When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Shallow

It feels like only yesterday the world fell in love with Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, the third and most recent remake of the classic ill-fated romance between two lovers in showbiz whose career trajectories are trending in opposite directions. Maybe it doesn’t feel like the two years it has actually been considering how thirsty the internet still is for that Cooper-Gaga hook-up IRL. Their rendition of their hit single “Shallow” at the Oscars that year helped calm exactly no one down. In Cooper’s modern update, one that changes the discipline from acting to singing/songwriting, Gaga takes on the role originally portrayed by Janet Gaynor in 1937 while the writer/director mimics Fredric March.

While it is always going to be remembered more for the doomed romance (as it perhaps should, for Cooper and Gaga give us an on-screen couple for the ages), you just can’t sleep on A Star is Born‘s soundtrack. There is so much quality music in here — actual musicianship, not catchy ear-worms (even though those are good too!) — that you basically get two forms of entertainment for the price of one. I could probably have chosen other songs to highlight here. Cooper’s opening rock anthem “Black Eyes” is a real barn-burner that kicks the movie off with some good energy. And Gaga’s “Always Remember Us This Way,” with its really beautiful vocal inflections layered on top of a haunting melody, is maybe the next strongest candidate.

However no song blew up quite like the sentimental ballad “Shallow,” which you could hear playing on any given radio station throughout the rest of the year and well into 2019. Written by Gaga, Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt and Anthony Rossomando, the lyrical content of “Shallow” is rooted at the very heart of the movie, with each character asking each other whether they feel comfortable being the person they are. The intimate duet received widespread acclaim from critics, landing at the top of many music charts across the globe and providing Gaga her first Oscar win when it took home Best Original Song at the 91st Academy Awards. It also snagged a Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media and a Golden Globe Award. Of all the things the movie does well, it is the fact that a song ultimately secured A Star is Born‘s lone Oscar win (out of a total of eight nominations) that proves what a massive success “Shallow” turned out to be.


Shallow (lyrics by Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson)

Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longing for a change
And in the bad times I fear myself

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
Whoah

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now


Click here for more articles in this feature! 

July Blindspot: Swingers (1996)

Release: Friday, October 18, 1996

→YouTube

Written by: Jon Favreau

Directed by: Doug Liman

It is all too easy to assume certain things about a movie titled Swingers. Oh, how does that expression go? The project that launched the careers of both its leads as well as the director is, yes, very much a “dude-flick” preoccupied with the pursuit of happiness via the pursuit of women, but the way in which it extracts genuine, honest emotion out of such simple ambitions is really impressive.

Steeped in the Swing Revival period that swept over America in the late ’90s — a curious echo of the 1930s and ’40s when Benny Goodman was King of Swing — Doug Liman’s break-out comedy is both an homage and a movie of its era. Sampling everything from contemporary revivalist groups like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to ’50s jump blues icons like Louis Jordan, Swingers builds much of its swagger through its eclectic soundtrack. Luckily there are performances to match the up-tempo musical stylings.

Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau are a comedic dream playing struggling actors in Tinseltown who spend their days looking for work and their nights for a good time. Trent (Vaughn) is the quintessential Ladies’ Man whose sense of connectedness to this earth is defined entirely by his gift of gab. He’s not the type to invest his energy into anything long-term, anything real. The only commitment he knows is to playing the field. His prototypical extrovert stands in stark contrast to Favreau’s Mikey who, six months after the fact, is still reeling from a break-up from a longtime girlfriend whom he left behind in New York in pursuit of his dreams out west.

Whereas Trent only looks forward to the future (and his next cocktail), Mikey can’t stop looking back. His obsession with the past has really done a number on his self-esteem and his ability to connect to others in the here and now. Favreau’s nuanced performance captures the pain of being socially graceless and, perhaps because his character is also uncannily me, should have received more than a Best Newcomer award. His A-list status today may somewhat belie his true talents. The role is proof that Favreau is an actor first and a director second. Who knew the guy could do awkward and repressed so convincingly?

After an impromptu trip to Las Vegas* fails to revive a heartbroken Mikey, Trent and a few other actor friends — Rob (Ron Livingston, also playing a version of himself as a fresh hopeful in the City of Broken Dreams), Charles (Alex Désert) and a boy named Sue (Patrick Van Horn) — decide that enough is enough. It’s time to rally around their fallen comrade. Famously the refrain becomes “You’re so money, baby, you don’t even know it.”

