Spotlite on Paul Anderson

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 27, 2008 09:04pm | Post a Comment


Paul Anderson is a prolific Generation X filmmaker with a trademark style and five Academy Awards under his belt. He's also made music videos for everyone who's performed at Largo. In addition to his film-making, he's dated models turned singers, singers turned models, daughters of singers and models who only sing in the shower.


Paul Anderson's films are notable for their flashy style and complicated, interweaving story lines. As one of the video store generation of filmmakers, he employs a large bag of cinematic tricks, including quick cuts, constant camera movement, stunning scenery, dutch tilts, low angles, high angles and revolving pullback shots-- tricks gleaned from growing up with a VCR rather than film school learning. He frequently employs female-led ensemble casts drawn from a stock of trusted actors. Making up that group are such players as Julianne Moore, Sean Pertwee, John C. Reilly, Colin Salmon, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeremy Bolt, Melora Walters, Jason Isaacs, and Luiz Guzman, to name a few.


Anderson's ostentatious style is frequently used to elevate the seemingly mundane to epic proportions. Sometimes the point of this ostentatious streak seems merely like showing-off, perhaps an effect of Anderson's high level of film exposure but probable lack of theory. He frequently revels in the seedy underside of outwardly blissful environs. Other frequently recurring themes include constructions and examinations of makeshift families, the role of media, divine acts, secret governmental organizations and the unintended consequences of technology run amok.


He made his first film while still in High School. It was The Dirk Diggler Story. It was a short mockumentary inspired by the teenage Anderson's voracious appetite for porn.

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The Strangers

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 4, 2008 01:56pm | Post a Comment

The other night I went to see The Strangers with my favorite person, Ngoc Nguyen. The film begins with a caveat, "The horrifying events that took place in the Hoyt family's vacation home at 1801 Clark Road on February 11, 2005, are still not entirely known." We are also told that the film is "inspired by actual events." Those inspirational events most likely included watching Helter Skelter and maybe Fatal Vision. But the "based on actual events" gimmick is a tried and true one; and one indicative of The Stranger's formula-following strengths and weaknesses.

Is there anything scarier than hippies?

One guy went to the trouble of mapping the address given in the film and many others have taken the opening claim as truth. I'll try to help by adding that I heard the cry of a Great Horned Owl at several points and I've included this handy map of their range so that we can narrow it down further.


In interviews, speaking of his influences and tastes, first time director Bryan Bertino praises The Blair Witch Project ("I'm one of the people who loved The Blair Witch Project. I don't care that the camera is shaky and Heather says f**k a lot"), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Descent. He also mentions John Cassavetes and Terence Malick, whose work is reflected in the main characters' strained relationship and the film's measured pacing. By and large Bertino succeeds in creating a low budget '70s vibe. The summer home (a ranch home, naturally) is furnished in heavy, brown furniture and lit by 15 watt bulbs (apparently the owners are either photosensitive or very energy conscious). Crackly records of Gillian Welch, Joanna Newsom and Merle Haggard play. It almost feels like a Pinter play or a Bob Rafelson drama.

The film story begins (like last year's not-entirely-dissimilar Vacancy) with a couple traveling in a car-- their feelings for each other obviously strained but not entirely explained. As the preceding events become more clear, the tension slowly and expertly builds on the viewer's anticipation of something awful. Nothing happens and yet we know something will. Nothing new here, but it's well done and sticks to the thriller formula closely so it works.

Unfortunately, when the villains show up, the film switches gears.  Whilst maintaining the slow pacing that worked in the first half, in the second it works to the film's detriment. The villains seem designed with more the toy market in mind than to create terror. The cutesy nickname given them by the filmmakers are
Pin-Up Girl, Dollface, and The Man in the Mask. The girls have Mark Ryden-inspired masks that seem completely out-of-place. The Man in the Mask lumbers around like Leatherface and wears a sack like pre-hockey mask Jason or Bubba Ritter (Dark Night of the Scarecrow the Phantom Killer in The Town That Dreaded Sundown or the Zodiac Killer) which, to his credit, is one of the scarier looks available to psychopathic killers although not terribly original.


Bertino has also named Alien as an influence. But in Alien, a lot of the fear was created by never seeing the alien clearly or for too long. In The Strangers, the ample screen time the villains are afforded allows us to grow comfortable, even bored with them. The viewer also has too much time to question the painfully obvious contrivances necessary to maintain an unrealistic situation in which two languid teenage girls and an overweight asthmatic effectively terrorize a couple with a 12 gauge. The couple's actions become maddeningly nonsensical and unlikely. This could be chalked up to following formula too closely too, I guess. After all, many horror-thrillers have become unintentionally dull when the initial tension is replaced by goofy, obnoxious antagonists, as in The Hills Have Eyes.

