Culture in a 3oz prepackaged tube

My Life as a Critic

Now get out there and save the world. April 26, 2007

heroes_keyart.jpgThough the name sounds suspiciously like some cheesy reality show, Heroes is actually a vivid web of plot that shatters all former beliefs about superheroes. Created in 2006, the drama follows a group of individuals throughout their hectic lives as they discover they all have a gift: superpowers.

Each hero has his or her own storyline, and at first it is difficult to tell who is important. One can see that Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia) is significant as he seems the most connected with the other characters, all of whom deal with their powers in distinct ways. Peter becomes obsessed with his abilities, though he cannot figure out what they are, and sets off to find others like him. His brother, Nathan (Adrian Pasdar), hides his ability to fly and refuses to help Peter, while Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) considers her power to regenerate a freak’s curse. We are introduced to many others, until it is almost an overhaul of characters. Fortunately (though rather surprisingly) creator Tim Kring is not afraid to dispose of characters, should they no longer fit the larger story.

Perhaps killing off characters seems taboo for a television show (besides CSI), but such a decision is what gives Heroes its sustainable quality- this story could happen. We are reminded that these “heroes” are still human. Granted, there is probably not someone walking around with the power to bend time, but how do we know? The show places the cause of the powers in genetic mutation and grants each character their fair share of incredulity, insinuating that we can not be sure of anything. Everyone is connected; everyone has a destiny. And though the dialogue can seem contrived and borderline ridiculous, we find ourselves believing their story.

I am not sure as to why this show connects with me or any person so. Perhaps deep within we all wish our lives were laid out so neatly. “Save the cheerleader, save the world” the show’s motto dictates. If only it were that easy. Yet even in Heroes, that is not the end. One victory means another mystery, another life to save. But when you are a hero, it is not just your own life. These seemingly ordinary people are out to save the world, and as long as their journey is being captured on film, I will be there to watch it.

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Look beyond the ordinary… April 19, 2007

The clouds parted, and the light descended, casting the scene in a dramatic hue. Glancing at him meaningfully, the director nodded. “Film this.” And so it began.

lubezki1.jpgCredit must be given where credit is due, but how do we know where that is? In most cases, any movie that is well made or has a distinct style is attributed to a wonderful and supremely talented director. All hail the director’s view! His vision! His camera angles. While at times this is true as some directors do set their own shots, often such is not the case. Directors of Photography, or Cinematographers, are called in to give stylistic vision and practical wisdom to an idea or desire of the Director. Though some Directors of Photography simply do the dirty work, a few have a vision. Emmanuel Lubezki is one of those visionaries.

Born Emmanuel Lubezki Morgenstern in 1964 in Mexico City, Mexico, Lubezki began his career working on small Mexican independent films and television shows. As he gained recognition, he also developed an individual style, one that has remained distinctly present throughout his career. This style incorporates stylistic lighting techniques, gritty close ups, and sweeping camera angles. Such combinations have lead to the strong brands that identify Lubezki’s work.

Bruce Beresford, director of the films King David and Paradise Road once said “It is not just the performance that counts but the way it is interpreted through lighting, camera angle and editing. He could not have been more correct. Acting is only part of the vision. Light plays an enveloping role in filmmaking, and a Director of Photography can make or break the mood with his chosen setup. In 1992’s Como agua para chocolate, Lubezki teams up with director Alfonso Arau to create a film about two star-crossed lovers who fight tradition and reality to be together. The tragically beautiful story written by Laura Esquivel is bursting with magical realism: often times difficult to grasp and even more difficult to portray. Yet Lubezki expands from Arau’s vision and identifies the main points that help us absorb the fantasy. An intense focus is placed on food, the main power driving the film. As Tita, the main character, pounds out her frustrations in dough or drops blood stained petals into soup, light shines in from the kitchen window to illuminate her love washed food.

