Friday, August 31, 2007

Favorite Scenes - Swingers

The COFFEE SHOP WAITRESS approaches the table.

WAITRESS: Are you ready to order?

MIKE: Coffee...(points to Trent, who nods).Two coffees. It says "Breakfast
Any Time", right?

WAITRESS: That's right.

MIKE: I'll have "pancakes in the Age of

(It goes over like a lead balloon)

WAITRESS: And you?

TRENT: I'll have the Blackbeard over easy.

WAITRESS: I'll be back with the coffee.

She takes the menus and goes.

TRENT:(genuinely)Nice, baby.

MIKE: I should've said Renaissance, right? It went over her head.

TRENT: Baby, you did fine.

MIKE: (disgusted with himself)"Age of Enlightenment". Sh!t. Like some
waitress in a Las Vegas coffee shop is going to get an obscure
French philosophical reference. How demeaning. I may as well have
just said "Let me jump your ignorant bones."...

TRENT: ...Baby...

MIKE: ... It's just, I thought "Renaissance" was too Excaliber, it's the
wrong casino. She would've gotten it, though...

TRENT: You did fine. Don't sweat her. We're meeting our honeys soon.
You know Christy's friend is going to be money.

MIKE: I hope so.(checks watch). We gotta go soon.

TRENT: Baby, relax. It's just down the hall.
She's gotta change... we'll be fine.

MIKE: We didn't do so bad after all.

TRENT: Baby, we're money.

Mike tries to catch the attention of their waitress.

MIKE: Excuse me. We're in a bit of a hurry.

WAITRESS: Hang on, Voltaire.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

The French Connection - A-

On DVD (1971). Rated R, 104 minutes.

The early 1970's yielded a ridiculous number of classic films, including The French Connection, Best Picture for 1971. Directed by William Friedkin (he won an Oscar for directing) and starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider (Jaws), this film redefined the cop drama at the time.

Gene Hackman (in an Oscar winning performance) portrays Popeye, a hard charging, 'damn the rules' cop with good intentions. Scheider (nominated) is his partner, Cloudy. They are narcotics cops in 1971 New York, and randomly happen upon a big shipment coming in from France. The film follows their building of the case and surveillance of the various characters in the drug deal. Friedkin weaves the French and NY storylines masterfully, and the action sequences are frenetic and interesting. This was groundbreaking it was released, as many of the shots and chase sequences meet or exceed the quality in even today's films.

Hackman's Popeye is brilliant. His past hunches resulted in a cop being killed, and he seems hellbent on righting that wrong, losing sight of what needs to be done along the way. Friedkin juxtaposes the lavish lives of the criminals with his own meager and obsessed existence to great effect. The film ends with a depressing set of results for the criminals he chases, and the overall message of the film is bleak. A great film.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My Last Five I-Tunes Downloads

Con Te Partiro (4:11) – Andrea Bocelli – I’m not sure what version of this song I heard in a San Francisco Starbucks in April 2003, but I sat there stunned and felt like Red in Shawshank Redemption: not understanding the words, but having my soul soar nonetheless. I finally found it courtesy of the Will Ferrell movie Blades of Glory where it played over the opening credits. God does have a sense of humor after all. (For the record, I was presenting a poster on Baclofen Pumps and no, I didn’t visit the Castro District.)

Cinderella Man (4:48) – Thomas Newman – Arguably the greatest score of the current decade (I’ll entertain a few other nominees, including Eternal Sunshine and Fellowship of the Ring). It’s a movie that gets better with each viewing and destined to become a classic once it begins to play non-stop on TNT. The music already belongs in a time capsule.

The Captain of Her Heart (4:34) – Double – Somehow I missed this the first time around in 1986. I love the vocals and piano echoing each other and occasionally performing in unison. The saxophone enhances the relaxed jazzy feel. I guess this makes it official – I’m in my mid-30s.

She’s a Rainbow (4:35) – The Rolling Stones – An unusual song for the group which usually went rock and roll right down the middle. This one has strings, piano, and the mellotron. John Paul Jones arranged the strings. Try not to look at the name of the album, priest.

(5:35) – Russ Ballard – Pure 80s pop, most famous for opening the classic Miami Vice episode, “Calderone’s Return: Part 2.” The images of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas on a boat flying into the air are still spectacular.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Owen Wilson

Owen Wilson attempted suicide last Sunday. He is one of the most talented people working in film today, and certainly among my favorite actors and writers.

Some things to contemplate: Richie's suicide attempt in Royal Tenenbaums (written by Owen):

A great essay about the situation by a Dallas acquaintance of Owen's and current NY Times critic:

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Apocalypse Now - in 10 Pictures

Harrison Ford nerds it up.

“Terminate with extreme prejudice.” This guy later showed up in Say Anything and Jerry Maguire.

Francis Ford Coppola gives the best director cameo in film history.

Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is perfectly fused with helicopters, machine guns, and mayhem.

Most directors would be satisfied with the “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” speech. Coppola fills all four corners of the screen. Also, Robert Duvall’s best film moment – which is truly saying something.

Not a bad start for 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne.

