Thursday, March 31, 2011

Let Me In

For the foreseeable future, I will be contributing regular pieces for my friend Sasha James' blog The Final Girl Project. Compared to the more long-winded posts here, these pieces will be more concise, a full review, excluding a brief plot summary placed in its own section, will only run about 400-500 words. For any movie I've not yet reviewed, I plan to cross-post here with a longer article...eventually (I've still not gotten around to supplementing my Jackie Brown review).

However, I'm linking my review for Matt Reeves' unexpectedly wonderful remake of the haunting Let the Right One In, one of my favorite films of the preceding decade, because I don't think I have much to add to it. Much of what I wrote in my review of Tomas Alfredson's original applies to Reeves' film as well, but key differences make them divergent and equally worthy in their own ways. I did not care for Reeves' Cloverfield despite the valid excuses for its paper-thin writing, bludgeoning post-9/11 culture commentary and infuriating direction, but this movie is as far as you can get from that glorified mess. The clear link that bonds the two is, of course, a love of monster movies, but where Cloverfield was about the monster in blatantly symbolic terms, Let Me In connects with the monster, tries to understand it. In the process, it sees the evil in all of us. I still prefer Let the Right One In, but I was pleasantly surprised by this movie and look forward to revisiting it often.

So, please, check out my review at Final Girl Project, and also take a look at Matthew Zoller Seitz's spot-on praise for the best sequence of the film, and one of the best of any 2010 movie.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sucker Punch

Zack Synder's latest tribute to slow motion, Sucker Punch, tries so hard to be cool the director might as well have put sunglasses over the camera lens. Maybe he did, as that would explain why everything looked so dim. At times, I wondered if the movie was actually a minor step forward for 3D, one that did not require the use of special glasses. Of course, showing the film in 3D is the only way Sucker Punch could be any more offensive aesthetically: freed from the nominal requirement of honoring someone else's vision, Snyder can now assert his purported prowess to fully serve his own ends. But when you get closer, you find that his sandbox is filled with dried cat turds.

To be fair to the film, nothing that happens in it can or should be taken seriously. Its first moments open theatrical, revealing production and distribution company logos on curtains that rise to reveal a flat, clearly artificial set that only becomes a fully immersed location once the camera spins around the two-dimensional setup as if leaving drywall and furniture behind it to fill the space. This overt suggestion of the film's harmlessness graciously allows one to set aside issues of plausibility and, far more importantly, those of morality.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's screenplay for Paul reads like the sort of film their characters from Spaced would write. But then, apart from fictional flourishes to make the characters work in a sitcom, Tim Bisley and Mike Watt have always essentially been Pegg and Frost themselves. Some might point to this as a weakness of range, but it takes courage not only to play oneself on-screen but to put a friendship up for critique before the eyes of millions.

And if Paul accomplishes nothing else, it proves that Pegg and Frost share the finest chemistry in contemporary comedy. Married couples do not have the same energy and believability on-screen as these two dorky Englishmen; even when delivering the most obviously set-up punchline, their interplay makes every exchange fresh, natural and, nine times out of 10, hilarious.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Déjà Vu: You've Never Seen Something Quite Like This Before

My review for Tony Scott's masterpiece, Déjà Vu, is now up at Cinelogue. A digital version of Vertigo, Scott's film probes issues of obsession, fractured identity and time travel, always focusing on the emotion over narrative. It represents the apotheosis of Scott's poetic chaos, taking his complicated, arrhythmic preference for the subjective, stream-of-consciousness close-up and incorporating it into the always-corkscrewing nature of time travel. Plot holes abound, but Scott masterfully controls the aspects of the film he wants to stress most. For all the film's talk of terrorism and its open acknowledgment of such travesties as Oklahoma City, 9/11 and Katrina, Déjà Vu is largely apolitical. Instead, it gives us the alternative to the false closure of revenge: the desire to go back and prevent the whole thing from happening, saving hundreds, maybe thousands, and especially that one person you'd give anything to see again.

Please check out my review at Cinelogue.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Red Riding Hood

Walking out of Red Riding Hood, I felt a total emptiness in my soul. I could not rage at the absurdity of the story, the effrontery of its capitalization on the Twilight craze or the stupefying lack of direction, nor could I even mock anything. Cobbled together out of cribbed notes from someone's time-traveling Twilight slashfic, Red Riding Hood splashes its milky shots about in shuddering, arrhythmic spurts. In other words, it's an ejaculation, though to call it one would erroneously give the impression that at least one person involved had fun.

Opening with the same computer-animated "helicopter" shots of chilled, remote landscapes pockmarked with medieval villages and fortifications, Red Riding Hood clearly bears the runny, hastily applied stamp of its incompetent auteur, Catherine Hardwicke, who also helmed the first Twilight. Hardwicke brings the same sleepy tedium to this film, maintaining her sped-up yet monotonously droning montage of trees, snow-covered mountains and streams for the whole of the opening credits, devoting minutes to these repetitive, unengaging shots before finally starting in flashback on a young village girl running around the woods with her friend Peter. The two trap a rabbit in a cage, and the girl eagerly pulls out a knife to cut the bunny's throat, eliciting from myself and my two accompanying friends a simultaneous, involuntary cry of "What?!" before the scene jerks away to a calmer shot and a "Ten Years Later" title appears on-screen over yet more damn shots of more damn trees. It was the Surprise Symphony of crap.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Carpenter's Tools: Escape from L.A.

[Note: This is a stupefyingly belated entry in my John Carpenter retrospective, which I intended to go all the way through his canon but could find scant enthusiasm to continue past In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter's last triumph before a series of mediocre-to-awful films leading up to his present condition. But I am curious to see if I can find redeeming qualities in his late-period work, and finishing his whole filmography will make writing about The Ward that much easier when the time comes. So, at last, I resume my retrospective, some two unnecessary years in the making, with Escape from L.A.]

By 1996, prospects had so soured for John Carpenter that he was reduced to making the sequel to one of his finest features, Escape from New York. Naturally, after the gradual "Disney terraforming" of New York that started in the '90s, the Big Apple no longer held the same reputation it did at the start of the '80s when one suspected that Carpenter did not even need to build sets to film in the urban decay he portrayed. In the mid-90s, Los Angeles, home of uncontrollable gang crime and pollution, became the place to be for hellish futuristic cities. Demolition Man presented an L.A. consumed in flames before an ultra-liberal thought police took over and bleached the place, and Escape from L.A. presents a Los Angeles separated from the mainland by a massive earthquake, leading to a theocratic takeover that condemns L.A. Island to the mythic realm of Sodom and Gomorrah. Where neo-hippie pacifism babied up the city in Stallone's action vehicle, Carpenter's film is the last reflection of his disgust with modern conservatism and its incorporation of the religious right into its framework. Los Angeles, it seems, can never win.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Six: Hades

Sometimes, despite my best effort to get as close a reading as possible, I find myself zipping through a book, so caught up in its narrative and/or style that I find myself so engrossed that I either lose fine detail for barreling through the story or, and this is really weird, I focus so intently on the construction that I sidestep the narrative entirely. (Austen does this to me a lot; I'll be both marveling and laughing at the way she sets up a joke and then go, "Wait, where did Darcy come from? Oh right, this was mentioned in the last three pages I blew through because I wanted to get to the punchline.)

The Hades chapter of Ulysses is the first time I can recall speeding up my reading simply because the thought of spending any more time in its hellish grip. Homer's stanzas in Hades do not communicate actual suffering: Odysseus, wisely wishing not to descend into the realm and further test his sour relationship with the gods, calls up the shades of heroes and relatives to meet him. Tears are shed and horrors related, but so much of it feels like a reunion, a sad one perhaps, but still a meeting of old friends and loved ones. Besides, the dead barge into Odysseus' life so much that one starts to feel as if he really is at a family reunion with "Uncle Agamemnon" reminding him that Odysseus' wife is probably cheating on him or whatever because his wife did. Meanwhile Odysseus probably still smells like ambrosia from hanging with Calypso for seven years.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Five: The Lotus Eaters

Well, dear readers, we move from the waste management system to the playground. Yes, where the digestive system formed the anatomical reference of the Calypso chapter, Joyce now swivels round the pelvis to focus on the genitals. Funny, considering that the organs would actually correspond with their Odyssey counterparts better if swapped, the the kidney for the Lotus Eaters and the genitalia for Calypso.

The Calypso episode of Homer's epic reset the narrative to introduce Odysseus, who'd spent seven years as the lover of the demigod Calypso (meanwhile Penelope hasn't stopped crying for 20 years; women through the ages have probably, and so rightly, referred to this as "a crock of shit"). Joyce's Leopold does not set out from his lover to return to his loyal wife. Rather, he fears her infidelity but does not say anything, too nervous to broach the subject. Already, the link between cunning, strong Odysseus and meek Bloom seems ironic. Yet both have the power of observation, though where Odysseus uses his ability to read people and situations to serve him well, Bloom still cannot apply his sensual connection to the world to any change. He's more active than Stephen Dedalus but just as unable to get where he wants with his more direct approach to life.

