An Open Letter

As 8th-graders enter school this year, many, if not most, will have no first-hand knowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Thirteen years ago our country suffered an enormous blow, and its citizens took time to reflect on what it means to be an American, what it means to live in the “land of the free.” Our country rallied together in a way it had not since the boot-strap days of World War II. The years since the attack have been far from easy, as wars, politics, finance and culture have all been pushed and pulled on top of an already weary and wasted citizenship. But to the younger generation, they do not know a time before this climate. They do not know days before “Alert Levels”, intense TSA patdowns, and bloated talking heads on Fox News and MSNBC. Take a moment to recognize how short these 13 years seems to many of us, and how it must seem to them.

Now, let us take a moment to recognize how, not so many years ago, many “protected classes” were not so protected. Before you start to think that you, the majority, have the right to decide the legal merits and protection of a minority, let’s remember that you were probably recently the minority too, who had to have your rights protected and given merit.

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It was less than one-hundred years ago, on August 18th, 1920, that women were granted the right to vote. Less than one hundred years ago, you too ladies, were second-class citizens. Being taxed without being represented. Even after the right to vote, it took another 43 years until women were granted equality in the workplace. A year later, in 1964, President Johnson signed into law a bill that made sure you had equal representation in work, in government, in law, in health, in housing, in all matters of life, liberty and happiness. That was 50 years ago this year.

Your parents or grandparents knew a time before 1964, when a religious minority could be fired for no reason other than their creed. They knew a time when racial segregation was not only allowed, but desired and fought for. They knew a time when your age, or your pregnancy, or your heritage, could get you fired. And they knew a time, as short as 47 years ago, younger than Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Madonna, that marriage as you know it today was illegal.

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The definition of marriage, as it is being debated today, was similarly debated in 1967. Forty-seven years ago, states still had on their books anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial marriage. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Whites, and others were not legally allowed to marry who they wished in the United States. It was, in fact, a felony to consummate an interracial marriage. And yes, people did go to prison for it. They also had marriage licenses denied, unequal protection under laws and were treated as second-class citizens simply because they loved someone of a different skin color. Thanks to the bravery of the courts, not the popularity of the people, all races were given the right to marry as they choose. It is hard to find people today who would still back this kind of oppression.

With those same glasses on, can we not see the same protection being granted today to alter the definition of marriage again? Why can two adults, who love each other, not be given equal protection under the law? If the opposition is based on your religious belief, our right to marry is protected from that religious belief according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If the opposition is based on the fact that it is a man or a woman marrying a man or a woman, our right to marry is protected from that gender discrimination according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There is no civil legal reason that two consenting adults cannot enter in to a contract, based on their age, race, religion, gender or ability. To deny that is to deny the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was passed in to Public Law 88-352 (78 Stat. 241).

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The same as your kids might not know a time before something as memorable as 9/11, you may not remember a time before something as memorable as “Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1” which allowed any race to marry. You may not remember 1919, when your mothers or great grandmothers, just like your gay brothers and sisters today, were being taxed without being represented. And you might not remember when your neighbors had marriage licenses denied, unequal protection under laws and were treated as second-class citizens simply because they loved someone of a different skin color. But you probably know someone who has had marriage licenses denied, unequal protection under laws and treated as second-class citizens simply because they loved someone of their gender, or the gender of their spouse. To ignore that, and carry on with fear or religious-based bigotry is to forget that you were probably once a legal minority too, and had to have your rights protected and given merit by courts and courageous people willing to stand up to an oppressive majority.

Once again, as a minority of American citizens who have been marginalized and tortured and murdered ask for the same civil legal protection as the majority, the rally effect needs to swell anew.  May we all, remembering what it means to live in the “land of the free,” be brave enough to stand up for the minority and show our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters that a new day can bring a change, one that forces the fears & threats of today into the shadows of yesterday.

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

Love. Life. Freedom. That is what every being longs for. The struggle to find all in one’s lifetime, that is the battle beyond each being, that binds years, generations and descendants together in a tight tapestry through time.  This is the story of Cloud Atlas, the film by Lana and Andy Wachowski & Tom Tykwer, adapted from David Mitchell‘s 2004 novel.  It’s several stories, actually, all interconnected and featuring the same actors in various roles throughout the time lines and across races and genders.  But the connections and conflicts all battle for the same goal, to find freedom, life and love.

