Strawberry Fields Forever - Nothing is real

Sunday, January 21, 2007

...And a happy new year, let's hope it's a good one without any fear

Another year, another 365 and some change days, and another rotation around good 'ol Sol.

Another job that is coming to an end at my volition, another long amount of time of working incessantly, and another few semesters of missing deadlines to file my thesis.

Given my current job, I have basically avoided writing about politics, though that prohibition may be ending (since my job is) in the not too distant, future, so be warned.

In terms of music, here's what I would recommend in terms of new releases:

  • Paul Simon's aptly titled Surprise. A year ago, if I were asked to make a list of (musical) artists I really have enjoyed, but seem to be in an artistic slump, Paul Simon would be near the top of the list. It's not that I didn't find some tracks to enjoy on Rhythm of the Saints, Songs From Capeman or even You're The One, but nothing on those albums had the impact of his Graceland LP to say nothing of Hearts and Bones. Indeed, the album in many ways feel like the marriage of those two great LPs with a bit of the quasi-electronic soundscapes from U2's albums The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. I'm not saying Surprise is as good as either Graceland nor Hearts and Bones, but it gets close, and that was a very pleasant Surprise indeed. A/A-
  • Bruce Springsteen - We Shall Overcome : The Pete Seeger Sessions - Yes, this is a bit of a cheat since no songs (on the original issue) are actually new, or even written by the Boss. However, much like the above choice, here's another artist that seemed to have hit a long period of artistic decline that still has a lot of fight in him. Here's a very political album, in a lot of ways like Neil Young's album from last year, but by choosing songs from decades if not centuries ago to express his view of the world today, and by making the album rock despite the absence of much of the traditional sound/etc for what normally is considered rock and roll, this album actually elevates above most protest rock, and becomes quite timeless. Anyway, how hard is to avoid smiling and rocking a bit when you hear the band come crashing in on Mary Don't You Weep? A-
  • Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings The Flood - When my friend, Matteen, first pointed me to this album, I only really heard a female version of Jeff Buckley's Grace album. (in terms of the sound) However, I admit I was surprised how much of the album holds together well even after a great deal of listens. Also, it's really hard to deny the beauty of Star Witness. (incidentally, if you have only heard this album by Neko Case, I recommend tracking down her earlier, and slightly better album, Blacklisted) A-
  • Bob Dylan - Modern Times - Dylan wasn't in any danger of artistic decline... his last 2 albums basically guaranteed that. However, while I would not call this a decline, it simply isn't as good as Love and Theft, the immediate predecessor. (or as immediate as any album can be that preceded it by 5 years) There's a lot to like on here, but it all seems like it has been said before, and better. Still, this is one of the best albums of last year. B+
  • Beck - The Information - Not quite as good as Sea Change, but definitely better than Guero. Not everything works, but most does. In many ways this is actually a good step forward since Beck is somehow figuring out how to integrate his hipster genre bending tendencies from his earlier LPs with the weary maturity he has been showing more recently. B+
  • Neil Young - Living With War - This is an album that won't age all that well, but compared to other political protest albums that explicitly are products of their respective eras, it will age better than most. Compared to an album like John Lennon's Sometime In New York, it will certainly fare better since the basic songs are better. Where John Lennon had forgotten to bring forward the music to match the lyrics (and often sacrificed the power of the lyrics in favor of explicitly stating his messages), Neil Young (for the most part) is able to marry his anger with good songs, and usually good lyrics. Let's Impeach The President especially is a song that may be enjoyable long after George W. Bush has left the Oval Office, which if much more than I can say about John Sinclair or We're All Water from Sometime In New York. B
That's what I can recall at the moment on the music front.

