Sunday, January 24, 2010


A lone woman is terrorized in her apartment by increasingly disturbing phone calls. The caller is closer than she thinks.

A travelling nobleman is taken in by a family in a remote cottage, who find themselves under attack from supernatural forces.

And a nurse called to prepare a dead body steals a ring from the corpse, without heed to the considerable consequences.

Mario Bava's anthology horror film BLACK SABBATH adapts a trio of short stories (including Tolstoy's "The Wurdalak"), using devices from literature, theatre, and film. The stories play linearly, with each more suspenseful than the last. Each story unfolds at its own pace, but adds to the whole of the film. But despite the differences in scope of each tale, Bava employs similar visual strategies for each one, adding to the unity of the whole. All three stories are suffused with ominous purple backlighting. Doors and windows uniformly conceal something dreadful, but never for long - something or someone horrible peeks through a frame in each tale, and the sound of a creaking door is always bad news.

Horror icon Boris Karloff delivered several memorable performances in the twilight of his career, and in addition to appearing in the central tale here Bava deploys him as a playful narrator in the film's framing sequence. Karloff's iconic weight helps seal BLACK SABBATH's classic status, but he returns the favor by happily playing along with Bava's more freakish impulses. The downright Brechtian final shot features Karloff riding away into the night, and you can't help but laugh with him as the artifice of the film is slowly, hilariously revealed around him.

BLACK SABBATH is very much a 60s horror film, but I don't remember any other horror movie firing so assuredly on so many fronts. Its free-spirited, even genial qualities don't detract from its thrills (and some genuinely terrifying moments, particularly in the final episode), but instead add up to a unique experience, even in the varied history of the anthology film.

(This review created for the Final Girl Film Club, run as always by the talented and terrific Stacie Ponder.)

Friday, January 22, 2010


Though the devastation in Haiti remains the most important thing happening in the world, like many in America your proprietor has become absorbed in the drama unfolding late night on NBC.

I'm old enough to remember the bitter feud and controversy surrounding the first Late Shift, with David Letterman denied the Tonight Show, then accepting an offer from CBS for the rival time slot. A rich and fascinating conflict, with weirdly Shakespearean overtones.

But the conflict surrounding the ousting of Conan O'Brien from the Tonight Show, to be replaced by previous host Jay Leno, has become a full-tilt, five-act Elizabethan history play, with a larger cast of characters and set of subplots. Unfortunately for the powers that be at NBC, late night television has become a larger playing field in the years since LSI, with shows hosted by comedians who came up in the circuit that quickly shunned Leno. So we have Leno enjoying the privilege that he sold out for, being given five hours of prime-time after relinquishing his seat to O'Brien, and then being given the seat back by NBC execs. You have O'Brien getting screwed out of the Tonight Show (which, given its rich history and remaining reputation as a touchstone of television tradition, is a hell of a loss).

And crucially, you have a whole field of comedians with their own shows and time to fill on their own shows, and none of them are supporting Leno. Jimmy Kimmel did an entire show as Leno, spoofing his relentlessly middle-brow comedy. Leno even tried damage control and interviewed Kimmel on his own show, and Kimmel fucking slaughtered him. Letterman, naturally, hasn't remained quiet on the issue; Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have voiced their support for O'Brien and disdain for NBC. And somewhere around III, v, Craig Ferguson emphasized the gravity of the Haiti situation over the Late Shift (but found himself deep in act IV ad-libbing jabs at NBC).

Most importantly, O'Brien has found himself the subject of sympathy from celebrities and non-celebrities alike. Notwithstanding the fact that on Monday he'll be an unemployed millionaire (with fine prospects), he's become something of a mascot for recession-related unrest. After all, he's not the only one unemployed by or otherwise at the whim of executives trimming fat and dismissing employees who have suddenly become expendable.

O'Brien's final show is tonight on NBC. His mission statement for his final hours: "Let's have fun on television."

