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Tuesday, December 31st, 2013
11:42 am - Ballot to nowhere
I haven't been keeping up with LiveJournal but for a place to post some year-end stats and such, this will do until I get a real website up and running (is sportsalcohol.com still available??). I've voted in a few different best-movie polls and the lists below more or less reflect those votes, in various permutations, but now that the year is pretty much actually over, I thought I'd publish my final-until-I-catch-up-with-even-more-movies ballot with links to reviews from throughout the year and my many runners-up, because this really was an excellent year for film.

The Top Ten
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
Because this isn't the opera, jackass, it's a fucking basket house.
2. Frances Ha (review)
Because I'm not really doing it.
3. Gravity
Because "in space" is one of my favorite movie add-ons and this movie is pretty much all "in space."
4. The We and the I (review)
Because they buttered the floor.
5. Her (review)
Because we love our computers.
6. Stoker (review)
Because personally speaking I can't wait to watch life tear you apart.
7. The Great Gatsby (review)
Because Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.
8. The Bling Ring
Because I wanna rob.
9. Nebraska (review)
Because they really didn’t deserve you boys doing that to them.
10. Prince Avalanche (review)
Because I'm adhering to the equal-time boombox agreement.

The Next Ten
In many other years, these movies could've easily made my top ten list. 11-15 in particular could easily be shuffled into my ten depending on my mood or how recently I've seen them.

11. American Hustle
12. The Wolf of Wall Street
13. 12 Years a Slave (review)
14. Frozen (review)
15. Gimme the Loot
16. Drinking Buddies
17. The World's End
18. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
19. Short Term 12 (review)
20. Before Midnight

And Eleven More, Why Not?
I liked these eleven a lot, too. Not quite top-tier but strongly recommended:

Labor Day
Side Effects
The Place Beyond the Pines
This is the End
(review)
Prisoners (review)
The Spectacular Now
Trance
Enough Said
(review)
In a World
Star Trek Into Darkness
Iron Man 3


That's thirty-one movies I think you should watch! And if pressed I could probably name another ten or fifteen worth checking out (including some from both of the lists that follow).

Overpraised
Upstream Color (review)
Spring Breakers (review)
The Way Way Back (review)
World War Z (seriously, a lot of people gave this a pass for being not terrible; what the hell?)
Captain Phillips (review)
Blue is the Warmest Color

Undervalued
The Lone Ranger (review)
Afternoon Delight (review)
To the Wonder (review)
The To-Do List (review)

Somehow Both Overpaised and Undervalued, Depending On Who You Talk To
The Counselor

Nicest Surprise
The Wolverine being kind of awesome.

Biggest Bummer
A Good Day to Die Hard being kind of awful.

The Worst
I've heard eloquent arguments against doing worst-of lists, but look: I see a lot of movies which means I see a lot of bad movies, and there's something perversely enjoyable about cataloging those experiences, because there is something educational about them. Having a terrible time at these movies (well, OK, maybe I had some laughs with Paranoia) informed the great times I had at better movies.

1. Stuck in Love (review)
2. At Any Price (review)
3. Olympus Has Fallen (review)
4. Generation Um... (review)
5. Aftershock (review)
6. A Case of You (review)
7. Getaway
8. Paranoia (review)
9. Thanks for Sharing (review)
10. Girl Most Likely (review)

The Asterisk
Some movies I at least vaguely intended to see, but have not yet (I'll try not to lie too much about my intentions to see documentaries, which I generally do not see):
ACOD; August: Osage County; Black Nativity; Black Rock; Blackfish; The Brass Teapot; The Canyons; Dead Man Down; 42; A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III; The Grandmaster; Grudge Match; Hell Baby; The Kings of Summer; Like Someone in Love; The Lords of Salem; Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; Museum Hours; Philomena; The Purge; Room 237; The Sapphires; Salinger; Some Velvet Morning; Stories We Tell; Texas Chainsaw 3D; 21 and Over; V/H/S 2; Walking with Dinosaurs; The Wind Rises; Zero Charisma

That's it! At very least, March and April 2014 are lookin' FINE.

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Sunday, August 11th, 2013
12:30 pm - Mr. Mr.
Apparently I have only seen They Might Be Giants twice at Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park, including last night -- checking the wiki, it seems like the last time they played there, in 2009, they did a family show and I didn't go. Nonetheless, I still thought I'd seen them in Prospect Park a bunch of times, maybe because I've seen them in most other parks (Summerstage, Williamsburg Waterfront, the Hatch Shell in Boston) or because I've seen so many of my favorite bands in Prospect Park.

This show capped a nice run of outdoor concerts this summer, and the only one that was free rather than like sixy bucks. For a band I've now seen forty-six times, my lifetime They Might Be Giants concert expenditures are actually, probably remarkably low (frugal transportation: subways and bumming rides). My lifetime They MIght Be Giants t-shirt and shoelace expenditures? No comment.

I'm also slowly making sure I've seen They Might Be Giants with as many different people as possible; this time, Marisa and I were joined by Sara and Hailey from One Story, both at their first (!) TMBG show -- though naturally I ran into a couple of former co-workers because I run in nerdy circles. Hailey and Sara bore witness to a true TMBG show rarity: a fight almost breaking out right behidn them. Even the "almost" is surprising for this crowd; usually the nuisances are more like the super-awkward kid who kept calling out the song names as soon as he'd recognize them (and the nerdiest part of me understood this behavior, if not his extroverted version of it. It was annoying but I can't say I didn't identify with his trivia-ish song-intro recognition compulsion, especially with this group of songs).

Speaking of which, approximate setlist:

You're on Fire
Withered Hope
The Guitar
Nanobots
Damn Good Times
Icky
New York City
Ana Ng
When Will You Die
Black Ops
Cloisonne
The Mesopotamians
We Live in a Dump
Don't Let's Start
Istanbul
Lost My Mind
Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head
I'll Sink Manhattan
Call You Mom
Doctor Worm
Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal
---
123
Tesla
Mr. Me
Birdhouse in Your Soul

Flansburgh and/or Linnell have described their shows these days as being about one third new-record stuff, one third hits/favorites, and one third weirder/deeper cuts. I love TMBG so much that I can't always tell which is which in that equation -- I mean, I know which third-or-so of the set was from Nanobots but who's to say, really, whether "Damn Good Times" is a TMBG hit or just a song off The Spine that they really like to play? Embrace the mystery.

Song notes:

--I've probably mentioned this before, but on the bootleg compilation of TMBG television appearances from 1986 to 1996 that obviously I have on VHS, you can watch John and John perform their hit cover song "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" on a long parade of chat shows, music video shows (!), and promotional appearances, and trace the performances from normal TV appearance enthusiasm to, many appearances later, the fellas trying their damndest to keep themselves from getting bored with the song, which is to say goofing around and kind of fucking with it, hollering and stretching it out and distorting it. Now, after many years of doing "Istanbul" in differently elaborate full-band versions, they've returned to performing it as a duo and also as kind of a goof, which I (at the moment) vastly prefer. At one point, the lyrics about how you can't go back to Constantnople became an extended plea (Flansburgh: "Just once?" Linnell: "NO"). Wonderful.

--"Black Ops" off of Nanobots got a garage-rock-y makeover a la "Why Does the Sun Shine?" As a result, the song loses a lot of its creepy atmosphere (on the record, about half of it is stark and minimal; in the new live version, it's fast and noisy) -- but I love to hear songs reinterpreted so quickly and I'll never say no to a faster version of a song I like.

--Horns! "Birdhouse" and "The Guitar" and "Dr. Worm" are all great with horns. "Withered Hope" is good with horns but not as good as "Museum of Idiots" which they did not play. Also, considering how often these New York shows have horns, you'd think they could break out more John Henry jams.

--Flansburgh mentioned that when they played the Williamsburg Waterfront a few years ago, they were at the shooting site of their first music video, for "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head," but did not put that song in the setlist, which, by his reckoning, activated some manner of rock and roll curse, which is why us concertgoers at that event were drenched with rain for a solid hour (though it cleared up before TMBG started!). Anyway, as a sacrifice to the rock gods, they played "Puppet Head" at this show and it was great. Is it possible that I now like "Puppet Head" more than "Don't Let's Start"? It is indeed possible. I like to imagine that shifting preferences in TMBG songs indicate some level of maturity but I'm not sure if I could explain how or why that would actually be the case here. This may alone be cause for a new Best TMBG Songs list from me.

--OK, obviously "I'll Sink Manhattan" is a deep cut, and much appreciated.

Toward the end of the show, they announced that they're doing a Pink Album show at Terminal the same night the Dismemberment Plan is planning Boston this fall. CONFLICTED! Although: is that really just because I'd like to hear a full-band version of "Rhythm Section Want Ad"?

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Sunday, August 4th, 2013
11:50 pm - Bottles and cans
Tonight was my first time seeing Beck in concert in almost five years, and five years ago it was my first time in about six years. I don't see Beck all that often, in part because that would probably become prohibitively expensive, but I feel like I've witnessed a great variety of phases over my four previous Beck shows. In the late nineties, still touring Odelay, he was in full-on goofball-showman mode, playing all the greatest hits from that record and Mellow Gold. In 2002, we saw him with the Flaming Lips for Sea Change, and he was in reflective-folkie mode; in 2008, he was touring Modern Guilt and doing most of his songs in the garage-rock style of that record. So in a weird way, seeing Beck tonight, almost five years since his last record, before the allegedly upcoming release of two new albums, and in between a bunch of one-to-two-off projects, was the fullest and most varied I've seen him tackle in a single show. He didn't play songs off of every record (two of my favorites of his, '98's Mutations and '99's Midnite Vultures, were ignored entirely), but folkie Beck, weirdo Beck, straight-ahead rock-and-roll Beck, and epic showman Beck were all there together in Prospect Park. And they cooperated beautifully; it turns out a career-spanning Beck setlist is very well-paced. Observe (courtesy of Marisa):

Devil's Haircut
Black Tambourine
Soul of a Man
One Foot in the Grave
Tainted Love/Modern Guilt
Think I'm in Love
Gamma Ray
Loser
Hotwax
Que Onda Guero
Girl
Soldier Jane
Chemtrails
Golden Age
Lost Cause
Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime
Just Noise
Heaven's Ladder
Fourteen Rivers Fourteen Floods
Sissyneck/Bille Jean
---
E-Pro
Where It's At

Notes on these songs:

--Two of them, "Just Noise" and "Heaven's Ladder," are from his non-album Song Reader project. Just before we headed off for the concert, I was talking about how I didn't ever get Song Reader and wasn't really feeling it even though it's a neat idea. Then he played a couple of nice little songs off of it and now I kind of want to get it. Though it's still ridiculously overpriced.

--I always kind of forget about "E-Pro" but boy does it get over. It's hard to look up data on this sort of thing, but was that song a way bigger hit than I knew at the time? It came out after a time where I felt I was able to approximate/quantify a rock song's hit level.

--Beck's band isn't quite as garage-y sounding as on that Modern Guilt tour but it is more on the organic side than the noisy/sample-y/DJ side. But he made a couple of nods to his sample-heavy discography by playing a cover of "Tainted Love" into "Modern Guilt" (and "Modern Guilt" has a similar enough rhythm that I actually thought he was just playing "Modern Guilt" from the beginning) and inserting "Billie Jean" into "Sissyneck," which, as you might expect, fucking killed.

--He played "Girl" super-fast and near-punky.

--He didn't play "Ramshackle" (sorry Marie) or "Steve Threw Up" (sorry Jesse) or "Debra" (sorry Ted and also everyone who ever lived).

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Wednesday, July 31st, 2013
11:13 pm - Things are tough out there, high water everywhere
Here's how we got to Bridgeport [way back in July when I wrote most of this post]:

I've been looking for a summer show to see at SPAC up in my hometown for a few years now. When the Americanarama tour with Bob Dylan, Wilco, and My Morning Jacket was announced, it sounded ideal. But it's hitting Saratoga tonight, and Marisa and I are heading upstate on our way to the Thousand Islands this coming Friday. So: close to convenient, but in fact completely inconvenient. And then, while we're upstate, the tour hits the greater NYC area, with shows at Jones Beach and in Hoboken next weekend.

But: for some reason, the Bridgeport date wasn't in that cluster. It was a full week earlier. In a fit of jealousy that my mom and my sister and possibly Derrick and others would be able to see this show in the comfort of Saratoga, I bought tickets for the Bridgeport date.

At the time, they were for a ballpark. It seemed like an ideal summer evening: A festival, but not with too many bands; good acts but not so many that we couldn't take a break to get some food; outside but in a relatively controlled environment; outside of the city but not hard to reach in Marisa's car. But less than a week before the show, due to the neverending insane heat and endless empty promises of heat-breaking thunderstorms, it was moved next door to a standard-issue arena. Somewhat less summery, but somewhat less physically dangerous.

Something else I failed to consider in planning this 24-hour trip: I-95 sucks. "An hour away on I-95" is not really a thing, unless you are talking about a distance of 15 or 20 miles. We left the city before 2PM, but between traffic, stopping off to check in at the B&B where we were staying, got a tiny bit lost on the way to the arena, parked, and rolled up into the venue, we had missed the first two My Morning Jacket songs.

The show was also starting pretty early, even earlier than I anticipated, because MMJ and Wilco both played near-full sets of 75 minutes or so each, on top of which there was an opener-opener we missed entirely (sorry, Ryan Bingham), and Dylan's 100 minutes or so.

Here's what My Morning Jacket did:
Golden
Circuital
Heartbreakin' Man
The Way That He Sings
Masterplan (not a cover of the Oasis song)
Slow Slow Tune
Victory Dance
Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Pt. 1
Wordless Chorus
Butch Cassidy
Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Pt. 2
Anytime
Gideon

I'd like to say that I didn't know all of the songs because I don't have their full catalog, but really, I could've known the majority if I listened to Z more. Z was the first in a long line of attempts I've made to like My Morning Jacket, and it finally succeeded somewhere between Evil Urges (which has some awesome songs in addition to some songs like "Highly Suspicious" which probably set me back a few months at a time) and Circuital, which I belatedly picked up after getting tickets to this show. You see, it wasn't so much that Wilco, My Morning Jacket, and Dylan together represented a powerhouse of music acts I love, the way it does for Derrick. I was just excited -- after seeing Dylan shows with openers like Mark Knopfler, Phil Lesh, and, most productively, no one -- to see him paired with more current bands.

Anyway, I didn't know all of the My Morning Jacket songs and I missed "Circuital" which is one of my favorites, but I receognized a lot of them, and they are obviously a talented band. I'd see them with other bands I like some other time. Marisa wondered if this was a Walkmen situation, where we'd have to go again to wind up hearing all of the really good songs. Maybe if they keep their following going, we can see My Morning Jacket at SPAC some other time. Or at the Hollywood Bowl, maybe? Or at Red Rocks? I think I'd like to go to Red Rocks, should I ever find myself in Colorado. Yes, there are many venues that I'm unlikely to be anywhere near where I'd consider seeing My Morning Jacket again. Even if I never make it out to those places, we'll always have Connecticut, MMJ.

Then we went to get some hotdogs and sit down for the first chunk of Wilco.

(Was I) In Your Dreams
When the Roses Bloom Again
Misunderstood
Forget the Flowers
Handshake Drugs
Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
One Wing
Impossible Germany
Waterloo Sunset (Kinks cover!)
California Stars
Born Alone
Radio Cure
Art of Almost
Heavy Metal Drummer
I'm the Man Who Loves You

I actually have even more Wilco albums than My Morning Jacket albums. I just don't like them all that much, try as I might, and to the extent that I do enjoy them, I think I prefer their earlier, country-rockier type stuff, or at least "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" is my favorite song of theirs ever. Which they did not play. They did play "Waterloo Sunset" and they generally sound a little heavier and more muscular in concert than they do on the records I've heard. Wilco is fine. Jeff Tweedy seems like a good dude. I'm glad I can cross them off the list. They're just not my thing. Toward the end of the set we went back to the floor (though we were there a few hours after doors, we were apparently among the first 2,000 people to try to get on the floor and get awarded a wristband -- because the ballpark show was GA, the arena version had to be GA too, and because this was also a Bob Dylan concert, a lot of people who got there early apparently did so to claim good seats rather than get on the floor -- understandably) to inch closer so we could move up when the post-Wilco exodus happened.

