Friday, October 26, 2007

MUSIC REVIEW: Of Montreal "Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? "

Every critic has a method by which they compile year-end lists. I include non-released album cuts for consideration because quality product is sometimes neglected for marketability. A good example of this is Nelly Furtardo's 'Loose'. Good pop record yet it behooves me as to why she's hell bent on releasing every track except the best one ('Glow'). With year-end lists one can reasonably expect one act to have multiple entries, say, three or four but surely not more. This year I felt could have changed that but as Bjork didn't unveil the Second Coming with 'Volta' and M.I.A yet to release hers (at the time of this being published), I presumed I was safe. Then an unusual thing happened. Online in the blogs, word spread of the latest release by Athens, Georgia band Of Montreal. As I'm a fan of blog hype, I quickly did a search on You tube and it took a mere twenty minutes to catapult me into the biggest Of Montreal fan this side of the Pacific.

The man behind this masterpiece is lead singer Kevin Barnes and the album is a journal of his feelings after the break-up of a relationship which scurried him to Norway to clear his head. The air there must be very conducive because 'Hissing Fauna...'-- the band's eight effort--s a giant leap from their previous material. Ever since their 1997 debut 'Cherry Peel', Of Montreal have toed the line of trying to sound original and imitating their heroes so self-consciously that it's hard to decipher where the divergence takes place. In other words, they were a good band but not a great one because the element of originality was lacking. 'Hissing Fauna' parodies its many influences and sometimes shamelessly so but when Barnes suffuses the songs with his queer and wry sensibility it really unearths a deeper and more truthful meaning to them.

It is a break-up record as well and this is where the residual personality of the album is based. Barnes infuses a lot of catty glam-rock to shield his hurt but the lyrics belie the truth. On 'She's a Rejecter' he shrieks viciously, 'oh no/ she's a rejecter/ I must protect myself/ there's the girl that left me bitter', yet remains gleeful right until the end. It is one hell of poison penmanship. This open-endedness is a permanence that heightens the listening experience. With his heart on his sleeve, Barnes pens his emotions and produces the brilliant songs with this structure. Most break-up records depress while addressing the other party (i.e. Beck's tedious 'Sea Change'). 'Hissing Fauna' however acts as self-therapy to Barnes even though it's such an accessible record.

Including the aforementioned 'She's a Rejecter' there are six more immediate contenders for best song of the year. 'Grolandic Edit' slows the tempo down to a whisper but its brilliance is in its haunting lyrics and faux vocal usage (I guess it would be nice to give my heart to a God/ but which one/ which one do I choose'. 'Cato as a Pun' is even slower and more pensive with its cry out for help ('what has happened to you my friend/ and don't say that I have changed/ I guess you'd rather lock yourself in and be alone'). 'Labyrinthian Pomp'is dead-on the Bowie vibe that is increasingly becoming a dime-a-dozen for male pop fabulists. 'A Sentence of sorts in Kongsvinger' (I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown/ while living in Norway) and 'We Were Born the Mutants again with Leafling' (we love to view unfortunate passions...) rotate their fabulousness with swirling multi-vocal work. 'Faberge Falls for Shuggie' is the best white boy Prince impersonation since Beck dropped 'Sex Laws'.

The influence of David Bowie is evident enough but strains of Pink Floyd and even the flowery vibe of 'Sgt. Pepper' can be heard being tossed around deliciously. This retro pop funk is all the rage this year. What makes Of Montreal the best is the consistency which they achieve. It's fairly easy to get one hit record with this kitsch (Mika's brilliant 'Relax, Take it Easy' is a good example) but seven is phenomenal for any musician. Of Montreal hails from the same city that gave us R.E.M and can now claim to be able to stand on the experience of their previous work not just that of other artistes. It’s a true testament to their growth then that the other songs and ideas are just as fascinating. 'Snk the Seine'would be epic if it weren' so short. 'Suffer for Fashion' doesn't loosen long enough to truly take a magnificent shape and 'Like a Promethean Curse'comes close to breaking out into mayhem but catches itself too early too often. The one oddity is 'The Past is a Grotesque Animal'. It's a ballad thus out of place on an album full of grooves being jettisoned around. It's the one obligatory track where Barnes addresses directly his break-up. It's an ungainly sound but then again resolving one's issues tends to be but it is not a commercial compromise, more like a personal one. As it is smack right in the center of the opus, it can be viewed as a farewell because he presses on immediately after to party heartily with a relieved conscience. Though they'll be ignored by most award shows because of the early release date (including the hopelessly outdated Grammys) Of Montreal have simply constructed one of the best albums of 2007.

RATING: 9/10


The first sign of redundancy in 'Hostel II' comes with its very first scene. Paxton (Jay Hernandez), the sole survivor of the previous adventure, is discovered on a train then taken to the hospital. There the police ask a series of questions which skewer towards them revealing their special human hunter tattoos and killing him. It is a dream however but one that will soon become reality for him as he is formally beheaded, ironically back some presumably safe in America. This dry execution is made dryer by his girlfriend discovering her cat licking away at the blood where his head once stood.

