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Thursday, Oct 18, 2007
INTO THE WILD (dir. Sean Penn)

INTO THE WILD (dir. Sean Penn)


Wanderlust. For some, it’s an innate human attribute. The desire to explore. The need to put distance between your ‘here’ and your soon to be ‘there’. It’s a concept so tied up in what supposedly made America great and won the West for the rest of us (cue visions of Conestoga wagons rambling across a purple mountains majesty) that it seems practically unpatriotic to question its aimless designs. Like Jack Kerouac uncovering the counterculture beat within a surreal conservative post-War world, to hippie hitchhikers who made the nation one big truck stop, we’ve always given the vagabond some metaphysical leeway. Even as their label has switched from hobo to bum to social eyesore, one’s ability to roam free of responsibility has inspired and divined. It’s so formidable that it’s become the basis for songs, literature, and even personal philosophies.


In his brilliant new film, Into the Wild, actor (re)turned writer/director Sean Penn focuses on such a modern day example of the fanciful free spirit. After graduating from Emory University, real life drifter Christopher McCandless cashed in his savings, sent it to charity, dispossessed himself of all other worldly excesses, and headed out to find America. Much to his miserable parents’ chagrin (and his baby sister’s accepting empathy), he trekked across the nation undetected, picking up odd jobs along the way to fund his adventures. After stop overs in South Dakota, where he worked at a grain mill, a West Coast jaunt with a pair of aging hippies, and a meet up with a widower ex-military man, he finally reached his goal—the deepest regions of Alaska’s wilderness. There, inspired by authors like Thoreau, he intended to live off the land. But survival proved problematic, especially for someone who only saw the freedom (and none of the responsibilities) of such a lifestyle.


Based on a book by Jon Krakauer and McCandless’ own diaries and writings, Into the Wild stands as the best movie in Penn’s limited career behind the camera. After the arch dramatics of The Indian Runner, the considered tone poetry of The Crossing Guard, and the anti-thriller excellence of The Pledge, the Oscar winning actor pools all his talents to take on one of those too good to be true storylines. In the McCandless saga, you’ve got familial dysfunction, interpersonal pipe dreams, psychosocial subjectivity, the call of nature, and the undeniable allure of the open road to transform a simple act of individual wish fulfillment into something far more meaningful. Laced with amazing visual stunts, standout performances, and a perspective of our nation that’s nearly incomprehensible, we wind up tramping right along with our wide-eyed hero. We experience his dizzying highs…and everything that countermands such living in exile delights.


Penn can’t do this alone, mind you. He needs an actor that expertly supplements the sumptuous visuals passing before the screen without getting lost—or worse, overpowering them. There needs to be a balance between fool and Renaissance man, master of one’s destiny and disturbingly unprepared plebe. The startling Emile Hirsch is that shape-shifting star, and his turn here is award worthy. Switching between wildly incongruent modes and balancing his inner perseverance with his outer obstacles, we get a performance so deep and dimensional that, even after two hours, we feel like we’ve barely gotten to know this intriguing individual. Hirsch has to hold us this way, since we no longer live in a society that validates the eccentric actions of someone like McCandless. One slip, and we too would join the harangue that questions his sanity, considers him spoiled, and wonders what his parents did to ever warrant such conspicuous rejection.


One of the great things about Into the Wild is that Penn leaves motives open for interpretation. The character’s actions are not fathomless—a voiceover narration gives us lots of juicy details regarding abuse, marital strife, and unrealistic parental goals—and whenever McCandless interacts with others, we sense a closed off antisocial stance that tends to explain his micromanaged decisions. Indeed, when he finally finds the Alaskan sanctuary he so desperately wants, our hero appears reborn. Gone are the expectations of the world. Stripped back to the very essence of existence, McCandless is forced to face up to the frontier. The fact that he then immediately commandeers an abandoned school bus (and all the camper friendly accommodations and comforts in it) begins Penn’s sly dissection of the character’s true intent. Indeed, Into the Wild isn’t so much about a need for isolation as a call for understanding and acceptance.


