Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lisa Hannigan-Heaven is missing an angel

Lisa Hannigan is an incredibly gorgeous Irish singer/songwriter who recently released her solo debut album Sea Sew. Her gorgeousness doesn't stop at her looks, but extends to her achingly beautiful vocals, which finally get to move front and center. Lisa is best known as the female voice we often hear accompany Damien Rice, but after being dismissed from his band in early 2007 (while on tour in Germany, Damien decided that their professional relationship had "run its course"), Lisa entered the studio full-time to record her own album. Although a multi-instrumentalist herself, Lisa brought in a number of musicians to collaborate with, including many of the people she'd worked with while singing with Damien. What she delivered was 10 masterful songs (9 of which she wrote) showing off her knack for melodies that burrow into your brain, and spotlighting that delicately touching voice.

She has said that she wasn't trying to outright copy anyone for the sound of her album, but likes the occasionally unconventional instrumentation used by artists like Feist and Bjork. In fact, the lead single "Lille" has banjo, accordian, and xylophone alongside the guitar and bass. There are other instances like that (some excellently used background horns, strings, and vocals as well), but for the most part she sticks with a guitar or piano driven sound. It suits her voice perfectly, and I already can't wait to see what this incredibly talented young woman will give us in the future. I've linked to videos of my 3 favorite songs off the album.

"Lille": (a live performance, which is great)
(the official video, which is kinda fun)


Pistachio: (this is recorded a little loud, so you might turn down your speakers a little bit)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Buster Keaton-My favorite comedian

"What a creative genius — what an inventor... A guy like that, you just sit back and say, okay, I'll never get there!"-Jim Carrey

"A comedian does funny things. A good comedian does things funny."-Buster Keaton

Lately I've been revisiting some of my favorite films from Buster Keaton, as well as seeking out some of his lesser known features and short films. Keaton was one of the "Big 3" of silent comedian/directors, alongside Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. Although I still need to see more from the other two, I'm confident in saying that Keaton is my favorite. He was a master at visually telling his story, rarely using the title cards that were necessary during the days of silent films. He once remarked "Charlie Chaplin and I would have a friendly contest: Who could do the feature film with the least subtitles?".

Although he's known as "The Great Stone Face", his face was actually incredibly expressive, and that's what helped him tell his stories so well. He was known by that name because of the determined demeanor that he always had no matter what a movie threw at his character. I think this was an asset, because as Roger Ebert has noted "It's said that Chaplin wanted you to like him, but Keaton didn't care. I think he cared, but was too proud to ask." That neediness has always kept me at a distance from much of Chaplin's work, but the "being too proud to ask" quality of Keaton's characters is something that I connect with on a very deep level.

Of course, if character moments aren't your thing, there's always the stunts. Keaton was the greatest stuntman in the history of the movies. He was his own stuntman, and also would occasionally be the stuntman for some of his other actors if they could not perform. The most famous stunt in Keaton's catalog is the one in his classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. where during a hurricane, an entire wall of a two-story house falls on him, only being saved because one of the windows happens to be open. (you can see it here: Being his own director (though he often shared credit), and working independent of a studio, Keaton was in charge on set and did his own stunt set-ups. The gag with the wall was not rehearsed, because the fall would destroy the wall, and Keaton trusted his set-up, so why waste money on an extra wall?

Keaton learned how to take a fall while working in his parents' vaudeville act as a child, later saying that taking a perfect fall (without getting hurt) was second nature to him since he'd been doing it his whole life. That's not to say that he never got hurt. While filming Our Hospitality, during a scene where he's suspended from a tree over a waterfall, one of his suspension wires snapped and sent him hurtling towards the very real waterfall. He decided to film the sequence in a safer studio lot, although his version of safe still included a 25 foot tall waterfall (quite a spill if he falls). Also, while filming Sherlock, Jr. he fractured his neck doing one of the stunts and only many years later did a doctor find the healed bone during a routine check-up (Keaton remarked that he did remember having headaches for a few days after the injury).

When "talkies" made their way into the world, Keaton signed a deal with MGM ("the biggest mistake of my life") to be one of their stars. Although many of his movies were hits, he was creatively stifled at MGM. He quickly had his directing privledges revoked, didn't have much in the way of script input, and MGM wouldn't let him do any stunts, much less all of them. Sadly, he decended for many years into alcohol. When assessing Keaton's movies, most people (including me) disregard nearly all of the MGM work other than his great movie The Cameraman (his first for MGM), and instead focus on the work that he made as an independant artist.

I've studied Keaton's work for many years now, and my love continues to grow deeper. Recently, when the AFI did a revisit of their Top 100 American movies ever made, Keaton's widely acknowledged tour-de-force The General made the biggest leap on the list, going from not on it at all 10 years ago, to being named the 18th greatest movie ever made. I think something like this can be attributed to the proliferation of DVD in the last decade. For many years, people (including Keaton) thought that the majority of his work was lost. Only when there was a French retrospective of his movies in 1962 did his popularity begin to rise. Within the last 10 years, most of his work has found its way to DVD and has been discovered by many people who react to it much like I do.

