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Thursday, Aug 2, 2007

New York-based The National has been recently receiving widespread critical praise. The 5-man indie band was formed in 1999. In 2001, they released their first album, The National, on their record label, Brassland Records. In 2005, they switched to Beggars Banquet Records and released Alligator, a highly praised album by critics. On May 22, 2007, the band released Boxer, featuring many artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Regina Spektor.


Abel:



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Wednesday, Aug 1, 2007


It’s been heartbreaking to read the tributes to fallen idols Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni this week. These true titans of cinematic excellence have earned every celebratory word, every gushing career-spanning elegy. But even more depressing than their deaths is the growing sense of irrelevancy expressed by a number of online critics, bloggers, and the usual self-appointed jacked-in know-it-alls. While most acknowledge the contribution made by these important artists, the post-millennial conclusion is that both men remain footnotes, not founding figures, in the overall develop of the medium. In essence, their dispute goes a little something like this: “Yeah, their passing is important – but just wait until George Lucas goes! Now there’s a blow to cinema!” Groan.


It’s clear that time outside the limelight, either in self-imposed exile (Bergman) or advancing illness (Antonioni) have left both filmmakers clinging to their classical status. After all, in this short attention span society where information is processed and poured over the populace in streams of syrupy insignificance, two decades without a noteworthy motion picture product becomes a couple of lost lifetimes. And in the case of the Swedish cynic and the Italian idealist, they are so ingrained in the time of their triumphs (the ‘50s through the ‘70s) that many of their most ardent fans are well past middle age – meaning outside the zone of nu-media (read: Internet) meaningfulness. Thus the amicable accolades, the kind word or two before moving on to obsess over the latest design for the Iron Man suit.


In the world of web journalism, it is clear that the audience dictates the direction. Write something salient about the Polish New Wave movement and its influence on Eastern Bloc cinema (and policy) and you can practically hear the readership shutting off their browsers. Call Sacha Baron Cohen a talentless hack and watch the comments fly! Unlike the print medium, propagated on the notion of providing news of universal import, the Internet flourishes on the niche. In fact, the main drawing point during the technology’s earliest days was the discovery of like minded people who enjoyed – and in some cases, were consumed – by the same things as you. Usually limited to incredibly minor or cult entities, the water cooler wonders of such an international coffee klatch remains one of the main reasons we’ve become slaves to the router.


But over the 15 years since dial-ups went digital, fanaticism has replaced free thinking, the “I’m right/you’re wrong” dichotomy substituting for serious analytical consideration. Call it the “because I say so” benchmark, but the reason that Bergman and Antonioni are suffering in their posthumous significance is that the proposed pundits who set the cultural agenda have determined that they no longer matter. While their contributions to moviemaking can be recognized, there are others – at least in their limited experience minds – who are more noteworthy. It’s all part of a paradigm shift that suggests that old school scholarship be abandoned for the will of a more populist opinion. Indeed, if every country’s considered auteur needs to be recognized upon passing, there’d be no room on your favorite review site for a discussion of the Watchmen casting.


Now, there is a somewhat valid point buried deep within such a poisoned position. For a long time, Hollywood and the West set the motion picture schema. They determined what was relevant, and tried as hard as possible to ignore fascinating foreign trends until the box office warned of certain business suicide by doing so. Bergman was making movies for almost a decade before he became a bleak street master. Antonioni was trying to mesh the neo-realist with his bourgeois roots before Blow-Up created his cool cause celeb. Without the ivory tower trendsetters who plucked these skilled symbols of artistic globalism out of the morass of meaningless world cinema, they may have been nothing more than names on a film snob’s roster of consequence.


So it was up to critics to raise the cry, to seek out these elusive efforts in their cosmopolitan concealment (read: the out of the way art house), and convince the unwashed that these moviemakers mattered. They had to create the yardstick so that everyone else would recognize the true measure of their specialness. In a funny way, it’s the same thing that happened – in the negative - to Ed Wood. It was the Medveds – Harry and Michael – who used some anecdotal evidence about the horridness of Plan 9 from Outer Space (remember, this was before the ready availability of VHS proof) to declare the director the celluloid equivalent of a mortal sin. In the case of Bergman and Antonioni, the high minded analyzers of entertainment deemed them important and/or trendy and/or significant, so it must have been, and so far continues to be, true.


