Saturday, November 27, 2010

Song of the week: The Black Keys' "Meet Me in the City"

So, this song coming a little later in the week (because of Thanksgiving), I'm gonna go with The Black Keys song "Meet Me in the City". Originally an old blues song by the great Junior Kimbrough, The Black Keys covered it on their tribute EP Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough. The Keys had been greatly influenced by Kimbrough and had actually already covered his songs on their first two albums, and eventually decided to just do the Chulahoma EP in 2005, strangely not containing either of the songs they'd covered on their first two albums. Kimbrough's songs had a raw, hypnotic way about them that could remind someone of John Lee Hooker or RL Burnside without too much effort. He was a great artist, and I included his version of the song underneath the Keys' down below.

But this is about the cover version. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney make up The Black Keys, and you really never miss any instrumentation in their music, even when it's just stripped down to Auerbach's voice and guitar and Carney's drums. They're a force to listen to, raw and dynamic and beautiful and inspiring to me as a fellow musician (last May, when I did my top ten albums of the decade, their Attack and Release ended up at #7). "Meet Me in the City" was one of the first songs of theirs that I heard, and it really grabbed me by the throat on the first listen, but it was because of its tenderness and not because of its energy. The painful love Auerbach has in his voice just killed me after the kind sleepy groove drew me into the opening of the song. The lyrics are simple:

"Meet me, oh momma, in the city
And see everything is so fine
We'll get together now, darlin'
Oh yes we will
We'll make everything alright
Now honey don't
Oh honey don't

Please, please don't leave me right now, baby
Right now, right now
Oh no no no

You got me, baby
You got me, darlin'
You got me where you want me, baby
Girl, I know you are satisfied
Still begging you, baby
Don't leave me here

Please, please don't leave me
Right now baby, right now, right now
Oh no no no"

But the way Auerbach infuses them with so much yearning and hope and pain is astounding. Sometimes the simplest things can evoke our most basic human emotions better than anything else can. It's songs like "Meet Me in the City" that typify the blues as a genre of all of our essential humanity. And when it can be delivered to us by artists as great as Junior Kimbrough or The Black Keys, it makes all that deeper of an impact.

The Black Keys' version

Junior Kimbrough's original

Sunday, November 21, 2010

5 Centimeters Per Second

The Japanese anime 5 Centimeters Per Second is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen, in both a visual and thematic way. It's the story of two people who're inseparable as kids (both entranced by the falling cherry blossoms, which allegedly fall at 5 centimeters per second) but are split apart by their families moving, yet they are determined to meet up again, they do and fall in love as teenagers, only to be split apart again, before becoming adults who still think of each other but have moved on with their lives (or are trying to learn how to). It's breathtakingly animated. Writer/director Makoto Shinkai allows so many shots of lonely looking objects to linger a bit longer than most would let them, underscoring the longing our characters feel for each other. The score by Tenmon, who's scored all of Shinkai's work, is an empty piano score which even further enhances the feelings of our main characters. At just 63 minutes, 5 Centimeters doesn't outstay its welcome, but Shinkai takes his time unfolding his story in a way that makes sure it doesn't feel truncated either.

The story reminded me forcibly of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's great Three Times, another love story set against 3 separate time periods (and was in my top ten of the decade). Of course, Hou set the stories apart by having the same actors playing different characters in different time periods and then watched how they play out their love scenarios. Shinkai simply gives us three segments from the same characters, as they grow older. The first segments are strikingly similar, as the man (boy in 5 Centimeters case) seeks out the woman (girl) before eventually meeting and sharing a simple expression of affection, although Shinkai's ending is as achingly beautiful as Hou's, it's in a different way, since 5 Centimeters follows the same characters throughout its 3 stories, we don't leave our characters at the end of the segment. So there isn't the ending note of love, since we will catch up with Shinkai's characters (and his first segment ends on a less fully romantic note, there's some mixed feelings there). The unreciprocated feelings in the second story are interesting and worthwhile as a story, but don't have quite the same emotional weight as the opening segment.

The final segment, though marred a bit by a too on-the-nose power ballad that stands at complete odds to the sparseness of the rest of the soundtrack, is the ambiguous end to the story that maybe isn't so ambiguous once you think about it. Our hero is haunted by the lost love that never got to see its fruition, while the heroine still occasionally thinks back on those days gone by, even as she has moved on. The chance meeting that the hero has longed for finally happens, but how you feel about the outcome will ultimately depend on each viewers interpretation of the characters feelings at that point in their life.

