Why I enjoyed The Quiet American and why Michael Caine should win the Oscar for Best Actor.

“Scarlet’s Walk”, the superb new Tori Amos CD that (sorry, Kylie) I just can’t get out of my head as I continue to discover new things to love about it as I listen for the fortieth, fiftieth time…

How lost I would feel if I couldn’t listen to music at work.

The surprise of unexpectedly receiving a phone call from my best friend last night; I haven’t spoken to her on the phone in nearly two years.

How I’ve lived a bearable, peachy-keen life while studiously avoiding The Osbournes, American Idol, Joe Millionaire and the rest of wretched “reality” TV.

Bacon-Lettuce-Tomato-Avocado Sandwiches, and how they’re much better for you (and becoming slightly more addictive) than Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

How I can’t wait to make my very own mix CDs and write about them.

“Rain falls/Like Elvis tears/Oh, no/No sugar tonight/Out on the high street/Dim all the lights now/Bright-coloured tears…”

Not being able to imagine having a child, or owning a house, or even living with my current housemates beyond May.

Daydreaming, and how it gets you everywhere.


Meshes and Mirrors: In The Mirror of Maya Deren

If the terms “experimental film” or “avant garde cinema” send you running to a holiday weekend movie marathon on TNT or the USA Network, you probably won’t easily warm up to the work of Maya Deren. But, for those curious but hesitant to sample the genre, you could do worse than start with her. She only made a handful of short films between 1943 and her death in 1961. All are in black and white and without dialogue or synch-sound; most don’t have sound at all. The films, however, are decades ahead of their time, innovatively and enticingly exploring memory, movement, similarities between dream and waking states, and rearrangements of space and time. Her best, “Meshes of the Afternoon” and “At Land”, placed her at their centers, pioneering film psychodrama, a sort of fictional autobiography.

Deren herself was also inarguably a woman not of her time. She left an indelible impression in both her films and her life. Her unconventional beauty (short Russian émigré with long, unkempt curly hair) and outspoken demeanor make her a fitting and inevitable subject for a documentary. With “In The Mirror of Maya Deren”, director Martina Kudlacek has made a striking one, recounting Deren’s life and work with a creativity and ingenuity that its fascinatingly eccentric and strong-willed subject might have almost approved of. Kudlacek mixes interviews with Deren’s colleagues (ex-husband Alexander Hammid, fellow experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, archivist Jonas Mekas), actors who appeared in some her films, and modern film historians. Most of them illuminate various aspects of Deren’s life (Brakhage’s expressive account of her hurling a refrigerator across a room is a highlight). Still, a part of her remains as elusive as ever, especially the more intimate details of her relationship with Hammid, who contributed vitally to her early films.

The films themselves are as intriguing and puzzling as ever. Many of them are shown nearly in their entirety, and they’ve lost none of their power to seduce or stimulate. They haven’t been overplayed through the years, still waiting for many to discover them. There is also a welcoming abundance of rare voodoo ritual footage Deren shot in Haiti for a project that was never completed, and it’s fun to see the parallels between it and her completed films. What really lifts Kudlacek’s film beyond most documentaries is that same sense of wonder and exploration Deren always conveyed. Shots of archives packed with 8mm and 16mm film cans and reoccurring images of water (often a significant symbolic presence for Deren) and a young girl operating a hand-run projector are interspersed throughout. Working beautifully with John Zorn’s understated score, it all makes for an appropriately eloquent study of one of film’s most important and generally, little known female artists.


What's Yazoo Up To?

According to the liner notes of Yazoo’s first album, Upstairs At Eric’s (1982), 21-year-old vocalist Alison Moyet had “advertised in a local music paper for a ‘rootsy blues outfit’.” Naturally, ex-Depeche Mode keyboardist Vince Clarke responded.

As Yazoo (renamed Yaz in the US, as not to interfere with the legendary Blues/Gospel record label of the same name), Moyet and Clarke made a strange pair. Their compositions juxtaposed her classical, gorgeous, soul-drenched voice against his slender, modern, quirky synth-pop, resulting in a beguiling but oddly cheerful mix, almost like Ella Fitzgerald fronting Kraftwerk. They had a string of hits in the UK (“Only You”, “Situation”, “Don’t Go”), achieved cult status in the States, and abruptly broke up after their second album.

Two years later, Clarke formed another duo, Erasure, with male vocalist Andy Bell, while Moyet pursued a solo career. Initially, Bell sounded like little more than a male Moyet impersonator. Fortunately, his chemistry with Clarke soon became apparent, and the result was a sterling, ABBA-worthy run of bouncy, energetic hit UK singles, and they even cracked the top twenty in America on three occasions. What set Erasure apart from Yazoo was not only their tenacity (Clarke has stayed with Bell nine times as long as he did with Moyet) but also Bell’s over-the-top, openly gay persona. At the height of their popularity (1988-89), Bell admirably managed to be both a teen idol and an out pop star. Just listen to the lyrics of “Chains of Love” or “A Little Respect”, which has the immortal line, “What religion or reason, should a man decide to try and forsake his lover,” to comprehend how significant Erasure were for the time.