Immediately, director Eli Roth sets course for a map of suspense and explanations but gets lost in the maelstrom of gore before anything can seriously unravel. Paxton may briefly appear in this installation but his death is a mere cliff-note and doesn't serve as interlink to anything substantial other than the fleeting thought of an ever expanding human hunting network. Paxton's thinking level is terribly mixed: after defying odds to escape from Bratislava, he then returns home only to clamp up and not expose the horrors he faced. Unlike 'Grindhouse', Tarantino's recent epic smorgasboard, Roth doesn't spend much time splattering through the gore to find logic, instead he labouriously shows us the behind-the-scenes excitement to collecting of the human prey. I can't recall any other horror flick making its aim and outcome so evident and not expecting to suffer for this foresight of our knowledge.

The film is similar to the first installation except that its girls that are lured away this time with the promise of Slovakian warm springs and we're already familiar with the sequence of terror. That drains what little suspense one can imagine and it makes the gore nothing but self-gratifying...which really is a shame. 'Hostel II' does explore the wantonness of the hunters even if Roth encases them with only their depravity. Even in such shallowness, the poetry of the gore is fascinating. In one scene, a female hunter sits underneath her hoisted prey--Heather Matarazzo (the annoying wimp, Lorna)--naked and with an extended scythe. She tears at the girl's body and immerses herself with the blood as it trickles onto her and the candles alongside. The camera then hones in on her hand reaching for a shorter scythe and slitting her victim's throat. It's devastating yet its disturbing silence is the single achievement in the film.

And yet, despite the hardiness of that female hunter, the two main male hunters we see are poles apart in their earnesty towards the hunt. Todd (Richard Burgi) is the atypical alpha male and Stuart (Roger Bart) is pathetically lacking in cojones. In one scene, Todd is getting some head as his beeper lights up. He tosses the girl aside like a paperweight because his mind really is on his American prey--that he's paid top dollar for and travelled many miles just for the luxury to torture her to death. When he finally gets to torturing her, his sadistic joy is stalled by an unplugged instrument. His victim--Beth (Lauren German)--cowers in fear while he bellows at her, 'you should see you f__king face.' When the instrument gets unplugged a second time however, he accidentally disfigures her face. In the few seconds that follow 'Hostel II' swerves completely further off track and descends into a corny finale. Roth doesn't clarify the reason for Todd's sudden change of heart. We are not sure if he is angry that the electrical limitation is robbing him of his pleasure or if the implications of his actions have suddenly caught up with him. Instead of probing this, Roth has the character mauled to death by dogs for reneging on his contract as a means of further clouding the issue.

Roth thus misses his most valuable tool for true suspense. 'Hostel II' salaciously proves the ambiguity of violence and its standard acceptance. It also confirms that in such a postulation, women are equally as vicious as men. Indeed, we witness that the hunting network is co-coordinated by a white-hair female. Most clearly though is the point that the network is not a tight brotherhood, per se, but lovers of the highest price. Whitney (Bijou Phillips) escapes elimination by bargaining her way out of sure death by buying her way as a hunter. She tells her captors that with a PDA she can have the money wired within minutes. It's admittedly a clever twist by Roth but one that is too late to spark real interest other than financial. The film further degrades this strength in technology when Whitney's sole purpose after regaining her freedom is not to expose the hunter network that ensnared her but the female that lured her to Slovakia in the first place. Ah, kids, they never learn.

RATING: 3.5/10


With any Pedro Almodovar film one immediately knows that women will play the central roles and suffer greatly for it. No other contemporary director has fastiduously stuck with this stern feminine dissection nor has been as successful in wowing critics and viewers alike with the bareness and honesty such characters expose. 'Volver' continues along this vein but tries to incorporate a slightly stronger male presence to initially challenge the hegemony of the female issues involved.

It's a fascinating idea but such a pity that as soon as the film sets up the masculine complexity as inescapable, it shuts it out. Male characters tend to be bad or distant memories for the women Almodovar explores and he stalls greatly with this issue because there proves to be no traction for them outside of stereotype. Paco (Antonio de la Torre) proves to be endemic of this atypical maleness but the odd thing is that the film doesn't even show him having a history of vice. He is stabbed to death after drunkenly trying to abuse his daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) but it feels as if Almodovar is only copping out to eliminate him early in order to sink his direction into more familiar territory. Even though his dead body on the kitchen floor places him firmly in the film, 'Volver' never sufficiently implicates Paco beyond his wife's, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) vengeance once she finds out what he was trying to do. Things run smoothly after his body is disposed of but that 'Volver' blindly tries to carry on without properly verifying him proves to be no justification. Almodovar compacts this weakness by having Raimunda tell Paula that he really wasn't her father, only to clamp up on the identity of the true paternal father. That none of the characters even really miss Paco or any of his family members show up to inquire about him proves confounding as well.

Almodovar's genius however lies in the many layers of complexity and emotional distress he captures from his actresses. His themes are always the same but the cohesion is impressive. Most of the women in 'Volver' have continually worked with him so that enhances the witty, tough dialogue that takes place. Penelope Cruz impresses as Raimunda, a much fuller role than the previous ones she's done with him and it demands her to explore levels of pessimism as well as finding time to make room for everyone around her. The film focuses on her and the relationships she has with the other characters. She is a woman struggling to keep sane. Her parents have died in a mysterious fire and she is beset by secrets. Paula unknowingly touches on this shady past when she tells Raimunda what happened with Paco. Raimunda's reaction underlines the sharp Almodovar divide between men and women. After seeing Paco's body in the kitchen, Raimunda is anguished for all of five seconds before she starts to mop up his drying blood and she tells Paula that is wasn't her fault almost absentmindedly.