To perhaps back up my claims of Keaton's greatness, here are links to the three parts of his great short film The Goat, essentially about Keaton on the run from the cops due to a simple case of mistaken identity, which involves some of his best physical comedy, and one where he gets to show off his tremendous athleticism. I think it's a nice brief (about 20 minutes) encapsulation of much of Keaton's approach, and why I love him so much.,,

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Day the Music Died-50 years on

February 3rd, 1959 has been popularly known as "The Day the Music Died". The plane that crashed outside of Clear Lake, Iowa carried budding star Ritchie Valens, "The Big Bopper" J.P. Richardson, and the legendary Buddy Holly. Although the other two might have their merits, it's Buddy Holly's music that has had a huge impact on me. So often rock 'n roll gets bogged down in the "woe is me, she doesn't love me" sentiment, and forgets joy. Buddy Holly was all about joy, even if he could bust out a ballad with the best of them. The exuberance of his songs is so infectious, I don't know how anyone could resist. I discovered his music when I was about 20 (the age he was when he became famous) when I found a used greatest hits CD of his being sold for $3.99. I thought "Why not check it out? He's probably a legend for a reason." Of course, I knew "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue" his two most famous songs, but I was not prepared for the staggering quality of music that I found. I was giddy as I pursued more from him, and I was never disappointed.

After attending an Elvis Presley concert as a teenager, Holly devoted his life to making rock music. Although he came from a humble beginning in Lubbock, Texas, he changed the perception of the rock artist, being one of the first to primarily write his own material (something which his disciples The Beatles would eventually make expected of a rock artist), as well as often being his own lead guitarist. He is often cited as the popularizer of the Fender Stratocaster. When he toured throughout the late 50's, many young men saw his guitar and went out and bought their own in imitation. His artistic self-reliance let him branch out and try many different approaches and styles. Holly was really only beginning to realize his potential when he died. As a singer, guitarist, songwriter, and burgeoning producer (where he had hoped to do much of his work as he got older and had a family), he constantly pushed himself. If you take a look at the growth from his earliest records, to the stuff he was putting out at the end of his career, it hints at a talent that would've continued to flourish and a curiosity that would've never ceased to try new things. To think that people still know his name and can feel his impact 50 years on speaks to how important Buddy Holly was. The fact that he died at just 22 is simply baffling, he had been popularly making music for less than 3 years. I simply wanted to mark the 50th anniversary of the death one of my heroes.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire is about a smart, but uneducated, kid from the slums of Mumbai, India (formerly called Bombay) who gets on the Indian version of the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? That may not sound like the basis for a crowd pleasing Academy Award front-runner, but that's exactly what Slumdog is. The question, of course, is whether or not it deserves the gobs of love that people (both critics and audiences alike) have been heaping onto it. My answer is both a yes and a no. It is very nearly a great movie, and I wouldn't mind anyone saying that they loved it, but I came away feeling that it could've been better. Still, the good far outweighs the bad and Slumdog Millionaire is a terrific little movie with a wonderful heart at its center.

That heart mainly belongs to Dev Patel, the actor portraying the adult version of the movie's protaganist, Jamal. We follow Jamal through three periods of his life, a life which intertwines with those of his brother Salim, and the love of Jamal's life, Latika (played as an adult by the ridiculously beautiful Freida Pinto). All three come from the slums and spend the movie trying to fight their way out. No matter what the circumstances though, Jamal does what he does because of his love of Latika. He only tries out for Millionaire because it's a wildly popular show, and having lost contact with her, he hopes she'll be watching and will find him. His unlikely success on the show is mostly because he's a bright kid with a good memory. Still, those in charge think he's cheating, and the movie is primarily told through flashbacks of the adult Jamal reliving how he learned all the answers to the questions. Jamal tells them the story of his young life, a remarkable tale including gangsters, stealing to survive, hoboing on trains, and always of trying to get back to Latika. It's this romantic core that lifts the movie up, with the emotionally affecting performances from Patel and Pinto being a big reason for its success. They both have big expressive eyes, and Patel in particular conveys Jamal's entire life in his voice and the depth of those eyes. They have wonderful chemistry with one another, and for being so young (he's just 18, she's 24) I don't think they step wrong once.

Holding the movie back though is the direction from British director Danny Boyle. He directs the movie with a certain "look at me" style that I usually associate with someone like Tony Scott (especially his stuff like Man on Fire and Domino). There's also some intelligence insulting, and obviously unnecessary, flashbacks during the climax of the story that really epitomizes Boyle's hacky direction. He just doesn't have the confidence in Simon Beaufoy's screenplay that he should've had, the kind of confidence that would allow him to get out of the way of both the story and the actors and let them win over the audience as they would've effortlessly done. But just like Paul Greengrass couldn't ruin the last two Bourne movies no matter how hard he tried, Boyle doesn't ruin Slumdog. Not to say that the screenplay is flawless. I don't think the few bits of comedy work very well, there are a couple of pieces of stupid dialog in moments that would've worked silently, and ultimately Salim is not a very interesting character and doesn't have the kind of emotional impact on the audience that Jamal and Latika have. Regardless, the biggest problems lie with the director, not the writer.

Is it the best movie of the year? Not even close. Is it a great movie? Not quite. But I won't be surprised if it wins Best Picture at this years Oscars (where it's been nominated for 10 awards), because it is a very good movie, and exactly the type of out of nowhere choice that the Academy occasionally goes for. I would actually admire the Academy for honoring an international picture such as this, one with about a third of its dialog in Hindi, and the English dialog all coming with Indian accents. Ultimately though, the thing I take most away from the movie is that I really hope we see more of Dev Patel and Freida Pinto at the movies. I think they have big bright futures ahead of them.