Tuesday, December 28, 2010

10 of '10: Best Albums of 2010

This may have been my hardest year for selecting the ten best albums of the year. Plenty of albums had great singles (Kelis and Hurts) or were surprisingly amazing (Kanye West) or were exactly what you wanted/expected (Nina Nastasia and The National). But, to really pick the greatest albums... those I would return to repeatedly throughout the year. Those I imagine returning to in years to come...

1. Five Ghosts, Stars
2. Have One On Me, Joanna Newsom
3. The Courage of Others, Midlake
4. Crystal Castles II, Crystal Castles
5. New Amerykah Pt. 2, Erykah Badu
6. The Suburbs, Arcade Fire
7. Body Talk, Robyn
8. Stridulum, Zola Jesus
9. Dagger Paths, Forest Swords
10. Love Remains, How To Dress Well

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

I have been anticipating the viewing experience of this film for quite some time. All the reviews were so positive. The movie was being plugged everywhere. It was a constant attack of Joan Rivers, left and right. After watching the film, it all makes sense. This woman is an industry. Joan Rivers is a product. And, she is very much aware of this. Joan Rivers understands the importance of lasting and the amount of work one must put into lasting.

A Piece of Work is very much a mediocre documentary. We are given glimpses of Joan Rivers' life. There are things I didn't know: a Joan Rivers' talk show?, a made-for-TV film about the suicide of her husband?, and the real reason for the fall out between Rivers and Carson. While the film gives us all these details, it doesn't quite give us enough details. There must be a lot of juicy back story to the life of Joan Rivers, right? Or, is this really her life?

At one point, Melissa Rivers reveals how shy her mother truly is. At another point, it is mentioned how comics lack confidence. Is Joan Rivers shy and uncomfortable with herself? Is Ms. Rivers really just an angry, depressive, aging woman? I think this might be what we are expected to believe. Kind of. We're supposed to be aware of how hard working Joan Rivers is. We're meant to see she is a tough cookie. But, there is a soft side revealed. A dark side. A personal side. This isn't easy for everyone to reveal.

Is this a real documentary? Or, is it slightly staged? Joan Rivers claims she is an actress. Is this her greatest performance? A portrait of an artist in need of a career boost? She is honest about how much she needs constant income. She reveals how much money she spends on employees, family, her house. Everything is out in the open. But, we might not be seeing her entire personality.

We are never once shown a Joan Rivers meltdown. Never once shown Joan Rivers have a full diva fit. She says they exist. But, why don't we see them? We are only shown a woman afraid of fading from the lime light and fading from life. A woman so afraid of death that she is constantly on the move. Steps ahead of death.

I am not sure we are ever given a full portrait of Joan Rivers. But, this is a very fun and interesting film.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows

Within the first few minutes of the film, I remembered how much I dislike big budget blockbuster films. I don't get off on explosions. I don't enjoy chase scenes. I am not wrapped up in shallow shocks and suspense. When it comes to magic, I'm even less involved. How come sometimes these teens are able to transport to another location? While other times we're left watching them wiggle their way out of a boring encounter for fifteen minutes? Wiggle your noses or something, kids. Just keep moving.

Something went terribly wrong with the Harry Potter films after the fourth film. What went wrong? I'm not terribly sure. But, the fifth and sixth film were horrible. After seeing the sixth film, I told myself 'no more Harry Potter.' I lied. I didn't have to pay for the ticket. And, I have sat through six other films. Why not sit through one more? Oh, wait... two more!

If you were to count the amount of times we had to look at Harry Potter shirtless... you'd have all your fingers up on one hand. Is this wizard porn? Am I watching Twilight? When did Harry Potter turn into a franchise for making tweens wet? I wasn't expecting this forced sexuality. Or, maybe, I'm too sensitive. But, I really doubt that. And, speaking of a "maturity" factor... there is a scene where Harry takes Hermione to dance along to a song on the radio. This is supposed to be a friendly moment, maybe. It comes off as some complicated untold love story. The type of scene one expects to see with a bunch of on the brink of divorce 30 year olds trying to seduce the one that got away. It just felt awkward. Incredibly out of place.

My father described the film as "teenagers on a camping trip." I might call it "teenagers on a campy trip." The lines are bad. Half the acting is lame. The film is meant to rely on action and story. But, being as this is a lead in to the final battle... there isn't much action. So, we're left with story. And, even that is wearing thin at this point.

Let's talk about originality. Is Harry Potter just the Chronicles of Narnia meets Lord of the Rings meets the 21st century? I know these complaints have been made before. And, I've read all but the last book in the series... but, these films just come off as complete remakes of other films and novels. The scene of the ball of light in the woods... I half expected it to turn into Cate Blanchett. And, hell, who didn't want Tilda Swinton to show up as the White Witch? Give us something to cheer about.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

10 of '10: Favorite Books of 2010

The following is a list of my favorite books published this year. All are newly published in 2010, except one is a new translation released this year.

1. Point Omega, Don DeLillo
2. By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham
3. Molly Fox's Birthday, Deirdre Madden
4. Antwerp, Roberto Bolano
5. Madame Bovary, Flaubert (trans. Lydia Davis)
6. Just Kids, Patti Smith
7. Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
8. The Infinities, John Banville
9. Secret Historian, Justin Spring
10. Beatrice & Virgil, Yann Martel

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Secret Historian, Justin Spring

BEST OF 2010

I have never been a fan of non-fiction. I've said this before when reviewing Patti Smith's Just Kids. But, Secret Historian marks my second experience with non-fiction this year. And, both experiences have been incredible. When I first started reading Secret Historian, I assumed I would never complete the biography. At 400 pages, I figured I would have enough by time I got through 200 pages and skimmed through the handful of photographs at the center of the book. I was wrong. There is so much of interest in the life of Samuel Steward that I can't imagine having put this book down before it ended.

Samuel Steward was born in a small town in Ohio. Later moved, with his two aunts, to Columbus, Ohio where he attended the Ohio State University. He received his PhD in Literature. Became a professor. Published a couple of novels. Wrote articles for magazines. Became friends with literary types (Thomas Mann, Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder, etc). Was a focus of one of Kinsey's studies. Moved to San Francisco to become a tattoo artist. Became a tattoo artist for the Hells Angels. Published pulp fiction gay porn. Steward lived the life of a great biography.

Stewart was in the habit of recording his sexual escapades. He kept track of the names, dates, places, and sexual encounters of his partners. At times, he would tape pubic hair of his sexual partners to the back of the index cards containing all of this information. Basically, a card catalog of his tricks. All of this information came in handy when Kinsey started to meet with Stewart. Eventually, Kinsey would film Stewart in the middle of an S&M encounter with another of Kinsey's case studies.

Stewart tattooed a ruler on his forearm. He did this so as to always know the length of the cock of the man he was about to spend his evening with. To sum up the sexual life of Stewart: "a grand total of 197 releases in 1951, and a grand total of 184 contacts for that year: an orgasm every forty hours" (p.129). At first, one is almost turned off by this sexual appetite. But, by time the biography reaches the middle, I felt happy for Stewart. He was seeking. He was exploring. He was happy. And, almost always safe (except for a few encounters that left him with a brief and mild STD).

The sex documents aren't too revealing or over the top. The reviews of the biography made me think I might be shocked by the content within the pages. But, either I am very aware and comfortable with sex, or the biography was careful enough to keep things on very even ground. For a wider audience of readers.

There are moments of great sadness to Stewart's life. He was anti-relationships. He lived his life alone. Only look for quick, physical encounters. Stewart was obsessed with S&M. Always looking for someone to really make him feel the sexual experience. At times, the encounters went too far and scared Stewart into a few months of celibacy. These are the most telling moments of Stewart's life.

Also, Stewart's desire to achieve greatness. To produce a piece of art that made him feel complete. He used to teach his students about the knowledgeable man seeking a meaningful life. Stewart was such a man. He tried teaching, writing, tattooing, etc.

The biography is beautifully written and often reads as fiction. An incredibly quick and interesting 400 pages on the life of a man who needs to be read about.


