Friday, November 25, 2011

Movie Review: Hugo

          Let's talk about 3-D. For years, I've been saying that 3-D works best with animation. I've also been saying it should not be treated as a gimmick, but as an element. A tool. Like color, which quickly became the norm of cinema, 3-D should be used as one gear in a large machine. Animation seems to handle this philosophy best, seeing as computer animation has only recently gone from gimmick status to element status in the last decade.

         3-D is commonly employed poorly in live action films. It sometimes works well, Avatar being a nice example (although, really, one could easily consider Avatar a computer animated film), but it is usually used for movies that would otherwise have nothing interesting to offer. The producers fund a lousy film under the promise that the swords will come flying out the screen and the three to four dollar surcharge will come flying out of wallets, not because the film's story can be modified in any way by this extra dimension. Avatar made such an impact because the world James Cameron created felt completely immersive. The film was about virtual bodies becoming real, dreams becoming tangible. The third dimension added a layer of depth to the overall intent of the film. I cannot say the same for The Green Hornet, Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender, or any other totally valid reasons that people often give for not liking 3-D. Why pay the extra money? It's never worth it.

       Here's the problem. 3-D technology is extremely impressive. When used effectively, the technology can add depth and wonder to the cinematography of a film. However, when used poorly, the technology faces extinction. We are in a transitional period. Like the introduction of color, we are faced with low-caliber variations of a phenomenal tool. For instance, many people believe that The Wizard of Oz was the first color film. It wasn't. People just believe that because the color was used to aid the story, to give the land of Oz depth, and to show people how the technique can revolutionize the way moving pictures can be experienced.

      In a way, this is the story of film. When the Lumiere brothers made their first film of a train moving toward the camera, filmmaking was seen as a triviality. A sideshow gimmick. It took decades for film to be as respected as it is today. And, in some circles, film is still not quite as appreciated as literature or painting.

      Which brings us to Hugo.

         Martin Scorsese has made a name for himself in recent years for spearheading an ambitious film preservation society. He has given numerous talks, and made several documentary shorts, in order to spread the news that old films are disappearing each day. And, as one of the most knowledgeable film historians in the world, Scorsese has done pretty well with the campaign. And when I saw Scorsese's masterful, gorgeous new film Hugo, I couldn't help but wonder if any other filmmaker could have pulled off such a watchable educational film concerning cinema preservation.

        Movies are at the heart of Hugo, Scorsese's first 3-D film, and he uses the medium not only to wow audiences with impressive visuals, but to also comment on the film's overall message.

       The film concerns a forgotten silent filmmaker whose entire filmography has been destroyed for the sake of shoe heels (it makes sense in the movie), and how devastating this treatment of film was to the genius filmmakers who were left behind after the world wars.

         Hugo is about film as an art form. It is about the director as artist. It reminds us that there was a time when special effects were new. That the visual wizardry of filmmaking was once shocking, surprising, awe-inspiring. That filmmakers used to be scoffed at for making populist drivel, even while they were producing some of the most incredible work of any artist at the time. At its heart, Hugo is about the relationship between an artist and his/her tools. For the early filmmakers, their tool was considered nothing more than a gimmick, a phase, a temporary distraction from real art. And, as I said earlier, 3-D is the new gimmick.

      Scorsese, one of the most celebrated living filmmakers, was criticized for choosing to make his newest film in 3-D. The fad, as some say, has worn out its welcome. I beg to differ. The fad is not wearing out its welcome, bad use of the technique is. Now that we're finally getting master filmmakers behind 3-D cameras (Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, to name some Germans), audiences can now decide for themselves whether 3-D is their thing.

      Hugo utilizes 3-D in a way that I have never seen outside of a theme park. The opening shot actually turns your stomach, in the best way possible, when it zooms through a busy train station and weaves around halls and ladders. The photography is kinetic and exciting. The depth is incredible, the shot compositions perfectly suited to the technology, and Scorsese feels right at home with the extra responsibility.

