Back to the Future: “Prometheus” and the reclaimation of a genre

After a 30 year absence from the science fiction film scene, Ridley Scott circles back to the genre that made him a household name…

2012 is quickly shaping up to be a promising year for the Hollywood blockbuster: Christopher Nolan is already teasing American audiences with six minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, Peter Jackson has every geek wetting himself over The Hobbit, and Joss Whedon is pushing The Avengers harder than your local housing-development scumbag pushes crack cocaine. Yet as exciting as all this may seem, none of it really holds much of a kick: we already know Knight is going to be a knockout and a critical darling, while I’m sure The Hobbit‘s overindulgence with CGI will have every nerd practically bawling over how “amazing” it all looks… and The Avengers? Well, it’ll make a sh*t-load of money, so who honestly cares what it brings to the table? The truth of the matter is that despite the promise, I’m not all that psyched merely because the promises made are not ambitious enough to not be kept. Hollywood’s abandoned risks and it’s a shame.

Yes, Chris... we already know this is going to be awesome...

And yet, from the darkest corner of late-career mediocrity, a challenger appears in the least likely of places: a future courtesy of an iconic past. After abandoning the science fiction genre after 1982’s seminal sci-fi/noir Blade Runner, Ridley Scott took up a number of forgettable thrillers and epics that earned him respect as a capable director, but a reputation for playing it relatively safe considering his ambitious beginnings with genre-defining pieces like Alien. Regardless of how skilled Scott was at conveying action and entertainment on mass levels, his art was never quite as exciting without the wonderment of an fully imagined setting providing an engaging backdrop for his blockbusters. That’s why, in my opinion, the news of his return to the genre that made him with the forthcoming Prometheus warrants the most excitement out of any large-scale industry project next year.

Already drooling over this trailer after 5 seconds...

Part of the genius behind Prometheus is the hype its managed to generate. Is it a prequel to Alien? Can we expect the creepy, atmospheric flourishes that made Scott’s other sci-fi ventures as effective as they were? Will it have enough explosions to keep an audience reared on the Transformers movies interested in its apparently heavy-handed plot? Judging by the incredible trailer I posted above, the answer, thankfully, seems to be a resounding “yes”.

Looks familiar.

The “DNA” of Alien Scott has been hinting at for the past couple months is immediately apparent in both the tone the film appears to take AND the presence of very familiar narrative facets present in the 1979 precursor (the derelict ship, space jockey “gun chair”, and Giger-esque “spine halls”). A schooled fan-boy might even find himself keen enough to catch a glimpse of a distinctive “Weyland-Yutani” logo on the crew members’ space caps in the trailer (particularly on Noomi Repace’s before she’s flung spectacularly by some sort of gale-force space wind). The trailer itself is commendably edited: the title-introduction a noticeable salute to the classic Alien trailer, and the expert pacing capturing contemporary trends in Inception-ized attention-grabbing without sacrificing tasteful shots of vistas and breathtaking color for hyper-stylization.

"Dark of the Moon" my f*cking a$$...

Beyond what I could see, Prometheus is also shaping up to be a very well written movie as well, a quality irritatingly absent in the genre as of late. Damon Lindelof’s presence always seems to do the trick when it comes to effective myth-making, so I had little doubt the magnitude of a story that spans from mankind’s creation through well into our future would be handled with aptitude and grace. The well-balanced cast also seems an effective draw, offering two conflicting female protagonists, a wide array of talented ensemble crew-members, and Michael Fassbender playing an android in existential crisis (sign me the f*ck up).

The great Derelict hope.

With merely a handful of screen-caps and a minute-long trailer to back its cause, Prometheus has already left me convinced it will be the knock-out stunner of 2012. Ridley: welcome back, man. It’s been way too long.

Pitchfork and the Death of Telling It Like It Is…

Online indieculture mecca Pitchfork has decidedly expanded its focuses past mere music news and reviews, but with so much of it built around viewpoints of a jaded generation, is this turn really a good thing?

Like so many of the “hip” interweb-idlers of my *ahem* digital generation, Pitchfork (or Pitchfork Media for all you “cool dads [or moms]” present at its mid-2k heyday) has been my go-to site for all things cool this side of an Altamont-sponsored LA showplace since I was a 16 year old wannabe undergrounder. The reasons for my continued loyalty lie in their musical tastes: the glorification of the late 80’s noise rock scene, a soft-spot for D.I.Y punk, and general openness for anything willing to take sonic risks for an evolution in sound and style. For the past two or three years, however, it seems like Pitchfork’s original aims at serving niche audiences have shifted irritatingly toward (dare I even say it… I can practically hear the backlash) trend-setting.