Though it is a collective effort, it’s really Trent who tries to instill in Mikey all that he knows about the “unwritten rules” of the social scene. However, when push comes to shove, none of the advice seems to help. His boy is too much of a “nice guy,” which concerns Trent because he knows nice guys finish last. But Swingers (Favreau‘s first screenplay) posits this is an outmoded attitude, even in the ’90s. “Finishing last” could mean meeting a Lorraine (Heather Graham, whose well-placed cameo suggests that timing is the only thing that really matters). Ever so subtly the tone shifts away from crassness and towards something approaching genteelism. It becomes apparent after awhile that there are actually drawbacks of being a Trent. It’s probably a stretch to call the film socially responsible, but its flirtation with romance is a wholly unexpected diversion.

Swingers is a movie of simple pleasures and it’s decidedly low-budget. On first watch you’ll probably notice some technical stuff like the shadow of the camera-man against the wall as he climbs stairs in pursuit of the actors. Visible boom mics in a number of shots. Some of the effects are badly dated. If you ask me, all of this adds to the purity of the experience. The movie has such a big heart it just barely manages to wear it on its sleeve. Its passion is persuasive. Its enthusiasm contagious. Swingers is a born winner. And the music ain’t bad either.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

* Fun trivia: the scene that takes place on the side of the highway on the return trip wasn’t shot legally. Permits for shooting are required, and the production team neither could afford one nor would have ever been able to acquire one for this particular location for red-tape-related reasons. So Liman had to improvise and make it appear as though they weren’t working even though they were. Apparently as the undercover shoot took place local cops were standing by, just out of frame.

Recommendation: Fun, uplifting, unexpectedly wholesome. You won’t want to throw it on for family movie night, but if you’re going through a rough patch Swingers is one hell of an antidote. Whether you’re a Trent or a Mikey there’s a lot to be gained out of this treatise on social dynamics — and though times have definitely changed, our innate desire to find happiness in another person has not.

Rated: R

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “So how long do I wait to call?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.youtube.com 

Arrival

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Release: Friday, November 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

I’m just going to say it: Arrival is magnificent. It’s also: 1) another grand gesture from the visionary Québécois Denis Villeneuve that’s both sophisticated and stylish; 2) a film that really “makes you think;” 3) the antidote to the last several days in which the world has been watching and weighing in as the “United” States of America may or may not have been tearing itself apart when Donald Trump went from real estate mogul to president-elect.

Of course, the film has no interest in making a political statement but it is interested in bringing us closer together as a global society. The one thing it is really good at is reminding us of our ability to empathize and cooperate with one another in times of hardship, even when there are competing interests, values and perspectives at play; that the way we communicate is as important as what we are communicating. Arrival, based upon the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, promotes language as the ultimate tool and weapon mankind has and will ever have. It’s both our currency for clarifying all that is foreign and unfamiliar but just as easily it can create barriers if in no other way than when we use it to obscure what we really feel.

In some sense Arrival feels allegorical for a modern society wherein the furor of social media tends to bring out the worst in people. It uses an alien encounter to elucidate both the simplicity of the act of communicating and the infinitely more complex process of understanding and interpreting. The chronicle centers around an expert linguist, a Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited by the U.S. military to decipher alien code they’ve received from a massive egg-shaped monolith in Montana, one of an apparent dozen that have suddenly appeared at seemingly random locations across the globe. The end game of course is to find out just what they are doing here, on this planet, but along the way we become privy to an altogether unexpected series of revelations.

Villeneuve’s latest is not merely a message film fitted into a pretty frame (although it very much is that). It offers a thrilling and profoundly personal adventure, one that more or less hits the ground running and remains comfortably paced throughout. An ambitious narrative is met with an appropriate sense of scale: Bradford Young’s panning cameras hint at the crippling notion that we may be alone in the universe, brilliantly reinforced by how deserted the college campus looks when it’s evacuated. Then there are the ships themselves — empyreal in their gently curving architecture. We call them ‘shells’ because labels are easier and they somehow feel comforting. Finally, news reports of mass riots and looting in poorer nations set the narrative against a backdrop of fear and panic. These bits serve as the most indicting evidence of what happens when we misconstrue things that are said, done or merely suggested.

Arrival feels grandiose even if the story sticks close to Dr. Banks as she is awoken from another troubled sleep by the surly Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling her the world needs her help. On the way to Montana, the sole American sighting, she meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who will prove a calming presence in an otherwise chaotic and prejudiced environment. It is these characters, plus a few faceless soldiers, with whom Dr. Banks will enter the ship in an attempt to open a line of communication. Arrival might be at its most compelling when that first contact is established, when we are formally introduced to the Heptapods — serious out-of-towners with seven tentacle-like appendages from which they shoot a black inky substance. After a failed first trip, nerves eventually calm and Dr. Banks’ intuition proves extremely valuable as work begins in earnest.