Ulysses, Chapter Four: Calypso

Each chapter of Ulysses comes with its own corresponding color for the imagery, and the "Calypso" episode filters its descriptions through orange. A hue with deep cultural ties to Ireland, orange is a somewhat controversial choice for Joyce. For, in Ireland, orange represents protestantism and unionism. In Joyce's time, it symbolized the conservative sect within Irish society demanding to remain under the crown. Today, it reminds everyone of the horrifying sectarian violence that made Ireland and North Ireland a war zone for the latter half of the 20th century. By this stage in the book, or even just this stage in Joyce's career, it must be taken for granted that the writer knows exactly what he is doing, and by incorporating orange into his descriptions he highlights a rift in the book.

Yet the color scheme for this chapter could just as easily been black and white, which Joyce references several times (the cat, the various sausages of the butcher shop). It makes sense, for the Calypso chapter announces a sharp break from the preceding chapters, one that not only shifts focus to an entirely new character but makes that character markedly different from Stephen Dedalus.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Darjeeling Limited (& Hotel Chevalier)

In his video essay for the film, critic Matt Zoller Seitz calls The Darjeeling Limited "Wes Anderson's 2001." It is an apt description: like Kubrick's space odyssey, Anderson's spiritual journey not only displays but summarizes all his themes, styles and motifs. Furthermore, much of Anderson's movie visually recollects Kubrick's magnum opus, particularly in its use of wide-lens framing of confined areas, epic composition that makes characters small and meaningless within the sets than contain them. However, that space is a double-edged sword, as the lens is so wide that it captures the edges of the sets: in pulling back to minimize the power of the individual, the camera also sets down the dimensions of the rooms and corridors. These areas are big enough to dwarf a person, yet because we can see their ends, we know they cannot support free-roaming human life.

All of Anderson's films operate in this mode, of course, but this is the first one to think of the world outside luxurious but lived-in hotel rooms and train cabins. The compartmentalized, ultra-detailed set design that makes all of his films resemble immaculate dollhouses is suddenly thrown against the real world. What's more, it's a world opposite to his Western, privileged settings. The Darjeeling Limited, and its short-film prologue, Hotel Chevalier, represent Anderson's first attempt to take his theatrical and literary characters off the stage and page and into something grander. Unsurprisingly, where previous films owed stylistic ties to theatre (Rushmore) and literature (The Royal Tenenbaums), The Darjeeling Limited must directly invoke the cinema, and not in the "movie about movies" manner of The Life Aquatic.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Three: Proteus

Oh, how quickly I run into trouble with Ulysses. Already delayed an unforgivable amount of time by piled-up schoolwork, I returned to the "Proteus" episode ready and rarin' to go, only to find that the book I could slip into with surprising ease and live inside suddenly warped into a phantasmagorical mash-up of sound and image that read like the novelization of a Godard film. All I could think was "No, no, no. Not this early. Please tell me I'm not going to be confused this early. I'm not even out of the Telemachia yet!" (#whitepeopleproblems)

Even the notes included for the chapter clearly speculate where earlier they offered confident pointers for the uninitiated, helpful clues to guide us through Joyce's Dublin. But when I looked at the vague summary given for the Proteus chapter, I saw a question mark employed. Damn, even the scholars had to guess.

Then, I went and looked at the notes of the only Joyce expert I know -- though she might object to that term; and maybe there can never be an expert on such a man. Well, save perhaps Richard Ellmann (oh my God, Jake, focus) -- Sheila O'Malley. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to read the book, Sheila advised me to go with its flow, something I could do with the first two chapters but failed to here, doubling back to the annotations time and time again to make heads or tails of passages. When I looked up her post on this chapter, I saw that line again, and also a helpful tip that Stephen broke his glasses (something apparently mentioned only once and at a later time). With that in mind, I went back and just read through, not even looking up the translations. To my delight, it worked much better.

Charles Mingus — Cornell 1964

Long-lost jazz recordings pique my interest as much as the tease of the most infamous lost films. The frequent airing of Miles Davis' vault brings as much valuable material to me as the discovery of the lost footage in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I would welcome a concert from Thelonious Monk with the same joy as I would those precious excised minutes from The Magnificent Ambersons. Imagine my delight, then, when Sue Mingus, Charles Mingus' widow, discovered tapes of what might have been her husband's finest band at the top of their powers. Remastered and released in full, Cornell 1964 blows previous Blue Note discoveries out of the water, including the rousing but incomplete show of John Coltrane teaming with Thelonious Monk.

Mingus' mid-'60s sextet is the source of as many live recordings as Miles' second quintet or Coltrane's quartet, both of which operated around the same time that Mingus collected his group to tour Europe. Before leaving, however, Mingus held an impromptu concert at Cornell University, a gig so secretive and spontaneous only those who were there knew about it. An ostensible warm-up gig -- the group would play their noted Town Hall concert less than three weeks later and would then depart for the much-bootlegged European tour -- the Cornell gig now stands as perhaps the definitive document of the sextet's short-lived existence.

Steven Spielberg: Schindler's List

Perhaps the greatest argument for the sincerity and dedication Steven Spielberg put into Schindler's List is how radical a departure it was for the artist. Spielberg's Holocaust drama was by no means his first serious drama, but it is the first to be largely void of his more flamboyant framing and movement. Spielberg had previously shown a keen ability to cut and frame in such a way as to maximize audience impact, but here he needed them to do more than just be entertained or sympathize with characters. Gravity and respect are required here, and Spielberg wrestles with crafting a working mainstream film without his usual stylistic élan.

Ingeniously, he finds ways to maintain his usual level of craftsmanship while employing unfamiliar techniques. Schindler's List is more static than any of Spielberg's other works, and the camera movement that feels so liberating in his other movies connotes dread here. Whenever the camera starts to track, practically nothing good will come of it, and one fears the movement because it will only display more atrocity, more terror.

Fundamentally, the movie is an indirect conflict between two principal characters, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) and Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), and Spielberg structures much of the movie as a call and response between them. Perhaps it speaks to the director's limitations that he condenses the Holocaust to a more conventional dramatic structure, but I never really believed the film was "about" the Holocaust anyway. Instead, it concerns the human reaction of those mired in it, not seeking to explicate the motives or moral justifications of the greatest of human failings but demonstrating how some reacted to it. In the case of Goeth, it brought out the worst; for Schindler, the best.

Spielberg introduces the two, though far apart, in similar manners. He does not show them directly, letting us see another person speaking to them until the camera finally reels around to present them. We first see Schindler through close-ups of his material effects, pristine formal wear and wads of cash casually crammed all over the place. We then see an extreme close-up of the man placing a Nazi pin on his business suit, suggesting that the fascist regime is something he wears over his real identity as a money-maker and never thinks twice about. Sure enough, when he arrives at a restaurant to meet with the head of the SS in Kraków, Scherner (Andrzej Seweryn), Schindler flashes that cash to make himself known: he has come to Poland to profit from the war, and getting approval for his business ventures will require greasing some wheels, preferably with Hennessy cognac or Dom Perignon. Sure enough, he soon has a factory up and running, which he populates with Jewish workers because they cost less than anyone else.

When Goeth appears, however, he is in the opposite shape as proud, hale Schindler, hunched over with a handkerchief ever-present at his face as he sniffles. Bent over, Fiennes looks even less impressive than the lumbering Neeson. Where Schindler's initial dealings with Jews display only his money-hungry scheming, Goeth almost seems sympathetic to the Jews. He looks tenderly upon a shivering woman, Helen Hirsch, and his sickly frame makes him pitiable. Then, a Jewish engineer tells him she needs to re-pour the foundations, he calmly has her shot for delaying proceedings, even as he agrees with her assessment and orders his men to fix the problem after having her executed. In an instant, Goeth is revealed to be a tyrant, a man who has internalized the anti-Semitic preachings of the party because it feeds into his desire for power.

His entrance demonstrates how far Schindler has progressed without any outward signs of a change of heart. At the start of the film, Oskar decides to use Jewish labor because it costs less than paying Poles. Furthermore, Jewish wages go to the SS, which allows Schindler to perhaps save a bit of bribe money by sending one monthly payment out instead of two. He tells his accountant, Stern (Ben Kingsley), to round up some Jews whose money is about to be seized anyway to invest in his factory in exchange for the pots and pans his enamel-work factory will produce. "Money is still money," says one Jewish man in disbelief of the insult of this offer. "No it is not," Schindler calmly replies. "That is why we are here." As Stern starts to use the factory to house the intellectual and infirm from harm, Schindler starts to wonder why such under-qualified people work for him. When a one-armed man, who earlier thanked a disinterested Schindler profusely for saving him, gets shot callously by German soldiers for sport, Oskar's complaints to the commander communicate only his annoyance at having to train a new worker.

