Wednesday, December 30, 2009

First Heard in December 2009 - "God is not impressed by what you do"


I have been listening to the same music since college, so I devised a little project that will spur me to actively pursue new jams. Each month, I will post a mix of the best songs that I heard for the first time within those 30 or so days. Won't you follow me on this journey? Thrill to the futuresounds? Mock me for being late to the party?

VOL 6.:

Wow. I've been doing this project for six months. One half of one year. That means I've been in New York for half a year. As with most of life's milestones, the feeling of accomplishment is quickly replaced by a chilling reminder of Death's inevitable embrace. It's the holiday season, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and include two of the hottest bangers from the DOOM mixtape Unexpected Guests. Why? Because Dumile is the best MC currently alive. More December highlights: Salem's "Cold Shower" brings to mind some unholy union between Supertramp and Cat Stevens, only it's incredible and not terrible like that description. Karen O managed to stop bugging me this month, and El Perro del Mar delighted me with her alternate universe Tusk B-side. CMJ buzz band Sleigh Bells captures the things that I liked about the Moldy Peaches and filters out the bullshit. Sunset Rubdown turns in a rousing millennial indie-rock song suite, and the cutest couple award goes to Bon Iver and St. Vincent for their stellar contribution to the laughably unworthy New Moon soundtrack. Anyway, for now I think I'll let this project die with '09, unless anyone passionately objects. In 2010, I resolve to move on to some other project. I'm thinking of a movie podcast that is not unstructured geek mumbling. I also resolve to take an active interest in myself as a real human being and not cripple myself with self-loathing and fear of failure. Or I'll at least try to exchange my self-loathing for the fake kind that masks arrogance and attracts women.


001 Animal Collective - I Think I Can
002 The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Tenure Itch
003 Salem - Cold Shower
004 J Dilla and Doom - Sniper Elite
005 Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM
006 Foreign Born - Early Warnings
007 Sunset Rubdown - Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!
008 Baby Bird - Goodnight
009 Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Hysteric
010 School of Language - Rockist Part 1
011 Babu and Doom - The Unexpected (feat. Sean Price)
012 The Mary Onettes - The Companion
013 Young Man - Playtime
014 El Perro del Mar - Change of Heart
015 Sleigh Bells - Infinity Guitars
016 Air - Sing Sang Sung
017 Bon Iver and St. Vincent - Rosyln
018 Bobby Fuller Four - Let Her Dance


I haven’t had a whole lot of time to contribute to our blog lately (as in, since my hopeful but naive review of Jeph Loeb’s “Hulk” #1 way back in February 2008). There are a variety of reasons for this, but my most recent excuse probably has a lot to do with the little addition we made to my family on October 1st. Typing with just the one hand is annoying and often unfruitful, but I’ll do my best here and try to clue you in on what got me excited in 2009. Here goes!

Top 5 Comics of 2009 (in no particular order):

[These are the series that make me, a full-grown adult with all sorts of responsibilities, want to keep reading and collecting comic books.]

1. “Northlanders” by Brian Wood & Leandro Fernandez [Vertigo/DC Comics]

This is a Viking comic, but not like you’d probably think. Specific to the current “The Plague Widow” arc that began in “Northlanders” #21, the currently ongoing story involves a woman in a trading village that has closed itself off from society due to the Black Death. This is a character-driven book, and really, we’ve yet to see any axe-swinging barbarians with horned helmets at all. Leandro Fernandez is an artist who, it seems, has really come into his own with this series. He's really been nailing these issues, especially his facial expressions and the snow-filled, desolate backgrounds. Generally speaking, each story in this series is completely unrelated, and they can be read in any order you’d like, but I’d start from the beginning if I were you. I can’t recommend this series any higher.

2. “Stumptown” by Greg Rucka & Matthew Southworth [Oni Press]

Okay, sure; only one issue has come out so far, but it absolutely knocked my socks off. This first issue takes place in reverse order, as we see a crime happen, and then trace it back through a day in the life of private investigator Dex Parios, who happens to have a knack for trouble and a not-so-insignificant gambling problem. Everything about this comic screams quality, from the thick paper stock to the gorgeous art to the cover design. Rucka promises about 8 issues a year of this, and they can’t come out too soon. They announced this book in 2007, and I’ve been waiting on the edge of my seat ever since. It didn’t disappoint.

