“SNOWPIERCER” May Be Terry Gilliam-Inspired, but It Lacks His Emotive Heart

MV5BMTQ3NzA1MTY3MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzE2Mzg5MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Joon-ho Bong’s latest film, SNOWPIERCER is a mildly entertaining affair. It’s a fun sci-fi tale with some action and a cast of assorted characters, some more entertaining than others, but the film as a whole left me wanting.

I enjoyed two of Bong’s previous films, THE HOST and MOTHER. Both dark films with an unusual humor embedded at their cores. A unique combination of styles that seemed to work for me in those films.

SNOWPIERCER owes the inspiration for much of its landscape and characters to filmmaker Terry Gilliam. So much so that one of the characters is actually named after him.

But SNOWPIERCER never hit the level of wit or whimsey that Gilliam so organically produces. I was surprised to read so many outright glowing reviews from top critics who all seemed to relish this film as being both extremely intelligent and full of terrific action sequences. It’s certainly not a dumb film, especially compared to the usual breed of contemporary Hollywood actioners out there, but the film has a better premise than it does execution. At least for my tastes.

snowpiercer-poster-octavia-spencerAn unusual international cast was brought together for the film and, while that would seem in concept to be one of its attractions, I actually found it to be rather distracting as I could feel the filmmakers pulling the cast together. It felt less a natural ensemble than a calculated decision. And some of the actors, like Octavia Spencer, felt quite out of place to me. More a screen-test than a performance. I felt the actors sitting in their makeup chairs, I felt the wardrobe stylists picking and choosing, cutting and fraying. I even felt the sets being built and the extras being directed. In other words, something kept me from buying into the world of this film. There was something self-conscious about it all for me.

As for the action sequences? They were serviceable, but never visceral enough to get my adrenaline going.

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 12.41.41 PMAnd the only character/actor in the film who actually elicited some emotion and reaction from me, dies pretty early in the tale, leaving me with a ragtag group of oddities that never quite gel into the community I wanted to feel they were. Chris Evans, as the leader of this troupe, never manages to own the film in the way some leading men can. And it’s always fun to see the likes of John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris but, like most of the cast, they felt more prop or type than actual characters. They served a purpose, but rarely told a story.

I was initially excited to see a film that, though I had heard little about it until recently, had garnered such favorable reviews from such a wide swath of critics. So perhaps my expectations were just a tad too high going in. Or perhaps my bar for such fare is simply set higher than most. One thing the film DID succeed at, however, and I would be remiss in omitting this from my commentary, is that as an ex-smoker, SNOWPIERCER really made me remember the deep, visceral pleasure of inhaling tobacco smoke. Never did one simple cigarette look so thoroughly irresistible.


“SNOWPIERCER” May Be Terry Gilliam-Inspired, but It Lacks His Emotive Heart

The Fearless & Fearful Journeys of John Coltrane & the Grateful Dead

Brody-Coltrane-Free-Jazz-690Music means so many different things to so many different people. There is such a wide variety of styles and approaches that to discount any form is to diminish the over all power of the art itself.

In reading Richard Brody’s piece in the New Yorker, Coltrane’s Free Jazz Wasn’t Just “A Lot of Noise,” I started thinking about my introduction to musical styles and landscapes that had not always been a part of my vocabulary. In my case – and this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who reads this blog – it was the Grateful Dead who kicked open many, if not most, musical doors for me.

The concept of “free jazz”, as it’s often called, is one that eludes many and oftentimes is used as the main illustration as to why one might not like jazz.

“The idea, roughly, involves playing without a set harmonic structure (the framework of chords that lasts a pre-set number of bars and gives jazz performances a sense of sentences and paragraphs), without a foot-tapping beat, and sometimes even without the notion of solos, allowing musicians to join in or lay out as the spirit moves them. Lacking beat, harmony, and tonality, free jazz cuts the main connection to show tunes, dance-hall performances, or even background music to which jazz owed much of whatever popularity it enjoyed.”

