Sunday, December 31, 2006

2006: A Myopic Retrospective

Since everyone and his sister's best friend's tennis coach is doing a year-end wrap-up, I guess I'll do one, too. This despite keeping an admirable distance from most of the trends, mores, and events that kept pop culture in a lather over the last twelve months. It might be time to change the name of this Blog if I maintain this pace.

I could barely count the number of first-run movies I saw in 2006 on both of my hands, watched relatively little television, read one fiction book (boy, does it hurt to pony up to that one), and heard less new music this last year than I had since I was a grade schooler, so this could be easy. Then again, with my propensity to windy meandering, it might not be. So be it; here go a few of My Favorite 2006 Things.

Favorite TV: Heroes, NBC's revisionist superhero saga, was my favorite boob tube destination by a landslide. Sharply written, well-acted by an appealing and relatively unknown cast, and deft in its gradual (and still ongoing) unravelling of its central mystery, it's managed to unite fanboys and non-obsessives alike in communal devotion. Here's to hoping that other superhero works (films and TV alike) follow in its formidable and smart footsteps. Honorable mentions go to the third season of Project Runway (don't snicker: It's reality TV that largely eschews the usual genre histrionics by celebrating--get this--creativity and resourcefulness) and the second season of The Closer, an old-fashioned cop show elevated immeasureably by Kyra Sedgwick's first-rate work as a Southern police officer transplanted to LAPD homicide duty.

Favorite Movies: I've got a massive list of 2006 movies that I'd love to see, but it sure as hell ain't gonna happen by December 31. Among what I did see, the feature that impressed me the most was Sacha Baron Cohen's merciless, hysterically funny mockumentary Borat. Just thinking about it makes me snicker right now. Honorable mentions: Slither (a near-perfect--and sadly ignored in the theaters--pastiche of old-fashioned gooey-monster hijinks and snarky wit) and Mel Gibson's erratic but frequently mindblowing Apocalypto. If that's not diverse enough for you, cut me some slack: I saw diddly in a theater this year.

Favorite Music: Return to Cookie Mountain, the stunning sophomore CD by DC art-rock outfit TV on the Radio, swirls together a pot of disparate elements--Beach Boys-cum-doo-wop harmonies, primal rhythms, spastic samples, shoegazing sonic immersion, ferocious but never obvious socio-political conscience, and a downright cinematic expansiveness--to form that ultimate pop music rarity: a completely original sound that still connects emotionally. Everyone who thinks rock and roll has lost its ability to surprise, galvanize, and move a listener needs to hear this--to paraphrase the band, they'll teach you things that'll blow your mongrel mind.

I also dug Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere, the joyously wiggy collaboration between Goodie Mob rapper/crooner Cee-Lo and producer/DJ Danger Mouse, for adroitly wedding everything-but-the-kitchen-sink grooves with Cee-Lo's oddly soulful voice.

The Black Angels' Passover, meanwhile, knocked it out of the park with the most deliciously primal bacchanalian fire-and-brimstone rock throb I heard all year. If the Velvet Underground and Black Sabbath locked bodies with a demon-possessed fire-and-brimstone prophet in a stoned tryst (all to the accompaniment of a pissed-off gorilla pounding out a ribcage-rattling backbeat), it might sound something like this. Best cruising disc of 2006 by a speaker-pulsing country mile.

Other nice things: Thom Yorke's solo bow, The Eraser (that anguished voice swaddled in claustrophobic electronics worked on me); Cheap Trick's nifty return to power pop form, Rockford; and White Stripe Jack White's insubstantial but agreeably rocking side project, The Raconteurs' Broken Boy Soldiers.

