Friday, September 28, 2012

Dum Dum Girls – End of Daze EP (2012) – Review

Review: Coming off the good sophomore album, Only In Dreams (Coming Down was one of my favorite songs of 2011), the Dum Dum Girls quartet is back with a new EP End of Daze. It features three songs originally done for Only In Dreams (to be used as B-sides) and two new songs.

The EP has a very atmospheric sound, having an ethereal feeling but still mixed with the band’s darker tone. It has a much more dream-pop quality to it than their more indie/garage rock sounding output. However, they are working again with producers Sune Rose Wagner and Richard Gottehrer (who they have great chemistry with), and thus will be familiar to returning fans.

The Dum Dum Girls seem to strive in short form, as like their last EP (He Gets Me High) End of Daze is their best work to date. 4/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Lord Knows
2)      Season in Hell
3)      Mine Tonight

Available on Digital Download

Brother Ali – Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color (2012) – Review

Review: Brother Ali is one of the great independent hip hop artists. His fifth studio album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, comes on the heels of his good EP The Bite Marked Heart and the fantastic album Us.

Ali is very political in his rhymes (being an activist when he is not touring), but his lyrics come from a place of hope, speaking to what he imagines a better America could be like while being frustrated with the way things are now. He is not just negatively taking shots at easy targets. He addresses the real life that he faces every day. Ali is not making millions (probably not even hundreds of thousands) from his music career, which means when he talks about the hard life he faces he is speaking from a place of honesty, making him and his lyrics very relatable and poignant. He is among hip hops best storytellers, making light of some of the inequities he sees in his life. Again, he wants a better tomorrow which is what makes this album so powerful instead of merely just angry venting (which he does on a few tracks).

Musically, the album is produced completely by Jake One, who provides great beats for Ali. Jake One’s style compliments Ali’s well (though, I do miss his great chemistry with his normal producing partner Ant).

Brother Ali is far from a commercial artist. The content and themes of his work, his religion (Muslim) and his look (he is an albino) all work against him in terms of being relevant in popular music (radio play, TV appearances, and so on). But, he tours like crazy to get his music out. Fans of the ‘real’ hip hop sound and lyrics that actually mean something will find a great artist in Ali. This album is not flashy, but it is very good. 4/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Only Life I Know – Produced by Jake One
2)      Letter to My Countrymen – Produced by Jake One, featuring Dr. Cornel West
3)      Won More Hit – Produced by Jake One

Available on CD and Digital Download

Thursday, September 27, 2012

End of Watch (2012) – Review

Review: End of Watch is a realistic and gripping cop drama. The film is about two LAPD patrolmen, Brian and Mike, who get wrapped up in a war with a Mexican Cartel looking to move into Los Angeles.

Writer-director David Ayer’s goal with End of Watch seems to be to put the audience directly in the place of a typical LAPD cop, giving a life-in-the-day experience. To do this, he uses a combination style of found-footage and documentary filmmaking, utilizing hand-held camera work and low-end digital or typical ‘found-footage’ quality cameras and natural lighting. Doing this creates a very gritty and shaky style that makes the audience feel like they are in the action, as their point of view is generally the same as the protagonists’ (or in close proximity) and the camera’s constant movement also creates the illusion of experiencing the action first hand. The film both benefits from this style, as the audience does very much feel like they are right there in it, and it also detracts, as the style gets a bit tedious on the viewer (unless done by a fantastic filmmaking group, which is rare). Here, especially, the constant close-ups, shaky-cam and not really getting to see everything gets a little old, which means what the audience is seeing is not necessarily what they intuitively feel like they should be seeing. Also, story wise, it is a bit odd to see characters, like the gang members, carrying around small digital cameras to create the illusion of where the footage came from. Overall, while the style does work with the narrative, shooting it more documentary and less found-footage style (like The Shield, for example) may have given the same general effect but without some of the nuisance that comes hand-in-hand with ‘found-footage’ (though, speaking of the style, I was very impressed with how the it was used to its greatest degree in the film Chronicle from earlier in the year).

