Nu-progressive types beware! At first blush, Tony Bennett can seem to be a crotchety old traditionalist, harshly critical of any popular music trend that flirts outside the pages of the Great American Songbook. During his appearance on Elvis Costello’s weekly Spectacle show (Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), Bennett faults contemporary music for its emphasis on banging and clanging (there’s “too many drums…instead of harmony and melody,” he explains, adding, “and they’re all screaming!”), recalls a time when “the audience was so with the music,” and deems Porter, Gershwin, Ellington, Mercer, and Arlen as “America’s greatest ambassadors.” He even performs Kern and Mercer’s “I’m Old Fashioned” to underscore his position, for anyone still unsure on where Bennett stands.
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It’s been said before, but it really does bear repeating - making worst-of lists is a heck of a lot harder than making best-of determinations. The explanation for why may seem specious at first, but follow along anyway. You see, something good stands out for numerous reasons – brilliant direction, monumental acting, a quick and brainy script, an approach to a subject that is fresh and dynamic. Even when that story seems similar and the elements reek of the routine, energy and mood, tone and treatment can all aid in a film’s final aesthetic determination. But with the bad, the facets are sadly familiar – boring execution, non-existing cinematics, lame, ludicrous writing and performances that range from problematic to pathetic. These aggravating aspects never change, they never alter their underachieving patchiness. A crappy effort is a crappy effort, each one feeling similarly unworthy and unacceptable.
So when faced with the mountain of mediocrity a DVD critic is exposed to each year, finding a mere 10 that turn your stomach is an exercise in remembrance and repulsion. Looking back means identifying works that wasted your time, revisiting filmmakers whose arrogance blinded them to their true lack of artistic acumen, and generally re-experiencing the pain of time lost, sensibilities shaken, and interest waned. Again, the same rules apply here as with the Films You’ve Never Heard Of category. The movie itself can be from any year – the digital version, however, had to arrive on the medium in the past 12 months. For the most part, we are dealing with dull, lifeless movie macabre. But there is at least one example of company-based callousness - a fine film flummoxed by a significantly subpar presentation. And don’t forget: a Criterion Collection version of crap is still crap.
So grab hold of your aesthetic and wade in cautiously. SE&L‘s 10 Worst DVDs of 2008 have been known to drown even the most adventurous cinematic swimmer:
#10 - Sukiyaki Western Django
On one hand, it’s hard to include this DVD as part of the year’s worst. The film, a saucy spaghetti Western homage by Japanese cult legend Takashi Miike, is magnificent. It literally vibrates off the screen with visual flare and motion picture majesty. But when deciding to release the title on the home theater format, First Look Pictures cut nearly 35 minutes out of the movie, in essence, destroying Miike’s tone and narrative pitch. While the film was hard enough to follow originally (all the actors speak in awkward phonetic English), this edit makes it almost unfathomable. A true crime against cinema.
#9 - Dead and Gone
Oh here we go again - another wannabe thriller in which a proposed psychological twist in the last ten minutes is supposed to salvage the previous 80 minutes of homemade horror tedium. In this case, a young lothario carts his terminally ill meal ticket up to a mountain cabin to “relax”. Naturally, things take a fatal turn. The “who/what/where” of this Sci-Fi channel like chum is never more important than the “why”? Why did anyone think this script was something other than awful, and why did they let someone named Yossi Sasson direct it. Sadly, we will never really know.
#8 - Sharp as Marbles
In a clear case of being able to judge a lame indie comedy by the title company it keeps, this slacker Three Stooges knockoff makes Moe, Larry and Curly look like members of MENSA. There is nothing worse than a movie that thinks its banging on all satiric cylinders when, in actuality, it threw a humor rod several telegraphed jokes back. From the amateurish acting to the shorthanded style of characterization (gold chain = loverboy), writers Eric and Steve Vilio match the dunderheaded direction by former camera operator John Banovich blow for befuddling blow. Some may find this funny. Most will experience a different kind of ‘gagging’.
#7 - Diaries of the Living Dead: Dead Summer/ Deadhunter: Seville Zombies
The poor zombie. All it wants to do is wander around the countryside aimlessly and snack on the occasional human victim. Mess with this monster too much, however, and it will come back to metaphysically bite you in the butt. The two excuses for terror here try to bring a novel approach to the living dead archetype: Summer is Slacker with skin snacking, while Deadhunter is a Tarantino- esque Terminator rip-off. But neither are inventive or professional enough to resemble anything other than camcorder crap. If there was something similar to supernatural slander, the entire undead race should sue.
#6 - Nigel Tomm’s Hamlet
Tomm is one of those “artists” who mandate that said term be used very, very loosely. In the case of his DVD interpretations of classic works of literature (including The Catcher in the Rye and Waiting for Godot), this purveyor of post-modern meta-mung offers up nothing but blank screens. That’s right. Zip. Zilch. Nada. For this seminal Shakespeare work, we are treated to 63 minutes of white. White. No dialogue. No context. Just a $15.99 bunch of emptiness. Clearly this critic wasn’t sufficiently smart, or adequately hip, or schooled in the ways of avant-garde hucksterism to “get it”., Frankly, it’s hard to imagine who would be.