I worked at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a San Francisco arts center, for seven years, before being axed along with the chief curator (my boss) and ten others by a new executive director faced with a budget crisis (at least that was the excuse at the time). I spent my final weeks hanging out with Richard Stanley (whose brilliant DUST DEVIL screened at the Center), preparing my own solo performance, and bowling with my boss.

Part of what's making O'Brien's final shows so appealing is the recognition of my own angst inside his. At this moment he's the funniest and most-relatable person on television, for me and many others. Thousands of us only wish we could have played our final pre-unemployment hail-Mary out on national television, but there's a stronger subtext at play here, and I think it's why LSII is proving to have such a fascinating allure. And there's a lesson in it to be learned by our nation's executives. If the reputation of one of the last great holdouts of 20th century is going to be tarnished beyond repair, maybe it'll offer a beneficial lesson for the shaping of the 21st.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Pared down from two feature-length halves, the composite edition of RED CLIFF is 148 minutes, and something awesome happens in every one of them. Having pursued the project for many years, John Woo invests care in every scene, and the thing plays like a highlight reel containing all of his favorite tropes and motifs: you have a lone fighter squaring off against a platoon of oncoming bad guys with a child in his arms; you have a Mexican standoff (with swords instead of the usual .45s); and, of course, you have a superabundance of doves (particularly in a spectacular flying cam shot that Woo must have wanted to put in a movie for decades).

Adapted from the history and the folklore surrounding a famous battle toward the end of the Han Dynasty, the composite film doesn't feel like a compromise. The battle scenes are lengthy and downright awe-inspiring, but there's plenty of breathing space for Woo's talented cast to create vivid but quieter character moments, from Takeshi Kaneshiro's quiet scheming as consigliere Zhuge Liang to the perfect romantic equilibrium between Xiao Qiao (newcomer Chi-Ling Lin) and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). The key love scene of the latter two perfectly meshes the romantic and martial themes that Woo has pursued across his career; if nothing else it delivers lines from Sun Tzu with a no doubt unprecedented passion.

Monday, January 11, 2010


A gorgeously malignant and atmospheric anime from the early 90s, DEMON CITY SHINJUKU is the tale of a demonic zone that erupts in the middle of Tokyo. Ten years after its appearance, a warrior must travel to the zone's center to face the evil that killed his father, and quash a scheme that would turn the zone into a portal for demons bent on world destruction.

Eschewing science and logic (and the tentacle porn that would come to define this kind of horror), the makers of DEMON CITY SHINJUKU create a memorable and colorful nightmare. A number of impressive creatures enter the fray on both sides, but the movie's real strength is its surreal mise-en-scene. The noodle vendor and his cart, serving the city's denizens in the dead of night. Puddles that become vast underwater worlds. The unspoken back stories of the humans who live among the demons in the shattered city. The dream-like fantasy outweighs the often questionable soundtrack and largely sub-standard English dub, and the vivid primary-colored imagery lingers in the subconscious.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


What's the point of even complaining about this? Simply this.

I'm tired of low-budget filmmakers putting in the hours, days, months involved in realizing even the most lo-fi vision and turning out crap like this. A movie that tries to wear camp like a shield, substituting a super-abundance of witlessness and trying to pass it off as wit, winking hard at the audience and insisting that it's not to be taken seriously, and trying so hard to be over-the-top that it winds up being merely numbing and tedious.

It's not "so bad it's good", it's just bad, and shame on you for trying to sneak it through.

That said, if you're looking for a movie with sexy women involved in a crime narrative that offers plenty of cat-fights and flashy imagery, and you can deal with having your intelligence insulted, this one's for you. But FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (a film this movie so badly wants to be compared to) is better plotted, has more likable characters, and is a great deal sexier.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

This...future, part final (20-1)

20. Einstuerzende Neubauten, "Weil Weil Weil"

I was skeptical about the growing interactive/collaborative nature of Neubauten’s process, especially after the uneven PERPETUUM MOBILE. But ALLES WEIDER OFFEN was an insanely cohesive dispatch, with the band sounding terrifyingly focused. This track brought us the familiar metal-pipe-to-the-head sonics of yore, with some truly startling electronic accents to put us away.