Ayer’s narrative is a bit disjointed causing a slight pacing problem, as well. Most of the narrative is structured to be a character drama, and in this regard the film is very successful. All the principal characters are fleshed out and given moments for the audiences to get to know them, relate to them and take a stake in them, which makes the film that much more powerful and affecting. However, Ayer also tries to insert a thriller narrative into the second half, probably to beef up the action (since there is already a good cop character drama about the LAPD this year in Oren Moverman’s Rampart). The issue is that the thriller narrative does not develop until deep into the film, leaving all the character stuff (which is all great) to feel slow in retrospect, as if the film is just waiting around until something happens. The structure feels a bit like a TV series story arc rather than a tight film narrative (as films need to be much more economical due to time constraints), taking its time to develop deep characters while peppering in action here and there. Ayer does hint at a more action oriented sub-plot, which dominates the end of the second act and beginning of the third act, but he does not make it the focus, rather putting everything into character moments and day-to-day life of the cops, thus when the thriller narrative takes over, it does not flow organically. The end result is the pacing being a bit off and therefore the film feeling slow in parts, which adds to the tediousness already felt from the shooting style.

However, all Ayer’s character work and realism makes the drama very effective in its manipulation of the audience’s emotions (unless they are the few that are completely put off by the style, and there probably will be a few). The audience is completely invested in Brian and Mike, and even deeply care about what happens to them. Thus, the thrilling moments are all the more gripping and dynamic. In this, the film leaves the viewer emotionally taxed by the end.

End of Watch is really a great character drama, and it works best in that capacity. The action and thriller moments work more due to the audience’s stake in the characters than on their own merits. Fans of cop centric crime dramas will enjoy this film (assuming the shooting style does not put them off).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: I am not sure if any director has more of a niche than David Ayer does with cop films (maybe Wes Anderson with Wes Anderson style films). While I like his script for Training Day, it is really Antoine Fuqua’s film, which leaves Harsh Times as Ayer’s best work prior to End of Watch. Both Harsh Times and End of Watch are very gritty in their style, though Harsh Times is much more daring with its protagonist. End of Watch has two characters that are very safe for the audience, and that means they are easy for the audience to like and get behind. End of Watch is probably Ayer’s best film to date, but I personally like Harsh Times more because it does not feel as much as an attempt at a typical Hollywood-style narrative in terms of its characters (plus, End of Watch’s ending lets the narrative off the hook a bit dramatically, but it is still poignant).

The work of composer David Sardy, cinematographer Roman Vasyanov and production designer Devorah Herbert is all complimentary to the aesthetic style that Ayer wanted for the film – primarily found-footage with some documentary-like stuff thrown as well. The film has a very realistic feel, from the characters to all the sets and wardrobe. It looks and feels like they filmed it in the real neighborhoods that it takes place in (and they very well might have) with real police and criminals (for the most part). The score backs up the emotional drama of the narrative, but is overshadowed by a great soundtrack.

The acting is fantastic in the film. Natalie Martinez and especially Anna Kendrick are great in supporting roles. Neither is really given that much, but they both make the best of it. Kendrick completely wins over the audience as Brian’s girlfriend (with wonderful little bits like her early morning snooping through his wallet). Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal are very good as Mike and Brian. They are both very likable and charismatic, which invites the audience to care about them. Their chemistry and use of humor is also paramount to the film’s dramatic success.

Summary & score: End of Watch is one of the best cop dramas in a long time (maybe since The Departed). 7/10

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Trouble with the Curve (2012) – Review

Review: Trouble with the Curve is a great baseball movie – and almost a complete rebuttal to 2011’s Moneyball – that has not forgotten the most important ingredient to any film is good characters. It is about Gus, a scout for the Atlanta Braves, who is on his last legs professionally. The game is changing and his eyes are failing. He is sent out on what could be his final assignment to scout what many believe to be a sure thing. His daughter Mickey, who grew up on the road with him but now has a difficult relationship, decides to tag along to help her father out so he can keep his job and passion for a few more years.

