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2012/04/29

The Babysitters

By Jenny Bootle

A couple of years ago I stumbled across a low-budget, independent film called “The Babysitters”. Although its synopsis made me waver, its cast (John Leguizamo and Cynthia Nixon) and one praise-filled review led me to try the first 10 minutes. An hour and a half later I was watching the closing credits and wondering why I had never heard of this film before.

It’s hard to describe the storyline of the “The Babysitters” without it coming across as the kind of motion picture of a less reputable nature. Put simply, it’s the story of a teenage babysitter who becomes the Madam of a teenage call-girl ring. At its core though, it's a love story of two people who make bad decisions.


Shirley, a 17 year-old honours student, has a crush on Michael, the father of the boys she babysits for. When Michael drops Shirley off one night they kiss and, in a moment of rash judgement, Michael pays her substantially extra to keep quiet. Their relationship develops into a sexual one (with tips) and when Michael’s friends hear about what’s been going on, they express a desire for their own “babysitters”. Shirley enlists her friends, and soon she is running her own escort service. Inevitably, though, she doesn’t have the grip on the situation she thinks she does and it begins to spiral out of control.

Although the premise of "The Babysitters" may sound a little far-fetched, the combination of well-drawn complex characters, thoughtful script and excellent acting never make it feel that way. Shirley’s need for control and unexpressed anger at Michael for subverting her affection, combined with her desire to stay close to him, make her choices wholly believable; while Michael’s actions stem from his yearning to escape his life conflicting with his love for his family.


David Ross, the writer and director, ensures that the people we’re watching are never two-dimensional. Katherine Waterston is compelling as the serious Shirley and, despite everything, John Leguizamo (who is also a producer of the film) manages to make his character, Michael, remain sympathetic and likeable throughout. An excellent supporting cast make up the other players in this piece and Cynthia Nixon gives a strong performance as Michael’s wife, while Shirley’s high-school friends, audacious Melissa and under-confident Brenda, are perfectly painted.

The film received several negative reviews – perhaps because the subject matter is just too uncomfortable for some. Conversely though, it may also disappoint others as it fails to deliver the titillation the premise suggests. The sex scenes are not gratuitous - with very little nudity and cameras focusing close in on faces - and therefore never feel salacious. Each one is there to move plot or relationships forward and, for some of the characters, results in appalling consequences.


The film depicts the friendships and power struggles between teenage girls very accurately. And while the circumstances of the drama may not be your everyday situation, its exploration of developing female teenage sexuality rings true. For some of the girls in this film, constructing a sense of themselves as sexual beings shifts the power dynamics in their lives, but some are left vulnerable to negative outcomes.

In one scene we see Shirley in sex-ed being shown a slideshow of a variety of diseased sexual organs but of course the more complicated emotional guidance she needs remains untaught – that sexual motivation is not always the pursuit of physical pleasure, that sex doesn’t necessarily equate with intimacy and that often the things we believe we are most in control of, we have no control over at all.

This intelligent, thrilling, sad and funny film is ultimately a tale of people making all the wrong choices and learning that, despite first impressions, people are not easily bought.

For more information, visit their IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0796302

2012/04/22

First Blood

By Dave Best

The Vietnam War, being one of the most culturally significant events in US history, has spawned more than its fair share of classic films: Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Casualties of War (1989), to name a few. However, one film which is not only left off this list but instead often demoted to the lowest ranks is Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood (1982).  Please note that this film is not called Rambo or Rambo: First Blood; it is often packaged this way as a result of the subsequent Rambo franchise it created, but First Blood is a film which deserves to be judged on its own merit without sequel induced pre-conceptions.

 
First Blood is the fictional story of decorated but mentally damaged Vietnam veteran, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), returning home to America to find a country that has turned its back on him. In the opening shots of the film, Rambo is travelling through America’s heartland looking for the last surviving member of his team from ‘Nam. He is almost giddy at the prospect of seeing his friend again and his excitement is infectious. Then he receives the news that his friend is dead, eaten up by a cancer he developed as a result of the chemical warfare tactics employed during the Vietnam War. Awash with survivor's guilt, he takes to the roads and simply drifts, aimless. Soon after, we are introduced to Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) - a small town sheriff on first name terms with all the locals - as he goes about his patrols. He comes across the wandering Rambo and decides that this isn’t the sort of man he wants drifting through "his town". Teasle abruptly sends him on his way but unfortunately, perhaps seeking any human contact, even confrontation, Rambo starts to head back into town. Teasle unnecessarily arrests him, and Rambo’s descent into full on madness begins. During the booking in process Rambo is stoic (a result of his military training preventing him cracking under questioning) which some of the deputies take personal offense at. They verbally and physically abuse him and we are shown flashes of his military past, being captured and tortured by the Viet Cong, which run parallel with his current situation. These slightly violent but non-gratuitous flashbacks make up roughly thirteen seconds of the entire film but are effective in conveying that Rambo has been subjected to some pretty horrific circumstances. Eventually, after being pushed and pushed, he has a mental episode and freaks out, believing himself back in the hands of his Vietnamese captors. He attacks the deputies (non-lethally), escapes custody and heads deep into the dense forest to hide. The ill-fated manhunt to bring Rambo in, which forms the bulk of the film, begins.

