Category: 1992


Unforgiven1

When they’re wronged, most people feel an immediate need for justice to right that wrong. When someone steals, we put them in jail. When someone kills, a handful of states (in a barbaric practice) will kill in return. And while putting someone in jail can keep them from stealing again and executions can keep someone from killing again, is that justice? It doesn’t restore the stolen property. It doesn’t bring the dead back to life. It simply appeases our need to feel that something has been done even if nothing productive came out of the act itself. And the idea that we then commit violence for violence’s sake becomes terrifying and that paradox of how to make right that which is wrong lies at the core of the mature and thematically complex anti-Western, Unforgiven.

When someone is assaulted or violated in some physical manner, society’s focus tends to be on the aggressor of that violence rather than the victim? And while it’s important to ensure that these acts can’t occur again, why is that the epicenter of our attention? Why isn’t it the person that’s hurting? They are the ones who suffered the most, not the society that punishes the action causing the pain. And, while their names may be invoked in the quest for “justice,” too often their actual needs are swept under the rug. And throughout Unforgiven, men seek “justice” while the woman whose brutalization sets the film in motion never has her world returned to normal.

Continue reading

Advertisements

TwinPeaksFireWalkWithMe1Back in 2001, Japanese video game visionary Hideo Kojima finally released the long-awaited follow-up to his now iconic stealth/action classic, Metal Gear Solid. But, when Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was released, critical acclaim was through the roof but fan reactions were more mixed. Though history has vindicated the game as the original and premier example of post-modernism in blockbuster gaming, Kojima ripped the floor out from underneath players who were expecting more of the same by replacing beloved hero Solid Snake with the far more polarizing Raiden and throwing in an ending that works more as an allegory than an actual narrative. 1992’s Twin Peaks follow up film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, bears the Twin Peaks name, but one can almost hear David Lynch cackling with delight for anyone expecting more of the same of the ABC drama.

Fire Walk With Me was a massive disappointment upon its first release, and it’s easy to see why. Fans who wanted answers to any of the cliffhangers that dominated the show’s controversial finale were left hanging when it becomes quickly apparent that Fire Walk With Me is a prequel. Fans expecting more of the show’s quirky humor and lovable characters will also be unfulfilled because Fire Walk With Me is dark. It is, arguably, the darkest film in Lynch’s whole ouevre, outstripping even the terrifying Inland Empire. And, of course, Kyle MacLachlan’s Dale Cooper is in the film for less than ten minutes. But, if you take Fire Walk With Me on its own terms, it is a stark and deeply disturbing allegory for the darkest sides of human nature that is, unfortunately, wrapped in some of Lynch’s most consistent and glaring struggles as a director.

TwinPeaksFireWalkWithMe2

As I said, Fire Walk With Me is a prequel to the Twin Peaks television program. And, other than the lengthy intro that delves into the investigation of Teresa Banks (the first murder in a string and what drew Dale Cooper to Twin Peaks after Laura’s murder), the film is primarily contained to the final days leading up to Laura Palmer’s (Sherly Lee) murder. And with Laura’s inevitable murder hanging over all of the actions of the film (as well as the true identity of Laura’s murderer), Fire Walk With Me is a study of a woman in the throes of a self-destructive spiral and a close examination of the myriad causes of her downfall.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the action of the film for those who haven’t seen the film, but in true David Lynch fashion, if Fire Walk With Me accomplishes one thing, it’s that it leaves you with more questions than it provides answers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Inland Empire and Eraserhead are both particularly inaccessible but if you ponder them long enough, you’ll realize what they’re about (maybe). And Fire Walk With Me is the same way. And, while it’s packed to the brim with Lynch’s signature surrealistic flourishes, they are almost always in service to the film’s haunting allegory of rape, incest, and drug abuse.

TwinPeaksFireWalkWithMe3

Fire Walk With Me is scary. Though it occasionally devolves into what I believe may be blatant Lynchian self-parody, when Lynch sets out to scare you, he does. Disturbing barely scratches the surface of many of the film’s most brutal moments. Fire Walk With Me becomes so intense and painfully raw that it hurts to watch. Ignoring the most obvious choice (Laura’s death), there’s a moment mid-way through the film where Laura and Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle has been replaced by the superior Moira Kelly) go to a strip club. And Laura’s sexual degradation is haunting and heart-breaking.