Director Robert Lorenz knows the secret to what makes a good Hollywood-style film: relatable characters with a clear story arc. He also knows his target audience. Gus is lost in today’s world. He does not understand technology and he hates the way Sabermetrics are taking over the process by which talent is analyzed in baseball. It makes him, and all scouts (an important aspect that shapes of the game), obsolete. He is out to prove that a computer cannot really fully understand a player. Lorenz has multiple examples that make Gus’s point. He may be an ornery old man who is out of touch in a lot of ways, but he still is completely in tune with the game of baseball. This appeals in many ways to the audience. The audience (especially the targeted older movie-goers that make up Clint Eastwood’s typical demographic) relates to Gus because they feel the same way about the world that is becoming more and more technology savvy and dependent, leaving out generations. Trouble with the Curve is about a man fed up with this widening generational gap and that speaks to the target audience. Thus, the audience is very much invested in Gus. And, for other audience demographics, Lorenz has created a fleshed out character that can be related to through humor (as there is a fair amount of funny material).

Gus’s daughter Mickey is also a strong character that the audience can latch on to. She is a successful lawyer who loves her father but is frustrated by their lack of communication – a common theme in many families. The character also provides a nice juxtaposition to Eastwood’s strong-but-silent stoic character (that he is famous for), because she shows the issues that have been created between her and her father due to his lack of communication with her. The narrative (which does not really need her, though it would be a slightly different story without her) is all the more compelling because the audience sees the deconstruction of Eastwood’s own archetype.

As this is a Hollywood-style narrative, Lorenz does not shy away from having a fairly predictable and safe structure, complete with the happy ending. But, with this kind of film, the happy ending is not just expected it is demanded. Imagine the story of Gus being left by his daughter and eclipsed by technology (i.e. being wrong about the players while the computers are right). The story would be rather dark and would end with Gus probably killing himself or letting himself go in humiliating total defeat. It would be heartbreaking. Trouble with the Curve, however, is not this type of him and that is not the type of film that Eastwood’s target audience wants to see. However, that being said, the film’s narrative structure does leave it feeling a little lazy and wrapped up in a nice Hollywood bow. For some, this will hurt the film, as the structure and character archetypes will feel overly played out and tired (and too safe). But, taking the film at face value, the narrative works well for the story that Eastwood and Lorentz want to tell.

I have said before that baseball translates itself to cinema better than any other sport, as it seems to have the most human aspect to it. It is a game that is specifically about individual achievement, while still being a team sport. A pitcher and hitter are alone as they face one and other. And thus, it lends itself perfectly to being inhabited by great characters as a backdrop. Baseball seems to accentuate the human emotions and drama of the characters, as it is a very nostalgic pastime for the audience. So, to make a great baseball movie, a filmmaker merely needs well-drawn characters in a baseball setting (with seemingly a hint of wonder and majesty), and have a love of the game – which is evident in all involved in this film. It is also a great baseball movie because it gets back to the quirky and magical intricacies that make baseball the special wondrous game that it is, and away from the dehumanizing numbers that dominate today. As someone that seems to be drawn to nostalgic things from my childhood, I like this, as I remember the fun I had in little league. The film speaks to both the fan and child just playing the game in all of us.

Trouble with the Curve is going to work best for those that like and understand baseball (though it is not a mandatory requirement) and enjoy good characters and well done character drama.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Robert Lorenz makes his feature debut with Trouble with the Curve. He served as Clint Eastwood’s producing partner on Eastwood’s last ten films (as well as second-unit director on a few others) prior to this. Lorenz decided to take a very straightforward approach to the material, shooting it in a very typical Hollywood style (standard coverage), which worked for the material.

Marco Beltrami’s score is also fairly standard – emphasizing the dramatic beats. Tom Stern’s cinematography and James J. Murakami’s production design work with the Hollywood style aesthetic of Lorenz’s narrative as well. The photography is glossy, making even the small town ballparks look majestic and magical (being a common theme in baseball movies), while the production design reinforces the characters and narrative. It is very good work (as to be expected from these two).

For a character drama like this to work, the performances must be good. In Trouble with the Curve, the performances are the strongest aspect of the film. John Goodman and Matthew Lillard are good in smaller roles. Justin Timberlake brings a lot of charisma and likability to the film, as well as a change of pace from the more stubborn and combative leads. Amy Adams is maybe the best part of the film. She plays Mickey to be very strong and independent, but still insecure when it comes to her father. I also really liked the fact that she is completely in love with baseball, and cannot fight it, even in her grownup life. Clint Eastwood plays the same old gruff, cantankerous and grumpy man that he seems to always being playing these days (see Gran Torino or Million Dollar Baby for reference). And as usual, it works to great effect. He is compelling and has fun with it.

