Monday, March 5, 2012

Movie Review: Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006)

There are many things odd and unique about Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. However, I think the most amazing thing is that 41 years after the suicide of this legendary photographer this is the only movie that has been made about her life; and it's not even based in reality.
Diane Arbus led such an interesting and singular life that it's hard for me to understand why a movie that has little to no basis in fact is her lasting cinematic portrait. Fur is not a bad movie by any stretch, but it really could have existed on its own, with no connection to Arbus. By the same token an Arbus biopic would have had more than enough material to stand on its own.
Nicole Kidman stars as Arbus, a photographer who made her mark by photographing giants, transvestites, little people and other outcasts of society. The film is meant to expose the roots of this fascination as embodied by her upstairs neighbor, played by Robert Downey Jr., a man who is cursed with hair from head to toe. Over the course of the movie Arbus forsakes her husband Allan Arbus, here played by Ty Burrell, for the furry man named Lionel Sweeney.
I started watching the movie only half paying attention to what was going on, yet even as I became more invested in the proceedings I still was having trouble grasping what to make of what was before me. The movie is compelling just for the simple beauty and the beast plot line, but there's something more to it than that. The film begins with the title card explaining that the film "is not a historical biography" but instead "reaches beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus' inner experience on her extraordinary path." This leaves us guessing the rest of the entire film at what is real and what the creators of this film made up.
Perhaps it's because I wasn't familiar with Arbus' work, but I would have much preferred a more truthful tale about her life. It inspired me to do my own research into her life and work, but as I was watching Nicole Kidman shave the ailing Robert Downey Jr. from head to foot, I pined for the scene to be real. But I knew it never could be. Or was it? I don't know.
Historical fiction as a genre is generally reserved for older people and events and even then for those places in our shared past of which we all have some sort mutual understanding. Fur undermines this concept by reveling in flights of fancy, lifting off from some runway so covered in fog that we can't tell where the land begins. I respect the risk that director Steven Shainberg took by making such a movie. Certainly he went out on a limb.
But wouldn't a Nicole Kidman movie where she falls in love a sexy Wolfman played by Robert Downey Jr. been enough of a log line to draw in investors? That's the kind of pitch that sells itself.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Song Review: Lesley Gore - "It's My Party"/"Judy's Turn to Cry" (1963)

The past weekend I procured The Daily Ukulele fakebook from the library. As I made my played my way through the alphabetically-ordered songbook I came across the tablature for Lesley Gore's 1963 debut smash "It's My Party". I immediately played it about a half-dozen times, remembering how much I've always enjoyed this song more with each repetition. I first began my lifelong love of music in the car with my parents listening to the oldies stations (they wouldn't touch 80's contemporary pop music, at least around my brother and myself) and from copies of Time-Life Rock 'n' Roll Era cassette tapes my aunt would record and send me through the mail. (Come to think of it, Time-Life has formed the basis for a large amount of my understanding of the world.)
I've always appreciated the chord changes in this song. The verses actually sound like a girl talking to her friends at a party, her cadence revealing someone who is barely keeping it together. Then she, of course, loses her composure completely on the chorus. It's really a brilliant piece of songcraft (and probably not coincidentally the first big hit for future super producer Quincy Jones.)

The Daily Ukulele book lists the songwriters for each piece of music and I was amused to learn that "It's My Party" was composed by three men: Walter Gold, John Gluck Jr. and Herb Weiner. But the hilarity only increased when it was further revealed that not only was there a sequel to "It's My Party" called "Judy's Turn To Cry", but that the follow-up was written by two women: Beverly Ross and Edna Lewis. The difference between the songs is telling: in the original the protagonist has her birthday party ruined by her boyfriend, Johnny, who leaves for long stretches of time with Judy, who returns wearing his ring. The sequel picks up at some undetermined point in the future where our heroine explains: "Oh, one night I saw them kissin' at a party/So I kissed some other guy/Johnny jumped up and he hit him/'Cause he still loved me, that's why."
Let's review: when the men write for Lesley she's crying because her man totally went with another girl at her own birthday celebration. (Oh, snap!) And when women are the helm of the storytelling ship, they steer Ms. Gore towards another guy which causes Johnny to completely forget that tart Judy and give it to the unsuspecting patsy right in the kisser. I feel like a gender studies class could have a field day with this very thesis.

