12/19/08

Two Thousand and Eight

So, it rolls to a close, this year of highs and lows. How one feels about 2008 speaks a lot to whether they're a glass half-empty person, or a glass half-full. There's a great new American president, but he's got about as much money to play with as a manager at Best Buy. Here in Canada, the lowest voter turnout ever re-elected us our moonfaced weirdo of a prime minister, but at the present moment his career hangs in the balance. I'm not going to cast my proverbial Tarot cards for 2009 just yet, and for now I'm going to take the glass half-full route and look back at what I liked the best about aught eight- at least in the untouchable realms of popular culture.

The Music

I'm hard pressed to post a full list of ten this year. There's stuff I had on last year's list that went huge (M.I.A., Lil Wayne), but that's not to say I'm ahead of the curve; I spent a lot of listening time this year with '07 music (Wilco's Sky Blue Sky, the I'm Not There soundtrack), and, after the installation of a turntable, much ancient material from the vinyl glory days. So at the moment I'm forging a superdisc of illegal downloads- maybe at the end of next year I can get back to you on Fleet Foxes, TV on the Radio, Blitzen Trapper, Beck, Land of Talk, Metallica, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Guns N' Roses, Jenny Lewis, Kings of Leon, Deerhunter, The Black Keys, Lucinda Williams, Conor Oberst, and Kanye West. But for now I have no choice but to detail the five recordings that, for whatever reason, got spun again and again this year:

5. Tall Firs, Too Old To Die Young
This Brooklyn trio released a quiet, introspective disc a couple of years ago that largely resembled this year's #2, but with the addition of aspiring free jazz/former At The Drive-In drummer Ryan Sawyer, took things to a new level. This was released on Sonic Youth leader Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label, and, considering the lead singer's uncanny vocal resemblance to Moore, kind of sounds like the record Sonic Youth would have made had they grown up in the sticks. This is perfect for a night in with an afghan and a hot tea, but also makes for foggy day driving music, first date music, last date music...


4. R.E.M., Accelerate
I took a big crap all over this release from my First Beloved Band back in April, but after having the good fortune of seeing them tour behind this, began to get what it was all about, and to realize that no other band of their vintage maintains the integrity that they do. The apocalyptic sentiment behind this seems (thankfully) a bit dated already, but it's doom and gloom that have driven the best of their late-career recordings. Plus, they produced the year's neatest video from this.




3. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend
I'm sure choosing this will continue longstanding debates well into the new year (I'm looking at you, girlfriend), but after some resistance myself, I just couldn't stop listening to it. Hype didn't do Vampire Weekend any favors, but you have to admit, if you'd seen this band debut at your university party (as they did at Columbia; the cover image is taken from that very night), you would have filled your pants and declared the second coming of pop music. "Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma", who gives a fuck if Moms like this; it brings a little Wes Anderson Movie into your day whenever it's on.



2. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
It took me a while to (no pun intended) warm to this as well, even after seeing him do a stunning opening set for Black Mountain in my town earlier this year, but once it took hold it wouldn't let go. This is on piles of top ten lists this year, and it was nice to see something so genuine rise to prominence like it did. And I have a feeling Justin Vernon will do some really interesting things in the future.
Also a great driving record- if you have a ways to go through a bleak winter landscape in the next little while, take this along.




1. Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Lie Down in the Light
Something that wasn't on a pile of top tens this year (depending on what you read) was about the 50,000th astonishing release from Will Oldham. With all due respect to the two low-key & melancholy groups on this list, it takes another kind of talent to write something that's genuinely celebratory and happy. After getting bleaker and bleaker, dire and more dire (Jesus, The Letting Go? Almost got me into cutting.), Will took a left turn and composed an ode to happiness and satisfaction that avoids all sentiment and points to the things in life that earn that state of mind. For anyone who hasn't found their way to B'P'B yet, this is a perfect gateway into the strange career of one of the world's great songwriters.

The Television
Let me quote a journal from 2005: "Watched a bit of Lost. It's no X-Files."
Now let me state my 2008 opinion: "What in the hell was I thinking?"
The X-Files took hold of a little flare-up in the public consciousness and ran with it until it chugged along the side of the old Information Superhighway and ran out of gas. Lost found its audience the same way, whether they realized it or not: we were lost- spiritually, mentally, figuratively- we still are, and though the public sentiment is a bit more optimistic, this show, unlike X, is changing, morphing, avoiding a one-note cultural definition. It has, as many genre programs have, turned in on itself and is relying more and more on its own storyline- but what a storyline, and what storytelling.
I watch television to have something about society and humanity reflected back at me. There have been deeper commentaries on this (The Wire) and more up-to-date ones (South Park), but none are more compelling than this crazy, freestyle network television show.

The Movies
Nuff said. Did you happen to catch this?

But a couple of comments on the some possibly more divisive releases of the year:
- Despite the foul taste left by the aforementioned X-Files TV show, I actually stand by this year's I Want To Believe feature. Not that it was exceedingly great, but why does everything with a franchise name behind it have to, as Roger Ebert said in his review of this, feature a villain "as big as a building"? Chris Carter committed an almost punk-rock act by making a film that resembled the 70's TV and film that inspired his show in the first place, and no matter what you think, he didn't fuck up as badly as Spielberg and Lucas.
- Remind me to walk out of the next movie that Jennifer Jason Leigh turns up in as a bohemian character who lays around stoned on sofas- it's a surefire signifier that one is in store for a lengthy treatise on just how miserable we can make ourselves in the Western World if we try hard enough.
Charlie Kaufman's I-Can't-Even-Bother-To-Spell-It, New York features a lead character so self-indulgent that he actually picks through his own excrement onscreen, before he worries himself to death over the course of two hours. The only benefit I got from attending this movie was in realizing how grateful I was to be able to see through horseshit like this. Sorry if you liked it; looking forward to the debate.

