It’s always cool to poke fun at the government, especially at their most frivolous. Pirate Radio, directed by Richard Curtis, follows the antics of eight DJs who daringly continued to play rock records in the middle of the North Atlantic, despite the angry protestations of British officials. The rock ‘n’ roll dissenters include Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, and many others. Pirate Radio, which came out in the U.K. back in April as The Boat That Rocked, opens in the U.S. on November 13th in select theaters.
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A colleague of mine who works in the non-profit world made this prediction: “it’s my belief that, within the next year or two, Facebook or some other social networking service will completely replace email as a way… to reach out to our audiences.” Mind you, he’s not saying that e-mail itself is gonna die and Facebook will replace it. But the thought that the way that non-profits plus marketers, magazines, promotion (PR), bands and all sorts of other businesses will rely on social media rather than e-mail is an interesting idea to ponder.
The whole idea of social media taking over from e-mail as a way to reach out to audiences almost makes e-mail seem like an antiquated 20th century idea that’s on the way out in this early part of the new millennium. Can we gaze into our collective crystal ball and see how this will shake out?
The rise of social media has been stunning, becoming one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Internet. MySpace (only six years old now) was once the king of the hill but has been overtaken by Facebook, which is only five years old, but Facebook itself is now being challenged by Twitter, which is only three years old now. See the pattern here? Obviously, something is overdue to come and knock down MySpace, Facebook and Twitter off their perches. And a year or two after that happens, something else will take over as the new kind of social media world.
Sandra Bullock is much more than her current career arc. She’s a better actress than her RomCom credentials would suggest, and when given material to match her mantle (Infamous, Crash), she can compete with any of her credited competition. Still, Hollywood continues to push her into one lackluster chick flick moneymaker after another, the most recent being the psycho-stalker abomination All About Steve. Interestingly enough, Bullock brought her appreciable A-Game to a different 2009 comedy, a far more favorable look at a megalomaniacal boss and her decent if rather misdirected assistant. A sizable hit for Touchstone, The Proposal (coming soon to Blu-ray) proved that, when put in the right setting, with a semi-sound script and decent direction, this post-millennial matron can sell even the most clichéd claptrap to an audience eager to be swept off their own wish fulfillment feet.
Margaret Tate is the cutthroat editor-in-chief for a highly successful New York publishing firm. She is feared and hated by everyone in the office - including her emasculated, subservient assistant Andrew Paxton. While he has his own motives for taking her taunts and tirades, getting a promised promotion seems more and more like a pipe dream. When the Immigration and Nationalization Service comes after Margaret for an expired visa (she’s Canadian, by the way), it looks like she will be forcibly deported, losing her job in the process.
Suddenly, she has a brainstorm - she will get Andrew to marry her, thereby giving her an out with the Feds. Of course, they are suspicious of Margaret’s motives, and so she invites herself to the Paxton home for his grandmother’s 90 birthday celebration. Arriving in the small Alaskan town of Sitka, Margaret soon learns that her ‘secretary’ comes from a very wealthy family, has issues with his father, and has sacrificed a lot to move to the Big Apple. When the Paxton’s plan a quickie wedding for the couple, it’s crunch time. Either they must go through with the ruse and risk getting caught, or realize that they are actually falling in love with each other.
The Proposal is an inconsequential little piffle, a movie aiming directly for the middle and almost always achieving its aims. Certainly, it flirts with some significantly low brow leanings (the Alaskan male stripper with a pot belly and the savoir faire of a Teamster, the nude meet cute moment between the stars), and prays it offers insight into the reasons why people fall in love. In truth, it’s just 108 minutes of innocuous motion picture archetypes. There’s the distrusting, disappointed dad, the saintly mom, the dirty old granny, the smokin’ hot ex, etc. It’s the same in Margaret’s NYC kingdom, including employees who goof off instead of doing their job, underlings who curse the very ground their bitchy boss walks on, and owners more interested in dollars signs than keeping a dynamic (if rather impersonal) leader in place.
Together with a script that follows the genre formula’s to a comfy flannel ‘T’, and a cast that does its best to enliven the often infantile material, The Proposal is pleasant if almost instantly forgettable. Instead of being emotionally engaged, we simply wait around to see if Margaret and Andrew will fall for each other, or if the morally askew big wig step will aside so that her overworked and underpaid staffer can finally be happy. Everything on the Paxton side of things - except for pissed-off papa Craig T. Nelson - seems sunny and secure. Even Andrew’s previous girlfriend, as played by Malin Akerman, comes off as the most trusting and loving former flame in the history of devastating dumped relationships. The issue with his parents is more of an independence thing than an “I hate you” happenstance. Margaret, on the other side, has a single facet to her one-note characterization. On her own since her parents died when she was 16, she’s simply forgotten what it’s like to have a family that loves her. When the Paxtons show her kindness, she’s unequivocally thrown for a loop.