On the movie front, the only real movie I really wanted to see going into 2006 was to see what Bryan Singer did with Superman.
To give some quick background, every day I went to preschool I would dress in cowboy boots (not red, but close enough for a 3 year old) and would wear a Superman cape. I actually surprised the head of the school when I would dress differently on Halloweens. I loved the George Reeves Adventures of Superman series, and above even that, I adored Christopher Reeve's Superman films. (at the time, there was Superman and Superman 2... Superman 3 thankfully came out a little late to ruin my childhood memories, and I was already mostly out of that phase when Superman IV came out to ruin any remaining memories)
I've been following the developments of all of the truly wretched ideas of brining back Kal-El to the silver screen over the last decade+, and despite how much I love Superman, I was generally glad to see the projects fail miserably since the ideas were not worthy of the last son of Krypton.
Still, when I heard that Bryan Singer was signed on and had promised to basically make a new Superman film in the same basic universe that Richard Donner had created with Superman The Movie in 1978, I started to become interested and, even a bit hopeful.
For my money, those first 2 Superman films (even with all of the problems that plagued Superman 2 which are well documented on a myriad websites, and now even several DVDs) are the greatest adaptations of comic books to film ever done. I haven't (amazingly) seen the X-Men films, so they may also be great, but I have seen the Batman films from the 80s through the new Batman Begins. I have seen a great deal of other comic adaptations, and while some are good (Batman Begins especially), none of them touch those first two Superman films. I think it had something to do with Marlon Brando's first line in the film, "this is no fantasy". By making those films REAL, and by giving Superman a real heart (no doubt Christopher Reeve's amazing work helped more than a bit), the films felt real. Once you've sold the reality of the universe, and made the audience care, you can do a lot, and those 2 films did.
In many ways Bryan Singer did the impossible with his film, Superman Returns. He gave us a new film based in Richard Donner's universe... for the most part. This may sound like nitpicking, but on more than a few accounts I felt the film missed the mark on the "this is no fantasy" benchmark.
The opening flight through space in the opening credits in no way looked like a flight through space. It looked like a flight through neat drawings rendered as CGI. I know much of the visions of flying through space in the original Superman film were created using simple fluid tricks, and other optical trickery, but they were less showy, and less obviously fake. I'm no astronomer, but since when can you have a planet with 2 rings that intersect each other at perfect right angles?? On top of that, the Daily Planet did not feel like a real newspaper office. The attempt to give Metropolis a distinctive feel did make the architecture/design interesting, but it also took away from the illusion that it was a real, functioning city. In Superman, it was clear were were looking at New York City in the late 1970s. The Daily Planet office in Donner's films looked like a newspaper office should look.
The other issues with the film are primarily focused on the basic scheme from Lex Luthor and the pacing problems with the film that basically everyone who has criticised the film have already pointed out.
I also need to point out that the score of the film really does suffer in comparison to the original film's score. While I don't expect the film to be able to outdo what is in my view one of the best film scores of all time, I do expect something better than we had here. When the film sticks to the actual music written by Williams (like in the opening credits), it feels great. When it attempts to modify the themes (like at the end of the airplane crash sequence) it ruins the mood of the theme since it doesn't ever seem to properly resolve, and in a triumphant scene, unresolved musical themes seem very wrong. Worst of all though is that the new music written for the film seems very generic and barely worthy of being background music in a much weaker film. I suppose I could have respected an attempt to create entirely new music in the film and just accept that it won't be as memorable. I also could respect what Thorne did with the Superman 2 soundtrack by simply recycling the themes verbatim from Superman 1, and only writing what new music had to be written to flesh out the film. However, this film not only produces a lot of new music and new themes, but it also has moments of Williams' themes. That's probably the worst combination since it brings the quality of the two respective scores in sharp contrast. Unfortunately, that's not a favorable contrast.
However, I did say that this mostly resides within Donner's universe, and it does. Superman himself seems to be essentially the Superman that Christopher Reeve played. Indeed, all of the actors seem to do an excellent job in the film. Even Bosworth does a good job as Lois Lane even if she really looks to young to play Lois Lane at the age she should have been in the 1978 film, much less a 5 year older Lane. However, I can easily forgive that since she does a good enough acting job to compensate. The parts of the film with the romantic triangle and the other new figure (if you've seen the film, you know who I mean) actually played the best despite the fact that usually such plot twists are generally poisonous for such iconic characters. Indeed, for my money, the best moment in the entire film was watching Kal-El quote his father (Jor-El) while taking to another in the last scene of the film. Again, I am being cryptic to avoid spoiling anything for those who haven't seen it and plan to. However, suffice to say, in that moment, they nailed the heart of the universe that Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner created nearly 30 years ago.
Really what we have here is a film that promises the possibility of a much better sequel. The hardest elements are in place since the actors are excellent, the director has the talent, and the vision, if tweaked, actually works. Since I understand that X-Men 2 is much better than X-Men, and I believe I heard Bryan Singer saying he wanted to make a Star Trek II to Superman Returns' Star Trek I, I hold out hope that the last son of Krypton may continue on on the silver screen for some time. B


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