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The official synopsis for Cloud Atlas describes the film as: “An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”  The interconnected stories are interwoven in the narrative, and can be quite confusing as the editing jumps between stories and time periods.  The mental gymnastics are done for greater emotional effect. You realize how one character’s actions in the past cause the reaction in the future, how we constantly face the same struggles and as Halle Berry‘s character states, “make the same mistakes over and over.”  The film is 164 minutes long, explores several themes and variations, but never bores and ultimately becomes a beautiful tale about the human experience.

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Cloud Atlas is amazingly ambitious.  The Wachowski’s were given a copy of the novel while filming V For Vendetta, by that film’s star, Natalie Portman.  The directors loved it, but the story was considered by many as unfilmable – the dense narrative and broken stories would be nearly impossible to translate to the big screen.  Tom Tyker joined the project, and financing was secured independently as the $140-million project frightened the conventional studios.  As the budget was spread across several investors, the film nearly stalled and died several times.  The Wachowski’s credit Tom Hanks as the driving force behind getting the crew, investors and other actors rolling in to production.  His commitment to the project shows through his roles, playing each of his characters with real strength, despite some weak accents.

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The film definitely has some problems, some that critics and audiences could not see past.  The makeup, in particular, was one horrible hurdle that was never quite reached. In many segments, the actors must play various roles with a variety of neoprene noses and questionable contact lenses, which makes them an object of distraction instead of a part of the order.  In addition, some segments of the story do not have the same emotional drive as the others.  But on the whole, I would rather watch an earnest, zealous attempt at something new in film over a safe, calculated collection attempt at a theater-goer’s pocket book. Any day. Any time. The high-reaching Cloud Atlas may not quite accomplish all that it attempts for all viewers, but it is still a beautiful, interesting, emotional, impressive, determined, soaring cinematic experience.  Because looking past “the same mistakes,” this is one film that really reaches for the stars to share its love, life and freedom with the world.

Metropolis – New Poster from Mondo

Mondo’s collective of artists have tackled Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis artwork for screenings in the past.  But Ken Taylor has produced an amazing, enormous piece of detailed drawings that is sleek, sexy and stunning.

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Metropolis is a sci-fi epic, a silent movie released in 1927 which created groundbreaking special effects and used new movie techniques never-before-seen in cinema.  An art house staple, the film is so gorgeous it deserves to be seen and re-seen – and deserving of quality artwork to promote and house the film.

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Ken Taylor is a Melbourne-based Illustrator & Designer, working primarily within the music industry and is predominantly well known for his striking rock posters. Ken started in Perth, Western Australia, doing posters and album artwork for local bands. In 2001 He moved to Melbourne and slowly started to create a name for himself within Melbourne’s music scene. In 2006 he went out on his own and started to work full time on music-based artwork.  His work for music can be seen on his site, and his many movie works for Mondo is truly outstanding.

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What exactly is Mondo, you say?  Mondo is the Alamo Drafthouse‘s collectible art boutique, featuring designs from world famous artists based on licenses for popular TV and Movie properties including Star WarsStar Trek & Universal Monsters. Championed for their limited edition screen printed posters, Mondo focuses on bringing art back to movie posters by working with artists such as Olly Moss, Tyler Stout, Martin Ansin, Ken Taylor and others. Besides creating stunning works for beloved classics and contemporary films, Mondo produces posters for featured Alamo Drafthouse events.  They have even recently ventured in to producing special edition vinyl & VHS for cult films, but that is a topic for another post.  Today, just glory in the beauty of Taylor’s work, Metropolis.

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Frank Ocean – Changing the ‘Channel’

Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean‘s debut album, “Channel Orange” uses its title to reference the neurological phenomenon grapheme–color synesthesia and the color he perceived during the summer he first fell in love.  When Ocean was 19 years old, he first fell in love with a man, and the record details the fall, longing, rejection, heartache and other characters and imagery to create the color perception of that summer.  Not much has been made of Ocean’s sexuality, which is outstanding since it should be essentially a non-issue as art is about the universal human experience.