And it did, and we got pretty close -- not crazy close, but probably closer to the stage than I'd ever been for a Dylan show before. Close enough to deal with some mangy crowd issues, whether that's due to a big arena show in the de facto suburbs or the hippie-friendly line-up or what. But there's a particular type of dude at a show who just doesn't go to many of the shows I go to, and that is the dude who repeatedly addresses Bob Dylan as "BOBBYYYYY!!!" from the crowd, asking him to play guitar or play a certain song or keep rocking or whatever, because if there's one thing a seventysomething-year-old who's been gigging for five decades is apt to do, it's listen closely at what a yutz in the audience is yelling at him.

Anyway, setlist!

Things Have Changed
Love Sick
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Soon After Midnight
Early Roman Kings
Tangled Up in Blue
Duquesne Whistle
She Belongs to Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
Blind Willie McTell
Simple Twist of Fate
Thunder on the Mountain
Let Your Light Shine on Me (with Jim James and Jeff Tweedy)
All Along the Watchtower
---
Blowin' in the Wind


Strangely, my impression during the show was that this was a good set -- technically, with the origins of "Blind Willie McTell" dated to the early eighties even though it wasn't released until one of the Bootleg Series collections much later, hitting every decade of Dylan's career -- that could've been changed up a bit from the shows I saw last year and in 2010. Upon further research (say what you will about the somewhat corporate veneer of BobDylan.com, advertising products and assorted merchandise, I love that you can look up setlists going back for years and years), I discovered that this was not true -- this set was about fifty percent different from last time, seventy-five percent different from the Terminal 5 show. So, shows what I know. I guess there are enough almost-always-played songs in circulation ("All Along the Watchtower," "Thunder on the Mountain," "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," "Things Have Changed," "Tangled Up in Blue") that it's easy to pass over the part where I say: hold up, I don't know if I've ever actually heard "Simple Twist of Fate" or "She Belongs to Me," at least not recently.

So yeah, I got to hear two songs from Blood on the Tracks and a nice selection of his recent work plus some sixties classics. And three from Tempest, which is probably a record for me seeing him do songs off his actual most recent album at the time of the show. I think I'm done with Bob Dylan shows for the forseeable future just because I've seen him a fair number of times this decade so far, but I'm sure I'll be tempted again. With this show, he becomes the only classic-rock type act to make it onto my most-seen-artists list. Go Bob!

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Friday, July 12th, 2013
8:18 am - Make me dance, I want to surrender
I first saw Belle and Sebastian just five weeks or so shy of ten years ago, in the August of 2003. I was approaching my one-year anniversary of living in New York. I had a cold, which I had forgotten until I re-read the very brief and not very evocative LJ recap just now. I was interning at a literary agency, so I was poor; my mom sent me money so I could go to the show. (My mom is the best.) I went by myself. By myself! I only knew a few people who actually lived in the NYC area and my main concert buddy for the past year had moved back to California after graduating Sarah Lawrence that spring.

This decade-later concert, in the very same Prospect Park bandshell (though for a full twelve additional American dollars), was in some ways a culmination of past B&S concert experiences. For one, they are not particularly promoting a new record; they have a B-sides collection out next month, but they don't seem to be playing any songs from it, so this between-album tour (relatively rare for a UK band touring the US) has been very much a career-retrospective greatest hits type of deal. This concert also featured the unfulfilled threat of a thunderstorm, like the one on my birthday in 2010; heat, like the one on the Fourth of July in 2006; and a famous-ish opening act, like their tour with the New Pornographers, earlier in 2006. Marisa and I were old hands, finally, while Other Sara B was the newbie. A bunch of other One Story/writer folk were further out on the lawn, too, and I was surprised how few of them had seen Belle and Sebastian before. I really was lucky back in 2003, empty pockets, stuffed nose, and all.

Because B&S aren't releasing new material at the same clip they were in the nineties and early aughts, and because they don't tour here all that often, and because their most beloved album is at this point close enough to its twentieth anniversary (!), it's easy to take them for granted. I didn't even prep much for this concert, just throwing my rarely listened-to copy of their BBC Sessions record onto my iPod, feeling like, OK, I'm pretty much all set for this concert already. And in terms of familiarity, I certainly was. But not having listened to their proper albums in a little while, I forgot just how crazy solid the Belle and Sebastian catalog is. Seven full-length records, most of which are very good or better; three or four albums' worth of singles and B-sides, many of which are as good as anything on their proper LPs; and a live presence that apparently used to be a bit shambolic and amateurish but has always been polished, upbeat, and fun as all hell when I've seen them. It's funny that the sad-bastard image still looms over them, because Stuart Murdoch has never seemed remotely sad when I've seen him perform; he dances more than almost any frontman I can remember.

So, this is not a very unpredictable or likely controversial post: yay, Belle and Sebastian! But really, their setlist was impeccably chosen from all eras of the band, covering all of the records except Fold Your Hands Child, as well as crucial-to-me non-album tracks like "Legal Man" and "Your Cover's Blown." They played a fantastic number of my Top 10 B&S songs ever, and that they could play a set this full of great songs and still not get to "This is Just a Modern Rock Song," "If You're Feeling Sinister," "Jonathan David," "Write about Love," "Stay Loose," or several others, well, wow.

I'm not 100% on the order here but I think I have all of the songs:

Judy is a Dick Slap
I'm a Cuckoo
Another Sunny Day
Stars of Track and Field
I Want the World to Stop
To Be Myself Completely
Lord Anthony
Funny Little Frog
I Don't Love Anyone
Piazza, New York Catcher
Simple Things
Your Cover's Blown
I Didn't See It Coming
The Boy with the Arab Strap
Legal Man
Judy and the Dream of Horses
---
Get Me Away from Here, I'm Dying
Le Pastie De la Bourgeoisie

I guess I forgot to mention that Marisa and I are in the midst of a summer-concert marathon. Starting the weekend of 6/14, when we saw the Postal Service, and going through the weekend of 8/10, we only have two weeks without a concert (well, three for Marisa, not doing the Eleanor show with me), both because we're out of town (no one was playing in Rhode Island when we were there a few weeks ago. I haven't checked the Thousand Islands on Pollstar but my guess is that no one is playing there either). Next up: Bob Dylan, My Morning Jacket, and Wilco in Connecticut, or as Marisa has been calling it, the Gathering of the Vibes.

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Monday, July 8th, 2013
10:36 pm - In the sun
I don't have any pictures of me or Marisa or Meg or Sara or Thais at the She & Him show on Saturday. I don't even have any pictures of Zooey Deschanel or for that matter the handsome Mr. M. Ward.

It's not because the light wasn't good; we were sitting in the damn sunlight for over an hour and when it started to go down I bet there could've been some magic-hour action. It's not because I didn't have a vantage point or my camera; I had a backpack with snacks and my good camera and we were not far back at all, pretty much dead center. It's not even because we were all sweaty and gross, although: we were that (at least speaking for myself, I was). It's because She & Him asked everyone not to take pictures, and closer up, where any of the pictures would be worthwhile, they actually had security guys there ready to yell at people who took their cameras out, or rather, pointed their smartphones Zooeyward (I didn't take my camera out; I like to pretend this was out of deference to the band but it was just as much laziness, the heat, and a vague feeling of moral superiority).

This is a new-ish thing. When Marisa and I saw the Yeah Yeah Yeahs a couple months ago, there was a sign extolling concertgoers to put away their (fucking? There may have been swears involved) phones and just enjoy the show -- that was the gist of it, anyway. When this message was broadcast to the She & Him line (or, excuse me, the She & Him throng: the Summerstage people told us, Kips Bay style, that this was NOT a line we were waiting on, and to bunch up! It was enough to make Maggie's head explode), the easy consensus was that Zooey Deschanel is such a diva. And she may well be. Last time we saw her in the sweltering heat, she certainly did (a.) wear tights and (b.) complain that she was hotter than we were, which was only true in the strictest physical attractiveness sense, not the temperature sense. But check it: this policy, best as I can tell, originates with M. Ward. At the link you can find an account of Ward trying to restrict camera use at his solo shows, and the NPR writer complaining that this is draconian and pointless and

It's an interesting debate and, as Sara pointed out when I brought it up, pretty much unwinnable on either side: obsessive photo-takers are not going to be convinced they shouldn't be allowed to take whatever photos they want -- indeed, dozens of people were unable to resist it even with patrolling security on Saturday -- and the more experience-minded, moment-living people are not going to be convinced that anyone has the particular right to photograph every moment of a rock show and potentially block other people's views while doing so.

I tend to favor the latter if only because (a.) there will always be plenty of shows where you can snap pictures to your heart's content, (b.) an artist absolutely can attempt to control his or her surroundings for his or her artwork, whether or not this is realistic or even possible -- it happens when a venue is chosen, it happens when a setlist is chosen, it happens when lighting cues are employed or not employed, and (c.) your pictures suck. I say this as someone who has taken some rock photos in my time, even photos of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward. Everyone who took pictures of She & Him on Saturday: you just took pictures of a cute band on your phones. They weren't worth what little trouble you went to.

This made the final song of the night, an unexpected second encore when the crowd had a foot out the door, particularly nice: just Deschanel and Ward snuck back out to play "I Put a Spell on You" and while I'm sure some people grabbed their phones in time to take pictures, it caught them off-guard enough that for a moment people were mostly just standing there listening to a bonus song.

"Spell" was just one of ten (!) covers, if you count their now-standard inclusion of the M. Ward solo joint "Magic Trick." Normally, this would be way too many covers for my tastes. A well-placed cover, yes, can be great, but if an artist has a significant group of songs I like, I tend to think of too many covers as wasting of valuable set real estate. Like I know Springsteen has earned the right to play some old motown rock and roll type songs to pay homage to his roots and he'll always play the hell out of them, but I'll always be thinking in the back of my mind: you played two covers but you skipped ["Atlantic City"/"Girls in Their Summer Clothes"/"Streets of Fire"/etc.].

But! Covers are very much a part of the She & Him deal. All three of their proper records have at least two cover songs, and they always blend in pretty well with the kind of unambitious but very well-crafted retro-style pop-rock originals Deschanel and Ward cook up. In this context, it's actually pretty damn great to hear non-recorded covers like "Rave On" and "Roll Over, Beethoven" -- and She & Him aren't so legendary that I feel like I'd prefer one of their other songs at every opportunity. They pretty much nailed all of their best songs, although I would've liked to hear "Sentimental Heart" off the first record or "Somebody Sweet to Talk to" off the new one. Some of the prettier/slower S&H originals blend together, while there's no mistaking "Roll Over, Beethoven."

Also: ten covers are fine if you play one of the most epic setlists I've seen in ages. Which they did. At a She & Him show. I mean, I really like She & Him, but they're the type of act I tend to assume will pay for about 65 minutes (I guess without foundation: their above-referenced free July 4th show in 2010 turns out to have been over the two-dozen mark, too). I guess they also don't have many songs over three and a half minutes, and they aren't prone to wild jamming, or much between-song banter, so they can pack 28 songs into their 90ish minutes. But seriously, 28 songs: that's a lot. That's pretty much They Might Be Giants and Bruce Springsteen, who both have well over a dozen albums to draw from, and maybe the Hold Steady once they get another album under their belts and want to take a run past the 24-song mark. Kudos, M. Ward and Zooey. You don't want photos taken and you will play for 90 minutes and you are not the indie-rock lightweights you could be.

I Was Made for You
I've Got Your Number, Son
Baby
Over It and Over It Again
Take It Back
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (cover)
Thieves
Turn to White
I Thought I Saw Your Face Today
Brand New Shoes
You Really Got a Hold on Me (cover)
Stars Fell on Alabama (cover) (not of the Mountain Goats song that I love)
Unchained Melody (cover)
Me and You
Ridin' in My Car (cover)
Don't Look Back
Rave On! (cover)
Magic Trick (sort of cover)
This Is Not a Test
Never Wanted Your Love
Together
I Could've Been Your Girl
Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?
In the Sun
---
Sunday Girl (cover)
Roll Over Beethoven (cover)
Sweet Darlin'
---
I Put a Spell on You (cover)

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Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013
7:57 am - You're halfway there
As it turns out: summer is half over. Well, by the actual calendar standards, summer is about ten days old. But by the revised calendar issued by the big six Hollywood studios, summer begins in early May and lasts through Labor Day, which means we are halfway through -- and seemingly past peak summer-movie excitement, well on our way to summer-movie fatigue. There are still plenty of movies I'm excited to see, like Pacific Rim and Elysium and even, God help me, The Wolverine, and there are even some movies I can tell you right now are worth seeing (Prince Avalanche drops in August! The To-Do List comes out the end of July!), but this summer was awfully frontloaded, especially when you consider that hardly anyone programs a big cool-looking movie past the second weekend of August, the unofficial Last Call of the season.

Remember Iron Man 3? It was this superhero movie that came out a couple of months ago, is the highest grossing movie of the year, will likely remain such through December. Ultra-controversial and biting commentary: I liked it! I liked it about as much as the other Iron Man movies while acknowledging it stands on its own a bit more than Iron Man 2. The villain isn't great, but you know, the villains in the Iron Man series are never really all that great, despite a pretty decent caliber of actors that paly them (and despite my love of the Rockwell/Rourke scenes in Iron Man 2). It's probably OK to have a superhero franchise where the hero doesn't have scenes stolen by the villain. And props to Iron Man 3 for kinda-sorta figuring out a final action sequence that isn't just Iron Man fighting a bunch of bigger and/or slightly different Iron Men. Also, the movie is pretty damn funny, thanks to Shane Black.

Iron Man 3 was also just about the only big May release I didn't write about in some capacity. I wrote a long essay detailing just what I liked and didn't like about The Great Gatsby, one of two summer movies I've paid to see a second time, so obviously it fell more on the "like" side. I also wrote a bit about the highly entertaining but slightly disappointing (in the big picture) Star Trek Into Darkness, which I intended to see again but never did. I did have a second go-round with Fast and Furious 6 (or Furious 6 as the credits rightfully call it), which probably wasn't necessary, but hey, I did like it a lot, almost as much as Fast Five (plusses: addition of Gina Carano; minuses: lack of surprise what-the-fuck-this-movie-was-awesome?! factor). It was definitely my preferred Memorial Day sequel as compared to The Hangover Part III, which I reviewed in an essay about Todd Phillips. And I didn't care much for Epic.

Despite those Memorial Day weekend bummers, May was a surprisingly satisfying month for mainstream filmgoing, and that carried over to the indie sector, too. I saw Frances Ha again in its proper release following its NYFF debut last fall, and loved it just as much. I showed Marisa Before Sunrise and Before Sunset as prelude to going to see Before Midnight, a funny, worthy, and sometimes upsetting cap and/or continuation of Richard Linklater's relationship chronicle. Sequels are so commonplace now that I feel like the can't-be-as-good-as-the-original sentiment has dissipated to some extent, but it's still rare to have a film series where each entry actually deepens and improves what came before it, as the Before sequels have. Sunset remains my favorite upon rewatch -- it's the most concise, proceeding in real time, and has a nice mix of romanticism and realism -- but all three are just terrific and, judging from some of the gasps in our UWS crowd, still able to surprise audiences despite or maybe because of their intimacy with the characters.

On a very different note, I also liked The Iceman even though it's not really shaped into a working narrative -- as it turns out, the central material and the actors are interesting enough for an episodic, stretched-out narrative to not matter so much.

On to June: I didn't think After Earth was so bad compared to other M. Night Shyamalan movies of recent vintage. The first ten or fifteen minutes is rough in the Shyamalan-forgot-how-human-speech-goes department, but once it zooms in on the father-son relationship, it's a reasonably compelling sci-fi adventure story. I think kids would like it. It makes no sense that it would inspire so much vitriol, which is why I wrote about that vitriol more than the movie itself. Marisa and I watched it in a double feature with Now You See Me, which is really not much less stupid than After Earth (it may be stupider), but in the tradition of magic tricks, provides some intense momentary enjoyment before dissipating.

Another movie that I didn't love but was surprised by the rancor it earned: The Internship, a not all that funny but reasonably warm-hearted and pleasant Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson comedy. It's not as funny as Wedding Crashers, but it's also not as mean as that movie at its worst, so, you know, kind of a wash. Granted, it is the weakest of the big June comedies: This is the End made me laugh a lot, as did The Heat, which is also maybe the the only real Bechdel Test-passing movie of the summer, if that means something to you. Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing is also pretty funny, and as I mentioned in my review, a lot of that is due to some fine staging and framing by the director (as well as, you know, that Shakespeare guy).

