Tuesday, February 26, 2013

E.T. Roundtable - Episode Five: "Number One With A Bullet (To The Head)"

In their fifth episode, the E.T. crew risk bowels, brain cells and ear drums to review Billboard's "Hot" Top Ten.

Other topics of discussion include:
  • The music business is badly overdue for an enema!  Will it ever happen again and, if so, should we even bother to use lube this time?  
  • What do Mariah Carey, Fall Out Boy, Katy Perry and Paul Anka all have in common?  
  • What band would you like to see elevated into the zeitgeist of pop culture, but not so much that they get all conceited and douchey?  
  • What auditory transgressions make you want to Hulk-rage on a song? 
  • If you could reboot radio and the charts from scratch, how would you do it? 
  • What prerequisites must a tune possess in order to avoid triggering your gag reflex?

Post-Listening Palate-Cleansers:

And here's some info on Acres and Acres.  

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Movie Review: "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" by David Pretty

Back in 2004, Toronto-based artist Bryan Lee O'Malley had considerable success with Scott Pilgrm vs. the World, a humble little black and white graphic novel with Halifax-ian connections.  O’Malley's central character is actually named after the song “Scott Pilgrim” by the all-girl alternative band Plumtree.  Along with Jale, Thrush Hermit, Eric's Trip and Sloan, Plumtree rode a crest of regional success during the Golden Age of Halifax-based indie music back in the early 90's.

O’Malley constructed an elaborate universe for the titular character, meshing wild fantasy set-pieces, real-life Toronto locales, video-game tropes and a clear passion for music.  All of these trappings merely serve as window dressing for a very sincere and bittersweet love story between two twenty-somethings who are already burdened by considerable emotional baggage.

With the release of each new volume in the graphic novel series generating higher and higher print runs, Hollywood eventually came a-knockin’ in the form of Universal Studios and director Edgar "Shawn of the Dead" Wright.  Although the resulting film adaption retains most of the book's alternative sensibilities, it also starts to fly out of control in the final act.

Scott Pilgrim (played capably by wunderkind shlub Micheal Cera) is twenty-three, “between jobs” and plays bass with his friends in a self-confessed “terrible” rock band called Sex Bob-omb.  His past love life is a bit of a shambles, since he bungled things with High School fling Kim Pine (a delightfully deadpan Alison Pill) and then got dumped by ugly-duckling-turned-superstar “Envy” Adams ( played by real-life musician Brie Larson).

He ventures into an ego-stroking relationship of convenience with Chinese High-School student Knives Chau (a perfectly cast Ellen Wong) which lasts until Scott catches a glimpse of his (literal) dream girl: the rollerblading, subspace-highway traversing, American delivery girl Ramona Flowers, played by an appropriately aloof Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Intrigued by his earnest if not slow-witted manner, Ramona tentatively admits Scott into her life but this immediately results in complications.  During Sex Bob-omb’s pivotal “The Battle of the Bands” set, Scott is set upon by Matthew Patel, the first challenger amongst Ramona's “League of Seven Evil Ex’s”.  Although Scott manages to best Patel and pledge his devotion to Ramona, his opponents become increasingly daunting and soon our hero begins to flag under the weight of his own limitations and insecurities.

Let me get this out of the way right now: if you aren’t steeped in comic books, music and video games Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may alternate between infuriating and baffling to you.  If sound effects being rendered in animation, pop-up character facts appearing right on screen, a soundtrack riddled with musical cues from The Legend of Zelda and elaborate anime-style sword fights ending with vanquished enemies exploding in a rain of coins and experience points all prompt you to roll your eyes, then this movie isn't for you.  But if you've spent most of your life marinating in Nintendo, MTV and manga, then you’re in for a giddy and original visual treat.

I absolutely loved the early goings of the flick with its slavish Hey-Let's-Use-The-Original-Graphic-Novel-As-A-Storyboard approach.  I dug Scott’s interaction with his friends, the band's burgeoning success, his tribulations in trying to juggle two girls at once and the big reveal about Ramona’s evil Ex’s.  I also reveled in the snappy dialogue, the energetic fight sequences and the olde-skool 16-bit Universal logo.