The Baby of Macon (Peter Greenaway) - 1993

I couldn't be happier that I saved The Baby of Macon as the last of the Greenaway films to watch. The reason it was the last, it is near impossible to get your hands on a Region 1 copy. The Baby of Macon was never released on DVD in the states. Also, the film is only, on rare occasions, screened in theaters for festivals and special events.

The Baby of Macon was created, in part, as Greenaway's response to cultural outrage to a British billboard of a new born baby, covered in blood with umbilical cord attached. The billboard was quickly removed due to public outcry. This caused Greenaway to question why society is so sensitive to images of a newborn baby, but willing to sit through films where rape and violence is made to look glamorous, or at least presentable. Greenaway set out to create a film to attack the senses.

And, attack he did. The Baby of Macon is a constant visual of violence, hatred, and disgust. From the start, a nude overweight woman with her face covered gives birth to a child. The first child born in the village in a long time. This is viewed as a miracle. The townspeople decide to taste, wash their faces, and smell the afterbirth in hopes of receiving some of the good luck. The birth mother's daughter decides to trick people into believing the child is her own. A virgin birth in a city of infertile women.

The baby becomes Christ-like. The daughter starts to sell the child's urine, strands of hair, etc as good luck charms for women hoping to have children. The daughter has hidden her father and mother away so they do not reveal the truth of the baby. Soon the church begins to question the virgin birth. It is quite interesting how quickly Greenaway has the church up against the idea of the virgin birth, but then suddenly they are in favor once they have control over the child. The church exploits the child in a way the daughter never imagined.

The film includes a nude man gored to death by a bull, the eating of the after birth, the murder of a child, cannibalism, and a gang rape including 207 men. The film doesn't pretend to be viewer friendly. But, Greenaway never intended to be. And, is quite successful in his goals.

The story is presented as a play. We see the stage. We see the audience. We see behind the stage. We see the actors out of character for a bit. The film is a mix between Prospero's Books stage quality and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover's disturbing plot.

There is so much to say about this film: costumes, acting, score, images, ideas, theories, beauty, etc. I fear giving too much away. In fact, already giving away more than I should. This is a film you will feel as you watch. I add it to my list of most painful/disturbing films (Salo, Dancer in the Dark, Irreversible).


Black Swan

BEST OF 2010

I have always been a fan of the films of Darren Aronofsky. But, for some reason I never think to list him as a "favorite director." I feel the same way about David Lynch... great films, but I'm not always so sure about the film making. So, I decided to think of my critiques of Aronofsky through my viewing of Black Swan.

Black Swan is a black and white film. Basically. Aronofsky may take his desire to prove color reveals personality too far. Throughout the film, those who are evil are dressed all in black (Hershey, Ryder, Kunis). Those who are good are dressed all in white (Portman). Then, there are those who are dressed in black and white or gray (Cassel). And, for Cassel's character we are never really certain how much he is driven by evil and good. His clothes, his apartment, his office... everything is black and white. Aronofsky refuses to give us the answer to this character. This may imply Cassel is much more important than I may have originally thought.

Black Swan is a film about the image of the self. The very examined life. There is rarely a scene in the film where a mirror is not present. The ballet studio has ceiling high mirrors, Portman's apartment has a huge mirror in the front room, the dance floor is up against a huge mirror. Some of these mirrors are typical mirrors. What you see is a reflection of the self. Other mirrors cause one to look shattered, or grotesque, or unusually shaped.

Is this weak film making? To push a point (good vs evil, the reflection of self) too far? And, does Aronofsky really push it too far? Hard to say. None of these things were very distracting. But, at the same time, why do these things stick out so much upon first viewing?

For me, Black Swan holds so much meaning because I have seen The Red Shoes. The parallels between these two films are overwhelming. Cassel, Ryder, and Portman are all mirrors of characters (playing very similar roles) from The Red Shoes. Both films deal with obsession and the desire for perfection in art and career. Not to say these themes aren't common in many films, but one would be hard pressed to deny how strongly similar the two films truly become.

These sound like complaints. But, I actually loved the film. Black Swan is the feminine to The Wrestler's masculine. Again, these two films are so similar. The obsessive, destructive drive for success in one's career. Although, The Wrestler is certainly the stronger of the two films. I believe The Wrestler is one of the five best films made in the past ten years.

With Black Swan, Aronofsky has finally come the closest to creating the horror film he has so long been in the process of creating. Looking back over Aronofsky filmography (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler), so many of his films have elements of horror. Their intense struggle with the self from destroying itself and others.

Aronofsky's Black Swan is one of the most intense movie experiences this year. The audience is left exhausted, silent. The constant waiting for the final reveal. The film is well worth viewing. Portman's performance is magnificent. And, Barbara Hershey couldn't have played her role better. This is certainly a career resurrection for her, I hope.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

All or Nothing (Mike Leigh) - 2002

Naked will always remain my favorite Mike Leigh film. It's a gritty, existential film experiment. When experiencing Naked, it doesn't take much to realize the film as film. While Leigh is famous for his ability to make films feel real to life and documentary-esque, there will always be something about Naked which makes me understand I am watching a philosophical statement. Because I can see Naked this way, I don't view it as the depressing film many might see. Instead, I would say All or Nothing is Leigh's most depressing, devastating film. Also, I will go so far as to say it is about as great a film as Naked.

All or Nothing is a film that follows three different families living in a working class housing community. As with most of Leigh's films, the themes of love, alcoholism, money, and emotional honesty are key to the films 'plot.' Much of what has been experienced in Leigh's previous films is coming to a head in All or Nothing. Leigh has, in fact, perfected the themes and the actors. As Leigh does not start his films with a script, but allows for the actors to work through, talk through, act through ideas and dialogues that will form the script, All or Nothing feels extremely honest and raw. No two characters are exactly the same.

The two saddest figures in the film may be the most heartbreaking vision of alcoholism to be filmed. The wife spends her entire days drinking. She barely moves from the couch except to go to liquor store. She doesn't work. She doesn't cook for the family. She rarely eats. Her daughter, played by a young Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky), is stuck watching as her mother just wastes away. And in Hawkins face you see her fear of following this path. The husband works, occasionally, as a taxi driver. A scene towards the films final third shows the two embraced on the edge of their bed. Unable to speak or barely move. Holding close to one another in the grimmest portrayal of despair and lust.

Ruth Sheen (High Hopes), always magnificent in a Leigh film, plays the co-worker to the films central character, Penny (Lesley Manville, Grown-Ups). Sheen has a teenage daughter who recently discovered she is knocked up by a low life who is borderline abusive. Sheen sees her daughter going down the same path she took in her youth. Sheen is loving and honest with her daughter. They are the most hopeful of all the characters in the film.

But, All or Nothing is not about these people as much as it is about Phil (Timothy Spall) and Penny (Manville), and their two children. Spall is incredible in this film. His role in Life is Sweet is mostly comical. He is pretty great in Secrets and Lies. But, in All or Nothing he puts his entire being into the character of a man so stuck in thought and dreams of achieving more. I relate so much with this character's silence. His need for the occasional shutting down and walking away for a few hours. We can all relate. But, Spall makes us feel this so deeply.

Manville plays Penny. A very quiet, insecure woman. The common law partner to Phil, she has never felt fully wanted. Not by her husband. Not by her children. She spends her days working. And her evenings cooking, cleaning. Her son screams obscenities at her. Her daughter is one of the most closed off teenage characters in film history. Penny lives a very destroyed life. The pain is all over Manville's face.

Towards the end of the film, Penny screams at Phil that life isn't about dreams. It's about just getting by. It's about the day to day. This sums up the reality of life. The theme of the film. Perhaps, this is a very existential film by way of Naked. Maybe, it's just painfully honest. Either way, All or Nothing is one of the most incredible experiences and views of a lived life.


