Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Flying Under the Radar

This year has been filled with some memorable movie moments. From No Country for Old Men to Michael Clayton to Hot Fuzz, we've seen some great screen gems. There are always a few great films that fly under the radar and never get noticed. As I have yet to see everything considered in most top lists, I don't know what the best movie of the year is going to be. However, I do know that a certain film flew under the radar of most critics lists and deserves a fair shot as one of 2007's best films.

The film in question is Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn. The true story of Deiter Dengler, a German American pilot during the Vietnam War, is a riveting, harrowing and uplifting tale of survival. The story takes place early in the Vietnam Conflict when most people wouldn't have expected it would turn into a full scale war. The mission was top secret and Dengler was shot down somewhere over Laos. His capture leads to a trek through the jungle, torture and then imprisonment. His is held with only a few other hostages, two other Americans and three south Vietnemse. With the help of Dengler, they are able to escape the camp, but then are on the run from the Viet Cong, the elements and even friendly fire. The harsh Jungle is the biggest threat to the saftey of Dengler, yet through a miracle and through his ingenuity, he is able to get rescued and become a hero to many other Vietnam pilots.

Christian Bale fills the role of Deiter Dengler and, as usual, brings his A game. Throught the film, he slowly gets thinner, shaggier and more convincing in the role of an imprisoned man. Another challenging role for the actor, he doesn't miss a beat nailing the performance of a man who would not give up on his life.

The surprise joy of this film comes in the performance given by Steve Zahn. Yes, that Steve Zahn. He plays another military pilot named Duane Martin and immediately becomes a friend of Dengler. Zahn approaches his role with that borderline shell shocked attitude that so many Vietnam Vets came home with, but it comes off convincing and authentic rather than goofy or inappropriate. The relationship between Dengler and Martin is one of the films finest touches.
The other triumph is the cinematography. The wild and dangerous jungle of Laos and Vietnam is captured in all it's untouched beauty. The dangerous and safegaurds of the jungle are used to the advantage of the characters and the scenes of transit through the jungle are beautifully shot. Werner Herzog's documentary work in the past gives this feel a realistic vision which makes the story all the more riveting and exciting.
Amongst one of many movies that will be forgotten this year in the awards race, Rescue Dawn has a lot to offer. An emotional and engaging story, interesting characters with realistic struggles and gorgeous cinematography leads to one of the best film performances of the year.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sci-Fi Noir

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain...Time to die."

With a little help from a new and improved final cut, Blade Runner has the chance at impacting another generation of minds. With it's utterly impressive ahead-of-its-time special effects, brilliant screenplay and stand-out performances, it's no surprise that Blade Runner is one of the greatest films in Hollywood history.
A bumpy first release of Blade Runner will forever plague it's brilliance. Originally released in 1982 with a dense, overbearing voice over by Rick Deckard and a crappy tacked on ending, Ridley Scott quickly was unhappy with the way his film was released. A few years later, he released a Director's cut which polished it up, took away the crappy ending and voice over and was considered the definitive edition. Now in theaters for a short time and on an intense 5 disc collector's series, the "Final Cut" is being released. The Final Cut only polishes the film more making the transitions clearer, the effects sharper and some small differences that even most fans can't tell.

Why re-release Blade Runner now? That's what I'm thinking. It may be the 25th Anniversary of the film's original release, but it might be because the dystopian epic is just as relevant today is it was in the 80's during the technology revolution and the impending doom of the Cold War.

For those unaware, the film is based (only loosely) on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The film takes place in the future. A race of Artificial Intelligence known as Replicants were created basically as Slave labor on outer world colonies. These replicants start an uprising as they have some emotive responses and are almost human. A group of replicants escape their slavery and head back to earth, which is illegal. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a Blade Runner taken in to hunt down the replicants and "retire" them before they can cause any harm. The plot runs thicker when a new model of Replicant is able to have memories, true human emotions and even learn their own emotive responses. This poses interesting ethical issues and shows the danger that replicants can now face.

