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Monday, Feb 19, 2007


Can you sense that Oscar is just around the corner. Last week, The Departed made its bow on home video. This week, another Academy effort and a far better film that should be up for Best Picture consideration, make their way onto the digital domain as well. But there is even more cinematic specialness to be had, including another amazing Criterion release, a wonderful anti-censorship documentary, and a substantial sampling of Christopher Guest’s own unique approach to wit. Add in a decent animated film and a strange bit of fear funny business and you have just a small example of the excellent fare waiting at your local B&M. But by far one singular selection for 20 February marks SE&L’s choice for movie of the year:


The Prestige


The undeniably best film of 2006 arrives on DVD with scarcely enough bonus features to make the shift to the digital medium worth the effort. Everyone knows by now that Christopher Nolan’s amazing motion picture puzzle box was beaten by The Illusionist in the public popularity sweepstakes (romance always seems to trump intelligence), but for sheer cinematic artistry, for the ability to take a complicated multi-layered narrative and make it sing with emotional and aesthetic resonance, this film is flawless. The movie may suffer from lofty ambitions, and more than one unexpected plot twist, but the truth is, no other motion picture in this otherwise interesting year found the proper balance of character and circumstance. With amazing performances and sheer directorial skill, Nolan has delivered a timeless masterpiece, destined to live far beyond this brief, befuddling moment in mainstream moviemaking.

Other Titles of Interest


49th Parallel: Criterion Collection


The brilliant British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were pressured into service for their homeland once the UK fell into World War II. With this film about a Nazi U2 Boat, made in Canada, the duo introduced characters who argued for the United State’s involvement in the still mostly European conflict. Criterion now gives it the necessary preservationist’s polish.

Babel


What is it with the year’s cinematic best arriving on the digital format with nary a contextual feature to be found? Paramount is probably gambling on a Crash like win come Oscar time before fleshing out this feature (in either case, one should except a double dip sometime this summer). This incredibly dense effort definitely deserves better.

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing


The amazing story of how one of country’s commercial darlings became political pariahs forms the center of Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s brave backstage documentary. The “Red State” reaction to singer Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush remarks seems ridiculous, especially in today’s President bashing atmosphere. But we soon learn that censorship and sexism played a bigger role in the controversy than an off the cuff remark.

Flushed Away


It was the great CGI experiment that ended up voiding an entire creative contract. Aardman Animation, famous for their work on Wallace and Gromit, teamed up with Dreamworks (Shrek) to bring their idiosyncratic style to the realm of 3D cartooning. The result was this uneven effort, a film that flopped so badly that the Americans showed the Brits the door only three films into their five picture deal.

For Your Consideration


Christopher Guest pushes the mock documentary comedy style aside for the time being to focus on a fictional look at awards season, and how small independent efforts can get caught up inside the massive media hype. In this case, a tiny production entitled Home for Purim generates a lot of year end buzz, bringing its journeyman cast face to face with celebrity for perhaps the first time. Naturally, unheard of hijinx ensue.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Night of the Living Dorks


Leave it to the Germans to combine the cornball ‘80s sex comedy with the benchmarks of your basic zombie horror film to create a clever, if occasionally uneven, terror treat. The story is your standard nerds vs. jocks smackdown, with the added element of some goofy Goth kids experimenting with voodoo on the side. A ritual goes wrong, and suddenly, the geeks are getting even with the bullies who made their life a living - make that now an ‘undead’ – Hell. With lots of silly CGI slapstick and some incredibly underdone sequences (a huge beer bash goes…nowhere), the movie does tend to lose its approach two thirds of the way through. Indeed, the DVD contains an alternate ending that’s just as ineffective as the actual one offered. If you don’t mind your macabre mixed with a little middling mirth, you’ll really dig this scary satire.