Summary & score: Trouble with the Curve is really just the same old Hollywood style drama about two characters learning to connect that we have seen hundreds of times and thus is very predictable, but with great characters and a baseball setting the film is still very engaging. 7/10

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Master (2012) – Review

Review: The Master is the work of a proficient filmmaker, utilizing the medium to artfully tell his narrative and connect with the audience. The film is about a Naval combatant, Freddie Quell, returning from WWII who just does not seem to fit into society anymore. The horrors of war have emotionally scarred him. He drifts aimlessly from one odd job to the next until he is drawn in by a charismatic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd, who takes an interest in him.

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson takes a more experimental approach to his narrative with The Master. The film is not so much about Freddie’s story; rather it is more about his internal emotional struggle – his un-abating loneliness. There is a hole in Freddie that he just cannot seem to fill (he often turns to alcohol as an escape). We are shown pieces that when put together reveal Freddie’s emotional journey. However, Anderson does not just do this with story. He uses all available tools, taking full advantage of the score, photography and production design to both relate Freddie’s inner struggle in a more visual manner and to also play on the emotions of the viewer (especially with the score). The structure is not entirely straightforward either, exploiting flashbacks multiple times to drive deeper into the root of Freddie’s issues. In the present, the narrative only shows the viewer the most important of moments, constantly jumping forward escaping the mundane. This results in many of the scenes, particularly those between Freddie and the Master (Dodd), being electric and utterly compelling and engaging. They command the audience’s attention, as the viewer hangs on each word and action. The writing and performances are fantastic in this regard as well.

Anderson also has given a lot of emphasis to the characters as well. They are very well drawn and all given moments that are exploited for the audience to really understand them. However, what is interesting is that none of them is particularly likable (which is somewhat uncommon in filmmaking, especially in Hollywood movies). While unlikable characters can put some audience members off, as they cannot connect to people they do not like, Anderson uses humor and gives them a real humanity by not just making them flawed but also by making them seem real (the actors playing their characters with a combination of stylized naturalism) by having them engaging in ordinary tasks while emoting to overcome their un-likability. A good example of both is Freddie and Dodd sharing Freddie’s homemade brew. Their back-and-forth is very natural and funny.

Anderson uses humor throughout the film to temper the drama as well. The film is very heavy in many cases, as Freddie’s internal struggle affects the audience emotionally. He just seems to get in his own way and destroy all the good work he has done, which can be hard on an audience with a stake in him. Thus, the humor lightens the tone slightly and gives the audience a release and break from the emotional weight.

While The Master is exceptionally well made, the experimental nature of the narrative (both temporally and aesthetically, with some of the visual themes feeling very much like a Terrence Malick film – without all the voice-over narration – ‘man in nature’ or ‘man’s corruption’) will not work for all viewers. There is also not much action in the film, as all the scenes are about developing the characters (through dialogue or visually). Casual viewers looking for pure entertainment (might be surprised and find this very engaging as it is fantastic, but probably) will find this too slow and maybe even boring. The film is a bit weird – stemming from the music, the odd characters and the narrative structure, and again it is not going to work for everyone.

However, for those that do enjoy more aesthetically pleasing and thoughtful films, The Master is one of the best of 2012. It features wonderful characters, magnificent visuals and wholly dynamic scenes.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Paul Thomas Anderson has made six films, all of them very good. However, his last two (this and There Will Be Blood) have displayed a complete deftness for filmmaking – every aspect working together to create a fully cinematic and visceral experience. These films are layered, demanding multiple viewings to take in all the character and emotional drama to fully (if that is possible) understand the journey Anderson is taking the viewer on with the narrative. He is among the great auteurs working today (and in cinema history).

The Master, overall, is a phenomenal display of aesthetic brilliance. Jonny Greenwood’s (of Radiohead) score is consuming. It plays with the emotional state of the audience, often putting them ill-at-ease, which makes the drama and odd nature of Freddie or the more compelling and affecting. Like Freddie, the audience is never comfortable – it is remarkable work (here is a sample). Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography is beautiful in many places, exploiting the elegance and power of nature. His use of light and focus is also top notch. And, the framing and mise en scene is wonderful as well (I love the shot of Freddie running away through the barren field – if feels iconic for the film). Malaimare Jr. and Anderson have created one of the best shot films of 2012. David Crank and Jack Fisk’s production design is also of high aesthetic quality. The film has both a naturalistic and sort of exaggerated feel to it (and being that those seem to be contradictory, balancing the tone must have been difficult). The design work plays off this antagonism by having the characters look very natural and realistic but often occupy space that seems a bit off (like Dodd’s office at the school, which is my favorite set in the film).