It's too bad that it takes such a predictable and unfortunate turn into the over-the-top territory. What made the first half so enjoyable is that it avoided being like the film it becomes in the second half. But, despite some disappointment, it's a better-than-average exercise in suspense that may stick with you for an evening but it's not something you'll likely go back to.

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Retribution 叫 sakebi (2006) dir. by 黒沢 清 Kurosawa Kiyoshi -- Touching From a Distance

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 2, 2008 09:33pm | Post a Comment

A grizzled police detective named Yoshioka investigates a murder in a muddy waterfront in Tokyo. The victim, although drowned in a puddle, has lungs full of saltwater. As Yoshioka investigates, all of the clues all seem to point to the him.  In the process, he grows more unhinged and defensive whilst troublingly remaining unable to write himself off as a suspect. His violent, murky memories seem to implicate him as well, and he suffers from insomnia and possible hallucinations.

Soon afterward, more killings occur with the same under similar circumstances. Yet they're easily explained and, in doing so, fail to exonerate Yoshioka in the first case. Kurosawa uses twists and turns not merely to keep the audience guessing about the true nature of the crime, but also to take the viewer somewhere unexpected-- into a feeling of loneliness and a state of guilt about ignoring the plight of others because of our collective societal embrace of insensitivity and deliberate emotional isolation.

Although the cover of Lion's Gate's DVD suggests that the film is merely another "scary hair" ghost story (and in some ways it is), it's mainly an atmospheric mood piece that has more in common with Antonioni and his ilk than horror directors. The title, Sakebi, literally means "Scream," which makes a lot more sense than the English translation of "Retribution," which seems chosen to mislead potential viewers into more false expectations. Anyone expecting horrifying vengeful ghosts will likely be disappointed by the glacially paced and contemplative film, although there are (mostly startling) moments of horror.

Tokyo, as depicted by Kurosawa, is a grimy, crumbling place unnerved by frequent earthquakes. Every wall is covered with peeling paint and the muddy ground is covered with dead weeds. The result is a grimly and beautifully stylized world where there is a vague suggestion of an apocalypse around the corner.

The film avoids close-ups for the most part, subtly emphasizing our feelings of isolation and confusion. It's hard to recognize characters at times, since they're usually filmed from a distance. And confusion over the identity of characters is a key element to the film's hallucinatory tone.

Although Retribution and most Japanese films like it are usually pinned with the J-Horror tag in the US, this one (and others) really belong more in the thriller genre, where suspense, psychological perturbations, and the supernatural are favored over terror, violence and gore. All in all, it's a satisfying and beautiful film that depresses while it dazzles.
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Sissy Rappers - Tell me what a sissy know

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 3, 2008 04:42pm | Post a Comment
In hip-hop circles, you often encounter self-appointed arbiters of hip-hop taste who decry certain supposed negative trends in hip-hop. One frequent target for these musical Taliban is the prevalence of "bling," which is regarded as a new corruption of the scene (conveniently ignoring Gucci-clad, Rolls Royce-flaunting, "paid in full"-singing Eric B and Rakim or the massive gold ropes that adorned every rapper from Big Daddy Kane down the alphabet to Yella.) These paternal advocates of fiscal responsibility feel that rappers should be saving their money, I suppose, and not spending on ostentatious jewelry.

These conservative cultural watchdogs usually then go into an oft-repeated, well-rehearsed diatribe about meaningless, party-centric lyrics, the lack of reliance on DJing, the importance of being real and other things that place them ideologically in the traditionalist camp alongside their trad jazz forebears that griped when jazz moved beyond its Dixieland roots, the guy that yelled "Judas" when Dylan plugged in and prog-rock fans who decried the lack of humorless, showy, technical proficiency when glam began took over the charts and hearts of rock fans in the 70s.

But music evolves, regardless (and sometimes in defiance) of the griping and sniping of those stodgy snobs who stand scowling and motionless with arms folded whilst the masses keep on getting down. In 1968 Nik Cohn virtually created rock criticism with his book Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of RockAs the title suggests, Cohn viewed the meaningless, shallow, fun music of rock's dawn in higher regard than the pretentious progressive rock of his day.  Another genre of music that haters love to hate is Bounce music. I felt like my love of this despised genre was validated, in a way, when the same Nik Cohn moved to New Orleans and worked with Choppa, an under-rated rapper from Algiers on the West Bank who had a big regional hit with "Choppa Style." Choppa dubbed Cohn "Nik the Trik" and Cohn wrote another book of criticism about his experiences, Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap.