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Ignoring caution about his sexuality, his past, and his bankability for his label, Def Jam, Ocean dove in to unconventional urban musical waters.  Sounds slip and slide around his songs, standard song structure only occasionally being employed in his compositions. The tracks flow more free-form than your average Hip Hop/R&B artist.  This sounds more like Soul music via Animal Collective.  His songs are carefully crafted compositions, the sounds surrounding the lyrics, the smooth shiny cover to the words within.  In an interview with the magazine, Rap-Up, Ocean said of his record, “It succinctly defines me as an artist for where I am right now and that was the aim. It’s about the stories. If I write 14 stories that I love, then the next step is to get the environment of music around it to best envelop the story and all kinds of sonic goodness.”

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Thinkin Bout You” is his biggest hit, and for a popular song is surprisingly minimalist.  Soft synths, a bass drum and digital rimshot are about the only backing to Ocean’s singing.  It’s the song that made people sit up and listen, as Ocean sang about that first love, the tornado of emotions and the joy/pain that comes with every moment.  In his “Bad Religion,” the lyrics are Ocean’s emotional confession to a taxi driver about a love affair on the down-low. With sweeping strings, bigger percussion and a blowout chorus by the end, it shows the similarity between religious devotion and romantic emotion.  The Motown-throwback, “Forrest Gump” uses the titular literary and film character to allude to a teenage crush, and is a clever tongue-in-cheek take in both music and words.  The centerpiece of the record, and the true gem of this album is the track, “Pyramids.”  The track is essentially two songs in one, the first half being a dancy funk song using the Egyptian/Biblical story of the fall of Cleopatra VII as a love song. But then the synths slow down, the harmonic elements shifting into a different take on the tune, the Cleopatra character now being a present-day working girl, who dances at a strip club called ‘The Pyramid’ to support her superficial, meretricious man.  The song is so catchy, so moving, and the instrumentation so polished, that it becomes one of those tracks that you never want to end.  The Pyramids fade out slowly, and becomes the pillar of the emotional record.

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Channel Orange appeared on numerous critics’ year-end top albums lists. It was named the best album of 2012 by The A.V. Club, Billboard, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Consequence of Sound, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, musicOMH, The Sydney Morning Herald, Now, Paste, PopMatters, Slant Magazine, Spin, The Washington Post, and Jon Pareles of The New York Times. The album was also ranked number two by Allmusic, Ann Powers, BBC, Complex, Exclaim!, Filter, Mojo, Pitchfork Media, and Rolling Stone, number three by Clash, Jim DeRogatis, NME, State, and Time, and number five by Uncut.  In his top-10 list for the Los Angeles Times, Lawrence K. Ho called it “the most magnetic record of the year” and wrote that it “feels like a work that as the years pass will only grow in stature.”  It was definitely one of my favorite records of 2012, it won the Grammy for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” and deserves some serious attention as an art piece.

Qua Baths & Spa – Las Vegas, NV

Qua Spa

The Las Vegas “Strip” takes on new meaning once you walk in to Caesar’s Palace and down the hall to enter their world-class spa, Qua.  As you head down the softly lit stone corridor, rain falls around you onto grass landings. Your casino callings are stripped away.  Your cash cares stripped bare.  You enter the warm, humid spa and strip off your clothes.  You slip briefly into a soft robe, until you strip that off as you slide in to the heated mineral pools in the Roman Baths.

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The Qua is designed and engineered to recall the Roman bathhouse idea, the communal place for bathing, pampering and primping.  A full spa menu is available, with massages, facials, mani’s and pedi’s, styling, and a number of other fantastic spa treatments.  Every treatment is first-class, and with a treatment you are invited to use the spa all day.  And you really could stay there all day.

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The Roman Baths area has a huge flowing infinity mineral pool, heated just right.  Bubbling with a calming airflow, built in lounge chairs invite you to relax and let the water drown your cares and stresses.  You can exit the pool and lay in the heated stone lounge chairs on either side, listening to the rain waterfall in the middle of the room.  Or you can go to the hot tub (caution: contents are HOT) or the cold pool for an invigorating plunge as a shock to your system.  Outside of the Roman Baths, the spa has another large hot tub, two steam rooms (one infused with Eucalyptus), one redwood sauna and my favorite the Arctic snow room.  With heated seats and walls, the room is cooled to 55-degrees, and foam snow falls from the ceiling while ice can be dispensed to cleanse pores opened from the tubs and saunas.