 The performances are excellent throughout the film. W. Earl Brown, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ambyr Childers, and Rami Malek are good in small roles. Amy Adams has a real power and control in her supporting role. She seems very kind and gentle on the outside, but behind closed doors seems to be the true force behind the Cause. Philip Seymour Hoffman (as usual) is utterly brilliant. He dominates the screen, almost daring the viewer to look away. Dodd is completely flawed and seemingly lost, and yet also fully engaged and enamored with himself, which gives him boundless confidence. The performance is among his best work. Joaquin Phoenix has been a great actor for years, but seemingly under the radar (even with his Oscar nomination for Walk the Line) – that is no more with this performance. Freddie is the classic kind of character who is a walking emotional wrecking ball, obliterating anything good that might be coming to him. And yet, he plays Freddie with such an inner sadness, that the audience cannot help but relate to him, even when he is completely unlikable – a scoundrel.

Summary & score: The Master is an absolute cinematic joy to partake in – to experiences the mastery of a true auteur. 9/10

Monday, September 24, 2012

Movie of the Week – Kind Hearts and Coronets

This week’s movie is Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).

The comedy is about Louis Mazzini, the distant relative of the Duke of D’Ascoyne. His mother married a commoner and was shunned by the rest of her family. After her death, Louis plots to murder all eight of the other heirs who stand ahead of him in the line of succession to the Dukedom, and thus taking his revenge on the Ascoyne family for their treatment of his mother. The film is written and directed by Robert Hamer, who also had a comedy hit with School for Scoundrels. He worked with cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (who went on to finish his career shooting the Indiana Jones trilogy) and art director William Kellner. What truly makes the film great, however, is its performances. Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, and Alec Guinness (who plays all eight members of the Ascoyne family) are all fantastic in the film. With all the remakes, I am shocked that this has yet to reappear (though it was once attempted with Will Smith and Robin Williams), as it is a great and funny story. This is a must-see for fans of darker comedies, British comedies and Alec Guinness. Check out the trailer.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The xx – Coexist (2012) – Review

Review: After the critical success of their first album (xx), The xx have returned with their sophomore follow up Coexist. The group is made up of Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim (who both front the group) and Jamie Smith (who produces the songs as Jamie xx – he is maybe best known for producing Drake’s Take Care single).

Coexist is moody and frail. Much of it, musically, seems to fall within a specific tonal range. At times it drifts into the background, almost as a monotone hum. And yet, there is also an emotional power (especially in Croft’s voice – sort of a longing sadness). It draws the listener in with its best moments. Both singles, Angels and Chained, stand out above the rest of the album, but there are no bad songs. Jamie xx’s beats are also a strong component of the music. His drums drive the songs.

Fans of The xx will like this album. Casual fans will also find something here too, especially with the singles. It is worth checking out. 3/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Angels
2)      Chained
3)      Tides

Available on CD and Digital Download

Thursday, September 20, 2012

G.O.O.D. Music – Cruel Summer (2012) – Review

 Review: Kanye West is one of the best know hip hop/pop stars right now – we all know that. He is also one of the great auteurs of modern music, setting the standard for hip hop and determining the next direction the genre will take. Thus, anything he puts out has high expectations (only to be even more hyper-inflated with the brilliance of his recent releases My Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne – or, really his whole discography). Posse albums are never that great. Recently, we have been treated to a forgettable YMCMB album and two decent MMG albums. Even so, we all expected that Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music posse album would be different and incredible. Sadly, it is not incredible, but it is still really good and miles ahead of any other posse album.