More hilarity: The corresponding album on which both these songs are featured, "I'll Cry If I Want To" features mostly songs about crying ("Cry Me a River", "Cry", "Just Let Me Cry", "Cry and Cry Alone", "No More Tears (Left to Cry)", etc.) and was rushed out after the sudden success of "It's My Party. Gore later came out as a lesbian making YouTube commenter starvetodeath123's post on the video for a live version of "Judy's Turn to Cry" ever so prescient:
"And when Leslie realizes she likes Judy, it'll be Johnny's turn to cry."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Movie Review: Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)

I was going to write two separate articles tonight until I realized they were about the same thing. I was going to compose a review of the HBO documentary Bobby Fisher Against the World and another exploring Gary Glitter's 1972 glam rock/stadium chant classic "Rock and Roll" (Parts 1 and 2). Then I realized that I had exactly the same feelings on both Fischer's and Glitter's legacies. (It also didn't hurt that "Rock and Roll" is featured in the film.)
Bobby Fischer Against the World is a sweeping look the life of arguable the greatest, and somewhat less arguably, the most controversial chess player in the history of the sport. At the height of his powers in 1972, he was one of the most famous people in the world after defeating Boris Spassky for the World Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Meanwhile, 1,173 miles away in England that very same year, Gary Glitter's debut single "Rock and Roll" (Parts 1 and 2) began burning up the charts. Composed of one parts instrumental track and the other half an echo-y homage to the roots of the genre with which it shares its title, it would soon become a staple of sporting arenas across the globe. Interestingly enough, the vocal portion was the more popular of two in France, while the instrumental track was the winner in the U.S. and U.K. markets.

The years after Fischer's win were fraught to say the least. In 1975 he forfeited his title to Anatoly Karpov after organizers wouldn't agree to a patently unfair scoring system in which Fischer would retain his title if the score ended up being 9-9 (meaning Karpov would have had to win 10 games to eight to defeat Fischer.) Six years later he was arrested in Pasadena, Calif. after he allegedly fit the description of a bank robbery suspect. In 1992, after winning a rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia, Fischer was forced to expatriate for the rest of his life because of a U.S. embargo on sporting events in the country. This event ignited Fischer's anti-American and anti-Semitic railings (despite his Jewish ancestry), culminating in a complete meltdown following the September 11th attacks. He subsequently wrote a letter to Osama bin Laden which began:
Dear Mr. Osama bin Laden allow me to introduce myself. I am Bobby Fischer, the World Chess Champion. First of all you should know that I share your hatred of the murderous bandit state of "Israel" and its chief backer the Jew-controlled U.S.A. also know [sic] as the "Jewnited States" or "Israel West." We also have something else in common: We are both fugitives from the U.S. "justice" system.
Fischer spent his final days in Iceland, the scene of his historic match, dying of an otherwise completely treatable disease.
Likewise, Gary Glitter would never reach the heights of his former glory. Far from it. Glitter's name has now become synonymous with child pornography and pedophilia. His career came to an end in 1997 when his computer was brought into a PC World store for repair. The technicians found pictures of children in compromising positions. He then spent four months in a British prison. Following his release he sailed off into the sunset on his yacht, stopping at locations across the globe before finally dropping anchor in Cambodia. Then, in 2005, he was very nearly executed by firing squad in Vietnam after being found guilty of child molestation. Instead he was deported and somehow got away with only compensating the victim's families with $315 each. He then returned to the U.K. where he will have to spend the rest of his life as a registered sex offender.
I don't know much about chess. I know which pieces move in what directions. I've played before. I don't think I've won more than I've lost. I briefly considered downloading a chess app so I could practice on my iPhone after watching this documentary. That's pretty much where my experience with chess comes to an end.
But from watching this movie and hearing those who knew him and know the sport, his mastery was astonishing. His talent operating at such a high level, he had to create a new form of chess to just maintain his interest. The variation, Chess960, uses randomized starting positions making memorization of moves and strategies obsolete. As Dick Cavett put it in a New York Times article following Fischer's death in 2008:
Among this year’s worst news, for me, was the death of Bobby Fischer. Telling a friend this, I got, “Are you out of your bloody mind? He was a Nazi-praising raving lunatic and anti-Semite. Death is too good for him.” He did, indeed, become all that. But none of it describes the man I knew. Towering genius, riches, international fame and a far from normal childhood might be too heady a mix for anyone to handle. For him they proved fatal. I’m still sad about his death. In our three encounters on my late-night show, I became quite fond of him.
I could say the same for Gary Glitter and his enduring hit "Rock and Roll". Following Glitter's initial outing as a pederast many sports teams that had been playing the song at their events ceased doing so. I'm sure people felt weird about cheering for their team using this chant after knowing what the author was up to in his spare time.
But I don't necessarily feel enjoyment of art and the moral veracity of the artist have to be judged on the same scale. Bobby Fischer is still a chess legend. "Rock and Roll" is still a great song. (I actually like the part with lyrics better, personally.)
That doesn't mean I'd leave any Jewish people or small children in their care, though.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Song Review: Adele - "Someone Like You" (2011)