Perhaps an even better use of lighting can be seen in the recent film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Based on the highly popular children’s novellas, the film combines the first three stories to create a quick paced dramatic conflict. With the fast pacing and Jim Carrey’s spastic acting style, the movie could have been a flop. But Lubezki focuses his attention on the children, making sure that the creative art design is not lost, while the characters are illuminated in a soft glow. Indeed, the entire movie seems to glow, rather from the inside, a trait seen in all of Lubezki’s collaborations, from Ali to Children of Men.

Looking at the two previously stated films, another trend seems to emerge in Lubezki’s work. Though the background in the movies he works on is often gorgeous, Lubezki rarely focuses on outward vision. Instead, the audience is introduced to the depth of character emotion, the exact movements of their faces, the secrets revealed there. No matter how much fantasy may surround the world (look what he was working with in Cat in the Hat), Lubezki finds the reality in human grit. Ali, directed by Michael Mann, describes history at its greatest. Just a story about a boxer? Hardly. This story displays the truth of American culture and the racial extremes that have always been present. This story needs grit. Lubezki’s focus then is on Will Smith’s face, his movements, anything to bring out the beauty in what truly exists.

However, focus is not simply placed on main characters; minor characters are also made important in this vision. Children of Men spends much of its time disorienting the audience as to who is and who is not important. Therefore it is necessary for each person to be equally revered. The lighting used whenever Julianne Moore enters shows her poise and beauty- making her out to seem strong and important in the story. Even fantastical stories like the aforementioned Lemony Snicket’ A Series of Unfortunate Events portray character importance. Violet, Claus, and Sonny Baudelaire have not led easy lives but continue to have a cheerful and pleasant persona. Children naturally wear their emotions on their sleeves, and Lubezki zooms right in to capture it all. With the combined use of lighting and camera angles, Lubezki creates the aura that there is some wisdom in this story that we may not be attaining. Some would rather all this be attributed to the director, Brad Siberling, but with the pasts of both men (Siberling is most known for his television contributions on shows like Judging Amy and NYPD Blue), it is hard to believe that Lubezki did not have some say in the angle of the film.

So what of camera angles? We see that lighting and reality are important in the world of Lubezki, but what of the camera itself? Looking at Children of Men, it is obvious that keeping the audience off guard and in the moment is an important quality of the movie. Long camera shots are utilized in impacting scenes, such as the car attack in the middle of the film where Julianne Moore loses her role as an important player and again towards the end as fighting erupts around the main characters. The purpose of these shots is to gain intensity of course, but again also to focus on the emotions of the scene. The reactions of the characters can not be faked or broken; the lack of noticeable editing allows for nothing but intensity. Yet here we can not attribute all vision to Lubezki. Instead, to give credit, we must recognize Lubezki’s return to Mexican cinematic creation and the collaboration with director Alfonso Cuarón.

Indeed, though Lubezki entered the American movie scene with Twenty Bucks in 1993, he has not forgotten his roots. After 1996’s The Birdcage became a hit, Lubezki could have chosen to work in American cinema exclusively. Nevertheless, he has returned time and again to work with Cuarón, having created their most influential films as a team. Their first collaboration being A Little Princess in 1995, the two have gone on to create Y tu mamá también and the previously described Children of Men. After such beautiful pairings, it is no wonder the world is anxious to see the newest film with the duo, scheduled for release in 2008.

With beauty evident in the very design, Emmanuel Lubezki captures depth in his films. Having won or been nominated for an award for over half of the films on which he has worked, including four Oscars, it is clear that Lubezki has a talent not soon to disappear. And so we gladly wait for his next vision, knowing that somehow we will be more enlightened by the end.

 

You remind me of the babe… April 12, 2007

When I read, the world around me dissipates. Reality is altered, and within the distended time frame I exist solely to live out the story racing ahead of me. A good novel stays with me for some time, but eventually all fantasies must end. But what if they do not? What if, in desperation, a wish is made that brings dreams to life? How soon would we regret it?

