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Friday, Jan 4, 2008


Call it reverse retro - something so endemic of its time or place that it transcends nostalgia to become a definitive cultural statement. Every medium has them - from the brazen blaxploitation films of the ‘70s to the sublime synth pop of the ‘80s. No other era has as many ethereal examples as the ‘60s however. As a decade noted for its artistic reinterpretation, where nothing was sacred and everything was subverted, old war horses and sacred cows got the aesthetic agriculture taken out of them. Nowhere was this truer than in television, where sitcoms and the writers who created them tried to undue years of formulaic funny business. From monsters to musicians, it was a creative temperament ripe for the reimagining.


One of the best one’s ever to fool the format was Get Smart. Conceived by comic legends Mel Brooks and Buck Henry as part of a one off speculative deal, this silly spy spoof featuring the world’s dumbest secret agent lasted five fascinating years. It also rewrote the entire decade’s agenda on how serious subject matter could be mimicked and mocked. Now available is an exemplary complete series set from Time Life DVD (this is how all TV shows should be handled), revisiting this emblematic entertainment proves the backwards revisionism theory. It is less like a trip down memory lane and more like the discovery of the perfect counterculture confection.


For those unfamiliar with the show (it’s been in and out of reruns for quite a while), the set up is simple. Maxwell Smart, codenamed 86, works for CONTROL, a government intelligence organization battling the forces of geo-political complexity and international evil. Answering to the tough but genial Chief, and typically paired with leggy female cohort 99 (whose name is never revealed), the duo regularly take on KAOS, a band of nogooniks led by Mr. Big and overseen by Vice President of Public Relations and Terror, Siegfried. Though they are sworn enemies, Max and his nemesis enjoy a surreal mutual admiration society. Oddly enough, there is respect and honor among these stunted secret agents. Along with the standard menagerie of villains, sidekicks, and one-off helpers, we meet unlucky android Agent Hymie, the mysterious Agent 13 (who communicates with CONTROL from unusual locations like lockers and mailboxes), and Fang, the bureau’s asthmatic dog.


Over the course of 138 episodes and two networks (it originally began airing on NBC, but ended its run with a single season switch over to CBS), the spy vs. spy tomfoolery used gadgets, goofiness, and some good natured lampoonery to create its weekly 26 minutes of mirth. Some of the most memorable visual jokes included the top secret Cone of Silence (a device which supposedly allowed conversations to go unheard), Max’s classic shoe phone (complete with heel receiver and instep dialer), and various incognito guns. The numerous James Bond knock-offs, usually applied more for comic than crime relief, became iconic for series’ devotees. They also helped the show successfully focus as much on the actual genre being tweaked as well as jibing to the archetypes within it.


Thanks to Sean Connery and his amazing machismo magic, the ‘60s was awash in kitsch crazy spy stuff. Film was constantly on the make for another franchise icon (Flint, Helm) while TV also found a wealth of espionage angles with dramas like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible. Get Smart was one of the few attempts at bridging the increasing clichés already forming to manufacture something original inside the formulaic and familiar. As one follows the episodes offered, through first season highlights like “Satan Place” and “Survival of the Fattest” to last act offerings like “Apes of Rath” and “And Baby Makes Four”, we see the growth of the characters, the creation of network mandated narrative constants, and the development of seminal series catchphrases - “missed it by that much” and “would you believe…?” - that became cult fad fodder.


To call the show uneven would be stating the obvious. Fans can probably pinpoint the moment the ingenuity became to wane - perhaps with the required wedding of 86 and 99, or the last season decision to have them procreate. But for the most part, the inventive internal aspects of the series, as well as the external elements of the experience (changing social dynamics, growing political unrest) keep it fresh and original. While it’s impossible to evaluate all fives series and 138 episodes, it’s clear that, as an example of TV’s attempts at battling cinema’s anti-studio system rebirth, Brooks and Henry were on the right track.


This is pop art parody of the highest order, a veritable trip back in time to the slapstick slickness of the swinging ‘60s. The look of the show combines conservative government bureaucratics with hipster bachelor padding. Everyone smokes, and they smoke A LOT. Sunglasses are statements of the sinister and the suave, while 99’s dresses run the dramatic gamut from Carnaby Street minis to natty New York maxis. Without directly addressing the ever-changing face of the era, we get hints of hippies, lots of Cold War mongering, the slightest slip into psychedelia (the sets are always amazing), and enough pseudo slick lingo to fill the mind of an amiable and impressionable audience.


The acting, of course, made the experience and it remains, without a doubt, exceptional. Though he was hired mostly due to an outstanding contract he had with the network, Don Adams proved to be an invaluable piece of the puzzle. He literally steals every scene he is in as Smart, whiny wisenheimer voice hiding an equally wimpy work ethic. Using some of the material he honed as part of his stand up routine, and a great deal of improvisational grace, he became the satiric standard bearer for most of the decade’s sprawling spy fascination. In fact, it’s safe to say that without Maxwell Smart, the uneven farce of Casino Royale would never have been fathomable, let alone possible.