 


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Monday, Feb 19, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists—"The Sons of Cain"
From Living with the Living on Touch and Go


Listen to “The Sons of Cain”

For their fifth full-length release (and first with Touch and Go), Ted Leo and the Pharmacists met up with Brendan Canty (Fugazi) at Long View Farms to iron out a new set of anthems that arrive with a confident and outspoken immediacy. With Living with the Living, Ted & Co. wipe clean the slate that once held names like Weller, Strummer and Bragg and indulge some of their farthest-reaching musical ambitions.—Touch and Go


Liberacion—"Move Your Body"
From Liberacion: The Songs of the New Cuban Underground on Petrol


Listen to “Move Your Body”

After managing the rock band INXS to global superstardom, Petrol’s founder, Chris Murphy, launched the Australian-based record label in 2000 to share his global vision with music fans around the world. Murphy envisioned Petrol as a cultural beacon to shine on the world’s best music, delivered direct to fans to enjoy with no passport required. Since its inception, Petrol has been at the forefront of the digital music business around the world, with a record of consistent international iTunes chart successes and a focused ethos and mission that has evolved into a trusted Petrol brand signature. 2007 promises more cutting-edge, quality releases from Petrol/EMI, beginning with the February 6 release of Liberacion: The Songs of the New Cuban Underground, a DVD that captures the artists leading Cuba’s most cutting-edge music scene.—Petrol


Willard Grant Conspiracy—"Skeleton" and "Flying Low" From Let it Roll on Reincarnate Listen to “Skeleton” Listen to “Flying Low”

Willard Grant Conspiracy is the musical collective that surrounds songwriter Robert Fisher. With their last five records (Regard the End, Everything’s Fine, Mojave, Flying Low, and 3am Sunday at Fortune Otto’s) and their brand new album Let it Roll, the band has quietly gone about putting together one of the most impressive catalogs in the alt.country / post punk-folk rock genres. The records have been met with critical acclaim and have been included in many critical best-of lists.—Reincarnate


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Monday, Feb 19, 2007

This is not the sort of thing I would normally write about, but this story caught my eye yesterday morning while I was getting bagels. Britney Spears seems to be in the middle of a pointedly public breakdown; this is news to no one. But something about this incident seems especially desperate.


Britney’s bizarre night began Friday at around 7 p.m. when the former Mouseketeer left her Malibu mansion in the SUV driven by one of her bodyguards.
She drove around aimlessly for about half an hour, and then pulled into Esther’s Hair Salon in Tarzana, Calif., at about 8:30 p.m.
The Grammy-winning performer sat in her car for about 10 minutes, crying, before jumping out - still bleary-eyed from the tears - and heading into the cut-rate hair salon.
“We have no idea how she found us,” a salon worker told Us Weekly.
Perhaps Spears, a sometime kabbalah devotee who was sporting a Star of David around her neck, was attracted to the name Esther, which is Madonna’s Hebrew moniker.


Tarzana, a L.A. suburb in the San Fernando Valley, is not especially known as a celebrity haven. To be cruising around aimlessly in Tarzana can almost be extrapolated into an especially bleak existential condition, drifting past all the anonymous strip malls and ranch homes that constitute large indistinguishable swaths of America. And here is Spears, one of the least anonymous Americans, someone whose every moment is tracking and photographed. And clearly the attention has destroyed her; she is one of the few people for whom the dreariness of Tarzana might represent a lost dream, an ideal normalcy.


But Spears’s flight from a rehab center in Antigua just before this head-shaving stunt suggests that she’s lost the ability to live without a constant press of attention. The spectacle of someone losing her mind from a superfluity of recognition, something in short supply for the rest of us, is maybe what gives her disintegration its power to fascinate (that is, apart from the way it gives us all a nervous breakdown to participate in vicariously—we can project our stress onto her behavior and aggrandize ourselves).


A photographer asked her why she shaved off her locks, which had alternated in the past few months between blond and brown.
“Because of you,” a dazed-looking Britney answered.


I don’t think to many gossip consumers are disappointed or surprised by the idea that too much fame can push you over the edge. In fact, it serves the supreme ideological function of dignifying our obscurity—we ordinary Tarzanans are much better off, away from the soul-sucking media glare. But we are that media glare; we are doing the soul sucking. To then gloat over the misery we’ve caused her seems impolitic: It’s disturbing, for example, to see the Post invite its readers to post their thoughts on Spears’s “latest act of stupidity.”