It is clear that McCandless did not get along with his parents. As played brilliantly by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, we see a nuclear family falling apart for reasons that are very specific and rather surreal. As with most suburban squabbles, it is buried beneath a veneer of high balls and a series of shattering behind the scenes breakdowns. These fuzzy flashbacks, meant to act as support for our lead’s longing, do a magnificent job of underwriting his angst. We are supposed to feel the same sense of disassociation that McCandless experiences, and Penn uses the sequences as fuel to push us, and his characters, along. When these moments appear, we prepare ourselves for the onslaught of information, and experience an unusual sort of calm when their purpose fades from view.


Also offering their own sense of motivation is the odd selection of individuals we meet. In typical road movie style, Into the Wild celebrates the breadth of human diversity by giving us several clear examples of it. In Vince Vaughn’s agricultural con man (he sells bootleg satellite TV set ups on the side) we see freedom as an illustration of minor lawlessness. In the Danish tourists camping along the Rio Grande, we see liberty as an expression of travel and open friendliness. For aging deadheads Jan and Rainey, it’s autonomy connecting to a fading vision of the ‘60s dream of peace and love. Catherine Keener and former rafting guide Brian Dierker are amazing as the bickering, somewhat settled couple. They inadvertently remind McCandless of all he left behind, frequently becoming indirect antagonists to his progress.


For retired Army man (and lonely father figure) Ron Franz, family is all there is to live for. He becomes our hero’s greatest test, a giving human being who has nothing but support and nonjudgmental warmth to give. Played by Hal Holbrook in a manner that belies his 82 years on the planet, we sense a real connection between the two, a grandfather/grandson dynamic that appears to heal the wounds McCandless is suffering from. But our focus is also a bone-headed young man, convinced that if he lets anyone in, he’ll have to face the self-produced demons he’s been suppressing all these years. One of Into the Wild’s clearest themes is that of escape. Everyone involved in this narrative is looking to get away—from their life, their past, their current situation. Only McCandless has the gumption to take said longing literally.


While we see his outdoorsy resilience throughout the film, Penn makes the wonderful decision to make the last act all about McCandless’ confrontation with the realities of the wilderness. It’s not so much a sequence about dreams shattering as it is about their initially deceptive impact on people. In his case, the desire to runaway to Alaska is the direct result of a more overreaching need to disappear into himself. For this character, it’s the only person that hasn’t let him down. Of course, fate is funny when toyed with. McCandless soon discovers how poorly prepared he is for a life all alone, and the finale is as heart wrenching as it is humble. While you can argue that it’s all a question of taking on nature and realizing who’s really boss, Into the Wild offers a more intriguing conclusion. Perhaps it’s possible to actually run away from it all. Maybe Christopher McCandless was not the proper candidate to try it.


With a final frame that’s devastating in what it says about the movie we’ve seen and the person whose story we’ve shared, Into the Wild suggests that film can actually survive the new digital explosion to remain a wholly artful medium. Penn’s proclivity for dramatic slow motion and epic environs never grows indulgent, and the performances celebrate the people being portrayed without dismissing their importance or place. Standing as a monumental achievement in the career’s of all involved, this is a film that will stand as a terrific entertainment, an intriguing character study, and a clever cautionary example. The next time you feel like getting away from it all, remember Christopher McCandless and his tireless dedication to such an ideal. Apparently, absolute freedom has a cost few of us ever consider. Such a price can place things in perspective quite nicely



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Thursday, Oct 18, 2007

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE (dir. Susanne Bier)


If you’re looking to make your own list of all the things that you, as an audience member, might loose after suffering through this horrid Halle Berry/Benicio De Toro weeper, here’s a small sampling to start you off: any sense of believable character; anything remotely resembling interpersonal reality; a lasting belief in the human spirit, especially that of a shrewish grieving widow; an acknowledgment for one’s personal stake in their own addiction; children who act like something other than sage-like sears; neighbors who are judgmental and callous about an ex-junkie’s plight; a father who cares more about a wife-beating butthead than the kids he’s carrying ice cream for; the ancient art of subtle motion picture drama; a lack of Oscar baiting performance histrionics; two hours of your precious entertainment time.