Somewhere between 2009 and 2010, the site started focusing less on music and more on specified scenes, particularly those with mass appeal. One of the main draws, for me at least, had always been Pitchfork’s expansive tastes and relative blindness to music I heard blaring from the ear-buds of my popped-collar, polo-and-Timberland-clad New England high school peers. And yet, almost out of nowhere, Lil Wayne was earning high marks for “well-placed” nasally cackles and an affinity for copious amounts of dank. Vampire Weekend, as contrived a concept band as there’s ever effing been (worshiping Wes Anderson shouldn’t constitute inconceivable amounts of creativity), had the site gushing more ham than a Gap ad running between TRL segments on MTV. By the time Kanye earned his 10.0, I’d come to the overdue conclusion that Pitchfork had decided that the underground was not enough: the idea of the “niche” was slowly evaporating, and soon everything was encompassed by the mere labels of “cool” versus “rated under 6.0”.

Knowing the pop-hungry world (or at least those with their parents money ready to spend on American Apparel) was eating from its digital palm, the staff at Pitchfork set its sights increasingly less on music analyzation and more on scene-making and culture-defining. Pretty soon, everything earning marks higher than 7.0’s were regulated to all of about four places (NY, Chicago, LA, and France) and P4k hardly bothered with anyone who hadn’t made it onto Levi’s “Fader Fort” yet… for all intents and purposes, the site chiseled an “In Memorium” on the underground’s tombstone and became a TMZ for anyone with an avante-garde hairdo and a preoccupation with bleepy-bloops. It was only a matter of time before music as a whole took a backseat to an ever expanding number of “Features” and articles aimed at intellectualizing the growing cult of faux-Brooklyners lined up for the proverbial Cool-Aid (ironic pun intended, geniuses…).

So BLEEPING cool (Neon Indian and the advent of “chillwave”)

I guess I’ve failed to appreciate these brazen attempts at cultural analysis, if that’s what you can even call them. Reading through the “Kill Screen” (Pitchfork’s unwarranted exploration into the cultural connotations the video-gaming movement) is literally akin to having physics professors write about film-making: what results is completely affect-diluted bullsh*t aimed at breaking down meanings where, quite honestly, there’s NOTHING to break-down to begin with. Let’s take, for example, a review (if you can even call it that) of LA Noire they did a couple months back: where Kirk Hamilton could have focused (noticed my suggestive use of bold there, if you can) on the advantages of semi-linear storytelling as opposed to recent trends against narrative driven gameplay, he chose to dedicate his article to his in-game abandonment of the narrative all together. Considering that LA Noire is a game based entirely on contextual interactions within the confines of the storyline (as the player is literally unable to engage in the game-world in meaningful ways outside of mission-based objectives), his seven-paragraph description of literally running around the digital LA city-scape aimlessly seemed as pointless as his critiques of the constraints the game put upon him to begin with. Instead of summing up his frustrations with the game for refusing to offer him all the facets of real-life freedoms concisely, he chose to meanderingly critique artful direction and a dedication to storytelling simply because it failed to grace him with the option to play pool with the main character’s deadbeat cousin.

Story apparently isn’t equitable to free-roaming rampages with a Russian immigrant…

Pitchfork’s further “analytical” explorations into online sensationalism with its “Resonant Frequency”-series strikes me as blatantly hypocritical. In its most recent piece, “Taking Pictures of Taking Pictures“, the segment eludes to trends of pop-culture recycling on the internet leading to the creation of buzz-tastic acts like (one of my personal favs) Dirty Beaches and (*shudder*) Lara- I mean, Lana “Angelina Jolie-Wannabe” Del Rey. As writer Mark Richardson points fingers at the Tumblr-ization of popular culture as a regurgitation of faux-art forms (ala “the scene that celebrates itself”), he fails to note that Pitchfork itself has become a textbook example of such unabashed trend-setting. In case he forgot, the only reason why 12 year old Tumblr-addicts post the song “Video Games” on their “blogs” is because Pitchfork posted it on their “Best New Tracks” months ago. If everything works in cycles, isn’t Pitchfork just as guilty of pop-art vomming than these alt-tweens are? As far as I can tell, pop-culture in general seems to operate along the lines of constant recycling anyways: so if “cultural evolution” is a loop, call me crazy but I consider myself an entirely new species.

Rest in Peace, my peers.

♫ I’m dreaming of a black Christmas ♫

A nightmare before X-Mas...