So what works? Cruel Summer is for the most part musically excellent. Kanye West’s production team: Hit-Boy, Mike Dean, Jeff Bhasker, Hudson Mohawke, Travi$ Scott, Anthony Kilhoffer, Pop Wansel, and others deliver lush and beautifully produced music, that like much of West’s work has a unique and ambitious sound. It is the best part of the album (and Hit-Boy is probably the real breakout star of the album with great beats on the tracks Clique, Cold and Higher). West himself also has a hand in the production of almost every track (and re-remastered the iTunes release again delaying its arrival). Creatively, the album showcases West’s musical talent. The G.O.O.D. Music crew (Pusha T, Big Sean, Cyhi The Prynce, KiD CuDi, Common, D’banj, John Legend, Malik Yusef, and Teyana Taylor) all have their moments to shine and all provide good work. I would have liked to have seen Q-Tip and Yasiin Bey on there too though (and Mr. Hudson). Maybe they will show up on the next one. The guests are good too (highlighted by Jay-Z, The-Dream, Ghostface Killah, R. Kelly, Raekwon, and Ma$e – 2 Chainz is also on three songs, but I do not get the hype behind him).

So what does not work as well? Lyrically, the album is good but not great, and not on par with the fantastic music. Most of it is just sort of generic pop/hip hop language (money, cars, fashion, women, and opulence). Most of the best verses come from the guests (Jay-Z, Ghostface Killah and Ma$e – though West, Pusha T and Cyhi The Prynce drop some good stuff as well). This is really more of a minor complaint though. The two biggest issues are that the album has a lame ending (with its worst song closing the album) when it should have been something grander and (like with all posse albums) the album does not have a clear voice throughout. The first issue could have been fixed. Even if you just consider Don’t Like a bonus track, Bliss is not a great ending track either (though I do like it). Creepers and Bliss are both good middle of the album type tracks, but with them at the end, it gives the album sort of an underwhelming feeling as it closes (especially with Don’t Like which probably was better left off as just a G.O.O.D. Fridays release). The second is a lot harder to address, as the point of this album is for West to showcase the artists under his label, and thus it is going to have a lot of different competing voices.

Overall, I really like the album. Musically, it is just magnificent and wins me over with each listen. In addition to my ‘Essential Tracks’ I also highly regard To the World, Clique, The Morning, Sin City, and The One. Fans of My Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne are going to like this album. 4/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      New God Glow – Kanye West & Pusha T, featuring Ghostface Killah, produced by Kanye West, Boogz & Tapez and Anthony Kilhoffer
2)      Cold – Kanye West, produced by Hit-Boy
3)      Higher – Pusha T, featuring The-Dream, Ma$e and Cocaine 80s, produced by Hit-Boy, Kanye West and Mike Dean

Available on iTunes (best version), CD and Amazon MP3

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

TV Series of the Month – The Tudors

This month’s TV series is The Tudors (2007-2010).

The series follows the reign of King Henry VIII. The show was created and written in its entirety by Michael Hirst (a rarity). He also wrote Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. He is currently working on a Mary Queen of Scots film. Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as King Henry VIII giving the best performance of his career (he is utterly compelling). The cast overall is very good. Henry Cavill (in a star making role), Anthony Brophy, James Frain, Sarah Bolger, Natalie Dormer, Max Brown, Nick Dunning, Rod Hallett, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Ward, Jeremy Northam, Jamie Thomas King, Sam Neill, David O’Hara, Hans Matheson, Henry Czerny, Peter O’Toole, Gabrielle Anwar, Joss Stone, Joely Richardson, Tamzin Merchant, Annabelle Wallis, and Max von Sydow are all wonderful in support. Spanning four seasons, the series covers all of Henry’s reign, touching on the major events that shaped him. The story is interesting, but it is the performances that make the show great and well worth watching (especially for fans of period pieces and history). Aesthetically, the series is beautifully shot and the production design in fantastic. The Tudors is one of the better Showtime dramas to come out of their heyday of great new shows (with Dexter, Weeds, Californication, and Brotherhood – 2005-2007) that momentarily made them the best network for great series ahead of HBO.

Available on DVD and Streaming

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson – Movies Spotlight – September 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson, 42, is among the great generation of auteurs to emerge out of the 1990s (filmmakers like: Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, Alfonso Cuaron, Peter Jackson, Kar Wai Wong, and Quentin Tarantino). This month, his new film The Master is set for release. It is has played to high praise and acclaim among most critics (though, some are calling it too experimental), and is among the Oscar frontrunners. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman (a frequent Anderson collaborator, appearing in five of Anderson’s six films) and Amy Adams, the film is about Freddie Quell, a Naval veteran who arrives home disillusioned and uncertain about his future. That is, until he finds a place in The Cause, drawn in by its charismatic leader. Check out the trailer.