#5 - Primal
Primal is a great big batch of pickled turds. It’s a hackneyed excuse for terror that doesn’t understand the first thing about film. It is obvious that writer/director Steffan Schlachtenhaufen just doesn’t get horror. He believes that one note characters, thrown into a vague and unexplained situation, can be made macabre by simply adding some guy in a gorilla suit. While the credits proclaim the individuals in charge of the creature effects, it looks like something the local costume shop rejected as too ratty. Add in some Commodore 64 CGI effect and you’ve got the most trying direct to DVD experience since Disney stopped making their unnecessary animated sequels.
#4 - The Wailer II
The Wailer II should be subtitled The Waste of Time Too. It commits the biggest sin a scary movie can commandeer - it’s a horror film that forgets to be frightening. So busy building local Mexican color and unnecessary mythos that it constantly loses focus, director Paul Miller obviously believes that bloodshed, along with occasional stopovers at Sentimentality City, will carry his culturally correct dread. Clearly, he’s a few frijoles short of a chimichonga. Atmosphere and tone are one thing - spending inordinately large amounts of time establishing one characters’ love of dominos is another. Pure South of the Border bullspit.
#3 - Shutter (Unrated)
Shutter is more than merely derivative. If you looked in the dictionary under ‘subpar ethnic horror’, it would exist somewhere between some Lithuanian torture porn and Seytan, the Turkish Exorcist. For director Masayuki Ochiai, it’s a ‘can’t win’ situation. On the one hand, if he delivers a wonderful and ethereal fright flick, he must face the fading fortunes of the already DOA J-Horror category. If, on the other hand, he creates some stool - which this movie certainly is - he’s put yet another nail in the fad’s already over-spiked and mostly buried coffin. Time to call the coroner - Asian fright is official dead.
#2 - Chronicles of an Exorcism
There is nothing worse than an idea with a lot of potential being sideswiped by filmmakers who have absolutely no idea how to realize it. So when someone came up with the notion of taking the now overused first person POV, ‘you are there style’ of camera work to cover a supposed “actual” case of demonic possession, the frightmare possibilities appeared endless. Unfortunately, only the movie seemed to last forever. Aside from the dopey demonology and the grade school level performances, there is nothing remotely “real” here. Even the scenes that are proposed to shock are stale and uninteresting.
#1 - Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Welcome to George Lucas’ latest bad, bad decision. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, is easily classified as an “if you don’t mind” styled production. If you don’t mind unfocused battle sequences that seem to go on forever, if you don’t mind characterization clearly aimed at the under seven set, if you don’t mind overly cute merchandising bows and dialogue as ditzy as any Jar Jar monologue, you probably will enjoy yourself. But if the very thought of a drag queen Jabba the Hutt horrifies you, or if your fandom is killed by the concept that our future Darth Vader is referred to, lovingly and often, as “Skyguy”, Clone Wars will close the door on your love of this series forever. Sure, it’s merely the set up for an upcoming Cartoon Network/TNT series, but leave it to Lucas to drive a stake in his space opera’s vampiric heart once and for all.
The next sentence is predictable as it is inevitable: Freddie Hubbard, had he happened to die at some point in the late (or even mid-) ‘60s, would have been forever lamented as one of the all-time great jazz trumpet players. He still should be, despite doing the very unhip thing and living a fairly good, fairly long life (he passed away Monday at age 70). In fairness to those with whom Hubbard fell out of favor (right around the same time jazz music in general tended to fall out of favor: in the early ‘70s): Hubbard’s finest work, by far, was made during the same decade so much of the greatest jazz music was made: the ‘60s. Two words: Blue Note. Freddie Hubbard, as much as any of the myriad A-list names from that time, was one of the heavyweights of that invaluable label—as a hotshot session player, and also as a leader of his own bands.
The people with whom he played—and made truly groundbreaking records—speaks volumes about the musician: Ornette Coleman (on the seminal Free Jazz session, from 1960), John Coltrane (the criminally overlooked Ole Coltrane, from 1961), Sonny Rollins (another overlooked masterwork, East Broadway Rundown, from 1966). He also appeared on some of the best-loved jazz albums ever, including Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage (1965), Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961), Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil (1964) and Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!, (1964).
And then there is the considerable string of stellar recordings he made as a leader. A (very) short list of essential albums must include his remarkable debut from 1960, Open Sesame (when he was all of 22 years old), Ready for Freddie (1961), Red Clay and Straight Life (both from 1970). For my money, I’d also insist on throwing in three extremely undervalued efforts, 1962’s The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard, which includes a spirited take of the standard “Summertime” and an incendiary original number, “The 7th Day”; Blue Spirits (a fantastic session from 1965 well worth checking out for the title track alone), and finally, from the less-friendly ‘70s, Sky Dive, which provides a full-funk assault and has plenty of post-Miles cool quotient.