Life is Sweet (Mike Leigh) - 1990

Having watched so many of Leigh's films over the past two weeks, I have to ask myself 'how does Leigh do it?' How does Leigh continue to use the same themes, the same methods, and handfuls of the same actors... but, still create something new and different with each film? It has something to do with experience. Something to do with the complexity of our daily lives. There is just so much humor, darkness, and truth to every interaction of our lives. Leigh has taken a lense to the daily, to the quotidian, to the simple and the complex.

In Life is Sweet, Leigh is giving us another family dramedy in line with High Hopes. Although, Life is Sweet is much more humorus. Life is Sweet is quite possibly the easiest Leigh film for a wider audience. Many of Leigh's film to follow this are much longer, darker, and less audience friendly in terms of a wide appeal. The character study is still very much at play, but Leigh is focused on more of a story in this film.

The main story, but not the films complete focus, is one of the twin daughters, Nicola (played by Jane Horrocks, Absolutely Fabulous' Bubbles and Little Voice). Nicola is a troubled 20-something living with her mother, father, and sister in her childhood home. She's a lost soul, but not willing to admit she's gone astray. She is dealing with an eating disorder and a sex fetish involving food. Her desire for food and attention and control is really rolled up so tightly in one of the film's scenes.

The mother, Wendy (played by Alison Steadman, Abigail's Party), steals the entire film. She giggles at just about everything. But, you giggle with her. She's a hopeful woman. A bright spirit. She admits life isn't easy. She admits she could have given up so many years ago. But, she won't. She hasn't. And she keeps fighting. Smiling. Giggling.

Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy, Iris) has a lovely role as the dream chasing, drinking father. This might not be his strongest film, but he does a lovely job. Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, Breakfast on Pluto) plays a low life who is always leading Broadbent's father character into another money scam. Rea isn't a likeable character, but this is what Rea does best... plays the character to leave you a little bit uncomfortable.

It amazes me that Leigh follows the lovely and hopeful LIfe is Sweet with the strongest film in his filmography, Naked. Leigh takes the small amounts of hope from the previous films and rips them to pieces in Naked. So quickly Leigh moves into his darkest work, his masterpiece. Also, Leigh follows Life is Sweet with his most popular and greatest films (Naked, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy).


What I Did Wrong, John Weir

It has been quite some time since I read queer literature. Or, something that was so obviously queer literature. I realize this label might seem unnecessary. Or, even harmful for a novel. But, this is a genre of fiction. Some authors may not intend for their books to be seen in such a small way. I feel John Weir wouldn't mind. In fact, I'm sure Weir is perfectly content with such a label.

What I Did Wrong is the quintessential queer novel in that it deals with AIDS. Queer literature deals with AIDS or coming out. This is a fact. What I Did Wrong does rise above a lot of queer lit, though. The novel is playful. The novel is thoughtful. The novel rises above most cliches.

Weir writes like a creative writer. The difference between literature and creative writing is the voice and style. There is something very cut and paste about this novel. Weir fills his novel with a handful of poems written by a student of the main characters writing course. The poems aren't good. They aren't meant to be good. But, they're really not good. And, distracting.

Weir writes like a catty bitch. A literate bitch. But, still quite catty. This might be the first novel I've read with such a distinct cattiness in tone. this is impressive in itself, I guess. The literary and pop culture references are overwhelming. Weir mentions Dennis Cooper, F Scott Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Gertrude Stein without pause. This could be very overwhelming for some readers. Although, I found it a bit enjoyable to think about the references as they were thrown at me.

The novel isn't too long. The sentences aren't complex. The prose is beautiful at times. The plot is pretty flat.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

High Hopes (Mike Leigh) - 1988

High Hopes marks Leigh's second feature film. The first film was Bleak Moments in 1971. It is interesting Leigh took so long to film the second... 17 years later. But, with the time in between he perfected his study of the working class and their strained family relationships. Leigh puts these past themes to great use in this film.

Leigh's High Hopes is one of those break your heart comedies that really recognizes the human condition. The film centers on the sweet, loveable couple of Cyril and Shirley. Cryil is played by Philip Davis (Grown-Ups, Vera Drake). The character is a Marx loving working class fellow unable to take much action, only to live in theory. Ruth Sheen plays Shirely. She's a bit of a nutter. She is nervous, but confident. She laughs nervously and wears her heart on her sleeve.

Cyril's mother is the true heart of the film. Mrs. Bender, as she is named, lives alone in the home she shared with her husband and where she raised her two children, Cryil and Valerie. As she turns 70 she starts to forget things: her keys, her purse, her children's names, etc. The film doesn't spend much time on this oncoming illness. And, to be honest, it saves the film from becoming sentimental. Instead, the film focuses on how the family behaves and deals with their own memory.

Cyril's sister, Valerie, wants to be upper class. She hops around chirping for attention in every scene. She pushes her mother around. Drives a loud car. Owns an extravagant dog. And is constantly bagging for her husband's attention. She is quite a sad character. She almost falls into the trap of being a stereotype, but her presence helps to balance out Mrs. Bender's neighbors.

Mrs. Bender's neighbors are extremely over the top. In fact, they are almost cartoonish. I understand Leigh wants to poke fun at the upper class. He has done this in most of his films. But, these characters come dangerously close to being as absurd as those in Who's Who. They aren't in the film quite long enough to cause any harm. But, when they are present, they wear a little thin.

The film is about aging. With grace and without grace. The line which sums the film up most perfectly: 'Am I scared of getting old? Or am I scared to start looking back?' The film is so much about where we'll end up, but deals with how we got there and what it did to us.

High Hopes is a deeply touching film. Honest, real, slice of life beautiful film.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Four Days in July (Mike Leigh) - 1985

Leigh's Four Days in July is the last of Leigh's TV movies. But, it feels like a step backwards after Meantime. Four Days in July feels a lot like The Kiss of Death in the way the film looks, sounds, and carries along with very little incident.

Four Days in July takes place in Belfast. This in itself is very different for Leigh. All of Leigh's films take place in a contemporary Britain (except Topsy-Turvy which is a period piece). The film takes place during the start of what is called 'The Troubles.' This is a long period in Northern Ireland's history dealing with the violence between the Protestants and the Catholics. This is a period in history I've always been very interested in. So I liked that the film was set during this time.

The film follows two couples, one on the Protestant side and the other on the Catholic side of the struggle. Both couples are about to give birth to their first child. And, in the end, both give birth on the same day. And, end up in the same hospital room. It is only in these final scenes that the film reveals itself. We watch as the two women nervously talk to one another. Afraid of starting an argument. And, in the waiting room, both husbands sit in total silence. The separation and anxiety of this period in time.

There is no plot to this film other than showing four days in the life of these families and ending the film with the pregnancies. There isn't much of a character study at play, either. The film is pretty much a voyeurs experience watching these two families live amongst the violence and turmoil of this time period.


Meantime (Mike Leigh) - 1984

Up to this point, this is Mike Leigh's greatest film. This is another of Leigh's TV films, but it is meant to be an actual film and not have the same feel as the earlier made for TV plays. I found a reviewer who pointed out the film was originally intended to be a feature length film for the theatres, but never quite made it that far. It is a lot disappointing that the film never made it to the theatre where it would have found a larger audience. Meantime deserves attention.

Of all Leigh's film, Meantime displays the stuck in the rut, working class family better than any of his previous films. The characters are written stronger. The actors are living these roles more than any other of Leigh's previous films. On many levels, this film is the pre-Naked Leigh film. The existential depression of this family is overwhelming, perfectly expressed, and wonderfully detailed.

Tim Roth plays Colin, the mentally unstable youngest brother. We are never quite certain if Colin is troubled, shy, or actually disabled. His behavior is just sort of dismissed and used against him by many of those in the neighborhood. Roth's character is so exact in its behavior. I have never thought much of Roth as an actor, but Meantime shows off all of Roth's ability.

The mother, played by Pam Ferris, is my favorite character of the film. She steals the scene every time the camera puts her in front of the audience. The most heartbreaking scene takes place at a Bingo hall. Ferris is hoping to win big and be able to bring a little bit of money into her home (where neither of her sons or her husband has a job). As the announcer calls out numbers, she realizes her pen is out of ink. She goes through three pens. Missing numbers and clearly upset. The look of disappointment. The look of loss is all over her face. I can't think of many times when heartbreak has been so extreme and heavy in a single minute.