There is a lot more to it, but delving much further is unnecessary in this post as it would give away what's so special about Blade Runner. The most important thing in this film is it's central characters. Deckard, modeled after your typical noir anit-hero is brilliantly played by Harrison Ford. He gives the character a strange demeanor that shows a dark past and an interesting question that fans have wanted to know for years. It's these kinds of roles that really show the true extent of Ford's ability as an actor. Usually getting these brute, tough-guy roles would type cast the actor (Han Solo, Indiana Jones, etc.) but Deckard has a lot more going on beneath his tough guy attitude that makes it a truly unique performance.

The real acting triumph is in the demonic/heroic Roy Batty. Rutger Hauer, a fallen angel of sorts, poured more than everything into this role making it one of the most stirring and brilliant performances, if not the best, of his career. Batty has the kind of scary maliciousness that offers not only an edge of your seat villain, but in the long run, a sympathetic hero for the replicants. His goal is to extend his life and that of his four comrades. Isn't it the goal of every human to live as long as they can? With only a four year lifespan, it's harder for a replicant. This sympathetic side shows true depth to these characters.
Edward James Olmos plays the most strange and elusive character in the entire film. His brilliant line "It's too bad she won't live! But then again, who does?" is the whole point of the film. More existential then most would assume, Blade Runner is a film ahead of the pack. It's an action sci-fi film with film noir elements and a deep subtext about identity, life and the struggle to stay alive. The Final Cut of Blade Runner is a great big-screen experience and a fantastic classic that deserves a new generation of fans.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Top Albums of 2007

Although this is mostly a movie blog, I do however do this every year at the end of the year. Although there are a few weeks left, I'm going to say that nothign can top the ten albums that I will put on hear (that I can forsee.) If something brilliant comes along, I will add that as an addendum to this post another day.... if you care. So here are the ten best albums of 2007.

10. Radiohead - In Rainbows - Although overall slightly not what I was expecting, Radiohead's ambitious and somewhat groundbreaking In Rainbows makes the list. Not jsut for it's over hyped online for "whatever price you want" without a label "gimmick", but because it's Radiohead as a cohesive, audible band again. Not that Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Theif are bad, but it's nice to hear Johnny Greenwood's guitar again. Songs like "Bodysnatchers" show us that Radiohead can rock out and be brooding at the same time. The re-recording of "Nude" is a beautiful arrangement of ambience, orchestration and simplicity that was missing from Radiohead in past efforts. It's a beautiful album of great songs. I can't wait for the Disc Box which is en route. This will make it even more of a contender for this list as a bonus disc of tracks as well as album art will make the In Rainbows experience more worth while.

9. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible - Following up one of the best debut albums in the past 10 years is tough, but Arcade Fire has done a decent job of side-stepping the Sophmore Slump. Not much has changed in the style of arrangements and the array of instrumentation we heard on Funeral, but Neon Bible still stands out as a sequel to their Baroque Pop sounds. Pipe Organs, orchestras, grandiose harmonies and piano driven songs are the backbone of the album. The lyrics are as romantic and epic as in the first album and Win and Regine take the helm at the vocals adding the flair of mixing it up. Losing their sense of urgency and with more of a brooding overtone, Arcade Fire strikes a bit darker than it's predocessor. "Black Mirror" points in the direction of where the album takes you, the two-part "Black Wave/ Bad Vibrations" shows the many facets included in the album in one song and "Intervention" stands as the albums full on Baroque Prog epic with booming organs that sound from a time long lost. Overall, the album stays true to what we would expect from Arcade Fire and is a good new full-length entry in what is hopefully a fruitful career.

8. Pelican - City of Echoes - A lot of friends of mine were talking about this band early in the year and so I went on the search for Pelican's City of Echoes. Once I found it, which I got in conjunction with a compilation with another Pelican song on it, I immediately heard what everyone was talking about. Although not their debut (that was a self titled EP in 2001), this is a perfect disc to get into a great rock band. One thing to note to thsoe who may be unfimiliar with Pelican as I was pre-summertime: this is an instrumental band. Think Explosions in the Sky or Mogwai, but harder at times. The songs are thought provoking workouts in both heavy rock and calm instrumentation. The crafty guitar playing and intricate beats set up bring the listener into a world of strange beauty. The songs elucidate a truly gratifying feeling inside. The disc kicks off right with "Bliss in Concrete" and this melodic metal (if you can call it that) sprawls over the next few tracks giving way to the acoustic and organic "Winds with Hands." Picking up the kick of the first few tracks is the traumatizingly hypnotic "Dead Between the Walls." All the grandiose epic rocking leads to the cathartic and calm track "A Delicate Sense of Balance." leaving you cooled, refreshed and ready to start the album over again.

