52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK EIGHT

Week 8: What A Day That Was
Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Talking Heads

Album: Stop Making Sense

1984

Sire Records


The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song.

They play it once again, play it all night long.

-“Heaven”


1984 was a good year for music. The Smiths recorded its album debut, Prince unleashed Purple Rain, Bruce made a splash with Born in the U.S.A., The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime was released, as was Zen Arcade from Hüsker Dü, and Let it Be by The Replacements, to name a few. Then there was the Stop Making Sense soundtrack.


One month before I was born, Jonathan Demme’s concert film, “Stop Making Sense” was released. Its soundtrack, released the same year, was one of a handful of records my parents so wisely schooled my sister and me with. It was played at home, in the car; through headphones and speakers, and eventually out of the shoddy mono speakers of my household’s vintage Sony Trinitron when I finally saw the actual film.


For the record, the Stop Making Sense soundtrack was my gateway to Talking Heads’ music and to the film. But really, one couldn’t ask for a better introduction.


What else can be said about Stop Making Sense that hasn’t already been written before. It’s one of the most beloved concert films and albums of all times. It captures the Heads in its prime, serving as a retrospective of sorts of the band’s musical evolution up to that point. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time, taken from one of the greatest films of all time.


Need one more bold statement? How about this: Talking Heads is the greatest American rock and roll band. Don’t you think?


Think about Heads’ transformation from stripped down, quirky new-wave punk outfit (as seen on ‘77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food) to the experimental, genre bending band it ceaselessly morphed into (from Fear of Music onwards). At only eight studio albums released, the band’s discography is concise, but one could say that the players said what they wanted to say, played what they wanted to play and then cleared the stage, ahead, ultimately paving the way for equally rewarding solo careers from each band member.


The music has influenced so many of its contemporaries and future acts, and “Stop Making Sense” the film changed the way filmmakers and viewers viewed the concert film genre–one will notice early on that the audience is hardly seen during the film and the stage is bare-boned, going against the flashy trends of bigger bands of the time.


David Byrne is one of rock’s true geniuses. An ambitious, almost mad visionary who has never slowed down in his quest to change how we experience music, which he’s long seen as platform best suited for all of the senses, not simply the ears.


Heads’ rhythm section is one of the great collaborations in music, with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (real-life married couple) bringing an almost mathematically calculated sense of timing to the band. The bass line in the band’s mega hit, “Once in a Lifetime” alone is one of the great moments in musical rhythm. One bass line, played in repetition like a metronome, but capable of bringing the groove.


Keyboardist and rhythm guitar player, Jerry Harrison, had already come out of the equally influential Modern Lovers outfit before joining Byrne and gang, adding the final essential piece to the band.


Production wiz, and possibly the only other musician at the time with the brains and visions to keep up with Byrne, Brian Eno, would later play a key role in the band’s progression. And the backing musicians on Stop Making Sense, most of them spawns from George Clinton’s funk factory, managed the remarkable feat of taking beloved songs and not only shedding brand new light on them but at times improving on them (the non-Heads track, “What a Day That Was,” originally drawn from an obscure Byrne solo effort, being the perfect example).


I currently have three copies of Stop Making Sense on CD: one “borrowed” early on from my parents, another expanded Special Edition version bought later, and yet another rescued from a garbage bin my college roommate had put together, the latter thus becoming a permanent fixture in my car’s glove compartment. I own its LP and have long dreamed of pulling off the film’s signature “Big Suit” for Halloween. The film is the one DVD I own which I watch on a monthly basis and it has traveled with me to Spain and here in Taiwan.


It’s hard to pick a favorite track on the album, or in Heads’ catalogue for that matter.


The aforementioned “What A Day That Was” is pretty terrific. But so is “Making Flippy Floppy,” “Heaven,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” and of course the album’s tried and true mission statement of an anthem, “Burning Down the House.” When Byrne shouts to the seen but not seen audience at the end of “Life During Wartime,” “Does anyone have any questions?” The answer is always an unanimous: no, no we don’t.


I remember not really understanding what Stop Making Sense was all about when I first heard the album. Having not seen the film yet and being only slightly familiar with Talking Heads, made the experience all the better. For me, like my introduction to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the music just sounded great and it pulled me in.


The African percussion was flawless, bringing on the dance grooves. The rhythm guitar was tight and polished, and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell’s sparingly executed synthesizer notes sounded futuristic in a surprisingly interesting way. As a budding drumming growing up, the tom-tom fills on “Burning Down the House” inspired many a table/chest drumming fits. Once I finally had a drum kit of my own I often reenacted these moments, much to the neighbors’ dismay.


Really, what else can be said about Stop Making Sense. I’ve listened to this album over a hundred times and it only improves with age. The world is a better place because of this film, this album and Talking Heads contribution to music. When you realize how much is going on within each song–the sonic complexities, nuances and how much of the attention to detail was undoubtedly calculated down to every individual note and beat–reverence is the only proper response. Rock/dance/funk/pop nirvana.


Does anyone have any questions?

Revisiting ‘Baraka’


DVD Review 2-Disc Special Edition of Baraka

Few films are able to truly show our world for what it is better than Ron Fricke’s Baraka. From its mesmerizing beauty to its often-troubling complexities, Baraka is a universal masterpiece of filmmaking. To this end the film is essential viewing for any and everyone even remotely interested in the bigger picture

To appreciate Baraka one must appreciate the complexities of the world we inhabit. One must be able to be in total awe of its splendors while being equally as disgusted in its horrors. The film is a testament to how beautiful and how horrific this planet and those who inhabit can be and furthermore how despite our many differences people share the same common thread of being human.

The word ‘Baraka’ has various meanings and is a staple in a handful of global languages. Ron Fricke has often spoken of its Arabic and ancient Sufi roots, roughly translated to “the thread that weaves life together.” The daily grind of life–both at a natural pure level and man-made–is the film’s focus. The globetrotting editing, the fast time-lapse photography and the film’s depictions of humans as tiny parts of a vastly bigger whole offer viewers a glimpse at how immense but also how united this planet is. When it’s all said and done life is what ties this world together.