Equally alluring in wildly different ways is Barbara Feldon as 99. As enigmatic as she is predictable (her crush on 86 is evident from the earliest episodes), the character cuts a swatch that balances out much of Get Smart‘s surreality. Like the calming centering of a constantly out of whack storm, she comes across as sexy and smart, easily understood and never off the handle. Indeed, if Feldon had been given a more prominent role, she could have turned the show semi-serious, which would never have worked. But thanks to her classiness, her deft comic timing (she was great with a joke as well), and the chemistry she shared with everyone from Adams to Edward Platt (as the omniscient Chief) she transforms the obligatory Emma Peel eye candy role into something quite special.


Indeed, that’s the best way to describe Get Smart in general. It’s an amalgamation of incongruous elements that shouldn’t really work together yet somehow, do. It’s the perfect incorporation of the dumb with the discerning, the improbable with the imaginative. Of course, it takes tons of talent to pull this off, and from Brooks and Henry in the background (between them, both wrote dozens of episodes) to standard day to day production players like scribes Chris Hayward, Leonard Stern, and Arne Sultan, this was unconventional TV from standard boob tube scribblers. Add in the fringe turns, the wondrous non conformity in disguise of Dick Gautier as Hymie, the various nefarious villains played to perfection by such stalwarts as Bernie Kopell (Siegfried), King Moody (Shtarker), and Milton Selzer (as double agent Parker), and the various guest turns (Johnny Carson, James Caan, Don Rickles), and you’ve got a concept with enough creativity to carry it through even the toughest times.

As for the tremendous Time Life DVD compendium, it’s a veritable treasure trove of discoverable delights. Divided up by season, both Brooks and Henry add a commentary to the pilot, while Feldon offers her thoughts on Episode 17 - “Kisses for Kaos”. Disc five of the first set contains nothing but extras, including interviews, promos, TV appearances, reunion footage, bloopers, a documentary, and an interactive feature. It’s the same packaging paradigm that is carried over onto each additional season in the box. Other highlights include 1967 Emmy Broadcast material, NBC memos (both from Season 2), commercials, current cast interviews (Season 4) and a memorial to the late Don Adams (Season 5). Each collection also contains a booklet providing context and scope, and the transfers in general are terrific - bright, colorful and loaded with era-defining detail.


Oddly enough, Smart was one of the few ‘60s shows that did not translate well when it was inevitably updated. The 1980 big screen version, entitled The Nude Bomb, was a major critical and box office disappointment, while the 1989 TV movie Get Smart, Again! was slightly more winning. It led to an attempted revamp by Fox with Andy Dick as Smart and 99’s son (it lasted seven uneven episodes). Now, Hollywood has again come calling, placing comedic flavor of the moment Steve Carell in the role of Smart, with Anne Hathaway as 99, and Alan Arkin as The Chief. The preview trailer tells little about how successful this update will be. The goofiness is there, but the original Adams/Feldon spark appears absent. Until then, we have this remarkable overview to remind us of how the right combination of ability and anarchy can merge to form an almost effortless entertainment. Like other examples from the time - The Addams Family, for example - the sum of Get Smart is uniquely equal to its many magnificent parts. It remains a seminal spy spoof sitcom. 


 


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Thursday, Jan 3, 2008

When we think about soundtracks, it is impossible to avoid bringing up the names of the giants in the field: Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, and Bernard Herrmann, to name just a few. Unfortunately, such a bias tends to affect our listening habits, and we often ignore the new voices that emerge from the film music community every year. And this is a real shame, as truly innovative and high quality scores have recently been made by newcomers who may lack the fame, but have the talent necessary to create blissful music. In an attempt to correct this situation, the current installment of Surround Sound will review some recently released soundtracks that feature sublime music made by relatively new talents.


30 Days of Night - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]


In spite of its detractors, the cinematic adaptation of the groundbreaking graphic novel by Steve Niles proved to be an entertaining and intriguing horror flick. Directed with a good sense of pace by David Slade, 30 Days of Night offers a truly nightmarish situation. As the title suggests, in the small town of Barrow, Alaska, the longest night of winter lasts 30 days (in reality it takes 65 days, but I guess Niles thought that 30 made a better title than 65). This long period of time without sunlight is used by a clan of vicious vampires to kill and feed with equal gusto. As a handful of survivors manage to take shelter in a claustrophobic attic, the movie turns suspenseful and ominous. Featuring gruesome visual effects, an absorbing storyline, awesome cinematography, and decent characterization, 30 Days of Night is one of the best horror offerings released in 2007.

The creepy music for 30 Days of Night by Brian Reitzell nicely fits the onscreen horrors and mayhem. Even though this is only Reitzell’s third score (following Friday Night Lights [2004] and Stranger than Fiction [2006]), he magnificently knows how to provide an aural atmosphere that will support the development of the narrative. A former drummer with rock bands, Reitzell followed a truly unusual approach to create the eerie score for 30 Days of Night. Indeed, besides using traditional digital instrumentations, Reitzell produced unsettling noises by manipulating a fast spinning pottery wheel that he bought at the local Home Depot. The result is a cacophonic, non-melodic musical soundscape that aptly captures the violence, otherness, and gruesomeness of the terrifying blood suckers. It may not have sophisticated compositions, instrumentations, or musical structure, but nevertheless the soundtrack of 30 Days of Night remains original and effective.