DVD Goodness: Fans of horror, sci-fi, and trash cinema of all vintages and styles found plenty of avenues for fueling their addictions this year. Casa Negra Entertainment (a subsidiary of Panik House, ace reissuers of Petri Dish subject Sex and Zen) took a digital bow with pristine reissues of several underrated Mexican horror films of the fifties and sixties. Blue Underground continued its gold-standard presentations of exploitation, horror, and Italian crime cinema. And for the most wonderfully exotic and strange, Mondo Macabro continued to fill the bill and then some, presenting everything from Bollywood vampire flicks to Indonesian shoestring Conan rip-offs with heaps of amazing extras.

Dark Sky Entertainment likewise rang this geek's bells with a varied and tasty tassel of chillers (the notorious 1964 monster opus The Flesh Eaters), sci-fi (Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster), biker flicks (the long-unavailable Hells-Angels-in-'Nam classic The Losers, starring Petri Dish fave William "Big Bill" Smith), and euro-trash (the wicked Jayne Mansfield/Cameron Mitchell heist flick Dog Eat Dog). These guys'll win some major bonus points next year with a deluxe reissue of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava's 1966 gothic wonder Kill, Baby, Kill! in March.

And the preceding two paragraphs lay bare what occupied most of my time-wasting in 2006.

Things I'm Looking Forward To in 2007:

Seeing Casino Royale, Pan's Labyrinth, Curse of the Golden Flower, Volver, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Spider Man 3.

Hearing new long-players by The Shins, The High Dials, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and The Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Reading at least one fiction book a month. I think I can, I think I can, I know I can, I know I can...

Happy New Year, everybody.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Passings: James Brown, my favorite Christmas Crooner

This started out about five days ago as a Blog about my favorite Christmas CD's--recordings that capture the essence of the season so sublimely that they often singlehandedly pull me out of the Stygian depths of Scrooge-ism.

As research--but mostly as a truly welcome soundtrack to the whole litany of commuting, working, shopping, cleaning, and holiday cooking--I found myself listening to these favorites pretty ceaselessly over the last week or two. They include: Dean Martin's incredibly lush A Winter Romance (call me a blasphemer, but I think this 'un's every bit the Rat Pack Concept Album Masterwork that Sinatra's Songs for Swinging Lovers ever was); Billboard's Greatest Christmas Hits 1935-1954 (Ground Zero for the definitive versions of most of the standards, from Nat King Cole's gorgeous 'The Christmas Song' to Eartha Kitt's untouchably sexy 'Santa Baby'); Laserlight Records' Jack Jones Christmas (an ace mix of Vegas schmooze and angelic crooning from one of the most underrated vocalists of the last forty years); Rhino's energetic and deliciously snotty Punk Rock Xmas compilation; and another Rhino multi-artist effort, the Seventies-themed Have a Nice Christmas (which packs Cheech and Chong, Melanie, Bobby Sherman, and a fully-discofied Wayne Newton onto the same disc).

But the one Christmas album that has lived most constantly in my car stereo, home player, and heart ever since Rita and I bought it in the late nineties is Santa's Got a Brand New Bag, a collection of Christmas tunes by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. It's not just a great Christmas collection, it's an incredible barometer of the magnificence that was James Brown during his artistic peak.

Culled from three albums and several singles recorded between 1966 and 1970, Santa's manages to somehow encapsulate the sentiment, idealism, boundless energy, humor, and reflection that swirl around the season better than any other Christmas CD or LP I've ever listened to. It's also, first and foremost, a seriously ass-kicking James Brown CD.

If all you know of Brown is Golden Oldies like 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' or 'I Feel Good', seek out Star Time--likely the greatest CD box set ever released--for an invaluable guide to one of America's most important musical figures. And if you've never heard Christmas music spiked with social commentary ('Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto'), eye-popping screams ('Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year'), and fierce organic grooves throughout, Santa's Got a Brand New Bag will flat-out leave you breathless. It's probably the only holiday CD I can literally listen to, any day of the year. And hearing it makes me happy to be alive.

Goodbye, James Brown. I'll miss you. And Happy Holidays, everyone.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Passings: Peter Boyle

There are a whole host of eloquent tributes to recently-departed character actor Peter Boyle, so won't rattle on much here.