Shot over the course of 14 months at 152 locations of 24 countries, on six major continents, Baraka is also a traveler’s dream project–a hypnotic trek of the planet and its many cultures told simply through the marriage of motion pictures and music. From a cinematographer’s standpoint Baraka may be one of the finest photographed films ever made, revolutionizing preexisting large format motion picture technologies (the film was shot in the 65mm Todd AO format then transferred to 70mm print stock, resulting in extreme widescreen shots originally used for epic films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s).

Baraka was released in 1992 and has since then fallen into the depths of cult film status–unfortunate considering the film’s timelessness and international appeal for viewers. Its relevance today is marked by its recent re-release on DVD and Blu-Ray hi-def format, a technological feat that makes the film even more impressive than its past home video incarnations. For the first time ever the film was scanned at 8K resolution, a revolutionary digital transfer process designed solely for Baraka, which may end up becoming the standard for future hi-definition film releases. The scan, which supposedly took three weeks to complete (a post scan detailed digital restoration would take even more time), presents Baraka in the way the filmmakers intended–with an all-encompassing widescreen presentation and with just the right amount of color and image rejuvenation.

As for the hi-def format of the film (which, sadly this writer has not yet been able to experience) if ever there was a reason to invest in Blu-Ray–clearly the future of home video entertainment–Baraka is it. Supposedly the level of detail and vibrant color saturation makes the eye candy images of the Planet Earth hi-def series look like child’s play. But enough with the technology focused DVD marketing.

Much like watching a sunset Baraka has the ability to put the viewer in a trance the minute the film begins. It is also a film that resonates long after its initial viewing with those who have seen it rarely experiencing the film only once.

Opening with sweeping shots of the planet’s highest points at the Himalaya mountain ranges the film is then taken down to earth as we glimpse into the daily routine of the rare Japanese snow monkeys living in the moment. The camera closes in on the sole creature enjoying the nearby natural hot spring, simply being; living in a Zen like state. From the epic ceiling of the planet to the simplest of its inhabitants, before the film’s title shot in front of a perfect lunar eclipse, one gets the notion that Baraka is going to be a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience.

It should be noted that the film’s editing is as impressive as the photography with Fricke and team sporadically transporting the viewer all around the globe from frame to frame. Baraka does not feature any dialogue nor is it rooted with a traditional storyline. Besides the beautifully scored music the only natural sounds heard are those of certain tribal songs and the ambient sounds of nature. What’s striking about Baraka is despite the film’s non-traditional structure and flow a central narrative somehow emerges.

One moment we’re viewing a primitive aboriginal tribe perform a funeral ritual, ten minutes later we’re taken to modern day Tokyo, a bustling, densely populated metropolis world’s apart from the aforementioned primordial setting. Later as the camera surveys some of the planets most visually breathtaking sites–Western U.S. rock formations, Brazil/Argentina’s Iguazu waterfalls, the mount Bromo volcano range in Indonesia–the viewer is then transported to mankind’s uglier side.

The slums of Rio de Janeiro and the endless garbage dumps in Calcutta, India serve as reminders of the chaos that somehow balances out the harmony. From flourishing life in a remote Kenyan tribe where villagers dress in vibrant garments to the bleak realities of Cambodia’s killing fields, Baraka doesn’t shy from highlighting our planet’s lightest and darkest moments. 

Baraka carries a spiritual message as well and could be perceived as a bit preachy at times. Still, nitpicking aside, it’s hard to deny the film’s central messages. Being one with nature seen through the Tibetan monks in prayer, the hypnotizing dance of the Dervishes, or the elderly Japanese peering out at a seamlessly perfect rock garden is key to understanding the film. Throughout Baraka there are plenty of moments showing the planet’s chaos–from the densely populated streets of pedestrians and toy like cars, to the shots inside endless factories and sweatshops–and also its grandeur. Watching the film it’s easy to get blown away by just how immense life and this is very much its intention.


Film has always been a universal medium still there are very few films that should be essential viewing for all.
Baraka without a doubt fits the criteria as a must see film. Its scope reaches for beyond simple nature documentaries (while similar in terms of photographical achievement Baraka is far more important and ambitious than BBC’s epic Planet Earth miniseries) and somehow manages to be more impressive than its sister films, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy–comprised of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi–of which Ron Fricke first made his presence known as cinematographer for Koyaanisqatsi.

The recent DVD release of Baraka should have received more attention and praise than has been bestowed (apart from its notoriety among cineastes alike, Baraka’s foray into the Blu-Ray market should spark the interest of any and all people in the retail industry interested in selling this new technology) but alas its release was overlooked. Besides its crystal clear picture (which one would assume is even more stunning in hi-def), lush color saturation and digital soundtrack remixing (an entire essay could be written in praise of composer Michael Stern’s score for the film in conjunction with Lisa Gerrard, of Dead Can Dance and the Gladiator soundtrack), the two-disc special edition of the film features a fascinating behind the scenes making-of documentary. Chronicling the film’s extensive shooting schedule (which followed the lunar full moon cycle so as to ensure night shots were well lit) the mini-featurette provides fascinating insights into how Fricke and his crew selected and attained rights to film at the various sights. Interesting tidbits regarding the homemade camera equipment and time lapse system are also worth noting.

For those who have seen the film now is as good a time as ever for its revisit. For those who have yet to experience Baraka the film exceeds any and all written praise for its power lies in its ability to suck the viewer in.

It might be wishful thinking to hope that the new DVD release might also prompt the film’s return to theaters (a transfer to IMAX, a medium that Fricke worked with for his second feature film Chronos, would also be welcomed) but if ever there was a film to be seen on the big screen this is it.

It should also be noted that Fricke has supposedly been filming an unofficial sequel to Baraka called Samsara, which, according to a press release from the filmmakers at http://www.spiritofbaraka.com/samsara-press.aspx, will be released sometime in 2009. The film will continue Baraka’s tradition of spiritual undertones this time focusing its attention on the cycles of life on the planet. According to reports the filming has taken Fricke and his team to over 20 different countries and the film has been shot in a new 70mm HD format that subsequently “will be the ultimate showpiece for both the HD format and high-resolution digital projection, as well as standard film projection.”

