Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It's the Barack and Mitt Show!

Barack Obama wants four more years

Well, its one of the biggest shows around at the moment.... I'm talking of course, about the US presidential elections. In just about two weeks from now, Americans will go to the polls to decide whether they want to stick with the Dream Big candidate or go for the new guy, the CEO candidate. It's been a tight race up until recently. Mitt Romney said some dumb things and was all but written off until he came roaring back in the first of three debates and re-ignited the passion of his followers.

I have watched all three debates and I was fairly engaged throughout. A lot of assertions were made and accusations thrown about, many of them only half truths or outright fabrications. I expect the average American viewer must have been sitting there in a haze of boredom and confusion. After all, even if you can get beyond the stats, how do you tell who's lying and who's telling the truth? Even the fact checkers couldnt quite agree on exactly what was the truth and what was made up... so do the debates really help anyone to make up their minds? It's very hard to say. Its a wonderful tradition, but I feel its largely been made a mockery of by the very medium its featured on - television.

Mitt says I'm your man

It's not so much the problem of what the candidates are saying, as what they are NOT saying. On many occasions I wanted one of them to break out and say something real, but they are so schooled by their teams to stick to repeating stock phrases over and over again, that actually very little of substance emanates from their mouths. They are also told not to indulge in long statements, which the press dubs as 'rambling'. Obama is said to be 'guilty' of this. In other words, when he tries to explain something in greater detail, people accuse him of being professorial, as if that is bad thing. 

By this I mean, everyone wants their children to get a college education but when one of the candidates starts behaving like a college professor, everyone gets turned off: 'Cut it out, dude, you're BORING everyone to death." So even though everyone says the economy is the big issue, no-one really wants to see their candidate explain how they will attack and solve this problem in any real depth. This is TV! We want snappy lines, quips, sound bites. Little bite-sized chunks of policy. Be Charlie Sheen, not Paul Krugman! The inference is: people are too stupid to grasp anything too complex on TV.  The very nature of the debates prevents serious discussion. Each candidate gets two minutes to speak. Just how much information can you even deliver in two minutes? Not much.

So why is everyone still watching, TV dinners on laps, when there is nothing much to hear? Well, it's not so much about WHAT the candidate is saying, as HOW they are saying it. Does he look presidential? Is he cool, calm and collected? Is he being rude? Is he aggressive/passionate enough or is he just a robot? Does he look trustworthy or shifty under the studio lights. Can we relate to him? Is he a nice guy? Its like a job interview. It really tells you nothing about the applicant. But employees get a probationary period, presidential candidates on the other hand, once in, are in for four years.  In truth, NONE of these things should matter when it comes to the crucial issues of the day. And yet these are the factors that will ultimately decide the outcome of the election.

Before television, candidates gave speeches on the campaign trail, wrote editorials in newspapers, engaged with people in public forums. But since television, that hardly matters anymore. Now its just talking heads, sound bites, instant analysis, catchphrases that are tweeted and re-tweeted (binders full of women, who killed big bird). You ever wonder how the USA managed to end up with 8 years of George W Bush? Here's your answer: he bought more television time than his opponent. TV worked for him. He came across as a regular, down-to-earth kind of guy on TV. Someone the voter could 'relate' to. Someone they could have a beer with. Some people do well on TV. Its a good medium for them. Does that mean they will make a good president? Hell, no.

Ultimately the debates have not shifted the polls too much. Romney had a big lift after the first debate, largely due to a lack-luster performance (a word not used lightly) from Obama. But since then Obama has fought back, not by changing what he is saying, but 'acting' more like he means it. He's been more animated, more passionate, made more eye contact. He's still saying the EXACT same things, but his body language has changed. Because that's what really counts on TV, as his advisers have no doubt hammered into him remorselessly since that first debate. Its not like radio and the written word, where you have to concentrate on WHAT is being said, without the distraction of pictures. 

