Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A NEW BREED OF ATTACK DOG


I think this Marley & Me poster makes for an appropriate follow-up to my White Dog post below.

I don't know if that cute little dude just ate Kelly LeBrock, the Devil Wears Prada lady, or that Confessions of a Shopaholic girl, but he appears to be a much more efficient and tidy eater than Mr. White Dog.

Monday, December 29, 2008

ON DVD : WHITE DOG (1982)

Sometimes the best art is fashioned from the simplest of elements. On its surface, White Dog comes off like a low-budget contractual obligation at the end of a career, or a career-in-transition vehicle for a rising star (Kristy McNichol) gone miserably wrong. However, and especially after its first half hour, White Dog stands as Samuel Fuller's most profound work. Unappreciated even up unto its director's passing, the long overdue DVD release of White Dog should bring more allure and discussion about Fuller's ever evolving legacy.

Like the controversial Peeping Tom did for Michael Powell , Samuel Fuller's White Dog went a long way in (temporarily) damaging the reputation of its creator. While unfair, the shock of a Peeping Tom was understandable in the footsteps of Powell's A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going, and The Red Shoes. But Fuller was a different case. He was the cigar-chomping bastard director of The Naked Kiss, a movie still able to shake modern sensibilities with its portrayal of bald prostitutes, molestation, and handicapped children. So why suddenly all the fuss?

Well, White Dog confronts the topic of racism, and, as we well know - perhaps now more than ever - race is an arena few artists dare to enter. The quickest way to quiet somebody (an artist) is to label them a racist. Meanwhile, representations in art over issues such as racial identity, immigration, and poverty get either glossed over or swept under the rug, leaving our culture the weaker for it.

Late one night in the Hollywood Hills, an aspiring actress, Julie (McNichol), hits a dog with her car. She takes the all-white German Shepard to the vet then keeps watch over him while awaiting a response from her FOUND DOG fliers. After saving her from a rapist, Julie and the dog bond. However, Julie soon discovers that her new companion is an attack dog trained to maul black people. She then takes the dog to a animal shelter where a man named Keys (Paul Winfield) vows to break the mutt from its hateful ways.

The scenes between Keys and the German Shepard make up the heart of White Dog. As Keys' racial counterpart, it was an ingenious move by Fuller to bottle the learned behaviors of hatred and bigotry inside of an animal instead of a human. An actor would be too aware, handling face-to-face scenes of unleashed and uncaged racial confrontation with a heavy, knowing cloud over their head. But a dog acts on instinct; its performance doesn't pay notice to the camera.

Images of Keys lifting his shirt, exposing his black skin just inches from the caged eyes of a snarling white-coated beast are equal to the purest visual cinema we get from silent film. In fact, sequences between Keys and the dog retain their power even with the sound turned down. Keys' resilience is admirable, almost saintly. When the dog escapes and brutally kills a man inside a church (looking up at a stained-glass image of St. Francis as if to scoff at it), Keys refuses to put him down, even against the wishes of Julie. Allusions to Keys as a MLK-type figure would not be ridiculous.

Like any great film, multiple viewings and late-night reflection can open up doorways and interpretations that didn't initially stand out. One of my pet theories about White Dog is that, on a sub-textual level, the dog symbolizes Hollywood producers/"the industry", a guard keeping red-fanged watch on frustrated visionaries like Fuller.

In one specific scene (pictured above) Julie's dog tags along on a film shoot. Before the set is crashed in a fit of stark violence by the dog onto a black actress, Fuller gives us a peek of this "movie inside a movie" being filmed. Shot against cheap rear projection and flimsy props, two young women tour the streets of Paris. One can't help but see this as Fuller's jabbing acknowledgement that France became somewhat of a critical safety zone for him in his later years. And there is further, possible back-scratching reference to the New Wave's well-known validation of Fuller when Nichols takes a copy of Hitchcock/Truffaut with her to the hospital as a get well gift for the attacked actress.

On its broadest level, White Dog is about ingrained bigotry of all kinds. Learned or not, that type of behavior is inexcusable and Fuller treats it as such. However, he also appreciates the complication (see the black & white type on a gray background during the title sequence) and steps away from any quick condemnation. Why else do you think he chose a dog, perhaps the most sympathetic creature on Earth, to carry the weight of the most despicable actions of humankind?


[NOTE: Movie stills taken from DVDBeaver]

Sunday, December 28, 2008

THE ENDINGS BLOG-A-THON : THE ENDING TO PIN... (1988)

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This post belongs to Valley Dreamin's Endings Blog-A-Thon. Please click on over to J.D.'s site and view the other entries in this clever end of 2008 send-off. Enjoy!
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When J.D. first dropped word of his year-ending Endings Blog-A-Thon, possibilities a plenty popped into my head. After all, nothing lets a movie linger longer in the memory than a spectacular and/or note perfect punctuation to a brilliant ride. It’s a song that stops at its peak; It’s hitting a game winning shot at the buzzer; It’s orgasm. Then again, a great ending can prop up an otherwise forgettable movie. A quick artistic rally can make previous bruises and bumps forgivable.

Speaking of last second stunners, my choice for the blog-a-thon rolled-up on me just two short days ago...

What do you do when you’re in a hotel room, you’ve read the paper, and you can’t stand TV? Browse Netflix’s Instant Viewing section! Their list of instantly viewable horror films provides special enticement for me. For one, many of the titles are of the 80’s, and because I was too cowardly a child to watch scary movies, I’ve yet to see most of them. Add to that the fact that these films have yet to get DVD distribution (remember, horror is the easiest genre to get distribution in…), and you’re hanging out with some of the most bottom-feeding bastard films in the genre.