Several weeks of sleepless nights and haunting visions of her deceased daughter begin weighing heavily on our ambassador. Making matters worse, China is demanding an ultimatum from our squid-like visitors after one particular translation (‘Use weapon’) incites worldwide panic. In a race against time, Dr. Banks must determine what connection, if any, her visions of Hannah has to what she is doing here in the present. The results prove to be both heartbreaking and galvanizing, the drama culminating in an Interstellar-esque reveal that’s altogether satisfying insofar as it is surprisingly coherent. And almost 100% convincing. Arrival risks devolving into abstraction but the genius lies within the screenplay, courtesy of Eric Heisserer [Lights Out; The Thing (2011)]. It engages intellectually while structurally providing enough of the tangibles — flashbacks become a motif — to support its lofty ambitions. And all-around terrific performances, most notably Adams and Renner, send us out of the theater on a major high.

In a way this film isn’t about an alien encounter at all — it’s certainly not an invasion, per se; rather, this is a forward-thinking, socially responsible drama that celebrates the best of humanity.

Recommendation: A movie for the thinking-man, undoubtedly, Arrival continues the ascension of one Denis Villenueve as it captures him working comfortably within the realm of psychobiological science fiction. It features stellar performances and a great alien presence. Regular collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson is on hand to bolster the atmospheric feel of the film with a cerebral and moody score, so if you’re needing any other reason to go see this you might see it for that, too. This is one of my favorites of 2016, absolutely. A very exciting film. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Now that’s a proper introduction.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The BFG

'The BFG' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Melissa Mathison

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Great Gallywampers and fiddly tweezlesticks, I is very pleased indeed that Steven Spielberg has delivered the goodles in his very first venture into Roald Dahl‘s brilliant imagurnation. The BFG is breathtaker beautiful, and not just thanks to its scrumptioutious imagery, neither. It recalls the warminess and serenity of Brian Cosgrove’s 1989 animated adventure and ‘n fact it mighty jus’ be more endearin’ because of the live-action interplayery.

No, don’t worry, I’m not gonna speak in Dahlian tongues for the entire review. That’s just my overly dramatic way of expressing relief that The BFG turns out to be the real deal, rather than a pale imitator. The story is clumsier than you might expect with a Spielbergian production — we find as many lulls in the story as we do frobscottle-induced farts (excuse me, whizzpoppers) — but that’s merely the product of a director’s faithfulness to the source material. Spielberg otherwise hits every major note with an assured and playful touch, his knack for conjuring powerful feelings of wonder and awe giving this sweet summer diversion a personality all its own.

Indeed, The BFG is mostly a success in that it doesn’t create any new problems. It merely inherits those of its ancestor — namely, the aforementioned inconsistent and at-times sluggish pace and a few leaps of faith in logic in service of a narrative that just may well be Dahl’s strangest and most fanciful. Story concerns a young girl named Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) who is whisked away one night from Mrs. Clonkers’ Orphanage by a huge, hooded creature and to Giant Country, a wondrous place filled with beauty. Do I smell a Best Visual Effects nomination? I do, as a matter of fact: that sequence in Dream Country by the dream tree is simply mesmeric.

But Giant Country isn’t total paradise, it’s fraught with danger as well. The other giants among whom the BFG ekes out a quiet existence as a Dream Blower are much larger, meaner and they eat human beings (or, beans, rather). After learning she’s not leaving Giant Country anytime soon, Sophie encourages her big friendly giant to stand up for himself and to rid the land of these brutes, led by Jemaine Clement‘s Fleshlumpeater, once and for all. The pair seek the help of the Queen (Penelope Wilton) and her Royal Army back in the real world to do just that.

As is the case with a great many Dahl adaptations, the suspension of disbelief is a requisite and that ability serves viewers well here, especially as the fearless Sophie encourages the two worlds to collide. The performances anchoring the film are so good they allow us to overlook many a flawed concept. And there are more than a few. Spielberg’s potential new muse in Mark Rylance loses himself in the role as the titular giant and very well might have upstaged David Jason’s original voice performance that made the larger-than-life being an unforgettable creation. His spoonerisms and awkward turns of phrase were a highlight of that original as they are here as well, and once again it’s a joy watching ten-year-old Sophie trying to update and expand his childlike vocabulary.

Rylance doesn’t do it alone, though. He gets tremendous support from the young Barnhill who embraces Sophie’s wide-eyed curiosity about the strange world surrounding her with real gusto. She’s also brilliant at balancing the heartbreak of growing up without parents with a sense of maturity that makes her as well-rounded a character as you’re likely going to find with a child actor. All those years ago Sophie had already been made a strong character thanks to Amanda Root’s precociousness and intellectual curiosity, and those qualities are only bolstered by Barnhill’s live-action incarnation. Most importantly, the quasi-parental bond between the two isn’t lost in translation. The problem of loneliness is resolved with respect for Dahl’s affinity for the weird very much intact come the tear-jerking conclusion.

