|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.
Under the Earth
Heads Will Roll
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
Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head
The Famous Polka
Where Your Eyes Don't Go
He's Loco (Avatars)
Lost My Mind
Can't Keep Johnny Down
Birdhouse in Your Soul
Why Does the Sun Shine?
When Will You Die
Istanbul (Not Constaninople)
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.
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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
A Song is a Weapon
We Don't Want Your Body
Do You Want to Die Together?
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
My Favourite Book
Your Ex-Lover Is Dead
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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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|Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013|
11:18 pm - The best around
Around this time last year, I expressed excitement over the then-dawning year 2012 in terms of movies, and even though we never got that Cuaron movie or that Gatsby movie or that Coen Brothers movie, 2012 did indeed turn out to be an excellent year on film. I saw a lot of movies I liked, I saw a lot of movies I liked a lot, and I even saw some movies I could say that I loved. Nonetheless, I felt somewhat at a loss when considering whether I should write a proper year-end essay for PopMatters, as they usually have to be organized around some sort of theme. I guess history plays into a lot of the prominent 2012 releases, from the attempt at historical fidelity of Lincoln to the mixing of Hollywood and real life on and off the screen of Argo, to Tarantino's Basterds-style inventions and intentional anachronisms in Django Unchained. The Master engages in a specific period, and even Moonrise Kingdom, in addition to being set in Wes Anderson's world, is also a period piece.|
In fact, now I kind of wish I had written that essay because I'm starting to see a lot of connections. But you can draw connections like that almost every year. What resonated for me this year was the mix of new and established auteurs (mostly directors, but some writer-directors and even some just plain writers!) doing great, distinctive things with the medium. With the media, even: Computer animation! Stop-motion animation! Shooting on 70mm! Shooting on 16mm! Shooting in IMAX! Digital cinematography and celluloid, too! Even 3D had a major triumph! (And I'm not just talking about the fact that I avoided seeing The Avengers that way.) It was such a good year that I thought I might not have enough for my Ten Worst list, but, you know, life found a way, and see the end of this post for more on that.
First, movies I thought I might see at some point that I have not yet seen: The Secret World of Arrietty; Detachment; Goon; The Hunter; God Bless America; Chernobyl Diaries; 360; Sparkle; The Apparition; The Cold Light of Day; Stolen; Won't Back Down; Paranormal Activity 4; Alex Cross; The Man with the Iron Fists; Jack and Diane; The Details; Playing for Keeps; Amour; Oslo, August 31st; Rust and Bone.
I notice that last year's list of movies I didn't get around to seeing contained exactly zero movies that I then caught up with the following year, which does not bode well for any of the above-mentioned films, but I do think I'll eventually see The Details or Oslo, at least. I'm not listing any of the documentaries I didn't see because you know what, I don't really like documentaries. I like things that are made up.
THE TEN BEST MOVIES OF 2012
...as seen in The L Magazine, where for once (or for twice, as I guess this happened last year too), my list submitted in mid-December still stands as-is. A few more words on each movie below:
1. Moonrise Kingdom
I watched this on opening night in Union Square and my heart sighed and soared. The sequence that begins "Dear Suzy" made me swoon, and then I laughed so hard at one moment that the lady next to me looked at me funny. By the end of the movie I was so entranced with its delicate beauty that I almost didn't want to breathe. I saw it again while eating brunch at Nitehawk and laughed and swooned again. I saw it again on a thirteen-inch television on a boat in the middle of the sea and it made me so happy. That's when I could really tell, this was one of those movies that would be with me for a long time.
Rian Johnson goes three for three; he's the best American writer-director to emerge in the past decade or so. His movies do so much -- they're funny, exciting, touching, wildly original and inventive, beautifully written -- yet they never appear cluttered or overly fussy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been great in a lot of movies, but in his two Johnson movies, he's especially spectacular; they should become the new Scorsese and De Niro.
3. The Master (review)
A movie as fascinating for what it leaves out as for what it shows you. It's not as epic as There Will Be Blood, moving as Magnolia, or tense as Punch-Drunk Love -- yet I also never had any idea where it was going and the movie has lingered with me months later.
4. The Dark Knight Rises
Do nerds regard this as way worse than The Dark Knight? Do today's nerds enjoy anything besides The Raid: Redemption? It doesn't have Heath Ledger's Joker, no, but for me Nolan's Batman movies strike the perfect balance between epic, character-driven, seriousness, and pulpy comics flair. I had a great time at The Avengers but I was surprised by how much Dark Knight Rises moved me.
5. Haywire (review) and Magic Mike
If Soderbergh really takes a break after 2013, I'm going to be pretty bummed out, because he's on a secret hot streak that sometimes it seems like only me and Rob know about: The Girlfriend Experience, The Informat!, Contagion, and now this year's pair of experiments: a streamlined and beautiful action-movie deconstruction, and a consideration of sex and economics with musical-comedy-romantic overtones. Both make sense alongside The Girlfriend Experience: Haywire is similarly built around a compelling non-actor, while Magic Mike is like GFE for boys.
7. Lincoln (review)
Much attention has been paid to Daniel Day-Lewis's acting and Tony Kushner's writing, and rightfully so, but it's also worth noting just how well Spielberg directs this stuff. It's not just restraint and getting out of the actors' and writer's way. In the movie's relatively quiet and interior way, it is masterful filmmaking.
8. Damsels in Distress (review)
Whit Stillman appears to be entering Woody Allen territory where his characters look and sound less and less like actual humans you may have met in your life, yet at the same time, they convey something that feels true or, failing that, weirdly hilarious. Also: The Sambola! International Dance Craze.
9. Killing Them Softly
Not exactly subtle, but the lack of subtlety pays off in the end. Before that, you get some of the best-written, best-acted dialogue scenes of the year, and plenty of stylistic bravado from Andrew Dominik.
10. The Cabin in the Woods
I liked Whedon's Avengers a lot but as much as Iron Man and the Hulk and the Black Widow and Cap all mixing it up filled me with delight, there's perhaps even more glee in this Whedon-coauthored horror riff.
The Next Ten
In many years, any of these ten would've been fighting for a spot within the first ten. This year, they settle for next-ten status but I thoroughly enjoyed and admired all of them.
The Avengers (review) and Skyfall
Life of Pi
Wreck-It Ralph and ParaNorman (review)
Take This Waltz
In roughly descending order, here are ten additional movies I consider well worth your time: Cloud Atlas; Fat Kid Rules the World (review); Brave; Silver Linings Playbook; Zero Dark Thirty; 21 Jump Street; Chronicle; Safety Not Guaranteed; Celeste and Jesse Forever; Premium Rush
THE WORST MOVIES OF 2012
1. The Deep Blue Sea (review)
I try not to stunt-designate movies as the worst of the year, but I admit, I may have developed some additional rancor toward this movie because it not only got good reviews upon release, but became something of a year-end cause celebre for its apparently sumptuous filmmaking and Rachel Weisz's lead performance. Weisz is fine -- she always is, and she's the reason I decided to attend the movie's press screening in the first place -- and there are some moments where the camera moves in interesting ways, sure, but that doesn't change that the movie itself is a crushing bore during which very little happens, and what does happen, happens with a kind of slow-motion self-serious anguish that I only ever understood intellectually, not emotionally. I don't usually hate movies with this much artistic ambition and this little technical incompetence. But The Deep Blue Sea still a solid choice for worst of the year because it was honestly the movie I most wanted to be over for the greatest percentage of its (not particularly hefty) running time.
2. Darling Companion
Then again, this one only misses the number one spot because technically I haven't seen the whole thing. I saw an edited version on a plane (though the version I saw provided no possible context for anything interestingly objectionable being possibly cut out), and mercifully achieved sleep for a brief period around the two-thirds mark. This is a movie about a married couple looking for their lost dog. That's it. Well, actually, there's more: the movie begins with a lengthy prologue establishing how they got the dog. And then there's an opening section where we see the wedding that has resulted in this couple being in the woods for the weekend, including a fascinating scene where family members decide who's taking who to the airport. And there's a gypsy who claims her psychic powers can help the couple find the dog. If that doesn't sound entertaining enough, the couple also has bitter, endless fights sort of about the dog but actually more about the state of their marriage. So if you boil this movie down to a simple premise, it sounds terrible, but once you figure out what else is going on in the movie, that simple premise -- people looking for a dog -- actually starts to sound better by comparison. And if you want the whole thing to sound not just terrible but deeply insane, consider that Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, and Sam Shepard star in this movie. Doesn't that sound like a cast of actors you'd maybe like to see in a movie? Or at very least, a cast of a movie that wouldn't drive you mad? Because of Duplass's presence, I wondered if writer-director Lawrence Kasdan might be attempting some kind of baby-boomer version of mumblecore. Because the last movie Kasdan wrote and directed was Dreamcatcher, it seems more likely that he has lost his fucking mind.
3. Dark Tide (review)
Funny story: I signed up to review this movie on DVD, because I figured hey, Halle Berry in a bikini fighting off sharks in a movie by John Stockwell, who made Blue Crush and Crazy/Beautiful; not great movies, but he definitely knows his way around bikinis and oceans and stuff. The DVD never arrived, but the movie received a brief theatrical release, so Marisa and I went to see it, and it was the second time this year a movie superficially reminded me of the Sam Jackson/LL Cool J shark movie Deep Blue Sea while being vastly inferior to it. I wrote the review linked above... and then the DVD arrived. Because I'm married to a saint, Marisa agreed to take over, sparing me from writing another 800 words about this terrible movie, which you may have noticed I've avoided again by describing the circumstances under which I saw it rather than the movie itself. Which is terrible. If you don't believe me, read one of two Calyer-authored reviews (at least until Nathaniel gets his in?).
4. Girl in Progress (review)
I'm naturally inclined to like movies about teenagers, so one has to be pretty fucking stilted and misguided for me to hate it as much as I hated watching this movie.
5. Battleship (review)
You all know I'm not a snob about this type of movie. This is just a really bad example of this type of movie.
6. Red Dawn (review)
A lot of the first five on my worst-of list are terrible on a writing or experiential level.
Red Dawn has good old-fashioned technical bungling on its side (in addition to being terribly written and a terrible experience).
7. The Paperboy (review)
Nicole Kidman can give an interesting performance in even the worst of circumstances, and The Paperboy is about as bad a set of circumstances as she could possibly find herself in. I hope.
I cannot fucking believe there are at least a couple of AV Club writers going to bad for this as a fun movie -- seemingly just because it's fun to refer to it as Space Jail. Obviously I am the target audience for a movie you can refer to as Space Jail, and this utterly uninspired, unexciting, all-around unfun movie did nothing to live up to that fake title. The idea of this movie is awesome. The execution of this movie is depressing.
9. Hyde Park on Hudson
I thought other lists including this movie were just stunt-including an Oscar also-ran, until I actually watched it. The film makes a stunning miscalculation in thinking that Laura Linney's character (who, let's be clear, is FDR's handjob-giving distant cousin who acts like a teenager in love. WITH HER COUSIN) makes an excellent pair of eyes from which to view an important historical event, and has an even better narrative voice with which to convey vital information throughout the movie. In SNL terms, she is the girl you wish you hadn't started a conversation with at this party. At the center of the movie, there is something that's kind of interesting: the uneasy relationship between FDR and King George VI. This is unquestionably the best aspect of the movie, and it's also treated and especially resolved with all the sophistication of a sitcom episode. You have to go through an awful lot of creepy and inexplicable cousin-based romance to get to an okay sitcom episode about world leaders.