Marisa and I caught up with The East a little late; it's another in a series of Brit Marling thrillers, which Fox Searchlight seems really into. I was with this movie, wherein Marling plays a private-sector agent who infiltrates an environmental terrorism group, at least to the halfway point, but as Marling's character becomes more seduced by both the group's ideology and its supposedly charismatic leader, I stopped really understanding why (even as I felt sympathy for the group's concerns; the movie just doesn't really make the case for why Marling, supposedly a big-time professional, would fall so hard and so fast). In the end, I liked it less than Sound of My Voice but probably a little more than Another Earth. You know, for you Brit Marling completists.

More reviews: Monsters University is probably not essential Pixar, but it is a lot of fun, and also more thoughtful than you might assume [in the wake of Cars 2]. And back at Tribeca, I saw the now-playing Byzantium and liked it.

Maybe the most divisive big movie of the summer will be Man of Steel; appropriately enough, I myself felt divided over it. I like so many decisions this Christopher Nolan production made: Lois Lane becomes more actively involved in Superman's early days, and the movie dispenses entirely with the weirdly manipulative angle of the Donner Superman movies, where Clark/Superman sort of toys with Lois about her inability to figure out his identity (even messing with her head when she does). I loved the hardcore sci-fi-fantasy version of Krypton, and the Russell Crowe version of Jor-El, and pretty much most of the actors, actually, and Michael Shannon's General Zod, who has more understandable and better-developed motivation than his more fabulous Terence Stamp equivalent in Superman II (which I only recently watched). I loved loved loved the treatment of Clark's younger years: Superman as uncostumed traveling hobo, saving people and then getting the hell out before he gets discovered. A little Wolverine-y, sure, but the idea that this is how Clark learns about America is kind of beautiful. And much of the movie is beautiful-looking, too: lens flares and less primary but still-rich colors, nice grainy texture. Zach Snyder dispenses with many of his tics: slow-mo, speed-ramping, blood festishizing.

He does, however, find new tics, like the show-offy pseudo-documentary mini-zooms in the midst of action sequences (Star Trek Into Darkness does this too; it's fine a few times, but like anything Snyder likes, it becomes an overused go-to move), and his hyperbolic side comes out for the battles, which, fair enough, go a bit more on the destructive and violent and action-packed side following Bryan Singer's Superman Lifts Stuff (I kid: I actually really like Superman Returns and all things considered, it might be my favorite of the Superman movies so far; probably not the best, but my favorite). I kind of like the idea of seeing what it looks like if, basically, two gods fight each other on Earth. It's just too bad the Superman/Zod smackdowns are preceded by a lot of needless alien-invasion destruction of the Roland Emmerich/Michael Bay school. That just isn't an important or interesting part of the Superman mythos, even though I like the idea of stressing Superman's status as an alien being. There's also dialogue that shows what happens when David Goyer does a comic-book script without a Nolan Brothers polish. In fact, Man of Steel can't help but play a little like what a Nolan movie might be if he didn't have the clout to say no to certain things.

But on the balance, I did like the movie. It just feels like it was made without total focus on what was best about it -- probably a result of Superman Returns not making enough money and not gaining much of a Batman Begins-style rep in the meantime. There are some building blocks here for a good series of Superman movies, but I'm a little skeptical about the Warner Brothers/DC people being able to do this without Nolan actually directing stuff. Which is ridiculous! I love Nolan, but he's not the be-all-end-all of superhero directors. Other people should be able to do this. And I guess compared to Green Lantern, Man of Steel does count as doing this.

The day after Man of Steel, I saw a movie I liked as much as I wanted to like the Superman one: Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, a docudrama about teenage girls in Hollywood who burglarize celebrity homes. The tabloid emptiness of the story actually gives Coppola an extra kick of energy that wasn't there in Somewhere: a blasting soundtrack, laughs from the kids' vacant amorality, and gorgeous shots of those kids driving and scampering through the California night. Yet I don't think the movie is pure, vicious satire. Coppola doesn't seem particularly enraptured or in love with her characters here, but she does regard them with a certain fascination, and definitely shows sympathy for the boy in the group, who talks openly about his lack of "A-list" good looks. Coppola doesn't impose too much structure on the story; as ever, she's more interested in mood and moments than character arcs and as ever, her movie is beautifully made (the long shot slowly pushing in on Audrina Patridge's house as the kids run wild in it is one for the ages). It's perfectly in Coppola's wheelhouse (it even has a lot of superficial and thematic resemblance to this year's Spring Breakers) yet I don't feel like I've ever seen a movie quite like this before.

I could kinda-sorta say the same about World War Z: I have never seen a $200 million zombie movie, because there hasn't been one, and I haven't even really seen a zombie movie that treats the zombie apocalypse as a disease outbreak (there may be one; it's such a smart idea that I'd be surprised if it was never done before). But for all of the interesting aspects of World War Z, it's not exactly Contagion with zombies -- or, it kind of is, except it's nowhere near as good as Contagion. That Soderbergh movie cut to fascinating cross-sections of people dealing with a calamitous outbreak; the novel of World War Z seems like it could easily be adapted into that structure, but the movie sticks with Brad Pitt even as it location-hops. Pitt plays a guy who used to work for the U.N. and is good at his job. We know this because that's what the movie says, not particularly anything he does -- the movie is so bereft of ideas for characterization that it's reduced to just bringing Pitt to different places and having him notice super-obvious stuff (like, hey, the zombies are about to overtake the big wall you guys built!) and pretend this makes him some kind of hero genius. Pitt is a fine actor, but he hasn't played this nothing of a character in I don't even know how long. I haven't seen Meet Joe Black, but that seems like a decent candidate, so: fifteen years. Congratulations, World War Z. You ended Brad Pitt's fifteen-year streak of being interesting.

Moment to moment, though, the movie is less of a cheap-looking botch than I was fearing. It's not very scary, but it has some tense moments and lots of cool ideas. I just wish those ideas had been developed further, along with some characters, any characters, because really, this movie has no people in it. No people that give you any reason to pay attention to them, anyway, apart from good lucks (which, even/especially as Pitt approaches fifty, are really more superhuman than human, aren't they?)

Finally: White House Down, the other Die Hard in a White House movie. And boy, Die Hard 5 must have really sucked for a bunch of people to give two different Die Hard ripoffs these kind of passes in a single six-month period. Granted, White House Down is a hell of a lot better than Olympus Has Fallen. In fact, during its first 45 minutes of surprisingly protracted set-up, I found myself thinking: wow, for a Roland Emmerich movie, this almost qualifies as wittily self-aware. I mean, it's pretty preposterous stuff, but it's less pure cornball than Emmerich's usual disaster movies, and does a nice job of making us the characters likable and not just action figures. In fact, I find it weird that so many critics designated this movie as, you know, pure Emmerich, doing what he does best. Emmerich does big-scale disaster movies; he doesn't actually have a way with traditional action sequences like chases and shoot-outs. There is obligatory big destruction in White House Down, but it actually looks lousy -- so much green-screen was used in the DC exteriors that I was seriously shocked to see a DC unit in the credits.

Anyway, the movie sets itself up as a Die Hard knockoff, and for the most part is a pretty decent one, but follows that formula so stringently it can't be bothered to engage with its best idea: a buddy-action comedy where one of the buddies is the president! There's a little bit of that between wannabe secret service agent Channing Tatum and president Jamie Foxx, but Emmerich doesn't seem particularly interested in that angle. The movie is a fair amount of undemanding fun, but way longer than necessary, and stubborn in the way it winds up using that running time. The extra set-up is fine, but some of the payoffs are surprisingly clunky for a high-octane action thriller. It's shocking to me that so many people would give this movie a pass while ganging up on The Lone Ranger, but that's a July movie so that'll be another post down the road.

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Saturday, June 29th, 2013
1:34 am - I forget what it's like to be gone
Remember when finding the "New Dylan" was a thing? I swear it was, all the way through most of the nineties. I read it about Beck more than once, even or perhaps especially when writers discussed how pointless and unlikely it would be to find a "new" Bob Dylan; I can only assume Dylan's spotty eighties and barely-existent-until-97 nineties output contributed to this fascination.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Eleanor Friedberger is the new Bob Dylan, but I will say, as I think I've mentioned before, that she reminds me of him a lot, stylistically. The long rambles of some Fiery Furnaces tunes recall the surreal side of Dylan, and the way she says "babe" in "Police Sweater Blood Vow," I mean, yeah, kind of easy, but still: something about the way she speak-sings it sounds like Dylan's "babe," not like, Styx's "babe." There's also the Fiery Furnaces' habit of rephrasing and rearranging their songs in a live setting, like Dylan, which, like Dylan, has garnered them a reputation as both an impressive live act and kind of a chore (and, as with Dylan, I fall more on the "impressive" end of the voting bloc).

The similarities accumulate listening to Last Summer and Personal Record, Friedberger's two solo albums, both about as good as, maybe better than, the best of the Fiery Furnaces -- which is why I feel comfortable attributing this more to Eleanor than her brother Matthew (although, to be fair, by which I mean totally unfair, pretty much everyone in the world feels comfortable attributing more to Eleanor than to Matthew. If Matthew Friedberger superfans exist, I can only imagine they feel the way I feel about Blake from Rilo Kiley). The way she uses her voice, particularly: it is distinctive and sometimes very pretty, yet she's just as likely to use to speak-sing cadences as a melodic lilt. She also tends to favor short, repetitive choruses, like a lot of recent Dylan songs, and she turns over certain words and phrases in a way that reminds me of him, like on "My Mistakes" where she sings "She's got kind of a native vibe before that was so cool" and then repeats the first part, more emphatically ("She's got kind of a native vibe before...") and pairs it with another phrase ("...I knew who was who"). The fact that it doesn't read that well on paper but totally makes sense on record backs me up further on this, or so I'd like to believe.

And even in her more straightforward solo work, there are re-arrangements. I read an L Mag interview with her where she talks about her most recent tour, one that concluded tonight at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, more closely replicating the album arrangements than some past tours -- and that is true, but there are still plenty of places where she sings a line with a different inflection or slightly different notes, or plays a song significantly slower or faster. In general, there's a slightly more garage-rock feel in concert than on the record, which is not so unusual for a live show, but you can sense a natural playing with her songs, the way Dylan still does.

For example: Before her set, the venue showed a short film called "She's a Mirror," sort of based off the song of the same name on Personal Record, mixing student-film-y footage of Eleanor acting weird stuff out with a lot of rehearsal and performance footage featuring what I assume are earlier versions of the song in question (I'm pretty sure one of them is from another edition of the Cabinet of Wonders show a bunch of us saw last year, which makes sense as John Wesley Harding working on Personal Record with her). These versions tend to be slower and sometimes more menacing than the version that wound up on Personal Record; you keep expecting the film (basically a longform music video) to break into the album version at some point to reveal teh changes, but it never does. Then, during the concert, I again expected the uptempo version to appear, but when the band played "She's a Mirror" toward the end of the set, the first half is as careful and slowed-down as some of the video versions -- before again defying expectations and kicking into the fast version halfway through. I guess I'm sort of describing something relatively simple (a live version of a song that starts slow and then gets fast) as if it's incredibly complex, but I do think it's indicative of the way Friedberger re-arranges her songs as she lives with them. Probably lots of musicians do this, but the insistence of it reminds me, again, of Bob Dylan.

The thing is, it doesn't feel fussy or precious or anything in concert, or like she's denying her fans the versions they've come to love (again, I feel the same way about Dylan, although opinions seem to differ on him as a live act. I've never been disappointed and am going for another round later in July). It's the good kind of restlessness, the creative kind -- the auditory version of the fidgety but never self-conscious dancing she does in between verses of her uptempo numbers. Live shows are where I got to know how good "Roosevelt Island" is. Also where I heard several of the Personal Record songs for the first time, and it was great to hear the final versions (or the tweaked versions of the final versions) tonight.

Songs:

I Don't Want to Bother You
I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight
Heaven
Stare at the Sun
My Own World
Inn of the Seventh Ray
Roosevelt Island
I'll Never Be Happy Again
When I Knew
Other Boys
Early Earthquake
She's a Mirror
I Am the Past
Singing Time
County Line (cover)
My Mistakes

A longer set than I expected, even without an encore -- the full band left for "I Am the Past" and that seemed like about the point where there could've been an encore break. But Eleanor didn't leave the stage and the band came back out and played through, until, toward the end of "My Mistakes," Friedberger jumped into the crowd (via the shoulders of me and another dude in the front), ran a few rows back, and danced around to her band with a bunch of fans. It was probably the most spontaneously joyful thing I've seen a frontperson do in I don't know how long. It wasn't particularly Dylanesque, I admit. It was pretty great all on its own.

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Monday, June 17th, 2013
11:44 pm - Seems so out of context
Do you want to feel old?

Probably not, but it can't really be helped, can it?

In case you think it can: the Postal Service album Give Up came out ten years ago. Hence the tenth-anniversary reissue. Hence the tenth-anniversary tour.

At first, I resisted this. Not because of the passage of time, but the principle of the thing. That thing is: The Postal Service put out one record. It was unexpectedly successful, especially in the longterm, as it slow-burned its way to one million copies sold -- one of exactly three Sub Pop records to achieve platinum sales (the other two: Bleach and the Flight of the Conchords record). They never recorded a follow-up. They didn't really tour beyond the initial promotional tour for Give Up. Then, ten years later, they "reunited," re-released the album, and mounted an arena tour.

This isn't so much different than bands like the Pixies, who have reunited basically to (a.) satisfy the desires and demands of a much-larger audience that never got to see the band live when they were originally together and (b.) make the money they never got to make when they were originally together. That is all fair enough. But something felt mercenary to me in the Postal Service's insta-reunion (perhaps yoked to some deep-down denial that it had really been a decade since the album came out). If this is the precedent we set, bands don't need to continue to work and struggle and create; they need to create once, and then wait around hoping they can make some sweet reunion money later. Where was the Postal Service's actual career?

Obviously in this case, that career -- those careers -- happened elsewhere, as everyone in the Postal Service has other music projects, to the degree that it feels more like a supergroup now than it did in 2003. But still: I resisted this reunion blitz. I saw the Postal Service at Northsix in 2003. Why would I pay like five times that to see them do the same songs? (Lest you think I'm indulging in stereotypical hipster coolness, it wasn't because I liked the Postal Service before it was cool; I actually don't think I heard the album all the way through before going to see them, which I did more because it was the same weekend as the White Stripes, and Rob and Sara and my friend Megan were all down with going.) But: Marisa did not go with us in 2003. And neither did my sister, not least because she was (cue Michael Caine voice) fif. teen. years. old. So they wanted to go and Kasia and Jon wanted to come into town and go and who am I to tell anyone not to go see the Postal Service?

(Marisa will tell you: I am the anyone who passively-aggressively implies that it's kind of a ripoff to go see the Postal Service.)

So we got tickets to see the Postal Service at the Barclays Center, NIGHT TWO because they booked two nights at a 19,000-seat arena. And I grumbled about it a little bit. And then you know what happened? We saw the Postal Service, and it was really good!

I'm sure it helped that I knew all the songs this time. It also helped that we got GA tickets to Barclays, which is regimented but in a mostly good way, and also, thanks to a heads-up from my friend Hailey, we knew that if you just get there kind of early, there probably won't be enough people in the GA area to keep you from a pretty close spot (I offered our spare ticket to Hailey, who declined in part because the Postal Service reminded her too much of feeling awkward and sad in high school. Yeah. No reprieve from me feeling old there). And it helped, for me anyway, that in their absence the Postal Service has been reimagined as a band with Jenny Lewis in it.

She toured with them the first time -- in fact, I'm pretty sure it was the first time I ever saw her, and Megan (friend Megan, not sister Megan) and I both traced our crushes on her back to that night. Even then, to my recollection she was taking up some of the shared vocal duties she didn't actually perform on the album proper. But ten years later in an arena, the band feels less like a Ben Gibbard/Dntel collaboration than a wildly popular Gibbard/Lewis rock band with Dntel working the soundboard. And I mean that in a good way. J-Lew and B-Gib (Death Cab B-Gib, not Bee Gee B-Gib) switch up instruments -- drums, different types of guitars, keyboards -- and Gibbard still drives the vocals, but Jenny steps up with the California rock star moves she's perfected in Rilo Kiley and on her own. My God but do I hope she doesn't turn into Stevie Nicks, either accidentally on purpose.