I first learned of the 1988 film Pin… while reading one of Final Girl’s Friday poster posts. Still, even then, all I knew of it was its title, “Pin…”, and the image on the poster of an ascending staircase with a small figure in a wheelchair sitting up top. I loved the (dot) (dot) (dot)s in the title, but it was that wheelchair that sold me. So I clicked PLAY the other day, and was instantly host to one of the most twisted movies I’ve seen in awhile.

In order to make a long explanation of that above declaration short, and to get to the ending that this post is intended to be about, let me attempt a X16 fast forwarded version of the plot: rich kids… father is a pediatrician… pediatrician uses anatomically-correct anatomy dummy like a ventriloquist … the dummy’s name is Pin (short for Pinocchio)… pediatrician’s son believes Pin is real… pediatrician’s son sees nurse have sex with Pin… the pediatrician has Pin teach his kids the birds & the bees and then shows them Pin’s penis… incest fantasies … father giving daughter an abortion…. AND MORE!

My point is that Pin… was a fine enough viewing for some perverse pleasure on a Thursday night, but it was the ending that came out and stung me in my seat. Eventually, the film’s house of riches and ghosts is down to brother Leon and sister Ursula. Ursula is sane and ready to lead a normal life, while Leon is insane and fully taken on the plastic persona of Pin. The films final scene shows Ursula saying a last goodbye to Leon (ie “Pin”), as he sits with his back to her, in a wheelchair, looking out a window.

Leon/Pin : Have you seen Leon?

Ursula : No.

Leon/Pin : If you see him, tell him I miss him.

Ursula : I will… (sniffle)… I miss him too.

That familial moment put an honest lump in my throat. It made me forget the incestuous creep-ons that came up earlier in the film and opened up a moment of genuine sibling affection.

Further, and what most directly impacted me, was the camera’s final straight-on close-up of Leon dreaming out a second floor window. The brief image feels like a hand-over-the-heart blow of a kiss to an era that survived on more sincerity and authenticity than pop historians gave it credit for. That one look seems to encapsulate every 80’s youth-culture moment from Max Headroom to C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man to the Top 40 domination of Blue-Eyed Soul to the advent of the sharply kempt eighties ladies man... and on.

THE FINAL SHOT...

... good-bye.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

DOUBT

The slice of truthful human vulnerability that writer/director John Patrick Shanley wants audiences to take away after viewing his play-cum-movie Doubt, is Sister Aloysius' (Merryl Streep) anti-climactic transition from "I have my certainty" to "I have my doubts". But Doubt's only successful play is in handing the audience a debatable cliffhanger to walk out into the lobby with. Nothing approaching profundity or fresh clarity comes from this movie which promises so much with its loaded and heavy monosyllabic title.

While watching Doubt, you can feel its calculations at work. This is a film that offers "opportunity" to its participants. Globes, Oscars, "spirit" awards, the back page of Film Comment. Surely, Amy Adams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Merryl Streep envisioned acclaim, credibility, and sit-down interviews with Charlie Rose and/or Larry King when the chance to sign on with Doubt was offered. As the performances go, well, they all come off a bit goofy, but Adams and Hoffman give it the most impressive go. Hoffman, especially, does fine walking those subtle lines between "did he?" or "didn't he?". Surprisingly, Merryl Streep just mucks (and yuks) it up, reprising her The Devil Wears Prada shtick... but with a habit on.

Yielding to self-pride in order to admit one's imperfection is a universal truth worth exploring, but Shanley brings nothing new to this common street knowledge. This is apparent in the director's convenient and politically correct (ie boring and cowardly) decision to set his tale within the confines of a modern Catholic prep school. Instead of crafting a scenario that would appeal to our culture at-large, Shanley spins a yarn that shall please his high-brow, religion-hating buddies. Hoffman's Father Flynn is given sharp finger nails that protrude from his pudgy fingers, like those from a demon, when he flashes his palms to the gym class. Is this supposed to be clever? (Check out the great gym-class scene in Ola Bornedal's The Substitute for an excellent moment of short-shorts proselytizing between student and teacher).

Shanley's second-tier obsession in Doubt diddles with societal power-structure and the faults that lie along lines of gender and elite-level back scratching. But this trope is just as tired and artistically redundant as Shanley's inner-doubt probing. In a sequence intended to provoke, the dinner table of Father Flynn and the monsignors is juxtaposed with Sister Aloysius and her nuns. The men, dining on blood-red rare meat, whiskey, and cigarettes, converse heartily at the widely-framed and warmly lit table, while the sisters are framed tightly, encased in a small room, at a small table, eating poorly and conversing dryly. It brings to mind the class-level juxtapositions in Robert Altman's Gosfard Park, but then quickly brings to reality that in the passing of legends like Altman, the torches got buried along with them.

Monday, December 22, 2008

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal recently called Slumdog Millionaire the "world's first globalized masterpiece". To start with, that's not even true, but what grates about that statement is the idea that a "globalized" film industry would be good for cinema around the world. Though Scott Rudin and David Geffen probably drool puddles of profit at the thought of outsourcing Brad Pitt's future to a fourteen year-old Chinese boy, what Morgenstern is alluding to is the trend toward merging productions across international film markets... Hollywood and Bollywood, France and Hong Kong, London and Seoul. While there are benefits and drawbacks to globalized industries of all kind, what you're sometimes left with is an end product of acceptable mediocrity. Using that analogy, Slumdog Millionaire hangs like an ill-fitting Old Navy sweater.

We've accepted (tolerated) mediocrity from self-appointed Oscar contenders for quite some time, but the predictability with which this ceremony continually comes together has turned the once fruitful movie months of November & December into a less exciting season than the annual dump months of January & February. Ah, but perhaps that tide is turning... early seeming shoe-ins like Australia, The Reader, Seven Pounds, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are getting shrugs from the critics while fan favorites & critical darlings like The Dark Knight, Gran Torino, and Milk were snubbed by The Golden Globes. There seems to be a civil war going on within Hollywood's glass towers. This can only be good. Have them eat themselves so they are forced to start anew.