The inner conflict between good and evil brilliantly shown by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.

A perfectly cast Dennis Hopper welcomes Willard to hell on earth.

Once again, the conflict between good and evil with the right and left reversed – mirror reflections of the same soul, struggle.

Willard emerges from a lake of fire.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Girls that Ache

Some guys love rock-n-roll chicks. Me, I more dig the alt-country girls that reside at the intersection of folk, country, blues, and rock-n-roll. If that’s your bag, here’s three artists you’re going to want to check out. Of course, if that’s really your bag, you’ll already know them.

Tift Merritt.
Her first album Bramble Rose (B +, 2002) is straight heart-break country. Her vocals are sexy and breathe-y, aching with a knowing hunger and vulnerability that matches the songs. The lyrics are Hemingway plain, perfect for country, with stand-outs being Trouble Over Me, Sunday (the best track), and Are You Still in Love with Me. Woven through all the songs is a desire for love and commitment with a realization that marriage isn’t probable (if possible).

Merritt's second album Tambourine (A-, 2004) adds a shot of rock n roll to the cocktail, most notably on lead-off Stray Paper, Shadow in the Way, Late Night Pilgrim and stand-out Tambourine, a swinging, rocking, blues piano number saturated with sex. “I am your tambourine. Shake me with your love, shake me with your love, shake me with our love tonight,” she sings to some lucky dude. Still, it’s the ache on the slow songs Plainest Thing and Still Pretending that draw me back. “Barefoot in the kitchen laughing till you leave, when I'll be crying inside the door I close behind you, wishing you would stay. But we're still pretending and we're still wrong and I still can't tell my heart why I'm still alone.”

Rilo Kiley/Jenny Lewis.
You’ll know Rilo Kiley from the Grey’s Anatomy and John Tucker Must Die (although I’m not sure that will resonate with too many of our readers…) soundtracks. More Adventurous (B+, 2004) is the sometimes folk, sometimes pop album that put them on the map, with razor-sharp lyrics, an ear for a good hook, and vocals by Jenny Lewis full of wide-eyed guilt. Although a bit uneven, at their best they sum-up the longing for love and lack of hope that permeates the post-twenty-five single life. Lewis keeps both in tension in so-good-it’s scary “Portions for Foxes” (I keep on talkin’ trash, but I never say anything, and the talkin’ leads to touchin’ and the touchin’ leads to sex and then there is not mystery left. And it’s bad news.), “I Never” (I’m only a women of flesh and bone and I weigh too much (we all do), and I thought I might die alone), and “The Absence of God (“Folk singers sing songs for the working, baby. We’re just recreation for all those doctors and lawyers” and “You’re not happy but you’re funny, and I’m tripping over my joy, but I keep getting up again”). I’d buy the whole thing, but definitely download those three.

Jenny Lewis with the Thompson Twins. Rabbit Fur Coat (B-, 2005). Kiley’s lead singer wrote and sings lead on these, with alt-country duo Thompsin Twins adding backing vocals. Largely alt-country with folk and roots-rock touches, these songs lack the hooks of Kiley’s best songs, but with lyrics dealing largely with God and love that cut to the bone. The standouts are You Are What You Love and Traveling Wilbury’s cover Handle With Care. Download those two, then maybe pick up Happy and Born Secular.
*Rilo Kiley has a new CD just out that I’ll review shortly. You can hear a couple tracks from it on their myspace.

Patty Griffin. 1000 Kisses (A 2002). Although Griffin has a number of albums, all good, out there, this is the masterpiece. A collection of haunting songs of love in its different iterations, none are wholly happy nor wholly sad. They are vignettes of torn people, lost love, death, failed promises, and guarded hope. You’ll know Long Road from the Elizabethtown Soundtrack (movie C+, soundtrack A). Buy the whole thing, but pay careful attention to Making Pies, Long Road, Nobodies Crying, Rain, Chief and Tomorrow Night. The stories are layered and will reward multiple listens. Favorite lyric: from Making Pies, a story of grief and hunger. “Thursday nights, I go and type down at the church with Father Mike. It gets me out and he ain’t hard to like. At all. Jesus stares at me in my chair with his big blue eyes and his honey-brown hair. And he’s looking at me way up there on the wall.”

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Snap Judgments – A quick review of 5 movies

Harsh Times (2006): The lone blemish on Christian Bale’s recent resume. He plays an Army Ranger back from Iraq who is trying to find work with the LAPD. He falls back into his old hoodlum life with pal Freddy Rodriguez scoring dope and talking tough. Bale’s accent is laughable but he is as charismatic as ever. Still, it’s tough watching characters make one bad decision after another. Eva Longoria shows up almost fully clothed as Rodriguez’s ball-busting girlfriend. C

Days of Glory (2006): This is the second virtual remake of Saving Private Ryan, following the Korean-made The Brotherhood of War. This Algerian-French production was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film a few months ago and is most successful in its battle scenes which are well-staged. The rest of it is a tired lecture on how colonialism is bad and how poorly the French treated the North Africans. This theme was explored much better in the inventive Cache. B-

