The Jungle Book, or Cynicism Defanged

The Jungle Book, or Cynicism Defanged

If you’re cynical about the new live-action remake of Disney’s classic animated movie The Jungle Book from 1967, that’s okay. Remakes are largely cynical affairs, cash-grabs, easy money. Disney is good at this. Look no further than their new strategy for the Star Wars universe. Heck, look no further than Walt Disney World.

The Jungle Book is the latest in a recent bid to mine the Disney vault for familiar intellectual property guaranteed to make a buck, following the box-office success of the critically panned Alice in Wonderland (2010), the mixed-bag Maleficent (2014), and last year’s actually-pretty-good Cinderella. The difference between The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau and starring newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, and those other movies is that The Jungle Book might just be a great movie, proving that sometimes financial intentions and artistic intentions can work together.

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The bare bones of the new movie’s plot are the same as the original animated classic: Mowgli, raised by wolves, goes on a journey to leave the jungle to stay safe from a murderous tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Mowgli doesn’t want to leave, but Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley), with both Mowgli’s good and the good of the jungle in mind, works hard to convince Mowgli that it’s best for him if he goes to a Man-Village. On their way out of the jungle, they encounter many of the same characters as the animated movie: Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), King Louie the orangutan (Christopher Walken), Kaa the python (Scarlett Johannsson).

Not all of it works, but what does work leaves a big impression. Disney and Favreau have kept in some of the original’s songs. Because this iteration of the story doesn’t really play as a musical, the songs fit in sort of awkwardly. Christopher Walken’s rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You” feels pretty shoehorned in, though Murray and Sethi singing “The Bare Necessities” is nothing but charming. If they had kept only “The Bare Necessities”, perhaps it wouldn’t feel like such an attempt to call back to the original.

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What the movie does get right is pretty much everything else. The voiceover work is spot-on. Murray is a delight as the indolent Baloo, Kingsley is appropriately noble as Bagheera, and Elba is terrifying as Shere Khan. The movie’s jungle is beautiful from start to finish. Ostensibly fashioned entirely out of CGI, I could’ve sworn they were shooting everything on location. And the story, while a known commodity, highlights a value for community that was missing from the original.

This is far darker than the 1967 version. It deals more directly with death and with the inherent ugliness of the world. While kids might find more to be scared of in this movie, it’s just as funny and fun as the original, and it offers more for both kids and adults to chew on. I knew the whole time that what I was watching was essentially a greed-driven, sophisticated cartoon, and yet I was moved. Maybe cynicism isn’t all there is to this movie business thing.

Career Best: Bob Dylan’s Best Albums

Career Best: Bob Dylan’s Best Albums

I didn’t grow up listening to Bob Dylan. My house was a Beatles house. I knew most of the Beatles choruses by heart. But Dylan? I couldn’t have told you any of the names of his songs until my senior year of high school. By that time, I had begun listening to a lot of the pop classics. When I got to Dylan, I was so confused. How did a guy with this voice get to be considered the Voice of a Generation?

If Dylan’s unorthodox voice threw me off at first, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with his originality. As strange as his voice is, there’s no arguing Dylan’s ability to craft a tune or write a lyric. Pretty soon, that one-of-a-kind, reedy voice came to hold a special kind of beauty to me. After some time exploring his catalog of albums, he became one of my favorite artists.

Listening to any artist’s entire discography can be exhausting and tedious, but Dylan had so many different phases and personalities over the years that each new wave felt like discovering a new artist. From all of his 36 studio albums, I picked the top 12. Why 12? I don’t know. It’s a third of 36. Seemed good.

The Top 12 Bob Dylan Albums

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12. Down in the Groove (1988): The common refrain is that the ‘80s were a lost decade for Dylan. He got caught up in a born-again Christian fever and his creativity dipped- or so they say. There’s no question that the genius of his ‘60s and ‘70s albums didn’t surface in the ‘80s, but in retrospect it seems like Dylan’s initial spate of faith-focused albums turned critics off and they largely ignored the rest of the decade’s output. Only Infidels (1983) and Empire Burlesque (1985) get any love, and it’s muted love at that. But I prefer two other albums: Shot of Love (1981, see below) and this one, a 10-track diamond in the rough that has perhaps the purest, least-dated music of Dylan’s 1980s. Groove also has two of his best songs of the decade, the punchy “Silvio” and the soulful “Shenandoah”.

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11. Modern Times (2006): As the third album of Dylan’s late-career renaissance, following Time Out of Mind (1997) and Love and Theft (2001, see below), it was understandable to expect a dip in quality. After all, Dylan had silenced his critics with two works that seemed to erase the bad will he built up in the 1980s. Most artists don’t even have one good record after 30 years making music, let alone two. Was three too much to expect? Turns out it wasn’t, as Modern Times sees Dylan at the top of his (admittedly old) game, turning out 10 great folk songs that were interestingly focused on the future. Dylan is almost defiant in his hope for a better life, a life without romantic worries in “Someday Baby”, a life free of the wickedness of others in “Ain’t Talkin’”.

