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Let the Right One In

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 21 October 2009 05:30 (A review of Let the Right One In (2008))

Quiet and meditative more often than it is full of false scares and frights, Let the Right One In is a gloriously beautiful film about a nerdy preteen in his first blushing of love with a vampire, who may or may not actually be female. With two young actors who forsake American child actors precociousness for grit, honesty and maturity and gorgeous cinematography, Let the Right One In is perfect from the first few seconds to the dementedly sweet ending.

Yes, this is a vampire movie, but like all great horror films it’s smart enough to know that the horror elements need to come in second. The storyline comes first. This is a storyline of quiet moments but packed with tiny, barely spoken, hints and symbols. That scar across Eli’s privates hints that maybe she used to be a he. And the young actress’ ability to appear both young and old, male and female adds tremendous weight to the role. (And while the young boy who plays the lead role wasn’t bad, he was just given the less showy role.) The soft snowfall and oppressively sterile environments, both natural and man-made, lull you into a false comfort before the bloodshed begins, which happens briefly but effectively. Waiting for something to happen, if that sense of fear and dread, of looming danger, can be properly employed it is more effective than all of the torture porn’s thrill-kills and disposable bodies combined.

And these two children, if one of them can technically be considered one is a different matter, are as twisted, dark and complicated as anything a grown up vampire story could cook up. Twilight is children’s play compared to this atmospheric horrorfest. That ending is also when hell of a way to go out. How this got snubbed for a Best Foreign Language Academy Award nomination, if not the win, is beyond me. This was one of the greatest movies from last year.

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Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 15 October 2009 12:05 (A review of Metallica)

While songs like “Enter Sandman” and “Sad But True” might give the impression that Metallica was given a polish to their sound, Metallica rocks just as hard and ferocious as anything I have ever heard. And I’m a huge Stooges fan, which means I’ve heard some troglodyte guitar-and-drum songs.

I’ve never been a huge metalhead, my father was though, but I grew up listening to a lot of the genre. Metallica always intrigued me. Maybe it was that they dressed in all black, or maybe it was that they had a hardcore punk aesthetic underneath the heavy metal veneer. Either way, I liked “Enter Sandman” when I was a kid and I like it now. This is primal and angry music with an undercurrent of Catholicism. The song titles alone hint at this: “The God That Failed,” “Holier Than Thou,” “The Unforgiven.” These are not happy and vacant praise songs; these are songs from the depths of the fallen. “The Lord’s Prayer” has never sounded as disturbing and downright creepy as it does when James Hetfield growls it out towards the end of “Enter Sandman.”

But it’s not just the imagery of choice that always drawn me towards Metallica, it’s their musicianship and musicality. Heavy metal and punk used to be kissing cousins before branching off into different subdivisions. I can hear the influence of the Sex Pistols or the Stooges or the Ramones in Metallica’s harder numbers. But their ballads, which barely qualify as such since their guitars are so loud and they sound so ominous, reveal that like the earliest punks their was a real musical craft and talent at hand. This wasn’t just noise cranked to eleven. These were real songs cranked to eleven. “Nothing Else Matters” has always been my favorite song of theirs, and the musical textures and sonics at work showcase a band that was at the peak of their prowess. Naturally, it would all go downhill from here, too many later efforts polished up their sound and that whole business with Napster, but Metallica is masterpiece of head-banging rock & roll attitude. DOWNLOAD: “Nothing Else Matters”

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18 Original Sun Greatest Hits

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 15 October 2009 12:04 (A review of 18 Original Sun Greatest Hits)

Jerry Lee Lewis played a countrified piano with a hard-rocking edge (for the ‘50s). He pounded on the piano to the point of it sounding like it was nearly breaking. It’s obvious to hear why he has become such a living legend. All of the Sun Records artists – Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Lewis being the three most famous – helped create new textures and attitudes in rock & roll music. His stomping piano and wild man vocals practically laid the groundwork for punk rock, or something very close to it. This is a great time and essential music. “Breathless” zips by on a rockabilly guitar-and-piano lick and sexually aggressive sighing that was lifted wholesale by bands such as X and Social Distortion. “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” are the most famous Sun sides, but there’s nothing resembling filler on this album. I’m not too crazy about “Lewis Boogie” but others might be. But with seventeen songs that rock with a country swagger, one I don’t care for means very little. His career extended beyond his Sun material, but this is the most famous and influential collection of songs. This is the crucial listening. DOWNLOAD: “Breathless,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Big Blon’ Baby”