The performances are generally pretty good, even though I think that Micheal Cera is actually slightly mis-cast.  He’s got the earnest sincerity down pat, but I've always visualized Scott as traditionally pretty but kinda dim.  Although he doesn't quite look the part, Cera delivers the sort of appealing and charismatic performance that he can probably do now in his sleep.   

The conveyor belt of Ramona's evil Ex’s are all very well-realized.  Self-righteous, Vegan-fueled Brandon Routh's Todd Ingram, scenery-chewing Chris Evans's Lucas Lee and Mae Whitman's lesbian rage phase-casualty "Roxy" Richter all make their own individual “impact” (pun intended).  Jason Schwartzman is particularly good as as the ultra-smarmy “final boss” Gideon Gordon Graves.  He’s like an on-screen human oil slick, entoxifying the proceedings with his smarmy affectations.

In light of all this praise, the last third of the film stumbles a bit.  Perhaps because the sixth and final comic book was published only a month before the film was released, the final half of the movie version looses its grip on the myriad of story threads and promptly degenerates into a “things to vanquish” checklist.  It’s as if the producers looked at what they’d filmed, glanced at the unfinished script, remembered the release date and said “Oh crap, we’ve still got five more of Ramona’s Evil Ex’s to get through!  How the hell are we gonna do this?”  As a result, the lively but relatively pedestrian first half degenerates into a rushed, whirling dervish of truncated plot threads, hyperkinetic action sequences and half-baked resolutions.

At least the last few scenes are true to the comic’s original tone.  Although it would have been great to see the approach established in the first half of the film carry on to its conclusion, I also know that a lot of material had to be truncated or jettisoned in order to deliver a reasonably succinct package.

And what an original and exciting package it is!  I'm hoping that older audience members will dig the terrestrial and timeless love story and just roll with the film's unconventional style.  I'm also pretty confident that younger viewers will just automatically "get it".

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World could very well be the first film in which pop culture, flash cuts and visual references to Super Mario 3 are all de rigueur.  Viewers who've been weaned on these things since birth will probably be left wondering why it took so damned long. 

     Tilt: up.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Movie Review: "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) by David Pretty

It's always incredible when a prescient work of fiction foreshadows the political climate of an entire decade.  That's exactly what The Manchurian Candidate managed to do way back in 1962.

The film tells the story of a platoon of G.I.'s who are captured during the Korean War, brainwashed by Communist Chinese and Soviet forces and then shipped back to the United States as "sleeper soldiers" to wage a covert war of espionage, terror and assassination.  The film posits that these techniques are so advanced that the test subjects develop distinct personalities which can be brought to the surface by an appropriate trigger.  When this happens they become hypnotized, robotic and predisposed to do the bidding of their handler without question or hesitation. 

Even better: when the subject wakes up they have absolutely no memory of what they did while under the influence.  So, if detained and questioned by the authorities, the suspect literally has nothing to confess.  After a series of political assassinations rocked the United States in the Sixties and Seventies, some came to believe that notorious figures such as Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, James Earl Ray, and Mark David Chapman all exhibited signs of this devious programming.  Regardless of what you believe, it's eerily coincidental that The Manchurian Candidate presaged all of this.

When the captives are returned to the United States strange things begin to happen almost immediately.  The platoon testifies that their supposed savior Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is "the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being they've ever known", despite the fact that they all hated his guts.  They begin to share bizarre collective dreams rife with pacification, betrayal, and murder.  They begin to experience gaps in time and memory.

After witnessing a breakdown in Shaw's programming during which he literally jumps in a lake, commanding officer Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) become convinced that there's a conspiracy afoot and initiates an investigation.  He attempts to deprogram Shaw but the effectiveness of this is kept in doubt right up until the very end.  As such, the film's final reel is almost unbearably tense.

Although the story itself if pretty far-out the exemplary cast and crew really strive for realism.  Director John Frankenheimer stages many of his scenes cinema-verite style, which was highly unusual at the time.  Quite often I found myself totally immersed by the reality inherent in this technique, which is indispensable given the script's wild premise.  Witness the brilliantly-documented news conference which sees James Gregory as Senator Iselin do his best Joseph McCarthy impersonation.  The staging of the actors, the placement of monitors and the inclusion of hand-held footage really sells the shot.