Baraka is not a conventional Hollywood film and will not be the first film to jump off the shelf at your local video store still its an important piece of art transcends all prior conceptions of what films should be. The film has the almost mystical ability to draw you in unlike any movie-going experience before and after its release. While some may find its unconventional format distracting, it’s safe to say that those who experience it gain a new outlook on life and a newfound intrigue towards this planet’s cultural diversity.

 

 

 

 

A Worthy Redux?

Film Review: Ashes of Time Redux

ImageOne of the most highly anticipated films to premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Ashes of Time Redux, a forgotten Chinese swordplay epic from the great Wong Kar-Wai or Kar Wai Wong (so as not to offend those privy to the correct Chinese system of naming the filmmaker will simply be referred to as Wai in this piece). For fans of this international filmmaking giant the release of this fairly unseen early picture, restored and granted a big screen re-release, was reason enough to seek out the film. Unfortunately the film presents a bit of a dilemma for viewers and those familiar with Wai’s other works due in large part to an inconsistent storyline. 

A film “redux” is really nothing more than a fancy word for Director’s Cut. The literal translation means “to return to,” and in the case of Wai, to return to an early film that supposedly the director was never fully happy with upon its initial release.Ashes of Time is an important film, but not necessarily a great film and its recent redux may be nothing more than a wishful attempt to resurrect a doomed film. It excels in style and visual appeal but lacks when it comes to its almost incoherent plot. Is it a love story? Is it a tale of revenge? Is it a failed mix of both?  

Released in 1994, Ashes was Wai’s first truly epic film. It was also released six years prior to Ang Lee’s international sensation Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film that truly brought Chinese wuxia style filmmaking–a highly choreographed mix of martial arts and melodrama that has since become its own subgenre in Hollywood–to a global stage. It’s hard to say if Ashes had any influence on Ang Lee’s masterpiece (one could argue that both filmmakers were bringing a longstanding Chinese cinematic tradition, dating back to the dawn of celluloid, to the modern playing field with their respective films) but both films clearly set out to accomplish the same feat: pay homage to Chinese folklore and martial arts, while also telling a compelling love triangle drama. Unfortunately Ashes main flaw is its desire to appease all these goals when it should have just been a flashy swordplay film. 

As Wai proved later on with his series of masterful existential dramas, the filmmaker is more apt to melodrama and human emotion than action. This is not to say that Ashes does not feature some stunning fight scenes (one involving a female sword master practicing against her own reflection on a pond stands out as one of the film’s finer moments), which it does, however, when the film attempts to deal with the human psyche Wai unfortunately loses the viewer. To make up for this though, Wai succeeds with painting a truly visually stunning backdrop for his actors to inhabit with the vast Chinese mountains and deserts never looking so beautiful and at times surreal.

Herein lies the dilemma with Ashes of Time and really, any of Wai’s earlier works. His unique color palette and use of natural light has the ability to wisp you away from caring about the plot holes or nonsensical dialogue. When the film’s final credits begin to role, however, the absence of central meaning or storyline returns to the subconscious.  
Wai’s films are an experience for the eyes and Ashes is no exception making the cleaned up and digitally restored Redux version that much more appealing on the big screen.

ImageMuch of Wai’s visual appeal can be attributed to his long-time Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle who remains one of the most respected in his field–a sought after individual who besides helming the camera for the majority of Wai’s films has also worked with the likes of Gus Van Sant, the great Philip Noyce, M. Night Shyamalan, and Zhang Yimou’s wuxia masterpiece Hero (his work on DJ Shadow’s video for the song “Six Days” is also worth noting). The lush exterior shots are heavily saturated with the sand of the desert dunes appearing as the purist yellow one could imagine and the interior shots mixed with well-choreographed shadow play. 

The film also features a number of well-established players in modern Chinese and Hong Kong cinema including the great Tony Leung Chiu Wai as a blind swordsman (his scenes are some of the film’s best possibly paying homage to early Japanese Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman cinematic lore). Also present is the great Maggie Cheung who would later shine in Wai’s In the Mood For Love and its unofficial sequel 2046. Cheung’s performance in Ashes as a past lover living in the desert is worthy of mention despite being hindered by the choppy plot. 

Ashes of Time Redux is supposedly a slightly shorter version of the original film, a bit rare for director’s cuts that typically add rather than subtract from the films (see Apocalypse Now Redux, Terrence Malick’s recent Director’s Cut of The New World, and Cinema Paradiso: The New Version). The original film has long been hard to find on DVD with many versions being horribly transferred copies from substandard video releases. The original film stock was also supposedly in dire need of restoration, which might also have been the reason for the redux. 

Wong Kar-Wai is an important contemporary filmmaker and no matter how his earlier works compare to his more masterful current repertoire, they are still key chapters in his career as a filmmaker. Dogged down by a rather confusing storyline the ideal way to view Ashes of Time is as if you were looking into a kaleidoscope. You may not understand exactly what you’re seeing but the result is dazzling to the eyes. For those interested in this style the film’s to seek out are 1994s Chungking Express (ironically filmed as a way to get away from the tedious task of editing Ashes and released before in the same year), his masterpiece In the Mood For Love, and 2046. For die-hard fans of Wai Ashes is essential viewing and its Redux is best viewed on the big screen.

“Ashes of Time” is currently receiving a limited theatrical release. It is playing nightly at Chicago’s Music Box Theater through Thanksgiving. It will eventually be treated to a DVD release, ideally featuring both versions of the film for comparison. 

Returning to the Lost Highway


ImageThe late author and culture commentator David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The absence of point or recognizable agenda in David Lynch’s films lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t.” “Lost Highway,” Lynch’s seventh feature film, does just this and resonates in your subconscious long after the first viewing.


This is the grand trick of David Lynch. While disguised as motion pictures, Lynch’s films are more an exercise of the inner psyche than anything else–a film going experience rather than merely just an entertaining piece of cinema.

Trying to classify the films of David Lynch is one of those futile exercises that is undoubtedly part of the reason his works are so polarizing for filmgoers. Neo-noir is a term that has been thrown around when discussing Lynch–an appropriate tag for a handful of his films, mainly Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, but still just the icing on the cake when looking at his canon more closely. Many have applauded Lynch as a master of suspense–a modern day Hitchcock who can make the most unassuming scenes or situations frightening through the masterfully crafted use of sound, lighting, and camera trickery.

