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2011/10/31

El Orfanato (The Orphanage)

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


Heartbreaking, horrifying and masterfully done, The Orphanage is a film that layers beauty with agony. Touching on the seemingly improbable co-existence of evil and love within one person, it also delves headlong into the subject of what these things can compel some people to do.


Spanish actress Belén Rueda shines in her role as Laura, who, along with her husband, Carlos, and their young son, Simón, moves back to the orphanage where she was raised. With a dream of opening the home up to children with special needs, their excitement starts to fade early on. In the tradition of most films set in rambling, spooky-looking old houses, odd things begin to happen. Simón starts to talk about a new friend named Tomás, whom, of course, only he can see. Like a labyrinth where she’s being pulled deeper and deeper at every turn, suspicion that much more than meets the eye is happening deepens with Simón’s revelations about himself, their new home and Tomás. Complicating things even further is a visit from a social worker named Benigna; it becomes apparent that she has ulterior motives for her interest in the house and the family.

It would spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet for me to say much more about the plot, but if you enjoy horror that’s more subtle but still keeps you at the edge of your seat, The Orphanage delivers. Blood and gore is almost non-existent, and the only torture to be found is psychological. What you’re left with is a film that lingers in and manipulates suspense to scare its viewers, and does it well. For parents, this film delves into some of the dark places that we avoid thinking about. As Rueda said in an interview however, even if you don’t have children, the movie still plays upon other basic human fears. Anyone who’s ever heard a strange creak or bump in the night or dismissed away a shadow in their peripheral vision will feel the fight or flight response rising up in them in more than a few instances during the film.

Simón (Roger Príncep)  & Laura (Belén Rueda)
Filmed in Barcelona and Llanes, Spain, it also features Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin’s daughter), in one of the creepier scenes in the film, as a psychic named Aurora who tries to help the family. Sound plays an important part, not only in that particular sequence, but throughout the entire movie; pieces will immediately fall into place for you towards the end when you realize that there were auditory clues all along.

Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin)
As is my complaint with many foreign films, if you don’t speak the language fluently, there are some nuances that get lost when subtitles are used. It’s a small price to pay though; The Orphanage uses so many wonderful cinematic devices and evokes so many different emotions that it's sure to stay with you long after the end credits roll.

For more information visit their IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0464141/

2011/10/23

TrollHunter

By Jav Rivera

It's more rare these days to find a film as unique as André Øvredal's TrollHunter (Norwegian title: Trolljegeren). Set in the mountains of Norway, college students Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck) and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) investigate a series of mysterious bear killings. They soon learn that things are not as they seem and begin to follow mysterious hunter, Hans (Otto Jespersen).


Borrowing elements of documentary-like films such as J.J. Abrams's Cloverfield, director Øvredal combines "lost footage" material with Norwegian folklore. Better yet, Øvredal and contributing writer Håvard S. Johansen create characters with enough dimension for the audience to invest in. It's their performances that really drive the film's conceivability. From the resistant students to Trollhunter Hans's tired demeanor, it's easy to accept the film's premise and enjoy the journey.

L-R: Hans, Johanna and Thomas
Hans helps expose Norway's secret as he reluctantly agrees to allow the students to film him as he takes on the menacing trolls. The students of course think he's mad and set out to disprove his story. As the film progresses not only do we witness Hans's battles but we also learn his distaste for this profession. And like all great hunters, Hans displays a true respect for the creatures and sadness for their removal.

Otto Jespersen as "Hans"
With incredible scenery and powerful sound design, we are brought into Hans's world. The anticipation for each battle is excruciating as we are allowed to feel the presence of a monster just a few feet away. And their mastery of camouflage makes our fear build to the point of edge-of-the-seat terror. And because the camerawork is completely through the point of view of a student you find yourself wanting to help him get a better angle for closer look. I honestly found myself moving my body to look past a tree. There was a moment of embarrassment but it's to the credit of the director that made me, the audience, invest that amount of curiosity.



Thanks to a great director and his amazing cast and crew, TrollHunter transforms fairytales into something very believable. It's amazing it was achieved with the budget of an independent film (roughly $3,000,000). It's truly a testament to Øvredal's use of character as opposed to special effects. It's true that films like this are getting harder to find but they're definitely out there. TrollHunter is currently available on Netflix Streaming; add it to your queue today.