It’s only natural then that the outsider looking for a convenient way to publish their thoughts on an unheralded Japanese auteur, or disregarded British craftsman, would grab onto the Internet and use it for all its worth. And for the most part, their resilience has been a godsend. Most mainstream critics have scoffed at genres like horror and action, yet the web monkeys have uncovered and supported the status of incredible talents like Takashi Miike, John Woo, Guillermo Del Toro, and Tom Tykwer. They latched onto unknown offerings like District B13, Man Bites Dog, and Brotherhood of the Wolf, giving them a prominence that no American marketing machine could (or wanted to) create. And let’s not forget anime. While it initially made strides in this country during the ‘80s, the Internet has so solidified the demographic (and opened up the otherwise limited product possibilities) that there are now entire cable networks devoted to the cartoon category. 


Of course, such a scattered sensibility does lead to a lack of consensus – perhaps the most important component in the overall deliberation regarding timelessness. In essence, if you can divide the opinion on a particular filmmaker – say, Steven Spielberg – in enough ways, reducing him or her to a series of stereotypes and past production artifacts, you can start the process of mass marginalization. And once you’ve started down that path, the slippery slope to unimportance isn’t far behind. It is even easier with someone like Bergman or Antonioni, filmmakers who haven’t made a movie in many years and are, therefore, stuck in a telling time warp of era-appropriate appreciation. Let’s label this The Jazz Singer syndrome – no one can argue the 1927 movie’s importance as a technological hallmark (the coming of sound). But as a movie? Bah!


That’s what’s happening all over the culture nowadays. In some cases, its just jealousy mixed with the foul stench of shoddy self-realization (or in other words, just a bunch of losers bitching). But as the old guard folds, as newspapers drop their long-tenured critics and go with a wire-based set of analytical standards, the Web more or less wins. After all, while all the print people were patting themselves on the back and basking in the buffet at the latest studio junket, the ‘Net heads were back at home, watching movies, scouring rental and retail shelves, and putting in the footwork that a Kael took decades in a theater to acquire. They may lack the mental acumen to put their collection of cinematic tidbits into a proper theoretical or cohesive perspective, but they’ve been on the court playing day in and day out while the supposed Fourth Estate all-stars were sipping the studio’s Kool-Aid.


This merely makes them different, not definitive, however. A website devoted to the greatness that is Gymkata is not the same thing as another celebrating the work of Melville or Chabrol. Determining that the works of someone like Nakata Hideo deserve as much recognition as the oeuvre of Wes Craven does not put both filmmakers on the same level playing field. While the Internet may seem infinite, and your thoughts expressed on same set in temporal concrete, just remember this – six years ago, Richard Kelly and his Donnie Darko were the definitive darlings of the IPS crowd. His slacker sci-fi became such a circuit board cult that it received all manner of media exposure. Now, a little less than a decade into his career, he can’t get arrested. His most recent effort – the one year in the waiting waste Southland Tales – will finally get a release date this coming November. But the buzz has been so toxic that its failure is not only assured, it’s more or less predestined.


So dismiss names like Bergman and Antonioni at your own peril, messageboard surfing film geeks. Continue to glean through the lists of underappreciated names and write your rants about unfairly disregarded movies. Nominate your new masters and foam like fools over their inability to fulfill their projected promise. There’s a reason cinema mourns men like the ones grieved for this week – their imprint may not be modern, but it sure as Hell is meaningful. Not every Italian filmmaker deserved Antonioni’s stature, and Sweden could count the number of name motion picture icons on a single one of their national gloved hand. These men were important because, in the seven decades since they started in movies, their names correspond to unequivocally superior work. They didn’t need DSL cheerleaders to root for them. Their efforts spoke for themselves – and in truth, that’s all the relevancy they require. 