I think it's a beautifully mature ending to a gorgeous movie, one of the best I've ever seen. Sadly, and for a reason unknown to me, 5 Centimeters Per Second is unavailable on US DVD, as far as I know. However, it is easily viewed through Google Video, which is how I got ahold of it. It is a truly remarkable movie from a filmmaker I need to see more from. Makoto Shinkai has been labeled as "the new Miyazaki", although the thought wouldn't have come to my mind from this movie due to its lack of action or adventure or many of the ecological or aeronautical themes that Miyazaki returns to time and again. What Shinkai does have in common with Miyazaki is that he has made a beautifully animated movie, one that I will return to many times over the years. I wouldn't call him "the new Miyazaki", because really he's "the current Makoto Shinkai".

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

Here we have the beginning of the end of the most lucrative franchise in cinema history. We first met these characters on the big screen in 2001, and have seen the actors and the films themselves grow since then. I have a deep, personal love of J.K. Rowling's books, and haven't always been completely pleased with their adaptations to the silver screen. Last years Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was the first one that in my mind really captured so much of the magic of the books into the movies, but even it had so much that was cut from the novel. Splitting the mammoth final book into two parts was a good idea here, as even though many things were cut out, few of them are truly missed. Although Deathly Hallows, Part 1 certainly feels like the first half of a story, it also succeeds admirably as a movie.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson as the three leads have truly grown a lot since their first forays into our lives. Radcliffe had, in my mind, more than a few awkward line readings and uncomfortable times in the series, but as he has become a man he has also become a better actor. He gives Harry weight and depth as a character, and not in just a "good for a kid actor" sort of way. Grint, who's buffed up in the past couple of years in addition to his normal growth, keeps Ron's role as the comic relief of the trio, but also adds some layers to Ron, the love and anger and friendship that the role needs. Emma Watson, whom I've thought was the star of the group since the fourth movie or so, again soars here. There's a scene in the first few minutes of the movie, when Hermione wipes herself from her parents memories, when Watson conveys all of Hermione's psychological conflict in just a look, and director David Yates gives us a great shot of Hermione walking away from her house, and maybe her family, forever.

Yates, returning for the 7th and final movie after also helming numbers 5 and 6, again gets things right as far as the balance of character and action, giving us some of the same small moments that make Rowling's books so delightful to return to, as well as the big action scenes that a blockbuster of this type requires. I've heard some rumblings from some people that the movie moves too slowly, but I didn't feel that way in the slightest. I thought the 146 minutes flew by wonderfully, with only some of Dumbledore's backstory that I can think of that I really missed seeing. Yates and his cinematographer Eduardo Serra do maybe go a little too heavy on the handheld sometimes. I'm thinking mostly of the chase with the Snatchers, which felt very Paul Greengrass-y (like his terrible handheld work on the last two Bourne movies), but mostly the movie is gorgeously shot, whether in the forest, on the beach, or in the Ministry of Magic, the movie looks terrific, surely to get Serra his third Oscar nomination. My favorite part of the movie though, had to have been the animated sequence detailing the "Tale of the Three Brothers", done in an updated take on the animation of the legendary Lotte Reiniger's paper cutouts. Such a beautifully done piece.

So we get what I feel is the best Harry Potter movie yet, and with next years conclusion to the series again coming from David Yates, I feel in good spirits about the final adaptation of some of my favorite books. From my remembrance of the novels, there will certainly be a huge amount of action for those that feel this was a little light on conflict. I feel like this is the movie event I was missing this summer, when it felt like the only greats we had were Inception and Toy Story 3. A wonderful piece of entertainment, with some very good performances and wonderful visuals, I loved Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, and can't wait for Part 2.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Song of the week: The Beatles "Twist and Shout"

Debut of a new thing I wanna do. I love looking at albums and artists as a whole, but sometimes individual songs need their due as well. And so to start off this foray into spotlighting a song a week, I'll begin with the song I'm obsessed with right now, The Beatles' cover of "Twist and Shout".

Originally written Phil Medley and Bert Berns (whose other compositions include "Hang on Sloopy" and "Piece of My Heart") and recorded by the Top Notes, produced by Phil Spector and released in 1961. It was covered just the next year by The Isley Brothers, produced by Bert Berns himself, after he felt that Spector had screwed up the original recording and wanted to show him how it should be done. The song was a hit for the Isley's, and became a popular song for R&B groups to cover. The Beatles version appeared as the closing song on their debut album Please Please Me in 1963, and issued as a single in '64 (it would be the only top 10 song the band had that wasn't an original). It was the final song recorded during the marathon session Please Please Me was recorded in, the 11th song in 10 hours. Producer George Martin knew that the song would be tough on John Lennon's voice and so saved it for last. He'd intended to record it as many times as it took to get it right, but Lennon was only good for one take before "John's voice had gone" as Martin put it.