To say however that Lynch makes horror films, in the traditional sense of the medium, is like pinning Tarantino down to one sole genre. Lynch has always drawn from a number of influences molding them into a truly one of a kind final product. Lost Highwaymay be Lynch’s closest attempt at true horror but in end is yet another genre bending, mind-blowing experience that tugs at your emotions and senses long after the first viewing.

For the record I have seen Lost Highway at least five times. It’s not because it is a masterpiece, or that I’m some kind of Lynch fanatic (although admittedly I have always garnered a child like fascination for the director’s work) it’s because like all great filmsLost Highway keeps you guessing and pondering long after each viewing. Trying to make sense of a Lynch film is often as pointless as trying to get to the soul of a Pollack painting–it’s best to just let the work suck you into its world.

Like many of Lynch’s works Highway fails to follow the linear formula of the average movie. The first half plays out like a creepy home invasion thriller. Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette play a married couple confronted with a terrifying scenario after finding videotapes on their doorstep every morning featuring footage of their home’s interior and of them asleep in bed (the mere thought of this premise sends shivers down the spine). Both are typical inhabitants of the Lynchian world. He being a jealous, rage filled soul, she being of the sexy femme fatale type.

After Lynch introduces the menacing Mystery Man, a simple but horrifying pale-faced Robert Blake sans eyebrows, the film takes a sharp turn in terms of storyline (a good Lynch film will always have at least one WTF moment that turns the film’s flow upside down, and Lost Highway does this with flying colors at the film’s halfway point).

ImageThe second half of the film follows a completely new character played by Balthazar Getty, a promising young actor during the mid 90s who has since disappeared. Getty’s Pete character may or may not be the reincarnation or alter ego of Pullman’s Fred character, this tasty tidbit is just part of what one must chew on long after the first viewing. The film’s final act is also familiar Lynch territory showing the dark underbelly of society, in this case modern day Los Angeles, a world inhabited by mob bosses, pornography director’s who may or may not also dabble in snuff, and yet another tempting femme fatale, this time with Arquette re-imagined as a blonde.

The allure of Lost Highway is the difficult task of interpreting everything that Lynch throws at the viewer during the film’s two-hour plus run time. Released after the media frenzy of the OJ Simpson trial, many people believe Highway to be a reflection of lust-fueled murder, and escaping the consequences. Some look at it as a more basic example of marital woes including jealous and how these dark emotions will ultimately swallow your soul (the looming mystery man character seems to be a representation of the dark side of the human psyche). Finally careful viewers of Lynch films might view Lost Highway as the surreal nightmare world imagined (and/or lived) by a sinful man.

Lynch has always been interested in the idea of escapism, dream worlds, and then the idea that all surrealism is rooted to a harsh reality. Mulholland Drive was a surreal allegory for the pitfalls of the Hollywood dream and the seedy underbelly of L.A.’s bourgeois society. Blue Velvet and later the masterful Twin Peaks television series showed the evil of small town America, erasing all cliché misconceptions about suburbia and the blue-collar proletariat. Lost Highway is, at its core, about what Lynch views is the modern marriage–filled with jealousy, lust, a lack of communication and trust between spouses and ultimately the wrath that unfolds. Along the way Lynch takes the viewer on a mind-bending roller coaster.

“Lost Highway” is often overlooked amidst the auteur’s more renowned films but it remains one of his most puzzling and definitely his creepiest. While not a horror movie Lost Highway is one of the most suspenseful films out there, creating an uneasy feeling that lasts throughout the film and long after the viewing. Much of this can be attributed to Lynch’s use of light and shadow and the film’s eerie soundtrack-a blend of Angelo Badalamenti’s creepy sonic ballads and 90s industrial rock.

Lost Highway was recently given a formal U.S. DVD after years of being restricted solely to international DVDs and older videotape copies. While one could go fork over ten bucks to see Saw V or any other predictable horror film inhabiting theaters and televisions this Halloween, a trip down Lynch’s Lost Highway will tug at your emotions like no film before it and possibly well into the future, until of course we get the next Lynch experience. The film is not for everyone and requires more focus than what the average popcorn moviegoer might expect but the payoff is worth it and like all great pieces of art (and Lynch has always been an art house auteur) the film keeps you guessing long after the closing credits.

Top Ten Underrated Thrillers

(Article written for starpulse.com in time for Halloween)

Horror movies are some of the most consistent pieces of the film industry. Sure there have been highs and lows in the genre, and resurgences have come and gone, but one thing remains true: people will always yearn for those cinematic chills.

The demand, however big it may be, is always constant. The golden age of cinema through the 60s brought on big studio monster movies, sly noir thrillers, and of course, Hitchcockian suspense (a subgenre, respectively). The 1970s, arguably the paramount epoch of cinema, period, saw the expansion of the genre and gave filmgoers some of the best nail biters out there.

The creation of VHS and movie rental houses triggered a massive wave of low-budget, schlock video nasties from across the globe during the 1980s and helped spawn the current highly exploitative, gross-out horror phase that horror movies are stuck in now. Then there were the 90s, dominated by a fairly lame return to teen slasher films-the Party of Five horror heyday.

Some say the new millennium has been a breath of fresh air for the genre with an overall rise in popularity of no holds barred gore fests (Saw, uh hum, V opens soon) and a surge of film curiosities coming from East Asia, aka. the “fear the black haired ghost chick with eerie feline larynx” genre. It could be said that the horror of today is more focused on shock than on scares. Still, over the years (despite a saturated market of genre films) there have been a fair share of gems that managed to break through to stand the test of time.

The following is a run down of some of the most underrated thrillers out there. Some have a large niche following, others have gone under the radar for too long, but all are worthy of checking out this Halloween season.