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Wednesday, Aug 1, 2007

The Laura Albert / JT Leroy fraud case might be over, but I figure Albert’s arguments as far as Leroy’s “existence” will become an unsolved artistic mystery to be debated for the ages. Albert claims that the abused, tortured young Leroy was an aesthetic tool created to allow her freedom to write down all those things she couldn’t bring herself to face. (The story goes that much of what LeRoy writes, Albert experienced.) The claim isn’t all that incredible considering the same thing apparently happens when writers use the “Anonymous” nom de plume—just ask Nikki Gemmell. Albert, though, might have gotten away with her method had she not signed tax cheques in LeRoy’s name. She also went so far as to have friend Savannah Knoop dress up as LeRoy to attend interviews and parties.


From BBC News:


She denied the character was a hoax, saying she believed LeRoy was inside her. “It was my respirator,” she told the court in New York. “If you take JT, you take my other and I die.”



Then what’s Knoop? Apparently Knoop was as attached to LeRoy—her reasons, though, are yet to be substantially argued. Whatever the case, Albert has lost this round. Antidote Films, which was slated to make a film from LeRoy’s book, Sarah, sued the author for fraud. They called the LeRoy situation “one of the biggest literary hoaxes of all time”. Albert now owes Antidote $350,000. The New York Times has a piece here.


This piece in the The Independent digs right to the bone of the issue and presents several of Albert’s artistic ideals as clearly as to (almost) make them believable. Still, it’s rather coincidental that LeRoy is officially “out” of Albert now that no one is able to witness the character’s “taking over” of the author. Albert sure recovered quickly from her psychological quibbles (so big they required this level of public deception). And is anyone really questioning the author’s right to a pseudonym? Not really. The problem here is the heavily disguised waif-like being who pretended to be LeRoy on the arms of Winona Ryder and Courtney Love.


James Stafford, a friend of Albert’s, reveals in The Independent the lengths to which the Albert group went in perpetuating their hoax. What kind of aesthetic tool needs to be calmed at an interview with “a Bible and a Barbie doll” only to end up jumping on a couch playing with a fairy wand? Again, Albert’s story could have seemed credible if not for some of that other wildness.


What a mess. 


LeRoy might be unpublishable, but he’s apparently still a bankable product. The IMDb lists an Untitled JT LeRoy Project scheduled for 2008.


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Wednesday, Aug 1, 2007


It’s fascinating how quickly he ascended to superstar filmmaker status. It’s also intriguing how, by coming to Hollywood, his cinematic fortunes faded. At one time, he was the “it” director, a full blown visionary turning the dull as dishwater crime/action film into a luminous illustration of amazing motion picture pyro-techniques. Now, John Woo has returned to China to make his latest movie, an adventure centered on the Battle of Red Cliffs during the Three Kingdoms period of Ancient China. Such period piecing may seem odd to those who only know him as a meticulous choreographer of onscreen gunplay, but the truth is that the 61 year old had a varied career in many movie genres before taking up the heroic bloodshed cause. From Hong Kong martial arts to oddly romantic comedies, he was never really defined by the subjects he considered – until he amplified the artistry in ammunition. Now, he’s been branded a manufacturer of machismo, when he’s actually far more diverse than that.


Proof of this definable dichotomy arrives in the form of the latest releases (numbers 15 and 16) in the ongoing Dragon Dynasty series. Spanning two decades in his career, and covering both his days delivering definite kung fu fighting (1979’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry) and the last word in balls out bullet time (the 1992 masterwork Hard Boiled), these new DVDs suggest the start of a reconciliation of Woo’s overall oeuvre. Indeed, the last 15 years have so defined the man (thanks in large part to his trials in Tinsel Town), that many will be amazed that he even made movies prior to 1986’s A Better Tomorrow. And yet the signature approach that would come to be copied and mocked is there – in every swashbuckling swordfight, in every vow of undying friendship, in every muzzle to muzzle standoff. While the category may have changed, Woo stayed stalwart. It’s the reason he’s still so well regarded today.


Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)

On the day of his wedding, Kao’s entire family is wiped out in an act of revenge by former associate Pai. The killer’s goal – to reclaim the estate he believes he was swindled out of. Desperate to reclaim his honor and get his own retribution, the dispossessed dandy looks to hire the best swords in China to act as his seconds. Initially, he has his eye on Chang, a former fighter with the enigmatic name ‘The Magic Sword’. Unfortunately, no matter the offer, our former champion will not come out of retirement. Kao next targets paid assassin Tsing, an executioner easily swayed by alcohol and money. Through a series of setbacks and subplots, Chang must fight another maniacal mercenary named Pray. Realizing his skills are important, and after Kao’s martial arts teacher is killed by Pai’s men, the one time legend agrees to take on the vile villain. Tsing comes along for the sport of the slaughter – or does he? In this ruthless world where men can be bought and bartered for like slaves, and women are only considered when they accept cash for their favors, it will take a Last Hurrah for Chivalry to determine the fate of all involved – antagonist, protagonist and opportunist.


Loaded with mind blowing swordplay and lots of signature John Woo touches, Last Hurrah for Chivalry is either the best feudal Chinese soap opera ever concocted, or a chance for a then journeyman director to make a name for himself inside the martial arts genre. At first, we’re not sure if the dynamic auteur we’ve come to know and worship is working behind the lens. The opening moments of this movie play out like dozens of derivative ancient Asia melodramas – characters clash, honor is destroyed, restoration of same becomes the primary concern. As would-be heroes are defined and soon-to-be villains unveiled, we wait for the trademark tweaks, the filmic flourishes (slow motion, non-erotic male bonding, balletic violence) that have come to compartmentalize the Hong Kong action king. It does take a while to arrive, and before we reach it, we are treated to other elements that one doesn’t expect from the man behind the hyper-stylized crime caper. Before the flashy fisticuffs arrives, Woo gives us slices of slapstick comedy, creative character development (including an assassin defined by his blatant abuse of alcohol) and some minor bodice ripping romance. Such facets really fill out Last Hurrah for Chivalry, deepening the potential dynamic between the players and making their eventual interaction – and fatalistic saber dances – that much more meaningful.


Indeed, once our hero Chang takes on the self-assured Pray in a one on one battle for weapon wielding bragging rights, the filmmaker famous for his many cinematic stunts comes shining through. We get the brilliant back and forth between opponents, swords swinging in drama-intensifying languid lunges. Then, when our unintentional duo takes on Pai, having to first circumvent his entire staff of hired guns, idiosyncratic killers (the sleeping Wizard is a particular hoot) and fireball blazing finale, it’s like we’re watching The Killer transported back to ancient times. In fact, there’s a great deal of splatterific bloodshed here, with bodies being pierced and torsos being sliced in tasty torrents of arterial spray. The two on one take down of Pai is particularly violent, as is the finale where a certain supposed nobleman shows his true colors and becomes a limb lopping ‘demon’. Some may feel the story too stereotypical, repeating themes and specific character types from other Wu Xia Pian entries, but thanks to Woo’s desire to bend the rules and bring on the grue, we’ve got an artful action adventure that’s as suspenseful as it is spectacular. Indeed, you will care about the fate of our two fast friends as the storyline winds down. Their final feat of virtue satisfies as it saddens.


Hard Boiled (1992)

Hong Kong is suffering through an unbelievable string of bloody mass killings, most associated with Triad activity and the selling of illegal arms. On the side of the criminals is Uncle Hoi, an old school mobster who treats his henchmen and hitmen like family. On the fringes fighting his way in is Johnny Wong, a flashy amoral shark who wants the lucrative gun running racket all to himself. He hopes to accomplish this task by having noted Hoi goon Tony turn on his father-like employer. Little do they know, but this smooth assassin is actually an undercover cop, trying to infiltrate and dismantle the operation from the inside. In addition to this down low lawman is the jazz-loving, unlucky in love time bomb named Tequila. A far too dedicated policeman, this obsessed officer won’t stop until he discovers Wong’s whereabouts, including his cache of arms, and puts a stop to his entire operation once and for all. Naturally, he winds up needing Tony’s help, and the two form an unlikely alliance to destroy the demented criminal once and for all. While one of our heroes may be in too deep to remember what side he’s on, the other is clearly bucking for payback. After all, he’s Hard Boiled, all the way.