Rambo (Stallone) and Teasle's (Dennehy) first encounter...it's all downhill from here
 As mentioned, when most people think of First Blood all they can see is ‘Rambo’ the invincible hero of the sequels; armed to the teeth, dripping in other peoples' entrails and shooting down helicopters full of sneering Russian stereotypes using nothing but a bow and arrow, all in the name of the good ole U. S. of A. That character does not appear at any point in this film. The John Rambo of First Blood is a sympathetic, depressed, post-traumatic stress sufferer. His enemy isn’t some racist caricature but rather America itself. This reflected the feelings of many real-life Vietnam vets who were being victimised for failures and atrocities which were not their fault and finding it hard to reacclimatise to civilian life. As Rambo poignantly states, “Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment; back here I can't even hold a job parking cars!”  

The total body count for First Blood is precisely (SPOILER ALERT!) one – and, without going into too much detail, this accidental death does actually provide a positive message – always wear your seatbelt! Rambo does not kill one single person in this film; he does however slay a few attack dogs (offscreen) and blow up a couple of local businesses. So if you are a PETA member or are squeamish about mass property damage, then this may not be the film for you.

OK, so he doesn’t kill anyone, but he does commit some pretty gory attacks to disable his pursuers, right? Wrong. Due to clever use of natural light and quick cuts we are often given the impression of violence and gore without ever actually seeing it. In fact, the goriest scene in the film is when Rambo sews up a wound on his arm and frankly, it is impressive, utilising what were at the time cutting edge physical effects which still stand up against anything CGI could offer now.

John Rambo - the man who made burlap sacks cool
Stallone gives an excellent performance as an alienated and unstable man-on-the-edge who has been dehumanized by the military, programmed to do unthinkable things for the greater good and then cut loose into a society which could never accept him. It is easy to forget that Sly has these sorts of  powerhouse performances in him, but we really shouldn’t (see also Rocky, Copland).   

Dennehy too is bang on form as Teasle, improvising throughout the film and really bringing depth to what could have been a very one dimensional ‘redneck sheriff’ character. Although it is not openly explored in the film (the clues are there if you look for them), Teasle is himself a veteran of the Korean war which perhaps explains why he takes such a personal stance against the Vietnam vet, as Korea was very much overshadowed by Vietnam and left the public with a nasty perception of the military. 

Richard Crenna also provides a memorable performance as Col. Trautman, Rambo’s Dr. Frankenstein-esque former commander. He provides a sort of Greek chorus throughout the film, filling Teasle in on Rambo’s mindset and history - a clever device, as it meant Rambo could maintain his laconic persona whilst the important plot information could be brought forward through Trautman. Crenna’s effectiveness is made all the more impressive by the fact that he was a literal last minute replacement for Kirk Douglas, who left the set of the film when his unrequested and extensive script notes were ignored by the filmmakers. 

Also worth mentioning is the way that the film uses the landscape itself as a character. Shot entirely on location in British Columbia, Kotcheff utilises the unpredictable weather, claustrophobic forest and inhospitable temperatures to further isolate the central character and draw comparisons back to the alien conditions which soldiers endured during the war. Rambo is essentially forced to assume the role of the Viet Cong as he manipulates the forest and uses crude guerrilla tactics to defend himself and disable his American adversaries.