10. The Devil Inside (review)
Honestly, a lot of it isn't so much worse than any number of found-footage horror pictures, but the see-our-website-for-more-details chaser to the standard and-then-the-camera-shuts-off ending is a stunning enough miscalculation to push this over from deeply mediocre to pretty fucking stupid. I don't think the filmmakers even necessarily intended it, but the idea that they maybe couldn't tell how off-putting it was doesn't speak highly of their skills.
Now that we're done there: 2013! It looks like enough 2012 stuff got bumped into 2013 that, combined with new movies from Scorsese, Soderbergh, McKay, Jonze, Payne, Refn, Malick, and Green, plus a fuckload of sci-fi, that we might get a two-year streak.
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|Tuesday, January 1st, 2013|
2:35 am - Grow the nanobots up!
Overall TMBG count: 44! Earlier in the evening, Amanda expressed shock that it was that low (and Briana expressed shock that she was expressing shock about this). It did get me thinking that, yeah, I guess I went to two in-store performances beyond the 44 actual sets. I never count those, though.|
In Attendance: Me! Marisa! Sara! Briana! Amanda! Harald! Anne and her friend Dimitri off to the side! Friends ranging from TMBG experts to novices.
Opener: MOOOOON HOOOOOOCH or as they are commonly known, Moon Hooch. (Just kidding, they are commonly known as MOOOON HOOOOOOOCH too.) The only rock and roll band ever fully endorsed by both Rob and Nathaniel: two saxophonists and a drummer. No vocals. Few pauses. Only one, really, between what I thought of as the first one (probably actually the first six to ten songs) and the last one. It was definitely like nothing else I've ever seen at a rock and roll show. And it is definitely fun to watch two super young dudes who are really good at and into playing the saxophone. It was also definitely forty minutes of sax and drums and the occasional bass clarinet.
Show Feature: Officially, none. Unofficially, uptempo songs! Last night, Flansburgh made a joke about playing a slow song followed by another slow song (adding that it created the expectation that the songs would continue to get ever slower as the show progressed). Tonight, they opened with a slow song, and then pretty much played fast and loud for the rest of the show, especially as they raced to midnight (last NYE show I saw them do, they started at twelve with "Auld Lang Syne" and went from there). There wasn't even much stage banter for the first hour, as they went from song to song to song, covering several numbers not included in nights one or two (nine such songs total).
New Song Count: Four of the five from the first night, plus the new extended band-intro music ("123") that they actually played every night but I didn't count as a song until tonight, even though Marisa has been insisting that I should. The case for: the intro doesn't play into anything. They seriously play this long piece where everyone gets a turn doing instrumental jams, and then stop cold before doing another song. It's very strange. That kind of thing is far more tolerable when you play into an awesome song.
Highlights: "The Guitar"! "Birdhouse"! "Ana Ng"! "New York City"! Those are four of my all-time top ten TMBG songs right there. Little beats hearing "New York City" in New York City surrounded by people you love (and other miscellaneous nerds). "Celebration" sounded more muscular in a live setting, too. And the triumphant return of the sun song!
Could Have Done Without: "Dr. Evil" again! It takes up so much time! Just let Robin sing something else! Have her sing on "The Guitar"! I'd even take "In the Middle, In the Middle, In the Middle" at this point! Also, this is bringing it into double-negative territory, but I could have done without the lack of "Can't Keep Johnny Down" or "Judy is Your Viet Nam." But no real complaints. Really fun show. Not quite the 40-song behemoth of New Year's in 2005, but pretty kickass.
Our New Year's Rockin' Eve:
When Will You Die
Why Does the Sun Shine?
Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal
Call You Mom
Clap Your Hands
Birdhouse in Your Soul
Auld Lang Syne
Damn Good Times
James K. Polk
He's Loco (Avatars)
Battle for the Planet of the Apes
We Live in a Dump
New York City
Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
Whistling in the Dark
Where Your Eyes Don't Go
Total different TMBG songs heard in three days: 52!
Non-children's albums covered: Nine out of eleven (counting the upcoming one). Nothing from Pink Album, nothing from John Henry.
Number of TMBG foam hands in our apartment right now: 7
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|Monday, December 31st, 2012|
2:06 am - Be like yourself.
Overall TMBG count: 43! Prime number!|
In Attendance: Me, Marisa, Jeremy, and a patient Sara C, who last saw them, also at my behest, at the since-departed Avalon in Boston, in November of the year 2000. I believe Anne S was also there though I did not find her.
Opener: The Last Car, who Marisa and I saw once before, a sort of cabaret-folk performance act featuring Flansburgh's wife, Robin Goldwasser. She's always fun to watch, and the Last Car did an extremely brisk and painless set, but there's a smack of self-amused theater kids about this act that I don't love.
Show Feature: Side One of Lincoln and Side Two of Flood. Side Two of Flood has many fewer hits than Side One, but they did "Birdhouse in Your Soul" anyway, which made it sort of best of both worlds: obscurities, no "Istanbul" or "Particle Man," but not sacrificing the best song on the record. In both cases, they played the entire album side (albeit shuffled together), unlike the previous night's (understandable) fudging of Lincoln's Side Two.
New Song Count: Just two tonight, unless we're counting "He's Loco," which I identified last night as the song about not fucking with the Avatars of They (the sock puppets John and John perform for a few minutes at most shows these days).
Highlights: I can't believe I'm saying this, but "Cage and Aquarium." This could probably make my list of 20 Worst TMBG Songs, but they played this quiet, stripped-down accordian-and-guitar version that was actually quite lovely. I also very much enjoyed hearing "Road Movie to Berlin" (with bonus unrecorded verse! I recently found out from a Rolling Stone track-by-track look at Flood which I can't believe I didn't read until this year that said verse was left out unintentionally during recording of the album, and the band felt they didn't have the time to fix it), "Purple Toupee," "Ana Ng," "Women and Men," and "Whistling in the Dark" in, yes, the dark (except for the lit-up disco ball).
Could Have Done Without: If I'm limited to just two songs from Join Us, I'll never pick "When Will You Die" as one of them.
Marisa remembers again:
Where Your Eyes Don't Go
When Will You Die
They Might Be Giants
Someone Keeps Moving My Chair
Lie Still, Little Bottle
Call You Mom
Road Movie to Berlin
Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love
Piece of Dirt
Women and Men
Cage and Aquarium
Birdhouse in Your Soul
Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal
Whistling in the Dark
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1:55 am - Just under the wire
Twenty-one movies to close out 2012:|
Skyfall: Prior to the release of the new James Bond movie, I tried to kinda-sorta catch up on Bonds of yore. I still haven't seen any Roger Moore installments all the way through (ten minutes of Moonraker here, bits of Live and Let Die there), but I've now seen all of the Connery installments, plus the Lazenby and a Dalton. So I feel qualified to say that Skyfall is one of the best Bond movies ever, even if it adheres to the usual ten-to-fifteen-minutes-too-long bloat. Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins shoot some of the best-looking set pieces of the series (at least that I've seen; maybe Octopussy holds unseen cinematographic wonders), including a gorgeous bit in Shanghai as well as a more Classic Bond opening. I've enjoyed the Connery entries (among others; really, I've at least sort of enjoyed every Bond movie I've watched so far), but I have to say that the three Craig entries so far average out to the best sustained job of being actual movies, not just competent franchise entries.
Lincoln: A belated review appeared in my column the second weekend it came out. I love Spielberg and I love that he's still out there surprising me.
Wreck-It Ralph: An utter delight; Marisa and I saw it twice, once in Disney World and once upstate as a respite from memorial planning. This movie was there for me, man. It's as visually inventive as you'd hope from a modern-day Disney cartoon; the voice work from John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman is endearing beyond even their usual comic endearments; and there's some neat Futurama-ish mixing of joke-writing and world-building. Marisa and I got each other Ralph-related toys for Christmas.
Rise of the Guardians: Reviewed! Disney wins this round, DreamWorks.
Life of Pi: I never read the book, so maybe I was able to experience this with a greater degree of novelty than other people, but I was surprised how much I liked, sometimes loved, much of Ang Lee's adaptation. Though the cinematography sometimes looks distractingly digital to me (that is, digital trying to look as rich as film but having some video-y edges; not Soderbergh or Mann style digital), it features the most gorgeous and probably coolest use of 3D I've yet seen.
Silver Linings Playbook: As a serious movie about living with mental illness, I feel like aspects of this movie are pretty much BS. As a romantic comedy, it's very good: funny, well-acted, heartfelt. I've never liked Bradley Cooper nearly so much in a movie, and while I don't share the general disdain over Robert De Niro's last ten or fifteen years onscreen (why is everyone so shocked that a legend would become more of a character actor in his later years? Resulting in some good movies, and plenty of middling ones?), it is nice to see him doing high-quality work in a high-quality movie; I admit those two things have not coincided in awhile. I saw it a second time with my sister over Christmas, and while it didn't really deepen in a second viewing, it did continue to play as a warm, satisfying, accessible but still prickly movie that maybe goes just a little too easy at the end.
Not Fade Away: Reviewed!
Les Miserables: Reviewed! Tom Hooper is a workmanlike director, but I do think it's a little unfair, or at least unrealistic, to get mad at him for not being a virtuoso at the helm of this Broadway adaptation which is more enjoyable and cinematic than most Broadway adaptations -- although Burton's Sweeney Todd is still my favorite stage-to-screen musical of recent years.
Zero Dark Thirty: Reviewed, in my column at least! Someone at work asked me what I made of the "Kathryn Bigelow gets more credit because she's a hot lady" non-controversy; I do think that maybe she's afforded a tiny bit more auteur cred out of the (justifiable) excitement that there's a woman making these kinds of movies. This year, there was a blog post complaining about the AV Club's Best Movies of the 90s poll for being too white/American/male-centric (fair enough, I guess), and when compiling a list of other, supposedly equally worthwhile choices made by directors of more diverse backgrounds, they included Bigelow's Point Break. Would anyone float Point fucking Break as a Best Movie of the 90s (or at least one that belongs in the top 50) if it had been directed by Martin Campbell or something? I kind of doubt it. But Bigelow only made a couple of movies in the nineties, and that's probably the best-liked one (I preferStrange Days, for what it's worth). She's very talented, but this sudden revision of her career where she's so much more than a mid-tier genre director just because her recent movies take place in the Middle East, well, I don't know about that. I liked Zero Dark Thirty a lot but I couldn't really tell you what it's about in a more personal or idiosyncratic sense.
Anna Karenina: With the exception of Hanna, which I really enjoyed, I've felt similarly about all of Joe Wright's movies, which perhaps not coincidentally have been literary adaptations starring Keira Knightley: I appreciate his technique, I admire his technical ideas about how to execute the material, I like what he's going for, and I don't actually enjoy the movie itself all that much. I mean, I wouldn't say I disliked the experience of watching this or Atonement or Pride and Prejudice; I'd even say I rather liked them. But there's something faintly boring about all of them, even as they're specifically trying (and often succeeding!) to be visually interesting. Maybe I just like Wright more as a genre director.
