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Archive for October, 2008

Cinema often has a knack of being therapeutic without intending to do so. It can even make pain seem exquisite and worthy of admiration. Such films offer no respite for the audience and are relentless with their pursuit of nihilism, decadence and utter disregard from any sort of closure. For certain people, more rewarding are films that merely epitomize grandeur, absurdity and a gigantic dollop of fun. Reluctant to accept that cinema is anything more than entertainment, such movies are none too subtle in their efforts to appear silly. Now don’t get me wrong, such films don’t belittle the audience by vying for their attention through nefariously retarded storylines or jokes that involve fat people falling down the stairs, getting a bad case of flatulence, and sometimes, even both…. simultaneously. Rather they lure the viewers with a plausible storyline, a set of kooky characters, and most of all, satirical humour.

Directed by Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder is all that and then some. It’s hilarious and ironically, also very aware of the constant deviations it takes from any semblance of logic. Long story short, Tropic Thunder chronicles the comic events that take place on set during the shooting of a big-budget Vietnam War flick. The film revolves around Ben Stiller, Brandon Jackson, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr as four renowned actors – Tugg Speedman, Alpa Chino, Jeff Portnoy and Kirk Lazarus respectively. Two of them are prima donnas, one a heroin addict and the other a closet homosexual. Thanks to the rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), a psychotic, foul-mouthed movie executive (Tom Cruise) and a tormented novelist (Nick Nolte), the four of them get caught up in a real-life guerilla situation involving mistaken identities and drug peddlers.

There is a twist at the end, but Tropic Thunder is more about the eccentricities and many quirks of its inhabitants. And the irony is that even though we get a real kick out of most of them, the director intentionally diverts our attention when it comes to making an emotional investment on the characters. By the end of the film, I felt this disconnection from the people whose fabricated adventure I was watching for the past two hours. I guess that’s why I enjoyed it so much. Even if the final scene had involved all the main characters getting brutally killed, it still would not have taken anything away from the constant entertainment that preceded it.

Ben Stiller is at his best, with his portrayal of a former action movie star whose success quickly faded away once he had started focusing on serious acting. Jack Black is…well, almost always an exaggeration of what we think he is…stout, not astute and the first person amongst the group to do something outrageously dumb. Having said that, the scenes in which he suffers from withdrawal symptoms are both hilarious and offensive. Maybe it is funny until someone gets hurt, then it is just hilarious. Hmmmm. Nick Nolte is funny as hell; interestingly enough, his character was a bit similar to the one played by Jai Ganesh in a god-awful Karthik film Ullathai Allitha.

Robert Downey hogs the cake and the limelight as Lazarus, an Aussie method actor who undergoes ‘skin pigmentation” surgery, just to add authenticity to his role as an African American. The constant arguments between him and Alpa Chino are hilarious. At one point, Chino gets so fed up with Speedman that he starts hopping around like a Kangaroo, hoping to get under the skin of the “Aussie actor”. It might not sound terribly funny or well thought out, but it’s the sort of running gag that doesn’t lend itself to criticism with its banality. Instead they tickle your funny bones with politically incorrect gags that explode on cue.

In fact, a long, analytical review of Tropic Thunder seems pretentious in hindsight, considering you don’t have to think too much to enjoy this film. All you need is a lazy Sunday afternoon and buttered popcorn.

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The only other guy whose opinion of French cinema I respect has started blogging.

Click here to read his thoughts on the assasination attempt on Dr Hannibal Lecter’s legacy.

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I am really not sure why I watch the reality show – So You Think You Can Dance. I would like to say that I watch it because having front row seats to the theatre of the great American cultural decay is sort of cool in a cynical way. I might even want to say that it gives me further evidence of my supposed detachment from pop culture.

But no.

I think I actually watch it for the dancing. It’s fun, but surprisingly not in an ‘oh look at that dude who landed on his head‘ sort of way. As much fun as that sounds, I am more intrigued the music that accompanies the performances. Having watched two seasons of the show, I have discovered new species of musicians who create fantastic dance music. Eddie Torres, Sergio Mendes, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Róisín Murphy, Mambokats, and the list goes on.

Yesterday, a wee couple danced their little hearts out to a pop jazz ditty – Cabaret Hoover with Australian choreographer Wade Robson, who is renowned for his stint in of Michael Jackson’s troupe and also for having a verb as his first name, working out the dance movements.