It’s a good thing then that both Bullock and Ryan Reynolds are on hand to hold down the histrionics. While we never buy our bubbly lead as the kind of callous fiend who would feed a small dog to an eagle in order to retrieve her cellphone, we do feel her isolated pain. It’s especially potent during a late night confessional when she reveals some little known details about herself. Her beefy co-star is equally adept, light on his feet and quick with many of his above-average one-liners. He’s a nimble foil to Bullock’s bravado. Director Anne Fletcher also shows some improvement over her previous attempts at behind the camera creativity. The Proposal is much better than Step Up, or the horrifically ordinary 27 Dresses. Sure, the greenscreen Alaskan backdrops show through early and often (Massachusetts’s was the stand-in for Russia’s famous ‘neighbor’), but she handles the human element of the story rather well. Indeed, this is one of the rare RomComs that doesn’t lapse into illogical slapstick or forced farce every five minutes…sometimes, it takes a good twenty before the burlesque arrives.
Thanks to the new Blu-ray release, we can see just how sappy and silly this movie could have been. The deleted scenes shed light on subplots that could never pay off properly, while the alternative ending is one of the weakest, most misguided attempts at humor in recent cinematic memory (it involves the mishearing and mis-delivery of messages - no, honestly). As for the rest of the added content, there is also an interesting commentary track from Fletcher and screenwriter Peter Chiarelli that illustrates why some alternate narratives are too self-congratulatory to be much good. As for the technical side of things, the movie does look amazing, filled with a natural wonder that only stock footage of the Yukon can provide, and the 1080p HD picture is excellent throughout. Sure, the locational sham is exposed in this updated format, but like the rest of the movie, it’s an excusable flaw.
Maybe that’s why Bullock continues to pull down the big bucks. Even inside a premise as implausible and confusing as The Proposal (if Reynolds is such an amazing assistant, how did he fail to anticipate the visa debacle?), she lifts the material to her level and does her best to drive it home. With an able company of fellow finery by her side, it takes a lot to let the audience down. Sure, the finale feels plodding and unnecessarily serious, considering all the oddball eccentricity we’ve seen before (Betty White, in full Native American headdress, dancing with abandon in the woods?), but there’s still enough here to satisfy. Bullock will branch out once again come awards season, playing a snooty member of Tennessee society who adopts a homeless black teen in the true story The Blind Side. While such a move shows her range, she seems endlessly stuck in situations like this. Good thing then that, unlike other examples of the type, The Proposal is more or less acceptable.
If I were to pick a definitive Smashing Pumpkins song, it would be the overlooked nugget “Hello Kitty Kat”, originally released as a b-side to the single “Today” in 1993, and later rounded up as part of the 1994 rarities compilation Pisces Iscariot. To me, the best Pumpkins songs always resembled huge swaths of color. The group was never afraid to be vulnerable or full-on rock monsters, and often did both in the same song, all while constructing walls of melodic guitar fuzz that built up to explosive finishes. “Hello Kitty Kat” is the Pumpkins at their best, incorporating all those factors while firing on all cylinders on a roller coaster of a song until the track practically collapses in on itself.
Speaking of melodic guitar fuzz, “Hello Kitty Kat” is sick with it. It’s no coincidence that frontman Billy Corgan’s best material was written between 1990 and 1996, a period when the man seemed inseparable from his Big Muff guitar pedal. Unlike lesser alt-rock guitarists, Corgan knew how to use the pedal in a way that the tone it generated enhanced his guitar parts instead of overwhelming them. The sounds Corgan coaxed out of his Fender Stratocaster thus served as the perfect missing link between psychedelia and grunge. That’s why I can never get hung up on Corgan’s nasally vocals like many of the band’s detractors do. At their artistic height the Pumpkins’ chief strengths were A) the guitars, and B) the arrangements. The more focus on both of those aspects, the better the song generally turned out. On “Hello Kitty Kat”, Corgan’s vocals are mixed unusually low, sounding insubstantial next to the architectural wonder he has constructed with his arsenal of guitar tracks.