      Also at home are Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz, the two young leads of the film. Butterfield in particular, as the titular character, brings warmth and emotion to his role--much needed elements for the mostly silent performance he gives. Moretz plays the opposite of her Kick-Ass character, Hit Girl, as she is an innocent, bookish girl who is terrified of getting into mischief. Moretz grounds the film with her calm, old-soul presence. The two leads play well off of each other, and they are benefitted from the excellent script by John Logan.

     Hugo is a beautiful film. I highly recommend that you go see it, and I cannot stress enough how great the 3-D is here. But you have to meet the film halfway. If you don't want 3-D to be used as a gimmick, don't expect it to act like one. The extra dimension is just that, an extra dimension. This does not mean stuff flies in your face constantly. This means that there is an extra layer of depth to the screen. The shot compositions have become more complicated, and more interesting, because of this technology. Okay? Okay.

I give Hugo 9/10 released Krakens

Friday, November 11, 2011

Cameron Cook Music Company: My current favorite albums

Parody? It's up to you.
          Ever since David Lynch decided to turn his long-time pay site full of exclusive short films and other goodies into a launch pad for his music career, I've been wondering if I should do the same with this blog. Of course, you're all expecting film analyses and reviews, but what's the fun in that? Maybe I should just give up, design a Parisian nightclub, and record an album full of synth-pop and bad Badalamenti clones.

        Okay, to be fair, there are some good tracks on Lynch's LP, which dropped earlier this week, but the other tracks are plagued by a hollow core. Lynch is a filmmaker first. That is his true talent. He can play a mean guitar, he can create an excellent aural texture, but he does not understand what it takes to craft an album. At least not yet. But Karen O. tried. And that's all that counts.

       So here we are. In a world where David Lynch, one of the premier American filmmakers, retires from the medium that made him famous so he can sing into a vocoder about red shirts. And on top of that, your favorite movie blog just released an article on music. It's a sad day. But chin up, because you might find yourself downloading these artists on itunes before you know it.

My fifteen favorite albums of all time (in no order)

The Final Cut--Pink Floyd
          Even though I can safely tell you that nostalgia is 50% of the reason behind this album's inclusion, I can still get behind some of the tracks. Pink Floyd (lets face it, Roger Waters for this one) managed to somehow make an entire album predicated on one emotion--fierce devastation. Every song has the emotional capacity of an entire Lars Von Trier film in only three minutes. The title track is still a favorite of mine, even after all these years, for its sheer arena-rock balladry. While this album is certainly a departure for the band that brought you "Jugband Blues," it's also a real treat for those who want a good cry. Highly recommended.

TOP TRACKS: The Final Cut, Your Possible Pasts, The Fletcher Memorial Home

Have One On Me--Joanna Newsom
          I had a summer vacation a couple of years back where I delivered pizza for Pizza Hut. It was not a very fun job, but it had one undeniable perk. I got at least three hours a day, for an entire summer, of music enjoyment in my car. However, as I was working one of the more dangerous jobs around, I decided that taking my iPod to work was probably a bad idea. So I listened to CD's the old fashioned way. This made me appreciate the strength of the album again. Not only that, but it forced me to choose more wisely. So when I bought Joanna Newsom's follow up to her beautiful Ys (introduced to me by Allen Butt), it was mostly because the thing is a TRIPLE ALBUM that spans over two hours. I needed a long album to fill my time. I listened to it once. Then twice. Then over fifty times. Every time I hear it I get something new from it. The lyrics, the instrumentation, the atmosphere. Everything about the album is fresh and exciting and brilliant.

