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Thursday, Mar 15, 2007


Going through the possible motion picture presentations every week, it’s fascinating to see how the premium movie channels are expanding and diversifying. For example, Moveiplex (a division of Starz) has just announced the start-up of two new services – Indieplex and Retroplex. Each one addresses what the company sees as underserved cinematic categories – in this case, independent films and classics from the past – and each one is hoping that rabid film fans will agree. It’s not an unusual move – Encore (another Starz subsidiary) has always divided up its content into mysteries, romance, westerns, etc. But as more and more outlets open up – channels devoted exclusively to foreign films, or horror – it becomes harder and harder to keep track of the options. With the big pay networks offering multiple feeds and On-Demand services as well, the choices are almost limitless. Thankfully, for the weekend beginning 17 March, one easily accessible feature clearly stands out:


Premiere Pick
Silent Hill


It’s all about the creepy in this big screen adaptation of the popular videogame series. Thanks to the brilliant direction of Brotherhood of the Wolf‘s Christophe Ganz, and the spectacular set design and F/X work of his capable crew, what could have been your standard scary movie becomes a troubling look at an (after)world gone insane. Many of the more frightening moments have very little to do with the odd assortment of monsters and mayhem that actresses Rahda Mitchell and Laurie Holden must overcome. No, the real terror lies in not knowing the rules of this particular locale, and the consequences that occur whenever an eerie air raid siren sounds, signaling the return of ‘the darkness’. It’s hard to describe how vibrant and visceral this movie is, especially in an era which substitutes blood and brutality for genuine scares. In a year of many excellent fright fests, Silent Hill stands as one of the genre’s best. (17 March, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Take the Lead


Antonio Banderas goes Mad Hot Ballroom on a group of troubled New York kids, arguing that there is no problem in life that cannot be overcome through dance. While it’s territory that’s been covered a hundred times before, something about the sight of Mr. Melanie Griffith shaking his moneymaker has an indescribable charm. If you can overcome the schmaltz, you might enjoy this feel good urban pulp. (17 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Family Stone


One of last year’s under the radar delights, former fashion executive Thomas Bezucha deconstructs the knotty connections between kinfolk with this fresh, occasionally formulaic comedy. Sarah Jessica Parker is the uptight, Type-A personality who finds herself awash in the title clan’s free-spirited spontaneity. Dermot Mulroney is her boyfriend, and the prodigal Stone. While there is much more drama here than humor, Bezucha keeps the revelations and the reactions honest. (17 March, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


The Devil’s Rejects


Rob Zombie taps into the long lost exploitation zeitgeist to create this superior follow up to his 2003 film House of 1000 Corpses. Less stylized than said spook show debut, and featuring some amazing moments of disturbing viciousness, this shock cinema vérité is unbelievably accomplished. Sadly, this promising terror auteur seems to be going backwards with his upcoming Halloween remake. (17 March, Showtime, 10PM EST)

Indie Pick
Audition


Ten years ago, he was literally unknown to Western audiences. Then this startlingly original movie came along, and cinephiles everywhere stood up and took notice. Noted for his combination of the beautiful and the grotesque, and never sparring his audience the onscreen shivers that can come from both, the talented Takashi Miike has since gone on to become a certified cult icon. From Ichi the Killer to his banned Masters of Horror episode, Imprint, he has consistently pushed the envelope when it comes to blood and guts. That’s clearly the case here, the story of a widower holding ‘try outs’ for a nonexistent film as part of a plan to choose a new bride. To say the tables are turned on this lonely lothario is an understatement. While there are many who believe Miike merely makes geek shows, there is a lot of artistry here as well. (20 March, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Additional Choices
Boogie Nights


After Hard Eight failed to deliver anything but major critical kudos, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson decided to fully explore his Robert Altman-esque muse with this multi-layered, multi-character look at porn through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Featuring a star making turn for Mark Wahlberg, and a momentary career rebirth for Burt Reynolds, this impressive human dramedy remains one of the ‘90s great masterworks. (18 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

sex, lies and videotape


It was the film that announced the independent film renaissance, a stunning dissection of life and love between detached, alienated individuals. Introducing Stephen Soderbergh as a director to watch, and giving the brilliant James Spader the role of a lifetime, this Cannes Film Festival winner remains a powerful, personal statement.  (19 March, IFC, 7:10PM EST)