There is hardly a character that isn't filled with heartbreak. Hardly a scene that doesn't make you feel lost and claustrophobic. The score fits so perfectly with every scene.

The way Leigh and his actors create this film makes for an overwhelming film experience. A world where few people look one another in the eye. Where emotions are never shared. I have left out so many characters, so many incredible moments. But, to not spoil the film, I will end here.


20 of '10: Favorite Songs

This list is created from the most played songs of 2010 according to my iTunes "plays" numbers.
The list is not in the same order as they appeared on my iTunes.
Instead, they are in order of how I would mix them on a CD so that everything flows nicely.
Very pop heavy songs this year.

1. Not in Love (Feat. Robert Smith), Crystal Castles
2. Forced to Love, Broken Social Scene
3. Window Seat, Erykah Badu
4. Good Intentions Paving Company, Joanna Newsom
5. Oh Heartland, Up Yours!, Owen Pallett
6. Night, Zola Jesus
7. We Don't Want Your Body, Stars
8. Rad Pitt (D/R/U/G/S Soviet Mix), Egyptian Hip Hop
9. Bead Drop, Simon Curtis
10. We Dance to the Beat, Robyn
11. Barbara Streisand, Duck Sauce
12. 4th of July (Fireworks), Kelis
13. Rocket, Goldfrapp
14. Tightrope (Feat. Big Boi), Janelle Monae
15. Better Than Love, Hurts
16. Bowls, Caribou
17. I Can't Wait, Twin Shadow
18. We Used to Wait, The Arcade Fire
19. Coversation 16, The National
20. Mr. Peterson, Perfume Genius

Monday, December 13, 2010

Oak EP, Labyrinth Ear

I only just got a hold of this album after reading a brief review on Hard Candy, a delightful pop music blog. The band's name, album cover, and the fact the EP could be downloaded for free... how could I say no?

The music is pretty catchy. A light shoe gaze, 80s influenced synth band. Imagine a calm, quiet Crystal Castles. Maybe not quite Crystal Castles, but somewhere in that area.... Again, remember I said a calmer and more quiet version.

The EP is made up of five songs. None of them longer than four minutes. It's a brief album that is lovely to listen to.

The EP can be downloaded for free from their website: HERE

Home Sweet Home (Mike Leigh) - 1982

As the first 20 minutes of this film happened, I found myself distracted. I couldn't find the space in my head to keep an attention. I started to worry my Mike Leigh marathon was about to hit a wall. I mean, this is quite a lot films in a short amount of time. Then, I thought maybe it was just a boring film. Then, at the half way mark, I was suddenly overwhelmed by this film. There was a shift in the Leigh method.

Up until this film, most of Leigh's films are strictly character studies. Not a single plot. Also, most of the characters are working class and stuck in a rut. Unable to see their way out. Never willing to take action to better themselves. Leigh decides to change the rules a bit with Home Sweet Home.

The film begins in typical fashion. We are introduced to three different characters and their home life during the course of the first 20 minutes of the film. And, as is usual, Leigh picks a specific character to focus most of the story on. For Home Sweet Home, the focus is on Stan. A man who was left by his wife for another man. She ran off and never left word of her whereabouts. Their daughter was taken into foster care. Some of the film focuses on Stan's attempt to try and reconnect with his daughter. This is where most of the plot comes in. By the films end, Stan shows interest in getting back his daughter.

The other characters in the film are co-workers of Stan and each of those men's wives. By films middle, Stan has started some flirty affairs with these women. In this, Leigh shows his characters finally attempting to make a change in their lives. In past Leigh films, characters never would have acted on their desires. But, at last, action takes place.

There is the theme of violence and anger in Leigh's films which I haven't really spoken of yet. In Nuts in May there is a small outburst towards the films end. In Grown-Ups there is another fight of rage. Same takes place in this film. An explosion of anger and repression. Leigh's focus on the working class shows us their day to day realities, but rarely their emotions. Only when tempers have been pushed to the edge to the real emotions finally become exposed.

This is the last of Leigh's TV plays. The next two films are films made as films (not plays) for TV. Then Leigh returns with his feature length films.


Grown-Ups (Mike Leigh) - 1980

Grown-Ups is another Mike Leigh TV play. During the 70s and 80s, the BBC aired two different TV series of plays/films called BBC2 Playhouse and Play for Today. Most of the TV plays Leigh created were part of the Play for Today series. Grown-Ups is the only one of Leigh's films to be part of the BBC2 Playhouse series. Knowing this going in, I thought Grown-Ups may play a bit differently than the previous films. And, in a way, there is a difference. Grown-Ups feels more like a feature length film, where the Play for Today films feel much more like TV movies.

Grown-Ups tells the story of a couple who have just purchased their first home and are starting to settle into the space. The married couple, Mandy and Dick, are played by Leslie Manville and Phillip Davis. Manville is a Leigh regular (All or Nothing, Topsy-Turvy, and Another Year). In Grown-Ups, Manville portrays a quiet wife to the controlling husband, Davis. Phillip Davis plays his character with enough meanness and emptiness to still make his character likeable.

But, neither of these characters are the stars of the film. The film belongs to the wonderful Brenda Blethyn. Belthyn was the star of Leigh's spectacular Secrets & Lies, and seems to have taken some of the inspiration for the Secrets & Lies character from her role as Gloria in this film. Gloria is nervous, scared, and can't stand silence. Her high pitched voice is constantly yapping. The shake to her voice makes her seem so lost and innocent. She's never hurtful, but she's always there. This begins to wear on Gloria's sister, Manville, and the husband, Davis.

This could very much be the British version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. A lot drier, of course. The film isn't quite as funny as some reviews claim. There is a humor, but much more a sadness. The characters are all kind of trapped. They want to escape, even talk about something a little better... they just can't imagine how anything else is possible. So they just keep going on in their day to day. There is a wonderful scene where we see the three main characters all at their jobs. They just kind of move like robots from one task to another. It is a beautiful way for Leigh to express how stifled these characters feel.

While Abigail's Party may be the strongest of Leigh's plays for TV, I may enjoy Grown-Ups a little more. Where Abigail's Party felt so much like a stage production (making the audience aware of its intent), Grown-Ups isn't so obvious with its intent.


Learning, Perfume Ghosts

The lyrics of Perfume Genius' Mike Hadreas fall somewhere between Xiu Xiu and Dennis Cooper. There is an angst. An uncomfortable silence. A disturbed bit of truth to the songs off of Learning. Hadreas wrote the album in response to a break up. This was his way of dealing with the pain. The album was meant more as a personal journey. An album to share with his friends. I'm not sure how many of these facts are truth. How does such a private, personal diary as song become released? The truth is somewhere within the fiction. And this may very much be the case with the lyrics as well.

The standout track on the album is 'Mr. Peterson' a disturbing revelation about what may have been an inappropriate relationship with a teacher: "he let me smoke weed in his truck, if I could convince him I loved him enough/ he made me a tape of joy division, he told me there was part of him missing." The voice is delivered in such a pitch I am reminded of the saddest songs of a Sufjan Stevens album. But those lyrics are so painfully beautiful and experienced. I could only wish to write such lines.

The following song, 'Gay Angels,' is a beautiful hymnal of sorts. As close as hymn as an album dealing with addiction, abuse, and heart break will allow.

The honesty of this album. The raw, naked vocals and instrumentation. The high voice. All of these elements remind me so much of The Mountain Goats masterpiece The Sunset Tree. The mood is dark and heavy. A very short album, slightly over 30 minutes, rips through you like a haunted memory of your past. Before you know you've been hit, you've been knocked to your ass.

