Billy Gray

Archive for January, 2008|Monthly archive page

Vampire Weekend

In Uncategorized on January 31, 2008 at 10:18 pm

I checked out a show by this endlessly buzzed-about quartet at the Bowery Ballroom on Tuesday night. A couple of worrisome signs preceded the show. Though I’m unaware of the opening act’s history, their derisive introduction of Vampire Weekend implied an understandable frustration over the endless press ink that’s been spilled over the fresh-faced band, whose members have been out of college (Columbia) for eighteen months. Then there were the four camera jockeys planted all over the venue filming the show for posterity, confirmation perhaps that Vampire has read their own, largely euphoric press and swallowed it whole. As it turns out, the band will probably end up shelving this footage. At most, they’ll look back at it nostalgically as a memento of their incipient touring days, before they cohered as a live act.

I’ve no interest on jumping on the inevitable and tired backlash bandwagon against this group. I was wholly unaware of the blogosphere having built these guys up as the Next Big Thing over the past year. And I can only shake my head at the same engine now gleefully ripping them to shreds. It’s a tired cycle: “underground” act is anointed new indie darling; group attracts fans outside of the Williamsburg-Lower East Side axis of hip; group is abandoned by blogging hipsters who have their homepages set to Pitchfork.

Their debut contains five very good-to-great songs: despite the band wearing its influences (Afro-pop, Graceland and, as they are less eager to admit, the Strokes) on its sleeve, the music is catchy and light. But all four members are undeniably green when it comes to performing. Chris Tomson threw his drumstick straight into the air a minute or so into the first song and spent much of the set hunched over and grinning maniacally when not playing. Also appearing slightly autistic was keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij who, along with frontman Ezra Koenig, busted out several spastic dance moves during the course of the gig. Such movements can actually amplify a performances (see: David Byrne in Stop Making Sense or Ian Curtis channeled by Sam Riley in Control), but came off studied and self-conscious in this instance. Ultimately, I appreciated the show as an opportunity to see a band on the cusp of what may well become major stardom and to appreciate the endearingly novice antics of a competent group still working out its kinks.

In Uncategorized on January 30, 2008 at 9:54 pm

Atonement, director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s fine novel, makes clear at the start that it share’s little of its source’s regard for subtlety. “England, 1935” is scrawled letter by letter across the screen, each stroke accompanied by the clang of a typewriter. A series of too-quick jumpshots then follows Briony Tallis (played by Saorse Ronan as a child, Romola Garai as a teenager and Vanessa Redgrave as an old woman) as she gracelessly plods through her English country home. Thankfully, things calm down after that. The narrative is set in motion when Briony witnesses what she naively misinterprets as an act of cruelty by Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of servants who lives on the grounds) towards her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). She goes on to read a pornographic letter that Robbie had entrusted her to deliver to Cecilia (he having mistaken it for a later, revised draft) and interrupt a tryst between the fledgling couple in the library. Given her earlier fears, she naturally sees this as a physical attack and the culmination of Robbie’s sexual deviance. After yet another wrongful accusation by Briony, Robbie is sent away to jail, then to war, effectively dislocating the family (Cecilia cannot forgive her sister’s ignorant machinations nor her parent’s for taking the child’s word) and leading Briony to atone for her mistakes for the remainder of her life.

The film is not without considerable strengths: the cinematography is lush, the actors are all competent (a few are stellar) and a fair amount of the dialogue lives up to McEwan’s perceptive, eloquent repartee. But certain scenes are handled clumsily: there is really no need for the close-up shot of “cunt” being typed across the entire width of the screen as Wright tell us, for the third time, the contents of Robbie’s letter. Nor is it clear why Wright changed McEwan’s poetic description of a single corpse lying at, and intertwined with, the base of a tree into a score of neatly arranged dead children with bullets through their heads. Furthermore, several of the novel’s most indelible (ant not exactly extraneous) sequences are curiously omitted.

In fairness, Atonement is a difficult novel to adapt. Its strength, in my mind, lies more in its psychological acuity than in its romance or period detail. There is also that unconventional structure to tackle: the first and third part of McEwan’s work (as well as its epilogue) focus on the evolution of Briony and her writing, while the middle section abruptly shifts to a World War II narrative, with Robbie as its center. It might be the fault of a baffled marketing department or a deliberate re-imagining of the source material. But Atonement is being sold as, and too often feels like, a conventional romance rather than an intricate look at the mental and creative development of a writer from her confused, fanciful adolescence to wise, measured and mournful old age. When the movie focuses on Briony’s maturing consciousness (as it does when she correctly reinterprets the events of that last idyllic summer via flashback and in Redgrave’s wonderful concluding monologue) it is a success. But there are too many mawkish bits, including a ridiculous postscript showing Cecilia and Robbie frolicking along the cliffs of Dover, that ultimately do a disservice to McEwan and the intentions of his novel.

