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Sunday, Feb 17, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

The Buddyrevelles
I Dream of Rodney [MP3]

Full album [Streaming]

The Buddyrevelles - I Dream of Rodney

Food For Animals
Planet Say [MP3]

Time Creeps [MP3]

Prometherion [MP3]

The Two Men Gentlemen Band
William Howard Taft [MP3]

Widespread Panic
Boom Boom Boom [MP3]

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Saturday, Feb 16, 2008

Real life is not always compatible with ‘reel’ life. What this means is, not every true story can turn into a true work of cinematic art. For every pedestrian effort “based on…” someone or something that actually existed/exists, we get the rare gemstone that radiates beyond its ‘to tell the truth’ trappings. When it was announced that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe would star in a film about the heroin trade in ‘70s Harlem, American Gangster became a potential instant classic just waiting for box office canonization. Of course, few knew the project’s already jaded history and near disintegration. Yet when the movie finally hit theaters last Fall, the precarious beginnings yielded a solid mainstream hit. For all its glitz and glamour however, Gangster has so far failed to become legend. As part of the new three DVD deluxe edition released by Universal, we begin to gain some perspective on how this potential epic missed the mark.

For those unfamiliar with the basic storyline, here is the breakdown. Frank Lucas, a low level hood from the Carolinas, was at one time the chief henchman for longtime NYC kingpin Bumpy Johnson. After the don’s untimely death, the apprentice vowed to create the same kind of classy, corporate like Drug Empire as his mentor. Realizing that buying directly from the source can cut down on the middle man, and increase the product’s (heroin) purity, he travels to Bangkok to meet up with an old military friend. They strike a deal with the locals, and soon, kilos of high grade opiate are making their way in the metal coffins of fallen Vietnam vets.

It’s not long before Lucas owns the streets, and he brings his entire family up from the South to help him out. He even has the mafia buying their Blue Magic from his organization. When his cop buddy gets involved in graft and dope, honest officer Ritchie Roberts decides to bring down whoever is pushing. Of course he must cut through massive corruption among his fellow policeman, a lack of real leads, and Lucas’ expertly planned process. All it takes is a tip, and a trail to follow, and both sides of the law are destined to butt heads. 

Sounds solid, right? It feeds the audience’s inherent love of crime and violence. And you’ve got Washington and Crowe near the top of their game as marquee matinee idols. So what went wrong? Why isn’t American Gangster the post-millennial Scarface, or a direct urban Godfather? For the most part, the fault lies squarely with director Ridley Scott. Not satisfied to pare the narrative down to its essential elements, what should be a tight little thriller becomes one of the most bloated individual character studies ever. Lucas has several siblings and they each get their moment in the escalating running time. As the leads, Lucas and Roberts get their own elaborated (and belabored) backstorys. Very little of the actual mechanics of the drug racket is revealed and the subtext is very light on understandable ethics. We never once see characters contrite or repentant for their acts, and attention getting monologues replace scruples as the main social statement.

As a result, Gangster goes wonky in ways that even an extended director’s cut can’t fix. If anything, the main body of the Lucas/Roberts relationship should have been boiled down to the police procedural, leaving much of the superfluous personal ‘flavor’ out of the mix. We don’t care about our drug lord’s kin (they are cardboard cutouts of clichéd types) and Roberts’ parenting issues are never interesting. Yet somehow, Scott thinks this makes his leads more endearing and easy to identify with. Instead of humanizing them, however, such sidetracks deter from what we are really most concerned about. What ultimately saves the experience, turning it into a memorable entertainment, is the high level of craftsmanship. It’s almost as if the filmmakers knew that by delivering quality technical and production merits, the interpersonal issues could be overcome.

Ridley Scott almost confesses to as much during the DVD’s audio commentary. While he is defensive and quite defiant at times, he (along with a separately recorded screenwriter Steve Zaillian) spends a great deal of time praising the individuals behind the look and feel of the film. Scott is typically a technical narrator, offering perspective on how artisans recreate the look and feel of different eras. He’s also a stickler for the foundational aspects of the film medium. So one has to read in between the kudos to get to the meat - and during the course of the discussion, we hear a few faint mea culpas. They’re not obvious, but they hint at a director realizing he may have taken the wrong track now and again. 

