My review of Brooks & Dunn's Cowboy Town is up today at PopMatters.

Also, today is apparently the last day of publication for Stylus Magazine, a site I contributed to as a writer and later as an editor for three years. Thanks to the passionate, committed work of Editor-in-Chief Todd Burns, his editorial staff, and an amazing slate of writers (some of the best at it today, print or online), Stylus was, throughout its run, among the most thoughtful and honest sources for pop culture commentary available in the new millennium. It will always hold a unique place in my memory bank, my resume, and my heart.

Here are my ten favorite pieces that ran on Stylus.

Happy Halloween, all.


My review of the J. Lo/Marc Anthony vehicle, El Cantante, is up at PopMatters.


Long Time Coming

You asked for it, and now you're gonna get it! (Okay, so, no one actually asked for it per se. You're still getting it.)

JLT/JLT: Clutch, my new sports blog, will debut Wednesday, Oct. 24 around 8 PM EST/5 PST, when I live-blog Game 1 of the World Series. I'll try to live-blog each game of the Fall Classic, and there'll be plenty of other posts on basketball (pro and college), football (NFL, CFL, and NCAA), and, considering where I live now, hockey (tune in as I try not to make an ass out of myself as I discuss a sport I know next to nothing about!).

So, yeah, check that out, if you're so inclined. Many thanks to Teresa for the amazing banner!


Done Gone Global

Brief notes on five good movies--three from Japan, one from Iran, and one from Canada.

Kiarostami disciple Jafar Panahi's reputation as contemporary Iranian cinema's second-finest filmmaker (after his mentor) has been effectively solidified; this one splendidly reaffirms what we already knew. Shooting in and around a World Cup qualifying soccer match between Iran and Bahrain (fan chants include "Iran...winner! Bahrain...loser!" and "What does Iran do? Iran riddles you with goals!"), Panahi's latest is a comic companion piece to 2000's masterful The Circle. Both films focus on the treatment of women in the Islamic Republic, but where the earlier work illuminated some of the harsher fates endured by women under Iran's patriarchal laws, Offside--no less perceptively--takes a more light-hearted route.

The new film has been criticized by some for supposedly depicting the soldiers assigned to monitor women caught attempting to sneak into the soccer game in drag (females aren't allowed to attend sporting events in Iran--unless they're foreigners who don't speak Farsi, and thus can't understand Iranian men when they're swearing) in a sympathetic light. I'd argue that this stroke of inclusive humanism is key among Offside's strengths. Why demonize a few farm boys serving their mandatory military service, visibly in over their heads in urban Tehran? Like the majority of American soldiers currently deployed in Iraq (many of them lured into the armed services as a means to afford a college education), they shouldn't be held accountable by the dubious policies and decisions of their nation's leaders. This would certainly make for a provocative double feature paired with Brian De Palma's devastating Redacted. Because Panahi and De Palma's films offer very different looks at military (ir)responsibility--not because Iran's next on the Bush administration checklist.

I'm sure I'm not the first critic to preface a review of this movie by confessing a very limited familiarity with Japanese animation. A handful of Miyazaki, a couple Satoshi Kon stunners, Metropolis, Akira, and Ghost in the Shell are collectively about as deep as my anime viewing experience runs. Michael Arias' debut feature, combined with Kon's Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers, leave me wondering exactly how much else I've missed. Tekkonkinkreet, which seamlessly marries traditional animation with CGI to consistently eye-popping effect, is as visually inspired as Kon or Miyazaki, though Arias lacks, for now, their knack for narrative momentum. Yet even when this one gets a touch too convoluted, the images on-screen remain hypnotic. In fact, just as the plot begins to sag under the weight of too much forced philosophy, Arias launches his visual palette into another stratosphere. A must-see for cinephiles who still think the conversation on worthwhile anime begins and ends with Miyazaki.