3. “Criminal” by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips [Icon/Marvel Comics]

A lot has been written over the past few years about this comic, so it’s hard to do anything but simply add to the applause. It’s a crime comic, but from a different angle than “Stumptown.” Brubaker and Phillips spin a bunch of interrelated yarns about thugs and ne’er-do-wells in the pits of society. And again, this is a series that you can pretty much pick up any story arc and enjoy it as it is. However, you’ll get the most pleasure from simply starting from the beginning and seeing how each character arc feeds off of each other, both literally and figuratively. Such an excellent book.

4. “Sweet Tooth” by Jeff Lemire [Vertigo/DC Comics]

“Sweet Tooth” is a unique book in that it’s the result of the singular vision of writer/artist Lemire. I was initially attracted by the premise: a deer-antlered boy named Gus makes his way through a post-apocalyptic wasteland to a potential sanctuary for animal hybrids like himself. Again, we’re still early in the series, only three or four issues in, and I really have no idea what’s going to happen. What a great ride it’s been thus far, though, and I’m looking forward to a nice, long read with a beginning, middle and end. Lemire recently stated that the story will be between 30 and 40 issues long, and there's something about serial comics that have a planned end that is really attractive to me. I’ve also recently read Lemire’s other major works, “The Nobody” and “Essex County,” and both are equally enjoyable. They're similar in tone, but quite different in subject matter. All are worth checking out, at the very least.

5. “The Unwritten” by Mike Carey & Peter Gross [Vertigo/DC Comics]

This is another creator-owned book that takes the literary milieu of, say, “Harry Potter” and expands it to all of literature. Put simply, “The Unwritten” is about the son of the author of a “Harry Potter”-like novel series who shares his name with the protagonist of the books, who finds out that he may or may not be a product of fiction himself. There’s a lot going on in this book that I don’t quite understand yet regarding fiction and its relationship to and interaction with nonfictional reality, but it’s clear that the creators have a plan, and they’ve got me hooked.


- New Avengers & Dark Avengers (Bendis/Immonen & Bendis/Deodato)

- Spider-Woman (Bendis/Maleev)

- PunisherMAX (Aaron/Dillon)

- Scalped (Aaron/Guera)

- Secret Warriors (Hickman/Caselli/Vitti)


Top 5 Albums of 2009 (in no particular order):

[I can’t stop bumping these albums, no matter how hard I try.]

1. “Veckatimest” – Grizzly Bear

So very different from their previous album, “Yellow House,” but indisputably by the same band. I guess they decided one day that it was okay to rock out a bit on their new album. Not only that, but “Veckatimest” features some of the most gorgeous songs I’ve ever heard, and I’ll have this album on repeat for some time to come. I knew it was a classic pretty much from the moment I heard "Two Weeks."

2. “The Century of Self” – … And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead

Like just about everyone else, I was immensely disappointed by Trail of Dead’s “So Divided” in 2006. (Really, what were they thinking?) So, I was trying to stay optimistic, but not really expecting a whole lot when I heard that they were coming out with a new album this year. And wow, they definitely came through with an album that was a return to epic, rocking form. It’s not quite the classic that “Source Tags & Codes” was way back in 2002, but it’s a comeback album in almost every possible category. If you’ve never heard Trail of Dead, I’d check out “Source Tags” first, but don’t sleep on this one, either.

3. “Blood Bank EP” – Bon Iver

My favorite "lonely guy with a guitar" discovery of 2008 put out this brief EP in 2009, and I’ve probably listened to it as much as the full-length. Each one of these four songs is more beautiful and haunting than the next, culminating in the acapella/autotune experiment of “Woods,” which I nominate for my song of the year. Also, if you can manage to pick up what Justin Vernon's putting down on this one, you should definitely check out his Volcano Choir - "Unmap" project where he really lets loose, creatively speaking.