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10. Tempest (2012): Dylan’s last great album, and the one on which it sounds like the Bard’s vocal larynx has finally sprung a leak. If you weren’t turned off by Dylan’s voice before Tempest, this won’t be the one to convince you his songwriting is worth getting past the scratchiness (which makes it all the more humorous that he’s releasing a second Frank Sinatra covers album this year). But after the bland Together Through Life (2009), Tempest was a return to the strong songwriting of Modern Times. This time Dylan doubled down on a blues-rock groove that belied an even more light-hearted take on the world, climaxing with the whimsical last track, “Roll On John”.

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9. Shot of Love (1981): This is the best of Dylan’s post-conversion albums. You can see why critics continued to lump this in with the uninspired Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980). There are some unabashed attempts to proselytize through song, like “Property of Jesus” and “Every Grain of Sand”. And Shot was a further commitment to move away from the introspective folk of Dylan’s early-to-mid-‘70s. In fact, Shot is Dylan’s album with the most soul, from the opening title track’s gospel-inspired backup singers to the old-fashioned spiritual style of “Watered-Down Love”.

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8. The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964): While not as well-remembered as Dylan’s breakthrough, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963, see below), Times was arguably crafted to make more of an impact. Freewheelin’ had “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”, but nearly every song on Times was meant to be a protest song, starting with the opening title track that became an anthem for the ‘60s, all the way through “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, about the murder of a hotel worker by a rich white man. The songs are less witty than on Freewheelin’ and their styles are more one-note, but Times solidified Dylan’s reputation as the Voice of a Generation.

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7. “Love and Theft” (2001): Dylan had already had his big critical comeback in 1997 with Time Out of Mind. But I prefer 2001’s “Love and Theft”. Time was Dylan’s first album of original material in 7 years, and as such was his most personal album in a long time. But “Love and Theft” is a more ambitious album full of story songs, weaving tales of the South and its racial tensions. Album high point “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is a tribute to the esteemed blues pioneer in the guise of a story about the 1927 Mississippi River flood in Louisiana. The closer “Sugar Baby” talks about looking for fulfillment in the era of Prohibition. And “Mississippi”, on an album full of concepts, is one of Dylan’s most personal songs, facing romantic consequences that can’t help but feel inevitable.

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6. The Basement Tapes (1975): After Dylan survived a traumatic motorcycle accident in 1967, the backing band on his last tour, the Hawks (who would later become The Band), joined him for one of the most famous collaborations in Americana history. In fact, The Basement Tapes, which weren’t released until seven years had passed, is credited with birthing modern Americana, though that’s a specious claim, since it seems there hasn’t been a decade before or since in which Americana didn’t have a big influence on the current music. Regardless, the combination of Dylan with fellow musical geniuses Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel produced some of the most beautiful and fun music of Dylan’s career, including album standouts “Tears of Rage” and “Crash on the Levee”.

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5. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963): “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Freewheelin’s opener became the most famous protest song of all time, so it’s easy to forget that it’s a very simple song. All the songs on Freewheelin’ are simple, so much simpler than the brand of folk-rock Dylan became famous for later on in the ‘60s. But the lack of lyrical complexity doesn’t mean a lack of lyrical creativity. “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is one of Dylan’s funniest songs, and “Blowin’” has some of his strongest imagery. And the lack of musical complexity doesn’t mean a lack of musical beauty. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” finds its home in a mournful yodel, and the way the chorus builds to its resigned conclusion in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is one of Dylan’s better compositions.

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4. Highway 61 Revisited (1965): It’s tempting to put Highway 61 Revisited higher on this list on the strength of “Like a Rolling Stone” alone, but the albums ahead of it are there for a reason. This was the album where Dylan “went electric”. To our modern ears, there might not be much of a difference between Highway and its predecessor, Bringing It All Back Home (1965, see below), but so much of Highway is treading new ground. The whistles and slide guitar on the title track are just the most obvious wrinkles Dylan threw into the album’s mix. “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Desolation Row” are perhaps the most indicative of Dylan’s new direction, the former for its heavy dependence on the organ (foreshadowing Dylan’s collaboration with The Band) and the latter for its 11-minute stream-of-consciousness poetry.

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3. Bringing It All Back Home (1965): Album opener “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (which some have said is the first rap song- some have said it, not me!) and “Maggie’s Farm”, while still conforming to Dylan’s established folk structure, are subtle hints at the direction Dylan was about to go. He was beginning to get bored of following the same patterns on song after song, and Bringing is the first step towards his more avant-garde hit albums Highway and Blonde on Blonde (1966, see below). Released the same year as Highway, I prefer Bringing, because though it’s longer, the songwriting is stronger across the board, including “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the underrated “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.