Sheryl Lee (who was originally cast just for the show’s pilot and to be a corpse but was eventually made a recurring character as Laura’s cousin Maddy because she made such an impression with David Lynch) has to carry the entire film, and her performance is something of a mixed bag, and it’s weird where it falters. She handles the “biggest” scenes of the film extraordinarily well to the point that I suspect David Lynch was actually torturing her somehow (Hitchcock was notorious for abusing his leading ladies to get more natural performances). But, during the little moments, her acting is wooden and artificial. It’s confusing. Ray Wise is the best performance of the film as the terrifying (and more complex than previously on the show) Leland Palmer.

TwinPeaksFireWalkWithMe4

But, lacking Inland Empire‘s excuse of being a literal nightmare in movie form, Fire Walk With Me can be unforgivably unfocused. It takes nearly forty minutes before Laura, the main character of the film, shows up and while there are some inspired moments here and there, the intro, told from the point of view of new characters Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaaks) and Sam Stanley (The Lost Boys‘ Kiefer Sutherland), seems to serve no other purpose than to tease the audience. It’s only contribution to the over-all plot was a Chekhov’s Gun for the very end, and it could have used some heavy editing.

You have to come into Fire Walk With Me with an open mind or you’re going to be terribly disappointed. Though it is technically Twin Peaks: The Movie in name, it is not Twin Peaks: The Movie in content or style. But, it is still required viewing for fans of the show who want a deeper look at the figure whose tragic murder drove the entire first season. And though I took umbrage with Lynch’s inability to stick to what was working (certain elements of the film felt like he was trying to shoehorn in plots the networks wouldn’t let him run on the show), this film is an undeniable look into sheer terror and one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen in ages.

Final Score: B

 

ElMariachi1

When movies are shot on paper-thin budgets but go on to be massive successes anyway, it gives heart to independent film-makers around the world that you don’t need a studio-sized checkbook to make an appealing movie that others will want to see. Whether that’s Paranormal Activity, Clerks, or The Blair Witch Project, there are plenty of great examples of accomplishing a lot with very little (Paranormal Activity was first shot in 2007 on a $15,000 budget and now it’s one of the most profitable films of all time). 1992’s El Mariachi was very profitable if not a huge box office smash (it made around $2 million compared to the $7,000 it required to shoot it), but it’s success is notable for an entirely different reason. With a movie financed almost entirely by taking part in a medical research study, Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) shot himself to international superstardom as a filmmaker and it only got better from this impressive debut.

Although it will become somewhat clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Robert Rodriguez and El Mariachi, that respect is primarily related to how professional this film is able to feel despite the fact that Rodriguez had never made a feature-length film before, shot the movie entirely in single takes, and made it for a grand total of $7,000. Because, at the end of the day, El Mariachi is a B-movie at it’s heart (though, let’s face it, all of Rodriguez’s films are), and if this same movie were made on a budget of over half a million dollars, people would probably laugh in his face. But, the film was shot for $7,000 and for someone who struggled to shoot a five minute short film on a literal $0 budget with film-making tools given to me for free, it’s impressive to an absurd degree that Rodriguez was able to make this film.

ElMariachi2

When a white gangster, Moco (Peter Marquardt) in Mexico double-crosses a vengeance-fueled Mexican hit man, Azul (Reinol Martinez), an all-out war breaks out between Moco’s men and the one-man death army known as Azul. Azul’s MO is to wander around as a traveling Mariachi but he secretly keeps his stash of weapons hidden inside his guitar case to be able to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. And this spells trouble when an actually mariachi, known only in the film as El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo), stumbles into town just looking for a job and a place to play his music. But when a case of mistaken identity leads to El Mariachi being mistaken for Azul, El Mariachi becomes the prime target of Moco’s men and though he flees to the safety of a saloon ran by the beautiful Domino (Consuelo Gomez), that only spells more trouble for himself and his unwilling savior.