Lennon's voice is obviously shredded, and you can hear it on the recording. Thankfully, he finished the take and gave us one of the great vocal performances in rock music. The rasp was on his voice in full force, and Lennon sounds drained but forcing himself through. Paul and George's backing vocals sound as sweet as the Isley's did, but John's demolished vocal chords are what makes the song special. During the "Shake it, shake it, shake it baby now" part towards the end, you can hear the weariness in the band, but with smiles on their faces in a way that's infectious even to just listen to. I can imagine Lennon must've collapsed in exhaustion just after the tape ran out. "Twist and Shout" was the first Beatles song I remember ever hearing, I must've only been about 3 or 4 at the time, and it transfixed me as I listened to the cassette over and over again. Some things you just don't grow out of as an adult, and I still can't listen to "Twist and Shout" without a big smile on my face, convulsing like Paul McCartney does when John tells us to "shake it, shake it, shake it". It's one of the great songs by the greatest of bands, and a perfectly fine choice to open my new series of blog posts.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Elevator to the Gallows

Legendary French director Louis Malle made one of the great debut movies in cinema history with his 1958 masterpiece Elevator to the Gallows. Starring Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as Florence and Julien, secret lovers planning the murder of her powerful husband (his boss), only to have their perfect plan slowly unravel over the course of the movie's 91 powerfully tense minutes. A haunting, lonely score improvised by Miles Davis sets the backdrop of inevitable tragedy in the lives of our characters. Moreau, who didn't do anything for me in Truffaut's Jules and Jim, here uses her strangely attractive features in a wonderful performance of a woman hoping and searching and afraid for the safety and whereabouts of the lover she can't find, almost going mad with worry. Because, after the murder of her husband, Julien spends the night trapped in the elevator of the building in which he'd just committed the crime.

Elevator to the Gallows has the same trajectory and tone as many of the American noirs of the 40's and 50's that I've been watching lately. It has the same kind of inescapable sense of doom that hangs over so much of the characters actions. I wasn't sure how things would turn out, being that it was a French take on the genre, but I was gripped to my seat like almost no other noir has gotten me. Gorgeously shot in stark black-and-white by cinematographer Henri Dacae, we get a lot of classic noir shots of dark streets, interrogation rooms, and rainy nights. Malle, only 24 when he made the movie, directs with a tight hand. There's nothing wasted in the hour and a half that we spend in this world. We see Julien struggling to get out of the elevator, Florence wandering Paris looking for him, and the young couple who steal Julien's car and go on their own tragic journey through the night.

I'm always happy to have made another successful venture out into world cinema, with this being probably only second to the great heist movie Rififi as my favorite French movie. I liked this much better than my previous Malle movie, Atlantic City, and put it high on my list of favorite noirs. I'll always remember Jeanne Moreau's haunting face and Miles Davis's equally effective score. I'll also be looking forward to my next foray into Louis Malle's catalog, and French film in general.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Leaves of Grass - an Oklahoma dose of greatness

Leaves of Grass has a lot of autobiography from its writer/director Tim Blake Nelson. Not so much in Ed Norton's twin Kincaid brothers, the marijuana dealing, or the violence, but in many of the little details contained in this wacky ride through my beloved home state. Nelson (probably most famous as Delmar from the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is one of the finest character actors around, stealing scenes in all kinds of movies from big budget to tiny independents. Although from humble Tulsa beginnings, Nelson is an Ivy League (Brown University) educated Classics major, a Julliard graduate, an accomplished playwright, and an experienced filmmaker, Leaves of Grass marking his 4th major work as director. About half of that description applies to Bill, one of the twin brothers played by Ed Norton (who also serves as a producer on the film).

Bill is Professor of Classical Philosophy at Brown, a hot young name in academia being courted by Harvard to start up his own program there. The movie opens with a great monologue by Bill dealing with the teaching of the ancient Greeks, and it's a testament to Nelson's faith in his script that he doesn't turn it into simply a montage of Bill lecturing to students, but a fully formed monologue, much of which foreshadows the intellectual themes of the rest of the movie. Soon after, we meet Brady, a genius pot grower in the Southeastern Oklahoma town of Idabel. He and his best friend Bolger (Nelson) are running into problems with a Tulsa based Jewish drug kingpin (deliciously played by Richard Dreyfuss) who wants payback, Brady and Bill's hippie mom (Susan Sarandon) who's checked herself into a retirement home, and with Brady's pregnant girlfriend Colleen (Melanie Lynskey) who wants Brady to stop selling, stop growing, and stop smoking his beloved mary jane.