One of the challenges Spielberg is up against with his take on a Dahlian classic is finding an audience outside of those loyal readers and those who keep the 1989 made-for-British-television special close to their heart. The BFG is certifiably obscure material but perhaps with names attached like Spielberg and Rylance it can reach for broader audiences. This uplifting, sweet tale of bravery and dream-making certainly deserves them.

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Recommendation: The BFG, as I have suspected since the announcement was first made, represents an ideal union of director and material. The world created by Roald Dahl is practically tailor-made for one of the world’s best when it comes to imaginative, inspiring filmmaking and the end product, while not perfect, is about as good as could be expected. The performances are wonderful and if you’re tired of the summer blockbuster trend, I have to recommend The BFG. Like, immediatarily. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Why did you take me?” / “Because I hears your lonely heart, ‘n all the secret whisperings of the world.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.joblo.com; http://www.imdb.com

Decades Blogathon – Stand By Me (1986)

1986

 

My apologies for a late posting today, folks. But better late than never, right? Joining in the discussion today we have Courtney from On the Screen Reviews. That site is a great one to go to if you’re looking for a variety of film reviews and yearly Top Tens. Check it out if you haven’t already, you won’t be sorry! Thanks again for helping us make this blogathon a great one Courtney, the floor is yours! 


Three Rows Back and Digital Shortbread are hosting the Decades Blogathon, a 10(ish) day event in which film critics take a look at movies from different decades. This month we’re choosing films from any decade with the year ending in ‘6’ (given that it’s now 2016), and there’s no restrictions.

For my contribution, I’ve chosen to cover the coming-of-age classic that made the train dodge a timeless pastime, Stand by Me.

You guys wanna see a dead body . . . ?

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GIF 1

“I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being. It happened in 1959, a long time ago, but only if you measure in term of years.”

With the overhaul of pre-teen movies that force your brain to regress in order to comprehend, it should be unanimously agreed that Stand by Me follows a blueprint of movie making that seems impossible to recreate. Recent movies like Super 8 attempted to capture youthful nostalgia, but didn’t dig deep enough to reach the gritty reality of adolescence. Stand by Me offers no gimmicks, no aliens, no gadgets, but raw human emotion.

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Stand by Me is a movie about four 12-year-old-boys living in a small town in Oregon around 1959 who go on a total boy adventure Labor Day weekend to find an undiscovered dead body. It’s narrated in present-day by a novelist (Richard Dreyfuss) who recalls the weekend that inspired his writing. (That old 80s computer tho! If that doesn’t resonate with you, I don’t know what will!!!)

Their weekend journey is the first taste of real life for the four boys and the last real taste of innocence; I think this is what resonates with viewers like myself the most. It eliminates the awkward introduction of girls into their lifestyle (because they haven’t reached that point in life yet), and focuses on more pertinent philosophical questions of that age like “Do you think Mighty Mouse can beat Superman?” Conversations around the campfire seem endless and pinky swears seem bound in blood.

The movie takes another risk filmmakers refuse to take today — it’s rated R! It’s unpretentious, hilarious and absolutely genuine with its plot and dialogue. Kids at the age of 12 are going to swear as much as this movie suggests, so why bleep it out? Stand by Me keeps it real, most notably with it’s script, which translates to some of the best scenes by young actors in cinematic history.

Here are some of my favorites scenes:

Teddy’s Freakout

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The movie really hones in on small town life and what it’s like to know everybody. In the junk yard scene where the crotchety man calls Teddy’s (Corey Feldman) father “a looney,” Teddy erupts, “I’m going to rip off your head and shit down your neck!” Firstly, what a creative and vulgarly descriptive insult! Teddy’s father allegedly stormed the beach at Normandy, and despite his father being total garbage to Teddy, he has the utmost respect for him. That’s commendable, and it unfolds layers of Teddy’s character that are deeper than one may anticipate. If it isn’t obvious, this movie really shows that boys have emotions too.

Kiefer Sutherland in any scene

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Kiefer Sutherland is a bona fide badass in this movie, and he’s one of the most believable assholes on screen in the 80s! It takes effort now-a-days to convince me that a character is the scum of the Earth, mostly due to poor acting or casting decisions, but Sutherland embodied every aspect of the sociopath Ace. Despite stealing every scene he’s in, the most character defining scene comes at the end where he affirms that he’s willing to kill a kid to get what he wants. Great acting and character embodiment by Sutherland. I would not fuck with him.

Train Dodge

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The train dodge scene is probably the scene most associated with the movie and one of my personal favorites. What I love about the train dodge is the giant metaphor being slammed in your face that the train is your life — it’s coming no matter what, and you damn sure better be ready for it. Not only is it one of the more hilarious, heart-pounding scenes, but it’s an affirmation that some kids can handle it and some can’t.