I won’t waste your time harping on any of the performances of the principal actors because none of them are worth praise (though Carlos Gallardo seemed like he had potential. It was a shame his career never really took off after this film). Instead, what’s impressive is Rodriguez’s ability to tell a mostly compelling action story (that was a fun spin on the classic North by Northwest tale of mistaken identity) with so few tools at his disposal. Even this early on, Rodriguez’s talents as a pop auteur were on full display and even as a neophyte, Rodriguez already had a mastery of pacing and editing. In fact, it’s the editing of the film that I often found the most impressive because as someone who’s written, directed, shot, and edited a film, editing is without question the hardest part.

ElMariachi3

I’ll keep this review extra short cause it’s been a couple days since I’ve watched it and other than being a feat of budget wizardry, there’s not a hell of a lot to say about El Mariachi other than how enjoyable it remains even 21 years later. There’s nothing deep about this movie. It’s an action movie centered around a case of mistaken identity that happens to feature a surprisingly sympathetic hero and love interest. If you aren’t a fan of B-Action films, knowing that Robert Rodriguez made this movie on a shoe-string budget won’t make you like it more. But, for those who have a soft spot in their heart for camp, El Mariachi is a delightful exercise in independent film-making and a fascinating insight into the formative years of a star who is one of the most talented popcorn filmmakers out there today.

Final Score: B

 

Glengarry Glen Ross

GlengarryGlenRoss1

More than any other aspect of screen writing, dialogue is the trickiest to nail (at least for me). To find the perfect balance between propelling the story forward without inundating the audience with flat exposition is one of the toughest high wire acts of all. Some writers have a natural gift for it. You could almost just simply listen to an Aaron Sorkin film with the visuals turned off and not miss a beat of what was happening or lose a second of enjoyment. It’s snappy, witty, and fast. Woody Allen is the same way, and though this may seem hyperbolic, I’ve long believed that Deadwood scribe David Milch is the best writer of poetic (yet astonishingly crude) dialogue since William Shakespeare. Playwright David Mamet deserves to rank among these men.

It is often under the leanest conditions that writers deliver the most precise and captivating material. Conversations with Other Women is more or less a man and a woman reminiscing on their past love and their current entanglements for an hour and a half, but it’s romantic drama perfection. You Can Count on Me is on its face a simple story of brothers and sisters who can’t be what the other needs, but a truer depiction of the modern family has yet to be made. Based off Mamet’s own stage play, 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross could be reduced to its base story of four men competing in a sales contest, but beneath that, it’s a stark condemnation of human greed and the perils of ambition. It is a warning of the lengths that men will sink when their careers depend on it, and it is one of the most finely acted films I’ve ever seen.

GlengarryGlenRoss2

Endearingly referred to as “Death of a Fuckin’ Salesman,” Glengarry Glen Ross charts a fateful twenty four hour period at a flailing Chicago real estate firm. When a tough-talking and foul-mouthed representative (Alec Baldwin) from the home offices drops an atomic ultimatum into the mix of a heated sales contest, the four salesmen working at the company and their manager (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil‘s Kevin Spacey) find their world’s turned upside down. The top salesman at the end of the week wins a Cadillac El Dorado. The second best gets a set of steak knives. And the bottom two performers get shit canned.

Every man in the office spirals into his own turmoils and base instincts. Shelly “the Machine Levine (Jack Lemmon) has a sick daughter and is riding a month of bad luck and shitty leads. The oldest man in the office, Levine works harder than nearly everyone else, but the customers haven’t been calling. Dave Moss (Ed Harris) is an angry schemer with dreams of stealing and selling the valuable “Glengarry leads” to a rival agency and wants his coworker George Aaranow (Catch-22‘s Alan Arkin) to do his dirty work. Smooth-talking Rick Roma (Scarface‘s Al Pacino) is the only guy in the office closing any sales but even he finds himself tested when a big deal threatens to fall apart even after the paperwork has been signed.

GlengarryGlenRoss3

We are 306 movies into this blog, and Glengarry Glen Ross has without question the best ensemble cast of any film yet. It won that race and then lapped everybody around it for good measure. The performance from Alec Baldwin perhaps sums this film’s strengths up better than any other performance (although trust me, we’ll get to Pacino and Jack Lemmon in a second). He’s in the film for all of 7 minutes but by the time his seven minutes are up, you may find yourself exhausted from the gushing fountain of vitriol, greed, and obscenities that spews from his mouth (and person). The man is capitalistic excess and evil incarnate and Baldwin turns the small role into one of the greatest one-scene performances in all of cinema.