When the head-shaving is put in a quasi-Judaic context, which the Us Weekly reporter suggested Spears herself put her actions, we have to consider the practice of some Hassidic women of shaving their heads after marriage. This seems a matter of tzniut, the custom of modesty that dictates one’s head be covered. Women’s hair is considered especially erotic and must always be covered after marriage. Shaving it off makes this expedient, and it apparently makes ritual cleansing after menstruation a bit easier. What does any of this have to do with Spears, the most notoriously immodest celebrity in the firmament? (And does the fact that some rabbis hold that Orthodox men should be forbidden from hearing a woman sing mean anything?) I’m guessing Spears knows very little about any of these traditions; indeed, the tragedy of her situation in part is that she’s caught up in something profound that she seems to lack the intellectual resources to transmute into a personal mythology or some kind of art. She is apparently incapable of giving her actions a private meaning, so accustomed to total attention has she become. The Jewish modesty practices she has essentially parodied here are about preserving that private meaning she’s surrendered at this point. She’s forced to consume her own notoriety just like everyone else to have any chance at understanding herself. But it still seems mysterious what prompts people in her position to embrace how they have been scapegoated, and act in a way which furthers it. She’s trapped herself in a cycle of having to continually top her own outrageousness without seeming to understand no act will ever be outrageous enough to bring it to an end. She needs a Dylanesque motorcycle crash; then maybe she can hole up somewhere and work on her Basement Tapes.


It’s also worth noting that just as women are apparently obliged to assume responsibility for the modesty that wanton male human nature allegedly requires,  only female celebrities are hounded into public breakdowns, a kind of punishment for their youth and unusual reach their sexual attractiveness has. These meltdowns function as warnings to all women about the risk they run if they try to exercise their presumed powers of fascination and bewitchment. Just another little morality play among the multitude of them that remind all of us that lasciviousness is always the fault of the object who provokes it, not the person who experiences it.


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Sunday, Feb 18, 2007


All right, all right…it is the worst crime in all of cinema. Worse than Alfred Hitchcock never handling directorial Oscar gold. More appalling than Stanley Kubrick’s 1 for 13 Academy batting average (he received one for 2001‘s special effects???). Over the course of his highly praised career, Martin Scorsese, a true American auteur, has never won the big prize. Granted, he’s still considered a filmmaking genius. But for many, that’s not good enough. Instead of letting him rest on his considerable laurels, fans and faux well wishers want him to walk down that red carpet and pick up the industry’s biggest reward. It won’t affect his status as a legitimate legend (just ask Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, or any other renowned director who had to wait around for “honorary” recognition). But for many, it would be vindication after decades of being purposefully passed over.


Some of his slights have been pretty heinous. For the record, Scorsese has been nominated six times for Best Director, all for films made after 1980, none for anything prior to Raging Bull. He also has two screenplay nods as well. Of the movies he’s been recognized for, two are hailed as modern masterworks – 1980’s Bull and 1990’s Goodfellas. How ironic is it then that both efforts lost to first time directors (Robert Redford and Kevin Costner, respectively) both of who were superstar actors first, distinguished filmmakers a far distant second (quick, name another noteworthy film either has made since). One of the strongest arguments defenders make about Scorsese’s snubs is that, in a system which quickly rushes to celebrate the flavor of the moment, the Academy often fails to look at the bigger motion picture picture. And Marty is that man out of time.


No one would argue that Ordinary People (Redford’s still amazing movie) is better than Bull. It’s merely a matter of artistic degrees. Similarly, it’s a shame that the overblown reach of Costner’s pro-PC Western Dances With Wolves became the cause celeb of its otherwise mediocre movie season (let’s face it – Ghost, Awakenings and The Godfather Part III were Best Picture candidates that year as well). In both cases, Scorsese made the better film, the more timeless entertainment, the surest cinematic statement. But because of Hollywood happenstance, the power of the publicity machine, or the overall jealousy of an industry less enamored of his efforts than the critical community, Scorsese remains the Academy outsider, looking in. His latest nomination for the brilliant crime thriller The Departed promises to finally end his losing streak. But the fact remains that, in an amazingly creative career, it comes as far too little, way too late.