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The Sweet Escape

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 9 October 2009 06:31 (A review of The Sweet Escape)

When The Sweet Escape came out, I liked it better than Love. Angel. Music. Baby. because more of its songs had substance and hit on something deeper than fashion and being obsessed, almost to derangement, over the Harajuku shopping district. It’s still only half of great album and half of a middling one.

“Breakin’ Up” has got a sick beat, but the lyrics fail her. The same lines are repeated two or three times, and the chorus is just the title repeated over and over and over again. It’s like a very rough demo that never got completed but somehow made it onto the finished product. “Yummy” starts off like any of the all too numerous Pharrell produced tunes before turning into an industrial bump and grind at the last minute. If it had sounded like that from the very beginning it would have been more interesting. The descriptive phrase “disco tetris” is possibly the smartest assessment of his production skills to date. And “Wind It Up” never should have been the first single. There’s no chorus, barely anything resembling a melody and it’s a borderline porno nursery rhyme. Look, I love The Sound of Music and Julie Andrews too, but I wouldn’t make a dance song out of “The Lonely Goatherd.”

“The Sweet Escape” still charms though. I believe that Lady Gaga took it an renamed it “Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” “Love Game,” and “Paparazzi.” Stole the big banged blonde wig too. Gwen’s still sounds better. But like L.A.M.B. the best songs are the mid-tempos and ballads. “Early Winter” is one of my favorite songs that Gwen has ever put her voice on. It’s a gorgeous ballad about the end of a relationship. Nellee Hooper knows how to bring out the warmth and sadness in her voice. “Wonderful Life” sounds like something off of Violator, but with a female lead singer. It’s a beautiful song. “U Started It” sounds like a Dirty Mind era Prince mid-tempo dance jam. And “4 in the Morning” sounds like a No Doubt song, which should come as no surprise since bandmate Tony Kanal produced it. He also knows how to bring the versatility and pain in her Anaheim girl sass. Not to say that it’s only the slow songs that are the best, “Fluorescent” and “Now That You Got It” are pretty wonderful, but they contain her best lyrics.

You could tell by the time that this was released that she was over the whole solo thing. I know that when I saw her in concert she seemed to be putting on a good show, but was ready to go back to the boys. It was pretty fun while it lasted, and she pretty much gave Lady Gaga her career template and general sound, but I’m glad she’s back where she belongs. Gwen and I might love dance music, but our hearts belong in alternative rock. DOWNLOAD: “Early Winter”

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Love. Angel. Music. Baby.

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 9 October 2009 06:31 (A review of Love. Angel. Music. Baby.)

Gwen Stefani’s first solo outing feels like the assortment of singles and aborted studio experiments of a long lost 80s dance diva. One that’s hugely obsessed with Japanese subcultures and having sex in cars. There are obvious nods to Madonna, Prince, New Order and random hip-hop and one hit wonder dance acts. In today’s painfully serious, but utterly ridiculous, pop landscape this still sounds playful, cheeky and like a load of fun. Even if some of it just isn’t very good.

First off, “Harajuku Girls” is the worst song on the entire record. The sound effects, tweaked vocals and bordering on lesbianism fetishization of the girls just are awkward and clunky. The lyrics aren’t her best, not even on this record where heartfelt and meaningful lyrics fall by the wayside for frivolous fashion centric concoctions. “Long Way to Go” is another song with thuds more than it thumps. The beat is good, Andre 3000 is incapable of making a bad one, but it doesn’t live up to the promise of two of modern day pops weirdest and coolest figures making music together. This should have been something to rival Madonna and Prince’s bump-and-grind during “Love Song.” It’s not. The “Papa Don’t Preach” like string-intro-and-all of “Serious” should have been better than it turned out to be. “Crash” is pretty much Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” with different lyrics. It’s stupid, but not as fun as the rest of the album.

