Perspectives on Pop Culture and the Arts

Friday, April 28, 2006

A Fiver for V

There are times when moviegoers should really have their expectations set low before walking into the theater, just so they can be humbled to the dust when they end up liking what they saw. I'll admit that I was probably one of the few who were actually skeptical of V for Vendetta when the previews first started rolling several months ago, and the resulting humility that I felt walking out of the cinema was just barely overshadowed by the laps my mind was running. I'm not as enamoured with 'The Wachowski Brothers' as some (I generally think that anyone who refers to themselves by the title, _______ Brothers, needs to put the PSP down and get off the bus right now). But before you assume that I've gone and registered at all of the MTV fanboy forums (I'm still trying to get them stoked on Ken Loach), let me also say that I liked the film, but I didn't love it.

Firstly, I'm not one to focus on performances - since I know next to nothing about acting or how people 'should' act and 'convincing' is a term used to assume elitist authority over a process that I believe is completely subjective - but I was very impressed by Natalie Portman. I also have to admit that I expected it to be more stylized than it was, but maybe that's because I haven't read the graphic novel. Is the source material more comicky than the film? (comment your answer below)

That my expectations were surpassed in these instances only worked for the film, I think; weak or overstated performances and an overstylized mise en scène would, while appealing to the geek and anti-establishment crowds (and resulting in a flood of Slash Lit), only cheapen the effect of the movie.

The artistic references and quotes were a nice touch, but anyone can quote Shakespeare or say they collect contraband artifacts and call themselves aficionados. Director James McTeigue distinguishes his film from other posers by assimilating, rather than just referencing, themes from such works as Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will and Henry V and especially The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan Van Eyck - which was hanging on V's wall. The numerous reflective and lighting motifs that specifically borrow from the chiaroscuro elements in Van Eyck's painting were craftily brought into the film, not only as homage, but as subtle stylizing that wasn't overpowering or alienating. In fact, if you've never heard of Van Eyck or aren't familiar with Shakespeare's work, the film still flies brilliantly, since it isn't beating you over the head with self-indulgent intertextuality (which, for some reason, still works nicely in comedy).

Many of the more politically themed statements (yes, film is indeed very political, and this one overtly so) are very timely, such as the issue of patriotism vs. nationalism, symbols/acts of identity and purpose, as well as the ambiguity and subjectivity of the term Terrorism (V was both a terrorist and a revolutionary, kind of like George Washington or Samuel Adams and the Boston Tea Party folks). My advice to people who have a problem with this film's candid position on politics is that they shouldn't watch a film essentially inspired by Guy Fawkes.

All of this isn't to say that I thought V for Vendetta was flawless - quite the contrary. The film's premise focuses on the evils of totalitarian leadership as it promotes the tagline, 'People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.' While this palindromic phrase works well for catchy advertising, I wonder if fear is really what we should be promoting. It's as if to say that Big Brother does heinous things (which we hate, by the way), therefore we should become what we hate in order to overcome Big Brother. The film poses many problematic situations, but the only solutions it offers are similarly problematic.

I also found myself wishing there was more location shooting to really create a vivid cultural, distinctly British, context (there really is more to London than Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament). I'm sure that the Northerners would also agree that it painted a rather reductive view of Britain - especially since the industrial North has dealt first-handedly with vicious riots, anti-government/police protests, and general public disgruntlement well within the memories of most middle-aged Britons. The splattering blood also got a bit cliche when V took out the circle of policemen, almost to the point of being absurdly humourous, ala Kill Bill, which I don't think was their intention.

These little complaints, however, don't begin to overtake the fact that the depth of most scenes made my brain hum. If anything, the flaws and problematic situations only stimulate more thought, resulting in a few sleepless nights. Give a movie props when it can stay on my mind for several days afterward, and this one sure will.

Penny for the Guy? Give 'em a fiver.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Wes Anderson does America

If you haven't already seen this advert of Wes Anderson getting all post-modern with American Express, then you really haven't seen anything. (You probably have though, Anderson's clever blend of elitism and sarcasm is just having its effect on me)

It's too bad that companies like Dodge can't seem to really make a clever advert, but then again, I'm not sure how many anti-intellectual rednecks would get the half of it... although they might be interested in the .357 with a bayonet.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

New Velvet Underground DVD

Pitchfork reviewer, David Nadelle, says that the upcoming - and, let's face it, extremely belated - documentary on the Velvet Underground, one of the most influential bands in rock history, looks quite promising.