But Goeth brings with him the full force of antisemitic terror, and not even Schindler can blind himself to his atrocity. In the film's defining setpiece, Goeth leads troops through the Krakow ghetto, killing all who resist or cannot leave and shipping the rest to camps. On a hilltop outside of town, Schindler and his wife watch, and the look on Oskar's face shows the man unable to hold back the fleeting hints of compassion in his unwillingness to expose Stern's account manipulations and his attempts to keep his workers alive.

How could anyone not be moved while watching such sights? Nazis yank suitcases out of the hands of fleeing Jews, pouring out contents into massive piles of loot as more and more corpses fall around the stacks of clothes. The Krakow sequence shows Spielberg at the height of his formalist powers, intricate tracking shots capturing the horror in ethereal detail, highlighting how otherworldly this atrocity is but adding enough grisly close-ups to tie that detached disgust to raw, real feeling. Few escape the pillage: one of Schindler's Jews stops and clears suitcases from the road when Goeth and his men come upon him, avoiding death. A young German boy tasked with alerting soldiers to any strays comes across an old woman but recognizes her as a friend's mom and hides her. These moments provide not relief but terrifying moments of suspense; the slow, relieved exhale never comes because too much carnage continues around these glimpses of fortune to make them relaxing.

The event transforms Oskar, who taps into his latent humanism and resolves to protect those under his stead. Oskar butters up Goeth just as he does every other authority figure, but by this point he displays a care for his employees. He maintains his concern extends only to protecting himself from the cost of training new workers, that by killing his Jews or sending them to camps. Goeth argues Schindler's points but finally agrees, on the condition Oskar pay a bribe for each worker. Schindler, once so obsessed with money, goes deep into debt to protect his people.

Goeth, otherwise an embodiment of merciless antisemitism, accepts his friend's money, revealing the true motivators among men even during these times. Money trumps ingrained social brainwashing, even direct orders of Herr Hitler. Sex, too, clouds the mind. Both Schindler and Goeth take Jewish mistresses, but where Schindler freely enjoys the perks of wealth, Goeth wrestles viciously with his belief system and his clear affection for Helena (Embeth Davidtz), who brings out a repugnant sexual aggression in the monster. When Goeth looks upon her, the longing in Fiennes' eyes brings out the humanity in this devil. He thinks of life with her, even hinting to Oskar that he'd like to take her back to Vienna. But she is still a Jew, and Amon's crisis finds its outlet in blaming Helena for tempting him. Highlighting Goeth's turmoil over his antisemitism and Oskar's increasing fondness for his Jewish workers is a sequence juxtaposing Goeth sadistically beating a stripped-down Helena in a wine cellar with Schindler celebrating his birthday by enjoying too lingering a kiss with a Jewish woman in his factory. (In a moment of grim irony, Schindler goes to jail for this offense while Goeth does not even face questions for his behavior, yet Goeth successfully pressures his superiors to release his friend.)

Much of Schindler's List carries this mordant gallows humor, perhaps a reason for some of the backlash that eventually assailed the film's reputation. One scene shows a rabbi in Schindler's factory caught out slacking on the job by Goeth himself, who drags the man outside for swift execution. Amon forces the man to his knees, pulls out a Lüger, presses it to the man's skull The gun jams. Goeth tries again, and nothing. At last, he becomes so enraged he beats the rabbi with the butt of the pistol and leaves in a huff with the man alive. Elsewhere, he succeeds in murdering without compunction, and his lazy Sunday sniping of stray Jews in the camp from his villa's balcony takes on an absurdist element.

Yet Spielberg never plays up this repellent, twisted brand of comedy, instead using it to achieve an emotional verisimilitude. I distrust any film depicting atrocity that omits those air-sucking inverse laughs that offer just enough energy to keep people moving in the face of death. Despite the verité style of some handheld shots, Schindler's List does not attempt to present its images as documentary truth. The director's tracking shots are more graceful than they'd ever been, and his use of constant juxtaposition removes the camera from fully capturing How It Really Was. Instead, Spielberg seeks a spiritual truth, and that humor is but one way in which he makes the film feel real.

Bolstering the film further is a sense of moral complexity previously unseen in Spielberg's filmography save for Empire of the Sun (which actually handled it with more subtlety). We meet Schindler as a villain, someone who gleefully exploits the Jews' situation for personal gain and reacts to their gratitude as if he just realized he'd stepped in dog muck. Though he does not subscribe to Nazi ideology, he is more than willing to go along with it if he can make a buck or two. Goeth, on the other hand, enters the film almost sympathetically, his weak, distended frame -- Fiennes made a fascinating choice to lean his thin stomach out until it formed a paunch, making Goeth misshapen -- hinting at a softer, bookish soul. Then we see him morph into a tyrant, but even then Spielberg does not cheapen him with two-dimensional atrocity. His Goeth struggles as much, if not more, with his conscience as Schindler. The aforementioned tryst with Helena adds layers to a man most would be happy to relegate to the pile of History's Greatest Monsters (and not at all without reason), and it demonstrates a maturity on Spielberg's part willfully ignored by those who tore the film apart after its release.

No film in Spielberg's corpus is as fiercely debated as Schindler's List, because none of his other films carries such hefty stakes. Less than two decades after its release, Spielberg's Holocaust drama has become the focal point for nearly any discussion about the propriety of Hollywood making large-scale films about real human tragedies. To this day, contentious arguments arise over the nature to which Spielberg "glamorizes" the Holocaust, which is not to say that he makes it appealing but that he exploits the horror of the event to mine audience reaction.

But let us consider a few of the most debated moments of the film. In the most infamous sequence, the train carrying all the women and children from Schindler's factory in Krakow gets rerouted from his new munitions factory to nearby Auschwitz. When they arrive, guards strip them and send them into showers, where the women shriek in fear of expected death. The terror is unlike anything I've ever felt during a movie, and I continue to seize up at the scene. Then, water flows from the outlets, and the exploding wave of relief and restarting hearts rolls right out of the frame into the theater or living room.

Some accuse Spielberg of manipulating an audience with this moment, but I can never agree. Is any emotion beyond reverent disgust inappropriate? Is it wrong to try to capture what it must have felt like in those seconds of pure fear? Frankly, the only way I can see Spielberg honoring the solemn tone of this kind of film would be to have actually sent those women to their deaths as he lingered outside the chamber, but which of these two scenarios sounds crueler to you? Besides, Spielberg does give the audience a taste of the latter when the women emerge from the showers hugging and crying in joy as, behind them, a single file of Jews enter another chamber that does not hold water in its pipes, and the camera tilts up to show black ash billowing from the building.

At the other end of the supposed emotional manipulation spectrum are the tear-jerking moments. At the end of the film, Schindler, nearly broke but with just enough money to escape the country in advance of the Red Army's breach of the camp and the inevitable shooting first and asking later, stands with his workers gathered around him. More than 1,000 men, women and children assemble, capable of doing so because Schindler and Stern saved their lives. But instead of feeling proud or relieved, Schindler breaks down and sobs, wracked with guilt for the millions he couldn't help. He rips off what trinkets remain his and wonders how many lives he could have saved with each. Even his lapel pin might have worked as a bribe to save one more person. Perhaps it's a maudlin moment, but who could feel satisfied in this situation. Spielberg's film might show the goodness of humanity even in its darkest hour, but he is not so childish as to think one man's actions, despite the Hebrew proverb Stern recites to him ("He who saves one life saves the world entire"), can undo all the pain. But for those he saved, Schindler truly did save their whole world.

I find it somewhat amusing that scenes such as the one just mentioned provide ammunition for the film's detractors. Spielberg, who founded the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education) with some of the profits of the film and continues to finance that foundation, has been accused far more often of exploitation and profiteering than Claude Lanzmann, maker of the astonishing, vital and deliberately non-conclusive documentary Shoah.

That film is deservedly lauded, but it is also held up as the answer to Schindler's List by some critics who fail to acknowledge that the methods Lanzmann used to elicit information from both the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust breached nearly every ethical boundary in the book. He broke the rules not for money but to get the story, but do people really think Spielberg just wanted the cash or a gold-plated statuette? Spielberg wanted a story as much as Lanzmann did, and I find faults and quibbles with Spielberg's otherwise admirable work just as I do Shoah.

This is not to say that I feel every decision Spielberg makes is the right one, or even that he completely honors the subject matter. He paints Schindler's wife, Emilie, into the background, bringing her out only so Oskar can repent for having so many mistresses. According to the Schindler Jews, Emilie was as good a person as her husband, if not better. Even the wallflower cinematic version of her would had to have noticed all the odds and ends slowly disappearing from her house or the debt her husband amassed. When she appears at the end to stand over her husband's breakdown, her disjointed connection to the story stands out in horrible clarity. She should be sharing in that moment, not made to be a spectator.