"I take it back, ferns are a good look for you!"
First Blood is part action film, part psychological thriller and an important piece of American cinema. It was one of the first to deal with the concept of America’s treatment of its returning Vietnam veterans (seven years before Born on the 4th of July) and it delves deep into the concept of post traumatic stress disorder, which didn’t really come into the public consciousness until the Gulf War in the early 90’s. It was, however, a victim of its own success, paving the way for a stream of exploitation action pictures (not restricted to the Rambo franchise) which often tarnish its legacy. It seems unfair to blame First Blood for the sins of those that followed it though. Sure there are one or two cheesy action lines, and the final sixty seconds are a little at odds with the rest of the piece, but on the whole this is a film with meaning. It bravely deals with subjects that most war films struggle to address: the effect of war on the individual, post traumatic stress disorder and what happens to a human weapon when the fighting is over. Not only that but it does it within an accessible, entertaining, mainstream context.


For further information visit First Blood's IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0083944

Suggested further viewing: Paths of Glory (1957), Predator (1987), Dead Presidents (1995)

2012/04/15

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


A few of the big winners at this year’s Academy Awards (Hugo and The Artist, for example) played up the nostalgia of a time before “talkies“ were the norm, giving a nod to silent cinema. Sitting just as quietly in the Best Animated Short Film category though was a lovely little creation that was co-directed by Brandon Oldenburg and children's book author and illustrator, William Joyce. Collaborators for over a decade, Oldenburg has a background in puppetry, with his credits including work in the art department and on visual effects for Robots, Spy Kids 2, and television movies, and in animation for the film Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. In addition to writing over fifty children’s books, Joyce was also the producer of Robots, Meet the Robinsons, and the children’s television series Rolie Polie Olie. But it was their team effort on The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore that allowed them to walk away with Academy Awards after they won the above mentioned category of Best Animated Short Film. Charming and poignant in its utter lack of dialogue, the heft of the story relies mainly on that very absence of words; a bit odd, it may seem, for a plot that centers around books. Yet it’s the storyline and cinematography that carry the emotion, running the gamut from nostalgic to melancholy to funny, and some points in between, beckoning the viewer to experience it all right along with the characters. Music is crucial too, and is expertly used to heighten emotion and storyline in all of the right places.

Oldenburg and Joyce celebrate their win (Photo by Steve Granitz – © 2012 Steve Granitz)

Co-founded by Joyce and Oldenburg, the team at Moonbot Studios worked on the film using a variety of animation techniques: CGI, 2D animation and stop motion among them, with the short made entirely in the state of Louisiana. Based in Shreveport, the studio employs about thirty-five people, and, based on the clip below and another I saw, looks like an incredibly interesting and fun place for any creative person to work.


The plot of the short is set in a town that looks unmistakably like New Orleans, Louisiana, and that was definitely intentional. Joyce had already written the bare bones of the story, but was prompted to start work on the film in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Centering on titular character Mr. Morris Lessmore, viewers meet the young man (with more than a passing resemblance to silent film star Buster Keaton) as he sits surrounded by piles of books, writing in his journal. Morris is so engrossed in this private world of his that he doesn’t notice a very Wizard of Oz-like storm start to sweep in until it’s too late, complete with a frantically peddling bicyclist who passes by while caught up in the gale. When all is said and done and the people and contents of the city are abruptly tossed back to the ground, Morris is left with only one precious item: his journal, now empty after the winds blew all of his writing away. Heartbroken and unsure of what to do next, he views the devastation around him as he walks along, until he has a puzzling and magical encounter. Afterwards, Morris is guided on by Humpty Dumpty, very whimsically and literally portrayed in flip book fashion. (I won’t go into more details about the plot of the film, since it’s a short and any more information might spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet.)


For me, there’s so much to love about this little film that I have to fight to keep it concise here. The details in the animation and special effects are simply exquisite. Going back to the character of Humpty Dumpty, I’m enthralled with the way that they managed to bring out so much strong emotion in his face as the pages of his book flip by. The same holds true in the more subtle range of Morris himself; the nuances of his facial features convey exactly what they need to, since he never speaks a word throughout the short. Then there are the touching, sometimes heartrending metaphors and allegories. One can’t help but see the parallel between the “rebuilding” of Morris’ life and that of those in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, or any disaster anywhere in the world. You can also draw a comparison to Morris’ solitude amongst the books and how some may withdraw into themselves when struggling with sadness or hardship. It’s through finally connecting with his neighbors and sharing what gives him joy that he helps to literally bring color and happiness back to his community and himself. Writers and others who love the written word will find even more meaning in the relationship between Morris and the stories he treasures so much.