I have been listening to this album on and off for the past few months. Not quite sure how to review or comment on the tracks. This is such a personal experience I don't know if it can be anything more than the relationship of the songwriter and the memory the song blooms from. But, that is so dismissive of art as an ability to make us think and experience that which we haven't experienced. What if you have experienced some of these pains? How do you make an opinion on the way others cope with their past? Luckily, after all this time, I've found this album has grown on me. And I don't feel like I'm brushing off the history of these songs.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Kiss of Death, 1977 & Who's Who, 1979 - (Mike Leigh)

The Kiss of Death may well be the worst Mike Leigh film. It isn't an awful film, just an unnecessary film. The Kiss of Death is far more character study than plot driven. Although, most of Leigh's films are character driven. So, what about this film gets under my skin?

The film follows an undertaker's assistant and his experience of dating a friend's girlfriend's friend. The interactions are awkward. Forced. Uncomfortable. This is all very much Leigh territory. In fact, it feels so much like a poorly put together version of Leigh's Bleak Moments from time to time. And, the characters are all upper-lower class. Very typical for Leigh. This is so much a Leigh film.

The downfall is the characters. They're not interesting. They aren't even so uninteresting it's a like a train wreck. They just don't keep you focused. I never thought 'what is going to come of these people?' The main character, Trevor, seems to suffer from some mental issue. But, we're never really told what, if anything. He just laughs at all the wrong moments and is so uncomfortable with himself we're just left to say 'alright, whatever.' The film is short. The acting is great. The story is thin, and the characters boring.

Mike Leigh has always been interested in the upper-lower class and the lower-middle class. Each of his films follow the dysfunctions, disturbances, and problems of the characters. But, for Who's Who, Leigh does something a little different.

The characters are all upper class or upper-middle class. And, for the most part, Leigh is making fun of his cast of characters. This is not one of Leigh's more serious films. This is definitely heavy in the humor. But, also, a little heavy handed. While poking fun at this class of people is entertaining and new for Leigh, it feels a little forced. Most of the time, too much of a farce.

But, other than these little complaints, the film is still a lot of fun. In fact, the couple of Alan and April are some of my favorite Leigh characters. Alan is so caught up in trying to make everyone aware of his class status, he just comes off as a needy nerd. His wife, April, breeds cats for cash. The house is overflowing with some of the cutest little creatures. This all creates a lot of silly moments.

Who's Who is playful. It's farce. It's not a Leigh great. But, it's an entertaining step.

Both The Kiss of Death and Who's Who are films/plays for the BBC.

The Kiss of Death: D+
Who's Who: C

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

The poet Elizabeth Bishop once wrote "I lost two cities, lovely ones" and with this line the reader is immediately lost to the reality of the way a city can control us, call to us, demand from us. In Italo Calvino's Invisile Cities we are told of 55 cities. All of them found, but lost. Or, actually, never really built. I never thought of myself as one so absorbed in the presence of a city. But, after reading Invisible Cities, and the line of poetry by Bishop, and the presence of the city of Alexandria in Lawrence Durrell's masterpiece Justine... I am now aware of the significance of city as character in the literature I most enjoy.

The novel is made up of a series of 55 short stories, glimpses at cities as described by the explorer Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. At first this sounds boring. To me, at least. I am not one for historical fiction. But, Invisible Cities is not historical fiction. This is literature by way of experimental fiction mixed with science-fiction. This is a world all to itself. A world of symbols, language, double meaning, and lots of games.

John Donne once said "a man is no island unto himself," but he never said anything about women. In Invisible Cities, Calvino argues a woman is a city unto herself. Each of the 55 cities described by Polo are named after women. As these cities do not exist, are we meant to understand the cities are just descriptions of women Polo has known? Are these complex constructions really just women? Is Invisible Cities a literary praise of all that is feminine? This may be too shallow of a reading, but certainly not without possibility.

On the other hand, Invisible Cities is in every way about fiction. The act of storytelling and the importance of literature. Khan argues with Polo that these stories, as Khan views the tales of these cities as imagination, as a waste of his time. That Khan would rather just see these for himself. This is an argument often stated by those who don't read. By those who would rather do instead of read.

Language and symbols are of the highest importance to Calvino. Throughout the entire novel we are made to understand that Khan and Polo do not speak the same language. Polo tells his stories by using objects. How is the reader to know how Khan interprets these stories through object? And, what about the reader, do we fully understand these tales as handed to us through the symbols of alphabet? Calvino writes about the "signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them." This speaks to the audience and their interpretation. Then, Calvino goes on to write that "the listener retains only the words he is expecting." Again, there will always be a disconnect between two people: the writer, the reader; the painter, the viewer; the speaker, the listener.

In one of Calvino's most playful moments in the novel, he informs the reader the arc of the storyline is about to take place: "Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me" Khan asks after Polo has described a bridge in one of the cities. Polo responds by stating "without stones there is no arch." Without story there is no arc. Without the cities there is no climax. In the next chapter, Polo reveals all of these cities are based upon Venice ("Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice"). The many ways we are able to interpret one thing.

For the past ten years I have wanted to read a Calvino novel. Never finding the right time. But, with Invisible Cities I think I picked not only the right time, but the right novel. Durrell's Justine will always remain my favorite book. But, this experience with Invisible Cities certainly places it as close to number two as a book can get after a first reading.

There are many readings of this novel still to come. And many interpretations left to discover.


Rabbit Hole

BEST OF 2010
It is always hard to give a film like Rabbit Hole a "best of" label because it causes one to feel guilty for giving a film with such heavy material such high praise. But, from time to time, the darkest films are beautifully made and leave pieces of itself embedded along the skin. In the case of Rabbit Hole, all of this is true. The film is an experience in extreme sadness. A study of grief not soon enough after the event. A view of a family in shambles before, during, and after the type of event that destroys so many.

I am not one to sing the praises of family. The bonds of family, the importance of family, or the raising of a family. But, I do understand the loss of a child may be one of the hardest, most painful experiences for anyone- no matter the age of the child or the parent. In the case of Rabbit Hole, Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play parents Becca and Howie. Eight months prior to the start of this film they lost their first and only son, Danny. The film, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, is smart to give us a few months away from the death. We are not meant to experience the immediate impact of loss, but the gradual understanding of how loss is a constant ghost.

There is rarely a moment in the film that isn't overwhelming. Most of the scenes are filled with sadness, bitterness, anguish, or regret. Such a heavy film is not always easy to pull off because the audience can begin to feel claustrophobic or overwhelmed. Rabbit Hole paces itself with the use of the incredible performances. Kidman could not have been better as the role of the grieving mother. Every shiver, tear, and breath is timed to perfection. I am always happy to see Eckhart return to more serious, dramatic roles that show off his ability to carry off difficult situations. And, the always lovely Dianne Wiest has, as usual, out done herself. She has a handful of brief scenes as the mother of Kidman's Becca, but with each scene Wiest takes control without showing off.

Rabbit Hole's director, John Cameron Mitchell, does a surprisingly mature job with the film. Mitchell is the creator, and later director, of the play/film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The musical is one of my favorites, but the film falls a little flat and comes off as a little too glitzy for my taste. Mitchell's second film as director, Shortbus, is a sentimental and boring attempt at mixing serious drama with porn. I feel Mitchell was very unsuccessful with both these films. To see him handle Rabbit Hole so well shows he knows exactly what he is doing. There is never an off moment between the camera, the actor, and the audience.

Rabbit Hole should have you on the edge of tears throughout most of the film. And, from time to time, you'll find yourself in tears. Rabbit Hole is a film I may not view many times in my life, as it is too heartbreaking. But, I will remember the experience for quite some time.


Abigail's Party (Mike Leigh) - 1977

Abigail's Party is another play turned TV film by Mike Leigh. This marks a point in Leigh's career where he is no longer totally in control of the creation of the film. Leigh is known for his improvisational films. Many of the plays of Mike Leigh, and the films to follow, are devised by Mike Leigh instead of written by him. Leigh decides, creates, a plot and characters. But, he spends a lot of time allowing the actors to create their characters and the lines. Leigh is very much a director who supports his actors and allows them to really create their roles. This is used to complete perfection in Leigh's Secret & Lies.