Baldwin appears early in the film and disappears quickly, but after his monologue, I thought it would be impossible for any one to top him in the film. Apparently, I’d forgotten how great Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon are. Jack Lemmon is primarily known for his comedic roles. With Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon is responsible for some of Hollywood’s most beloved comedies. But he turns Shelley Levine into such a broken, sniveling, desperate man that you forget you’re even watching Jack Lemmon. You just see a man who has fallen to the lowest nadir of any man’s life, and Lemmon makes you feel every last bit of pressure as money and greed and the futility of life suck his very essence away. It was a masterful performance.

GlengarryGlenRoss4

And Al Pacino! After his hammy, overwrought turn in Scarface earlier this week, I’d nearly forgotten how terrific he is when he controls himself and lets the explosions come with precision. Ricky Roma has a silver tongue and we see him ply it over a customer as he tries to make a sale and later have to weave even more intricate lies and run-arounds as he tries to keep that client in the company’s fold. But, as fate and the incompetence of others threatens to unfurl Roma’s machinations, Roma unleashes his not-so-righteous fury on those that threaten to impede him. And watching Pacino flip that switch from cool to terrible is one of the most delightful experiences in all of film-making.

The whole cast is wonderful from Arkin’s spineless Aaronow to Ed Harris’s manipulative Moss to Kevin Spacey’s bureaucratic Williamson. It would be too easy to spend this entire review raving about how wonderful and nuanced each performance is. These actors gel with the type of coordination and rhythm that you only seem to find on television programs where the same actors have been performing together for years. Mamet’s world feels lived in and the intimacy each performer brings to the table makes you feel each stab and wound as these men betray and assault one another to survive.

GlengarryGlenRoss5

As much as Glengarry Glen Ross brutally savages the spiritually decayed men that inhabit its walls and sell their souls for real estate and fleeting success, the film’s true indictment rings against the system and culture that forces Ricky Roma an Shelley Levine to be the kind of men they become. These men are forced to fight tooth and nail for useless leads. They have to degrade their own ethics and morals to close on these worthless leads and only then will the company let them touch the real leads that might lead them to fruitful deals. The original stage play was one of the first major indictments of Reagan-era greed and ennui, and it rings even truer today as a haunting prediction of the spiritual state of our nation.

Glengarry Glen Ross is one of those films that has it all. It has a monumentally important story. It’s characters are as fleshed-out and developed as any that have hit the big screen. The performances are universally sublime. There isn’t wasted second in a story that is the definition of efficient. And the dialogue is as sumptuous a feast as you’re likely to ever find. It has been six months (Margaret in August) since a film received the honors I’m about to bestow upon this film, but nothing has come close to deserving it in a while. Glengarry Glen Ross is cinematic perfection and, simply put, one of the best films I’ve reviewed so far.

Final Score: A+

 

(Quick aside before my actual review. We’re on sort of a hot streak here with reviews. Lots of very good or great films lately. And you have to love it when that happens. Makes me remember why I do this blog in the first place.)

I’m going to put forth a rather unpopular position to hold here in the United States. It’s so unpopular, in fact, that if one is running for President of the United States and holds this policy position, they are essentially unelectable. I don’t believe in the death penalty at all. I used to be ardently pro-capital punishment. It was one of my token conservative beliefs (in the face of my otherwise liberal/European political disposition). Yet, after readingJohn Grisham’s non-fiction crime novel, An Innocent Man, I had a fairly sudden and decisive change of heart. The possibility that a single innocent man can be executed invalidates the entire process, and the class and racial disparities inherent in who is actually executed speaks to an inherent inequality and bias to the system. The rest of the world has realized what a barbaric and uncivilized system it is, but here in America we cling to the archaic practice with an almost religious fervor.

One of my problems with the death penalty in its practical use (let alone philosophical oppositions to having the power to end someone’s life) arises from the nature of our legal system. The vast majority of people involved in deciding whether someone should face the death penalty as well as carrying out the investigation and prosecution of the case are publicly elected officials. Politicians (or in this case prosecuting attorneys and judges) have a vested interest in remaining office. The primary way they do this is by not seeming weak on crime. What’s a great way to seem tough on criminals? Execute as many as possible. The way they are chosen for their job creates a feedback loop that places performing in a manner in line with the image they want to project to their constituency ahead of actual justice. The 1992 documentary film Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer explores both this issue as well as the money and media circus that prevented America’s first alleged female serial killer from having her fair shot at justice.