Lost Highway – David Lynch, 1997
Lost Highway
Trying to classify the films of David Lynch is one of those futile exercises that is part of the reason his work is so polarizing for filmgoers. Lynch does not make horror films in the traditional sense of the genre but he is a master of crafting horrifying scenes and psychologically disturbing stories. “Lost Highway” is often overlooked amidst the auteur’s more renowned films but it remains one of his creepiest. Much of this can be attributed to Robert Blake’s bone chilling portrayal of the Mystery Man-a pale-faced spook with shaved eyebrows and a knack for videotaping people while they sleep. Add this to an eerie soundtrack-a blend of Angelo Baldamenti’s creepy sonic ballads and 90s industrial rock-and menacing cinematography and you get what is not so much a horror movie but rather a surreal, nightmarish, and mind bending viewing experience. The late author and culture commentator David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The absence of point or recognizable agenda in David Lynch’s films lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t.” “Lost Highway” does just this and resonates in your subconscious long after the first viewing.”

Suspiria – Dario Argento, 1977
Suspiria
Dario Argento has always been an atmospheric weaver of gruesome films, which are drenched with stylized cinematic technique. From a storytelling point of view his films are full of plot holes, laughable dialogue and the kind of low-brow over dubbing that was the norm of so many 70s genre flicks. “Suspiria” is no exception. It is, however, one of the most frightening films for the senses. Already an established giallo or crime genre filmmaker, “Suspiria” was Argento’s first foray into the supernatural, blending classic ghost story themes with eye piercing gore. Thanks to a driving score from Euro prog-rockers Goblin and a visionary color and shadow palette, “Suspiria” manages to make some of the most unassuming moments truly hair-raising. A blind man walks a dog in an empty plaza, the protagonist is awoken to a spine chilling wheezing sound, even the creepy Bavarian dance school where the film is set carries the kind of unsettling gothic feel to arise suspicion during the daylight scenes. A possible remake is in talks with indie filmmaker David Gordon Green at the helm, but nothing will ever come close to capturing the brutal suspense of Suspiria.

Jacob’s Ladder – Adrian Lyne, 1990
Jacob's Ladder
Lyne is often painted as an erotic thriller filmmaker thanks to films like Fatal Attraction andUnfaithful but his true masterpiece is this little psychological thriller. Tim Robbins (in one of his best performances) plays a Vietnam Vet who is forced to deal with some inner demons, literally, and uncover some haunting discoveries about his past. The film deals with paranoia, the use of mind altering drugs, the collapse of the human psyche and true-life conspiracy theories regarding government experiments on American GIs in Vietnam. Going more into the plot might spoil the movie, which is best viewed fresh but it should be noted that one of many horrific dream sequences set in a hellish hospital ward remains one of the most frightening sequences on celluloid.

The Fly – David Cronenberg, 1986
The Fly
To be fair Cronenberg’s gross-out remake of a mediocre, late-50s Vincent Price sci-fi vehicle is widely considered to be one of the best monster films of time. Those who view it as just that are missing Cronenberg’s true raison d’etre. The film is an allegory for themes of madness, romantic jealousy, the pitfalls of modern science, the deterioration of the human anatomy (flesh has long been one of Cronenberg’s many twisted fascinations) and even abortion and fear of childbirth (as seen through a truly horrifying larvae labor sequence). Then again it also lives up to its clichéd monster movie tagline of, “be afraid, be very afraid.” An operatic stage re-imagining of the film is in the works but there is no replacing Cronenberg’s grotesque but strangely poetic vision of modern day horror.

The Descent – Neil Marshall, 2005
The Descent
Amidst a slew of procedural teen slasher flicks, remakes of Asian ghost stories, and countless torture porn gore fests there are a handful of modern day horror films that have joined the ranks of some of the staple horror classics. “The Descent” is one of these recent examples. Tagged as the ultimate spelunking nightmare film, “The Descent” is a one of a kind terrifying experience that taps into that exhilarating emotion of fear-fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of tight spaces, fear of heights, etc. Sure the film features subterranean Gollum like monsters brutally terrorizing a group of fearless cave explorers, but the real horror comes in the films claustrophobic moments (an homage to Alien) as the characters descend deeper into the crevices of the unknown. By the time the monster element to the story arrives halfway into the film the viewer is already exhausted from the nail biting climbing sequences and that mounting sense of unavoidable doom that the protagonists are soon to face. See also Marshall’s premiere outing, Dog Soldiers, a smart little werewolf flick shot in Scottish forests.

Wait Until Dark – Terrence Young, 1966
Wait Until DarkOne might not consider the oh-so-dainty Audrey Hepburn as being a horror movie icon but witnessing her shear brilliance in Wait Until Dark changes on all common misconceptions. Adapted to film (the original text was a play) during the grand old days of simply told tales of suspense, Dark is horrifying account of trust, loneliness and overcoming a physical disadvantage during harsh times. Hepburn stars as the blind tenant of a dimly lit basement apartment who is drawn into a home invasion scheme perpetrated by a gang of drug smugglers trying to track down some lost goods. The storyline is not without its flaws but the film is all about moments of intense shock, often shot in the dark. When the film was released theater patrons around the country killed the house lights during crucial moments of terror on screen as a neat little gimmick to enhance the experience. While not as grisly as the horror of today, this is film is an essential viewing for Hitchcock enthusiasts and those who like jumping out of their seats.

Repulsion – Roman Polanski, 1965
RepulsionPolanski is generally credited for Rosemary’s Baby, an essential in the genre, respectively but two of his lesser known works, 1976s The Tenant and “Repulsion,” remain his unspoken masterpieces. Repulsion is, above all, a disturbing look at psychological trauma induced by sexual angst. The film was the first in what has now been coined Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” (“Baby” and The Tenant completed the run) due to its characters trip to madness in a confined space. “Repulsion’s” Carol (played by a very young Catherine Deneuve) is trapped inside a surreal world of paranoia, ill thoughts of her sister’s sexual habits and some external threats from male visitors. A scene involving a dark hallway with hands suddenly reaching out through the walls, boxing our protagonist in, is one of the film’s many unexpected scares.

