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Music

Massive Attack to reissue Mezzanine as DNA-infused spray paint, and Banksy is certainly not in the band why would you even ask

Our dystopian Black Mirror future is here, too soon. Should we be concerned that, not only is it now possible to encode digital files in DNA, but that it is also already so trivial that it can be commodified by the music industry as a deluxe collectible tchotchke? I’m calling this 2021 Pitchfork headline now: “Streaming revenues decline, as CRISPR releases soar”

Massive Attack‘s 1998 Trip hop masterpiece Mezzanine is an astonishing 20 years old this year. Dark, dense, and paranoid, it was not only a defining statement by the band but also arguably captured the international mood at the time. It’s one of those rare albums that still sounds ageless, and not for nothing are its tracks still to this day used in TV and movie soundtracks (in everything from The Matrix to House). Pitchfork lauded it with a 9.3/10 and explicated its significance well in this short documentary:

As is typical for landmark twentysomething albums beloved by aging music fans with more cash-at-hand than they had in the 90s, it is to be remastered and reissued as a luxe $100-ish triple-LP and art book edition, and slightly downmarket but still very cool double black CD. Because, you know, it’s dark. But there’s a twist:

In collaboration with Dr. Robert Grass of ETH Zurich / Turbobeads, a compressed MP3 version of the audio has been converted to DNA. No doubt audiophiles will be upset that this meticulously produced audio is presented in this lossy format, but hey, it’s only 2018, give the scientific community a little time before we can inject music straight into our brains.

But even this technical feat pales in comparison to the next plot twist: the DNA version of the album has been infused with paint, and will be sold in limited edition aerosol spray paint cans, each reportedly containing millions of copies. Here’s a fun glimpse of the dirty technical details from ETH Zürich:

Each of the ten vials contained between 11.8 and 21.8 micrograms of DNA (80 µl). 1 µl was taken from each vial, and diluted 1:10 with water. A first qPCR test was performed for each vial to test the amplifiability of the DNA. For this 1µl of the diluted DNA was mixed with 7 µl water, appropriate DNA primers (1 µl, 10 µM each), and 10 µl qPCR master-?mix. Due to the slight differences in initial DNA concentrations, and amplfication yield of the individual tubes, a second qPCR experiment was performed, in which varying amounts of DNA of every tube (0.5 µl – 2 µl) were individually amplified with the same primers and master mix, yielding a CT cycle of 10.1 +- 0.62.

ETH Zürich

Each individual canister will reportedly contain millions of copies of the album, which will cause headaches for the number crunchers responsible for the Billboard’s Digital Music Chart. But what if the digital info actually decodes as a low-kbps MP3 of a Massive Attack remix of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”? Let there now be no doubt that Robert “3D” Del Naja is definitely Banksy, as collaborator Goldie may have let slip last year. Or, perhaps, one of the collective that is Banksy.

via The A.V. Club

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4 Stars Movies

The Truman Show is a true gem

A true gem. I think Peter Weir’s The Truman Show is part of informal trilogy (with The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Man On the Moon) in which Jim Carrey found a way to channel his manic energy and rubber-face-pulling into dramatic roles, in films that were not only populist, but also critically acclaimed.

That said, there are a few scenes in which it’s clear Weir wasn’t able to rein in Carrey’s more outré compulsions. Many interesting supporting characters (Noah Emmerich as Truman’s lifelong ersatz pal, who nevertheless seems to have some genuine affection for him, and Laura Linney as a decidedly more professional actor just doing a job) simply disappear from the film. It may not be perfect, but it builds to a very moving emotional wallop at the end.

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4 Stars Movies

The Time Has Come to Act: Stanley Tucci’s The Impostors

I’m not blind to its shortcomings, but The Impostors is one of my most favorite movie comfort foods. That I find it so funny and purely enjoyable is really saying something, considering its milieu is the joblessness, desperation, and looming international conflict of The Great Depression.

The pitch: a loving homage to old-school Hollywood screwball comedies, with an all-star cast of 90s New York City indie personalities. It has the feel of a filmed stage play (like Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off) crossed with the loosey-goosey, making-it-up-as-they-go-along feel of a Marks Brothers or Laurel & Hardy romp. The stagey production values become a virtue as the same few sets are redressed over and over to amusing effect. Finally, the entire soundstage-bound facade is unveiled during a celebratory dance number that breaks the fourth wall. The Impostors is a refreshingly affectionate pastiche, and not satiric or ironic in the least.

Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt in The Impostors
“To life… and its many deaths.”

