Monday, June 20, 2011

Brian De Palma

Dude makes two kinds of films: Quintessential De Palma films riff on and comment on filmmaking and filmmakers (usually Hitchcock), and mix high and low art with gleeful abandon. If a character is murdered as someone watches helplessly, you're watching one of those.

His first films rarely strayed from the thriller/horror genre, but you can still see his touch, and themes he would explore later — even in Sisters, a flawed but interesting low-budget early effort.

Of course, De Palma also turns out Hollywood films that don't have his thematic stamp of meta commentary and voyeurism or flashy style (split screens, other creative editing and showy camera work). Unfortunately this occasionally results in some hackwork: I really enjoyed Mission to Mars and Snake Eyes when I was 15, but I'm not sure if I would be so kind in 2011. But his craftsmanship has also produced some of the best blockbusters in recent history.

This AVClub's primer on De Palma (,52964/) put exactly what I liked about his work into words better than I can. My above comments are rooted there. He's easily the most unsung and often misunderstood filmmaker of his generation.

It seems a bit convoluted to include De Palma-De Palma films and De Palma-Hollywood films in the same list, but here we go. My ranking, with the category each falls into labeled as either D-D or D-H:

1.) Blow Out (D-D)
 This finally came out on home video this month after being essentially unavailable in the US for years. Blow Out is the rare film that improves significantly on the one that inspired it —Antonioni 's wildly over-praised '60s breakthrough Blow Up — by adding layers of plot and suspense without losing substance.
2.) Scarface (D-H)
I don't care how many MTVcribs have this poster. I don't care how many wanna-be goons butcher Pacino's already butchered "Cuban" accent. Scarface is one of the most ridiculously entertaining movies of all time.
3.) The Untouchables (D-H)
You already know why this is good. But I can't stop talking. De Palma loves movies. He fucking loves movies. And nowhere is his enthusiasm for entertainment more apparent than here. Even when it's corny, it's endearing.
4.) Mission Impossible (D-H)
And here.
5.) Casualties Of War (D-D
This Vietnam war drama allows De Palma to mix his new-found Hollywood budget and casting options, with all of his pet themes.
6.) Carlito's Way (D-H)

7.) Body Double (D-D)
His most glorious pulp-trash, it's classed up a bit with Hitchcockian craftsmanship, and more than a few nods to Vertigo.
8.) Femme Fatale (D-D)
Critics loved it or hated (more of them hated it), but it's a rock-solid neo-noir that again has a go at Vertigo and Rear Window.
9.) Dressed to Kill (D-D)
This was his second film after Carrie, and you can see him push his voyeuristic tendencies with less restraint. Dressed To Kill uses Psycho as its jumping off point, but its adherence to thriller/horror tradition creates a a few by-the-numbers plot points and reveals that aren't that revealing. It's still heads and shoulders above nearly any other horror movie from the era, and legitimately gutsy in some of its sexual content.
Sisters (D-D)
Mission to Mars (D-H)
Snake Eyes (D-H)
The Black Dahlia (D-H)

Have not seen
Carrie (this is one of those huge, embarrassing cultural blind spots. Though at a certain point, if you haven't seen Carrie by the age of 25, it's nearly pointless to do so — it's been referenced and commented on so many times that I know all of the plot and shocks without seeing it. It's ruined for me.)
Raising Cain
The Fury
Hi Mom!
Phantom Of The Paradise
Bonfire of the Vanities

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Best Films of 2010 (yeah yeah, deduct two letter grades for being a half-year late)

I suppose this is more for my own OCD-like need to list everything than for anyone else's benefit, being that it's June already. I'm still behind on some of 2010's more lauded films, but here's my best of 2010 list ... belatedly, pointlessly.

1. The Social Network
I hate to admit it, but "the facebook movie" lived up to the hype, and then some. I'll follow director David Fincher anywhere ('cept Benjamin Button, it sucked). And Sorkin's talky script is sharp and doesn't insult its audience. Too bad Hollywood only makes a few films for adults every year ... look how good they can be. Jesse Eisenberg is terrific as the socially-inept and bitter Zuckerberg, building an empire out of spite.

2. Black Swan
3. Exit Through the Gift Shop
4. Toy Story 3
5. Blue Valentine
6. The Fighter
7. True Grit
8. Inception
9. Greenberg
10. The King's Speech (I'm not big on costume-drama Oscar bait, so I put this one off for a bit. For shame, for shame. This was pretty damn good, thanks to a witty script. I still have a hard time emphasizing with royalty. Seriously, they can all burn.)
11. Winter's Bone
12. Kick-Ass
13. The Town

Shutter Island
The Killer Inside Me

The Other Guys
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Iron Man 2
Hot Tub Time Machine

The Kids Are All Right (I'll probably never see this, don't care.) 
A Prophet

Rabbit Hole
Inside Job

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Best of the year, so far

We're half way around the sun, again, folks. It's a distance that has an uncanny effect on music nerds: we feel cosmically possessed to chronicle which albums provided the best space-travel music. In order, are my favorite records of the year so far.