4. “Octahedron” – The Mars Volta

I really wasn’t sure what to make of this album at first, except for the fact that I didn't really like it. It’s Mars Volta’s first experiment with more-or-less traditional song structure, leaving behind much of the guitar noodling and excess of the past few albums. I’ll be honest; like I mentioned, after the first few spins, I wasn’t too impressed. However, it didn’t take too long after those initial listens to fall in love with this release. The “rock” is there on the album, it just takes a little while to get there. Possibly their best, and most mature release. I’m very interested to see where they go from here. Also of interest: El Grupo Nuevo De Omar Rodriguez-Lopez - "Cryptomnesia", where he teamed up with some friends from Mars Volta and Hella to make a really interesting album, and from whose studio sessions I am excited to report there are apparently enough for at least two more releases to come as well.

5. “Curse Your Branches” – David Bazan

You may or may not have heard of the band Pedro The Lion. David Bazan used to front that band, but personnel/personal conflicts resulted in him heading off on his own path, somewhat ironically in that it was in an effort to save his friendships with the other member(s) of the band. So, this is Bazan’s first full-length solo release, and it’s a confessional doozy, mainly focusing on his faith – or, really, the fairly recent lack thereof. Even though I listen to music all the time, David Bazan is more or less, for better or for worse, the only artist that I really dig into his lyrics, which are thought-provoking and sublime. I guess if I wanted to, I could complain that the music on this album tends towards the safer end of things. I prefer the indie-rock sound of his other releases. But that said, it's really only a minor problem compared with the wonderful complexity and gentle nuance of this album.


- “Embryonic” – The Flaming Lips

- “Born Like This” – DOOM

- “Actor” – St. Vincent

- "Manners" - Passion Pit

- “OK Bear” – Jeremy Enigk

- “Beat Konducta Vol 5-6” – Madlib

- “Oh No vs. Now-Again” – Oh No


Top 5 Movies (in no particular order):

[I probably saw less movies this year, in the theater or otherwise, than any other year of my adult life. So, I kind of kept to the safe choices, viewing-wise. But what choices they were! You probably know what the posters for these movies look like, so I'll save you the bandwidth.]

1. “Star Trek” (dir. J.J. Abrams)

This movie was dangerous for me in that it threatened to reawaken the slumbering “Star Trek” fan in me. I haven’t really watched any of that particular brand of sci-fi since I went to college in 1995. However, once I saw it the first time, then couldn’t stop thinking about it, then even bought the official tie-in cereal and had a huge bowl of it before going to a second, Saturday afternoon showing. This movie is the real deal, and probably the best time I had in a theater all year.

2. “Inglourious Basterds” (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

However, “Inglourious Basterds” was probably the best movie I saw all year. While it was nothing like the movie I thought I was heading to the theater to see, upon reflection it’s really a piece of cinema art. "Kill Bill" may have a special place in my heart, but I suspect that this is Tarantino's true masterpiece, at least thus far in his career. While I would absolutely love to get another movie specifically about the Basterds scalping Nazis undercover in WWII Germany, (as Quentin has hinted is a possibility,) this film exceeded my expectations in almost every way, especially once I threw my original ones out the window.

3. “District 9” (dir. Neill Blomkamp)

I’ve described this as “a videogame movie, except it’s really good.” Of course, it’s more than that, and works on a couple different levels. It’s no secret that “District 9” started out its development as a “Halo” pitch, but it’s completely its own animal, with surprising depth of characters and story. There are great prospects, story-wise, for either a prequel (“District 8”?) or a sequel (“District 10”?) and you can count me in for either. I really need to watch this one again.

4. “Moon” (dir. Duncan Jones)

"Moon" is a beautiful, quiet, 70’s-style film about loneliness and fatigue while mining on the Moon. Sam Rockwell, basically performing a virtuoso solo act here, really makes watching this film a pleasure. But really, the thing that I loved the most about this film wasn’t even so much his performance as the revelation about a certain robotic intelligence that goes against our prevailing sci-fi tropes. I also loved that actual models were used for the special effects scenes instead of huge amounts of CGI, and that director Duncan Jones apparently has more movies in this vein up his sleeve.

5. “Watchmen” (dir. Zack Snyder)

This might be a controversial choice for some, but I really didn’t have a whole lot to complain about with the movie version of “Watchmen.” I hadn’t read the comic series in a while, so I was riveted for the entire movie, only remembering the final twist at the last minute. I recently purchased the “Ultimate Cut” of this movie with the “Tales of the Black Freighter” cartoon edited into the film, so all I need now is three-plus hours of consecutive free time to check it out – hopefully sooner than later.