The Books

Oh, the books. Oh, the books! I haven't had the proper time to read anything beyond cooking instructions all year. So here's my intended reading list come January, when my New Year's Resolution to find that time kicks in:
The English Major, by Jim Harrison. The Other, by David Guterson. A Mercy, by Toni Morrison. I Should Be Extremely Happy To Be In Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark, by Brain Hall. Who's Your City? How the Creative Economy is Making Where You Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, by Richard Florida. The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama. Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, by Rowan Jacobsen.

To name a few. See there was a reason I posted this before Christmas, hint.
Just kidding- Happy Holidays all, here's to 2009.


11/5/08

New Morning

Last night I went to bed exhilarated, yet knowing I would sleep soundly and peacefully. I had seen something that was bigger than I could truly comprehend, something the likes of which I'd never seen in my lifetime. I woke early and saw the headline, triple-typefaced on the cover of the local paper- YES, HE DID. Like waking from a great dream I started to parse all of the things that had flooded my mind as I walked out the door, yet it was still too big to digest. Instead I noted the temperate weather & listened to the birds chirping in the trees. I thought of that same birdsong in the woods of Gettysburg, PA. On the dawn streets of Brooklyn, NY. Down in the Nevada desert. Everything was the same, yet different. Had someone really won a 330- seat electoral majority? Was that someone an American Democrat? Had they really, among a half-dozen other amazing, inspiring notions, reached out to gays and lesbians in their acceptance speech?

It was like things went from Star Trek to Star Trek: The Next Generation overnight. From chest-thumping, my-way-or-the-highway James T. Kirk to sublime, thoughtfully diplomatic Jean-Luc Picard. Like Americans had exerted an advanced sensibility that Star Trek creators hadn't expected to take hold until the 24th century. If that sensibility has existed enough in the hearts of the masses to be expressed in pop (speculative!) fiction, it must have laid dormant and unseen until now. But now someone was taking that positivity and running with it. Since we're talking in pop cultural terms (as this blog kind of has to)- this New Morning has come after a season-long identification with The Dark Knight.

But enough of that, because truth is greater than fiction. Truth now means that some might see how education, intelligence, and compassion makes one a valuable key in societies instead of a creepy, condescending snob. That some people on this morning, and in the days and weeks to come, might look on the people of African descent that they see around them with entirely new eyes, and be absolutely astounded at what they hadn't been willing or able to see before. That my Canadian self now looks on the image of the American flag in a completely different way than I did twenty-four hours ago. That I realize how subliminally stressed-out I've been over the last month or so.

I loved how Obama said he was looking forward to engaging with everyone, especially those he might disagree with. How my mind was racing and wrestling with all sorts of concepts during that speech, chief among them that hard work and hard commitment might get anyone anywhere. How John McCain, after seeming so dead-eyed with his own moral betrayals in the last few days of his campaign, gave the most graceful concession speech of all time. You could practically feel his relief at throwing off his horseshit electionmongering persona and ridding himself of a campaign in which he had to stand by and agree that everyone who ever attended a Republican rally was a Joe Six Pack or a Hockey Mom. When he shushed the booers during that speech with his hands, it seemed to translate as 'Okay. Now you can SHUT. UP. Thank God the best man won, I'm overjoyed to help him, and now I can more openly dismiss the people who call him an Arab and a terrorist.'.

Now you might be thinking, 'Come off it, Crawford, with all the dramatic language and overblown sentiments'. You might be sitting at work or at home pissed off that nothing good was on television last night, or discarding the rest of the newspaper to snap open the arts section. Maybe you've got a point. But maybe, come what may, you'll get the sense that something is vastly different about the world over the next little while. Maybe you'll begin noticing how Barack Obama will challenge our puffy, moonfaced, smug prick of a Canadian leader to step up his game. Or how all those Bruce Springsteen and Bright Eyes protest records from the last few years all of a sudden seem oddly outdated. Another record that hasn't aged well, and wasn't meant to, is fellow Canadian Neil Young's Living With War album. But I've been returning to one little lyric from that recording that seemed preposterously optimistic upon its 2006 release:

We're looking for a leader
To bring our country home
Maybe it's Obama
But he thinks that he's too young
Maybe it's Colin Powell
To right what he's done wrong
America has a leader
But he's not in the house
He's walking here among us
And we've got to seek him out.

Congratulations, America. You've got a real leader, finally. Now follow his lead, do what he suggests, don't stop working with him like you have been, and we'll see what happens.

plus

plus

equals:
"Just watch me." "I have a dream" to "Boldy go". Hurrah!!!!