Joyce and Oldenburg said that they set out to create a film that paid homage to the power of story and the transformational effect it can sometimes have on people's lives.  That intention shines through, with no doubt countless hours spent painstakingly creating storyboards, building elaborate sets, generating the spectacular computer animation and all of the other elements needed to bring this story to life.  Anyone who has ever delighted in being read a favorite story as a child, or has appreciated the heft and feel of a well-loved book in their hands as they settle in to get lost in the pages will instinctively feel the creators' intentions as they watch this film.  Hopefully, like Morris, they'll be transformed at the end too; maybe not as drastically as he was, but at least with a renewed sense that it's not just in books that anything is possible.

For more information visit Moonbot Studios: www.moonbotstudios.com

2012/04/08

The Be Good Tanyas

By Jav Rivera

Sometimes I crave the sound of acoustic instruments and natural voices; it's a thirst for a heart rooted deeply in human life.  It's a place far from electric guitars and synthesized voices, a place where three young ladies play a unique style of Americana bluegrass.  The Be Good Tanyas have been my source of quenching relief since their first album was released in 2000.

L-R: Sam Parton, Trish Klein, and Frazey Ford
Canadian band The Be Good Tanyas were formed in the late 1990s by Sam Parton, Frazey Ford, Trish Klein, and Jolie Holland (who early on left the band to pursue a solo career). Sometimes labeled as old timey music, the band can also be described as Americana, folk, bluegrass, and country with a blues taste.

They play acoustic instruments (typically banjo, mandolin, and guitar) and sing with incredible harmonies.  Each of the trio's voices are distinctly their own yet fit perfectly together, with Frazey and Parton providing most of the lead vocals.  Frazey has a strong, trumpet-like voice, very calm and emotional.  Sam, in contrast, has a whispery, delicate sound that adds the tortured heart to each track.  Klein, for the most part, remains quiet as the band's multi-instrumentalist and periodically adding harmonies. Klein's "voice" is in her playing.

L-R: Trish Klein, Frazey Ford, and Samantha Parton
The Be Good Tanyas appear to be from another time, from the style of music to their retro wardrobe, never coming across as a band with a gimmick, but instead a trio with high respect for the roots of old timey music.  It's this love for the old days that bleeds through their music, adding every bit of authenticity to the voice.


To date, they've release three studio albums: "Blue Horse" (2000), "Hello Love" (2003), and "Chinatown" (2006).  Each album has the band's distinct sound with little experimentation.  And yet each one progressively shows signs of stronger songwriting.  A band well into their sound from their debut, it's surprising how much better the music gets with each release.

Suggested Tracks for "Blue Horse"
"Broken Telephone"
"The Coo Coo Bird"
"Dogsong (AKA Sleep Dog Lullaby)"
"The Littlest Birds"

Suggested Tracks for "Hello Love"
"Out Of The Wilderness"
"Human Thing"
"A Thousand Tiny Pieces"
"For The Turnstiles"

Suggested Tracks for "Chinatown"
"Waiting Around To Die"
"Rowdy Blues"
"I Wish My Baby Was Born"
"Horses"

The Be Good Tanyas have also established themselves as a band with incredible ear for covering traditional music as well as music from artists from genres both similar and opposite.  Closer to their style, they've covered Townes Van Zandt ("Waiting Around To Die"), Peter Rowan ("Midnight Moonlight"), and Geoff Berner ("Light Enough To Travel").  They've also covered Prince's song "When Doves Cry", giving the tone a much different flavor.

Album Covers
The band had gone on hiatus back in 2008 during which Frazey Ford released her solo album "Obadiah".  The album is very similar to The Be Good Tanyas with the addition of electric guitar and a hint of attitude.  It's a solid record from a solid artist.

Album cover for "Obadiah" by  Frazey Ford
It has been established that music can transcend you to another place and time; The Be Good Tanyas takes you to a quieter place in a sweeter time.  In a time when a trio like this seem almost unfit, it's nice to know that they found a place to make their own.  And because of their style of music, they couldn't be more vital.


For more information on The Be Good Tanyas, visit their official site: www.begoodtanyas.com

TRIVIA: Trish Klein collaborated with Alison Russell under the band name Po' Girl, a project that as of 2007 has resulted in three albums: "Po'girl," "Vagabond Lullabies," and "Home to You."

2012/04/01

Freedy Johnston

By Jav Rivera

It was the early 90s and radio stations were fighting to find the latest sound, from hip hop to alternative to country pop.  In between was a plethora of styles and musicians losing the battle for airplay.  And if you weren't paying attention, you would have missed one of the 90's best songwriters.  Freedy Johnston is a New York-based singer-songwriter known for the craftsmanship of his songs, typically writing about heartbreak, alienation, and disappointment. His style has been labeled as Adult Alternative, Pop/Rock, Americana, Alternative/Indie Rock, and Contemporary Singer/Songwriter.

