praise along with the clear criticisms. Maintaining such a surreal cinematic place for an entire motion picture takes talent, and even when he slips and lets the surface show, he manages to clear things up quite nicely. Like dozens of stories that came before, this movie does speak to a demo driven underground and dismissed for their lack of commitment and agenda. So is there any argument as to why an aimless tale of a directionless dude traveling along an inexact landscape wouldn’t resonate with post-university pawns? Wristcutters is practically reading their mind. Indeed, if you are under 30 and free from the adult reality tenets that tie one down, this film will feel like a revelation. Others already jaded might not find the same connection. Wristcutters: A Love Story is definitely bold and audacious—and avoids killing itself in the process.

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Friday, Nov 2, 2007

BEE MOVIE (dir. Steve Hickner & Simon J. Smith)

While it may seem like blasphemy to say it, the comedic allure of Jerry Seinfeld remains elusive to some of us. As a stand-up, he was merely acceptable, the kind of observational whiner that’s become something of a satiric spoof all its own. His self-named sitcom, the often described “show about nothing”, has gone from must-see TV to a Borat level of hindsight marginalizing. Even his post-boob tube work has been lamentably unsatisfactory, failing to give fans and those who never bought into the hype the brazen witticisms they once loved. Now the one time small screen icon is making the leap to silver, albeit in an anthropomorphized, CGI form. Playing the title insect in Dreamworks’ Bee Movie, he hopes to draw a more sophisticated crowd to what has been, traditionally, kid-oriented fair. He may actually succeed.

After graduating from bee college, young drone Barry B. Benson and his cousin Adam Flayman can’t wait to get a job in the hive’s honey manufacturing concern. But when they learn that the career they choose will be the one they have for their whole life, Barry balks. Traveling with the Pollenjocks who work outside among the flowers, our hero gets his first taste of what it’s like in the real world. Of course, there are specific rules if a bee finds themselves among humans. Never talk to people, and never sting them. Both missteps could be fatal. When he’s almost killed by a lunkheaded yuppie named Ken, Barry is saved by Vanessa, a good natured florist. Violating the mandates of the colony, the little bug strikes up a friendship with the attractive young girl, and it’s not long before the pair is hanging out, sharing insights into their species. But when Barry learns that humans eat honey, and that his fellow insects are enslaved to make the succulent elixir, he becomes furious. In order to save his kind’s byproduct, he does the only thing a tiny pest can – he sues the honey companies in court.

While never as clever as it thinks it is, and lacking the internal logic that makes a Pixar project hum with indescribable brilliance, Bee Movie is still a witty, imaginative romp. It offers Jerry Seinfeld in “trying too hard mode” and a wealth of talent being patently underutilized. Unlike other CGI cartoons that rely on stunt casting to give its characters inferred life, Bee Movie simply lets actors do their job, with such noted names as Oprah Winfrey, Kathy Bates, and Matthew Broderick accomplishing what they can. Sure, there are moments of abject obviousness, as when the bullying, overbearing and incredibly obese lawyer starts speaking with…John Goodman’s voice, and nothing can hide Renee Zellweger’s noxious, nasal bleat (she’s a real weak link here as the human Vanessa). But any film that gets Sting to make fun of his nom deplume, or Ray Liotta to riff on his tripwire reputation, can’t be all bad.

Actually, Bee Movie is a lot like Antz except with a younger multi-millionaire mensch substituting for Woody Allen. There is the same unexceptional imagineering, the individuals behind the scenes thinking that turning nature into something corporate and mechanized means fresh and novel. As the various honey-based conglomerate logos spin by, as we see the hive as some sort of wacked out widget production palace (complete with bugs who collect the last drop of sweet stuff from the vats) the slightly sloppy shortcutting shows through. When dreams and closet dwelling creatures were explained in the masterful Monsters Inc. you never got the impression that the warehouse of doors was a half-baked notion. But the sticky amber liquid comes to represent so much in Bee Movie that the lack of magic tends to take away from the premise. Indeed, the first 20 minutes more or less tread nectar, waiting for Seinfeld’s Barry to finally fly outdoors.