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2. Blonde on Blonde (1966): The best of Dylan’s ‘60s albums is also the longest, which should work against it, but there are just so many great songs on this record. It starts off with his weirdest song to date, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, which riffs on the folk community’s overblown reaction to his new direction using a pot pun. Then there’s a 6-song run, starting with the effortlessly beautiful “Visions of Johanna” and ending with the spiteful “Just Like a Woman”, that is simply unparalleled in pop music. The final song is another 11-minute epic along the lines of “Desolation Row” called “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, but this one was a love song, an ode to Dylan’s new wife, and it’s Dylan at his most direct and most tender. Recorded in Nashville with session musicians, Blonde on Blonde finds the newly married Dylan at his peak, a point that he wouldn’t return to until that new marriage reached a point of turmoil 9 years later.

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1. Blood on the Tracks (1975): The breakup album is a well-worn trope in the pop music world, and we may have Dylan to thank for that. Though his relationship with his wife wasn’t ending, they were estranged during Blood’s recording. Dylan has claimed Blood wasn’t a personal album; bullshit. This is one of the most achingly painful albums of all time, at some points full of grief and at others full to bursting of anger. “Idiot Wind” is the best example of the latter, as the title refers to the air coming out of his lover’s mouth. The best example of the former is the opening track, “Tangled Up in Blue”. I’ll write more about this song next week, but it sets the tone for the whole album, communicating with precision the complex and inescapable grief that comes with an ending relationship. I was trying to remember if Blood on the Tracks helped me cope with any of my own dissolving relationships in the past. “Cope” isn’t the right word. I would say that Blood has helped me put my own sadness into words and pictures, and that was more valuable to me than any album that might make me feel better for a little bit.

Next week I’ll cover Dylan’s Top 25 Songs.

R.I.P. Prince

R.I.P. Prince

It wasn’t that long ago that I sat down to write a little something about an artist whose music changed my conception of what music can be, an artist with one song in particular that expressed perfectly my feelings about love, an artist we’d never hear from again. Posts like these should be few and far between. Four months later is too soon. But any amount of time would be too soon.

Much like my relationship with David Bowie, my relationship with Prince’s music is largely shallow. I could name some of his albums and recognize plenty of his songs, but my tightest connection to Prince is through Purple Rain. I remember trying to work through some of the most well-regarded classic rock albums in pop history near the end of high school. When I got to Purple Rain, I remember being unsure. Honestly, it had everything to do with Prince being black. Most of the rock music I had been exposed to thus far was from white guys. My experience with black music was sadly limited to Motown, or Michael Jackson, or rap, and that was all I naively expected from black artists. I clicked on “Let’s Go Crazy”, and heard something altogether different.

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It wasn’t pop music like Michael made; there was too much rock and roll in Prince’s delivery and the guitars were too heavy. It wasn’t just rock music though; some songs had such a reliance on synths and a syncopation I associated mainly with R&B. “When Doves Cry” sounded like it would be a rock song at first, then shifted to something between funk and R&B. And “Purple Rain”, which has soundtracked many of my relationships’ ascents and descents, floated out of my computer’s speakers like a gospel song. I wasn’t listening to the simple mixing of genres. No, this was Prince defying that your expectations should even exist.

Prince wasn’t the first artist to combine or even transcend genres. Elvis was mixing country and rock back at rock’s genesis. The Rolling Stones had been incorporating blues into their rock and roll from their start. Even some of Michael’s biggest hits could be considered rock songs. Sly Stone might be the closest thing to Prince’s genre defiance that pop music has, but Prince was the first artist I experienced for whom genre had no boundaries. He was the first one whose inability to be categorized upended my expectations and altered my perception of what music was for. Michael was the King of Pop, but Prince was the king of everything.

The Young Thug Conundrum

The Young Thug Conundrum

youngthug01What am I supposed to do with Young Thug? I love his music. I get a charge from listening to it. I think he’s one of the most exciting musicians working today. But what am I supposed to do with his unapologetic recklessness? What am I supposed to do with his unending vulgarity? As a Christian, what am I supposed to do with this, from “With Them”:

“She suck on that dick on the plane and I just called her airhead / I just went hunting, I found a rabbit, I picked out the carrots / I’m just tired of smoking kushy, I need some Moonrock out in Cali / I got a white b*tch  and she give me that Becky but her name is Sari”

Forget understanding what the lyrics mean. While any scrub can look up a Young Thug on Genius to understand what each individual line means, these bars don’t add up to much, regardless how much research you do. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.

