Hello, and welcome back for another school
year. My name is Moondog, and I'll be your regular host for this
(fairly) regular bi-monthly column. So here, a pledge regarding
ratings: you will not see this column cluttered up with complaints
about awful music. If it's worth me writing about it, I will write
about it here. The ratings for this column will be between *** (three
stars) meaning "Worth a shot" and ***** (five stars) meaning, "damn,
don't you have this already? What's the matter with you?" Another
thing: since I end up dividing my free time between music and films
(as well as other occasional media), this column will no longer
just be about music. It will probably just as often be about films,
but no longer just music. As such, I will feel free occasionally
to kibbitz (though perhaps only at year end) about some of the worst
movies out there, as well as the best. Oh, and the title? Well,
that just leads me to my first new column:
Back when Batman Begins (****, Warner Brothers,
2004) appeared in theaters, Sam Hatch and I (on our show Culture
Dogs, Sunday nights at eight) both strongly felt that it was, by
a good measure, the best of the Batman films. Repeated viewings
merely reinforce that impression. There are many reasons why the
film is so good: Christian Bale portrayed a schizophrenic, intense,
but heroic Bruce Wayne/ Batman; Michael Caine was a fun and different
choice for Alfred; Liam Neeson represented a darker version of the
vigilante Batman always comes close to becoming; Katie Holmes (while
a bit young) gets to play the best written of Wayne's love interests.
The look of production designer Nathan Crowley's Gotham City
in the film follows intelligently on the late Anton Furst's brilliant
designs which simultaneously evoked the 1930's era of the original
Batman and the "twenty minutes into the future" school of sci-fi,
taking it even further to make it a city that is just livable; Upon
later viewings, however, what really pops out of Batman Begins is
the political environment it takes place in. Not satisfied with
merely evoking the look of the 1930's, director Christopher Nolan
and writer David S. Goyer take it upon themselves to set the story
in "the depression." Not the 1930's, but the new depression.
Those who know well the Batman mythos know that the death
of the child Bruce Wayne's parents, at the hands of a brutal hood,
is the central and most important event in the creation of Batman.
The "missing parents" syndrome is fairly common to a lot of heroic
fiction, but very interestingly turns up in some of the most enduring
pop characters of the depression. Superman was adopted by poor family
farmers; Walt Disney films, like "Bambi" and "Dumbo" and even, to
an extent, "Pinocchio," played with themes of dead or dying parents,
or, in Gepetto's case, slyly acknowledged the growing idea of a
non-traditional family structure.
In Batman Begins, Nolan and Goyer
took the Batman back to some of his comics roots with the reinstatement
of the panicky robber Joe Chill as the killer of Wayne's parents.
Previously, 1989's "Batman" portrayed a young pre-clownfaced Joker
as the culprit in an effort to save screen time for Jack Nicholson
or some such. Don't get me wrong: I loved that film a lot (despite
misused Prince music on the soundtrack), but in retrospect the choice
of culprits in that film seemed designed for the late Reagan-era.
In Nolan's retelling, Bruce Wayne briefly wrestles with the
idea of revenge when Chill is about to get out of prison for cooperating
with an organized crime investigation, only to have that choice
taken from him when the big crime boss (Falcone, complete with big
city tough guy accent provided by Tom Wilkinson) orders a hit on
Chill. What immediately follows is a discussion (between Holmes'
Rachel Dawes and Bale's Wayne) of the political and social ills
of Gotham City and how little has changed "since the depression."
After this, Wayne briefly confronts Falcone, who, rather
than being intimidated, outlines for Wayne exactly what the political
situation is in Gotham, and how his feelings and ideals about justice
matter very little against the reality of his extremely wealthy
upbringing. Following this, Wayne quickly stages a disappearing
act, shedding his wealth to go underground among the poor and criminal
in an effort to better understand them. Eventually, this leads him
to encounter Ducart (Neeson) who represents Ra's Al Ghul, the apparent
head of a group of extremist vigilantes known as the League of Shadows.
The Dawes/ Falcone discussions are brand new in the filmic
Batman mythos. While there's been little doubt that Bruce Wayne
has been a rich and powerful man in every version of Batman, we've
not before had that wealth expressed as a liability to his understanding.
So why now? Why would Nolan and Goyer add this dimension
to our hero for their twenty-first century redux of this guy who
dresses up as a big bat to fight the bad guys?
Part of it is a return to certain thematic roots of the character.
Batman was inspired by, among other things, Zorro: That is, a well
to-do fop (of sorts), who secretly dons a mask to go out and fight
for the little guy; that is, not just an abstract ethic of "fighting
crime," but a wider concept of socioeconomic justice.