Following in the footprints of established successful form, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire unfolds like award whores The Usual Suspects and Forrest Gump. Jamal (Dev Patel) is a motherless child beating back poverty in the slums of Mumbai by hustling footwear, swiping nan, and giving fake tours of the Taj Mahal. He works his way onto the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? but, because they think he's a cheat, Jamal is preemptively interrogated by police on the eve of facing the 20 million rupee question. To argue his innocence, Jamal must justify each answer to the detectives.

From here, the game show doubles as a plot device for Slumdog's coming of age story. With the explanation of each answer we are granted flashback to moments in Jamal's life where experience and circumstance fated him with the knowledge that will lead to that twenty million rupee moment. The whole thing kinda smells a bit too cute, not far removed from the Danny Boyle Hallmark-meets-SPIKE TV muscle fluff of Millions, yet this time the charity fairy tale is given an ethnic twist sure to please Academy voters. I won't deny it, Slumdog can warm your belly, and if you're on the treadmill at the gym its fluidity may suit your easy input faculties just right. But thinking back on it soon after a viewing is to realize that Slumdog Millionaire is a film already beginning to age.

And just what, exactly, is to be made of the moment where Jamal's bad seed brother, Salim, takes a blood-money bath during a gunfire siege reminiscent of the final sequence in DePalma's Scarface? By contrasting this moment with Jamal's rise to wealth, and then having Salim whisper "Allah is great", is Boyle suggesting Salim has cosmically martyred himself for the sake of Jamal's newfound riches? Is Boyle telling us that by taking the righteous path, Jamal has earned the right to immodestly walk those golden streets? I know, I know... "just ease off and enjoy the cute story!". Fine, but then trade with me the admission that Danny Boyle is not a great director and Slumdog Millionaire is not a great movie.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

YES MAN

The time is right for a movie like Yes Man. The more connected and media obsessed we've become, the more disconnected and dispossessed of social contact we've ended up. Twitter, MySpace, Facebook; laptops, iPhones, Direct TV. All of these things have their benefits, but the unintended consequence is a culture full of head-down shufflers and shut-in mumblers. "I'll just buy it on Amazon" ... "I'll let that one go to voice mail" ... "I'm gonna wait until it's On Demand". Even the undervalued experience of browsing inside a record store is slipping away. The tactile pleasure in holding an anticipated New Release, eye contact with fellow customers, the sound of cross-chatter. Yes, technological progress is great, and convenience is a virtue rarely frowned upon, but soon enough we may miss those awkward run-ins at the bookstore.

Carl Allen (Jim Carrey) is a man who's worked hard in the first third of his life in order to reach that peaceful plateau where he can disappear. Graduate, get a college degree, settle in with a company, work your way to that high five-figure salary bracket, then ride that wave until the end of your life. On paper that's not a bad plan, but is it human? Similar in moral to Along Came Polly and this year's barely seen Chaos Theory, Yes Man proclaims "no", and that a life lived through the weighing of options is a life wasted. Accept everything, refuse nothing... even if it's a denture-free blowjob from your neighbor granny. (Yes, awkwardly, that really happens in Yes Man.)

The bulk of Yes Man plays out like two other gimmick-driven Jim Carrey comedies: Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty. In all three, a curse or gift is thrust upon Carrey's character as he spends the rest of the movie reacting to regular everyday encounters and routines under the influence of his new found power. Because of this plot constraint there's not enough time for writer Nicholas Stoller to shift around the socially significant chess pieces introduced in the film's opening. But credit Carrey for making Yes Man a watchable, if not a winning, movie. As with Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty, the jokes in Yes Man aren't funny, but it's fun watching Carrey maneuver his way through the weak material. Give the guy some quality (Me, Myself, & Irene, and Eternal Sunshine) and it's much easier to tell why he's one of our greatest modern actors.

Age has added character to the face of Jim Carrey. His mouth now holds deeper parenthesis when he smiles and there is an overall droop to the mug that once made the facial contortionist a multi-millionaire. Strangely, director Peyton Reed gives Carrey a bang-swoop head of hair that contrasts with the rest of his features. Apparently Reed was concerned with Carrey appearing too old beside his younger co-star/Yes Man love-interest Zooey Deschanel, who is eighteen years Carrey's junior. But even forgiving the noticeable age gap between the two, Deschanel comes off clumsy in her scenes opposite Carrey. Blessed with those wide, striking, chocolate eyes, Deschanel's performance still feels out of sorts, as if she's staring into the abyss of her limited range.

Having lacked an impressive performance since Elf, Peyton Reed milks the hipster crush appeal of Deschanel and puts her in scenes that play to her new found indie-rock cuteness. (If don't you think sensitive rock boy types won't be running to theaters this weekend a la girls from the Robert Pattinson/Twilight craze, you'd be mistaken.) As Allison, Deschanel is the lead singer of an avant-pop group Munchausen by Proxy, teacher of a "running photography" class, and paints to relax. She makes the perfect lifestyle match for the born-again Carl, but to the audience something still feels wrong, and when Yes Man gets to their final film-ending reunion, you heart understands the pull Carl feels towards Allison, but your head is saying "No, man, no!".

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

HEADLYIN' (aka THE DARK KNIGHT DEBATE CONTINUES, OR, HOW I HAVEN'T LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND JUST MOVE ON)


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'The Austin Film Critics Association has named The Dark Knight as the best picture of 2008.'
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We have film critics here?!?!


Monday, December 15, 2008

TRACTOR FACTS' TOP 10 ALBUMS AND 30 FAVORITE SINGLES OF 2008

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Welcome, all who care, to the third annual TRACTOR FACTS music awards. As mentioned previously, on this blog, everyone is welcome to either send me links of their own Top 10 Albums etc. for 2008, OR, you may just post them in the comments section. This is supposed to be fun, so don't sweat being fancy or cute or nothing. Enjoy!