TOP TRACKS: '81, Go Long, Jackrabbits, Esme

The Age of Adz--Sufjan Stevens
          Where was he supposed to go after the jaw-dropping double threat of Come On Feel The Illinoise and The BQE? What was Stevens's next logical step? Famous for his broad instrumentation and huge sound, Stevens really swung for the fences with this one. While many fans argue that he relies too much on noise and distortion on this outing, I find the fuzzy, crowded atmosphere to be just right for the singer/songwriter. His lyrics, the most personal and cynical of his career, perfectly marry the digital whirrs and buzzes that Stevens supplies. It addresses his fame, the expectations of his fans, his ego, his religious demons. The album is Stevens's most interesting, and arresting, work so far.

TOP TRACKS: Vesuvius, All For Myself, Futile Devices, Impossible Soul

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy--Kanye West
          My jaw dropped when I heard this album for the first time. It is, without a doubt, the most maximalist music produced for commercial artists that I've ever heard. In many ways, Fantasy is not so different from Age of Adz. They're both filled to the brim with noise, voices, and emotions. They're both produced by guys who have written entire albums about Illinois. They're both musicians who address their personal demons directly in their lyrics. Their egos often control their production. I've been a casual fan of Kanye for a few years. Since high school, around the time Late Registration dropped, I've been fascinated by West's ability to make his innermost fears and regrets the highlights of his albums. He is a true pop star, the most interesting pop star working today, because he is a real person. He's a jerk, a genius, a child. He's defensive about his music, his mother, his intelligence. Fantasy is the album he's been trying to make for ten years, and it does not disappoint. It is one of the finest albums I've ever heard.

TOP TRACKS: Monster, Runaway, Lost in the Woods, Blame Game

Fever Ray--Fever Ray
          Karin Andersson's side-project is, in my opinion, far more interesting than Andersson's "real" band, The Knife. Not because Fever Ray is necessarily better, but because it is a stronger expression of Andersson's abilities as a producer. The Knife, known for its catchy, '80's-loving indie-electronica sound has its own thing going on. The Knife is all about exuberance and living in the moment. Fever Ray, on the other hand, is a bit darker. A bit more unsettling. So of course I love it. The album is packed with eerie soundscapes and mysterious lyricism. It is about loneliness, despair, growing up, dying. The album is also just that, an album. I can't listen to just a couple of tracks from this masterpiece, it is made to be listened to all the way through.

TOP TRACKS: If I had a Heart, Seven, Keep the Streets Empty for Me

Stop Making Sense--Talking Heads
          There are few things David Byrne can't do. Make a terrible live album is one of those things. Stop Making Sense is not only the perfect setlist made during the peak of Talking Heads' talent, but the album itself works as the single best introduction to the Talking Heads possible. Match the album's amazing setlist with the fact that it is a miraculously good concert film, and you've got yourself a Friday night.

TOP TRACKS: Heaven, Once in a Lifetime, This Must Be the Place(Naive Melody), Found a Job

Live At The Royal Albert Hall--Bob Dylan
          We all know that Dylan went electric. We all know about the uproar. We know the history. But sometimes you need to experience these things for yourself. Dylan's 1966 performance in the Royal Albert Hall is unmatched when it comes to live albums. The first set, all acoustic, displays his excellent showmanship and (yes, I'm serious) his amazing vocals. He doesn't need to be classically trained. He doesn't need an objectively fantastic voice to be a fantastic vocal performer. The songs weren't written for that. It's an Americana groan, a tired dust bowl cry. His voice in this performance is stunning. The second half of the album is his electric set. The audience goes wild. The famous "JUDAS!" shout can be heard during this set. It is a perfect live album. The best possible display of Dylan's amazing talent.

TOP TRACKS: It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, Mr. Tambourine Man, Ballad of a Thin Man

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea--Neutral Milk Hotel
          You knew this was coming. It's the Citizen Kane of albums. Everybody's favorite. But for good reason, the thing is sensational. The lyrics, the vocals, the song structure. It's a masterpiece. Whenever I listen to "Oh Comely" I can do nothing but marvel at Mangum's words. It is a magnificent piece of writing.