Once our yellow and black hero interacts with Vanessa and begins to learn the ways of humans and the world outside the hive, Bee Movie begins to click. Granted, such surreal setpieces as a trial, an airplane emergency, and a decimated Central Park are hardly the stuff of animated hilarity, but props should be given to Seinfeld and the other writers for taking the genre in a different, more grown up direction. While it can’t match what Brad Bird has done with a similar, maturing storytelling style (as witnessed by the brilliant Incredibles and Ratatouille), Bee Movie is better than the lame brained, pop culture cribbing of Shrek. In fact, unlike the entire joke-a-thon style of the overly busy Fox CG films, there are moments of quiet elegance and sly satire here.

Of course, not everything works. Some of the more subtle jabs will fly over the heads of wee ones (the whole concept of Barry’s parents fretting over Vanessa being “Bee-ish”, the Larry King parody) and there are numerous gags that just don’t work. In fact, a good percentage of Bee Movie is not what one would call laugh out loud funny. Instead, like much of what Seinfeld represents, there is a thinking man’s level of wit here that keeps the snickers at arms length. We get what the film is driving at, and where it hopes to land its punchlines, but when an obvious Graduate riff simply dries up and blows away, we can sense a demographically concerned focus group mentality at play. Sitcom success is one thing. For Seinfeld to click as a cartoon character, there’s a whole other level of mainstream acceptance that has to go on – and Bee Movie doesn’t mess up the marketing.

And then there are elements that make no sense at all, at least from a humor standpoint. Someone needs to get Patrick Warburton a case of Decaf, stat. He reads every line of his spurned human paramour Ken as a far more hyper version of his paralyzed cop character Joe Swanson on Family Guy. He literally has no nuance to his shriek and shout performance. Chris Rock is also hampered by the PG parameter he’s locked into. When he’s talking about how hated mosquitoes are (being one of the bug’s himself), you keep waiting for the rant to go blue. Instead, it’s stifled, left incomplete and lagging behind other sequences in the film. While the action is anarchic, perfect for the ADD driven sugar frosted seat fillers, we loose much of the complexity the animators have attached to the NYC backdrop, and there’s no sense of awe-inspiring artistry here. Dreamworks isn’t making a film for the ages. This is perfectly prepared product, specifically finessed to increase shelf life and stimulate DVD revenue.

Indeed, while it will guarantee swift ticket sales and long lasting box office legs, Bee Movie is hardly what you’d call a classic. It offers its own slightly askew take on the anthropomorphic creature cartoon and frequently trips on its way down said path, but when all it said and done, it’s inoffensive and fairly entertaining. Some will say they expected more from their former small screen God and argue that the movie marginalizes his fairly obvious genius. Others knew he was a man of limited skills all along. No matter what side of the argument you find yourself on, Bee Movie is likely to disappoint. It’s not as awful as you think. It’s also not as good.

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Friday, Nov 2, 2007

AMERICAN GANGSTER (dir. Ridley Scott)

Is there really that much more to be said about mobsters—at least, cinematically? Hasn’t Francis Ford Copolla, Martin Scorsese and many in their sphere of obvious influence exhausted the possibilities of crime as an indictment/indication of the American Dream? From old country legends to modern Sin City myths, every race, ethnicity, location, and racket has been examined, deconstructed, and over-romanticized. And with The Sopranos still resonating in its fanbase’s mind, do we really need to revisit a landscape bathed in blood, driven by unclear codes of conduct, and vehement in thinking that violence is both glamorous and ungodly?

Apparently, screenwriter Steve Zaillian and director Ridley Scott seem to think so. They’ve taken the story of Harlem drug king Frank Lucas and turned it—and him—into a symbol of pre-‘70s smarts and racially irrelevant success. Then they parallel it with the story of an honest cop vowing to clean up the streets, along with his fellow crooked officers. Add Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe as the leads and the results speak or themselves. Or at least they try too. Overlong by at least 20 minutes, and missing many of the detail that turns such cops and robbers sagas into glorified Greek tragedies, American Gangster is polished filmmaking that frequently misses the inherent spectacle of the story it’s telling. Then it discovers there was very little scope to begin with.

When we first meet Lucas, he’s a henchman for longtime NYC kingpin Bumpy Johnson. After the man’s untimely death, the apprentice vows to create the same kind of classy, corporate like Drug Empire as his mentor. Realizing that buying directly from the source can cut down on the middle man, and increase the product’s (heroin) purity, he travels to Bangkok to meet up with an old military friend. They strike a deal with the locals, and soon, kilos of high grade H are making their way in the metal coffins of fallen Vietnam vets.

