Tuesday, January 08, 2013

2013 Pop Culture Journal: Week 1

By now I’m resigned to the fact that I simply won’t and can’t be able to write about everything in my pop culture diet.  Rather than letting some of my thoughts spin around my head and then disappear (or occasionally emerge on Twitter and slip away from memory), I’ve decided to follow the lead of Nick Hornby’s THE BELIEVER column about what he’s reading and a friend’s weekly log of artistic consumption.  This way there’s no pressure to write in full about these works, yet I can still scratch down a few things that might be of interest.  Maybe it will be of more value to you than to me, but I hope this will be a worthwhile read.

Tracking films watched and books read will be easy enough.  For the sake of practicality and keeping this log a reasonable length I won’t list every TV episode I watch or song I listen to.  (Note: this first entry turned out to be much longer than intended. So much for keeping it short.)  With TV I’ll write about whatever grabs me; with music I’ll indicate the albums I spun and the individual songs that stood out.

January 1-7, 2013


1. ROSETTA (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 1999) (Blu-ray) (January 1)

I’m quite fond of the Dardenne brothers’ films and now only have LA PROMESSE to see of those that brought them international attention and acclaim.  (Never mind the nearly two decades of hard-to-see documentaries and narrative features preceding it.) ROSETTA won the 1999 Palme d’Or, so surely it’s another brilliant work on par with their other films, right?

ROSETTA provides a relentless and visually narrow look at the daily realities of poverty and trying to break free from it.  The camera’s point of view, the enveloping sound design, the charismatic but unsentimental lead performance (a feral Emilie Dequenne), and narrative urgency are equal to any of their films, yet this one didn’t grab me as much.  I suspect that seeing Gabriela Pichler’s excellent ROSETTA-influenced docudrama EAT SLEEP DIE (ÄTA SOVA DÖ) at TIFF 2012 took some of the shine off its inspiration for me.  ROSETTA is another good effort by the Belgian brothers and one that I hope to appreciate more whenever I watch it again.  

Grade: B/69

2. HEAVEN’S GATE (Michael Cimino, 1980) (2K DCP) (Wexner Center for the Arts) (January 4)

The critical reevaluation of this notorious flop has brought newfound and renewed appreciation for a film that’s been pop culture shorthand for Hollywood folly.  I tried watching it years ago on DVD and never finished it.  I think I bailed around the time Kris Kristofferson goes into the general store, so not even a third of the way into the running time of the director’s cut.  I’m glad I didn’t complete it then because seeing it in 4x3 letterbox would not have been the best introduction to a shaggy but stunning epic.

To a degree HEAVEN’S GATE is an ancestor of THERE WILL BE BLOOD in how it delineates business and government in America.  (I’m passingly familiar with the TV series DEADWOOD, which plays like another potential descendant.)  Thematically it feels as contemporary as anything being made now, and stylistically it’s just as fresh.  If this film marked the last hurrah of 1970s studio adventurousness, what a bold and lively way to go out.

The visual scope is enough to sell me on the film’s value.  Widescreen shots of location shoots with hundreds of extras are crammed with detail and natural beauty.  The clattering sound design, especially in the action-packed climax, builds the sense of bigness and chaos.  Sure, the energy flags at times, but Cimino fulfills his ambition. Although the violence isn’t particularly realistic to today’s eyes, it’s still as disturbing as the exaggerated bloodshed in DJANGO UNCHAINED.

Random observations: I was surprised to discover Terry O’Quinn in a small role delivering dialogue that would be comfortable coming from his LOST character.  And isn’t that Tom Noonan? (Yes.)  Mickey Rourke gets a funny lesson about biting from a trapper played by Geoffrey Lewis.  Jeff Bridges has to have one of the most interesting filmographies of actors in his generation.  It’s always great to see Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert.  I feel like people tend to treat Christopher Walken as a caricature of the oddballs he’s played, but he’s quite good in this.  I’ve never seen Sam Waterston play a character as cold-blooded as he does here.

As for the 2K DCP presentation, HEAVEN’S GATE’s transfer is remarkably film-like most of the time.  I feel safe in saying that it doesn’t look as good as a 70mm print would, but since that is not an option, this was a worthy alternative.  Preserving the grain and softness goes a long way in making it look like celluloid.   

