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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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Tuesday, Mar 13, 2007

Are movie stars really artists? The Industry seldom subordinates commerce for the sake of craft. In the medium of the moving image, it’s difficult for both the filmmakers and audience not to get caught up in precisely that - image. Physical beauty is magnified, charm and style is worshiped from a distance. But how much of the star’s appeal is really related to talent?


Similar to the situation in Hollywood, what separated Indian movie stars from serious actors was theatrical training. The Indian drama is a nexus of ancient Vedic sagas, medieval Persian tragedies, and contemporary morality plays. The “true artists” of the ‘40s and ‘50s toted their stage makeup, personal dressers, and could speak in flawless Urdu diction so Persianized you could weave carpets out of it. The actors who make up this list include the great traditionalists and the bold innovators. All fall subject to duty of Bollywood commercialism, the occasional fluff movie, the gratuitous publicity campaigns and commercials - who in show business doesn’t nowadays? But watch them closely and you’ll see the kind of unflinching concentration and inwardness that comes with the best of screen acting.


Prithviraj Kapoor, the looming patriarch of the Kapoor performing dynasty, was the first popular star to have an “art” appeal. A longtime thespian, he took to cinema in the late ‘40s and his career was marked by a string of historical hits, playing larger-than-life figures such as Alexander the Great and The Mughal Emperor Akbar. Always placing his love of classical theatre before the commercialization of cinema, Prithiviraj set the standard for acting in period films, as well as the quality of the way those films were made. In the ‘60s, Prithviraj’s son Shashi Kapoor carried on his father’s theatrical tradition. He played the introspective leading man in early Merchant-Ivory movies, the anguished professor in The Householder, the self-involved playboy in Shakespeare Wallah and the frustrated movie star in Bombay Talkies. In an industry where movies are made quickly, cheaply and in bulk, both Prithviraj and Shashi Kapoor held out for the cerebral parts, often incurring the disdain of the seasoned producers who ran Bollywood. But their movies are all some of the most well-crafted in all of Indian cinema, and the father and son team star make a stunning pair of thespians.


If anyone really paid a price for their nonconformist vision, it was actor/director Guru Dutt. Dutt was Indian’s first auteur, a great creative control freak like Orson Welles whose involvement in every aspect of the picture satisfied his unyielding perfectionism. His 1959 film, Kaagaz ke Phool (Paper Flowers) was, like Citizen Kane was for Welles, both his swansong and his undoing. The film was an autobiographical look at the power of the movie industry and the precariousness of celebrity in a world where illusion and fantasy mean everything. It was a startlingly frank look at the life of movie stars and directors, and its two protagonists, the anguished married director (Dutt) and his ingénue (Waheeda Rahman), shocked audiences because of their depiction as adulterous, but sympathetic characters. The film flopped, leaving Dutt devastated.  He did go on to make a few more movies, notably the romantic fairy-tale Chaudvin ka Chand (Full Moon) and the epic Brideshead Revisited-style family saga Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, Wife, and Servant). But years of alcohol and drug addiction caught up with him and in 1964 he died of an overdose at the age of 39. Dutt’s premature death is heartbreaking to cinephiles; one can only imagine what else he might have made had he lived longer.


Shabana Azmi is the only woman in this group for the simple reason that out of all the actresses that have graced the screen in Indian cinema, she is the only one who never once acted for the camera. She has always believed in the quality of the material and the strength of her performance rather than relying on her physical appearance alone. Like Susan Sarandon and Jane Fonda, Azmi is willing to take risks at the expense of her career and her choice of roles challenge the conventional stereotypes of Indian women: the resilient, daydreaming seamstress in Muzzaffir Ali’s postmodern Cinderalla story, Anjuman (The Congregation), the bored trophy wife growing into her own sense of self after divorce in Arth (Value) and her most complex role, the quietly suffering wife trapped in a stifling arranged marriage who turns to her daughter-in-law for affection and ultimately, physical love in Deepa Mehta’s Fire.  Azmi values the impact she can make as a celebrity in challenging the complacencies of her audience, and her films show us the real India, the hypocrisies underneath the gold and glittering lights.


Every once in a while a movie star makes a complete transformation in his screen personality. Aamir Khan went from the teen playboy of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s specializing in bubblegum romances to a brooding, thought-provoking actor. It’s like Zach Morris evolving into Ralph Fiennes. But even more than a gifted actor, Khan is a born impresario, bringing talented actors, directors, cinematographers and composers together to create some of the best films to come out of India in the last ten years. Lagaan, the rousing cricket epic of poor villagers vs. arrogant British aristocrats, signaled the birth of the new Aamir Khan and was India’s first massive cross-over hit. Khan’s subsequent films, The Rising and Rang de Basanti, are deeply patriotic studies of the loss of heritage due to colonial oppression, bereavement, and the hope of reconciliation. As he grows older, Khan seems to be verging into Warren Beatty territory - incessant political commentary. But the quality of his acting is far superior to his contemporaries and, along his gift for making great movies, come together into something to be admired and enjoyed.


Contrary to public opinion, many Indian actors are fairly intellectual. They’re well read, believe in the power and truth of narrative, and want desperately to do bold and innovative films. But then, somewhere along the line, their vanity overtakes them. They become preoccupied with the flattering camera angles and what their fans want, and then they become just another movie star. All the stars detailed here have resisted their vanity. That’s not to say they don’t have any because all actors do, but that they’ve put it aside for the sake of the story and the character. And if that’s not what real acting is all about I don’t know what is.




Shashi Kapoor, in Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram, early ‘70s



Prithviraj Kapoor, in Mughal-E-Azam, ‘60s



Guru Dutt, in Kaagaz ke Phool, late ‘50s



Shabana Azmi, in Ankur, early ‘70s



Aamir Khan, in Sarfarosh, early ‘90s


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