In Uncategorized on January 29, 2008 at 6:55 pm

Despite the fact that Hollywood releases only one or two major musicals each year, the genre constantly seems to be at the forefront of critics’ minds. The scarcity of musical offerings is at once a cause for concern (for those wishing the genre was not perpetually on its deathbed) and excitement: they’re still being made, after all! And because so few musicals are produced, those that do make it down the pipeline are often backed by big names and bigger budgets, resulting in crowds and Oscar-baiting spectacle. Along with the Western, the musical is a largely forgotten relic of the bygone studio days that evokes nostalgic reverence among much of a public that constantly hopes for a revival. I recently saw two musicals: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in movie theaters and Spring Awakening, on Broadway. Both struck me as strenuously unorthodox entries in the genre that, while trying to subvert the clichés of the form, sacrifice much of its joy.

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Broadway musical) goes against the cheery musical grain by cloaking itself in darkness and spilling buckets of fire-engine red blood. The plot sees Sweeney (Johnny Depp) seeking vengeance on Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who years earlier kidnapped his wife and daughter and sent him into exile. Along the way, he meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter), baker of the “worst pies in London.” Sweeney hones his skills for an eventual confrontation with Turpin as a maniacal barber whose customers, once he has slashed their throats, find their way into said meat pies.
The plot is devious fun, and tailor-made for the quirky Burton, who once again excels at lending an eerie gothic edge to his films. The Victorian London of the film may hew closely to the grimey and depraved version seen in countless other movies and books, but it is an ambience that, for me, never tires. But for a musical to work, the music has to be good. And Sweeney Todd’s music mostly left me cold. This might be symptomatic of the production essentially being an opera: the music is not intended as a flashy diversion from the story, but is rather how the story develops, with few speaking scenes to break it up. Amateurish singers (particularly Bonham-Carter, whose voice is distractingly bad) compound the problem, leading me to appreciate the set design and occasionally successful dark humor and little else.

Spring Awakening flouts Broadway convention with raunch. Adapted by Duncan Sheik from a 1891 German play about burgeoning sexuality amongst repressed teenagers, it features simulated masturbation and sex and fair amounts of exposed young flesh. As with Sweeney Todd, the musical frame momentarily casts this sensual frankness in a shocking light. But modern audiences have undoubtedly seen far lewder content not only in movie theaters and sordid computer downloads, but on their own televisions on daytime soap operas. Spring Awakening does not attempt to be puerile or even titillating. It is a tragedy. But its tragic story of doomed young love has been recycled endlessly. The score is competent though it contains only a handful of great tracks. The formula is stale: there are unrequited crushes; squirmy homosexuals and melodramatically severe, one-dimensional authority figures. Appropriate to the simplistic material are frequently amateurish (if musically talented) actors. By trying too rewrite all the rules, Spring Awakening focuses too much on the flesh at the expense of the heart.

In Uncategorized on January 15, 2008 at 4:12 pm

In There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson transposes his preferred themes of avarice and dysfunction onto the California desert during the early 20th Century. While not technically Anderson’s first period piece (a write-up in the current New Yorker argues that Boogie Nights, his electrifying look at the San Fernando Valley porn industry of the 70’s and 80’s, remains his finest film), it is surely the most self-consciously epic and refined. And despite stretches where it takes a bit too much of its own time to develop, it ultimately engrosses, with both its grand images and narrative intriciacies seared upon the viewer’s mind. It is the rare movie in which all the elements come together both forcefully and seamlessly. The acting, particularly Daniel Day-Lewis’, is volcanic, but saved by the tremendous scope of the film from being overbearing. Johnny Greenwood’s mesmerizing score complements the action onscreen rather than intrudes upon it. The lush camerawork and exacting production detail recall Days of Heaven and the movie itself could qualify as a continuation of that Terrence Malick classic, detailing what happens after the pastoral idyll is corrupted by man and machine.

Anderson traces the rise to fortune (and, in a nutty epilogue, subsequent drunken decline) of Texas oilman Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis). With his son, H.W. (Dillon Fraesier) in tow, Plainview traverses the expansive and largely undeveloped California landscape (stunningly rendered by Robert Elswit’s cinematography) convincing various townspeople to sell him land for drilling. During one of these stops, he is visited by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who tips him off about the oil bubbling beneath the surface of Litte Boston, his hometown. Upon Plainview’s arrival there, the plot kicks into high gear, introducing an adversary in Paul’s brother, Eli Sunday (also played by Dano). Eli is an evangelical minister and self-professed faith healer whose surface spirituality is at odds with Plainview’s transparent (and his own, thinly veiled) greed.