In the Shadow of the Moon - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]


A beautiful documentary that showcases probably the greatest achievement of mankind, In the Shadow of the Moon narrates the dramatic events that culminated with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the lunar surface. The film not only uses stunning materials from NASA archives, but it also brings together some of the astronauts that participated in the Apollo program. Some of the legendary astronauts featured in the movie include Jim Lovell (Apollo 8 and 13), Dave Scott (Apollo 9 and 15), Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), and Gene Cernan (Apollo 10 and 17). Unfortunately, the recluse Armstrong does not provide his personal reflections of such a groundbreaking event. As this flick confirms, even after nearly 38 years, the landing on the moon continues to be an awe-inspiring and breathtaking accomplishment.


The beautiful music for In the Shadow of the Moon composed by Philip Sheppard reflects the epic magnitude of the conquest of the moon. Composed for full-sized symphonic orchestra, choirs, and electronics, this soundtrack is heroic at times, and enigmatic at others. The track “The Eagle has Landed”, for instance, uses overwhelming Americana sounds that bring to mind the frontier mentality. On the other hand, “X-15 Jet” uses minimalist arpeggios that reveal the tenacity of mankind to understand the universe. The second soundtrack commissioned to Sheppard, In the Shadow of the Moon showcases his eclectic education and sensibility for classical music. A respected cellist, Sheppard heavily uses the ominous sounds of this instrument on his compositions and orchestrations. Overall, even though the soundtrack for In the Shadow of the Moon is not as majestic as Bill Conti’s The Right Stuff (1983) or James Horner’s Apollo 13 (1995), it still delivers a beautiful musical background for unforgettable images of human endurance and perseverance.


Lust, Caution - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]


The latest film by acclaimed director Ang Lee, Lust, Caution is a charged thriller set in an exotic-looking Shanghai, and takes place during the torrid years of World War II. This film tells the story of a woman who is swept into a dangerous situation with a prominent political figure. Espionage, intrigue, eroticism, and romance characterize Lee’s movie, which is based on the short story written by the highly praised Chinese author Eileen Chang. Featuring the histrionics of Tony Leung and Tang Wei, stunning cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, and incredible production design by Lai Pan, Lust, Caution is an elegant flick that brings to mind the alluring works of Kar Wai Wong.

Perfectly matching the delicacy and exoticism of Lust, Caution is the gorgeous score composed by Alexandre Desplat. Even though Desplat has been composing film scores since the early 1990s in his native France, he only came to international prominence very recently, with his work for English-language movies such as Birth (2004), Syriana (2005), Firewall (2006), and The Queen (2006). Desplat’s inspired orchestral compositions for Lust, Caution prominently use a melodic piano to underscore the drama and the romance, while a solo violin and accompanying strings are used to convey the suspense and scorching political landscape of the locale and time period. The musical duality of Desplat’s score is very expressive, features elegant instrumentations, and manages to provide a pleasing listening experience on its own.


Reservation Road - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]


Upon its original release, this film was celebrated as an effective dramatic thriller directed by two-time Academy Award writer and director Terry George. Reservation Road tells the heartbreaking story of two fathers and their families, and how their lives suddenly converge after a tragic car accident claims the life of a young child. This is a moody movie that deals with some of the darkest feelings from the human heart such as resentment, retribution, grief, hatred, and unbearable guilt. Featuring an outstanding cast led by Jennifer Connelly, Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix, and Mira Sorvino, Reservation Road is a truly emotional flick.

Composed by the celebrated Mark Isham, the soundtrack for Reservation Road is as bleak and gloomy as the movie itself. For some strange reason, even though Isham has scored over 100 movies, he has never achieved the stratospheric levels of popularity that characterize Williams or Goldsmith. Still, Isham’s work for Reservation Road shows what a great musician he is. For this movie, Isham uses a small instrumental ensemble as well as keyboards and other electronic gadgets. Incessant electronic percussions, a sax, an oboe, and a clarinet offer an aural soundscape that conveys sorrow. Placing mood and atmosphere over melody, Isham delivers a haunting score that faithfully reflects the anguish and distress of the characters.


Superman: Doomsday – Original Soundtrack Recording [rating: 7]


Based on the bestselling series of comic books from the early 1990s, Superman: Doomsday presents the tragic story of the death, funeral, and resurrection of the indefatigable Man of Steel. Of course, as it was eventually revealed, this milestone in the history of the comic book industry was more a calculated ploy to increase sales than an artistic compulsion to explore a world without Superman. But nevertheless, not completely faithful to the original source, this animated movie tells how Lex Luthor’s LexCorps accidentally releases an intergalactic creature aptly named Doomsday. The ensuing battle between Doomsday and Superman reaches epic proportions, and culminates with the death of the quintessential American hero. Featuring the voices of Adam Baldwin, Anne Heche, and James Marsters, Superman: Doomsday is fun escapism if not much else.