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006): In 18th century Paris, a man with a superior sense of smell kills women he’s attracted to and tries to boil their essence into a perfume. Director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) does an admiral job keeping very difficult subject matter together for the majority of the 147 minute running time. But when the sicko unleashes the perfume on the public, they forgive him and start an orgy. It’s the most unintentionally hilarious scene in recent memory. C-

Vacancy (2007): Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale play a bickering soon-to-be-divorced married couple who end up in a remote hotel when Wilson tries to take a short-cut off the highway. Frank Whaley is the hotel manager who makes snuff films of his hotel guests on the side. It’s even more unpleasant to watch than it sounds. Everyone involved commits career suicide. And Luke Wilson can never be trusted again. D

Perfect Stranger (2007): Halle Berry is a journalist convinced that ad-executive Bruce Willis killed her lifelong friend and goes undercover as a temp employee to uncover the truth. There are plot twists so incongruous with the rest of the movie that you can actually see the writer scratching his head, confused as to how to end the damn thing. All is not lost, however, with some interesting ideas about how on-line anonymity can affect your actual relationships. Yes, I know the definition of “irony”. C+

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Factory Girl C+

On DVD, Rated R, 99 minutes

As quasi-biopic of socialite heiress, fashionista, and occasional Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick, Factory Girl, chocked full of first-rate acting, intrigues but fails to illuminate. The title overtly refers to Andy Warhol’s infamous art/film studio “The Factory,” the epicenter (or so the story goes) of the creative train wreck that was NYC’s art, drug, and sex culture of the mid-sixties to early seventies, and Edie’s role for a period of time as its “it” girl. The title also works (or once to) as a judgment on a system that turned a fragile, gifted girl into one of thousands of silk-screened copies of Marilyn Monroe’s own self-destructive spiral of sex and drugs just a few years earlier.

The film begins with Sedgwick dropping out of school to head to New York where she hopes to make it as an artist. A trust-fund baby and coming from one of the oldest and most storied families in United States’ history, she is dependent on her oil-barren and occasional artist father to support her extravagant lifestyle. Her father also molested her as a child (or so the film claims) screwing her up royally and playing into the “searching for an a-sexual daddy” themes that help explain her attraction and loyalty to Warhol. Once arriving into NYC, she quickly becomes fast-friends with Warhol who at first promises to help her get into the galleries. She subsequently stars in several of his “films” and generally becomes his plutonic companion and a perverted piece of Warhol art. Warhol is jealous when Edie becomes infatuated with Bob Dylan (a subplot where the film appears to play a bit loose with definitive fact), cruelly ridiculing her then cutting her out of his life completely, at which point the ever-present drugs and alcohol take over.

Sienna Miller, hitherto noteworthy for being Jude Law’s wronged fiancĂ© and one of the few women around who’s beauty can hold it’s own against his, has a break-out performance reminiscent of Angelina Jolie’s in Gia. While the film may not be commonly watched and is no masterpiece, it will be remembered as the moment she went from being a pretty face to being an actress. The writing hampers her in some ways, but she manages the fine line of brazenness and fragility, talent and brokenness which for a time Sedgwick walked, with finesse and feel. Almost unrecognizable, Guy Pearce does what he can (which is substantial) with Warhol’s character. Hayden Christensen who I have mixed respect for (great in Shattered Glass (B+) and My Life as a House (A-), horrendous in the Star Wars II and III) misfires again here as a young Dylan. His halting speech pattern is annoying by now and plays like Dylan is inarticulate—obviously untrue.

The film raises interesting issues, but in the end can’t support its own weight, eventually offering no answers and few insights. At only ninety-nine minutes, ten to fifteen more minutes exploring one or two of these themes more fully would have been time well spent. Still, the characters are intriguing as is the glimpse into their moral decay. C+

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

There Will Be Blood - Update

The most anticipated 2007 movie for me (and Doc, and maybe Priest) is without a doubt There Will Be Blood. The convergence of my favorite actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, one of my 3 favorite working directors and writers, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the religious overtones and family issues shown in the trailer is almost too much to stand. Trailer:

The new Entertainment Weekly has the following article about the film (which opens December 26, 2007):

After finishing Punch-Drunk Love in 2002, Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson found himself fumbling for a follow-up. ''I was really sick of the way I was writing,'' he says. ''Everything looked as though I had written it, and that was a horrible feeling.'' Purely as an exercise, Anderson decided to adapt a scene from a novel he had just discovered: Oil!, Upton Sinclair's 1927 take on the grueling, greedy business of prospecting for black gold in California. ''It was a buoy, just to keep writing,'' says the director. ''I didn't think I would end up adapting the [whole] book, but it turned out that way.''