For those born in the 90s or who haven’t seen Monster or simply don’t remember the deluge of press when Aileen Wuornos was finally executed in 2002, Aileen Wuornos was a prostitute who killed seven men along the Florida interstates between 1989 and 1990. Her claim was that she was acting in self-defense and that each of the men had either raped her or were trying to rape her. British director Nick Bromfield traveled to the U.S. after she had been convicted of the first several of the murders (but not all of them yet) and sentenced to death and interviews her shockingly inept attorney, her adopted mother who is clearly just trying to make a profit off, as well as Wuornos herself. Through footage of the trials as well as evidence obtained showing key figures in the prosecution and investigation profiting off the trial (through film rights), the documentary paints a rather unsettling portrait of Aileen’s failure to receive a fair trial.

There isn’t a question of whether Aileen Wuornos killed those men. She admitted to it. She was apprehended after crashing the car of one of the murder victims (whose body was never found). Her accomplice, Tyria Moore (who was never charged with the crime but the film hints that she profited from film rights as did several key police investigators), had belongings of the victim in her possessions. Honestly, the film doesn’t even make as much of the question of whether Aileen acted in self-defense. I would say she did for the first murder (Richard Mallory) but it’s more questionable with the others. Instead, the film focuses on how so many people ultimately profited from the tragedy of these killings as well as the tragedy of Wuornos’ life period. The adopted “mother” gets a $2500 payment to set up an interview, then tries to stop the interview from happening, and then claims she never got her money in the first place (even though there’s film footage of it happening). You see the deluge of book deals and movie deals and TV deals and the complacency of a system that allows that to happen.

A lot of people seem to take umbrage with the very low quality of the film’s video and that the movie I would imagine started out as an attempt to document the facts of Aileen Wuornos. As you can clearly see throughout the film though, his attempts to do that failed. Nick Broomfield was taken advantage of by Arlene Pralle and Wuornos’ attorney, Steve Glazer, and impeded by law enforcement and the correctional system when they realized he wasn’t painting them in a positive light. So, instead, the film became about the exploitation of Aileen Wuornos by everyone around her as well as her complete inability to receive a fair trial. Since the facts of the case are so well known, taking this approach which instead examines some of the murkier and and less equitable sides of our nation’s legal system makes the film far more interesting in the end than a simple retreading of the facts.

With a history of constant sexual abuse from a young age as well as a history of prostitution from age 11 (just typing that makes me want to cry), Aileen Wuornos lived a troubled and tragic life beyond that which most of us could possibly even begin to imagine. Do I think that she was a danger to society? Yes. She was obviously unhinged in one way or another and likely killed at least one or two of those men not in self-defense (but she likely believed it to be so). Watching the interviews towards the end of her life (which this film doesn’t get to see) clearly shows that. However, she needed mental help. She didn’t need the electric chair (nor, ultimately, what she actually received, lethal injection). Her trial was a travesty of justice, and the people who were supposed to care for her the most just used and exploited her like everyone else in her life. Nick Broomfield captures the tragedy of her victimhood.

Final Score: A-

(A quick aside before the real review. Somehow, even though I’ve reviewed well over 250 films so far, I haven’t reviewed a Mexican film yet. That’s craziness. This will be my first. It was pretty good so it was a great way to inaugurate Mexico into Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari)

As a picky eater and a romantic skeptic, a foreign romance hyped as a richly combined pastiche of sumptuous feasts and sexual symbolism didn’t really seem up my alley. Like several of the films I’ve covered on this blog, this was one of those instances where I’m happy to report my preconceptions couldn’t have been more wrong. A highly erotic and sensual tale of forbidden love fused with the literary school of magic realism as well as high tragedy turned Like Water for Chocolate into a fantastical peek into the cultural mores of early 20th century Mexico and a tale of star-crossed lovers that would make the Bard proud. While it may not rank among the greatest of cinematic romances, it is a constantly charming and heart-warming tale that can melt the heart of even the most jaded in the audience (though it’s heroes aren’t always incredibly likeable).