But that is the reality of our world today. TV has an inordinately powerful influence on the outcome of this critical event. If you're going to make it in politics, you have to look good and sound good on TV, now more than ever. So what's the big deal? Americans have elected presidents that weren't intellectual giants in the past (Ronald Reagan) and yet they managed to do OK. But the world is a very different place now. The stakes are much higher. The world desperately needs an America which will get back on track economically and lead us out of the darkness. Hopefully, this will be a wiser America, one that has learned from its mistakes and will be able to avoid repeating some of the major strategic errors that caused the hardships of the last decade. No more unneccessary wars, no more rampant investment banks that bring the world's greatest economy to its knees and then get a free pass. No more falling asleep at the wheel and letting your advisers run the show.

Which is why this election is so critical, and why Americans should take the time to read up on their candidates and make a decision based on real, solid information, not what the TV says. The American people (and the world) need a president with a good head and a good heart. Both are essential to a successful Presidency I wish us all the best of luck come November 6th and I sincerely hope they make the right decision.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Let the Good Times Roll - Again

The late 60s is a time of powerful mythology. The moon landing, Woodstock, Ken Kesey and the Magic Bus, Kent State, the Vietnam War, Charles Manson, Altamont... it’s a deep and extraordinarily rich vein that can be mined endlessly by anyone with an ounce of imagination.

At the time, people - and young people in particular - just seemed to be operating on a higher consciousness. They wanted a better world, social justice, personal freedom, the right to blow weed, get laid and have a great time without worrying about the consequences. They wanted something more. They wanted to live out loud - in the moment. They weren’t ‘hung up’ on personal security, the economy, the formalities of society and all its rules. All that was just the messed-up doings of The Man…  and The Man, as any fule knew, simply could not be trusted.

In the 60s the pursuit of a higher consciousness, enlightenment and freedom was the business of the times. It was a real and tangible goal. Cynicism hadn’t yet obtained a stranglehold on the dreams of young people. Sure, all the mind-expanding drugs on hand and the fact that television had not yet become the all-pervasive influence it is today was a factor, but there had to have been something else too. What it was exactly is hard to say... 

Without a doubt there was a remarkable surge of creativity which yielded music and artistic expression of incredible power. Jimi Hendrix was only 27 years old by the time he died yet he left behind three landmark albums. Ditto Jim Morrison (only with more albums). 

Coincidence? Maybe. What cannot be disputed is that there was a wild freedom to the music, an unconquerable spirit that was striving for the outer limits of human expression. But there was a price to pay. As always, those who flew too close to the sun ended up getting their wings badly burnt. Great art always demands its sacrifices.  

Shoot forward 40 years and we are about as far away from that idealistic world as its possible to get. Its hard to find anything to be optimistic about in this old world of ours. It seems we have been on a serious downer for some time now. The party train has derailed completely. Perhaps its time we hit rewind and went back to the beginning, remember what it was that got everyone so excited back then. Some people are doing exactly that. Let's take a closer look at a couple of them.

Jonathan Wilson is a seriously cool dude with a lot of talented friends and he's made an insanely groovy record in the form of his debut offering Gentle Spirit. It's a real soothing record, very, very laid back. And it tells us there is simply no need to dwell on all this heavy shit being laid on us on a daily basis. Jonathan Wilson doesn’t care to deal with all that. He’d rather kick back in his LA pad, grow his hair long and put down some tunes that would put the Dude himself into a state of aural bliss. This guy can really channel those much-vaunted good vibrations. Where did they go?

Sure it might stray into The Eagles type territory from time to time – and Lord knows The Dude wouldn’t dig that – but we can forgive Jonathan because he’s not some fat old dude trying to get his mojo back. He’s a young hepcat. He has friends like Charlie Sheen, no less (who gifted him his ride, a vintage Camaro muscle car). When he isn’t making this freakily chilled out music he’s building guitars. He’s a craftsman, he’s Jesus the Carpenter, there’s even a distinct physical resemblance. Praise the lord and pass the corn chips! 