Killing Them Softly: I guess a lot of people had problems with this movie's lack of subtlety, and there are a few moments where its political commentary feels wedged in, but the movie so goes for it in its final moments, puts such a slammer of a period on the end of its sentence, that it kind of worked for me. Besides that, there are beautifully written, directed, and acted scenes of low life types squaring off. Punchy, funny, well-shot... I pretty much loved it.
The Hobbit: Reviewed! And some words on high-frame-rate photography from an unpublished column: Jackson shot the movie on digital video using forty-eight frames per second rather than the standard twenty-four, and the result has been debated: is it stunningly vivid or does it look like a Best Buy display TV with misguidedly cranked-up calibrations? The answer is both. The HFR stuff looks best under cover of night or at least low lighting, and more like live high-def TV when things get brighter. It also looks pretty good on static shots; it's when that pesky motion enters into the motion picture that things get dodgy. Those who have seen Blu-rays playing on high-def TVs, especially those without motion control, may be familiar with the subtle high- def process by which normal camera movement looks sped up and, as such, not unlike panning and scanning of non-letterboxed VHS. This happens sometimes in The Hobbit, and not just with the camera: several shots of actors moving look weirdly sped-up, which I assume is a byproduct of the higher-than-normal frame rate. I got used to it, I tolerated it, but I can't say I much liked it. There's always a danger that describing this process will make me sound like an old-guard cinema purist, afraid of letting my eyes adjust to new technology that's coming, whether I fetishize it or not. But even with this in mind, I left The Hobbit unsure of what the higher frame rate was meant to accomplish, apart from aiding the 3D (which it does: the 3D stuff is brighter and sharper than you might expect, and Jackson strikes a nice balance between composing for inward-peering depth and occasional show-offy flying debris). Supposedly, it makes the images more real – like watching a fantasy spectacular through a window. But looking at a movie screen will never look much like looking through a window, not least because we rarely look through a giant, unobstructed rectangular window with the lights down. HFR doesn't look "more" real for the same reason that 3D doesn't look more real: our eyes accept images on screens as "real" (or as real as they can be, or need to be), which makes it difficult for technological tweaks to make them seem "realer." Perhaps someday one or both of these technologies will improve to the point where they offer a more lifelike onscreen image -- something more like the crystal-clear window proponents of HFR seem to imagine. Even then, I'm still not sure of the advantage: crystal-clear windows don't offer much in the way of texture or point of view; they succeed if you're looking through them at something that is already beautiful. Even the most aesthetically successful technological breakthrough in exhibition, the IMAX screen, doesn't actually replicate the experience of real life. If anything, it makes a lot of shots bigger and grander than they'd look from a window. The 48 FPS cinematography of The Hobbit is a fascinating experience – cinephiles should probably see it themselves – but perhaps moreso because the movie doesn't have much to offer non-fans. It turns a bloated fantasy movie into a guinea pig.
Breaking Dawn Part Two: Setting aside the generally poor quality of all Twlight movies -- seriously, they're a vortex from which no merely semi-talented filmmakers or actors may truly escape -- the two movies of Breaking Dawn seem like a pretty obvious lesson in the stupidity of splitting the final book in a series into two movies, Harry Potter style, just because it's technically possible. It worked well in Potter; not so much here. I haven't read Breaking Dawn, but I look at these two movies, and though I wish I saw the each-crazier-than-the-last camp so many seem satisfied with, what I actually see is one crazy stupid movie diluted into two semi-crazy but still largely tedious stupid movie. If you could give me a single movie with the vampire wedding/honeymoon/birth stuff from the last one plus the nutty extended battle sequence from this one, I'd give up and say, OK, that was a pretty enjoyable 90 minutes. But while Breaking Dawn Part Two ranks toward the top of the Twilight garbage heap (maybe even the very top!), it's still pretty thin fucking broth. I mean, yeah, it's probably a bit better on the funny-bad tip than some of its siblings. But Breaking Dawn as one well-paced B-movie would've been a classic howler instead of a terrible movie with hilarious parts. I can't imagine how frustrating this process will be when applied to Mockingjay, a book I actually read and liked.
Save the Date: Like Silver Linings Playbook, this movie sort of deals with: what if someone made a romantic comedy about believable human beings? The answer is, you might get frustrated with the characters for being kind of horrible to each other sometimes, or with the screenwriter for going so far over to unlikable characters that they become cartoony again. But apart from some writing hiccups, I liked the low-key energy and unforced laughs of Save the Date, and if the characters played by Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie aren't so endearing on paper, having them played by those actresses helps a whole lot. It is a bit weird that even in indie rom-coms, the girls are a big deal (with hip crush objects Caplan and Brie instead of rom-com queens like Heigl or Aniston or Hathaway) while the guys are a little negligible in terms of fame (with likable comic character actors like Mark Webber and Geoffrey Arend instead of dudes from Entourage or whoever the hell co-stars in He's Just Not That Into You or whatever). Also weird side note: because of overlapping casts of various movies I liked, I'm going to be convinced that Alison Brie, Lizzy Caplan, Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Amy Adams are somehow all from the same (genetically blessed and varied) family.
This is 40: Reviewed! For me, it's Apatow's weakest movie as a writer-director even as he gets better and better at certain aspects of writing and directing. Which is to say, even his weakest movie is pretty good.
On the Road: Reviewed! Another famous book I haven't read (yet?), but for what it's worth, I went with Marie who loves the book and she felt like the movie did it justice.
Jack Reacher: This seems like a low-rent vehicle for Tom Cruise, especially after his spectacular ten-year run (roughly '96 to '06) of working with the best filmmakers possible on exciting, often unconventional projects. But it turns out the low-rent B-movie vibe -- add the haze of older film stock and this could be a potboiler from the eighties or nineties; maybe even the seventies, but it likely wouldn't be as fondly remembered, or remembered at all, in that decade -- makes the movie pretty enjoyable. I'm mostly taken with the pulpy, faintly ridiculous idea of Jack Reacher, an ex-military cop who now basically acts as a drifter, blowing into town on a bus, bringing only the clothes on his back which he washes in his motel sink when he gets back from a hard day's work of bumming rides and cups of coffee while investigating a series of murders. It's got a good car chase, a couple of scenes with Werner Herzog as the shadowy bad guy, some funny fight scenes. All a little bit dumb, but not insultingly dumb, and a pretty good low-rent night out. That said, there is a troubling thread to Cruise's recent, less ambitious vehicles. During that 96-06 run, a lot of his movies played with the established Tom Cruise persona: Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, and Vanilla Sky, among others, all toy with the expectations in play for the Tom Cruise character, tweaking or parodying with the actor's consent. Even his worst movie of that period, Mission: Impossible II, has some cracks at his expense (in between scenes where Ethan Hunt shows that he is the best at everything). But in movies like Knight and Day and Jack Reacher, he reverts back to easy movie-star charm (and say what you want about his weird real-life persona, but he does have ample reserves of movie-star charm). Rather than subtext about how a Cruise character might react to less rigged, crowd-pleasing situations, we get text about how Tom Cruise is a fucking awesome badass, maybe cut with a joke or two about characters not expecting him to be a fucking awesome badass, before he proves his awesome badassery. I can roll with that in a silly, inconsequential movie like Jack Reacher, but I hope that silly, inconsequential movies turn out to be all he feels comfortable doing to rebuild his brand. I hope that Ghost Protocol (which I loved, saw twice, bought the Blu-ray, etc., and which this movie is trying to emulate if only in terms of release dates -- though Christopher McQuarrie, the writer-director, is supposedly on tap for the next MI picture) doesn't turn out to be his high-water mark of ambition from this period in his career.
Django Unchained: Love Tarantino and really like this movie, but I will say it's the first time I've ever watched one of his movies and wound up thinking a lot about his other movies. Maybe it's because Inglourious Basterds so surprised and transfixed me, but here, even though the movie has great performances, scenes, and images to spare, I kept thinking, oh yeah, this is a bit like Kill Bill mixed with Basterds. By most standards, and by Tarantino's talents as a mixologist, that still makes Django pretty original. But I do feel that for a 165-minute movie, Tarantino's typical richness of characters was lacking; Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio, and Jackson are all excellent, but the supporting hillbillies feel more like cannon fodder than usual. I need to see it again, though: half because I enjoyed so much of it and want another go-round, and half because I wonder if it might resolve some of my minor disappointment.
The Guilt Trip: For a movie that Marisa, Meg, and I saw literally to kill time, this Seth Rogen/Barbra Streisand team-up isn't too terrible; it's not a painful sit, but it sure isn't very good, either. It's surprisingly low-key considering the overstuffed farces Anne Fletcher directed before this (27 Dresses; The Proposal), but it also becomes mild to a fault. You don't get that terrible sensation of failed laughs because the movie barely tries to make any jokes, at least not anything bigger than the comedy of nudging and light sarcasm. Rogen and Streisand hit upon some amusing mother-son dynamics; too bad many of them are consigned to the end-credits outtakes. It also has a weird demographic-flattering move of making Streisand's character more or less correct about everything she says, which upsets the relationship's balance and makes the movie itself a little bit of a nudge.
Holy Motors: Step one: try to figure out this movie. Step two: try to figure out the unabashed love for this movie. And I do like it: a weird, unpredictable, sometimes funny and often melancholy extended metaphor for... something. I kind of thought it was about angels or the afterlife or something. As much as I admire it, though, I don't love it fervently, or find it particularly "exhilarating," to use a word that pops up in a lot of reviews Another word that comes up a lot, "mystifying," seems more accurate (though in some ways the movie is less strange, or at least less inaccessible or annoying, than I was fearing!); I also wonder if some viewers have felt like they can't react to that mystification with anything but pure joy. Maybe I'm not as open-minded as I like to think. Or maybe I should be satisfied that I'm still thinking about this movie, even if I didn't fall in love with it.
The Impossible: Held off on a screener DVD to see it properly on the big screen, and half regretted it. The half that didn't was impressed by the spectacle of the tsunami recreations, especially for a movie that probably didn't have a massive budget. But I'm not sure if there's much more to this movie beyond tsunami recreations, and actors I like doing a lot of crying and shouting and sobbing. That stuff would've been just as negligible on a screener. It's involving on a basic human level -- or is it a base human level? In any case, I need another level for a movie to really get me emotionally.
In a few days we'll see which of these make some end-of-year lists I've got cooking.
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|Sunday, December 30th, 2012|
1:49 am - And I thought you said we had a deal
I'm closing out the year by going to three They Might Be Giants shows in beautiful Brooklyn, New York.|
Show 1 of 3
Overall TMBG count: 42nd show for me. As of September, I have been going to TMBG shows for half of my life.
In Attendance: Just me and Marisa. And a bunch of nerds. But nerds we don't know.
Opener: Corn Mo. Corn Mo belongs to the genre of "musical acts I have seen far more times than many musical acts I genuinely like simply because he opens for They Might Be Giants" (and if I'm not mistaken, Corn Mo has also opened for Ben Folds: a double threat, then). I have seen Corn Mo, at minimum, four times. Possibly six or seven. However: I like him way more than Jonathan Coulton. He is funnier, and also tries way less to be funny, and also his voice is actually pretty strong. He sounds a little like a nerdy Meat Loaf.