In Abigail's Party, the character of Beverly (played by Alison Steadman) is created mostly by the actress and less by Leigh. While watching the film it is very obvious how much Steadman owns this character. Every move and statement feels thought through and complex and required. It is an extreme form of acting. At times it may feel like overacting. But, I feel once you've grown comfortable with Steadman's characterization of Beverly, you will very quickly begin to understand the character.

The film reminds me of Ang Lee's The Ice Storm which is based on a Rick Moody novel. I would love to find out if Abigail's Party played any influence in the creation of either the film or the novel. The themes of repressed sexuality, heavy flirting, and a change of an era are very present in both The Ice Storm and Abigail's Party. I will even go so far as to suggest the character of Susan (played by Harriet Reynolds) is a repressed and shy version of Sigourney Weaver in The Ice Storm.

The hostess of the play's title is a 15 year old we are never shown. Abigail is the daughter of Susan. We only hear the sounds of music and the occasional loud voice coming from the party. On the same night as this party, Beverly has decided to have a small gathering of people to her home. Her husband joins Susan, and two new neighbors to this party. At first everyone is very quiet and the conversation is boring. After a few drinks, a little bit of honesty and aggression is revealed. Mike Leigh is the master of discomfort and dissecting the way we are never fully able to communicate with those around us.

The film's production is a bit bad. Even Leigh is embarrassed to look back at this film. But, the acting and the writing are superb. In fact, I can't believe at how incredible this almost unknown little gem is. Any fan of Leigh's or any fan of films that attempt to understand the reasons we behave the way we do in social settings may be wise to take a look at this film.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

03, Jean-Christophe Valtat

This may be the first piece of teenage philosophy fiction I have ever read. I was first drawn to this book because of the reviews- stating the writing was similar to that of 'nouveau roman' fiction. I am a fan of the authors who write within this style, namely Margerite Duras. I was curious to see what an experimental novella working within the 'nouveau roman' style might mean.

The novella, can this even be called novella when it falls to 80 tiny pages?, is about a 12th grade male (the narrator) and his sudden romantic interest in a "slightly handicapped" girl he sees getting on the bus. This isn't some basic story of teenage love, confusion, and disappointment. There is a lot more at work.

The narrator spends the entire 80 pages on one long stream of tangent thought. The thought begins on this girl, but quickly grows into a philosophical monologue about the restrictions of youth. The narrator realizes children, anyone not considered an adult, is in some way "retarded" because of the way they are treated as less than. It's a very interesting statement. And the narrator is filled with plenty of evidence to hold up his theory.

The narrator is quite intelligent. These are not the thoughts of your average 12th grader, but it would certainly be wonderful if they were. The maturity is delightful. I am not usually a fan of fiction told from the "youth perspective." And the narrator makes it clear that his argument of youth being treated as "less than" is quite right because no one would expect these thoughts from one at this age.

The novella is very, very short. The thoughts are quite interesting. You don't have enough time to grow bored. But, you don't have enough time to really become invested. This should be read more as a single theory and the reasons one would believe the theory.


Nuts in May (Mike Leigh) - 1976

This is the second of the Mike Leigh made-for-TV plays/flims. The first, Hard Labor, isn't so easy to come by at the moment. So, perhaps, I am missing a link between Bleak Moments and Nuts in May. Nuts in May is a comedy. Gone is the darkness and dreary souls of Bleak Moments. Alright, not completely, but the sadness is a lot less overwhelming this time around. I will be interested to see if the production between these two films is a mix of light and dark, or if Leigh did in fact make quite a leap with this film.

Many of Leigh's films have a sense of humor. A dark humor. A dry humor. He's British, what more would one expect? But, the humor is typically less obvious than it is in Nuts in May. This isn't a bad thing. A bit of comedy is wonderful from time to time. And, this is certainly a comedy to welcome.

The film follows a married couple, Keith and Candice Marie, as they take a holiday to the countryside. They wish to spend a week in nature, camping. The couple is everything one would imagine from the term "square hippies." They're preachy vegetarians, poor songwriters, and super up tight. Alright, to be fair, mostly Keith is the uptight mess of the couple. Candice Marie is a lot more interesting and curious. In fact, she's likeable. Whereas Keith's character is quite overbearing. I enjoyed watching this couple because they remind me of a co-worker I once knew and her husband. Everything has a right way of being done and no matter how long that right way might take... it must be done that way. The most laughable scene is when Keith explains why they need three pairs of shoes for an afternoon outing (sandals for the beach, boots for the hike, and another specific shoe for walking through the quarry).

The film covers a couple of Leigh's favorite themes: issues between the classes and the sexes. In this film, class issue is a little more an issue. Less so the issue between two different classes, but the issues between those who believe they're above the class they actually fall within. Keith and Candice Marie (mostly Keith) believe they are above the others at their camp site because of their jobs, car, diet, etc.

The issue between the sexes is only slight as the film doesn't go much into detail. Keith is very much in control of Candice Marie and when she speaks, he hardly pretends to be taking note unless it is to correct what she is saying or to share his knowledge on the topic.

The film is funny. The film is light. Quite possibly the lightest work Leigh ever created.


Bleak Moments (Mike Leigh) - 1971

I have long been a fan of the films of Mike Leigh. Ever since the release of Secrets & Lies (1996) I have been watching each release of Leigh's with great excitement. Shortly after seeing Secrets & Lies, I journeyed back slightly in Leigh's film career to the movie Naked (1993) which remains one of my ten favorite films these almost 13 years later. Career Girls (1997) remains a film I'll never forget after the brilliant performance of Katrin Cartlidge. Topsy-Turvy (1999) caused me to fall further in love with the musical/opera The Mikado. And, Vera Drake (2004), poor Vera Drake, one of the most intense and unusually touching films of the 2000's. I admit a small amount of disappointment with Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) as I still have not come to terms with Poppy's character. But, all in all, a Leigh film has never been a painful, boring, or useless experience.

Leigh's latest film, Another Year, is released by this months end. The performances of Leigh regulars Broadbent, Manville, and Sheen are being applauded. The film itself being praised as one of Leigh's grandest. And, I have sat through the preview a small handful of times, finding myself close to tears on each viewing. Realizing my emotional connection to Leigh's films has made me decide to go back to the earliest of Leigh's films and travel through the filmography much like I did with the films of Peter Greenaway.

Bleak Moments was Leigh's first feature film release. This would be his only feature film release until High Hopes in 1988. For the 16 years in between the first and second feature film release, Leigh created a series of made-for-TV films/plays. Bleak Moments is not trying to trick you. The title warns you of exactly what is headed your way. The film has a small amount of dark humor, but is mostly made up of a series of bleak, awkward, uncomfortable situations and the characters living these lives.

Sylvia, played by Anne Raitt, is a mysterious character. She is quiet, scared, confused, and in need of an escape. She cares for handicapped sister, attempts dates with an equally shy school teacher, and flirts a little with the drifter renting the space in her garage. All of these characters are just sort of existing. They would barely stand out if you were to turn your head too quickly. But, Leigh doesn't allow you to turn your head. Leigh wishes for you to slow down and just experience.

Bleak Moments is certainly not Leigh's greatest film. But, it is his first film and is quite strong for being a first. It makes perfect sense that Leigh would follow this film with a series of staged made-for-TV plays because so much of Bleak Moments feels like a stage production. The sets are sparse and the acting is quiet. This film contains one of the most uncomfortable, and somehow sad, dates to ever be filmed.

This is a slow film. A quiet film. One must be patient to find their way through the film, but the experience is worth the wait to see the birth of Leigh's style and methods


Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I'm not really sure why I finished this film. I'm not really sure why I started this film. Alright, that is a bit of a lie. I started the film because I have enjoyed the past two films by Noah Baumbach. The Squid & the Whale is a lovely film about the awkward bonds of family. And, Margot at the Wedding is film as short story at its most detailed. These two films are the reason why I started to watch Greenberg.