Session 9 – Brad Anderson, 2001
Session 9Director Brad Anderson may be one of the most underappreciated thriller filmmakers working today. His most recent film, Transsiberian, is a sly “fear of travel” picture set largely on a confined Soviet train en route from China to Moscow and 2004s The Machinist (featuring one ofChristian Bale’s finest performances to date) was the type of twisty psychological thriller that someone like M. Night Shyamalan wishes he was still making. Session 9 remains one of the best modern ghost stories that actually avoids the supernatural. Set inside an extremely creepy and perfectly chosen mental hospital this film is dripping with atmospheric frights. The camera follows a group of asbestos removers as they roam the abandoned wards and discover secrets from the hospital’s twisted past, while also uncovering their own personal mysteries. Anderson is all about building a feasible story (in this case one part Poltergeist one part Blair Witch) and then destroying all preconceptions towards the climax. The scenes filmed at night (in that nauseating handheld camerawork style) are certain to draw unease no matter how well seasoned you are at scary movies.

The Begotten – E. Elias Merhige, 1991
The BegottenArguably the most obscure films on this list, “The Begotten” is a visually horrifying but fascinating piece of the avant-garde that is, dare I say, biblical horror. God, Mother Earth, mortal man, and evil humanoids make up the dialogue-free story, which plays out as a twisted end of days scenario with the self-induced death of God opening the film. If you thought the deadly videotape featured in The Ring was creepy, “The Begotten” may or may not be for you. From a filmmaking standpoint E. Elias Merhige’s film is one of those cinematic achievements that is both dazzling and disturbing. To this day there is nothing that even remotely matches the film’s lasting effects. Shot in grainy black and white and then painstakingly altered and deconstructed during editing (Merhige has said that each minute of the film took ten hours of alteration to create the signature, almost primitive look), “The Begotten” is a mystery of a film with unforgettable nightmarish imagery. Merhige would eventually follow his masterpiece up with the interesting but overly preachy Shadow of a Vampire and the disappointing psychological serial killer vehicle Suspect Zero.Marilyn Manson enthusiasts will see much of “The Begotten” in the equally creepy music video for the song “Cryptorchid,” which Merhige helmed.

Them – David Moreau, 2006
While the international horror scene is currently favoring all films coming out of the “Extreme Asian” movement of Japan, Hong Kong and S. Korea (a subgenre which has grown rather tired thanks to recycled themes and Americanized remakes), some of the truly best thrillers are being made by the French. Them (or Ils in its native tongue) is the ultimate home invasion thriller. Set deep in the woods of Romania (always an effective setting for horror) the film involves a French couple being plagued by a group of hooded evildoers who raid the large farm house and make lots of goose bump inducing noises along the way. The focus on silence interrupted by man made sounds (party noisemakers never sounded freakier) is part of this film’s charm not to mention the director’s knack for crafting quick, jump out of the shadow scares. Clocking in at a surprisingly appropriate 77-minutes, this film benefits from edge of your seat tension that erupts in the film’s opening and carries through to the end.


Spotlight on the Coen Brothers

(Article originally written for Starpulse.com just in time for the release of “Burn After Reading”)

Many things come to mind when thinking about the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Dark witty humor, highly stylized production and costume designs, reoccurring actors, clever and often poetic dialogue, and above all some of the best character names in celluloid history.

Just look back at some of the brothers’ most memorable characters: The Snoat brothers in Raising Arizona, Bernie Bernbaum and Eddie Dane in Miller’s Crossing, Lou Breeze in Barton Fink, Norville Barnes in The Hudsucker Proxy, the Swedish-Americans Marge Gunderson and Jerome Lundegaard in Fargo, Jackie Treehorn and Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski (and let’s not forget video artist Knox Harrington), Delmar, Pete & Ulysses in O Brother, Where Art Thou, Bid Dave Brewster and Creighton Tolliver in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Garth Pancake in The Ladykillers and, well, you get the idea.

Burn After ReadingIt may seem a bit odd to dwell on something as miniscule as name choices for major characters but then again part of the charm of the Brothers Coen has always been their relentless focus on detail, however miniscule it might be.

Today marks the release of the Coen Brothers 13th feature film to date and their first follow-up to last year’s Oscar winning film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. In honor of the release ofBurn After Reading, yet another genre bending, screwball comedy starring a slew of Coen regulars (George Clooney & Frances McDormand) and exciting newcomers (John Malkovich any one!) it seems only fitting to take a film by film look back at the Coen’s evolution to the seasoned filmmakers we know today.

The Early Pictures:

Blood SimpleAll great filmmakers get their start somewhere and some efforts play out better than others. The Coens jumped onto the scene with 1984s Blood Simple, a brilliant thriller set deep in the sleazy haunts of a small Texas town. Fresh out of film school for Joel and Princeton’s undergraduate Philosophy program for Ethan, Blood Simple was made on the cheap but hardly lacked in quality. Featuring one hell of a complicated plot, full of countless juicy twists and turns, Simple is a slick crime piece with elements of noir and subtle helpings of the Coen’s signature dark sense of humor, seen mainly through M. Emmet Walsh’s scene stealing performance as a sleazy private eye. Besides showing that the Coens could do a lot on a small budget (a mindset they continue to follow even as their notoriety rises) Blood Simple showcased these young filmmaker’s fascination with early genre flicks from the dawn of the celluloid.

Proving that the brothers weren’t keen on being typecast they released the quirky, sometimes surreal comedy Raising Arizona to varying critical acclaim. Those expecting another Blood Simple instead got a fantasy about a half-witted stick-up criminal H.I. McDunnough (played wonderfully by Nicolas Cage, still one of his most memorable performances) and his policewoman wife (a sharp-tongued Holly Hunter) who decide to kidnap a newborn infant (one of the “Arizona Quints”) as there own. Arizona is one of those experiences best seen rather than summarized in print. The film was the Coen’s first official foray into straight slapstick territory, a beloved genre they would eventual revisit again in various forms.

