Thoughts, notes, observations on the everyday nonsense of American Pop Culture from one of the most not-hip people on the face of the planet...

Friday, January 30, 2004

Review: Girl with a Pearl Earring

Upon first glance, Girl With a Pearl Earring looks like another ambitious (and boring) art movie. Aside from phenomenal acting and absolutely glorious cinematic, the film stands on an underlying current of sexuality that jumps out of every shot and every movement throughout it's 90-minute run.

The camera seems attached to the details of fine textures and color...much like a painting, viewed close up. Which is exactly what the film is about, coincidentally.

The story surrounds the life of a young, Dutch protestant, Grete (Scarlett Johanssen), who moves in with a prominent Catholic family as a maid, having no idea what she is about to get herself into. The master of the house, Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth), is a (typically) intense painter whose work is, at this point, no more than eye candy for rich patrons.

His wife is an absolute terror of demanding moneygrubbing and intense jealousy. She knows her husband has an eye for beauty and a passion for art, she uses his artwork as no more than a source of income. She invites the patrons over, where they tell Vermeer exactly what to paint for them.

It's humbling to see the great works of art Vermeer produces for these rich collectors. Today, these pieces are housed in museums and featured in art books...and in their own time, they were merely trendy wall hanging for the rich. Fascinating.

Amongst the wheeling and dealing of he rmasters, young Grete simply tries to stay out of the way of the thundering mistress and her occasionally creepy husband. But in cleaning his studio one day, the light, the color and Grete's wide, green eyes attract the artist andman in Vermeer to capture her essence.

From this intense moment of discovery, the audience and the players involve know there's no going back.

Grete understands Johannes, and we understand him through her eyes. The sound, color and light of every close up, every experience, is laid out in beautiful and wondering detail. As if we too are seeing the world through excited, young eyes.

Every shot, every detail and every jump of a muscle between Grete and Vermeer is laced with a raging undercurrent of want and eroticism. It doesn't matter what the true inspiration for the portrait really is...Firth and Johanssen so perfectly portrayed secret desire that they did not have to have a single kiss or love scene to make the audience squirm. His mere touch of her hands when creating paint colors is enough to make one blush.

In fact, when Johanssen finally sits for the portrait and th epose and moment strikes, the audience is still so completely unprepared for the dawning of artistic realization that they are likely to get goosebumps.

It is a real shame Johanssen was not nominated for her role in this film. With few line sof dialogue, she had t express everything quiet and underlying in this film through her face and eyes. Grete simply would not have had life as a character without Johanssen's amazing acting ability.

Though it was not nominated, the film is a definite must-see for any lover of art and beauty who likes scratching below the surface...

Thursday, January 22, 2004

What makes a “hero” super?

In worldwide popular culture, superheroes hold a special significance. From the still-going strong comic book industry to movies, commercials and apparel…superheroes have been around for decades and are in a current upswing in popularity.

Even though you might see your tragically hip classmate sporting Wonder Woman wristbands or “ironically” wearing a Batman t-shirt…it is almost certain that he or she has no idea what said fashion statement is all about.

And that’s not just a knock to indie rock culture (again). Even die-hard comic book fans, who have embraced their All-American superheroes since the early part of the 20th century have a difficult time definining the difference between a “hero” and a “superhero.”

This lack of a definition could be because comic book heroes, over time, eveolved from simply being the superpowers-and-tights types into tortured hereoes, shadow vigilantes and ethically-challenged do-gooders.

Or, it could be because popular culture has ripped off classic superheroes so many times over that no one is sure what to make of the arechetype anymore. For instance, The Wachowski Brothers took every comic hero cliché and rolled them up into the character of Neo. He had a code name, “super” powers, a costume…but is he a superhero? Or just a CGI fantasy?

This topic was recently addressed on a message board I frequent. There, comic fans and pop culture aficianadoes battled over who fit the bill as a superhero and what sort of “qualifications” determine such a title.

Extra-human abilities, costumes, code names and a desire to do good topped the lists as needed qualifications. Some even mentioned “justice” and “upholding law.”

As good as that may sound, it eliminates a great many popular heroes.

While classic do-gooders Superman and Wonder Woman qualify under these strict guidelines, what about that other big DC hero, Batman?

Sure, he has a code name, a costume, he desires to do “good.” But he is a rich guy, who happens to be in good shape and has ZERO extrahuman abilities. He relies on gadgets and strong fighting ability to fight crime. And he does it by dark of night as a sort of vigilante justice.

And if one argues that one doesn’t have to fit all qualifications to be considered a “superhero”, than Batman makes it. And so does MacGuyver.


That’s right. He also relies on gadgets and fighting abilities to do “good.” He also doesn’t do it vigilante-style. All he lacks is a costume and code name.

So what’s the end result of this discussion? Frankly, there isn’t one. But in the upcoming year of movies heralded as “superhero” films (Catwoman, by the way, is NOT a superhero) and the continuing Hot Topic trend of superhero chic, it is food for thought.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Let’s take a moment to appreciate: Cameron Crowe

Cameron Crowe, you are truly an unheralded hero amongst filmmakers. While critics and moviegoers easily name off films of Spielberg and Howard, Crowe’s films, popular as they are, are not hung on the recognition of his name.