In retrospect, it’s amazing to consider the ongoing link between cultural heritage and folklore and what we call ‘horror’. Fear is such a part of who we are personally, so tied into the very facets of our humanity and human knowledge of mortality that the fables and fairytales which fueled our youth often translate into the terrors that remain as adults. It’s all a matter of updating and contemporizing. This is especially true in countries with long standing traditions, regions more or less formed out of the myths and legends of the past. In the wonderful new film Left Bank, Belgian director Pieter Van Hees uses a modern setting to tell an ancient tale of ritual, sacrifice, and the beast that must be appeased. Within this world of cellphones, skyscrapers, and instant information, some remnants of our dark ages linger, unholy…and hungry.
Marie is a professional runner with hopes of making it to the European Championships in Portugal. Her coach has faith in her, while her mother hates how she pushes herself. When she is diagnosed with a mysterious blood disease, Marie is sidelined. Hoping to ease her disappointment, she moves in with new boyfriend Bobby. He’s a car salesman and the dean of a prestigious archery guild. His apartment on the outskirts of Antwerp (known locally as ‘Left Bank’) also has a bit of a history. The previous tenant, a woman named Hella, simply up and disappeared one day. Her fiancé, Dirk, thinks it has something to do with the complex’s haunted history. It was built on the site of a heretical church, a place where a pit to the underworld is supposedly located. Soon, Marie learns that she’s in line to be a sacrifice to the monster that lives in the basement, an entity served by many in the building - perhaps even Bobby.
Left Bank is so much more than a standard horror movie that when it starts its slowburn stomp toward a truly crackerjack ending, we tend to distrust the pacing. Few fright films use deliberate moments of silence and inactivity as a means of creating menace, especially in the newfangled formula in which everything scary is supposed to be over the top, action packed, and hyperactive. Instead, Van Hees hopes we will buy into the blatant David Lynchian nods, the sequences of dream logic surrealism that evoke something other than shivers. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the obvious last act macabre, narrative fusing the modern with the mythic to create a visceral creepshow callback, we’d swear this was some manner of Inland Empire riff. There are shots here that instantly recall the clinically controlled approach of Kurbrick, the Coens, and of course, the aforementioned Midwestern madman himself.
It’s also interesting the way Van Hees misdirects the audience. When we think of horror, we automatically assume diabolical or disturbing ends. But Left Bank may not be asking for our concern. Instead, we could be dealing with a question of implied perception. We hear words like “sacrifice” and “underworld”, see situations in which other characters appear terrified and tormented, we see a leg injury turn gangrenous and oozing, and we instantly sense something sinister. But all throughout this amazing movie, Van Hees never goes for the throat. Instead, he keeps things ambiguous, baiting the viewer with portents both evil and evocative. If we are to believe Bobby, if we listen very carefully to everything he has to say, the fate of those introduced to cellar 51 might not be all that bad - at least, within the context of what we usually associate with the realm of fear.
The cultural differences also make Left Bank compelling. The entire subplot involving Marie’s running career is very interesting, giving us insights into the character that otherwise might be missing from the narrative. Indeed, it reflects on her health food store managing mother, her overly friendly coach, and the oddly detached doctors who treat any injury like a combination of calamity and inconvenience. Superstition also rears its illogical head, residents of the apartment complex responding in oddball ways when they learn of its potential history. There’s even a small amount of socio-economic commentary at play, Bobby’s Russian buddies clearly illustrating the growing connection between Eastern Europe and Asia. That they also act both aggressive and subservient to the situation at hand offers its own clever conclusions.
Like other knowing foreign fright films, Left Bank definitely lets us in slowly and methodically. We are never overwhelmed with information, even when Van Hees turns up the trickery to add some artistic flourishes (the party scenes, complete with superbly spastic camera movements, really amplify the dread). There are many unanswered questions here - why is Marie’s father so unimportant to the story? Why did Hella disappear if our heroine was always the “target”? What is the significance of the files in the archery guild (except, perhaps, to act as a shout out to The Shining)? And when Marie finally understands her fate, what is confronting her and why does it seem so…apathetic? It’s mysteries like these that make Left Bank so intriguing. It allows a viewer to bring their own interpretation to the mix, making as much sense (or as little) out of Van Hees’ designs as possible.
In the end, Left Bank will probably be unfairly judged for its lack of gore, understated approach, and often indecipherable conceits. But when something is this moody, this given over to gorgeously composed shots of sinister inference, a lack of blood or believability is a minor complaint at best. Pieter Van Hess has created a thriller that seeps under your skin, that shocks you with its nonconformity to the written rules of terror. Instead, what we end up witnessing is one girl’s chance at a second life - albeit one drenched in the pagan beliefs of centuries gone by. How that fits within the facets of modern metropolitan life in today’s Belgium is what this movie is really driving at. As with many movies made outside the US, it’s a battle between the ways of the past and the wants of now. How said struggle ends is what give something like Left Bank its power - and its ability to unnerve.