When her aunt dies however, we are treated to quite the spectacle of mourners. Raimunda is unable to go to the funeral because she has to deal with men: she must dispose of Paco's body and see to the movie director whose crew she is catering lunch for. She does both, keeping both activities fairly secret between herself and Paula. When the film exposes her character from this angle, 'Volver' flounders for believability and consistency. When it concentrates on family, Raimunda's mental capacity manages to break down its self-inflicted difficulties. The film uses secrets as the main tool for showing the strain on its characters. Sole (Lola Duenas), Raimunda's sister, is afraid to tell her that their mother is back from the grave and appearing to a few selective people. Augustina, a helper of her aunt, confirms this suspicion but Raimunda brushes it aside. When confirmation of her father's affair hits however she is downright indignant. Raimunda hides the fact of her abuse by her father which turned her against her mother, so Irene's return fromn the dead fuels a desperate type of resentment.

It's a lot of issues to take on for one film but once Irene (Carmen Maura, in a simply divine performance) takes control it becomes even more fascinating to watch. She comes to serve different purposes upon her return but given a second chance to correct the indifference of her relationship with Raimunda, she holds back. Raimunda's skepticism erodes quicker than expected and the strain of such freely-given emotion leaves Irene completely overwhelmed. She had chosen to send her to live with her father and kept Sole instead, so the mother-daughter bond had dwindled even before her disappearance. When Raimunda turns up in the last scene with tears in her eyes, all past errors come running back to Irene and the fear of letting her daughter down again grips her. Both women stand, emotionally wounded because of the other but are simply not prepared for the moment. Or simply not equipped to handle their feelings for each other. Irene tells Raimunda, as calmly as she can, that after she cares for Augustina's battle with cancer they'll be able to heal some of their rifts. Raimunda dabs at her face and recedes into the night, full of hope and wanting to believe her mother. Though the film ends before further exploration, it's a telling indication on the deficiency of Irene's character and the trickle-down effect it has had on Raimunda who already sees this plainly in Paula, both of whom surely can't help but think they are about to be lost to Irene yet again.

RATING: 7.5/10

MOVIE REVIEW: "21 Grams"

In its opening four shots, Alejandro Inarritu's high-strung '21 Grams' presents itself dizzingly yet strongly to our senses. Michael (Sean Penn)watches over Christina (Naomi Watts) while she rests, both naked and wrapped up in white sheets. He exhales his cigarette smoke with a look of exasperation. Next we see Christina's soon to be deceased husband and two daughters enjoying quality time at a diner. That quickly segues into her at a grief therapy session then segues again to Jack (Benicio Del Toro)applying his own unique brand of counseling to a prison inmate.

This all unfurls within ten minutes and captures the essence of the film as well as what it lacks. It's both sublime and puzzling but its Inarritu's defined style. His Oscar-nominated 'Babel' last year wowed with its technical structure and stark reality trying to resolve the characters ensnared in it. Both are fine films even though '21 Grams' under-reaches where 'Babel' aims loftily. Both achieve a wide yet inconclusive grasp on isolation. 'Babel' extends towards a global identity crisis while '21 Grams' simmers slowly with its own neuroitic, personal insularity.

It is a type of insularity that jars the film as Inarritu splatters so many flashback sequences that it becomes hard to place and keep track of what's happening with the plot. The only thing that isn't mentioned in the opening minutes is the car accident that changes everything. The circuitry of the film is -as a result of this-convenient and jarring because the main characters keep bumping into each other. This results in them literally searching for what they think will be salvation or at least a short-term solution for their unhappiness. They only end up however unloading their frustration and anger unto each other. It's relentless and disconcerting but fascinating to watch. This is due mainly to the brilliant acting. Naomi Watts proves to be quite the revelation with her wretched bitterness and the unrestraint of her anger. Even when asleep she looks tortured with pain. Sean Penn, with his usual nonchalant gaze, plays a man struggling with a new leash on life and the frustration it brings. Penn has mastered this type of subtlety for a long time now. Del Toro evokes as much guilt here as he did in 'Traffic'. It's an upended role that demands constant self-doubt. The film digs into some fascinating topics unflinchingly, especially human relationships. Paul's wife, Marianne (Jack's wife) and Christina deal with the changes to their husbands in a contrasting manner yet the desperation of the choices unite them as they were not the ones who made them. Paul's wife cries on cue when he sharply tells her that they've 'been a sham for a long time' but her determination to get pregnant blinds her to the reality of such a statement. Of course, Paul is telling the truth but such a blatant comment can only be met with contrary action, especially in front of others. His wife realises that she needs him even more than he needs her and it makes her simmer with resentment. Marianne is the least explored but most fascinating wife. Her status isn't as secure as the others and she has children to provide for. She literally lives for Jack and his removal from her life will leave a vacuum she is unprepared to deal with. Her resentment is well hid for this reason and like so many wives with problematic husbands, she blames everyone--even God--for his failures. Christina doesn't have the choices available to the others, just the consequences that they try to avoid desperately. We aren't shown much but Watts is such a barometer for emotion that loss seeps through any uncertainty imagined she had with her family. It's real grief too, not tempered with any self-deficiency of her character. The men suffer too. Both Michael and Jack are subjected to Christina's emotional level. One has killed her husband and the other benefits from his heart so they allow her to manipulate them against each other because the mechanism of their involvment demands it.