With deep set eyes that reflected all of the emotion concealed by a perpetually furrowed brow ridge, Boyle was never less than terrific, and almost always the best thing about the movies he appeared in. I'm, sadly, unexposed to Boyle's dramatic output (including his caustic star turn in 1970's Joe), but like most of the world his sublime work as a comic actor looms large in my heart.

To this day, I can't hear "Putting on the Ritz" without hearing Boyle's sad, sympathetic--and riotously funny--monster monosyllabically barking out the song's title in Young Frankenstein. And the wearily-tart repartee between him and Doris Roberts always represented Everybody Loves Raymond's comic trump card.

I did want to give a shout-out to one of Boyle's less-ballyhooed comic triumphs. The modest but very funny 1989 comedy The Dream Team chronicles the adventures of four mental patients who sneak away from the not-so-watchful eye of their therapist during a baseball game. Boyle plays Jack, a guy with a direct mental pipeline to Jesus and a propensity to public nudity, and amidst a crack comic ensemble (consisting of Christopher Lloyd, Stephen Furst, and Michael Keaton) he steals the show with a (naked) master pickpocket's skill.

Farewell, Mr. Boyle. You were, as your immortal zipper-necked monster once bellowed, super-duper.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Apocalypto: A Head-Lopping Celebration of Family Values

So let's get the whole 'How Can I watch Apocalypto when Mel Gibson's such an evil anti-semitic racist sexist homophobic rat bastard?' moral dilemma out of the way first.

As I said in a comment on another intrepid film lover's Blog, If I avoided every movie, book, painting, or piece of music created by an artist who said and/or did loathsome things, the sum total of the works of art that would pass through that filter could be counted on Mickey Mouse's right hand. Some separation of art from artist is always necessary. And though I will concede that separating Gibson's work from his offscreen antics of late is a mammoth challenge to anyone who doesn't have the words 'Imperial Wizard' inscribed on his name tag, it's not gonna keep me out of the theater.

Enough with the brouhaha. Divorced from its notorious architect, is Apocalypto worth seeing? Absolutely. Is it perfect? Not by a longshot. But it kept me glued solid to my seat, and I want to see it again.

The story centers around Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young villager whose tribe hunts the forests of South America just before the arrival of Spanish explorers. Early on in the film Jaguar Paw's village is massacred by a Maya war party, and he's one of several tribesmen abducted and spirited away by the intruders to the opulent and imposing city of the Mayans. From there Apocalypto becomes an odyssey of torment, quasi-mysticism, pursuit, and revenge.

Gibson hasn't made some all-encompassing masterpiece here. The Mayan civilization provides ripe metaphoric turf (its grandeur-built-atop-blood-and-pain is really just ancient Rome, Nazi Germany, or--some cynics might argue--Bush Administration-led America in early Mesoamerican drag), but Apocalypto eschews socio-political subtext and hews close to the plot schematic of a western--even the male-buddy bonding in the film's opening scenes is pure John Ford (give or take the animal-testicle eating). For its final third, it strips itself down even more, to a succession of action and pursuit scenes spiked with some extremely overheated melodrama.

It could also be convincingly argued that, for all of the incredible logistic detail here, Apocalypto never penetrates the surface of the Mayan civilization that serves as its collective antagonistic force. Jaguar Paw's Mayan Warrior abductors, in particular, are a pack of sneering caricatures (all they're missing is giant waxed moustaches to twirl).

But it's a testament to Apocalypto's overall effectiveness that the above quibbles meant diddly to me while I was watching. Seasoned audiences will note strains of other movies in Apocalypto's framework--Last of the Mohicans, The Fugitive, and Gibson's own Braveheart, among them--but the fact remains that Gibson learned his action-movie chops at the feet of some of the greatest directors to dabble in the genre, and he and his editors engineer the chase scenes with the kinetic exhilaration of masters.