And so out trickled Blood, which hews close to the first 100 pages of Sinclair's book before going its own way as it tracks the relationship between a silver miner-turned-oilman (Daniel Day-Lewis, who was interested after reading only half the script) and his son (Dillion Freasier). Shooting took place last summer in the remote desert terrain of Marfa, Tex., because, as producer Joanne Sellar explains, ''you can't find old California in California anymore.'' An 80-foot oil derrick was built and filled with fake oil that, according to Anderson, includes ''the stuff they put in chocolate milkshakes at McDonald's.'' The director thinks Blood has helped revitalize his creative process. ''I'm writing something new now — and I actually like it,'' he says. Then, with a chuckle: ''I know that will end.'',,20051361_20051365_20052182,00.html

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King of Kong - A- (Update Review)

This is a re-issuance of the review I wrote in March. This film is being released slowly over the next 3 weeks. You can now see it in Austin and New York, with Dallas and other locales coming in the next few days.
Not yet released. 79 minutes.

I never thought a documentary about elite classic arcade game players would be this good. King of Kong puts a microscope on the sub-sub-sub-culture of classic arcade gaming and its 'icon' Billy Mitchell (pictured above). The latter half of the movie focuses on rival gamer Steve Weibe's life and his struggle to attain acknowledgement as the best Donkey Kong player ever.

This is a great movie, judged by any standard, not just 'indie-film guy' standards. It is the rare film that can be both hilarious and poignant all in the same 79 minute time period. Billy Mitchell is cocksure and basks in the light of his 'celebrity' and manipulates the gamers to continue his status as "Gamer of the Century." He is a character that is pathetic, but thinks he's better than everyone, and thus is the easiest type of person to loathe. He delivers at least 6 laugh out loud lines ("I know I'm not a god"). The yin to his yang is the earnest and decent Steve Weibe, a guy who has never had good luck and is hesitant to assert himself. The two are played against each other perfectly by the director (Seth Gordon).

The movie allows the viewer to see the sub-culture for what it is without making fun of it. I think it highlights the fact that people find happiness and meaning in life in any number of places, and that one (gaming) is not better than another (soccer, boating, Civil War re-enactment, etc). Its like "The Long Tail" ( ) for hobbies.

So far, this is the best movie I have seen this year. I saw it at the AFI Dallas Film Festival last night (with An Appraiser - who also loved it), and it was just bought by Picturehouse in Sundance in January, so it will likely be released this summer or fall.

Funniest scene: As Steve nears the final screen of Donkey Kong during a gamers tournament, a Kong aficionado is trying to drum up a crowd and keeps walking up to people (in all seriousness) saying "We've got a Donkey Kong kill screen possibility, if you're interested."

Best scene: Steve discusses his disappointment after he is denied the record (even though he just recorded the highest score) because Billy has sent in a videotape of an even higher score.

Best line from Appraiser: After a random pre-screening Q & A with Dolph Lundgren (in town filming a movie, but had nothing to do with this one), Appraiser leans over and says (in a Russian accent, of course): "If he dies, he dies."

New articles:

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

New Trailers

1. Shine a Light - Documentary on the Rolling Stones by Martin Scorsese:

2. Walk Hard - The Dewey Cox Story - Comedy from Judd Apatow (producer and co-writer) and Jake Kasdan (director and co-writer) starring John C. Reilly as a Johnny Cash knock-off. Looks really funny (watch for Eddie Vedder cameo in second trailer): and

3. Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show - Documentary and comedy based on the tour across the country last year:

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Manufactured Landscapes - B

In theaters. Not Rated, 90 minutes.

Manufactured Landscapes is a documentary directed by Jennifer Baichwal focusing on the works of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. His work focuses on the impact of humans on the earth, especially in the industrial and extraction industries.

The film opens with a 10 minute plus tracking shot in a drab manufacturing warehouse in China. The camera rolls silently and largely unnoticed by rows and rows of workers making textiles and small machines. The film is preoccupied with China and its industrial practices, but the role is explored more as the beginning and the end of the life cycle of Western products. Burtynsky's images and the limited commentary are inherently environmental, but the film doesn't get too preachy. The photos are presented as facts, which they are, and they serve to raise the West's consciousness of where its goods come from and where they go.

The most striking parts of the film are the portions showing the recycling of goods, including computers, in rural China after they have been used by the West and the portions regarding the Three Gorges dam. The dam is being built to dam the Yangtze river and create the world's largest reservoir, which will be the largest manmade incursion on the earth of all time. The most poignant images are those of villagers tearing down their villages, brick by brick, because they are to be flooded when the dam is completed and the government wants the ship channels cleared. Perhaps unintenionally, the film brought China's long-term viability as a world power into focus for me. The communist government there seems to be succeeding where Russia failed. They are feverishly producing and urbanizing the country, and its citizens are lulled into submission resulting in an increase of government power.

The film is interesting, but not great. Had I known it was an 'environmental' film I probably wouldn't have seen it. I'd love to dialogue with Burtynsky about humanity's role on earth - we are of part of nature, just like the animals, so how can what we do be seen as 'scarring the earth.' When a beaver dams a creek, surely one could say there are adverse environmental impacts, except that a beaver isn't a human. While I would rather the Chinese government not dam the Yangtze river, I don't think condemning it as an immoral act is appropriate. I think conservation and the protection of the earth from industry are both admirable goals, and worthy of pursuit, but I also think man is part of nature and that nature is more resillient than some environmentalists give it credit for.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Conversation - B

On DVD (1974). Rated PG, 113 minutes.