The 85-minute Velvets DVD boasts past footage and interviews with the famous crux of Reed, Cale, Morrison, Tucker, and Andy Warhol, as well as exclusive interviews with Moe Tucker, Doug Yule, and Billy Name. It also features assessment and commentary from Clinton Heylin (author of the book From the Velvets to the Voidoids), Robert Christgau ("the Dean of American Rock Criticism"), Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500, Luna), and Malcolm Dome (rock writer and broadcaster).

Released by MVD under the series, Under Review: An Independent Critical Analysis, the Velvets doc will be available April 25 (that's today) along with another long awaited DVD on the enigmatic Captain Beefheart. Be fast and bulbous, lovelies.

[Link to the full article]
Get the Region 1 here
Region 0 version available via on May 22

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

British Filmmaker, Gurinder Chadha, to Direct Dallas

Gurinder Chadha has recently confirmed that she is going to direct the feature-film adaptation of everyone's favorite screwed-up-Texan-family drama, Dallas. Chadha, director of lovely films such as Bend it Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice, tells the BBC that, "it's set today and all the characters are much more extreme versions of how we remember them." I wonder what that means...

[Flash forward]

J.R. and Miss Ellie are having it out (J.R. has just smashed a family heirloom in a fit of rage because Ellie is back on the pills), and suddenly Bobby and Sue Ellen come tearing through the front room on brightly-colored motorbikes leading a chorus of dancers. The musical number finally crescendos with Bobby and Miss Ellie hugging, while J.R. and Sue Ellen have stolen the family jet and taken off to Mexico.

Or maybe it's the one where J.R. buys Man United and turns it into a girls-only team causing everyone in Manchester to boycott the rest of the matches... (The girls beat Newcastle for the Premiership, btw)

Chadha is also set to direct the feature version of I Dream of Jeannie, which I'm pretty excited about - come on, the guy has his own Barbara Eden Jeannie! It makes me wonder though, can a director be considered an auteur if they start to only remake old Larry Hagman shows?

[*Blink* to the full article]

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Wallpapers: Wes Anderson's, The Life Aquatic

Here are a few wallpapers from Wes Anderson's excellent film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. This is one of those films that, when we saw it last year at a pre-screening in Norwich, we weren't quite sure how we felt about it. Although the rest of the people seemed rather disappointed, I felt nearly the same way as when I first saw A.I. Artificial Intelligence - that I would have something interesting to think about for a while. I'm still thinking about it now.

[click images for 1024x768]

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

I Know I Always Go On About The BBC But...

This BBC Drama project truly does sound interesting. And it could possibly be great:


I only hope it compares to the excellent Our Friends In The North...(which was so good it featured a future Dr Who AND James Bond)

I have missed watching a big contemporary epic coming-of-age series: the only excuse I can give is that I've been watching it in minature all the time -namely through the American family dramatised: I've gladly accepted my social history via The Simpsons, Friends, even Malcolm in the Middle, and, most importantly, by watching Tony Soprano and his various 'families'....So despite me going on about the BBC, it is nice to see them attempt something this ambitious and contemporary once more...

P.S. For a truly ‘alternative’ version of history, the BBC should consult my favourite conspiracy theorist, Mohammed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, and Britain’s resident eccentric billionaire (a Ross Perot-type with more humour). Mo claims Prince Phillip, the Queen, and MI6 all conspired to kill his son and Lady Di, and recently called for Prince Phillip's beheading…..

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Lehane's "Gone, Baby, Gone" to be adapted to film... by who?!

Many people are familiar with author, Dennis Lehane's, 'Mystic River.' If you were familiar with his work before that novel was adapted to the big screen then props to you my friend, because I wasn't. While I still haven't read the book or seen the movie, its adaptation from book to film - and the positive response that the film was received with - got me excited to read Lehane's other works. The hardboiled detective crime/thriller series that follows Patrick Kenzie and his partner/friend Angela Gennaro through a number of amusing, dramatic, and heinous events, has been a really entertaining experience, and I've wondered how long it would be until these books were shoved through the Hollywood machine...

Well, all of my wondering has been telepathically downloaded (DRM-free, of course) by tasteless perverts like studio agent Marty Bowen in Adaptation - Thanks, Buddy! - and is being used to make 'Gone Baby Gone' into a feature film. Unfortunately, they didn't care too much for my thoughts, as they have appointed everyone's favorite sparkle-eyed chowder-head, Ben Affleck, to direct it.