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It’s not like Thug is the first rapper to trade in absurdist, stream-of-consciousness lyrics that also happen to be vulgar. But every song is like this. Feel free to listen to his entire discography for a few days if you don’t believe me. You and I may have different definitions of vulgar, but you’d be hard-pressed to convince me this doesn’t fall in the category.

While I find myself getting pumped when I hear a song of his come on, when I think about it, my mind always goes to how I should be responding to it. Should I embrace the music wholeheartedly, regardless of its questionable message? Should I shun Young Thug’s work, ignoring the way it makes me feel? Or should I choose indifference, not rejecting the music outright but not commending it either?

The first option is silly. The things Young Thug raps about have nothing to do with my life, and, just to be clear, that goes deeper than black and white. Maybe I can embrace aspects of Thug’s music, like his general joie de vivre, his punk-rap aesthetic, his excitement for rebellion against oppression. But I’m not smoking “kushy”, I’m not joining the mile-high club, and I ain’t never called a woman a “b*tch”. Fully embracing Young Thug feels like saying I’m okay with all of these things. Some of them I could care less about and just aren’t a part of my life; others are things that, yeah, I’m not okay with. So fully embracing Slime Season 3 isn’t really an option.

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The second option is a frustration of mine. As a Christian, striving to keep oneself unstained from the world is a daily exercise of one’s faith. But I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency among Christians to embrace Christian rap and reject secular rap, because the message is so often antithetical to what we believe. But I don’t think listening to music is an endorsement of everything involved in its creation. You can experience culture without being in active support of it. So, on principle, rejecting Young Thug’s music feels like taking the easy way out and giving up on trying to understand him.

The third option seems impossible to me. I can’t hear “Slime Shit” come on and enjoy the slur of Thug’s verses without hearing him talk about being high on pills or about cooking bricks of coke. Also, I can’t hear the lyrics of “Worth It”, about Thug’s sexual relationship with his fiancée, and not bounce to the beat.

In many ways, this question about Young Thug isn’t a new one. Songs of all genres have been vulgar and nihilistic in the same way as Thugger’s, even if he is uniquely adept at his brand of obscenity. I’ve asked myself how I should be responding to the music of varied artists, from the Sex Pistols to Beyoncé and John Lennon to Kings of Leon. I don’t always come to a conclusion; there aren’t enough hours in the day to think too hard about everything. But the extraordinary lengths that Young Thug goes to in order to shock and titillate seemed worthy.

Ultimately, I think I land on the happiest medium possible: enjoy Young Thug for what he is, but don’t turn a deaf ear to the sin that is nearly always at the root of his message. I can appreciate his ear for an amazing beat and his fascinating punk-rap drawl while also abhorring the way he raps about women and his apparent idolization of money. But, unchecked, my critical thinking about his lyrics leads to judgment, and I don’t think that’s a good place to be. There’s got to be common ground between me and him in the freewheeling nature of his delivery and his desperate desire to remain on a high, and I’d rather spend my energy embracing that. I can’t ignore the other shit, but I can’t remain mired in it either.

Quick Take: The 39 Steps (1935), or Before Hitchcock Was Hitchcock

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Like most movie-lovers, I’m most familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s later work. I’ve seen his early movies Rebecca and Sabotage, but the movies I think of when I think of Hitch are The BirdsPsychoNorth by Northwest, and, my personal favorite of his, Rear Window. But those movies were a full thirty years into the legendary director’s career. The 39 Steps was Hitchcock’s first big hit and was the beginning of a run of rare form. There’s a reason Hitch is one of the few directors from early Hollywood that even the movie-illiterate have at least heard of, and The 39 Steps is the genesis.

Moody and atmospheric, the movie’s story, following a London man (Robert Donat) who gets caught up with an agent trying to foil plot to steal valuable British military intelligence, is the classic Hitchcock fable of an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances. It’s also got Hitchcock’s typical deadpan humor. The combination makes for a stylish, classic spy movie that ranks up there near, yes, Rear Window.

The Cult Classics: 2001’s Movies

The Cult Classics: 2001’s Movies

A cult classic is a movie whose reputation has improved over time to the point that it is remembered as a classic even though it wasn’t celebrated in its time.

Last year’s The Classics feature grouped all the classic movies from 2000 into one post with separate categories. One of the categories was “Cult Status.” Looking back at that post is laughable now. Requiem for a Dream doesn’t belong in the cult classic category- it was very respected in its time. Memento doesn’t belong in that post at all- it was released in 2001! But hey, I’m not going to dwell on the mistakes of my past. This post is about the here and now, and I think every movie here and now belongs in the cult classic category.

After the cult classics I included some of my personal favorites that got left off last week’s post and this week’s, for various reasons. They might not be classics, but I couldn’t help but highlight them anyway.