Written, directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppolla in the 1970's usually means genius, but with The Conversation, it just means good. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, in a great performance of a well-written role. Caul is a renowned private investigator at war with himself over the ramifications of his work. A past job resulted in three deaths because of the information he obtained, and now he is wrestling with what will happen in his current job. He is intensely private and will not allow himself to live a normal life out of paranoia. The film co-stars John Cazale (Fredo in The Godfather), Teri Garr, Harrison Ford and an uncredited Robert Duvall.

The film is an interesting character study, but the first act is so slow it was difficult to stay with it. After the Godfather, Coppolla may have been given too much free rein on this.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Inland Empire

Released this week on DVD.

David Lynch is one talented filmmaker. He seemed to make The Straight Story just to stick it to the critics who accused him of being a one-trick pony – only capable of making confusing, challenging, non-linear films focused on dreams, alternate realities, and the sick underbelly of small town America. With Mulholland Drive, he moved his critique to Hollywood. In Inland Empire (named after a region near LA), Laura Dern plays an actress who begins to shoot a movie with director Jeremy Irons and co-star Justin Theroux. When she falls for the womanizing Theroux, the film shifts and Dern becomes multiple characters in different walks of life.
For the first time, Lynch uses a digital camera. He uses close-ups not only to focus on character but also to distort the facial features of his cast. The digital camera also accentuates the lines in the faces of his actresses. It’s great to see Dern as well as Julia Ormond and Mary Steenburgen (in limited roles) show their age. In many ways, they’re even more beautiful now than they were in their 20s. While Lynch hasn’t quite mastered the digital camera like, say, Michael Mann, he does use it to great dramatic and artistic effect. Lynch has mastered everything else though, including lighting, cinematography, and sound design. During the dream-like fantasies and nightmarish sequences, strobe lights, swinging lights and strong, piercing beams of light all accentuate scenes and create a sensational atmosphere. Lynch’s sound design is superb as usual. The sounds are frightening without the haunting imagery. Together, they will leave indelible imprints on your cerebral cortex.

A scene late in the film has Dern walking around Hollywood Blvd. with Beck’s “Black Tambourine” playing on the soundtrack. It’s the most hypnotic – and cool – scene in the film – and you realize Lynch is just messing with us. He could create the most audience-friendly and accessible film if he chose to, but he’s after something deeper. Anyone who says they know what it is would be lying. Unlike Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive which can be (mostly) understood after 2 or 3 viewings, Inland Empire looks eternally indecipherable and equally eternally fascinating.
At nearly 3 hours, Inland Empire does run a little long and Lynch includes too many of his dreams/ideas. Rabbits in a sitcom? Check. Hot chicks dancing to “The Locomotion”? Check. The movie’s numerous non-sequiturs threaten to derail it. But Laura Dern stays strong in the center. With all due respect to Ms. Mirren, this is the best female performance in a 2006 film. Laura Dern’s character sees into the future at several times during the film. David Lynch must know how she feels – he just made a film several years ahead of its time.

At this point, I’d like to point out the obvious and state how capricious the “grades” are. The appropriate “letters” throughout much of Inland Empire are “W”, “T”, and “F” – followed by a huge question mark. Some will find the lack of a cohesive narrative infuriating. Others (like me) will revisit Inland Empire every few months searching for answers, finding few, and creating some. A-

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

New David Gray Album - Preview

"A Thousand Miles Behind" to be released August 20, 2007.

The album is a compilation of 12 live covers on the last tour:

1. Song To The Siren (Larry Beckett, Tim Buckley)
2. To Ramona (Bob Dylan)
3. One With The Birds (Will Oldham)
4. Long Black Veil (Danny Dill, Marijohn Wilkin)
5. One Too Many Mornings (Bob Dylan)
6. I Think It's Going To Rain Today (Randy Newman)
7. Mansion on the Hill (Bruce Springsteen)
8. In The Morning (Barry Gibb)
9. I Tremble For You (John Cash, Lewis Calvin De Witt, Jr.)
10. Buckets of Rain (Bob Dylan)
11. Go Down Easy (John Martyn)
12. Streets of Philadelphia (Bruce Springsteen)

Go here to listen to samples of each song (easy to do):

Doc- Priest and I love this guy. If you haven't gotten into his stuff, now's the time. Buy White Ladder and listen....repeat.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Hot Fuzz (2007) – A-


I’ve been a little pissy with some of the latest reviews. Many people seem to hate everything and sometimes I want to scream out, “What are you for?”! Personally, I’m for exceptionally well-written screenplays with perfectly placed plot points and recurring lines and situations. A screenplay as well-crafted and hilarious as Hot Fuzz comes along only once or twice per year. Co-writers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg also penned Shaun of the Dead, a humorous send-up of the zombie movie. If I liked horror or zombie movies in the least, that movie would have made my top ten of 2004.
As co-writers and collaborators, director Wright and star Pegg have successfully satirized and paid homage to the Hollywood action blockbuster. Pegg plays a London cop with a high arrest rate and numerous accolades who is shipped to a country town because of jealous colleagues. When he gets there, he begins apprehending people immediately for underage drinking, drunk driving, etc. His new boss (Jim Broadbent) tries to get him to settle down into the country life, but when a string of suspicious deaths starts, Pegg’s big city instincts are needed to solve the case.

