Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Random Music: Juluka - "Musa Ukungilandela"

In addition to being one of my favorite bands of all time, Juluka was the first mainstream musical act from South Africa to have both black and white members, and therefore instantly controversial.  Frequently they were arrested simply for performing, and were no stranger to death threats.  Their music understandably had a strong protest vibe, but most would be surprised to hear how much fun a band with such an important history could really be to listen to.

Juluka's core was the friendship between white English-born student Johnny Clegg, and Zulu farmer Sipho Mchunu.  Their music was a fusion of Zulu dance music with English folk-rock, which reached its most brilliant heights on their second album "African Litany" (1981).  Over the next few years Juluka's fame would grow until Sipho and Johnny called it quits in 1985.  But before the band broke up they released "Musa Ukungilandela" (1984) , their second all Zulu-language effort and probably the most fun album they ever released.

This is a dance party record, plain and simple.  On "Musa Ukungilandela", Juluka focuses on cranking up the fun, propelled by a lively rhythm section, horns, and a blend of electric and acoustic guitars.  The band loves to lay on shiny synth melodies in an incredibly dated and totally awesome sort of way.  I've always thought there need to be more saxophones and synth washes in pop music, and this is solid proof.

Juluka couldn't have asked for a better farewell record, turning in a solid set of songs with not a single dud among them.  Perhaps the most memorable tune is Ibhola Lethu" ("Our Football"), a fist pumping soccer anthem complete with an enthusiastic radio commentator during the bridge section.  True, American's won't understand what they're singing about, but for dance-pop that doesn't really matter.  I understand that most people think that white people listening to African music are just being pretentious, but screw that, Juluka is fun.  Give them a listen, kick back and enjoy!

Juluka's albums, including this one, can be purchased on the iTunes store right now!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Directors Who Utterly Rule

Over about 12 years of being a complete cinephile, I've come to realize that the single best indicator of how much I'm likely to enjoy a film is its director.  Plenty of not so great directors have made great films and vice versa, but some had established such a solid body of work that the very mention of their name will put my butt in a theater seat.  The following six are (at present) my pick for the best of the best.  Honestly, I feel kind of bad that no female directors made the list, despite my esteem for Sofia Copolla, Mary Harron, Julie Taymor, and other women who have made films that I've loved to death.  I'm going to give myself a homework assignment and explore more of their work.  But for now, here's my top six:

Lust, Caution
Name: Ang Lee
Nationality: Taiwanese
Best Known Film: "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
My Favorite: "Lust, Caution"

What do a martial-arts epic, an erotic spy thriller, a cowboy romance, a hippie comedy, a civil war adventure, a comic book film, and a Jane Austen adaptation have in common?  The answer is that Ang Lee has made them all, among others.  Despite such a range of settings, many of Lee's films involve characters who must hide their true natures from the world (gay men, spies, superheroes, etc).  Lee manages to coax top-notch performances from his entire cast, and surrounds his actors with some of the most lush, classic cinematography you could ask for.  Great for those lazy days spent sighing on the couch.

"Enter The Void"
Name: Gaspar Noe
Nationality: Argentine
Best Known Film: "Irreversible"
My Favorite: "Enter the Void"

Gaspar Noe's films are attacks on his audience.  They are entertaining, provided your taste in entertainment involves being poked, prodded, and provoked.  What makes his films more fun is that he isn't as deadly serious about them as some critics would like.  They may be intellectual, but they are horror films.  And rather than merely assault viewers with disturbing stories and content, Noe uses every single weapon at his disposal to screw with their heads, including disorienting opening credits, constant block capital lettering, camera movements that slam into and pass through walls and roofs, hyper-manic lights and sound, and an impish, disturbed sense of humor.  "Enter the Void" is surprisingly non-traumatic as it tries to one-up the star and light show of "2001" for an entire movie... excellent stuff for those with expanding heads.

