Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Love and Other Drugs

Initially Published Here

Buried somewhere in this mushy, formulaic mess of a movie is a half-way interesting story. The film is ostensibly based on a non-fiction bestseller about a young, hot-shot pharmaceutical rep who starts work for Pfizer shortly before the drug giant unleashes Viagra on an unsuspecting and eternally grateful world. But the film quickly loses interest in this thread and instead turns into a generic modern day romance where two seemingly disparate souls find true love, lose it, then find it again.

Let’s pause here, as to take a few minutes to discuss a relatively new Hollywood trend – I’m talking about these romantic comedies that feel the need to stretch out to nearly two hours or more to tell their tired, clichéd stories. MSN film critic (and former Premiere magazine editor) Glenn Kenney hit the nail on the head in a recent review of the latest Katherine Heigel perpetrated injustice (aka, Life as We Know It). In rom-coms of yore, our two lovers would spend most of their time coming to the conclusion that they were meant to be together and the film would end with their pairing. But today they couple needs to pair up, then breakup over some contrived conflict, and then spend another 15 or 20 minutes realizing that they really should be together after all.

In the case of Love and Other Drugs, we are talking about Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal), the ‘Type A’ salesman extraordinaire and Maggie (Anne Hathaway), the free spirit whose cynical world view is a result of suffering from Parkinson’s at the age of 26. The two are determined to keep things fast and loose as per their usual M.O.’s, but quickly find themselves falling for one another. Fine. I’m not a cold-hearted jerk. I can go along with these machinations when the actors as charming as Gylenhaal and Hathaway are involved. And the film is refreshingly adult in its acknowledgment of the significant role sex plays in their relationship (although I could have done without Jamie’s painfully unfunny horn-dog brother played by Josh Gad in a role that even Jonah Hill would have passed on). But then the filmmakers feel the need to break them apart despite the fact that everyone in the audience knows damn well that they will be back together before the credits start. And that’s when it's time to start checking out; the unreturned messages, the bad dates, the pursuit that entails when one partner, typically the guy, realizes his mistake (this one involves a busload of adorable seniors). Enough already! Get them together again and get me out of here. Would I have loved this film if had ended 20 minutes sooner? Probably not, to be fair. But I woudn't be this choked with bile and anger, either.

The High Dials : Anthems for Doomed Youth

Initially Published Here

“Power Pop” is a musical ghetto into which few bands would want to be relegated. It conjures up images of Beatle boots and paisley shirts, big record collections and precious little real-life experience. Most depressingly, it’s often about trying to meticulously recreate a sound instead of creating something fresh. Sometimes it’s difficult explaining the difference between the good, the bad, and the lame when it comes to this stuff, but to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart - I know it when I hear it.

The new High Dials album is definitely on the right side of the equation. Sure, it has its share of jangly guitars and sweet melodies. And “Uruguay” bows a little too reverentially towards the Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds, something that’s all but a requirement amongst indie-pop bands. But elsewhere these guys shake things up just enough to keep their songs from falling into the obvious traps. The album is sequenced very much like an LP, with the fast ones loaded on Side A. This includes “Teenage Love Made Me Insane,” a perfectly propulsive single from an era long-gone. Songwriter Trevor Anderson’s vocals are high in the mix, and cushioned with lots of dreamy reverb but there is some real bite to the performances. Drummer Max Herbert, in particular, comes to life on Side B, where the band stretches things out a bit (the lengthy coda on “Mysterio” sees him conjuring Keith Moon in his flailing).

In general, I imagine the group’s sound truly igniting in a live setting. Bands like these frequently blow me away when stumbled upon in a small, crowded club. For 30 minutes or so, they can convince you they are the greatest thing in the world. Then you play the CD you bought at the merch stand and realize it is nowhere near as powerful as the show you just witnessed. Happens all the time. But with Anthems for Doomed Youth , the High Dials have crafted an excellent collection of melodic songs with palpable energy and drive. To say that I can’t wait for the chance to see them live is the highest compliment I can offer (Rainbow Quartz International).