It was through the vast and varied musical explorations of the Grateful Dead that I was opened up to many different forms of music. The Dead were not only a band that encompassed almost every style of American music from sea shanteys to jazz, from cowboy songs to blues to disco and beyond, they were also musical explorers oftentimes taking their audience into realms of dark and light that challenged the outer edges of sound. Music of the soul.


My bother-in-law, after being dragged to a Dead show by moi, exclaimed when it was all over, “They did things with their guitars no one should ever do.” For him, the deepest spaces didn’t consist of music, but of noise. It wasn’t transcendent or emotional, it was confusing and wrong. And though I didn’t share his opinion or reaction, I understood it. I wasn’t always open to those particular musical spaces. But like learning a language one might not believe they will ever attain fluency in, with regular exposure, connections begin to take place, circuits in your brain start to piece things together in a way they hadn’t initially and one day you realize that you understand what’s going on, it’s now inside of you, a part of you!

Very exciting stuff, indeed. The Grateful Dead were all about these musical explorations. They also simply loved music. All kinds. So their shows weren’t just playing songs or just exploring free jazz concepts, they were a grand tapestry of all of the above, weaving in and out as the moment and emotions and inspiration dictated. A true musical journey that, if you could find your way in, offered so much in return for your simply showing up with an open mind.

Many people in my world have extremely limited views of what they consider “music” and what they consider having musical value. It saddens me often as it is never easy or fun to have people demean and degrade something that moves me so deeply. Though I understand that it oftentimes comes from either an inability or a lack of desire to understand what is taking place. It requires one to let down their defenses and go to places that may seem vulnerable or frightening or that might challenge one’s sense of self-worth if that journey feels like a struggle at first, if you feel outside of the experience. It is oftentimes easier to discount its value than it is to admit you don’t get it or that there is something yet to be learned. Not connecting to something, not understanding it, is an opportunity to learn, to expand. And while that should in theory be exhilarating and attractive, it can also push buttons and illicit fear, anger and frustration.

My girlfriend was told by a close friend of hers when we first started dating, that she should leave me because I liked the Grateful Dead. My head spun when I heard this and yet, it was also familiar. This wasn’t the first time I’ve run across people who have such intense reactions to this particular type of music, and to the fact that it is so wildly popular and successful, that there is an outright rejection not only of the music itself, but of the people who connect with it.

The truth is, you do not have to connect with all forms of art to recognize that it has value. I don’t know, if it wasn’t for the Grateful Dead, I may never have found my way in to free jazz forms. To me, like to so many others, it might just sound like noise. But it doesn’t. It’s not. And for that I am so very thankful because the joy I receive from these inner musical journeys are downright life-affirming. It’s what allows me to maintain my faith in humanity. If we can create that, if we can explore those spaces, then we are capable of more than we know as those spaces feel like the tip of an iceberg that goes far deeper than we can ever imagine. For me, it brings us closer to what it means to be human, to have a consciousness in a universe whose very existence is beyond our grasp. That can be both a frightening and an exhilarating invitation.

For me, the combination is downright irresistible.

The Fearless & Fearful Journeys of John Coltrane & the Grateful Dead

Bless the Brits: MASTERS OF CINEMA Calls it Like It Is

Bless the Brits.

Here in the States, we seem to pride ourselves on our right to be ignorant. But the British MASTERS OF CINEMA series of DVD and Blu-ray releases, like THE CRITERION COLLECTION here in the U.S., cares about the integrity of the work it puts out there. MOC takes it to the next level, however.

In reading through the booklet that came with the region-free Blu-ray of Murnau’s CITY GIRL, I came across the following page:

City Girl inside coverThat’s right. I am clearly not the only one who finds it intolerable and unacceptable when people dramatically alter the intended experience of art that so many people worked so diligently, creatively, skillfully and proudly to create. I’ve literally gotten into heated arguments with friends and family who pride themselves in simply not giving a shit.

Walk into any restaurant, bar, coffee shop, etc. with a TV on (and they ALL seem to have TV’s these days, which I find egregious, but that’s another story), and you will see images that are stretched or squeezed by folks who could either care less or, worse, don’t even seem to notice! For me, it’s more than a pet peeve. It’s a spotlight on an attitude toward art and creativity that I think puts this country culturally and educationally behind many others.