Grade: A-/82

3. OBSESSION (Brian De Palma, 1976) (DVD) (January 6)

De Palma’s VERTIGO homage pales in comparison to Hitchcock’s masterpiece--how could it not?--but he throws enough curves for it to be trashy fun anyway.  (Vague spoiler for a 37-year-old film follows.)  I guessed one of the major turns using the cinematic laws of economy of characters and the persistence of hairstyles, but other surprises were still in store.  OBSESSION overlaps nicely with the director’s PASSION, and an enterprising programmer would do well to pair them in a double feature when the latter is released this year.

Grade: B-/65

4. TEXAS CHAINSAW (John Luessenhop, 2013) (2K DCP in 3D) (Gateway Film Center) (January 7)

I strive to keep an open mind before whatever I’m seeing, but I’d be lying if I said I expected much from the seventh film in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE series. I liked the 2003 remake, unpopular as that opinion may be, but I held little hope for this functional sequel to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original.  TEXAS CHAINSAW isn’t good, but give it credit for trying to be a little substantive and not piling on the visual murk favored by many of today’s horror films.

In the new film’s prologue, which picks up where the original film ends, the angry townsfolk initiate a shootout with the warped Sawyer family and then burn the farmhouse to the ground, presumably killing everyone inside except for the baby girl one of the mob takes to raise as his own with his wife.  Twenty-odd years later the baby returns to Texas to claim the mansion from a grandmother she never knew and gets a hard lesson in her biological family’s history with the locals.

None of TEXAS CHAINSAW is particularly scary or disturbing.  Seeing it in 3D adds no benefit, although the shots expressly acknowledging the format are worth a laugh or two since they border on parody.  Still, the film can’t be dismissed entirely because of the thematic question that emerges.  Is it right to treat figurative monsters with monstrous behavior rather than letting the justice system handle them?  TEXAS CHAINSAW doesn’t aspire to be a political allegory like Hooper’s film, nor is it equipped to provide a thoughtful response to the question it poses.  Still, it deserves a few points for attempting to be about something.

Grade: D+/36  


1. Gillian Flynn GONE GIRL (2012)

I don’t read novels as often as I’d like, but December travel jumpstarted my desire to pick up books again.  I needed a physical book so I could keep reading when my flights required turning off my Kindle.  I selected GONE GIRL because praise for it popped up time and again in my Twitter feed.  I tore through the first hundred pages pretty quickly, but I’ll reserve comments for when I’ve finished it.


A few times I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to read the Bible in full but haven’t been able to keep up with the daily readings.  With the beginning of another year, here goes another attempt.


1. Kylie Minogue LIGHT YEARS (2000)
2. Kylie Minogue APHRODITE (2010)
3. Kylie Minogue KYLIE MINOGUE (1994)
4. Kylie Minogue FEVER (2002)

Never let it be said that a small role in an art film won’t sell albums.  After seeing Kylie Minogue in HOLY MOTORS and being reminded of her terrific 2002 single “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, I decided to seek out some of her music.  I never expected to be quite so taken with what I’ve heard, especially since I don’t regularly listen to electronic dance pop.    

I started with FEVER and LIGHT YEARS and have been working through her catalog in both directions.  The disco-inflected LIGHT YEARS has provided the template for what’s followed: a seemingly endless supply of irresistible hooks and workout-maximized beats per minute.  (Her albums soundtracked most of my runs during my time out of town during the holidays.)  Considering how successful this formula has been almost everywhere, I’m amazed she’s struggled to make much of a dent in the United States.  Is her lack of popularity here the reason why she’s yet to record a James Bond theme song?  Otherwise she’d seem to be a shoo-in.

KYLIE MINOGUE reveals an artist trying to transition from teen sensation to serious artist.  At least on first listen the album seems more reliant on adult contemporary ballads and textures than I prefer (or than her subsequent albums feature), but it’s still a solid collection of songs.  With its seamless blend of styles LIGHT YEARS competes with FEVER’s all-out disco for the top spot among her albums that I’ve heard. APHRODITE is pretty much more of what you’d expect: lots of good melodies married to up-tempo rhythms.  