Show Feature: The first two nights of the three-night stand are mixed and matched sides of the band's second and third albums,Lincoln (1988) and Flood (1990). Fortunately, they aren't playing sides in sequence, and in fact they fudged the tracklist of Lincoln, presumably to spread out the Lincoln songs the full band likes slash knows how to play. Tonight was the first side of Flood and the second side of Lincoln, which means many of the best songs off of Flood and, well, "They'll Need a Crane"! If I've ever heard that one live, it's been years... and I'm pretty sure I haven't actually heard it. I thought I'd heard "Kiss Me, Son of God," too, but maybe that was just OK Go, so that's another notch for this show. Actually, there are a lot of good songs at the end of Lincoln and they just ignored "You'll Miss Me," so the mixing of the two sides worked out well.
New Song Count: Assuming "Insect Hospital" is a real song (I remember them floating it as a possible album title, possibly as a joke, like fifteen years ago), five of the twenty-five songs from the upcoming Nanobots were played. The title track was a highlight.
Highlights: "Twisting," "They'll Need a Crane," "Lucky Ball and Chain," "Museum of Idiots" and "Dr. Worm" with horns, songs from the end of Lincoln, and the new songs, especially "Karate Chop" and "Nanobots"
Could Have Done Without: Usually I'd say "Istanbul" or "Particle Man," but they didn't take up space in the encore and they had horn sections, so that was OK; I'll have to say "Dr. Evil," because they did it last time I saw them, too, and as far as TMBG obscurities go, I'd rather hear something less spoofy.
Theme from Flood
Call You Mom
Damn Good Times
Lost My Mind
They'll Need a Crane
When Will You Die
Your Racist Friend
Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
Stand On Your Own Head
Snowball in Hell
Lucky Ball and Chain
We Want a Rock
Kiss Me, Son of God
Birdhouse in Your Soul
Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal
Song about not fucking with the Avatars of They
Shoehorn with Teeth
Museum of Idiots
Clap Your Hands
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|Thursday, December 20th, 2012|
4:05 pm - This is exhausting.
I don't know if it's timing or taste or age or what, but this year I spent some time feeling like I was pretty out of touch with music, or at least out of touch with the feeling of getting excited about new music, and this is not a feeling I take secret pride in cultivating. On the other hand, I'm not going to get super-excited about Grimes just for the sake of getting super-excited about something, anything. I was actually buying tons of albums for the first half of the year and into the fall, but as the end of the year approached, I really started slipping, missing records from Green Day (times two), Neil Young (times two if you count that Americana covers record), the Dirty Projectors (from the summer, but I thought I'd catch up), and the Babies, and feeling like I haven't discovered a band in awhile. |
I went looking for stuff in the year-end lists and mostly found stuff that sounds like Purity Ring. I don't mean that as derogatory; I thought about buying the Purity Ring album several times this year. But it seems like eighties-y electro-ish feather-voiced stuff (along with abrasive aggressive stuff) reigns over the vast kingdom of new indie rock that I haven't gotten into it. Is this what it feels like to be old?! Still, even with recommendations that seem dubious to me (am I a jerk for not getting excited about Frank Ocean? I want to! It's just kind of boring!), I've gotten some ideas about what to catch up with: Chairleft, The Men, maybe even Purity Ring. I liked Wakey! Wakey! when I saw them a year ago and have been meaning to find one of their albums. In the meantime, here are all of the albums I did buy or listen to closely this year, far less than the number from 2011, unless I'm able to count the stacks of Neil Young and Bob Dylan back-catalog albums I picked up from Permanent Records. Suggestions for the future more welcome than ever. As always: don't take this as a 30 Best list, or even necessarily as a best-and-worst list. It's just a whole-damn-thing list.
The Albums of 2012
1. Celebration Rock by Japandroids
Runner-up on multiple lists, album-of-the-year in a walk on mine: there is no record I listened or enjoyed more often than Celebration Rock, the second from brink-of-quitting indie rock duo Japandroids. I'm actually little surprised more people don't write off Japandroids as sort of a poor man's Hold Steady; they fill a similar niche in terms of punk-rock attitude married to inclusive stadium-rock energy. Their lyrics are a bit more primal and far less literary -- none of these eight songs (including one cover and one song released as a single two years ago!) could be mistaken for a short story -- but their shout-along simplicity is vivid and invigorating. "The House That Heaven Built" is the showpiece single, and in the middle of one of recent indie rock's best three-song runs, sandwiched between "Younger Us" and "Continuous Thunder." Then again, every song on the record is pretty great, and too concise to become same-sounding.
2. Reign of Terror by Sleigh Bells
From my PopMatters best albums entry: While Terror does offer more of the same in the sense that if you loved "Tell ‘Em" and swooned over "Rill Rill," then you have to hear “Demons” and re-swoon over "End of the Line," the album also offers greater modulation for this still-young pop-noise band. Instant classics like "Comeback Kid" and "Crush" combine the band’s signature loudness with cheerleader chants and Alexis Krauss’s dreamier-than-ever vocals, and the album even becomes downright languorous final third, hinting at a sense of loss and melancholy from principle songwriter Derek Miller. Treats was so concisely perfect it could have easily been a one-and-done wonder, like so much of the pop music it distorts. Reign of Terror makes the case that the Sleigh Bells formula itself may be more disortable and durable than we thought.
3. Transcendental Youth by The Mountain Goats
Another year, another Mountain Goats record towards the top of my list. It's not just fandom: Darnielle and company do incredibly consistent and prolific work. Transcendental Youth has echoes of We Shall All Be Healed in its chronicles of youthful fecklessness, but its horn-laden stories of triumphant non-triumphs are a little less intense, even when they're plenty evocative and rueful. So you get anthems like "Cry for Judas" and the handclappy "The Diaz Brothers" alongside more atmosphere stuff like "Until I Feel Whole" and "Night Light" and more Darnielle short story classics like "Lakeside Views Apartment Suite" and "Harlem Roulette." In other words, more songs for the ever-expanding Mountain Goats best-of compilation.
4. Heaven by The Walkmen
2012: the year I reverse-gave-up on the Walkmen. Just when I started to get bummed out about their albums always getting hyped as their best yet and then never having anything as great as "The Rat," along came an album that, well, okay, didn't have anything as great as "The Rat," but it's their most confident, engaging, and rock-solid take on the mid-tempo thing they're determined to pursue.
5. Sense and Antisense by Palomar
Undersong indie rock heroes: Palomar make really good record, year in/year out, and never seem to break through. Sense and Antisense continues in the vein of All Things, Forests, with some of that album's same techniques: more muscular guitars on some songs, more rolling, vaguely shoegazy arrangements others. Sense doesn't feel as revelatory as Forests, but their songwriting remains excellent, from the bouncing "Reunion" to the heavier "Infinite Variation" and "Let's Talk Plans" to the chirpy finale, "When You Stopped Talking to Me."
6. Tempest by Bob Dylan and Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen
Two classic-rock legends put out albums that continue their late-career resurgences despite some characteristic unevenness. Dylan's Tempest has some of his darkest songs in years, and several of his best ("Pay in Blood" is my favorite, but "Long and Wasted Years" and "Soon After Midnight" aren't far behind). The same is true of Wrecking Ball: the title song, the walloping "Death to My Hometown," and the call to arms "We Take Care of Our Own," among others, would fit comfortably on any Best of Bruce list. Dylan's album gets a little wearisome towards the end, with several story-songs stretching past the seven-minute mark, and Springsteen has a couple of so-what tracks that tend to dot his recent albums. But they both have such creative vitality and energy that a few skippable tracks don't stick in my craw.
8. Blunderbuss by Jack White
Jack White is one of those songwriters who just gets it done: you get the feeling he probably always has ten or twelve songs he could make into a record, and if he doesn't, just give him a few weeks. That's not to say that Blunderbuss, his first proper solo album, feels tossed off; it's eclectic, but very much of a piece as it swings from barn-burners ("Sixteen Saltines") to prettier numbers ("Love Interruption") and stuff in between ("Hip Eponymous Poor Boy") with great listenability. I will say that Meg White did bring something ineffable (or TOTALLY effable! Am I right, bro?!?) to their double act, even if Jack wrote all the songs and played all of the non-drums instruments; as good as it is, I can't say I like Blunderbuss more than five-sixths of the White Stripes discography.
9. Local Business by Titus Andronicus
From my email to Derrick about the third Titus Andronicus album: "I'd probably say 'Still Life' and 'In a Big City' are my favorites, but in general your top five are the five songs from the record I like the most. I have to say, I kinda disagree about the toss-off tracks -- on this record, anyway. In general, I'm a fan of toss-off tracks for the reasons you mention (and on The Monitor). But I think actually the Pitchfork review said it well in this case -- that on The Monitor, toss-offs were a part of the album's structure and firmament, but since this record is a lot less conceptual, they feel less essential (even though they are by design inessential on their own). Basically, there's a three-song section on Local Business I don't care much for: 'Food Fight' into 'My Eating Disorder' into 'Titus Andronicus vs. the Absurd Universe' is a weird mix of repetition, and then kind of droning on, then going back to repetition… it feels like the record loses the plot a bit. But it gets it back! His voice sounds more polished on this one, yes, but I also noticed that the production sounds a little flat. I mean, I'm sure that's intentional -- that it's supposed to be unvarnished and back-to-basics. It does succeed in evoking that unfussy punk-rock sound, but I've heard repeatedly in interviews that they wanted the record to reflect the sound of the band playing live, since the other albums were made with more rotating, less permanent line-ups and now they've solidified. But to me, it doesn't really sound like their live shows -- it doesn't sound loud or raucous enough. Sometimes I actually like -- it leaves the songs someplace to ascend when you play them live. But it does feel a little muted sometimes. I do like it a lot, though. Probably better-crafted than Airing of Grievances."
10. Hospitality by Hospitality
Sweetly ear-pleasing indie rock part one: Apparently Hospitality has been kicking around awhile, and indeed, even for me, a relative newcomer to the band, they feel more polished and practiced than a brand-new band. I first saw them open for Eleanor Friedberger and Wild Flag in the fall of 2011. I wanted to buy their album, but it didn't come out until January 2012. So this stands as the 2012 album I've been listening to all throughout 2012, and it's just as catchy, ingratiating, and appealingly off-kilter as it was eleven or so months ago.
11. Kill My Blues by Corin Tucker Band
I guess everyone was disappointed with that last Corin Tucker Band album? That's the sense I got from reading Kill My Blues reviews (then again, that could be yet another example of the perpetual this-new-one-is-so-much-better record review cycle). Kill My Blues certainly sounds a little more like Sleater-Kinney than the less punky 1,000 Years, but one thing I like about both CTB albums is that you can hear her half of Sleater-Kinney on albums that don't really sound like poor man's Sleater-Kinney, any more than Wild Flag does. There's more than enough talent to go around, even if I'd rather be hearing new S-K songs. Kill My Blues takes the, yes, bluesier side of Tucker's work with that band, and rocks a little harder than its predecessor. It stumbles out the gate a little with "Groundhog Day," a we're-back style song for a band that doesn't seem to have really gone anywhere (you guys remember that you put an album out just two years before this one?), but songs like "Kill My Blues" and "Neskowin" are just about as good as anything from the Wild Flag record.
