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Sunday, Jul 29, 2007


With the Montparnasse Tower, the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tower, you can say that the French have a phallic dynamic going. A penchant for simulating the penis. Possibly even an obsession. It isn’t too hard to miss. The infatuation with erecting tall, free-standing monuments that shoot verily skyward (as any robust, tumescent appendage would). The signal of power, of readiness, of achievement, of (dare I say?, coming) glory.




(Well . . . it’s Paris. So, who wouldn’t be excited? Right?)


So we can leave it there, right? We don’t have to delve into the deeper cultural psychology here. The maleness of the analysis (. . . even if there might be a kernel of truth to be harvested).


Instead, what would be preferable to discuss is the importance of these monuments in the daily lives of Parisians. France is not unlike other societies in that it is home to iconic structures which, once represented—in a movie, a postcard, a newspaper, a photo—identify the place (if not a history, an idea, a lifestyle, a philosophy). But more than for outsiders, this icon has significance for the French; this tower—Eiffel’s tower—is not unlike the Statue of Liberty - less so than the Sphinx: it may be a little cheesy, a little kitschy, a bit of a cliché, but people here seem to view it with pride; it is part of their cultural landscape, and a fixture punctuating their everyday paces; no matter what else they are doing, they have a hard time resisting its magnetic pull . . .


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Saturday, Jul 28, 2007


Sunshine is a film about sacrifice. It’s a movie that asks the big questions and waits for the inevitable answer. It’s the kind of intellectually driven science fiction that Hollywood can’t be bothered to make nowadays. Instead of staying betrothed to the George Lucas School of Speculative Design, where everything is techno-wow and movie serial sodden, director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland have gone back to the original source of serious future shock – Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – and fashioned their own post-modern, post-punk space odyssey. The results resonate inside the brain in a way few films in recent memory can claim, awakening long dormant desire for truth and explanation. This is the kind of movie that stimulates debate as it mires us in the mysteries of the cosmos. It sings – and it also saddens.


Sunshine is also a movie about faces – culturally diverse and individually indelible faces. A real rarity in the world of forward filmic thinking (unless you are The Matrix), this global collection of scientists and scholars are out to achieve a single goal. It’s the year 2057 and the sun is dying. Hoping to jumpstart the giant star, an interplanetary mission known as Icarus I was sent out to plant a bomb inside the core. It was never heard from again. Now, Icarus II is retracing the previous crew’s path, hoping to complete the objective and discover what happened to the other vessel. A series of semi-serious incidents put the operation in jeopardy, and when they suddenly stumble upon the abandoned wreckage of Icarus I, all hope appears lost. Little do they know, but something else wants to prevent them from achieving their aims, and they won’t stop until everyone, everywhere, is dead.


While the narrative seems lifted from several other extraterrestrial epics (Alien, Event Horizon, Solaris), what Boyle and Garland accomplish here is nothing short of a miracle.They manage to allude to previous motion pictures and yet make the riffs and references seem wholly their own. You never doubt the impending threat facing the Icarus crew, and each individual crew member is so well defined that you understand the unreal pressures and personal quandaries they’re going through. This is a movie that demands you pay attention, that states its purpose clearly and convincingly, but doesn’t continuously backtrack to fill in all the blanks. Either you get it or you don’t, you identify the real danger to both astronauts and Earth, or you’ve long since zoned out, dulled by the filmmakers request that you think.


But if you situate your brain into it, if you avoid the laziness that comes with most Hollywood hackwork and draw your deeper thoughts around what Sunshine has to say, you’ll be rewarded with one of the greatest insular extravaganzas ever. One of this film’s most fascinating achievements is how it can conjure up real terror and solid suspense without an overwhelming amount of visual flash and/or CGI splash. Yes, the F/X are amazing, especially the varying versions of the sun in all its gaseous glory. But because it takes its time to establish the personalities of the people piloting the ship, as well as the gravity of the solar system’s extinction, we come to worry over every single thing that’s happening, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant.


Boyle relies on his brilliant cast to keep his constantly shuffling story elements in play, and they never let him down. Cillian Murphy as Robert Capa, the crew physicist and only man capable of controlling the nuclear payload being used to revitalize the star, is absolutely outstanding. At first, we fear he will be nothing more than a science-minded doormat, the kind of character who has the tight ethos, but lacks the fortitude to push his plan. Yet even when casual circumstances force him into the position of mission scapegoat, Murphy makes sure we see Capa’s calculated focus. It makes his last act switch into pseudo-action man mode all the more believable. Similarly, Fantastic Four’s Chris Evans is given the thankless role of being the ra-ra American smartass who thinks he has everything under control. Yet his performance shades the standoffish brute, bringing him back down to reality just long enough to help sort-of save the day.