11/2/08

9/16/08

'Shit That I Eat'- The Lost Blog

A while ago I conceived a blog which, in partial response to all those 'wonderful this and wonderful that, look how easy it is to be vegan, here's a new supercomplicated lentil dish' sites, would document daily what circumstance had led me to eat. It would have worked nicely with the Flickr '365 Self-Portraits' excercise, but I was too late in the game.
I would have called it "Shit That I Eat". Now, I was a strict vegetarian for nine straight years, and I still eat about 80% less meat than the average Jill or Joe. But the full discipline fell by the wayside when I decided I wasn't going to die without having gastronomical experiences that vegetarianism forbid, and descended into MacDonaldLand when I spent two years working on the road. So by this point I figured I was a prime example of the average Partially Responsible yet Often Busy Western Male, and that I'd document the realities of this. That, and I've recently developed an increasing propensity to photograph food. So here, free of shame, are lots of the good, and some of the bad.
Here's the first thing I ate this year, hung over on New Year's Day- fish cakes and beans at Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia.
A staple when I lived as a bachelor- bean curd, vegetables and noodles in a bowl...
... sometimes augmented with 'Buddha Sauce', a fine peanut sauce I'm sure one could Google easily.
This plate is made up of items from a vegan home delivery service in Halifax- Sweet Potato Salad, some kind of curry- to be honest it was sucky and bland.
Loads of food from The Great Wall, the best Chinese restaurant in Halifax.
Loads of sushi from Kisha Poppo, my favorite Japanese restaurant in Vancouver.
This is the finest burger in Nova Scotia, from The Knot pub in Lunenburg (why they don't call this 'The Lunenburger' is beyond me). Here's a fine example of gastronomy I'd miss as a vegetarian- that's not hamburger in there, but 'Lunenburg Pudding', a strange, sausage-like thing made of mystery meat but entirely delicious.
This grisly atrocity is from Burger King, called the 'Fully Loaded' something-or-other: giant hamburger patty topped with barbecue sauce, deep-fried onions and garlic baked potatoes. All that was missing was the fried egg and rich creamery butter. Needless to say I had incurable, painful heartburn ten minutes after consumption and will never go near one again.

What would I do without my electric wok? Here's some homemade Pad Thai...

... and some cheese pirogies.

And finally, the classic turkey dinner. Except that's chicken.

Bleeding Hearts for the Arts

Over on Facebook many of my Friends currently feature a 'Faceless for the Arts' profile picture. I do not, and feel that free-floating guilt that occurs in an online community when you don't act on an invite and don't say why. So I figured I'd address this here, where the chances are less of getting skewered for my opinion.
Firstly, I live in Canada, and currently live in one of the top three poorest and most Federally neglected provinces, Nova Scotia.

I was a member of the Arts Community here for a decade, a decade in which the provincial Arts Council was shut down, the locks changed, and subsumed into the 'Tourism and Culture' Division. That's the sort of view the local government takes here. There's some fixin' to do. Someday.

The 'Faceless for the Arts' thing is in reference mainly to a Federal Election that's been recently called. I support this fully- Federally. As far as this province goes, however- no way. Our local politicians should be thinking about the Arts, that's for damned sure, but there's more, much, much more to be squared away beforehand. This was a massive moral quandary for me over the last ten years, as I did fight for Art while trying to produce it. Yet at the same time I saw what a state Education, Agriculture, and many more divisions were in, and began to feel more and more guilty, and selfish for demanding the government support my lifestyle choice and line of work.

How are things to continue and evolve if the economic backbone (Agriculture) of this province is as ignored and ghettoized as arts and culture? My mother runs, all by herself, a far-reaching agricultural organization that represents hundreds of farmers, and faces the exact same amount of opposition by politicians that the individually run office of the Playwrights Atlantic Resource Centre does, a group which represents the regions' dramatists. They both scramble for money, get threatened with arbitrary closure, and stress themselves into fits annually.

While I'll support PARC continually, in a general sense I cannot condone more spending on art when the rest of the province is in this invisible turmoil. Demand that people go to some $60 play in downtown Halifax while rural Nova Scotia dies? I can't do it. Expect the populace to understand the importance of theatre to a society via a bleeding-heart press release when the majority can't afford the education to instill this sophistication in them naturally? No way.

This is a young, young country. This province is still a frontier in many ways. I give all the grace in the world to those who are bringing the Arts to the forefront of politicians' agendas, and I' m thankful those people exist. Because at this point in Canada & Nova Scotia's history, I can't ethically do it myself.

9/4/08

Begun, for the Eighteenth Time, My School Year Has

I must say, one of the most tedious things about life in the Western World are these endless cycles one has to go through. By this I don't mean the work/home/sleep/work number most of us pull- the very reason I'm back in school is to provide this type of consistency in my life after ten scattershot years of work in the arts. What I mean is that I wish one didn't have to live parallel to the life cycles of others sometimes- right now, in this small city in which every event is unavoidable in your daily life (see: a recent country music superconcert which noise-polluted the city for ten hours and left its public commons looking like a World War I No Man's Land), the 'kids' have taken over. You can't walk ten feet without ducking out of the way of a parade of frosh in uniform t-shirts, having what I'm sure they think is the ultimate time of their lives.
What drives me nuts about this is that I know better- it isn't. Moving into a moldy, flea-ridden, bashed-up flat with ten other people equally low in life skills? Rapidly developing anemia and/or alcoholism? Looking the shittiest you ever will in your life while thinking you look the best? It makes me wonder where all of this 'best years of your life' hooey comes from. It stresses me out, seeing all of those poor souls going through this.
I was lucky enough, in my last year of high school, to have come across my grade ten English teacher late one night at a campground, drunk, high, and relaxed enough to invite us to sit for a while. It was there and then that he gave me maybe the best tidbit of advice I've yet received in my life: Cocking his head and lowering his voice, he said, "It's graduation time, and don't let them tell you that these were the best years of your life. Don't let anyone tell you that in university either. Your thirties and onward; those will be the grandest times."

