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Friday, Oct 12, 2007


The sense of community has vanished. The neighborhood is no more. We live in isolated exclusivity from each other, no longer keeping up with the Joneses, but rather avoiding them outright. We’ve got politicians saying it takes a village to raise our kids, and yet the notion today of such togetherness is so oblique as to practically blot out the white flight suburban sun. Privacy has been replaced by isolationism, imagined horrendous actions playing out a mere few feet from your own sordid secrets. And we don’t care, as long as we are safe. As he wanders through his South Boston locality, PI Patrick Kenzie senses such disconnect. He sees through the feigned interest and media hype to recognize one sad fact – a child is missing, and no one knows anything that can really help him.


In the hands of first time director Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone arrives as one of 2007’s finest films. Taken from a novel by Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, this simple story of an abducted little girl, the surrounding investigation, and the suspicious mother at the center, has the kind of narrative power and acting prowess that elevates it above other like minded dramas. By capturing a sense of society lost, by using both the media focus and the behind closed doors denouements that seem to follow such situations, Affleck produces tragedy on an epic Greek scale and moviemaking of classic neo-noir artistry. In combination with some of the most riveting performances in recent memory, as well as a true sense of setting, what we wind up with is an incredibly dense and layered exploration of human ethics.


The saga of little Amanda McCready is already an overhyped press sensation when her distraught aunt Beatrice contacts local investigator Kenzie. Along with his live-in girlfriend/partner Angie Gennaro, the couple is known for helping debt collectors locate deadbeats. Reluctant to take on the case at first, a conversation with the child’s blasé, drug addled mother Helen changes everything. Realizing a local dope dealer may be involved (the kidnapping may have something to do with stolen drop money), Kenzie confronts the hood. His responses raise even more questions. Worse, a local pedophile has just been released from jail, and he’s holed up in a squalid shack with some fellow addicts. All signs point to an imminent threat to Amanda’s well being. With the help from a pair of Boston’s finest, and a dedicated police captain who has made crimes against children his number one priority, Kenzie may solve this crime – or worse, discover an unruly and unconscionable conspiracy underneath.


To give away more of the plot would absolutely ruin Gone Baby Gone. One of this film’s greatest strengths is the fact finding interactions between star Casey Affleck (Ben’s brilliant brother) and the individuals he interrogates. There’s a snarky, smug strategy and streetwise strength in how Kenzie handles these situations. He relies on alliances, long standing reputation, and an almost omniscient knowledge of underworld mechanics to dig behind the bullshit and discover the truth. These wonderfully evocative moments, scattered throughout the film like rewards at the end of a complicated maze, are the kind of payoffs we anticipate and expect. After all, hints and suggestions can only take us so far. Director Affleck understands this, and purposefully allows the verbal fireworks to close up a few loose ends before unraveling a couple more.


This is also a movie about attitude. Among the various victims and suspects presented, we can see a well honed stance, a formed façade given to the rest of the world to judge or junk. From the seemingly straight laced detectives who combine caring with a well earned callousness, to the McCready family and friends who offer conflicting messages of disgust and despair, the universe of this South Boston area is covered in contradictions. When we meet Beatrice, she’s a hard nosed relative who simply wants her niece back. But then the interactions with Helen suggest a more selfish, personal rationale. Similarly, a character like police captain Jack Doyle presents nothing but professionalism…that is, until he lets a little of his guard down, and the slightest hint of anxiety stumbles across his speech pattern. In a movie filled with secrets, such personalities play flawlessly into the mix. They make for a much richer, more fulfilling film.


So does the acting. While his turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was amazing, Casey Affleck’s work here is a revelation. He is so radiant, so unabashed in his studied swagger, that we breathlessly anticipate his next move. During a crucial shoot-out between Kenzie and the aforementioned house of drugs and depravity, the combination of fear and fierceness illustrate Affleck’s approach perfectly. He can talk the talk and walk the walk. Equally good are Ed Harris and John Ashton as the Boston cops. Without giving much away, they have to play both sides of the fence to forward the film’s agenda, and they do so spectacularly. While she didn’t offer much as the object of desire in The Heartbreak Kid, Michelle Monaghan does a dynamic job of bringing the story’s maternal elements to the fore. Her reactions, based almost exclusively in a female nurturing perspective, add an extra level of consideration here, and her last act resolve is simply stunning.