Contrast this with the sense of disorientation generated by the film's earlier scenes.  In an amazing 360-degree panorama shot, Frankenheimer shows us the passively captive G.I.'s, the innocuous "garden club" meeting that they think they're attending and the nightmarish surgical-theater torture setting that they're really immersed in.  As the scene plays out it becomes increasingly nuanced, unnerving and weird.  If you're one of those people that insists that everything be explained to you, watching The Manchurian Candidate may very well be your worst possible nightmare.

The cast is wholly believable.  Whatever you want to say about Frank Sinatra as a screen talent, he's absolutely convincing here.  Every line reading, expression and nuance of body language is genuine, made all the more remarkable when you find out that Sinatra refused to do more then one take.  Laurence Harvey has the thankless role of playing the film's prissy, humorless, Mama's boy Sargent Raymond Shaw.  At first his performance seems a tad labored but this just serves to illustrate just how disconnected, uncharismatic and, subsequently, how suitable the character is for mind control.

But it's Angela Lansbury who's the real marvel.  Not to disparage Patty Duke for her work in To Kill a Mockingbird, but Angela Lansbury really deserved major props for her portrayal of Eleanor Iselin.  Although only a few years older than her on-screen son at the time, Lansbury's aristocratic, American matriarch is totally genuine.  Willing to do anything to achieve her secret and nefarious goals, a case can be made that Eleanor Iselin is the most reviled mom in cinema history.  The cringe-inducing intimacy she shares with her put-upon son is enough to earn her that dubious distinction alone.

At the end of the film it's comforting to think that the threat has passed but I couldn't help but hearken back to an earlier scene that occurs between Sinatra's character and Janet Leigh's Eugenie.  Marco's request for an investigation has been rejected by the military and he's on a train headed back to New York to see Shaw.  At this stage in the game he's in pretty rough shape: twitchy, sweating profusely, paranoid, and completely vulnerable.  Leigh's character picks up on this, confronts him and the two have one of the oddest, most disjointed conversations in cinema history.  In light of the film's explosive revelations, the camera's impassive, dead-eyed capture of this strange scene is incredibly disconcerting. 

This is an amazing and important film with implications that will linger with you long after the final credits have rolled.  

         Tilt: up.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Movie Review "Django Unchained" by David Pretty

Words can't describe how refreshing it is to walk into a movie theater and have no fucking clue what I'm about to see.  Thanks to some cracklin' dialogue, excellent casting, inspired performances, sharp storytelling, unconventional musical choices and brilliant pacing, Django Unchained is the cinematic equivalent of a funhouse ride.

Jamie Foxx plays Django a slave who suddenly finds himself liberated by an immigrant German dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  Schultz turns out to be a bounty hunter who's looking to track down the ruthless Brittle Brothers.  With Django's help, Schultz locates the outlaws, takes them down and then collects the substantial price on their collective heads.

This temporary alliance proves to be highly lucrative and the duo enter into a formal partnership.  When Schultz learns that Django has been forcibly separated from his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) he vows to do what he can to re-unite them.  This leads to an elaborate scheme in which Django and Schultz are forced to ingratiate themselves to the flamboyant and obtuse slave broker Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

What follows is a tense campaign of subterfuge in which Schultz and Django attempt to feign interest in the repugnant "sport" of Mandingo fighting.  Under the guise of purchasing one of the top combatants, the two venture off to Calvin's extravagant plantation uncomfortably named "Candyland".  The tension builds to nigh-intolerable levels when Candie betrays an increasingly cruel and psychotic streak and his devoted senior house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) begins to question the intentions of his visitors.

Django Unchained wasn't shot digitally in 3-D and exhibited at forty-eight frame-per-second.  It was shot on celluloid and is currently being displayed in movie theater all over the world in the traditional manner.  For all of it's quaintly analog trappings, this film was ten times more immersive to me then Avatar or The fucking Hobbit.  Why?  Because the screenwriting is innovative, the dialogue is compelling, the performances are center stage and the film's artistry is undeniable.