I am behind the times. I don't live in my own generation. I'm still exploring revolutions and trends that have fallen out of fashion even before I entered this plane of existence. I am constantly making revelations that, when I look around, seem to be as familiar to every other member of this society as pre-conceived notions of the most obvious fashion.
In this spirit, it was only today, four days after Adele's 2011 album 21 swept the 54th Grammy Awards, did I hear the second single off of this album. In fact, this is still the only song I've heard from this album, which is now set to claim the #1 spot on the Billboard charts for the 21st week since its release. And the only reason that even heard this on the radio today at all was that the battery on my iPhone was nearly dead. I couldn't find the cord to plug it in the night before. I generally listen to podcasts on the way to and fro work. However, today was different. To conserve battery for the day ahead I instead plugged the phone in to my car charger. I started scanning the radio for some amount of noise to fill my car while I made my way to my place of employment. I didn't even hear the whole song. I just caught the chorus.
What I heard haunted me all day.
This woman has got some pipes. And not only that, she has complete mastery over her given talent, somersaulting over and above herself at every turn. I couldn't see the waveform of the recording when I first encountered this song, but I felt that every corner of the possible aural spectrum was being utilized here.
The content of the song is downright heartbreaking. She's obviously addressing an ex-lover who she still has deep feelings for. The chorus is simply a disingenuous send-off to this person, basically saying that she hopes in the future to match something she knows she will never see the likes of again. Haunting.

To be fair, I did know who Adele was long before this moment. I remember seeing a VH1 interstitial interview with her a few years ago when her first album, 19, was released in 2008. I was intrigued by, again, the second single from that album, "Chasing Pavements".

It was a memorable song, but the song didn't stay with me the same way "Someone Like You" is sure to.
I cherish this moment. It will never come again. It will fade into memory. Adele is bound to change and I'll be surprised if she ever reaches this peak again. I wish I could freeze this feeling. I'm sure soul singers of the past have inspired such words. I wasn't around to see them in their prime. I couldn't witness Aretha Franklin or Etta James when they were fresh out the box.
For once, I'm trying to savor the moment at the same time as everyone else. I hope for Adele's sake she does too.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Movie Review: The Hangover Part II (2011)

Sometimes when I forget something I know I should be remembering, I retrace my exact steps and try to think about what I was thinking about as I passed each visual landmark. (Example: At the chair I was thinking about Y and before that when I was passing the closet I was considering X.)
That's the closet thing I can compare to The Hangover Part II.
The 2011 sequel to the 2009 original, is exactly the same movie in a different location. And when I say it's the same movie, I mean it's the same movie. The same things happen in exactly the same order with exactly the same visuals. It's like Todd Phillips was going about his business, making movies like Road Trip and Old School, and just accidentally walked face-first into the giant cobweb of the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time. And when it came time to either move the story forward or make a carbon copy of the first, he chose the second option.
And then, you know what?
It worked.
The Hangover Part II is now the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time.
Maybe the only other phenomenon I could compare it to would be Evil Dead and Evil Dead II or else El Mariachi and Desperado. Those are two other examples of directors (Sam Raimi and Robert Rodriguez, respectively) remaking a movie they had already made before they had any kind of budget. And I guess that corresponds here because the budget for the second Hangover film was more than double what the first was (if Wikipedia is to be believed.) Still, it was in the tens and tens of millions each time, which Evil Dead and El Mariachi were in the thousands to start with.
The musical cues are representative of everything else about this movie. In both movies the opening credits show their respective settings while a Danzig song is piped in. In The Hangover, Kanye West's "Can't Tell Me Nothing" plays as the gang makes their way to Las Vegas. In The Hangover Part II, West's single "Stronger" is showered over the scene where the Wolf Pack are headed to Thailand. The end credits (featuring the visual evidence of the forgotten night) cycle through under the warm embrace of a different Flo Rida song. Sadly, one musical feature that didn't make it back was the uproarious wedding band of the first movie (and Old School): the Dan Band.

I wouldn't call The Hangover Part II a great movie, but I wouldn't call it a bad movie either. I mean, I really liked the first one a lot. I probably saw it more times in theaters than any movie since Kill Bill. And that was in 2003. It's so similar without being at all original that it's hard to judge it on it's own merits. I obviously had an affinity for the first, why wouldn't the second be at least somewhat enjoyable?
Like retracing your steps, there is nothing natural about the movements of this secondary run. But if you remember the thing you set out to recall, then it was worth it. Right?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA, PIPA and Censorship

You want to know what I think about the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)? Well, I'll TELL you what I think about censorship. I think ████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ and ███ █ █████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ █████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████, but then ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ █████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ If you really think about it, censorship is███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ████ █████ ███ ██████ and I just don't get it.████ ████ ███ █ █████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ████ █████ ███ ██████ and isn't that the point of the internet? ████ ████ ███ █ █████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████and now ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ████ █████ ███ ██████ What would you do if ████ ████ ███ █ █████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███ ██████ ████ ████ ███ █ ██████ █████ ███.
And that's what I think. Thank you.
(Click here, while you still can.)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Song Review: Men at Work - "Overkill" (1983)