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TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 200810. Loyalty to Loyalty - Cold War Kids

The Cold War Kids have now properly prepped themselves in allowing album number three to be their "great one". Album number one - a collection of EP highlights - was strong, and album number two, Loyalty to Loyalty, is stronger. Nathan Willett's lyrics can charm you ("I haven't slept in weeks/I've been up chasing my childhood with a pen"), make you use your dictionary (did anyone else know what "cryptomnesia" meant?), and sometimes make you cringe ("I'm like Sisyphus in the sun"), but peaks and valleys are to be expected when you're chasing greatness.

FAVORITE SONGS: "Mexican Dogs", "Every Valley Is Not A Lake", "I've Seen Enough"

9. Rip It Off - Times New Viking

Happy accidents and brilliant mistakes are delicious because there's no logical explanation for their occurrence. Take Times New Viking's music, for instance. Some have explained away the sand paper sound quality of Rip It Off as a homage to early 90's low-fi, a time when every Hayden and their Butterglory thought they were the new Sebadoh. But really... isn't this just a case of three burnout/stoners/retards not knowing (or caring) how to record music? Not that it matters, because the songs are great. And you won't understand a word unless you take a magnifying glass to Rip It Off's DIY lyric sheet. Not that it matters, though, because the songs are great.

FAVORITE SONGS: "(My Head)", "The Wait", "The Early, 80's" "Mean God",

8. Weezer (RED) - Weezer

There was no greater triptych of songs this year than "The Greatest Man that Ever Lived", "Pork and Beans", and "Heart Songs". Each track is flawless to a fault, and each one leans into the next like teammates in a baton race. That trio makes up the mini-masterpiece of 2008. In fact, tracks 1-6 & 10 are arguably Rivers Cuomo's finest moments. Why, then, did he let the other band members contribute their own tunes? Well, he's a nice guy, that's why. (But remember what happened to Belle and Sebastian post-If Your Feeling Sinister???). Luckily, their weight isn't enough to sink eponymous album # 3, and, in the end, Weezer still makes a case for why dictatorship in a band is best.

FAVORITE SONGS : "The Greatest Man that Ever Lived", "Heart Songs", "The Angel and the One"7. Brighter Than Creation's Dark - Drive-By Truckers

And yet, here is a band that makes the case for democracy in a band. After losing their best - in my opinion - songwriter in Jason Isbell, the Drive-By Truckers bumped bassist Shonna Tucker up to join Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley as the third member of the DBT's songwriting hydra. (Not since Teenage Fanclub has a band been blessed with so much separate songwriting talent). Brighter Than Creation's Dark is the Athens, GA band's most ambitious album yet, ranging from careful, lovely ballads to drunken bumbling couplets like : "Totally screwed, while chicken wing puke eats the candy apple red off his Corvette/Three dimes down and 25 cents shy of a slice of the Doublemint twins". I don't know either, but it plays cool coming from the sounds of southern drawl. These guys are lifers. I have a feeling that if the current songwriters took off, their cousins or offspring would take up the reins and it would be back to cool business as usual.

FAVORITE SONGS: "The Righteous Path", "That Man I Shot", "The Purgatory Line", "A Ghost To Most"
6. Distortion - The Magnetic Fields

Wanna know how to get forgotten by people who compile lists like this one once that time of year rolls around??? Release your album in January, give it one of the worst album covers imaginable, and be an overall sourpuss in interviews. Stephin Merritt did all those things, but knowing him it was probably all part of a big facade he enjoys putting on. I get that people are turned off by that and/or his seemingly impersonal songwriting, but with Distortion, Merritt plays it like the great ones always do... drops some brilliance on the table, walks away, and quiets the haters.

FAVORITE SONGS: "Old Fools", "Drive On, Driver", "I'll Dream Alone", "Zombie Boy"



5. Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. - Deerhunter

I'm not sure if this follows in the tradition of your typical double-album format, or if Deerhunter front-dude/brainchild Bradford Cox just wanted to give his fans a twofer deal. Regardless, Microcastle seems to be the half that dominates discussions of the album, mostly for the fact that it's a broad, clean, and melodically precise departure from the band's previous standard noise rock. In many ways, Microcastle sounds like the obvious next step from the music Cox did for his solo project Atlas Sound. Sure, there's filler (I still don't get the inclusion of tracks 6-8 on Microcastle), but there's enough overflow elsewhere to make up for it.

FAVORITE SONGS: "Never Stops", "Little Kids", "Nothing Ever Happened", "Backspace Century", "Vox Celeste"

4. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Nope, it's not used as frequently as that pesky little "Beatle-esque" label is, but ever since Pet Sounds became hip again in the 90's, bands have been anxious to get christened as having that "Beach Boys sound". But what The High Llamas, the Elephant Six crew, and others mostly went for was emulating the Brian Wilson "sound", not so much the songcraft. Granted, the craft of Brian Wilson is isn't easily emulated, and I would be a goofball to suggest that Fleet Foxes successfully do so. But what this band does do, mainly behind the tutelage of young wunderkind Robin Pecknold, is branch off from the Wilson tradition of interlocking melodies and direction to create one of the most tuneful albums of the year.

FAVORITE SONGS: "Ragged Wood", "He Doesn't Know Why", "Your Protector", "Oliver James"

3. Year of the Gentleman - Ne-Yo

Ne-Yo harkens back to the days of the R&B singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist when the twelve song album was simply this year's suite du jour of artistic necessity. Like Smokey Robinson and Prince, Ne-Yo has so many songs and evolving ideas coming off of his fingers that he must relegate a good portion of them to buddies. But with Year of the Gentleman, Ne-Yo keeps the best of the recent batch in his own pockets and spins out a track-to-track stunner.