This is the reality into which Sarah, played by a precocious Jennifer Connelly, finds herself hurled after wishing goblins would forever dispose of her infant brother Toby in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. Stunned to find her wish come true, Sarah calls out to the Lord of the Goblins to forget her wish and return her sibling. But life is not that simple, and decisions cannot be so easily erased. Jareth the Goblin King, personified in full glory by David Bowie, escapes with Toby to his labyrinth protected castle, giving Sarah until midnight to solve his riddles and save her brother and herself.

003_labyrintrplabyrinth-posters.jpgFollowing Sarah from the opulently decorated world of her room, we arrive in a grim land facing the terrifying maze. The effect is disturbingly comparable to plopping Dorothy in Oz, and as Sarah steps into the green prison, we can feel the cold descend. Unknowingly deterred from her mission by a friendly worm, Sarah loses time and patience.

As the plot continues, we are introduced to the fantastically detailed landscape of this unknown world through a series of minor characters. Doorknobs and guiding hands chat casually as Sarah traverses the rocky landscapes and split paths that spring from the twisting maze. Trees shout their warnings to not continue on, allowing for a rather comical exchange between characters rather akin to a Monty Python sketch. There is even the bog of eternal stench to be avoided, a path both led to and deterred from by Hoggle, sent by Jareth to distract Sarah from her mission. However, Hoggle cannot be so easily controlled, and once Sarah’s kind heart and determined spirit win over the skeptical creature, he joins her mission. Jareth’s constant arrival to dissuade the pair keeps children and older audiences alike tuned in to the action. Bowie’s presence is rather inherent to the aura of the film, so much so that his face is transposed on surfaces from tunnel walls to rock formations.

The movie is not without its faults. The film holds a strong message of loyalty and inner strength that is dampened by Bowie’s musical numbers. Granted, the film is meant for children, and the songs are engaging on their own; they simply detract from the darker feel of the movie. Yet the songs open up the set for great visual effects, complete with multilevel stairs ascending from the ceilings. Another issue is the twenty minute fight scene dropped unceremoniously into the third act of the film. The effect is unsettlingly Star Wars-esque and rather breaks the plot line, thrown in simply to push forward the clock to frighteningly close to midnight. Yet even here, the film pulls itself through, due in large part to the writing for Didymus, a small dog like creature with a smart mouth and loose tongue.

Delightfully developed characters add true charm to the film. Adding puppets to a movie always leave room for cheesy residue; a static film that distracts from any moral or beauty for which the movie may strive. Yet Henson has long proved his ability to elevate puppets from simple child entertainment to an art. His dolls have become the cornerstone of American movie puppetry; adding depth and emotion to seemingly lifeless movements. Indeed, although Sarah and Jareth are the “real” characters, it is the morally tormented spirit of Huggle, the ever loyal protectiveness of Ludo, and the wisecracking flippancy of Didymus that truly bring the film to life.

Despite its overly neat and sappy ending, Labyrinth stands as a deep and meaningful children’s film with the potential for more. Looking past the simplistic sets, the haphazard songs, and the unnecessary fight scene, we see a film that tells a lovely story. Beyond all else, we find the power of friendships, stories, and the imagination. And we find the evidence that even once the book is closed, if we just wish hard enough, we can bring our fantasies to life.

 

Bright Lights, Cat Fights, and Some Romance for Good Measure April 5, 2007

Filed under: Comedy,Critical Review,Drama,Fun,Movie,Music,Television — Sarah @ 7:43 pm

high-school-musical.jpgThe story unfolds: two characters thrust together by an act of fate. An enjoyable day ensues, but just as fledgling love blossoms, the two are separated by time and space. But lo! Fate steps in again, and against all odds, the young lovers find themselves in an unlikely arena- the same high school. Drama unfolds.

Such a story has been told time and again, perhaps most popularly in Grease. So when Disney Channel announced plans to shoot a movie following the same storyline, it sparked minimal interest. However, the success of High School Musical was unprecedented. Released in early 2006, the movie received two Emmys and several nominations, reflecting that music truly is the ideal method of portraying high school angst.