12. North by Stars
Sweetly ear-pleasing indie rock part two: I'd never really paid attention to an entire Stars album before, and in listening to North I realized there's something slightly aloof about them, even when I think they're trying to sound sincere. That doesn't have much bearing on how much I enjoy this album, which is super catchy and adorable, but it does make me wonder if maybe Canada is making fun of me behind my back or something.
13. The Sound of the Life of the Mind by Ben Folds Five
The first Ben Folds Five record in thirteen years is: (a.) at least as good as and probably better than any Ben Folds solo record outside of Rockin' the Suburbs and (b.) not nearly as good as any of the three proper BF5 albums from the nineties. The band sounds great, and it's nice to hear the Robert-and-Darren harmonies back in effect, and it's nicer still that the band has returned a bit more mature, reflective, and melancholy than when they left (like the sadder mood of Reinhold Messner minus some hubris). But song for song, as good as tunes like "Michael Praytor, Five Years Later," the title song, and "Hold That Thought" are, Sound doesn't match the band's earlier glories. I'd knock Folds' hit-and-miss lyrical compositions of late, and that does seem to be part of the problem, but it's odd that the three new BF5 songs from last year's Ben Folds retrospective are all better than at least a third of this new record (then again, maybe we can pin that on Folds, as the other guys pitched in on the writing for those songs -- and Darren Jessee pitches in "Sky High," another highlight, here). The amount of good material between the retrospective and this (decent but a little underwhelming) album makes me hope the reunion stays put. I also hope it produces an even better next record.
14. Europe by Allo Darlin'
Sweetly ear-pleasing indie rock part three: it's arguable that Allo Darlin' isn't all that necessary in a world where Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura already exist, but that doesn't make Allo Darlin' any easier to resist. Marisa heard "Capricornia" on the radio, called this immediately as something I'd like, told me I should get it, and took her word (and, to a lesser extent, the L Magazine's; they recently named Europe album of the year), and yes, it's up my alley, even if Stars and Hospitality both stake out corners nearby (in addition to the more closely related aforementioned Euro-bands). Less spiky than the former and less odd than the latter, Allo Darlin's approach to sweetly ear-pleasing indie rock could almost be called traditional.
15. Clear Heart, Full Eyes by Craig Finn
I have mixed feelings about solo records from artists whose bands I hold in ridiculously high esteem. I will always buy them, and never know exactly how to process them. Craig Finn, for example, seems like a logical solo artist: he's the Hold Steady's lyricist, so why not put that lyric-writing in a more stripped-down context? It works well enough -- Finn still has a way with words -- but it leaves Clear Heart, Full Eyes sounding like a mixture of traditional Hold Steady songs with the volume turned down ("Honolulu Blues," "No Future"); Hold Steady songs in the vein of "Citrus" ("Rented Room"), and songs with actual stylistic departures ("New Friend Jesus"). Most of these songs are at least pretty good, and I like the record, but part of me wishes he'd just saved half of these for the token quiet song on the next five Hold Steady records.
16. Love This Giant by St. Vincent and David Byrne
David Byrne and St. Vincent are a good match, with their slightly cerebral approaches to music and lyrics snapping together like Legos. I'm not sure what it is that keeps any St. Vincent or even Talking Heads albums off of my favorites-ever lists, but whatever it is makes them a compatible pair, and I enjoyed seeing their chemistry back in September.
17. The Idler's Wheel... by Fiona Apple
I'd think that a sparer, more wigged out Fiona would be one of my favorite incarnations, and I do enjoy the bizarre, percussive direction of her first record in seven years. But there's a mainstreamier, less patient part of me that says: seven years for this? Apple sounds a little lost in her own head here, and while it's a fascinating psychological portrait, it's not always something I feel like listening to. Maybe I've read too many articles describing (in usually more admiring terms) what a stoner weirdo she is, but there's something claustrophobically diary-like about some of The Idler's Wheel that prevents me from loving it as much as When the Pawn, her last crazy-long-title record. On songs like "Hot Knife," though, she's as hypnotic as ever.
18. The Carpenter by The Avett Brothers
I still prefer the mangier Felice Brothers, but I also enjoy the spit and polish of recent Avett Brothers albums, and The Carpenter is a bit punchier, to my ears, than I and Love and You, even if it lacks a song as perfect as "I and Love and You" or even "Kick Drum Heart." They're clearly OK with going a little sappy and reflective (ugh, there's really a song here called "Life" -- maybe it's payback for "Die Die Die" off of Emotionalism), but "Live and Die" and "Pretty Girl from Michigan" have particularly soaring, swinging melodies.
19. The Only Place by Best Coast
Even on an album that represents a fair amount of improvement over its likable predecessor, I do wonder if Best Coast is going to be more of a singles band than an album band, even though both of her albums have pretty consistent themes and moods, and the self-pitying songs on this one at least don't sound quite as petulant or stoned as those on the last one. Despite their lack of album-album bona fides (by which I mean, I'm tempted to stop playing it halfway through), I wonder if Best Coast would be ideal for vinyl-with-download purchase: you get the really great quasi-singles like "The Only Place" and "Let's Go Home," and then once in awhile, when you're in a rainy-day or doing-dishes sort of mood, you can get a crackly, warm play of the whole thing. Just a thought for Future Jesse Who Will Still Buy Best Coast Albums.
20. Not Your Kind of People by Garbage
I freely admit that the first new Garbage album since that time I forgot to buy the last new Garbage album can't rekindle the perhaps-misplaced excitement the cassette of their self-titled debut gave me circa 1996, or even rekindle the rekindling I felt in 1998 when Version 2.0 was even better. But! It does open with three fucking awesome nineties-style Garbage songs of the highest order: "Automatic Systematic Habit," "Big Bright World," and "Blood for Poppies," super-catchy and crunchy and addictive. And then there are some other songs on the album too. Some of them are pretty good and some of them have stupid titles like "I Hate Love" or other lyrical touches that make you forget that Shirley Manson is a fortysomething lady, and not in the good way that looking at her makes you forget that she is a fortysomething lady. But let me reiterate how much I like those first three songs: a whole lot.
21. Uno! by Green Day
It's not bad, but I also forgot to go out and buy Dos! and Tre!, so it can't be that great, can it? I was excited for a back-to-basics Green Day album, as well as three Green Day albums in less than six months, but I wonder if keeping three albums' worth of material around just discouraged them from polishing what they had. Some of the songs on Uno! sound forced, like Green Day trying their best to write old-school Green Day songs, albeit with more of an overt sixties touch. Songs put across a single musical or lyrical idea, and often go ahead and repeat it for a bit, often right on the nose. Green Day are still pretty good with a bouncy melody and tinkering with their formula (lead single "Oh Love" grew on me a lot) but even a back-to-basics project shouldn't feel quite so self-consiously regressive.
22. A Wasteland Companion by M. Ward
Ain't nothin' wrong with an M. Ward album! Now, quick, name your favorite M. Ward album! She & Him stuff doesn't count! I actually like M. Ward a lot, including his solo work, but it's hard to get super-excited about it, especially when much A Wasteland Companion feels gently complacent, in a pleasant sort of way. His old-timey rock workouts like "Primitive Girl," "Sweetheart," and "I Get Ideas" are as ebullient as ever; the rest sort of blend together with other M. Ward records (and even with She & Him records since Zooey Deschanel turns up in the background a few times), albeit pleasantly.
23. Rise of the Fenix by Tenacious D
Actually a totally decent, enjoyable Tenacious D album, but unless said album has a few songs as catchy as "Tribute" or "Wonderboy," it's unlikely I'm going to listen to it all that often.
24. Provincial by John K. Samson
I would have loved to pair this album with Craig Finn's, as they're both solo joints by singers/lyricists from bands known for good lyrics; Samson and Finn are even friends! (Aww!) But as much as Clear Hearts sometimes sounds like Hold Steady songs in demo form, Provincial very often sounds like a Weakerthans record, or maybe a Weakerthans B-sides record, to the point that it doesn't do a great job of justifying itself (especially given that it came out about five years after the last proper Weakerthans record), even with some strong songs like "When I Write My Master's Thesis."
25. Attack on Memory by Cloud Nothings
I got super excited when I heard about Cloud Nothings as one of those bedroom-pop acts going louder and more punk on a second record, and while I assume Attack on Memory is more interesting than the first Cloud Nothings album (unheard by me), it also never really grabbed ahold of me -- it's not bad, but it sounds like second-tier punk to me. Incidentally, I wound up with two extra copies of this album on CD, so if anyone wants to listen for themselves and tell me I'm wrong, please, let me know.
26. Heavy Mood by Tilly and the Wall
After several years as an underdog band surprising me whenever I noticed or remembered how much I actually like them, Tilly and the Wall put out a record that managed to surprise me with how little I cared for it. On their last record, O, they largely dispensed with the tap-dancing part of their rhythm section, and went after a more aggressive sound that I enjoyed. That continues on Heavy Mood, except all of the attempts at a punkier attitude come off, well, kind of stupid, with brash and faux-ironic braggadocio amidst cornball paeans to friendship. There are some good moments, but I'm puzzled by how empty it all sounds.
27. Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded by Nicki Minaj
I had this whole post in the works based on my impulse purchase of both Nicki Minaj records and how they're a fascinating combination of a talented person making albums that are pretty bad and how I generally don't understand the hows and whys of the ways rap artists make records, but I haven't gotten to that yet and at this point it might make more sense to wait until Nicki does her third record, although if that involves me buying her third record, maybe not, because this one is not so good (nor is the "original" Pink Friday). Here's the short version: I bought this album because of Minaj's inventive verses on songs like "Monster" and her own singing/rapping combo on "Super Bass," but the album itself is an awkward mixture of rap boilerplate (everyone is a stupid bitch) and generic dance music. Sometimes her delivery or a good line or a strong hook will salvage a song, but most of it is a sprawling, would-be-epic mishmash. Even "Roman's Revenge," which has some bite, I found out actually just quotes a Busta Rhymes lyric for one of its big moments.
Unranked bonus albums 28, 29, and 30:
Parklive by Blur, because it's basically just Blur doing their biggest hits live. It is pretty worthwhile for Blur fans, though.
God Bless You, Amigo by the Felice Brothers, because it's an odds-and-sods compilation they released online, possibly to make up for money lost when someone nicked their gear or something? I'm not entirely clear. But I bought it because I like the Felice Brothers. It's got some good stuff but I haven't really paid a lot of attention yet.
The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends by the Flaming Lips, a compilation of their weirdo collaborations which I haven't listened to closely enough to deem unlistenable (yet).
20 Songs from 2012 I Love
"We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" by Taylor Swift
"The House That Heaven Built" by Japandroids
"Demons" and "Comeback Kid" by Sleigh Bells
"Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It" by Stars
"Death to My Hometown" by Bruce Springsteen
"Call Me Maybe" by Carley Rae Jepsen
"Capricornia" by Allo Darlin'
"Pay in Blood" by Bob Dylan
"Harlem Roulette" by The Mountain Goats
"When You Stopped Talking to Me" by Palomar
"The Only Place" by Best Coast
"Heaven" by the Walkmen
"Blood for Poppies" by Garbage
"Under the Westway" by Blur
"All Day Today" by Hospitality
"Sixteen Saltines" by Jack White
"In a Big City" by Titus Andronicus
"Kill My Blues" by Corin Tucker Band
Coming in 2013: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, They Might Be Giants, and probably the Hold Steady, at very least. And maybe some more stuff I've never even heard of yet?