The composing duties for Superman: Doomsday fell in the able hands of Robert J. Kral, who already had shown sensitivity for dramatic and action oriented scores with his work for the popular TV series Angel (1999-2004). Perhaps the greatest challenge confronted by Kral in scoring Superman: Doomsday was to follow the giant footsteps left by Williams with his unforgettable music for the original Superman (1978). To this end, Kral created a new heroic theme for the Man of Steel, which, even though it lacks the acoustic strength of Williams’ composition, it still delivers a musical punch. Kral’s score combines high and minor chords, and aptly balances action, suspense, and pathos. Quite unfortunately, Kral performed his music with electronics and synthesizers instead of a real orchestra, and the limits of the technology are often revealed during his more majestic compositions.


Things We Lost in the Fire - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]


In this dramatic film, Audrey Burke (Halle Berry), a widow, befriends Jerry Sunborne (Benicio del Toro), the troubled best friend of her recently deceased husband. As Jerry finds his way back in life, he also helps Audrey and her two sons to cope with their grief and confront their loss. Directed with flair by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, and featuring powerful performances by the leading stars, Things We Lost in the Fire presents a heartbreaking story of great sorrow and unbearable anguish, but also of immense hope.

The bleak soundtrack for Things We Lost in the Fire was composed by Gustavo Santaolalla and Johan Soderqvist. However, in spite of the alleged collaborative effort, the musical structure feels rather similar to Santaolalla’s Babel (2006) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). That is, the music for Things We Lost in the Fire is minimalist and mostly made of guitar snippets with infrequent harmonies provided by a small orchestral ensemble.  Lacking major themes and melodies, the lonely guitar in the score effectively provides an atmosphere of lamentation and sorrow. However, while the music is effective within the context of the film, those detractors who have questioned in the past the musical abilities of two-time Academy Award winner Santaolalla are not likely to change their mind after listening at his work for Things We Lost in the Fire.


Hollywood’s Greatest Hits: Classic Music From the Movies [rating: 6]


Arguably, the big problem with “Best of” compilations of film music is that, more often than not, we get the exact same pieces. Indeed, most of these collections feature nearly identical excerpts from John William’s Star Wars (1977), Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Miklos Rozsa’s Ben Hur (1959), Ernest Gold’s Exodus (1960), and Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek (1979). And even though these are undisputable landmarks of the genre, even casual fans probably already own the original releases. Therefore, Hollywood’s Greatest Hits: Classic Music From the Movies is highly commendable because it offers an eclectic selection of high quality film music that is rarely brought together in this type of compilation.


Hollywood’s Greatest Hits offers awesome film music that most casual fans probably have not had a chance to hear before. Some excerpts found on this outstanding 2-CD collection include John Addison’s A Bridge Too Far (1977), Ron Goodwin’s Battle of Britain (1969), Franz Waxman’s Taras Bulba (1962), Mario Nascimbene’s The Vikings (1958), Bronislau Kaper’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), and Nino Rota’s Roma (1972). Unfortunately, these are not original recordings, but re-recordings played by the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. And even though the performance of the orchestra is top-notch, some instrumentations and arrangements may sound a bit off the mark for those connoisseurs who are familiar with the original recordings. But nevertheless, featuring 47 tracks this compilation is likely to offer something new for everybody, and perhaps inspire the search for the original recordings. Personally, listening to the excerpt from Geroges Delerue’s Viva Maria (1965) was a true revelation to a beautiful score I was not familiar with.


The Nanny Diaries - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 1]


The stunning Scarlett Johansson may well be the only reason to watch The Nanny Diaries, an uninspired comedy directed not by one, but two directors, Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini. In this flick, Johansson plays the role of Annie Braddock, an aspiring anthropology student who has to work as a nanny for an obnoxious wealthy family to support herself.

The soundtrack for the Nanny Diaries is made up of popular songs, and quite frankly, it is thought provoking. Indeed, after listening to it, one wonders how a major film would be accompanied by such a lame compilation of uninspired songs. Perhaps with the sole exception of WAR’s timeless classic “Why Can’t We Be Friends”, all the other songs are not that good. As such, it is very difficult to envision why anybody would like to purchase such an insipid soundtrack.


The Ten - Film Soundtrack [rating: 3]


David Wain’s amusing comedy is made of 10 vignettes, each of them telling a story of what happens when different characters break each of the Ten Commandments. Even though it brings to mind the wacky situations and narrative structure that characterized Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), The Ten feels refreshingly original. As an added incentive, The Ten features three of the hottest girls from Hollywood, Jessica Alba, Femke Janssen, and Winona Ryder. Towards the film’s end, rather bizarrely, all the interwoven stories culminate with a climatic song and dance cavalcade in the inimitable style of 1940s Hollywood musicals.