Of course, the one element here that tends to get lost in the glare of critical evaluation is why American Gangster got made in the first place. Without Scott, and his continuing connection to accidental A-lister Russell Crowe, this was a dead project. As Fallen Empire, the detailed and dense documentary on the film (included here as part of the extras) points out, the film was in the perpetual Hell of Hollywood’s development pipeline for years. Everyone from Don Cheadle to Benecio Del Toro was considered for the roles of Lucas and Roberts, respectively. Directors such as Terry George and, most famously, Antoine Fuqua, wanted to make this movie, but Universal continuously balked over budgetary concerns. Some have even suggested that Fuqua was the unfair recipient of some industry payback when his Training Day karma failed to carry over commercially to his decidedly odd take on King Arthur. That he was an African American filmmaker being replaced by a white Anglo Saxon added more fuel to the fire.

Indeed, one of the things DVD does best is provide creative and corporate context to the cinematic artform, and there’s no denying the power inherent in the American Gangster material. The chance to see Lucas and Roberts in person, discussing the era and their part within it, more than makes up for the lack of supporting evidence that everything in the film is 100% true - not that Scott and Zaillian don’t strive to convince us of the claim. Much of the aforementioned commentary track is taken up with point by point breakdowns on factual accuracies and fictional liberties, and yet very little mention is made of one Leroy “Nicky” Barnes. For those unfamiliar with the man, look up the nickname ‘Mr. Untouchable’ and you’re destined to find the New York Times Magazine cover story which crowned the drug lord with said moniker. Barnes claims that he was the real heroin king of Harlem (why anyone would want to argue over such a stature seems surreal) and a daring documentary released before Gangster seems to undermine much of what this dramatization has to offer.

Indeed, a main flaw in American Gangster is the underlying belief that we are getting a decidedly myopic and whitewashed view of this story. Lucas is referred to as “an illiterate Southern rube” by Barnes, and while such a putdown seems appropriate, considering their supposed street dealing rivalry, it makes the clean cut cosmopolitan version offered by Washington seem shallow at best, fake at the very worst. Gangster does pay the man lip service, offering Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. as a clownish version of Barnes, but this doesn’t deflate the opposing positions. On the one hand, Scott and company argue that Lucas leapt into upper Manhattan, took the place of his mentor Bumpy Johnson, and single handedly rooted out the mafia in his African American neighborhood. Yet Marc Levin’s fact-based film of Barnes argues nearly the same exact thing - which goes to the very heart of the narrative.

In fact, one imagines that another way to make the film better was to simply remove the awkwardly righteous Roberts and stick with a Lucas vs. Barnes territorial showdown. While Crowe is fine in the role (though hardly believable as an American street cop), there is a hint of racial inequality in the personality he is given. Roberts is viewed as noble but flawed, married to the law as his personal life falls apart. He turns down bribes, refuses to keep thousands in unlaundered drug money, and basically makes his fellow officers uncomfortable with his ‘by the book’ bravado. He might make an intriguing yin to Lucas’ urbane yang, but the role is like subterfuge, undermining all the dramatic weight this story could hold. Toss in the fact that no one ever really pays for, or even addresses, the death of innocents at the hand of unrefined heroin, the destruction of Harlem, and the lingering poison that continues to possess the region some three decades later, and American Gangster becomes less than a classic.

Still, it’s hard to deny the inherent power in a group of well trained professionals doing some of their best work. Though it lacks the qualities that make something mythic (and the announced 18 minutes of added footage in the ‘director’s cut’ does little to change that), the film remains a genuine journeyman joust. There are times when Scott seems the perfect director for the material. He has always been proficient in producing period specific spectacle, be it ancient Roman (Gladiator) or completely imaginary (Legend, Blade Runner). He also has a wonderful way with actors, using his background in advertising to consistently put their best face forward. There are also moments when the Englishman is clearly out of his league. The various party scenes play like a white dude’s misinterpretation of Soul Train, and we never get a real feel of the Harlem community pre or post Lucas’ lamentable influence. It all stays the same - slightly sepia toned and CGI tweaked.

No one knows the real story about what happened to New York City’s black population during the late ‘60s through early ‘80s except the people themselves and the participants in their racket. Roberts may have indeed been a saint in slightly baggy street clothes, Lucas an amenable snake in the ghetto grass. And Barnes may have been both clown and competitor. But when one steps back out of the limelight glare given off by American Gangster, when they whittle away the superfluous moments of movie iconography and staged seriousness, it’s clear that, somewhere amidst the pomp and circumstance, someone is lying. What happened in real life just didn’t make it over into “reel” life. Perhaps if all the facts were presented, unfiltered and unadorned, we’d get a better handle on the truth. But as this otherwise stellar DVD of American Gangster suggests, accuracy is a lot like opinion - everyone has their own version.