“Hollaback Girl” is like a hip-hop, Queen referencing take on “Mickey.” It’s a love it or hate it kind of song. But there’s a quartet of songs which are the best, because they sound like No Doubt leftovers. “Cool” is a nice slice of mid-tempo New Wave. “Danger Zone” is rocking New Wave song. Neither wouldn’t have been out of place on Rock Steady. “The Real Thing” sounds an instrumental from New Order’s Substance being given a female lead vocal. “Bubble Pop Electric” is like a Grease being given acid and discovering Japanese culture. Naturally, it’s a highlight on the record. In fact, it might just be the highlight of the album.

While tracks like “What You Waiting For?” and “Luxurious” sound fantastic, others are lackluster. It’s half of a great album, half of a middling one. I give her points for being so willfully weird, even borderline experimental, but it’s too frothy, too simplistic to be anything of real artistic merit. She aimed to be a guilty pleasure record and succeeded. I just wish that she aimed higher. I know she’s talented enough. DOWNLOAD: “Bubble Pop Electric”

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Rachel Getting Married

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 9 October 2009 06:29 (A review of Rachel Getting Married (2008))

Anne Hathaway should have won the Best Actress Oscar. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Kate Winslet and thought that she was due for an Oscar…just not for The Reader.

Hathaway’s toxic, lying, manipulative over-grown demonic wild child is a performance of true grit and determination. She blasts all memory of The Princess Bride clear out of your mind. I knew from Brokeback Mountain that she could be a good dramatic actress, I just didn’t know how good she could be. This is one of the most accurate, honest portraits of a recovering addict, but a non-recovering narcissist, I have ever seen. Rosemarry DeWitt as her long-suffering sister, the Rachel of the title, should have gotten more awards recognition for her work. For all of Hathaway’s poison, DeWitt is there to counter back with reality and to call everyone’s bluff.

Jonathon Demme is a master filmmaker. Interview With the Vampire is an icy, erotic, phantasmagoric cabaret, Silence of the Lambs is a chilling neo-noir, and Beloved is messy but filled with beautiful images. His artistry isn’t involved in creating images which look like moving paintings, of which the three films I mentioned are, but in creating a documentary feel. This feels like scrapped together home movies. That is not a complaint but high praise. This feels so real and authentic that you forget it’s a scripted drama. The best and most engrossing works of art can do that to you.

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Whip It

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 9 October 2009 06:29 (A review of Whip It (2009))

Ellen Page is my generation’s version of Winona Ryder. That became increasingly evident as I watched Whip It. She’s a brainy brunette with a penchant for playing shy, quiet, underachieving smart(ass) girls. Her character in Whip It is similar, but has none of Juno’s defining pop culture rapid-fire zingers.

I am not female, but by the end of this movie I felt like an empowered and strong female. Not because it bashes anything, but because it refuses to compromise and sink into clichés. Her cute alternative boyfriend turns out to not be perfect. In a lesser movie she’d make a different decision. Her parents give her permission to go to the big game at the last minute and cheer her on from the sidelines, and, once again, in a different movie the more obvious choice would have happened. This does follow the basic trajectory of a coming-of-age story, and a rookie-makes-it-big sports film, but it follows it with more brains, heart and spunk than I expected.

She doesn’t join roller derby to find herself, she joins roller derby because she thinks it looks like fun and that she’s found something which makes her happy. Along the way it happens to empower her, but she wasn’t a shrieking violet to begin with. I have said a lot about Ellen Page and her character and not much about anyone else. I just adore Ellen Page, and I think that she’s a great and promising talent. Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern are first-rate as her parents. Harden’s also capable of milking laughs as the pageant-obsessed mom by saying things in a super sweet southern voice. Drew Barrymore, a great first director performance by the way, Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell and Juliette Lewis all deliver strong performances. Lewis in particular seems to be having a ball playing the biggest and baddest roller derby girl. I haven’t liked her this much in a film for a very, very long time. Maybe that Academy Award nomination wasn’t a fluke (I’m talking to you Jennifer Tilly).