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Why it’s a cult classic: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence doesn’t fit the expected profile of a cult hit. Yes, it was less than successful at the box office and critics were widely mixed on its quality. But it’s a Spielberg movie; Spielberg doesn’t make cult classics, right? And yet over time A.I. has quietly grown in critical estimation to the point that it’s now included on many “Best of the 2000s” lists.

My take: I saw this a long time ago, and I thought what many critics at the time did- it’s a wildly ambitious movie that somehow doesn’t manage to reach the heights its premise promises. Steven Spielberg tackling an unfinished Kubrick science-fiction story? I was ready to love this movie, and it disappointed me. But the exuberance with which critics hail it now makes me want to take another stab at it.

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Why it’s a cult classic: Audition was the first of the modern wave of torture porn movies, and as such it could only ever be a cult classic. Directed by the polarizing Takashi Miike, Audition tells the story of a widower auditioning replacements for his wife, which is twisted enough without the macabre, unexpected turn the story takes. The movie is known as one of the most disturbing of all time.

My take: Never seen it! I kind of want to but I kind of don’t want to.

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Why it’s a cult classic: Donnie Darko grossed $1.2 million and went mostly unheralded by critics, but it’s aged well, thanks to a real star turn from newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal and the zeitgeist-seizing Frank the rabbit. Director Richard Kelly made this at age 25, which has only grown more impressive with time. You’re not supposed to make your best movie that young, let alone one of the defining cult classics of the 2000s.

My take: I was skeptical going into it, since it has a human-sized rabbit named Frank and all. But Donnie Darko has an existential appeal, taking the weight of adolescence and funneling it through an absurdist view of the world. I loved it, and I wanted to watch it again right when I was done so I could parse through the plot. But I didn’t, because I’m a responsible adult.

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Why it’s a cult classic: The Man Who Wasn’t There was one of the least acclaimed movies in the Coen brothers’ oeuvre. It’s not that critics thought or think it was bad, they just didn’t think much of it at all. As a black-and-white film noir released in 2001, audiences stayed away. And as a result of neglect from both critics and audiences, it had very little lasting power at first. But, as so often happens with Coen brothers movies, The Man Who Wasn’t There has floated up the leaderboard of the brothers’ movies, and it’s now revered as one of their best.

My take: Never seen it! I definitely want to.

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Why it’s a cult classic: Sexy Beast was a hit with critics, but British gangster dramas don’t exactly scream big box office either. Jonathan Glazer’s movie has endured and flourished since it was released largely on the strength of its visual style and of Ben Kingsley’s supporting performance as a violent gangster.

My take: Never seen it! I do want to.

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Why it’s a cult classic: Waking Life, as an animated discourse on philosophy and dreams, was never going to be popular. Critical reception was good, but it scored $2.9 million at the box office. It wasn’t a set thing that Waking Life would become a cult hit on video either. As strong as director Richard Linklater’s fanbase might be, Waking Life literally has no plot, no conflict, no hook. But its uniqueness in that regard has served it well over time, as has the way Linklater has built his overall filmography into that of a real auteur.

My take: This movie was so boring. Watch Linklater’s Before trilogy instead. It’s got the same stoner conversations with actual context.

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Why it’s a cult classic: Werckmeister Harmonies is a film by Hungarian master Béla Tarr, and it’s known primarily for its long takes. These aren’t the long takes of Alfonso Cuarón, which are impressive and effective because they follow action over long periods of time. Tarr and his wife/co-director, Ágnes Hranitzky, specialized in still long takes, allowing the structure of the mise en scène to capture his viewers and hold their gaze.

My take: Never seen it! You’ll notice I said nothing of the plot, and that’s because the movie’s plot seems to be…hard to describe. So I don’t know if I want to see it or not.

Personal Favorites Left Off

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Ali: Ali saw its two stars, Will Smith and Jon Voight, nominated for acting Oscars, and it was directed by the largely revered Michael Mann. Maybe it’s because Mann’s work has fallen off lately (I submit last year’s Blackhat for your consideration), but for some reason Ali has been largely forgotten in his filmography. I think it’s a really great, insightful look at one of the most important people of the 20th century, and the boxing scenes are truly something to behold.

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Black Hawk Down: I guess I can understand why Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down hasn’t lasted. It’s a busy war movie, and there aren’t the sweeping moralizations of war that are so characteristic of other war movies. But I find it’s one of the best at portraying both the cost of and the motivation of being a soldier.

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Monsoon Wedding: Mira Nair’s family epic about the wedding of an arranged marriage in India went overlooked in 2001 and continues to be overlooked now.

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Monster’s Ball: You’d think the movie that featured the first African-American Best Actress Oscar winner in Halle Berry would have become a classic. While the moment of her win is a classic one in the Academy’s history, the movie received mixed reviews at the time and has a mixed history since.