[roll Aerosmith balladic anthem]

What is going on here? These novels aren't some glitzy stroll down the red carpet of plastic passion. They are grimey, cynical, tragic, profound, and adventurous ala Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, and Mickey Spillane. It begs the question, has Lehane been offered a boat load of money, or is Ben (or the Hollywood exec) his long lost cousin in-law who he's somehow obligated to in order to preserve civility at the next Christmas dinner?

Apparently this isn't Ben's first foray into the world of directing either - he's made two other films that apparently sucked so bad that they were never released. Very reassuring. It's worse than just Ben Affleck directing however - now his brother, Casey, is being cast, presumably as Patrick?! Yikes! On the other hand, the actress that they list, Michelle Monaghan, at least seems to look the part of Angela Gennaro. Whether that's enough or not, we'll soon find out.

What they really need to do now to get me back on board with the idea is for them to cast John Malkovich... as anyone, somehow - just write him into the script. Come on, I'm dying here! I know the stories are quite bleak and pessimistic, but this is immoral.

Hopefully all of my cynicism and worry will be set straight by a brilliant adaptation that is able to stand on it's own; I'd hate for a mediocre movie to deter anyone from getting into Lehane's work.

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Strong Screwed-Up Silent Type

After positively devouring not insignificant chunks of film, television, and 'media' (do mobile phone soap operas count?), you'd think that my basic appetite for a good story with good characters would be sated, if not muted.

There are, however, two sorts of characters that always seem to grab me: the first type is the type that is of 'independent means' (they are wealthy through connivance or hard work before the film) and uses their wits and wiles to 'get away with it'. Here I'm thinking mainstream: i.e. Kevin Spacey in both Seven and The Usual Suspects: there's something basic and fulfilling about a person (good or bad) that came to the film with more than we can see, and leaves with a lifetime which we can only imagine.

In case this is all starting to sound a bit hollywood schmaltz-like, I still think its turgid when filmakers talk of the 'magic' of cinema. However, I can't help making some imaginative leaps about the lives of characters after their films have finished. For example, I've always wondered, whether The Talented Mr Ripley was the grandfather of Jason Bourne, and that there should be a Bourne prequel called The Bourne Dynasty, perhaps even with the Dynasty soundtrack to boot. Now that I consider it, 'Dynasty' as a title fits in rather well with 'Identity' and 'Supremacy'. But I'm getting off track...

The second type of character I'm always interested in is slightly different, but infinitely more compelling. This is what is commonly known as the 'strong silent type'. These characters are less paint-by-numbers (they haven't always got an immediate motive for not speaking much) and are available to view over a much broader range of cinema from across the globe. Amitabh Bachban in India does this type of acting pretty well, Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day, Lambs, and others did too, along with Holly Hunter in The Piano. However, if there was a world record for this type of acting, Takeshi Kitano would currently rank pretty damn high.

Some people would have you believe that Kitano has simply found the easiest, but most suggestive form of acting available: say nothing, and let your face do the talking (and what a face, scarred after a horrific motorbike crash). This isn't so much 'method' as methodology. However, I prefer this recent Sight and Sound explanation: 'the combination of his scarred face combined with his near-death experience has produced a torrent of post-modern, post-meaning existential angst which finds expression in the simplest of movements, if any at all'. Not the strong silent type then (Gary Cooper anyone?) but the Strong Screwed-Up Silent type..

How Bout dem apples? Maybe this explains why he seems to -scarily- enjoy the violence he unleashes in films like Battle Royale, Hana-Bi and Zatoichi...

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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Poetic Pictures: Movies as Poetic Art

Last night I attended a lecture at the library here in my town, where I also now happen to work. The lecturer was one of my former professors from BYU, Dean Duncan, who talked about 'Poetic Pictures', and how in this age where written and oral poetry isn't necessarily in vogue, people often forget that other art forms, such as cinema, can indeed be poetic.

