Thursday, December 31, 2009

This Used To Be The Future, part 1 (50-36)



Andy Khouri has begun a blog-a-thon of sorts, inviting/daring his online friends and acquaintances to, per the graphic above, list, rank, and write about their favo(u)rite songs of the almost-completed decade.

Your proprietor's listening habits are less diverse and hungry than his cinematic ones, so I've opted to write about fifty songs, choosing a maximum of one song from an album (some albums would offer up to five compelling entries and a couple of also-rans for a top 100 list). Herewith is part one of the House of Sparrows' most precious play list, dated twenty-ought-ex.

50. Vagabondage, "Raise Your Glass"

Since this band is/are friends of mine, I’ll put this at the bottom of the list to dodge any complaints of a conflict of interest. Offering inherently singable choruses that are perfect for boozy pub shout-alongs, this song is absolutely timeless, and if there’s any justice it’ll survive its creators for generations.

49. Peaches, "I Feel Cream"

The airy vocals and minimal-disco synth riff make one long for the sexy grit of her earlier work, until the gorgeous rap over the bridge, with another synth swirling up under, shows us that she’s merely shifted gears.

48. Gwen Stefani, "Early Winter"

“Why do you act so stupid?/You know I’m always right” tells us that there are TWO reasons why this breakup’s happening, and the final chorus just nails us. A gorgeously produced and sung pop ballad.

47. Gorillaz, “5/4”

A triumphant, tricky, but danceable riff, with beautifully sarcastic Albarn vocals. And then “SHE TURNED MY DAD ON/SHE MADE ME KILL MYSELF!” just kills me.

46. Sparks, “Let the Monkey Drive”

It’s just good advice.

45. Von Iva, “Do It!

A drums/analog keys/voice trio from San Francisco, staffed entirely by bad girls. Bex’s FAT synth riffs make this one the keeper, with the always-gutsy vocalist Jillian Iva just pelting it out. Makes me proud to live where I do.

44. Loretta Lynn, “Women’s Prison”

I’m still not sure if the glorious instrumental finish is simply Lynn’s resigned heroine’s ascent to heaven, or Jack White and the boys busting into the joint to save her. A killer track either way, as the man used to say.

43. The Fall, “Theme from ‘Sparta F.C.’”

WE HAVE TO PAY FOR EVERYTHING BUT SOME THINGS ARE FOR FREE! (HEY!)
WE LIVE! ON! BLOOD! WE ARE SPARTA F.C.! (HEY!)
ENGLISH CHELSEA FAN THIS IS YOUR LAST GAME (HEY!)
WE’RE NOT GLATASARY WE’RE SPARTA F.C.! (HEY!)

42. Einstuerzende Neubauten, “Sabrina”

Since busting through the scene in 1980 with metal-on-metal schaben, the boys from Berlin have grown a bit quieter with each album. Their 2000 disc, entitled (aptly enough) Silence is Sexy, opens with this nicely slow-burning number, the ambiguous but infectious chorus of which I found myself singing fairly often in my quieter, darker moments.

41. Brian Wilson, “Surf’s Up”

The whole SMiLE reconstruct just pummels you with good spirits, but the last half of this quieter piece, busting out with full-tilt ethereality, is the disc’s most transcendent moment.

40. The Hives, “Hate To Say I Told You So”

As it turns out, rock’n’roll didn’t need saving in 2000 after all, but those monochrome-clad boys from Sweden were so nice to volunteer.

39. Johnny Cash, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”

The first four tracks of AMERICAN IV: THE MAN COMES AROUND sound like an enclosed narrative to me, with the title track offering an apocalyptic, scene setting prologue; “Hurt” showing a man undone by his life; “Give My Love To Rose” redeeming him at least in part by a scintilla of his humanity remembered; and then finally this track, which finds him rising the fuck up to take action. Cash’s voice is nearly shot, but dammit, the impulse is still there.

38. Painkiller, “Your Inviolable Freedoms”

Yes, a slightly different lineup assembled for the ambient dark thrash trio during John Zorn’s 50th birthday celebration. But Zorn and Laswell remained tight, the replacement of Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris with Chicago jazz percussionist Hamid Drake opened the band to more fluid expressionism (while sacrificing none of the Painkiller mandated heaviness), and the addition of wild card Mike Patton on vocals and other noises loaned the still-heavy group an out-there, positively psychedelic edge that I hadn’t heard in any Zorn recording. This sixteen-minute jam is the real deal.

37. Radiohead, “There There”

Yorke’s never sounded smaller and more urgent to me, surrounded by drums but cutting through. Your conscience.

36. Coldplay, “Lost!”

The organs and drums jump out of the fucking radio, and announce plainly that the band isn’t simply rewriting “Clocks” again. Producer Brian Eno’s keyboard shimmers swell up during the choruses, and Chris Martin’s non-semantic yowling at the end seals the deal.