And it is freaky… its time machine freaky. The sound is distinctively blissed out Southern Cali soul surfer stuff. Track 4, Canyon Rain, is a typical example. As the song opens to gently plucked acoustic guitar and what sounds like tabla drums, you’re not immediately sure if its brushes on cymbals you’re hearing or the sound of waves rolling in. Maybe they left the door open when they recorded it? The Doors’ Rider on the Storm comes to mind… but this is a much sunnier sound than the Doors. Wilson seems generally stoked with the world he sees around him. He’s a glass half full kind of guy. Only on Can We Really Party Today? does he get a bit moody and acknowledge that there’s something foul afoot in today’s world.

Wilson’s voice is not the strongest thing on the record. Tim Buckley he ain’t. It remains hushed throughout, only on  Magic Everywhere does he attempt some real singing. He’s possibly more comfortable with his playing than singing ability. And certainly Gentle Spirit is mostly about the playing.  It’s multi-instrumentalist’s dream. There’s even a harmonium! In fact, there is so much going on here it’s sometimes hard to keep track of all the instruments chiming in. It could be a great parlour game – ID the instrument and win a bong hit!

Despite the generally expansive mood of the album, it only strays into bloated over-indulgence on the last track, Valley of the Silver Moon. You know from the outset it’s gonna be a stretch to keep it interesting at over 10 minutes. Bear in mind, the album was originally conceived as a vinyl double album (naturally) and clocks in at 78 minutes. Many of the tracks are over 5 minutes in length. It’s a great driving album. You won’t have to change the CD for most trips and it will definitely curb your more base impulses when you encounter retarded drivers on the road.

At a time when retro sounds are definitely in vogue, Gentle Spirit stands out by its lack of irony. It sounds like it comes straight outta the early 70’s but minus the mush and blur of a cocaine comedown and the asinine vocals that marred much of the music of that time. If you are feeling bummed out with the 21st century, you could do a lot worse than roll a blunt and put Gentle Spirit on the turntable and journey back to a time when things seemed kinder and gentler, even though they probably weren’t.

In a very similar vein to the action being laid down by Mr Wilson we have these Swedish sisters who go by the cute name of First Aid Kit, who also seemed to have been plucked directly out of Haight-Ashbury circa '69 and dropped from the sky into our laps.

It’s not just the clear as a bell vocals on their second full length outing, The Lion’s Roar, that evoke Joan Baez, Dusty Springfield and other immortal songbirds from the age of aquarius, it’s the whole vibe of the thing. The record itself seems to bear the hallmarks of the vintage technology of the times. Yes it’s recorded in high def on state of the art sound equipment and it sounds deliriously good on my stereo, but it’s still a note perfect tribute to the tube amp vibes of the times.  

These gals are obviously steeped in the mystique of Venice Beach, the legendary Newport Folk Festival and the aforementioned San Francisco hippie mecca – Hash Ashbury. If the muumuus  they're wearing on the cover is any indication, along with the ironed-out hair half-way down their backs, they are very 'hip' to the power of this era. They are clearly deeply immersed in it.

Indeed. And why not? Look around you. Does anyone really want to live in the present times? With the messages of doom and gloom churned out 24/7 on 155 channels. If I have to hear the phrase ‘global economic crisis’ one more time I’m gonna kick someone’s teeth in, I swear… Heck no, people, that’s no way to live. So let’s stuff a little hash into our pipes, kick back on corduroy covered sofas, fire up the lava lamp and get down to the sounds of yesteryear.

Despite their youth, First Aid Kit have clearly worshipped long and hard at the altar of great music. On the stunning second track Emmylou they name check rock love affair legends Johnny Cash and June Carter and Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. They are well aware of what has gone before but it doesn’t intimidate them. They are up for the challenge of shrugging off the weight of the giants, while still acknowledging their influence.   

On To a Poet, the uncanny mimicry gets almost spooky. How do such young artists manage to deliver music this powerful, this effortless, when English isn’t even their first language? It’s a delightful mystery.