The cast has more famous British actors than a Harry Potter movie. Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighy play London cops. Broadbent and Paddy Considine play two of the local cops. Peter Jackson and Cate Blanchett have unrecognizable cameos on first viewing. Edward Woodward, Paul Freeman, and Timothy Dalton all play local townsfolk. It was worth sitting through both of Dalton’s lame 007 outings to watch him chew up the scenery here. The rest of the cast are uniformly superb as is the group of unknown cops. As Pegg’s new partner, Nick Frost and Pegg display the perfect chemistry they had in Shaun of the Dead.
The gore definitely goes over the top and the actual culprit is a little too “Wicker Man” for my taste, but the ending shootout is excellent. Wright and Pegg have simultaneously made the best “action” movie and the best comedy in the last few years. Even better, they don’t pretend like it actually means anything other than a great time at the movies. A-

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Interesting Articles

1. Reconsidering "Bonnie and Clyde":

2. Scorsese on Michelangelo Antonioni:

3. Woody Allen on Ingmar Bergman:

4. Christopher Hitchens reviews Harry Potter:

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Stardust - B

In theaters. Rated PG-13, 128 minutes.

If there's a genre I dislike more than Victorian Era period pieces, it would be fantasy epics. Ferries (magical), goblins, witches and the like just don't do it for my hyper-rational mind. Sensing that Stardust writer/director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake!) is probably of like mind, I decided to give this one a chance (also notable is the cast: Claire Danes, Robert De Niro, Ricky Gervais, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sienna Miller, Peter O'Toole, Rupert Everett and Ian McKellen (narrator)). If you are a big fan of the 'adult fairy tale,' then you will love this film. If you're like me, you'll like it and enjoy the pockets of great performances and legitimate laughs and put up with the 'magic.'

The main character in the film is Tristan (Charlie Cox), who lives in the English countryside town of Wall. Adjacent to the town of wall, and guarded by a wall(!), is another world, called Stormhold. No one has ever gone over the wall and into the other world, except Tristan's father, who conceived him in a one-night stand in the magic world 'market'. Tristan is in love with the beautiful Sienna Miller, the town hottie, but has no chance of getting her because she has a more sophisticated suitor and Tristan is a working class tool. Out of pity, Sienna goes on a walk with Tristan and they see a falling star. She agrees that if he will go and find the star, she will marry him.

Off he goes to Stormhold, where he finds the star (Claire Danes) and begins to bring her back to Sienna. The plot thickens because if you cut out the heart of a fallen star and eat it (!), you will live forever. This sends a prince and a witch on the hunt for the Star. Tristan and the Star go through lots of trials and tribulations and fall in love along the way while stuck on an airship captained by Robert De Niro's character, a gay cross-dressing pirate. Yes, a gay cross-dressing pirate. I knew about this in advance and thought there was no way it could work, but it does. In front of his crew De Niro is a merciless and vile captain, but that's all for show. He's really a stereotypical gay man that is only a captain to fulfill his father's wish that the ship keep sailing. His performance and interaction are great, and the laughs are legitimate. While on the ship, the group stops at a market owned by Ricky Gervais, and Lawyer nirvana occurs: a scene with Ricky Gervais and Robert De Niro. The other major character in the film is Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays the leader of 3 grossly old witches that are restored to beauty when they eat part of the heart of a Star. She does an admirable job, although I thought her storyline was the weakest in the film and conjured a little too much 'Death Becomes Her' for my liking.

This is a very strange choice for Matthew Vaughn (below) as a Layer Cake follow-up. My guess is that he is extremely cocky and wanted to prove himself as more than just a crime drama fluke. By any measure, he has achieved his goal. This film works and his touches keep it grounded in reality (as much as it can be) and don't let the film get too romantic or nonsensical for an intelligent adult to enjoy.

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Age of Innocence - A-

On DVD (1993). Rated PG, 139 minutes.

Daniel Day-Lewis + Martin Scorsese = Good. That equation alone should make this movie required viewing. Also co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, this period piece is set in New York high society in the 1870's. DDL plays Newland Archer, an honorable but intellectually curious non-conformist that plays along as a member of society even though his mind bucks at the bridle of their customs and hypocrisy. Newland is engaged to May, played by Winona Ryder, the innocent and shallow 'right person to marry' for Newland. May's cousin, Countess Ellen Oleska (Michelle Pfeiffer), is just like Newland - except she lives her noncoformity instead of denying it. This draws Newland to her (and her beauty), and, despite his intentions and his mind, he falls deeply in love with her. Ellen tells him to marry May and he does; after that they see each other sparingly until it finally makes Newland crazy. As he begins telling May he will leave her and go to Ellen, she cuts him off and May reveals that she is pregnant. In that moment his fate is sealed and he stays with May and raises his family with her until her death at age 57. He then goes to Europe (where Ellen now lives) with his son (Robert Sean Leonard) and his son sets up an appointment with her. In the final scene Newland chooses not to meet with Ellen, instructing his son to tell her simply that 'he is old-fashioned.'