Friday, November 19, 2010

Please Give

Initially Published Here

Nicole Holofcener’s latest dramedy centers on a NYC couple (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) who make their living buying estate sale furniture and selling it at exorbitant mark-ups out of their chi-chi boutique. They do well enough to have purchased the apartment adjacent to their own which is currently occupied by nonagenarian Andra (Ann Guilbert), who is cared for by her granddaughters (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet). Everyone involved tries hard not to think about the reality of waiting for poor Andra to die so that they can all get on with their lives in one way or another.

If that makes them sound like bad people … well, that’s the point that Holofcener’s film is struggling with. In fact, they’re not bad people, but that doesn’t keep them from doing bad things. The film’s pleasure is in watching these characters come to grips with their behavior and navigate towards some balance. It’s an honest and painfully funny depiction of human nature, perfectly cast and scripted. There’s nary a false note here.

This Blu-ray edition does an excellent job of making the best of the film’s obviously meager production values. And rather than the obligatory commentary track, the disc includes an insightful Q&A with the writer/director where she sheds additional light on the film.

Forbidden Lie$

Initially Published Here

The true life story of author Norma Khouri is almost too loopy to believe. Khouri wrote the hugely successful Forbidden Love, a supposed memoir of her life growing up in Jordan and the murder (‘honor killing’) of her best friend who made the mistake of dating a Christian man. A few years after the book was published, an Australian investigative journalist uncovered ample evidence that not only was the book largely a work of fiction, but that Khouri may had been involved in many more run of the mill scams and cons over the years.

At first, the preponderance of silly, ham fisted reenactments of scenes from the book distract rather than embellish the film. But the jocular tone makes more sense as the story unfolds and more and more outrageous accusations come to light. Made with the author’s explicit involvement, she seems to have no clue as to how disturbed a picture the film paints of her. You can be certain it’s the attention alone that she craves, regardless of whether or not she comes off as simply misunderstood or truly sociopathic.

The film does what it needs to do in bringing to light a literary hoax right up there with JT Leroy and Clifford Irving. That it lacks subtlety or nuance hardly seems to matter in the scheme of things. The DVD even includes a commentary track where Khouri and director Anna Broinowski continue to hash out their respective arguments. The woman really doesn’t know when to quit.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Maserati : Live at Kung Fu Necktie

Initially Published Here

Maserati brought their Giorgio Moroder/Jan Hammer influenced brand of hard rock to Kung Fu Necktie with like minded souls Steve Moore, and Psychic Paramount, also on the bill. But this line-up of three instrumental “rock” acts was a true study in contrasts despite the complete absence of vocal mics all evening (Well, almost complete - does that Talk Box count?).

New York’s Psychic Paramount shares a classic guitar/bass/drums line-up with Maserati (as well as a love for looped keyboards) but their sound is decidedly more noisy and aggressive. Bassist Ben Armstrong seemed to be wrestling with his instrument at times, and I swear, in the end, the bass won. Guitarist Drew St. Ivany stuck to high frequencies, spraying out an array of squeals and scratches in order to be heard over the bottom-end din. And just when I thought neither band, nor audience, could withstand the sonic onslaught much longer, it was over.

Maserati, however, were never in danger of overheating. Their sound is carefully controlled and measured. Often described as evocative of a late night drive on an empty highway, it is easy to succumb to its hypnotic power when in the right frame of mind. This was just the second show of their tour in support of their new album, Pyramid of the Sun, and their first shows with new drummer A.E. Paterra (one half of Pittsburgh-based duo Zombi). Paterra was front and center on stage, and in the soundscape. He was spot on all night, even if he occasionally had that ‘new guy’, deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. Guitarists Matt Cherry and Coley Dennis rely on their delay boxes like metal bands rely on their distortion pedals; they are an integral part of the Maserati sound. Between Paterra’s powerful attack, the incessant interlocking guitar lines, and bassist Chris McNeal's propulsive riffs, this was rock n’ roll with considerable booty-shaking appeal. It’s a shame so few attendees at Kung Fu felt the urge to dance to the grooves being laid down. 