Inarritu exposes loss as the main interlink of the film. He presents it as essential to life and clearly delineates it in various ways. A loss of sanity for Christina that results in seclusion and substance abuse. A loss of idealism for Jack as he begins to waiver in his faith in an institutionalized way. A loss of communication between husbands and wives. The film, under-reaches when trying to explore all angles but amid Inarritu's hectic style, he still manages to keep it adequately balanced and stimulating. The religious issue impacts consistently as well. After initially boasting of God providing a vehicle for him to an inmate, Jack (a pastor) then begins to blame God for giving him the vehicle after the accident. It's displacement but it's an effect of shock too. When his wife--nicely played by Melissa Leo--comments that life must go on even without God, he doesn't take the easy way out and agree with her but he cannot eliminate her claim as quickly as he should. That delay in spiritual conviction is what comes to shape the way the film is viewed and Inarritu's execution. The film dents itself so heavily in this postulation that it never gets around to resolving itself. This makes '21 Grams' almost unbearable to watch despite its vitality and truth. It drains so much emotion away from the complexity of the characters and their losses that it ultimately uncovers an even deeper disturbing fact that ties us up all implicitly: it is not the absence of God that drives us the hardest in life, it is, more precisely, the guilt associated with such a thought.

RATING: 8/10

MOVIE REVIEW: "Little Miss Sunshine"

'Little Miss Sunshine' is the type of film that thankfully wastes little time in establishing itself and revealing the foibles of it characters. So, immediately we find Olive (the delightful Abigail Breslin) in front of the television, watching a taped beauty pageant for the winner's reaction. She stares at the moment of joy then repeats it so as to study how winners act. Next is her motivational speaker dad, Richard (Greg Kinnear) trying to pump up a near-empty room with his usual 'refuse to lose' salvo. Her brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano) pumps iron silently, determined to see through two things in life: not to speak until his silent vow runs its course and to become a pilot. Then there is the gregarious grandfather (Alan Arkin, in a too over-the-top role) who curses loudly and snorts heroin. The distant gay uncle Frank (Steve Carell) and mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) are leaving the hospital after his failed suicide attempt, which leaves big sister to come to his rescue. This may not sound like the typical American family but one of the great points of the film is that it could very well be so.

Another great point is the almost personification of the unofficial seventh member of the Hoover family: a yellow Volkswagen bus that breaks down often and hardly can slow down once it gets moving. The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, excel at subtlety with this vehichle. They allow the van to identify as the collective strength and individual weakness of the family, yet at no point is it obvious to them but we get it because one can always see things with greater clarity if there is little personal and emotional attachment involved. The Hoover family is so intrinsically linked that their faults are irritable to each other yet act as a defense-mechanism when being assailed by strangers. All families function like this so there's no originality with the film but how it's nonchalantly presented is what makes it dark comedic intent ring true.

Of course, tension is a key element here and it erupts in several instances. Frank, as the new member to the fold, immediately triggers the most tension, mainly from Steve. The film downplays his homosexuality but presses hard on his brilliance as a scholar. Steve, resentful of the fact that he doesn't have the higher I.Q., rags him for giving up on life because of unrequited love. Frank retaliates by enlightening the others with facts that Steve is clearly unsure of. It's a mind battle that never resolves itself but one Frank wages as a means of rebelling against Steve's authority and the indifference of the family on a whole. Sheryl gets the hardest ragging because she is the one with the most roles juggling but a lot of it is internal. One can sense her despair over her ineffectiveness and she channels bitterness towards Steve as a means of placating her feelings . She places so much competivive energy on him that her children go a bit neglected or rather only get generic attention from her. The other characters are locked just as deeply within themselves. Olive, by default, gets a chance to enter the 'Little Miss Sunshine' pageant and instead of celebrating with the family, she goes running and screaming right through the house in a hurry to pack. It's a direct result of her father but neither choose to wonder what would have occured if she hadn't gotten the opportunity. Dwayne's silence is seen as a stand of sorts by Sheryl but clearly she senses something is wrong but cannot deal with the fact that she has no idea how to reach him. The film's rawest moment is her bitter defeat after he pointedly says how much he hates her. Grandpa is dealing with the most conventional issues: old age and neglect. The film conveniently kills him off without justifying his vice or explaining his bitterness and addiction. It's the lone weakness of the film full of neurotic brilliance. The film is pretty much akin to 'American Beauty' in theme and style but 'Sunshine' manages to gather towards a collective likeness of characters and a sympathethic centre. Acceptance here is won the hard way. This is because the Hoover family, despite all their flaws, is pretty damned likable. The scope of the acting brilliantly manages to make this possible. Breslin absolutely shines and there's hardly a female lead that can charge into physical despair as ungainly or quickly as Collette. Kinnear has the look of a man desparately trying to remain calm while his fears slowly consume him. You can see it all in his magnificent eyes. This is his best role since his deserved Oscar nomination in 'As Good As It Gets'.