Also, I felt additional trepidation about paying for what I pictured as a 50-minute set, possibly involving playing Give Up in sequence with a Phil Collins cover at the end. But lo! They made a real setlist (albeit a setlist that was apparently identitical night to night). And it was good, and nearly 80 minutes:

The District Sleeps Alone Tonight
We Will Become Silhouettes
Sleeping In
Turn Around
Nothing Better
Recycled Air
Be Still My Heart
Clark Gable
Our Secret (Beat Happening cover)
This Place Is a Prison
There's Never Enough Time
A Tattered Line of String
Such Great Heights
Natural Anthem
---
(This Is) The Dream of Even and Chan
Brand New Colony

It was loud and had a cool light show and Gibbard's weird David Byrne running-man dancing and J-Lew's effortless charisma. It was... a really cool big arena rock show with some degree of simulated intimacy. Even the new songs sounded a bit more forceful and blended better than I would have expected from listening to the reissue where they appear as disc-two bonus tracks (apparently the results of aborted sessions for a Give Up sequel). I have said reissue because, you know what? I never bought the Postal Service album. My first NYC roommate burned me a copy. So I guess this anniversary celebration is sweeping some corners there.

Give Up actually seemed like the perfect record to pick up on vinyl (Marisa's mom got me a record player. I buy things on vinyl now. Sometimes. It adds a special layer of neurosis to the process of buying music. I tend to like consistency so if I have, say, thirty Bob Dylan albums on CD, I'm probably not going to suddenly switch over to vinyl when I scrape up a copy of Knocked Out Loaded... then again, my consistency goes out the window if you consider that I have Hard Rain as a download from when I got it on Amazon for someone else, as a gift. But even if I'm one album into a career, isn't it kind of weird or annoying on some level that I have the first Eleanor Friedberger album on CD and the second on vinyl? No, seriously, I'm asking, because I don't know. Really, the point is: I know I can buy the next Sleigh Bells album on vinyl. That will happen.) -- but it's also like thirty five dollars on vinyl, so screw that (ah ha! Reasoning emerges!). But when I paid ten bucks for the new CD and then some more money for concert tickets, I thought: OK so maybe I'm making back payments on all of the enjoyment I've derived from Give Up (particularly the first four songs from Give Up which I am most intimately familiar) (see? If anything, I am more poser than hipster. But come on, Give Up is frontloaded like a motherfucker, I don't care how much you love the "ba ba bas" on "We Will Become Silhouettes") over the past decade.

It would be a stretch to call this laying out of cash an investment, but it did wind up having decent return in terms of good feelings. Basically, everything about this show turned out better than I expected. I thought the opening band was going to be the Mates of State, which at once seemed deeply 2003-indie-rock-appropriate and exacerbated the feeling that I was paying premium ticket prices to re-experience the first few months of 2003 in a single evening (only without Rob!). But it turns out Mates of State handled Friday, while our Saturday band was Ra Ra Riot, who are contemporary! And who offhand I probably like more than Mates of State! The Postal Service reuniting also occasioned our first show attended with Kasia and Jon since the Dismemberment Plan reunited, which was probably the first one with Kasia since college. We were in a Postal Service zone of positivity, I guess.

But I'm still gonna roll my eyes when people pine for a Smiths reunion.

A footnote, or possibly a two-foot-note: Like I say above I last saw the Postal Service ten years ago, during my first spring in NYC. I also saw: Rainer Maria, Mates of State, and Palomar all together; the White Stripes with Loretta Lynn; and a slightly belated twentieth anniversary show from They Might Be Giants. Not all of those are on this LiveJournal because that's also when I started it: April 2003. Ten years ago.

I've been trying to figure out what, if anything, to do with it, since obviously I'm not getting much use out of it of late. I definitely think about posting here -- I think about doing my iTunes charts, my annual spring/summer album progress reports, my link-dump of movie reviews, and occasionally writing about movies that I don't get to write about other places. Oh, and sometimes a post about Nicki Minaj that I will probably Trip to Spain pretty hard (or just fold into one of those iTunes posts that I've started and stopped like six times in the past year). But among writing film reviews, working on fiction writing; screwing around on Twitter, writing emails to actual individual people (and/or groups of three to twenty-five), and updating LiveJournal, you can see what comes in last place quite consistently. But I do like having a place to collect my links and sometimes post setlists and such, and I should probably maintain a web presence that's more detailed than Twitter or Facebook and more controlled than clicking on my byline. I'm beginning to admit that maybe the solution to that desire/need is not a decade-old LiveJournal page.

But as long as bands like the Postal Service keep reuniting, I'm able to feel OK about putting off the figuring out of what the next thing might be.

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Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013
5:25 pm - Not So Great GoogaMooga
I did not attend the Great GoogaMooga festival in Prospect Park last year, and not just because of the massiveness of its name's stupidity. Food festivals are very rarely worth anything to me, even if they're free: how many times can you wait in line to spend ten dollars on a small meal before you (a.) get frustrated by the wait, (b.) run out of money, (c.) fill your stomach, or (d.) start wishing you were somewhere where you could just go and sit down and eat somewhere civilized? Like the ground or something?

I heard during the fact that film critic and Park Slope resident A.O. Scott hated the festival on principle, because it corded off large sections of Prospect Park that's usually public space for a ticketed (though, I'm pretty sure, free-by-lottery) event. I heard after the fact that people who attended it last year had a terrible time, due to exacerbated versions of (a.), (b.), (c.), and (d.) above, plus general incompetence on the part of the festival runners (I assume all of that overshadowed the stupidness of the name).

So, naturally, I bought tickets to GoogaMooga this year.

It made sense at the time! They announced an opening night paid-tickets component with full sets from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Flaming Lips. $60 tickets to this event seemed fair, even in this summer when it seems like every goddamned concert I go to costs $60, because both bands charge at least $40 if not more for their own concerts, and here I could see them together (and attend either Saturday or Sunday of the lottery-free portion if I were so inclined). Plus, there were plans to improve the festival. Booths would only offer one item, speeding up lines. Marisa was on board with this idea, and when I found out Derrick was heading this way that weekend, I sold him on it, too. We could eat some fancy unhealthy food and see two awesome bands. I saw virtually no downside.

As it turns out, it was a totally terrible idea.

The thing is, I don't really have any problems with how GoogaMooga was handled. I mean, I get A.O. Scott's point (reiterated this year) that it's just an indulgent mess, inviting all of these food vendors to sling their wares in a quarantined section of the park where normally people can go to get away from food vendors and city noise. And maybe I'm just a Prospect Park amateur, living in Greenpoint and spending most of my park time in McCarren, but this festival took place at a part of Prospect Park I had literally never seen before. I'm not saying this means the Nethermead Meadow isn't a big attraction for people who spend more time in the park, but Prospect Park is fucking enormous. Things happen in New York. That is one of the wonderful and sometimes unfortunate byproducts of living here. If you want to live near a park that never has ticketed events, there are many towns and cities in this fine country that offer this option.

Maybe that other-towns-and-cities thing could be the rejoinder for when I complain about traffic. But, seriously: traffic. Traffic delayed Derrick's bus for two hours, turning perfect timing for meeting him at Port Authority, going back to Greenpoint to drop our bags, and then heading to Prospect Park to meet up with Marisa and see the early-starting Flaming Lips into perfect timing for waiting at Port Authority, going straight to Prospect Park with his gear in tow, missing two thirds of the Flaming Lips set, and meeting up with Marisa, who missed even more of the set, due to the same goddamned traffic.


Here is the Flaming Lips set we saw:

Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (The Invisible Now)
Turning Violent
All We Have Is Now
Always There, In Our Hearts
---
Do You Realize??


Here is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs set we saw:

Sacrelige
Under the Earth
Bang
Mosquito
Art Star
Down Boy
Zero
Soft Shock
Subway
Cheated Hearts
Gold Lion
Despair
Maps
Heads Will Roll
---
Date with the Night

As Derrick pointed out, the YYYs have reached the point of being able to play all-killer no-filler sets. This one, drawing from pretty much everything they've ever released, was nearly worth the $60 on its own. It would have been fully worth the $60 if the band had seen fit to fill their allotted 90 minutes. To be fair, the 70ish minutes or so that they did play is pretty much exactly what the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play these days. I assume they played last more due to some kind of vampiric conditions that prevent them from being seen in daylight. Even so, it didn't seem a great use of time by the organizers: the Flaming Lips started crazy early (6:15PM! And on time!) with a de fact opening slot, and filled ninety minutes with no problems, then the Yeah Yeah Yeahs wrapped up twenty minutes early. I mean, I'm glad I missed the Lips rather than the YYYs. Frankly, the Lips set seemed pretty downbeat even when they weren't playing cuts from The Terror (I was surprised to see that we actually only saw them do two songs from that album; they just picked other songs from other albums that could be played in a similarly spare and funereal way) and their elaborate stage set-up wasn't very impressive-looking in broad daylight. But I would've been gladder if they worked it so maybe the main band doesn't start earlier than 7PM.


So we got some good pulled pork sandwiches and some bad vanilla milkshakes and watched a little Flaming Lips and a lot of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In the end, I didn't have a terrible time. Derrick and I and Marisa rolled with the punches and we saw a really good band kick some ass on a nice summer night. But before "Sacrelige" kicked in, it was kind of a mess.

This always happens, though, doesn't it? New York is not built for festivals. Yes, they have a couple of big film festivals, and yes, it has street fairs on the regular, and yes, that Governors Ball thing still seems to be going. But the traditional music festival just does not work, even when you try to sneak it in underneath food. So really, A.O. Scott shouldn't worry. This isn't going to become a festival town where every inch of our parks are co-opted by enterprising promoters. $60 for one band is about all of the ripoff NYC can handle.

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Friday, May 3rd, 2013
8:50 am - April showers, late
Hey! Here is my now-pretty-much-monthly round-up of recent movies I have seen over the past thirtysomething days. This covers late March right up until the just-starting summer movie season.

I wasn't a huge fan of Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked his new movie The Place Beyond the Pines, a far more ambitious undertaking that jumpstarts the movie out of its predecessors affected miserablism. We follow Ryan Gosling's character, and then Bradley Cooper's character, and then we skip ahead and follow their children, and each section has its own rich supporting cast and slightly schematic but also dramatically satisfying set of connections to each other. If anything, the movie could have been longer: in its final section, the focus shifts to the younger characters, and their story feels a touch truncated, specifically in developing any sympathy for one of the sons. I also find Cianfrance unduly fascinated by the non-mechanics of go-nowhere arguments (almost everyone in his movies so far gets into some kind of stubborn, repetitive argument where no one says anything, which I get happens in real life, but so does, say, urinating, and that doesn't mean I want to see every character in a movie do that), but unlike Blue Valentine, Pines is too gripping for me to mind that tic too much.

Speaking of ambitious and powerful sagas of fathers and sons, I saw G.I. Joe: Retaliation. What can I say about it? It does more with its smaller budget than the first movie did with a bigger budget. When it cuts away to a nonsensical subplot that I understood nothing about, it's kind of amazing, because it includes a really fun 3D-rendered ninja attack on the side of a mountain -- a better scene than anything in the first G.I. Joe movie. But it has fully bald and therefore sleepwalking Bruce Willis, whose face I was not so eager to see again after Die Hard 5, and I can't really tell you much about what happens in it, except that The Rock is there – and really, that applies to a lot of movies I've seen lately. For example, The Rock is not only there, but really very good in Pain and Gain, Michael Bay's willful attempt to misunderstand what is good about the Coen Brothers -- though to be fair, he misunderstands them in a pretty common way, adopting the condescension often misattributed to their work. This outlandish but true crime story follows a trio of lunkheads who decide, for reasons not all that well-articulated despite a ton of voiceover and obvious pretensions toward satire, to kidnap a successful businessman and have him sign over his wealth and property to them. (I think; the plan is never spelled out. Maybe because the characters are too dim for more of a plan; maybe because Bay rarely gives a fuck about why things are happening at any given point in any of his movies.)

To be fair, a Miami-set story about largely unsympathetic (save The Rock as a conflicted, dim, friendly ex-con cokehead trying to do right by Jesus) idiots doing crazy violent stuff is better-suited to Bay's style of saturating ridiculous behavior with music-video colors; plenty of his critics will find Pain and Gain just as irritating as his Transformers series (and some fanboy types will prefer it entirely because it has more violence and swearing) but it at least avoids the frantic tonal shifts that accompany most of his bizarre attempts at crowd-pleasing. He's actually showing nihilism rather than dressing it up in an action hero's clothes, and the specifics of this case are so ridiculous that he doesn't have much room to embellish it with his version of wacky antics. If this case wasn't real, these characters would probably wind up running amok out of context through Transformers 4.

Bay still operates with a certain level of contempt; Pain and Gain makes no real attempt to understand its main characters besides referring to America as often as possible (flash to Elaine Benes at the New Yorker offices: "But what is the comment?"). It's certainly interesting to see his cynicism front and center, rather than hidden behind flag-waving and platitudes, I'll give him that. It's just too bad Bay tends to either sneer or worship his characters. He rarely seems capable of just plain liking them. Pain and Gain happily knocks off the closing scene of Fargo with Ed Harris's sympathetic retired PI and his sweet wife (two of only a handful of genuinely sweet characters in the entire Bay filmography), but while the director may think he's made a satire with some humanist touches around the edges, he's actually something more akin to Michael Bay Presents: America's Dumbest Criminals! Yeah, dude, we get it: these guys are dumb, violent losers, and you can make a movie about them without blowing a ton of stuff up. What else ya got?

By following a pattern distinct from many of his other films, Danny Boyle's heist/mystery/psychodrama Trance nonetheless feels deeply representative of his style. Across genre, from Millions to Trainspotting to Sunshine to Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle's movies usually verge on hysteria, sometimes bordering on nonsense, before finding their way out of the wilderness. It's happened so many times it must be by design -- and it's this quality that makes critical dislike of A Life Less Ordinary or The Beach seem so excessive to me; they both have a crazed quality in their final stretches that should've felt familiar to anyone watching his anointed comeback, 28 Days Later. Trance certainly allows itself to go bonkers and blood-simple as its twisty and twisted mysteries snap into focus in the end. But the unpleasant feelings you tend to get during a Danny Boyle picture -- disorientation, antsiness, the sense that you and/or the filmmaker are not entirely sure what the hell is supposed to be happening -- actually happen during the middle of Trance, not the final stretch (at least not for me). The craziness that finishes Trance has, if anything, more catharsis than many of his other movies, because it's when the movie goes crazy that it actually achieves a kind of clarity to its noirish vision.

That's not to say Trance is a career-summarizing masterwork. It's a bit of a genre wank, in a good way -- like the peppy amorality of Shallow Grave filtered through a headspace touched by both regret and possibly some LSD. It's more of a bookend with Grave, which has a slightly inflated reputation as one of his very best. When I went back to review (one of the only Boyle movies I've reviewed in depth; surprising, given how much I admire his work) this spring, I hadn't seen it in years, but found more or less what I saw back in the nineties: a well-plotted, cleverly shot, absorbing but minor exercise in style. If anything, Trance, with its shifting relationships and sympathies among thieves, an art auctioneer with amnesia, and his therapist all trying to recover a stolen painting, has more feeling to it -- even if the feeling is, by its noirish designs, often sinking.

I saw Trance the same day that I saw Upstream Color (review) and the day after I saw To the Wonder (review), and they all take place on a continuum of impressionistic images, tricks of memory, and narratives that must be, in some form or other, teased and puzzled out. The final trick, for me, is how Upstream Color, by far the most acclaimed of the three, left me the chilliest and least impressed. I admire Shane Carruth's commitment to his elliptical, exposition-free, and here often dialogue-free vision, but I don't find the experience of watching his movies all that enlightening. Terrence Malick may well flirt with self-parody with To the Wonder (and indeed, it's less disciplined and just plain less fascinating than either a relatively straight ahead but still pretty strange movie like Badlands or the symphonic grandeur of The Tree of Life), but there's something inviting about his even more inscrutable narrative -- here a kinda-sorta love triangle with most of the actual relationships left on the cutting floor, or in the script outline, or possibly in Malick's head. Yet I find Malick's free-flowing poetic nonsense a lot more accessible on a gut level than Carruth's brainier sci-fi nonsense that supposedly stands for something that has anything to do with humans. I haven't quite figured it out myself. Maybe that makes me lazy? Both Primer and Upstream Color gave me a similar reaction: I would probably get more out of that if I watched it again, but I don't really want to watch it again. Maybe he should get one of those Inland Empire-style punchcards for the true believers.