Equally impressive are unusual turns by Hiroyuki Sanada as Captain Kaneda, Benedict Wong as navigator Trey, and Michelle Yeoh as brittle biologist Corazon. In a narrative made up of consistent crisis and considerations, these brilliant Asian performers each get a single sensational sequence to shine. This is especially true when Yeoh discovers life inside a burnt out interstellar terrarium. With Whale Rider’s Cliff Curtis as a shipboard psychiatrist who may be cracking up himself and Rose Byrne as the Icarus’ pilot and chief emotional sounding board, we end up with human beings instead of heritage, a collection of strong willed but basically breakable people who must face the ultimate question – how far will you go to try and save your fellow man?


This altruistic agenda, this “the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one” position may remind audiences of the whole Gene Roddenberry school of sci-fi scripture. But unlike the Star Trek take on the subject matter, Boyle and Garland want to strip away the nobility and focus on forgotten ideas like courage, fear, free will, and human error. The Icarus II becomes endangered because of a calculation blunder. The Icarus I imploded over ideas both spiritual and sinister. Sure, act three of this fine film can feel like a well thought out and brilliantly made horror show, complete with untimely death and unseen forces stalking our heroes, but our filmmakers are going for much more here. They are trying to tap directly into the make up of the individual mind, and deciphering what would make it snap – and then turn scary.


Luckily, Sunshine doesn’t supply simple answers. Like the overall complexity of its look and the authentic feel of its science, this is pristine puzzlebox asking for help in deciphering its hidden secrets. Such cinematic confrontation is unique, and argues for Boyle’s brilliance. A true renaissance filmmaker, seemingly capable of functioning well within any genre, his work here behind the camera is also impressive. Unlike the quick cut cacophony of his Trainspotting style, or the overcranked digital dread of 28 Days Later, there is a solemn, lax approach here, a matter of fact motion picture presentation that allows us to drink in the amazing art direction and awe-inspiring vistas. This is an incredible looking film, one that instantly draws you in and grabs your imagination. And thanks to the undercurrent of mental and cosmic disorder, we are left dangling dangerously over a precipice of perception that’s awfully hard to shake.


Yet, in the glow of a dying sun, we’ll still remember those faces – those determined, endearing facades forced into situations that no human being can possible fathom. How they manage such insurmountable stresses, how they retreat into themselves and discover hidden strengths and support is why Sunshine succeeds. You can have you space race dog fights with motion controlled starships laser blasting each other into carefully greenscreened oblivion. You can continue to believe that Star Wars is the final word in intergalactic excellence. As Danny Boyle and Alec Garland prove, there is much more to the genre than wookies and womp rats. Science fiction infers a level of intelligence – smarts that Sunshine delivers in droves.



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Saturday, Jul 28, 2007


Don Cheadle’s time has finally arrived. While this may seem a bit contradictory, considering the number of years he has been producing good work, the truth remains that this award winning performer has always been on the very fringes of fame. Unlike other members of the growing and influential African American Hollywood community, Cheadle has concentrated most of his talent and time on smaller, independent fare. While he’ll show up in the occasional mainstream movie (Crash, the Oceans’ films), he tends to be more comfortable in low profile, outsider efforts. As a result, he never seems to get the universal acclaim he so desperately deserves. Consistently great in everything he does, he has yet to find the one role that will spark the superstar celebrity that his abilities triumphantly promise – until now. With Kasi Lemmon’s sensational Talk to Me, the man has finally found a legitimate breakout project.


Cheadle essays the role of real life hustler/Washington DC radio icon Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene. After a stint in prison, he pursues an on-air DJ job from WOL’s uptight station manager Dewey Hughes (an unrecognizable Chiwetel Ejiofor). At first, neither Hughes nor the station’s owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen) want anything to do with Petey. He’s loud, obnoxious, opinionated and far too ‘ghetto’ for their upscale ideals. But Hughes comes to see that there is a personality “of the people” in this motor-mouthed maverick, and eventually gives Petey his shot. After some momentary jitters – and a scathing attack on Berry Gordy – the ex-con becomes WOL’s marquee name. Audiences flood his music/talk show with calls, and Petey never lets them down. We follow Hughes and his new star through troubling times (the death of Dr. Martin Luther King) and unimaginable triumphs (TV shows, nightclub appearances). We soon learn however, that such success was not part of Petey’s plan. His frequent bouts with the bottle verify his tortured, tenuous soul.


