Wednesday, March 28, 2007

First Quarter Movie Trailer Wrap-Up

I've been really slow on the media criticism lately, so I though I'd get back in practice, and play some catch-up, by reviewing a bunch of the trailers I've missed over at Apple Trailers. There are a number of interesting things mixed in with all the boring-looking, formulaic crap. I've mentioned some highlights below.

Vacancy - It's probably worth seeing Luke Wilson in a different kind of role, for the same reason we gave Jim Carrey a chance in The Truman Show. This is also a stripped-down horror plot that still seems compelling, and that's hard to manage these days... with movies like Final Destination and The Invisible, and even The Ring, reaching into more elaborate and sketchy dramatic mechanisms, I'm willing to give a shot to a good old locked-in-an-abandoned-room suspense thriller.

Day Watch - You probably haven't seen Night Watch. You should. You don't hear much about, or from, Russia, and they're developing a pretty cool franchise right under your nose.

Nomad - There's something that promises to destroy this movie, if even a few people notice it... a bad coincidence in timing and promotion. All it takes is one word, or geographical reference, linking it to a big film phenomenon with which it would not want to be associated.

Slow Burn - I have to give it credit for combining some interesting thematic elements and stylizations. What do these terms have common? : visibility - light - color - ethnicity - representation - simulation - truth - deception - darkness -

Resident Evil: Extinction - The last couple Resident Evil trailers (including this one) seem to be excuses for visual effects people to mess with reality in masturbatory ways. Somebody had an awesome time modeling Vegas, and all of the planet Earth, as a dystopian wasteland, and they really needed to show it off. There was probably a dude in the next office who was like, "You're doing that? Well, shit... I'm gonna make a fake futuristic commercial for Vegas Tourism, and then I'm gonna have it break up into static and intereference." These are the people that made the first half of the trailer kind of cool. The last half is kind of boring.

Paprika - Sometimes all it takes to sell a movie is a few clips. If that's true of any director, Satoshi Kon is that guy. His other films - Perfect Blue being a personal favorite - are all masterpieces. Of course, this particular trailer has the added bonus of a rad song in the background.

Penelope - Christina Ricci in a role I'm excited about. I was a little disillusioned at her Black Snake Moan role, where she lost all but a booger's worth of waist and got victimized for a couple hours. It looks like a cute movie. I REALLY hope it doesn't blow its "ugly duckling" load and end up with a happy conclusion that involves the protagonist becoming conventionally beautiful. Shrek knew what it was doing on this one.

Jindabyne - Reminiscent of Deliverance, and I hope the existential dread factor is comparable. If you want a preview of the story, which sounds deliciously ambiguous, read the description. If you want a preview of the tone and mood, which is heavy on mysticism and lurking darkness, watch the trailer.

In the Land of Women - Looked like it could be cool for a while... the effect of age in romantic/sexual power dynamics is something worth exploring in a new way. Unfortunately, the big kiss with the music pick-up was an abominable addition to the trailer, and it erased any interest I have in seeing the actual movie.

Wild Tigers I Have Known - This fits in a special category of movies for me: things that look fascinating, and that I should definitely see, but rarely get around to watching. Brothers of the Head is in there, and until recently, all of Almodovar's movies were in that list, as well. The trailer is surreal and beautiful, and the write-up may make you more interested, or less interested, depending on how much a concrete plot summary appeals to you.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Go! Team and Samiam with needles in the red

Just downloaded The Go! Team's album Thunder, Lightning, Strike, and I can't stop listening to it. Am I the last person to hear about this? Is this blog entry gonna date me, like, two years and twenty hipster credibility points? It's an unexpected, addictive little album, purely and painfully anthemic. This isn't music that makes you lock yourself up and contemplate... this is soundtrack music, stimulating enough that the stimulation seeps into the rest of your activities. Some music turns you inward -- The Go! Team, playing remixed superhero disco anthems with middle school chants, turns you outward and gets into the rest of the world through you.