The Deer

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The deer scene comes as a breath of fresh air in-between dramatic scenes offering a reflection for both the character of Gordie and the audience. It showcases Gordie’s consciousness as a child in that he is in-tune with his creativity as an aspiring writer. There are also subtleties of the scene that I love — his smirk, the comic book he’s reading, the fact that no one else saw the deer and that he keeps the moment to himself . . . until now.

The Closing Scene

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“Chris did get out. He enrolled in the college-courses with me. And although it was hard, he gutted it out like he always did. He went onto college and eventually became a lawyer. Last week he entered a fast food restaurant. Just ahead of him, two men got into an argument. One of them pulled out a knife. Chris, who would always make the best peace tried to break it up. He was stabbed in the throat. He died almost instantly. Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years I know I’ll miss him forever.”

I think the last scene of the boys is probably one of the most relevant for the actors. The final shot of Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) walking into the distance slowly fading away is an eerie premonition of his actual fate of an overdose at the age of 23. The final scene really shows how friends grow apart in life, and that’s okay. The boys all have revelations that each is struggling with something whether it’s being bullied over weight or having an abusive parent . . . they all persevere and it shapes their characters. The character of Chris Chambers is one of my favorites, because despite coming from a crappy family situation, he had the ability to make his life better. It may sound cliche, but it shows the power of perseverance without the director making it overly showy.

This is a movie that resonates with me long after viewing and it’s really never left me.

Let me know your favorite scenes from the movie!  GIF 6


Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Tangerine

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Release: Friday, July 10, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Sean Baker; Chris Bergoch

Directed by: Sean Baker

How I felt when I first tucked into indie dramedy Tangerine — yes, that film, the one shot entirely on the iPhone 5s — and how I felt when the last scene faded to black couldn’t have been more radically different feelings. Talk about a film that earns your empathy.

Introducing itself to the world at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and creating substantial buzz in film festivals the world over before opening in an elite listing of American cinemas in July, Sean Baker’s fifth feature plays out with genuine emotion and manifests as an eye-opening day-in-the-life of two transgender sex workers on the streets of Los Angeles. Offering transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor their break-out roles, Tangerine swells with emotion thanks in large part to the pair’s naturalistic, amusing and occasionally heartbreaking performances — performances that suggest these are much more seasoned actors than they really are.

The story tells of Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee Rella, who learns the pimp she’s in love with has had an affair during the time she had recently spent in prison. Her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) breaks the news to her in the opening scene, setting the wheels in motion for the rest of the film by triggering a reaction within Sin-Dee that suggests a history of confrontational, violent behavior. Tangerine has no interest in dwelling in the past however; it beats a path forward on the sun-scorched, unforgiving streets of Tinseltown where people do what they must to get by.

It might seem surprising, counterintuitive even, for someone to have such a reaction when hearing one’s pimp has been seeing other women. After all, this is the kind of movie that has no qualms with describing flesh as product, where “the only thing that matters is the hustle;” in this gorgeously rendered production the world can be so cruel and ugly. That painful reality is also what makes the film so good. It takes some adjusting to, there is no doubt about that. And that, too, is a painful reality in and of itself: this is a scene largely overlooked in the industry.

Baker’s smart not to keep the focus entirely on Sin-Dee’s vendetta. Factoring into the equation is a subplot involving Alexandra trying to get people to attend a show she’s putting on at a night club later in the evening — it’s Christmas Eve — and an Armenian cabbie (Karren Karagulian) who frequents transgender prostitutes when on the clock, with a wife and child waiting for him back at home. Indeed, the cast may not be extensive but it’s enough to suggest a world filled with all sorts of broken people in various states of — well, I would say ‘decay,’ but that seems . . . harsh.

Tangerine develops in such a way that you’re constantly questioning whether a script was involved, or if real people were grabbed off the street and asked to contribute bit parts. It’s a hybrid of reality TV and independent cinema, bearing traits of the former in the way characters talk, behave and treat one another. There can be a lot of drama, and if we’re talking strictly narratively, Tangerine boils down to little more than relationship issues. But focusing on the machinations of the plot ignores the soft tissue of humanity that lies underneath wigs and layers of make-up.

These aren’t people we start off easily identifying with or even liking all that much. It’s almost irrelevant that the characters we are dealing with happen to be transgender, though the distinction should still be made. This isn’t yet another indie featuring the pains of adolescence as a white cisgender male. The trio of key players all share in common a lack of self-control that, coupled with their uniquely challenging professions, make them worthy of pity. They may not ask for it, but they’re going to get it anyway. And it’s not the worst thing to feel sorry for people who are less innately vile as they are products of their environments, and possibly products of terrible upbringings.