American Gangster: Theatrical Version

American Gangster: Director’s Cut


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Friday, Feb 15, 2008

It’s been nearly two decades since Japanese maverick Shinya Tsukamoto set international tongues wagging with his amazing cyberpunk splatterfest Tetsuo: The Iron Man. A dark parable of man’s inability to control his taste for technology, the visionary work announced the first time feature filmmaker as an Asian force to be reckoned with. In the 19 years that have followed, he has consistently responded to his own unique muse, mounting films centering on demons (Hiruko), revenge (Bullet Ballet), and claustrophobic terror (Haze). Now comes Nightmare Detective, a left field flick for the noted auteur. Seemingly centered on a police investigation into a series of unexplained deaths, what we wind up with is a dread-inducing exploration into the correlation between nightmares and reality.

When female police officer Keiko Kirishima asks to be transferred from her cushy desk job with the Federal Bureau, she ends up on one of Japan’s most notorious current cases. It seems people are dying by their own hand, stabbing themselves in the throat, and yet all the deaths can be linked to a final cellphone call to someone named “O”. At first, the stogy males in the precinct don’t appreciate Keiko’s feminine ways. But they soon respect her, even as one of their own falls in the process. Desperate for help, the cops turn to the Nightmare Detective, a troubled young man with the ability to read minds and enter people’s dreams. At first he is reluctant to assist. But when Keiko falls under O’s spell, he decides to get to the metaphysical bottom of the killings, and the killer.

Like a crazy quilt combination of Se7en, Silence of the Lambs, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and a little Altered States thrown in for good measure, Nightmare Detective is suspense seasoned with a ripe amount of the unreal. New to Region 1 DVD from Genius Products and Dimension Extreme, this is a movie molten with mood and unswerving in its desire to unnerve. Using a very bizarre approach to both his storytelling and his acting, Tsukamoto (who also plays the important role of “O” here) tears the bottom out of the standard CSI procedural, and instead transformers reality into a realm of lies, stasis, and sin. It is only in the dream state, the bridge between what’s true and what’s telling, that any honest revelations can be considered. From the suicidal to the accidentally dead, the end of life is a blessing, not a calculated curse.

Into this diabolical domain walks Keiko, a fresh face following her own inner angst. Played by the noted J-Pop star Hitomi as a series of static, statuesque poses, our heroine is neither champion nor chump, equally unavoidable as fodder for the frighteners and catalyst for the divisive denouement. She is so much more important than the title character, a whiny little man who seems haunted by powers he is perfectly capable of controlling - at least somewhat. Thematically, Tsukamoto clearly wants to delve into the realm of human psychology, how issues from the past manifest themselves in the everyday patterns of the present. He uses visual cues to keep us connected - underwater sequences, splashes of blood, the physical acts of stabbing and choking - and as the film progresses, such hints settle in to cement the story.

But mood is just as important as clues in Nightmare Detective, and it’s clear from what we see here that our director is a master of ambiance. For a modern society, the Japan of this film looks dirty, ancient, soiled, and tainted. The supposedly pristine buildings become bland fixtures in the graying skies, and the typical neon nightlife is muted to the point of creepiness. As with Tetsuo before, Tsukamoto uses sound as an important part of his horror. During the opening murders, when victims are trying to run from an unseen force, the jagged camerawork and sonic cacophony create a genuinely disturbing chaos. But this is a filmmaker who also knows how to play quiet. When O takes on Keiko and the dream weaver in the last act confront, the absence of sound works wonderfully.

Watching the way the actors are framed, how this director references Japan’s past (O in full fright mode, blood dripping from his eyes and nose, is like a corrupt kabuki) while keeping things firmly in the post-Freudian future, allows even those unfamiliar with the mouth of madness to be intrigued. Nightmare Detective is a movie that plays with time, juxtaposing certain special elements with memories, flashbacks, and foreshadowing. It doesn’t quite all link up in the end, though Tsukamoto does a damn fine job in the effort. We get a great many “a-ha” moments as the story strides to its conclusion, connections barely visible before. They help make what many would see as a gore-soaked statement of standard serial killer cruelty into something more closely resembling art.