Nightmare Detective The three Shinya Tsukamoto films I've seen vary drastically in terms of quality (if not aesthetic): one's a near-masterpiece (2004's Vital), one I only made it halfway through without falling asleep (2002's muddled Snake of June), and then one that might've been a full-on masterpiece, ultimately doesn't come close, but that I didn't nod off during either. The latter is Tsukamoto's latest offering, in which he perfects the cold, steely visual scheme and off-kilter mise-en-scene that contributed to Vital's atmospheric appeal. The film starts off brilliantly, with an ingeniously orchestrated horror set-piece, an intriguing central concept (suicidal Tokyo residents fighting for their lives against some murderous, invisible force), and terrific characterizations by Ryuhei Matsuda and J-Pop star Hitomi. It eventually runs off the rails, though, the same way plenty of better and worse horror movies, Japanese or otherwise, have before it--by, finally, being too simple (e.g., spoiling the mood and the mystery by revealing too much too soon) and too complicated (e.g., by overexplaining the conceit and inserting too many pointless twists). Tsukamoto does deserve bonus points for the ballsy/self-reflexive gesture of casting himself as the villain revealed in the film's otherwise regrettable final act, but it's too little too late in a pretty good movie that could have been pretty great.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest suffers from many of the same revelation/resolution issues that plague Nightmare Detective, yet it feels more even and balanced thanks to the plaintive, meditative tone that Kurosawa maintains from start to finish--even as his horror show takes a few dubious detours of his own. It isn't better, or any less chilly, than the Tsukamoto; its peaks aren't as high, it's valleys aren't as low. Like K. Kurosawa's previous effort, the superior Loft, it's a ghost story where, so to speak, the storm is a slow-burn established through the uneasy collision of fronts existential and fatalistic. It's a dynamic as central to Kurosawa's aesthetic as deterministic pessimism is to the work of David Fincher, for better or worse, Kurosawa's closest kindred spirit in Hollywood. Both typically prefer drab, confining spaces, and lead performances that are, at once, melancholic and muscular. Fincher emphasizes humanity's worst impulses, while Kurosawa opts for the paranormal, a distinction that arguably speaks volumes about the East-West cultural divide.

Let's All Hate Toronto
Prior to noticing this DVD on the video store shelf, I had almost no idea that the rest of Canada was so down on its largest metropolis. My only hint was hearing Teresa casually opine that "Toronto sucks" whenever the subject came up, despite the fact that she's never set foot in a province east of British Columbia. Evidently, she's not alone in that sentiment. Montreal native Albert Nerenberg and Robert "Mr. Toronto" Spence's comic doc traces this seemingly peculiar trend from the Maritimes to Quebec to Alberta to Vancouver, the latter of which they identify as the most anti-Toronto city in the federation (save for, perhaps, Toronto itself). The film missteps with some sub-Michael Moore gags along the way, but ultimately presents a coherent snapshot of Canada's problematic relationship with its self-designated "center of the universe," offers thoughtful explanations, debunks (positive and negative) stereotypes, and finally concludes that Toronto sucks "only a little." Teresa remains unsold. I think Toronto seems nice, but what do I know--I'm an American transplant, and one of the major gripes voiced against Ontario's capital is that it's essentially an American city located inside the Canadian border. Speaking of which, the U.S. of A. has its own venomous/grudgingly recognitial relationship with a certain T.O.: ours plays football in Dallas.


The Case for Rainbows

So, I opened my inbox this morning, and found an email subject-headed "o rly?" from my little brother, who evidently read this (one more reader than I thought--that puts the JLT/JLT tally at 7!).