Oh, but Cameron, your films are as deeply rooted in American popular culture. Why do they resonate so? Because this man knows how to define an era and set a tone with his viewers, in only language Americans really know: Music.

Cameron Crowe has, by far, the best ear for music in his films. He should. After all, he was a young reporter for Rolling Stone in the 1970s, and is the only music writer from that era to herald Led Zeppelin (as the rest of the music world declared them as “overrated”). His background of reporting in the music industry during what was arguably one of the greatest eras in American music history is what most likely led him to have such a keen ear for placing the right song in the right moment.

Crowe’s films, in general, are most notable for resonating moments. Images or scenes in Crowe’s films have become pop-culture icons and symbolic of modern filmmaking, yet no one puts the credit where it is due. Be it with an infinitely quotable line or with the perfect piece of music, it sticks.

Who else would have brought us the iconic image of a young John Cusack holding his boombox aloft in a backyard serenade of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (Say Anything)? Or a very vulnerable Tom Cruise singing his bad boy-best to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” in Jerry Maguire? Or, one of the greatest music moments in film history, the entire busload of tormented musicians and groupies singing along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in Crowe’s semi-autobiographical Almost Famous.

It’s moments like these that make movies memorable. The right audio cues, the trigger of an emotion…that which make movies last throughout popular culture...and eventually American culture at-large. are a true American filmmaker. Keep on rockin.'

A brief look at Cameron Crowe’s work:

Vanilla Sky

While the storyline of this freaked-out love story may be a bit too surreal for many moviegoers, the American pop imagery sets a tone with which puts the audience in a familiar place. Tom Cruise, in one of his more challenging recent roles, is an unlikable hero existing in his own perfect poptopia of a fake world. Here, instead of establishing the music around the era, as with past films, Crowe creates a soundtrack much like the new millennium itself: A mixture of past and present.

Best music moment: When Cruise runs, in a confused panic, to the Beach Boys’ equally surreal “Good Vibrations”

Almost Famous
Crowe’s own wide-eyed innocence as a young writer in the 70s shines through here in his own personal love story to American music. The story follows the rise of a quarreling band, Stillwater, a muse/groupie named Penny Lane and a young rock journalist discovering the truth behind the music. Every scene in painted in such verbal detail, such rose-tinted love; you wonder how much of this story really happened. Who is Stillwater based upon (most guess Zeppelin)? Who was Penny Lane (doesn’t matter…Kate Hudson is absolute perfection)? The era is drawn out in so much detail; other movies about the 70s just seem contrived.

Best music moment: The bus sing-along to “Tiny Dancer”

Jerry Maguire
This movie had all the makings of a total stinker: cute kids, sports star cameos and Bonnie Hunt. But Crowe’s winning story of a morally confused sports agent (Cruise, again) and his quest for real happiness really hit home in the corporate blues era of the late 1990s. The supporting cast, a cautious Renee Zellweger as Maguire’s unlikely mate and a very overconfident Cuba Gooding, Jr. (in his Oscar-winning role) as Maguire’s sole client, are what makes the movie click.

Best music moment: Maguire’s all-too-fitting sing-along of “Free Fallin’” in the car


The early 1990s is such an odd time period to capture, but this film places it in a bottle in perfect condition for later generations to figure out. Everything about the film is so iconic of the era; it makes me wonder if Crowe knew then what kind of lightning he had captured. From his cast of future stars (Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon, Kyra Sedgewick.” to his quintessential music choices, this story of Seattle twentysomethings might as well be a period piece.

Soundtrack: Absolutely perfect. Seattle was the music scene at this time and Crowe was tapped in, with tracks from all of the city’s breakout groups (save the notable exception of Nirvana): Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, Mother Love Bone, Alice in Chains…. and the very-90s flair of Paul Westerberg.

Say Anything

Almost everyone thinks John Hughes made this move. Probably because it has the teen love story. But would John Hughes have cast the now-larger-than-life John Cusack as a love struck teenage Romeo? Also unlike Hughes’ films, Crowe makes no joke out of first love and losing one’s virginity. The feelings created are raw and bittersweet, culminating in what may be one of the best popular film moments of its time.

Best music moment: Duh. The boombox in the yard…Peter Gabriel? You know the one.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

This is the other side of Crowe’s 70s. These are the kids that listened to bands like Stillwater and spent their after-school days smoking up and making out. Not to say this ode to pre-80s high school didn’t have quite an in-the-moment plot. More than just a funny flick, Fast Times has a story of teenage love gone wrong, abortion and fear of growing up. Not only that, but much like similar films Almost Famous and Say Anything, Crowe shows an eye for young talent, casting future heavyweights Sean Penn, Anthony Edwards and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Music Moment: The whole movie was a 70s music moment…but most memorable is the ultimate high school cruise to the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane.”

Monday, January 12, 2004

Best of 2003-Movies

Best of 2003...Movies

Sometimes, when one judges films, they have to seperate a film's entertainment value and popularity from it's artistic contribution. For instance, "Happy Gilmore" was a funny movie and a lot of people like dit...but no one was shocked when it wasn't up for Best Picture.