[Movies I wanted to see, but did not, that should probably be somewhere on the above list.]

- “The Road”

- “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”

- “The Hurt Locker”

- “Where The Wild Things Are” (UPDATE: Saw it on 12/26!)

- “The Box” (perhaps out of morbid curiosity?)

... I guess I’ll just have to catch them on Blu-Ray at some point.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Film Gauge - Top 10 Movies of 2009

Year-end lists are unreliable, subjective, kind of pointless. They are not an exact science, but are rather governed by the momentary whims and fleeting fancies of their makers. Of course this is true. And it is no more true than in the case of movies. No list could purport to outline the "best" movies of the year, because who could agree on the criteria? Going by the numbers, Transformers 2: The Squeakquel is the best movie of the year. I don't know about you, but that hurts my feelings. Now, I'm not one to bash populist entertainment. The phrase "popcorn movie" is not a pejorative, in my opinion. But who says a movie has to be an artless, brainless mess in order to appeal to a mass audience? Where is this generation's Raiders of the Lost Ark? Is it all up to JJ Abrams now? Star Trek was an incredibly fun, satisfying and guilt-free spectacle. It accomplished the impossible task of making me interested in Star Trek mythology, and it is most likely the consensus favorite here at Lowbrow Media. It is for this reason that I have left it off of my list, so that I could highlight some other, less-heralded movies. Ultimately, I decided to try not to overthink things. This list is made up of the movies that surprised me the most this year, the movies that evoked the strongest emotional reaction. I regret not being able to include Where The Wild Things Are, a highly-anticipated movie that fell just short of the mark for me. I believe Jonze and Eggers were perhaps too committed to getting inside the head of a 7-year-old, at the expense of giving the audience a sufficient emotional foothold. The wordless coda between Catherine Keener and Max Records is admittedly wonderful. I wanted more of that. I also wanted Richard Kelly's The Box to follow through on Southland Tales' promise of utter insanity. It came close, but not close enough. I'm still not sure if he is a genuinely idiosyncratic filmmaker, or if he is just using cult film Mad Libs. Anyway, here's my list. Have fun with it, and please disagree.


Top 10 Movies of 2009

10) Observe and Report (Jody Hill, 2009)

Coming as it did on the heels of Seth Rogen's two-year block of ubiquity, Observe and Report suffered from the public's fatigue for the film's leading man (not to mention its proximity to Paul Blart). Moreover, Rogen's playing against affable-stoner-type as a fascistic, bipolar thug (and implied murderer) didn't score highly with the Knocked Up fans who came expecting the good-natured raunchiness of Judd Apatow. The movie is dark, but not "dark" like the cartoonishly profane Bad Santa. Writer-director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way, HBO's Eastbound and Down) grounds his over-the-top narrative in the realities of our trash culture, giving the comedy weight and avoiding empty provocation. Nodding to the simmering racial tensions and voracious consumerism of modern life, Hill makes the film's gradual validation of Rogen's post-millennial Travis Bickle that much more disturbing. Oh, yeah, the movie is also funny.

09) Big Fan (Robert D. Siegel, 2009)

Filmmaker and former Onion editor Robert D. Siegel is quickly establishing himself as something of a De Sica for our new, crumbling America. In his directorial debut, Big Fan, as well as in his script for Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, Siegel nails the stifling drabness of life on a low economic rung. However, where The Wrestler found an oddly life-affirming uplift in the crushing sadness of Randy "The Ram" Robinson's return to the ring, Big Fan sustains a dreadful air of inevitable collapse in its exploration of the deeply disturbed Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt). Oswalt's bravura performance embodies the misplaced priorities of our aggressively self-destructive age, and Siegel's observant, unobtrusive style builds to a stomach-churning intensity as we witness Paul preparing to commit a desperate, horrific act in the name of his team.