Whew. The film explores several meaty themes: defying convention, conformity, true love, honor, responsiblity, unrequited love, and sacrifice. The NY society is a collective character that results in unhappiness for all involved, despite the smiles and disingenuous notes on 'gilded' stationery. Scorsese doesn't hold back on the sweeping camera work or interesting shots just because its a Victorian era film. He uses yellow and red to signify the feelings of the characters, and shows DDL in the shadows as he falls deeper in despair. DDL is excellent in his most restrained role, and this is probably Pfeiffer's best performance. The first 2/3 of the film are a full A, but the final act is not as strong, knocking it down.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - A

Book Review

While this site is primary preoccupied with movies, music, and TV, any site that claims to focus on pop culture would be remiss if it did not discuss the concluding book of the pop phenomenon of the past fifteen years: Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling is a thunderous success in every sense of the word. In this, Hallows is that rarest of all pop culture events: one in which the hype comes primarily from the general public and in which the event surpasses the build-up.

SPOILER ALERT That said, what I’d really like to address in this article is the phenomenal, almost incomprehensible popularity of these books and how Deathly Hallows provides the necessary ending to the tale told within them (I’m assuming that the wild success of the films are fueled primarily by the novels). Several theories addressing the popularity of the Potter series have been proffered, all of which, I’m sure, are integral to its success. These include the fully-formed magical world, complete with history, from which the stories spring (the comparison’s to Tolkien’s Middle Earth are fully justified). Others include Rowling’s writing, immediate and lyrical. Still others hold up the characters. Each, from Voldemort to Tonks to Hermione to Harry himself, behave as humans, with recognizable drives, reactions, foibles, and strengths.

Still, while Harry’s popularity would not be possible without these, they alone are not enough to explain the ravenous hunger for this tale. That’s because, ultimately, Harry Potter isn’t about magical worlds or messianic destiny or even good versus evil. At its most basic, all Harry really wants is a home. A home that was denied him by the death of his parents at the hands (or wand, as it were) of Voldemort. The hunger for his mother and father and his inability to truly come to grips with their absence is on every page of every book. Of course, his view of what life would be like with his parents is idealized and made perfect. We (or those of us who grew up in families) know that there is no ideal home. We know home is a place of great happiness but also great pain. We know the heartache of having our expectations of how a mother and father should behave shattered by how they sometimes do. We know that parents are just humans, really. And so, as we travel with Harry on his journey to discover his parents, we are forced to confront our own broken pieces and disillusions. And, in the end of Deathly Hallows when Harry’s parents tell him, through the use of the Resurrection Stone, that they love him and are proud of him, we weep, too. Because we know how much we still long to hear that. And we understand, especially those who believe in an afterlife, how dying can be going home and why that’s a decision Harry is willing to make.

But if the story is ultimately about going home, why does that resonate with our current situation? A couple reasons, I suspect, that are tethered to each other. One is that between the hard sciences, a fundamentalist reading of scripture, and sociology, most of our meta-narratives have been destroyed. Christianity in particular, along with Islam and Judaism (the historical religions), have had their sacred books second-guessed until they died the deaths of a thousand cuts. We need meta-narratives, and, although Harry isn’t quite that big, it is a very big story that helps us understand ourselves.

Similarly, but on an even larger scale, post-modernism has so rattled then destroyed the foundations of our world and belief systems, we in Western Culture are longing to go home. But we know we can’t. Absolute Truth in its metaphysical sense seems impossible to determine. Our naivete has crumbled and there is no going back to a time and place of certainty and safety. The moorings of God, the Church, logic, and reason which once provided solidity to our world have been cut loose. We resonate with Harry and his frustration in only seeing part of the story. Even his priest (Dumbledore) knows only in part and seems full of more mysteries than truth. It’s for this reason that the oft-decried Epilogue is integral to this final book. Harry finally has a home, but he doesn’t know much more then than he did before. Instead, his home is purely relational. It is one that he’s built, bound to his wife, two kids, and good friends. It echoes quite strongly the ending of About a Boy in which Hugh Grant’s character finds himself in the same situation. And it provides, if we allow it to, a suggested way forward for us in these topsy-turvy times. It is in this that Deathly Hollows gives Rowling her greatest triumph and truly contributes to the human experience. A.