He was absolutely, positively on the money. I couldn't be more grateful to be back in school in my thirties, with all the tools of life I've developed at my disposal while entering an entirely new avenue of living. I look forward to more grey hairs the way tween boys look forward to the first macho dustings of a mustache. If I'm yet to have children, I'll give them the same advice that teacher gave me. Before I was back in school, I'd lay low for the first ten days of September and ignore the whole thing. After I'm out, I'll do the same. For now I'll just blog these things off my chest and move on.

8/20/08

Begun, For The Third Time, The Clone War Has


Well, fall is in the air, after about ten hours (none of them consecutive) of summer in this part of the world, and this means a crappier streak of films will begin to trickle in and out of theatres. Which is why I'll skip thru the crisp fall air to see Vicky Christina Barcelona today and call the summer season over and done with.
I don't imagine Woody Allen's latest will reek of the August Release, however, as much as Star Wars: The Clone Wars did, which I lollygagged into last night. I'm sure it's not news to anyone that this isn't exactly a masterpiece; what bemuses me are all the reviews which seemed to expect it to be a quality release from Lucasfilm rather than three episodes of a cartoon series cobbled together in order to promote its fall premiere.
I expected as much, and sat through this with the same half-engaged attention span that I had for the old
Droids Saturday morning cartoon (not for me was Ewoks, its companion series). It ain't your father's Star Wars, as a guy in front of me felt compelled to explain to his utterly confounded girlfriend during the closing credits. Sure, I recognized all the characters and tweaked-out robots and technology from the prequel trilogy, but was also resigned to the fact that this is what Star Wars has become for kids today. I must say that when I was a kid, I did wonder exactly where the 'wars' were... I guess my answer lies here, as roughly 60% of this consisted of hundreds of little raindrop laser beams being deflected by two lightsabers as battle droids advanced methodically through a variety of landscapes. I would imagine the 'plot' of this film demonstrates a rough formula for the series to follow- Some Jedi get a standing order to do something or other in Palpatine's office, they go do it, then stand in a victorious line, and then we swipe to credits. But I'll only have to guess- I won't be watching. I'll only be recalling how the Ziro the Hutt character sounded and kind of looked just like Eric Cartman and going "oh, right- I'm thirty-four years old- maybe I'll watch South Park this week instead so I actually have something to talk about with my Media Professor Friends."

8/18/08

On A Different Subject...

What to write about? I've been on vacation, writing a lot of introspective and indulgent stuff that would bore the pants off of anyone but me. So in keeping with the cinematic theme I racked my brain thinking of upcoming films of interest- Quantum of Solace? I could write up all the Bond films, but that would take forever, and my personal experience with them only begins at the lamentable entry Moonraker. Star Trek? That's more do-able- I'm pretty keen on seeing the upcoming megaproduction, and every film since Wrath of Khan has been kind of a family event (Dad would take me to the Bonds; Mom to the Treks. And then I'd drag girlfriends to the more recent ones).
I've continued to watch these movies over the years, returning to them like security blankets. Star Trek has been in my life since the get-go, with a Sunday-morning-over-cereal tradition lasting my entire prepubescence. I was hardwired into Star Trek the way some kids are brainwashed into church. So don't call me a Trekkie. Everybody and their dog has watched this stuff, and that very word is the laziest fuckin' description outside of 'geek' in the English language- "What did you do today?" "Oh, I watched some Star Trek over dinner, did some writing, and whatnot." "HA, HA- TREKKIE." Come onnnnn.
So anyway I wrote these out longhand while killing time after chauffering my Mom to see some relatives in the province next door. If you wanna put yourself through a truly low-energy endurance test, see if you can make it through all ten of these before Star Trek comes out next summer.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture
(Robert Wise, 1979)

To audiences today, this film must spool along like a video game that no one is playing. It could be, along with a couple of Warhol films, the most motionless picture ever produced. The characters aren't there- Spock has just undergone an emotion-purging process that leaves him an automaton, Kirk is a pent-up asshole throughout, and the rest of the characters are cyphers.
Yet- I love this thing! Getting blasted and watching the Enterprise drift toward a potentially malevolent space cloud is a close as one can get to a Zen exercise outside of a monastery. And there's something tremendously appealing to me about the sensibility old Gene Roddenberry was approaching here (a sensibility, I've recently noticed while visiting Rerun Land, revisited in the first season of The Next Generation): everyone in this film is just about a goddamned hippie, and, this being the 1970s, the natural assumption would have been that, had things continued on their free love/free thought tacks, the future would certainly be filled with excellent dudes and chicks wearing low-cut pyjamas and checking out funky space clouds that looked like Yes album cover art.
Trippy!
Hippies!

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(Nicholas Meyer, 1982)

This may be the first reboot in the history of franchise cinema (outside of some old Sherlock Holmes serials, probably). Gone is everything hippy and trippy. Yet one hallmark of the 1970s remains, here at the beginning of the 1980s- the kind of rich, interesting script that nearly every studio film of that decade showcased, and surely half of the reason this is the de facto nominee for best Star Trek film. The other half consists of three elements: one, the return of the characterizations from the tv program; two, Ricardo Montelban (whom I still insist, without irony, should have at least been nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar- come on now, there have been worse winners), and three, this right here:
If you don't know what he's saying- brush up on yr. pop culture touchstones, yo.