He said:

"I'm not sure what album you were listening to when you listened to the new radiohead (or if you had the sound on mute, maybe?) -- nearly every song on that album is money. Hail to the Thief was more rock-accessible -- I'd say In Rainbows takes more from the jazz spectrum (don't tell me you can't hear Billie Holiday on "Nude") -- it was a WYHIWYG album; no song had any of the complexity or oddities that you learned to love. I would say that In Rainbows also lacks the wtf-ness that made OK Computer/Kid A good after one listen and fucking amazing after 20 (and still counting), but it draws from the best of everything since Kid A in one super-smooth, uber-hooky album. I would say that "Life In a Glass House" was heretofore my favorite of their's since Kid A, and In Rainbows is like the 40-minute, extended version of that song. You can't listen to a lot of the album without thinking that, if Miles Davis were still alive, he would be asking himself why it sounds so vaguely familiar. Sans the goofy, Thom'd out titles like "Reckoner", which is probably the smoothest of the Phil Selway tracks, I think this ranks right up with the best of what Radiohead has done, just for different reasons. Maybe you should give it a sixth listen, and turn the volume up this time."

And I wrote back:

"Yeah, I've been arguing about this one over the past week on the music boards I post at, and I've listened to some of it since, and it's still not really clicking. I'd agree that it is more jazzy than any full record they've made before, and that they certainly owe a great deal to Miles Davis. Unfortunately, I think they still owe more to the krautrock stuff (Can, but not just Can), and it feels to me like they're putting less of their own spin on it here than they tended to in the past (Kid A, Amnesiac). People are also talking up how supposedly "warm" this album is, which I don't really hear, though I suppose it does admittedly sound more like an organic musical unit rather than just Thom Yorke and his backing band (which was probably the worst aspect of Hail).

You call
In Rainbows "uber-hooky" and that's something I just totally don't hear. Where are these hooks you speak of? Maybe I'm just listening to too much other music right now (I have a huge stack of promo CDs sitting by our computer, and in a day's time, I'm listening to everything from Israeli pop to Yung Joc to Brooks & Dunn to the new Northern State and PJ Harvey records--the latter is fantastic, check it out!), and what RH is bringing to the table this time out is subsequently lost in the mix for me. But my worst suspicion re: this album is that, for the first time, they're phoning it in. They know they're Radiohead, and, thus, that they can seemingly do no wrong with most critics or their cult of fans on both sides of the Atlantic, so they embellish their quirks and signature moves and top it off with a would-be revolutionary distribution strategy.

I like the ideas they're putting out there--both from the business side and, at least theoretically, the music side. The finished product just doesn't thrill me at all, which is a problem when we're talking about a band that's clearly capable of thrilling moments (by which I mostly means songs--are there *songs* on this album??)--"Talk Show Host," "Street Spirit," "Optimistic," "Big Boots," "Let Down," "Idioteque," "How to Disappear Completely," "Pyramid Song," just to cite some personal favorites."

In other news, Josh Beckett is just ridiculous. Right, I hate the Red Sox as much as any Yankees fan/person not from New England, I'm just sayin'. Dude's a goddamn machine. The BWAA are going to look pretty dumb when Sabathia tops him for the Cy Young--and I say this as both a Sox hater/doubter (Beckett, Papelbon, and maybe Okajima are the only arms they got that are worth a shit) and someone who would've probably ranked Sabathia first had I received a ballot.


Empire Falls?

In his excellent book of the same name, Buster Olney pinpointed November 4, 2001 as "the last night of the Yankee dynasty." In a sense, he was probably right; the Yanks' Game 7 home loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series certainly looks, in retrospect, like the beginning of the end of the Yanks' astonishing modern championship run.

At any rate, this feels unmistakably like the end of the road. Joe Torre is gone. Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Roger Clemens--vital fixtures from those incredible seasons--might not be back either. Bernie Williams played his last game in pinstripes the season before last. Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez, both the best position player in the game and an inevitable symbol of the Yanks' postseason futility in the new millennium, will probably opt out of his historic contract. And I'm left with very mixed feelings.