Where to start?  I suppose I can begin by cataloging the movie's compulsively watchable traits.  Even though it clocks in at nearly three hours long my eyes were glued to the screen the entire time.  Like all of Tarantino flicks, the plot doesn't unspool here based on market research or screenwriting by committee.  Things happen organically in Django Unchained either because it springs logically from what we've seen prior or things happen completely from out of left field, just as real life is want to do from time to time.

It's not just the script's vignette-like plotting that keeps us on our toes.  The dialogue, as you might imagine, is a refreshing reprieve for ears dulled by cliche.  For example, here's a great exchange between Calvin Candie's associate Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher) and Schultz:

Dr. King Schultz: Anything else about Mr Candie I should know about before I meet him?
Leonide Moguy: Yes, he's a bit of a Francophile.  Well, what civilized people aren't?  And he prefers 'Monsieur Candie' to 'Mr Candie'.
Dr. King Schultz: [en Francais] Whatever he prefers.
Leonide Moguy: Oh, he doesn't speak French!  Don't speak French to him, it'll embarrass him.

Dialogue like this is great for two reasons: first off it's funny as all get-out.  But more importantly, it gives you some insight into DiCaprio's character even before he's had a single second of screen time.

Naturally, with all of this rich material to work with, the cast runs riot.  Keeping his cards close to his chest, Jamie Foxx plays Django with a dangerous, simmering, barely-contained rage that threatens to explode at any moment and unravel their plans.  Witness his cool delivery in this tense scene with the gleefully reprehensible Candie:

Calvin Candie: I'm curious, what makes you such a Mandingo expert?
Django: I'm curious what makes you so curious.

Later Django is tortured by Candie's yahoo lieutenant Billy Crash (Walter Goggins) in a scene that evokes shades of Pulp Fiction and/or Reservoir Dogs.  When our hero finally gets a chance to exact his revenge, I couldn't help but share Foxx's on-screen catharsis when the two finally meet again for the last time.

Christoph Waltz, so great as Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, gets even more opportunities to shine here.  On paper, Schultz is a pretty interesting dude, but in Waltz's capable hands the character really comes alive.  With typical aplomb he manages to wring a wealth of subtleties and intriguing deliveries out of the dialogue thereby elevating the material into something transcendent.  Once again, we're talking Oscar-worthy here.

Although folks like to give Leonardo DiCaprio a blast of shit for being one-dimensional I'm pleased to report that Django Unchained represents the best performance of his adult career.  Armed with a subtle makeup job, flamboyant costume and a convincing accent, the nicely-seasoned DiCaprio finally divorces himself from the concept that good acting consists merely of furrowing your brow and yelling a lot.  Even though DiCaprio may not posses the depth required to vanish completely into a role, he does a tremendous job here selling Candie as a real, three-dimensional prig with genuinely loathsome proclivities.  The scene in which he confronts Django and Schultz during dinner is positively nerve-jangling.  

I've always wanted to punch George Lucas right in the neck waddle for wasting Samuel L. Jackson in those deplorable Star Wars prequels, but never more so then after watching Django Unchained.  People don't think of Jackson as a character actor, but given a meaty role and some stellar makeup, he's obviously capable of a transformative performance.  Indeed the Quisling-like role of Stephen is quite a departure from anything he's done before and Jackson is more then up for the challenge: segueing easily from doddering clown to persistently inquisitive to downright terrifying.

Kerry Washington is alternately fierce, sweet and sympathetic as Broomhilda but she's strangely under-utilized for a female in a Quentin Tarantino production.  She functions mainly as a MacGuffin to drive the plot and until Django and Schultz reach Candyland, she's only seen in strife-ridden flashbacks or as a wraith.  Once she's introduced to the story proper, however, Washington does an excellent job conveying shock and bliss over her reunion with Django and then fear and trepidation as they attempt to extricate her from danger.  This leads to a scene with DiCaprio which is one of the most startling and memorable of the entire film.