Throughout the album the girls voices are very much front and centre. The purity of their pipes is freakish and hauntingly reminiscent of… who, exactly? It’s hard to pin down. They seem to channel dozens of great female vocalists of the past, including current ones like Chan Marshall, Polly Harvey and Beth Orton.

Despite their relative youth, the music is startlingly mature and accomplished. They barely put a foot wrong, making The Lion’s Roar easily one of the best releases of this year thus far.

CODA: While researching this piece I stumbled across a new outfit that fits perfectly in with the general sentiment expressed here. They are a spacerock crew out of San Francisco called Wooden Shjips (no, that is not a typo) and they are mind-bendingly good. I am seriously excited about these guys. I mean, think Grateful Dead, Hawkwind, Can, all the way through to KYUSS, Nebula, Sleep and all that awesome blissed-out desert pschyedelia that came out of that Arizona scene. Wooden Shjips take all that and chuck it into the blender. Its serious head-nodding stuff but extremely groovy with it. They are just WILD man, wild. FAR... freaking... OUT.

They have just released a new full length CD called West, which I immediately ordered. Prior to that they had some very exclusive vinyl only EPs out on some obscure labels, which have now been collated into two CDs - Vol 1 and Vol 2. They also have another mini-LP out called Dos. Apart from that I don't know much about them at all except that the lead singer has an awesome beard and plays a wicked looking vintage guitar. 

Without much further ado, here is a couple of jams from these monsters for you to get your head around. WARNING: This music will seriously do your head in! So don't attempt to operate any heavy machinery or make a cake while grooving to this. Brownies maybe, but not cake!

This is the first track off the new album, West

The band playing live for Radio station KXLU. The bassist appears to be blissfully unaware that he's been mauled by a vicious spider.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Best of 2011

It's a popular pastime for people to offer their 'best of' lists for the year. I guess I'm a little slow but I thought I would offer up my best of regardless. For me, 2011 wasn't exactly a stellar year for movies. I mean, there were some good ones but only one really impressed the shit out of me. A couple were notable, as in really worth seeing, but only one I consider a 'must-see'.

In any event, this is the list of notable movies from last year and the film I think was the best of the lot:

This was pretty cool. Gosling excels in this type of ambiguous, creepy role and the deadpan 'man of few words' nature of the character suits his style of performance down to the ground. Albert Brooks was great too, in a non-typical part for him. It was well shot, and the music was cool. The violence I felt was a little overdone. I don't normally mind violence but it bordered on the absurd at times. I think the film could have used a bit more driving, given the title. Didn't quite understand the wierd, 80s-style font used in the credits though... thought that was a bit odd.

Tree of Life
If you're a fan of Terrence Malick's movies, you have to see this. Unfortunately I had to settle for a DVD because the morons that decide what movies should be shown here chose not to release it on circuit. This is definitely a movie that benefits from a big screen. But if you have a 40 inch or bigger TV set, you won't lose anything in the bargain, especially if you have Blu-Ray and can find a copy of this in Blu-Ray to rent. The visuals alone are worth the two hours. That said, it is Malick's most difficult film, and many have found it tiresome and pointless. I did not become bored watching it, except perhaps in the last 5 minutes, which I found superfluous. To be honest, I could have watched the 'birth of creation' scenes for two hours, so stunningly are they rendered. The story with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain and their family is OK, but felt like a distraction. I didn't get it to be honest. I thought it was an attempt to inject a human story into the much bigger message that Malick was striving for, but I found the story a tad cliched. Brad Pitt was superb, as was Jessica Chastain. Sean Penn was wasted. He looked a bit wasted too. But it is beautiful to look at. Truly stunning. So watch it.

Ides of March
I've just reviewed this so suffice to say I wont blather on anymore about it. Just read the review or check it out for yourself. Well worth a look.