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500 Days of Summer

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 9 October 2009 06:29 (A review of 500 Days of Summer)

500 Days of Summer plays out like a funnier version of a real relationship. Not to say that the film is some light breezy comedy, it generally is, but it has more smarts than all of Sandra Bullock’s, Meg Ryan’s and Julia Robert’s romantic comedies combined. That musical number is a definite highlight, even if Levitt’s dancing looks slightly wooden and spastic. It also has its fair share of awkward and painful moments. (Levitt’s alcohol soaked scenes of post-breakup depression come to mind.) Not since Annie Hall has a movie so realistically depicted the strange and wild practice we call modern romance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel turn in great performances, which is to be expected of Levitt and a pleasant surprise from Deschanel. Bonus points to any film which has its main characters bonding over a mutual love of the Smiths, foreign films and art.

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The Purple Rose of Cairo

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 9 October 2009 06:28 (A review of The Purple Rose of Cairo)

The Purple Rose of Cairo is a movie that I would love to see. You see, The Purple Rose of Cairo is actually a film-within-a-film. Mia Farrow’s sad, lonely, sweet character goes to see the film repeatedly to escape from her boorish husband, lack of job prospects and the Great Depression. There’s something about an excavation inside an Egyptian tomb, wining and dining in Manhattan, some romance, some comedy and a nightclub act. It looks like a nice screwball comedy and I would love to see it.

Since that film is fake, I’ll just have to settle for the surrounding Woody Allen film, which I would rank amongst his best. It’s funny and charming, with just the tiniest hint of sadness bubbling underneath the surface. Mia Farrow’s character can’t keep her job and is prone to daydreaming her life away instead of actually living it. Her husband drinks too much, won’t get a job and is prone to violence. But she has the local movie theater to escape to. That’s where The Purple Rose of Cairo comes into the film.

You see, a curious but wonderful thing happens – the line between imagination and real life get so blurred that characters can literally walk right off of the screen and into our world, and vice versa. I know I have dreamt about doing this, especially as a child. I really wanted to explore the jungles in King Kong and join the denizens of The Nightmare Before Christmas in their preparations. Mia Farrow’s reaction is realistic, and her performance keeps half the move afloat. Her own intelligence and charm makes Allen’s wit and whimsy all the better.

Jeff Daniels has the other half of the movie to keep afloat as he plays two characters: the actor portraying the character who walked off the movie screen, and the movie character who did it. He’s your typical inflated Hollywood windbag in one case, and a charmingly naïve and sweet hero in the other. One has lost all mystery and wonder of the movies since he’s more interested in their box office gross, his image and recognition than what they can do for us emotionally. The other is like an overgrown child discovering the real world and learning that what he knows in the movie can’t apply to the real world beyond a very small percentage.

Allen’s bouncing back and forth between reality and artifice shows us our main reason and main problem with the movies. We go to see things we can’t in our real world, and sometimes wish that things would play out as easily as they do in them. You can’t have it both ways; you have to embrace it all. But, the movies are just the movies, no matter how deep and involving they are, and real life is real life, no matter how movie-like it can get. I expect nothing less than wit and intelligence from Woody, and here he delivers big time.

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Make Up the Breakdown

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 5 October 2009 11:15 (A review of Make Up the Breakdown)

Just as jittery and caffeinated as anything Joe Jackson or XTC could cook up, Hot Hot Heat’s first full-length album is a lot of synthpunk/indie pop fun. Steve Bays’ nervy voice adds a great amount of acerbic wit to songs like “Oh Goddamnit” or “No, Not Now.” “Talk to Me, Dance With Me” is funky and contains a guitar-and-keyboard line that sounds as angular and riff heavy as anything off of The Cars’ debut album or Candy-O. The best moment on the entire album though is “Bandages” – a witty wordplay game featuring an almost stupid chorus and enough ADHD keyboard lines to give you a freak out. The first time I heard it, and the great ending line: “Bandages have advantages too,” I knew that I would love this band. DOWNLOAD: “Bandages”

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