Maybe I'll head to the record store, like, now.
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|Monday, December 17th, 2012|
3:09 pm - Going to Spain
I did not go to Spain, but I Went to Spain in the Jason sense of the phrase by failing to write up my vacation notes a month ago, when we actually got back. So yeah: awhile ago, Marisa and I went on a cruise. Not so much for the cruisiness (they didn't even show Cocktail or Days of Thunder on the boat!); more for the hitting a bunch of European countries I'd never been to. Mission accomplished. Here are some stray things I learn and some pictures I took, just under the wire for 2012.|
Notes on Rome:
--On the beauty scale, Rome ranks slightly below Paris, probably still above New York. I mean, New York is great, and beautiful, but our statues and fountains and stuff... not so great.
--We walked all around Rome, only got a little lost sometimes, and the subway is pretty easy to figure out. Also, maybe it's just because it's fresh in my mind, but I feel like if I went back to Rome, I'd start with a basic working knowledge of where some stuff is, whereas Paris still feels pretty vast and I'd be more or less starting over from scratch.
--Obviously, best food ever. There is a weird thing where half the restaurants have someone standing outside imploring that you must try them, which makes half the restaurants feel like they're trying to trick you into eating there, which makes you feel like you definitely not eat there. But the places we went were mostly recommended by the people who ran our little hotel-apartment thing, and they did not have people outside imploring us to come in, so I think we made the right call. Both of our dinners were on little back streets near a splashier place: Trevi Fountain the first night, Piazza Navona the second.
--Considering we were only there for two days, we showed amazing restraint in only getting gelato twice.
Notes on Greece:
--Greece has stray dogs. Actually, all of the countries we visited have some degree of stray dogs and/or cats, but Greece apparently, when uncollared dogs are found, takes them, fixes them and gives them shots and a collar, registers them, and puts them back where they found them. Basically, they are little citizens. It's kind of adorable.
--Speaking of citizens: our tour guide for Athens really didn't care much for immigrants. I'm to understand this is not uncommon in Greece, but nonetheless, I didn't really care much for her.
--But really, I don't mean to imply that Greece is a racist, dog-infested country. It was very nice. After we saw the Olympic ruins, we sat in an outdoor cafe on the Mediterranean. Even though the port was pretty clearly a mini tourist trap, it also looked exactly what you'd like to imagine an outdoor café on the Mediterranean would look like, so fair enough.
--Ruins-wise, the Acropolis was one of the best.
Notes on Turkey:
--By the time our boat docked in Turkey, we had seen ruins in three different cities, and were kind of like: OK, enough with the ruins. So the main thing to do in Turkey was take a trip to the ruins of Ephesus, but we decided to stick around in Izmir and walk around. It's the only country we visited where we didn't leave the port.
--Izmir is great! Maybe it was just the novelty of not having a tour group, not getting on a bus, not having a big list of stuff we wanted to see, but it was really cool just walking around the city for the day.
--The only hitch was that the people and the signs: not so much with English. Obviously that's fine, and it actually made us feel more immersed in the place, but you know, a little challenging.
--We went to KULTURPARK, which has a bunch of stray cats and also Turkey's very own LunaPark. We were on Cruise Time, so it was actually early on a Sunday morning and the rides were just getting started, but that gave us plenty of time to figure out how to buy tickets to the rides, which we sorely needed. But we successfully rode a Ferris wheel and a haunted house ride.
--The picture below of cats on a bench, or even the additional cat-related pictures on my Flickr, do not adequately portray how fascinated I was by the wealth of stray cats that make their home in the park, particularly this one stretch where we saw about two-dozen cats manging around, including some kittens. Marisa was fairly convinced that my vacation photos were going to be eighty percent stray cats.
Notes on Egypt:
--This was a major reason we decided to go on a cruise in the first place: when, realistically, would we get to Egypt, otherwise? In general, I have adopted my brother's attitude toward tours, which is: yecchh. But this trip, particularly visiting Egypt, brought me around a little, because it was a blessed relief not to have to figure out how to get anywhere on the day we went from Alexandria (where the boat docked) to Giza (where we saw the pyramids) and Cairo (where we saw the Nile) and back.
--The pyramids, even with the hundreds of other tourists, the people aggressively hawking cheesy wares, and the fact that camels are in fact kind of filthy and disgusting, were amazing. Maybe it's my New York experience that allowed me to just tune out all of the annoying stuff and take in the amazing parts. But seriously, we climbed up on some pyramids and touched them. In the Sahara desert. Because that is a place where we were. It was surreal.
--The Sphinx isn't too shabby either, although squishing in to the area where you go to look at it closer is not unlike trying to leave Webster Hall after a show.
--It had managed to escape my attention in thirtysomething years of life that the Nile, like, goes through a city. I guess I could have figured that out, but I was surprised to see it right there in Cairo. And we sailed the Nile... on a hotel-run restaurant boat that covered an extremely small section of the river, but we were on a boat on the Nile, dammit, so check it off the list.
--Giza, Cairo's ugly little sister, even has an ugly little Nile! We spent a lot of the bus ride between Giza and Cairo driving parallel to this long open sewer where people dump garbage and apparently sometimes animal carcasses. Marisa traced my fascination with the Garbage Nile, as I called it, to my seventh-grade fascination with what we called the Milk River. The Garbage Nile was basically a big real-life version of the Milk River (which I realize is of no use to anyone who did not attend Maple Avenue Middle School).
--I was a little apprehensive about a two-to-three-hour bus ride out to Cairo, but it actually turned out to be pretty interesting, in part because of our guide (who, if she hated immigrants, did so far less openly) and in part because I got to see what it's like driving in Egypt from the comfort of a bus that could probably withstand all of the cars that probably almost hit us. I said to Marisa: This looks like, what if driving in Manhattan said, hey, let's dispense with the formalities.
--Alexandria is less cool than Cairo. Emboldened by our time in Izmir, we just figured we could spend our second Egypt day doing Alexandria on our own. I was convinced it would be fun to go see Skyfall in Egypt (I do like to see what it's like to see movies in other countries) so we took a cab out to this outdoor mall that had a movie theater, with showtimes we found on the Internet. The best part of this experience by far was the cab ride; this proved true with pretty much every step of our day in Alexandria. The cab drivers? Friendly and (because we didn't die or even really feel like we were going to die) skillful. Everyone else we talked to? Kind of a jerk! The new Library of Alexandria? Kind of a pain to get into and not really worth the money they charge to get in! The cab ride to the Library of Alexandria? Pretty cool! When he didn't understand us, he just pulled over and found a random guy on the street to translate. Then he tried to teach us some Arabic.
--Oh, and we didn't get to see Skyfall because the Internet times were wrong and we didn't want to kill another couple hours at the mall to see when the movie theater might open (there were no posted times at the theater, but we did find out that movies in Egypt cost about the equivalent of five to six dollars). And a security guard came over to tell us that this ungated outdoor mall that plenty of people were talking through wasn't open until 2PM. So, again: cab ride was by far the best part.
--We tried to walk around Alexandria, but even that: not so good. Traffic is crazy and sidewalks are cluttered, so we had to find streets where either the sidewalks were navigable, the main streets were relatively empty, and/or the cross-streets weren't busy enough to halt us for minutes at a time. This sort of worked for a mile or two, but eventually we gave up, hailed a cab, and went back to the boat.
Notes on a boat:
--As expected, being on a cruise ship is weird: fine for getting from country to country without having to deal with flights and trains and packing and re-packing, and even pretty good for a day of relaxing. But spending ten days on a boat is a strange experience.
--There were fewer old people than I expected, which is to say I was expecting about eighty percent older folks and it was really more like sixty-five percent older folks. We even met some people who seemed way younger than us. Another way that cruise ships are weird is that we met some of these people in hot tubs.
--The pools and hot tubs went a long way to making the boat part fun. There was a two-day stretch at the end of the cruise when we were sailing back to Italy from Egypt, and we really had to plan out our days to avoid stir-craziness. Spending time near or in the pool was a major component of this planning.
--As most bar trivia is to Pete's Candy Store trivia, cruise ship trivia is to most bar trivia. Though we did play with and against an older Scottish couple who were pretty delightful.
--This sounds very Ugly American, but one way they could seriously improve the cruise ship experience is better TV. There were many nights when, after a day of exploring a new country and seeing amazing sights, then maybe coming back for some dinner and/or swimming, we really could've gone for a nice couple of hours watching the shows we were missing back home, or perhaps a variety of movies apart from whatever happened to be showing cut down, in-flight style, on the in-room movie channel. I mean, it's not like we would've ignored the Acropolis in favor of Project Runway or something. It was a given that most nights, we were stuck on the boat, and I wouldn't mind being stuck on a boat that has some TV shows I like. Of course, people don't spend money on drinks when they are relaxing in front of New Girl or 30 Rock, and it probably costs some money to get U.S. TV channels on a cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, so I understand why they just have the movie channels, the cruise-info channels, BBC World, and CNBC (actually, I have no idea why they have CNBC). In retrospect, it probably would've been worthwhile to bring along a portable DVD player and a binder full of movies.
--Then again, through the limitations of the boat, we wound up exercising a bunch. If there's nothing good on TV, but there is a gym and some swimming pools, exercise is going to happen if only out of boredom.
In conclusion: I have been on five round-trip plane rides this year, in addition to four trips upstate (one more to come) and one to Rhode Island. So this two-week jaunt also kick-started 2013: the year of going nowhere whenever possible.
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|Wednesday, December 12th, 2012|
8:42 am - For dad's service on 12/8/12
I never played catch with my father. That's not a complaint: through whatever combination of his genes and my mom's, I was largely unskilled and wholly uninterested in throwing and catching baseballs, and although I learned recently that dad played and followed some baseball growing up in Iowa, I know that basketball and football and track and field all ranked above a ball and a mitt in his personal hierarchy. For that matter, so did a good book.|
What we did instead of play catch was: he took me to wildly inappropriate movies. That's not a complaint, either; that's just an objective description. I won't appall you with the full list, though I do have records. Instead, I offer a quick sampling: I saw Pulp Fiction with my dad when I was fourteen. I saw Natural Born Killers with my dad when I was thirteen. I saw Alien 3 with my dad when I was eleven -- and my brother Andrew came too; he was eight. If you are less versed in movies than I am or my father was, I'll just say these movies were full of violence, bad language, and what the TV listings sometimes refer to as adult situations.
I imagine that dad thought this was OK not just because by the time I was nine or ten he probably figured he'd put in his time watching Fievel Goes West, but because we could talk about the movies on the car ride home. Sometimes we'd just talk about what we liked in the movie or compare it to other movies we saw recently; we both agreed that In the Line of Fire was better than The Firm. But sometimes it was, perhaps unsurprisingly for people who knew him, more professorial.
This was a side of my dad you may have experienced if you ever talked to him for more than five or ten minutes -- and then listened as those ten minutes turned into an hour. In these cases, a movie might spurn a lecture -- and I don't mean a lecture about how hitmen aren't so funny in real life, or how I should never, ever split up from the group when confronting a man-eating alien. I mean a lecture about some aspect of his life experience it reminded him of, or how the movie made him feel, or what other movies it brought to mind. This is not so different, I've found, from the process of writing film criticism, something I eventually picked up after a certain number of wildly inappropriate movies.