As yet another example of a gifted foreign filmmaker—in this case, After the Wedding’s Dutch director Susanne Bier—fudging up their reputation by traveling over to Tinsel Town for some Western promise, Things We Lost in the Fire is Lifetime lite cinema masquerading as actual A-list excellence. To say it wastes the talents of its Academy acknowledged cast would be tantamount to arguing that the film had some purpose other than to showcase such industry rewarded chops. When David Duchovny, whose name barely warrants a below the title credit, does the best acting job in the entire film, you know you’re in for some rough motion picture piggybacking. Add to that Bier’s unexplainable obsession with eyes (there are so many shots of these supposed windows of the soul included that you’d swear she was channeling the late Lucio Fulci) and the way too wise wee ones, and you’ve got a film that double dares you to dismiss it.


Frankly, the storyline makes such rejection all too easy. While trying to be a good Samaritan, rich financier Steven Burke (Duchovny) is murdered. He leaves behind a grieving trophy wife (Berry), two inhumanely adorable kids, the nicest neighbor in the Western Hemisphere, his shrewish spouse, and a childhood best friend (Del Toro) who’s been riding the white horse for decades. As part of his amazingly altruistic nature, the late great Mr. Burke used to metaphysically babysit his doped up buddy Jerry. Now, out of a need to find someone to blame, or a misguided desire to replace one strong patriarchal figure with a heroin addled ex-attorney, widow Audrey invites the addict to live with her. Along the way we get various confrontations over life and loss, interpersonal relapses and withdrawals, and one of those classic clichéd moments where human grief is manifested in a nonstop five minute “look at me nominating committee” banshee wail. Everything is then peachy at the end.


It’s hard to find ways to support what Bier and her novice screenwriter Allan Loeb are attempting here. When you want to do a privileged Terms of Endearment, you need a talent the size of James L. Brooks to pull it off. Melodrama, by its very nature, is one obnoxious notch above the standard genre definition, and clearly defined characters and understandable situational interactions are mandatory to make things fly. Sadly, all we get here are unnatural responses, unrealistic tangents, and no real means of identifying with what’s going on. Because Bier believes in such an abstract approach to her narrative—we get too many extreme close-ups, too many sequences of pointless, purposeless silence—the movie feels inert. Even worse, we never get a handle on how to feel about these people. One minute they’re endearing and energetic, the next they’re as confusing as software instructions.


Part of the problem is Berry. She’s supposed to be the stoic spouse, unable to grieve for the sake of her children and channeling her pain through inappropriate instances of irrational rage. Yet such a dynamic is never consistently maintained. Sometimes, she’s pissy just for the sake of being so. Other times, she comes across like a puppy whose just been swatted on the nose for making a mess in the corner. Her conversations with Del Toro fluctuate wildly from superficial pleasantries to woefully improper inferences. There are two scenes in particular that destroy every ounce of Audrey’s credibility. During a fit of post-funeral insomnia, Berry invites Del Toro to her bedroom. She then has him recreate the supposedly safe and secure sleeping position she shared with her husband, complete with errant leg angles, and slow, sensual ear tugging. It’s like watching an emotional snuff film. Even worse is the moment when, out of desperation, Audrey begs to learn the life of a junkie. She says it’s a question of escape. We recognize it as nothing more than self-conscious cinematic grandstanding.


Benicio isn’t much better. Screwing up his mouth like he just got caught stealing a cookie, and moving back and forth between accents, he’s a neutered Dr. Gonzo, the one time God’s own prototype reduced to a jaundiced ‘Just Say No’ PSA. While his personality is slightly endearing (when asked about his problem, he traces its roots in a matter of fact fashion) and he seems to be connected to those around him, his Jerry is even more insular than Audrey. He’s a guy so closed off that even his addiction seems petty, like an irrational nail-biting habit that he has yet to lick. Even strung out he’s strong, generating the kind of magnetism we expect from the Traffic talent. There’s no vulnerability at all. It’s almost as if Berry demanded all helplessness as part of her contract. Del Toro simply got the sequences of drug sweat stink.