International Critical Acclaim:

Millers CrossingBarton FinkTo kickoff the 90s the Coens released their first pair of masterpieces, which are widely considered to be the Brothers’ finest to date. Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink are worlds apart in terms of storyline and genre-Crossing being an epic prohibition era noir gangster picture and Fink, a mysterious and odd character study of a blocked theater writer working in a hellish, profit driven Hollywood circa WWII. But the two films are linked for their underlying social messages, scene stealing performances by John Turturro, perfectly scored soundtracks from Coen regular Carter Burwell, and the Coen’s finest screenplays to date. Crossing’s opening monologue about ethics in an unethical world by Italian crime head Johnny Caspar (the wonderful Jon Polito) or Barton Fink’s plea for the theater of the proletariat are examples of the kind of clever banter the Coens are now famous for. Totally convincing arguments from sympathetic albeit ridiculous characters is a theme carried over through all of the Coen’s post Crossing films.

Millers Crossing and Barton Fink were both well-received by critics and fans (although box office figures still sagged) and Fink even took the Brothers to Cannes Film Festival where they snagged not only the top Palme d’Or, but also Best Director and Best Actor, an industry first sweep of the top prizes that to this day has yet to be upset. Finally as a straight up gangster film Miller Crossing benefits from having one of the best, finely choreographed Tommy gun firefights of any modern day gangster film, set behind Irish tenor Frank Paterson’s gripping rendition of the traditional “Danny Boy.”

The recent wave of universal acclaim paved the way for The Hudsucker Proxy, a grand Frank Capra/Preston Sturges-eque Hollywood epic comedy, which was also the Coen’s first big budget effort (a whopping $25 million). Hudsucker is often perceived as the Coens first bomb although the film is terribly underappreciated for what it is-a beautifully filmed ode to the everyman fantasy comedies of the 1940s. All the elements are there: Extravagant set pieces of New York City, lighting fast dialogue (delivered best by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Amy Archer character), quirky and surreal moments (for example the menacing Blue Letter scenario) and a nod and grin to the simple consumer products of the time (“you know, for kids”).

Cult Status Coens:

FargoIt seems that every time the Coens come even remotely close to some level of failure their follow-up is a brilliant return to form, 1996sFargo being their first. This is arguably the Coen’s timeless classic, a nearly flawless film that will only improve with age. On the surface it’s a brilliantly told tale about why crime doesn’t pay, at its core though, its so much more. The film is as much a character piece as it is a run of the mill thriller. From the doomed nitwit Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) to Steve Buscemi’s career turning performance as “kind of funning looking” small-time crook Carl Showalter, Fargo showcases the Coen’s fascination with sympathetic anti-heroes. Too much has been said about the film’s use of the “Minnesota Nice” dialogue and frigid backdrop, a crucial element of Fargo that does not poke fun at Minnesotans but rather pays homage (after all the Coens are natives of the Gopher State). Fargo put the Coen Brothers back at the top and granted them complete control over future projects, mainly their next one the odd but now immaculate cult favorite, The Big Lebowski.

Lebowski is arguably the Brothers’ most fascinating success story. Following on the heel of Fargo this should have been a huge success but was instead panned by critics, was a flop at the box office and didn’t really find its audience until its run on video where it is now a cult phenomenon (there’s even an annual Lebowski Fest for hardcore fans). Most people hip to popular culture are familiar with the bizarre adventures of “The Dude”, and even if you haven’t actually seen the film, chances are you can draw from memory at least one of its many quotes and catch-phrases.

A New Millennium Decline:

O Brother, Where Art Thou?The Coens started the new millennium with a bang. O Brother, Where Art Thou remains their biggest and most successful film to date (TBS/TNT syndication alone is proof enough). This loose adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey set in depression era middle America was a return to the screwball comedy of Hudsucker and Raising Arizona, while also serving as a time capsule for all the juicy details of life during the 1930s. From the countless tins of Dapper Dan hair pomade to Clooney’s Ulysses getting banned from the Woolworth, O Brother is one of the Coen’s true period pieces, despite its fictional backbone.

2001s The Man Who Wasn’t There is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted (Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Shalhoub shine) film that unfortunately lacks a truly convincing or memorable storyline. Masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins, who took the reins from Barry Sonnenfeld after Miller’s Crossing, soaks the film in noir black and white standards. Pillows of cigarette smoke, characters draped with shadows, and carefully crafted 50s era set pieces make this one of the Coen’s most visually stunning films to watch but its uninspired script (for Coen standards mind you) keeps the film from being one to revisit time after time.

Then came the super mainstream. Despite star studded casts and memorable moments Intolerable Cruelty andThe Ladykillers remain the Coen’s most unsuccessful projects, not financially but artistically. Many link the problems plaguing the films to the fact that both were co-written from preexisting scripts (The Ladykillersbeing the Coen’s first film remake originally slated for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct), thus not quite an original Coen vision. It can also be noted that unlike past Coen films that were set in the near or distant past, these two efforts were the most currently set.

Intolerable Cruelty was undoubtedly influenced Sturges style situational comedies brought to a modern stage. Clooney’s tackles the role of Miles Massey, an overly zealous divorce attorney and forger of an immaculate prenuptial agreement, with conviction, and Catherine Zeta-Jones delivers as the gold digging thorn in his foot. Overall the film feels like nothing more than a showcase for some more firecracker dialogue, void of a truly memorable story. While people will still be quoting from Lebowski and Arizona for years to come, the chances of said timeless happening to Cruelty is slim.

Ladykillers too many visions packed into what should have been a simple comedy remake. Tom Hanks is funny as the quirky southern gentleman G.H. Dorr, Ph. D, but his over the top performance is distracting at times, never truly meshing with the supporting players. The film’s inclusion of church music seems like an attempt to do for gospel what O Brother did for Americana folk and bluegrass, but again breaks the films flow. FinallyMarlon Wayans, a talented actor when he wants to be (see Requiem For a Dream) turns in a performance fueled solely by in-your-face slang dialogue and predictable, unnecessary curse words that only hinder what could have been an excusable failed experiment.

Oscar Glory:

No Country For Old MenLike they did with Fargo after the misunderstood and less-reveredHudsucker Proxy, the Coen Brothers followed their two comedic outings with a mesmerizing, cold-blooded crime thriller with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’sNo Country for Old Men. Fans of McCarthy were wide-eyed with glee when it was announced that the Coens would helm this project because it was the perfect fit.