Although Moyet amassed more than a few big hits of her own in the UK, her impact was never nearly as great in the States, scoring just one top thirty hit (the incomparable “Invincible") in 1985. Her 1995 “Singles” compilation suggests a career that’s nothing to scoff at, displaying more artistic growth than Erasure ever achieved, even credibly covering Billie Holiday (“That Ole’ Devil Called Love”) and Roberta Flack (“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is nearly as sweet as the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly”). But she only made four (uneven) records in a decade. Then, after “Singles”, nothing at all.

After 1997’s lackluster “Cowboy”, Erasure was conspicuously absent from American music shelves as well. They took a long-needed break, and recorded “Loveboat”, an unfortunately titled but important release. They sounded revitalized and, for the first time in years, interesting. On “Loveboat” they enhanced their signature synth-soul with snatches of acoustic guitar, Phil Spector-ish orchestration, and detours into rave and hip-hop beats. Of course, it sank in the UK, and did not even receive a domestic release (their US label, Maverick, couldn’t hear any hits off it.)

So, Erasure has just had their first American release in six years (via Mute USA) and Moyet has just had her first release, period, in eight. Erasure’s “Other People’s Songs”, is exactly what the title says it is. In an interview conducted circa “Loveboat”, Bell enthusiastically talked about doing a solo covers album of 1950s/60s tunes, and the idea certainly piqued my enthusiasm. I’ve been dying to hear Bell work with someone other than Clarke, to hear his voice against real strings, a jazz quartet, or maybe even a traditional guitar-drums-bass arrangement. Comparisons to Moyet aside, he has a versatile voice, equally adept and startling at high and low registers, and it’s been getting stronger, deeper, and lovelier with each record.

Somewhere along the way, Clarke joined in the covers project. His presence both ruins and makes it barely tolerable. The main problem (indeed, with his whole career) is that he adds nothing new or refreshing to these songs but the same tired-sounding, twinkly, beepy, cheesy analog synths. It’s especially disappointing after the experimentation of “Loveboat”, and it makes uninspired, oft-covered choices like “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”, and “Video Killed The Radio Star” (even the Presidents of the United States of America did this one better!) sound pointless and lifeless. On the other hand, some of Clarke’s choices work, especially the more obscure, less obvious ones. Peter Gabriel’s catchy but ambiguous “Solsbury Hill” is given a spry, loopy makeover (and ends up sounding more like the band’s superb early hit ‘Victim of Love”). Better yet, Cockney Rebel’s “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” has a positively and (sadly, for this album) uncharacteristically giddy vocal from Bell. It’s the only track on “Other People’s Songs” that conveys the same abandon and glee the duo achieved on “Abba-Esque”, their superior 1992 EP of ABBA covers.

Moyet’s been in sort of a hibernation over the past eight years, so it seems fitting that her new record is called “Hometime”. Most of its songs center around the final, crumbling stages of a relationship, and its aftermath (though not necessarily in that order.) Some of the titles alone (“Yesterday’s Flame”, “Should I Feel That It’s Over”, “If You Don’t Come Back To Me”, “You Don’t Have To Go”) suggest heartbreak, turmoil and loss. Yet, unlike failed relationship records du jour such as Beck’s “Sea Change”, it’s strangely, beautifully uplifting. This is the sound of a woman sifting through memories, considerations, disappointments and misunderstandings. Although the devastation in Moyet’s still-thunderous voice is loud and clear, she sounds remarkably stronger than ever, devoid of pity or lethargy.

The music on “Hometime” was conceived and recorded with a collective of musicians called The Insects. They come off like an earthier, lusher Massive Attack, augmenting subtle electronics with strings and more guitars than Moyet has ever had on any of her recordings (apart from the Aretha Franklin-worthy “Solid Wood”, which closed out “Singles” and suggested a rich direction Moyet finally pursues here.) These songs have hooks that cunningly sneak up on you. Take “Say It”, where she gradually, delicately lays out each line (“Love... you... gave.../so com-plete/I want... you... back...”) until letting loose in the chorus, tumultuously repeating the song’s title a memorable seven times in succession. Or the rock-soul flavored “This Train I Ride”, where Moyet and her backup boys manage to sound as sweet as Dusty Springfield, gritty as Tina Turner, and as commanding of the rhythm as any disco diva you’d care to name.