Every time I watch Schindler's List I feel like I should resent it, if only because of the pressure to do so for its historical inaccuracies or its manipulative moments. But all films must smudge the ink somewhere (even most documentaries cannot get the whole picture), and if Schindler's List is to be considered manipulative, could that be because any imagery of the Holocaust will, must, grab us if we are good-hearted and humane people? The film sears in my memory, and I routinely think about certain aspects: that eerie smile on Fiennes' face, with its lack of gaps but inexplicable space between each tooth that gives every incisor or molar its own dangerous glint; Helena standing in the disorienting center of frame as she reflects upon her doomed life, well aware that Goeth will one day get over his fleeting attraction and put a bullet through her head; Schindler shouting "They're MINE" when Goeth casually speaks of taking his Jews for slaughter, a moment of passion his friend does not fully comprehend.

Schindler's List is not the first film to showcase Spielberg's aesthetic mastery within the confines of more serious-minded narrative ambition, but where The Color Purple used too many tricks to tell its story and Empire of the Sun eased up on the director's visual skills for its cynical but affecting humanism, Schindler's List finds the balance. Spielberg manages to get away with something as stylized as the Krakow raid, which features a scene of an SS officer playing Mozart on a piano in one of the ghetto apartments as muzzle flashes and machine gun ratatats serve as his audiovisual metronome, because he never lets the moment run off the dramatic weight. It may not hit me quite as profoundly as Empire of the Sun and its unique approach to and perspective of war cinema, but that nagging feeling that tugs at me every time I sit down to watch this film evaporates as I experience it. I would never presume to say the film captures even a fraction of the Holocaust; it is instead what Stanley Kubrick labeled it, not a film about six million who died but 1,000 who lived. It is worth telling the good stories with the bad; they deepen our understanding of mankind's darkest hour.

Steven Spielberg: Jurassic Park

At five stages in his career, Steven Spielberg has directed two films in the same year. In each case, both are targeted at a large crowd -- whenever is a Spielberg feature not? -- but one clearly exists to be a massive crowd-pleaser while the other, however grand in scope, is more personal. Usually, the films also offset each other, tackling some unifying aspect from different angles. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade showed Spielberg setting his father themes to rest for awhile, and, appropriately, the more low-key Always dealt with the theme of letting go. Nearly two decades later, War of the Worlds sought to capture the pandemonium of being trapped in the sensory overload of a sudden assault, while Munich dealt with those 9/11-inspired themes with a more analytical oversight.

The link between Jurassic Park and Schindler's List is not immediately as clear, for reasons one can only hope are obvious. Yet the adaptation of a Michael Crichton thriller about recreated dinosaurs and a biopic of a key symbolic figure of the Holocaust do have one element in common: both deal with the arrogance and tyranny of mankind. Schindler's List surveys our capacity for evil against each other; Jurassic Park demonstrates man's constant exploitation of the Earth.

Of course, the film is also, first and foremost, a thriller, and it demonstrates that Spielberg lost not an ounce of his ability to terrify in the two decades separating this film from Jaws. The opening scene sets the mind a-reel: a giant cage being shoved against a gate as men who look like mere foremen carry guns and tasers looking uneasy. Some kind of beast is inside the lumbering metal box, and when a worker lifts a gate for transfer, the unseen creature charges, knocking back the cage and sending the poor man plummeting into the the animal's mouth. The ensuing frenzy bewilders: what is in that cage? How can it move so fast yet be powerful enough to toss a large man around like a rag doll? The suspense still works years later, after we all know what's in that cage and, furthermore, that the tossing around is honestly ridiculous and more a blatant nod to the woman being whipped to and fro in the water. Spielberg, master of effects, makes them felt even in a scene where the dinosaurs are not visible.

Where Jurassic Park breaks from Jaws, however, is in the weakness of the actual human beings in front of the camera. Technical delays permitted constant rewrites of the Jaws script into one of the best screenplays of all time, a mainstream blockbuster with fully realized characters with motives and pathos. Everyone in Jurassic Park now looks less fluid than the 20-year-old computer animation, which has held up astonishingly well. Indeed, the dinosaur animation of this film, save for a few iffy spots generally involving too many creatures on-screen, looks better than a great deal of current work.

But those damn characters. The issue is evident immediately: in the badlands of Montana, paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) dig up a velociraptor fossil as a group of tourists inexplicably hangs around the site. Well, I assume they're tourists; they cannot be dedicated paleontology buffs, as Grant gets into argument with a child unimpressed by the raptor and terrifies him into respecting a creature that went extinct 71 millions years ago. It's an absurd scene, serving to introduce these characters via their half-written traits that substitute for actual humanity: Alan hates kids and computers, Ellie has the smarts to match him but also serves as the mediator between Grant and the rest of humanity. Then, a Scottish version of a leprechaun arrives announcing himself as Mr. Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the beneficiary of Grant's dig. Hammond exudes "kooky eccentric billionaire," and he insists the two come out to a theme park he's devising. Along the way, they meet Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a mathematician who appears to have taken fashion cues from Miles Davis' '80s wardrobe.

But once they arrive on the Latin American island and a jeep pulls into a clearing, for one brief moment the turgid anti-momentum of the film's plot setup gives way to one of the most magical moments of Spielberg's canon, one that takes me right back to a childhood of obsessing over dinosaurs and the sense of complete wonder and awe this movie instilled in me at age 5. That brilliantly laid out sequence of the dinosaurs revealed first through gentle but forceful surround sound whoomps, then the facial reactions of stunned characters and finally the glorious shot of a brachiosaurus as the music swells. In that instant, nothing else matters, and one sympathizes with Grant going weak at the knees.

More than any modern director, Spielberg understands the power of cinema as spectacle. Spectacle does not automatically connote simplicity, and the power to please millions should not be written off as proof of hackdom. Just because Jay Leno builds his audience by diluting his once caustic brand of verbal peroxide with water doesn't mean everyone who become a household name sold his soul. Look at how perfectly Spielberg reaches for the audience's collective jaw and gently pulls it down; this movie began with suspense and fear, gave way to stiff narrative exercises, and then it morphed into this?

The director finds his groove here, using the next scenes, all of which build as much plot as the scenes leading to the arrival at Isla Nublar yet feel lighter, more engaging. A dated but fun segment answering the questions prompted by the sight of a dinosaur walking around -- chief of which being, "How the hell did this happen?!" -- and also tempers the fantastical element of the preceding reveal with genuinely clever pseudo-science from novelist Michael Crichton. Though his explanation is not only impossible but far-fetched even if one were to accept some degree of plausibility, the idea that scientists could get the DNA needed to clone dinosaurs from the drunken blood preserved in fossilized mosquitoes beats the hell out of any previous reason given in dino films for the presence of terrible lizards.

Crichton's setup also allows for explorations of the morality of genetic engineering in a time where scientific breakthroughs made work in the field possible -- two years after Jurassic Park, scientists cloned Dolly the sheep. Hammond expects to be worshiped by his assembled experts, but instead they all express reservations. Malcolm, who specializes in chaos theory, outright lambastes the park and notes that all the genetic safeguards do not guarantee perfection and cryptically forewarns, "Life finds a way." Grant and Sattler note the variables and unseen dangers as well, but they agree to go on a tour of the place. By this point, however, Spielberg has subtly meshed the excitement of the film's trademark scene with the earlier suspense, gracefully intertwining curiosity and terror as the genetic talk deepens.

The tour itself epitomizes the inability to manufacture life to be entertainment. The scientists might be controlling breeding by restricting gender to female, they might even orchestrate a fail-safe protein deficiency in case a creature gets off the island, but they can't make the dinosaurs show up at the edge of the fence in each paddock waiting to dazzle the audience, which by now includes Hammond's tween grandkids, the bookish, dino-loving Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and the hacker tomboy Alex (Ariana Richards). The group does not see the first dinosaur, nor the second. When they all finally come across one, it's a sick triceratops that can only be seen when Ellie spots it and gets out of the automated electric car and everyone follows suit.

Meanwhile, the head programmer of the park's advanced computer system prepares to betray his boss. Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) sits at his computer bank surrounded by food wrappers and cola cans, his keyboard likely sticky with grease. Swimming in debt despite being a key staff of the park, Nedry blames Hammond for not paying him even more and decides to sell embryos to a rival genetic engineering firm. If life can be manufactured, life has a price. Not only does cloning raise moral issues of playing God, it turns life into a commodity, a copyright other businesses try to steal.

Looking to cover his tracks, Nedry hacks his own system to shut down all the security features of the park so he can escape. In the process, however, he turns off all the electric fences, letting the dinosaurs get out. At last, the plot thickens, though it still has the viscosity hot sauce. For the rest of the movie, the humans run, hide and run some more from unleashed dinosaurs, either trembling at the onslaught of a T-Rex or waiting for an ambush by the smaller but smarter raptors.

Both predators offer more potential for Spielberg's thriller. The T-Rex, gargantuan, deafening and capable of crushing a whole man in one bite, makes even the massive shark seem simple in comparison. The director announces it by the motif of a soft thud deep in the background and a quiver of water in a puddle or glass, the calm before the storm. Whenever that massive head juts into view, the panic overwhelms. The velocirpators work in an opposite fashion. There is no warning, no trick to contain them. The T-Rex gives itself enough time to let its victims froth in terror; the raptor just strikes. Small, fast and resourceful, the raptors come out to play whenever a human might find itself in an area where it need not fear the tyrannosaur, ensuring that no place in the park is truly safe.