7. Wilco - Sky Blue Sky - Back to it's roots, Wilco's Sky Blue Sky is a meditative reflection for Jeff Tweedy and Co. Less of it's drug addled jamming and more straight-from-the-heart lyrics than their last two efforts, this album is a beautiful reflection peice in the vein of most tracks off of Being There. When the songs do jam out, their is no heavy distortion or ambience filling in the holes, it's just the band as is without all the frills attached and over production. Keeping it simple, Tweedy's lyrics are more of the centerpiece than the overall experience of the songs. Songs like "Sky Blue Sky" and "Please Be Patient With Me" are the albums most straightforward tracks. "Impossible Germany" and "Side With The Seeds" are the most jamtastic tracks teh album sees, but again the simple straightforward guitar work tells the tale and fills the space. "Walken" is the happiest tune on the album making one feel glad to be alive while "Hate It Here" is a heartbreaking anthem with a misleadingly catchy jaunt to it. Overall, Wilco can't go wrong writing good songs the make you feel all sorts of emotions. The real triumph is in it's simplicity.

6. Vietnam - The self titled debut from Vietnam is the kind of album that is labeled retro or throwback before giving it a chance. Not that being retro or throwback is a bad thing, but it's definitely worth setting aside all the similarities to electric Dylan and other electrif folk and blues bands out there. That being said, it's best to describe this as a classic late-60's revolution rock group. If there is any time that resembles the 60's, it's our current state of affairs. Although the innocence of the 60's is gone, the sound of it's musical revolution is clearly still impacful on new groups today. Vietnam packs in some epic classic rock, tongue twisting Dylanesque poems and reverb-tastic guitar work. Vietnam also packed a brilliant punch live when they opened for The Lemonheads late in '06. At that point, they just had an EP, but the self titled release shows the promise of good old American Rock and Roll to come. "Step On Inside" is the perfect mission statement with it's gospel choir style harmonies and building music. "Priest, Poet and Pig" is where you get your biggest slab of Dylanesque storytelling where "Mr. Goldfinger" shows their more tongue in cheek social conscience peering through the reverb. Listening to these tracks is a refreshing reminder that straightforward songwriting and rocking is no longer a thing of the past.

5. The Shins - Wincing the Night Away - One indie rock band that has yet to dissapoint (minus there cult success after the lackluster movie Garden State sent them into somewhat-super stardom) is The Shins. With their third album, although overall not a huge leap forward, there is something about Wincing The Night Away that shows growth, development and adding sleek production to the table. With songs about the lead singers insomnia (hence the album title and the first track "Sleeping Lessons") we get a dreamscape of melodies and lush lyrics that resonate much like the tracks off of Chutes Too Narrow. The dreamy melodies are enchanting and altogether soothing. The songs jumpiest anthem, "Australia", is easily one of the best songs of '07 with it's danceable beat and groovy melodies. "Sea Legs" and "Split Needles" both have a jaunty aura stretching the mold of sounds that The Shins have done in the past and what they are doing currently. "Red Rabbits" is more ethereal with a strange ambient feel to it, but still shining it's bright pop music light on the listeners ears. Wincing the Night Away is another stellar outing for The Shins who seem to be one of this decades finest indie rock bands.