This year is not one of those years. Peter Jackson's startlingly moving and awesome-on-a-grand-scale finale, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King stole hearts and wallets and wowed critics this year, making it an easy win for Movie of the Year. Jackson brought in scores of moviegoers not with just special effects and fantasy, but with tender characterization, perfect pacing and a genuine love for a celebrated work.

So, of course, Jackson is this year's Director of the Year hands down, for doing what no one thought possible. Now, let's dethrone Titanic.

When it comes down to performances, it's hard to judge actors and actresses in terms of if their roles are leading or supporting, or how they did in one picture over another. This is where the Academy fails miserably in recognizing good work. The Critic's Guild and Screen Actor's Guild both award performances by looking at a year's body of work, which seems to more fairly represent talent.

In that vein, this year's Best Actor and Best Actress both had two great performances in two movies for which they should be recognized. Sean Penn and Scarlett Johanssen both had phenomenal years.

Johanssen turned in a nuanced and quietly brilliant perfomance as a lonely American yuppie in Japan in Lost in Translation, then turned around and completed an equally luminous supporting role in Girl Witthe Pearl Earring.

Penn pulled a similar double act with his best kind of roles: troubled men going through a gamut of emotions, in both 21 Grams and Mystic River.

In terms of a Breakout Performance, one actor this year startled critics everywhere into sitting up and taking notice. When Sean Astin's Samwise Gamgee took the reins of Lord of the Rings's finale, it was easy to see who amongst this cast of talented actors had grown the most. The final chapter turned out to be more of Sam's story than Frodo's...and Astin's own emergence as more than a simple character fill-in or former child star.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Best of 2003-Music

It may be a bit belated, but after a few days of contemplation and research, it's time to review the best of 2003. Here's the first of a few entries...

Best of 2003...Music

Artist of the Year...who produced the best work this year? As a body of original work, Outkast really outdid themselves (and everyone else) this year. With two hit singles ("The Way You Move" and the everlasting "Hey Ya!"), a one-two punch of an album in Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, two hilarious videos and guest appearances galore, this has been their year. Long live Andre 3000 and Big Boi, who once again saved hip-hop.

Album of the Year...who made the best album? Although Outkast had a great showing this year with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the best album overall this year has to go to The White Stripes for Elephant. In a time of pop princesses, rap supastars and screeching "rap rockers" Jack and Meg White have made music that sounds like, well, rock 'n roll, the way it used to be.
The sound is simple, a drum, a guitar and thump-your-car-roof, play-air-guitar jams. The opening bass line of "7 Nation Army" may be one recognized for it should be. THIS is what rock should be.

Breakout of the Year...It's easy to look at the charts and listen to the airwaves to find the new artist who heated up 2003. Sean Paul hit pop radio, hip hop circuits and dance clubs like a force of nature this year, producing a string of hit solo singles ("Gimmie the Light," "Get Busy," "Like Glue"), jamming duets (with Beyonce on "Baby Boy," crooner Sascha on "I'm Still in Love" and none other than Busta Rhymes on "Make it Clap"), and a top-selling album in Dutty Rock. Paul has brought a new sound to American hip-hop by giving a face to island dancehall music....

Which is why Dancehall is the Music Genre of the Year. While it is true that No Doubt tried to popularize dancehall last year with Rock Steady, it didn't take off. Why? Because they aren't dancehall singers! With the mainstream introduction of dancehall artists Sean Paul, Wayne Wonder and Elephant Man in 2003...dancehall has filtered into American hip hop and will most likely be copied to the point of exhaustion by the likes of P. Diddy and Nelly next year.

Speaking of Nelly, he with the Band-Aid gets the honor of having this year's Worst Single with the absolutely god-awful "Air Force Ones," followed closely by none other than himself for the almost equally awful "Shake Ya Tail Feather" with P. Diddy. How does this guy keep selling records? His songs are stupid and unoriginal. In fact, I'll venture to say Nelly has contributed nothing to society since his breakout with Country Grammar. Maybe protégée Murphy Lee will correct this streak.

Nelly could use a lesson from Outkast on making a catching single. "Hey Ya!" is easily this year's Best Single. It's no wonder this catchy tune about failed romance is this year's best. After all, if you've ever seen this song played over the speakers at a sporting event or mall, you can see how deeply a hip-hop song has imbedded itself into our collective consciousness. When the song starts, little kids, suburban moms and grandpas bob their heads and tap their feet. Not exactly typical reaction of hip-hop or rap songs in Middle America, is it?

Finally, the Most Overrated Artist of the Year has to be Evanescence. Like Nickelback one year ago, Evanescence had a really big hit song that got wildly overplayed, and, for some reason, people in my industry thought this made them great. Magazine covers, TV shows, radio interviews. Heck, there's already been a highly publicized rift in the band. Shouldn't you guys have a second album before you get this sort of treatment? Of course not. This is America. We don't like bands like this long enough for them to have a second album! Flavor of the week? Nah, they are better than that. But good luck making this kind of ear power stick around in 2004.