On the one hand, Torre got a raw deal. Five million a year is nothing for anyone to turn their nose up at, but neither is twelve straight playoff appearances. The pay cut combined with the short leash of a one-season deal is a slap in the face for a revered, accomplished manager like Torre. I can't blame him in the least for turning it down. A lot of people take Torre's consistency for granted due to his club's high payroll and stable of superstars, but, should someone smarter than me bust out the math and calculate each team's level of success in relation to its average payroll over the past dozen seasons (or even the past half-dozen seasons, if that's what we're criticizing Torre for), I imagine Torre's Yanks would still finish at or very near the top of the list.

On the other hand, as countless other Yankees fans and organization officials have stated, mere playoff appearances are not the ultimate barometer of success for this particular franchise. This is not the Oakland A's or the Atlanta Braves we're talking about here. It's the Yankees, and a seeming inability to advance beyond the opening round of the postseason is a real problem that demands to be addressed.

Not that all or even the lion's share of blame for these blown series should be placed on Torre's head. (Or A-Rod's, for that matter.) Maybe a real shake-up, with fresh faces and a healthy mix of up-and-comers, role players, and big names, is what this club needs most right now. I really like the young talent on this team--guys like Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Chien Ming-Wang, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Ian Kennedy, whose respective ceilings are anyone's guess. Brian Cashman deserves more credit than he typically receives for revitalizing the Yankees' farm system and turning around what, in recent years, looked like an old team with a limited future.

This is, to be sure, a critical, uncertain period for the Yankees. Decisions made this offseason--starting with the offer-intended-to-be-refused presented to Torre--will no doubt play a huge role in determining whether another Yankee dynasty is just around the corner or whether the Don Mattingly managerial era (assuming Donnie Baseball gets the nod, which, of course, isn't yet a sure thing) will be as fruitless (read: championship-less) as Mattingly's playing career. At any rate, you can bet the Lakers--another storied franchise enduring a rough patch and now contemplating a Kobe-less future--would trade outlooks with the Yankees without thinking twice about it.
My review of Lars von Trier's The Boss of It All (which, for the record, I liked more than this write-up would seem to indicate) is up today at PopMatters.
Kill Yr Idols

Belatedly posted thoughts from yesterday afternoon:

"This album is an embarrassing waste of time. I wanted to like it, I really did. I'm a Radiohead fan from way back, who at least kinda liked Hail to the Thief and still occasionally spins their '90's records for old time's sake. But this is worthless dreck. No wonder they're giving it away for free. I just wasted a good chunk of my day listening to it five times through, and now, to stop the bleeding, I've put on Good Girl Gone Bad, an album that's not only infinitely more pleasurable to listen to, but considerably more sonically adventurous.

Between this and the dull-as-dishwater Yorke solo record, I'm officially giving up on Radiohead. Only Band That Matters, my foot! The release strategy is theoretically interesting, sure, but it seems all for naught when the actual product in question is only about half as good as the not-very-good-yet-cleverly-marketed new Prince album. When after five, fairly attentive consecutive start-to-finish listens, "Gimme More" remains stuck in my head and I couldn't hum one of In Rainbows' ten tracks if you put a gun to my head, that's not a good sign.

Wake me up when this one's run its course on the blogosphere. Or when the new Carrie Underwood drops. Whichever comes first."

End rant.

For the record, it has now been just as long since Radiohead last released a legitimately great album (Amnesiac was borderline) as since the Yankees last won the World Series...


VIFF Part Deux, up today at PopMatters.


Return of the King

The most surprising thing about Eastern Promises, a movie I'd watched numerous clips from and read a great deal about before actual seeing, is that it's, ultimately, the warmest film David Cronenberg's ever made. Admittedly, that isn't saying much, but it's worth noting, at any rate. After Naomi Watts' character, Anna, declines an offer from Viggo Mortensen's Nikolai to sell her father's motorcycle and explains her reason for hanging onto it, he responds, "Sentimental value...I've heard of that." He might well be speaking for his director.

