30 October 2011

Part Three: The Evening

Dum Dum Girls, Only In Dreams

Heavier and more emotionally engaging than the previous album, Only In Dreams has a more confident, accomplished singing style from Dee Dee than the previous crop of songs that felt less personal and less unique than the ones here. The guitars and drums also make a better showing on the album. The place of the drums is high in the mix, which helps propel the album forward in an exciting fashion. This is one of the best rock albums that I’ve heard this year.

It’s also very romantic. My feeling is that the majority of the songs address her husband, but instead of feeling excluded or indifferent I find this commitment to shared, mature love to be quite poignant. (Wait, does this make the album Adult Contemporary? Oh no!) It’s a celebration of stability, but also longing and companionship. She may not pull out the stops like a Celine Dion ballad, but you can drive all night listening to this album, quite easily in fact. The strong vocals and engaging drumming make the album compulsively listenable. Many of the songs are precise and lovely enough to soundtrack any movie. The showstopper is “Coming Down” but “Bedroom Eyes” and “Wasting Away” are just as equally capable as contenders. This is a love soundtrack to cherish. Be sure and share it.

Cold Cave, Cherish The Light Years

This one is here for the club experience. Any of these songs feel like anthems for (and homages to) ‘80s goth clubs. This isn’t very terrible as the synths, pounding, and melodramatic lyrics work together to make the songs unstoppable. Three that will let you get in their way are “Catacombs”, “Underworld USA” (my favorite), and “Villains of the Moon”. The game of “Is this the Cure or ABC being referenced?” is fun but tiresome if you can’t enjoy the album. Granted, I find it hard to defend “The Great Pan Is Dead” and “Burning Sage” but the rest have enough charm to move anyone onto the floor. Take your pick: catchy, effective synth openings: “Confetti” and “Icons of Summer” or aggressively catchy percussive openings: “Underworld USA” or “Villains of the Moon”. This is an album to be enjoyed whether or not you have any queeny, goth melodrama locked up inside (although it helps).

Zola Jesus, Conatus

After all the excitement of that Cold Cave album, the new Zola Jesus is a good respite. This is a slow burner so get used to the pace and let it slowly change your environment as much as your temperament. The album is less anthemic and aggressive than the past releases, but it still cultivates a studied atmosphere where you can appreciate the vocal accomplishments on their own terms. I love her voice so this album provided an enjoyable, new dimension of her art for me

Scott Walker, Tilt

I’ve heard this album many, many times and it’s still lost none of its mystery for me. From the ghostly lyricism of “Farmer In The City” to the surreal majesty of “The Cockfighter” – well, most of the songs on here can be described as ghostly, surreal, or majestic. It’s a strange album for me to recommend because it can be a slog or a journey depending on the energy and interest that you bring to it. Most of the songs feel like oneiric fragments so maybe the album is best heard one song at a time. I think that the album can be stretched out all night long for one sustained sequence of reveries, but one dream might be another’s nightmare. Walker’s voice works as a guide, but the music is a threatening sky. Who knows when the day will break?

Marissa Nadler, “Distortions”

Listen to this Clinic cover before you go to bed. It’s a simple, stripped rendition of a very strange love song, but it works so well in Nadler’s voice. I want this song played at my funeral.

22 October 2011

Franz Liszt Bicentennial

Today is the bicentennial of Franz Liszt's birth and as good a time as any to champion Alan Walker's three volume biography. Written over a period of many years, it's one of the best biographies that I've ever read and a superb treatment of Liszt's life and music. A major feat of scholarship, it comprehensively details Liszt's life in an engaging and entertaining manner. A treasure trove of information and insight, I recommend Walker's book very, very highly.

Liszt's music helped me through many dark times. The elegant lyricism, moving romanticism, and compelling drama of his piano work is a continued inspiration and salvation for me. My life and imagination have been enriched by Liszt's work. I continue to explore this work and I hope to share it with others.