Indeed, there are at least five other films that Scorsese should have been acknowledged for, efforts that usually don’t get mentioned along with Mean Streets or Taxi Driver (remember – Oscar didn’t start to take notice until a decade after these definitive efforts). When you consider that two of his recent nods have been for less than successful works - no one would compare Gangs of New York or The Aviator to his finest – the indignity becomes even richer. One of America’s premiere talents has had to endure the nagging question of whether he will ever be the beneficiary of Academy recognition. Once you see the list of movies that haven’t made the cut, along with the few that did, you realize how rhetorical said query really is. Scorsese’s body of work is just phenomenal. His lack of AMPAS recognition is just ridiculous. Proof of point – the motion pictures listed below, beginning with:


1974 – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Not Nominated)
After the aesthetic epiphany that was Mean Streets (remember, Scorsese was an unknown whose only major filmmaking fame was as one of Roger Corman’s b-movie journeymen) many weren’t prepared for this road movie cum character study. Substituting the stark Southwestern desert for the overcrowded streets of New York, Scorsese deconstructed feminism, showing how paternalism dominates both the personal (Harvey Keitel, Kris Kristofferson) and professional (Vic Tayback) landscape. With Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn in the driver’s seat, and stellar supporting work from Diane Ladd, girl power was still prevalent. It’s interesting to note the absolute lack of directing tricks in this surprisingly immediate film. Utilizing handheld cameras and found locations, there is a decided documentary feel to this film that Scorsese would rarely revisit throughout the course of his career. It’s a sensational, slightly surreal cinema véritié approach that proves there is more to this man’s body of work than carefully choreographed compositions and meticulous tracking shots.


1983 – King of Comedy (Not Nominated)
With the monumental achievement of Raging Bull, the critical question became: what would Scorsese and his acknowledged acting collaborator Robert De Niro do for an encore. The answer, oddly enough, was one of the ‘80s bitterest satires. Predating the prevalence of fame whores by at least 15 years, this wholly New York look at celebrity and shallowness remains one of the filmmaker’s unappreciated classics. Like a brutal response to Network‘s previous clarion call, Scorsese took screenwriter Paul Zimmerman’s burlesque Travis Bickle, and with the help of an amazing performance from his partner, fashioned the oblivious Rupert Pupkin into the entertainment equivalent of Gordon Gecko. With its talk show as social signpost symbolism and unusual approach to romance, King was a delightful denunciation of every hack who ever believed him or herself capable of stardom. Featuring Jerry Lewis in one of his few dour, dramatic roles and a remarkable turn by stand-up comic Sandra Bernhard, the film remains a tremendously cynical cinematic statement.


1988 – The Last Temptation of Christ (Nominated, Lost to Barry Levinson for Rainman)
Talk about throwing a scandalized dog a bone. When it was discovered that Scorsese was bringing Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel to the silver screen, the newly empowered Religious Right got their representational rocks ready for a good old-fashioned stoning. Fast forward almost 20 years, and a famous Hollywood superstar (pre-Anti Semitic rant) decides to do an equally contentious take on the Messiah, and he’s embraced as a motion picture prophet. Must have something to do with the public’s willingness to accept abject violence (Passion‘s snuff film scourging) vs. a question of theoretical enticement (Christ’s crucifixion based fantasy about a secular life with Mary Magdalene). Anyone interested in the psychological and dogmatic underpinning of faith deserve to see Scorsese’s overlooked epic. While Gibson may have received the fundamentalist stamp of approval with his picture, Scorsese delivered the real scholarly take, and was given a token nomination as a reward (the film’s only Oscar acknowledgment).


1995 – Casino (Not Nominated)
Poor Casino. When placed alongside Mean Streets and Goodfellas, it becomes the bastard stepchild of Scorsese’s mob movies, an also ran in a dynamic dominated by acknowledged artwork. But it takes real creative chutzpah to focus on the grime under the glitz of Las Vegas and come out with anything remotely original. Thanks to the unique storyline (following real life gambling boss Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, here renamed Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein), stunning visual setting, and incredibly gifted cast (yes, EVEN Sharon Stone), Scorsese turned the crime drama on its ear. Instead of making the violence the most visceral part of his exposé (and there is some incredibly brutal material here), the accomplished auteur brought backstage bravado – and more than a little directorial pizzazz – to the everyday workings of a high rolling gambling establishment. Sure, the film loses its way toward the end, but in a year that saw Braveheart’s Gibson take the prize, this film deserved much, much better.