There are many other brilliant turns here – Morgan Freeman’s cloistered captain, Amy Madigan’s proud Irish aunt, Amy Ryan’s hedonistic hellion of a mom, Edi Gathegi’s slang spouting Haitian don – all proving that, when it comes to directing, Affleck really understands actors. But he’s also in tune with the artform’s more ephemeral facets. From the opening shots, where the Boston neighborhood is painted in brutal, authentic strokes (the extras give the concept of local color a dark, disenfranchised quality), to the set piece sequences where the plot points play out in electric, kinetic splashes, this is a tour de force that truly lives up to the tag. Gone Baby Gone shows a mastery of all the cinematic basics. Affleck then goes a step further and suggests that he knows how to turn said strategies into masterpieces.


Yet it’s the theme of ethical dilemma that this film returns to time and time again. Everyone here is in a quandary – from the victim whose dope-fueled lifestyle choices may have resulted in the literal loss of her child, to the PI who is hoping a successful resolution of this case will lead to more legitimate work – and how they respond to and decide these issues stand as Gone Baby Gone’s biggest reveals. Even characters we don’t think have a backdoor agenda turn out to be trading on their principles. It makes for a moody, complex entertainment, the kind of narrative that drags you in different directions to the point where you can’t anticipate where you’re going next – and you don’t really mind. The journey is so stunning that its frequent bouts of unbelievable cruelty really don’t distract.


Indeed, the only negative thing one can say about this film is that director Affleck’s Jenny from the Block tabloid rep may ruin the chances for a wider audience embrace. This is the kind of movie that resurrects your faith in film - not just as a diversion, but as the creator of meaningful human mythology. From its initial crawl to its final dour beat, Gone Baby Gone delivers on its premise, its promise, and its propositions. We may not like where it goes, and the images it offers can be too harsh for mellowed mainstream eyes, but the resulting work is celluloid at its most classical and filmmaking at its finest. Ben Affleck deserves a lot of credit for reinventing himself as a talent to be reckoned with, not ridiculed. Like the neighborhoods sitting at the center of his amazing movie, such tabloid sentiments are now gone, baby…gone.



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Friday, Oct 12, 2007

Evaluating the veracity of knowledge found on the Internet.

PHotograph by Mamabrarian

PHotograph by Mamabrarian


The Need for Skepticism When Evaluating Information Online


The Sydney Morning Herald has published today, in its Opinion section, a transcript of a speech by computer and internet pioneer, Howard Rheingold who talks about the way that the internet has “changed certainty about authority.” He said his daughter had begun writing research papers at the time that Alta Vista became available in the mid-1990’s.


Unlike with the majority of library books, when you enter a term into a search engine there is no guarantee that what you will find is authoritative, accurate or even vaguely true. The locus of responsibility for determining the accuracy of texts shifted from the publisher to the reader when one of the functions of libraries shifted to search engines. That meant my daughter had to learn to ask questions about everything she finds in one of those searches. Who is the author? What do others say about the author? What are the author’s sources? Can any truth claims be tested independently? What sources does the author cite, and what do others say about those sources?


Wikipedia Creates Breaking News


A New York Times story by Jonathan Dee in July points to a new use of Wikipedia, instant definition of breaking events that comes to shape the story as it is unfolding.


Wikipedia, as nearly everyone knows by now, is a six-year-old global online encyclopedia in 250 languages that can be added to or edited by anyone. (“Wiki,” a programming term long in use both as noun and adjective, derives from the Hawaiian word meaning “quick.”) Wikipedia’s goal is to make the sum of human knowledge available to everyone on the planet at no cost. Depending on your lights, it is either one of the noblest experiments of the Internet age or a nightmare embodiment of relativism and the withering of intellectual standards. Love it or hate it, though, its success is past denying — 6.8 million registered users worldwide, at last count, and 1.8 million separate articles in the English-language Wikipedia alone — and that success has borne an interesting side effect. Just as the Internet has accelerated most incarnations of what we mean by the word “information,” so it has sped up what we mean when we employ the very term “encyclopedia.” For centuries, an encyclopedia was synonymous with a fixed, archival idea about the retrievability of information from the past. But Wikipedia’s notion of the past has enlarged to include things that haven’t even stopped happening yet. Increasingly, it has become a go-to source not just for reference material but for real-time breaking news — to the point where, following the mass murder at Virginia Tech, one newspaper in Virginia praised Wikipedia as a crucial source of detailed information.