Like many foreign films, Like Water for Chocolate may pose something of a challenge to audiences who aren’t accustomed to the cultural and historical context of the film. Where I found some strange cultural actions in the German film The White Ribbon incomprehensible (and the class warfare in the French La Ceremonie indecipherable), I can easily see how people will be off-put by the often ethereal and supernatural nature of Like Water for Chocolate which spends most of its time in a basically realistic mode only to shift in and out of fantasy without warning. Deeply rooted in Mexican folklore as well as the very essence of Mexican storytelling, the mix of the spiritual and the mundane elevates the tragic romance at the core of the film into something timeless and magical.

In the early 1900s, Tita de la Garza (Lumi Cavazos) is the youngest daughter of the domineering and abusive Mama Elena (Regina Torne), whose husband died days after Tita was born. It has long been a family tradition that the youngest daughter in the family never marries and cares for the mother for the rest of her life. Mostly raised in the kitchen by the family cook, Tita has never had to question her lot in life until she falls in love with the dashing Pedro (Marco Leonardi). When Pedro asks for Tita’s hand in marriage, Mama Elena refuses and instead marries Pedro to her eldest daughter Rosaura, who Pedro only marries to stay near to Tita. With the love of her life taken away and the rest of her life spelled out for her by her controlling mother, Tita throws herself into her cooking until the help of a local doctor, who loves Tita although she still yearns for Pedro, teaches her to stand up for and live for herself.

The hermosa (beautiful for non-Spanish speakers) Lumi Cavazos was a genuine delight as the constantly put-upon Tita. Her journey from a scared young girl to a sexually aware and developed woman was a constantly shifting affair. With a warm and innocent smile (which never vanished even after her sexual desires began to take hold), Tita was a woman of intense passions. Whether she was taking the emotional and physical abuse of her mother, the resentful stares of his sister Rosaura, or repressing her own amorous desires, Lumi Cavazos guides Tita through the emotional maelstrom that is her life. It is a rare gift for actresses to shift in and out of wounded vulnerability and feminist outrage, but Lumi Cavazos possesses it nonetheless.

For a film with only a handful of actual sex scenes (and perhaps one of the most shocking/tragic sex scenes that I can think of at the film’s end), Like Water for Chocolate is as steamy as the kitchen where much of the action takes place. It’s been said before but it bears repeating. The difference between eroticism/sensuality and pornography is the lack of gratuitous titillation in the former. There’s nudity in the film but it’s never there so skeevy people in the audience can get their kicks. Instead, it underscores the sexual repression the women in this film faces and celebrates the human beauty of pure sexuality which is either shamed by religion or corrupted by pornographic excess. There’s something indefinably freeing about the sexual awakening on display in the film, and for those who can celebrate the beauty of our bodies and the ways we are intimate with others, it’s a beautiful sentiment.

The film’s issues arise in the man that Tita has her sights set on (and the otherwise sympathetic characters who get caught in the crossfire). Although Pedro marries Rosaura with the express intent of being closer to Tita, he still has sex with Rosaura, and as a married man, it’s not easy to sympathize with his regular attempts (and occasional successes) to rendezvous with Tita. He becomes increasingly open about his feelings for Tita even though he and Rosaura have two children together (though admittedly one dies). Rosaura isn’t very likable, what with marrying her sister’s soul mate and showing no remorse, but you still have to feel bad for a wife whose husband constantly disrespects her like that. Similarly, the doctor that falls in love with Tita wins her heart momentarily only to constantly play second fiddle to her true love to Pedro. Even Tita isn’t entirely innocent in all this (especially since she cheats with her sister’s husband).

It has been surprisingly difficult to find decent pictures of this movie on the internet so I’ll draw this to a close (a phrase I haven’t really been using much in reviews because I realized I was using it like overkill in the past). Although Like Water for Chocolate may sound like a chick flick (and it certainly is to an extent), it’s an exceptionally intelligent one. A grown-up fairy tale, the film will fill your heart with love and your stomach with hunger as you get drawn into this nearly mythical world of Mexican lovers and the bonds (and perils) of family. Magical realism has kind of gone out of vogue the last 15 years or so, and it’s a shame because Like Water for Chocolate shows you the beauty you can find when you mix the everyday with the extraordinary.