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No Man’s Land: This was the Best Foreign Language Film winner at that year’s Oscars, but Amélie was the nominee that became classic. No Man’s Land is a brilliant war movie about the conflict between Bosnia and Herzegovina in which two opposing soldiers get trapped together in a demilitarized zone, and it deserves to be remembered.

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The Others: There are scarier horror movies, but few are so exquisitely rendered to both frighten and entrance. Directed by the underemployed Alejandro Amenábar, who was responsible for the great sci-fi mind-bender Open Your Eyes and went on to direct The Sea Inside, The Others leaves a psychological impression that only the best horror can.

Alright, that’s it for the classics from 2001. Disagree? Sound off below in the comments section.

Next up in The Classics: I’ll tackle the classic albums from 1996 in a few months, so get excited for me having to include a Beck album with albums that are actually good!

The Classics: 2001’s Movies

The Classics: 2001’s Movies

Last year I ran a couple of features on movies and albums that were ready to be designated as “classic”. They were meant to be a fun look back on previous years and which pop culture artifacts from them will be remembered down the line. I had plenty of trouble determining which ones should be considered classic and how to categorize them. After all, what does “classic” even mean?

I settled on something approximating art’s ability to last beyond its time. If a movie or album is truly classic, it’s remembered. It might not be remembered for its quality, per se, but even a movie of average quality can resonate with the culture. This is why a movie like Bring It On made it on last year’s list.

I think I included too many movies and albums last year. It was hard to leave things out. But if I look back on the lists for each year (1995 for albums, 2000 for movies), it’s clear to me some don’t belong. Pollock isn’t really a classic movie, regardless of how good Ed Harris is in the lead role. And Exit Planet Dust isn’t a classic album, no matter how well-respected the Chemical Brothers are now.

Last year’s posts were too long, and there were too many categories. This year, for 2001’s movies, I’m splitting the feature into two posts: one today for straight up classics, and one next week for the movies that have become cult classics. In next week’s post, I’ll also include my personal favorites that were left off both lists.

The Classic Movies

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Why it’s a classic: France’s Amélie is one of the most beloved foreign-language movies to ever be released in the States. Monetarily, it’s the 6th-most, behind only the likes of Crouching Tiger, Life Is Beautiful, and Pan’s Labyrinth. It was well-reviewed at the time, though the general population enjoyed it more than critics did. And it was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Foreign Language Film, which it ended up losing to Bosnia’s No Man’s Land (which I’ll cover in next week’s post).

My take: I like Amélie fine enough, but its joy, which is supposed to be infectious, didn’t infect me. There’s a lot happening onscreen, but not much going on behind it.

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Why it’s a classic: A Beautiful Mind won the 2002 Best Picture Oscar and was the highest-grossing non-franchise, non-Michael-Bay movie of the year. Critics widely praised it, though mostly for Crowe’s lead performance as the mathematician, John Nash. Coupled with Gladiator the year before, it’s remembered as perhaps the peak of Russell Crowe’s illustrious career (and the peak of Jennifer Connelly’s sadly less illustrious career, though she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Nash’s wife, Alicia).

My take: The best thing in A Beautiful Mind is Crowe’s performance, though that shouldn’t be a discredit to the movie around it. Crowe gives one of my favorite movie performances, so it’s no small thing that he’s the best thing in the movie- it’s a great movie.

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Why it’s a classic: Gosford Park has been somewhat forgotten in the popular estimation, but it will live on as a classic due to its extremely strong critical support and the fact that it was a movie made by the great, ensemble-loving Robert Altman. Sort of a take on the classic “Upstairs/Downstairs” model, its all-star cast (including Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Helen Mirren) took the movie to 7 Oscar nominations, including Picture, Director, and a win for Original Screenplay (by Julian Fellowes, incidentally, the creator of Downton Abbey).

My take: I enjoyed Gosford Park, but not nearly as much as the critics seemed to. Especially when considered next to Altman’s ‘70s classics, Gosford Park seems more like a curiosity rather than one of his greats.

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Why it’s a classic: In the Mood for Love barely made a dent in the box office, either domestic or worldwide, and yet it is widely praised as the best movie made by its director, Wong Kar-Wai. He is among the most respected filmmakers in his native China, and this little movie about unfulfilled love between two people whose spouses cheated on them is a big reason why.

My take: Its story is as insular as this year’s Oscar-nominated In the Bedroom, but its beautiful cinematography lends the movie a far more epic romance befitting a classic. I only saw it once a few years ago, but the memory of the way the camera moves across the interactions between the characters has lingered.

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Why it’s a classic: Lagaan was a huge hit in its native India, and while the movie did not achieve big box office success here in the States, it is the one movie out of Bollywood that seems to have resonated in America over time. At the time, critics gushed over the movie’s lush visuals and well-told narrative about an Indian village challenged to a cricket game by the English officers in charge of their town as a means to avoid paying an exorbitant tax. Lagaan was expected to act as a gateway to America for Bollywood, and while that hasn’t exactly panned out, the movie itself has lasted.