The Algorithm as Oracle


A New York Times article by George Johnson describes how an alogorithm aggregates and selects files on the web:


How do you categorize Wikipedia, a constantly buzzing mechanism with replaceable human parts? Submit an article or change one and a swarm of warm- and sometimes hot-blooded proofreading routines go to work making corrections and corrections to the corrections. Or maybe the mercurial encyclopedia is more like an organism with an immune system of human leukocytes guarding its integrity. (Biology too is algorithmic, beginning with the genetic code.) When the objectivity of Wikipedia was threatened by tweaking from special interests—a kind of autoimmune disease—another level of protection evolved: a Web site called WikiScanner that reports the Internet address of the offender. Someone at PepsiCo, for example, removed references about the health effects of its flagship soft drink. With enough computing power the monitoring could be semiautomated—scanning the database constantly and flagging suspicious edits for humans to inspect.



A History Defined by Things Not Ideas


The International Herald Tribune reviews an exhibition called “Making History: Antiquaries In Britain, 1707-2007” at the Royal Academy in London.


At distant intervals, crucial decisions give a new twist to the cultural history of a nation. When the Society of Antiquaries held its second meeting only one week after its foundation on Dec. 5, 1707, the members decided that its purpose was to seek out “such things as may Illustrate and Relate to the History of Great Britain.” By “things” they meant “Antient Coins, books, sepulchres or other Remains of Antient Worship.” So it was that at one stroke of the pen, the newly founded society laid the foundations of history as understood today, giving precedence to material evidence over the a priori theories, largely mythical, that had prevailed until then about the British past.
Souren Melikian. “Reshaping the way history is recorded.” International Herald Tribune. October 12, 2007


Wordpress Blogging Forum Adds Link-Definition Tool


The Wordpress blogging platform keeps adding editorial features and tools to its publishing platform.


We’ve added a feature today that makes it easy for you to link words in your posts to definition pages on Answers.com. For example let’s say you mentioned someone like Artie Shaw or something like Turmeric in a post. If you click the AnswerLink “A” in your editor. AnswerLinks will find words in your post that might benefit from a definition and ask you if you’d like to turn them into links like Artie Shaw and Turmeric. Easy as that! Answers.com gets their definition data from places like Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, and the American Heritage Dictionary. They are the default definition link that shows up whenever you do a Google search.



The Espionage World Gets Smart With an Online Spookapedia


Intellipeida, the Wikipedia for spies:


In December, officials say, the agencies will introduce A-Space, a top-secret variant of the social networking Web sites MySpace and Facebook. The “A” stands for “analyst,” and where Facebook users swap snapshots, homework tips and gossip, intelligence analysts will be able to compare notes on satellite photos of North Korean nuclear sites, Iraqi insurgents and Chinese missiles. A-Space will join Intellipedia, the spooks’ Wikipedia, where intelligence officers from all 16 American spy agencies pool their knowledge. Sixteen months after its creation, officials say, the top-secret version of Intellipedia has 29,255 articles, with an average of 114 new articles and more than 4,800 edits to articles added each workday. A separate online Library of National Intelligence is to include all official intelligence reports sent out by each agency, offering Amazon.com-style suggestions: if you liked that piece on Venezuela’s oil reserves, how about this one on Russia’s? And blogs, accessible only to other spies, are proliferating behind the security fences.


Scott Shane. New York Times. September 2, 2007


The MarthaPedia


In July Martha Stewart told Wired Magazine: “I’m working on Marthapedia right now, which is my version of Wikipedia. If you know how to take red wine out of a white cloth napkin better than I do, that’s good to know. We’ll be editing user content, and it won’t be as freewheeling as Wikipedia. Because a lot of this — you have to really monitor it.”