The soundtrack for The Ten was composed by Craig Wedren, who also composed the music for Wain’s previous flick, Wet Hot American Summer (2001), and the short lived TV series The State (1993). The music is fitting for the film, and equally multifaceted. From an epic opening in “Fanfare”, to Latin rhythms in “Mexico” and country-style music in “Goof/Prison”, Wedren shows a noteworthy musical background and sensible artistic inspiration. Unfortunately, some of the songs featured on the soundtrack CD are interrupted with snippets of dialogue from the movie. Overall, in spite of its underscoring achievements, The Ten may prove to be a soundtrack that is difficult to be listened on its own.


 


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Wednesday, Jan 2, 2008


While you were sitting around celebrating the holidays, SE&L was busy compiling its lists of the year’s best (and worst) releases. Focusing on the unique and the illogical, the routine and the outrageous, each assemblage attempted to address both the standard and the strange, releases everyone had heard of and efforts nobody knows.  Beginning with our look at The Top 10 Films of 2007 You Never Heard Of up and including yesterday’s unusual take at the Best DVDs of the Year, it’s time to play a little collective catch up. Enjoy!


The Top 10 Films of 2007 That You’ve Never Heard Of


The 10 Worst Films of 2007


The 10 Worst DVDs of 2007


The 10 Best Films of 2007


The 10 Best DVDs of 2007


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Tuesday, Jan 1, 2008


The transition has been interesting - and aggravating - to watch. Companies that, at first, failed to embrace the digital format and all it could offer, are now taking the content-laden high road to battling the ongoing HD/Blu-ray confusion. We finally saw Holy Grail releases, titles no one thought would ever make it onto DVD, arriving in well planned marketing droves, while some filmmakers (David Fincher, Todd Field), purposefully released bare bones versions of their efforts (Zodiac, Little Children) in anticipation of far more fleshed out Special Editions. As independent producers and distributors continued to use the flexible technology as a means of getting their movies out and into the mainstream, archivists plundered vaults and resolved rights issues hoping to uncover some previous lost cinematic gems.


It was also a sad year for certain companies. Troma took a massive home theater hit, the inflated budget for its feature film Poultrygeist limiting its ability to continue providing promised direct to video titles, and Something Weird Video broke ties with Image Entertainment, ending the exploitation enterprise’s run with the commercial content provider. In fact, with the unclear clash over high definition ready to either explode or implode the industry, lots of little companies trying to champion the outsider or unusual entertainment have seen their strategies come up short. Still, 2007 was a stellar year for DVD, the big names brandishing even bigger guns to illustrate the medium’s potential - and profitability.


While the list could be much, much longer, here are SE&L“s selections for 2007’s best. Eclectic, diverse, and missing many celebrated releases (Blade Runner, anyone?), it still represents what the format does best - bringing well known and fringe films to the avid cinephile. We begin with a definite Criterion classic:


#10 - The 3 Penny Opera: The Criterion Collection
G. W. Pabst’s adaptation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s 3 Penny Opera is an astounding cinematic experience - like watching M the musical as filtered through a neo-realistic view of silent-film German Expressionism. At first, you feel overwhelmed by the arch, stylized approach to the story. When it’s all over, wrapping up its cutting condemnations and finishes with a flourish, we wonder why we ever doubted it. Because of the knotty narrative turns, the backdoor wheeling and dealing, and clearly defined criticism of Germany’s lax citizenry, what started out stark and dated turns timeless and all too telling. Criterion’s presentation is just perfect, including enough context to further update the seemingly arcane approaches.



#9 - The Beatles in ‘Help!’
It’s a shame that Help! is constantly saddled with the “second best Beatles film” moniker. When compared to the rest of their output, it’s faint praise indeed. Certainly A Hard Day’s Night set a cinematic bar so high that not even the most important band in the history of modern music could compete with it, and compared to other rock and roll film showcases of the time, it’s an unbridled masterwork. But for some reason, when placed along an equally fictional version of a ‘day in their life’, The Beatles’ East Indian romp gets some substantial short shrift. Thanks to this new deluxe two DVD version (the film has been MIA from the home theater format for years), that assessment should now change.



#8 - This Film is Not Yet Rated
If it accomplishes nothing else, Kirby Dick’s brilliant This Film is Not Yet Rated should put to rest all the arguments about the MPAA and its influence over movies. The next time you hear a spokesperson for the group argue that they “don’t determine substance or require edits,” and that “the rating is merely voluntary…etc”, you will have a factual rebuttal for all that bullshit. In fact, the MPAA is like the Warren Commission, totally unflappable in its party-line approach to any issue brought before them. But just like Oliver Stone, Dick opened a door that few have ever walked through, especially in the 40 years since the entryway was first built. His dissertation, and the wonderfully dense DVD that accompanies the documentary, is JFK.