The "baddie" dinosaurs, like the rest of the creatures, are the collective result of four effects masters working in tandem: Stan Winston with his animatronics, Phil Tippet's go-motion, supervisor Michael Lantieri and digital animator Dennis Muren. Though one can tell when a puppet is being used and when the computer animation is on-screen (typically the animatronics are used for close-ups and direct contact with characters while the CGI dinos appear in long shot), the effects work borders on the seamless. Jurassic Park, a film about the potential side effects of technological growth, ironically set off a technical revolution in the cinema, introducing a breakthrough in storytelling potential that almost immediately morphed into a way to make big, silly effects on the cheap. How many movies today survive solely on CGI that dazzles an audience instead of working fluidly in a story? Why, the same is true of Jurassic Park itself.

In fairness, the film does have some clever writing. In smoothing out Crichton's technical writing and heavy plot, David Koepp made the wise decision to alter the characterization of Hammond, who in the novel was a conniving old huckster who abandoned pharmaceutical research for genetic engineering because, despite the gouging policies of Big Pharm, he could not charged as he pleased for medicine. The novel's Hammond would agree with the lawyer here (weakened into a thin stereotype for the movie) that he could charge tens of thousands for a single ticket. Koepp helps drive the point about the dangers of genetic engineering by casting Hammond as a kindly old benefactor who wants, Walt Disney-style, to see smiles on the faces of all the world's children. However, like Disney, Hammond has a hard ambition that cannot be hidden, not even behind that avuncular face, and he allows himself to overlook tiny flaws until they escalate into massive problems.

Elsewhere, however, the characters thin, from the lawyer to Alan, who loved children in the book because of their love of dinosaurs but hates them here so he can fit into Spielberg's running theme of emotionally distant father figures and to set up the ostensibly emotional plot of Grant learning to care for Hammond's grandchildren out in the park. Perhaps if Neill committed, he could make the character work, but he appears to have recognized that the dinosaurs would be the main attraction and coasts through the movie with his Indiana Jones-knockoff hat (and profession, come to think of it) while Laura Dern makes for the world's unlikeliest scream queen as she shrieks and swears in terror for the whole of her time on the island. She has a scene late in the film with Hammond in which she must deliver one of the most eye-rolling "HERE IS THE MESSAGE" speeches ever, and she over-emotes so blatantly it's hard not to laugh when she unhelpfully adds, "People are dying out there!" Only Goldblum is remotely animated, but he spends so much time dancing around tossing out quips that he only manages to cover up for the fact that Malcolm has no actual character.

There's also the issue of some sloppy editing. When the guests get out to see the triceratops, it's barely cloudy outside. After about an hour, a hurricane has blown in and lightning arcs the sky. Not 20 minutes later, it's pitch-black and raining in monsoon quantities, just so Nedry's escape can be all the more confusing and doomed. Alan shoots at raptors with a shotgun, but the glass he shoots shows bullet holes, not shot damage. The clearest example is, of course, the tyrannosaur paddock, which is ground level at the start and suddenly a 30-ft. gulf when the T-Rex busts out and shoves a car into its pen. Everything exists for maximum entertainment, but the lack of even basic continuity at times shows an amateurism that Spielberg never previously allowed in his immaculate work.

I will forgive a film thin characters and predictable plotting if it is told well visually -- it is a visual medium, after all. But Spielberg seems to have dialed back his style to make the computer animation easier for his staff as they felt their way around their own innovation, and Jurassic Park suffers most not from its characters but from Spielberg letting off the gas. Jaws worked so well as a thriller because the director was in control of everything. Here, he must rely on others to put stuff into his frame after he shoots, and he appears out of his element. Of course, he was charting new territory and the degree to which he incorporated CGI meant he had to be the one to brave these unknown waters, but there is an unease with digital animation in this film that Spielberg would only later overcome.

And yet, the film does achieve that maximum entertainment. Jurassic Park may sacrifice character, coherence, even style to grab the audience, but I cannot deny I still thrill at that brachiosaur, still sit on edge when Dern goes into that raptor-ridden bunker and still feel uplifted by John Williams' main theme, one of his finest compositions. Even so, like Hook, Jurassic Park can no longer make me ignore glaring issues for the sake of nostalgia. Its conservatism is particularly tedious: the film emphasizes the need for a nuclear family through Grant's storyline with the kids (who, frankly, are so annoying I wouldn't mind if they made toothpicks for the T-Rex), and it makes a justifiable yet overbearing critique of the unchecked progress of science. Hell, it even has a minor go at electric cars for being silly and reliant upon outside factors that limit our freedom.

Looking back, it seems the perfect blockbuster for the Clinton era, an attempt to add heart back to the blockbuster after the soulless '80s (even Spielberg used the decade to make the largely self-serving Indiana Jones films), but that do-good liberalism ties to old-school conservative values. In that sense, one must credit Universal president Sid Sheinberg insisted Spielberg make this film before Schindler's List: Spielberg, the ultimate Hollywood liberal, had to cleanse his palette with this film before moving totally into the humanism of his next feature. Taken with Schindler's List, Jurassic Park cements the director's domination of all aspects of mainstream American cinema, and for all the film's flaws, it still shows a man capable of pleasing hundreds of millions with the ease of flicking a light switch. Nostalgia be damned: when the film clicks, it transcends its weaknesses, even if but for one blessed instant. Sometimes, that's all it takes.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Television — Marquee Moon

For those in the know, Tom Verlaine is the best alt.guitar soundsmith this side of Robert Quine, though those not in the know would be even less aware of ol' Quine. Picking up where Robert Fripp left off, Verlaine added sinewy, raw energy to Fripp's piercing laser lines. Amazingly, he took this style to CBGB in time for the punk explosion there and somehow stayed on the stage. He even fired the only punk among his group of actually competent musicians, Richard Hell. And yet, Television thrived during its brief lifespan, releasing just two albums and building a decades-long influence with only one of them.

Marquee Moon does not remotely sound like anything that came out of out CBGBs, including the work of Talking Heads. Mislabeled as proto-new-wave by those struggling to find some genre for the wild album, Marquee Moon is the greatest rock guitar record. to rest just outside the spotlight, neither obscure nor mainstream. It's too advanced and esoteric to ever fly as quickly to the lips of any sputtering wannabe axe-slinger as Are You Experienced? or Machine Head, but it's also too damn appealing and transporting to be ignored altogether.

By the time Verlaine made Marquee Moon, he ironed out all the wrinkles with Television, canning Hell (a move for the best for both of them), solidifying his interplay with rhythm guitarist Richard Lloyd and hammering out his poetry. Yes, his poetry. That Verlaine took his stage name from the French symbolist poet was the first indication he might not jel with the ethos and style of the Ramones. Verlaine didn't even mesh with Hell or Patti Smith, who both traded in a more gritty, streetwise brand of poetry. For where Smith and Hell used harsh rock as a backdrop for socially conscious and rebellious lyrics, Verlaine used lyrics to weave in and out of the music, as if instead of imagery and meaning Verlaine obsessed over meter.

From the opening strains of "See No Evil," his approach can be vividly heard. Vocals bend and scatter with guitar lines, chugga-chugga rhythms fall apart into peeled-off notes at mid-tempo, as if someone took a shredder, slowed him down, then placed him over a crunchy post-punk riff to see if anyone would notice. When everything snaps together for the chorus shout of "I see/I see no/EVAHLLLLLLLL" the effect is, if anything, more disorienting than when the band all seemed to be doing their own thing. What might have passed for a more accomplished brand of slop from a half-talented punk group suddenly reveals itself to be a carefully modulated effort by supremely gifted and practiced musicians.

Just as you get a handle on this, the band launches into "Venus," a warped ode with a call-and-response chorus that makes the shaking yelp of the previous track seem tame. Lilting guitar lines always sound as if leading to a solo until it becomes clear Verlaine has been soloing the entire time over his plaintive lyrics. When the backups shout "Huh?!" one sympathizes. "Friction" brings Lloyd into the fore with Verlaine, trading intervallic licks and crunching effects as Fred Smith's bass and Billy Ficca's drums hold down some semblance of a beat. Ficca and Smith are superb in their own right: Smith's bass so fluid he must have torn out his hair dealing with the average string smashing goon holding down the low end in other CBGB favorites. He meshes perfectly with Ficca, whose jazzy style navigates the winding turns of each song.