FAVORITE SONGS: "Fade Into The Background", "So You Can Cry", "Lie To Me"


2. Feed the Animals - Girl Talk

A few weeks ago I jokingly called Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) the best songwriter of our generation. Upon reflection, I soon realized that that might not be so lofty a claim. Of course, that goes up against what your definition of "songwriter" or "song" is. Many would immediately disqualify Gillis from such a category, well, because he doesn't actually write music (I would debate that as well, but I'll save that for another time). Instead, Gillis splices recognizable hooks from everybody from The Ghetto Boys to Styx to Of Montreal, and creates a seamless stream of dance anthems that can double as a pop album you'll lose your head over. On the first listen - it's fun; on the second - your giddy; and on the third, fourth, fifth etc. - your jaw is on the floor and your head is hella bangin'.

FAVORITE SONGS: The whole goddamn thing!!!



ALBUM OF THE YEAR: 808s & Heartbreak - Kanye West

I went through the same pendulum of emotions with Kanye West as many a pop music lover did when he came out the moment The College Dropout debuted at #1 and proclaimed himself the end all be all of modern pop music. Yes, we live in sarcastic, cynical times. Equally, we are a culture that loves hyperbole (best ever/worst ever, love/hate, etc.). These two cultural curbs have combined to make us rightly suspicious of a person just crying wolf whenever he proclaims himself "the voice of my generation".... Or whines when he doesn't get enough Grammys... Or dresses up as Jesus Christ for the cover of Rolling Stone.

But you know what? I think Kanye wins. Late Registration was great, better than his debut. Graduation was his best album yet, a stone classic. And now 808s & Heartbreak tops them all. You could argue that all of Kanye's previous albums - especially Late and Graduation - best his recent work in grandeur, but what 808s & Heartbreak does, that previous records did not, is chart a personal and artistic progression simultaneously, making for both a thrilling pop listening experience and witness to a fascinating pop idol transformation.

Moreover, Kanye West's humility on 808 evens out the braggadocio he wears on his public sleeves. In fact, some of his lyrics make you ponder how much of that chest-beating persona is simply theater (the opposite of Bob Dylan's famous shrug-of-the-shoulders deflectiveness). I have no clue where Kanye West goes next. Folk album? Thrash metal? Country pop? Who knows. But I'm almost positive it will defy expectations, and I'm unquestionably confident that it will (again) be great.

FAVORITE SONGS: "Say You Will", "Amazing", "RoboCop", "Street Lights", "Coldest Winter"

To visit previous year's winners, click below:

TRACTOR FACTS Top 10 Albums of 2007.

TRACTOR FACTS Top 10 Albums of 2006.
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30 GREAT SINGLES OF 2008


"Hero"
- Nas
"See You Again" - Miley Cyrus
"Love Lockdown" - Kanye West
"Closer" - Ne-Yo
"Pork and Beans" - Weezer
"Disturbia" - Rihanna
"House of Cards" - Radiohead
"Machine Gun" - Portishead
"Sex on Fire" - Kings of Leon
"Fools" - Dodos
"Gobbledigook" - Sigur Ros
"Tessellate" - Tokyo Police Club
"Oxford Comma" - Vampire Weekend
"Many Shades of Black" - The Raconteurs
"Forever" - Chris Brown
"A Milli" - Lil Wayne
"All Around Me" - Flyleaf
"Love Is Noise" - The Verve
"Violet Hill" - Coldplay
"Northern Downpour" - Panic at the Disco
"Gamma Ray" - Beck
"Courtship Dating" - Crystal Castles
"Fast Blood" - Frightened Rabbit
"Everyone Nose" - N.E.R.D.
"Transformer" - Marnie Stern
"Touch My Body" - Mariah Carey
"That's What You Get" - Paramore
"Why Do You Let Me Stay Here" - She & Him
"The '59 Sound" - The Gaslight Anthem
"Stepping Stone" - Duffy

Sunday, December 14, 2008

NOTHING LIKE THE HOLIDAYS

It may sound cheap to call Nothing Like the Holidays "a Puerto Rican The Family Stone", but it's really a compliment. Like that under appreciated 2006 Christmas film, Nothing Like the Holidays mixes bits of class awareness, politics, and religion into a conventional structure without letting any subject dominate for too long. Yes, audiences might scoff at the film's predictability, but in doing so they will be ignoring the fresh perspectives of Mexican director Alfredo De Villa and his mostly Latino cast. Like the work of Tyler Perry, De Villa's film drops you deeper into a setting that is usually only depicted in Hollywood from the surface out.

The Rodriguez children are grown and have left their Chicago home for three hubs of international relevance: Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) lives in L.A., Mauricio (John Leguizamo) is in New York, and Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) is serving in Iraq. All return to their parent's house for Christmas. Early reviews of Nothing Like The Holidays have patted it on the back for being a Christmas film with Puerto Rican characters. But again, that kind of passer-by approval is missing the larger significance. Reaching across social strata, the Rodriguez family represents various levels of the immigrant experience.

After Jesse's cousin Johnny (Luis Guzman) picks him up from the airport, discussion turns to Johnny's economic success with his electronics and TVs business. With a Puerto Rican flag seat belt strap and talk of being a legal U.S. citizen, Guzman exudes an American-immigrant pride that escapes most filmmakers mishandling this subject today. This level of sentiment is equally felt when Mauricio stops by his father's family owned bodega upon arriving back in Chicago. His entrance sparks off reunions and displays of community flashbacks and eccentricities.

Cinematographer Scott Kevan shoots the interior of the Rodriguez house with a heated, comforting light. Most of the inter-familial drama takes place at the dinner table, and, understanding that, Kevan and De Villa devote time and attention to special details for this most important set piece. Later, when Kevan shoots Alfed Molina over that same dinner table (now empty), through a door frame, and into the kitchen where he sits alone drinking whiskey, it's a more visually expressive moment than anything you'll see in Milk.