Dad was inclined to lecture, I think, because he took so much pride in his work -- and in his identity as a professor. He admired Great Men -- that's capital G, capital M -- like Winston Churchill, who said "never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense" and John F. Kennedy, who said "A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on." He wouldn't have said so, but I think to him, being admired for your ideas and point of view was important, the same way that doing your best work was important, and loyalty to your friends was important, and finding the right college was important.
Later in my life, after about two-dozen college visits and four years at the right one, I moved to New York. In those early years, I would sometimes write my dad, asking about how something in the grown-up world worked: job interviews, or shifting apartment deposits. Sometimes, instead of writing back, he would call me and talk me through it, except inevitably, by the end of the phone call, I would realize that he wasn't explaining to me how to do something; he was asking questions and relating his experience in a way that brought out knowledge I more or less already had, but maybe needed to be coaxed into articulating to myself -- into talking it out.
I don't have a lot of regrets about my relationship with my dad. I'm not pining for a game of catch that never really interested either of us; I wouldn't trade any of the 155 movies we saw together for anything else. But when you lose someone, especially when it's so unexpected, it's natural to think about whether there's something you should've told him or her (and by the way, writing this, I felt my dad over my shoulder, telling me not to write "should've told them" because "them" is a plural, not a hypothetical). I think if I had the chance to tell my dad one more thing, it would be that all of those trips to the movies, and New York phonecalls, and strength in everyday crises, and dinners out for no special occasion, were just as Great to me -- capital G, lower-case m -- as any speeches or honors or ideas. That, for me, is what lives on when I remember my father. I hope this is knowledge he more or less already had -- I think it is. But it can't hurt, I've found, to talk it out.
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|Thursday, November 22nd, 2012|
10:33 am - You certainly didn't waste my precious time
Second bi-annual seeing of Bob Dylan in New York City on the night before Thanksgiving!|
Last time I saw Bob Dylan in New York City on the night before Thanksgiving, my reasoning was: well, I haven't seen him in about ten years and he's put out a lot of great records since then, and who knows when my next chance will be? This time, my reasoning was: well, last time I saw Bob Dylan the night before Thanksgiving, it was great. My mom got on a train and came down to join me and Marisa, and I snagged Tim to take our final ticket at the last minute (Thanksgiving Eve sub-tradition: seeing Bob Dylan with a founding member of the Blackout Writing Group).
Another reason for going back so soon: I really like a lot of Tempest, his new record, although, as with last time, when I really liked Together through Life, he only played two songs from the newest record (good ones, but I would've picked "Pay in Blood" and "Long and Wasted Years" in that department), the rest being a mix of sixties and early-seventies classics and post-nineties newer stuff. It is a little weird that his setlists consistently have twenty-year gaps between the mid-seventies and mid-nineties, because that's when he put out a lot of his least-loved material. But that period also saw the release of Desire, Street-Legal, and Oh Mercy -- I understand that he's not going to break out a bunch of stuff from Shot of Love or Down in the Groove but I wouldn't mind a little more representation from those good albums. Still, I can't really complain when he focuses a lot of his set on Highway 61 Revisited and Modern Times. They're both great.
Once again, I fail to understand the knock against Dylan's live show. Maybe some of it has more to do with shows he played before I was going to shows; I've heard tales of erraticness, incomprehensible song reworkings, garbled vocals, the whole thing. But One Story Sara said she had a disappointing experience seeing him, and she's my sister's age so she almost certainly saw him sometime after I first saw him in 1999. I've never really seen that Bob Dylan, though. I've seen hints of him; sometimes it takes me thirty seconds rather than two or three notes for me to recognize a song, even if it's one I've heard many times. Sometimes it takes me a minute to locate a phrase to clue me in to the songs I haven't heard as many times. Some of that, I chalk up to acoustics; Dylan's beautifully ravaged voice would probably sound great in a smaller rock club, and he usually plays arenas and the like. (This one was at the new Barclays Center, about which: I have to admit, it's nice. It's nicer than Madison Square Garden. It seems to serve cooler food than Madison Square Garden. The medium-level seats are generally better than the equivalent seats at Madison Square Garden. Obviously I'm not going to go pay $200 for the worst seats to see the Rolling Stones or anything, but as I no longer work right above Madison Square Garden, I'm rooting for anyone who would normally have to play there to visit Barclays instead.) Anyway, as my mom said, it's actually pretty cool to hear him doing his old classics with his burnt-out voice. It makes sense. He's not the kind of singer that sounded the same in 1964 and 1969, so he certainly wasn't going to sound the same in 1964 and 2012. But you can still go see Bob Dylan and hear the 2012 versions of songs like this:
You Ain't Goin' Nowhere
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
Things Have Changed
Tangled Up in Blue
Early Roman Kings
Chimes of Freedom
The Levee's Gonna Break
Visions of Johanna
Highway 61 Revisited
Soon After Midnight
Thunder on the Mountain
Ballad of a Thin Man
Like a Rolling Stone
All Along the Watchtower
Blowin' in the Wind
That's pretty fucking awesome. And only seven songs in common with last time! (And seven songs that it is totally fine to play at every Bob Dylan show if tha tneeds to happen.)
Also, the idea that he sleepwalks through these shows doesn't seem true to me. He rarely plays guitar these days, but this show seemed to have even more harmonica than last time, and he was often seated at a real piano rather than a keyboard. Sometimes he'd get up from behind the piano and dance around a little -- he did "Things Have Changed" like a restless, ramshackled preacher. "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "All Along the Watchtower" were pretty scorching. His back-up band is still aces, but they're not doing all the work. Maybe I'm just projecting my own enjoyment, but Bob seemed happy to be there.
Still no "Mississippi," my favorite -- but he played it in Philly two nights before. Well-played, Bob Dylan. You win this round. I'll see you the day before Thanksgiving, 2014.
I have also been to Europe and Egypt and Disney World. More on that later. Happy Thanksgiving!
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|Sunday, November 11th, 2012|
7:52 am - Eight weeks of movies
While I am traveling by boat where I cannot watch movies at all, save for whatever is showing in English on the in-room movie channel, and whatever I am willing to watch briefly without understanding the dialogue (the ends of The Avengers and Dark Shadows: fairly readable with visuals alone!), I thought I'd try to work on the immense backlog of movies I haven't mentioned on LJ in the past... yikes, two months. |
Let's start with Paul Anderson, whoever he is. One of him is Paul Thomas Anderson, who made The Master, one of the best movies of the year. I've seen it twice (in 70mm both times! What what, obscure-bordering-on-antiquated AV tech!), and while some aspects of it became more clear after a second viewing, or even after some "I know, right?!" conversations following the first one, I also cherish the disorienting sensation of seeing it for the first time, taking in its pristine images (I love 70mm, but even after it was in use for less than a week, the Ziegfeld print that I saw on my second viewing with Rob and Sabrina and company was starting to get banged up) and trying to keep my balance when dealing with what PTA left in, what he intentonally left out, and what he let bleed from real-world into hallucination. Part of me wished I had been able to see it a second time before writing my review, but in some ways it's appropriate that all I had to go on was the first before grappling with this fascinating, sometimes elusive, often formally brilliant movie that stuck with me in a big way.
I actually had an easier time writing a longer review of the other Paul Anderson's new work, Resident Evil: Retribution, which was hilariously released on the same weekend as The Master. Paul W.S. Anderson has actually released a number of movies in the same year as Paul Thomas Anderson: Boogie Nights was preceded by Event Horizon in 1997; Punch-Drunk Love and the first Resident Evil both graced screens in 2002; and Resident Evil: Extinction came out the same year as There Will Be Blood -- though PWSA only wrote that particular RE installment. He returns to direct Retribution, the fifth movie in the series, after the relative success (creative and financial, unless you're talking international numbers, in which case replace "relative" with "unqualified") of the fourth. Yet while I've at least half-liked all of the previous Resident Evil sequels, this one is easily the worst, probably of the series -- I don't remember liking the first one a ton, but I at least remember some cool parts from it ten years later, whereas six weeks after Retribution I mostly remember abject stupidity, and in fact five minutes after watching it I couldn't tell you who, if anyone, actually got any kind of retribution, and for what. I was actually sort of impressed by the Resident Evil series for awhile; while big-budget sequels have the (often justifiable) reputation as cheapening or reiterating the original, these B-team franchises often show way more consistency. But it seems like Team RE hit a major wall when rushing out a fifth movie. Oh well: the international numbers are still strong, so there's always part six, I assume.
September box office was generally pretty disappointing: not only did the likes of Resident Evil 5 fail to make money, the kind of adult-targeted fall-movie entertainment that's supposed to dominate often fell short. This is not so surprising when you look at a movie like The Words getting the weekend after Labor Day to itself (after Gangster Squad hightailed it to reshoot/delay country for a movie-theater massacre scene). CBS Films released The Words, and their entire plan seems to be funding or acquiring adult-targeted dramas, exactly the kind of movies that get squeezed out of a big-studio franchise-based movie economy. The only hitch in their plan: they hardly ever make or acquire good ones. Actually, that's probably a fallacy; I actually hate it when box office analysis is reduced to "it all comes back to the movie," implying that really, audiences know what's good and what's not, and spend their money accordingly. This is such a mind-bogglingly stupid idea that it shouldn't be prevalent enough for me to even acknowledge it, but there you have it. It will certainly be used to explain the surprising box office success of Argo (about which more in a moment), but even when CBS Films happens upon something excellent like Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths, it doesn't do that well. So I suppose I shouldn't blame their lack of success on a lack of good movies, even though they have, for the most part, lacked good movies. I guess I could say that The Words is a nice try, with its nested stories within stories, but it's a movie about writing so enamored with the idea of writing and the themes it can explore that it forgets about the mechanics, effects, or rhythm of writing itself. It's all just so fascinated by the stories we tell and blah blah blah.
Seven Psychopaths, about an alcoholic screenwriter stumbling through a bunch of meta encounters with the kinds of nuts he thinks he wants to write screenplays about, is smarter about writing in any ten of its minutes than The Words is at any point during its two hours -- and that's even allowing that Psychopaths is not actually a particularly sharp satire of the movie business. I don't think that's McDonagh's intention, anyway. As with In Bruges, he starts with a Tarantino-ish dialogue-heavy dark comedy, but lends it surprising feeling. Characters played by Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell seem like lunatics, and are, and seem like they may do terrible things, and sometimes do, but there's also a twisted sort of poignancy to them. Psychopaths doesn't have the same weight as Bruges -- it's a little closer to his riffier, more fun, but less substantial play A Behanding in Spokane, not surprising when you consider ace hams Walken and Rockwell starred in both -- but it's cut from the same cloth without feeling derivative or repetitive.
