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by Bill Gibron

23 Feb 2009

Back in the late 1920s, when the fledgling Hollywood studios were looking for a way to further extend public awareness of their increasingly popular product, the Academy Awards were invented. Unlike the high security scripting of today, winners were determined in a kind of conspiracy theory cabal, with the individual heads of MGM, Warners Brothers, etc. determining who should receive the coveted gold trophies. Backs were indeed slapped and favors forwarded and returned. Over the course of years, executive influence (and the eventual birth of the publicity-based campaign) made Oscar a known necessary evil. You could almost guarantee that certain names would never be acknowledged, while overblown efforts with bloated budgets and high profile stars typically walked away with far too many prizes.

Now, eight decades later, things are back to the way they were. No, we don’t have suits sitting around a table divvying out the coveted accolades. In their place, however, is a series of pre-Academy awards shows that have all but taken the guessing out of the game. Look at this year for example. Of the many trophies handed out on 22 February, only two were a real shock - Okuribito winning for Best Foreign Film (over the considered given Waltz with Bashir) and Dustin Lance Black’s nod for Best Original Screenplay (in what was truly a “you pick ‘em” category). Every other victory, from Slumdog Millonaire‘s many titles (eight in total) to the Sean Penn/Kate Winslet/Heath Ledger/Penelope Cruz domination of the acting categories meant that, as recently as a month ago, the Academy Awards were already pre-determined.

That’s what Oscar means now. It used to signify glamour and a misguided sense of what represented the best in film. The Academy frequently got it wrong, and still does (Penelope Cruz? Really?), but today such erroneous hype judgment is certified by a process that takes every event from May’s Cannes Film Festival to the numerous critic’s and guild awards to whittle down a monster list of possibilities into some kind of consensus. Gone mostly are the days when a wild card like Marisa Tomei can walk away with an unexplained (and much discussed) Best Supporting Actress nod. By the time they get to the red carpet, the new meta-nominees have been positioned, polished, and poised to become yet another name in what is increasingly becoming a meaningless Hall of Fame.

Does Ms. Winslet deserve an Academy Award? Absolutely. Was The Reader the movie that should forever be associated with said merit? Absolutely not. For this British beauty, this Oscar was a pay-off, industry graft admitting that past times when the actress was overlooked (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children) were not really slights. Instead, they were character building lessons in moving up the AMPAS ladder. Of course, not everyone has to travel such skewed paths (right, Helen Hunt, Gwyneth Paltrow, or Mairon Cotillard). For years, no one thought Sean Penn would ever receive Academy recognition, let alone stop his political grandstanding long enough to actually show up and claim his prize. Now, with a second gold man to match his Mystic River statue, he’s suddenly one of the artform’s best.

And then there’s Slumdog Millionaire, the little independent exile that apparently could…and did. It’s interesting to look back at the Summer of 2008, to all the press surrounding the “dumping” of the film by Warners Independent - and the 50% stake eventually bought by Fox Searchlight - to remember that this multiple Oscar winner was almost sent straight to video. Naturally, there were issues with money and studio security (WIP has since shuttered), but there was a vocal contingent who thought Danny Boyle’s episodic epic was too slight, too stylized, too ‘foreign’ to represent the best of Western cinema. Yet here it stands, the winner of as many trophies as Gone with the Wind, On the Waterfront, and My Fair Lady. Even without the acting nods, it stands as a monumental achievement for a well-deserving work.

But there is no real surprise in the result. Ever since it became the frontrunner, Slumdog was seen as the answer to many of the Academy’s lingering issues. It was a small film outside the studio system. It was multicultural in cast and approach. It offered a chance for Oscar to recognize another underserved race in its historic cavalcade of inferred (and sometimes overt) prejudice. And, in many ways, it represented the perfect upset fodder. With such an unusual choice in the mix, many felt that a true Hollywood heavy hitter like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Frost/Nixon could sneak in and steal the limelight. But ever since the end of November, when the snowball started rolling in Slumdog‘s favor, there was no denying its ability to win.

It’s the same with the others. Ms. Winslet walked away with TWO Golden Globes, the double barreled statement daring Tinsel Town not to respond. Some felt that Mickey Rourke, making the comeback route after years in self-imposed banishment, would win the actor trophy. But with the political positioning of Milk, and the recent events of California’s election season, gay rights trumped a personal downward spiral. Only the Foreign Film category remains a puzzle, Bashir‘s animated take on Israel’s occupation of Lebanon in the early ‘80s as searing and visually unforgettable as any war film, pro or con, could be. Many an office pool underperformed thanks to the pre-Oscar spin on that one. Besides, Bashir deserved to be in the Animated category, leaving room for equally stellar entries like Italy’s Gommorah and Sweden’s Let the Right One In.