 


 


 


 


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Friday, Oct 12, 2007

Is the culture industry responsible for democratizing better access to the celebrities it manufactures in the mass media? Or to put that more plainly, should every kid have just as much of a chance of seeing Hannah Montana live as they do of seeing her on the Disney channel or hearing her sing on the radio? In the Financial Times yesterday, John Gapper analyzed the problem of ticket brokers cornering the market in Hannah Montana tickets, which are apparently as highly demanded as Tickle Me Elmos and Cabbage Patch Dolls were in their day.


So popular is the show with tweens that the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus tour is a red-hot ticket. Tickets with a face value of up to $64 each are selling for an average of $232 on StubHub, an internet trading site. That is higher even than average secondary prices for the Bruce Springsteen and The Police tours, although the latter charged up to $250 per ticket.
Fair enough, you may think. Companies such as Google initially set the price for shares in IPOs and from then on the secondary market decides. When demand outstrips supply, prices rise. The same goes for bands: they sell tickets at face value through a distributor (in this case Ticketmaster). Prices then fluctuate on secondary sites such as StubHub.
But thousands of parents who failed to snag Hannah Montana tickets from Ticketmaster are not so phlegmatic. Nor are the attorneys-general of Arkansas, Connecticut, Missouri and Pennsylvania. They are apoplectic.


Is equal access to a pop star who appeals across the classes to children of all income brackets a standard of fairness that mass media generates, along with the illusion of equality that the quasi-egalitarian nature of wide distribution evokes? Because so many have access to celebrities in the media, consumers may develop the expectation that access to them is an entitlement, and ever more intrusive coverage of celebrities would seem to only enhance that expectation. In line with that expectation, promoters set the prices at a rate that they think demonstrates their intentions of making them affordable for middle-class fans (whom they don’t want to alienate), but this only prompts ticket brokers to buy as many as they can and resell them. As Gapper explains, “The courts have not yet decided whether these tactics are illegal or merely unpleasant. It clearly puts Ticketmaster at a disadvantage to banks that allocate shares to investors in IPOs because it has lost control of who gets scarce tickets.”


The notion of fairness embedded in free-market economics would require that we let markets determine the value of things by letting prices rise in order to find the equilibrium between supply and demand. This rids us of “artificial” constraints, and lets whoever wants something badly enough (desire being measured by a willingness to spend) get it. But when you don’t have money to spend, you can’t express desire through a willingness to spend it. Instead, you have to express it by either (a) working hard to get more money, or (2) complaining to authorities who might then intervene in markets on your behalf. Thus, parents want to force tour promoters to restrict access to tickets, so that more non-brokers have the ability to buy them at face value, which the secondary market proves are far too low.


Markets are often regarded as inherently democratic in the way they bring goods to more and more consumers and allow consumer-citizens to feel they have the same rights because they shop in the same store. But the prevalence of abundant,  quasi-democratically distributed goods tends to make the demand even more fierce for positional goods, and what the frenzy over Hannah Montana tickets suggests is that they have become, essentially, as much a positional good as oceanfront property. What makes them valuable is the very fact that not every kid can have one, and kids may be learning very early not merely the hard lesson of scarcity’s effect on prices, as Gapper suggests, but the peculiar excitement of winning the snob game of having something other people want—as well as the corollary notion that it’s more important to have something others envy than something you personally enjoy. In fact, kids may not be too young to absorb the cynical idea that they should condition their own preferences in accordance to those of their peers. It’s never too early to learn that only the very naive can believe that their tastes are wholly their own.


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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007


For the weekend of 12 October, here are the films in focus:


Michael Clayton [rating: 7]


Michael Clayton is a lot of things – somber, menacing, heartfelt, and heroic. It tells an intriguing tale in a wonderfully evocative manner. Unfortunately, there is one thing that it’s not – and that’s great.

Michael Clayton is a good film. An undeniably well acted and impassioned effort. It represents the combined creativity of individuals known for their solid celluloid reputations and uses its post-modern passivity as a way around the standard thriller genre formulas. With multinational scandals involving Halliburton and Enron still fresh in the public’s frame of reference, its ‘big business vs. the undeniable truth’ dynamic has all the ear markings of a considered crowd pleaser. And then there are the performances – rock hard examples of motion picture Methodology that speak to the talent inherent in the upper echelons of the profession. read full review…


Elizabeth: The Golden Age [rating: 6]


Playing fast and loose with the facts, and generating little big picture meaning, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, stands as a series of individual court intrigues that fail to add up to any great epiphany.