Two indies surprised me: It's a Disaster, a barely-released ensemble comedy about a couples' brunch that extends to the possible end of the world, or at least end of the characters' world, when some kind of dirty bombs go off close by but offscreen, is the kind of small comedy that usually doesn't work as well as it should, but this one is funnier and more believable, in its silly way, than most. The Angels' Share, meanwhile, sounds like a throwback to late-nineties scrappy-Britcom formula in the Full Monty mode, but it's far less cutesy than a story about a ruffian who learns he's got a nose for whiskey really should be.

I spent a fair amount of time at the 68th Street IMAX in April, first seeing Jurassic Park 3D, which is, just to clarify, the re-release of the movie Jurassic Park converted to 3D, not an eighties-style second sequel to Jurassic Park. I was more in it for the IMAX than the 3D, which is decent quality but basically perfunctory; even with the jungle settings and amazing creatures, Jurassic Park is a relatively interior movie and doesn't really need the extra simulation of field depth. But the movie still plays great, even if it's not quite as character-driven as Jaws or as thought-provoking as Spielberg's unofficial sci-fi trilogy of the aughts. I'd totally go see The Lost World in IMAX even though that's never happening.

I can imagine parts of Oblivion looking great in 3D, and I'm surprised no one insisted on it, but again, I was happy just for the IMAX version, which opens up the aspect ratio in some scenes to use more of the IMAX frame (it was not shot with IMAX cameras, probably due to logistical difficulties, though it could've been even more visually stunning if it had been). Oblivion points to some evolution from Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski, though incremental more than leaps or bounds. Like the Tron sequel, Oblivion is an absolute pleasure to simply regard, with its landscapes of a post-apocalyptic Earth mixed with bizarre white spaceships and futuristic apartments perched above the wreckage. So many sci-fi movies take visual cues from past works; I'm sure there are bits of Oblivion's design scheme that belong more to other films or books, but its look feels fresh and distinct. It's the story that's cobbled together from spare parts. Oblivion is more involving than Tron: Legacy; while it was unfolding, I was, in fact, quite absorbed in it. But after a mysterious opening section, the movie keeps accumulating textual resemblances to other, better movies, and they sink further in as the credits roll. The movie starts to diminish as soon as you take your eyes off of it.

That's better, though, than a movie that starts to diminish almost as soon as it starts. I had that experience with At Any Price (review), a drama about modern farmers, and Generation Um... (review), a barely-movie about, uh, I couldn't really tell you, actually. Being young and inarticulate? Except Keanu Reeves is one of the main characters, and is not, in fact, young. This kind of movie should give aspiring filmmakers hope: people agreed to give someone money to make this. It's not even a bad-looking indie, either: it has some nice NYC cinematography. It's just boring and stupid as fuck. But hey, it got made!

Similarly, The Big Wedding, like many recent movies starring Diane Keaton, seems to have been made almost by accident, as if everyone in the movie agreed to do it because everyone else was doing it. I'd love to be privy to the contract negotiations that somehow involve Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Katherine Heigl, Topher Grace, Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon, and Amanda Seyfried costarring in a movie that none of them seem very excited to be doing. So you get all of the obligation to say yes to a movie with all of these other good actors, and none of the pesky chemistry that might result by getting a bunch of good and varied actors in a room together. Actually, though he has a semi-undeserved rep for late-career sleepwalking, it's De Niro who feels most engaged by this sub, sub-par material. Hell, he gets to play a dad trying to redeem himself, opposite Sarandon and Keaton; I can see why he'd take this part. Topher Grace and Amanda Seyfried, though, are still young, and don't have a whole lot of scenes opposite any of the living-legend type people in the cast, so what the hell is their excuse? At least with a movie like The Company You Keep (review), about as star-packed a cast as I've ever seen and, as such, wildly uneven in how well it uses those stars, the huge ensemble makes sense: it's an ambitious story told by living (and aging) legend Robert Redford, who presumably directed every scene in addition to making one of his more rare (these days, anyway) onscreen appearances. Not quite the same as signing up en masse

What else? I wrote about the Evil Dead remake here.

I wrote about the movie Mud here.

And I covered a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar Nominee, for once! I review Kon-Tiki here.

If you'd rather read about movies that are not out yet but might be coming out this year or next year or on DVD sometime, you can check out my 2013 Tribeca Film Festival coverage here, here, and here.

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Monday, April 8th, 2013
8:54 am - Sacrilege, sacrilege, sacrilege you say
I have been quite lucky in that I've only been a fan of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs after the point at which they became a big deal (which, from what I can tell, was kind of stupidly fast), yet I've also so far managed to only see them at club shows somewhat to way smaller than their popularity would dictate. I wonder if they do these shows as sort of a secret penance for being big enough to play ballrooms-and-up before they even had a second record, because if they tried to play the biggest possible rooms they could fill, they would never go smaller than Terminal 5, and could probably get away with playing Barclays.

I think also, rather than assigning this entirely to guilt, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs know they're a good fit for sweaty, raucous club shows where stadium volume and spectacle is shrunk down to something a little punkier and more homemade -- and if demand means those shows sell out in a minute and have Webster Hall packed tight with fans, well,

So yes, I had to go to Webster Hall. It turns out, hadn't been there in a couple of years -- since Paul Simon in 2011. As Marisa pointed out when we were leaving and conducting our usual Webster Hall bitch session, it seems like the venue's 1,400-person capacity is based more on how many people could fit in every nook of the main stage room and its spaces to the sides, not how many people could fit comfortably into that area and all (or mostly) be able to see the stage. Plus, it seems to be the go-to venue for bands playing below their natural popularity levels (like YYYs, and also Paul Simon, and Sleigh Bells, and Vampire Weekend circa Contra). This results in a lot of smushing and jockeying for space with a lot of guys and girls in leather jackets, and girls trying really damn hard to look like Karen O either physically or spiritually. That always makes me a little bit sad. If it's lame to wear the t-shirt of the band you're going to see, how lame is it to dress up as a member of the band you're going to see?

(The answer is that it is very lame and it is even lamer to constantly shake your shag-bob-whatever haircut and spit beer in solidarity with the way Karen O sometimes spits beer, because if the band wanted you to help them out with their stage act, they'd probably go ahead and have you jump on stage and sing "Black Tongue" with them WAIT ON SECOND THOUGHT FORGET I SAID THAT because I'm sure someone will try this eventually.)

BUT! Seeing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is not lame. It is super fun, even when they do the bonus rock star move of playing their NYC date before the album is out. I did have a chance to listen to a stream of Mosquito a couple of times, and it's notable for sounding just like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs while not really sounding like any of their previous albums. It's not as ragged or punky as Fever to Tell, it's not as varied as Show Your Bones or as polished as It's Blitz! What it is, I can't really say until I've heard it more times. But the new songs sounded good mixed into the set, which drew on their material almost mathematically: six from the new one; three each from the previous three; one old EP song. I didn't even realize until later that at least on a song-count basis, this was actually the shortest show I've seen them play. But it seemed like it was about as long as the others, maybe longer, I assume because a couple of the songs got extended-intro treatments, where like the bass or keyboard or whatever it is line from "Zero" would start and you would know that "Zero" is going to kick off soon but you don't know when and sometimes it would be kind of a crazy long time.

The best part of any Yeah Yeah Yeahs show is the opening riff of "Date with the Night" because you know everyone is going to flip out, but everyone flipped out for "Cheated Hearts" and "Heads Will Roll" and "Black Tongue" and "Zero," too. The floor shook.

Mosquito
Gold Lion
Under the Earth
Slave
Black Tongue
Sacrilege
Cheated Hearts
Softshock
Wedding Song
Zero
Turn Into
Despair
Miles Away
Heads Will Roll
---
Maps
Date with the Night

Next month my small-venue streak comes to an end: the YYYs are playing outdoors (!?!) in Park Slope (?!?) at the Great Googa Mooga (ugh, what a terrible name) with the Flaming Lips (!!?). And The Darkness (yech). Everyone should come see how that works.

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Thursday, April 4th, 2013
8:35 am - You always let me back in
For how often I check Pitchfork (almost daily) and the average depth of music criticism in the magazines I read most often (shallow), I'd think that Pitchfork's habit of writing thousandsomething-word record reviews would be one of my favorite things about the site. But as long as I've been reading Pitchfork, the site's writers have been able to get under my skin in the bad way, be it with snarky dismissiveness, music-snob self-importance, pseudo-self-explanatory critiques, or egregious overwriting. Some of their reviews have been insightful and smart, but often the indulgence has often come close to sending me running back to the emaciated 100 words/three and a half stars/and you're out Rolling Stone model. The site is all the more frustrating because its writers come across interesting ideas that don't pay off in the actual criticism.

For example, their review of Rilo Kiley's new rarities/B-sides collection rkives opens by talking about LiveJournal, of all things, and the specific time period where this platform and Rilo Kiley were both gaining a specific sort of popularity. This resonates with me: just shy of ten years ago, I started this LJ (having expressed my customary skepticism and then doing my customary caving when at least two-thirds of Rob, Jeff, and Chris have signed on), and I was also just getting into Rilo Kiley, courtesy of Marisa putting "Science vs. Romance" on a mixtape and me subsequently buying The Execution of All Things. I wasn't quite part of the "subset of the Livejournal community who'd plaster [Jenny Lewis] lyrics on their entries and profile pages with Belieber-like devotion," as Pitchfork writer Carrie Battan puts it, but I get what she's talking about. The Execution of All Things, though it bore little resemblance to anything literally happening to me at twenty-two, was a big-deal record for me, so intense-not-overwrought with so many emotions-not-emo. The band's cross between short-story details and confessional tone, between indie-rock keyboards and loud guitar and indie-folk strumming, hit me in just the right place and Rilo Kiley became one of my favorite bands.

I've written before, I think, about stumbling across posts somewhere -- maybe the AV Club comment section, possibly even the Rilo Kiley LJ community -- where people a little bit younger than I was during that time talking about how Rilo Kiley meant a lot to them when they were teenagers, and now looking back, the music seems a little adolescent and immature and embarrassing to them. I have (almost) always reacted against that kind of reflection and revision -- maybe to a fault. I understand the reaction against the cliche -- even backed up by some studies, I'm pretty sure -- that the music you enjoy as a younger person pretty much locks you into what you enjoy as an older person, and that at some point (maybe earlier than you might think), you stop growing and evolving in that regard. But while obviously I strive to work against those theories and discover new (for me) bands to love, I don't know that there's anything shameful or depressing about keeping in touch with what it is that you loved about something you loved as a teenager.

I don't mean to endorse full-on hard-line loyalism; no one who loved the Spin Doctors as much as I did should be trusted to do that. I just mean that I can still listen to and love Rilo Kiley in 2013, despite not feeling the same feelings that may have hooked me on them in 2003. rkives is a particularly valuable experiment in that regard because while it is a sort-of new sort-of album -- of the fourteen new (not alternate-version) songs, six are new to me, while the others have circulated -- it is also material recorded during the band's decade-or-so period of activity, which to some extent removes the question of whether the music or the listener has changed that often comes up with a band's later work.

What's fascinating to me about this Pitchfork review, then, is the degree to which Battan proceeds to project her own feelings about the band's background onto the music released here -- and how many of those observations nevertheless come off as entirely secondhand and in some cases downright incorrect.

When writing that the album "reads like a long-lost Rilo Kiley album from the early-2000s," she then makes the leap that it "tells a story of the group before Lewis got an expensive haircut, before their music played in scenes of Gossip Girl and Grey’s Anatomy, before they signed to Warner Bros., before Ben Gibbard and Zooey Deschanel broke up (or even met). Before we collectively shuttered our Livejournals." This is indeed a lovely story -- with very little basis in an actual timeline that exists. This is not exclusively a group of Execution of All Things outtakes. The sixteen tracks are culled from every period of the band's career -- and of course it's hard to say for sure when these songs were actually written or in many cases recorded. But based on those that were released as B-sides and such, I can say that at least half a dozen of these songs date from 2004 (More Adventurous period) or later. And honestly, I'd suspect it's probably more like half of the album, maybe even a little more. The earliest Rilo Kiley material was put out on their Initial Friend EP in the late nineties (in several forms, under slightly different titles and tracklistings), and exactly one track from that collection appears here: "The Frug," the final song on rkives. I suppose you could assume that songs like "All the Drugs" or "Bury, Bury, Bury Another" were also written and recorded around the same time, but that the band somehow liked the stuff on the Initial Friend EP better and shelved the other songs, but now have come around on this older material that sounds suspiciously like their mid-career material... but that assumption requires a fair amount of twisting around.

The simpler solution is that these songs are not all pre-exposure, 2002-vintage Rilo Kiley gems. But that solution doesn't fit Battan's thesis, so she focuses on what does. The (yes, terrible) "Dejalo" remix isn't just a goof but "a reminder that newly recorded Rilo Kiley music is exciting in theory but would probably be peculiar and unlistenable in practice." Yes, because it is an unavoidable fact that any new music Rilo Kiley would have made after 2007 would have sounded like "Dejalo" (and, if we want to take this remix of "Dejalo" as some kind of bellwether of hypothetical future RK albums, it would have also included regular guest verses from Too $hort).

Admittedly, much of rkives does work surprisingly well as its own album -- so much so that I wonder why, with a fair amount of rare or unreleased material, the band chose to include those odds-and-ends-collection standbys, the alternate versions, at all: the "Dejalo" remix and a demo of Blake's "Rest of My Life" demo stick out because the other songs are fully-formed enough to stand on their own. I wonder if "Rest of My Life" was included for lack of other Blake-penned/Blake-sung songs to include; given that he averaged one to two songs per Rilo Kiley album, it seems pretty likely that a lot of his extra compositions were funneled to his side band the Elected, which started earlier than J-Lew's solo career -- and in some ways feels like more of a traditional solo break than Lewis, who tends to work with collaborators (the Watson Twins, Jonathan Rice, or, in earlier days, Sennett himself).

And ah, that brings us to Blake Sennett, and the point at which Battan casts off any real engagement with Rilo Kiley nostalgia and/or fandom, and gets right into the boilerplate Blake-bashing of the hardened rock critic. It's a bizarre phenomenon that I've long associated with heterosexual male rock critics: a protectiveness of Jenny Lewis so fierce that Sennett, who co-wrote many of Rilo Kiley's best songs and is a better-than-decent guitar player, among other talents, must be downplayed and perhaps even stamped out, often with a weird, bullying tone.

But girls can do this too! To wit:

"[Sennett's] whimpering persona translates especially harshly on rkives, which features a handful of tracks he sung. It's almost as though those songs, like the limp relationship post-mortem “Well, You Left”, were added to the collection to show how uniquely appealing Lewis was, to underscore her role as the heart and soul of the project. His voice is deeply, painfully unlikeable."

Doesn't that sound a bit hyperbolic for a guy who basically just sounds like a slightly less pained Elliott Smith? I'm not suggesting that Sennett is on par with Smith, or that no one can like Rilo Kiley without loving Blake's songs or voice. But this projection about how Blake songs are there to showcase Jenny is just bizarre. Here, again, I have an alternate solution: there are a couple of Blake-sung songs on this collection because there are one to two Blake-sung songs on every single Rilo Kiley album. If anything, in fact, the early period of the band that Battan romanticizes featured somewhat more Sennett-sung stuff (although, as I pointed out at the time, it's not exactly a precipitous drop; only Takeoffs and Landings has more than two Blake songs). But instead of analyzing their dynamic as songwriters or singers together, the review takes a turn into hardcore J-Lew crushing:

"In many ways, the gulf between Lewis and Sennett has become the gulf between Lewis and many of her most adored indie-folk classmates, whose music can sound meek or stale in retrospect. Next to Sennett’s crude whine, Colin Meloy’s overwrought attempts at poeticism, Ben Gibbard’s pallidness or Conor Oberst’s drunken antics, Lewis’ pain sounds downright lovely, her despair dignified."

... which I suppose circles back to the idea of consciously shaking off the music you liked at a particular time as childish and something you need to get over (although I suppose that's my projection onto Battan; maybe she never liked any of that stuff, but it sure reads like an after-the-fact condemnation).