Early Career:

Anderson briefly attended Emerson College and New York University before diving into his career, taking a job as a production assistant working on whatever he could – be it television movies, music videos or game shows in LA and New York. Instead of film school, Anderson pooled his money (which amounted to $10,000 set aside for college by his parents, some money he won gambling and his girlfriend’s credit card) and set out to make a short film calling it his college experience. The film was Cigarettes & Coffee (costing $20,000), a short following multiple storylines involving a twenty-dollar bill (something that would become prevalent in Anderson’s early features). He screened the film at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival and was invited to the 1994 Sundance filmmaker’s lab. At the lab, his mentor was Michael Caton-Jones (who was in the prime of his career, just off Memphis Belle and This Boy’s Life and about to direct Rob Roy). Jones saw a lot of talent in Anderson, but not a lot of hands on experience and thus focused his mentorship in that direction. Anderson decided to adapt his short into a feature titled Sydney, signing a deal with Rysher Entertainment. In 1996, he wrote and directed the film, but Rysher executives decided to re-edit it. However, Anderson still had a print of his original cut and submitted it to the Cannes Film Festival where it was screened, receiving acclaim. Anderson was then able to get his version released but he had to retitle it Hard Eight and had to come up with $200,000 to finish it (which was funded by himself and the film’s stars Gwyneth Paltrow and John C. Reilly). Rysher did nothing to promote the film, but even so it was noticed by critics and launched Anderson’s career.

Breakthrough and Creative Control:

During Anderson’s issues with Hard Eight, he began writing a new script in the summer of 1995 based on an early short film he had made called The Dirk Diggler Story. Once Hard Eight was done, Anderson started to circulate the script. New Line Cinema became very interested after the studio’s president Michael De Luca loved the script. Boogie Nights went into production and was released in 1997. The film was a breakthrough hit for Anderson and its stars – momentarily resurrecting Burt Reynolds’s career and serving as the breakthrough for Mark Wahlberg and Julianne Moore (among others). It received three Oscar nominations (two for acting and one for writing). Like Hard Eight but more so, Boogie Nights showed off Anderson’s brilliant ability to present great fully fleshed out characters across a large ensemble. Anderson also showed off his knack for writing wonderful scenes with sort of a heightened reality (I love this one with Rashad Jackson played by Alfred Molina). With the success of Boogie Nights, New Line Cinema gave Anderson a metaphoric black check to make whatever he wanted with absolute creative control (ever director’s dream). The film started out initially as a small intimate project, but as Anderson wrote it grew into a vast ensemble piece about the intersecting lives of several people in the San Fernando Valley, which we know as Magnolia. Again, Anderson’s film garnered three Oscar nominations (this time, one for acting, one of original song and one for writing). Anderson has claimed that Magnolia is the best film he will probably ever make.

And Now for Something Different (Sort of):

With the 1990s over and done, Anderson had three critical hits under his belt and sat almost atop the totem poll of prestige filmmakers. But, he wanted to try something different. All of his films had been long ensemble piece and he wanted to make something shorter and more centralized on one character. He decided to make a romantic comedy, but with his own style to it – and thus Punch-Drunk Love was born (partially based on David Phillips). Anderson played around with the visuals and especially the sound design to create the tone and character for his lead Adam Sandler (in what is easily his best performance). The film is aesthetically ambitious and wildly enthralling and strange (and maybe even off-putting for some). Leave it to Anderson to make a film in what has become the most genetic and boring genre (rom-coms) into something completely weird and beautiful. While not receiving any Oscar nominations, it did win best director at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Palm (best film). Next, Anderson made a film that at first glance seems nothing like a typical PT Anderson film with There Will Be Blood (my personal favorite of his films to date). The character piece is a cinematic marvel, as it is both aesthetically superb and features some of the decade’s best performances (notably Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role). In many ways, this film cements Anderson as a truly unique and gifted auteur, the film being among the greatest of the decade (some even naming it as one of the best American films ever made). It was nominated for eight Oscars (including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay) winning two (Cinematography for Robert Elswit, who shot all of Anderson’s first five films, and Lead Actor for Day-Lewis).