19. Prince, "Black Sweat"

"All instruments and voices: Prince." If a DJ segued from Nine Inch Nails to this s/he wouldn’t lose a single person from the floor. And if Michael Jackson had locked everyone else out of the studio and made a perfectly-cut diamond like this once in a while, he might still be with us.

18. David Bowie, "Sunday"

The Thin White Duke begins HEATHEN in a decidedly pensive mood, hovering over dozens of possibilities and sounding almost forlorn. But there’s something in his voice that hasn’t stopped, and when he finally stretches out in come the drums of Sterling Campbell (an undersung Bowie sideman) and suddenly we’re on wings.

17. Gary Numan, "Fold"

Another Numan disc, another killer track-two, this one a nice subversion of the nu-metal formula of quiet-verse, screamed-chorus – Numan keeps it bottled in even as the chorus spreads its wings behind him. And for a victory lap he finally jumps up an octave and pelts out “Oh, oh, oh, oh” like it fucking means something during the final minute.

16. Yoshida Brothers, "Rising"

Specifically the break where everything drops out except for the duelin’ shamisen and the drums, because it always makes me lose my shit.

15. Clint Mansell/Kronos Quartet/Mogwai, "Death Is The Road To Awe"

Though I hadn’t liked Mansell’s previous score for Darren Aronofsky, THE FOUNTAIN was my favorite film score of the decade, and a powerful collection of sonic talent. This track, the climax of both the album and the film, brings together the various motifs of the score and painfully, gorgeously follows them to oblivion and far beyond.

14. SunnO))), "Alice"

A drone-metal road to paradise – the slow emergence of the strings from the group’s patented squalls of guitar makes for some compelling fucking drama, indeed. An elemental masterpiece, carved out of sound.

13. Spoon, "Was It You?"

Mark told me he had, basically, an Earth-2 Tubeway Army track to play. This track certainly vibes early Numan dystopia, but there’s a distinctly American suburbia within it. To these ears it’s the most aurally stimulating track on GIMME FICTION, employing dozens of miniature sounds to create an unsettled, dark atmosphere. Jim Eno’s drums sound like they’re counting time to the delivery of some terrible, terrible news.

12. John Zorn, "Tears Of Morning"

A gorgeous piece for piano, bass, and cello, and one of Zorn’s most overtly Morriconesque film cues. Zorn’s masterstroke here was bumping accordionist Rob Burger from his regular instrument to piano, where his light touch was something of a revelation – I notice that Burger’s been on piano for Zorn ever since.

11. King Crimson, "The Power To Believe II"

There’s nothing about this last decade’s Crim that isn’t contradictory – guys in their 50s rocking louder and tighter than punks half their ages; the bass replaced with whatever the hell a Warr Guitar is; a drummer who refuses to play the guitar part; a leader who refuses to lead; and finally, in this track, an ethereal, otherworldly din that couldn’t sound less like a beat combo.

10. Burial, "Raver"

The conclusion of the murky dubstep disc UNTRUE, with some truly lovely synth washes letting in just the right amount of light. Reminds me of darker, earlier, more insular days, while sounding like the present moment. Desperate, desolate, and even romantic.

9. Wire, "The Agfers of Kodack"

So nice to hear new Wire after so many years without. Sometime-lead vocalist Graham Lewis just punches this one out (and for the first time on the SEND disc, the Lewis/Newman vocal duets manifest, and do it with a vengeance). These motherfuckers make me feel GREAT about getting older, reminding us that the post-punk era was more vast than we’d thought, and never really ended.

8. Radiohead, "Dollars and Cents"

I swore up and down, no doubt to the point of tedium, that this was an ideal Bond theme – its swirling strings and insistent rhythm would lend themselves perfectly to a Maurice Binder title sequence. Turns out “Lucky” from OK COMPUTER was already an intentional Bond theme, so I went ahead and used this in the score of a play I directed instead.