Hard Boiled is about as close to genius as an action film can get. When John Woo bid farewell to the entire Hong Kong crime epic (otherwise known as the “Blood Opera”), he did so in a manner that both solidified the genre’s status as cinematic gold, and challenged any and all future filmmakers to do better. Obviously, they have yet to meet such a test, since this undeniable masterpiece of mayhem and machismo stands as, perhaps, the greatest gonzo gun battle bonanza ever made. Anyone who doubted Woo’s unbridled artistry, who thought he was nothing more than a shattered glass and squib loving savant repeating the same well choreographed stunts over and over again must have failed to see his growing acumen behind the lens. From its terrific opening in a typical Chinese teahouse, to a last act blazing ammo spectacle that takes place in a fully functioning hospital (complete with a nursery stocked with infants), this is the work of a man who completely comprehends the needs of his narrative. Whether it’s a random ‘70s freeze frame, the use of some outdated ‘80s synth pop, a sequence of slinky cool jazz, or moments of heart to heart histrionics between masters (mob boss/superintendent) and subordinates (hitmen/cops), Hard Boiled percolates with enough pulp potency to make dozens of derivative crime capers blush in abject embarrassment.

This is definitely cinema as a culmination, since Woo is rehashing themes he explored in the Better Tomorrow films as well as in The Killer. But since he had glorified the underworld in his previous efforts, he wanted to make one for “the good guys”, and thus we have this twisted buddy picture in which two valiant officers working different sides of the street conspire to take down a Don who has apparently seen one too many episodes of Miami Vice, considering his wardrobe. There’s a lot of talk about honor and face, vengeance denied and restrictive rules busted wide open. Though Chow-Yun Fat is the rogue element here, playing a policeman who won’t rest until a gun running ring is stopped, its Tony Leung who constantly captures our eye. We know Fat is a badass, but Leung is all over the map, from conscientious hitman to misguided psycho, and many layers in between. As a hero, Chow chews gum and kicks butt. As an almost anti-hero, Tony is terrific, keeping us guessing over his loyalties until almost the very end. Like Sam Raimi before him, Woo gets the decided (dis)honor of being so imitated and copied that his original vision can appear practically clichéd. But when you experience the real deal, the kinetic kick is overpowering. Hard Boiled is not only a great genre effort, it’s a great movie, period. Anyone who wants to argue that better be loaded for bear and ready to rumble.


In the case of both films, Dragon Dynasty does such an amazing job with the digital presentation and image transfer. Both movies show some signs of age, but that’s obviously a source situation, not the fault of some remastering engineer. Indeed, fans wondering if Hard Boiled’s print is preferable to the long OOP Criterion version, the answer is a secure “Yes”. It has never looked this clean and clear, (even though some sites have argued over aspect ratio issues). And since Last Hurrah is a real unknown quantity, its offering is an optical revelation. Both DVDs deliver stellar added content, including commentaries, interviews and production documentaries. They illustrate how hard it was to achieve Woo’s uber-violent designs, and how tirelessly he worked with his actors to achieve both realism and a sense of resplendence. As more of his older movies are released, it is possible this master of the Hong Kong crime film will develop a more well-rounded reputation. But if all he had to rely on were these two films, Woo would have nothing to worry about. Both Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Hard Boiled represent to the best of the best.


 


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Wednesday, Aug 1, 2007

Renowned director Ingmar Bergman created some of the greatest films ever made, influencing directors ranging from Woody Allen to Akira Kurosawa to Chan-wook Park. His films often dissect the abstract ideas of life, death, and faith. Unlike many directors, Bergman expressed these ideas directly. For example, in The Seventh Seal, death actually exists as a person whom the other characters interact with. In his lifetime, he was nominated for nine Academy Awards, won seven awards at Cannes Film Festival, and received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Although he did not make any films after Fanny and Alexander (1982), he leaves behind many cinematic masterpieces and will be missed by all.


An interview with Ingmar Bergman:


 


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