A side note: If anyone spots myself or fellow actor Jim Fowler in the shit-sandwich of a Russian submarine film K-19: The Widowmaker, you can be assured that we are parroting Pavel Chekov's dialogue from this film.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
(Leonard Nimoy, 1984)

After Spock died so very gracefully at the end of Wrath of Khan, he was shot via torpedo tube onto the surface of a rapidly evolving proto-planet which in some science-fictiony way resurrected him. Kirk is solemnly informed of this by Spock's dad and steals the Enterprise in order to get him back, blowing the ship up in the process. This event provides one of several 'operatic' moments in the film (I really can't tell you how much I'd kill to see this and Khan done as lavish, tongue-in-cheek operas), other Space Opera moments being when Kirk's latently gay son is stabbed to death by Klingons and Kirk calls them bastards, and when he & Bones are watching the tanked Enterprise burn up in the atmosphere. Try your best Shatner & Kelley voices:
"My God, Bones, what have I done?"
"You did what you had to do; what you always do- you turned death into a fighting chance to live."

Side note: if Edward James Olmos, originally cast, had played the Klingon badguy in this instead of Christopher "Let's Call Him When We Can't Get Anyone" Lloyd, the movie might have kicked asses it didn't even know it could.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
(Leonard Nimoy, 1986)

Here's the finishing touch to a pretty great movie trilogy. Eddie Murphy was almost in this, which would have had the opposite effect of Edward James Olmos being in Spock. This was the one with the whales. You probably saw it on cable or VHS when you were a kid over at your friend Shawn's sleepover or birthday party or whatever.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
(William Shatner, 1989)

Or, I don't know, maybe you saw it in the theatre like I did. The Voyage Home made the most money of all of these. Mainstream audiences were totally game to go to another sequel. And if they did, they were met with one of cinema's great disasters, overseen and since apologized for profusely by none other than the handsome and talented James T. Kirk himself. This movie now seems like a b-grade offshoot full of Vaudevillian humor that was put together for a two-week run in a Las Vegas Theme Theatre. They go looking for God, because Spock's half-brother, who is different from Spock because he laughs, wants to. And they find God, and God is a big blue face with a curly beard. For reals.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
(Nicholas Meyer, 1991)

So they had to make up for that, obviously. But Undiscovered Country suffers from what killed the Star Trek Franchise in the end, and that is that it is about very little other than Star Trek. It basically serves to send off the famous crew with a bit more dignity than was afforded them in the previous film, and to set up the more peaceful Klingon/Federation relationship seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was apparently a Glasnost allegory at the time, but who the fuck cares what that all meant anymore. For the purposes of this 'getting to know your enemy' plot, the whole crew (sans the logical Spock, that is) (but especially Kirk) are given lines and traits that are stone-cold racist. Evidently Nichelle Nichols, the sole African-American in the principal cast, flat out refused to say a couple of them.
Side note: I once saw a young boy ask Christopher Plummer, who played the villain in this, what 'Captain Kirk' was like. Plummer leaned in and said, "Let me tell you about Bill Shatner. Bill Shatner is a bum."
"Hey Spock- look at the pointy-headed little girl."


Star Trek Generations
(David Carson, 1994)

I was super-excited when this came out. And I saw it maybe five or six times in the theatre. Which is weird, 'cause according to the laws of Blockbuster Filmmaking it's kind of a turd. Like The Motion Picture, The Next Generation's characters come off as alienating and devoid of the traits that made them work in the first place. The grand first meeting of Captains Kirk and Picard takes place in... an imaginary kitchen. While Kirk makes breakfast for a woman we never see, and Picard burns his fingers on toast. This kind of nonevent would not be tolerated by today's cinema-goers (see The X-Files: I Want to Believe), yet it's in the way this movie takes its time and doesn't try to dazzle the shit right out of you that makes it kind of charmingly appealing. This, and every following Next Generation movie, have always stood out for me among pop films- they try, even if they couch things in pseudo-philosophy and aphorisms, to say something. In this case, it's about mortality and truly appreciating your constantly passing life.

Breakfast of Champions


Star Trek: First Contact
(Jonathan Frakes, 1996)

Actually, no such philosophy in this one, come to think of it. This is lean and trim and to my mind one of the most successful action/adventure films ever made. If there's a companion piece to Wrath of Khan in the film pantheon, it's this one, which at the time seemed to be fast-tracking the Next Generation crew into cinema history, morphing them from austere explorers to balls-out action heroes. This is the one with the Borg.
Star Trek: Insurrection
(Jonathan Frakes, 1996)

This one splits the difference on the philosopher/action hero tip, and actually evidences the mindset that made The Next Generation so popular better than any other entry. Yet audiences, and even some of the actors, had bones to pick with the script. Well, I've got a bone to pick with that. The plot is driven by the Federation's decision, in cahoots with some aliens (led by F. Murray Abraham in makeup identical to his Old Salieri getup in Amadeus), to, as Picard puts it, 'relocate a small group of people in order to benefit a large one'. In this case it's a bunch of wise old hippies whose planetary conditions prevent them from aging or becoming ill. Cast and critics alike called the script 'one big plot hole', and said 'why the fuck not relocate them?'.
Well, I ask you, actors, audience, did not nine years of watching and performing in Star Trek clue you in to the fact that humanity, as portrayed therein, is a little bit more on the ball than here in the 21st century? This is the only movie in which the plot hinges on Star Trek humanity's 'advanced sensibility'. Picard's having none of that relocation shit, and he sticks to his motherfuckin' guns.
Picard resigns