14 October 2011

Tree of Life

Tree of Life was quite good. Just the music and sound design make it a good theatre experience. I do have some reservations. The movie is rather take it or leave it. Specifically, the photography goes over like a really pretty stream too much like an Anthropologie catalog. The Texas section is a big offender in that regard, but what makes the pacing seem slack may just be the nonlinear nature of the film and my taking it in on a first viewing. Technically, it's nice, but after awhile it feels really lazy, narratively. It's heavy on the theology, too. A chunk of it is like a Christian tone poem. One person on the Criterion Forum called it a "Complaint-Psalm-meets-Creation-Hymn" and another "an elaboration of the Requiem Mass." I can't say that's inaccurate, but your mileage may vary. The voiceovers during the cosmic sequences bugged me greatly. It seemed too on-the-nose during those moments. Voiceovers during the Texas sequences worked fine, though. Those scenes were the trademark Malick moments and the human element there burnished the scenes with some voiceover. Brad Pitt is great as the dad, but Jessica Chastain gets treated like a saint. I would have loved more character development for her. She's pretty and communicates well with her face so not doing more with her talent felt like a missed opportunity. I mention her beauty because it kinda made her sink into that background like a model. Her bond with the kids in the film felt like a core element of the film and it worked very well as a contrast to Pitt, but as I searched about to connect more with the characters I'd hoped that she'd get to be another anchor as well. Anyway, that's what I thought. This one will have to grow with me when it hits DVD. Those were my big complaints, though. I may see it again in the theatre. I'm a classical music lover so the music really meant a lot to me. Philosophically and photographically, I'm not sure how you'll react. The Christianity in the film may seem rather risible, but it melts away when the cosmos is rolling along or the music is playing gorgeously. Malick throws in some great Tarkovsky moments that also meant a lot to me. Again, this is great to see in the theatre, especially one with a good sound system. I love The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven, but this one lacks a certain spark that those two have. At least this one has dinosaurs and Gorecki, though.


Note: Written in 2007, this an old review for a favorite movie of mine.

This movie based on the Neil Gaiman novel was released on Friday and I saw it that afternoon. Here's what I have to say. Don't make me force you to go.

The lead is Charlie Cox. He is in love with Sienna Miller. He promises her ownership of a star if she agrees to marry him. She says yes and sends Cox out to get her a falling star. Our falling star is Claire Danes. Cox isn't alone in his desire for Danes. Michelle Pfeiffer is a witch trying to kill Claire Danes so as to gain immortality. Robert De Niro is a pirate who rather accidentally becomes an ally to Cox and Danes. Also in the mix is a prince who needs Danes so that he can ascend to his father's throne. As you can imagine, these three forces all converge in their plans to get Danes. (Just guess who wins - the how is more fun than the who anyway.)

If anyone compares it to The Princess Bride movie, what they mean is that both films share similar attitudes toward fairy tale clichés. This one, however, takes the postmodern spirit that Neil Gaiman is known for and makes it all its own for this cinematic version of his novel. It's clever, but not insufferably so. It's hip, but not in a smugly ironical fashion. It basically takes the audience along as an equal and doesn't betray that trust. It's still the work of storytellers, though, so be prepared for the twists. It's a pity that more movies based on novels don't succeed as excellently as this one. While Neil Gaiman-approved, it's still director Matthew Vaughn's own vision (as he co-wrote, co-produced, and directed it). This is still a fairy tale with innocence and terror in the old-fashioned way, but it doesn't make itself at the audience's expense. There are metanarrative elements in the film, but they operate more to underline what we as the audience already do as people who suspend disbelief (or at least who sit in the dark and ask to be told a tale). In any case, these elements don't feel smug at all. If you can take Tarantino or Whedon, you can take the postmodernity of this film.