A review of David Fincher’s new adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

As solidly talented as David Fincher is, I’d be lying if I told you I walked into his recent adaptation of the Swedish pop-phenom The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo this past Tuesday confident in his ability to deliver a stunning piece of cinema out of what has proven an easily exhaustible franchise. In all honesty, the Swedish-produced films that preceded it were shoddily realized, eschewing atmosphere for a by-the-books approach to style, tonality, and execution. Sure, Noomi Repace had looked the part of Lisbeth Salander, so fascinatingly alien-looking in punk regalia it teetered on an appropriate level of creep-tastic eroticism, but the film itself was bereft of the energy necessary to properly convey the malice behind the narrative and characters. So when I heard Fincher had taken the film up as his next project following last year’s absolutely terrific The Social Network, I felt compelled to approach it with at least a little trepidation.

Despite his being an ever innovative stalwart of the industry, Fincher hasn’t been entirely without missteps in the past (Panic Room was little more than a fluff piece while the underrated Zodiac lost momentum by its third act and failed to regain much needed steam) and judging from the earliest glimpses I gleaned off Girl‘s tasteful (if flawed) teaser trailer, it seemed as though the languid pacing of the Swedish adaptation of Larsson’s novel was going to become a returning factor in the Americanized reconstruction. That, of course, is not to say the film didn’t have a lot working for it: the ensemble cast Fincher had put together was looking fantastic, along with Jeff Cronenweth’s appropriately stark photography and an already impressive soundtrack released early courtesy of Trent (“I wanna f*ck you like an animal”) Reznor and Atticus Ross. Still, I couldn’t quite wipe the stain of earlier attempts at a decent adaptation from my memory, and kept my fingers crossed the second time would be the charm.

Washing away my doubts.

Luckily, it was. Virtually superior to the Swedish adaptation in every way that matters, Fincher’s Girl oozes with atmosphere and personality, practically seeping with attitude and gloom. One of the saving graces of the newer film is the accomplished aforementioned cast: unlike Repace’s purely aesthetic take on the Salander character of the 2009 film, Rooney Mara plays the part with ample edginess and abandon curiously absent in the previous outings. Along with Mara, Daniel Craig’s Michael Blomkvist takes a far less, as one critic put it, “doughy” approach to physicality and masculinity than Michael Nyqvist had in the Swedish version. While the characters are basically unaltered on a narrative level, the distinctive attitudes each actor gives their roles in the Fincher film manages to speak to their given roles in the context of the encompassing investigation. Craig manages to convey an air of intellectuality in his manner of delving into the murder mystery, while Mara’s Lisbeth exemplifies a sort of fiery, nihilistic savantism Repace was only capable of pulling off in the looks-department. Needless to say, Fincher’s direction is nothing short of enthralling: every shot in meticulously framed, every cut deftly placed, and every spurt of brutal violence effectively gut-wrenching.

Something wicked comes his way...

That said, not everything in the film is executed without a hitch. The title sequence, digitally produced and cut to Karen O and Reznor’s cover of Zep’s “Immigrant Song”, is curiously reminiscent of a Bond flick, which both works for and against the film on a tonal level: while it adequately conveys the punk-leanings of the narrative at hand, it immediately sets itself apart from the overall pacing of the film… Casino Royale this is f*cking not. While the film captures an audience’s attention through an effective use of soundtracking and editing, the bulk of the story plays out over two and a half hours, and nearly 20 minutes prior to the actual finale of the film. Speaking of which, the finale, while understandably done in an attempt to flesh-out the underlying human aspects of Lisbeth’s broken nature and ability to love, feels a bit forced on Fincher’s part. Had I the sense that Fincher would follow Girl up with a sequel in the style of the Swedish films, I’d have less of an issue here, but given how it plays out more like an aside than an epilogue, I left the theater feeling a bit too jaded to appreciate Fincher’s “men are just a$$holes”-message. Regardless, however, at a grating three hour run-time, Girl still manages to pack quite the cinematic wallop. It offerins an often breathlessly paced murder mystery story and compelling characterization previously unrealized in earlier outings. For the “Feel bad movie of Christmas”, Fincher sure left me feeling pretty good about walking away from the multiplex $8 poorer than I’d been walking into it.

Records You May Have Missed (2k11 Edition)

Let’s be honest: 2011’s been a snooze-tastic year for recorded music.

Sure we’ve seen the resurgence of glorified house music in the guise of purple-plaided, skullet-rocking “Dubstep-ers” like Skrillex or the human Christmas Tree (aka DeadMau5), but it’s far from a good thing. Yes, there has been an overwhelming onslaught of post-The xx darkwavers like Twin Sister and Warpaint treading the ever-thinning waters of the popularized indie rock shoreline, but it feels like it’s made exclusively as backdrop music for an Urban Outfitters. Bon Iver is up for a Grammy (for “New Artist” nonetheless…) for what proved to be a horribly exhausted followup to his fantastic debut. Girls’ lackluster Father, Son, Holy Ghost is a critics’ darling for all the wrong reasons, sacrificing distinctive personality for throwback cliche. Talentless hip-pop, post-Gaga “shock-magnets” like Nicki Minaj are making the top 100 track list on Bitchfork. Hell, Atlas Sound put out the repetitive and sonically uninteresting Parallax, and even Panda Bear dropped the ball with Tomboy. If anything, it seems the rise of the Hipster Runoff-coined “lamestream” is upon us in full force.