Shortly after the film started I was reminded how much I hate Ben Stiller (other than his near perfect role in Flirting with Disaster). But, worse than Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig. Ever since I attempted to watch her performance in the dreadful Hannah Takes the Stairs I have hated Gerwig's characters. Baghead can be added to the list of her films I can't stand, too. She does have a small role in The House of the Devil which I love. But, if it helps my case, she was murdered pretty quickly into the film. And, she doesn't put on the annoying persona she uses in the other roles.

Half way through the film I was pretty bored. On some level, I relate to the Ben Stiller character. He's cranky, unstable, panic stricken, opinionated, and socially awkward. Greenberg and I could be mirror images (except his image is a little too over the top and dramatic). Shortly after you realize the character of Greenberg, there isn't much left to the film. We watch Greenberg interact awkwardly with some people from his past. We watch Greenberg attempt to date. We watch Greenberg admit his life is more fucked up than he wishes.

Greenberg is about the past. About the regrets we carry around and how those regrets can build up until we're no longer recognizable. The film is about the patters we fall into that are harmful. But, I've seen this a million times. I could have done without.


Monday, December 6, 2010


When I first heard about this movie I read the synopsis to try and figure out if I was interested in the film. One review I read made the film seem scary. The other review made it seem boring. My overall opinion was that the film would just be another faux-documentary horror film.

After seeing the film, I'm not sure why I thought this was going to be a scary film. It isn't scary. And, it isn't meant to be scary. There is a level of thrill to the film due the mystery of it all. But, it is just meant to be a documentary about social networking and online dating. In fact, The Social Network is the Facebook movie and Catfish is the anti-Facebook movie.

The film documents a relationship started through Facebook when a young girl, Abbie, sends a photographer a painting she did inspired by one of his photographs. The correspondence grows and the photographer begins speaking with the mother and then the older sister. After a while, a relationship starts between the oldest sister and the photographer. Then, we discover not all the information being shared falls into place.

The photographer and his friends decide to make a movie documenting the relationship and then the eventual meeting of the Megan and Nev. Once Nev realizes somethign is amiss, the film begins to get uncomfortable. There is an eerieness and a discomfort to parts of the films. I grew a little paniced for a bit, too. The anticipation of who was going to answer the door if this 'Megan' wasn't real.

The film is about loneliness, imagination, and the ways we begin to entertain ourselves. The film deals with regret and lost chances. There is a great deal of sadness to the Angela character. I was surprised by how much she grows into a likeable person after one should only view her as unstable.

The question everyone wants to know: is the film fact or fiction? My answer: it doesn't really matter because these types of things do happen.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Never Let Me Go

By the films end, I found myself slightly disappointed with the experience. I had only read have of the novel upon its publication a few years ago. Perhaps, this should have been a sign that I wasn't quite interested in the subject matter of the film. But, the previews were quite tempting. And was excited to finally have the time to view Never Let Me Go. While I may not have loved the film, I am still happy to have watched it.

The film follows three people from their childhood to their adulthood. The three characters in question are all students at what appears to be a normal English country side boarding school. But, one day a new teacher (played so lovingly and briefly by Sally Hawkins) reveals the truth to the students. The students have all been cloned to fulfill the roles of donors when they have reached the age of 18. It is this element of science fiction that turns me off most from the film. While I understand the ethical debate and serious issue of the films suggestions, I still feel quite removed from the concept.

The way this works best for the film is how these children are made to realize how short their lives are and as they grow to become 18 they really have no future. The past becomes everything for them. And, it was quite nice to see this change. One is used to seeing much older characters dealing with issues of death and regret. Carrying on raw, honest conversations about the way the past should have played out. In Never Let Me Go we are witnessing this from the early twenty year olds.

The film is beautifully shot. The acting is perfect (Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling... and, dare I say it, even Keira Knightley doesn't bother me for once). The score plays so well with every scene. I have no real reason to feel so so about the film, but this is how I feel. I just never really connected with the characters or the plot. I think this is of no fault of the filmmakers or the cast, but just my own bias.


Friday, December 3, 2010

For Colored Girls

BEST OF 2010

I am not too familiar with the films of Tyler Perry. I know he is to blame for the Madea film series. From what I can tell, a series of films based on family bond, religion, and filled with overacting and/or bad acting. These are of no interest to me as a movie goer. When I heard he was filming the adoption to the Ntozake Shange play/poem, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, I was worried about the way Perry would handle the film. I wasn't wrong to be concerned. Perry allows for the film to happen too quickly. The film jumps so quickly from scene to scene. Before one can really take in the entirety of the previous scene. This weakens some of the films heaviest moments. I wonder if Perry was dressing down the darkness of the material to make it more suitable for a mainstream audience.

I wish Perry would have set the film in the 1970s, when the play was originally written. I think the film could have been grittier and filled with a lot more impact. Not to say the film doesn't have plenty of impact. I must have teared up at least four times. Perry's film is too pretty to look at due to the way he has his acrtresses dressed, the buildings designed, and the rooms painted. Everything is a little too glossy. Even the back alley abortionist (played by Macy Gray) is too glamorous. I would have liked to see a more realistic, harsher view of Shange's play.

I have always admired film adaptions of plays. I adore the way people speak in plays. And on the occasions when the plays are made into great films (Closer), the dialogue sticks out and cuts right to your heart. In For Colored Girls, the dialogue taken directly from the play stands out right away. The actresses deliver the lines with rhythm, like the spoken word poems of the play are to be delivered. These monologues stand out like Shakespearean asides. I imagine many would have issue with these moments. But, it helped to give a roundness to the characters that Perry didn't demand of his actresses. Clearly he felt the lines from the play were enough to shape these women. And, for most of them, this may be true.

Towards the end of the film, Janet Jackson's character states how much power women have to give up to men. She's talking about love in this moment. But, she's talking about everything. This film portrays nine women in moments where they have lost all control. And then how the rest of your life is lost fighting against those hands of control. It's a powerful, heavy message and is mostly delivered in this film without pushing it down the audiences throat.

I would have liked to see different actresses for a few of these characters. Or, for Perry to have demanded more from their performances. Whoopi Goldberg is incredibly weak. Perhaps the most disappointing. Phylicia Rashad is a little reserved in her role, but not so much so that I didn't enjoy her time on the screen. Loretta Devine will always make me cry. Her voice so fragile and her face so innocent. Each time she cries I break a little. Devine is fantastic in her role.

The film suffers with Perry in charge, but the material is strong enough to still maintain the heart and emotion of the original work.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Impossible Princess, Kevin Killian

In 2007, I had a short story published in an anthology of writers from the blogging underground. It was my first and only experience with being published. There were very few reviews of the anthology. But, there existed two. And, I was lucky enough to be mentioned in both reviews. Of the two reviewers, one was an author. The author Kevin Killian. At this point in time I had never read anything by Killian. But, his name always appeared alongside other authors I enjoyed (Dennis Cooper, Scott Heim, Poppy Z. Brite, etc). After reading his brief, but kind, words on my piece I was afraid to read his works. Afraid of what his work would say about my work. It is unfair to hold yourself to the abilities of others. As writers, we create and enjoy things that do not always match.

On discovering the library where I work owned Killian's most recent collection of short stories, I figured it was time to give his work a chance. First, I looked up his writing history (a little here and there with small amounts of praise), then his website (a single page with a photo of him nude with a towel draped around his shoulders), and then I read some reviews (mostly positive, but not many to find). It was time to quit wasting time and just read the stories.

Impossible Princess is filled with the type of eclectic, postmodern, overly sexualized, and unique word play I used to enjoy reading. There are elements of Dennis Cooper throughout the collection. And, I must add, that while Cooper has slowed down on his out put over the past five years... his earlier work remains a great influence on my writing and my perspective. Also, Killian is clearly a fan of Marguerite Duras (another author I will always hold in high regards) as seen in his short story 'Dietmar Lutz Mon Amour' (a play on Duras' Hiroshima Mon Amour). Although, Killian doesn't quite live up to his hopes in this short story when he states he wants to tell about the love story as if Duras is watching.