7. Lady Gaga, "Paparazzi"

A nice balance between the electropop gloss of the other singles and more dramatic songwriting. The song’s truly psychotic narrative of fame, lust, and envy makes it the darkest chart single I can remember since “Every Breath You Take,” and the prettiness of (and genuine longing within) the vocal lines only poison it further. This one can only end in death, and reminds us that opera was pop music, once.

6. Sigur Rós, "Glósóli"

The crescendo brings copious tears every single time.

5. John Zorn, "Makaahaa"

Zorn’s easy listening phase kicked off in earnest with this, and continues through his Dreamers project. I must confess I wasn’t on board with this at first, but after absorbing some of the source material relating to tiki culture (the music, especially) I returned with gusto. Marc Ribot’s guitar-playing is just right, evoking a dreamy surf and the twi-lit beach it embraces.

4. Björk, "Vökuró"

She might as well be singing in Martian, but Bjork’s dispatch from the still alien territory of Icelandic musical tradition honors it, while nailing the universal elements within it.

3. Robert Fripp, "Affirmation: New York"

The spiritual aspects of Fripp’s Soundscapes became more overt this decade, reaching a high point on this track from LOVE CANNOT BEAR. It dovetailed nicely with an emergence of a spiritual aspect in my own life and work. Nothing but love for the mind, heart, and work of a man who continues to inspire and teach.

2. Merz, "Warm Cigarette Room"

The first song I thought of when compiling this list, and the first song I’d heard from the UK’s experimental folk artist. There’s a hazy vibe through this, and a film blanc story of quiet, internalized desperation that I’ve tried, more than once, to find a theatrical equivalent for. It’s an evocative track, certainly, and one that makes me stop whatever I’m doing whenever it comes on.

1. Radiohead, "How To Disappear Completely"

This is the one I keep coming back to, the one where the band just take their time, where Yorke’s dislocation from one world takes him to another one. This is the closing monologue from Jack Arnold’s THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN set to music, and the moment when Yorke hitches his falsetto to the passing music is positively euphoric.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

This...future, part 2 (35-21)

Noticing in compiling this that many of my favorite musicians are older than me. Perhaps I'm out of touch with the music of the younger generation, and yet I'm finding that my heroes are making work that fully engages the going-on-forty me (and the present moment) as much as they thrilled the younger me back in the day. One wonders if we'll be saying as much about The Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, or the fucking Strokes in 2020. Anyway, onward.

35. Peter Hammill, "Friday Afternoon"

That voice, ever brittle in Hammill’s increasing dotage but still so dramatically present. Hammill confronted mortality across the decade, and here gives powerful voice to the pain of the gap left by an acquaintance’s sudden death. In concert, however, the Thin Man remains very much alive.

34. David Byrne/Rufus Wainwright, “Au Fond du Temple Saint

The renowned duet from Bizet’s THE PEARL FISHERS, sung at last by people who don’t sound like hefty tenors but nonetheless bring artistry, skill, and heart to the piece. Dad says “You just want to kiss them both for singing it.” I can’t put it better.

33. Gary Numan, “Walking With Shadows

Among the new wave icon’s less-mentioned talents is a bizarre knack for track twos – his albums usually begin well, leading from a great opener into another track that deepens the mood, opens the album up, etc. On THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE, for example, the soaring instrumental “Airlane” segues nicely into the urban, industrial “Metal”; the title track of BERSERKER gives way to the magnificent funk of “This is New Love.” So does PURE’s opening salvo (a title track carrying a serial killer’s thought on his victim pre-, during-, and post-murder) lead into “Walking With Shadows”, a trip into a coma patient’s mind and an encounter with the spirits lurking within. Widescreen, symphonic darkness, and supernaturally seductive.

32. Andrew W.K., “Party Hard

I crack a smile just thinking about this thing. Not since the Fleshtones has mindless party rock sounded so carefully, artfully cultivated and maximally crafted to bring the most joy to the most people.