Indeed, even the some of the truly great albums of the year seemed a little on the low-key side. Perpetually chilled rockers like Real Estate managed to break popular ground, while soulful producers like James Blake made music fittingly played only when the lights are off. As traditionally raucous artists like Ty Segall toned it down a notch for their new releases, it became apparent that 2011 was a year of music on quaaludes, eschewing exciting forays into energetic experimentation for stripped-down songwriting.

That said, the year hasn’t been entirely without its fair-share of hidden gems. In an effort to give some of this year’s better albums some much needed visibility, here’s a list of five deserving pieces that may have missed your gaze (in very arbitrary order):

1. Dirty Beaches – Badlands

Pretty much the closest thing you’ll get to a David Lynch film on an auditory medium (the fore-mentioned filmmaker’s own musical attempts earlier this year included). Practically oozing with atmosphere and sonic density, the one-man act Dirty Beaches calls to mind stark, menacing landscapes with a minimalist approach to sampling. He uses haphazard guitar techniques rougher than most would be willing or able to pull off… and he does it with style to spare. Not to mention, it’s named after one of my favorite movies (nice going man!).

2. John Maus – We Must Become Pitiless Censors of Ourselves

Unabashedly brazen in his use of synthesized composition, performance energy, reverb, and chest pounding bravado, the ever (disarmingly) intellectual John Maus came out with a criminally overlooked love-letter to the 1980’s earlier this year. Ominous, sprawling, and often beautiful, the album caters to those with an appreciation for pop at its purest while offering a unique, eclectic sound that is unadulterated by the conventions found in most other records of a similar vein. Including tracks with names like “Cop Killer”, the album’s title alone carries stunningly ironic connotations when weighed next to the pop-friendly tunes Maus produces. One of the few truly chill (and chilling) albums of the year.

  • Download/Listen: “Believer” – John Maus

3. Mikal Cronin – Mikal Cronin

Scene contemporary and occasional collaborator with the aforementioned garage-rock stalwart Ty Segall, California rocker Mikal Cronin’s debut LP harks to familiar vibes while offering a refreshing surprise punch of pop genius that recalls everything from Beach Boys-era Brian Wilson to the harder-edges of the Beatles’ catalog. At a brisk 34 minutes, the album is over a bit quickly, but highlights Cronin’s strengths in effective songwriting: every song packs its own distinctive wallop without sacrificing a sense of pace or personality. A fantastic first taste of what is sure to be a recognizable face in the future.

4. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lenses Alien

Following up an impressive debut LP is never an easy task and yet this talented young indie rock outfit manged not only to evade the sophomore slump, but completely out-maneuver some of the more meandering pratfalls of their previous record as well. Where 2009’s Why There Are Mountains occasionally overindulged in its own sonic wanderings, Lenses Alien plays like a deftly constructed progressive-rock opus minus the cheese. Each song stands on its own as a fantastic composition and is awash in a multitude layers unheard since Billy Corgan had ginger hair. One of the best indie rock records I’ve heard in a long time, it’s a shame it went as unnoticed as it did.

5. Craig Wedren – Wand

After spending the majority of the 2k’s composing for film and TV, oft overlooked indie-rock deity Craig Wedren returns to songwriting styling that made him one of the most respected figures in the industry. Just as charismatic, obscure, and yet approachable as he was with Shudder to Think in the 90’s, Wedren made an LP that plays exactly as it should: with virile, unhindered energy completely at home in cleanly produced, flattering sound. The angular compositions seem to point to Wedren’s glory days while embellishing in Bowie-esque glam brought on by his time spent rubbing-shoulders with Hollywood’s indie appreciators (“slappin da’ bass”-extraordinaire Paul Rudd included). One of the best surprises of 2011.

Start

As arbitrary as they may seem, introductions are important, which is why I feel the need to begin with the beginning here. Sound/Off is designed as something along the lines of a venting station for me: a place to collect and vocalize the virtual maelstrom that makes up the more articulate facets of my poor brain. A journal, a manifesto, a portfolio, or just an exploration of things lost on the visible world, I hope this little endeavor into online-musings may prove a more *cough* versatile and encompassing outlet than the facilities of Twitter or (yes, I can see your eyes rolling…) Tumblr can offer me. So, to quote my badass bud Sam Jackson, “hold onto your butts”… it’s gonna be an interesting ride.