Perhaps it’s best to remember what the Academy Awards truly represent. This is not the people’s choice, where popularity and commercial appeal almost always overrule talent and timelessness. This is not a critic’s choice either, since getting a group of self-important scholars to agree on anything would be virtually impossible. Over the years, the studios have stepped aside to allow an elite group of past nominees, winners, and invited members to sit back and study the year in film, find a series of nominees, and then vote on who they think is the best. Some categories, like Best Documentary, have consideration rules so arcane and complicated that tax lawyers look over the by-laws and thank God for the IRS code.

It’s all so insular. Go back over the last decade of nominees and winners and mark how many of your favorites made the grade. The Oscars are not a chance for you to share in the glittering prize of motion picture perfection. It’s the annual attempt by an occasionally out of touch organization to put their stamp of approval on the year in film. It’s the last word, the final statement, the frequently whacked out wrap-up of all the politicking, hype, consensus, disagreement, box office totals, international spin, personal vendettas, corporate positioning, PR missteps, and ever-present backlash. That it attempts to address so many of the movie industry’s needs over the course of three and a half hours is somewhat noble. The eventual winners can even outshine such self-serving righteousness.

So here’s to WALL-E and The Duchess. Here’s to the unheralded sweep by Slumdog in many of the so-called minor categories. Here’s to the short films no one saw and the terrific tightrope act of Man on Wire. There will be those who state that the nomination itself is all that matters, and actually, that’s pretty accurate. It’s amazing to look back over the hundreds of films released in 2008 and comprehend that, indeed, these are the five actors/actresses/writers/directors/cinematographers/set designers/special effects technicians/costumers/sound engineers/make-up artists/animators picked to represent the business’s best. They may not get it right, but at least the Academy Awards have remained true to their roots - sort of. They are serving no other needs than their own. We should feel lucky they let us in at all.

by Michael Edler

23 Feb 2009

During an odd afternoon as a part time DJ at a community college radio station which I finally heard what a strained, angry woman sounds like.  The radio station received its measly weekly mailings from our distributor and near the bottom of the small box was a copy of P.J. Harvey’s first album Dry. The disengaging cover grabbed my attention first: the smear of red lipstick across the bottom of a nose to the top of the chin. A vertical line, cutting through P.J.’s sneer. Sure, I had heard Pattie Smith and was a closet Pretender fan. I dug Sinead and thought other women rock stars were cool, but this was different. The inset informed us that this was the brightest sound of rock (NOTE: not women’s rock) coming from Britain in years. The insert also commanded us to play the new single “Sheela Na Gig” and check out her video on MTV’s “120 Minutes” in the coming weeks.

In pure community college fashion, I took the ad’s advice and cued “Sheela Na Gig”; without a preview; just a quick “What the hell?!” The quick light of the initial guitar riff and this rhythmic, hardened guitar and then:

I’ve been trying to show you over and over
    Look at these my child-bearing hips
    Look at these my ruby red ruby lips
    Look at these my work strong arms and
    You’ve got to see my bottle full of charm
    I lay it all at your feet
    You turn around and say back to me
    He said
    Sheela-na-gig, sheela-na-gig

After playing the song, quickly pawning the CD into my school bag and “borrowing” it for the night, I found a woman who screamed from a level of womanhood that only a few ever tried, but were, at best, given the “exhibitionist” label and quickly dismissed. P.J. Harvey demanded our utmost respect; not because she’s a woman, but because she sang and played on Dry at a level that very few at the beginning of the ‘90s even challenged. Only 22 at the release of the album, PJ challenged her listener at every turn of the record. The simplicity of PJ’s guitar riffs, basic rhythmic section, and mixed with Harvey’s voice created an album that I consider possibly the best album of the early 1990s.

Dry is an album that is unapologetic to the pains of prior generations of women. Dry is an up front accusation of men and women who propagate and survive because of a Patriarchy that Harvey deals with richly developed bombastic accusations that challenge not only men, but the women who gain from playing in the system. By the time the final track “Water” buzzes through the speakers, we’ve been indoctrinated into a world that very few artists have ever been successful at describing and criticizing. P.J. Harvey is a magnificent songwriter that borrows from the greats, but all the while creating a sound that has influenced all sorts of albums. Let’s face it Radiohead fans, Thom Yorke needed P.J. to be great and when you hear the desperation of Dry I believe you hear the sighs and moans and screams that are constant reminders that so much is borrowed from this woman’s musical career. Ironically, P.J. is the loudest and sharpest woman voice of her generation, but she never had to bust out a chorus of “Closer to Fine” on “Lilith Fair” for her credibility to ring as hard and determined as any in rock.