"Escape From New York"

Name: John Carpenter
Nationality: American
Best Known Film: "Halloween"
My Favorite: "The Thing" (1982)

"Assault on Precinct 13". "Escape from New York". "Halloween".  All are classic genre films created by a genius forced to work magic on a shoestring budget.  Carpenter's plots frequently stemmed from some primal idea or fear, and were carried out with no unnecessary window dressing.  With "The Thing" and "Big Trouble In Little China" he finally got big studio money to play with, and while both lost money they are cult hits to this day.  "The Thing" in particular, is so satisfying in its drama and tension that you don't expect the gore to be so gleefully over the top.  And what other director consistently found such great things to do with Kurt Russell?

"The Turin Horse"

Name: Bela Tarr
Nationality: Hungarian
Best Known Film: "Satantango"
My Favorite: "The Turin Horse"

When I tell people I'm a film critic, they assume I'm some hoity toity art-house snob.  Liking Bela Tarr doesn't help my case one bit.  What can I say?  The long takes and stark, black-and-white cinematography in Tarr's films put me in an absolute trance.  It turns out that melancholy tales of poor working-class Hungarians can be surprisingly uplifting, when told by a master filmmaker.  No other director can transport me to a different time and place like Bela Tarr can.


Name: Park Chan-Wook
Nationality: Korean
Best known film: "Oldboy"
My favorite: "Sympathy for Mr Vengeance"

Park Chan-Wook rose to prominence with "J.S.A.: Joint Security Area" a heart-breaking drama set in the Korean De-Militarized Zone.  He then began his controversial "Vengeance Trilogy", three violent films that explore the concept of revenge in vastly different ways ("Sympathy for Mr Vengeance", "Oldboy" and "Lady Vengeance").  "Sympathy for Mr Vengeance" is particularly brilliant: every major character feels wronged by someone or something beyond their control, leading to a vicious circle of retribution that devours anything and anyone in its path.  Since then, he's directed the vampire epic "Thirst", and "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK", a romance between two completely insane mental patients.  Park's just oozing with talent, and it's hard to pin down what makes his films so great.  I'm gonna have to think on that one awhile.

"Kill Bill"

Name: Quentin Tarantino
Nationality: American
Best known film: Pulp Fiction
My favorite: Pulp Fiction

Tarantino's quirks are the fodder for parody (countless scenes of characters discussing his favorite things, trashy B-movie homages, comedic violence), and it's easy to ignore the brilliance of his actual films.  What makes Tarantino brilliant is that he resurrects genres that nobody considers respectable, yet sees through the trappings to the humanity beneath.  On one level they are homages, but they are real honest to god films, not parodies.  Consider how "Kill Bill" frustrated audiences by not climaxing with an all out action setpiece, but rather an extended dialogue between The Bride and Bill coming to terms with the fatal wound in their relationship?  Of course QT delivered fountains of blood and body parts along the way, and we're all grateful for that.

"There Will Be Blood"
Name: Paul Thomas Anderson
Nationality: American
Best known film: "Boogie Nights"
My favorite: "Punch-Drunk Love"

Every inch of a Paul Thomas Anderson film is just dripping with enthusiasm, as if every scene of every movie he makes must be THE GREATEST SCENE EVER.  Some call it pretentious, I call it fun.  When "Boogie Nights" was a hit, the studio gave it's young director a blank check to make whatever movie he wanted.  The result was "Magnolia", a film that wears its flaws proudly, and dazzles for three hours with scenery chewing performances from its entire cast.  Since then, Anderson's films have become what is essentially "cinema porn": movies for people who just love to watch movies.  "There Will Be Blood" had Daniel Day-Lewis being awesome, and one of the most joyful displays of "WHY THE FUCK NOT?" that has ever ended a movie.  But my favorite of Anderson's films is "Punch-Drunk Love", a romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler that is the opposite of how good that description makes it sound: it's perfect.