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The experience is unrivaled, with every detail carefully caressed.  The soft, spaced lighting. The warm stone. The water flowing throughout the spa. The crisply folded towels. The rainfall full-body showerheads.  The lounge chairs inviting rest and relaxation. The well-trained staff, who will prepare fresh loose-leaf teas or coffee in the lounge. The constantly cleaned halls.  The specifically-selected soundtrack.  The architecture and construction is beautiful, and even the walk down the calming hallways is therapeutic.  Every detail enhances the spa experience, and the Qua is one of the best, most unique and refreshing spas in the world.

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Upstream Color

Upstream Color

Another experimental film.  Another film more concerned with experience and emotion than with a driven narrative.  Don’t think there’s no story to Upstream Color, because there is – and it’s fascinating – but it’s so hidden and dissected that it takes some time to mentally reassemble.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that the film is written and directed by Shane Carruth, who directed the 2004 mind-blower, Primer.  And here, Carruth also serves as producer, actor, cinematographer, editor, composer, casting director, production designer and sound designer.  That level of auteurity is pretty staggering.

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The story might be a little dense to try and describe, so I will quote directly from the film’s Sundance Film Festival program guide: “Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.”  It is science fiction, and body horror, but to an astonishingly controlled degree.  It is a cerebral, emotional thriller, but with none of the flash-bang of recent mind-benders like Inception, District 9 or Looper.  Those are all essentially intelligent action sci-fi films, with conventional adventure set pieces, archetypes and set pieces.  Upstream Color has none of those.  Its conflict is so internal, the battle in body and brain, that with editing we can assume what is happening, but have zero assurances.

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That said, if you have the patience, this is a film to be experienced.  It is a beauty to view, and amazingly was shot on a “consumer-grade” camera, a Panasonic Lumix GH2, with Voigtlander and Rokinon lenses.  From The Hollywood Reporter, “the experience of watching the film… is highly visceral and sensuous; the images possess a crystalline clarity that is exquisite, and they’re dispersed in rapid rhythmic waves in a way that’s especially mesmerizing during this first section,” and  “Carruth’s is a cinema of impressions and technique, not overt meaning.”  The sound design and score is equally as impressive, carefully edited and toned to balance and brand the images.  As one character is composing music to the microscopic madness, we realize how bound is the brain to tone, timing and theory.

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As Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times said, “Color is somehow at once emotionally direct, while narratively abstract.”  It reminds of the intimacy of image of Terrence Malick, the internal horror of David Cronenberg and the philosophy of ‘reality’ of Béla Tarr.  With a little time, a little devotion, a lot of concentration and discussion once the film has finished, Upstream Color could become one of those movies you never fully understand and ultimately never forget.

Lana Del Rey – ‘Paradise’ Found

Lana Del Rey

I admit, I am late to the party. Late to jump on the bandwagon. Late to love the Lana.  Late to learn that Ms. Del Rey (AKA Lizzy Grant) is actually one of 2012’s top-selling artists.  But of late, I have also learned for all her sales and acclaim, a LOT of people have still never even heard of her.

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Until a few months ago, all I had heard of Lana Del Rey was an abysmal SNL performance.  How did I miss her debut album, “Born To Die,” which sold 3.6 million copies?  Or the even more impressive EP, “Paradise“?  I am not sure how these records slipped under my radar, but either way, I now got Lana firmly in my sights.  She has a new song featured on the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” and it has broken its way in to the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

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But what makes Lana great is not that she’s a chart or sales success. It’s that she does her own thing. Her sound, although it may be calculated and controlled, is thoroughly her own.  She wanted to create a gangsta Nancy Sinatra, a Britney Spears-meets Elvis-via-Janis Joplin persona and vibe.  And she sounds nothing like her peers, who have all sold out for the same old generic club crud that would have been laughed at a decade ago.  What Lana is creating is a cinematic, soulful sound which has an urban swing and suburban flings about love, lust and longing for something more.  Love her or hate her, there’s no denying that Lana is doing something different than all the other cut-and-paste record label cash cows, and a serious, solid listen to “Paradise” and “Born to Die” will prove it.