Why is it so hard for cinema to make history come alive? The period piece generally brings out the worst in the medium, using unnecessary spectacle and the archness of eras past to stifle creativity and eliminate interest. There have been some successful examples of the genre (Barry Lyndon, Restoration), but for every wonderful, evocative epic, there’s a myriad of mindless recreations that barely find a reason for being. In 1998, Pakistani director Shekhar Kapur got critics attention when he took the story of British monarch Elizabeth I and gave it a sumptuous, human design. The eponymous film brought its star Cate Blanchett to the fore of young English actresses, and proved that a glance backward could be as revealing as any forward thinking speculation. Now, nearly 10 year later, the second part of a proposed trilogy by the director has arrived. But unlike his first foray, all we get is history lost among the ruins. read full review…


We Own The Night [rating: 5]


Gray really does offer nothing new here. We get the same old statement of blood being thicker than watered-down business associations, and the denouement depends on something we’ve seen in dozens of derivative gangster efforts.

Pundits love to smear Hollywood with a single, ‘bereft of ideas’ swipe. Of course, such pronouncements seem very accurate in light of endless remakes, cookie cutter vanity fair, and the relentless pursuit of the all mighty dollar. While you can understand an industry’s desire to continue manufacturing the product that makes its rich, art tends to get stale when it constantly mimics itself. Sadder still are the situations where a seemingly new take on archetypal material winds up playing out as predictable as the efforts it’s avoiding. Thus we have the problem facing We Own the Night. When you hear the premise – brothers on either side of the law butt heads as they reconnect over issues of loyalty and duty – you hope something new can be found in the formula. Unfortunately, the only thing writer/director James Gray can offer that’s different is a glimpse inside the Russian mob – and he himself covered this territory a decade before with Little Odessa. read full review…


 


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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007


Why is it so hard for cinema to make history come alive? The period piece generally brings out the worst in the medium, using unnecessary spectacle and the archness of eras past to stifle creativity and eliminate interest. There have been some successful examples of the genre (Barry Lyndon, Restoration), but for every wonderful, evocative epic, there’s a myriad of mindless recreations that barely find a reason for being. In 1998, Pakistani director Shekhar Kapur got critics attention when he took the story of British monarch Elizabeth I and gave it a sumptuous, human design. The eponymous film brought its star Cate Blanchett to the fore of young Australian actresses, and proved that a glance backward could be as revealing as any forward thinking speculation. Now, nearly 10 year later, the second part of a proposed trilogy by the director has arrived. But unlike his first foray, all we get is history lost among the ruins.


Spain is ensconced in an unending holy war. The Inquisition, incited by King Phillip II, is determined to eradicate all European heathens – and top on their list is Britain’s Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. As part of a mandate from God, Phillip ransacks his coffers, strips the countryside bare, and builds a massive fleet with the distinct purpose of crossing the Channel and ridding England of its whore sovereign. As the first step, however, a plan of assassination will be put into place. In the meantime, Her Majesty has found favor in newly arrived explore Walter Raleigh. He’s engaging and brash, unafraid to approach her as a woman as well as his ruler. At first, it appears Elizabeth’s days as the “Virgin” Queen of her country will end. But then her potential paramour’s eyes wonder to the Court Lady-in-Waiting, Bess. Soon, it will be their love that sets aristocratic tongues wagging. Naturally, the Spanish complete their mission, and set sail toward their destiny. It is up to Elizabeth to rally her troops, gain favor with the various military minds, and court public opinion as a strong, supportive monarch. If she can’t, her nation is doomed. 


Playing fast and loose with the facts, and generating little big picture meaning, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, stands as a series of individual court intrigues that fail to add up to any great epiphany. Featuring stellar performances from a well rounded cast, and a narrative that’s so circular it’s almost surreal, we get the shorthand version of 16th Century British monarchy. Director Shekhar Kapur wants us convinced that the events playing out in the House of Tudor are no different than the petty behind the scenes scandals that plague modern royalty. We have a depressed and lonely ruler, a usurper mounting favor along the fringes, a close confident violating the Queen’s trust, and a swashbuckling pseudo pirate whose playing hearts to forward his own agenda. Add in the Inquisition, Spain’s redolent religious fervor, the familial double crosses, and general sovereign uncertainty and you’ve got the material for a virtuoso bodice ripper.