08) The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)

Much has been made of The House of the Devil's stylistic homage to late 70s-early 80s horror films, from the foreboding synth score and freeze-frame title card to the grainy cinematography. But Ti West's film is not an ironic, Planet Terror-esque wallow in the surface-level milieu of retro schlock. The House of the Devil is a return to a deliberate, assured method of horror filmmaking that simply no longer exists in the Saw era. Gore aficionados will most likely complain that nothing much happens, but West lulls us into his drowsy rhythms so that the shocks have infinitely more weight than any bullshit millennial slasher movie. He builds unbearable tension just by observing our heroine, Sam (the delightful Jocelin Donahue), as she bops around the house with her walkman. Never has The Fixx's "One Thing Leads To Another" caused so much anxiety.

07) Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)

Wes Anderson's reputation as this decade's king of the auteurists has soured somewhat over his previous two efforts, The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In these movies, his once-lauded wide angle compositions and intricate production design seemed to be threatening to snuff out his considerable heart. So who could have guessed that Anderson would find renewed vitality and surprising emotional depth in a format that would seem only to exacerbate his control-freak tendencies? Despite the odds, the stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox is a pleasant surprise on many levels, both as a rebirth for Anderson and as an antidote to the pervasive crassness of "family films." Leaving behind his Salinger-esque fascination with the gloomy idle rich, Anderson recaptures the underdog spirit of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore while creating his characteristically beautiful and textured dioramas. As the titular Mr. Fox, George Clooney proves once again that even when speaking through a puppet, he is the last of the great movie stars.

06) Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009)

Freed from the 20-ton weight of the Spiderman franchise, Sam Raimi produced hands-down the most purely fun moviegoing experience of 2009 in Drag Me to Hell. Essentially of a piece with the Evil Dead series, Drag Me to Hell continues Raimi's house style of horror with visible quotation marks. It's not scary, nor is it meant to be. It is self-conscious filmmaking at its finest, a celebration of making a movie. Drag Me to Hell achieves a delirious, near-hysterical tone and pace from the first scene and doesn't let up until it reaches the fire and brimstone conclusion the title promises. The highlight is a violent, disgusting, hilarious and seemingly unending fight in a parking garage between the wonderfully game Alison Lohman and Lorna Raver.

05) Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009)

As The Velvet Underground's "Here She Comes Now" plays over the opening montage of twinkling amusement park lights, Adventureland quickly establishes a strong sense of time and place. Building on the potent mix of laughs and messy, intruding adulthood present in Superbad (the best of the Apatow bromances), director Greg Mottola nails both the dull pain and instant nostalgia of post-collegiate wheel-spinning. Essentially a feature-length flinch before the plunge into adulthood, Adventureland is steeped in the contradictory feelings of superiority and longing that one feels as they start to outgrow their childhood home. Jesse Eisenberg proved himself maddeningly adept at portraying a shithead in Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, so his sympathetic lead performance here is a pleasant surprise. Outside of a regrettable attempt to catch McLovin in a bottle in the form of dick-ish sidekick Frigo, the casting is uniformly excellent. Ryan Reynolds escapes the nauseating smugness of his Van Wilder persona, Kristen Stewart transcends her Twilight blankness, and Martin Starr does his best work since Freaks and Geeks as a wonderful smart-ass on a heartbreaking trajectory. I saw this movie in the months leading up to my move to New York, as I was preparing to say goodbye to my beloved hometown of Pittsburgh. Kennywood, the Pittsburgh amusement park that served as a set for the Adventureland crew is a vaunted childhood landmark. Timing is everything.

04) A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)

The Coens are often accused of regarding their characters with disdain, of whiling away their career running a procession of pathetic rubes and dimwits dispassionately through the wringer. A Serious Man, the brothers' God's-eye view of a suburban Physics professor's existential unraveling would seem at a glance to affirm these criticisms, but the film is unexpectedly humane and resonant as a result of its grand themes and Michael Stuhlbarg's nuanced performance. A Serious Man is a distinctly Coen brothers film, but one marked by a continuing maturation in their work first seen in No Country For Old Men. Doing away with the usual crime plots that tend to serve as their go-to narrative spine, the Coens filter modern anxieties through the prism of religious allegories and folklore, reducing humankind's fundamental search for meaning into a dead end. Sounds frustrating. It is, but in the best, most devastating way possible.

03) Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)

In the grand triptych of allegorical sci-fi films released this year, with Avatar on the far end of the on-the-nose social message spectrum and District 9 not knowing quite where to go after its stellar first act, Duncan Jones' Moon wins the day. Boasting a remarkable dual performance from Sam Rockwell, the film couches a sly commentary on working class identity and self-worth in the face of corporate indifference into an engrossing Twilight Zone concept. Jones is so assured in his direction that he all but throws away the big twist, which is easily discernible from the trailers. The real power of Moon lies in the nagging ideas that the twist dredges up, and Rockwell's gradual realization of the truth surrounding his three-year mission is utterly absorbing. Like The House of the Devil, Moon harkens back to a golden age of genre filmmaking. Jones' utilization of miniatures and spare, grubby sets creates an evocative, lived-in atmosphere that can't be achieved with CGI. Points also for Clint Mansell's haunting score.

02) Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

Whether writing about botched robberies, philosophical hitmen, drug-running flight attendants or revenging assassins, Quentin Tarantino is always first and foremost writing about movies. His storytelling and filmmaking calls attention to itself, which tends to rankle purists. To some tastes, his referential preoccupation with filmic technique comes at the expense of relatable human characters. But Tarantino deals in archetypes, and with Inglourious Basterds he makes the ultimate case for painting with broad strokes. Using the title card "Once Upon A Time in Nazi-Occupied France" as a mission statement, Tarantino utilizes the iconography of WWII films to make a grand statement about how storytelling helps us to understand and transcend our own ugly natures. I'll throw some more praise at Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent's feet, two standouts in an extremely strong cast. Just try not to get too hung up on Mike Meyers' appearance as an English General.

01) In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009)

Profanity connoisseurs, a robust Cabernet of obscenity awaits you in the form of In The Loop, British comedy mainstay Armando Iannucci's big-screen semi-sequel to his BBC series The Thick of It. Elevating the frenzied scrambling of The Thick of It's low-level bureaucrats to the world stage, In The Loop is a lightning-paced meditation on the power of language and the elasticity of truth in global politics. It is also an astonishingly filthy quip machine, and hopefully a star-making vehicle for veteran Scottish character actor Peter Capaldi, who weaves a poetic blue streak as spin doctor Malcolm Tucker. Malcolm is a bully, gleefully stoking the anti-intellectualism of our 24-hour news-cycle culture to suit his own needs, but he manages to emerge as a strangely heroic figure when stacked up against David Rasche's Rumsfeldian psychopath. Easily the funniest and most pleasant surprise at the movies this year.

Honorable mention:

Up In The Air (Jason Reitman, 2009)

Jason Reitman's Up In The Air is many things. It's an of-the-moment snapshot of life in an economic tailspin, a Hal Ashby-esque societal-critique-cum-character-study, a Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell screwball comedy, and a heartfelt paean to human connection in an increasingly technologically-isolated society. George Clooney is top notch, as usual, and Reitman sets you up for the cliched romantic comedy denouement before skillfully pulling the rug out from under you. Ultimately, though, it is probably too slick. Worth watching.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Reel Low: Instant Reaction to AVATAR