Eastern Promises is clearly a companion piece to A History of Violence, a cracked-mirror version of the earlier film (not dissimilar to what Lynch accomplished with Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire). Which is to say, I respectfully disagree with Jonathan Rosenbaum's assertion that Cronenberg's latest "lacks the theoretical dimension of its predecessor." Rather, this is a text book case of two very good films made great within the context of their connections. Considered together, they constitute the full expression of a thoughtful, complicated worldview.

A History of Violence focused on an Everyman Heartland hero, later revealed to have uneasy ties to East Coast organized crime.

Eastern Promises focuses on a mysterious Eastern European thug, a rising star in London's Russian mafia, later revealed to have undercover ties to British law enforcement.

A History of Violence was packaged as a vigilante justice yarn, while presenting a compelling study of small town Midwestern America's suspicion of urban goings-on (particularly on the East Coast, in this case Philadelphia).

Eastern Promises is packaged as a suspense thriller yarn, while presenting a compelling study of Western Europe's (particularly the U.K.'s) suspicion of post-Soviet Russia. (Keep in mind the fact that Cronenberg is neither an American nor a European, and he approaches these foreign territories with an eye toward measured criticism.)

A History of Violence, in its depictions of explicit violence and steamy sex, offers a fascinating take on masculinity and (anti-) heroism.

Eastern Promises, in its depictions of explicit violence, lifeless sex, and suggestive homoeroticism, offers a fascinating take on masculinity and (anti-) heroism.

A History of Violence's cast of supporting characters included Mortensen's character's wife (Maria Bello), who is initially in love with him and later wary of him after discovering his secret past; Mortensen's Godfather-like crime boss brother (William Hurt); and Ed Harris's unhinged mob underling.

Eastern Promises' cast of supporting characters includes Naomi Watts' meddling hospital midwife, who is initally wary of Nikolai and later shares a passionate kiss with him; Armin Muehller-Stahl's Godfather-like crime boss; and Seymour Cassel's unhinged mob underling, a brother figure of sorts for Nikolai.

And so on.

This is a film that's roughly as dark and bloody as anything in Cronenberg's singularly fucked-up filmography, and yet it concludes on a note that's hopeful, with a message that could simplistically be interpreted as implying that good things can come from bad circumstances; Cronenberg's Christmas story, if you will. Of course, nothing's ever quite so black-and-white in the foggy Cronenverse, as the ambiguous final shot of a brooding Nikolai attests, but compared to the harrowing Spider or the acidic A History of Violence, this is something like optimism.


Let's Not Even Talk About It Right Now, Okay?

Now, I know how Sasha feels.


Part One of my VIFF wrap-up is up today at PopMatters. Teresa's thoughts on the fest are up here.


PS: My review of Chamillionaire's Ultimate Victory ran over at PopMatters at some point while we were away at the fest.

PPS: The daily grind at the lists blog will resume tomorrow. You know, for all six of you who care.

Also: Son of a goddamn bitch. Maybe we should've hoped for Anaheim, after all?
Best of the Fest

We just got back from the Vancouver International Film Festival, and--while we'll both be posting much more on the films we saw (Josh here and at PopMatters, me probably somewhere...eventually)--are going to post our as-of-now top 10's of the fest.

01. Redacted (De Palma)
02. The Man from London (Tarr)
03. My Winnipeg (Maddin)
04. Dead Time (Anwar)
05. Love Conquers All (Tan)
06. Help Me Eros (Lee)
07. Bad Habits (Bross)
08. Lust, Caution (Ang)
09. Ma Wu Jia (Zhao)
10. 10 + 4 (Akbari)

01. Redacted (De Palma)
02. The Man from London (Tarr)
03. The Duchess of Langeais (Rivette)
04. Useless (Jia)
05. Love Conquers All (Tan)
06. My Winnipeg (Maddin)
07. 10 + 4 (Akbari)
08. The Elephant and the Sea (Woo)
09. Lust, Caution (Ang)
10. Confessions of an Innocent Man (Paperny) / Made in China (Helde)


So, yeah: Those Pazz & Jop predictions are probably gonna need to be revised.