The movie's message is one about love, of course, but it's mainly one of fantasy. As a Neil Gaiman theme, the movie is about "fantasy" and "reality" living side by side. In the movie and in the book, a wall separates the two; it's a wall that one can easily step through, however. Love and imagination here are two things that live in the fantastic and the realistic. Both are unreal, but are still based in the real: we mediate them in our imaginations. As in the movie and in real life, both have consequences. Our hero does have to step into the fantastical to save his love, but that's the consequence. One makes the action so forcefully that one eventually makes it a reality. It only depends on how one mediates between the two. There's not always the happy ending, but that's always the realism of some things.

All in all, Stardust the movie does no disservice to the original material. Vaughn pulled it all off with imagination, fun, and brio. His realisation is impressive. The costumes are great because they add to the characters so very well. The spectacle of everything is superb in that it does what it does and doesn't call more attention to itself. It still amazes, but it's not overkill like Spiderman recently. The heart of it all, however, is the acting. I can't think of a single actor not given their due. Everyone really shines and wins us over. Our young lovers Cox and Danes are a lovely pair. (Cox, quite understandably, continually has the look of a man who can't believe his luck - ahem, ahem Claire Danes.) Cox is a newcomer and does very well. Danes is already quite famous, but here she really shines (ha ha). The most fun is had from Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro, however. Their experience comes into play here, of course, but the fun and professionalism that they bring to their respective roles really make them shine. I just wish there was more Peter O'Toole, though. (He, as ever, rocks.) Each of the royal princes (well, the ones not chasing the stars, but you'll see what I mean) is a riot. I thought they were great, too. Actually, I'm amazed at how Pfeiffer, De Niro, and Rupert Everett all let their egos get beaten up a bit by the good humour of the film. Pfeiffer is a hag most of the time, Everett gets an interesting and unglamourous end, and De Niro gets to do something very un-Bicklesque. But Vaughn pulls it all together and makes it work exceedingly well.

Also, this movie gets the award for most inventive use of a voodoo doll.

It's a delightful movie, but the fact that it succeeds on so many levels makes it even more enjoyable. Whether you study fairy tales, avidly enjoy Neil Gaiman, avidly enjoy fairy tales anyway, or just need a good movie, Stardust does it all very well. I love this movie and can hardly stanch my enthusiasm. I walked in not knowing what to expect besides fun and I left incredibly entertained. Even a little moved. I'm still smiling about the movie.

11 October 2011

Blood and Mirrors in Los Angeles

Warning: This essay contains spoilers

Seeing Drive again for a second time, I’m now quite fascinated by the use of surface in the film. An important aspect of the film’s aesthetic, it’s strange to me that this has received so much criticism from various reviewers. I think that the setting in Los Angeles is a key to interpreting the film and certainly not a coincidence. A direct comment on this is one of the most evocative uses of the film’s recurring mirror motif and it highlights the film’s use of surface as well as identity. This occurs near the beginning of the film when the camera tracks past a mirror on the set to reveal the Driver on the other side – and in costume, no less! As we learn, this shot conceals as much as it reveals. For anyone who didn’t notice that one shot or even all the times he’s reflected in the cars’ rearview mirror, there’s the scene in the dressing room where the outer style of the Driver – his jacket – is complemented by his violent underside. At the first viewing, I thought that the scene was just exposition for dealing with Cook, but now I see that with the mirrors, blazing lights, and aggressive masculinity there’s more to it than just narrative. The encounter is the ultimate play of surfaces – and set with some irony in the one of the most obvious of arenas: a strip club.

As Bernie Rose notes at the garage, echoing the basic approach to authenticity that the film investigates, “That’s just a shell. The important stuff is inside.” The aesthetic style of the film is a reflection of Los Angeles itself. This is why I don’t understand the criticism of the film’s slick style. This criticism would make more sense to me if the film were set in Las Vegas, but setting the story in Los Angeles creates the perfect opportunity to make the film look as it does. On top of that artifice, it then goes all out to present the characters as not who they seem. All of the characters play on the surface. The violence beneath is the rupture that reveals the stuff inside. Brooks and Gosling are evenly matched as men who can be equally ruthless when they need to be. Sad as it is, Christina Hendricks as Blanche and Oscar Isaac as Standard have to be killed because they don’t have the foresight to duck down or the strength fight back. They’re not the only ones who didn’t get any fortune cookies. Like Shannon, they just have bad luck.