And now, without any further ado.... tadaaaaa.... my movie of the year choice goes to:

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Scott Z Burns
Starring: Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow

The apocalyptic movie is a Hollywood staple. Armaggeddon, Deep Impact, 2012... the list goes on. It's a grim subject that nevertheless seems to be a strong drawcard for moviegoers. I guess people just enjoy getting the bejesus scared out of them. But usually these subjects are based on some frivolous and fanciful possibility, like the earth being struck by a meteor or some such unlikely event. People just know that's not likely to happen.

But Contagion is another kettle of fish entirely. It dwells on the possibility of a super virus devastating the globe, a very real possibility if you care to investigate the science. It already happened in 1918, with the Spanish Influenza epidemic, which is estimated to have killed 50 - 100 million people around the globe. No, that number is not a mistake. That's more than the two world wars combined. It was like a roaring runaway freight train of death, it just went rogue and could not be stopped. Whole families and villages were wiped out. A very bad juju indeed. Soderbergh's hypothesis is that this is just one little twist of fate away from happening again. All it takes is the right combination of bat droppings and bad hygiene at a pig farm and people start dropping like flies. One minute they are there, laughing, talking, breathing. And the next minute they are dead. It is this uniquly deadly characteristic of a level 4 virus that makes Contagion such a super creepy movie to watch. When it kills, it kills fast.

What also makes Contagion so effective is Soderbergh's penchant for documentary style movie-making that he first introduced so effectively in Traffic, his examination of America's War on Drugs. With Contagion he cranks the realism up to a whole new level and it makes for hyper-scary viewing. He uses big name actors but places them in low-key, ordinary schmuck type roles to heighten the realism even more. He shows Gywneth Paltrow's head been opened like a can of tomatoes. It's really pretty great.

The other thing he manages to achieve quite wonderfully is scale. The virus is of course a global phenomenon and Soderbergh really gives you a sense not only of how countries around the world would be affected by it but also of the sheer numbers involved. This final aspect is what contributes to the sheer apocalyptic nature of a true mega virus. The bodies start piling up so fast that the normal emergency and medical services can't cope. Society's structures that we rely on so much without even realising it, start to break down. Anarchy manifests itself and the rule of law is steam-rollered by the desperate need of so many people who are trying to survive. Soderbergh brings this sense of panic and desperation to the screen very effectively and you easily see how this would occur in modern day society where we are all so terribly reliant on the airport, drugstore, convenience store, internet... and all the rest of the modern conveniences.

Speaking of the internet, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is how a blogger, played by Jude Law, who is the first person to predict that the virus is going to go global, becomes a hugely influential player due to the panic that spreads almost as fast as the virus itself. He takes advantage of this to peddle a supposed cure for the virus and generate bucket-loads of cash for himself.

It's not an easy film to watch, and parts of it remind you uncomfortably of the current economic malaise that the world finds itself in, but it is undeniably powerful and eerily prescient. Just how long before it becomes a reality? You'll find yourself washing your hands a lot more often after watching this one.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Ides of March - Mozart for babies

The Ides of March is a smart film. It has smart actors, a smart director, smart dialogue, and a smart subject - the wheels within wheels of the political machine. You'll feel smarter just by watching it. But don't kid yourself that this is an in-depth look into this Machiavellian world, filled with penetrating insights. This is Mozart for babies. It will make you smarter if you watch it - but only because 99% of movies released these days will make you dumber just by being exposed to them. Even if its just the trailers. 

The chief pleasures to be gained from the film lie with the near-perfect casting. We have Ryan Gosling in the main role. Ryan is hotter than a fresh-f***ed fox in a forest fire right now. Then there is the actor's actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the candidate's campaign manager and another character actor stalwart, Paul Giamatti, as his counterpart. Both spin pure gold from their small roles. As the candidate we have the multi-talented George Clooney (who also directs). George sure looks the part and of course Clooney is fairly active in politics himself, comes from a political family and would probably make a crackerjack president if he ever ran for office. Not that he's dumb enough to do that. 