Road to Guantanamo


It’s an odd experiment in narrative assemblage – a part documentary, part fiction film revolving around the Tipton Three, a trio of British Muslims arrested and held in the infamous American military prison for two years – only to be released, uncharged. Thanks in part to the shocking recreations, based on the testimony of the men involved, we get a window into the way in which our current government manages the so-called ‘war’ on terror. (19 March, Sundance, 10:15PM EST)

Outsider Option
Spider Baby


It had a reputation of carnival barker proportions. Supposedly lost, then rumored to be too “shocking” for release, this low budget brain bender from writer producer Jack Hill still stands as an idiosyncratic eye-opener. Featuring Lon Chaney Jr. in one of his last roles, as well as the sensationally surreal sight of newcomer Sid Haig as the repugnant Ralph, this madcap macabre touches on murder, mayhem, and that tasty taboo of the post-modern world – cannibalism. Presented as part of Turner Classic Movie’s new Underground series (though typical host Rob Zombie is AWOL thanks to present production commitments), you will not spend a better 81 schlock filled minutes in your fright fan lifetime. They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore – and once you’ve seen Spider Baby, you’ll know why. This is one seriously screwed up horror comedy. (16 March, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)


Taking on the classic (?!?) Wes Craven cannibal epic, French fright master Alexandre Aja (the wonderful Haute Tension) decided to explore the backstory of the horrifying mutants at the center of the scares. The result was one of the most startling last act confrontations in recent cinema, and a remake that surpasses the original freak show gratuity. The upcoming sequel will apparently offer more of the same. (19 March, ActionMax, 8PM EST)

Babette’s Feast


Food is frequently used as a metaphor in film – as an extension of, reason for, or substitute to living. Here, Danish filmmaker Gabriel Axel uses the title repast as a way of bridging the gap between family, religion and the past. Winner of the 1988 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, it’s the kind of movie that whets your appetite as it simultaneously stimulates your emotional core. It’s indeed a meal fit for a king. (19 March, Indieplex, 11:45PM EST)

The Long Goodbye


When approached about remaking the classic Raymond Chandler story, American auteur Robert Altman felt a little uneasy. The material, in his mind, needed to be modernized and filtered through a post-counterculture concept of cynicism and mistrust. In the end, he delivered one of the ‘70s defining films, a narrative perfectly in sync with the Watergate weakened resolve of a stunned society. (21 March, Retroplex, 8PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Mar 14, 2007


Last year, about this time (give or take), I was heading for Dresden. That was an eventful trip. I had originally dubbed it “the trip out of hell” because of a dirty trick someone pulled on me that led to the cancellation of my ticket (and during the World Cup, to boot!). But faithful readers of this blog know that, to paraphrase the inimitable words of Stealer’s Wheel, “everyone’s agreed that everything turned out just fine”.


In fact, that was one fantastic voyage. Dresden was a great little city, if a bit under-developed and, okay, drab.  Still, roll in Leipzeig and Berlin, Frankfurt and stops inbetween, and Germany was a revelation. The personal growth stemming from that trip, too, wouldn’t be traded for a library of books (well, okay, maybe a stack at B.Dalton). But I changed in palpable, significant ways.


Which is what peripatacity—the restless urge to explore and experience—is all about.
 
Leaving it up to the next dot on the world map to qualify as “trip out of hell”. And, I may have just found it. On the long, never-ending road to Oslo.


 


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Wednesday, Mar 14, 2007


Even 45 years after he first appeared on motion pictures screens, James Bond remains an elusive entertainment icon. Scholars and critics have spent inordinate amounts of page space contemplating why this stalwart symbol of the Cold War, with his debonair demeanor, laser like libido and government issue licensed to kill, is still considered a viable hero. While producers have made sure that the face of the franchise has changed with the changing times (perhaps one of the most unique marketing ploys in motion picture history), the character’s resolve has remained steadfast and undeterred. Bond is wish fulfillment made flesh, danger and intrigue experienced vicariously through the magic of film.