“Hometime” is an amalgamation of what Moyet’s been working towards since “Upstairs At Eric's”. You hear not so much the ghost of Billie Holiday on the title track as her influence on Moyet, who takes inspiration from Lady Day’s phrasing but transforms it with her own sensibility. “Should I Feel That It’s Over” has a keen sense of dynamics, enveloping tragedy with a sense of discovery, made oddly warm by its guitars and strings arrangement. On “Ski”, her voice clicks with the electronics as gracefully as it ever did with Clarke. And “You Don’t Have To Go” is a stunning, gospel-flavored closer; Moyet’s fluent, urgent plead is absolutely startling in its immediacy, especially as it threatens to careen out of control against effectively building guitars, strings and Hammond organ.

Perhaps Erasure should look to the magnificent “Hometime” for inspiration when they record their next album. On this dazzling record, Moyet keeps all her strengths intact--there’s no mistaking this album as coming from anyone else--but refines her sound and approach so that the voice, lyrics and music all come together masterfully. Forget Jennifer Lopez; this woman is real.


Oscar Nomination Bitchfest: 10 Reactions

1. Chicago is the best of the five films vying for Best Picture, and it deserves its 13 nominations. Props to the academy for recognizing the film’s two greatest (if briefest) performances: Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly. Don’t mourn Richard Gere’s shutout; while tolerable, his tap-dancin’ lawyer was just OK.

2. How did Gangs of New York become the second most nominated film? Is it a spectacle too big to ignore? Payback for all the times Scorsese got snubbed for superior films? There’s a reason why Daniel Day-Lewis’ love-it-or-hate-it turn got the only acting nod.

3. Sadly, no directing nods for Todd Haynes and Peter Jackson, both of who deserved it more than Stephen Daldry or Scorsese. But Pedro Almodovar’s nod is the year’s most delightful surprise by far.

4. The least delightful surprise? Only two nominations for About Schmidt. No Best Dicture, no Best Director, not even a screenwriting nod.

5. If Spirited Away doesn’t triumph for Best Animated Film, I will spit on the first Disney logo I can find.

6. Deserving films sadly shut out: 25th Hour, 13 Conversations About One Thing, The Cat’s Meow, Punch Drunk Love (how could they ignore the cinematography?!), All Or Nothing, Monsoon Wedding, Secretary.

7. Deserving actors given the shaft: Alfred Molina (Frida), Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher or 8 Women), Hugh Grant (About A Boy), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary), Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert (all Far From Heaven), Toni Collette (exquisite in The Hours, and much, much better than Ed Harris). At least none of these omissions are as blasphemous as Steve Buscemi (for Ghost World in 2001), Michael Douglas (for Wonder Boys in 2000) or Bill Murray (for Rushmore in 1998).

8. Why only two nominees for makeup? Was the makeup in Lord of the Rings, Chicago, Gangs of New York, etc; not as worthy as Frida’s mustache?

9. Thank the academy for at least taking the high road and giving multiple nominations to The Pianist instead of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

10. The year’s best film, Y Tu Mama Tambien, received one nomination (for Best Original Screenplay). Hey, that’s better than none…


Confessions of A Dangerous Mind

I arrived at Loews' 19 Screen Boston Common Theater around 11:30 am only to find a throng of people standing nears the front doors. The theatre was closed due to a “power outage”. Theoretically, it seems inconceivable that such an affliction could strike a Cineplex, for Christ’s sake, but I guess it’s not impossible. Certainly more plausible than the block party for the Paradise dance club/strip bar in Cambridge whose mention in the newspaper turned out to be a “misprint” two years back.

So, I hopped the Green Line and headed over to Coolidge Corner to see “Confessions of A Dangerous Mind”, a film I’d been anticipating for months, if not years. The premise alone sold me—an adaptation of “The Gong Show” host Chuck Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography” where he claims, in between all of the game shows, he was a hit man for the CIA. Yes, that Chuck Barris, the man responsible for bringing us “The Dating Game”, the Popsicle Twins, and the Unknown Comic.

Such a wacky concept could have been a disaster on the order of “Death to Smoochy” or an underwhelming misfire like “Man On The Moon”. Instead, it’s an intelligent, irreverent, entertaining little Hollywood film that successfully captures the spirit of nothing less than prime early 70’s filmmaking. In his directorial debut, George Clooney shows how much he’s learned from Steven Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers (not to mention Scorsese, Altman, et al). He creates a canvas of Barris’ life that is as kitsch-filled as you’d expect and as graceful as you would never fathom. Charlie Kaufman’s script (arguably stronger, if not as conceptually brilliant as “Adaptation”) features shifting perspectives, interloping time periods, and interviews with actual celebrities such as Dick Clark, Jaye P. Morgan and “Gong Show” regular Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, all the while blurring fact and fiction (are the interviews scripted?) to create an enticing, dizzying collage.