Cabaret Hoover is an original piece created by Benoît Charest for the animated French satire film Les Triplettes de Belleville. The song starts with an eerie section that sounds like a percussionist fiddling around with a packet of tic tacs while bringing a tiny hammer down on metal xylophone. And then there’s the noise of a vacuum cleaner breathing softly in the background, followed by ethereal howls, groans and the sound of a flock of bees buzzing dangerously close to a mouth organ.

For me, it’s the sort of sound that asks a rather important question…how abstract can music be until it becomes mere noise?

Er…the dancing is pretty good too.

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Benoît Charest – Cabaret Melville

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The Original Soundtrack of Les Triplettes de Belleville

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Mathangi “Maya” Arul Pragasam, daughter of Lankan-Tamilians Kala and Arular Pragasam, was born in 1977 at a nondescript hospital in Hounslow, London. But with her father motivated big-time by the Tamil militancy movement, her family moved to Sri Lanka and stayed there until the civil war escalated and made living conditions unsafe.

With the conflict getting progressively worse in Lanka and after years of relocating back and forth from Jaffna and Chennai, the Pragasam family finally moved to London for good, despite being “housed as refugees”. As a graduate of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Ms Pragasam nurtured a feverish interest in music and arts.

By 2002, she was an accomplished visual director, photographer, graphic designer, record producer and to a lesser extent, a rebel musician. By early 2005, she took up the alias M.I.A (Missing In Action) as a nod to the house that her dad co-built – the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS). With the Indie music scene burgeoning into the mainstream consciousness along with the file-sharing revolution whipping up a storm online, her first three tracks MIA, Galang and Lady Killa made her a household name in college radios and clubs. Her music was a cocktail of dancehall, electro hip-hop, British IDM and world fusion with lyrics that swayed between a call for militancy and a cry for reformism. MIA’s debut album Arular was made “off her demos with programmed beats” and despite this seemingly amateurish kick-off to her music career, it got her a Mercury Prize nomination, a gig at the Big Day Out festival and a cameo performance on Missy Elliot’s “Bad Man”. More importantly, it won her respect from Indie bands like LCD Soundsystem and The Cool Kids, as well as hip hop stalwarts like Nas and Kanye West.

By 2007, with word going around about her affinity for taking the IDM genre to largely unexplored places, the industry had a close eye on her sophomore album – Kala. Nearly two years later, they are still unable to take their eyes off this maverick. With diverse instrumentation that quite literally blew away her efforts in Arular, Kala was a collage of sounds with its soul neatly tucked away beneath varied conversations on terrorism and immigration politics. Songs such as “Bird Flu”, “Boyz” and “Jimmy” made it past censorship controversies and into the coffeehouse discussions of critics and fans alike.

On a personal note, I couldn’t stand “Boyz”…in fact, I hated it the first time I heard it in 2006. But after repeated listening, I discovered that it wasn’t the sound that I could not stand, but rather the tempo and joviality that it instantly seems to conjure up. Two years later, with most of my Bahaus and Birthday Party tracks deleted from the Recycle Bin, I have discovered the novelty of being moved to the dancefloor without too much provocation. Paying homage to Tamil Nadu’s Dappan Koothu style, it starts off like Kollywood music composer Deva’s wet dream; incorporating the talents of Urumee drummers from Chennai and Soca instrumentalists from Trinidad. About a minute into the song, she spits, “Hey now, let me go, hey know,” as the chorus kicks in…and now I am pretty dam sure. M.I.A. fucking rocks.

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M.I.A. – Boyz

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M.I.A’s Kala

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I desire that which pushes itself away from all acceptable forms of expression. Be it music, film or literature, the further they are from what I know them to be, the more comfortable I feel around them. From one of last decade’s finest alternative metal albums – Undertow by Tool, I give you…Prison Sex.

Click here to watch it

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There are millions of films that have been released over the past few decades that I really wanted to see but haven’t yet had the opportunity. By millions, I mean hundreds. So it’s going to be quite awhile before I start completely salivating at the prospect of new film releases. For now, I shall restrict the excitement levels to mild frothing.

Film: W

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss

Synopsis: Supposedly, it chronicles the series of incidents that led George W Bush to the bottom of the bottle and consequently into the limelight as the President.

Why I Care: I felt sympathetic towards a pedophile in Woodsman; I can’t wait to see if I even have an ounce of it for Dubya.