Then there are the women, delivering across the board despite having to make do with the bit parts as usual. Evan Rachel Wood is super sexy and vulnerable in a key role. Wood is a great, under-used actress (although in my personal opinion she is much more effective as a redhead). Marisa Tomei is fantastic as usual in a small part as a New York Times reporter, who seems to be the only journalist covering the presidential campaign, oddly enough. 

Unfortunately there just doesn't seem to be enough screen time for some of the cast, particularly Mr Hoffman. The vast majority of screen time is taken up by Ryan Gosling, which will no doubt make the ladies happy but what about the rest of us? Gosling is good enough in the main part, but whether he can carry a whole movie is open for debate, despite the fact that he seems to be snatching up the lion's share of primo leading roles at the moment. But this is not his finest hour. He seems a little under-done. He prefers to go at it low-key, but he's a little TOO under the radar here. We don't ever feel that he really cares enough about the candidate. He's just a little, dare I say it - wooden? Perhaps there weren't sufficient scenes with Clooney up front. Gosling is interesting to watch but he is better in some roles than others. His range is not quite there yet.

Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, the press liaison officer for a presidential candidate, Mike Morris (George Clooney). Stephen's job is to manage his boss's public profile, make sure the press are printing the right stories about Morris. In a world where a tightly managed public image is as vital as the air you breathe, Meyers has an extremely key role to play. And he's only 30 years of age! How he came to get this incredibly important job at such a tender age is never properly demonstrated. Instead we have one scene where the opposition candidate's campaign manager praises Stephen's abilities to the skies. OK then, done and dusted. Ummm.... no.

What conspires to keep The Ides of March from achieving real greatness is the severe lack of genuine insights and meaty dialogue. Any film that takes you behind the scenes of such a universally fascinating event as the US Presidential campaign should tell you something you didn't know before. If you're going to make a movie about the backroom dealings, insider trading and cut and thrust of the biggest political show of them all, then give us some insights into that world! Particularly now, when we are right in the middle of the Republican primaries, which are proving to be a real knock-down, drag out, fight to the finish, with no clear front runner. The timing is perfect. Ides of March is extremely topical and offers a great opportunity to throw some light on this world.

But we are never shown how it all works. The detail is sorely lacking. There's just a lot of mumbo jumbo about numbers and polls. Come on! Surely they could have given us some juicy tidbits on how press officers keep their boys looking nice and shiny despite legions of journalists all digging for the dirt. It must be a herculean task, but Gosling never even breaks a sweat. He's as cool as a cucumber the whole time. No over-flowing ashtray, no polystyrene coffee cup graveyard cluttering his desk, no peptic ulcer.

From what I understand, US presidential campaigns are fast-moving, back-breaking, extremely stressful affairs. In Ides of March it feels more like someone is running for town mayor rather than the biggest job of them all. For a better idea of what a campaign is really like, I highly recommend Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a classic of its kind and one of Thompson's finest efforts. It may seem a little dated, but there is so much in there that is still totally relevant to today's political world. And its hilarious to boot.

The one 'insight' that Ides of March manages to deliver is that politics is all about compromise. Duh! Robert Redford and Michael Ritchie already nailed that all the way back in 1972 with the highly effective minor classic The Candidate, which Ides of March is clearly heavily indebted to. But what we want in today's super-cynical and savvy world is to know HOW it all works. THAT would make for a highly entertaining movie. Unfortunately, it isn't to be found here. Perhaps if it had been David Mamet or the late and much-lamented Sidney Lumet at the helm of Ides of March it would have achieved greatness. Lumet's pacy, talky procedural thrillers like Network, The Verdict, Night Falls on Manhattan really gave you that 'fly on the wall' feeling. You felt like you were seeing things the way they really are. Not a movie-makers 'idea' of how things go. And Mamet's bust-a-gut laugh out loud spoof of political spin-doctoring Wag the Dog also had that ring of authenticity, outrageous as it was.

Although The Ides of March is a perfectly competent, and, like I said, smart movie it could have been so much more. Unfortunately the script has to take the blame here. In this case, less is definitely not more.