The movie is also rife with a veritable "who's who" of bit players and fun cameos.  In addition to the aforementioned Walter Goggins, we also get a nearly unrecognizable Lee Horsley as Sheriff Gus, former Duke Boy Tom Wopat as U.S. Marshall Gill Tatum, deck-shoe-model-turned-cock-of-the-walk Don Johnson as Spencer 'Big Daddy' Bennett and Twin Peaks alum Russ Tamblyn as Son of a Gunfighter and his real-life daughter Amber as the Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter (natch!).  John Jarratt, Michael Parks and even Tarantino himself get in on the action as the guileless staff of the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company.  Finally, comedian Jonah Hill gets plenty of mileage out of his appearance as a persnickety proto-Klan member.

Tarantino also keeps surprising us with some consistently unique musical choices.  Whereas some of the tunes selected for Inglorious Basterds were jarringly contemporary ("Cat People"?  Really?), the Django Unchained soundtrack hangs together a lot better.  From the Elvis-tinged main theme and spaghetti-flavored suites designed by Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov to contemporary songs by Jim Croce ("I Got A Name") and a punishing rap track by Rick Ross ("100 Black Coffins"), every tune feels thematically appropriate and conducive to the mood.

But perhaps the most effective technique in Tarantino's bag of tricks is his lively camerawork.  With expert assistance from Cinematographer Robert Richardson, the visual verve and panache of the film humiliates most of the competition being cranked out nowadays.  Tarantino uses a veritable arsenal of time-honored techniques including grandiose panoramas, intimate close-ups, whip pans, slo-mo, hyperactive zooms and languidly drifting dolly shots.  It all adds up to a hypnotically compulsive film to watch.  Even if you're not consciously aware of the methods by which Tanantino is playing you like a cheap violin, it's certainly no less effective.  In the immortal words of Harry S. Plinkett: "you may not have noticed it, but your brain did."

To play devil's advocate for a moment, I know that some people believe that the film's black humor and cartoonish violence has a tendency to undermine the more serious subject matter.  As someone who's actually watched the film, I know that whenever slavery is depicted in Django Unchained it's in the most repugnant manner imaginable.  Slaves are shown bound in manacles, entombed in hot boxes, whipped for disobedience or menaced by dogs whenever they try to escape.  The tone of these scenes is always respectful and sober.  If anything, the film's humor springs naturally from the ludicrous concept that one human being can claim ownership over another.  Slaver owners here are depicted as comedically addle-brained and laughably backward.

Although Django Unchained doesn't claim to be a scholarly examination of slavery, it does serve up some rarely-depicted insights into that ethically bankrupt era.  Perhaps the most fascinating and insidious angle is the divisive social stratification that developed amongst slaves.  House servitude was often held up as an elite duty which gave slaves an opportunity to look down upon menial laborers as troublemakers.  This, in turn, resulted in working slaves regarding senior house servants as collaborators.  The film even broaches the particularly distasteful subjects of Mandingo fighting, "comfort girls" and black slave masters.

Naturally, a vocal cabal of slack-jawed troglodytes are taking Django Unchained as another opportunity to rake Tarantino over the coals for the film's graphic depiction of violence.  Frankly, I'm glad that he's throwing these lame and tired accusations back into the media's face.  In Django Unchained the nasty things inflicted on the protagonists are suitably harrowing and the deserving villains are dispatched with stylish and darkly humorous excess.  It amazes me that people are still wringing their hands over the fictional depiction of a redneck getting shot in the knutz when drone attacks are constantly killing scores of very real people all the time.

In a less existential complaint, some critics also posit that the film has a chance to end at a satisfying point but chooses to overstay its welcome.  I heartily disagree.  If you inventory all of the awesome things that happen after that point, I can't fathom why someone would gripe about having more of a good thing.  Saying that there's too much Django Unchained to enjoy is like saying that there's too much bacon in the world.

In fact, I'll even go so far as to declare that this is one of Tarantino's most even-keeled efforts to date.  If you're weary of the formulaic, inert drivel that's been dropping from the Hollywood poop-chute lately, Django Unchained is a great way to break free from the mundane.

    Tilt: up.