The most sublime aspect though is the pageant itself. After barely just registering Olive in the show, even Steve realises the error of doing so. The pageant has a talent section but centres mostly on physical beauty. As the decidely imperfect audience claps on their perfect, doll-like girls parading in swim-wear and gowns, "Little Miss Sunshine" hits its darkest cues. When Olive dedicated her dance routine to her grandfather, the emcee asks of his location, Olive matter-of-factly replies that 'he's in the trunk of our car'. Of course grandpa had died the night before of a drug overdose and they had 'kidnapped' the body from the hospital and stored it in the back of the van. Olive hasn't yet learned shrewdness on this level. Sh'e more astute with her competition however: sensing her chance of winning slipping, Olive does an astonishing dance/strip routine to MC Hammer's 'U Can't Touch This' record. The moment, while totally humorous, presents a challenge to so many societal norms and raises impertinent questions but doesnt dwell on them.

All these instances involve Olive as the main reason of change but it's a change of idealism for the others, not for her. Her desire to win or at least to be the most competitive she can be finally rips through the crafted fabric of confliction that surrounds her childhood. To this end, all parties directly involved in her life recognise the blame they share and accept it humbly. They realise how confusing their secular actions have been on her all along. The film tries to patch this issue up by having Steve finally choosing to support his kid, and by extension his flawed family unit over his own blinding and selfish ambition. What it isn't able to band aid however is how greatly the damage to Olive has already manifested.

RATING: 8/10


Sergeant Nicholas Angel(Simon Pegg)is such an exceptional policeman that his efficiency reflects badly on his peers. He is a serious man who tackles crime as if his life depends on it and by the end of "Hot Fuzz" absolutely nothing will change that tenet. Pegg, who also shares screen-writing credit with Edgar Wright, has the perfect poker-face for a spoof character but the film gathers its momentum so slowly that he bores us before the real action begins. The snail pace exasperates the film's need to illicit laughter as a means of keeping the viewer interested. The early scenes thus prove to be decidedly unfunny and forced because the slapstick value is overused. Pegg's dramatic leanings help to soften the blow but he steadies things at the expense of alienating interest in his character. It is Angel who keeps the film intransient by his surliness even after being reassigned to Sanford, a quiet town continuously awarded best village of the year.

When a series of ghastly murders occur shortly after he arrives, Angel's instincts lead him to probe a little too deeply for the town's collective liking. In a painstaking manner, he pieces together an outlandish case against local grocer Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton, villainous as only he can). It's an accusation that will backfire and endanger his life because its partially true. Thus, Angel encounters an issue that his efficiency is a direct cause of; the too sharp new comer unaware that he's trampling on the town's set regulations. He doesn't realise that this was the very same reason why he was transfered to Sanford in the first place: not knowing when to turn his superior cop filter on and off. "Hot Fuzz" takes way too long to make this point then barely has it registered. It nearly ruins the film's chances for redemption as its odd dramatic tone eschews the intended satire.

Clearly influenced by Quentin Tarantino's 'Kill Bill' films, "Hot Fuzz" misses out on variation and speed and only interjects spurts of brilliance once Angel decides not to accept defeat by the stunning town secret he discovers. He returns, poker-faced, astride a forlorn-looking horse with guns literally ready to blaze. It's a critical junction for "Hot Fuzz":films sink or swim at such moments, especially those that straddle satire and comedy as this one attempts to do. Luckily, it works immediately with some innovative and violently happy shooting scenes. Because the film doesn't take itself too seriously, such outrageous violence is genuinely funny and takes the focus from our hero to other characters that are infinately more interesting and less earnest. The town folk, who were hypocritically pleased to accomodate Angel as one of them before, now brandish bullets lustily at him in an open hostility that is the closest this spoof comes to reality. Even the local pastor attempts to kill Angel in a delightfully farcical scene. The worst betrayal though comes from Inspector Butterman (the ever excellent Jim Broadbent) his superior at the Sanford police force.

Unfortunately, the film eventually is overtaken by its own excess. Like Beyonce's 'Get Me Bodied' music video,it doesn't end on the high note it takes so long to find but continues much longer than necessary. After the violence dissipates, we're treated to tie-ins and much police banter, never mind the fact that the plot is just stretching itself...all the thrilling action had already ended by the time Skinner gorged himself through the mouth after a routine chase scene. It's an ill-fitting, unfunny image but it metaphorically serves as what frustrates more than anything else about the film.

RATING: 6/10


Opening with the current British monarch regretting the fact that she is ineligible to vote, Stephen Frears’ new film immediately puts the royalty cart before the horse. As she is having her portrait done, the queen, Helen Mirren-- in a role surely she was born to perfectly caricature--exasperates on the impartiality she must retain in matters of state. Her bored resignation lifts to unexpressed delight however when the court portraitist pauses to remind her that no matter who forms the government, it will be hers to command. It’s a twist of authoritative power-play that ensnares the film into a type of self-importance that everyone fawns over, including Her Majesty herself.

Regal commands spill from Elizabeth in expected instances and even her dogs are spellbound by her outstretched hand. It is this authority that greets Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) when he comes to Buckingham Palace to seek approval to form the next government. Matching Mirren’s amazing likeness of the queen, Sheen gives a remarkably captivating performance as the newly-elected PM and shadows his sly affability and media-friendly gestures so befit most politicians. In some instances his performance eclipses Mirren’s own because hers is held in check by assumption (Queen Elizabeth being so notoriously camera shy that not a lot is known of her inner mind). Sheen has a wider canvass to work with so his role is easier to be held up to scrutiny.