As the movie begins, Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) find themselves at the same New Year’s party facing the embarrassing task of karaoke. Just as the two discover their mutual love of singing and their chemistry, life separates them. A school transfer reunites the young singers, but what will they do about it? Gabriella says nothing; a semester in, she simply wants to focus on school. Troy agrees – he has no time to be distracted with Basketball finals approaching. Yet neither can deny the desire to audition for the school’s spring musical. This is not acceptable to East High’s drama king and queen, Ryan and Sharpay Evans (Lucas Grabeel and Ashley Tisdale), who determine to make sure no one steals their leading roles.

Musicals have been returning to popular culture, and High School Musical takes advantage of that trend. Songs like “Getcha Head in the Game,” a fast-paced tune about playing basketball, and “Bop to the Top,” Ryan and Sharpay’s audition piece, bring skilled choreography into the film, while more mellow tunes, such as Gabriella’s lonely love song “When There Was Me and You” show the rollercoaster of emotions crushes can create.

Yet it is “Breaking Free” that truly portrays what makes this movie so unique. Like all Disney movies, the story has a moral, and this one is do what you love, no matter what. My high school experience was nothing like that in High School Musical, but I still identify with the theme. Living by someone else’s rules will never make you happy, so be yourself. And don’t forget to sing.

 

Life is like a guitar chord… March 22, 2007

150px-streetsurvivorsflames.jpg

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s albums were known for incorporating many aspects of rock into a definitive unique sound. With influences from the Beatles to Southern blues and traditional country, it is no wonder that Skynyrd was able to take the fledgling genre of Southern Rock and make it immensely popular.  1977’s Street Survivors was no different. Using the same aspects of life that had fueled their previous works, Skynyrd created a CD that still speaks to many walks of life.

Kicking off the album is the aptly named “What’s Your Name,” a guitar driven beat narrating typical rock band backstage antics. Guitar is quintessential to the sound of the band, the blend of three electric guitars lending to the unique chord progressions that identify Skynyrd. It only takes listening to the first few seconds of “One More Time” to hear the whammy induced “wou-wou” that would make Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd’s “Free Bird” so popular.

It is the drive of these guitars as well the prevalent use of piano (such as on the barfly ditty “Ain’t No Good Life”) that creates the wide variety in Skynyrd’s music.  Songs range from the rockabilly inspired “I Know a Little” – a tribute to figuring out love as you go along – to the country rock feel of “That Smell,” the story of the band’s journey to quit drinking and drugs.

The engaging aspect of Skynyrd’s music is that it is relevant, with lead singer Ronnie Van Zant discussing life in all its intricacies. To me the band brings back memories of my childhood: long summer days watching my brother’s baseball games, reading books outside on the grass, hot dogs and picnics. Life was about simply enjoying oneself, and Skynyrd was a trademark to that way of thinking.

“You Got That Right,” an anthem for living the best way you can, sums up the feel of the band to me. We can not simply discard Skynyrd’s political edge, as Second Helping’s “Sweet Home Alabama” helped make them famous, yet in this CD we feel a looser side of Skynyrd and in it the promise of growth as a band.

We will never really know if the band would have continued to thrive, as a plane crash three days after the Street Survivors’ release in 1977 killed three members including Ronnie Van Zant and second vocalist Stevie Gaines (a newcomer to the band, only having worked on one album before Street Survivors). Devastated by the tragedy, the rest of the band split up. Now they have reunited under leadership of Ronnie’s brother Johnny Van Zant, though the new amalgamation can not fairly be compared to the original group.

Listening to Street Survivors could conjure up images of a band not allowed to reach its full potential, but instead I hear all the things they did accomplish. They were about having pride and living with conviction, which we could all strive for. After all, life is not something to be taken for granted. You got that right.

 

Find that inner strength and move on little girl… March 15, 2007

guster-album.jpgI received Keep It Together from a friend last spring. I hardly gave it a chance; one listen to the mellow first strains of the kickoff track “Diane,” and I swiftly tucked the album into a hidden pocket of my bulging CD case. Months passed, and one day, in the midst of school related panic attack, I decided to take a drive. Vaguely remembering the somber melodies I had previously discarded, I pulled the Guster album from its forgotten home and decided to give it another shot.