For more information about TrollHunter, visit: www.trollhunterfilm.com


TRIVIA: The film contains several references to old Scandinavian folklore.  The goats on a bridge and a troll under it are a reference to the "Three Billy Goats Gruff".

2011/10/17

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


For nearly twenty years now, Bram Stokers’ Dracula has remained one of my favorite films. I was in high school when it first came out, and it has the distinction of being one of the very few movies that I’ve gone to the theatre to see more than once. It’s a beautiful film, which may seem like an odd thing to say about something that has more than its fair share of blood and the undead. With its underlying story of devoted love, a stunning soundtrack, exquisite costumes and a fantastic portrayal of Dracula though, I stand by the description of “beautiful“. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Cary Elwes, Sadie Frost, Tom Waits and many more, Coppola, the actors and crew were meticulous in bringing their vision of this story to the screen.



Coppola has said that as a child, he loved horror films (especially--no surprise--Dracula), looking up information on Vlad the Impaler in the encyclopedia as a boy, as well as reading Stoker’s novel. As an adult, it bothered him that other film versions of Dracula strayed so far from that story. While Coppola’s film does stay quite true to the book, even including characters that are often left out of other versions, it still takes some liberties and a certain degree of creative license. Instead of following the standard mindless monster formula of other films though, Coppola’s version begins by building a back story that not only explains the dynamic between Dracula (Gary Oldman) and Elisabeta/Mina (Winona Ryder), but allows the audience to understand his evolution. I won’t be a spoiler, but in one of the most dramatic scenes in the beginning of the film, a crucial event causes a once devout Dracula to denounce God and transform into the soulless being that many other movies have made into a one dimensional stereotype. It’s a pivotal scene; the audience can sympathize. Dracula has been devoted to doing what he thinks is right, but then is grief-stricken and enraged when he feels betrayed and forsaken by God. My apologies to Bela Lugosi, but Oldman’s portrayal of Dracula is my favorite of all that I’ve seen; he brought new depth and dimension to the character. It’s that move towards showing Dracula as a complex being that’s captivated me since the first time I saw the film.

Dracula (Gary Oldman) and Elisabeta (Winona Ryder)

As the focal point of the film, Dracula appears in no less than seven different incarnations during the movie (I may be forgetting one or two), and his makeup and wardrobe shift continuously. Eiko Ishioka, the costume designer, created opulent garments for the film, even integrating aspects of the Kabuki style into some of Oldman's costumes.  The cast's wardrobe helps lend to the atmosphere of the film just as much as some of the sets and special effects, in my opinion.  In fact, Ishioka won an Oscar for Best Costume Design at the 1993 Academy Awards. {The film also won two additional Oscars that night; one for Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing and another for Best Makeup.}


Dracula and Mina

As much as the storyline, actors, wardrobe and other components of the movie are vital pieces of a whole, so is the music. To try to separate the soundtrack from the film would be, to me, not only futile but foolish. International award winning composer Wojciech Kilar created gorgeous, lush instrumental pieces for the movie. Kilar has said that he was basically given free reign to create the music he wanted, and that with Coppola's films, he’s “inspired by the picture.” If that’s so, I'd say that the inspiration goes both ways; the audience can't help but be moved when the story onscreen is accompanied by one of Kilar's pieces.  He's exceptional at evoking heartbreak, dread and elation, sometimes all at once.


For all that I love about the film, like anything, it has its flaws.  There are some scenes, such as one between a wolf-like Dracula and Lucy (played by Sadie Frost) that still seem out of place to me.  There's also the oft-debated question of actor Keanu Reeves being cast as Jonathan Harker, Mina's fiancé.  While it's not his most stellar role, Reeves himself has been quoted as saying that he wasn't satisfied with his performance either, and had taken on so many projects that he was spent.

Yet flaws be damned and for all the time that's passed, I haven't "grown out" of my love for the film, even decades later.  I hope that I never do.

2011/10/10

Tripping Daisy | I am an Elastic Firecracker

By Jav Rivera

In 1995, little known band Tripping Daisy released their second album "I am an Elastic Firecracker" and it remains one of my top favorite albums. And though the band was categorized within the alternative genre, they can be better described as a neo psychedelic pop rock band.  Unlike any other bands at that time, and still to this day, Tripping Daisy's sound is quite simply their own. There is much debate over which of their albums is best, most focusing on 1998's "Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb" but for me, they had perfected a very specific combination of psychedelia and pop with "I am an Elastic Firecracker".