Perhaps this is why the recent “reboot” of the series, Casino Royale, was met with so much initial resistance. People like their traditions untainted, maintained in the same stoic form that they had decades before. Film fans are even worse. Working within the confines of the so-called ‘artform’, they mistake the constants within a series for the inherent creative element and balk at any suggestion of manipulating or removing same. A perfect example was the casting of Daniel Craig as 007. While his look was definitely a radical departure from the “dark and mysterious” manner of the character (though not as seismic as the Sean Connery/Roger Moore shift), the obsessed feared that Craig was destined to fail in two key areas – moving the series into the 21st Century while preserving all the mandates from the past.


Their fears were unqualified, and Casino Royale is the reason why. A sensational action film in the purest sense of the genre, the 2006 version of the famed British spy has been overhauled and deconstructed, returning to author Ian Fleming’s original concept for the M16 agent. Purists praised the refusal to bow to popular PC pronouncements, bringing the he-man back to his casual sex stratagem. Others enjoyed the renewed brutality, instilling this fierce fireplug of a Bond with less of the black tie elegance previous incarnations lived by. In Craig, the character has rediscovered his roots, illustrating the cutthroat realities of a life in secret service of God, Queen, and Country. Not only is Casino Royale the best 007 feature in quite a long time, but it betters many of the stylized attempts of recent that have tried to reconfigure the tired action genre.


In the hands of Martin Campbell, the man responsible for the last major Bond revamp (1995’s GoldenEye, when fan favorite Pierce Brosnan made his remarkable debut), Royale overcomes a couple of narrative deficits to make the mythical man its own. The plot, involving terrorists, a money-laundering maniac who literally weeps blood, and a decisive game of…poker (it was baccarat in the book) can be quite knotty at times. Indeed, our hero moves around from country to country so quickly in the first hour of the film that we wonder if his recent change to “00” status came with frequent flyer miles. Similarly, the card game that makes up the last act catalyst to the narrative is an interesting, if anticlimactic suspense spectacle. You know you’re filmmaker understands this fact when he stops the contest cold more than once to introduce another adrenalin rush of action.


In previous installments of the series, these stunt-loaded set pieces were the most memorable element of the entire film. In fact, more fans remember the various chase scenes (down snow-covered mountains, within shark-infested seas) than they do the assorted intricacies in the plotting. Here, Campbell perfectly melds spectacle with the storyline, delivering one stellar eye-popping thrill after another. The opening foot chase, with its bows to “free running” (or parkour, as its often called) and vertigo-inspiring heights is terrific, as is an attempt to stop a bomber in the Miami airport. The finale, featuring a Venetian building slowly sinking into the canals, is a tad too League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to stand-out, but Campbell handles the histrionics in ways that still continually astound the viewer.


Even in the quieter moments – and there are several – the director understands the pressure he is under. His is the job of delivering Bond to the post-9/11 world, to create an image that will hold up under both political and personal scrutiny. One of the ways he accomplishes this is by thwarting expectation. While there are two very sexy ladies for 007 to play off of (and with), both Eva Green (as a British Treasury agent) and Caterina Murino (as Solange, the wife of a Bahamian bad man) are eye candy in name only. Indeed, it is Bond himself who is the sex appeal. Seen shirtless, water cascading off his immaculately toned torso, or tied-up, nude, for a sinister torture session, it’s our hero who is objectified. As a result, it deflates many of the criticisms surrounding the character. It’s hard to complain about his womanizing when it’s 007, not the gal, whose supplying most of the onscreen gratuity.


Still, such a position requires careful and considered casting, and this is Casino Royale‘s greatest artistic triumph. There is not a single moment where Daniel Craig doesn’t own the screen. Anyone who saw him in the criminally underrated Infamous (where he played Perry to Toby Jones’ effete Truman Capote) or Steven Spielberg’s amazing Munich recognized that this was an actor to watch. But James Bond is more than a role – he’s a religion, the kind of cinematic symbol that instills a special sense of satisfaction in his devotees. Under-perform, as one Timothy Dalton did, or fail to meet the constituencies rabid requirements (Roger Moore from about 1977 on) and you end up losing that last bit of motion picture leeway – the benefit of the doubt. Craig had more than just the role to reject him. Blond, far more “common” in his appearance, his was to be a journeyman Bond, a by the bootstraps sort of bloke who suddenly finds himself in Her Majesty’s secret service.