Upcoming Projects:

Anderson does not have any future projects set in stone at present. However, he is working on adapting Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice – a hard boiled pothead detective story. He has also mentioned an interest in another Pynchon novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Career Highlights:

1)      Hard Eight (1996) – writer/director (DVD)
2)      Boogie Nights (1997) – writer/director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
3)      Magnolia (1999)* – writer/director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
4)      Punch-Drunk Love (2002) – writer/director (DVD, Streaming)
5)      There Will Be Blood (2007)* – writer/director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
*Editor’s picks

Monday, September 17, 2012

Movie of the Week – Doctor Zhivago

This week’s movie is Doctor Zhivago (1965).

The romantic epic, set during the Bolshevik Revolution, is about Yuri, a young doctor/poet who is torn between his love of two women – his wife Tonya and compatriot/muse Lara, who he connects with during the war. The film is the last in what I call director David Lean’s brilliant epic trilogy (with The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia – all three of which are considered among the 50 greatest Hollywood films). While he made additional epics, like Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India, they are not quite of the same quality as these three. Lean brought back his crew from Lawrence of Arabia for the film, including composer Maurice Jarre (whose score was incredibly popular during the film’s release, especially Lara’s Theme), cinematographer Freddie Young, production designer John Box, and screenwriter Robert Bolt. The cast is fantastic as well, featuring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, and Tom Courtenay. Nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, the film won four Oscars including art direction, cinematography, music, writing, and costume design. Surprisingly, the film was highly criticized by film critics upon its release, and did not do well commercially either initially. However, the piece of music Lara’s Theme from the film was very popular and spurred on moviegoers into theaters and the film found its audience. As of 2010, inflation adjusted, it is the eighth highest grossing film of all-time. And, it is critically acclaimed today, sitting at number 39 and 27 respectively on AFI’s and BFI’s greatest 100 films lists. Doctor Zhivago is a must-see for fans of cinema and David Lean’s epics. Check out the trailer.

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming

Friday, September 14, 2012

Essential Songs of 2012: Part 8 – Music Spotlight – September 2012

Artist: 50 Cent Song: New Day Producer(s):  Dr. Dre Featuring: Dr. Dre and Alicia Keys Album: Street King Immortal

Artist: Big Sean and Kanye West Song: Clique Producer(s): Hit-Boy Featuring: Jay-Z Album: Cruel Summer

Artist: Frank Ocean Song: Lost Producer(s): Malay Featuring: N/A Album: channel ORANGE

Artist: Rick Ross Song: Pirates Producer(s): Kenoe and Got Koke Featuring: N/A Album: God Forgives, I Don’t

Artist: Stars Song: Backlines Producer(s): N/A Featuring: N/A Album: The North

Artist: The Sea and Cake Song: Harps Producer(s): N/A Featuring: N/A Album: Runner

Artist: Thee Oh Sees Song: Flood’s New Light Producer(s): N/A Featuring: N/A Album: Putrifiers II

Listen: Here
Artist: Wickerbird Song: Tripoli Producer(s): N/A Featuring: N/A Album: The Crow Mother

Artist: Wild Nothing Song: Paradise Producer(s): Nicolas Vernhes Featuring: N/A Album: Nocturne

Artist: Woods Song: Size Meets the Sound Producer(s): N/A Featuring: N/A Album: Bend Beyond

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Purity Ring – Shrines (2012) – Review

Review: Canadian electronic dream-pop group Purity Ring (made up of Megan James and Corin Roddick) deliver a good first album with Shrines. When first listening to the group, they reminded me of another Canadian duo Crystal Castles. However, the more I listen to Purity Ring, the less they resemble Crystal Castles. Purity Ring lacks the raw power and energy, but they have a much more enchanting sound. They mix their pop melodies with very personal lyrics both inviting the listener to dance and have fun, but also find deeper meaning in the songs (not always the case in what seems to be today’s overly frivolous pop music). Shines is well worth checking out for fans of more electronic sounding pop. 3/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Obedear
2)      Belispeak
3)      Crawlersout

Available on CD and Digital Download