Lloyd and Verlaine's intertwining guitars, unified only when not in direct, thrilling conflict with each other, find their true outlet on the next song, the title track. A 10-minute behemoth that severed any ties still linking Television to its earlier, rawer roots, "Marquee Moon" is the culmination of Verlaine's approach to music, much as it much chagrin him. Savage and beautiful, contradictory yet whole, the song is a mounting climax, Lloyd and Verlaine thrusting and receding, pitting Lloyd's more chord-based improvisations rubbing against Verlaine's legato style. But to lump in this cascading, wild soloing with the dinosaur rock Television's contemporaries raged against would be inaccurate: this is a whole other style of rock, one that incorporates jazz without being fusion (which came with its own host of lumbering, masturbatory musicians). As much as Verlaine might be the mastermind, the others are not there merely to back him up, and a degree of understanding and intuition exists between them one normally expects only from a jazz combo. It makes even their most drawn-out noodling thrilling, something to be taken in for more than mere admiration of musical chops. The solos here are alive, vivacious and emotionally engaging as well as jaw-dropping in a "how the hell did they do this?" kind of way.

Anyone else would have ended the album with such a show-stopper, yet Television regroups for a whole other side of material, all of which holds its own against the preceding leviathan. "Elevation" sports such a beautiful riff I find myself almost wishing it remained a simple tune just so I could hear it more, but Verlaine and Lloyd by now are emboldened; they used the title track to prove their mettle, freeing them to explore full-time. The rest of the cuts demonstrate the same degree of exploration as seen in the side-one closer at shorter lengths, cramming jams into manageable chunks. "Guiding Light," with its lilting melody, could have worked as an off-kilter slow dance tune, but even Verlaine's softer pleads have their witticisms -- I always get a kick out of "Never the rose without the prick."

The album closes with "Torn Curtain," a song that appropriately tears down the veil. Staccato lyrics flit around clanged chords and broken choruses. Everything falls apart, then it comes together just long enough to prove to everyone that the crumbling is a planned detonation before breaking down again. Still, even the mild insecurity of this double-check cannot hinder the raw energy of the song, its broken windchime-like jangles doing as much to pave the way for atmospheric post-punk as the two Joy Division albums a few years down the pipeline.

Marquee Moon exploded among the critical community in 1977, placing third in the Pazz & Jop poll and building mountains of hype the band could never hope to match. Their live shows were clear expansions of the rapport the band shared in the studio, long songs growing into longer ones (but still coherent and focused, in the band's singularly unfocused way), and the punks who might have tolerated Television in the studio found little use in their live act. Johnny Rotten himself, a not-so-closeted art rock lover, reversed his complimentary appraisal of them after seeing Television live and understanding he could not protect his punk cred unless he threw Verlaine under a bus.

When the group returned to the studio to record the follow-up, the wonderful Adventure, the pressure had taken its toll. Though Adventure is more than a worthy successor, it received and continues to be received indifferently by many for the terrible sin of not being as revolutionary as Marquee Moon. Few albums are. Even today, the guitar work of Verlaine and Lloyd defies easy description, and Verlaine's scattershot poetry holds up a great deal better than many of the supposed rock bards. Television broke up shortly after the release of their second album, and Verlaine went on to enjoy a decently healthy solo career befitting a cult hero, but everything in those albums can be traced back to this one wild slice of art rock outside any genre. Verlaine's name has faded from the minds of many, but I can't understand it. One listen to Marquee Moon and every neophyte will come away with a new guitar god. I'll take these magnificent fractals and searching melodies over Eric Clapton's tired crap any day of the week.

Sweet Smell of Success: "Sidney, conjugate me a verb."

My review of Alexander Mackendrick's masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success is up now at Cinelogue. This was the biggest "newspaper movie" I'd yet to see, and it may well be my favorite. It's one of those films that might inspire the usual pooh-poohs of "People don't talk like that," but damn, don't you wish they did. Features career-highlight performances from both Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, who each have enough fantastic performances to their names to make finding a best role futile. And again, THAT DIALOGUE. Ugh, it's so good I almost hate real people, myself included, for not living up to it.

Please check out my review.

Stuff I Like: Miles Davis

"I never thought that the music called 'jazz' was ever meant to reach just a small group of people, or become a museum thing locked under glass like all the other dead things that were once considered artistic." — Miles Davis

"White folks always think that you have to have a label on everything — you know what I mean?" - Miles Davis, interview with Les Tomkins, 1969

Over the course of a career that spanned nearly five decades, Miles Davis constantly stayed ahead of every label people tried to stick to him, including some he partially coined. Cool jazz, modal jazz, hard bop, fusion. Miles helped pioneer them all, mastered them and then moved on just as copycats moved in to try to figure him out. Everything about Miles screamed "genius" -- in the sideman world of jazz, he became a leader early and stayed a leader, spring-boarding from Charlie Parker's bebop quintet to make his breakthrough album, Birth of the Cool, a reversal from Parker's style despite Bird's input and the bebop chops of all involved. That was the first sign of Davis' ability to abruptly change everything, but it wouldn't be the last, not by a long shot.

Davis is often dismissed as the jazz musician rock kids listen to in order to say they listen to jazz. Musically, the connection between Davis and rock is thin (well, at least before he led the charge of moving jazz into rock, of course). I would look to John Coltrane and his sheets of sound before Miles' modal explorations when linking jazz to rock; Coltrane's spiritualism throughout the '60s even made the ties more obvious, what with the Love Generation rising around the same time. But aesthetically, oh man. There ain't never been a rock star like Miles Davis, and that was as true when he played smooth legato lines down in Birdland as it was when he took to stadiums. Davis once said he could tell if a cat could play just by how he stood; one look at Davis and you not only knew that he could play, you could surmise how he played. Cool in the classical (i.e. poised and resolute) and contemporary (i.e. one bad mutha) senses, Miles parlayed his glacial mood into the atmosphere of his music. Even when he pushed his music into fiery cataclysms of rock, funk and white-hot jazz, Miles still brought the smooth.

I will not try to write even a basic summary of Davis' progression from his days as a sideman after dropping out of Juilliard in '44 through his death in 1991 after he had crawled back from the brink and enjoyed a popular comeback almost no one expected of the habitual heroin addict. No single volume could ever capture the twists and turns of Davis' career nor the number of masterpieces he put out under ever-shifting lineups. Besides, I don't know a thing about music theory, so I would only stumble more in the futile effort to to catalog the evolutions and impacts of Davis' output.

What attracts me to Davis is that sense of growth, that incessant reaching for something more, something fresh. Born to a middle-class family in 1926, Davis fought against both racism from whites and scorn for his higher upbringing to keep African and African-American music alive. He abandoned the Western, white music preached at Juilliard to play jazz with Charlie Parker, helped bring the blues back to the medium via hard bop, and by the time he moved into jazz-rock and hard funk, he'd incorporated soul, funk, R&B and tribal rhythms into his sound. Everything Miles ever played tied into a rich musical past, but he modernized it, contextualized it around new ideas. In the process, he laid the foundations for future forms of black and urban music, from dance and dub (On the Corner) to electronic-driven hip-hop (much of his '80s material). Why, where would dear old Prince be without him?

Yet no matter how far Miles went with his sound, you can always recognize him. His chops, unreliable even during his rare moments of mental and physical health, do not lend to a consistency in sound: on some of his finest albums, Davis himself clearly falters, straining for notes and occasionally blowing out such watery tones I wondered if he just hadn't drained his spit valve in a month or so. You can hear the same soul-searching-as-tonal-straying at the nadir of his mid-'70s personal tailspin and a decade earlier with the second great quintet at the Plugged Nickel. And the powerful work with the first great quintet and resultant sextant returns later in Miles' earliest fusion recordings when the prince of darkness felt emboldened by his risky musical cartography. Through it all, however, he maintains a certain feel, a clearly defined approach that identifies the player as Miles from the first note.

The tone and the swagger might make Miles a dominating presence, but, for this writer, Davis' greatest contribution to music was his ability to find and nurture talent in others. Selecting only a handful of the musicians he launched through his work, one could still wind up with such names as John Coltrane, Chick Corea, Ron Carter, John McLaughlin and Tony Williams. He brought out the best in his bandmates, and while he unlocked their fullest potential, few reached the same level without him. The fusion musicians especially wandered without him, McLaughlin initially crafting incendiary work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra before that project set the benchmark for tedious, masturbatory excess in the genre. (Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea's projects followed similar arcs, while Herbie Hancock managed to break the mainstream by softening his style enough to work in pop.) Davis' ability to not just pick talent but give his backup musicians the space to explore made him more than a mere leader; small wonder that, by the time he released Bitches Brew, the album credited Miles with "directions in music." That's what he did, checked his inner compass and pointed his crew toward his idea of north, and along they went into the jungle. Somehow, they always made it to the other side.

After his five-year hiatus at the end of the '70s, Miles never fully recovered his embouchure nor his strength, but he still gathered significant rising talent, still pushed the boundaries where he could, still pushed himself. That restlessness is the truest sign of artistic genius. Davis himself railed against the idea of comfort and complacency in artists, treating it as the ultimate sign of surrender. Whether smoothly taking jazz forward by returning it to the pre-Bird and Diz days, incorporating the free jazz he initially disparaged into his work or finally playing over synthesizers and drum loops, Miles always worked fads and trends into his sounds, but when he played them he ensured their immortality. Since his death, Davis' legacy has only grown, partially because the half-admirable, half-cynical onslaught of box sets and archived material released but primarily because the public and critics are only now beginning to fully uncover the depth and beauty of his work. More than any artist, Davis encapsulated the technical and theoretical intricacies of jazz but also the emotional immediacy of the genre. Of course, by the end of his life, he'd moved so far beyond genre he could never be said to be representative of any genre, though he damn near mastered them all.