And it’s just the sort of shock to the system the series needed. For decades now, critics have clamored that, if Bond wished to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving world, he needed to get away from his tailored suits and shaken martini mandates. Many have even argued that the only way to do this was to allow big name directors – filmmakers with their own unique styles like Quentin Tarantino, John Woo or even Michael Bay – to take over and frame the franchise. In their minds, an actor couldn’t create the kind of change necessary to make such an old world artifact relevant again. But in Craig, and indeed, in Casino Royale itself, we realize the flaw in such an argument. True, the movie is about 20 minutes too long, and playing poker for such incredibly high stakes seems so plebian. But thanks to Craig’s onscreen magnetism, and Campbell’s care behind the camera, the movie manages to maintain its impressive power.


It’s the same with the recent DVD release. For a film with such a broad, overreaching scope, Royale loses very little on the small screen. Perhaps its because Campbell’s approach is more inside out than visa versa. His action sequences always provide enough spatial and pragmatic logic to avoid confusing or simply losing us. Similarly, there are very few of the stuntman hiding long shots that work against our involvement in the cinematic melee. There will be those who bellyache over the paltry selection of extras (you’d figure a film as important to the franchise as this would warrant something more than a standard behind the scene doc and an EPK style look back at the Bond girls) and wonder about the lack of overall context, but they would be missing the much bigger picture. In an era where action is defined by size, style and CGI, to bring back a character whose name alone inspires visions of old school stodginess, is a massive entertainment risk. But that is perhaps why James Bond remains so enigmatic. Somehow, he succeeds, and Casino Royale is proof positive of such stellar staying power.


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Wednesday, Mar 14, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Arcade Fire —"Black Mirror"
From Neon Bible on Merge


Listen to “Black Mirror”

The Arcade Fire spent most of 2006 holed up in a small church in a small town outside of Montreal. They were recording their second album Neon Bible. It was a slow year, mostly.


Air—"Once Upon a Time" From Pocket Symphony on Astralwerks Listen to “Once Upon a Time”

Now entering the 10th year of a highly illustrious career that has seen the band grow in stature to become one of the most instantly recognizable names in music, Parisian duo Air (Nicolas Godin and JB Dunckel) return with Pocket Symphony, a career masterpiece and their most seductive and accomplished work to date. Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin are modernists. Air embrace the new. Their music is intellectually stimulating yet intuitively simple; elegiac and triumphal; beyond pop and yet resolutely of it, too.


My Brightest Diamond —"Golden Star (Remix by Alias)"
From Tear It Dowm on Asthmatic Kitty


Listen to “Golden Star”

My Brightest Diamond‘s Shara Worden has decided to set loose her bobby pins and let her hair fly on the ambient dance floor. Her latest semi-collaboration with 13 different remixers, entitled Tear It Down, reworks songs from the highly acclaimed album, Bring Me the Workhorse,  featuring tracks by Alias, Lusine, Murcof, Stakka and Gold Chains. Oh, it’s international too! With diplomatic representatives from Belgium, France, Mexico, The UK and America (East and West Coasts baby!), the remixes range from drum-n-bass, to glitchy, ambient, minimalism, and get-your-booty-on-the-dance-floor club music.


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Tuesday, Mar 13, 2007

There’s a song I have played to death over the years. Still do. One by John Martyn, about “a man in the station/he’s takin’ the next train home”. Actually, Martyn has a couple of versions of it: the original, with his distinctive acoustic six-string, played like it’s a percussive instrument, backed by a slow-burn jazz combo that makes its points with a Gretsch guitar with most of the treble removed, a Fender Rhodes sounding haunting and subdued to start—beginning like the one in John Klemmer’s “Touch”—but then becoming pulsing and insistent—ending like Billy Preston’s work at the close of “Let It Be”. All this held together by a heavy vise of bass and drums. The other version is much more up-beat, Martyn’s voice sounding much less like before, when it seemed to have captured a dude struggling up the back slope of a cocaine ride run its course.


Still, both commendable efforts, worthy of your time.



This time ‘round, though . . . this time when I actually am in the station, I actually encounter a man in the station . . .  and this time, it is all quite different.


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