Freedy Johnston
Freedy gained attention for his single "Bad Reputation" from his 1994 album "This Perfect World".  Around the same time, he was hired to score the soundtrack to the Farrely Brothers film Kingpin (a personal favorite of mine).  Several tracks from "This Perfect World" are featured, as well as instrumental versions of his music, including an early version of "Arriving On A Train" which would later be released on his 2001 album "Right Between The Promises".

Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid in Kingpin
The attention didn't last long for the average listener, but to those who appreciated "This Perfect World" saw more than just another pop rock musician.  The album's context is dark and cruel, often focusing on someone's failures and ignorance of faults.  Songs like "Disappointed Man," "Gone Like The Water," and "I Can Hear The Laughs" showcase incredibly sorrowful characters trying to run away from their past while carrying the weight of their mistakes.  The author's point of view, though empathetic, narrates in a somewhat unbiased manner.  Connecting this album and the main characters from Kingpin, Freedy was a perfect choice to score.

Album cover for "This Perfect World"
Prior to "This Perfect World," Freedy had released several albums including "The Trouble Tree" (1990), "Can You Fly" (1992), and "Unlucky" (1993).  "Can You Fly" has been said to be Freedy's turning point as a songwriter, often being compared to Bob Dylan.  Though his voice was still raw at times, the song craft and lyrical content were finely-tuned.  The strength of this album would lead to the masterful production of "This Perfect World".

Album cover for "Can You Fly"
In 1997, he released his rock-infused album "Never Home".  It's here where Freedy had focused his cinematic-like character studies, creating his most personal album.  Though his camera lens remains on his characters, the author succeeds in unveiling the man behind the camera.

Songs like "Western Skies," "You Get Me Lost," and "If It's True" expose inner fears and emotions.  And Freedy doesn't hold back the aggressive characters from tracks like "On The Way Out," "One More Thing To Break" and "Gone To See The Fire" (a stark track hiding behind delicate music).

Freedy is an expert at understanding people and their feelings.  The details are both specific and visual. You have to wonder if these songs are based on personal experiences or an amazing imagination.  Either way, no one writes characters like Freedy and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that several characters in recent films have been based on his writing.

Album cover for "Never Home"
His following albums continued his character studies while experimenting with his musical style. 1999's "Blue Days Black Nights" sees Freedy's more somber side.  Though the album contains personal tunes such as "While I Wait For You" and "Caught As You Look Away," the album's most moving track is "Emily." Typical of his best work, the song draws its strength from Freedy's unique ability to write about characters both touching and real.

2001's "Right Between The Promises" brings back his rock sound with tunes such as "Waste Your Time" and "Anyone".  It's a much more diverse album ranging from rock to acoustical ballads.  His character studies and visual writing remain intact with tracks like "Save Yourself, City Girl," "Radio For Heartache," and "In My Dream".  The album also contains a cover of Edison Lighthouse's "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" which was used for the film Shallow Hal.

It took nearly a decade for Freedy to release another studio album with 2010's "Rain On The City".  In between, he had released two live albums ("Live at 33 1/3" and "Live at McCabe's Shop"), a collection of his early 4-track recordings ("The Way I Were"), and an album of covers ("My Favorite Waste of Time").

Freedy introduces "Rain On The City" with the cute but sad tune "Lonely Penny" then raises the volume with "Don't Fall In Love With a Lonely Girl" harking back to his "Never Home" sound.  The acoustic guitar returns throughout the album as Freedy produces another diverse album ranging in rock, country, and folk/rock.

Album covers for (l-r) "Blue Days Black Nights," "Right Between The Promises," and "Rain On The City"
2011 saw Freedy collaborating with musicians Jon Dee Graham and Susan Cowsell on their album "At Least We Have Each Other".   Released under the name The Hobart Brothers & Lil' Sis Hobart, the album has a live-at-a-bar feel.
Album cover for "At Least We Have Each Other"
With an impressive collection of stellar albums under his belt, Freedy has free range on future projects.  Whatever Freedy has in store, we can assume his songwriting will remain solid.  A man who understands human behavior and human failures, Freedy Johnston's work will, I'm certain, become a study of the man behind the words.


For more information on Freedy Johnston, visit his official website: www.freedyjohnston.com

TRIVIA: Freedy Johnston  is a New York City-based singer-songwriter but is originally from Kinsley, Kansas.