The film would’ve been pretty interesting just watching the nervy inroads Blair tries to make with the queen and her attempt to keep him at arms length but Princess Diana dies suddenly in a car crash in Paris and the royal family decides to treat it as if it were news only to be mentioned in passing. It’s a ploy that backfires and one that plunges the monarchy into its most self-effacing moment in modern times. To the film’s credit, it works its angles sharply, but ends up well short of the dramatic heat that the situation demanded. This makes for a rather restrained, bloodless film, one that will surely be admired but one that doesn’t deeply involve anything but its own self-interest. It does whet one’s appetite though for a sort of triangular involvement. That proves not to be ultimately a triadic monarchy but very much Elizabeth, Blair and the posthumous Diana all in a tussle for the same thing: adoration. The film initially sides against the queen not only because she has the most to lose but also because she is the singular permanent fixture in the equation. It calls her endurance into question yet reveres it in its natural state. It demands that she sheds it temporarily then put it all together again, for public affectation.

Elizabeth registers this ‘change’ unwillingly and slowly. Her ‘stay the course’ approach to Diana’s demise is encouraged by palace insiders but, watching the news reports clamoring for a response from her, her resolve begins to unravel. Stephen Frears (who directed the brilliant ‘Dangerous Liaisons’) fails to capitalize fully on these dire moments of emotional disconnect. As Diana mania swells on the television, Elizabeth is glued to the cold reality of a woman far more popular within her realm. Diana is not only humanized as a person but her death at such a young age immortalizes her beauty forever. The queen sits up in bed having a hard time figuring out why the public adores Diana, a divorcee without any official royal ties other that her children. Mirren’s wonderfully creased facial expressions are well-etched. These precious moments of self-doubt are not allowed to fill out long enough however, making for an unflattering, ham-fisted look at the royals.

The video footage of Diana is so heavily favorable that it makes the resentment from the royals look insupportable. Prince Phillip in particular—James Cromwell with a perpetual scowl—abhors her name to the point of discomfort but without video footage or flashbacks to show any basis for such abhorrence, he remains oddly discomforting, without any human attribute. Even more astonishing is the distanced view of Elizabeth towards her immediate family: there isn’t a single scene with her comforting Prince William or Harry or even a thought spared to the bereaved Charles. The relationship with her husband is frosty at best and oddly conciliatory with her mother. Why Frears throws so much weight behind this indifference is unclear, in fact very ironic because all too briefly we see Mirren’s subtle wrestling with doubt behind the mask of control.

The film’s most potent scenes occur towards the end: Elizabeth finally bends to the wishes of her subjects and feigns to show ‘emotion’ over Diana’s death by scrolling past the throng of supporters to read epitaphs on the hundreds of flowers outside palace grounds. She faces the public will with as much dignity as she can muster. She encounters a little girl holding flowers and offers to put them on the heap for her. When the little girl refuses, Elizabeth’s face crumbles in a type of dignified loss. It recovers quickly however when the girl tells her that the flowers are for her. In such spaces Mirren shines because her gift has always been minimalism and compactness. She breaks away from the support of Diana to support of her own royal duty with an ease that only comes with repetition. It allows the crowd satisfaction on two fronts: one, the outpouring of grief for Diana is legitimate and needs to be regarded as such and two, the queen must administer the grief herself as mother of the nation. It is this elucidation that hits Elizabeth as she surrenders totally to the televised tribute, which Mirren delivers with such deadpan brilliance that it’s wretched to watch.

It’s a hollow speech, minced grudgingly and received with similar hollowness by the very people who should get the most satisfaction out of it. Blair’s team of advisors relish this victory of modernism but are chided by the PM for pushing too far an issue that will not come to much anyway. He realizes the possible motive of abolishing the monarchy may come up and withdraws from it. A queen, like any ruler, is hard to dislodge and Blair recognizes the duplicity of his actions. Blair realizes that he was never in control of the situation all along, just caught up in its tide that could swiftly turn into a tsunami. His calculated affability is tempered by need and desire. An opportunist from the start, he intends to ride his popular election victory to whatever purpose it can serve him. He does this by controlling the controversy with a shaman’s guile. With his technocrats abuzz, Blair sets out to manipulate public perception, imagining himself as the great communicator between both sides. His plans however, in the end, tilt decidedly in favor with the queen (indeed, the film lays itself prostate to her—not Diana-- as no other national issue is featured in this the initial months of Blair’s rule). His nervy telephone conversations with her feel like a chess game, one where he sees a checkmate possibility but is unsure if the giddy advantage should be hinted on or not.. It’s a traitorous feeling, one which Elizabeth senses and thus she holds out against him right through and even more so after things settle. Her every gesture towards him indicates that surviving crises is what being a ruler is all about. More presciently she warns him of a time when he will be the one out of touch with public favor. She reminds him, ‘duty first, self second.’ It’s a smart device by Frears to reverse the authoritative twist that the film began with: Elizabeth now performing her royal function of assuring someone in need of assurance. Though it takes the death of her erstwhile step-daughter to scuttle her into action, this is simply what was required of her from the very beginning.