Apocalypto also accomplishes something that few of today's movie epics manage: it immerses its audience into a distinctive time and place that we have never seen before on this scale. The very effective cast of unknowns, the authentic Yukatek Mayan dialogue, Dean Semler's terrific cinematography, and the painstaking visual detail combine to lend a real air of authenticity to the proceedings. It's an unflinchingly brutal (bring a strong stomach to the theater, folks) but utterly irresistible world.

You're likewise not gonna see another big-studio epic this distinctively personal come shuffling up the pike again soon, either. Gibson will probably never be one-100th the cinematic storyteller that John Ford and Sam Peckinpah (to name two obvious role models) became, but his continual re-examination of recurring themes--the distinctively Catholic link between pain and redemption and the irredeemable nature of unchecked authority and power, among them--just screams auteur.

The director spends a lot of screen time on Jaguar Paw's relationship with his wife and child, so when they end up as key players in the movie's far-fetched climax, it's as heartfelt as it is ridiculous--and a window into Gibson's other big thematic fixation: the family. Yep, in the end Apocalypto is an exotically-set but completely earnest celebration of family values, with a few beheadings and heart-rippings thrown in.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Ten Movies That Ain't All That

Greencine Daily posted a link to Premiere Magazine's list of The Twenty Most Overrated Movies of All Time, and seeing as how most of us movie nerds love lists more than dogs love peanut butter, I couldn't resist cobbling together a response (I agree with a lot of Premiere's choices, but they missed a few).

Stuff like this naturally prompts a need for a blanket definition of an 'overrated' movie. Is it the Absurdly Popular Box Office Hit? The Pretentious Masterwork that Launched a Thousand Critics' Drool Puddles? The Venerated Old Hollywood Classic? I figure it's at least one (or any combination) of the three. It can even be a movie that you like, just so long as the vocal huzzahs (critical, popular, or both) that surround said movie exceed the actual merit of the final product.

Incidentally, Premiere's list of Twenty Most Overrated included rebuttal statements in defense of every movie. So if you think I'm on crack with some of my opinions, lemme know. Constructive dissent might make me reevaluate some of my choices. Then again, that dissent might just convince me that you're smoking higher-grade rock than I am.

So without further tangential ratchet-jawing, here's my two cents, in no particular order.

Titanic (1997): It's got impressive special effects. It possesses the proverbial all-star cast. It's long. An utterly chemistry-free romance whirrs away mechanically at its center, over a bedrock foundation of the kind of melodramatic hooey that reached its pull date around the Silent Era. And it won a Best Picture Oscar. Figures.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966): We're talking heresy here, I guess, since Sergio Leone's Man With No Name Trilogy reignited the Western genre and inspired ripples that still course through modern cinema. And never in a million years would I dispute the on-site brilliance of Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and (especially) the mighty Eli Wallach. But at 2.5 hours (three if you go with the unexpurgated cut), it's too much of a good thing, with endless minutes of meandering (yes, it's visually-arresting meandering set to a boffo Ennio Morricone score, but it's still meandering) offsetting the flashes of action and existential cool. It's a good movie, but not a great one.

Dances With Wolves (1990): Premiere's staff threw that flight of sports-fantasy whimsy Field of Dreams onto their list: Kevin Costner's polite, visually-sumptuous-but-inherently-dull Big Western Epic, meanwhile, earns the Emperor's New Clothes label much more vigorously. If this bale of hippie-twaddle hay hadn't been shot to perfection by cinematographer Dean Semler, Costner would be selling plasma screen TVs at Sears today.

Halloween (1978): Director John Carpenter crafted two of the most satisfying genre films of the eighties with Escape from New York and The Thing respectively, but I've grown a bit lukewarm on his breakout movie. Yeah, it's well-crafted, has some good performances, and registered lasting seismic impact on the horror scene (for better and for worse), but its influence still far exceeds its merits.