SHERLOCK HOLMES

For weeks prior to reluctantly seeing it, your proprietor refused to call this anything but TONY STARK, STEAMPUNK DETECTIVE, but actually seeing the thing has turned me around a bit. It's my favorite Guy Ritchie film so far (though having hated all of the films of his that I'd seen, that's not saying much), a beautifully and tastefully designed piece of Hollywood steampunk, and graced with a fine pair of complementary lead performances by Messrs. DowneyJr. and Law. Quite pleasingly, Watson is played as a resourceful, not-unintelligent foil with a life and mind of his own, rather than the doltish idiot played back in the day by Nigel Bruce. There are worse films at the multiplex this holiday season, 'sall your proprietor's sayin'.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

ANNE TRUITT working/NEXT LEVEL

A surprisingly rich bounty of cinema awaits visitors to Washington D.C.'s Hirshhorn Museum - upstairs at the end of a gallery survey of work by the late sculptor Anne Truitt screens ANNE TRUITT working, by filmmaker Jem Cohen. The work captures Truitt working in two milieu, and against a soundtrack of Truitt's ruminations on her work Cohen frames her materials and sculptures in compelling vertical tableau (matching the upward thrust of Truitt's most remarkable sculptures). Each small shot is perfectly chosen, with materials taking on their own independent aesthetic life (jars of paint are labelled with the titles of the work they'll eventually color). I'm not certain how it would function independently, but at the end of the Hirshhorn's retrospective it offers a powerful summing up and expansion of the themes of Truitt's work and life, assimilated and expanded upon by a knowing, simpatico cinematic artist.



Downstairs, in the museum's tiny Black Box space, Phoebe Greenberg's remarkable, award-winning short NEXT LEVEL mesmerized and (in a few cases) sickened its audience, but its powerful and sensual parable of endless consumption was one of the more efficiently devastating short films your proprietor has ever seen. A cadre of aristocrats dine on a sumptuous and endless feast, accompanied by chamber musicians and attended by a corps of waiters, presided over by an ominous and all-knowing maitre d'. The descent of the feast (the exact depths of which must be seen to be believed) offered a knowing mirror to our own worst excesses, and a dire (though never pedantic) warning of their eventual outcome.

As is often the case in our nation's capital, the most compelling cinematic offerings are screening on gallery walls. The one-two punch offered by Cohen and Greenberg is the best double-feature running in D.C. right now, at no admission charge and of a combined running time of half an hour. Art films in many senses, and earnestly recommended by your proprietor.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

AVATAR

A highly random selection of thoughts. Spoilers likely:

--Some are arguing that the film is yet another of that hideous subset of Hollywood film in which a white male protagonist shows up to save a bunch of one-dimensional savages who can't help themselves against an encroaching threat. The movie's flawed, to be sure, but this argument is bullshit for a number of reasons: the natives in question are a rather well-thought out and explicated group, and indeed the hero winds up forsaking his humanity (including his very Whiteness) to pursue his destiny.

--No, the film's politics are unabashedly liberal, and as preachy and overstated as the case may be, it is a rare and pleasant thing to find a big-budget, effects-laden spectacular that has a coherent and humanistic point of view.

--That said, it goes a bit too far in the hippie-direction, with the Na'Vi's rituals clearly idealized human ones, rather than palpably alien ones. (The insipid heal-the-world score by James Horner doesn't help.)

--And though the film is a long one, it rushes through too many things. I'm particularly sad that Michelle Rodriguez winds up as collateral damage; she's a compelling actor when given material as strong as she is, and Cameron just loses sight of her here. All of the material is there to make Trudy Chacon a supporting hero per Han Solo or THE MATRIX's Captain Mifune: we see the beats of her character we never pause long enough to feel them.



In short, however, I enjoyed the experience of the film. Actually, seeing it on the bottom end of a double bill with UP IN THE AIR made for a compelling, two-pronged Hollywood assault on American society, so good times all around.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

all through the House

Your proprietor has been busy with his family this Christmas season, and shoveling the House out from under the snow that hit the East Coast last weekend. Spending time with the folks, watching various seasonal films, including John Carpenter's THE THING (Mom walked out, genuinely scared, about a half hour in) and Desplechin's UN CONTE DE NOEL.


Upon revisiting the latter, your proprietor is convinced that it's a genuine masterpiece, telling a tale of family and Christmas in fresh and revealing ways, creating a film that is unsentimental but moving, human and experimental. Brecht and Welles would have approved.

The street in front of the House was neither plowed nor salted, so our traveling will be tricky, but visits to other relatives await, as does the first white Christmas in recent memory.