As biopics go, Talk to Me is really nothing new. It takes a previously unknown personality of some major prominence (time is harsh to memorable individuals) and maneuvers through his story with an engaging combination of myth and reality. In the case of Petey Greene, Kasi Lemmon’s intriguing storyline avoids his stint in Korean and his discharge from the military on drug charges. It also passes over a great deal of his work as an activist for the United Planning Organization and ex-criminal support groups. It does gloss over his love life and fails to mention his four children. And yet, like any good motion picture, the director finds the proper spirit and vibe to make us forget the fudging. Indeed, no matter the factual flaws here, Talk to Me generates so much period appropriate juice and evocative energy that you can’t help but feel caught up in the events transpiring before your eyes. No matter the lack of meticulous authenticity, this is a marvelous cinematic statement.


And it all starts with Cheadle. Ever since Robert DeNiro introduced the notion of metaphysical mimicry as a means of playing a real life person – literal human alteration to capture a person’s actual presence as when he took on the role of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull - actors have decided that the exterior (Monster, Ray) is more important then the interior. Wisely, our star doesn’t try to change his look to match that of Greene, and even as time passes by, Cheadle remains more or less the same. It’s as if Lemmons is asking us to accept the idea of Petey Greene more than the real man himself, and it’s a bold decision. It allows us to avoid all the make-up machinations that can come with such a cinematic stunt (even today, 26 years later, DeNiro’s ‘fat man’ LaMotta is jarring) while truly appreciating the individual within. Similarly, Ejiofor’s Hughes goes through only minor transformations in order to achieve his overall character arc – a man learning there is more to life than Johnny Carson and his Tonight Show style. Together they form the core of what is a very strong character-based piece.


But Lemmons deserves credit as well for creating a perfect ‘60s period feel without going overboard with the era appropriate iconography or symbols. Sure, the wardrobe and attitudes reflect the turbulent times well, and when asked to include some cultural benchmarks, the director chooses a few brave ones indeed. The entire section where the assassination of Dr. King morphs into an all night radio plea by Petey for calm is brilliant, since it includes not only the passion, but the principle behind the notorious DC riots. But then Lemmons goes one step further, and includes a conciliatory concert featuring James Brown to bring the anecdote full circle. Before the performance, Petey (as MC) arrives incredibly drunk and everyone fears he will make the already tight tensions erupt into chaos. Instead, Cheadle delivers a slamdunk monologue which wows both the gathered spectators and Hughes. It’s a perfect illustration of the times, the temperament, and the talent of our amazing main characters.


Lemmons is also excellent at getting the interpersonal element to crackle with vivid life. The scenes between Cheadle and Ejiofor are so kinetic you can see the energy surging between the actors, and whenever Petey and his main squeeze Vernell (played with flawless flirtatiousness by Taraji P. Henson) are on screen, they appear intimate without ever showing it sexually. Some will argue that, by avoiding his obvious faults, Lemmons misses some excellent opportunities for conflict and drama. Yet Talk to Me is the kind of film that argues against constantly requiring confrontations to create gravitas. Had the movie degenerated into a booze soaked Lost Weekend with Petey frequently undermining his career by withdrawing into a fifth, we’d grow weary of its depressive stance. Even worse, it would lessen the parallel rise of Hughes as his own man. Indeed, one of Lemmons’ most fascinating tricks is getting us to forget about the stuffed shirt radio exec, only to find ourselves intrigued when he comes into his own – as a man and as a messenger.


There are times when Talk to Me underperforms, however, buoyed by amazing soundtrack selections to keep it grooving along. Once we reach the sequences where Petey becomes a media star – doing stand-up, causing scandal on his own local TV show – we tend to find the film grasping for relevance. The onstage snippets frequently sound like Richard Pryor rip-offs while the few moments of bravado broadcasting are a tad repetitive. It all leads to a revelatory appearance on Hughes’ dream destination, The Tonight Show, and as well as she does at recreating the look and feel of the classic gabfest, Talk to Me’s script really fails to fully argue how important this moment really was – for either character. Instead, what eventually happens feels anticlimactic, as does the entire subplot involving Hughes and his hatred for his incarcerated brother.