I would love to see Sam Rockwell get an Oscar nomination for his role as Barris. He’s a chameleonic actor that many people have seen but probably not recognized by name up until this film. It’s an amazing performance that not only carries the film but also humanizes the man Jaye P. Morgan herself describes as both a nice guy and a prick. Rockwell is particularly effective as an aging Barris on the set of “The Gong Show”, his sarcasm and chutzpah vying with his guilt, frustration and despair as he presides over a cavalcade of bad taste. Clooney also excels playing Jim Byrd the stone-faced CIA Agent whom recruits Barris, and Drew Barrymore expertly navigates the difficult role of Penny, Barris’ girlfriend through the decades. Julia Roberts also figures in as a Natasha Badenov-esque spy (without the accent, thankfully), but she’s just a voluptuous femme fatale and nothing else.

The question of whether or not Barris actually lived such an outlandish double life reminds me a little but of “Ed Wood’s” conclusion, where Tim Burton proposes that Wood’s magnum opus, “Plan Nine From Outer Space”, had a romantically grand gala theatrical premiere. It probably didn’t happen. But if Barris is putting us on, he’s told us a great fabrication. You’ll either love it or hate it depending on how plausible you want a Chuck Barris biopic to be. Regardless, it’s an amusing, invitingly opulent, undeniably different film.


Resurrecting Kieslowski

I’ve spent the past few weeks watching “The Decalogue”, Krystzof Kieslowski’s ten episode late 80’s Polish television series, at the Brattle. I’ve seen all the installments except for the last two, which I need to rent. Each episode is structured around one of the Ten Commandments and consequences brought about when it is broken. It is all set in a massive, monolithic Warsaw apartment complex, but each episode stands on its own, and the narrative strands do not intertwine as they do in Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy.

I guess what’s most remarkable about “The Decalogue”, apart from the performances and the sheer ingenuity of some of the situations, is that Kieslowski never sermonizes. Each commandment brings about a set of complex, ethical and social issues that aren’t often answered easily. For instance, in “Thou Shall Not Kill”, a young man brutally and senselessly murders a taxi driver. He is then sentenced to death by hanging, and his “murder” is just as horrifying. But instead of supporting the old Christian “eye for an eye” ethic, Kieslowski draws parallels between the two acts of killing to an extent that we are left to question how we can possibly justify murder in some cases but not in others.

Before he died in 1996, Kieslowski was working on scripts for a three-part trilogy of films to be called “Heaven”, “Hell” and “Purgatory”. Only the first was completed, and now German director Tom Tywker has filmed it. Tywker is best known for “Run Lola Run”, a hyperkinetic whoosh of a movie, which combined MTV editing and pop frenzy with themes of chance, destiny, and fate. His follow-up, “The Princess and the Warrior”, further explored the same themes of “Lola”, but stretched them out at a much more subdued, muted, and occasionally turgid pace. It failed to find much of an audience, and although it was a little overlong, it showed Tywker striving for more substance to match his style.

“Heaven”, fortunately, is a more successful, extensive fusion of style and substance for Tywker, and it does Kieslowski’s script proud. Unfortunately, it too only captured a fraction of “Lola’s” audience; Miramax’s reluctance to widely distribute this film could have something to do with the fact that its main character is, uh, a bomber (we should be lucky this played theaters at all). The bomber is Phillipa (Cate Blanchett), a British teacher living in Naples. In the film’s mesmering first ten minutes, she places a bomb in the high-rise office of a man whom she feels is responsible for her husband’s death. Tragically, the bomb ends up in the hands of four innocent people, whom are killed instead. This all unravels with a calm, methodical, eerie tension worthy of Hitchcock and Polanski. Arrested and imprisoned, Phillipa will only testify in English, which requires the translating skills of Fillipo (Blanchett’s “The Gift” co-star Giovanni Ribisi), a young police officer.

Like “25th Hour”, “Heaven” is film about taking responsibility for one’s actions. When she finds out the bomb’s victims were not whom she intended, Phillipa is devastated and wants to atone for her sins. But Fillipo instantly falls in love with her and helps her plot her escape, making himself a fugitive. The motive behind Fillipo and Phillipa’s love is vague, even when a physical transformation visually strengthens the bond between the two. But, as its title suggests, “Heaven” is less concerned about the explicable and more about that which lies beyond and is unanswerable.

Before the bombing sequence, the film opens with a point of view shot of two pilots (not shown, only heard) flying a helicopter over a computerized landscape. It ends with one asking the other how high they can go. That question is a key to what “Heaven” is all about. After all, Kieslowski was just as concerned with faith (no matter how skeptically) as he was with fate. The scene subtly, beautifully anticipates “Heaven’s” open-ended, charmingly unexpected conclusion.