Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Erasure - Light at the End of the World

Yes, the boys in Erasure are still making music together, and not much has changed since their debut over 20 years ago. Although they’ve had a few sidesteps during the last few years of their prolific career (most notably last year’s acoustic Union Street project), their new CD finds them back in their comfort zone of upbeat synth pop that practically begs for listeners to report to the dance floor and maybe even sing along.

In the interest of disclosure: I haven't listened to an Erasure album since they actually made albums...on vinyl! I dropped out of active Erasure fandom around the time of the release of The Innocents back in 1988, so I was approaching this release purely from a nostalgia angle. I was completely satisfied with what I found, keeping the CD in heavy rotation for weeks instead of my expected one-time cursory spin.

Vince Clarke’s synth sounds really haven’t evolved much through the years, still sounding suspiciously like his earliest Speak and Spell days in Depeche Mode. There’s a strong sense that he’s still using much of the same dated equipment to construct his music, so anyone looking for musical innovation should move along. However, fans of his sound will be instantly at home with these uplifting tracks.

As for Andy Bell, his vocals sound as impressive as ever, although his lyrics sometimes come off as trite and underwhelming. Still, he wrings a good deal of emotion out of his words and contributes enough anthemic proclamations of adoration to keep dance floor denizens completely satisfied.

The new cd will be massively appealing to their hardcore fans and nostalgia junkies looking to reconnect with their childhood heroes. At this point, that’s really all anyone could ask for. They won’t be winning many new fans with this release, but they definitely won’t be losing any either.

Light at the End of the World is now available, check your local retailer for additional information. The CD comes in two versions: a standard version with 10 tracks and a limited edition with an additional two strong tracks, so by all means head for the limited version if at all possible. Erasure is also on tour in North America throughout June as part of the True Colors tour (also featuring Cyndi Lauper and Debbie Harry among others) before beginning their own headlining worldwide tour in July.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Arthur and the Invisibles

What would happen if the high-octane director of violent action flicks like La Femme Nikita and The Professional decided to make a kiddie film? That’s about as crazy as the director of the Mad Max trilogy making a movie about dancing penguins, right? Oh, wait…

With Arthur and the Invisibles, action auteur Luc Besson turns his attention to entertainment for the younger set with mostly favorable results. Although the film was largely ignored at the box office during its brief theatrical run early this year, it now has a chance to find its audience with its release on DVD. It’s mostly CG-animation, but also has some live-action interludes such as its prolonged introduction.

Young Arthur (Freddie Highmore) is staying with his grandmother (Mia Farrow) on her bucolic farm when he stumbles across his absent grandfather’s notes regarding a race of tiny creatures living in their backyard. Grandpa disappeared long ago, leaving Grandma all alone with a looming bank foreclosure. Arthur learns that Grandpa might have located a fortune in rubies that would save the farm, so he sets out to follow Grandpa’s directions to recover the treasure and possibly Grandpa as well.

Conveniently, the treasure is somewhere in the secret world of the Minimoys, the tiny critters populating the farmland, so Arthur manages to find the hidden entrance to their world, causing his transformation into his CGI Minimoy body. The film is mostly CG from this point on, launching Arthur into a fantastic world beyond his imagination. He meets the Minimoys and becomes their hero when he’s able to pull their mystical sword from its stone (hmm…). He also meets a tough and cute Minimoy lass (Madonna) who accompanies him on his quest to recover the treasure and concurrently save the rest of the Minimoys from destruction at the hands of the evil local overlord (David Bowie).

The story doesn’t make much sense if any thought is directed at it, but viewers looking for a little escapism and harmless fantasy could do much worse than this effort. Besson’s CG world is stunning, with expertly-realized character models and breathtaking backgrounds that fully flesh out the fantasy. The Minimoys themselves look something like tough Troll dolls, while their evil enemies look like escapees from the Oddworld series of videogames. Besson’s flair for action keeps the story moving along briskly and invigorates the frequent action sequences, providing a consistently entertaining ride through the Minimoy world. The live action scenes suffer in comparison, as it’s a bit of a downer every time the attention is shifted from CG to live action, but thankfully Besson never belabors the live action to unbearable lengths.

The vocal cast assembled for the English version boasts a formidable list of legends from the music and film worlds. It’s hard to imagine any other project aside from a Live Aid show where viewers might find Madonna, David Bowie, and Snoop Dogg on the same bill. Also, for mafia film fans, Besson somehow nabbed Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, and Chazz Palminteri to lend their muscle. Everyone contributes solid vocal work, although the pairing of Madonna and Highmore as romantic interests is a bit disconcerting even in a virtual world. The live-action cast isn’t nearly as impressive, but gets serviceable performances from young master Highmore and Farrow in the principal roles.

The DVD is short on extra features, providing a couple of music videos associated with the film but little else. Arthur and the Invisibles is now available everywhere, check your local retailer for additional information.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007


A battered wife at wit’s end approaches her sleeping husband and torches his bed, ending his life. Sounds remarkably like the Farrah Fawcett tv movie, The Burning Bed, but Provoked is a new theatrical film based on real events that occurred in an Indian household in England.

In 1984, Kiranjit Ahluwalia was sentenced to life in prison for the death of her abusive husband, sparking an outrage that led to a precedent-setting appeal of her case. Kiranjit was a timid and traditional Punjabi woman who suffered her husband’s physical and mental abuse for ten years before finally finding the strength to strike back against him. Even when pushed to the edge, she didn’t intend to kill her husband, instead planning only to burn his feet so he wouldn’t be able to chase her. His accidental death brought about her incarceration and eventual life sentence, throwing her into a frightening women’s prison but paradoxically providing her with a long-overdue sense of peace and freedom.