Your proprietor and the other denizens of the House of Sparrows wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas, and all of the joy and warmth the season represents.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

a wallflower at the Monster Ball

Prior to seeing Lady Gaga's performance at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium a couple of hours ago, I'd been skeptical about her music and her persona. There wasn't much to distinguish (to these ears, anyway) her music from what little else I was hearing from the contemporary pop scene. And as glossy and alluring as her glamperve visual aesthetic was (and is), I felt like she was limiting herself as an artist by fixating on her celebrity as her favorite subject. Though I was unwilling to risk purchasing one of her albums, I curiously and eagerly snagged a ticket (at three times what a CD would have cost) to tonight's performance.

Having experienced the woman's work full-tilt, my main reservation about Lady Gaga hasn't changed. The distorted visions of celebrity and fractured self-portraiture is fascinating, but they lack the emotional heft of, say, Ziggy Stardust (the David Bowie influence on LG has been widely discussed). Though Ziggy was an alien, a stranger in a strange world, he resonated with fans who recognized their own alienation within him. I am utterly convinced that Lady Gaga does adore and love her fans, and that her charitable work on behalf of homeless queer youth is motivated by a strong desire to shed a light on the plight of kids she recognizes as her own people. I honestly believe that if she'd open up and show her audience in her music what she has in common with them, the result would be truly powerful and resonant. But at times her stageself's monologues about her fans seemed narcissistic, an endless commentary on her own celebrity, appreciating their love, but ultimately keeping them at a distance. It is strange to me that her fanbase (all at least a decade younger than your proprietor) who have come of age in the age of information are willing to give so much of themselves to someone who holds them at arm's length.

...

That said.

The Monster Ball is an irresistible spectacle, even to one for whom its message wasn't intended. One tale related from the stage spoke of a critic who'd pigeonholed the singer as a writer of dance music and nothing more. But the tale was redundant in the context of the concert, in which her substantial musical talents were displayed in abundance:

--After several electronic, dance-driven numbers, Gaga sat at a piano for the ballad "Speechless," and the film screens lifted at the climax to reveal a living, breathing band who helped her just nail it.

--A rock-driven middle section reached a pummeling climax with "The Fame," with Gaga taking the stage in a gold Monroe/Pharaoh getup and belting out a commanding and assured rock lead vocal.



--Finally, a downright operatic performance of "Paparazzi" (my favorite of her singles) closed the main set.

I remain unconvinced that Gaga has become (as at least one acquaintance has called her) "the female Bowie". Yet. But I remain positive that there's some truly great work ahead of her, and can not wait to hear her iterations of Tin Machine and/or 1.OUTSIDE. And when (not if)Lady Gaga creates something as powerful and timeless as "Heroes", your proprietor will be delighted, and utterly unsurprised.



(For the record, the centrifuge thing in the actual concert was bigger, spun in all directions, and was a very sexy piece of hardware, indeed.)

(Your proprietor thanks Andrea Wakely for finding the gold image above.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL

1983ish. College student Samantha is looking to get her own place. The ideal apartment is within her reach but out of her price range. Salvation seems to come in the form of an odd but lucrative babysitting gig at a house outside Samantha's college town. After getting a ride from her best friend, and negotiating terms with the quietly bizarre couple who live in the house, Samantha is left alone with her unseen charge.

High above, a lunar eclipse.



Shooting on film and recreating a more-than-convincing 1980s milieu (right down to a pizza parlor whose wares your proprietor could practically TASTE), writer/director/editor Ti West has crafted a meticulously old-school, low-budget horror flick. And yet for all of the intelligent filmmaking and storytelling on display, it doesn't serve any ultimate point. THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is happily free of ironic campiness, and also steers clear of genre commentary now familiar in modern grindhouse exercises. In the end, I felt like I'd sat through a genuine, mid-80s horror programmer, of its period but undistinguished. West sticks to his guns right down to the ending, which may have been powerful in 1983 but today is cliched, too-familiar, and predictable. West has succeeded in his goal, no question, but there's nothing personal in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. There's energy and personality, but no soul. Without that investment, I have to wonder why West bothered in the first place.

...

But there's a scene I keep coming back to. It's none of the baby steps taken toward the film's denouement, none of the layers that get peeled away to reveal more of the mystery. It's a scene about halfway through, in which Samantha, installed in the house, bored and (she believes) unwatched, throws on her Walkman (yes, an actual Walkman), and dances through various rooms and hallways to The Fixx's "One Thing Leads To Another." Jocelin Donahue's built a thoroughly relatable, and likable, heroine up to this point, but somehow it's this scene that tips Samantha over into our sympathies. It's a breezily lyrical moment that, unlike similar scenes in other movies, feels necessary, and it lingers long after the film's well-realized but programmatic thrills quickly fade. And the Fixx track sounded just dandy on a theatre sound system.