Across the board, the performances in Nothing Like The Holidays are appropriately dramatic and comic in all the necessary places (please, will somebody give Melonie Diaz the much needed love she deserves? She should have been nominated for Be Kind, Rewind.) But above them all is Alfred Molina. As Edy, Molina is a bear. His large stature and hairy face dominate the frame whenever he's in it. He huddles over his family as protector and listener and well-intentioned mistake maker. Molina's performance alone is reason enough to push through those Oscar-movie waiting lines and take in this little movie that should.

Friday, December 12, 2008

ON DVD : MISTER LONELY

The answer to the riddle of Mister Lonely can be found in the post-game interview section of the special features that you may access with your DVD player remote control. In it, director Harmony Korine tells of dreams he kept having of parachute-less skydiving nuns that would hit the ground unscathed coupled with recurring visions of Michael Jackson dancing in the streets of Paris. Korine wanted to stretch together a movie from these two parts but he didn't know how to connect them. So he and his brother Avi got together and wrote a nonsense script about a commune in France where celebrity impersonators could collectively be themselves being someone else.

But trouble lies in that reveal. True absurdists keep their intentions close to their chest. Part of the pleasure in swallowing a film like Inland Empire or The Phantom of Liberty is in the tilted-head stare a David Lynch or Luis Bunuel will give afterwards when asked "What was that supposed to mean?" (One of my favorite director interview books is still Objects of Desire : Conversations with Luis Bunuel. It's frustrating and addictive and, to me, offers some of the greatest lessons in how to enjoy that man's work.) Now, I've never bought into the claim that directors such as Lynch and Bunuel float above meaning in their work, but they'd never give you a road map either. (True, Lynch did include crib notes for the Mulholland Dr. DVD, but I took that as a goof in and of itself.)

I don't mean to put Harmony Korine in the same class as Lynch, Bunuel, or even his hero - and Mister Lonely co-star - Werner Herzog, nor do I think Korine is anywhere near carving out an unique aesthetic beauty the way each of the aforementioned have (hold Herzog's whacked-out undertaking Heart of Glass up to anything Korine's done and you'll notice the gap), but I think theirs is the path that Korine wants to travel down.

Yes, there is beauty in Mister Lonely's best moments: an extended shot of a nun soaring through the atmosphere on a dirt bike; Diego Luna's denouement journey back to his apartment to the sounds of Iris DeMent's wonderful "My Life". But these moments are merely specks on the canvas of a nearly two hour trek. Mister Lonely is mostly nothing but schoolboy daydreams brought to life for the reason that Korine knows somebody that knows somebody. Would this film have been made were it not for Herzog, Samantha Morton, Diego Luna, Denis Lavant, and Leos Carax being on board?

Mister Lonely has built up a critical reputation as the film that will introduce you to a "sweeter, gentler" Harmony Korine. You know, no more dead-dogs-and-cats-posing-for-the-camera type of thang. But there was one scene in particular that burned me. Perhaps it was handled with the utmost professionalism, but I'm skeptical at this point that we weren't witness to some borderline exploitation.

The scene in question takes place in a nursing home. "Michael Jackson" (Diego Luna) is sent there by his agent to entertain the elderly. Luna's performance is sincere, but you get the feeling that behind that camera Korine may be playing the dishonorable opportunist. His cuts to stroke victims and senile residents clapping and singing along with "Michael" appear to be at their expense. I wouldn't say that Korine is mocking them, but it came off like he was using their contortions - a product of their disabilities - as just another part of his production design. It's debatable, and I'm not arguing that the disabled should be off-limits (Late Bloomer, a Japanese film where an actor with cerebral palsy plays a madman, is testament to that), it's just that I sensed a bit of Borat-style chicanery going on. I hope that wasn't the case.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

AUSTRALIA

Yes, my cute native friend, you may go on your silly walkabout now.

With Golden Globe nominations set to be announced in about, oh, 6 hours or so, the cast and crew of early media favorite Australia can probably pack it up and get ready for the off-season.

They sure did give it a nice strategic lunge though: teaser posters, cardboard props, and colorful trailers popping up in theaters near the end of the summer session; Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman posing in all the right photo spreads and making all the right appearances; and the studio gave the film a nice, round, grandiose, one-word title for us consumers to latch onto. (Daniel @ Getafilm details this trend here. Though, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems prepared to buck that theory later today. Although... you know most of you have been simply calling it "Benjamin Button" this whole time, right? Text messaging man... it's that text messaging I tell ya!).

But when it came time for that pre-Thanksgiving roll out, Australia came up short in its reach from the red carpet. Oh, your movie doesn't need to be good to score a nomination (see Milk), but it must be presentable, and, frankly, Australia was that pitcher showing up for spring training with twenty extra pounds of beer weight around the waist. Now that its Oscar bubble has burst, it feels somewhat easier, though admittedly anti-climactic, to step back and evaluate what went wrong.

Yippee! We didn't get nominated! Now let's get liquoured up and screw!

I'm not a Baz Luhrmann fan. Not rabidly anti-, I've just never liked anything he's done (no, I've not forgotten "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)", the song that made me forgive radio stations for playing Primitive Radio Gods' "Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand" every four minutes). He has ambition, I'll give him that, and Australia kicks off with an awkwardly impressive extended intro. Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) is in transport from England to join her husband on their industrious start-up ranch "Faraway Downs". Meanwhile, a good looking cattle "drover" (Jackman) is braking bottles on skulls in a bar. Their paths meet in a visual collision that is part screwball, part Looney Tunes, and half piano bar mad-slapdashery. Surprisingly, it kinda works.