In any case, the Blake presence on rkives is as essential as the "Dejalo" and "Rest of My Life" inclusions are inessential; it closer simulates the feeling of a Rilo Kiley record. Of course, there's a limit to how cohesive a collection culled from ten years of work can be, and the result is an album that mutates as you listen to it: both within itself, and as a reflection of past Rilo Kiley songs. "Draggin' Around" calls back the "pretty girls you're gonna meet" phrase from "Breakin' Up," while "American Wife" feels like some kind of a flipside or cousin to "Does He Love You?" Less directly, A Town Called Luckey" takes the lower-key sadness of songs like "The Good That Won't Come Out" or "The Absence of God" into full-throated despair over a "middle-aged crisis type thing."

It occurs to me that rather than an unearthing of an early Rilo Kiley record, rkives often sounds more like an alternate path the band could've pursued after More Adventurous -- an Under the Blacklight that shares some of that album's California unease but not its sonic departures. What Rkives sometimes lacks, and what even the much-maligned Blacklight very much has, is moments of pop ebullience. That's not to say there aren't wonderful turns of phrase or catchy choruses. "Let Me Back In," the de facto single that circulated as a live cut for a long time, has a lovely, understated refrain and lyrics that fit in with any number of Rilo Kiley, J-Lew, and even Elected (call them Rilo Kileyverse?) songs. But putting some of these other songs together makes them sound a little more like B-squad, even if many of them could've easily fit on other records without sounding second-rate.

Not that they sound second-rate here; just, perhaps, somewhat centerless. But rkives does put a period, of sorts, on the band's career (however belatedly, coming nearly six years after their last album; by almost any standard, this compilation is a solid three to five years overdue). Rilo Kiley clearly had the songs to mash together albums, if they needed or wanted to. Their leftovers certainly sound more engaged than many official albums from, say, the Strokes, to pick a favorite target of mine (in terms of their seeming disinterest in their jobs, not even necessarily the quality of their music).

Ultimately, this doesn't matter much to the Pitchfork review, because it spends very little time talking about the music on this album: about a third of the songs get so much as a passing reference. Instead, it wants to talk about Rilo Kiley's career arc, and influences, and bygone LiveJournal culture. Basically, it wants to be a 33 1/3 book in miniature (they're years apart in their Pitchfork careers, but this review does remind me of Pitchfork alum Scott Plagenhoef's 33 1/3 book on Belle and Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister, which is only nominally about that album, and not in some smart, grander-themes way so much as it is equally about the Belle and Sebastian album Tigermilk).

Battan mentions that the lady behind Waxahatchee (a band whose recent album Cerulean Salt I've been loving -- and, yes, decided I had to buy once I heard it described in a Pitchfork review as resembling both the Mountain Goats and early Rilo Kiley, even though I only kind of hear either of those influences in the music itself) was hugely influenced by Rilo Kiley, as was Bethany Cosentino from Best Coast. These are not invalid or unwelcome observations (so many critics talk about Best Coast sounding like surf rock or chillwave or sixties girl-group, but yeah, come to think of it, she does sound sort of like a poor man's Rilo), but I'm not sure how they actually tie back to what Battan says at the beginning of the review. It sure sounds meaningful that Cosentino's abandoned LiveJournal still exists and shows that she's a member of the Rilo Kiley community. This does not suffice as a magic bullet for me. In the end, I'm not sure what, if anything Battan feels about Rilo Kiley beyond what sounds heartfelt or expert but is actually just repeated indie-rock talking points (Blake annoying! Under the Blacklight bad! Rilo Kiley good when you're young!) -- which wouldn't be as much of a problem if her review, you know, spent a substantial amount of time talking about the music itself.

And maybe now I've done the same thing by spending too much space talking about a dumb Pitchfork review, especially on a post that, believe it or not, I originally intended to say: until some other time (I hope), Rilo Kiley! Here are your best songs according to me! Obviously a list doesn't contain any analysis, interesting observations, or real thought. It's just empty favoriting.

But this is just a LiveJournal, after all.

The Top Twenty Rilo Kiley Songs!

1. "The Execution of All Things" (The Execution of All Things)
2. "A Better Son/Daughter" (The Execution of All Things)
3. "Portions for Foxes" (More Adventurous)
4. "Spectacular Views" (The Execution of All Things)
5. "Silver Lining" (Under the Blacklight)
6. "Plane Crash in C" (Takeoffs and Landings)
7. "Let Me Back In" (rkives)
8. "Accidntel Death" (More Adventurous)
9. "The Good That Won't Come Out" (The Execution of All Things)
10. "Under the Blacklight" (Under the Blacklight)
11. "With Arms Outstretched" (The Execution of All Things)
12. "It's a Hit" (More Adventurous)
13. "Xmas Cake" (Maybe This Christmas Too compilation)
14. "Ripchord" (More Adventurous)
15. "15" (Under the Blacklight)
16. "Always" (Takeoffs and Landings)
17. "More Adventurous" (More Adventurous)
18. "Wires and Waves" (Takeoffs and Landings)
19. "Science vs. Romance" (Takeoffs and Landings)
20. "The Frug" (rkives/The Initial Friend EP)

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Sunday, March 24th, 2013
5:32 pm - Closing in on 25%
Here's what's been up on the moviegoing agenda, starting with the official writing and getting into less formal stuff that I saw purely for fun, or trying to have fun.

The Croods review here. Surprisingly good!

Olympus Has Fallen review here. You know, I rarely feel all that disgusted by strong box office performance, even in movies I dislike. It can lead to more bad movies, sure, but I tend to shrug it off. I'd rather that movies I really like do well than movies I really hate do lousy. But sometimes, I have an unexpectedly visceral reaction to the consumer choices of my fellow moviegoers, and the $30 million and change Olympus Has Fallen grossed this past weekend, I'm sorry, fills me with disgust. I can't really fault the mythical Moviegoing Public; they haven't seen the movie, of course (though anecdotal CinemaScore data suggests they liked what they saw!), and it's not a premise that should send people running for the hills (I'm hoping, er, Roland Emmerich will squeeze some fun out of it in White House Down this summer), and even if moviegoers out for a good time paid much attention to reviews, they actually would've a fair number of Olympus notices saying that it's a fair and enjoyable appropriation of the Die Hard formula (and passes given to this movie are a whole other disappointment). But even so, I have to say: bad job, guys. You went to see a fucking stupid action movie made with the barest of competence, which in some ways makes it a more annoying movie than an utter fuck-up, because, yeah, some audiences and critics will give it credit for... what, exactly? I guess not being as actively disappointing as Die Hard 5? In some ways, though, it's just insulting and it certainly isn't any smarter; it's just slightly better at ripping off the original Die Hard, which is canceled out when you factor in Gerard Butler, whose presence will assure the movie of global success, too. So thanks a lot, world. This was the action movie you chose: the one just as retro, in its way, as Jack Reacher or The Last Stand (not great movies, mind, but at least their action sequences aren't just people getting killed like something out of a disaster movie), except it's nostalgic for the proudest puffed-up machismo bullshit of a Bruckheimer/Bay movie, and without the decency to throw in any stars who will do anything to play the material at odd or interesting angles.

Upside Down review here. It's gorgeous but ultimately quite disappointing, which actually places it in the same ballpark as arthouse sensation Spring Breakers (though Upside Down is much, much stupider in the end). I expressed my feelings about Breakers here. I certainly understand why a lot of people liked the movie, becuase there's a lot to like about it, but some of the head-over-heels reactions have me wondering if arthouse audiences just feel starved for any kind of unexpected sensation at the movies, because it would take some starvation, I think, for me to consider this sometimes beautiful, often repetitive, not particularly insightful movie for a feast.

Maybe good-movie starvation is part of why I was so delighted by Michel Gondry's The We and the I. I've gone on and on about this movie, and wrote a bit about it here, and I'm a little disappointed by just how little attention/acclaim it's received. The more I think about it, the more it seems like one of Gondry's best movies, and one of the best movies about teenagers I've seen in years. A nice companion to The We and the I turned up at the same IFC Center two weeks later: Adam Leon's Gimme the Loot, which apparently won a prize at SXSW 2012 (and was up for an Indie Spirit award last month) but is just making it into theaters now. It's also about Bronx-based NYC teenagers -- in this case, a pair of graffiti artists and, frankly, small-time criminals, who try to scrape together enough money to bribe a guard at Citi Field to let them in so they can tag the home run apple. The movie takes place over two days and countless NYC locations, with as great a sense of the city as The We and the I, and it's often hilarious, with terrific performances by all of the actors (mostly young, mostly not so experienced). I had a blast with it; it's one of those movies where the stakes aren't incredibly high and the goal isn't suspense, but I was right there with it, wondering what was going to happen next, and finding most of it delightful.

Over on the Big Movie beat, there was a time, in the wake of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, that big-name directors, medium-level directors, and novices alike were apparently getting some kind of ultimatum: if you want to make a big-budget special effects movie, you gotta make it a fairy tale. So after Alice, two Snow Whites, Hansel and Gretel both fighting vampires, the first two big-ticket March movies were Bryan Singer doing Jack the Giant Slayer and Sam Raimi doing Oz: The Great and Powerful. I'm definitely glad I saw Jack first, because it already has started to seem like an also-ran in my memory next to the Raimi movie -- and I didn't even love the Raimi movie. But Jack is moderately fun: Ewan McGregor is nicely droll in a supporting role, even if the movie neglects to give him any witty dialogue in a movie that would benefit hugely from any manner of wit; I liked the grotesque giant designs and the big giants-humans battle royale that closes out the movie; I wasn't bored or irritated by hardly any of it. But it boils down to Bryan Singer trying something out of his wheelhouse and not really being much good at it. Points for trying, and Jack isn't badly made -- Singer just doesn't reveal a hidden talent for high-spirited adventure.

Apparently this movie was originally conceived as something darker and more violent; I don't really know if he would be better-suited to that version (the comic book movies he's done aren't exactly dark, I'd say, or at least not dark-for-dark's-sake; they just have a human dimension, and making Jack darker wouldn't necessarily add that) but the one that wound up onscreen was probably the comprise the studio hoped would come off like Pirates of the Caribbean or Burton's Alice, and it's neither funny nor inventively designed enough for that challenge. Oz: The Great and Powerful, meanwhile, is by no means a great movie, but I can't believe anyone would say that it doesn't play to Sam Raimi's strengths as a director, or that it finds him doing anonymous, generic studio hackwork. His concept of the flim-flam magician from Kansas who drops into Oz and becomes a Wizard by lying borrows heavily from Ash, the undead-battling boob-hero as he appears in Army of Darkness (probably, come to think of it, the kid-friendliest pre-Oz Raimi movie that doesn't star Spider-Man). Since Pineapple Express, James Franco has seemed game to come off as a doofus as needed, and he makes a good one here. The movie as a whole is sillier and funnier than I was hoping; I won't say that the humor is subtle or complex, but it does, apparently, need more context than offered in the trailers. I don't want to see Raimi stuck in Oz perpetually, but he made a pretty solid kids' movie that adults in the right frame of mind will dig, too.

When Jen asked me about The Incredible Burt Wonderstone this morning at brunch, I realized I had already started to conflate it in my head with Admission, which Marisa and Nathaniel and I saw a week later, even though the two movies have completely different subjects, tones, and approaches. What they have in common is comedy stars who, especially since appearing together in Date Night, will be accustomed to hearing that their big-screen comedy isn't as edgy or smart or funny as three or four episodes of their respective NBC sitcoms strung together. This is true: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone isn't funny as two hours of Office episodes [from seasons two through seven], and Admission probably has about as many laughs as ten minutes of an okay 30 Rock episode. But despite my yoking them together, Wonderstone is a lot funnier and more satisfying -- despite Carell being, if not exactly miscast (I've never liked that word), miscalculating in the role of an arrogant, lazy celebrity magician with an inflated sense of importance. It's a textbook Will Ferrell part, but apart from his smaller roles in Ferrell vehicles, Carell has a pretty different sensibility from Ferrell: he tends to play his comedy more grounded and real. You can see this in how his Michael Scott deepens and, to an extent, softens over his run on The Office; you can see this in Carell's tendency, in the last few years, to favor dramedies over broad comedy; and sometimes, you can see it when he doesn't quite knock a role out of the park the way he should, like in the Get Smart remake or this movie. In Burt Wonderstone, Carell's low-key, morose energy doesn't really match the ridiculous showmanship of his character; as a result, he does seem like a lazy, not particularly talented jerk who for some reason expects grander treatment that he receives...but the mismatch isn't funny. He just seems bad at his job and kind of a pain to be around. I know that's the point of the movie, but it's also a comedy. Carell still scores some laughs because he's a talented, naturally funny guy, but it all feels turned down, even though the rest of the movie goes broad and ridiculous -- and sometimes quite funny, especially when Jim Carrey is onscreen as Carell's edgier, Criss Angel-ish rival.

The lack of laughs in Admission wasn't a big problem for me, because the movie is trying something markedly different from 30 Rock -- actually, it's like one of those grounded dramedies Carell likes to make. Tina Fey and Paul Rudd are up to the task; they'd probably also be up for a low-key adult-targeted romantic comedy. But Admission isn't either of those things (well, it isn't unlike a Carell dramedy, in that a lot of them fall into a similar not-terrible/nice-try/not-good zone). It's not even that it doesn't give them much to work with: the movie actually gives them pretty interesting characters with morally questionable dilemmas. But director Paul Weitz and screenwriter Karen Croner don't always seem to be particularly attuned to what makes these characters and their problems interesting -- to us or to each other. Fey plays a Princeton admissions officer whose ethics and dedication to her job are questioned when she meets an oddball kid (introduced by alternative-school principal Rudd) who she really, really wants to get into the school but doesn't have the traditional transcript strengths to do so. This premise brings in a variety of worlds we don't often see in movies or know much about, plus characters with some dimension -- and to some extent the movie wants to refocus on how this affects Fey's ability to Have It All. Especially as the movie is wrapping up, the filmmakers seem to think their job is to wriggle out of anything potentially troubling, ambiguous, or unpredictable. Admission raises lots of interesting questions and conflict, and then fails to provide either (a.) smart ways of answering them or (b.) smart ways of not answering them. The tidiness undermines what's good about the movie -- and the movie isn't enough of a romantic comedy for the tidiness to be part of the fun.

Speaking of movies that don't know how to follow through on their better qualities: The Call is a pretty compelling, clever thriller for at least 45 or 50 minutes. That's not nothing! But boy, does it go wrong in a bunch of ways by not trusting its smartest limitations (Halle Berry plays a 911 operator staying on the line with an abducted girl, trying to figure out where she is and how to direct the police to her). Brad Anderson obviously has the chops for a pulpy, tense little popcorn thriller like this, but he can't do anything with the movie's ridiculous-in-the-bad-way final stretch.

So that was most of March, most of first-quarter 2013. I've seen a few excellent movies this year, but it seems like things really kick into gear the first weekend in April, when Upstream Color, Danny Boyle's Trance, and the Evil Dead remake (it actually looks good?!) all open (plus: is when I see To the Wonder).

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Friday, March 22nd, 2013
8:44 am - We are like, literally, literally.
In terms of distances traveled to see They Might Be Giants, a 30-minute train ride out of Manhattan is pretty paltry compared to the routine 2-3 hour trips we'd make in high school, but it's also a bit more out of the way than the 20-minute walk from our apartment of the NYE run of shows, so there was at least something kinda-sorta retro about heading kinda-sorta out of town after work yesterday evening, eating at a restaurant around the corner from the Tarrytown Music Hall, and jumping into the car afterwards to drive home.

The show started out a little low-energy -- not from the band, but from the not-quite-full and 100%-seated venue. As they played the intro to "James K. Polk," though, Flansburgh asked us to "please rise for the They Might Be Giants national anthem" and invited us -- well, actually, invited people in the balcony, but there was a rush as soon as it was clear what he was going to say and we were already fourth-row center -- to come down and stand in front of the stage, so we did that. Actually, this was probably the closest I'd been at a TMBG show in a bunch of years, since the years of me actually being one of those kids who gets there at like 5PM to hang outside the venue and secure a very, very close spot. Nostalgia!

So this show is from the end of the first leg of the tour to promote the new TMBG record Nanobots, and while that album definitely repped the most songs in the setlist overall (seven; and because I am TMBGOCD, I can also tell you that they played at least one song from every rock album except my poor, neglected John Henry), it also wasn't a huge percentage of Nanobots, less than thirty percent of the album's band-record 25 songs. This is, of course, because a chunk of those 25 songs are short bits like "Hive Mind" or "Didn't Kill Me"; there are also a fair number of more substantial but lower-key and stranger songs like "Replicant" or "Icky" or "Sometimes a Lonely Way" that would potentially slow the momentum of a rock show. TMBG keep their shows eclectic by engaging in side bits and sometimes switching up instruments, but there is a definite streamlining and powering-up of their music that takes place when they're playing as a live five-piece rather than piecing together their studio recordings (even when those musicians still play in the sessions).