When it comes to Avatar [2009], all anyone seems to have talked about for the past few years is that its creation will change all movies henceforth. After having just seen it this afternoon, that assertion is probably true. But is the movie that will change the future of movies any good, let alone great?
I'll get to that.
First, I should preface by saying I wasn't particularly excited to see it. Could've been the lackluster trailer. Could've been that the Na'vi (those blue critters), to me, seemed to have the same eyes that we got in Sleepwalkers (not exactly the mindbending effects we were led to expect, hmm?). I probably would've seen it even if my roommate hadn't insisted we go this weekend, but it did take his goading to get me out in the snow today.
We took in the 3D version, which I'm not sure was a great decision for me, personally.
I've heard reports about people getting motion sickness (there was a curiously roped off section that allowed us to get nice seats for coming in mid-preview; I suspect someone's unfortunate reaction the night before led to our good luck). That wasn't an issue for me.
I have, however, had two LASIK surgeries in the past that have increased my sensitivity to light in addition to correcting my eyesight. The 3D glasses aren't the red and blue ones of old. Instead, they are big, plastic, slightly tinted and only somewhat comfortable. In any dark stages of the film, I had a hard time picking up what was happening.
This is something that may not affect many of you out there. But I suspect it severely altered my enjoyment of Avatar. This was my first foray into 3D movies, and I'm thinking it's not a format for me. I probably would have enjoyed it more in a standard viewing.
Onto the actual movie -- it was good, but just good.
The most impressive achievement with Avatar is the special effects. They were flawless. When people say this movie will change all others, it because of the effects. This is the finest example of realistic-looking and rounded characters that has been presented on film thus far, surpassing LotR's Gollum. He was not required to carry a movie as the Na'vi were here. It'll be interesting to see how long before digital humans are replicated though. I still haven't seen a human face, especially eyes, pulled off yet. James Cameron could get away with it in Avatar because the focus was on an alien race.
Which brings me back to the 3D effects. I don't think they added much to the picture. It was largely a novelty. If studios pump out movies in 3D in the coming years, I'm not sure if that will be enough to sustain moviegoers before becoming uninteresting. Maybe I'm just the film equivalent of a curmudgeon, but I can't see this fad lasting long. It sounds as though the real way to see this movie is in XD 3D, but it is only available in 15 theaters nationwide at the moment. The rest of us will have to get back to you on that one.
The main problem with Avatar is that you've seen this plot before. Name an epic. It probably shares at least one plot point or theme. So, if you're like me, your attention wanes in spots where predictability sets in. It's what prevents it from catapulting into the upper echelon of action films, even those in Cameron's own filmography.
Happily, it isn't all predictable, especially the last 30 minutes or so of action, and I enjoyed the hell out of that stuff.
In the end, you should probably see this in a theater and in 3D because that is what everyone is going to be talking about. My roommate reported no issues like I had. He did wonder if the standard version would be better because the glasses do take some time to get used to, but that'll have to wait for the bluray disc. Avatar wasn't quite good enough to take in a second theater viewing.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

High Definitions: Battlestar Galactica: The Plan

And they have a plan...

“The plan is, everything blows up a week ago, the humans are dead, and we Cylons all download, and the universe basks in justice...” - Cavill

What “Battlestar Galactica: The Plan” does is less an explanation of what the original Cylon plan was and is more of an exploration of the Cylons themselves with particular attention on Dean Stockwell’s Cavill. Those people looking for a detailed outline of what the Cylons originally had planned will not find what they’re after here. What is here is a fantastic coda to Ron Moore’s sci-fi epic.

“The Plan” gives more insight into the thoughts and methods of the Cylons and how some find themselves questioning their decision to commit galactic genocide. The main focus of the story is placed on Cavill and his own personal agenda against humanity and his Cylon mothers and fathers. Two Cavills depart for the colonies, one to make final arrangements for the nuclear holocaust to come, the other to witness it beside one of his mothers, the unknowing Ellen Tigh.

The Cavills find themselves in very different aftermaths of the destruction and their trajectories eventually collide in a sequence from the series. These two trajectories lead the Cavills to very different conclusions about their great plan of revenge. Along the way, gaps from the show are filled in and characters such as Sam Anders and the Cylon model known as Simon get some depth added to them.

The performances are top notch by the actors returning to their roles. Dean Stockwell plays an excellent man divided against himself with a divide that is measured in light years. Tricia Helfer plays the Cybil-like Six across many different versions of herself and doesn’t seem to have aged a bit since the show’s beginning. The other returning cast members slide perfectly back into character and deliver on all points.

There is some fantastic fan service to be had as well. We get to see the attack on the colonies up close and personal. Also, original footage from the show is woven almost seamlessly into the new narrative, the only issue being that not all of the actors aged as gracefully as others (Edward James Olmos, I’m looking in your direction). I do not hold that against “The Plan” because Olmos does well to direct in a fashion that doesn’t linger too long to create much of a disjunct between new and old material.

There are some BSG elements missing such as the overt discussion of religious models and sadly Mary McDonnel is nowhere to be seen. These are not shortcomings though, just my own personal feelings of nostalgia for the series. “The Plan” stands on its own legs but is not a place I would recommend new comers to the series go to. This was made for fans of the show and could almost be considered a love letter to them.

Edward James Olmos has stated that Universal would probably support more BSG pieces if “The Plan” does well, but I think anything more than what’s been done would be overkill. With “Caprica” waiting in the wings, I would hope that full attention is put to its quality. As much as I love Battlestar, I don’t want to see it become a shambling zombie of a franchise that Hollywood seemingly loves to create these days.