So too for the bizarre Grapes of Wrath meets The Beverly Hillbillies truck haul that "drover" gives Lady Ashley across the northern Australian landscape of matte paintings and exploding CGI kangaroos. Had Australia kept this up for its entire 165 minutes, had Luhrmann stayed playfully drunk on the knowledge that he was making a two and a half hour film with the title of an entire continent attached to it, then I might have been down for it. Yet, inevitability sets in, and you get your slow motion crossfire scene, wet-haired heroism, love making, life losing, and music motif that literally cuts through the fog at film's end.

It could've been worse. Looking back, it should've. And while that is no doubt a back-handed compliment, it's worth something in a season where we get too many paint-by-numbers pander pictures. No, Baz Luhrmann didn't drink the 2% white and creamy Kool Aid that was required of him, so he ain't gonna be getting any calls this early morning. And yeah, with Australia Luhrmann did fall on his face, but he saved some in doing so.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

(CLICK FOR A BETTER VIEW)

Monday, December 08, 2008

BENICIO DEL TORO: SEEMINGLY NICE FELLA, POSSIBLY NOT SO SMART


When Benecio Del Toro arrived in Miami to preview his Che film, he was greeted with protesters...

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"That's part of what makes America," Del Toro said of the protest. "You get to say what you think. I find it a little weird that they were protesting without having seen the film, but that's another matter." (H-Wood Reporter)
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Uh, I don't really think they were necessarily protesting the film itself, Benny.

No worry... a few days later Che played at the Karl Marx theater in Cuba where Del Toro was treated very lovingly, I presume.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

MILK

Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black's Milk suffers the traditional follies of many a failed biopic : turgidness, checklist storytelling, caricature acting, and limited cinematic flourish (cinematographer Harris Savides - whose style is usually distinct - feels handcuffed by Van Sant; was he playing it safe for the Oscars?). Yes, Milk is yet another example of that year-end ready made Oscar pap that keeps killing our cinema experiences. Worse than the calculated summer blockbuster, Oscar bait like Milk smells worse because it packages itself as art and goes unchallenged by establishment critics. As Harvey Milk says to lover Scott Smith, "Politics is theater"... yep, and Oscar season strategizing is the new lobbying.

But put all that Academy pandering aside, and Milk is still a slippery, sloppy mess. Van Sant's social probing into the life of city supervisor Harvey Milk and the Castro area of San Francisco holds so many hiccups and contradictions you begin to question the passion he holds for his subjects. In a speech to campaign staffers and friends, Harvey Milk rails against the respect for personal privacy (he calls for staff members to out themselves and anyone they know), yet a central theme of his campaign is the importance of preserving and protecting civil rights. And despite carefully changing his own image so as to present a cleaner persona towards a broader electorate, Harvey urges friend Cleve Jones to "never blend in". Who is this guy?!?!

Despite the acclaim, Gus Van Sant has never been a friend to admirers of gay cinema. His sole contribution has been in feeding the stereotype of the lustful, promiscuous gay cruiser. True, no matter straight or gay, we are all men, with sex long on the mind, often working towards a game plan to scratch that itch, but Van Sant's depiction of intimate gay relationships eschews our universal capacity to love and focuses on the fleeting fancies of the flesh. After a historic victory for Harvey as the first openly gay man elected to office, two of his staffers celebrate by giving each other blowjobs in a supply closet. When one goes in for a kiss (a symbol of honest intimacy) he's denied and shoved back down to finish the job.

Even the depiction of Harvey's two major love interests are introduced in shallow fashion. Harvey first meets Scotty (James Franco, whose performance is one of Milk's few bright spots) on the steps of a subway station and has him home in bed within minutes. Later, Jack (Diego Luna), a vagabond who stumbles onto the front steps of Harvey's campaign headquarters has sex with him before even knowing his name. Van Sant then shoots their post-coital conversation as is if they've been cuddly, romantic partners for some time... yet it hasn't been two hours. Not only does this feel phony, but, again, it feeds the mainstream stereotypes of gay relationships.

This is antithetical to one of 2008's truly great gay-themed films Before I Forget, where director Jasques Nolot wrestled with the aftermaths in choosing a life of casual sex over a relationship of love. Nolot infused Before I Forget's sex scenes with the weight of the varying consequences and treats we experience when deciding to physically give ourselves to another. Van Sant just treats it as a punchline. His visualizations of sex consist of bouncing light off bare asses and smooth skin. It's emotionless. The only reason Van Sant shoots the naked body continually seems to be for his own gratification.

There are more instances to point out, but the biggest head-scratching moment comes after Harvey gives a rousing speech against religious zealot, and state senator, John Briggs concerning his Proposition 6. From there Van Sant cuts to Harvey Milk murderer, and fellow city supervisor, Dan White, speaking out against nudity in gay pride parades. By juxtaposing these scenes, Van Sant implies that White's comments are oppressive and on equal ground with Proposition 6, but does anyone think public nudity is ok?!? White's comment is valid, yet because of who he turned out to be, Van Sant automatically frames this single opinion as bigoted. It's a microcosm of the total mess of Milk. Clearly, Van Sant needs to stick with the moody, meandering films he produced post-Finding Forrester, because that's where his mind is at.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

THE BELOW Q & A WAS HELD IN ROB ZOMBIE'S LIVING ROOM

"yes mom, you have a question for me?"

It looks like Rob Zombie won't be directing Halloween 2. Well, that's at least what Scout Taylor-Compton - the actress that played Laurie Strode in the remake - says:

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People need to stop believing what they read on the Internet. I'm somewhat close with Rob and believe me, if there was any truth to this... I'd know.”

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TRACTOR FACTS located the one person in the country that actually cares about this and asked him what his thoughts were after hearing Taylor-Compton's confirmation.