Steve Moore, the other half of Zombi, started the evening with 30 minutes of pulsing mood music played on vintage wood-paneled synths. Sounding like nothing less than the soundtrack to a long lost Dario Argento film, it was equal parts pretty and haunting, but not something you really need to experience live to enjoy to the fullest.

Jukebox Zeros : City of Bother and Loathe

Initially Published Here

Philly’s own Jukebox Zeros play a decidedly unfashionable brand of rock’n’roll, circa 2010. I’m talking about a lineage that can be traced back to Chuck Berry, who begat the Rolling Stones, who begat the New York Dolls, who begat the Replacements and so on and so on. There’s precious little irony in their tunes, or anything whimsical or child-like. It’s all pounding drums and screaming guitars, simple progressions and simpler sentiments. But what they lack in originality they make up for in enthusiasm and conviction.

Their new EP, City of Bother and Loathe, comes hot on the heels of last year’s Rock’n’Roll Ronin CD. Vinyl only this time out (with a download card, natch), the new record delivers 3 new tunes and a Testors cover in just a little over 11 minutes. Despite all the aggression in these grooves the sound is surprisingly concise and uncluttered. The sonic palette doesn’t vary much from song to song so you take the little touches as they come; the piercing one-note piano solo on the title track, the tempo shifts on “Cop Shop,” the poppier-than-usual chorus on “Secret Streets.” Their take on the Testors’ “Let’s Get Zooed Out” is a little too reverential, but I suppose there isn’t a heck of a lot you can do with one minute and 40 seconds worth of grimy gutter punk except hold on tight and hope it doesn’t derail. And derail it doesn’t. Cuz despite the lip service paid to all things sloppy and loose, the thing I like the most about Jukebox Zeros is their tight attack and streamlined sound. This is punk rock played with a respect for pop sensibilities and an explosiveness that never quite falls into chaos. (Rankoutsider Records).

Friday, November 12, 2010


Initially Published Here

Complaining about a lack of character development or understanding of social context in a Hollywood action movie is akin to being upset that your pet turtle can’t outrun the neighbor’s greyhound. It’s just not what they are built to do, correct? Not all movies can or should be judged by the same criteria. That’s not to imply some sort of sliding scale, but an acknowledgement that you can enjoy an action picture on its own merits while ignoring shortfalls that might otherwise be inexcusable in other types of films.

Unstoppable, the latest juggernaut from Tony Scott, involves an unmanned, out of control freight train barreling through the western Pennsylvania countryside carrying some highly toxic chemicals. The only men with a chance of bringing the train to a halt are “Hot Headed Rookie” Will Colson (Chris Pine, aka James T. Kirk 2.0) and “Grizzled Veteran” Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington, who’s gotten quite comfortable playing the same sort of role in several Tony Scott films as of late). Along for the ride are Rosario Dawson as the “Sharp-witted, Take No BS Dispatcher” who talks Will and Frank through their mission, and the sorely underutilized character actor Kevin Corrigan as the “Egghead from the Home Office” who proves himself by coming through with some sage advice when needed.

The film operates somewhere in between your standard high speed action movie and a disaster film right out of Irwin Allen’s wheelhouse. Where it excels is in its relentlessness. The movie opens with no more than a few a minutes of cursory back story before the train is loose and the chase is on. Scott is an expert at keeping things fast and furious while never losing track of spatial relationships. This is a skill lost on many current directors (Michael Bay, I’m looking in your general direction). They hope to generate excitement by piling on quick and jarring edits from one action to the next. But what they ultimately do is lose the thread that ties the actions together. And when that’s gone there’s no fluidity, no sense of cause and effect. You spend your time trying to make sense of the action instead of getting engulfed in it.

And there were moments in Unstoppable where I found myself completely caught up in its momentum despite my own best judgment. I could care less about Will’s estranged wife or Frank’s daughters (nice product placement for Hooters, BTW). I could also care less about how closely it adheres to the “true story” it is supposedly based on-- does the phrase “Based on a True Story” really help sell these movies? Reagardless, I was still able to lose myself in this slight but expertly filmed little action picture.