That was the last thing I expected to feel for Sin-Dee when all was said and done. I didn’t expect to find myself finishing the film. That’s because I also didn’t anticipate the screenplay to become so involving that it obliterated any sense that Baker’s decision to capture everything on an iPhone was nothing more than a gimmick. In this film, we feel like we could have stumbled into the frame at any given point, not realizing what was actually going on. That’s a really cool feeling.

Tangerine

Recommendation: I don’t know if you can call it a classic, but Tangerine is an all-too-unique film even in an era where a growing percentage of up-and-coming filmmakers are electing to take vastly different approaches to filmmaking and storytelling. It’s an important film as it deals with a number of socially relevant issues and features impressive performances from stars who are also far too rare in an industry that claims to be representative of a larger population. Tangerine is as good as any independent release I’ve seen and with any luck it’s a matter of time before more films like it start making the rounds.

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “You didn’t have to Chris Brown the bitch!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.villagevoice.com

On Dream Theater and the upcoming concept album

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It’s no secret that yours truly is a diehard Dream Theater fan. (I suppose it’s somewhat of a secret seeing as I’ve only mentioned the New York-based band once on this site in the last four years.) I have attended three concerts — one in Atlanta in 2005, one in Cleveland, OH in 2007 and one in Asheville, NC (of all places) in 2010. That is precisely nowhere near as many as I would have liked to have attended so far, considering the band has released two new albums since my last trip. Despite feeling I haven’t gone to enough of them, these are without a doubt among the best experiences of my life. You want an immersive concert experience? Go to a DT show.

I regularly steer new listeners of this very niched band — so named after a now-demolished movie theater in Monterey, California — to their live performances if I learn those listeners are on the fence about them. This is a band that demonstrates profound, technical musicianship in the studio but to bear witness to this spectacle is something else entirely. I also tell these people they should take lead singer James LaBrie’s vocal approach with a grain of salt (this is the hurdle a great many people have unsuccessfully cleared when popping in one of their albums for the first time). The guy has a distinctive, powerful and often goofy operatic singing style. It took me several albums to decide if I liked him or not. Now, I can’t imagine the band without the Canuck.

Dream Theater hair fashion show

Oh, the ’80s. Gotta love ’em. Band from left to right: John Petrucci; Mike Portnoy; Charlie Dominici; Kevin Moore; John Myung

On November 2, the band had hinted through their Twitter a new album was on its way. About time! It’s been more than two years since their last effort, the longest turn-around time between releases following their split with Elektra Records in 1999. Since joining their current label Roadrunner for their first self-produced concept album, the commercially and critically acclaimed ‘Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory,’ founding members Mike Portnoy (drummer) — who departed in 2010 and was replaced by the equally talented Mike Mangini — and John Petrucci (guitars) have ensured their fans will have something to look forward to at the end of every tour, which for the most part have consumed an entire calendar year.

They then hibernate in their favorite New York recording studio to jam and eventually turn that session into a beautifully orchestrated and produced symphony of notes, harmonies, face-melting solos, and high-concept lyrical content, the likes of which have more often than not ended up in international metal magazines’ year-end lists of the greatest stuff you’ll hear all year (it is with some hesitation that I clarify: I refer more to the music than the lyrics; DT doesn’t necessarily hang their hat on their lyrics, even if this aspect isn’t by any means a weakness).

Yeah, someone here is biased. I know that. I’m fully aware that my publicizing — and premature celebrating — of the upcoming album is predicated by my long-standing relationship with the band. Time and again, however, I’ve been shown that lofty expectations be damned; the new album will always find its place somewhere in the greater story that is Dream Theater. The 2016 release, their 13th, bears the official title ‘The Astonishing.’ Leaps out of chair, fist-pumps and pulverizes knuckles on ceiling fan on accident. Music is tough love. \m/ \m/

Dream Theater's 'On the Backs of Angels' was nominated as Best Metal track of 2011. Their first nomination

Dream Theater’s ‘On the Backs of Angels’ was nominated as Best Metal track of 2011. Their first nomination. Left to right: Mike Mangini; John Myung; Jordan Rudess; James LaBrie; John Petrucci

In light of the exciting news, I’d like to attempt to back-up some of my verbal diarrhea with some factual tidbits. Well, not necessarily ‘factual’ in the strictest sense of the word; more like evidence that this is a band well worth listening to even as the members enter their late 50’s (keyboardist Jordan Rudess, who joined on the aforementioned ‘Metropolis’ album, is the oldest at 58) and despite the fact this will probably forever be the Biggest Band You’ve Never Heard Of. Below you’ll find an arrangement of their discography that I’ve prioritized based on my preferences.