TOP TRACKS: Oh Comely, Two-Headed Boy Part 2

Achilles Heel--Pedro The Lion
          Everybody has an album that speaks to them. An album that feels like it took all of your beliefs, fears, regrets, and desires and turned them into a forty minute experience. This is that album for me. From "Bands with Managers" to "The Poison," Pedro the Lion's album is about contentment, and how contentment can spread like a disease. Everything from Bazan's vocals to the tight musicianship of the band to the song structure to the song order of the album is as perfect as I've ever seen. On most days I consider this the best album I've ever heard.

TOP TRACKS: Bands With Managers, Arizona, Start Without Me

Songs From a Room--Leonard Cohen
          Cohen's follow up to his debut album is a more somber, lonely kind of album. Even for him. Although his guitar is backed by a full band this time around, the album still seems sparse. Minimalist, even. There are moments in the album, such as the French chorus in "The Partisan," where the music escapes the titular room and reaches out beyond the desolation that Cohen so famously describes in his lyrics. But these moments only serve to make the listener more aware of how contained the album really is. In the tragic, beautiful song "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy," Cohen describes a suicide, and its reasons, in grim detail and with sentiment. It is Cohen's breathtaking lyricism that escalates his unapologetically rough vocals. His nonchalance to it all is the reason these songs have so much impact. Yes, these things happen. But they're going to happen again.

TOP TRACKS: The Butcher, Tonight Will Be Fine, The Partisan

Celebration, Florida--The Felice Brothers
          It didn't take long for this one to become my favorite. The Felice Brothers have been among my go-to bands for a while now. The storytelling aspect of Ian Felice's lyrics proves to be a good fit with me. As you've probably guessed, I enjoy me a slow, wordy song. But this album is something special. It contains similar elements to the Brother's previous work, but it's just a little unhinged. The album is angry, possessed by cynicism, jaded. Its title, named after the town Walt Disney founded near Disney World, was picked after that town had its first murder last year. It was an ax murder. Ian's lyrics cover everything from Honda Civics to Oliver Stone to Ponzi Schemes to the weight of expectation from fans. This album is loud, angry, experimental, and brilliant.

TOP TRACKS: Fire in the Pageant, Ponzi, River Jordan

Bone Machine--Tom Waits
          Like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits tries to do something a little different with each of his albums. With Mule Variations, waits went for the dust bowl sound. In Rain Dogs, Waits tried to recreate the immigrant experience, and so on. Bone Machine is his album about death. From the opening track "Earth Died Screaming," there is no mistaking the album's apocalyptic themes. Waits waxes poetic about various aspects of death, ranging from bodies turning into dust to the tragedy of dying young. He rants about not wanting to grow up and get old. He refers to bodies as machines made of bone, performing their functions until they have to shut down. However, even with the somber subject matter, Waits finds a way to make it fun with his inventive percussion and beautiful songwriting.

TOP TRACKS: Earth Died Screaming, Who Are You?

Nebraska--Bruce Springsteen
          You guessed it, my favorite album from arena-rocker's vast discography is his most quiet, moody, and wordy. Originally recorded as demos for a later, E Street Band album, Springsteen found himself writing from an introspective, singer/songwriter place instead. Songs like "Nebraska" and "Atlantic City" started spilling out of him, and he decided to just roll with it. Nebraska is about the American heartland, and how all is not well. The titular track covers the same ground as the Terrence Malick film from which it is based, Bandlands, and it details the murderous road trip of a young couple across the Nebraska badlands. The album plays off of Springsteen's fear of loneliness, regret, solitude. It is sparse and uncompromising. A great album.