It’s also the language that MOC chose to use that brings such a joyous grin to my face: “The above images are a distortion and corruption of the original artwork, which travesty the integrity of both the human form and cinematographic space.” 

MOC doesn’t stop there, however. The bottom of the page adds a SPECIAL NOTE addressing the horrific use and overuse of “motion-smoothing” which many, if not most, HD TVs now have as their default setting. I have been preaching for years now against the atrocities of this technology that makes everything look like it was shot using a soap opera video camera. Yes, motion smoothing (aka frame interpolation), too, is both a corruption and a travesty. Even if you don’t care. Ignorance or apathy do not make good arguments in favor of anything.

Once you grossly distort an image, you are no longer experiencing the work as it was intended, therefore it no longer reflects the creativity, artistry and, possibly most importantly, the humanity that was shared and expressed via the artist or artists behind the work. You are, in essence, removing the storytellers from the storytelling. What you are left with, in such a case, is something that is false, a poor imitation prone to misinterpretation.

So thank you to MASTERS OF CINEMA for not only giving a shit, but for being willing to call it for what it is. And for the desire to educate. Something that has become somewhat of a dirty word here in the States.

Bless the Brits: MASTERS OF CINEMA Calls it Like It Is

“ALL IS LOST” Is Everything “GRAVITY” Could Have Been And Wasn’t

MV5BMjI0MzIyMjU1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTk1MjQxMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_It took me a little while, but I finally caught up with ALL IS LOST. I was curious about the film at the time it came out, but didn’t make it into theaters to see it and hadn’t found the right night to sit down and watch it streaming at home. Until last night.

I’d heard quite a lot of mixed responses to the film from friends and that probably added to my procrastination. I should know better. My tastes are not always in sync with my friends and I oftentimes end up loving films others downright hate.

ALL IS LOST had me on the edge of my seat from first frame to last. I know there are those who thought the limited dialogue was more a gimmick than anything else, but I wholeheartedly disagree. There is dialogue in the film where dialogue is needed and appropriate. But this is a film about a man alone in the middle of the ocean. And in his own mind. Part of the strength of the film is in Robert Redford’s character’s apparent calm in the face of terrifying realities. He is, of course, not calm inside and writer/director J.C. Chandor takes us through these subtle gradations in character via his impeccable direction. 

The film opens with a voiceover that sets up this character’s emotional arc. We enter into the story with an understanding that this is a man who refused to see the reality of his situation until it was too late. What kind of a man he is, what his relationship with his family was, with other human beings… This is established wonderfully in the opening statements. This moment in his life is not the first time he has miscalculated or refused to see the truth of himself or the world around him. More to the point, this is a culmination of the life and perspective he has so carefully constructed. It is also the greatest moment of truth and realization. Both this man’s strengths and weaknesses are on display throughout the journey that is this film. A man alone. A man who does not freely or easily reveal his emotional inner core, and is more likely to try and control it.

all-is-lost-robert-redfordALL IS LOST builds tremendously to Redford’s nameless character’s emotional outcry and therefore gives that moment so much more power and resonance. This is an internal journey using external forces as its catalyst. And I for one was completely engrossed.

I should also add that I have a deep fear of the ocean and boats. I have gone sailing on many occasions (my father had a sailboat) and, though it was almost always fun and exhilarating, I had to fight down a measure of sheer terror to partake in the experience. ALL IS LOST tapped into that fear for me to such an extent that I was actually talking back to the movie, something I never do. My heart was pounding as my personal nightmares unfolded before me on screen.

Coming out in the same year as GRAVITY, the two films can be seen as companion pieces. One in the vastness of space, the other at sea. The difference for me is where GRAVITY relies on horribly-manufactured and seemingly insincere verbal interaction and backstory, ALL IS LOST is not afraid to ask the audience to do some of the heavy-lifting. Chandor clearly understands that it’s what we bring with us as an audience, how we read into the character from our own perspectives, that allows the film to find its power and resonance. Where GRAVITY played more like a one-dimensional video game for me, ALL IS LOST reached for something far more penetrating than state-of-the-art effects. Both films tackle similar outer journeys, but for me ALL IS LOST is the only one that paid attention to the inner journey as well and didn’t rely on cliches and contrivances in order to do it. It is a nightmare that comes to us in the dark of night and pits our inner struggles and fears against our desires and illusions.