Album cover for "I am an Elastic Firecracker"
Dallas, Texas band Tripping Daisy included various band mates throughout their career but the line up for "Elastic Firecracker" was Tim DeLaughter (vocals, guitar), Wes Berggren (lead guitars, keyboards), Mark Pirro (bass) and Bryan Wakeland (drums).

Tripping Daisy
I remember when I heard "My Umbrella" from their debut album "Bill" for the first time.  I was in Jr. High and curious of this strange sound coming from the radio.  The Internet wasn't around yet so not much was known of this band.  As soon as I could, I bought "Bill" and it was after hearing it that I began to distance myself from conventional music.  This was different and weird in all the best ways possible.

It was also the first album where I discovered hidden tracks (at the end of the album there is a bonus story reading by Tim DeLaughter with music accompaniment entitled "Pink Jelly").  For me, nothing would be the same musically.  I began to explore more and more music genres and losing my understanding of the popularity of standard pop music.  I remember asking myself: Why would anyone want to hear the same junk when there's so much more out there to discover? 


Album cover for debut "Bill"
And because there was no Internet, there weren't many outlets for bands to announce new gigs or albums.  By the time I was in college my then girlfriend asked me what I thought of the new Tripping Daisy album.  My eyes widened as I asked her what she was talking about.  She knew I was a fan so she was especially surprised that I was unaware.  Fortunately, she let me borrow her copy of it I instantly fell in love...with the album, not her.

Not long after I borrowed her copy did I start to hear their popular single "I Got A Girl" on the radio.  And though it's a fun pop tune, it was nothing compared to the rest of the album.


"Elastic Firecracker" had something that other bands could never have: Tim, Wes, Mark and Bryan.  It's because of these four gentlemen that the album sounds the way it does.  They possess both technical and heartfelt talent.  The epic 9-minute track "Prick" is a great example of a band in tune with each other's composition and emotional talent.  Listening to Wes's innocent guitar intro to the song, you're almost not prepared for the loud, distorted guitar riff about to unleash.  Added to that is Tim's laugh-yell of "Hey-hey-hey-ha-ha-ha" creating a somewhat feeling of mockery towards the protagonist of the story.  And it's the mystery of the story that raises the song to a higher level.  Though I could be wrong, my interpretation of the song is of a boy trying to understand the persistent drug use of his older brother.  And with the older brother's childlike behavior, there is confusion as to who the story is truly about.

The track gathers momentum throughout the song and by around the 5 minute mark you're about to witness the sound of a guitar on speed. A visual of a young man running around in fast-forward enters my mind as Wes's guitar work takes flight.  It's a perfect guitar solo for a song about addiction.  And to their credit, his fellow bandmates don't try to compete but instead help support.  And it's this instinctive behavior of the band that makes their music work so well.

Wallpaper for "I am an Elastic Firecracker"
The song is followed by the mellow and optimistic song "High".  It's not what you'd expect after hearing such a loud tune but an incredible way to feel that calm moment after a terrible storm.  Nothing from Tripping Daisy is expected which adds to their appeal.  They're not experimental for the sake of being weird, it's clear they challenge the format of a song for the sake of the music.

Wes's work on this album is astonishing, which made it all that much worse when he was discovered dead from an overdose in October of 1999.  Fortunately the band was able to record 2 more studio records (and some EPs) after "Elastic Firecracker" but sadly the band could not progress without Wes.  A bold, respectful move from such a critically adored band.  Instead the main trio (Tim, Mark, Bryan) as well as some of the future bandmates formed the band "The Polyphonic Spree" a 20+ group with the innovation of Tripping Daisy combined with sound of a psychedelic choir.

Wes Berggren
But it's "Elastic Firecracker" that took their unusual sound from "Bill" and raised the bar for their songwriting skills.  From the unconventional themes of prostitution ("Same Dress, New Day"), human behavior ("Raindrop") and ill-fated love ("I Got A Girl"), the album is more than just a collection of pop tunes.  It's well ahead of its time and an excellent example of thematic storytelling without the exhaustion of most concept albums.  One could even call it a concept album in the form of crib notes.