Speaking of Miles, it is hard to get around the Cool One when making any type of historical assessment of significant trumpet players, he looms that large. After (necessarily) bringing Clifford Brown into the equation (who, like Art Tatum and the piano, is often considered the penultimate player of his instrument even if he is not the best known or most frequently listened to), you have the genuine died-before-their-time duo of Lee Morgan and Booker Little. Then, maybe, talk turns to Freddie Hubbard. This is a shame, and Hubbard deserves better (not to take anything whatsoever away from any of the geniuses listed above). If one wanted to take stock of Hubbard’s place simply by considering the albums he was invited to appear on, it would be difficult to name a similarly influential or sought-after artist. Hubbard’s always energetic, often exhilarating voice speaks for itself, and needs no one to augment or embellish the official record. It is, as always, on the records.
Finally, for anyone curious to see for themselves why Hubbard is so beloved by the types of folks who tend to love jazz musicians, virtually any of the albums mentioned above come enthusiastically recommended. In terms of the unique and even ecstatic sounds Hubbard made with his horn, I’d turn to my favorite tunes from sessions he did not lead: “Hat and Beard” (from Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!, “Stolen Moments” (from Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth), “Dahomey Dance” (from Coltrane’s Ole Coltrane), “East Broadway Rundown” (from Rollins’ East Broadway Rundown) and “Little One” (from Hancock’s Maiden Voyage). For the faithful fans, I’m certain I’m not alone in immediately reaching for the last track on Straight Life, the sad but sweetly entitled “Here’s That Rainy Day”.
Not likely… I’m gonna have my annual round-up of best music journalism here in PopMatters in about two weeks and part of that includes an intro where I talk about the state of the biz. As you’d expect, it ain’t a pretty picture and it ain’t getting better next year. Along with mags shutting down, there’s plenty of laid-off writers and editors plus the pubs/mags that are still around are cutting down on space, pages and room for stories and/or reviews. The problem is that the way to turn this around is a mystery and the time to figure that out would have been a few years ago. As I’ve said in PM before, long term solutions don’t exist in a Net age so mags/writers/editors are going to be forced to become tech geeks and keep looking for stop-gap solutions. The Radiohead model (give it away, now) is an answer that’s worked to some extent for pubs (Spin for example) but even RH knows that they can’t repeat it themselves.
I’d love to come up with some answers myself and not just ‘cause it would make me rich ‘n’ famous (ha!) but it would also help to save an industry I love. In the upcoming round-up, I list a couple of interesting ideas that are being tried now and which might be worth pursuing. But we need more ideas and we need them fast. I like the way that blogs, social networks and such are filling in the gaps but they don’t fill all of the need for informed, thoughtful opinion, reporting and analysis quite yet. Some pubs already think the solution is to go online but that alone ain’t gonna save them.
Wish I had some jollier thoughts for the holiday season but in a dire situation like this, we need some panic to get things going again or it’s all gonna disappear.
“Each chapter also has its own small story arc, with background flavours involving targeted marketing campaigns, beauty products, brand loyalty, evil products with glossy packaging, etc. Just like the story, these themes inform the artwork and level design, but are never ever crammed down the player’s throat. You’ll notice them only if you read between the lines.”
-Kyle Gabler, 2D Boy
World of Goo is a work of art in the way that The Butter Battle Book is a work of art.
Perhaps it’s too simplistic an assessment, given that the Seussian inspiration that World of Goo sports is immediately evident from the title screen alone:
Where the homage is most pointed, however, is in the narrative that it presents.
When I was six years old, I didn’t get The Butter Battle Book. I mean, I found it funny enough, what with its increasing levels of Yook and Zook technology and the clever way in which Seuss found the most trivial thing possible for the two sides to disagree on (probably not in those terms at age six, but you catch my drift), but I didn’t know what it meant. There is no way for a six-year-old to understand that the story is based on an all-too-real arms race, and that the strange, unsatisfying ending to the story—a Yook and a Zook at the top of the wall that divided their people, waiting each other out for a good time to drop a civilization-ending bomb—was uncomfortably close to the actual political state of affairs at the time.
At least, there was no way to understand it until my mother explained it to me and proceeded to give me nightmares for the next week.
Similarly, my 29-year-old self didn’t really grasp the allegorical nature of World of Goo until, provoked to comment on it, all I could come up with was to mumble something about an “anti-establishment” sort of undercurrent, which, while sort of accurate, is hardly insightful. The truth is, to that point, much of the play time that I’d devoted to World of Goo had been by the side of my own six-year-old daughter, as it’s a game that truly shines as a family-centered experience without being obviously marketed toward kids; the huge fonts and the wry humor of The Mysterious Sign Painter are, as it turns out, awfully appealing to young children, as is the almost Tinkertoy-esque nature of many of the goo structures that are built throughout the game. As such, my understanding of the undercurrent of the game was victim to a sort of willful ignorance as my time was spent focusing on the stuff a six-year-old would like, the stuff a six-year-old would get.
What could I do but play it again?
(there are spoilers ahead. click at your own peril.)