As for the rest of the cast—who cares? No one stands out, and Bier fails to properly utilize her supporting players at every turn. It’s one of the main issues in this movie. Audrey has a helpful mother, a more than sympathetic brother, a clear connection to her dead husband’s family, and no money worries whatsoever. The need to blame/save/scapegoat Jerry is so mechanical, so much about the movies and not real life, that it sends us looking to the fringes for answers. Sadly, there are no explanations to be found there. Indeed, there is almost no context in Things We Lost in the Fire. Even the title is deceiving since it tends to broaden the scope of an event that we learn was almost minor in its overall significance. While Loeb is to blame for writing such surface situations (the “I can’t go in there” office moment is so hoary, ancient Greek playwrights dismissed it as derivative), Bier could have made this work.


Here’s how—junk the timeline leaping narrative structure with its foolish level of flashbacks. Give us the Berry/Duchovny marriage for a full 40 minutes, boring everyday agendas and formula family stuff intact. Have occasional jaunts out to Del Toro’s junkie headquarters and late night arguments between the couple over same. Keep the father character’s death offscreen until a last act denouement when Berry confronts Del Toro over her husband’s loyalty. Let her vent all the wildly out of place emotions and tirades she delivers during the first part of the film in this intense standoff. Have the brother and mother more clearly defined, struggling to see why their grieving relative would focus on a discarded dope fiend. Make the film less about Berry’s journey toward acceptance and more about how two people cope with losing their only lifeline. Of yeah, and keep the kids as kids. A nine year old should never be more cultured and considered than those around her.


And there you have it—everything that Things We Lost in the Fire is not. Instead of a tired, teeth gnashing exercise in emotional extremes, you’d have a considered, complex movie that might actually make a point about divergent personalities learning to manage their pain. While this uninspired effort might please a demographic geared to take everything these particular actors do and say as examples of cinematic Gospel, the rest will remain unconverted. Too bad this script didn’t get lost in the aforementioned blaze. Starting over from scratch may have been the only chance to salvage this hankie hackwork. 



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Thursday, Oct 18, 2007

RENDITION (dir. Gavin Hood)


Okay, okay, we get it. In the name of the War on Terror, the United States has screwed up—BIG time. We’ve made massive military and diplomatic blunders, turned ourselves from last remaining superpower to international laughing stock, and allowed our Red State leanings to manifest themselves in the biggest set of civil rights abuses since African Americans were forced to drink from segregated water fountains. So here’s a message to Hollywood—enough already. We GET IT. Uncle Sam has ruined his reputation, our own government is complicit in major infractions of the Geneva Convention, and none of this is making us safer. So you’ve got plenty of targets to take out. Terrific. Just know this—you sell your media-minded position a lot more successfully when you remember to make your harangues entertaining. Without that, there’s just empty, obnoxious jingoism.


Rendition is the result of such pompous over-pronouncements. It’s a well-intentioned screed undone by its desire to make all sides of its conflict saintly simplistic. It wastes prodigious talents both in front of and behind the camera in service of a tale that’s so obvious in its moral underpinnings and thankless in its idea of subtlety that it even finds nobility in a suicide bomber. Any film founded on secret US torture sights should have the backbone to place the blame squarely on the bureaucratic shoulders where it belongs. But in Gavin Hood’s showy storytelling designs and all sides supporting the center script, what we wind up with is black and white cast as all gray and not gray enough. Issues of security and wartime intelligence are indeed important. But Rendition is so existentially earnest that you’re not quite sure where your true feelings are supposed to lie.


While on his way home from a business trip, Egyptian born Anwar El-Ibrahimi is suddenly detained at the Washington DC airport. Seems a well known terrorist has contacted his cellphone number, and the CIA wants to know why. Of course, this leave his pregnant wife Isabella in a quandary, especially when he fails to show up as planned. Though the airlines argue he was never on the flight, our heroine discovers otherwise. She seeks the help of an old college friend, a Senator’s aide who has connections to tough Agency head Corrine Whitman. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, El-Ibrahimi is interrogated by the tough Abasi Fawal. Under the watchful eye of field agent Douglas Freeman, the seemingly innocent man is tortured for information. While his wife waits for word, he’s clinging desperately to life.