Top Ten Albums

1. Agharta/Pangaea (both 1975)

Two double-CDs culled from one day in Osaka (the former the afternoon show, the latter the evening gig), Agharta and Pangaea collectively represent the pinnacle of Davis musical wanderings. Agharta, taking its name from the mythological underground city filled with the greatest wisdom mankind could ever learn, appropriately matches its title. Churning like the magma in the Earth's mantle, it unleashes sounds unlike any that have been heard before or since, the fullest extent of Davis musical exploration. After the eruption of the first show, Pangaea cools the lava to form a new supercontinent, resetting the Earth to coincide with the uncovering of our destiny. The music here isn't as blazing as Agharta's, but cooling lava can still melt you.

Davis sounds on the brink of his impending collapse on these records, his pinched, electric squeal the dying moans of a sonic Moses trying to enter the promised land he's taken his people to, only to be denied at the last moment. Around him, his virile band -- Pete Cosey (one of a handful of guitarists to ever launch off Hendrix in just the right way, exploring sonic wash over technical tedium), Sonny Fortune, Reggie Lucas, good ol' Michael Henderson, Al Foster and Mtume -- gathers as if waiting to bear his casket. Beautiful, terrifying, conquering, defeated. It's all here. Not for the faint of heart. (Note: in 2006 Sony Japan remastered these albums, which can be found floating around the Internet as rips from the out-of-print DSD-CD. The remastering is revelatory, rescuing these sonic journeys from muddled whump-whump bass and overheated treble. It says something about the nature of the music that contemporary technology just couldn't handle it.)

2. Kind of Blue (1959)

The highest selling jazz album of all time and such an essential work it should be included gratis in all desert island selections alongside the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, Kind of Blue more than lives up to its sterling reputation. Universally hailed by critics and appreciators of all music styles, Kind of Blue represents the pinnacle of Miles' modal efforts, each song beginning on a key, not a theme, allowing for greater range of exploration during group improvisations and individual solos. Yet the focus on modal, not chordal or harmonic, development made each exploration melodic, to the point that the album rewards whether studied intently or played as background music. It's one of the few times Davis' backing group -- incidentally one of his finest, with Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb contributing -- fully reflected Miles' own sound: cool, legato and beautiful. That unison makes the album listenable long after one nails down its variations.

3. A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)

Though Davis' mid-'70s material plunged the artist fully into soul-funk territory, A Tribute to Jack Johnson is by some degree the "rockiest" album he ever made. Opening on a downright sick riff by John McLaughlin, "Right Off" gives way to what is quite possibly Miles' strongest, boldest solo, the result of sobriety and a brief dedication to ultra-healthy living. The second side, "Yesternow," incorporates takes from a group take-off of "Shh/Peaceful," a modification of the bassline of James Brown's "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" and an edited version of the tune "Willie Nelson" recorded by a different lineup. Yet of all Miles' electric studio albums, this one sounds the least spliced together, the force of the music carrying a spontaneity and perfectly synchronized looseness to it that gives the illusion of being a single take. After Kind of Blue, Miles' purest record.

4. The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel (recorded 1965, released 1995)

The second great quintet had only released one album together when then played seven gigs across two nights in December 1965, but you can tell from these complete recordings just why the lineup ended up Davis' longest lasting. With Miles himself slightly faltering, the rest of the band steps in, especially the boisterous Tony Williams on drums and a hopped-up Wayne Shorter looking to prove himself worthy of taking the spot vacated by John Coltrane. Packed into 8 CDs, these hours of music demonstrate exactly where Davis would take the quintet: forward through the past. They stick mainly to standards and classics from Miles' back catalogue, but each version played sounds different from the studio, and even the other versions heard at the club. After slamming free jazz for years, Miles starts to absorb some of it, freeing his compositions along harmonic and rhythmic lines. But he still directs his band through smooth jams, and his own solos sidestep the occasional weakness of his phrasing to overpower. Fair warning: your hard drive will not like you becoming a Miles Davis fan, but those lost gigabytes (oh yes, you'll measure Miles by the gig) are more than worth it.

5. Milestones (1958)

Following the brief dissolution of the first great quintet over money and drug issues, Miles let them back in and picked up Cannonball Adderley while he was at it in order to deliver his first great modal statement. Though it lives in the shadow of Kind of Blue, Milestones is nearly as worthy and features a white-hot band at its peak. As ever, Coltrane tends to start each song by lying down his sound, at which point Davis glides in and gently shapes those sheets in a direction as Paul Chambers saws his bass and Philly Joe Jones monitors the shifts in current to adjust the beat. More electric than Kind of Blue in tone, the album nevertheless has a stripped-down, classic tone that lets each song breathe. Essential.

6. In a Silent Way (1969)

Bitches Brew might have been the album to truly herald jazz fusion to an unsuspecting and unprepared world, but for my money Davis' first electric record holds more rewards. The sound of a band dipping its toe into the water to test its temperature, In a Silent Way is one of the quietest artistic revolutions I've ever heard. When Dylan went electric, he did so boisterously, scabrously, ready to take on anyone. But Dylan ultimately was only responsible to his own image. When Miles made the switch, some thought he took down jazz with him. Maybe they were right; Miles certainly did care for any kind of boundary after this. Heard today, I process only the gentle courage of the music, one figure drifting out into the darkness with a torch until he finds the way clear and calling the others to come to him until the next member of the party moves forward another hundred yards. Yet for the gentle nature of the album's probing, it still displays enough of Miles' restless invention that it still does not fit neatly into either jazz nor rock. Already, he was aiming beyond such labels.

(The degree of evolution and softly radical change in these two sidelong pieces is reflected by the strength of the Complete In A Silent Way Sessions box set, by some degree the strongest of all the mammoth sets documenting the creation of Miles' electric albums. Taking some piece from Filles de Kilimanjaro (the preceding second quintet album that was outright fusion in every way save electric instrumentation), alternate takes and revealing jams, the set demonstrates the astonishing pace with which Miles and co. advanced their already adventurous sound, even as it points toward the huge leaps to follow.)

7. Porgy & Bess (1958)

Davis scarcely looked back from his time at Juilliard, but he acknowledged the influence his brief formal education on his understanding of music theory. One of the clearest examples of that impact is Davis' take on Porgy & Bess, the Third Stream opera by George Gershwin, one that respects the original but emphasizes the ethnic flavors Gershwin sprinkled into his operatic gumbo. The best of Miles' collaborations with Gil Evans, Porgy & Bess is one of the most enduringly entertaining, complex and captivating of Davis' classic records. As ever, Miles does not settle for simply capturing the feel of the past, instead adding new dimensions, new interpretations, Davis' lyricism forging subtle new paths just as adroitly as the passages of Kind of Blue.

8. On the Corner (1972)

Always resentful of jazz's position in the public consciousness as something for the arty and elite, Miles constantly sought new ways to add current flavors to his music. On the Corner marked the first time Miles managed to fully jump ahead of the curve and predict a trend rather than work with one. With its title and finger-snappin' cover right out of a Fat Albert cartoon, On the Corner gave some idea as to its musical contents, but no one could have anticipated the sounds coming from the vinyl. Not only infused with soul and funk, On the Corner took Teo Macero's (a man deserving of Sir George Martin-esque veneration) editing skills to their zenith, piecing together fragments of hot, sulfuric sludge into one of Davis' most forward-thinking albums. Not only does it show Miles finally achieving his wish of becoming the Sly Stone and George Clinton of jazz, the album also lays down all new sounds. Hip-hop, dance music, even post-punk can be heard in its ragged, angular soundscapes and unexpected moments of swing. It's as scathing as Bitches Brew, and as revolutionary, but by now Miles and his crew (whomever they might be, for the lineups shifted all over these four numbers) had worked out the kinks, and one could tell they knew exactly what they were doing.

(Just as the In a Silent Way sessions proved fruitful, the box set of On the Corner provides hours of pleasure, incorporating all the outtakes that made fine cuts of their own on vault-airing releases Big Fun and Get Up With It and adding enough alternate takes to set the mouth watering. The box set for Bitches Brew contained a great deal of superfluous material, the one for A Tribute to Jack Johnson the most relevant to seeing how the final music was made (yet also the most boring save for a few fascinating takes), but the sets for In a Silent Way and On the Corner, though perhaps the ones that cheat most brazenly by widening the time interval to include material that simply fits with the final music and not just the relevant sessions, offer the greatest insights into Miles' electric growth.)