2005 – No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Out of Oscar Consideration)
Hopefully, the lunkhead over at PBS who kept this stellar documentary from getting a well deserved theatrical release is currently looking for a new place of employment. Of all the ‘60s icons, Dylan remains the most fascinating, and frustrating. At one time a true folk traditionalist, his transition into a potent political voice was an elusive aesthetic turn. The best thing Scorsese accomplishes with what is essentially a talking head retrospective is the complete contextualization of Dylan’s social and musical importance. He draws distinct parallels between the rising tide of unrest in the country and the simultaneous seismic shifts in the various entertainment mediums. He even stretches out beyond the scope of a standard biography to explore the importance of Dylan’s initial purist position, and why so many felt betrayed by his decision to “go electric” in 1965. And the worst part of all of it? It didn’t even win an Emmy. Scorsese lost the award to Baghdad ER.


All together, the man has made 21 major first run features. Of that number, 16 (give or take two or three) are considered by most film fans to be good or great. That’s quite a high percentage. It’s truly sad then that Oscar has failed to recognize his brilliance until now. But here’s guessing this is one filmmaker who would take his track record over a little gold statue any day. His lack of recognition from the Academy is dreadful. His work behind the camera remains definitive.


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Sunday, Feb 18, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Stiff Records—the original indie label that launched the careers of Elvis Costello, Madness and Shane MacGowan—re-releases six classic albums on April 3 2007.


Wreckless Eric—Big Smash

…features his classic single, “Whole Wide World” as featured in the latest Will Ferrell movie Stranger Than Fiction – “the gem of the collection” according to the New York Times.  Eric Goulden has just returned from an extensive US tour and this double CD compiles the best moments from his albums, Wreckless Eric and the Wonderful World of Wreckless Eric, both released in 1978.  Big Smash also includes rare tracks, B-sides, imports and a new, off-the-wall commentary from the man himself.

Preview songs from this album 


Tracey Ullman—You Broke My Heart In Seventeen Places

This is the first ever CD release for Tracey’s debut album, which originally sold over 150,000 copies back in the early ‘80s.  With hits like “Breakaway” and “Move Over Darling”, Tracy built a major pop career in the UK before moving to the US and HBO to build an equally major TV career.  This album has always been sought after by Kirsty MacColl fans, for her contributions that are evident throughout, not least on Tracey’s cover of MacColl’s classic “They Don’t Know”.  Includes four bonus tracks and new sleeve notes.

Preview songs from this album 


Rachel Sweet—Fool Around

The one they call the original Joss Stone, Rachel was 16 when she recorded her debut album of belting R&B for Stiff in 1978.  Here it finally is on CD with bonus tracks and deluxe packaging.  Rachel had been discovered on a Stiff trade mission to the thriving alternative music scene of Akron, Ohio, that lead to her first release for the label—a contribution to an Akron compilation that also featured Jane Aire, the Waitresses and the Bizarros—that was packaged in a scratch ’n’ sniff sleeve!  Like Tracey Ullman, Rachel moved into US TV but as a writer/producer working on—amongst others—Dharma & Greg and Seinfeld.

Preview songs from this album 


Dirty Looks—The Complete Stiff Years

This double CD compilation centres around Stiff’s biggest ever album release in the US—the self-titled debut from the Staten Island-based power pop trio that sold over 100,000 copies in 1980.  This three-piece came across like a feisty version of XTC playing, as they often did, CBGBs in the US and alongside fellow Stiff proto-punks Any Trouble and Tenpole Tudor in the UK.  Disc One is largely produced by Tim Friese-Green (Talk Talk) and Disc Two—centring around their second album, Turn It Up—is produced by the Motors’ Nick Garvey.  This deluxe package features 13 tracks available on CD for the first time, plus singles, B-sides and live tracks.

Preview songs from this album 


Any Trouble—Where Are All the Nice Girls?

A regular fixture in Nancy Griffith’s touring band, Clive Gregson is also often found performing as part of a trio with Eddie Reader and the Bible’s Boo Hewerdine. But it’s his early work on Stiff with Any Trouble that’s the stuff of legend. Like a looser, more upbeat version of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, this is a long awaiting CD issue for Any Trouble’s debut album, which originally appeared in 1980.  At that time Melody Maker declared it “recommended by this paper with an enthusiasm that probably left the group red at the neck with flustered embarrassment.”  More recently they’ve been described by Mojo as “a fine body of men… what fine songs too… gems from Clive Gregson’s formative years. Wonderful on vinyl, wonderful on CD.”

Preview songs from this album


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