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New Trailers

1. Be Kind Rewind - New Michael Gondry (director, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) with Mos Def and Jack Black. Looks cool:

2. Reservation Road - Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Conelly, Mira Sorvino, Joaquin Phoenix; directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda). Very interesting and dark storyline:

3. We Own The Night - Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg as brothers and the sons of Robert Duval. Could be a classic - I love 70's crime dramas:

4. Rendition - Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Reese Witherspoon, Alan Arkin and Meryl Streep in a potential liberal boondoggle about detaining prisoners (directed by Gavin Hood, Tsotsi):

5. National Treasure, Book of Secrets
- One of my guilty pleasures:

6. Lions For Lambs - Directed by Robert Redford, starring Redford, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Peter Berg (new trailer):

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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Mr. Brooks - C

In Theatres. 120 Minutes. Rated R

Kevin Costner as a serial killer. Never thought I'd see that movie. That said, Costner in the title role is the best thing about this odd installment in an increasingly bloated genre. Mr. Brooks is the story of Earl Brooks, Man-of-the-Year, devoted father and husband, business owner, potter, and serial killer. Brooks' id is personified as a man named "Marshall", played by William Hurt. Brooks and Marshall speak back and forth, but no one hears (or sees) but the audience. Brooks likes to kill people, although he is trying to quit via prayer and AA (he identifies as an addict). He is spotted in one killing, and the witness blackmails him with incriminating pictures into taking him along on the next kill. Meanwhile, Demi Moore plays Detective Tracy Atwood, an about-to-be-divorced cop who's hot on his trail. Surprise, Costner begins to respect Demi even as he fears her. Marg Helgenberger (CSI) plays Mrs. Brooks adequately, and Danielle Panabaker plays his college-age daughter who has a few secrets of her own.

All the actors do a pretty good job, but the script quickly adds too many subplots and too many serial killers. But most troubling, the film seems to indicate that serial killing is like your hair-color. It's how you're born. If we allow our society to buy into this biological determinism (the door of which has been pryed open in the "source of homosexual behavior" debate), we will quickly spiral into a moral freefall, much as this film does. It wants to be taken seriously, but it's ultimately vacuous and empty C.

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The Simpsons Movie - B-

In Theatres. 87 Minutes. PG-13.

As the longest running comedy in TV history, The Simpson’s place in pop culture now supercedes all but the most famous films. Considering this, I couldn’t help but wonder what (outside of money) would possess Matt Groening (the creator) and Co. to make a movie version. Given the endless creativity the writers have displayed over the years, I’d hoped it was because they had some fresh ideas on how to fill 89 minutes of big screen without making an 89-minute version of a 22-minute TV show. My hopes were in vain.

The plot (and this should be a warning) is a green-friendly, tree-hugging campaign to take care of the world. I’m actually fairly green (ideologically, at least) myself, but I’m already sick of this story-line. Springfield, (pick a state), is the most toxic city in the US, and, Homer Simpson, with the help of an (oddly disappearing) pet pig, pushes it over the top. The U.S. Government determines to seal in the problem by putting a giant glass dome over the top of the town, trapping the inhabitants. Chaos ensues.

It’s not that this film isn’t funny. It is very funny. The opening segment, an Itchy and Scratchy Movie, made me laugh uproariously. As did the always dependable church scene, this time dealing with the notion of prophets and what we’d do if one actually spoke to us. Very nice. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find more laughs in the theatre this year (outside of Knocked-up). The problem is that it’s not really a movie. It feels like those one-hour “Friends” episodes that everyone got excited about, but just seemed to drag on and on in the watching. The plotline of The Simpson’s Movie might be able to sustain 45 minutes, but the rest is gerrymandering and pointless plot twists to fill time. Pay ten dollars and catch it for an hour and a half of laughs or Netflix any disk from any season in the growing Simpsons library and get as many laughs with good pacing and without the pro-environment preaching. B-

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Monday, August 6, 2007

The History Boys - D

Try as I might, I’ll never be able to understand foreign cultures like the New York Theatre District. Recent Broadway successes brought to the big screen include Hairspray, The Producers, and Dreamgirls. I would probably lose several fingers under torture before agreeing to watch Hairspray. I have seen The Producers (2005) and as great as Uma looks, you’re much better off watching the near-perfect 1968 original. My distaste for Dreamgirls is mostly because of the uninspired music. Chicago gets a pass (B) because of its beautiful cynicism.

Which brings us to The History Boys. It wants to be Dead Poets Society set in 1983 London. Like that 1989 film, the students struggle to get into fancy colleges and become inspired by a new teacher. Unlike Robin Williams who inspires his students by showing them that there’s more to life than a career, this teacher degrades them in the hope of making them achieve more. One of the common criticisms for Dead Poets Society is how “white” it is, but what would you expect from a 1958 American Boarding School? At least the characters are well-developed and distinguishable. In The History Boys, the ethnicity is increased (black, Muslim, Italian), but the students all act exactly the same. In DPS, director Peter Weir places the camera in the perfect location scene after scene, but in The History Boys, the handheld camera wanders aimlessly and without purpose. And the literature references in DPS were beautifully woven into the story, but stick out like Dirk Diggler in History Boys.Which brings us back to the New York Theatre District. I don’t doubt that the much of the popularity of The History Boys on Broadway is due to its explicit and overt homosexuality. Teachers and students flirt with each other and use euphemisms that made my skin crawl. At least Dead Poets Society had the good sense to keep the homosexuality in the subtext. To me, Robert Sean Leonard’s acting and his father’s disapproval of it was a substitute – which would also help explain his drastic decision. Dead Poets Society: A- The History Boys: D

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