ALL IS LOST was a truly harrowing experience for me. I was on the edge of my seat with my heart pounding. Now I watched this on a 65″ screen with 7.1 surround, mind you, so the experience was VERY visceral. If you’re gonna take this film for a spin in a home environment, I suggest you do it this way, if at all possible. Loud. Big. Immersive.

I can’t speak to those who were unaffected or bored by this film. I know you’re out there, but I could not possibly have had a more divergent experience. It took me a while to recover after the film was over. In fact, more than twelve hours later with a night’s sleep between me and the experience, I can still feel it there, in my gut, moving around.

What more could I possibly ask for?

“ALL IS LOST” Is Everything “GRAVITY” Could Have Been And Wasn’t

Cumberland County and the Fall of ’83.

hqdefaultOk, so this video doesn’t look great, BUT…

I sometimes forget just how many amazing and high-energy Grateful Dead shows I managed to see. I missed seeing the Dead in the mid-70′s and as a result missed my favorite era for them live (I started seeing them in ’79), so sometimes I forget that I DID manage to see some truly amazing shows while the band was still active and vibrant.

The later 80′s into the 90′s had some spectacular moments, but something was always missing for me from that period. Partially it was the huge crowds that gathered after the popularity of TOUCH OF GREY. Gone were the smaller venues and the sense of community.  The “scene” had simply gotten too big and oftentimes felt like the beast had grown wild and out of control. And I think that effected the band. We all know from his own words that Jerry preferred the smaller venues to the big crowds. He never managed to fully shed his stage fright. Which is probably why Jerry Garcia Band shows always felt more relaxed, more like home. And then there was Jerry’s physical health, drug addiction, etc. It took its toll and, though he came out of it for a short time and new life was injected into the band around the Spring of 1990, enough damage had already been done and Garcia’s decent into ill health persevered.

All this is to say that sometimes I revisit shows that I attended, either via audio-only or by the grace of online magicians and gift-givers like Youtube’s Voodoonola, and am instantly reminded of just how lucky I was. The Fall of ’83 was the first full tour I ever did with the Dead. 11 shows from Richmond, VA to Syracuse, NY. In fact, I remember that my friend Gary and I didn’t have tickets for the Richmond show and managed to get on the guest list in exchange for tightening bolts in one of the Dead’s equipment trucks. It was a time when the barrier between band, crew and audience was still small. They were accesible. That experience opened a new door for us and placed us one-step closer to the Dead’s inner-circle (for which I must thank Gary. He was my generous tether to that side of the experience). A great place to be when that barrier started to rise.

The fall of ’83 was an amazing time in my life. I had just started college (majoring in Grateful Dead touring, it would seem) and that glorious tour, with new friends at my side, saw the return of ST. STEPHEN. That long-desired breakout (the song hadn’t been played since early ’79) infused the entire journey with a vibrancy that is still discussed to this day.

The show shown here took place on the evening of October 18, 1983. It was the show just after one of my favorite concert memories: Lake Placid, NY, 10/17/83, a show that really encapsulated that sense of community. Placid was an out-of-the-way show and therefore didn’t attract the usual band of semi-tour heads. It was for locals and the committed only and by the second set, everyone in the balcony had joined hands and were revolving in a fully enraptured circle as the boys played THE WHEEL. Pure magic.

Re-watching this video from the first set (where’s the second!!??) at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, ME. was such a treat. It reminded me just how much these guys could rock. There’s a fierceness to the playing that wasn’t always there, but when it was, you usually knew it from the second the band hit the stage. And oftentimes it was dependent on Jerry and whether or not he was feeling particularly inspired. Well, he certainly was on this night and every song featured here (despite it not being one of my favorite set-lists) is like gasoline on fire. Garcia is just tearing at his guitar with a glorious confidence and energy that is more than a little palpable on this recording. It’s a kind of energy and musicianship that Garcia never fully attained again after his diabetic coma in 1986. Not that he didn’t play spectacularly after his recovery, but there was a subtle edge missing, a particular fluidity that had been growing over the years that was lost, had fallen just out of grasp, by the bump in the road that became one of several before-and-after markers in the last third of the Dead’s musical journey (another being the untimely death of keyboardist Brent Mydland in July of 1990).