Still, all minor misgivings aside, Talk to Me is a thoroughly enjoyable – and sometimes emotional – experience. It gives us insight into the importance of minority voices circa the late ‘60s/early ‘70s and presents Don Cheadle with the tour de force role that will probably earn him serious awards consideration come end of the year backtracking. There will be those who point out that this fine performer has more than his fair share of accolades, but there is something different about his turn here. Petey Greene was a man who, deep down, wasn’t concerned with being flamboyant or famous. He just wanted to be heard. What Cheadle shows us is how amazing it is to finally find an outlet for said voice…and how horrible it is when celebrity steps up and starts adding on demands. It’s the sad conclusion to what is, generally, an uplifting and soulful experience.



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Saturday, Jul 28, 2007


In auteur/artist Werner Herzog’s world, there are only two major conflicts – man vs. nature, and man vs. his own nature. Such a philosophy encapsulates almost every kind of interaction one can imagine. It also sets up a pretty convenient thematic outline for his various cinematic concerns. Over the course of his amazing career – a 35 year journey that’s included documentaries and fictional features – the German maverick has spent every ounce of his potent creative energy exploring the relationship between humanity and its habitat, as well as the parallel problems of individuals battling their own inner demons. From monumental achievements like Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo to lesser known efforts like Invincible and The Wild Blue Yonder, he’s uncovered the volatility and the healing spirit of nature, as well as its completely personal counterparts.


His latest film, Rescue Dawn, is a perfect illustration of this aesthetic corollary. At first, it seems odd that Herzog would fictionalize the story of Dieter Dengler, German ex-patriot and American fighter pilot shot down over Laos in 1965. After all, he featured the engaging POW’s story in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Yet something about the subject drew the director back, and for years he tried valiantly to get the movie made. Even with Christian Bale attached, it took said actor’s success as Batman to get backers to fork over the funds. In combination with his own critical triumph (2005’s Grizzly Man), the director placed his cast in the middle of the Thailand wilderness and staged a straightforward story of war, duty and the will to live. Though this kind of film has been done dozens of times before, Herzog’s desire for authenticity, along with his unusual approach to the underlying politics of the era, drive Rescue Dawn far above other battle scar epics.


When we first meet Dengler, he’s joking with his buddies onboard a Vietnam-bound aircraft carrier. As lifesaving lessons in survival are spelled out in dull military training films, the proud pilot is just one of the boys, laughing and mocking the material presented. On his first mission (as part of the US government’s unauthorized and secret bombing campaign) Dengler is shot down. Almost immediately, he’s captured by local guerillas, who take him on an arduous journey through the jungle. After reaching a small village, he is turned over to some unidentified soldiers, who run a prison camp for the Communists deep in the wilderness. Upon arriving at his new ‘home’, Dengler meets a pair of fellow Americans – the tightly wound Duane (an excellent Steve Zahn) and the laidback and blitzed out paranoid Gene (a revelatory Jeremy Davis). Aside from some native sympathizers, and a group of angry guards, there is no one, and nothing, around for miles and miles.


Avoiding confusing context and anti-war preaching, Herzog allows us to follow along with Dengler as he gets to know the ropes. At night, the prisoners are locked into their huts via interlocking handcuffs and large wooden ankle stocks. During the day, the men are fed slop and forced to endure demeaning behavior at the hands of their desperate sentries. Unlike a movie like The Deer Hunter, where torture and cartoonish violence are used to illustrate the horrors of enemy incarceration, Rescue Dawn maintains its matter of fact approach. Characters discuss soiling themselves with apologetic frankness, and when confronted by the unhinged enemy, guns aimed directly at their dirty and diseased faces, our heroes don’t grandstand and puff their chests. Instead, they cower and cringe like any ordinary normal human being would. It’s clear that Herzog is redefining bravery here. As a matter of fact, he’s making a clear statement between histrionics and true heroism – false bravado vs. maintaining one’s safety…and sanity.