A few of the stories are co-authored. I understand this is fun and interesting for those creating the fiction, but as a reader it leaves me lost. I don't know who I'm reading at what point. Why this need to work within each others own realm of writing?

I can't say I loved any of the stories. But, I did enjoy a couple of them. There is a freshness to the voice that is nowhere to be found in most literature you find on the shelves of bookstores, reviewed in the pages of literary journals, or mentioned amongst friends. For this, Killian exists within a group of writers that still lives very much on the edge of writing. It's a sometimes dangerous and dirty edge, but it is an interesting experience.


Pink Friday, Nicki Minaj

Is there such a thing as bubble gum rap? If so, Nicki Minaj falls under this label. The lyrics can be pretty silly, very catchy, over the top, and placed alongside a lovely beat. As I've said before, the Nicki Minaj praise train passed me by. I have heard a few tracks she is featured on, but was never impressed. There seemed to lack an originality in her boldness. But, I decided I should give her full length album a try before pushing her aside.

I like Minaj's feminist perspective. She's brass, she's loud, she womanly, she's everything you want in a strong female. She sings about wishing she had a dick so she could pull it out and piss all over. She calls herself a cunt and a bitch. She's sexually open, but innocent at the same time. She manages the yin and yang so many female rappers seem to just ignore. In fact, most of the time she seems a little like Lauryn Hill with a bit more sexuality.

Many of the songs on Minaj's album are sentimental. I was surprised at the heart on her sleeve element to so many of these songs. Minaj is focused on the change she's seen within herself. She's honest about where she comes from, how she got here, and where she wants to go. I admire her strenght and sensitivity. But, at times, the music feels a little too cliched and her voice just not quite strong enough.

I am a little confused by the presence of Eminem on this album. Even more annoyed at his little rant/rap on 'Roman's Revenge.' I am not sure how Eminem is even relevant these days? At one point he shouts 'faggot' in what appears to be a failed attempt at being shocking... or, more likely, just to have something to rhyme with 'magnet.' His presence is offensive on many levels. And, really destroys what could have been an interesting track.

My favorite track on the album is 'Blazin' which features Kanye West. It samples the fantastic 80s track from Simple Minds 'Don't You Forget About Me.' Actually, 'Blazin' is the second track on the album to sample from an 80s song. This will always be favorable in my book.

The album starts out harsh. Minaj wants you to know she's tough and not one to be fucked with. But, after three tracks she mellows out. Minaj shares her soft side. Her honesty appears. It's a sentimental journey. It's an uneven journey. But, one that took me by surprise. Worth a listen.


Love Remains, How to Dress Well

BEST OF 2010

What if Bon Iver went a little R&B? Or, if Passion Pit went a little lo-fi? If Beach House mellowed out the musical antics of Animal Collective? All of these scenarios may end in the beautiful result of How To Dress Well's first full length album, Love Remains. The album is emotional. It moves from the quiet of a Microphones album to the shoe gaze beat of the recent oOoOO album. This is really an album that catches everything from my iPod.

After work, 1.15am, I crawled into my car from the winter cold and into the frozen ice box of the car untouched for over eight hours. I had to sit for fifteen minutes and let the car defrost. I wanted new music. Nothing too peppy. It was too late. I wanted something to match the mood of the air. Something distant, sad, cold. I scanned through the iPod, but wasn't sure what would fit the mood. I needed something new. I happened to come across How to Dress Well. I hadn't listened to them since I got the album after hearing one song a few months ago. I was concerned with a name like How to Dress Well the music was going to be too much pop and dance beat. I was wrong.

The mood of the music, haunted choruses/the crackle of lo-fi recording/the high pitch voice of the male singer/the simple instrumentation, was perfect for the introspective ride home. The sky was ice. The church steeples jutting up higher than the tree tops. The moon a frigid glow. I felt as if I saw the world in a slightly different way. The sadness wasn't so lonesome tonight. The album, a conversation with a stranger. A broken hearted man mourning the loss... the loss of a relationship? The lost of time? The loss of self? I'm still not quite sure. But this is an album of mourning.

The album is a culmination of songs picked from EPs released over the past year. The artist is Tom Krell. I know very little beyond this information. I see Krell is influenced by R&B and gospel music. A few songs show this very strongly. And, Krell is certainly a fan of lo-fi folk, too. This being the most prevalent element of the album.

As I write this, I've only sat through the album one time. Too soon to declare it a top album of the year. But, I may be wrong not to do so. It has been awhile since an album felt so comforting. So close to me within minutes. Chances are, Love Remains will become my winter soundtrack.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Winter's Bone

BEST OF 2010

I waited too long to see this film. When I first heard of its release, I was afraid 2010 would be the year of the films trying to recreate the mood and setting of Frozen River. I ended up adoring Frozen River by the films end. Melissa Leo's performance is inspiring. I couldn't imagine why Winter's Bone was getting such reviews when all I had heard seemed to run too close alongside Frozen River's story. Also, the poster shows the young woman in the top left corner. I thought she was eight, or nine. I had no interest in the story of a character so young.

I was wrong on most accounts. The main character, Ree Dolly (played to almost perfection by Jennifer Lawrence), is a 17-year old. Ree is left to care for her young brother (ten-ish), younger sister (five), and her mentally fractured mother. The father, Jessup, is on the run from the law. Ree has to find her father in order to keep the family home and land. This feels like such familiar territory. Not really deserving of the incredible reviews. But, there is so much more.

The filmmaker takes control of every detail. From the front screen doors that are always stuck open, to the cement figurines littering a decaying farm, to the yellowing teeth, to the family bonds. The detail is exhausting. While watching the film I was reminded of a trip I took with my grandfather when I was 12. We went to visit his relatives living in the hills of Kentucky. The homes all over sized, filled to capacity, and rotting away. There was very little in the way of entertainment. Just a TV constantly blaring and the all day gossip chattering of those who lived in walking distance. My experience wasn't quite as extreme as the Dolly family, but it came close enough for me to respect the authenticity of their world.

At times, the film feels like a Cohen Brothers film. There is a bit of country-noir from time to time. The race against time to find the father. The very interesting, eclectic characters Ree encounters on her journey- a violent grandfather named Thumb, a cold uncle named Teardrop, and a gang of 50-year old women without a single fear in their body. They all have a dialogue and way of speaking all their own. This is a sociological study as much as a film experience.

The movie moves at an incredible pace. The end is as quiet as these lives, as our lives, in the larger scheme of things. We're given a little slice of life. The film handles the horrors of Ree's life in such an unusual manner. The film, on some level, could have played out as a horror film, actually. The content is quite dark and the journey is through decaying barns, abandoned cemeteries, and near frozen lakes.


Modern Thrills, Tesla Boy

In past years, bands and artists have been all about creating the perfect "sounds-like the 80s" style. This year appears to be the year of "get it as close to the 80s sound as possible." First, Zola Jesus released her beautiful goth 80s album. Now, Tesla Boy is doing the same. But, not quite as dark as Zola Jesus. Tesla Boy is going for a poppier, electro-disco 80s sound. And, while it isn't the strongest album released this year, it goes a long way towards being one of the catchiest.

My first listen to Modern Thrills reminded me of listening to the first Cut Copy album, Bright Like Neon. All the catchy, 80s sounds are present. The dance party beats are all over. And, the lyrics are a lot of fun. Nothing too heavy, but never silly. This isn't pop music for the purpose of pop music. This is an album created with the need to express.

There is a hint of Calvin Harris from time to time. It's hard to point out where, or what song. But, there are moments I am reminded of Calvin Harris' 'Acceptable in the 80s' mostly. Other elements exist, too.

I was shocked, when looking into information on the band, to discover the band was Russian. I would have assume British (with their Joy Division accent) or Canadian (with the Patrick Wolf and Diamond Rings glam), but I never would have assumed Russian (I hate to admit my mind goes to T.A.T.U., and it shouldn't!).

I don't have a whole lot to say. It's a fun album. Not fresh, but plenty refreshing.