Well, he didn't really say much... in fact, he thought we were weirdos for even calling him. However, we thought we heard some real amateur porn playing in the background, so we're presuming he's matured and grown out of his Zombie phase.

In other crucial movie news:

* David Hackl won't be directing Saw VI

* Lori Petty isn't interested in doing a Tank Girl 2

* and... Tobe Hooper is still waiting for someone to Netflix his remake of The Toolbox Murders. ("He's still making movies?!?", someone said, recently, at the local video store).


But speaking of John Carpenter remakes, there was word today of a They Live redo.

Well, the first thing I thought of was "How in the hell are they gonna get someone to replace Rowdy Roddy Piper as John Nada!?!?".

I'm serious. That was one of the best one off casting jobs in Hollywood history. Roddy Piper and that character of John Nada were star-crossed. Carpenter saw that, and pounced on it. I mean, it would be like Big Trouble In Little China without Kurt Russell, Pandora's Box without Louise Brooks, Scarface without Al Pacino. The actors ARE those movies.

They Live
without Rowdy Roddy Piper?!?! That's insane.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

CRYBABY CONFESSIONS : JCVD & SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

[NOTE: Blogger buddy Jason Bellamy wrote a post this past weekend about JCVD which led to some thoughts in the following post.]

After establishing themselves with either a well-received work and/or a commercial success, it can be argued that writer/directors Ingmar Bergman, Sam Peckinpah, Derek Jarman, and Abel Ferrara spent the remainder of their film making credibility (thus losing fair weather fan's credulity) on making films for the benefit of personal reflection. Ugly truths were revealed by all, most famously in the cases of Ferrara and Peckinpah where each man would unabashedly air both their vulnerabilities and venoms toward the opposite sex.

The aforementioned film makers have both devoted lovers and haters, mainly because reacting to one of their films is on par with reacting to the men themselves. I can say I like(d) all of these men, not just because I admire their work but because of an affectionate perception of them that I've gathered from various interviews, biographies, and autobiographies. One thing I can say about all four men is that their films, though personal, always make an effort to reach out toward a shared experience.

I don't feel the same about the intercranial exploration of Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York. Now, let me pause and mention that I like Synecdoche, New York. It's flawed, but I admire its ambition, a kind of inevitable sacrificing of the audience in order to get from point A to point B. Watching it is like overseeing necessary masturbation.

Overlong and overwrought, Synecdoche, New York still hits points of cinematic ingenuity that will excite film goers who have grown tired of the same old thing. (Seeing the Oscar-crafted trailers for Doubt and The Reader back-to-back and in front of Synecdoche, New York was enough to make me drool with mindless anticipation).


But Kaufman's self-obsession turns into a whiny plea for pity. The last shot we see is of his surrogate, Caden (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), resting his head on the shoulders of an imaginary mommy. By the end of Synecdoche, New York, the buzz of its originality has worn off and you're left wondering if Kaufman would've been better off keeping these thoughts to himself. He gives his best Christ pose and then makes sure to leave one eye open in order to make note of the kneeling worshipers.

Similarily, in the new JCVD, there's a scene that's garnering famous praise for its tearful, fourth-wall-smashing confession that Jean Claude Van Damme delivers to the audience. In a moment that literally takes you out of the movie (Van Damme is lifted off set by a crane mid-scene) the iconic action star delivers an emotional monologue to the camera like a sinner seeking penance in a photo booth. The experience is similar to watching a reality star bear their soul in one of those "privacy chambers" that the public eventually ends up seeing anyway. It would be cynical to question Van Damme's sincerity, but he comes off more like a self-serving cry baby than a self-sacrificing artist.

Now, in the comment section to Jason's post on JCVD, he argues that Van Damme's performance is motivated more by fictional theater than any type of personal agenda. Because JCVD is neither written, directed, nor produced by Van Damme, he feels it would be unfair to place any kind of self-serving label on Van Damme. Jason goes on to make a fair comparison between Jean Claude Van Damme playing himself in JCVD and that of John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. (Please correct me if any of that is inaccurate, Jason.) But, to me, the subtext and pitiful intentions of JCVD come through in Van Damme's performance. Unlike Malkovich, Van Damme appears dutifully aware of the camera and proceeds to milk it. No, not quite like putting himself up on a crucifix, but pretty much equal to sitting in a dunking booth and begging for mercy.

Monday, December 01, 2008

DECEMBER 1ST = THE TOP 10 MANIA BEGINS!

This blog has cemented itself into focusing primarily on movies & movie related stuff for quite some time. But another obsession of mine is music and, of course, since 1994 I've made my annual Top 10 list of albums and/or singles.

Me and my pals Mandy and Victor have kept this tradition going and usually reveal our lists to each other on a designated day in December. This year that day is Monday December 15th, and I thought it would be fun to ask others to get involved as well.

So... that means regulars, first time visitors, or anybody related to either of the two are invited to submit a Top 10 Music of 2008 to this blog on Monday December 15th.


RULES:

There are no rules. You can list your 10 Favorite albums, 10 Favorite singles, 10 Favorite album covers, 10 Favorite videos... whatever, as long as you try and stay within the confines of 2008. Then simply e-mail your list to me before, on, or around the 15th and I will post it on TRACTOR FACTS with a link to your site.

If enough people participate, I'd like to tally-up a cumulative TRACTOR FACTS Top 10 Albums for 2008. For instance, I'll weigh rankings given to particular albums, and give extra points to albums with multiple mentions.

This is meant to be loose, fun, and worry free. If you'd like to write something along with your list, go for it! If you simply wanna list 10, that's cool too! OR, if you could give a crap about lists and Top 10s and music and would just like to make fun of my list, I'm totally down with that as well!


So... in closing, just e-mail me or raise your hand in the comment section so I can get a rough idea of how many people would be interested in participating. Oh, and you don't need to have a blog to participate either... everyone and anyone is welcome.