4. The Earlies - The Enemy Chorus- When whittling away the last four albums of the year, it was hard for me to rank them. In my interim best of 07 list mid-year, The Earlies wound up at #1. But with the release, discovery and overall aesthetic, they dropped a few spots still within the top five. That being said, nothing is wrong with this album. If anything, everything is right with it. A great spectical and fanfare of psychedelia is ladeled over Beach Boy style harmonies and frenzied orchestrations. With a variety of songs, this album has some of the best pacing on an album like any good concept album should. Kicking off with the frenzied "No Love In Our Hearts" and plowing through several frantic tracks, the listener is sucked into the world the Earlies have created. The pace slows with the beautiful ballad "The Ground We Walk On" and gets a brooding outlook on both my personal favorite "Bad is as Bad Does" and the instrumental "Gone for the Most Part" only to burst back triumphantly with the horn driven "Foundation and Earth." Quite the listening experience overall, The Enemy Chorus will bring forth images of granduer and of a foreign world.
3. Charlotte Gainsbourg - 5:55 - This is gorgeosity manifested in audio. With the french duo Air taking care of the music, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon covering the poetry and Nigel Goodrich helming the project by producing it, Charlotte Gainsbourg's first effort since she was 13-years old, 5:55 is a triumphant pop record. Charlotte's voice is a soothing, sultry and innocent tone that is enrapturing. As usual, Air creates gorgeous arrangements that float through the atmosphere that they create. The lyrics are truly wonderful love songs of love lost and found or strained. "The Operation" has some of the strangest imagery for a love song making it utterly unique and beautiful at the same time. The singles "5:55" and "The Songs That We Sing" are that kind of radio friendly songs that you will never hear on th radio. "Tel Que Tu Es" is the only track in Charlotte's native tongue and "Beauty Mark" is a lullaby for the ages. The standout track from this album is far and away the passionate "Everything I Cannot See." The exassperation in Charlotte's delivery matches the fragile notes pounded out on the piano. It's to be noted that Air released their album Pocket Symphony this year as well, however, it seems their finest work was put into this project, one that hopefully will spawn more works of staggering beauty.

2. Dinosaur Jr. - Beyond - The comback of the year lies within the fossil restructuring of Dinosaur Jr.'s original lineup. J Masics, Barlow and Murph reunite for the furiously amazing Beyond, an album crystallized in the amber of late 80's grunge. Although more polished and less sludgey than their earlier works, Beyond most resembles the trios first few albums, namely their masterpiece (up to this point) You're Living All Over Me. 22 years since the original line-up recorded and 10 years since the Dinosaur Jr. name walked the earth, Beyond acts as if they never left or ever ceased to be a cohesive entity. From the opening licks of "Almost Ready" to the closing fury of "What if I Knew", we see the remergence of Dinosaur Jr. as a viable rock band and hopefully one that will continue to sludge forth. Barlow's "Back to Your Heart" reeks of flannel, ripped jeans and stage diving. The sound of a youth of yesterday that still rigns true today is a refreshing feel. It's also strange to realize the fact that the sound of this album is now 20 years old. Weird. My choice for best song of 2007 comes in "Pick Me Up", a 6 minute anthem of epic proportions which has the structure of genius and guitar licks to peirce the ears when fully blasted, but to be fully appreciated by anyone walking down the street when your car windows are rolled down and the song is playing at maximum velocity. It's good to have an old favorite back, and their live show is one to be rivaled by any other band out there.

1. Justice - † - And here it is, the numero uno, the surprise of the year. The French Duo, Justice, was first discovered by myself on the Death From Above 1979 remix album Romance Bloody Romance. Their version of "Blood on Our Hands" was hypnotic and primal. It was danceable and brutal. It led me to search far and wide for anything and everything else they did. I stumbled upon †, or Cross if you will, at the beginning of the summer and immediately was entranced by it's gorgeous rollicking techno. It was a mechanical techno that wasn't afraid to bear it's fangs and bite into your ear drums with pulsating beats and fantastic melodies. If it weren't for the seamless dance epic it is, Cross would not be as high on this list. What makes Justice brilliant here is it's one long epic dance fest. Where Girl Talk drops the ball and just has a gimmicky feel of mixing tones of songs to create one dense track, Justice creates all original licks with a few samples here and there to create the sexiest atmosphere on record in 2007. From it's opening fanfare on "Genesis" to the frantic nature of "Let There Be Light" and into the radio friendly and utterly remixable "D.A.N.C.E.", we have a frenzied first three tracks with seamless goodness. French techno diva Uffie makes a guest appearance on "TTHHEE PPAARRTTYY" for the albums late in the game mission statement and the duo of "Phantom" and "Phantom Pt. 2" give the album it's most enjoyable one-two punch. All in all, a genre not taken too seriously, and yet maybe a little too seriously at times, Justice's Cross is anything but a burden, except maybe to your whole body after so much dancing. Their tour this year was also a sick delight of mixing the best worlds of the album and a live performance.