The freewheeling farce is above all a love letter to the craft of acting. Arthur (Stanley Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are two perpetually out-of-work actors so enamored of their chosen profession that they will not consider pursuing any other line of work even when faced with starvation. Their daily routine consists of staging acting exercises for themselves in public, duping passersby into serving as their participatory audience, like a prototype for the modern-day pranksters Improv Everywhere.

An escalating series of misadventures finally delivers them into a scenario in which their acting skills for once become useful: the opportunity to portray fabulously rich cruise ship passengers, to save the day, and of course to die magnificently heartbreaking deaths while doing so. What Arthur and Maurice yearn for, even more than to eat, is the opportunity to die in front of an audience. Not for nothing is their toast “To life… and its many deaths.”

It’s worth noting that most of the legitimate passengers are anything but; most have either lost fortunes during the Depression, are conspiring to steal new ones, or plot to wreak terrorist havoc in the name of fascism. Almost everyone’s an impostor.

Lily Taylor and Campbell Scott in The Impostors
“The danger of the chase has made you perspire. It has made me also… moist.”

Tucci’s paean to acting attracted an ensemble cast to die for, including a dream team of 1990s indie superstars including Lily Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub, Alison Janney, Alfred Molina, Richard Jenkins, and Campbell Scott (who shamelessly steals and runs away with the movie with a sublimely odd character that answers the unasked question: what if Marvin the Martian were a lovestruck Nazi?). And there’s still room in the souffle for wildcards like a pre-Lost Michael Emmerson, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, and a cameo by a manic Woody Allen in a superfluous skit that could easily have been cut.

The Impostors apparently landed with a bit of a thud after the critical and commercial success of Tucci and Scott’s justly acclaimed Big Night (which I also love, not least for containing cinema’s all-time greatest omelette-making scene).

Categories
4 Stars Movies

Into the never-ending night of Alex Proyas’ Dark City

I recall Dark City being one of my favorite films of 1998, and I would have rated it quite highly had I been keeping score at the time. It is a bold science fiction film noir most obviously indebted to Blade Runner, but also to favorites Brazil (especially the sequences of buildings sprouting up out of the ground), Metropolis, M, and City of Lost Children. In each of these, a protagonist survives in a hostile, often nameless dystopian city, often with the suspicion that his depressing existence is somehow not real. Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer’s screenplay explores the same flavor of paranoid schizophrenia that also figures in the literature of Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick.

Dark City was overshadowed at the box office by Titanic — as was everything else released at the time, to be honest — but like its later oddball distant cousin Donnie Darko, its extended lifecycle included becoming a cult hit on DVD. In the meantime, director Alex Proyas further raised his bankability with later commercial success I, Robot. So for Dark City‘s tenth anniversary, New Line Cinema financed Proyas’ completion of a Director’s Cut for a special edition DVD.

Proyas describes his Director’s Cut as “more complete,” and blames the audience testing process for New Line Cinema pressuring him to add an explanatory voiceover. As he put it, the process undermined his confidence as a filmmaker and thus compromised the film. As was the case with the 2007 reissue of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Proyas has now removed the opening narration, spit-polished the special effects, and extended some scenes. Watching it for the first time since 1998, it all nevertheless seemed familiar to this blogger, who found it difficult to spot anything new from memory.

Rufus Sewell in Dark City
The worst loo in The City

DVD bonus features are dryly referred to by movie studio home entertainment executives as “value-added content.” Repurposed electronic press kits typically feature filmmakers congratulating themselves on how wonderful a film they’ve made and how brilliant all their colleagues were. In contrast, the Dark City DVD squeezes in an interesting and fairly candid feature-length documentary on the making of the film and its impact upon numerous philosophers and film critics. No less a marquee booster than St. Roger Ebert praises the film and contributes an entire commentary track. Ebert has long championed the film, even including it among his series of Great Movies. Among other excellent insights, he points out it predated the similarly-themed The Matrix by over a year.

Jennifer Connelly in Dark City
Happy Birthday, Mr. Murdoch

The filmmakers relate their amusing struggles with the MPAA. Shown a relatively inoffensive cut of the film, they nevertheless wanted to give it an “R” rating, the best rationale they could give being its overall weirdness. So, faced with receiving an R no matter what, the filmmakers actually decided to add more nudity and violence. But there is still no profanity in this antiseptic universe. Dark City is a film noir of the sort where even hookers say things like “Aw, shoot.”

Of the cast, only Rufus Sewell participates in the documentary. He’s nothing like I would have expected; actually kind of goofy and animated, in direct contrast to his moody seriousness in the role. Kiefer Sutherland overeggs his performance with a limp, facial deformity, and speech defect. His character is a remorseful collaborator that turns on his masters, interesting enough without all the actorly accouterments. A striking shot of Jennifer Connelly standing on the end of a pier matches my memory of a similar shot in Requiem for a Dream.

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