#7 - The Three Stooges Collection: Volume 1 - 1934 - 1936
Fulfilling the wishes of longtime fans, Columbia has finally wised up, dropped the three short per package DVD format, and delivered The Three Stooges in a logistically sound chronological breakdown. Covering the first three years the performers pitched their vaudeville shtick to motion pictures, the 19 mini-masterworks presented all contain the classic line-up that most devotees prefer: mean leader Moe, absent minded minion Larry, and unbelievably brilliant bundle of butter, Curly. There is no Shemp, no Joe Besser, and definitely no Curly Joe DeRita to muck things up. While there is nothing wrong with any of these later stage substitutes, nothing beats the magic of the original Stooges. Looking over the titles offered, there is not a bad apple in the bunch.



#6 - Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters for DVD
Who says they don’t make good dada anymore? This big screen version of the Cartoon Network/Adult Swim anomaly offers three amiable (if slightly psychotic) fast food products - a shallow shake, some science-minded fries, and a babyish blob of mystery meat - taking on unhinged elements from around the universe. Part origins exploration, part satiric stream of incontinence, it may not make a lick of sense. But when you’re laughing this hard, does logic really matter? Even better, the DVD version (complete with a whole other version of the movie) reimagines the medium in a way that both embraces and mocks the special feature heavy format. It stands as a symbol of the film, and the series in general.



#5 - The Sergio Leone Anthology
He was born into the belly of Italian show business. By the time he was a teenager, he was very familiar with the Italian film biz. While helping out on the peplum epic The Last Days of Pompeii, he suddenly found himself behind the lens, and it would be a place he’d remain for the rest of his career. He only made nine credited films, but for fans of the spaghetti Western, four would remain major motion picture milestones. But there was much more to Sergio Leone than squinting antiheroes and one-horse towns draped in quick-draw bloodshed, as illustrated all throughout this sensational box set. It’s the perfect place to begin your journey into the bleak bombastic world of the director, and all the cinematic splendor that comes with it.



#4 - David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE
INLAND EMPIRE is a masterpiece. It is also an aggravating avant-garde amalgamation of incomplete ideas. It’s a brilliant distillation of David Lynch’s career defining dream logic. It’s also a three hour exercise in excess and a brilliant argument for the switchover to digital filmmaking. As with most works by the artist/auteur, this fragmented take on “a woman in trouble” (to quote the film’s tagline) raises many more questions than it ever dares to answer, and squeezes more imagination and invention into three hours than most movie studios manage in a lifetime. The DVD delves even deeper into the narrative, providing deleted material and additional context to show how the ‘film’ was formulated. 



#3 - The Films of Kenneth Anger Volume 1 & 2
How lucky are we film fans? In the span of less than eight months (Volume 1 hit in January), we’ve been able to finally get our hands on the entire output from one of avant-garde filmmaking’s most revered names. Every single cinematic statement Anger attempted are here - from the homoerotic horror of Fireworks to the seminal Scorpio and Lucifer Rising - and they have never looked richer or more inviting. With a restoration overseen by the filmmaker himself, and a collection of added bonus features that helps to explain his importance, we finally see that there was more to this man than his craven collections of Tinsel Town tawdriness, Hollywood Babylon.  He stands as a true outsider artist.



#2 - Grindhouse Presents Planet Terror/ Death Proof
As a greatest hits package of every exploitation conceit ever considered for heating up a local passion pit, Quentin Tarantino’s dazzling Death Proof stands as a sensational slice of electrified genre porn. With his creative cameos, attention to genre detail, and meta-manipulation of the medium itself, Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror stands as a pert post-modern masterpiece, one of the best self-referential scarefests ever conceived. Together, they created one of 2007’s most sublimely satisfying cinematic experiences. While we wait for the eventual DVD release of the entire Grindhouse experience, we have this pair of sensational separate releases. Each movie is modified to fit the expanded running time, and the additions are amazing - as are the enlightening extras that help flesh out the filmmakers’ intent.



#1 - The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky
Many have never heard of him. Others only know selected works - the ‘80s effort Santa Sangre, the consistently mentioned “midnight movie” El Topo - but even for those who claim an intimate knowledge of cinema, director, poet, agitator, self-described “deity” Alejandro Jodorowsky remains an enigma. This could be due to the fact that the filmmaker has only helmed seven projects in the 50 years he’s been in the business. Part of the problem is also that Jodorowsky remains a vehemently idiosyncratic artist. Like many Latino moviemakers, he lives his works and is only driven to create when the passion (and the fiscal possibility) strikes him. The final issue with his covert career is the lack of access to his major films - Fando y Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain. Only the first title has ever appeared on DVD, the other two considered “lost” due to ongoing animosity between the director and infamous ‘70s business bully Allen Klein.


Now, with all wounds apparently healed, Anchor Bay is beginning the post-millennial re-evaluation of the incredibly talented maverick’s career. With The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky box set, not only do we get a chance to see the works that loom largest in the auteur’s considerable legend, but we have a chance to see the best that the digital medium has to offer as well. To go into detail on each and every extra would take pages, but, in brief, here’s what one can expect. There’s the definitive 90-minute documentary, La Constellation Jodorowsky, which provides a wonderful overview of the director’s life and career, and each movie houses a full-length audio commentaries by the auteur that really explains and illustrates his artistic ambitions and personal themes. And in doing so, it gives a forgotten film giant his more than necessary due.