Raging Bull (1980): After watching Raging Bull with me a few months back, my dear wife launched into an incredibly intelligent, measured, and incisive case against Martin Scorsese's work (how 'bout a guest Blog on this topic sometime, hon?). I admire the man's efforts much more than she, but as is, all my Scorsese-lovin' pals are gonna rough me up big-time for what I'm about to say about what many consider to be Scorsese's masterpiece.

I'll freely cop to the fact that many great things were poured into Scorsese's biopic on boxer Jake LaMotta. Michael Chapman's impossibly rich lenswork, Thelma Schoonmaker's brilliant editing, and the movie's immersive and impactful use of sound and sound effects remain unrivaled. Cathy Moriarty's unself-consciously natural and achingly honest work as Vicki, and DiNiro's staggering physical and technical discipline in the title role still impress today.

But Best film of the Eighties? C'mon. The script by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin never really gets under it's subject's skin until the very end, so for much of Raging Bull's running time Jake LaMotta's nothing more than a grunting embodiment of extra-ugly Id who makes a handsome living by unleashing his impulses with lethal effectiveness. The fact that he can't corral that Id in his private life would provide more dramatic meat if we saw inside this guy more. And don't try arguing that maybe there is nothing more inside him than a primal impulse to violence and gratification: that's a cop-out. I've got no problem with an unlikeable human being at the core of a movie. But if you don't let me see inside him during the bulk of the running time, all of the amazing sound, fury, light and shadows are for naught (or at least for not enough).

Whew, that one took a lot out of me.

The Sound of Music (1965): Premiere's staff takes the critical bat to the knees of An American in Paris, while leaving this empty-headed little bonbon alone. WTF? Why did this perfectly pleasant and acceptable but utterly unspectacular movie become such a phenomenon? Cute li'l moppets singing cute li'l songs alongside their cute li'l nanny does not movie iconography make (even if it's in front of eye-popping European scenery). If you wanna talk truly great movie musicals, West Side Story possesses a much more resonant emotional center, and Singin' in the Rain hits the comedic sweet spot a lot more adroitly.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004): It's blessedly free of scatology, and at some points it captures the dustbowl vacancy of suburban America with knowing affection (I lived a variation of the egg farm scene when I was fifteen). But the massive echo Napoleon Dynamite left on the pop culture radar has always stymied me. Other movies captured awkward adolescence a lot better (and funnier), and the characters are too broadly-drawn to really stick to the ribs. They do, however, make great action figures. Speaking of which...

Batman (1989): As visually kinetic as Batman is, it spins off into irritating, near-unwatchable hyperkinetic goofiness in its final third. Even this early in his career Tim Burton already merited consideration as one of modern cinema's supreme visual stylists, a strength that renders his all-thumbs handling of actors (Ed Wood excepted) all the more frustrating. Jack Nicholson's Joker provides a textbook example of a Thespian Bull thundering through the proverbial china shop (this from a fan of Nicholson's and Burton's).

The Seven Year Itch (1955): This Billy Wilder-helmed comedy depicting husband Tom Ewell's unconsumated lechery over dim bulb Marilyn Monroe has aged badly. There's a reason that the only thing you remember from this movie is a peek up Monroe's skirt, folks.

Pulp Fiction (1994): Hardcore movie geeks are like some sort of intellectual Elks' Club sometimes, wearing their silly-ass fezzes and yokking it up at jokes and references that leave the non-Elks' Club masses in the cold. Pulp Fiction, then, is the comedian playing the Elks' big Catskills shindig, telling jokes and stories that'll appeal most profoundly to his liquor-(or movie-)soused specialized audience. So remember when I tell you that I adore Pulp Fiction almost beyond words, and that I think it's one of the greatest movies of the nineties, that's coming from one of those polyester-clad Fez-headed jackasses. And we do have a tendency to overrate things.