Client 9 - The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Initially Published Here

Was Eliot Spitzer a crusader for the common man against the seemingly limitless greed of corporate America, or was he an opportunistic egomaniac motivated by self-interests? More interestingly, is it possible to be both at the same time? These are the key questions raised by this new documentary.

Full disclosure -- I was an employee of AIG working in their New York home office at the time that Spitzer, then the state’s Attorney General, first leveled accusations of criminal activity at the insurance giant and, more specifically, it’s long-time CEO and Chairman Maurice ‘Hank’ Greenberg. On the inside looking out, it struck me that Spitzer was simply trying to raise his public profile in a bid to secure the governorship and going after big business was the easiest way to get voters on his side. The fact that he ultimately never brought any charges whatsoever against the company or Greenberg seemed to bear this out. But the film makes a rather strong case that it was (Republican) federal prosecutors who stepped in and tied the hands of Spitzer and his team.

In fact, the film’s greatest strength is its accumulation of shitty behavior on the part of everyone involved to the point where you are left rooting for Spitzer as, perhaps, the least big asshole in this particular room. The filmmakers trot out a veritable Teddy Bear’s Picnic of wizened old money faces: disgraced N.Y. State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, investment banker Kenneth Langone, political fixer Roger Stone, the aforementioned Hammerin’ Hank. Each is more despicable than the next. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Spitzer likeable but compared to this rogue’s gallery he comes off as just some poor schlub who got caught cheating on his wife and was punished all out of proportion with the sin committed.

As compellingly awful as each of these talking heads are, director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Casino Jack and the United States of Money) would have been better off just letting them pontificate for his camera. Instead he frequently cuts to basic-cable style reenactments and clichéd shots of rainy city streets in an effort to establish mood and/or suspense. They’re unnecessary and take time away from the compelling parade of amoral conduct he’s put together. At a time when it's much easier (and healthier) to be amused rather than disgusted by the behavior of public figures, Client 9 still manages to rankle. Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Maserati : Pyramid of the Sun

Initially Published Here

Maserati are a fascinating hybrid. They play instrumental hard rock in the vein of bands like Explosions in the Sky and Trans Am, but with frequent stops on the dance floor courtesy of Giorgio Moroder-style synthesizers and motorik drum beats. There are elements of Krautrock hidden away in the multiple layers working here, but frequently they sound like nothing less than a deep cut from the American Gigolo soundtrack.

This is a good thing. Hard rock bands frequently improve their hit ratio with the liberal addition of hip-swaying beats. In fact, a good argument can be made that the primary distinction between “Hard Rock” and “Heavy Metal” are those very beats. Call it the difference between Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin (or say, Metallica and Guns n' Roses). 'Cuz what the boys in the pit don’t get the girls understand. Maserati understands this, too. There is a swagger to these songs that fits hand-in-glove with their relentless forward momentum, and incrementally building arrangements. And the constant shifting and reshuffling frequently fills the role that is typically filled by vocal melodies.

Pyramid of the Sun is the band’s third full-length release and their first since drummer Jerry Fuchs died in a tragic accident last year (he fell down an open elevator shaft during a party in Brooklyn, NY). The band has referred to the record as a tribute to Fuchs (most of the drumming is his), and I doubt it’s a coincidence that “Bye M’Friend, Goodbye” is the best thing on here. Closing the album with a blast of pure bliss, it builds on pulsing synths and what sound sounds like chanting monks to an explosion of melodic, intertwining riffage and crashing drums. It fades out at 6:37, but it could have gone for twice as long and I doubt I’d have been bored for a second. It remains to be seen how the new drummer, Steve Moore, will sustain the high note that Fuchs has left his band on, but this is a great salute. (Temporary Residence Ltd.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Interview : Danny Boyle