The tension between rock and experiments actually makes it onto the Nanobots record itself. It definitely attempts to continue what Flansburgh has described as the breakthroughts in minimalism that drove Join Us -- still using a full band on lots of songs but often stripping away sounds or production elements and focusing on more singular weirdness -- while at the same time opening with some of their power-poppiest material this side of The Else and also trying out, on the second half of the album, even shorter, even weirder songs that are most closely related to "Fingertips" on Apollo 18 and "Minimum Wage" on Flood. This seems like I'm describing an album that's all over the place, but in some ways it also recalls the odd cohesion of The Spine (while for me Join Us had something of a song-explosion feel, along the lines of Mink Car or the earlier two records). So yeah, despite what I just said that does sound all over the place, because what I just said brought the grand total of albums Nanobots recalls in some way or another to five.

In some ways I might slightly prefer it to Join Us, only because that record has a couple of songs that sound, to me, perfunctory ("When Will You Die," "Never Knew Love") or self-consiously weird ("Dog Walker"), while I tend to love the short-burst weirdness of Nanobots minisongs like "Sleep," "Tick," and "Destroy the Past" (typing those out, they sound like titles of Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs, possibly because "Tick" actually is the title of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song).

Both albums start stronger than they finish; though the "Her Majesty"-ish "Didn't Kill Me" technically qualifies as a good album-closer, Nanobots follows the general post-nineties TMBG album pattern of feeling kind of abrupt and scattershot at the finish (I suppose "The Mesopotamians" off of The Else bucks this trend to some degree, and perhaps applies a retroactive sense of continuity to "Working Undercover for the Man" closing Mink Car, in that I guess this means they like to close with a sort of meta-band song). It's also possible that I temporarily prefer Nanobots to Join Us because of the actual song "Nanobots" which is currently my favorite thing ever and I can listen to it every morning and not get sick of it. Live, the song was preceded by Flansburgh messing around with the robot-voice device (I'm not gear-literate enough to tell you if it was a vocoder) and introducing himself as the recently conclaved "Pope Robot the 1st," and then paying proper respect to "Pope Robot 0."

Anyway, the power-pop side of Nanobots blends well with TMBG's live show, which currently, as my obsessive album-counting may have hinted, has a nice career-spanning versatility.

Take it away, Marisa:

Damn Good Times
You're on Fire
Memo to Human Resources
Call You Mom
James K. Polk
Circular Karate Chop
Cloisonne
Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head
Dr. Worm
The Famous Polka
Drink!
Where Your Eyes Don't Go
Insect Hospital
He's Loco (Avatars)
Lost My Mind
Nanobots
Withered Hope
Dr. Evil
Can't Keep Johnny Down
Birdhouse in Your Soul
Why Does the Sun Shine?
When Will You Die
---
Tesla
Istanbul (Not Constaninople)
---
Mammal
The Mesopotamians
New York City

My attention to TMBG setlists posted online is my curse. I admit, it is kind of a bummer knowing lots of other cities got "Judy is Your Viet Nam" as recently as a night or two ago. But I like that they're mixing the somewhat underrated "Memo to Human Resources" back into things. I'm not sure why they played "Withered Hope" as much as they do without horns. I don't ever need to hear "Dr. Evil" in any form ever again. "Can't Keep Johnny Down" sounded big and awesome. So did the keyboard on "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head." Flansburgh is doing the actual nuclear reaction elements in "Why Does the Sun Shine?" for the first time in I don't know how long.

You know, the usual nerd stuff.

45!

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Saturday, March 9th, 2013
1:05 am - We don't want your body
Marisa and I went out to see Stars tonight at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. I had never really laid eyes on this band in my many years of listening to them casually, so because I knew they were one of those big English-speaking bands from outside of the U.S., I just sort of pictured them looking like Belle and Sebastian or (less likely) Los Campesinos! or (more likely) the New Pornographers. Or at worst, Arcade Fire. (I kid, Arcade Fire. You guys are adorable goons.)

However, this line of thinking contains some math errors related to how long Stars has been a band (over ten years) and how recently I've seen the similarly-aged New Pornographers (awhile), as well as some geographical errors about how being a Canadian indie rock band is apparently not the same as being an English or Scottish indie rock band. More than the band looking a little older and mangier than I would have expected from their adorable songs, their physical presence and charisma on stage felt, well, like a second-tier Canadian version of presence and charisma. That is to say: when Jarvis Cocker struts or Stuart Murdoch goofs around or Craig Finn gesticulates wildly, it's pretty awesome. When the dude from Stars did very similar stuff, it felt -- to me -- sort of forced and self-consciously theatrical. Also, it's a pet peeve of mine when people in bands gush about how many songs they're going to play and get the crowd to cheer their promises of staying on stage as long as possible, because people who do this almost always play for an utterly normal amount of time (if not a slightly below-average amount of time). I mean, I wasn't hoping Stars would play for a Springsteen-style three-hour marathon. 100 minutes was fine. But I know what a rock concert is like so 100 minutes of music isn't going to blow my fucking mind.

That probably sounds harsh. The energy was definitely there, and for the most part the actual songs sounded really good, although I didn't realize how similar some of their melodies sounded until I thought they were playing "Take Me to the Riot" twice before it actually happened. Similarly, as a casual listener, I didn't give much thought to how there are rabid fans of this band until I saw and heard people jumping and screaming like they were going to see the actual Smiths, instead of Canada's answer to being influenced by the Smiths. That was probably the best thing about the show, apart from the consistently high quality of Stars songs: being surrounded by people who love "Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It" and "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead" as much as I do (or, more accurately: way more).

What do I do when I get lonely:

The Theory of Relativity
Fixed
A Song is a Weapon
The North
We Don't Want Your Body
Backlines
Personal
Do You Want to Die Together?
Soft Revolution
Krush
Life Effect
Midnight Coward
What I'm Trying to Say
One More Night
Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It
Take Me to the Riot
Walls
---
My Favourite Book
Your Ex-Lover Is Dead
The 400

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Friday, March 1st, 2013
7:53 am - March, Onward
Keeping up with the official movie-writing:

Identity Thief review is here

Safe Haven review, the third installment in my "review Nicholas Sparks movies for some reason" trilogy, here. The movie must be romantic; after I saw it, Marisa and I went out for Valentine's Day for the first time in a bunch of years (although: she was relieved not to have to see Safe Haven).

Beautiful Creatures review here. It's not very good slash better than any Twilight movie I've seen.

Dark Skies review here. Of all the horror movies to hide from critics, I'm not sure why this fairly well-crafted and not-boring (if still too beholden to genre conventions) one warrants the sneakiness. I sort of liked it.

Phantom review here. This is not short for Phantom of the Opera or that other musical about the Phantom of the Opera that's not the famous Phantom of the Opera. Oh, speaking of theatrical experiences: I finally saw Sleep No More. It was pretty neat. I don't really have a desire to go again, although if it was thirty dollars instead of eighty, hey, sure, I'd give it another go. I am not a huge fan of expressive dance-fighting, it turns out. But I am a fan of being able to walk away from expressive dance-fighting if I'm bored and want to go root through cupboards! It also made me realize that I claim Macbeth as my favorite Shakespeare play but do not have a strong recollection of what happens in a lot of it. Anyway, Phantom: you probably haven't heard of this movie. It's fine. I hadn't heard of it, briefly got stupidly psyched to see it, and then bam, it's just another bad indie movie with some good actors in it. Only in this one, the good actors are playing Russians, and don't speak Russian (OK), don't speak with Russian accents (hmm...), in fact speak with pure undisguised American accents (pretty weird).

I did not exactly review Stoker but I did write about it after seeing it and a Q&A with the director at the Museum of the Moving Image. It's really damn good (much better than Park Chan-Wook's first film from ten years ago!) . So is Side Effects, which I walked through a blizzard to see, for it is the last ("last") Steven Soderbergh movie ("movie") for a long time ("probably two to five years"). It's not quite up to the level of my favorite Soderbergh movies, but it's solidly on the level of Contagion: a Soderbergh twist on a familiar genre. Odd how Soderbergh often releases movies in pairs, but those movies often pair better with movies from other years. Contagion and Side Effects match up nicely; Magic Mike came out the same year as Haywire, but is more of a flipside to The Girlfriend Experience. Full Frontal accompanied Solaris in 2002 but the former makes more sense alongside Ocean's 12 in 2004. The Informant! is almost like a spoof of the kind of movie Erin Brockovich is.

Anyway: I'll never understand the faction of moviewatchers who consider Soderbergh's 1998-2001 period an unreplicated golden age and everything else since then faintly to extremely disappointing. I'll give you that Out of Sight and The Limey, the two movies that kick off that run, are two of his best ever, maybe his actual top two ever, but I'll take five or six genre riffs over Erin Brockovich (itself probably something of a genre riff; maybe I should rewatch it someday but the Julia factor really sours it for me) any day of the week. Hell, I like most of Soderbergh's genre deconstructions more than the big-canvas drama of Traffic. There's something quicker on its feet, more experimental but also more pleasurable, about a movie like Side Effects. As far as I'm concerned, he's been on a major roll since 2009, so I'm sorry to see him take a power/retirement/sabbatical/hiatus/whatever. And I eagerly await the non-theatrical release of Behind the Candelabra this summer.

I did not review A Good Day to Die Hard but I did walk through the first four after rewatching them all on Blu-ray. Watching Live Free or Die Hard (or, for that matter, Die Hard 2) again made me think, OK, look, the first Die Hard is really good, but a Die Hard sequel doesn't even have to be as good as Die Hard with a Vengeance for me to like it, so all A Good Day to Die Hard has to do is give me John McClane and some cool action sequences, and who cares about the fidelity to the premise of the original Die Hard. This cavalier attitude did not prepare me for how, in the word both Nathaniel and I used separately without the other knowing it to describe this movie, dispiriting the fifth Die Hard would be. There are some cool parts here and there, and Willis is definitely better as even a revamped, hardened version of McClane than he is at most other action-y roles, and I'm not even taking real issue with McClane's newfound superhero status. I just wish: (a.) John Moore, the director, knew how to cut an action sequence, and I'm not talking about how everyone needs to slow down and stop cutting so fast because I can't see what's going on; I'm talking about how I could identify each shot of the movie's big car chase easily, but it still made no sense because of how nonsensically they were cut together; (b.) McClane had motivations and feelings that made sense, rather than moments that actually make him into a total asshole that the movie thinks is just a charming blue-collar guy who gets shit done; and (c.) that the movie had a middle, rather than a protracted set-up, a brief and sleepy interlude, and then a protracted climax where even its enjoyable moments don't feel the least bit earned, even on an action-movie level.

I saw some other movies just for fun. Like Amour! Oh, the fun I had! Just kidding, it was really upsetting and made me think about death and stuff. I did like it more than other Michael Haneke movies I've seen but it's hard not to wonder, having seen Funny Games, how much sadism may be lurking behind his supposedly more humane and tender movie. As far as upsetting dramas in French go, I do prefer Amour to Rust and Bone, which held my attention (as any movie with the super-talented Marion Cotillard probably could), but lets a lot of its subplots ebb and flow at convenience, and ultimately, I don't know, felt a little melodramatic and sluggish even though I admired the acting.

I'm glad Marisa and I made the effort to get out and see John Dies at the End, a loopy horror comedy that I can't say makes a ton of sense (and sometimes seems to be obscuring itself for no real purpose), but made me laugh and smile a lot with its weird attitude and commitment. It was sort of like the chaos of the Ty Segall concert I went to with Derrick and Marisa earlier in February: after thirty or forty minutes, the songs started to sound pretty similar. But I loved what was happening, the crowd moshing and stage-diving and crowd-surfing like it was 1993 again, and even though I did not understand why, during the encore, some dudes from the audience jumped up on stage, apparently impromptu, and sang the songs instead of the singer, I found it pretty delightful.

On the other hand, Snitch did not aspire to make me laugh or smile at all. In a way, I appreciated that about it: it totally looks like a Mark Wahlberg style crime thriller and/or a retro action vehicle a la the spate of post-Expendables stuff we've seen (I missed Bullet to the Head and even-older-guy crime cinema companion Stand Up Guys, by the way, which I did not expect to, but feel fine about), but it's actually more of an earnest, gritty drama about the unfairness of drug sentencing. As an earnest, gritty drama, it's not especially skillful. But Dwayne Johnson, playing more human being than superhero, is pretty good, and the movie places its characters in some interesting (if sometimes implausible) moral dilemmas and tight spots. It's still pretty simplistic and I didn't really get much out of it, but it aims higher than you might expect from a movie called Snitch.

So that was another month or so worth of movies and other stuff. I want to write a books post but at this point I'm a solid eighteen months or so back, I think, on writing up books I've read. But there will continue to be a movie starring The Rock on the last weekend of the month for three more months, so there's my motivation right in front of me.

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Wednesday, February 13th, 2013
6:58 pm - Story time, all the time
I watch The Mindy Project. It's pretty good. In the shifting world of network sitcoms, which have turned out to be so much more varied in style and bountiful in quality than I could have pictured the last time I watched more than one or two per week (circa 1996 or 1997), it's nowhere near the best years of the best post-crash NBC Thursday shows, nor do I fire it up on the DVR as quickly as New Girl, which has become one of my favorite comedies over the past year. But I enjoy Mindy Kaling's voice as a writer, I'm surprised by how much I've liked Chris Messina's work on the show given the many, many performances of his in movies that I didn't care about, and I'm with Mindy Project as it finds its legs, as so many comedies take a season or so to do.

Because I was not paying a lot of attention to Mindy Project beyond, you know, watching it pretty regularly, and mainly just know what my friends who watch it think of it, I was not aware that apparently people who write about TV for a living and other people on that wavelength have been going through a wild rollercoaster of emotions over the show, swooping from hope to moments of love to, more often, disappointment and even hate. I tend to only look at episode recaps/reviews of shows I really like, and even then, I sometimes lose interest part-way through, so I didn't reach much about Mindy Project between its pilot and a couple of weeks ago, when I idly looked through some episode reviews and learned that apparently it's not just a promising new comedy finding its way, but a constant, flailing bungle of a show whose every minute of failure has been chronicled on the AV Club and the like (by which I mean both "other, lesser pop culture websites" and "AV Club commenters," which are basically the same thing. Which is a compliment to the AV Club commenters, general internet-wide comments considered).

Obviously as someone who writes plenty of criticism (and probably too much criticism-of-criticism), it seems silly for me to say, enough, just leave The Mindy Project alone -- because, among other reasons, I can totally make some critical observations about that show and what I think it does well and what it does not so well. I understand the impulse to discuss an episode with fellow watchers, even if I'm not technically discussing; otherwise, why would I be looking at an episode review in the first place?

But this breathless episode-by-episode coverage, though it has become more or less the convention in TV crit, makes little sense to me for most shows, and makes especially little sense for this one. It turns watching a developing show into eagle-eyed nitpicking about when things are going to get better and how much better they're going to get and whether it's time to give up or keep the faith, all with the additional (and bizarre) meta-narrative about how first seasons of comedies work, where we (as critics, pro and amateur) not only now expect them to not be that good and then later improve, but maybe even have (overdeveloped) expectations about when they should be improving, and how, and to what degree. Episode-to-episode reviewing, as its largely practiced now (lord knows it's been going on for The Simpsons since newsgroup days -- though even the most hilariously humorless and didactic Simpsons fans generally kept things a bit more concise back then), evolved from recaps, which leaves a lot of less talented writers or less worthy shows producing weekly reviews that read to me like listless reactions, grasping for something to talk about in the larger culture or, failing that, ways to explain why the storytelling and the beats of this or that episode just aren't up to par.

At the risk of sounding anti-criticism: sometimes you should just watch a show for a few episodes and shut up about it until you have something more interesting to say than "yay I liked this joke!" and "mehhh, this show isn't working." Especially when a show is both relatively uncomplicated on a thematic and technical level, like Mindy Project, and new, like Mindy Project, I don't really see the advantage of becoming an episode-by-episode watchdog over whether the show is being done right.