The film was in many ways a return to form of their gritty masterpieces like Fargo and Blood Simple-part thrilling chase genre flick (the closest they’ve ever gotten to strict action) and part philosophical meandering on the ruthless capabilities of man. By adding an extremely subtle level of dark humor to the story (the original novel was as serious a story as they come) the Coens showed a newfound knack for adapting novels, in this case improving on the preexisting text (McCarthy fans find the book to be one of the author’s minor works).

It’s hard to say where Burn After Reading will fall in the Coen’s gamut. From the trailers it appears to be a crime comedy with some larger than life characters to add to the long list of Coen Brothers’ favorites. The return of Frances McDormand is exciting for fans as is the casting choice of John Malkovich, a well-seasoned actor who is ripe for a Coen part. What is known about the Coens of today is that they pretty much have free reign to try their hands at any type of film idea they can conjure up. With many more prime years of cinematic exploration and maturation ahead of them, it’ll be interesting to see where the Coen Brothers fall in the history of motion pictures.

David Gordon Green’s Curious Evolution

Before the recent release of Pineapple Express few people knew the name David Gordon Green. The director of the recent Seth Rogen buddy-stoner-action-comedy has been a hopeful indie director for the past decade or so ever since his coming of age film George Washington blew critics away back in 2000. Since then Green gained notoriety and was able to secure his promising filmmaker credentials for Washington’s follow-ups. All the Real Girls featured the wonderful Zooey Deschanel and Patricia Clarkson in a sexual coming of age story of naïve love, the intense murder drama Undertow featured a surprisingly well-rounded performance from Dermot Mulroney and last year’s haunting but powerful Snow Angels showed Kate Beckinsdale’s hidden, or should we say, underused acting chops.

It seems like a big jump to go from low-budget indie dramas set in rural America (Green was raised in the deep south) to a high octane comedy about a wicked strain of marijuana but Green, with the help of scribes Rogan and producer Judd Apatow, otherwise known as the current team funny, managed to deliver. Now with a breakout summer blockbuster behind him rumors are Green is set to go down remake road with an upcoming revision of Dario Argento’s Italian horror masterpiece Suspiria with Natalie Portman in talks to star.
To be fair, internet rumors are never as accurate or secure as they are sound. According to imdb.com a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 stylized horror classic has been in the works for the past three years with little else known but that. In the wake of the Hollywood butchering of other genre classics like Michael Bay’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Rob Zombies Halloween, studio execs see horror remakes as an easy payday.
Makes sense, right? Give the film a small but efficient budget, cast some up and coming darlings to scream their heads off, use some gritty cinematography and stock up on the fake blood. This easy enough formula works for the slasher films of past (an upcoming Friday the 13th is already slated for a Friday the 13th, 2009 release) but a European gem like Suspiria is an entirely different kind of undertaking.
For starters the film is 100% European. From the eerie but almost beautiful sets (a one of a kind Bavarian ballet school that makes The Shining’s Overlook Hotel look passé), brilliant score from Italian rock band Goblin, and poorly dubbed voice over track, every piece of the film has European pulse. Sure for some it’s a corny time capsule of 70s horror films but for others it’s a slick and quite frankly a frightening masterpiece.
Purists believe a film classic like this should never be touched. Others are in the mindset that if it’s going to fall victim to remake torture than who better than a well respected filmmaker like Green.
While Green may not seem like the obvious choice to don a horror remake, most said the same about his helming of Pineapple Express, which despite some flaws was a very funny movie. To be fair the filmmaker is still a rising figure and while his past films could be classified in the real-life, family turmoil drama category (if one such sub-genre exists) he’s done his share of suspense, most notably with Undertow and Snow Angels. It’s Green’s inexperience that is also the most intriguing aspect of this production rumor.
In an interview with MTV last March, Green commented that although he agrees he’s not everyone’s obvious choice to direct a film like Suspiria, he’s been a fan of the film and Argento for quite some time and has already written a script. Green follows this up by discussing the allure of the project:
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“It’s an opportunity to take all artistic excellence and be inspired by what was a low budget Italian 70’s gore movie,” he said. “Where the art world meets the violent and supernatural. I would love to get every geek that loves torture porn and every old lady in line to see ‘Phantom of the Opera’ to come and have this insane experience.”
 
The original Suspiria, like so many genre flicks of the 70s, was hardly a perfect movie. For starters most of Dario Argento’s films of the time had plot holes or plots that made little if any sense. The use of various foreign actors whose dialogue was eventually dubbed in post-production was also one of its biggest distractions (although some might tell you it’s part of the Euro-filmmaking charm). While the set design and lighting has now become Suspiria’s most unique quality, it too had its flaws due to budget limitations. What this all means is that the remake could succeed if Green modulates the issues at hand to a more modern tone while also filming with a conscious respect for the original.
 
The creepy soundtrack by the Italian progressive rock band Goblin is another of Suspiria’s biggest draws as it plays an equally important role in the film as the actors and production design. Its combination of eerie keyboard riffs and wild tribal drumming combined with the band’s stirring screams and mumbles make it one of the finest, albeit chilling scores of all time. Will a new original score be developed? Would Green seek out Goblin for a 21st century version of the music?
 
The other curious side to this news is the potential casting of Natalie Portman in the lead as the American ballet student in a foreign land, Suzy Bannion. Portman is an actress who has taken some chances on project choices over the years. Getting her start in a overly stylized assassin action flick (The Professional) by French master Luc Besson and later signing on for V for Vendetta shows Portman’s willingness to try different genres and also makes this casting choice yet another intriguing part of projects growth. The original Suzy Bannion, also played by an American actress (Jessica Harper), starred alongside an almost entirely international cast of unknowns. This same formula of using unfamiliar actors could also work in the remakes advantage.
 
It’s very cool to watch a young, up-and-coming filmmaker like David Gordon Green evolve before our eyes. It took him a bit to get into the Hollywood spotlight (and for good reason since he first had to establish his indie credentials) but now that he’s arrived I know many are curious about what he’ll do next.
 
The Green helmed Suspiria remake could still be nothing more than a talked up piece of internet gossip (to be fair Portman’s publicist has not confirmed anything yet and Green is only talking about the potential of him directing). Still it’s exciting nevertheless and only time we’ll tell whether for once a genre remake such as this could be executed with love and care.