But on this evening in 1983, all was moving steadily forward. Yes, there was foreshadowing of things to come, to be sure, but the future was still unknown to us and there was every reason for optimism and celebration. So that’s exactly what we did.

Once again, the quality of the video featured below is not the best and the audio is a decent (but not stellar) audience recording. Nonetheless, it is worth every second. And yes, as is their way, the set has its share of vocal flubs and wrong chords, but for anyone who knew and understood this band and what they were striving for and oftentimes attaining, the warts were part of the journey and truly the only way to get there. And on this night, they got there.

Cumberland County and the Fall of ’83.

The Astounding Impulse of “JODOROWKY’S DUNE”

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 12.43.28 PMPassion. Vision. Insight. Inspiration.

JODOROWKY’S DUNE is filled with all of these. The documentary directed by Frank Pavich explores the film that never was, but still managed to influence and even sculpt the following decades of popular cinema after the project itself had collapsed. 

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 11.33.46 AMFor me, watching and listening to Alejandro Jodorowsky talk about why he wanted to make a film of DUNE, to see the amazing and influential group of talent he put together to create this potentially ground-breaking cinematic experience, to see his commitment and fervor and uncompromising vision play out, to see him tell this story, still passionate all these years later… It’s inspiring. It’s contagious. 

To relive the film falling apart and being made by others is painful, familiar and despairing. To see what rose from the ashes of that experience is downright uplifting. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s DUNE may not have been completed, but so much grew out of the experience and the passion behind it that it could not be squelched. It had and STILL has a life of its own.

Every second of JODOROWKY’S DUNE is energized. All the participants who were a part of the film’s making share with us – from the very cores of their souls – their immense creative journey together. If you love film and filmmaking, if you love art and artists, if you believe in the journey of self-expression, of taking risks, of reaching for the stars… Then this film may be your new bible.

The Astounding Impulse of “JODOROWKY’S DUNE”

Linda Tirado is Long Overdue on Overtime


It feels so odd, so rare and so right when someone calls it like it is. Linda Tirado, who recently rose to fame (and climbed out of poverty as a result) after Penguin convinced her to write her book HAND TO MOUTH: LIVING IN BOOTSTRAP AMERICA, speaks her mind and thoughts on Bill Maher’s REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER and again in the web-only follow-up OVERTIME.

818Nt-CU4eLNo matter what you might feel about Maher, Tirado is probably the most straightforward spokesperson for the disenfranchised in this country. Mostly because she knows of what she speaks from a lifetime of experience. Intelligent, articulate and unafraid, Tirado calls it as it is, something I am unaccustomed to seeing as the large percentage of people who make it onto TV talk shows or the news usually seem to be weighted down by an alternate agenda that completely whitewashes –or at least diminishes– the impact of their statements and arguments.

Tirado’s agenda seems pretty clear and it feels like a swim in a cool pond on a boiling hot day. I actually felt myself breathing easier just listening to her; to have someone articulate these thoughts and feelings in such a straightforward, no-nonsense manner. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been yearning for a voice that matches my own. And the choices out there usually run from cautious to misguided.

I’m also becoming a bigger and bigger fan of Bernie Sanders, who is also quite outspoken here on Maher’s show.

I don’t know if this country has strayed so far from the path that healing and repairing the damage is too late or not, but these two give me hope. I know, hope is a dangerous thing to have since it was the tagline of Obama’s campaign and he turned out to be, well, a Republican in Democrats clothing. But just to hear these things voiced from a place of seeming sincerity, awareness AND understanding… It’s a great potential start.

Now let’s hope some corporate heavyweights with personal agendas and the money to back them don’t come in and usurp it all and turn it into some liberal version of the Tea Party, hence suppressing those rare voices of sincerity.

Linda Tirado is Long Overdue on Overtime