This conflict is the American binary of pious self-improvement and blind capitalist ambition made manifest. Only here, the piety is fraudulent and, were it ever pure, fully tainted by the prospect of oil riches. Daniel and Eli are both duplicitous salesman, with more in common than they would ever like to admit. This is not a story of good versus evil; all intentions are muddled. Even the normally solid family structure is compromised. As in his earlier works, the family Anderson depicts here is a surrogate one. Plainview masquerades as H.W.’s father, using him as a “sweet face to buy land,” after the real father, a fellow driller, is killed in a well. A stranger appears on the scene who claims to be Plainview’s half-brother, a dubious claim whose ficition is quickly exposed, its author swiftly dispatched. All is suspect. We first see Plainview in a dark abyss; neither he nor his many adversaries ever emerge from it to see the light..

Manhola Dargis, in the Times, interpreted the movie as a metaphor for George W. Bush: a rich, Texan oilman who will stop at nothing, including blood, to get his way. She might be onto something: “I want to rule and never, ever explain myself,” says Plainview. But perhaps the contemporary contextualization is a narrow one. There Will Be Blood is a timeless American fable in which the drive to succeed often lays waist to those individuals and institutions both behind the wheel and trying to slam on the brakes.

Another one bites the dust

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2008 at 9:29 pm

Another year’s conclusion brought the usual barrage of Top 10 lists from the nation’s critics. Everybody seems to love Top 10 lists while at the same time being vaguely ashamed of them. They’re by nature reductive and simpleminded, forsaking genuine critical insight in the name of easy reading that will inevitably land near the top of the “Most Emailed” list on whichever publication’s website they appear. Predictably, the critics at the New York Times consider themselves above all this. Many of their culture writers offered year-end analyses that, while singling out exceptional films they’d seen in 2007, eschewed the timeworn Top 10 formula in favor of Top 18 lists or articles that did away with rankings altogether in favor of bloated commentaries on the most “important” movies of the year and what they say about Us and our Time. Despite these formal pretensions though, I admit to liking many of their picks for movies and albums of the year. From the Times and other sources (AFI, National Board of Review, various “critic’s circles” for film and metacritic.com, Rolling Stone for music) I’ve attempted to cull the most often-heralded pieces of work for an even more condensed guide to the best of ’07.

No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood rise, in my estimation, to the top of the collective critical heap For whatever reason though, the Cohen brothers are almost unanimously singled out for direction over Paul Thomas Anderson. Daniel-Day Lewis is top actor for all but a few critics who prefer either George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) or Frank Langella (Starting Out in the Evening). Likewise, Julie Christie (Away From Her) appears to be the overwhelming favorite for best actress, with a few critics and publications opting instead for either Ellen Page (Juno) or Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose). And seemingly every movie critic in America engages in the Knocked Up vs. Superbad debate in their columns, with Knocked Up having a clear edge.

Radiohead, unsurprisingly and deservedly, continues to enthrall music critics: In Rainbows is the consensus choice for album of the year, with its innovative marketing and purchasing scheme emerging as the biggest story in music in 2007. Bruce Springsteen (Magic), Arcade Fire (Neon Bible), Les Savy Fav (Let’s Stay Friends), MIA (Kala), Amy Winehouse (Frank), LCD Soundsystem (Sound of Silver), Kanye West (Graduation) and Jay Z (the American Gangster soundtrack) are also frequent guests on critic’s year-end honor rolls. Two other recurring themes: Rhianna’s “Umbrella” is the undisputed song of the year and Britney Spears, or at least her producers, managed to create an album that, startlingly, did not suck.

Deep End

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2008 at 9:25 pm

When I was 13, on Christmas, I received a book profiling great cult movies. Most were from the 60’s and 70’s, many were horror films and a good number were vaguely pornographic. One in particular jumped out at me. Called Deep End, it concerned an adolescent protagonist undergoing a sexual awakening who spent a great deal of his time near a swimming pool. I was sold. Last night, a decade after learning about this movie, I finally had the chance to see it for myself.

Deep End is the work of Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski. The art house cinema on my block is conducting a retrospective of his work, most of which is in Polish. Deep End, however, is in English and set there, in a dreary neighborhood on the outskirts of London in 1971. Mike is a 15-year old who begins work at the local bathhouse. He falls in lust with Susan, a co-attendant who is several years older than he. This is a pretty thorough encapsulation of the movie’s plot, as it is essentially a sustained cinematic rendering of a sexually anxious fever dream. All of the major adult characters, male and female, are carnivorous sexual predators. Mike encounters one old cow (the Brit slang left a mark) who brings herself to climax by clinging to him whilst breathlessly reenacting sportscaster commentary from old football games. There are the requisite saggy prostitutes and leering male teachers and the nubile young bodies to which they are drawn.