Blackly comedic hijinks ensue as everybody crosses paths and we get faked deaths, real deaths, obvious comedy, subtle comedy, uncomfortable comedy (thanks to Josh Pais's unbelievably great performance), philosophical discussions on poetry and the existence of God. Brady has an interesting theory about why he does believe in a higher power, I would've never thought about explaining God's possible existence with parallel lines, but it makes a lot of sense when Nelson gives his characters the time to talk about things and ideas the way that few movies ever do. It's intoxicating to find a movie that allows the ridiculousness of legendary singer/songwriter Steve Earle angrily shooting a crossbow (with his bluetooth headset in his ear) to exist in the same realm with Keri Russell reciting Whitman while she guts a catfish. It's a wonderful feeling, even if Nelson doesn't quite have the directorial flair to be able to pull it off without a hitch. There aren't many problems with the movie, but maybe those things can't go flawlessly into a movie in the first place. I'm still really glad he tried.

Now, I've not been a huge fan of Edward Norton over the years. I was never one of the people praising his work to the heavens and declaring him the best actor of his generation. I think he's a solid actor whose performances tend to all feel the same to me. Not, however, in Leaves of Grass. Bill is intelligent and logical, but increasingly reaching the end of his rope, often due to Brady. And Brady is a brilliant mind who doesn't always put his smarts to use in a constructive manner. Although I thought at first the "hick" accent that Norton uses for Brady was too over-the-top, either he or I grew into it, and I was okay with it. Norton creates these two characters with a wonderfully subtle bag of tricks, and the illusion of the twins is handled wonderfully by Nelson and his bag of directorial tricks. I knew, of course, that Norton wasn't acting opposite himself, Nelson made pains to include many shots of Bill and Brady together, and Norton's timing and amazing ability to play off of himself seals the deal so that we never don't believe that we're watching two brothers.

So, in short, Leaves of Grass is a masterwork by a proud Okie. It contains too many wonderful things to let the small stuff bother me, most notably brilliant performances by Ed Norton (the best work he's done, I think). It's certainly one of my favorite movies of recent times.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


I was taken way back to the days of my childhood again recently, when my wife and I watched The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh. I loved Pooh as a kid. I loved his simple nature, his direct way of seeing things, his naivete, and his good hearted love of honey. I love the amiable way Pooh goes around wishing everyone a "happy winds-day" during the tempestuous weather. And his innocence in trying to trick the bees into thinking he's a harmless rain cloud so that he can steal their honey. He's really just one of the most heartwarming characters I've ever seen. And his compatriots in the Hundred Acre Wood are only slightly less charming. Piglet is all nervous, tuttering energy. Rabbit, fastiduous and annoyingly whiny. Owl, long-winded and pompous, but also blessed with a good heart. Kanga and Roo the sweet mother/son team. And, of course, my two favorites as a child: depressive Eeyore, and bombastically energetic Tigger.

The movie is really just three short films put together into one movie, a process they used to refer to as "package films". Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree from 1966, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day from 1968, and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too! from 1974, all put together and released as a full length movie in 1977. One of my favorite parts about the movie is that Disney translated the stories to the screen as though they were actually stories being told to us by the movie's narrator (perfectly voiced by Sebastian Cabot). Occasionally the characters themselves even interact with the narrator reading the stories that play out their lives.

Well, "lives" may be stretching it, considering that the whole concept of Pooh is that the characters are stuffed animals brought to life through the imagination of their owner, the young Christopher Robin. That's actually another great little detail of the animation, the way that the animators gave the characters the weight and feeling of stuffed animals brought to life and not like real animals. They took much inspiration from the terrific book illustrations by EH Shepard, but gave the characters movement and really brought them to life for all of us to enjoy. In combination with the animators, there's the tremendous voice work, most especially Sterling Holloway's work as Pooh, and Paul Winchell's famous voicing of Tigger. All the actors really help the characters jump off screen, but those two are special.

There is apparently a new Pooh movie Disney has scheduled to come out next summer, just called Winnie the Pooh. It's supposed to take the same inspiration from Shepard's original illustrations, and has great voice work lined up from Jim Cummings (who's done so much amazing voice work I wouldn't even know where to start listing it from), John Cleese as the narrator, and a theme song sung by Zooey Deschanel. But I'm leery of anything that might infringe on my affections for Pooh bear and the gang, one of the many reasons I've stayed away from the innumerable direct-to-video stuff that's been released over the last decade or so. But hopefully it can capture some of the magic that The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh did all those years ago. Watching it made me feel like a kid again, in the best possible way.