Film: House

Director: Robby Henson

Cast: Michael Madsen, Leslie Easterbrook, Allana Bale

Synopsis: Two stranded couples. Three expected survivors. One crazy-ass Alabama psycho.

Why I Care: In the trailer, the psycho claims to have “killed God after he let Him into his house”…verbal viral marketing? Nice.

Film: Synecdoche, New York

Director: Charlie Kaufman

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Synopsis: Hoffman plays a director neither at the apex of his career nor his marital life, who now embarks on his theatrical masterpiece – a life-size replica of New York inside a warehouse.

Why I Care: Two reasons. Hoffman and Kaufman.

Film: The Wrestler

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Michael Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

Synopsis: Supposedly, a tale of an independent wrestler rising up the ranks to face his nemesis.

Why I Care: Aronofsky’s return to Indie films, and Mickey playing a wrestler? I am going to end up watching this film at least six times.

Film: Saibogujiman Kwenchana (I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK)

Director: Chan-Wook Park

Cast: Su-Jeong Lim, Rain, Dal-Su Oh

Synopsis: IMDB says, “A girl who thinks she is a combat Cyborg checks into a mental hospital, where she encounters other psychotics,” and falls for a man who thinks he can steal people’s souls.”

Why I Care: Didn’t you read the synopsis? Also, Park is the twisted mind behind Oldboy and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance.

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I think Nirvana was one of the most overrated bands ever. While I can’t deny the catchy harmonies that drove their songs into the minds of a million flannel-clad minions, I can safely say that they weren’t even close to being one of best bands of the Nineties. Hell, they weren’t even the forefathers of Grunge. Redd Kross, along with Neil Young’s Crazy Horse band were the overlords of the Seattle Sound with Mudhoney and Green River as its rightful knights in rusty armour. But like I said, they did conceptualize good rhythms for their music. And there’s no stronger evidence of this than their widely-salivated 1993 album “Unplugged In New York”. The real gem of that album, I felt, was “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” – at first glance, a seemingly distraught lover’s lament. Cobain’s patented sandpaper vocals screech out the first few lines with repressed angst, “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night?” and then he goes on, as the lyrics slowly paint a picture of one of those creepy Southern backwoods’ stories.

Until a decade ago, I didn’t know that this was a cover song. Apparently, this song has its roots dating back to as early as 1870s. Originally titled as “In The Pines”, this haunting folk piece is “believed to be Southern Appalachian in origin” and its author nothing but a daunting mystery. In 1917, folk revivalist Cecil James Sharp was credited with the first printed version of the song; by then, it was titled “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”. Early 1920s witnessed a curious music enthusiast recording a version of this song onto a phonograph cylinder and interestingly enough, the lyrics were twisted and turned a bit to include a stanza about a decapitation and a reference about “the longest train”.

In fact, American folklore author Judith McCulloh (in a dissertation she wrote in 1970) claimed that there were nearly 160 permutations of the song. The common thread that runs through most of its incarnations was that lyrics always spoke of a woman being confronted. In some cases, we get the impression that the woman was “caught doing something wrong” and in others, it seems that she is being unfairly looked at as being guilty. Ora Ellison’s version of the song during the dawn of the twentieth century is probably the darkest, as it tells a tale of an African-American girl from Georgia getting raped by a male soldier, who later is decapitated.

Popularly known as Leadbelly, folk and blues guru William Ledbetter recorded many brilliant variants of this song between 1944 and 1948, which by then was titled “Black Girl (In The Pines)”. It sounds like one of those traditional blues tracks played during the Depression era…sort of like Ralph Stanley at a bluegrass concert. British singer/actress Marianne Faithful’s 1965 version was just as eerie with a dose of sweetness thrown in for good measure.

My favourite version of this legendary folk number is the one sung by Screaming Trees’ vocalist Mark Lanegan. His whiskey-soaked, nicotine-drenched vocals do justice to the song’s gritty roots. And oh, Cobain makes a smart move by restricting his vocals to the chorus section. Probably the best cover of a traditional song ever….yeah, even better than Pink Floyd psychedelic, spaced-out jamming on “House Of The Rising Sun”.

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Leadbelly – Black Girl (In The Pines)

Marianne Faithful – Black Girl

Mark Lanegan – Where Did You Sleep Last Night

Buy

Leadbelly’s Legacy Collection

Marianne Faithful’s Broken English

Mark Lanegan’s Whiskey For The Holy Ghost

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