The Most Underrated Films Released Since 2005

The end of 2009 is approaching, and you know what that means -- Best-Of lists. It being the end of the decade, we'll be getting more than the usual share. We here at LowBrowMedia are no different; you'll probably be seeing additional lists here soon.

To wet your whistle a bit, and to beat the inevitable onslaught by a few days, I'm presenting five films that I feel are underrated. None are particularly obscure, and many of you may be aware of them. Keep in mind these are not necessarily what I consider the five best movies since 2005, just the most underrated. I'm limiting it to only the last five years because 1.) there were too many entries to consider over ten years and I'm sure I would forget something, and 2.) I didn't evaluate movies the first half of the decade in the way I do now.

Alright, enough explanations. Onto the list.

Honorable Mentions
Brick (2005)
Chinjeolhan Geumjassi
, aka Lady Vengeance (2005)
Apocalypto (2006)
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Breach (2007)
Die Falscher, aka The Counterfeiters (2007)
The Lookout (2007)
In Bruges (2008)
Redbelt (2008)
Taken (2009)

#5 -- Sunshine (2007)Danny Boyle's intense deep space thriller really awed me when I initially saw it. Very Kubrickian in nature from the subdued performances to the long-tracked shots, Sunshine tells the tale of a team of astronauts on a mission to reignite the sun in order to save Earth. Paranoia and in-fighting continuously strike in a piece of truly excellent science fiction. This was the first movie I saw on bluray that made me happy I had made the investment in all that equipment. The third act is a bit untidy, but I love it regardless.

#4 -- Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)Kinda hard to remember it now, but this is probably the movie that marked the resurgence of Robert Downey, Jr.'s career. Shane Black's directorial debut is marvelous. Dark humor abounds between the twisting plot and deconstruction of the crime noir genre. Val Kilmer is great here, and makes you wonder where his talent has been hiding in recent years, and Michelle Monaghan delivered one of those performances where you can't help but fall for her. With all of that, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang should continue to be a unique relic in years to come.

#3 -- Miami Vice: Director's Cut (2006)First, forget that it's called Miami Vice and the main characters are named Crockett and Tubbs. Second, remember that it's directed by the guy that brought us Thief, Heat, Collateral and Public Enemies.
This is a brutally realistic tale of urban decay via two undercover officers combating drug cartels. Foxx and Farrell both turn in excellent performances, as do a host of other actors in supporting roles, especially John Ortiz as one of the film's chief villains. This movie was marketed horribly, and shouldn't have been aimed at the old television audience; the film version of Bewitched or Starsky and Hutch, this is not. The standard version was pretty damn good, but the director's cut is definitely superior, expanding on Farrell's character and objection of the anti-drug team more. And not a pastel suit to be seen.

#2 -- Munich (2005)
How can a film by Steven Spielberg that was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards be underrated? Well, when you create levels of enacted revenge not seen since perhaps The Godfather series and no one talks about it five years later, save for that bit in Knocked Up, you do. First off, this cast is insanely good, top to bottom, and placed in some of the most well-scripted espionage sequences in the history of film. And Spielberg avoids here what he does in too many of his movies, which is giving it an obnoxiously sweet ending (oops, spoiler). No such thing in Munich. Plus, like those Apatow boys said, it is two hours of Eric Bana kicking some major ass, not to mention a pre-Bond Daniel Craig. Excellent film.

#1 -- The Proposition (2005)
Who would've thought the best western made in at least the last 25 years would be set in Australia? After two of the four criminally notorious Burns brothers are captured, a lawman gives a proposition to one of them -- find and kill the eldest brother within nine days in order to be pardoned and save his youngest brother or the two of them hang. With a set-up like that, how could it not be good? Only thing is, it's infinitely better than whatever you've conjured up after that description. Nick Cave of all people (yes, that Nick Cave of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) wrote a perfect screenplay. Re-watching it recently, there wasn't as much violence as I remembered. What remained intact was a harsh tale of choosing family over family, and both surviving and attempting to civilize the merciless landscape that parts of Australia offers. The Proposition is the definition of an underrated gem.