It should go without saying that you shouldn’t take this as an ordering of their most popular or their most commercially viable releases or anything like that. This is my attempt to highlight their prolificness, in case anyone needs a head start on where to go — and trust me, if you like what you hear at first, there is A LOT to get into. It can be a little overwhelming. I’ll include the track I’d recommend starting with on each album, and which album I think best defines this ever-changing band. Bear in mind this is a group that has been influenced by everything from Pink Floyd to Ozzy Osbourne; from pop to blues. If you dig deep enough you’ll find references to John Lennon’s poetry and tips of the hat to Yes’ early etchings of the progressive rock scene. DT is quite literally in a category all their own. One reason I love them and can’t wait to see what they will have come up with next year.


'Octavarium' album coverAlbum: ‘Octavarium’

Release: June 7, 2005

Track:Octavarium

Recommendation: I have to send up one flag with this, my immediate go-to: it is, in DT terms, a true ‘epic.’ Clocking in at 24 minutes even, it’s one long listen. But these are some of the fastest-passing 20 minutes you’ll likely hear once you commit past the trance-inducing opening. Built upon the concept of the passage of time and sharing the album’s obsession over the musical application of ‘8’ (octave is an important element here) ‘Octavarium’ is simply a work of art. It is perhaps my all-time favorite song. Possibly because it recalls early Pink Floyd more than anything; is that ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond?’ No, it can’t be. This is a 2005 track. . .


'Scenes from a Memory' album coverAlbum: ‘Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From a Memory’

Release: October 26, 1999

Track: Fatal Tragedy [Scene 3]

Recommendation: On an album marked by some of the most beautiful and brilliantly constructed progressive music in the last several decades, ‘Fatal Tragedy,’ merely a small part in the bigger picture of a tale about a murder and its consequences on a family and a lover caught in an affair, is one heck of a jam. It may not be the most accessible track on the record but it’s probably the most fun passage. It starts slowly and rather unsuspecting, building rapidly towards an energetic and complex battle between Petrucci’s mind-numbing guitars and Rudess’ keyboard wizardry.


'Images and Words' album coverAlbum: ‘Images and Words’

Release: July 7, 1992

Track: Learning to Live

Recommendation: Dream Theater’s most celebrated (and in my book their third greatest achievement, especially considering they were just kids when it was released . . . okay, they were roughly 20 years old) piece boasts eight tracks, each of which are essentially better than the last. It is capped off with this incredibly rich 11-minute romantic flourish with a rare lyrical contribution from bassist John Myung (a.k.a. the guy who never speaks). ‘Learning to Live’ takes some patience to digest but once you’ve opened up to it the song just gets better and better, and it features one of Petrucci’s select Spanish guitar solos. You have to hear it.


'A Dramatic Turn of Events'Album: ‘A Dramatic Turn of Events’

Release: September 12, 2011

Track: Bridges in the Sky

Recommendation: ‘Bridges in the Sky’ serves as both a centerpiece for the band’s first album following the departure of long-standing (and founding) member Mike Portnoy as well as the epitome of what DT can do with some classic, hard-hitting riffs. ‘Bridges’ boasts one of the most uplifting and exhilarating lyrical breaks/choruses in DT’s catalogue, providing LaBrie another opportunity to display his vocal range and prove that he’s not all about the excessive wailing and tongue-sticking-out stuff. (Watch him on a DVD or in concert and you’ll see what I mean.) This is a great modern metal tune with some particularly memorable lyrics. 


'Systematic Chaos' album coverAlbum: ‘Systematic Chaos’

Release: June 4, 2007

Track: The Dark Eternal Night

Recommendation: I might be venturing out into Dream Theater purist territory here but there’s no denying this heavy, morbid track epitomizes the uniqueness of DT’s sound. The ominous, heavily textured guitars and crazy lyrical inflections make ‘The Dark Eternal Night’ one of the most distinctive releases in their catalog. I’d be lying if I said this isn’t something the sickly curious should check out. Listen to that chorus. Listen to that bass line. And then the musical interlude that consumes you after the second refrain. Oh man. What a track.


'A Change of Seasons' album coverAlbum: ‘A Change of Seasons’

Release: September 19, 1995

Track: A Change of Seasons

Recommendation: Technically speaking, this is not an official studio release, as this oft-forgotten EP from the mid-90s features only one original work (the title track) amidst a collection of live cover songs, each of which are interesting in their own right. But this sprawling adventure is too good not to recommend. This 23-minute long track encompasses a variety of strong emotions and manages to sneak in a quote or two from the hugely successful drama Dead Poets Society. Lyrically inspirational and featuring one of the more blues-y guitar breaks in recent memory, this utterly progressive epic is a must for DT completionists.