Luckily, the relatively boilerplate tableau is redeemed by the camerawork, the performances and the score. The characters are flawlessly framed. The lens at times creates a gauzy effect which mirrors Mike’s cloudy naiveté and perpetual dream state. And there are a couple of instances where successive jump cuts, an often annoying indie affectation, are employed effectively. The actors are all strong, including Jane Asher, who played Susan in the movie and was Paul McCartney’s muse in the 1960s. Perhaps best of all, the score is subtle but still atmospheric and, I’m convinced, served as inspiration for Tangerine Dream’s ambient work in Risky Business. And it was composed done by Yusuf Islam, nee Cat Stevens (born Steven Georgiou)!

Deep End ultimately provided me with yet another opportunity to indulge in my (perhaps foolish) nostalgia for eras I never experienced. I especially seek out films and books pertaining to the 70s and early 80s. They often include rampant boozing and drugging and indiscriminate, if not anonymous, sex. And while I might not necessarily wish to replicate such behavior in my personal life, I would be thrilled if the staid, paranoid culture we find ourselves in today could rediscover some of the hedonist joie de vivre so abundant in those heady post-sexual revolution, pre-Age of Paranoia times.

Little Scene

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2008 at 9:20 pm

I’ve been making the rounds of the obscure indie movie front lately and have reaffirmed my belief that a lot of these “films” remain unseen simply because they are quite bad. Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not so obscure and by far the best of the bunch, despite falling short of my breathless anticipation based on the trailer. The vast majority of movies would be improved if they existed solely in trailer form. Anyway, Diving Bell… was fitfully beautiful and the story (about a man who is rendered paralyzed after a stroke and dictates an entire memoir by blinking his eye) is incredible. But it was more tedious and less lyrical than I would have liked. Barcelona: A Map, was mediocre and took place entirely in a single apartment building, depriving me of the opportunity to see the city itself on screen which was the only reason I bought a ticket. Also, bizarrely, a revelation of incest at the end of the film is treated as casually as most people’s discussions of what to have for dinner. This troubled me and kind of ruined the whole movie. Still, Barcelona was a masterpiece suitable for inclusion in the national archives compared to Chaotic Ana, a movie I saw based on a) the description of the main character living in a cave in Ibiza and b) because it co-stars hot sexagenarian Charlotte Rampling. This movie was indescribably bad. And it took itself far too seriously to fall into the so-bad-it’s-good category. I cannot begin to quantify its suckiness or delineate its completely nonsensical and impossible-to-follow plot. I think it had something to do with past lives and Woman Throughout History. Revoltingly, it ended with the titular heroine defecating in the mouth of a conservative American congressman, at which point the audience collectively gave up and attempted to appreciate the movie as camp. It still fell short.

Speaking of shitty politicians, I have been observing the presidential race at arm’s length since it began, seemingly, 9 years ago. Not in love with any of the candidates, as usual. However, I despise Rudy Giuliani and am frightened by Mike Huckabee due to both his uber-Christianity and the fact that he (allegedly) runs 10 miles before dawn every day. In the event of a victory for either of these candidates, I will be packing up my bags and decamping for Montreal.

Judd Apatow

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2008 at 9:19 pm

Christmas Day brought me to a showing of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It was just fine: funny enough to merit a high ranking on the Netflix queue when it is released but not crying for a run to the theater. Having seen Superbad the day before, my expectations were irrationally high. But despite some funny material, Walk Hard got me worrying about the Judd Apatow comedy monolith currently enveloping Hollywood. Apatow is branding everything in sight. The trailers preceding Dewey Cox included three movies from “The Creators of The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad” or some derivation thereof. All looked OK, none looked up to snuff with his earlier, signature material.

In the case of several movies in the Apatow pipeline, the man himself served merely as producer, with no hand in writing or direction. I don’t begrudge Apatow his success—I could watch 40 Year Old… and Knocked Up on an interminable loop and be happy as a clam and Superbad (which he also had no creative control over, but produced) was a riot. He’s also been playing the game for over a decade with several critically acclaimed but little-seen “cult” projects (“Undeclared” and “Freaks and Geeks”) under his belt. Understandably, he is relishing his newfound fame and, I’m sure, fortune. But as New York’s Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations tells us, success often begets backlash. The dilution of the Apatow brand from clever, raunchy comedies with a heart to broad slapstick or lazy parody would be a lightning-quick reversal of fortune and sadly tarnish the reputation of the man deservedly deemed the next great hope of comedy.