But Elizabeth: The Golden Age, is more interesting in channeling all these catalysts into a kind of mythos mudslinging. We are supposed to see Mary Stuart as a spoiled and arrogant cur, so highly strung that her cheekbones seem supported by guide wires. Instead of a victim of circumstance, or a fatality of standard 1500’s skullduggery, she’s as guileless as she is guilty. Yet Kapur envisions her as a villain, a martyr to a mission she will naturally never benefit from, but still willing to press the issue until she appears mad. Samantha Morton’s cocksure performance doesn’t dissuade our opinion. She plays Mary like the spoiled unseated Prom Queen who’s convinced the entire student body will finally come to their senses and vote her back as the bell of the ball. When she dies – and that’s not a spoiler, for those who remember anything about high school – Kapur holds the camera on her like a comic book antagonist getting her just rewards.


This pomp as pulp ideal ruins many of Elizabeth’s quality interactions. When the Spanish Ambassador and his diplomatic armada saunter into the Court like members of a comedy troupe, you half expect to hear Terry Jones and Eric Idle exchanging Monty Python bon mots. Even better, Clive Owens’ Walter Raleigh is like an outcast in his own epoch. He’s so progressive, so filled with the wanderlust of exploration and the vastness of the new world that you sense he would levitate out of his shoes just on the sheer concept of circumnavigation. He comes off as a Classics Illustrated version of himself, a man made out of his legacy and historic contributions, not the human being about to live them. Part of the problem is Owen – he’s just too modern a man to play an Elizabethan dandy. We keep waiting for him to break into his seedy Sin City drawl or - in logistically appropriate fashion – save the infertile of the UK from themselves.


He is countered, of course, by Cate Blanchett. Having walked away with an Oscar nod the first time she donned Her Majesty’s various wigs, it’s a role she’s all too familiar with. Part determined leader, part cowardly interpersonal demagogue, the many moods the character must go through are reflected expertly in the English rose’s reddened face. Blanchett was born to play this part, even if Kapur undermines her effectiveness by altering truth to placate his vision. While age is never discussed in the film, Elizabeth fluctuates wildly from youthful spirit to aged spinster, sometimes in the same sentence. Even worse, his last act stand against the sailing Spanish fleet betrays history in order to forge some kind of irrelevant iconography. Oddly enough, her reign is saved by happenstance and naval heroism, not anything she does directly.


Indeed, a lot of the film feels misdirected away from the center. The set up of Spain as a bastion of radicalism is given more import than Elizabeth’s current political situation. Lady in Waiting Bess becomes the fulcrum between Raleigh’s infatuation and the reality of wooing the Queen. Sir Francis Walsingham (a great Geoffrey Rush) has the competing claims of a possible royal assassination and his own failing health to keep him full formed. Even the minor characters, like the evil Jesuit played by Rhys Ifans, seem as integral to the overall approach as anything that happens in Her Majesty’s bedchamber. It’s indicative of where Elizabeth: The Golden Age looses the audience over and over again. For every golden moment of actual meaning, there’s a flash of false idolatry. Kapur is really indulgent here, so in love with the look of things that he fails to move beyond the pretty pictures. While we’re supposed to scoff at the irrationality sealing Spain’s fate, we can’t help but be wowed by the CGI fleet on the horizon.


But what finally fells Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a lack of significance. Perhaps to a nation steeped in the legacy of a great leader, this superficial swipe with many historic alterations would suffice. You get your symbolism and your sense of country too. But outside that interested realm, the relationships and realities play like Harlequin romances with exaggerated chutzpah. That’s the problem with the past – like science fiction, it’s been used for much more than mere factual recounting. Decades of romance novels and equally syrupy cinema have robbed it of its power and scope. Yet a director like Kapur should know better than to pull punches for the sake of spectacle. There is no doubt that his vision is filled with wonder and beauty. Too bad the rest of this film feels flimsy and single minded.


 


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