Dry begins with a sinister blend of bass riff and P.J.’s pleading line “O My Lover/Don’t you know it’s alright/You can love her/You can love me at the same time?” At once Harvey takes full command of the relationship she will have with her listener and her lover. A pardon for listening or loving anything beforehand because, quite frankly, it’s okay; all the while the collected session musicians plays a devilish and desperate number in the background. “Oh My Lover” introduces the listener to a world hell bent to avoid the apology and desperate for you to understand that P.J. Harvey is in complete control. By the time track 2 “O Stella” finishes, a tightly packaged band is in full form and P.J. Harvey has mastered a vocal range that demonstrates the raw power she will use as a foundation for her early career.

Highlights on Dry are endless and, quite frankly, there isn’t a weak track on the entire album. However, what P.J. will be known for in her career is her flexibility as a songwriter. P.J. demonstrates this in four numbers track 5 “Happy & Bleeding”, Plants & Rags”, “Fountain”, and the final track “Water”. The starkness of Harvey’s efforts are on display in these four tracks. However, a nod must be made to the track “Plants & Rags”; a mashing of Harvey’s acoustic guitar with the layered textures of string patterns that sound like a precursor to Billy Corgin’s future work with The Smashing Pumpkins; “Plants & Rags” shows a thoughtful and playful songwriter. If P.J. stuck to the hard edges of “Oh My Lover” and “Sheela Na Gig” there is little doubt that she would have succumbed to the death of many woman songwriters who play loud bombastic rock. Truth is, when P.J. appeared for the first time she was immediately paired with that songstress Liz Phair, but it’s the flexibility of Harvey’s work that separates her from the pack of ordinary rockers.

The last two tracks on Dry “Fountain” and “Water” play off the Feminist messages Harvey delivers with expertise, but it’s with playfulness that she calls upon the biblical allusions of “Hand in hand/He’s my big man/ Stays with me/ Some forty days/ No words/ Then goes away/ I cry again.” However, P.J.’s final shot is across the bow of manhood. She challenges the adventurous, hubris men of Christ and Icarus with the notion that these characters toy with a woman’s emotional stability, in this case Mary, with pleads that will eventually drawn her in water. When P.J. challenges her man to “Prove it to me”, she calls out from that same voice that led her listener off the album’s cliff; I can hear this as P.J.’s final strike. “Water” finishes with her request of Mary to hold on tight because P.J. isn’t a sucker; she’s walking on water.

Now the water to my ankles
    Now the water to my knees
    Think of him all waxy wings
    Melted down into the sea
    Mary Mary what your man said
    Washing it all over my head
    Mary Mary hold on tightly
    Over water
    Under the sea
    Water
    Water
    I’m walking
    Walking on
    Water

P.J. Harvey calls upon her past to challenge their position in history and not to be satisfied with the bit parts in the script. Dry functions on these ironic placements. From the ironic conception of the cover and the misplaced lipstick to the lyrical and musical output within, the album excels on a level few have reached. It is with this irony that P.J. Harvey’s Dry is successful and will live on as a great masterpiece in rock and roll history. The great thing is that this was the beginning of a career leading Harvey to great musical experiments. What was promised on an album like Dry has been furthered throughout P.J. Harvey’s career.

by Lara Killian

23 Feb 2009

image

This week marks the 25th celebration in Canada of Freedom to Read week (22 – 29 February 2009). Promoting awareness of censorship and the theme of choice in reading materials, events across the country acknowledge banned books and books that deal with uncomfortable issues.

Writing workshops are being held to discuss difficulties in writing about issues that are sometimes censored. Above all, honesty and openness is a part of the festivities. Some locations are holding used book sales of challenged material, and others are providing a space for community members to get together for a cup of coffee and the discussion of controversial volumes that have impacted their lives in some way.

I particularly like the idea of the initiative “Bookcrossing: Free a Challenged Book”, where people across Canada (and around the world) are invited to consult a list of challenged books, find examples on their own shelves or perhaps in a used bookstore, and then to “release” the book into public, leaving it on a public bench or café counter, for someone else to find. Participants have the option of ‘tagging’ the book using a printed label, and registering the individual book with the website, then logging in to see where their book has been found. It’s all about spreading the word and refusing to let words be censored.

by Mike Schiller

22 Feb 2009

This is it, people.  This is the week we’ve been waiting for, the week that’s been on our minds since last year, the week we sit outside the GameStops and GameCrazys of the world waiting impatiently for the doors to open as we finally have the de facto game of the year within our sights.  For many, the tears of joy have already started.