To my delight, it was recently announced that Good Records will be re-releasing Tripping Daisy's albums as well as previously unreleased tracks.  For more details, click this link: http://blogs.dallasobserver.com/dc9/2011/05/good_records_recordings_to_re-.php

And for more information about Tripping Daisy, visit their official site here: www.trippingdaisy.com

Other links:

Official Memorial Site for Wes Berggren:
www.wesberggren.com

Official Site for The Polyphonic Spree:
www.thepolyphonicspree.com

Official Site for Preteen Zenith (Tim DeLaughter's new band):
www.preteenzenith.com

TRIVIA: A book of stamps was included within the original packaging of the "I am an Elastic Firecracker" CD.

2011/10/04

Matisyahu

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

There are areas of my life that consist of two (or more) very different things intersecting and coexisting. It’s nice to have that dichotomy sometimes, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that I even tend to seek it out in certain things: music, art projects that I collaborate on, even how I dress on occasion. Artist Matisyahu and his music like to jump and meander between several worlds too. How so? Well, Matisyahu emcees (or raps, depending on how you define it), beat boxes, talks about current issues, has been known to stage dive; yet, he does it all while wearing a yarmulke, often dressed in the dark, conservative clothing of a Hasidic Jewish man, and sporting a full, untrimmed beard. People unfamiliar with him may have a moment of thinking “Wow--what a great gimmick!” when they first see him, but Matisyahu is anything but. It's both intriguing and awesome to see his devoutness meshing so completely with his music and performances. Matisyahu's thoughts and feelings on Judaism often intertwine within his lyrics, but rather than that doing anything to distance music fans who aren't Jewish too, it's the opposite; he packs venues and can bring the crowd to their feet as well as any other popular artist or band out there.

Matisyahu
Matisyahu's name is actually one that he chose for himself. The thirty two year old artist was born as Matthew Miller in West Chester, Pennsylvania. As a young teenager, he rebelled against his traditional Jewish upbringing, considering himself more of a hippie and a Deadhead. He dropped out of high school and followed the band Phish as they toured, but soon found himself turning back to his Judaic roots. Agreeing with his parents to go to a wilderness school in Oregon after traveling the country, Matisyahu discovered the worlds of hip hop and reggae, and began to participate in open mic competitions. At age nineteen, as he attended school in New York, his musical interest was encouraged at the synagogue he joined. Matisyahu soon met a Lubavitch rabbi, and his interest in the strict Lubavitch Hasidic sect was sparked. It was then that he renamed himself Matisyahu, the name he now uses professionally too. Beginning to perform with a band backing him, Matisyahu and his group recorded “Shake Off the Dust…Arise”, released in 2004, and began touring to support the album. One of the live sets they performed in early 2005 was recorded and released as “Live At Stubbs”, one of his most popular albums. He’s since gone on to record “Youth” (2006), which was nominated for a Grammy as Best Reggae Album, “Light”, and several other live albums (including “Live At Stubbs Vol. 2”).




I first discovered Matisyahu when I was flipping through radio stations a few years back, not really paying much attention, only half-listening to see if anything would catch my attention. I was about to keep going on to the next station when I landed on “King Without A Crown”. The reggae beat stopped me, so I paused. Getting caught up in the music and then the lyrics, I kept listening to the end of the song and knew that I had to find out who this was. It was a little bit like my first taste of punk music; what was this weird but thoroughly wonderful new music, and where could I hear more? So I went on a search and discovered that it was an artist with a name that I would have to practice to pronounce correctly, not far from my own age, but with quite a different background than mine. (For the record, phonetically, it's "mah-tiss-yahoo".) It wasn't long before I was hooked on several new songs of his and they earned a consistent rotation on my iPod.




The layering of the music is something that I love; each song is a lush story, instrumentally and lyrically. It’s also another reason that I keep seeking out more from Matisyahu. Even with those tunes that I know well, each listening often offers up something new that I didn’t notice before. With this kind of constant discovery, it's no wonder that Matisyahu has garnered a strong following and such loyal fans. I was definitely disappointed to miss his live performance this summer when he was in my corner of Wisconsin, at Summerfest in Milwaukee. Hopefully, there will be more chances in the future though, because thankfully, he doesn't seem to be slowing down any time soon.

Cover art for "Youth Dub" album
Check out more Matisyahu! Go visit http://www.matisyahuworld.com/ to watch more videos, find out about his current tour, learn about his band, see photos, download a free song and so much more.