Now, if you remember the late '90s, with the rising profiles of No Limit and Cash Money, the term "bounce" started getting thrown around by East & West Coast rappers who incorporated slightly southern rap-inspired beats to their club hits in what amounted, from where I stand, to a new form of minstrelsy that I call Southface. Jay-Z did "Can I Get A" and dropped excruciatingly wooden verses on a remix of Juvie's Bounce-inspired "Back That Azz Up," Ice Cube did "You Know I'm a Ho" with Master P and the southern-flavored "U Can Do It" and R. Kelly gratingly drove the word "bounce" into the ground with that one song that I'm not even going to try to remember the name of, lest it get stuck in my head. None of these songs really bore more than a passing resemblance to real Bounce music though and Bounce labels Big Boy (which initially had Mystikal and Partners N Crime) and Take Fo' (who had DJ Jubilee, Willie Puckett and Tec-9 from UNLV) as well as Bounce pioneers like TT Tucker & DJ IRv, DJ Jimi, and Everlasting Hitman were left where they started-- with little more than devoted regional cult followings.

Real Bounce is the extremely repetitive New Orleans-centered rap genre that draws from an incredibly small pool of samples. The source of all Bounce tracks is pretty much just the song "Drag Rap" by obscure 80s East Coast rap group The Showboys. The rest of the samples come from British DJ Derek B's "Rock the Beat." How those two little-known tracks became so important to New Orleans hip-hop is a mystery to me. Bounce lyrics usually amount to little more than repeated call-and-response chants, shouting out dances and the names of New Orleans' many projects.  If you want to learn more about it, check out the film Ya Heard Me which, from what little I've seen, looks to be a pretty entertaining and informative documentary about the critically-ignored scene.

Anyway, a few years into the Bounce game, along came Katey Red, pretty much the first openly gay rapper to achieve any degree of popularity when he/she dropped Melpomene Block Party in 1999. Katey's on Take Fo', a label which promotes what they consider a positive image, shying away from lyrics about drugs and guns, but having no problem with lewdness-- kind of a European sensibility, really. This is N.O. after all-- a city deep in culture and older than the U.S.A. itself.

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The Seabiscuits

Posted by Eric Brightwell, January 15, 2008 07:16pm | Post a Comment
It's award season, which can only mean one thing: It's time for the Amoeba's 5th annual Seabiscuits! Let me back up for a second. For those who have never worked at Amoeba, our jargon can sound (in my Mr. T voice) confusing, confounding and sometimes downright curious. As a customer, you may have found yourself being told by one of our helpful staff to "check the 'hat' adjacent to the 'blueline waterfall' while I go check 'Wally',"  leaving you scratching your buzzing noggin in psychedelic wonder. Well, one of those jargon words we use is "evergreen" which, somewhat counter-intuitively, refers to titles that will always be in demand (and not to titles that will only sell on "the Green Tag Island," where we exile bargain titles to.

When Seabiscuit came out on DVD, right before Christmas of 2003, there was an audible buzz (or "nicker," in horse language). It was released in widescreen and fullscreen, a sign of its broad appeal to both film-lovers and people who "don't like it when they cut the heads off with those black bars." Several films attached themselves like filmic remoras to Seabiscuit's celluloid whale shark, hoping to feed off of the crumbs of interest -- or maybe to be purchased by the confused and functionally illiterate. There was, as there often is, debate about whether or not the film would be an evergreen. It didn't prove to be ... But let's go merrily back in time to the early oughts, back to 2003. It was the year a second space shuttle blew up, SARS was discovered, Bush landed on a ship flying a banner reading "Mission Accomplished," the last vocho rolled off the assembly line in Mexico, Gary Ridgway (the Green River Killer) admitted to killing 48 women and Jacko was charged with being a chester (again). And in the dream factory the year of the Sheep proved, in fact, to be the year of the horse.

The Baltimore Sun's Michael Sragow wrote, insightfully, "Seabiscuit revives the sweeping pleasures of movies that address and respect the mass audience, raising the common denominator instead of pandering to it. This crowd-pleaser rouses honest and engulfing cheers."

The New York Post's Lou Lumenick waxed prophetically, "A thrilling, beautifully crafted, fact-based horse story that's not merely the summer's finest movie, but may well be the one to catch come Academy Awards time."

The Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington touted, over rising strings and brass, "A grand ride. Sleek, beautiful and packed with emotion, not too flashy but full of heart, this is a movie worthy of its unlikely yet glorious subject: Depression-era America's best-loved racehorse and the two races that made him a legend."