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Monday, Dec 31, 2007


Okay - so it’s actually 11. Instead of playing by the rules and sticking to the mandatory 10, another title managed to sneak its way onto SE&L‘s annual celebration of the artform’s best. Even more depressing, there are dozens of releases from 2007 that deserve almost equal appreciation. You know it’s been a banner 12 months when films like Grindhouse, SiCKO, The Simpsons Movie, Knocked Up, Eastern Promises, Juno, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead are stuck circling around numbers 11 through 20. Unlike past years, where compiling this list required a fair amount of aesthetic archeology, practically every week saw another astounding effort announce its classic intentions. Some may quibble with a few of the selections, but the bottom line remains firm - 2007 was a great year in cinema, and these 11 masterworks are proof of same.


Still, with nearly 300 titles taken in during the last 52 weeks, what is and is not included here may seem specious. After all, there were dozens of foreign works (Persepolis, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) that never got screened for SE&L. In addition, there were monumental movies that had to use a direct to DVD ideal just to get distribution. Leaving them out was painful as well. It’s important to remember, however, that said lists may look like consensus, yet remain securely in the paradigm of personal opinion. Your choices may vary, and indeed, probably should. If we all agreed, it would make such annual wrap-ups rather pointless. With that in mind, here are SE&L‘s selections for the 11 best films of the year, starting with the tie at 10:


#10 (tie) - Sunshine
Sunshine is a film about sacrifice. It’s a movie that asks the big questions and waits for the inevitable answer. It’s the kind of intellectually driven science fiction that Hollywood can’t be bothered to make nowadays. Instead of staying betrothed to the George Lucas School of Speculative Design, where everything is techno-wow and movie serial sodden, director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland have gone back to the original source of serious future shock – Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – and fashioned their own post-modern, post-punk space odyssey. The results resonate inside the brain in a way few films in recent memory can claim, awakening long dormant desire for truth and explanation. This is the kind of movie that stimulates debate as it mires us in the mysteries of the cosmos. It sings – and it also saddens.



#10 (tie) - Ratatouille
Like the gourmet food it so exquisitely renders, one fears that the sensational Ratatouille will end up being a decidedly acquired commercial taste. Far too languid for sugar fried kid brains, but marketed in such a manner as to keep the more mature demographic it’s actually perfect for from lining up, it represents a brilliant step forward in Pixar’s continued domination of the 3D animation realm. It also proves that Brad Bird is the reigning king of outsider cartooning. From his pen and ink triumph The Iron Giant to the pumped up perfection of The Incredibles, he’s managed to become a genre genius by refusing to believe the artform’s inherent limits. Constantly pushing beyond its narrative and visual capacities, Ratatouille ends up one frighteningly effortless entertainment.



#9 - The Darjeeling Limited
Like a once in a lifetime trip that only grows grander with the passage of time, The Darjeeling Limited is idiosyncratic filmmaking at its finest. Sure, there will be those who see director Wes Anderson’s trademark quirks, his moments of forced magic realism and out of the blue character shifts and claim the same old self indulgent designs. And within his previous settings—a private school, a New York apartment, an oceanic research vessel—such strategies did indeed appear downright excessive. But within the context of India, a mysterious nation with its own inherent eccentricities and extremes, Anderson finds a totally complementary venue. In a country where seemingly anything can happen, where faith folds itself neatly into the fabric of everyday life in a manner so seamless that it’s almost indecipherable, the idea of three wayward men seeking interpersonal salvation doesn’t seem quite so quixotic. The way Anderson portrays it, it’s standard operating procedure in such a pulsing, overpopulated locale.



#8 - The Brave One
Try as you might, you cannot shake The Brave One. It sticks with you, digging down into your own scarred psyche and touching on every pain, problem, and possibility your current life holds. Calling it an estrogen-laced Taxi Driver or a female fashioned Death Wish misses the point. Certainly, there is vigilantism and the immediate, ill-considered impact of such street style justice. But there is something much deeper here, something that goes to the very nature of being human. When confronted with the possibility of letting those obviously guilty instantaneously pay for their actions, or to simply go free, which way does your moral compass point? This movie not only asks the question of what would you do, it then goes a step further to question whether you can live with yourself, and what you’ve become, afterward.



#7 - Into the Wild
Based on a book by Jon Krakauer and Christopher McCandless’ own diaries and writings, Into the Wild stands as the best movie in Sean Penn’s limited career behind the camera. After The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, and The Pledge, the Oscar winning actor pools all his talents to take on one of those too good to be true storylines. In the McCandless saga, you’ve got familial dysfunction, interpersonal pipe dreams, psychosocial subjectivity, the call of nature, and the undeniable allure of the open road to transform a simple act of individual wish fulfillment into something far more meaningful. Laced with amazing visual stunts, standout performances, and a perspective of our nation that’s nearly incomprehensible, we wind up tramping right along with our wide-eyed hero. We experience his dizzying highs…and everything that countermands such living in exile delights.