50 Cent: Blood on the Sand arrives on Tuesday.

(long pause) Too much?

All right, so perhaps I’ve allowed my own preconceptions to get in the way of, I don’t know, journalistic integrity or something, but there is no way I can take 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand seriously.  Here’s the plot, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“50 Cent and his G-Unit crew finish completing a tour of shows in the Middle East. Rather than receiving cash, G-Unit is offered a diamond-embedded skull of legends. When attempting to return home, 50 Cent and his entourage are attacked, and the skull is stolen by local gangs. 50 Cent will risk whatever it takes to get his skull back.”

I have got to think that the ridiculousness of this whole premise is intentional, because the sheer ridiculousness of it is what’s got everybody talking about it.  Nobody is taking it seriously, really, but everybody seems to want to play it, because let’s face it, it actually sounds kind of fun romping around the desert as 50 Cent, taking out thugs and trying to find the

Crystal

Diamond Skull.  If Indiana Jones makes a cameo, I’m totally buying it, and I wish I was less serious than I actually am.

If I wanted to be totally truthful, it’s Killzone 2 that sticks out on this particular list.  It feels at this point like Killzone 2 has been out forever given that they lifted the embargo on reviews a full three weeks before the game is actually going to arrive on store shelves, but FPS fans who’ve had about enough of Resistance on their PS3s are about to be loving life.  Word is that the latest Killzone is pretty light on the whole “story” thing, but it gets the shooter mechanics pretty much perfect.  Here’s to finding out.

The Wii has a Dead Rising remake on the way, the 360 is seeing the new Star Ocean, and the DS gets Ys, the new Puzzle Quest, and Peggle!  It’s a light release week, but there’s truly something for everyone on the way.

Who else is oddly transfixed by the Blood on the Sand phenomenon?  Who’s going to finally turn off Flower in favor of some Killzone?  Let’s hear from you in the comments!  The full release list and trailers for Killzone 2 and 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand are after…the jump.

by Thomas Hauner

22 Feb 2009

The epochal South African protest singer and songwriter Vusi Mahlasela played an engaging show before a docile but erudite audience in the sprawling Walt Whitman Theatre at Brooklyn College—a tiny collegiate oasis deep in Brooklyn. The diverse but reserved crowd almost came across as too reverent, passive towards the poet and musician. Only by the end of Mahlasela’s set did they finally muster the courage to indulge in his group’s propulsive polyrhythm and guitars.

Mahlasela will forever be associated with the soundtrack of the anti-apartheid movement. But he is still decidedly a protest singer. (Broadly, that is considered “African folk” music). His defiant, peaceful, and artistic resistance to injustice makes it impossible for him to ignore continuing calamities. However, given the serious subtext of his songwriting and singing his music is not cloaked by the surrounding darkness he endured in the past. Rather the prevailing harmonies of life—love and family—are at the center of his message.

“Everytime”—a track featuring Jem on his 2007 release Guiding Star—was a beautiful flowing song about a devoted lover. Lucid African imagery articulated Mahlasela’s universal sentiments: “Your beauty burns the grass like fire.”

Musically, he and his four-piece band played a brilliant mixture of global sounds, perfectly balancing blues and soul with traditional South African rhythms, melodies and language. “Thula Mama” dedicated to his grandma for thwarting the police when trying to arrest Mahlasela as a young activist—blended scat singing and vocables into a smooth homage to mothers. During the bridge Mahlasela traded a cappella verses as the band perfectly transitioned in-between. Finally the song drifted away in a jubilant, but faint, sing-along: “My song of love / My song of life”.

Purpose is never far from Mahlasela’s mind. It is his guiding principle in life and music, and so everything he does must resonate with a positive and humane message. He took a moment to speak out about the marginalization and forced relocation of Botswana’s indigenous San people, or Bushmen. Remarkably, he never sounded preachy or forceful or hippy-dippy. Instead it was an earnest reproach of an unjust policy, never undermined by segueing into a song introduction. Rather he emphasized his point with a poignant ethical and rhetorical question: Where are they to go?

Mahlasela was not all serious, though. While tuning his guitar he joked, “this is a Chinese song called Too Ning… it’s over now.”

Ending the show with Miriam Makeba’s iconic “Pata Pata” was a well-received homage, Mahlasela spinning, twisting, and shuffling to the song’s rhapsodic refrain.

 

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