More specifically, Nolan and Goyer, within their fantasy
world framework of evil masterminds and grand plots, have updated
the character for our world by acknowledging a feeling that many
have had. The depression never really ended.
Oh, there seemed to be a rising middle-class for a time or
two (notably in the post-war 1950's, and possibly the dot com 90's),
but along the way there have always been high-level manipulations
of power, most notably of wealth and political power, designed to
keep the important decision making in our society among a like-minded
few. And, yeah, the character of Bruce Wayne remains among those
like-minded, perhaps, but for his sense that justice should not
be thwarted by those looking for fantastic wealth in the short-term,
at the expense of the great masses in the long term.
So, we're in a new depression (at least for the next three
years), and welcome to it. Hopefully, we won't all have to sell
apples on the street, unless, of course, they come with "I-Life."
Yeah, Batman Begins is a bit thin for a political discourse,
perhaps, but hey, that guy drives one hell of a cool tank.
Now to expound on a film which, by all
rights, should be heading to home video even as this is published,
although, it very probably will turn up on the schedule at Trinity
Cinestudio at Trinity College in Hartford (Call 860.297.2463 or
visit cinestudio.org for more on their current schedule) That film
is Brick (****1/2, Focus Features, 2005), the first feature directed
by 33 year-old Rian Johnson. It's a film which takes its' setting
of a modern-day high school and brilliantly transforms it into a
dreamy, seedy underworld, complete with its' own syntax, a deliberate
mixture of modern and classic noir hipster parlance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
(TV's Third Rock from the Sun) plays Brendan, a young man who becomes
obsessed with the mysterious disappearance and death of a former
girlfriend (Emilie deRavin of TV's Lost). He pokes around for answers
like the adolescent version of Mike Hammer, pressing the jocks,
the drama queens and the small time dealers for answers, getting
beat up and returning for more and more until he has his answers.
Gordon-Levitt came to this role fresh off another challenging role
as a damaged young gay hustler in Gregg Araki's intense, disturbing
and sometimes funny Mysterious Skin. He proved then to have the
chops to be the center of this strange and quirky film. Another
fine addition to the cast comes in the person of former child star,
Lukas Haas (who played the little Amish title character in Witness).
Haas plays the local "crime boss" known as "the Pin" (as in "the
Kingpin"). The first we hear of the character is when Brendan's
main informant (a junior intelligencer known as "The Brain," played
by Matt O'Leary) refers to the Pin in legendary terms ("The Pin
is kinda a local spook story… he's supposed to be old, like 26…").
In reality, the Pin, while the local big shot, dresses like a stylish
goth, runs things from the wood-paneled basement of his mom's suburban
ranch house, and employs a driver for his tricked out minivan. Haas's
Pin also proves to be at least a high-school level deep thinker,
as he wistfully muses to Brendan in a philosophical moment about
the deep and wonderful writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Johnson and Gordon-Levitt
never let this sense of humor subtract from the gravity of the mystery,
though. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin (who worked on the cult films
May and Dead Birds) trains a dark adapted eye on this suburban California
world, with its' locations in the alleyways, parking lots and drainage
ditches surrounding the high school where this criminal underworld
seems to thrive. In the end, Brick, while seeming a little see-through,
is a personal mystery story, which, like Robert Towne's Chinatown,
contains resonances beyond a simple world of whodunits where the
bad guys get theirs and the hero comes out unscathed. Again, if
it doesn't come to Trinity Cinestudio, make room for it on your
home video viewing schedule. It's one of this year's best.