There is much more to Rendition than this—too much more. Fawal has a daughter who is defying his arranged marriage wishes, leading to all manner of domestic strife for the belligerent bulldog of a man. Freeman is having his own internal crisis, a life as CIA lackey leaving him empty and prone to personal doubt. Isabella is pregnant, and her past ties to the Congressional assistant seem to cement the investigation. Then there is the Arab’s anarchic child, pining away for a fellow student and finding herself locked in a surreal interpersonal holy war between rising fundamentalism, a group of terror minded leaders, and the man she thinks she loves. It’s enough to make your head spin, and Hood apparently wants it to corkscrew right off.


Instead of presenting events as they are meant to play out, we get a Pulp Fiction tweaking of the plot point time lines. It’s so jarring, so in your face obvious and arty that, when discovered, we find ourselves rewinding the movie in our mind to see if Hood stayed true to the tactic. Sadly, it also saps any inherent emotion out of the story. Somewhere along the line, Hollywood has gotten the idea that certain standard relationships don’t require character defining backstory. Star-crossed lovers—especially in a strict foreign country—are supposedly intriguing in and of themselves, while a mixed marriage in the United States (especially one so clearly contrary to our post-9/11 tolerances) earns intrigue by merely existing. But that’s not the case. Rendition relies too heavily on inference and supposition. As a result, we never identify with these individuals, or empathize when there life goes wildly out of whack.


And that’s a shame, especially since Hood sets up big scope moments of universal import as a means of making us feel. Reese Witherspoon, who’s more or less blank here, gets one of those screeching confrontations that pass for dramatics, while Jake Gyllenhaal’s CIA stooge has a taking a stand situation that’s supposed to turn him from rube to hero. But since we literally know nothing about these people, we never feel their pain. Even strapped naked to a water torture device, Omar Metwally’s El-Ibrihimi is nothing more than a pathetic prop. Granted, Hood stacks the deck during these scenes, turning the interrogation by Yigal Noar’s Fawal into Hostel with higher ambitions, but since we don’t have a stake in this game (and the passé explanation about the title act of illegal detention is not enough to provide one) we end up shrugging our shoulders when we should be shielding our eyes.


Indeed, Rendition’s biggest obstacle is the inordinate number of “who cares?” interactions. What are we really supposed to gain from the Arab boy-girl puppy loving?  Is there anything other than kitchen sink drama attached on Papa Fawal’s strident parental approach? Is the presence of El-Ibrihimi’s patient and philosophical mother in Isabella’s life nothing more than a countermand to all the foreign zealotry, and should Meryl Streep play evil when she’s given nothing more than bureaucratic shorthand as speeches? Hood, who filled his Oscar winning foreign film Tsotsi with a real sense of time and place, feels flummoxed here. You can almost sense the pull between paradigms going on in this South African born, American influenced filmmaker. Part of him is looking for all the local color he can get. The rest is wrestling with the standard cinematic designs of the genre (thriller) he’s attempting.


It’s lose/lose all the way. There is a good story buried somewhere in Kelley Sane’s scattered screenplay, a tale to be told about a government so paranoid about losing power—and innocent people—that it would stoop to ridiculously reactionary measures to achieve minor Intel-objectives. Let’s not forget that El-Ibrihimi’s ordeal occurs because a random CIA agent is killed in a suicide bombing. Linking this man to the insignificant organization we see (these are radicals who plot their protests out in the open, after all) seems like much ado about saber rattling. None of the participants on either side of the situation seem to care about such a slash and burn approach. Apparently, they’d use a nuke to find a needle in a haystack as well.


Without superb acting to pull us through the rougher bits, without a clear emotional connection to the events unfolding—heck, without a concrete idea about what is happening when—Rendition renders itself moot. It becomes an argument where the winner has already been determined, a debate without a clear pro/con dichotomy. Neither side we see is defensible, nor is it determinative. It appears to merely be the best way for Hollywood to state its artistically slanted agenda. Right or wrong, a sledgehammer and additional salt for the wounds never won anyone over—not even the already converted. Rendition is the reactionary as reality. It paints a portrait that very few, if any, can salute. 