9. Birth of the Cool (recorded 1949/1950, released 1957)

Comprising three sessions in 1949 and 1950 with an orchestral nonet, Birth of the Cool's belated release in 1957 did nothing to detract from its forward-thinking prescience. Of course, by the time this compilation came out, Miles had moved far beyond, having already pumped out classics with his first quintet that found the harder edges around this sound, but other players scrambled to imitate it. Even today, it's easy to see why someone would be glad to copy it after Daivs himself had grown bored of the sound; hell, it'd be a joy to nail down this sound 20 years after the man passed on. Birth of the Cool has all the hallmarks of the classic Miles sound: smooth enough to go down without a fuss but with an after kick that makes your whole chest burn.

10. Sketches of Spain (1960)

After Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane departed Miles' band following Kind of Blue, Miles decided to morph the sound of that album to compensate, turning his ear to Spanish folk music after hearing a classical arrangement of the Concierto de Aranjuez. With Gil Evans, Davis crafted one of his finest modernist pieces, a work so respectful of the traditions it recreates that, if you close your eyes to sway with the piece, you start to think that you'll be in Barcelona when you open them. Backed by 19 musicians, Miles proved his leadership abilities once and for all. Plus, he would not sound as in command of his own playing for another decade; check the solo on "Saeta," his best until "Right Off" blasted out of speakers in 1971. One of Davis' most popular albums, it remains so for a reason.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


When the Rango trailer met with near-unanimous derision and dismissal among critics and, seemingly, audiences, I wonder if Gore Verbinski sat back and knowingly thought to himself, "To hell with it. They'll come crawling back when the time comes." If he did, he was right: Rango wastes no time announcing itself the first major mainstream release of the year, driven by a visual design unseen in any recent animated film that comes to mind and laced with a humor that never feels cheap or easy.

From its opening moments, Rango carries a mild sense of Dadaist whimsy, a mariachi band addressing the audience directly and introducing a character "who has yet to enter his own story." Cut to a flower-shirted chameleon going stir-crazy in a terrarium, organizing plays with the plastic objects littering his boxed home and even holding conversations with such props as a wind-up fish and a mock tree. Just as the lizard hits upon a new idea requiring an ironic twist for his protagonist, his masters' car lurches in traffic and sends the terrarium out of the foolishly open back window, stranding the domesticated creature in the middle of a harsh desert highway with a sun so hot a drop of water sizzles and evaporates on the tongue before it can even offer the tease of a quenched thirst. The poor beast shrivels up and partially crumbles twice in the rays.

At this point, the metafictional devices employed with the mariachi band and self-reflexive acting of the protagonist among his props gives way to outright surrealism, from a squashed armadillo carrying on a cryptic conversation with the lizard and sun-baked hallucinations allowing for some truly breathtaking yet hilarious animation. At last, our hero finds his way to a parched town called Dirt where he avoids a swift beating by taking the name Rango and putting his acting chops to the test with fanciful tales of gunslinging prowess.

Amazingly, Rango sidesteps the lazy appropriation of winking clichés seen in recent animated films, even as it eschews putting a toe into the Western genre pool for splashing in with a cannonball. This is the closest anyone has come to making a CGI Tarantino movie. Rango does not simply regurgitate pop culture, it embraces it, honoring conventions even as it pokes fun and adds new dimensions to them. Leone references dominate the landscape, from the use of a Morricone-esque score by Hans Zimmer to a likeness of the Man with No Name. The film also incorporates the work of Chuck Jones in its chaotic yet carefully composed animation, ensuring strict adherence of spatial relationships and perspective so that the sudden breaks are even more clanging, hilarious and daring. Verbinski even throws in a Fear and Loathing nod, recalling not only Hunter's own mad, hallucinogenic ride through the desert but Terry Gilliam, whose influence can be seen all over Rango's visual originality rooted in the work of others.

To even get into how gorgeous, how memorable and how singular the animation of Rango is would send this review down a dead-end street of superlatives. Who on Earth could have guessed from Rango's unalluring teaser that the primary influence on its visual scheme, even above classical Western imagery, would be the work of Salvador Dalí? To be fair, the animators left a hefty clue for the audience in the unimpressive frame of the protagonist. Rango, too weird to appeal in a trailer, works brilliantly in context: set against the startlingly realistic animation of the other animals, Rango visually clashes. His askew, pencil-thin neck supports his vast head like a glacial till holding up a balancing rock, and his slightly uneven eye sockets with narrowed nipples for peepers subtly resemble breasts. Only Rattlesnake Jake, a massive, coiling psychopath who comes to town to pop the bubble of Rango's inflated persona, matches Rango's off-kilter animation, what with his seemingly endless body and his machine-gun rattler.

The backdrops offer even more chances for innovative rendering. Hallucinations of terrifyingly symmetrical cactus configurations, slow-motion shots of a desert highway illuminates overhead by cars passing over the hero, and a transparently fake (and thus disgustingly recognizable) Las Vegas are but some of the masterful background animations in which Verbinski places his characters. Where Wes Anderson's inexperience with animation did not preclude him from dictating style and movement to his supposedly tortured team on Fantastic Mr. Fox, the less-mannered Verbinski appears to have reacted to his own unfamiliarity with the medium with humility, ceding artistic control to his animators. Amazingly, Rango fails to fall into the trap that entangled infamous examples of competing visions in animation (Disney's 1951 Alice in Wonderland comes swiftly to mind), maintaining a cohesive juxtaposition between surprising realism and the most brazen use of Dada in children's entertainment since the early brilliance of Spongebob Squarepants.

Of course, to say that assumes Rango could conceivably be seen as a kid's film, which it most emphatically is not. Though it sidesteps Tarantino's vulgarity, the sheer amount of adult-oriented pop culture references and film history on display offers nothing for a child, and most of the dialogue plays at, at the least, a teenage level. Only the slapstick could fully appeal to a child, but then physical comedy, when done well, is universal, and the comedy here is dynamite. And if the sophistication of the writing does not turn off the children, the sight of Rattlesnake Jake surely will, each lunge of his bared fangs or constricting coil around heroes terrifying enough to shake an adult. Those dismissing Rango for not being palatable to children (or praising it in spite of this "shortcoming") have grown too accustomed to the idea of animation being something that must appeal to children. Rango has just enough to keep a kid entertained -- and for the love of God, parents, let your kids get scared; it does 'em good -- but it clearly aims for an older audience.

Part of Rango's promotional package highlighted Verbinski's staging of the voice cast as if they were actually on-screen, filming them acting together in what seemed a desperate gimmick. Yet the move paid off, and Rango sports one of the voice casts of major stars to sound as if the actors did more than simply speak into the microphone. Bill Nighy properly sinks into his role as Jake, adding menace to his speech and not just his movement. An unrecognizable Isla Fisher plays Beans, the unfortunately named love interest who chatters in a contradictory mile-a-minute drawl shockingly familiar to those of us who have heard the slowed-down Southern accent as sped up by inflamed passions. And what a weird niche in which Ned Beatty has found himself, playing a crippled authority figure exuding false comfort and harboring ulterior motives in an animated film only a year after....well, you know.

Casting Rango, a delusional pet with aspirations of being a thespian, as a chameleon was a sly gag, and one Johnny Depp undoubtedly got. After the last two Pirates movies, the relationship between Depp and Verbinski went stale, to the point one could not easily recall how incandescent their first pairing was (and on a film preemptively dismissed as derivative and money-grabbing). They capture lightning in a bottle once more here, letting Depp exercise his most exuberant techniques without the setbacks of watching the actual man contort himself into buffoonish shapes for a laugh. Never appearing on-screen, Depp hasn't been so watchable in years.

Stuffed with allusions and surprises, Rango occasionally goes so far as to recontextualize its references and make something else out of them. A massive canyon chase not only combines elements of the podcast race and Death Star trench run of Episodes I and IV, respectively, it also adds a dash of the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, albeit with bats. Three superb sequences combine into one visual tour-de-force that borrows the best aspects from all of them and plays around in the white space left over. At the other end of the spectrum, the film pokes fun at the stereotypes of Native Americans, the somber raven to whom Rango incessantly condescends always subverting expectations based on genre clichés (a reference to Depp's involvement in the thoroughly anti-cliché, anti-Western Dead Man, perhaps?). I also enjoyed the idea of a town so literally dry that, when the locals laugh at the naïve city slicker asking for water, they do so because they'd all love nothing more than a sip of the stuff instead of alcohol.

In a year where Pixar already seems to be planning a working vacation with Cars 2, Rango might survive in the public consciousness through the year and win some accolades come the next awards season. One can only hope; Rango is one of the few animated films to ignore Pixar entirely, either as competition or influence. The makers focused only on telling a good story in the way they saw it, and the results freely leap off the screen despite staying in obsolete ol' 2D. Intelligent, witty, original films of any stripe do not come along often, and to see something this bold come from the seemingly dessicated corpse of Nickelodeon Studios proves one should never count anyone out. The film circles around the idea that anyone can be a hero given the right circumstances and sense of perseverance and duty; Rango itself proves how dedication turns a decent concept into great art.