One might imagine that after five albums
plus of material that came out of the collaboration between ledgendary
producer Rick Rubin (previously known for his work with LL Cool
J, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, Run D.M.C., Red Hot Chili Peppers,
Tom Petty, the Cult, Glenn Danzig, Slayer… the list goes on…) and
ledgendary singer/ songwriter/ storyteller Johnny Cash (that list
of accomplishments really goes on) that their partnership would
have run out of steam. Perish that thought. Rubin's label just released
the first of two final new studio albums that Cash recorded in his
last days, and while it doesn't feature any songwriters of the particular
hip cache featured on previous Cash/ Rubin projects (like the Depeche
Mode or Nine Inch Nails covers on American IV: The Man Comes Around),
American V: A Hundred Highways (****, American Recordings, July,
2006)) presents a typically strong set of performances. If you didn't
know it by now, Johnny Cash has well earned his ledgendary status
in American popular music because of his ear for good songwriting
and his ability to draw things out of that writing that he can make
great and make his own. Case in point: the album opens with a cover
of a Larry Gatlin tune (as in Gatlin Brothers), "Help Me." Can there
be any doubt of the feeling with which he delivers this prayer,
a humble heartfelt plea for help to live and to understand the meaning
of his life. The arrangement is a spare one of just guitar, cello
and fiddle. The next tune is a traditional gospel cover that only
sounds like a Moby cover. For his tune "Run On," from his album
"Play," Moby sampled an old gospel recording by Bill Landford and
the Landfordaires titled "Run On for a Long Time." Johnny Cash's
version is titled "God's Gonna Cut You Down" (it was also reecorded
under that title by Odetta back in the day). This version shares
something in common with Moby's in it's spare statement relying
on a minimal rhythmic figure: in this case footstomps and handclaps
(that also recall Odetta arrangements), with guitars, cello and
mouth harp (the twangy kind) and a single repeated keyboard note
from Benmont Tench thrown in for good measure. Mortality and faith
end up in the orbit of any Cash project: that the Cash original
"Like the 309," in which he muses about his final wish to be put
"in (his) box" on the train, is no surprise. He also likens the
slow descent into illness to the reliability (or inevitability)
of a train ("Talk about luck/ well I got mine/ asthma comin' down/
like the 309" (he follows this line with a rattling sigh)). There
is only one other Cash original on this collection, "I Came to Believe,"
a gospel tune of sorts, with tinges of twelve-stepping ("And I came
to believe/ in a power much larger than I"). An accordian drone
stands in for what would have been pretentious organ pipes, with
piano and guitar. He also delivers a version of the Gordon Lightfoot
chestnut, "If You Could Read My Mind." Spare guitars and keyboards
(piano and organ) replace the original's orchestral excesses. Likewise,
he delivers a fragile and spare version of a Rod McKuen tune ("Love's
Been Good to Me") and lends still more honest gravitas to an Ian
Tyson piece ("Four Strong Winds") (Ian Tyson, of course, formerly
of Ian and Sylvia, the pop-folk duo that inspired the creation of
Mitch and Mickey in Christopher Guest's film A Mighty Wind). Bruce
Springsteen's "Further on Up the Road" also gets the modern Cash
treatment. Who better than Johnny Cash to deliver a tale of a Tom
Joad-esque Springsteen troubadour. Guitars and piano are aided by
gentle organ and mellotron textures. The collection is filled out
with covers by the likes of Hank Williams, Don Gibson and Hugh Moffatt,
by a talent the match of any of them, and who will be missed.
Hello. I'm a critic. Oh, I'm not a paid
critic, or at least never on these pages or on the air. Nonetheless,
I've been scribbling and expounding on my thoughts on certain of
the recording and occassional other arts for some years now, so
I now imagine I've earned the title. There is a syndrome familiar
to many a critic that it doesn't take a critic to recognize: that
is, the having-your-critical-head-up-your-critical-ass syndrome.
It happens to all of us… that is, I mean, I'm sure it does… okay,
maybe not me, but most critics. Really. Never me. It's a dangerous
syndrome to find oneself in (so I hear) as walking around with one's
head up one's ass could permanently deform one's critical posture.
I'm afraid that this syndrome has spread through the critical community
like wildfire this summer.
Want some evidence? Here: go see M. Night
Shyamalan's beautiful film Lady in the Water (****, Warner Brothers,
2006). Please. Go. Enjoy the beautiful cinematography by Christopher
Doyle (2046, Hero, Rabbit Proof Fence). Delight in the strange interaction
of a modern day Philadelphia apartmentment complex with creatures
from a mysterious myth and a puzzle that defies logic. Good. You've
seen it. Now hop on the internet and go to, for instance, imdb.com
or rottentomatoes.com. Now take the time to puzzle over whether
these other folk were watching the same film. The only possible
answer is: they can't have been. It's amazing to me the number of
critics who drank the kool aid on this one.
A sampling of some pulled quotes gathered
at Rotten Tomatoes: "its utter lack of narrative discipline is just
plain amateurish, not subversive." -- Bob Strauss, LOS ANGELES DAILY
"Not everyone agrees on Shyamalan's talent
as a filmmaker, but few, up till now, have questioned his sanity."
-- Dana Stevens, SLATE
"...a disjointed and mind-numbing story."
-- Diana Saenger, REVIEWEXPRESS.COM
"Lady in the Water challenges us to believe
in the power of myth. But the big challenge here is surviving the
tedium of Shyamalan's meandering inventiveness." -- Stephanie Zacharek,
"It's hard to think of a deadlier shotgun
marriage than Jacques Tourneur's poetry of absence and Spielbergian
uplift, but Shyamalan has patented the combo, adding pretentious
camera movements that are peculiarly his own -- even the jokes are
pretty solemn." -- Jonathan Rosenbaum, CHICAGO READER
"Hollywood cannot pollute the ozone with
anything more idiotic, contrived, amateurish or sub-mental than
Lady in the Water." -- Rex Reed, NEW YORK OBSERVER
"It's a busy made-up universe - with… a
deity-tree that could give the Hindu hierarchy a run for its rupee.