Star Trek Nemesis
(Stuart Baird, 2002)

When I heard that screenwriter John Logan was applying his Gladiator/Intrigue-in-Rome skills to the I, Claudius-in-space vibe that The Next Generation sometimes demonstrated, I went and read a bit of this leaked script online. It was pretty good. Then for some barmy reason they went and hired Stuart Baird to direct, a dick of a Brit who is primarily an okay action editor (Casino Royale), yet has been behind the camera for some of the worst efforts in the history of cinema (Executive Decision, U.S. Marshals). I can tell you from experience that the Hollywood adage is true- an unhappy set equals and unhappy movie. Everyone looks miserable and annoyed in this. Baird went out of his way to learn exactly nothing about the rich American Myth he was contributing to, resulting in preposterous retcon debacles like this photo of Picard at Starfleet Academy:
Here's what young Picard looked like on the show:
The reason he's a fuckin' bald teenager in the film is that we're supposed to believe this guy
is his clone at a younger age and not Wesley Crusher in a Doctor Evil costume.
The whole affair would have come off better if capably directed- I could never figure out why such a 'valuable property' as Star Trek was given miniscule budgets for its film franchise. But, it looks like someone has come to their senses. If J.J. Abrams can make Star Trek as cool as Lost, things might be looking up for them.
Editor's Note: Sorry about the formatting problems. I can't be bothered to tweak this thing any more than I already have.

7/26/08

'2' for 2

Well there you have it- two solid films made for grown-ups over two consecutive weekends. I loved The X-Files: I Want to Believe, though I'm sure this enthusiasm won't be shared to any Dark Knight degree.

Most reviews of this film deemed it 'low-budget-looking' and 'underwhelming'; though Roger Ebert, who in his recent infirmity seems to have developed a level head, was wise enough to call it what it was. So many popular reviewers are contradicting themselves more and more, dissing 'Event Movie' culture, yet when a low-key, solid film with a franchise title such as this comes along, the flip-flops roll right in.

Having rewatched the first X-Files film within the last year, free of its juxtaposition with the ongoing television phenomenon, I was struck by its straightforwardness and purity of narrative- it, like this, like The Dark Knight, are akin to films released regularly in the 1970's- thrillers that thrill with their story and character, and not, as Ebert says in his review, with "villains the size of buildings".

Audiences may have forgotten, or never even seen, the early style of The X-Files. Shot in and around Vancouver, often using gritty, shitty locations, it looked- well, kind of awful. Most of the rinky-dink effects added to these episodes appeared to come out of a Video Toaster program. Yet the filmmakers involved used this to their absolute advantage- a simple, tightening shot of a silent telephone, accompanied by Mark Frost's scoring, was enough to titillate and inspire welcome goosebumps.

As the series progressed and gained popularity, rinky-dink was replaced with razzle-dazzle, and proved that epic shots of black helicopters firing missiles couldn't really work the same way as a single actor running down a rainy Vancouver alleyway. This film is epic in a reserved way- the money's there, Gillian Anderson still looks like a superstar instead of a neophyte, but Chris Carter shows enough directorial restraint that the whole affair harkens back to his simplest styles of storytelling.

The case has been made for a bigger, boomier, Event film; one where, say, a friggin' huge UFO appears to millions of people and Mulder has to be pulled, completely vindicated, from exile, but I for one feel liberated by this story's lack of X-mythology. I watched the series finale the night before the film- the one where Mulder is put on trial, clip-show style, with AD Skinner as his defense, and all of his former Deep Throats, etc. rattle off the Alien Conspiracy in plain language- and agreed after the first witness that Skinner should have been thrown out of court. When fully revealed and plainly told, the series arc- involving supersoldiers, bees, black oil, etc. seemed downright ridiculous. X-Files worked best when you didn't know a thing- unlike Lost, which is becoming richer the more its secrets are revealed, the exposed secrets of the shadow government ground things to a halt. I call it the 'Boba Fett Effect'- dude works best when he keeps his helmet on; we don't need to know his family history.

And that's why this film works- the mystery is pretty much secondary to themes of faith and belief that the series developed- evidenced by that mystery's simple conclusion even as the film goes on to follow Mulder and Scully's personal reflections on what they learned from it. Though if I do have a major criticism it actually involves this- these themes are presented so deeply 'In-Universe', to use a geek phrase, that they barely escape the character's minds and motivations enough to make an audience truly think about anything but The X-Files. The Dark Knight, on the other hand, used its characters' familiar traits to provide themes that leaped screaming out of the Batman myth. There is another problem, endemic to cult stories that get tied up in their own concerns, about uncharacteristically straightforward information from the final episode that reveals an alien takeover will take place in 2012- if this is so, why is Scully so concerned about saving the life of a child who will inevitably be extraterrestrial lunchmeat? But this is a minor quibble. Perhaps, if the budget was low enough on this for it to turn a profit, we'll see that 2012 story told.

This is just a movie. And that's pretty refreshing. Like Ebert said, don't expect a kung-fu, Big Boss ending like most every other franchise movie this summer. If you're feeling like everything in theatres, good or bad, this year is being thrown at you with the crazy fervor of an Olympic ceremony, relax and enjoy this little thing.