Reservations notwithstanding, I'm eager to see West's next picture, THE INNKEEPERS, the tale of the last employees remaining at a haunted hotel.

This review tweaked for the Final Girl Film Club, run as always by the awesome and amazing Stacie Ponder.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT!


(Reluctant though your proprietor is to recycle old work, the House has been a little dusty of late. It turns out this review, originally written in May 2007, is timely for a number of reasons: in addition to the Yuletide angle, SNDN3-BWO! has just been released for the first time on DVD.)

So an interest in the work of Monte Hellman (cult filmmaker from the 60s and 70s, producer of RESERVOIR DOGS), prompted by his mention in materials relating to GRINDHOUSE (and possibly, in retrospect, his section of the anthology horror film TRAPPED ASHES), sent me to the Chicago Reader website. To my surprise, I find that a) he directed SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT!, and b) Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewed it. Rosenbaum gives only scant details (I doubt he watched it), but his note that "at least one Hellman fanatic I know swears by it" was all I needed. I noted that Bill Moseley stars in it.

I immediately called my friend K, whose affection for the work of Mr. Moseley is legendary. K (who can't possibly have expected anyone she knew to ask her out of the blue about this particular movie) tells me yes, I have it and yes, come on over and watch it. So I did and we did.

Ricky Caldwell (played in this chapter by Moseley), the Santa Claus killer from the first two films, lies comatose, undisturbed save for the experiments of a scientist (Richard Beymer) studying ESP. His subject, a blind woman named Laura (Samantha Scully), accidentally rouses Caldwell, who soon escapes the hospital and follows her to her grandmother's house on Christmas Eve.

There's a kernel of a solid slasher story there, setting up a variety of incidents familiar to horror fans (the movies brought to mind along the way are as diverse as FRIDAY THE 13th PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD and WAIT UNTIL DARK). Happily, Hellman has seized upon the most glorious unspoken rule of low-budget filmmaking: when you have no money, and are unburdened by high expectations, shoot for the fucking moon.

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is Hellman's most famous film, the story of a trio of drivers racing each other cross-country. But the drivers get distracted constantly along the way, by hitchhikers, by the landscape, by whatever Hellman wanted to film. Though the assignment doesn't seem like a plum one to any filmmaker of an auteuristic bent, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3 is every bit as meandering and discursive - what Dave Kehr wrote of RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND ("almost perversely devoid of action...a study of space, silence, and passing time.") is as true of SN,DN3.

For about a quarter of the time, Hellman plays to tropes of the genre (with a couple of cheerfully sick jokes placed along the way to the denouement in which Final Girl Laura squares off against Caldwell); the rest of the time he's merrily subverting them, in a number of fascinating and funny ways. He mines Scully's psychic abilities and blindness for some beautifully abstract sequences early on, some of them dreams (a stark chase through a white corridor, with Santa Claus popping up in full regalia), some set in reality (as in a beautiful close up of Scully that traps us in Laura's blindness), but all more stark and artful than you'd expect to see in any second-rate slasher. We watch Laura's grandmother baste a turkey for about a full minute. Police detective Robert Culp tears down a highway in hot pursuit of Caldwell, but pulls over to take a leak. Laura Harring begins to strip down for a trademark shower scene, but all we're shown of it is an intimate, sweetly non-prurient moment with her boyfriend (played by Eric Da Re, the third David Lynch actor to appear in this).

Just about all of the actors in the movie have at least one little moment. Even Carlos Palomino's truck driver is given a couple of minutes to rant at Caldwell about why he hates Christmas - so distracted is he by his Yuletide ire that he doesn't notice that Caldwell's brain is visible through a glass jar. Hellman's generosity extends to Moseley, always an actor who gives his all to the most insane roles. He largely plays Caldwell as a blank slate - a truly alien shot has him hitchhiking in front of a road sign wearing nothing but a hospital gown and brain jar. But he has a beautifully crystalline moment sitting at a dinner table, given a Christmas dinner, a glimmer of some long-dead warmth playing on his face.

How the hell did this movie get made? It feels like a prank waiting to happen - that some Z-movie producer put it together, demanding enough gore to put in a trailer and not caring about the rest, leaving it to the director to fill the remaining running time however he saw fit (and being blissfully unaware of that director's playful, existential tendencies). From what I've read, Hellman's pretty modest about any kind of auteurism ("...any thoughts about doing something different were for our own personal satisfaction. We never thought that anybody would ever notice," he says of RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND and THE SHOOTING), but there's so much crazy stuff going on in SN,DN3 that it can't be by accident. There are just enough moments in the thing to fill a solid slasher trailer - the rest is downright visionary, absurd, empty, hilarious, painful, wonderful. It jibes with what little I knew about Hellman's work, and makes me hungry for more.

(Many, many thanks to K.)