Guster proved to be a truly creative mix of acoustic qualities. Most songs were upbeat, including traditional instruments: same tempo but a different feel. Why? There was a bongo rather than a traditional drum*. As I was paying attention to this, a banjo entered the scene. Keyboard provided backup, and just as that was all sinking in, a harmonica took a solo (all played by Joe Pisapia). Fascinated, I hardly noticed that I was miles outside of the city, and it was getting dark fast.

As town after town flew by in a mindless blur, I began to focus on the lyrics floating towards me. “Let’s keep it together” singer Ryan Miller crooned in the title track, a shoulder moving ditty about being stranded on an island and defending the village built there. My stress had begun to dissipate with the music, and I took his words to heart. Suddenly realizing that I was almost an hour outside Conway, and that the sun no longer offered guidance, I started home.

Beginning much slower than the others, “Come Downstairs and Say Hello” introduced the sweet testament of turning a corner and making a new life. Flowing with the mellow mood of the song, I was pleasantly surprised by the sudden change in tempo and instruments mid-song. In Guster’s signature vocal harmony, the band sang “To tell you the truth, I’ve said it before. Tomorrow I’ll start in a new direction. I know I’ve been half asleep; I’m never doing that again.” The consistent beat and beautiful mix of strings, harmony, and drums makes this song one of the best on the album.

Guster’s songs range from acoustic pop to pop rock (“Red Oyster Cult”) to Bluegrass inspired pop (“Jesus on the Radio”). It was obvious as I found my way back to campus that I had almost missed out on one of the most talented contemporary bands around. And after pulling into the full parking lot, I sat and stared. I felt better, and I was hoping the mood would last. And as the final chords of “I Hope Tomorrow is Like Today” closed out the album, I had a feeling they did too.

*In concert, drummer Brian Rosenworcel plays with his hands- both bongos and full drums. How cool is that?!

 

It’s all about life… March 8, 2007

lazy-boy-tv.jpgSongs that combine spoken word with elementary chords are not new to the music scene; many artists use the technique to emphasize a particular song on an otherwise simple album. However, Lazy Boy has taken the art of verbalizing to a new level. In their debut album, Lazy Boy TV, the band offers strong messages underscored by peppy, upbeat tunes, resulting in catchy songs that pack a punch.

Right out of the gate, Lazy Boy asks the question “Are you qualified for life?” There is no subtlety in the lyrics, only direct questions that call for the listener to examine every aspect of his/her life. Songs like “The Facts of Life” and “We Only Read the Headlines” further ingrain the problems of the world with quick and sobering facts backed by soft Electronica beats, allowing little time to breathe between assuages. Counteracting the darker messages are slightly cheesy choruses sung by band members to swaying musical movements, encouraging a free-spirited dance aura.

Not all songs from Lazy Boy TV describe the horrors of life, and indeed, that does not seem to be the main desire of former Aqua member Søren Nystrøm Rasted when he began the band in 2002. Instead, many of the songs take the darker tracks and explain why life is so wonderful despite them. Songs like “Inhale Positivity” and “Desiderata” inspire a calming sense of self-awareness that allows for soul-searching and, perhaps, the soundtrack for a good yoga workout.

There does seem to exist a layer of irony beneath the album, especially inherent in “Man Woman (Yin & Yang),” a voyage into the extreme differences between the genders, and in the three and a half minute weed rolling guide, aptly named “The Manual.” When first listening to the album, it is hard to tell whether the album should be taken seriously or if, instead, it takes itself too seriously. However, listening to Lazy Boy’s unique style of combining humor, catchy choruses, and blatant facts, a realization occurs that Lazy Boy TV offers nothing but the truth, streaming it forth in a current of ideas and life lessons. Indeed, Lazy Boy proves its loyalty to the messages it evokes in the closing song, “It’s All About Love,” an extended survey of strangers explaining their ideas of love. At just under an hour, Lazy Boy TV leaves nothing wanting in this eloquent and emotionally charged album.