RATING: 6.5/10

MUSIC REVIEW: Beck 'The Information'

Until 'Sea Change' I never thought Beck would ever bore me but he did because it ended, unintentionally, his Peter Pan career of carefree abandon. Beck, always suspicious about his potluck, now sounded like a broken man, one that seemed destined never to rise again. 2005's 'Guero' was a decent attempt to shake off his blues in a less sobering light. Now comes 'The Information', the album he hopes will get him back to that no-grown ups allowed space he created with 'Loser'. But we can never go home again and even talented musicians must come face to face with such a realization.

That said, Beck in denial is not a bad thing. 'The Information' rumbles and grooves with beats that keep the listener from lulling but they stop well short of tripping us out into the stratosphere. The album feels like indifferent pastiche unevenly arranged instead of boldly saturated by his sheer will and vitality. This is extremely odd when one considers how long the collection is (15 songs topping an hour with the last song alone well past 10 minutes). This feels like leftover ideas from the making of 'Guero' although there is nothing as bluesy as that album's 'Girl' or as downright funky as 'Hell Yes'. Even so, it's hard to pinpoint what went 'wrong'. I put that word in italics for it is the first time such a word is being used in a review I've done with him surely. Beck doesn't do bad music and maybe the reason why he will be criticized for this is because of the brilliant precedence he sets. As the most vital solo male artiste of the previous decade, he carried an enviable mantle that seemed in safe hands. Hands that were never afraid to experiment with funk, hip/hop, honky-tonk and western blues... anything as long as it served his purpose. The opener 'Elevator Music' comes close to recapturing this aura with its seamless beats. Next track, 'Think I'm In Love' uses a similar beat to Madonna's 'Beautiful Stranger' but stays oddly in a holding pattern even though he rips a brief guitar solo towards the end. Another two words rarely found in a Beck review: 'holding pattern'.

Producer Nigel Godrick--who did Thom Yorke's solo debut-- should be credited for some funky beats and unusual use of percussions and instruments as varied as glockenspeil and kalimba. The album's production is solid and never wavers even though the pastiche element failed to spark any real fire when intentionally lit. The weakness mainly is in Beck's delivery. 'Strange Apparition' is all juiced up with lush beats and vocally Beck reaches high only to quell it with repitition and everything else that follows falls into the same routine: the instance the songs threaten to really take off he restrains them. Another word rarely used in a review of his: restraint. 'Nausea' is another track with monster intentions but he regulates it with too many lapses in silence until it dissolves and segues into another track. A lot of these songs sound alike too, again, not necessarily a bad thing but Beck drones on with them as if barely awake and merely tacking ideas together in a blind hope of finding a right, pulsating solution.

Even when his vocals come into sharp focus, the repitition never fails to dull the moment ('1000 BPM')or even when it escapes the strangulation , the pleasure dervied is short-lived ('The Information'). The closer , 'The Horrible Fanfare...' attempts with dubiousness to bridge too many crossings into one coherent track. It rails on too intent on content to have a sharp impact and leaves listeners in the end just puzzled. I blame it to 'Sea Change' for sobering up his child-like appeal and I'm left to wonder how long before he finds the funk door latch and re-enter his once comfortable home, so we can become enchanted guests again and fly away with him into Never Never land again.

RATING: 6/10

MUSIC REVIEW: Alanis Morissette ' Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie'

You know, the real problem with Alanis Morissette is the weight of expectancy that surrounds her. Her listeners can be broken down into three groups; those who are perpetually annoyed by her nasal whinning but pay attention to put her down. Those catharic-induced fans eager to snap up anything the goddess throws them. And those caught in the middle, appreciating her simplistic wit yet baffled by her creative ennui. Her ditzy pop albums add fuel to first group's fire and "Jagged Little Pill" was wholeheartedly--albeit mistakenly-- embraced by the second as a riot-grrrl statement. The third group really comes in where "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie" is concerned.

It's fitting that such a crucial album to her spiritual growth would be embraced by those new listeners who grew with her out of the natural progression from resentment to love. Even those still awaiting "You Oughta Know Pt.2" can settle down to the opus' calm, restive manner. Even the blandest of fan will realise how much her trip to India influences every tweak, lyric and vibe of the album. It blossoms into the celebration of life, past occurences, friendship and love. "Front Row" opens the album up on a deceptive poppy vibe; you think Alanis has discovered funk, but it really is a ploy to lure your ear into a deeper listening.It's a relationship under scrutiny and the resolvement of it. It also features some pretty quotables like,"I'd like you to be schooled and in awe/ as though you were kissed by God/ full on the lips." and " I am totally short of breath for you/ why can't you shut your stuff off." That's always been a strenght of Morissette; her use of language is sufficient to take away her lack of musical insight. Many will wrongfully say that she has grown lyrically since her last full lenght release but that's not so. The music on "Junkie" is just weaker so it reinforces her wit.

"Jagged Little Pill" had more melody and harsh effect and better songs actually. I don't know if she'll ever do a great song like "Forgiven" again but I do know that it's not on "Junkie". That said, the album rocks inspite of its modest intentions."I Was Hoping" crunches out electronic beats a mile a minute, with great usage of synths and her usual rambling vocals. It's also smart in a way most female rockers can't be. In all honesty, Alanis is truly a poet...meaning that her works look--to paraphrase"One"-- good on paper, sound good in theory. It's when she has to bring it across with music that it can sputter out. However, one song that was not supposed to work, but oddly enough does, is "The Couch". While it's about therapy, it takes a twist when the psychologist decides to tackle his/her own demons. It's a joy to hear Morissette spill such personal revealations like, " I've got a loving supportive wife/ who doesn't know how involved she should get/ you say his interjecting / was him calling me on my s_it?"