It’s not long before Lucas owns the streets, and he brings his entire family up from North Carolina to help him out. He even has the mafia buying their Blue Magic from his organization. When his cop buddy gets involved in graft and dope, honest officer Ritchie Roberts decides to bring down whoever is pushing. Of course he must cut through massive corruption among his fellow policeman, a lack of real leads, and Lucas’ expertly planned process. All it takes is a tip, and a trail to follow, and both sides of the law are destined to butt heads. 

American Gangster is an oddly one note movie made more or less grandiose by Ridley Scott’s insatiable desire to overload the screen with superfluous details. There is not much more to Frank Lucas than honor among heroin dealers, and Ritchie Roberts is the only incorruptible lawman in all of New York proper. Together, they are the karmic balance of good vs. evil set within a city drowning in dope. Granted, we learn that Lucas is as cold blooded as they come, killing rivals in broad daylight. And Roberts is a womanizing heel, incapable of holding onto the principles in his private life that he cherishes in public. So we get some sort of dimension in how the characters are portrayed. But unlike films such as Goodfellas, Scarface, and the Godfather saga, American Gangster functions on a level outside of crime. Sure, the smack trade is part and parcel of the narrative, but it’s the men, not the setup of the syndicate, that really matters.

Indeed, this is perhaps the most overblown character study ever committed to film. At nearly 150 mins, Scott can’t stop expanding the personality playing field. Lucas has six other siblings and each one gets his moment in the emblematic sun. Both his mother and his Puerto Rican beauty queen wife have their own sequences of self-righteous indignation. On Roberts side, we find his unhappy, soon to be ex, a woman who responds to all interpersonal disappointment by dropping names of the mobsters her partner is pals with. Then there’s the soon to be junkie colleague who looks like Serpico crossed with Superfly. You just know he’s going to get a dramatic send-off. Scott also shows us the street level recruits who make up Roberts newly formed federal task force. By the time he’s done, we expect American Gangster to give us the backstory on every waitress, bouncer, and soul singer we see.

The morals are also misplaced here. Lucas is a scum sucking dope peddler, a man systematically addicting and killing his own people in the name of free enterprise and sticking it to the “white man”. Frankly, racist Italians giving blacks a means of self destruction makes a whole lot more sense—at least from an unenlightened, ‘60s/’70s standpoint—than a smooth talking, educated brother. Lucas’ motives are never explained save for a single speech where he indicates a desire to do for himself and his family. Great, and apparently, it doesn’t matter that all of Harlem is strung out as a result. Even worse, when we get to the last act confrontation with authorities, Lucas stands his ground—that is, until a massive jail sentence is dangled in front of his face. Then he instantaneously turns snitch—but since he’s ratting on dirty cops and underworld crime lords, who cares… right?

As a result, American Gangster goes more than a bit cockeyed once in a while. When Roberts turns over nearly a million dollars in unmarked bills (standard operating procedure at the time would have been to pocket the loot), he becomes the pariah of the department. Yet we’re supposed to infer why his fellow officers hate him—something about rubbing their nose in their petty, obvious bribery. Similarly, Lucas’ violent outbursts are meant to marginalize his suave and debonair demeanor. But you’re dealing with Denzel Washington here, an emblematic figure who can make baby rape seem cool. In fact, it’s so hard to paint either character in a corruptible light that when Scott assembles a Thanksgiving Day montage highlighting the horrors of Harlem, it plays like disconnected blight dragging us away from the real picture at hand. For as gaudy and gratuitous as they were, films like Scarface and The Godfather never forgot they were dealing with killers. This may be the first mob movie that turns its villains into viable vehicles for underhanded respect.

In fact, all of American Gangster plays like a perfectly formed post-millennial pastiche of the Playstation Generation’s greatest imagined gangland hits. It readily recalls every Scorsese-like step into the realm of such dark, strictly business realities and underlying urban decay. While set in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the look is less dated and more fashion model post-modern. There is a swagger that the story fails to fully earn, and a matter of fact quality that underlines the story’s inherent superficiality.

Intriguingly enough, there is a documentary out currently entitled Mr. Untouchable. It deals with the exact same facts, except this time, we learn the lessons of Harlem’s decline into heroin from fellow dealer Nicky Barnes. Said film features details American Gangster skims over (why the drug cutting gals are naked, the Italians ultimate aims) while making a case for Barnes as everything Lucas is portrayed as. It’s a compelling argument, one that Ridley Scott and his A-list almost-epic fails to fully embrace. American Gangster is a very good movie. Somehow, one senses, it could have been grand.

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