Since the film opens with the burning bed, her husband’s reign of abuse is only shown in brief flashbacks throughout the film. As the husband, Naveen Andrews (Sayid from Lost) provides a suitably terrifying but one-dimensional performance, glowering throughout his limited screen time. Once Kiranjit moves to prison, she’s befriended by her cellmate (a woefully under-utilized Miranda Richardson) and aided by her legal team (Rebecca Pidgeon and Robbie Coltrane), building a support network she never had during married life. It’s during her prison sentence that she finally finds a sense of her own independence and value, providing her with a very unconventional character arc.

Kiranjit is portrayed by luminous Bollywood queen Aishwarya Rai, playing against type for this decidedly unglamorous role. She spends most of the film weeping and cowering without any makeup or fancy wardrobe until she begins to emerge from her shell during her rebirth in the prison system. Gladly, a couple of the flashback scenes with her husband allow her to return to her former Miss Universe glory, providing viewers with an intoxicating look at her stunning full potential. Her acting chops hold up just fine through the limited emotional range she’s tasked with here, but it’s still distracting to try to accept her as a plain jane.

The film has a powerful story and a fine cast, but suffers from a completely pedestrian production that feels more like a Lifetime movie from India than a major motion picture. The directing is entirely flat, keeping the audience at arm’s length from the cast rather than capturing any true emotion to tug on our heart strings. The editing and soundtrack are also around the quality of a Bollywood b-movie, providing some jarring transitions that do no favors to the overall flow. At its core, it’s a Bollywood drama transplanted to the heart of London, but at least it conforms to Western feature length conventions to tell the story in less than two hours.

Provoked opens in limited release in NY and LA on May 11th before expanding to wider release on May 18th. Check the film’s website for additional information.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Breaking and Entering

Director Anthony Minghella rose to prominence with a trio of literary adaptations (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain) but returns to his own original material for Breaking and Entering. He borrowed his acting leads from his past works, relying on regular collaborator Jude Law and returning star Juliette Binoche, then added Robin Wright Penn to form a potent thespian trinity. He set the film in modern London and constructed a tale of literal and figurative theft relying on nuanced performances. On paper, it seems like this film should be a sure-fire winner, at least for the Oscar-minded crowd, so it's surprising that Minghella’s original script fails to ignite.

Will Francis (Law) is a successful architect in the midst of opening a sprawling new office with his business partner Sandy (Martin Freeman) in the crime-ridden King’s Cross area of London. Unfortunately, all of the shiny new Macs and monitors are an irresistible draw for the area crooks, leading to two back-to-back break-ins that leave the partners shell-shocked and deservedly jumpy about security. Will decides to stake out the office at night, setting up patrol outside in his car that yields results when he observes the athletic young thief (Rafi Gavron) trying to break in again. His pursuit of the thief leads him to the thief’s home, where he eventually spots the kid’s somewhat frumpy mother Amira (Binoche). And here’s the exact point where the movie throws all credibility out the window.

Any sane character would immediately contact the police and have the thief apprehended, but Will is curious about his background and decides to try to learn more about him and his mother instead. Keep in mind that he’s a wealthy architect in a completely different social stratosphere with a lovely wife (Penn) and daughter waiting at home. Upon discovering that Amira works as a tailor, he approaches her with some garments to mend as a pretense to explore the boy’s room. Amira is a timid Bosnian refugee, while Will is flashy and cosmopolitan (not much of a stretch for Law), but he finds himself drawn to her and eventually enters a torrid affair. Sure, he’s having significant marital problems at home, but his preference of the dowdy and stoic peasant Amira over his classy wife Liv nevers comes close to ringing true, leaving the film’s emotional core completely bankrupt.

There’s more foolishness regarding the boy’s eventual apprehension and the far-fetched joint efforts of Amira, Will and Liv to free him, but it’s all going through the motions by then since the film has long since lost any chance of redemption. Somehow, a film about infidelity, the plight of refugees, and even parkour urban acrobatics seemed like fertile territory for Minghella’s tale of love lost and found, but he’s never able to produce a convincing reason for viewers to buy into the concept.

To its further detriment, the film downplays the looks of its attractive leads. Binoche is understandably plain, while Penn and Law both look so surprisingly haggard and tortured that they hold little appeal for even their most fervent fans. Law comes out of this travesty the best, although he fails to ignite even the slightest amount of chemistry with either of his co-stars.

Minghella surely intended to play the criminal break-ins against the emotional manipulations of his leads, asking the audience to ponder which were more morally reprehensible. Regrettably, he forgot to develop a compelling reason for viewers to care about any of his pathetic characters. The refugee aspect adds absolutely nothing to the plot since Minghella offers little commentary about their plight, serving more as a major distraction as viewers try to suspend their disbelief about Binoche portraying a destitute Bosnian. Even the thief’s parkour action scenes seem clumsily grafted onto what is an otherwise weighty drama.

Minghella's films have always seemed overly self-important, but at least in the past he had solid literary origins to fall back upon. Here he’s left to his own devices, sinking the production with his plodding, uninvolving, and completely unbelievable script.

The DVD release adds in six deleted scenes, as well as a commentary track by Minghella and a featurette on the making of the film. Breaking and Entering is now available, check your local retailer for additional information.

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