But for all her good intentions, "Your Congratulations" doesn't work. It's abstract, whinny and overbearing to the point where, even the singer realises that mid-way that, there is no way she's gonna pull it off. But that's the gamble Morissette has taken with "Junkie". Her trip to India allowed her time to find herself as a person and her every word is testament to that. If you've ever suffered a traumatic experience or feel you're struggling to keep up with the hectic pace of modern times, then you know what she went through and relax with the album, despite its many flaws. Besides, it's not all sitars and good intentions; "Unsent" is a nice , novel way of her recalling the loves of her life; "Joining You" threatens to wreak bloodshed with the guitar over a friend threatening to kill themself. It's repetative like the bulk of the songs here, but it holds the best statement of intent from her, "we want to know why and how come about everything/ we want to reveal ourselves at will and speak our minds/ and never talk small or be intuitive/ my tortured beacon/ we need to find like-minded companions."

It's not a great album but one we will look back on , say the next ten years, and think it was misunderstood and deeper than it really was.

RATING: 7/10

Movie Review: 'The Brave One'

Let's be frank, someone like Martin Scorsese practically keeps on doing the same film without getting too much flak for it. 'Departed', his long overdue Oscar winner, strikes the same thematic chord as 'Casino', 'Gangs of New York' or even 'Goodfellas' and all are really great films with just a decade separating their release. A recent Popmatters feature brought up the point of sameness in a film career but I think that once the films are great then what does it really matter? Scorsese did direct 'Age of Innocence'-- a departure of his usual style-- and still got a great film in the process.

Jodie Foster, who got her big break in another Scorsese film, 1976's 'Taxi Driver', as a fourteen year old prostitute Iris, is a severe example of the limitation of sameness however. Her few film roles this decade have all exerted an overzealously feminist slant that has ended up being frivolous. Her shivery, steely gazes proved too hyserical in the uptight 'Flightplan' and downright ineffectual eventually in the unrewarding 'Inside Man'. She's always sought to portray strong women even if they start out as a victim of circumstance at first. Her stumbling block though is dated representation: what worked on every level in the seminal 'Silence of the Lambs' (her portrayal of Clarice Sterling is one of the greatest female roles ever executed) is what she keeps trying to duplicate and fails because Foster no longer is capable of exuding a long, convincing stretch of vulnerability. 'The Brave One' hits on this impasse early and tries to move beyond it quickly so as to slip past any gray matter but it is this dubious decision that places it on its heels initially. Foster is radio talk show host Erica Bain. One night she and fiance David (Naveen Andrews)decide to walk the dog through Central Park and are brutally attacked by thugs who videotape the entire thing. David dies but Erica survives and remains emotionally scarred forever. Her first action after leaving the hospital is to lawfully follow due process but, as justice grinds slowly even in Manhattan, Erica decides to get an illegal gun. The gun is bought but its purpose ends up being skewered and irrational at best: it serves both as protection and as a renegade tool.

Director Neil Jordan ('Crying Game') fixates so much on Erica's thirst for vengeance that he never sufficiently explores how she arrives at such a point. Indeed, not even Erica herself fully understands her own motives as she begins to kill. After each victim is done away with she ponders why there is no one stopping her and gets all philosophical with poetic ramblings. Besides, the plot juxtaposes her between its own clear attempt to delineate violence and the reaction towards vigilante killings. It is only when both ideals split that we can appreciate Erica's need for help. Her inner renegade is allowed to take over her judgements to the point where, unchecked, she becomes just as criminal as those she hunts. 'The Brave One' unhinges any suspense it had built up at this point because it switches her from victim to killer swiftly and without much thought. Instead of a deconstruction of Erica's violent intent it incorporates Detective Mercer (the ever engaging Terrence Howard) as watchdog and eventual guide to her. Mercer catches on to her plans, even hints to her flat out that he knows yet his duty gets conflicted with a desire to see justice done. When Erica tracks down one of her attackers--the one that inexplicably taped the incident and kept the dog--Mercer is on the scene early enough to save him from sure death. What he allows to happen next shows the true weakness of the film: an unnatural sway towards a white woman seeking justice as well as an acknowledgement that police justice isn't adaptive enough. Mercer gives Erica free license to dispense justice whenever she sees fit, clouding her sense of guilt even more. This leads back to Foster's inability to mould Erica into a victim: she is just another crusader in the Manhattan night lulled into false security of a gun.

While she struggles mentally to decide which train of thought to coherently follow, 'The Brave One' tethers with a look back to Erica's past and sees nothing to offer us, real or imagined. Violence is a startling thing to undergo but can the retribution of it be held justifiable without defining a limit to the harm the victim can exact? Because this principle is never fully explored to or by her at any point, 'The Brave One' ends up toothless despite arming itself for the long haul. Like her other recent films, Foster carries this one viciously overboard by integrating all her previous ebullient roles into this one persona and the necrophilia is utterly wooden. Let's hope she fares better in her upcoming portrayal of German director Leni Riefenstahl. At least that's less fiction for her to work with.

RATING: 4.5/10