7/21/08

Finding Balance- 'The Dark Knight'

Why... so... SERIOUS?
Yeah, really- I've been harping on every film and trailer going all summer long. And was it just me, or did I feel a continental gust of true enthusiasm at about 2am on Thursday morning, as the first preview screenings of
The Dark Knight let out?
Iron Man, Hellboy, Indiana Jones- all trumped and lost in the wake of cathartic darkness this film spread across the land. I can see the three of them sharing a flask of whiskey on some lonesome hilltop as they watch the Bat Signal sweep the sky.
But I'll stop short about the cultural shakings a truly great film can inspire. Blogs should be dedicated to personal experience, no?
I can't recall a single film, studio-backed or not, that has been brave enough to investigate the dark hearts we all harbour and so seldom admit to having. This wasn't a 'super-hero' movie; this was a movie about humans. As I watched this I tried to recall a single American film about the darker side of existence that wasn't couched in an agenda (eg. Platoon) or propped up as an American allegory (Goodfellas); a film that stared with an unflinching eye at a fact so many North Americans have buried inside themselves to the point of complete denial, even post 9/11- and couldn't come up with one. And what fact is that? That horrid, diabolical, randomly evil shit goes down in completely equal amount to all the kissy, privileged, yuppie goosestepping depicted in so many Hollywood films. I've already been practically lambasted by one individual for daring to mention that I found this film liberating and cathartic, but as I see it, if you can't take the darkness, you have no right in claiming the light.

I risk losing all credibility in this comparison, but during the spot-on dialogues between The Joker and the Batman, I was reminded of the 'temptation' scenes between Anakin Skywalker and Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith, dialogue I assume was doctored by Tom Stoppard and actually had me convinced that Palpatine was in the right. Of course this was an argument that had to be strong enough to turn Anakin into an unfeeling mass-murderer, and similarly (dammit I wish I had this screenplay), during The Joker's soliloquies I found myself thinking "He is, he's absolutely right."

Somebody has to say it, especially in this day and age. The Joker's "social experiment" with the two ferries had me thinking about just how we're going to behave in, oh, four months, when oil's too expensive to heat homes, and in four years, when water becomes a commodity. And during the film's closing comments about having faith that something, anything, good will happen, Barack Obama's face literally drifted before my mind's eye. Not too often that a film like this makes one think real-world thoughts instead of fanboy irrelevancies.

But all that said- on to the fanboy irrelevancies. The incorporation of Two-Face's coin backstory into this film's plotline- brilliant. The labyrinthine turnarounds involving Commissioner Gordon's shooting- great. The sequence in Hong Kong- amazing. And Heath Ledger- watching him place as much as he did into a single word- "Hi" - (dressed as the nurse, at Harvey's bedside) says all I want to say about that performance.

I wonder how kids these days are taking this film. Will something like this will live on to be revisited as they grow up, revealing more and more of its secrets? Kind of like how I didn't realize Star Wars was a coming of age film until I, well, came of age?

I'm just so happy a good movie came out this summer. If you wait, and wait, and have faith...

7/18/08

Watchmen Movie Trailer

Alright- if you're reading this you may be convinced you're witnessing my real-time (de?)(e?)volution into a full-blooded geek. I've been hurt by watching a goddamned movie trailer. Yet I refuse to be branded a nerd for this- Watchmen has for 21 years been one of my favorite pieces of literature, period, and only recently have I been able to cease defending it and join the status quo, as mainstream culture now tends to agree.
Yet today the internet is full of jizz-bombs over the debut of the ad for its film adaptation, which features a plodding Smashing Pumpkins song and a washed-out, completely unoriginal revamp of the novel's vivid images into what looks like every other gloomy, shitty b-action film since Seven darkened things down.

Once people started calling Iron Man 'amazing' I truly began to wonder when acceptable standards for inspiring entertainment went right down the toilet. Now that people are getting more excited over an image like this

than an image like this,
I'm beginning to believe that I've entered my curmudgeonly, 'they'll never make 'em like they used to' phase. But no, I'm not going to cave to that either- because they don't.

6/23/08

At The F#&%ing Movies

Does this-

Equal this?

And does this

Equal THIS?

Let's discuss.
Last summer, stuck in the countryside with very little to do, an old friend and I made a somewhat misled pledge to see every 'summer blockbuster' that passed through the local cinema. When I was much younger I for some reason mandated myself to attend every film that broke the $100 million mark (as evidenced here).
I can't do this anymore. I don't know what the fuck happened. Not to me, but to the movies, and the people who go see them. How can people I otherwise deem sensible and intelligent come tell me that this

was "fantastic", when it was essentially THIS:

with iron. How many more Marvel Movies will they have to see before they get as exasperated as I am with the tedious formula (Act One: Hero learns powers, to often comic and 'neat' effect. Act Two: Hero performs minor test rescue, using those powers. Act Three: Hero fights 'Big Boss' on a dark, rainy street).
I digress, kind of, but hell, it's all a vicious cycle. After the frustrationfest of Iron Man I knew that Indy was on its way. Not that I held out any exceptional expectation; hell, I just walked in off the street, pushing past the costumed guys and their costumed Dads (!). Now let's all be honest, whether you attended the original film in this series au theatre or whether you weren't even a glimmer in your Henry Jones' eye: this thing was just on par with an episode of frikking Relic Hunter, or any other piece of shit that has blatantly capitalized on Raiders in the last twenty-seven years. Now for fear this turns into my very first fanboy-esque rant, let me calm down a bit. The opening ten minutes of this film, until Indy nuked the fridge, were passable and inspired; the credit sequence encapsulating the 1950's perfectly and without words, setting us up in a distinct time and place. But speaking about the film seriously ends there, and what followed was the tried-and-true formula a la Iron Man- there's stuffy old Indy teaching, some shit happens and he's whisked off, blah blah.
And blah blah it is. Enough hate has been written all over this movie*. I'm going to continue on through the vicious cycle to its next step, and that's me, one of three males a t my sold-out screening, willingly attending Sex and the City- and enjoying it far more than Crystal Skull.
Romantic comedies are among the only films I've out-and-out turned off in the last few years. Fuckin' Catch and Release, Georgia Rule- oh, uggh. But here were well-rounded characters, if not in a realistic environment, feeling realistic things. I wasn't just pleasantly surprised, I was gobsmacked.
So I looked into this- how were critics and audiences feeling about the film version? I didn't use the internet- I used the people and papers at hand. And really, I didn't find one review, oral or written, that wasn't entirely concerned with intricacies and continuity carried over from the television series. These people, they better not ever use the term 'Trekkie' in a derogatory manner... ever. These people far surpass any intolerance Trekkies have for messing with what they consider 'canon'.
The reason I bring up Star Trek is that I cannot for the life of me think of a TV-to-film conversion that is more similar to the one Sex and the City went through. I'll cop to really, really enjoying Star Trek: The Next Generation, and being baffled and disappointed when it wrapped up and appeared on the big screen. Character and interactions that had seven years to form on television were presented as if to an audience that didn't even have a clue what Star Trek was. And it's been asked a million times- who in the shit is going to a Star Trek movie that doesn't know what it is and who it deals with? Those who had never seen The Next Generation were, I'm sure, not entirely converted by sitting through Star Trek Generations.
Yet sitting through Sex and the City, I nearly was. I heard all of the complaints, many of them from the people I attended the film with, and I'm damned sure that if I'd taken them to Generations or Nemesis I'd be getting an earful about wasted time. But they had a guy with them who liked the film more than they did. Somebody did something right with this film. And something is very, very wrong if a Star Trek-loving comic book fan is eschewing The Hulk and every other nasty attempt at mass-market entertainment that's coming down the pike for a girl's movie. I will totally see you at Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2.

* But I can't resist: I have to express the one thing about it that really drove me around the bend, and one of the reasons I compare it to a bottom-feeding, low-production value syndicated TV show. In the first two Indy films, he went through the ringer, sliding down muddy embankments, getting the shit beaten out of him- and he ended his adventures looking like hell. Yet after every breakneck sequence, and even at the very end of the film, sitting on that mountaintop, Jones looks like he just came from the fuckin' dry cleaners. Nothing's happened to him! His fucking pants and shirt are pressed when he's running through the kingdom of the crystal skull! And all this after Lucasfilm drops another one of those "we built 30 hats and jackets in various stages of distress" featurettes. I guess they only used one of each? This is just one of a dozen things that took me out of the spell this movie was attempting to cast.

6/20/08

When I Was Young and Full of Grace, I Spirited a Rattlesnake

When I was young I liked to think that a bad thing would never happen to me. I liked to think that a fine home would drop out of the sky, all hardwood and plant-filled with a view of the sea, and with it would come a calm and sensible wife with a blonde bob and an ass that looked fantastic and tantalizing in a pair of beige capris. And there we would live quietly, going to farmer's markets and listening to a lot of public radio.
Not that anything bad is happening, or has happened. It's just that whenever I've seen a dog, large or small, lately, the thought has crossed my mind that that dog might seize on to my calf and lock its jaws down to the bone, & I'd have to kick and kick at the top of its head as the owner yelled indignantly about just what I was doing to their anthropomorphized little mamer.
I don't know why such a thought has been emerging regularly, and I certainly don't think it is a sign of some kind of mental imbalance. Perhaps some people would; like those types that gasp and feign to weep at, say, the plight of Brazilian children for as long as it takes for an image or concept to cross a localized television screen or radio wave. Those types are usually pretty quick to get back to their list of organic groceries to be picked up at the next farmer's market, or whatever other activity assuages a Modern Western Liberal's vague sense of 'Global Responsibility' or whatever new phrase has been invented to make happy people uneasy.
Maybe it's because of a recent conversation about divorce in which I described my own in vivid detail to a freshly married individual without realizing exactly, obviously, why she was asking. Maybe it's because those dark things are currently at the periphery of my consciousness, whereas they were at the forefront for so long. Why? Well, ask me the questions the aforementioned did. I'd probably tell you about how while one can sometimes quickly get over a person, they can sometimes take much longer to get over a situation. In that long period of time I learned to embrace and even enjoy a deep malaise, straight through to its natural ebb. This too could explain why I am in possession of dozens of emotionally apocalyptic records by deeply serious songwriters that I am no longer all that interested in listening to.
Is this how someone becomes selfish? Smug? Even smugger than a smug married? Is this how someone becomes satisfied with a prissy blonde housemate who may or may not put out after six to eight months? Have I been through my dark night of the soul, and am I left to peter into blandness? What would it mean if I told you I don't even care to ask these questions anymore. At least for the time being.

Mates of State, a band that is a married couple. Listen to Get Better, which, amazingly, I hadn't until I Googled them just now.