TOP TRACKS: Nebraska, Atlantic City, Highway Patrolman

The Crying Light--Antony & The Johnsons
          Even Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen fans need to hear some beautiful singing every now and then. It's a good thing Antony's around. The piano-playing, falsetto singing, lyrical genius that is Antony Hegarty really swings for the fences on this release. He speaks about nature, gender (Antony himself is transgender), love, abandon, God, and death with such confidence and such beauty that it is impossible not to believe him. The instrumentation alone is absolutely gorgeous. Pure ear candy.

TOP TRACKS: Aeon, Daylight and the Sun, The Crying Light

Breach--The Wallflowers
          Breach is one of those albums I can listen to at any time and get into. Long after "One Headlight"'s radio omnipresence left the country, frontman Jacob Dylan (son of Bob) wrote the songs that would end up on this album. It still has that groovy '90's sound, but the lyricism is much more aggressive and dirty. The sounds are catchy, maddeningly so, and the album is really meant to be played as a unit. For this reason, no real singles came out of this bad boy. And that's a shame, because the album is really pretty amazing.

TOP TRACKS: Hand Me Down, Witness, Birdcage

What are some of your favorite albums? Let me know in the comments below or on Facebook!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Unbalanced and Extraordinary: Dear Zachary

          Kurt Kuenne's documentary, Dear Zachary, is all at once amateur, over-the-top, subjective, sentimental, horrifying, beautiful, and unfinished. The first thing you notice about the film is that it is small. It was made on a shoe-string budget by a friend of the Bagby family and was edited over the course of several years.

        The film's structure is unsound. Sometimes the looseness of the film feels intentional. There are scenes where the narration is the only thing keeping it together, as if a mistake in the filming forced the documentary in a direction that Kuenne was uncomfortable taking. There are interviews that are ripped to shreds in the editing because it's clear that the wrong questions were asked. The timeline moves back and forth with no order. Inserts of home movies interrupt the flow of the film in ways that startle the viewer. The editing actually distracts from the picture, making everything feel crowded, fussy, and unprofessional.

     When I started watching the film, I realized that there was a serious problem. It begins with a narration by Kuenne where he describes his relationship with the subject of the film. The subject, Andrew Bagsby, was murdered in the early 2000's, and Kuenne decided to make a film in tribute to Andrew by documenting the years following his death. The film includes hundreds of interviews and home movies concerning Andrew. It becomes clear early on that Kuenne's affection for Andrew is strong, perhaps too strong, for the kind of documentary it appears to be.

     The film--at least the first half--is a parallel narrative that documents Andrew's early life as well as the investigation of his murder. While the bits about his early life are charming, they definitely lean on the side of sentimental. Swelling piano music fills the soundtrack every time somebody mentions Andrew, and this style begins to wear on the viewer. The film tries too hard to make us immediately love Andrew, and it seems to not trust that we can do it on our own without the amateurish techniques employed by the filmmaker.

     However, I decided to keep watching, seeing as the film has been getting rave reviews almost unanimously for three years. And I'm happy that I did.

    To be clear, the film is not kidding. Its sentimentality is sincere, almost too sincere, and in this way the final half of the film is a devastating blow. I don't want to spoil the story for you, as the development of the increasingly complicated plot is half of the brilliance of the documentary, but I will say that Dear Zachary turns into a surprisingly upsetting, and shocking, piece of documentary filmmaking.

      It takes on an impressionistic form. The awkward editing and schmaltzy piano is turned against the viewer as the film continues. As Kuenne's story becomes more unbelievable, so, too, does the way in which he tells the story. The talking heads begin to speak over one another. Various visual and aural motifs begin to repeat themselves in interesting ways. The film begins to fold in on itself. Something magical happens.

    What begins as a pretty standard dateline episode turns into a wrenching true story told in an explosive way. That's not to say that the film doesn't have its problems, but that Dear Zachary is one of the more fresh documentaries I've seen in a while. And part of its excellence stems from its unpretentious style. From its unpolished esthetic.

I highly recommend the film, which is on Netflix Watch Instantly, and runs 90 minutes.

I give it 7/10 excellent second acts.