My take: Sports-movie clichés abound in Lagaan’s screenplay, but they seem to spring up naturally and joyfully rather than out of contrivance. You can try to resist the swell of emotion that comes along with such a stirring underdog narrative, but I won’t.

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Why it’s a classic: Legally Blonde was not a hit with critics, but who cares? It was a huge hit, and unlike many similarly successful comedies that come and go, this one made its lead actress into a star. Reese Witherspoon had achieved mild celebrity with Cruel Intentions and Election, but Legally Blonde rocketed her into full-fledged stardom. For that alone, Legally Blonde deserves classic status.

My take: Witherspoon is superbly funny, and while the rest of the movie around her isn’t perfect, it’s clever enough. Without a star as magnanimous with her gifts as Witherspoon, the movie might be cloying, but with her it’s an invigorating piece of comedy.

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Why it’s a classic: The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring shouldn’t have worked. Fantasy movies had rarely been big box office or critical successes, and Peter Jackson’s biggest credit previously had been the 1996 horror comedy The Frighteners, which grossed $16 million. Yet Fellowship debuted to critical raves, ended up being 2001’s 2nd-highest grosser only behind the first Harry Potter movie, and was nominated for 13 Oscars, including Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.

My take: Fellowship is my favorite of the trilogy, which means it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a classic, and it’s mind-blowing that it’s been in my life for 15 years now.

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Why it’s a classic: Memento gets a lot of attention today as a cult classic, but it’s hard to classify it that way considering how critically acclaimed it was and that it was very successful at the art house box office. Also, it was nominated for 2 Oscars, 1 for Best Adapted Screenplay, 1 for Film Editing. Sorry, you don’t get “cult” status if you were nominated for Oscars.

My take: Christopher Nolan’s movies are puzzles boxes in which he reveals bit by bit what’s at the heart of the story he’s telling. This movie is where that attribute of his really solidified, and it lives up to its reputation.

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Why it’s a classic: Monsters, Inc. was the 4th in a long line of great Pixar movies. That alone qualifies it for this list, but Monsters was also a monster hit with audiences and critics. Pixar held it in high enough esteem to give it a sequel 12 years late, an honor that the studio had previously only bestowed on its crown jewel, Toy Story.

My take: How do you compare the Pixar movies to each other? Pixar has achieved quality so many times for such a long time, it’s easy to forget that Monsters, Inc. had one of the most original ideas in the company’s history and that they pulled it off so impressively.

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Why it’s a classic: Moulin Rouge! was my go-to movie as a teenager to lend weight to my adolescent heartache. Because of this, I assumed that the movie was probably critically derided and only sort of a niche hit. You can imagine my surprise when I found that it was actually nominated for 8 Oscars, including Picture, Actress, and Cinematography. Turns out it resonated with more than just high school theater geeks.

My take: I appreciate it now even more than I did then, even as I relate to it less and less. The love story between Satine and Christian is over the top, for sure, but it’s meant to be, and the artfulness of all the over-the-topness grows more apparent to me with every viewing.

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Why it’s a classic: Mulholland Drive is a David Lynch movie, which generally means that critics gush over it and audiences ignore it. And that was pretty much the case with Mulholland; critics did gush over it, and it barely made a dent in the box office. But Lynch somehow got a Best Director nomination from the Academy for this, and over time movie lovers have gradually come to include it in conversations about his best movies.

My take: I’ve only seen it once, which probably isn’t the best experience level with this movie to make a sure judgment about it. But I was underwhelmed by the overall effect of Mulholland, though I appreciated individual scenes and its dreamlike atmosphere.

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Why it’s a classic: Ocean’s Eleven was a star-studded affair that very easily could have been insufferable but for its director, Steven Soderbergh. A Top 10 finish for 2001 at the box office wasn’t surprising, and neither was the enthusiastic response from critics, seeing as Soderbergh had built good will the year before with both Traffic and Erin Brockovich, though Ocean’s didn’t enjoy those two’s Oscar success. What has been surprising is how much its reputation has grown over the years from being one of Soderbergh’s trifles (albeit an expensive one) to being one of his very best films.

My take: I love this movie more every time I watch it. The cast is reliably great, but Soderbergh’s touch is lighter than any of his other directorial efforts, and Ocean’s is far better for it.

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Why it’s a classic: The Royal Tenenbaums received moderate praise from both audiences and critics. It’s actually far better appreciated now than it was in 2001, spoken of in the same hushed tones by Wes Anderson purists as Rushmore. So why doesn’t it get cult status? A pesky Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (which is actually the 1 nomination responsible for making Owen Wilson an Oscar nominee).