Key tracks: “Spinning Around”, “On a Night Like This”, and “Please Stay” (LIGHT YEARS); “Get Outta My Way” and “Aphrodite” (APHRODITE); “Confide in Me” (KYLIE MINOGUE), “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, “Come Into My World”, and “In Your Eyes” (FEVER)

5. Paul McCartney RAM (1971)

Catching up with the Paul McCartney solo and Wings reissues and seeing him in concert in 2011 reminded me of how many great songs he’s written even if his whole time in The Beatles is ignored.  His early solo work is a lot weirder and rougher than I realized.

Key tracks: “Dear Boy”, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, “Monkberry Moon Delight”

6. Kat Edmonson WAY DOWN LOW (2012)

I suppose WAY DOWN LOW should be classified as a vocal jazz album, although it’s what would have passed for a pop record until rock ‘n’ roll came onto the scene.  (The snarky might tag it as Starbucks/NPR music, even if such a classification is sort of spot on.)  Edmonson’s voice possesses that jazz chanteuse timbre familiar to the genre--you know it when you hear it--yet the quality isn’t so pronounced as to sound affected or precious.  

On this spotlessly recorded and performed set Edmonson demonstrates that she’s a talented singer and interpreter.  The slowed down cover of The Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” works beautifully.  Upbeat and downbeat versions of “I Don’t Know” bring out different shadings in her voice and the lyrics.  Lyle Lovett drops by for a playful duet.  This is nothing earth-shaking, but innovation for its own sake can overrated.  Plus, in the age of AutoTune it’s a pleasure to hear a talented singer doing her thing.

Key tracks: “I Don’t Know”, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”

7. Japandroids CELEBRATION ROCK (2012)

Front to back one of last year’s much-praised rock records still sounds samey to my ears, but then again, I had a similar issue with The Hold Steady until something clicked. Lots of energy here, no doubt, and I’m not immune to it.  Just waiting to be won over completely.

Key tracks: “Fire’s Highway” and “The House That Heaven Built”


-College and professional football (ABC, CBS, ESPN, FOX, NBC)

More women are involved in sports media than used to be, but isn’t there something kind of insulting to them and to the audience in literally putting them on the sidelines?  The woman in the booth for football games is rare--I vaguely recall coming across one calling a college game--yet you’ll see women reporting from the sidelines at most televised football games now.  Regardless of if it’s a man or woman on the field, the sideline reporter strikes me as one of the least essential parts of game productions, especially when he or she is sticking a mic in the face of a coach or player running to the locker room.  Is this progress when there’s a sense that having female sideline reporters is just a way for the producers to add pretty faces to telecasts?  The boys club atmosphere of televised sports exists and reared its ugly head when Brent Musberger ogled the Alabama quarterback’s girlfriend during the BCS Championship.    

Random observation: Is there a reason why the Pepsi commercial with Drew Brees and One Direction was produced in 4x3?

-666 PARK AVENUE (2012) (ABC)

The series has been canceled--the final four episodes are apparently airing in the summer--and the show never really worked.  So why did I watch the two post-Thanksgiving episodes on my DVR?  It’s likely I would have eventually bailed on 666 PARK AVENUE, even if it had been renewed.  At this point I feel like riding it out the rest of the way to see how they close it out and provide some answers that have been frustratingly absent..  

The supernatural, soapy fun hinted at in early episodes never amounted to much as the series delivered halfhearted stand-alone entries and mythology building.  Not all of the answers needed to be provided by episode #9, but a sense of the rules and a master plan would have helped immensely.  The series played okay when sticking to Rachael Taylor’s unsettling experiences in the hotel and Terry O’Quinn’s machinations to get her in his debt.  Instead it seemed like 666 PARK AVENUE was doing too much and not enough with subplots including the boyfriend’s unbelievably rapid ascent in New York City politics, the professional and personal pickles a Broadway writer got into, the psychic teenager, the mystery around the death of the hotel owners’ daughter, the red box, the basement.


I was curious for more information about the brouhaha around HEAVEN’S GATE and was pointed toward this documentary, which isn’t included in the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD set.

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