Initially Published Here

Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) loves extremes. His films are filled with people doing extraordinary things under extraordinary circumstances. And his is a case of style following content -- breathless movement, jarring close-ups, split screens, rapid cutting. Affectations in the hands of a lesser artist, for Boyle, the go-for-broke imagery is perfectly in keeping with the stories he’s telling. On the surface, that wouldn’t seem to be the case with his new film, 127 Hours, essentially, the true life single protagonist survival story of Aron Ralston, the hiker who amputated his own arm after being pinned by a boulder in a secluded canyon in the Utah desert. But Boyle manages to jam as much action into the piece as your typical Hollywood blockbuster, aided by a bravura performance by James Franco who’s on screen by himself for most of the film’s taut 90 minutes. We had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Boyle briefly while he was in town promoting the film’s appearance at the Philadelphia Film Festival. Here, he discusses his efforts to remain truthful to Aron’s story and the difficulties of getting the film made, even for an Academy Award winning director.

At what point in the process did you have a vision of how you were going to depict the big moment?

Well, it’s in the book. The writing of that sequence where he describes doing it, I remember thinking that whatever I do, I’m gonna be honest to that and if they cut it, I’ll walk away from the film because you have to do that honestly. It took him 44 minutes. I don’t think Aron was a natural writer before this happened but there certainly are other people. He’s one. Joe Simpson [author of Touching the Void] is another. Primo Levy is another. Where writers are made by experience and the gift is bestowed upon them by the extreme experience they go through.

Was there any concern on your part or on the producers’ part about turning off potential viewers?
Yes. The studio was terrified of that, still, even though its getting good buzz, they’re still obviously scared.

But ultimately, what’s there is what you wanted?
Sure. It’s very honest and truthful. And then, to be fair to them, they haven’t suggested changing it. They realize that what we presented to them with the first cut, that sequence was accurate and it wasn’t exploitative. It was troubling, but faithful to the experience because, of course, you can’t change the ending.

Certain filmmakers in the position of critical and financial success such as what you had with your last movie, use that opportunity to make a difficult project or something extremely personal that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. Is this film something that couldn’t have been done without the success that you had?
It would never have been made.

I mean, Spielberg could have made it, but most filmmakers would never be allowed to in the current climate. They’re so nervous about the market, you know, just what people want to go and see and stuff like that. So yes, we did take advantage of the success we had with Slumdog.

Is this something you had in mind while doing promotion for Slumdog?

Well, funny enough, I approached Aron about it, [but] he wanted to make it as more of a documentary then and it was his story, you know, so you back away and then when it came back again, it was sort of after the promotional tour, sort of obvious that we could take advantage of the hullabaloo and the financial climate that Slumdoghad had. You know, we have a few credits in the bank with the studio so we used the same studio. We morally embarrassed them into agreeing to let us make the film. No, I’m kidding.

I understand the actual video that Aron makes where he’s saying goodbye is something only certain family and friends had seen but you and James Franco had been granted access. Was Aron involved in that discussion of how to use it for the film? Is it closer to the spirit of what was on the tapes?

Aron was involved in a lot of this. A lot of it’s in the book, so he did reveal that. What he doesn’t like is showing the tape but he did show it to us eventually. And we made departures. One was the girls in the beginning with the swimming and the second one was actually his talk show host – James’ talk show host, you know, when he does the multiple characters. That isn’t on the tape but the bit that follows is when he gives up trying to entertain everyone and says, “Mom, Dad, I don’t appreciate you half as much as I know I could” – that’s all verbatim. The reason for the talk show host thing and what was extraordinary about the tapes, was that he is very composed, very controlled. And of course, you realize that what he was trying to do was leave a dignified impression of himself for his parents to see after he died because he did think he was going to die and he thought “I don’t want them to see me going ‘Please help me somebody.’” He wanted to look noble and dignified like he was trying his best and he loved them all. He said if he did crack and feel sorry for himself, he went back over the message [and] erased [it] in the place and rerecorded a dignified message. That gave us the idea of him performing in order to cheer himself up, to kind of persuade himself and others who might watch them that he’s coping with this, you know, and so that led to the talk show host. Those are the two major changes we made to the story. The rest of it is verbatim.