As I said, this isn't a quarrel with criticisms of The Mindy Project, per se. I have thoughts about the show, mainly that it's still sorting out how to use its supporting cast, and in what capacity, and their temporary solution has been to lean on the Morgan character as much as possible -- and understandably, as he is a very funny character, but has often been shoehorned into episodes where he would've been funnier in the background. I've also, as Marisa and I have mentioned on Twitter, find it weirdly non-New-Yorky in a retro sort of way that fits with Kaling's stated romantic comedy obsession: romantic comedies equal romantic moments at landmarks equals New York City! (Even if said show is clearly shot nowhere near New York City on sets that often don't seem designed to even vaguely look like New York City.) I guess that's a valid use of the city, but after Seinfeld and 30 Rock and Girls so nailed aspects of New York, and shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation broke out of the sitcoms-in-NYC-by-default mode, I wish Kaling had just chosen a different city and made something more specific. But those observations (or, imagine if I had made other, more interesting or insightful observations) did not require breathless, up-to-the-minute coverage to form. In fact, they'd probably be better-suited to a review covering, say, four to six episodes of the show at a time, tracking its progress in chunks rather than 900-word weekly rants.

Of course, not all individual episode reviews have to be so reductive and empty. Donna Bowman of the AV Club, for example, is absolutely brilliant at deconstructing and explaining the mechanics of shows like How I Met Your Mother and, in her retrospective work, Newsradio. Maybe it's more interesting to read because she's an unabashed fan of both, but I also find her work unusually attuned to the details of those shows, not just whether she likes a particular storyline, and hyper-aware of the way production and performance and writing come together in this particular form -- in short, she produces something not unlike good film criticism.

But most TV criticism is not much like good film criticism (then again, neither is a lot of regular film criticism, but that's another meta-complaint), and I think this problem goes beyond writers' facility for episode-by-episode analysis, and beyond even how many shows can actually support that level of analysis. It speaks to a fundamental way that culture writers/observers/etc. approach television.

So let's back up a little: People got excited about The Mindy Project because they loved Mindy Kaling on The Office, they loved her on Twitter, and they loved her tossed-off book of essays. Makes sense. Cut to halfway through the show's first season, and there's a mountain of criticism: the characters are unlikable and inconsistent; the plots are too traditional and sitcommy; Mindy herself is too superficial and possibly too conservative; and in one AV Club episode review that had me nearly rubbing my eyes with disbelief, the central story isn't going anywhere.

The thing is, much of what seems to bug people about The Mindy Project is totally present in Kaling's other work. I haven't read all of her essay book, but what I did read was largely not the work of a renegade left-wing comic genius. It was about liking romantic comedies, and boys who are tall and smell nice. Don't get me wrong: I like Kaling a lot, find her very funny, very talented, etc. But I'm not surprised that sometimes her show doesn't quite have the point of view its youngish, smartish, leftwingy audience wants or expects it to. What was so pleasing and cute in essays becomes less so in a sitcom, where perhaps a fan of Kaling is coming in expecting to feel 22 minutes of pure love every week. In short, some (not all!) of the criticism directed toward The Mindy Project's trajectory (or rather, speculations about its trajectory, as it has at minimum ten more episodes to air) has less to do with whether it's funny or well-executed, but whether the person reviewing it likes or, preferably, loves it yet.

You might say this sounds like exactly what one should be evaluating in a television show, and you would only sort of be right.

For the past bunch of years, since 2004-2005 or so at least, we've been in the middle of a TV renaissance. Because of HBO and cable and even networks (which are a little slower with the cancellation axe now that their business model has blown up in their faces), there is a greater variety of television, covering a greater variety of subjects, attracting a higher average level of talent than you might have seen even ten or fifteen years ago. There are so many shows! I remember when I was in college, I could get away with watching like, two shows regularly, at a time. Even the first few years after, I might try out one new show per season, if that. I remember being a little disoriented when I was suddenly really into Veronica Mars AND Lost in 2004. Now, obviously, there's even more than that.

This led to what has become a now-standard TV-is-better-than-movies-these-days argument, which I've mentioned and argued against several times on this blog (such as it is) over the years. My main argument was and still is that saying TV is better than movies is like saying novels are better than albums. It's kind of meaningless. They do different things in different ways, and just because they're both things that you can watch doesn't mean that it makes sense to do a side-by-side.

But I have another, more obnoxious argument I'd like to add to that: TV seems better, because a lot of TV critics (or pseudo-critics) mainly want to love it.

I don't mean that TV critics are an easier lay than film critics (though some probably are). I mean that the narrative rush of television often renders otherwise smart critics perhaps less able to discern between something great, and something that makes you really, really want to watch the next episode. And in saying that, I don't mean to discount the pleasure of something that makes you really, really want to watch the next episode. That is storytelling, after all. But I do get the feeling that the pleasure of television sometimes supersedes the art of television.

This is, I think, at least partly to blame for the phenomenon of shows (particularly hourlongs) that people absolutely fucking looooove in their first seasons going (supposedly) horribly wrong in their second seasons. Now, I don't watch (for example) Homeland, so maybe the second season did represent a major comedown from the first, and maybe this common form of whiplash has something to do with the difficulty of sustaining a long-form narrative (which could fit into a different argument about how silly it is to declare TV a superior medium). But it happens so often that it's difficult for me not to wonder if maybe, just maybe, Homeland wasn't actually the best damn thing on TV for that first season. Maybe what it was, was a show people really, really liked watching, and now they like it a little less, because they're used to it or because it's novel or, yeah, because maybe the storytelling isn't as good.

I'm not saying people should not have enjoyed or gotten absorbed in whatever season of Homeland really gripped them; I'm similarly gripped by Justified and I think it's a very, very well-crafted show. I appreciate a ripping yarn, whether in books (I recently read Gone Girl in two days flat) or movies or TV. Undeniable craft goes into that, and I can tell you from fiction-writing experience that it is much harder than it looks! But genuflecting so much to narrative and storytelling and beats, beyond making us all sound like a bunch of screenwriting students, can also turn our criticism disappointingly literal-minded. Wanting to know what happens next is not necessarily the highest possible praise you can afford to art or even entertainment. (Recall the embarrassing New York cover story on Gossip Girl, the basic thrust of which was: This show is REALLY amazing and important, because we enjoy it SO MUCH.) Which is how you get a guy at the AV Club who needs to know where The Mindy Project is going, man, or else it's not worth his time.

Obviously not everyone feels this way; Argo, for example, could very well win Best Picture. I can't imagine even its most ardent supporters (and recall that I did like it) arguing that it contains any really provocative ideas, or even that the technical filmmaking in it is vastly superior to, or more expressive than, anything else they've seen this year (unless they've seen mostly crummy movies). It's all about a gripping story. So while I've found criticisms of movies as "TV-ish" increasingly meaningless as TV has gotten more cinematic -- superficially, at least -- I would say that's something Argo has in common with many of the "great" TV shows of our time. It's largely about narrative effect, about what happens next, and the framing and composition and editing rhythm and music and characterization all serve that narrative. Which is usually a compliment, that phrase "all serve the narrative." But some narratives do ask remarkably little of their audience.

That's the skepticism I feel about a lot of television: not that these acclaimed shows are probably secretly crap because indeed, Argo is very far from crap and in fact has been made by talented people and does its job very well, but that a lot of excitement about these shows has to do with how much they please the audience, not more advanced craft or thought-provoking ideas. Fans of this stuff won't describe it as simple crowd-pleasing, because it's not the simplistic pandering sometimes associated with that term. But they will confer a kind of holy status on a show that makes you want to watch more of that show. It's a good quality; it's just not the only quality. And as a measure of quality -- especially if you're some kind of pro or semi-pro critic -- it strikes me as a little crude. I read Gone Girl faster than I read A Visit from the Goon Squad. Does that make Gone Girl a great book?

Obviously, television is capable of more (and obviously, what I consider "more" is not the be-all end-all of the form). The recent episode of Girls, "One Man's Trash," with Hannah spending a weird, dreamy 36 hours or so at Patrick Wilson's house, reminded me so much of a short story rather than a chapter of a narrative that it made me wish more of the show acted like that a little more often (in part because at under 30 minutes per week, the actual through-line narratives of the show must move both too quick, in terms of screen time, and a little slow, in terms of how much can happen). At the same time, I didn't just like it because it was more like a movie than most shows. It was very much an episode of television, because you had to really know Hannah as a character, for the story to be interesting at all, and for its oddness to have that impact. It was also nearly free of the OMG-did-you-see-what-happened factor that seems to power so much loooooove for so many TV shows (until people get sick of them and move on).

Maybe this is why I tend to favor TV comedies over dramas. I feel like I get something out of shows like 30 Rock or New Girl that feels different from what I get when I see a movie comedy, even one I really like. But as much as I like Justified or Boardwalk Empire (which has the serialized thing going on but also has its less narrative-based pleasures: wonderful dialogue, shots that sometimes mean more than "here is the person who the narrative is happening to now"), it's rare that a TV drama moves or amazes me as much as something like The Master or Lincoln or even, if we want to bring stronger sense of pleasure into it, The Dark Knight Rises. The Mindy Project isn't a great show, but rather than a mutating weekly complaint about it not as closely reflecting the sensibility you wanted Kaling to have, or not being a gripping enough narrative (!) for a half-hour situation comedy, maybe we can try watching it without demanding to love it.

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Sunday, February 3rd, 2013
4:24 pm - January Man
Hi! It's been a month. Let's mention some movies.

I reviewed Gangster Squad.

I reviewed Mama.

I reviewed The Last Stand. I haven't seen the Stallone movie (yet?). I did see the other Expendable solo movie, Parker. As far as Jason Statham vehicles go, it lands somewhere between the somewhat classier heist movies like The Bank Job and The Italian Job and his best trash like the Crank and Transporter series. It's a little neither here nor there; it's not as satisfying as either type of Statham movie, though it's never as crummy as some of his other action movies. It and The Last Stand do seem to be part of a bizarre larger trend of making action/heist/thriller movies that recall a bizarre, mega-retro mix of former nineties star power and quasi-tony exploitation; eighties bone-crunching and stupidity; and slower-paced, smaller-scale seventies procedural grit. There's a certain type of viewer who would probably really like both Parker and Jack Reacher, and might even dig The Last Stand -- but I'm not sure those people go to the movies in large numbers these days. And it's not like it's a huge tragedy that these movies have been relatively underseen. But I am enjoying, in a puzzled sort of way, this retreat from effects-y bombast. Broken City also fits into this mode in that it has both more ambition than something like Contraband (last year's Wahlberg January crime movie) but also absolutely no more ambition than recreating a third-tier seventies-via-forties noir. I dig that vibe, but this one is just a little simpler and less intriguing than it should be, maybe because the detective character is Mark Wahlberg, so instead of having the detective seem like a reasonably smart and streetwise guy who gets in over his head and/or turns out to be a patsy, you're never remotely thrown off by Wahlberg being a step behind -- the surprise is that the movie seems to expect you to stay a step behind, too.

I reviewed Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters because of course I did.

I reviewed Movie 43. Not good, in that it packs 15 minutes' worth of laughs into a spacious 100 minutes of running time, but I've seen worse. Though its lowest points are pretty fucking low.

I liked Warm Bodies well enough. In particular I enjoyed watching Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton, and Rob Corddry. They haven't all been as well-used in movies as they could be, so it's nice to see them all afforded opportunity to be charming in this zomromcom. I do wish the movie had been a little sharper, a little cleverer; sometimes it feels like it's coasting on a very enjoyable premise and trying harder to not screw it up than really running with it. But it's heartfelt, and it sure beats Twilight on every single conceivable level.

The watchword for this month's movies has mostly been: stupid. Even the ones I liked... kind of stupid. Warm Bodies and Mama, not too much, but the rest, yeah, kind of stupid.

By far the best movie I've seen in 2013 is Christian Marclay's The Clock, which I saw at first almost entirely by chance, not having heard of it or knowing that tons of people I knew had already heard of it. One of these people was Chris, so when Stacy was in NYC, he suggested that we go see it (basically Stacy surrogate-insisted that we go see it in Chris's place). Reading the information on the wall as we waited on line, I found out it was some kind of assemblage of shots of clocks in movies, in real time, which sounded interesting enough, and I figured we'd sit and watch for 30 or 40 minutes. 90 minutes later, Stacy leaned over and said, OK, we should go at 4 (half an hour from then). At 4 she leaned over and said, OK, we should go at 4:30. We did tear ourselves away at 4:30 because the museum was closing in an hour and we wanted to see other things. We did see other things, and they were cool, but none of it was like The Clock which has since become pretty much my favorite thing of 2013. I went back that weekend with Marisa, Ben, Lorraina, and Jonathan, and watched another two-plus hours. Then Ben and Marisa and I went back on the weekend it closed, trying to catch the midnight hour, and failing but still watching another two hours or so. All told, I watched from approximately 1:50PM until 4:30PM; 8:45PM until 11:05PM; and 12:10AM until 2AM. So, about seven hours, or a mere 29 percent of the whole.

So yes, it's this real-time assemblage of movie clips, from throughout movie (and, not really mentioned in any of the basic lit but definitely, also TV) history. But it's not strictly shots of clocks: it's snippets of scenes that include clocks, sometimes on the peripheral and sometimes, truthfully, not at all -- I'm still not sure if the clockless scenes are just bits that are understood from greater context to be taking place at the appointed time or if Marclay fudged on a grander level than that. But no more than a minute ever goes by without a look at the clock, cued to the actual time (though sometimes it must linger on a round time for a little longer, presumably fudging for the lack of movies with shots of clocks that say, like, 1:03AM instead of just 1AM), filtered through countless movies through the ages. You watch film history jump all around, and you watch time pass in front of you. And it is hypnotizing, or at least I found it so.

Part of it is just an amping up of the enjoyment I get from montages on the Oscars or whatever, except freed from the constraints of familiar Big Moments in Cinema -- in fact, often working actively against those expectations, considering the utilitarian nature of assembling a real-time loop. For convenience, the movie uses multiple bits of, say, National Treasure (actually, the first section I saw had a bunch of Nic Cage), or the Taking of Pelham 123 remake, simply because they happen to use countdowns that refer to odd times repeatedly. There are big moments too, of course; the second time, I was prepared to riot if they didn't break out Back to the Future when the lightning strikes the clock tower at 10:04PM (riot averted). But as Marisa mentioned, Marclays intentionally builds tension without major relief or payoff: on the hours, tension builds and then just tapers off at a minute or two after the hour.

All told, I recognized maybe twenty or thirty percent of the movies (and TV shows: X-Files and Columbo, mostly, with a touch of Matlock) (I'm sure some of this was just to fill gaps but I love to imagine that Marclay is this huge X-Files fan) (because seriously, there was a lot of X-Files), and there's the fun of IDing clips context-free, too, of course. But it's also fascinating to watch a movie and experience the movement of time so directly, not least because you (or at least I) hope to lose myself in a movie and not be constantly wondering what time it is or how much of it is left. Of course, that doesn't always happen, even in the dark of a proper theater. But The Clock absorbed me by telling me explicitly what time it was, constantly, and how long I had been there. And I did somehow sort of manage to lose time in there: all three visits, the two hours flew by.

I'm often a fan of low-rent January cinema (Statham, Underworld, etc.), but maybe we need The Clock at MoMA every January as an insurance policy. Catching up with Breaking Bad episodes is not the same, no matter what the culture says!

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Thursday, January 3rd, 2013
11:26 am - And that's numberwang!
2012 by the numbers:

Movies I saw theatrically: 180
Movies I saw theatrically as press: 51
Movies I snuck into: 4
2012 movies I saw twice theatrically: 9
2012 movies I saw three times theatrically: 0
Non-2011-2013 movies I saw theatrically: 12
Film and DVD reviews published: 98
Size of biggest moviegoing groups: 19 (Looper); 18 (The Hunger Games);16 (The Dark Knight Rises)

Rock shows attended: 24
Percentage of those attended in Brooklyn: 67
Percentage of those attended in North Brooklyn: 46
They Might Be Giants shows attended: 4
Hold Steady shows attended: 0 (!)
Albums bought or received: 69
Percentage of those albums that were by Bob Dylan: 5.8

Estimated miles walked: 1,182
Estimated average miles walked per day: 3.24
Percent walking increase over 2011: 5

Weddings attended: 1
Trips to Saratoga: 5
States visited: 6
Roundtrips on planes: 5

LJ entries: 64
Average LJ entries per month: 5.3
Percent decrease from 2011: 31

Income from writing: $1,500.00
Income from finding money on the ground: Approx. $5.60
Income from selling stuff on half.com: $53.59

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