31. Fantomas, "The Golem"

The whole DIRECTOR’S CUT album was one of the decade’s more remarkable experiments, but the unstoppable horror juggernaut of this track sticks out by sheer force. Basically a death metal track with intelligible lyrics, delivered with gusto.

30. Depeche Mode, "Ghost"

They’ve become a cleaner band in, um, various ways. This track captures the bright metallic sheen their music has accumulated, but recaptures the suspense, breadth, and powerful textures of their greatest work. It’s as if Alan Wilder missed the band, and sneaked in after hours to tweak a non-album track. This track single-handedly re-interested me in the band, and I’m curious to see what they build next.

29. Mogwai, "Black Spider"

A fine first track and piece of film music. The sequences and chords recur throughout the album and film ZIDANE: A TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY PORTRAIT, but (appropriately, considering the film) it feels like it’s setting up for a drama beyond its immediate scope. This may have been the track that kicked off my infatuation with the vibraphone this decade.

28. The Flaming Lips, “Are You A Hypnotist?

YOSHIMI was a weird touchstone – everyone, it seems, had it, but no two listeners had the same relationship with it. This is a dark horse candidate for the favorite track, but I doubt I’m alone in loving it. A gorgeous film blanc dalliance with a femme fatale, nowhere to hide on a plane without shadows. Blinding brilliance conceals just as well, we find.

27. David Lynch, “The Ghost of Love

“Straaaaaaange…” That familiar Jimmy-Stewart-on-crack voice makes its musical debut here. Ordinarily when a background figure steps to the forefront it’s for direct, emotional address (see Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino” from the film of the same name), but Lynch’s familiar voice makes this song his most alien and evocative sonic offering yet. Proof positive of the man’s musical gifts; everybody seems to forget that he wrote “The Pink Room,” not Badalamenti.

26. Wire, “One Of Us

The departure of Bruce Gilbert (long the greatest source of Wire’s sonic contrariness) gave some of us pause, but the lean trio of Grey, Lewis, and Newman carried on without missing a beat. A gentler single, but matching a pleasant pop hook with fuzzy grit and ethereal electricity. A great opening shot from the new, dare-I-say improved Wire.

25. U2 – “Vertigo

I’m not invested in arguing against their status as the World’s Greatest Rock Band, particularly when their supporting evidence is this grand. An enthusiastic rocker to kick off HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB, “Vertigo” also made for one of the decade’s more powerful cultural moments, as the band pointedly played it “LIVE. LIVE. LIVE” on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE the week after Ashlee Simpson had her lip-synch meltdown. With all of Simpson’s bonehead fans rising to her defense and stating that they actually like it when their idols don’t sing, U2 made a compelling and finishing argument that never should have been necessary.

24. Yoko Kanno, with Origa – “Inner Universe

One of the better anime themes, an ideal opening for each episode of GHOST IN THE SHELL: STAND ALONE COMPLEX. The textures of the Russian and English lyrics add a weird yearning to the quiet emotion of the show’s characters. The organic voice stands for the soul of the machine, finding a beating human heart in the electronica surrounding it.

23. Robert Fripp with Daryl Hall, “Mary”

The five missing Daryl Hall vocal tracks from Fripp’s 1979 EXPOSURE popped up on the disc’s 2006 re-release. All of them show Hall as engaged as Fripp was with the punk, new wave, and other musics emanating from New York in this crucial period. But of these newly-surfaced tracks I keep returning to this one, a tiny gem in the Fripp catalogue with Hall in fantastic, soulful voice (and, per the liner notes, improvising the vocal line as he goes).

22. Robert Palmer, “I Need Your Love So Bad

A gorgeous and heartfelt performance of the Little Willie John track brings Palmer’s powerful and assured blues album DRIVE to a mournful end. Absurdly, Palmer’s life ended soon after at age 54.

21. Radiohead, “House of Cards

Tender but tense. Musically sweet, and at one point this year a badly-needed source of sonic comfort. Lyrically dark, and a mirror of some feelings I’m sadly not sad to possess.