1. Tune-Yards "W h o k i l l"
Merrill Garbus takes a gimmick (sampling and looping her own voice) and built actual songs with killer horns, Afropop percussion, ukulele, bass and guitar to make the half-year's best and most original album.

2. Yuck "Yuck"
UK brats use equal parts Teenage Fanclub, Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. for their debut, throwing back to a decade we all wish it still was — the '90s.

3. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart "Belong"
Twee American boys and girls move from the '80s noise pop (The Jesus and Mary Chain, Black Tambourine) of their debut to make album more indebted to the Smashing Pumpkins, without losing their earnest vulnerability. Hey remember Silversun Pickups? This is better.

4. Fleet Foxes "Helplessness Blues"

Singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold averted a sophomore slump by ditching a whole batch of songs originally penned for this album. His band kept fans on ice with the three-year gap between records, but it was wort it — "Helplessness Blues" overflows with folk mysticism and powerful vocal harmonies.

5. Smith Westerns "Dye it Blond"

Mott the Hoople's poppy brand of glam-rock is the obvious reference point for these young Chicagoans' hazy second LP.

6. The Decemberists "King is Dead"

Portland's folk-rock institution ditches their temporary foray into concept albums and prog-rock to turn in their tightest set, finding inspiration in early R.E.M, Tom Petty and country.

7. The Antlers "Burst Apart"

Like "Hospice," the band's 2009 opus on loss and coping, "Burst Apart" is an atmospheric slow-burn built around swirling keyboards, subtle guitarwork and singer Peter Silberman's heartbreaking falsetto. It's best enjoyed with headphones.

8. Wye Oak "Civilian"

9. Toro Y Moi "Underneath the Pine"
Chazwick Bundick brings the disco-and-funk indebted dance jams via live instrumentation, largely leaving behind the synthesizers of his debut.

Kurt Vile "Smoke Ring For My Halo"
Scraggly singer-songwriter Kurt Vile has a knack for burrowing in over time, and is lucky to inherit the quiet sneer handed down by Bob Dylan and Lou Reed.  This record's a grower, but you'll keep coming back once the melodies reveal themselves.

11. Fucked Up "David Comes To Life"
Pink Eyes and crew turn out another set of intelligent hardcore. The new record is a concept album. Like the best concept albums, the individual songs don't collapse under the weight of the central conceit.

The best of the rest
J. Mascis "Several Shades of Why"
Radiohead "The King of Limbs"
Panda Bear "Tomboy"

Need more time
Okkervil River "I Am Very Far"
Iron & Wine "Kiss Each Other Clean"

Out soon
Black Lips "Arabia Mountain"
Cults "Cults"
My Morning Jacket "Circuital"
Bon Iver "Bon Iver"

Haven't heard yet
R.E.M. "Collapse into Now"
Ponytail "Do Whatever You Want All The Time"
TV On The Radio "Nine Types of Light"

Friday, May 13, 2011

shiny plastic things

Someone call the old news police: Jeff Koons makes me angry, and he's not doing himself any favors. Motherfucker tried to trademark the balloon dog. You can't take unArt, put quotations around it, call it Art and then claim you invented the unArt, too. I can't really think of anything more arrogant. That's like Danger Mouse suing Kanye for sampling the same song.

Koons' paintings and installations look like they were generated by the same team of manatees that splice together Family Guy's random, plot-less jokes.
Effectively commenting on, and skewering, kitsch and American culture through art relies on context. But his art relies on the insecurity of the viewer to force meaning and context, when it isn't there, just to feel like they "get it."

Unless you wear stocking caps with Anime ears, this will make you angry.
Every few months I go online and make myself sit through a few sideshows of his work, to see if my perceptions have changed. It only gets worse. Koons is the original Thierry Guetta, paying a small army of artisans to create his next empty abomination of juxtopostion.

He is as offensively shallow and uninteresting as Lady Gaga, and as cynical and commercially viable.

Who do you think is the worst "post-modern" cash whore? 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Weekends "Totem"

I don't know if this song has anything to do with Inception's use of the word "totem" or not, because I don't know what the fuck this song is about. That doesn't stop it from being kind of perfect. And the video. Video is good.

Weekends "Totem" from Friends Records on Vimeo.