#6 - Gone Baby Gone
In the hands of first time director Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone arrives as an incredible cinematic experience. Taken from a novel by Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, this simple story of an abducted little girl, the surrounding investigation, and the suspicious mother at the center, has the kind of narrative power and acting prowess that elevates it above other like minded dramas. By capturing a sense of society lost, by using both the media focus and the behind closed doors denouements that seem to follow such situations, Affleck produces tragedy on an epic Greek scale and moviemaking of classic neo-noir artistry. In combination with some of the most riveting performances in recent memory, as well as a true sense of setting, what we wind up with is an incredibly dense and layered exploration of human ethics.



#5 - Zodiac
It’s a film about a famous serial killer with very little murder in it. It’s a story about an iconic crime figure from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s that only eventually gets around to discussing the possible suspects. It’s a police procedural, but it’s the old school kind of cop work: Lots of late nights; Way too many cups of coffee; Offices without fax machines trying to coordinate the jurisdictional division of evidence and information. And it’s a character study, told in triplicate. In each case, an individual who we are introduced to toward the beginning of the story is intrigued, obsessed, and then destroyed by the ongoing investigation of a man calling himself Zodiac, and a string of slayings that threaten to go unexplained…and unavenged. It’s also David Fincher’s best work to date - and when considering his creative canon, that’s amazing.



#4 - Hot Fuzz
Stop with all the spoof talk, already. The latest masterpiece from Brit wits Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the spectacularly anarchic action buddy cop caper Hot Fuzz is more than just a simple-minded lampoon. Such a categorization limits what the amazing movie manages to achieve, bringing it down to a level of creative crassness that the duo manage to transcend time and time again. The truth is, Wright and Pegg have much larger funny business fish to fry than merely taking on the Bruckheimer/Bay gonzo gunplay dynamic. There is more to their satire than flying bullets, fisticuffs and testosterone-laced fireworks. No, this exceptionally talented duo is out to undermine their very own Englishness, to poke fun at a country that still views itself as a bastion of good manners and inbred etiquette. And they do so magnificently.



#3 - There Will Be Blood
This is the Paul Thomas Anderson that all his past films promised. This is the unbelievably talented young gun whose been accused of channeling Robert Altman for a lack of his own style. Well, all reverence and referencing are now officially gone, replaced by a solid conceit which announces the 37 year old as one of his generation’s greatest. How Upton Sinclair’s mannered Oil became this brilliant dissection of greed and God, stoked by a sensational performance by Daniel Day Lewis as wildcatter Daniel Plainview, will remain part of cinema’s creative karma. Still, all credit to a director for playing outside his contemporary comfort zone, exploring period piece precision in a way that few filmmakers have ever managed to accomplish. In concert with the amazing cinematography and storytelling, we end up with an epic so electric it threatens to destroy everything we know about the medium.



#2 - No Country for Old Men
Shockingly effective and incomprehensibly great, No Country for Old Men proves that the Coen Brothers are America’s reigning motion picture Gods. Looking over their creative canon, a body of work that includes Oscar nods, a single win, several career defining films and more than a couple cult classics (“We want the money, Lebowski!”), they argue for their place among the artform’s true greats. Sure, some find them unusually quirky and lost in their own insular world of homages, references, and crudely hidden in-jokes, and in the past, all of those caveats would be concerning. Fact is, they are painted over every frame of their consistently fascinating flights of fancy. But No Country for Old Men is different. Instead of going outside their sphere of influence to the cinematic stalwarts that defined the medium, the Coen’s are riffing on themselves – and by doing so, they forge a near flawless filmic experience.



#1 - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Fans of Stephen Sondheim had every reason to be worried. His Tony Award winning masterwork Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is perhaps the most difficult and obtuse of his shows to make the cinematic leap - and with a track record that includes the unbalanced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the miserably miscast A Little Night Music, he’s far from foolproof. Luckily, the right auteur came along, a director so perfectly in tune with the composer’s layered conceits that one imagines it was written specifically for him. Many have dismissed Tim Burton as a goofy Goth visionary who has never met a narrative he couldn’t defang. Even worse, some have suggested that, as his mainstream acceptance has grown, his artistic acumen has faded.


Not true - and his brand new version of Sweeney Todd is more than enough proof. As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007. It is an outright masterpiece, a work of bravura craftsmanship by a man whose been preparing for this creative moment all his directorial life. Like soulmates bound at the most primal, bloodlusting level, Sondheim and Burton merge to form a cohesive, craven whole, the show’s thematic undercurrents of malice, corruption, and revenge splashing across the screen in monochrome mise-en-scene and torrents of arterial inevitability. Stripped of its need for constant self-referencing (fans may balk at the cutting of some key expositional numbers) and reduced down to its nastiest nature, it’s the reason that film continues its status as art.


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