The slick style permeates the film, but the violence once it has transpired casts an ironic pallor on this aesthetic. Remember that the more vivid examples of violence take place in close temporal proximity. The violence only feels extreme because it’s concentrated in one close segment of the film. That burst more or less cracks the shiny, colorful façade. I wasn’t happy to see Blanche’s head blasted, but it surely demonstrates that the film is not fucking around anymore. Standard is made the first disturbing example of this, but Blanche is the full detonation of audience equilibrium – especially in the aftermath of the car chase when one would supposedly get to regain one’s bearings. After the motel scene, there is no turning back. The blood on the surface of the Driver’s face augers more action yet to come. A later scene is even more devastating. For me, the elevator scene functions to provide the ultimate revelation to Irene. It only feels unnecessary to those not looking because we know what’s inside Driver. However, Irene does not have this information so this scene is given to her. Why are we given the shot of the pulped head? It functions as the logical consequence of the earlier threat with the hammer. Would he really do it and attack Cook in the face? It certainly felt as if he would right there in that dressing room. But would he really go that far? He didn’t in that instance; he did in the instance of the elevator scene, though. We are now aware of how far Driver would go. The look of utter horror on Irene’s face is a result not solely of the violent act she has witnessed. It is also a result of the romantic act in which she was part(icipant). The elevator scene is the movie in a nutshell as well as a clear demonstration of the Driver’s two sides. Personally, I don’t see either as his authentic self. The man alone working on or driving in cars seems to be his true self. This is the man more or less in isolation/opposition to society. It’s the comfortable mask he wears. It's a mask that we all wear. The film clearly displays these three aspects of the Driver – and of each character. Rose gets a beautiful scene of his own as he is shown sitting down with a drink yet clearly horrified by what he did to Shannon. Again, the man more or less in isolation/opposition to the real demands of the world he is in. It’s his burden and he’s aware of it.

This use of masks or surfaces is given its fullest (and literal) expression when the Driver takes the latex one from the set and stalks Nino with it. He has now collapsed all boundaries between his differing selves: man, stuntman, and repairman. (I’d even say that he takes the latex mask as a new way to hide himself after the brutal reveal to Irene.) At this point, he has nothing to lose but himself – hence the encounter with Brooks that we know Driver should avoid. His future now changed, he has to put it behind himself – lose one part to gain another – and move on. To help the one person he most wants, he has had to sacrifice many others – even himself in large part – and give up any future with Irene. That the film does all of this so adeptly and emotionally is to me testament of the film’s beauty, power, and seriousness. All by way of surfaces, appearances, and masks in Los Angeles.

08 October 2011

Gods, Bodies, Sistinas

October is the best season for Danzig. I can listen to Misfits and Black Sabbath all year long, but there’s just one month for my Danzig fix and it’s now right near Halloween. There’s nothing about Danzig III: How The Gods Kill that makes it specific to autumn, October, or Halloween. It’s a versatile album that stands among my favorites and it’s not an album that tires one quickly. On the contrary, I’d argue simply that it feels darker during this season. Am I reading something into it? Maybe. However, I can’t think of another time when that cover art feels more appropriate. No time than now is better to feel the power and glory of Danzig.

To put it straight: Anything, Bodies, How The Gods Kill, Dirty Black Summer, and Left Hand Black are the heart of the album. It’s a superb sequence that never lets up, never lets down, and never relents. In the Danzig catalog, they are among my most favorite songs. The whole album is so strong that even including a ballad – the powerful Sistinas – doesn’t slow down the momentum. It even feels right and necessary to take a moment to reflect. Then the album ends as strongly as it started with When The Dying Calls. In a world of mayhem, darkness, lust for power, and abuse of others, the album concludes its warped journey on just the right note. I can’t help to resist another trip down that road.


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