The Portland Oregonian's Shawn Levy echoed his anachronistic use of the word grand when he said, "This is grand, inspiring entertainment of a sort that Hollywood aspires to and rarely achieves. "

There were only a couple of dissenting votes in the Critics' Congress: party-pooper Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader, apparently crippled by cynicism wrote, "
Maybe the magic will work for those who loved the book, but I found this film stultifyingly self-important and, despite the regularity with which it cuts to the chase, weirdly static."
The Christian Science Monitor's David Sterritt cattily dismissed, "I found much of it as emotionally rigged as a crooked horse race. "

A couple years later, when Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro shattered a leg. The still-horse-loving world gasped and watched as the news gave daily updates on his condition. Of course, approximately 800 thoroughbreds die from racing-related accidents every year in the U.S. alone-- but they're not all champs, so who cares-- right? Barbaro was killed the next year, a martyr for the glamorous sport of horse racing.

Various horses making the ultimate sacrifice for our amusement

I never saw Seabiscuit. The previews made it look like a particularly hokey Hallmark Hall of Fame movie that you only have to suffer through if you're trying to justify paying for cable. But the Seabiscuits aren't about what movies I've seen and haven't. No-- they're a celebration of hype and hyperbole that makes people briefly go nuts over a movie (more often than not flaunting Oscars, plaudits and popularity) only to quietly retire to the bargain and clearance pastures a few months later, never again to arouse interest, lending to friends, or any possibility of viewings by those who didn't see the film during its brief, shining "moment."

Some highlights of past Seabiscuit Award Ceremonies...

In 2005, the Aviator earned five Academy Awards. A cottage industry of Howard Hughes-related documentaries popped up in its wake as a hungry public seemed insatiably starving for info on a guy obsessed with peas (what sane person isn't?), who built a plane that wouldn't fly and saved his urine in jars... sorry-- that's all I know about him.

I was wrong that year. I thought Crash, one of most-praised films (and the worst of the decade so far) was a sure thing, but it surprised me by remaining immensely popular thanks to an endless stream of concerned Europeans who for some reason think it's important to know what some deluded, preachy, contrived, laughable, paranoid, Westside fantasy imagines L.A. is like without even a hint of realism. The race ended up being a close one between the Aviator and Ray with the latter narrowly losing.

Last year, early Seabiscuit-watchers predicted The Da Vinci Code would win a Seabiscuit. It was from Ron Howard (who will get a lifetime achievement award if the Seabiscuit Academy has any sense). Everyone knows Beautiful Mind would've won a Seabiscuit if they'd been around back then. Anyway, we actually created a Da Vinci Code section at Amoeba for the innumerable documentaries released to cash in on the anticipation of hype expected to carry over from the inexplicably popular book. Interest exploded with anything having to do with secret societies like the Rosicrucians, Illuminati, Freemasons, Sororities and the Ramthan Cult (the people who defeated Atlantis and gave us What the Bleep Do We Know?) However, the movie arrived in theaters stillborn and generated, at best, indifferent shrugs from viewers who saw it and, at worst, indifferent shrugs that bordered on dislike.

This year, the special award, the Seabiscuit Tarzan Award, is being presented to Hollywood for giving us last year's Blood Diamond, Last King of Scotland, Catch a Fire, and the previous year's Constant Gardener. These insightful films from Hollywood showed us through the clear-sighted and compassionate blue eyes of Caucasians that morality on the Dark Continent is rarely... black and white. With lots of sweating and squinting performances from earnest, over-actors, viewers patted themselves on their collective back for caring about a continent which, despite not even having oil for us, gets people to wear GAP t-shirts showing their level of commitment and care. Well, not caring enough to bother watching a film actually made by Africans because, let's face it, they don't have any white celebrities now that Hollywood snagged Charlize Theron for our team.

The early buzz for next year's Seabiscuits is that the race for the special Seabiscuit Lawrence of Arabia award is going to be between In the Valley of Elah, Lamb For Lions, Rendition and Redacted. In these films, Hollywood reveals its courageous (though belated) enlistment in the War On the War On Terror in a way that makes understandable the mayhem in Mesopotamia for us simple-folk, by helpfully letting us peer into that scary, swarthy world with the clear-sighted, blue eyes of Caucasians actors.

So what DVD of 2008 will take home the Seabiscuit next year? My vote goes to Sweeney Todd. Defiantly loud, completely empty and bafflingly popular with both critics and audiences, it has a lot going for it. But it's not based on an Oprah-beloved book so it's hard to say.  I welcome your predictions! 

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