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Brian Eno – ‘Scape’ Artist

Brian Eno

Brian Eno beat me to it.  The man who has been innovating ambient music for five decades has released an interactive art piece.  Eno has actually been doing art and experimental sound pieces and features as exhibits for years. But this piece can be experienced by anyone. Anyone with a smartphone or tablet, that is.  Eno and musician and software designer Peter Chilvers have created ‘Scape‘ which is available on iTunes Apps and the Android Marketplace.

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Users can create their own ambient soundscapes by placing various elements, shapes, backgrounds, and color schemes in to the Scape field.  By moving, overlapping and experimenting with the elements, the sounds within the sound field will interact and change.  It is based on a looping, drone-like experience, and Eno has always been an amazing engineer when it comes to ambient music theory and sonic texturing.  The sounds and Scapes created are not melody heavy and are not designed to be a silly game like ‘Tap Tap Revenge,’ this is an ambitious interactive art piece for users who love ambient music and want to create their own collaboration with Brian Eno.

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Saving your Scapes, you can put on your headphones or hook it up to your sound system and listen like you would “Music For Airports” or “Apollo“. And adding to the awesomeness, Eno produced his own exclusive Scapes, which can be played like an Eno record, and are stunning.  You can create Playlists of your Scapes, and email them to other Scape users.  I hold out hope for updates which add new elements, but for an engaging and impressive intro in to ambient and minimalist music, Scape is in a field of its own.

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Elverson Farmhouse – Elverson, PA

Elverson Farmhouse

Outside of Elverson, Pennsylvania, there was an old farmhouse from the 18th Century settled among open fields and trees.  It was a stone home, just like so many scattered throughout the Keystone state.  Age crawling up its centuries-old cement, the home was chosen for an addition.  Karl Snyder, of Wyant Architecture was asked to build on a new, modern addition.  The addition was to include a new master suite and family room, while the original farmhouse would remain as the anchor, with the kitchen, offices and children’s rooms.  There is also a new patio, bridging the modern and the vintage.

From the press release on the house, Wylant says of the property, “The intimate scale and simple massing of an existing 18th century farmhouse and its outbuildings became informative elements in the design of this family room and master suite addition.  In contrast to the compartmentalized layout of the farmhouse, spaces in the addition are bright and expansive, with a strong physical and visual connection to the landscape.  The footprint of the addition acts as a threshold from a new entry to the site beyond, and functions with the existing house and adjacent guest cottage to capture space around a new patio.  Stone from adjacent fields was unearthed for the new construction, as it had been for the original house, and natural materials sympathetic to the existing house were used throughout.”

The sympathetic materials idea is easily seen throughout the construction, as rich woods and strong stone accent the modern build.  It is a beautiful bond between the old and new, bright and light, but bold and grounded.  While the addition does look new, it is so enveloped in the original style and materials, it does not look out of place.  It looks like a bridge, covering the space of nearly three centuries, and does so inviting everyone in to enter in.

Holy Motors

Holy Motors

A movie about movies is not new.  But Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” is not “Day For Night” or “The Last Picture Show.”  It is not a narrative melodrama highlighting the process of production or the struggles of the stars.  It is not about the movie within a movie.  It is about cinema. It is about role playing.  It is about acting, be it in art or the many faces we wear in our everyday lives.

Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) is driven in a white limo to various appointments throughout the day, transforming himself from beggar to motion-capture artist, to monster, to dying uncle and more. Acting each part as assigned, but never to a camera. Never to an audience. Never to a conclusion. Each part is brief and unexplained.  The why is never answered, the film only shows the how.  But even the how becomes unclear as Oscar escapes police, judgment and even death without an explanation.  The typical tools of cinema do not apply in “Holy Motors,” as the vignettes of Oscar’s scenes flip from horror to gangster to musical.  Archetypes are abandoned and the narrative a mosaic of fractured pieces, only realized days later after hours pondering the picture.

This type of film, which leaves you thoroughly entertained but thoughtfully perplexed, is extremely rare. The intellectual engagement it requires is part of the risk and reward of the viewer.  Casual viewers will hate it.  Committed cinephiles should love it.  And, most astonishing in our media-saturated society, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it.

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