My take: Tenenbaums was my first Anderson movie, and I’ve since come to really enjoy his style. No Anderson movie can be truly bad, since he has such a fastidious directorial style, but this one didn’t resonate with me.

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Why it’s a classic: Shrek, like so many other enormously popular movies, has been tainted since its release by decreasingly necessary sequels. But it was enormously popular, with both audiences and critics, and it remains a clever, oddly affecting movie, despite the sequels devolving into pop-culture-referencing garbage. It also boasts not only a Best Animated Feature win (it defeated Monsters, Inc. and, um, Jimmy Neutron) at that year’s Oscars but a nomination for Adapted Screenplay, which was no small feat for a cartoon.

My take: It’s still great. Even if it doesn’t offer the narrative satisfaction of Pixar’s best, it has memorable characters and several scenes that belong among animation history’s most classic.

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Why it’s a classic: Training Day, on the surface, would appear not to belong on this list. It was financially successful, especially for a non-blockbuster crime drama, but not overly so, and critics certainly didn’t champion it. But Denzel Washington’s performance is such a tour-de-force- a term that I hate, because it is so overused in movie reviews, but there’s no other word for what Denzel does in this movie- that the movie as a whole has thrived in retrospective reputation.

My take: Its reputation is probably about right: average movie surrounding a titanic performance. Ethan Hawke was nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar as the good cop to Denzel’s bad, but Denzel’s Oscar-winning turn is literally the only reason to see the movie.

That’s it for 2001’s classic movies. Check back in a week for 2001’s cult classics.

Quick Listen: Painkillers by Brian Fallon

brianfallonAs frontman of the band The Gaslight Anthem, Brian Fallon has dealt mostly in nostalgia, both in his band’s style of music and in the stories he’s told in their lyrics. You’d be hard-pressed to identify any of the songs on his solo albums as Brian Fallon songs rather than Gaslight Anthem songs. Sure, I suppose there’s more attention paid to his voice in the mix, but whatever studio musicians he has backing him up here are aiming for the same style as his usual band: anthemic classic rock. Of course, the fact that Fallon draws comparisons to rock heroes like Springsteen, Dylan, and Petty in interviews does his music no favors. If I’m reminded of Tunnel of Love when I listen to your album, I’m pleased; if you remind me that you want your album to sound like Tunnel of Love before I’ve listened to it, I’m unimpressed.

It’s a funny thing, being a rock star in 2016, mostly because there aren’t rock stars in 2016. The Gaslight Anthem was a moderately popular band with a stellar reputation as a live act and depreciating value as an album band until they broke up last July. But after four GA albums, could Fallon compile a Greatest Hits album? Could they do a reunion tour (because it is inevitable that they reunite)? Will GA get played on classic rock stations in the future? Rock doesn’t have a wide audience anymore. We need new expectations for rock musicians, and Fallon is playing by the old rules.

Quicker listen: If I don’t think about it, I enjoy it.

Quick Take: Chi-Raq Is a Mess of Good Intentions

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It’s not hard to see what Spike Lee is going for with Chi-Raq. He’s an outspoken dude, and he gave plenty of interviews about his desire for peace in the  black communities of Chicago on the movie’s press tour. Clearly the man has good intentions for this movie. But the result is tonally imbalanced and sort of insulting. On paper, a satirical musical performed all in rhyme about gun violence and gang life from the great Spike Lee sounds like a risk for movie newbies Amazon, but one well worth taking. Lee’s movies thrive on risk, on a hip-hop sense of thrill. But onscreen, while there are flashes of great filmmaking (especially in scenes that cede the floor to powerful performances from Teyonah Parris and Angela Bassett), most of it feels unfinished and haphazard. Maybe this is what happens when somebody who so clearly and vividly represents Brooklyn tries to capture the essence of a different city without the blessing of that city’s community.

Quicker take: If you want the best experience watching Chi-Raq, watch Do the Right Thing instead.

Stephen Colbert, Champion of Respectful Disagreement

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Today I wrote over at Christ and Pop Culture about Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show and the model he provides for earnest dialogue. Check it out through the link. Here’s an excerpt:

Yet that’s what Colbert brings to the table: the fact that he isn’t like the rest. Colbert has pre-taped segments, and he does monologue bits that appeal to our outrage culture, but his strength firmly rests in his interview segments. Interviews used to be the backbone of late night shows, and Colbert has brought them to the forefront of The Late Show. He interviews the usual movie stars and pop singers and professional athletes. But he also interviews scientists and colonels and non-profit CEOs and prima ballerinas. He does this because he wants to bring their fields to a bigger audience, yes, but he himself seems to enjoy expanding his own perspective. Part of this involves Colbert inviting onto the show people with whom he doesn’t see eye to eye. And it’s this kind of willingness to engage people with whom he might butt heads that we as Christians should be applauding.