On the new DVD version of the film, unrated (meaning much more blood, for those who care), we get a clear indication that nothing in Nightmare Detective is by chance. Tsukamoto delivers a near hour long documentary on the making of the movie, explaining the premise and the various symbolic and subtextual aspects at play. We even get to see some amazing behind the scenes footage of the director working with his cast and setting up shots. Known for his unusual perspective both in front of and guiding the camera (Tsukamoto is a very accomplished actor, as his turn as O proves), these insights are special. They highlight the detail-oriented effort he puts into every project.

And the results really show in Nightmare Detective. While many may mistake this for just another juicy J-Horror romp (and envision the eventual Hollywood PG-13 bastardization of same), there is much more depth here than one initially expects. The psychological overtakes the standard superstition vs. the supernatural dynamic, and Tsukamoto transforms the celluloid canvas into a perverse pallet of his own unique design. It’s good to see that, after years of marching to his own individualist drummer, this Japanese legend has lost none of his stride. Nightmare Detective may not match its cover description or compliments, but in this case, that’s a very good thing indeed. We’d expect nothing less from Tsukamoto.

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Friday, Feb 15, 2008

No, seriously.  It does.  I was looking at it and thinking “who the hell designed this?  A preschool kid?”  That’s not fair though as many kids that age know how to use the Net pretty well so that makes you and your website look even crappier than it does.  And it is crappy, believe me.  It’s time you faced facts and did something about it, so suck it up and listen here.

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Thursday, Feb 14, 2008

For the weekend beginning 14 February, here are the films in focus:

Jumper [rating: 4]

Jumper is junk, a halfway decent premise destroyed by some of the worst hiring choices in the history of motion picture personnel.

Casting is crucial to the success of a film. Just ask anyone who suffered through 2006’s god-awful (no pun intended) remake of The Omen. While audiences could live with Liev Schreiber as the Gregory Peck replacement - barely - in the modern day Antichrist thriller, Julia Stiles sunk every scene she was in. Like a teen mother trying to play grown up in a world where the rules of engagement are beyond her brief years, she diluted the danger in all facets of the copycat creep out. The same thing happens in the new sci-fi stinker Jumper. Between a bafflingly bad Hayden Christensen and a Stiles-like Rachel Bilson as his romantic interest, we wind up with fiction more specious than speculative.  read full review…

Persepolis [rating: 9]

Persepolis is astonishing, a revelation realized in masterful monochrome strokes.

They say the best way to know any culture is through its art. It’s also possible to gain a similar perspective via its artists. Born before the revolution in Iran unseated the reigning Shah, Marjane Satrapi saw her parents idealism embraced, and then eradicated, by a movement meant to free the nation’s tyrannized people. The resulting Islamic fundamentalism, with its deference to Muslim law and chauvinistic ritual, drove Satrapi from her home. Years later, she would reflect on these massive cultural and personal changes in a series of graphic novels. Named Persepolis after the ancient capital of the Persian empire, the brave, original books have now been turned into an equally inventive film. Via stark, stylized animation, and a vignette oriented approach to narrative, we learn the shocking truth that not all rebellion serves the needs of the people. Sometimes, it’s merely change for the sake of same. read full review…

Other Releases - In Brief

The Spiderwick Chronicles [rating: 5]

The story of a supernatural world surrounding ours, a domain where fairies battle goblins for control over their magical reality should be stunning. Its scope should sweep us up in conflicts between good and evil, benefice and the baneful, culminating in the ultimate epic showdown. We should want to revisit this realm over and over again, constantly enraptured of the vision and viability it provides. Sadly, none of this occurs during the dysfunctional family film The Spiderwick Chronicles. Even with indie scribe John Sayles involved in the script, this uneven adaptation of all five books by Tony Diterlizzi and Holly Black is nothing more than CGI smoke and mirrors. The characters are flat, their motivations mired in mid-‘80s angst over divorce and parental abandonment, and the action starts up before the proper mythological foundation is formed. Perhaps for a demographic raised on Ritalin, an audience who needs something more than instant gratification out of the typical compliant cinema, this film will fly. Others will be hemmed in by the slipshod sketchiness of Mark Water’s direction and wonder where the awe went.

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