Final Score: B+

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know I haven’t done a real review in like four days. I’ve been slightly addicted to Galactic Civilizations II and I haven’t really done anything else (besides play in that poker tournament in Wheeling that I won $200 in last night. I’ve played in five sit and go tournaments there and I’ve cashed in six. I’m a pretty decent poker player). Here’s my promise to my readers. I will do an actual review tomorrow. Scout’s honor. Anyways, I still have to do my song of the day post for today. I was playing Rock Band with my little sister before I started to write this post (because she guilt tripped me into saying I wasn’t spending any time with her) and one of the songs that we played was “Pretend We’re Dead” by 90s all-female grunge act L7. Am I the only person who misses the riot grrrl acts of the 90s? There’s something undeniably bad-ass (and super sexy) about chicks that rock as hard as guys. That’s why I loved Hole (even though I hate Courtney Love) and especially Garbage (who have released some really good singles this year for their comeback album). I think I just have a thing for really tough women. Anyways, if you ever thought men had too much control over grunge, hopefully L7 can change your mind.

 

I really can not begin to comprehend the revisionist legacy that has begun to surround Pearl Jam in the last twenty years. I love Nirvana as much as the next kid that grew up in the 90s and I can see why critical consensus has solidified around them as the best of the grunge acts (even if I disagree), but I read a lot of music blogs (and a lot of comments on music blogs) for work, and it never ceases to amaze me how many people lump the absurdly talented and raw Pearl Jam with the whole post-grunge shitty bands like Creed and Nickelback. Eddie Vedder is my favorite frontman of the 90s (except for Thom Yorke I guess but he didn’t become the legend to me until the 2000s). He’s got the best baritone since Jim Morrison. The band’s guitar work is grunge meets Zeppelin. You literally can’t fucking go wrong with that. And they sang about real shit. They were an incredibly socially conscious band, and they need to stop being disrespected by people who have apparently never listened to Ten all the way through. It’s one of my top five albums of the 90s. Anyways, that rant aside, this song is on my list because of its story about homelessness and how that relates to my trip to New York. I could never get over the number of homeless people in this city and it broke my heart every damn time I saw one. What hurt even more than the simply poor homeless people though were hte obviously mentally ill people. “Even Flow” is a song about a homeless guy, and my experience seeing so much wealth and so much poverty at the same time will be one of the defining aspects of this trip.

 

If you want to here the May Song of the Day Playlist (which I highly recommend), you can find it here on Spotify. If you want a broader selection of tunes from 2012, you can find that playlist here.

The Beastie Boys confound me. They rose to prominence with an outrageous image of frat-boy shenanigans defined with their big start Licensed to Ill. Rather than coast on that success or that image, they went a complete 180 with their next album Paul’s Botique, which was wicked smart and explored brand new sonic landscapes and is also one of the premier examples of how to sample well in hip-hop. So, where does the next album Check Your Head fit into all this. I really don’t know. It’s an album of maddening contradictions where the promise of awesome funk-hop/ rap rock are buried under needless illusions that this band are talented members of the hardcore punk scene. So far, no other album I’ve reviewed for this list has shown so much promise while doing so many things simultaneously wrong.

When you’re a group of white, Jewish rappers from Brooklyn, your skills on the mic had better be pretty damn good if you’re going to want anybody to take you seriously. On Paul’s Botique, the Beastie Boys did just that. Their rhymes were smart and funny and clever. I distinctly got the impression throughout this entire album that the same level of care and effort did not go into the crafting of Check Your Head. It gets even worse when the boys try their hands at hardcore punk. Perhaps I’m not qualified to judge their talent in this field. My punk listening habits pretty much exist solely in the Clash, Rancid, and Bad Religion so I don’t really know that much about the scene. But unintelligible screaming mixed over poorly played guitar and bass just don’t do it for me. You can be punk and still know how to make good music (which as I’ll get to in a second, these boys do). What’s incredibly frustrating about all of this is that there are times on the album when they are laying down awesome funky bass grooves, exploring cool and unique sonic landscapes, and actually laying down decent rhymes every now and then. Unfortunately, the album is so inconsistent in this process. It was like they tried way too hard to jam all sorts of different styles into one album when the styles weren’t meshing very well to begin with.