Almost from the moment he arrives, Dengler wants to plot an escape, and much of the film’s fascinating first act centers on getting his fellow captives to go along with the plan. It is here where Herzog’s choice of Bale as a lead is crucial. As he has proved in numerous films since his stellar debut in another war time epic, Steven Speilberg’s underappreciated Empire of the Sun, the actor currently known as the Caped Crusader is capable of multiple layers in his performances. In Dawn, he must be winning, deceptive, determined, scared, and one step ahead of everyone else, and Bale delivers. As a matter of fact, he turns Dengler into something almost surreal – an optimist surrounded by nothing but abject pessimism. It’s clear that this aspect of the story really stuck with Herzog, and why he decided to dramatize this adventure. In retrospect, Dengler’s escape can seem a little like burlesque bravery. When we actually witness it, we realize how difficult and complex it really was.


It’s the same with the inherent brutality in the tale. Dengler and his fellow prisoners were put through Hell, and while we never see all the sordid details, the actors wear their abuse like a badge of dire dishonor. Much has been made about Bale and Zahn’s turns, and in truth, both men are amazing. They balance realism with just enough added edge to get us involved in their plight. But the real revelation here is Jeremy Davis as Eugene from Eugene (Oregon, that is). Locked in his own Loonyville and never quite ready to relocate (if ever), his burnt out captive is the existential cousin of Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. Both men are functioning on fumes, and Davis (so bone thin it’s frightening) brings an additional level of unpleasantness to his part. Afraid of messing with the sordid status quo that he’d rat out his own friends, he’s a loose canon as walking skeleton, an unfathomable factor destined to destroy Dengler’s plan.


After the matter of fact material of life in captivity, Herzog makes the wise decision to spend an equally effective period of time on the eventual escape. It doesn’t ruin anything to know that Dengler does finally get away, and yet oddly enough, the breakout becomes the easy part. Indeed, some of Rescue Dawn’s most engrossing material is the aimless wandering through perilously overgrown jungle. Watching Dengler battle the underbrush with his machete, seeing Zahn’s swollen feet blister and peel, seeing the two men scavenge for any food or water they can find is far more harrowing than watching DeNiro and Walken play Russian Roulette with some clichéd Cambodian bad guys. One of Herzog’s genius strokes is that he presents the enemy as ambivalent – doing their job and yet not necessarily loving or hating it. Unlike other war films where the villain must be some kind of sadistic pervert, Rescue Dawn shows them for what they are – people.


It’s the same for our so-called champions. While Dengler does do things that warrant our awe and respect, Rescue Dawn wants to remind us that it’s not being done out of some noble belief in God or country. While our lead does love his adopted homeland, his motivation is more mercenary – he just wants to live to fly again. He’s not out to win the war in some microcosm of combat ala Rambo. He doesn’t need the verification of immorality on the side of the opponent to verify his actions. No, as with all of his films, Herzog saw in Dengler’s defiance of the odds the two hemispheres of his well considered worldview. On the one hand, Dieter Dengler needed to face the elements in order to guarantee his survival. But the most important confrontation came with who he was inside. The answer provides the foundation for one of 2007’s best motion picture efforts.


 


 


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Saturday, Jul 28, 2007




The title is Sartre’s. I conjure it here (first, because I promised in the last entry that I would, but then second, as a way) to suggest that perhaps it takes a French philosopher to explain France. Because this mundane peripatetique can’t.


What I see burbling up around me every day that I step out of my upscale touriste hotel is unrecognizable, inexplicable . . . but infinitely delectable. An image to be desired, to be explored, to be rendered into one’s realm of comprehension. By contrast, Sartre’s conception of “Huis Clos” was a world of dysfunction, of disdain; a dungeon to be shunned, eluded, rebuked. “Huis Clos” meant “No Exit”; but not simply an inability to escape; rather, the impossibility of breaking free from one’s captivity. “Huis Clos” was a euphemism for “hell”; it designated a state in which protagonists were saddled with something they were being punished for; a penalty that they could not tolerate. Huis Clos protagonists were people whose ideas and actions were insufferable, yet remained an inextricable, ineradicable part of existence.


Well, that is simply one idea. Sartre’s jaded view of his own society, likely the result of having (barely) survived a Nazi occupation and was now free to rapple with the consequences… survivors being asked to forgive and forget all and join the emerging world of democratic nations.


Yet, in my rendering, the Paris of the early twenty-first century is none of that. It is simply a space that defies easy understanding. There is easy access—entry—but no clear exit—no simp-e understanding.


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