He briefly introduced the subject and outlined a few binary differences between prose and poetry such as, Statement/Suggestion, instruction/evocation, clarity/indirection, public/private, and the analogy that prose resembles the shortest distance between two points while poetry foregrounds the process or journey (he also noted that 'bad' poetry can pretty much have the same directness or effect as prose). Duncan then went on to discuss how not only the language in films takes on poetic elements, but the picture can show us images that are poetic in composition, allusion, suggestion, etc. This, he mentioned, was most certainly the case in the early days of cinema, where the lack of recorded dialog and sound effects rendered the films virtually silent. He pointed out that silent cinema was often rooted in narrative poetry - specifically some of the films of D.W. Griffith.

He suggested that while films such as, So I married an Axe Murderer, often parodied the poetic form (in this case, beat poetry), other films such as Roger Corman's, A Bucket of Blood, managed to move from parody to celebration by actually being poetic in form/composition, and the spoken word. Leading from this example, Duncan also read a Scottish ballad to suggest that the familiarity by which many interpret generic works as common or silly (certainly not 'high' art) can also act as an access point into higher meanings or poetic suggestions. To illustrate his point, we viewed the final scene from William Wellman's, The Oxbow Incident, where Henry Fonda's face is obscured through shot composition as he reads the final letter. This has the effect of putting another, less familiar, actor's face in front of the well-liked/known Fonda in order to further implicate the viewer through the final moral message of the film. To create such a striking scene of poetic proportions in a Western invalidates the argument that genre films are crap because they just retread standard syntactic/semantic conventions in narrative and mise en scène.

All in all, it was a brilliant way to spend a friday night, drawing connections between the various artistic traditions, while watching a few movie clips. There were even enough people there that the media auditorium in the basement of the library was standing-room only.

Now go read some poetry and watch a genre film.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Studio Movie Downloads 'Convenient' and 'Complementary'

The LA Times reports that the MPAA and member studios are up to their old tricks again by offering 'convenient' feature-film downloads that are available the same day as DVD releases. The Catch: downloads that are then burned to DVD will only play on a PC and, oh yeah, it will cost roughly twice that of a store-bought DVD.

"We think this is a great consumer offering that complements the DVD release," said Rick Finkelstein, Universal Pictures' president and chief operating officer. "If somebody wants to get their content online and create a digital library, this gives them the opportunity to do that. This is another way for consumers to access movies."

'Complements the DVD release'?! What, now I have to buy both? Complements your filthy corporate pockets maybe, but paying nearly double the price just to relish the novelty of downloading movies hardly qualifies as complementary or convenient, my deceitful little friend. Newsflash pal, we can already get content online to create a digital library, so you're not broadening anoyone's 'opportunity.' In fact, by providing the movie via your over-priced download, we can all rest assured that our computers will get jacked by sneaky little DRMs that will keep us busy for weeks to come. Not exactly the promising kind of innovation that we should expect from corporate systems professing their devotion to the consumer, is it?

[Link to the full article]

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Monday, April 03, 2006

Wallpapers: Wong Kar-Wai's, 2046

Here are a few wallpapers from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai's superb film, 2046. Most of these are of Faye Wong's android character and one of Ziyi Zhang peeking into the other room. I'll try and post some more of the central character played by Tony Leung soon.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Raise the Red Lantern on DVD

I'm sure that many of you, like me, have been waiting ages for Zhang Yimou's, Raise the Red Lantern, to be released on DVD. Well put the knife down because, finally, it has... kind of. I recently came in touch with the new Razor Digital Entertainment region 1 version that boasts it's definitive status as part of their 'Zhang Yimou Collection.' This seemed promising, but upon viewing, I realised that the quality of this version was worse than many bootlegs I've seen. The picture was totally noisy and the brilliant colors that are quinessentially Yimou seemed bland at best. Even the cool coloring of the winter scenes seemed overly bleached and flat from the mediocre transfer.

If the color problems weren't enough (which they were), the subtitles suffered not only from constant grammar and spelling mistakes, but with words that were completely wrong all together. One example of this mixup was a point in the film where the Fourth mistress is talking about the Third Mistress, except the subtitles say Second Mistress - an entirely different character! Confused? I was, and I'd seen the film several times before! First-time viewers would be going, "what the...?" quite a bit here.

Having seen Raise the Red Lantern on both film and laser disc, I am quite convinced that Razor went out of their way to acquire a master that had been salvaged from a pile of burning train wreckage. If you've been waiting for ages for a gorgeous transfer of this beautiful film, I'm afraid your wait isn't over. We can only hope that with the recent popularity of Zhang Yimou's films, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers, there will soon be a definitive release worth owning on DVD.

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