And it's extremely silly." -- Steven Rea, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Okay… where to begin? Perhaps with a guy
named "Willie Waffle"? Shall I try to dissect the brilliant pull-quote
seeking that went into a phrase like "quasi-Jungian horse flop"?
Shall I attempt to force my brain to make sense out of a negatively
intoned descriptive phrase like "meandering inventiveness"? First
of all, you need to do as I did when I went to see the film. Go
in with an open mind and be prepared to take in what the film has
to offer. DO NOT enter expecting another Sixth Sense or Unbreakable.
Wonderful films though they are, they set up the audience with a
false expectation from any future films by Shyamalan: the "surprise
twist." Yes, surprise twists do happen. The thing one realizes over
time is that seeing something coming doesn't matter so much as wanting
what one gets when it happens. Shyamalan's films should be judged
on their "surprise twists" like Spielberg's carreer should be judged
on the number of mechanical sharks. Are there twists you won't see
coming in Lady? Perhaps. Does it matter how clever you are at seeing
these twists walking in? Only if you're in a very grumpy mood. Lady
in the Water tells the tale of Cleveland Heep (the wonderful Paul
Giamatti, who turns in an imaginative and hgeartfelt performance
here). Cleveland is the superintendant at a Philadelphia apartment
complex called "The Cove" which sports a peculiarly shaped pool
(I just mention this, because it's probably among the things people
will waste their time pondering over. Yeah, I'm sure it means something.
But only if you want it to.). One night, Cleveland encounters a
creature that looks like a beautiful young girl (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Soon, Cleveland finds out that she is likely a "Narf," a being who
must escape this realm and return to her world, but only with the
aid of other mysterious beings. Cleveland must get her home before
she is destroyed by the deadly wolf-like/grass creature called a
Skrunt. Shyamalan wrote this originally as a bedtime story for his
children, and the film carries that same sense of a gentle and beautiful
fairytale. Feel like you've seen it before? Really? Well, then here's
a question: do you demand the same unpredictable originality out
of your Harry Potter films and books? Gee, I wonder will Valdemort
have something to do with the evil machinations in the next film?
What are the odds? Face it, like I have. As an adult, I don't look
to bedtime stories, or any stories really, just for surprises. I
go looking to be involved in a story, any story, and for that I
need to feel the character's journey. I was absorbed in the relationship
between Giamatti's Heep and Howard's Story (that's the Narf's name)
for the duration of the film, and found much to be scared by in
the horrible Skrunt (I defy you, after watching the movie, to take
a walk across the lawn in the darkness without looking nervously
over your shoulder). There are many touches of gentle humor (with
the exception of one pointed joke, which I'll get to) and the rest
of the able cast (notably including Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban,
Mary Beth Hurt, Jared Harris and M. Night Shyamalan) fill out the
cast of strange characters (including a pool guy who works out only
one side of his body who has to be seen to be believed). It's a
fun, funny and imaginative ride that only requires that suspension
of disbelief and a little heart. It gives as much as you can bring
to it, and how nice is it that a filmmaker has chosen to involve
the audience's active imaginations in his storytelling?
So… back to the critics. What to make of
this mass lynching of Shyamalan? I have a theory, but in order to
understand it, you need to have seen the film, or you need to not
mind a spoiler.
So, for those of you have seen the film
or don't mind, I will tell my theory. Otherwise… PLEASE WATCH
OUT!!!!! SPOILER COMING!!!!! IF YOU DON'T WANT A MINOR POINT RUINED,
SKIP THE SENTENCE BELOW!!!!!
Here's my theory: they were a mite miffed
that the critic gets killed. LOOK OUT! SPOILER ABOVE! DO NOT READ!!!!!!
DON'T GO NEAR THE ABOVE SPOILER!!!!! OKAY! YOU MAY BEGIN READING
AGAIN! I hope my bold-faced bookman old style did not hurt your
eyes. I thank you. Critics: eyes up. Remove heads from butts. On
to the next movie/ TV show/ CD, etc. Remember: but for the grace
of God, you could end up as Michael Medved. Then you're really screwed.
Listen for three hours of new and rare sounds every
Friday on the Friday Gothic Blimp Works- "Call It Thing" At Midnight
after Friday Accent on Jazz, and tune into Culture Dogs every
Sunday night at 8 PM for an hour about films on the local scene
and at your local video peddler, with myself and Sam Hatch.
Listen live at 91.3 FM WWUH, 89.9 WAPJ Torrington
and wwuh.org. Culture Dogs also podcasts thru culturedogs.org.
WWUH: Program Guide 2006 ©