My friend Katie Wolfe and I have been trading musical earworms of the 1980s on Facebook. It started when I quoted a line from Dire Straits' classic "Money for Nothing". For days afterwards we would hear the song even when it wasn't there.
Today she posted this song and tagged me. Boy, did it throw me for a loop.
Between the time "Overkill" was released as a single on April 9, 1983 and when the accompanying album Cargo came out on June 28, I was was welcomed into the world. I was born on April 29, 1983 and I can't help but think that means something as far as my appreciation of "Overkill".
I am convinced I have a cosmic connection to this song.
I'm sure the same goes for everyone. You can't help but be influenced by the environment you are expelled into upon birth. It's just natural. Nature needs nurture like nurture needs nature.
I don't specifically remember this song from the 1980s, but it seems so familiar that I have to have heard it a million times. It doesn't even feel like experiencing something outside of myself, more like getting reacquainted with a part of myself.

Like Everclear, it's entirely possible that Men at Work had a very same-y approach to songwriting. The entire time I was listening to this I kept waiting for lead singer Colin Hay to burst into a rousing chorus of "Who can it BEEEE now?!"

That isn't to say that knowing what works for you is a bad thing. At least they had at least one good song. They just had the presence of mind to realize a good thing when it comes along.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Movie Review: American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009)

The problem with making any sort of documentary effort on life and work of the late, great stand-up comedian Bill Hicks is that the storyteller has to compete with Bill Hicks.
Even more than 15 years after his passing, just the sound of his forceful, knowing southern drawl still commands the stage. Anyone who tries to put quotes around the experience or draw a coherent line from one part of the narrative to other is bound to be in direct competition with Hicks' voice. And Bill Hicks will win that fight every single time.
Bill Hicks is one of my personal heroes, so I have had this movie on my must-watch list for quite sometime now. I didn't really learn anything earth-shattering from this documentary, but I did feel I gained a more fleshed-out understanding of the man himself and not just the legend he has become. Friends, relatives and those knew him best comprise the narrators of the story, which is just as well. The major players, as available, are well represented so the breadth of the information provided is never in question. I feel like I understand his motivations and underlying psychology better after having watched this. (But, oh, what I wouldn't give for just an hour of Hicks being interviewed on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast.)
I can't put up too much of a fight with a project made with so much obvious love. However, my only real complaint with the filmmaker's style is that they fill in the spaces between film clips of Hicks' standup with awkwardly animated photographs that illustrate whatever scene is being described by the interviewee. The actual talking heads of the people we've been listening to the entire movie aren't shown until (spoiler alert) Hicks is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This an heir to the throne of the Ken Burns Effect of slowly zooming in or panning from side to side on still photographs to simulate movement. Burns' The Civil War documentary series employs this effect, but in a far less jarring way than is presented here. Normally, this idea of making still photographs come to life through the use of cutting and pasting and quick background movements is only used sparingly when one doesn't have any ready video footage of the subject at hand. Here it is used liberally and ad nauseum.
Besides, the radical, confrontational ideas that Hicks spouts are more than enough action for me. That's probably why the parts that I enjoyed best were just the clips of his stand-up, most of which I've already seen. And that's a more powerful statement than anyone else could make about him, no matter how well intentioned: his words can still cut glass after all this time.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Television Review: Portlandia: Season 1 (2011, IFC)

Sketch comedy is a tricky concept to pull off.
It's a fine line between complete absurdity and utter realness. This is why a sketch comedy show based in, on and around the city/myth/legend of Portland, Oregon makes so much sense. How much do you really have to bend reality when the place your show is set in already sets itself apart from the rest of the planet?

Portlandia, whose second season debuts Friday on IFC, is the brainchild of Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) and Portland's own Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney). The sketches are interconnected, long-form and character-based, but really they're a shell for the pair's subtle brand of lovingly absurd, sardonic humor to find room to breathe. The majority of the show's bits work because of the little moments hidden between the punchlines. And even, beyond that, the punchlines sometimes never come. The setup of the joke is often enough to carry the weight.

Another reason the show works so well is because Armisen and Brownstein obviously love Portland and everything it stands for to death. This is the whole reason they are able to get away with poking fun at the hipster capital of the Pacific Northwest. There's really nothing mean-spirited here and the humor isn't over the top so it's definitely not going to be for everyone. But for those who learned comedy at the knee of Kids in the Hall and Monty Python and haven't watch this yet, I can only pity them for not watching it sooner.