The album has a nostalgia about it. Now, I personally have an aversion to things that are self-consciously nostalgic, just like I have issues with "retro" and "kitsch." It's a neophilic instinct, not wanting to assume that people used to do things better, or be better off, than we are today. I have a theory that such nostalgic assumptions are a bad mental habit that we've picked up as we've filled out our cultural memory, and I assert myself as an idealist and a progressivist who thinks things are getting better in the long run, or if they're not, at least they're not getting worse.

Still, there's something to be said for feeling like a part of a long history, even if I wasn't around to appreciate most of that history. Thunder, Lightning, Strike invokes a Brooklyn of the 70's, with afro-haired disco queens and kids in bell-bottoms on street corners. You get the same nostalgia when you see a fire hydrant broken open in Harlem... it still happens, but it's an icon of an earlier time. I'm telling you, I wasn't even there for any of this. I was born in '82. Still, media has turned us all into time-traveling immortals, and just as I've seen Colonial Williamsburg on school trips, I've also seen life in the '70s through movies like The Warriors.

One of the ways The Go! Team manages this kind of nostalgia -- besides using basically all the raw elements of music from the '70's, including melodies, riffs, samples, and instrumentation -- is to record and produce their album with a lo-fi texture. Pitchfork Magazine mentioned this in their review of the United States release... they called it "needle-in-the-red sensibilities." It's the mark of authenticity in lo-fi recording, the testament that somebody recorded on an 8-track and had to fiddle with Radio Shack wires, instead of paying tons of record company cash to waltz into an outfitted studio.

There's something funny about this device, though. These days, recording and remastering equipment is so cheap and available that there never needs to be a drop in recording quality. It's a form of fakery, making your sound buzzy so it fits into an older aesthetic. I'm tempted to say, though, that in the 70's and 80's, when this aesthetic was unavoidable, it wasn't harnessed or respected by these artists. It's made the transition from inevitability to novelty. So what is it contributing? Why did somebody make the creative decision to create an album with crappier fidelity?

There's another album I've listened to recently that harnessed the power of crappy recording. Samiam, a California post-hardcore band that was breaking emo ground back in the early '90's, has created a lot of very pretty, well-produced albums. They've been awesome, due purely to the band's talent and songwriting skills. You won't find a more profound dynamic anywhere in punk-influenced music.

But Samiam's last album, Whatever's Got You Down, wasn't studio-polished. The vocals were guttural and clumsy, and the instruments were muddy and loose. Some fans took offense at this. Why make your music sound like crap? You can make gorgeous sounds without stomping on it and running sandpaper over it.

Of course, I'm going to vigorously defend both of these stylistic choices. What I'd like to note is that these two bands both had reasons for their stylistic treatment, although these decisions were probably very different.

The Go! Team was definitely trying for nostalgia. The gritty texture is a way of turning CD's and digital audio back into magnetic tape, at least in some small way. The music isn't trying to break brand new innovative ground, or if it is, it's trying to do so through retreival of an aesthetic that's slipped out of style.

Samiam's situation is a little different... they come from an intersection of scene with a love-hate relationship with accessibility. Punk rock has always wanted to be "pop" in certain ways: simple, short, enjoyable, visceral, and driven by hooks and songwriting. In others, the DIY music scene has actively distanced itself from pop in favor of "artistry": they don't want to be mass-produced, limited by market concerns, or forced into legal and economic subservience to their merchandise and their distributors. Samiam has always been smart and independent, but like all good punks, their flirtation with "accessibility" has been intermittent. The lo-fi sound on Whatever's Got You Down was an assertion of the band's creative license in the face of pressures to post-produce, remix, and polish their sound for the hi-fi synthpop crowd.

In both cases, though, the sound quality was a statement, an active part of the sound rather than a passive barrier to be ignored or overcome. As with a lot of media phenomena, this goes back to Marshall McLuhan, the godfather of media studies. He noted that a medium tends to be transparent until it's replaced and made obselete, at which point it becomes an object of attention and a factor in the content. Digital audio and hi-fi recording has basically replaced the ticks and quirks of analog production, and finally, after fighting those crackles and pops since the days of the phonograph, we've finally come to a point where they're part of the language we have at our disposal.