I can’t recommend this album as whole-heartedly as I have others. If you like the Beastie Boys, you should obviously listen to it because it shows another evolution in their sound, but odds are, if you’re a fan, you’ve already heard the album. There’s no other group that I can really say should listen to this album. The only other reason you should listen to it is if you have an academic interest in what popular music looked like in the early 1990′s. Otherwise, you can stay away.

Final Score: C

When I was in middle school, our teacher for one of my classes (It’s been so long that I can’t remember which one) gave us an assignment to read a biography of our choice for the class. Being the over-achiever that I used to be, I chose a book that was probably a little too advanced for me at the time in The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley. Picking that particular book for that particular assignment turned out to be one of the most fateful decisions of my life. It was love at first sight, and I’ve read and re-read that book more times than I can count, and I always get something new and meaningful from it each time. Malcolm X is one of the most important and one of my favorite political figures in the history of this country. So, it should come as no surprise that when Spike Lee, the master of the urban film, decided to make a biopic about Minister Malcolm starring none other than Denzel Washingto (perhaps the finest black actor of his or any generation) as Malcolm X, the final product was a spectacular film.

The film chronicles the life of Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little. From his father’s murder at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan to being a street hustler in New York City to going to prison for burglary to his conversion to Islam while in prison to his time as the most fiery and effective minister in Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam to his betrayal by the Nation for being to popular to his conversion to true Islam whilst on the Hadj, the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and finally to his tragic assassination just before his 40th birthday. I would normally complain about the film’s 3 and 1/2 hour length but if ever a man lived an evolving and constantly transforming life, it was Brother Malcolm, and you need to understand the totality of his life to fully appreciate who he was, what he was about, and the greatness of the man that was taken from us too soon.

As spectacular as Spike Lee’s direction is (although perhaps there could have been some editing here and there to scenes that maybe ran a bit too long), this film could only ultimately succeed if the man playing Malcolm X gave a five star performance. Well, Denzel gave the performance of his career. I’ve never seen Scent of a Woman, so I can’t necessarily disparage the Academy’s decision to hand the Oscar to Al Pacino, but his performance would have to have been just one of the best performances ever to beat Denzel in this movie. He becomes Malcolm X. He is fiery, passionate, full of seething anger, and yet charming and likeable at the same time. He delivers those speeches denouncing the white man so well, it almost made me to start to hate myself even though (growing up in a family with black foster brothers and sisters that I am as close to as my biological family) I don’t think I have a racist bone in my body. He sells that fire and passion. It makes you wonder why anybody ever listened to the “turn your other cheek” and “forgive and forget” of other black civil right leaders. This performance is much better than the two performances he actually won Oscar’s for, namely Glory and Training Day.

The film is fully of many (considering its epic length) little moments that let you know exactly what kind of man Malcolm was. Some of my favorites are Malcolm’s trip to Mecca and seeing him interacting and loving and worshiping among people of all colors and races, pretty much any time he gives a speech (I could just listen to Malcolm X’s speeches all day), and when he calls and proposes to his wife, Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), over the phone. However, my favorite moment in the whole film is when a member of the Nation has been brutally beaten by the police for no cause. Malcolm marches right into police head quarters and stares down the racist cops and gets to see his man despite their trying to fight it. When the man has to be taken to the hospital, Malcolm organized a march of his people and others following him to the hospital. A race riot is about to break out (while the Muslims stand calm and collected waiting for Malcolm’s orders) when you find that the beaten man will live. Malcolm gives the order to disperse simply by waving his finger and the crowd breaks up. He was so charismatic, so liked, so powerful that he just had to point and hundreds of people did what he said. It’s amazing.

This is one of the movies, like Schindler’s List, that should be requierd viewing in all high schools. It’s thought-provoking and brings the kinds of message that a mainstream public education will never bring. Yeah, the movie is probably way too long. 3 and a half hours is a really long time to sit still. But, it’s worth it. There are few films that are this powerful, and there are few characters in our nation’s history with the kind of bravery, intelligence, and wit that Malcolm X brings to the table. Reading the book changed my life. Maybe, watching the film could change yours.

Final Score: A