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Thursday, Oct 18, 2007

Given the Bush administration’s past crowing about the “ownership” society and the conservative pundits’ view that predatory lending is a way of democratizing credit, it was momentarily disconcerting to see Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson rip into “shameful” lenders. The timid NYT account goes like this:


Mr. Paulson made it clear that he was dissatisfied with what had happened in the marketplace and that he wanted to push for change. But on many issues, he stopped short of advocating proposals of his own.
He sharply criticized credit rating agencies that had failed to recognize the risks in hundreds of billions of dollars worth of mortgage-backed securities. But he tiptoed around the issue that many analysts have argued is a central conflict of interest for rating agencies: that they earn their fees for evaluating a new security offering only after the offering has been sold to investors.
Mr. Paulson mentioned the issue, saying that “we must examine the role of credit rating agencies, including transparency and potential conflicts of interest.”


The Financial Times was considerably more vivid:


The Treasury, he said, was working on developing a “blueprint” for the overhaul of the country’s fragmented financial regulatory structure but such “fundamental changes” would take years to implement.
Saying the US needed to “ensure yesterday’s excesses are not repeated tomorrow”, he stressed interim changes were needed. These should focus on disclosure, mortgage origination, predatory lending and liability.
Home buyers “get writer’s cramp from initialing pages and pages of unintelligible and mostly unread boilerplate that appears to be designed to insulate the [mortgage] originator or lender from liability rather than to provide useful information to the borrower”, Mr Paulson said.


I’d guess Paulson’s turnabout on this issue has something to do with the way sloppy lending at the level of shady brokers taking advantage of poor rubes has trickled its way up to where it is crippling investment banks and hedge funds and constraining credit for private equity. But it’s still strange to hear him talk like a “Democrat-lite,” as Chuck Schumer called him.


But as weird as that was, reading this bit from Collin Peterson, Democratic chair of the agriculture committee, was even weirder:


Collin Peterson, chairman of the House of Representatives agricultural committee, says the farm sector that raises organic produce and grass-fed beef for local consumers needs little federal help. “It is growing, and it has nothing to do with the government, and that is good,” he told the FT. “For whatever reason, people are willing to pay two or three times as much for something that says ‘organic’ or ‘local’. Far be it from me to understand what that’s about, but that’s reality. And if people are dumb enough to pay that much then hallelujah.”


You have to presume that democrats in Minnesota’s seventh district are not conforming to the ““Whole Foods-loving yuppies” stereotype.


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Thursday, Oct 18, 2007

After two days at CMJ, the mad dash to make every shows subsides, and you begin to feel a lot more comfortable going with your gut. This year, day two’s artists made that easy, maintaining remarkable energy even as the listeners themselves started to feel the strain that comes with getting out to so many shows. There’s a lot of sweat in today’s pics from our friends at Flavorpill, so best to view from a distance — unless you’re carrying a towel of course.


Check out Flavorpill’s CMJ preview...


DAN DEACON


CMJ Day 2: Moshing On-Stage to Dan Deacon


Dan Deacon shows tend to have an aura of crowd participation. This was the case at the Bowery Ballroom, first when L.A. punk duo No Age started an on-stage mosh pit which escalated into guitarist Randy Randall riding on someone’s shoulders while rocking out the set’s final song. Then, as usual, Dan Deacon took it to the next level, inviting the crowd on stage while he set up on the floor to exude his electronic mayhem. After performing in complete darkness, except for the glow of a skull strobe light, Deacon requested the house lights be turned up and cleared the dance floor to allow space for a spastic dance contest. The prolific production artist Diplo was on hand, rocking out to Deacon’s electro-anthems, and even received a congratulatory round of high fives from the crowd. The party atmosphere was admittedly not fitting for the more cerebral, white-noise-inspired sound of Deerhunter whose lead singer Bradford Cox called Deacon “a tough act to follow”. Nevertheless, Deerhunter killed with a set of their atmospheric rock from their stellar Cryptograms album. Cox’s airy vocals and the band’s spatial pop songs were a welcome reprieve from the over-indulgence of the previous acts.
Joe Tacopino


DEERHUNTER


IDA MARIA


NO AGE


PONYTAIL
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