'When Dream And Day Unite' album coverAlbum: ‘When Dream and Day Unite’

Release: March 6, 1989

Track: Afterlife

Recommendation: Arguably the stand-out track on the debut album from a band that at the time called themselves Majesty, ‘Afterlife’ is an exciting, enchanting pondering of what lies beyond. While clearly lacking in the clean production of later albums — this was the band’s first and only album to fail to produce a subsequent tour — WDADU (which has a hilarious phonetic pronunciation of “what’d I do?!”) represents several hallmark idiosyncrasies that would later endear millions to the band. This track in particular features a wicked guitar solo that leads into one of the best guitar-keyboard unisons I have ever heard. This album also marked the first and only album featuring former singer Charlie Dominici and the first of two collaborations with then-keyboardist Kevin Moore, who has since disassociated himself with the band for reasons unknown.


'Train of Thought' album coverAlbum: ‘Train of Thought’

Release: November 11, 2003

Track: Stream of Consciousness

Recommendation: I have debated inserting this selection as my #1 choice as its distinct lack of vocals makes it a potentially more accessible passage, given singer James LaBrie’s unique singing style, yet I wouldn’t quite feel right doing so on the virtue of specifically excluding one of the core members. Nevertheless, ‘Stream of Consciousness,’ which represents one of several of DT’s instrumental tracks, is absolutely classic. It features exquisitely complex guitars and drums, both in hair-tearing medleys and in isolation; and one of the most recognizable riffs in DT’s catalog. It is available on an album that is more straightforward metal than anything they’ve done and is one of the first songs that got me into the band.


'Falling Into Infinity' album coverAlbum: ‘Falling Into Infinity’

Release: September 23, 1997

Track: Trial of Tears

Recommendation: The band was going through a particularly difficult patch in their careers at the time of this release. As a band that has largely been defined by their unique sound and bold decision to consistently produce lengthier songs in an era where songs seem to only be getting shorter, DT was facing incredible pressure from the label to put together a more radio-friendly product. The tension was enough to almost end the band completely, but rather than folding they came up with perhaps their most overlooked album. It’s a shame because it features ‘Trial of Tears,’ a gorgeously composed, relatively mellow exercise in aural hypnosis. Penned once again by the quietly prolific John Myung, it’s an exclamation point on a strong album that has perhaps taken far too much criticism


'Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence' album coverAlbum: ‘Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence’

Release: January 29, 2002

Track: Misunderstood

Recommendation: There are too many choices when it comes to DT’s follow-up to their seminal ‘Scenes From a Memory.’ ‘Six Degrees’ manifests as another concept album, one split over two discs and featuring five lengthier tracks on disc one — each one a build-up to disc two’s “six degrees of inner turbulence,” a nod to the various states of psychological distress and ailments. While I could spend hours nitpicking through the brilliance of the second disc, ultimately what this comes down to is uniqueness. And track #3 on disc one is the epitome of it. Some have made it known that they weren’t overly enamored by DT’s more experimental movement in ‘Misunderstood,’ and even I have to admit the last few minutes of the song remain bizarre to me but it’s the overall piece I’m concerned with. ‘Misunderstood’ is atmospheric and its lyrical content is a highlight. John Petrucci wants to know, “How can I feel abandoned even when the world surrounds me?”


'Awake' album coverAlbum: ‘Awake’

Release: October 4, 1994

Track: Lifting Shadows Off a Dream

Recommendation: This is certifiably obscure DT but I love ‘Lifting Shadows Off a Dream.’ Leave it to John Myung to provide dense, mysterious yet ultimately optimistic lyrics. The ninth in an 11-track collection of decidedly heavier songs following 1992’s break-out hit ‘Images and Words,’ this song ultimately falls on the generally more accessible side of the spectrum as it restrains technicality in favor of melody and lyrical content. A perfect example of the band knowing when it’s appropriate to scale back their almost obsessive meticulousness. 


'Dream Theater' album coverAlbum: ‘Dream Theater’

Release: September 23, 2013

Track: Illumination Theory

Recommendation: E-hem. Yes. At 23 minutes, ‘Illumination Theory’ puts the finishing touches on an album marked with a distinctly cinematic motif, with many a riff and refrain echoing the grandeur of movie scores. Just once I’d like for this band to score a movie, and well, I guess the guys have already played with that notion. Here’s one idea of what that might sound like. Though I still don’t fully grasp what the title refers to, suffice it to say the musical content speaks for itself. Sitting pretty in the middle of this gorgeous epic is one of the most extensive orchestral breaks DT has yet featured, leading listeners to believe the song may bow out on a quieter note. But any regular listeners aren’t likely to be fooled so easily. Indeed, Petrucci and friends erupt into a spectacular crescendo down the stretch, and, along with an almost never-better LaBrie at the mic, finish the song and their most recent album off in traditionally dramatic fashion. 


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