But the adult audience ignored bigger-ticket items, too: Trouble with the Curve seemed like an easy hit, with Clint Eastwood doing his grizzled-old-timer shtick and America's Sweetheart Amy Adam on hand to play his tough daughter. I'm not sure why it didn't make more money; for all I know, Eastwood's comedy stylings at the RNC really did turn people off, although I tend to doubt it. I wonder, actually, if it might have missed for a reason that makes no sense, the same reason that makes almost no sense that I didn't really get attacheed to the movie even though I enjoyed watching it: Eastwood himself didn't direct it. On paper, this sounds fine to me. The last Eastwood movie he didn't direct was In the Line of Fire, which I legit love. And in many of his last few years of directing (and believe me, I appreciate that this encompasses like half a dozen movies, rather than one or two), Eastwood has begun to seem complacent, borderline lazy, behind the camera. This was probably always present in his work -- it's probably how he directed all of those forgotten movies before Unforgiven won him his first Oscar and he became as known for awards bait as light entertainment -- but I sensed it more in Gran Torino, Invictus, Hereafter, and Changeling, among others (even when I mostly liked the end results, save Changeling; ugh). That two-takes-and-out efficiency that allows him to make movies on time, under budget, and just about every year has also produced some movies that don't feel as finished as they should. Trouble with the Curve, directed by Eastwood's longtime associate, feels finished, yes, but it's also missing something. It has a reliable formula, likable actors, polished enough filmmaking... it should be an easy sell. But it's so straight ahead and unfussy that it feels almost bare-bones at times. The thing is, Eastwood the director is great at bringing a little more character to formula pictures! Look at Space Cowboys, one of my favorites of his: assured, unpretentious, funny... solid! It has something ineffable that Trouble with the Curve, though it is also assured and unpretentious and sometimes funny, lacks. The romantic-comedy bits between Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake are pretty charming. Eastwood and Adams are pretty good as father and daughter. But when the pieces of the story come together, there's no audible snap; they just sort of slide together in the least stylish way possible. For all I know, an Eastwood-directed version of this movie would've been more or less the same, or even worse if any of his actors needed more than two takes. But him stepping down from directing duty doesn't do much for a movie if he just has someone with slightly less personality step up in his place.
A better adult offering in September was one that probably appealed more to action bros and teenagers who couldn't get in: End of Watch, another David Ayer cop movie, except really quite good this time. Ayer is known mainly for writing Training Day, which gave Denzel Washington an iconic role and a Best Actor Oscar, but he's also written and/or directed several less distinguished cop movies (though I half-liked his fairly unpleasant Christian Bale starrer Harsh Times). End of Watch seems like one more trip to the well, with the added element of a found-footage gimmick (Jake Gyllenhaal's character films his rounds as an LAPD officer for a filmmaking class he takes after hours, and while not every bit of footage comes from "his" camera, it's all pretty much shot in that style). But it's actually fresh, well-acted, often funny, sometimes harrowing, and never gets too bogged down in cop/criminal boilerplate; this is far more of a slice-of-cop-life story than its trailers suggested. Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena have great buddy-cop chemistry, not least because they seem like they actually are buddies.
End of Watch made a little money (I wish I had been more on the ball telling people they should see it), but the grown-up movie that finally actually broke through was Argo, Ben Affleck's third feature as a director. It's a well-crafted, suspenseful, entertaining movie, wholly deserving of its box office success, that I nonetheless (I'm pretty sure) liked less than anyone I saw it with. That's not to say I disliked it, at all: I'm a fan of Affleck as a director, and he's only improved on a technical level since Gone Baby Gone. I like him as an actor, and he anchors an ensemble here with no problems. Then what, exactly, is my sourpuss problem with Argo? There are a few little things: Alan Arkin's performance, while amusing, borders on cute-shtick territory, perhaps because his character as well as the interesting one played by John Goodman only have a little bit of screentime before the movie must move on to more pressing matters; they're a sidebar, not an integral part of the story. Affleck's character, as in The Town, feels a little mopey and, OK, not exactly self-pitying, but maybe just a tiny bit infused with noble suffering. And Affleck the director does have a tendency to go a touch generic with his visuals: faux-news-footage for gritty exposition, handheld camera and close-ups for nervous suspense. I always wish his movies popped with a little more (and more inventive) visual information.
But those are minor concerns. So, really, is my primary one: that the movie doesn't have a whole lot to say. It chronicles the strange-but-true-ish story of how Americans and Canadians worked together to get some potential hostages out of Iran in the early eighties, and I couldn't detect much to the story beyond: that was a good thing that happened in kind of an amazing way. That's more than enough for a movie, of course, if you're talking about a fact-based suspense thriller. Here's the rub: I know that Argo has been and will be talked about in loftier terms, and when a movie reaches that level of adulation, I think it's fair to ask what, exactly, it's doing beyond smartly telling a good story. On a more immediate and less intellectualized level, I can't imagine I'll be revisiting Argo any time in the future, and while there are greater tests for a movie than whether you feel like throwing it on while doing laundry or get sucked in while watching it during a channel-flip, Argo is more that type of movie than a heavy-lifting big-idea provocative-art movie. On that level, it absolutely succeeds. But while it's held up by a talented and well-stocked ensemble, that group doesn't paint as panoramic a picture as, say, Traffic. I know all of those articles about how great TV is have suggested otherwise, but story is not everything -- not nearly.
I do like the enthusiasm Argo has inspired in critics and audiences (whatever my misgivings, this movie making money is great), even if I do find myself legitimately puzzled by it. But OK, some people really tumbled for Argo; that is their jam. I tumble for movies like Looper, Rian Johnson's time travel thriller and my birthday movie this year. I saw Looper with so many people (nineteen, I think?) that there was hardly anyone left to check with when Marisa and I went out a second time a month later. But if you haven't managed to see it, for serious: everything that got me excited about it -- Johnson being a great actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt being a great actor, Bruce Willis being awesome when he feels like it, having kind of a crush on Emily Blunt, time travel being an endlessly facsinating subject -- all held up for the actual experience of the movie itself, plus several emotional and science-fiction elements I was not expecting (and also Jeff Daniels). Johnson is three for three as far as I'm concerned. I asked on Twitter whether any other recent directors had as great a set of first three movies as this guy, and the best I could come up with was Spike Jonze, who took a lot longer to get to three; and Quentin Tarantino, whose first-three run was complete fifteen years ago.
Another, far less-seen movie I really liked that kinda-sorta deals with some themes that weave into Looper, actually, is Bachelorette, which sounds and might even look like a Bridesmaids knockoff, but is actually a perceptive, sometimes pitch-black comedy about maturity and female friendship. Briana, Marisa and I were three of the only people in the theater on its second weekend, but the performances from Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, and Lizzy Caplan all deserve to be seen, and the writing and directing from Leslye Headland (a writer on Terriers adapting her play!) is pretty sharp, too. Another little-seen gem: Fat Kid Rules the World, which only Marisa and Nathaniel and I saw at the little Cinema Village the weekend it came out. As much as this might've sounded like a dumb joke in early 1999, I'm actually bummed that we didn't make it to the evening screenings where director Matthew Lillard (!) appeared in person. I've liked Lillard ever since Chris made us watch SLC Punk! in '99 or 2000 or thereabouts, and this movie is such a spiritual companion to SLC Punk! that my general affection for it shot up to delight. More on the value of this movie in my review.
After Fat Kid, Nathaniel and Marisa and I went to a Halloween cartoon double feature of Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania. Frankenweenie wins even after Hotel Transylvania racks up considerable style points with its swoopy character designs whipped-around movements; Frankenweenie isn't one of Burton's very best (in animation terms, it's closer to the eye-popping but emotionally muted Corpse Bride than the timelessly enchanting Nightmare Before Christmas), but its sense of humor has a mordant deadpan, contrasting with Hotel Transylvania's manic scattering of weak jokes (the Sandler-approved production is visually pleasing, but not very funny -- even with Robert Smigel on board to co-write!). Frankenweenie also feels far more personal for Burton than Transylvania does for, well, pretty much anyone involved in it; it's just that it gets more of its emotional pull from that meta-textual element than the characters themselves, as endearing as they are.
In other Halloween movie news, Marisa and I were out of town the weekend Paranormal Activity 4 came out, and if we're not seeing that with Nathaniel and/or Dave, I'm not sure that we're seeing it at all. But we did see Sinister, which I liked well enough. And we did check out House at the End of the Street with Dave, although I have already forgotten about most of it, except that I was pleasantly surprised to find that it's totally not a slasher movie, as I had assumed from the trailers. And Nathaniel, my faithful Hallowen-loving compatriot, came with me to see Fun Size so I could review that, too. And I admit it: I kind of enjoyed it. Not as much as Pitch Perfect -- and oddly, I feel like the tween-to-teen demo targeted by Fun Size would probably do well to just go see Pitch Perfect, too. It didn't break out quite as big as I imagined after seeing it with an extremely appreciative crowd in the village, but that's the New York bubble for you, I guess.
Marisa and I almost missed Dredd; we were busy the first two weekends it was out, and by the time we got to its third weekend, it was only showing in 3D. But we went for a 3D showing and I was surprised by how well the 3D is used, considering it's neither an auteur-y effort nor a full-on exploitation movie. I mean, it pretty much is an exploitation movie, but it's not a gleeful one like Piranha 3D or My Bloody Valentine 3D. But the 3D effects, used primarily to illustrate the extremely cheesy-sounding effects of a drug nicknamed "slowmo" (so it's the drug that Zack Snyder mainlines before he makes a movie?), have a hallucinatory weirdness that works, actually, better than a lot of the movie's more traditional action-sequence stuff. Dredd isn't poorly made at all, but it's curiously unexciting. I wasn't bored, and liked the characters, good guys and bad guys alike, but it never really got my blood pumping the way an action movie should. It's basically the other half of what I found lacking from The Raid: that movie had brilliant fights and action sequences, while this one had the good guys and bad guys I found interesting on a level apart from how they might kill each other with knives. The venn-diagram overlap points are the basic story (cops most ascend criminal-packed high rise to save their lives/kill bad guys) and prodigous levels of gore. So basically, it's weird that both of these movies exist, and a little regrettable that they weren't put together as one movie I truly loved, but on the bright side, hey, two high-rise action movies that didn't suck!
For an action double feature, I snuck into Taken 2, not expecting much as I'm not the type of bro who swears by the first Taken movie (great trailer, middling execution). I'm sure I'm in the minority here, but I actually prefer the sequel. The first half has the kinds of logistical challenges I look for in thrillers, and while I'm sure it's not actually possible for even an expert CIA ass-kicker to figure out relatively exact directions to the location of his captivity using just a cell phone and a few explosions, and for his untrained daughter to find him on the other end of that phone, I do like to see how movies invent ways for this to happen, if they're not insultingly stupid about it. The second half of Taken 2 is more of a first-movie rehash, but 45 minutes of Neeson killing a bunch of dudes is a lot less monotonous than 90-plus. Throw in a car chase and Taken 2 is a lot more like a Transporter movie than the first Taken, which makes it closer to my platonic ideal of a Luc Besson-produced Eurotrash action movie.
On a more sensitive note: I also enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a sweet-natured and surprisingly sure-footed adaptation (given that it was written and directed by the book's author) of the popular YA book that I only just read a week or two before seeing the movie. The movie actually corrects some missteps of the book: for example, by having less of the protagonist's voice and seeing him in person, I didn't found myself saying "wait, is he really fifteen? Or is he twelve?" like I did while reading the book. It also makes some cuts and softens a few edges here and there, but it captures the book's warmth without going overboard with the emo thing, the way the book sometimes does. I'm not sure why it wasn't released wider; it seems to me it would've been a decent-sized hit, but what do I know? By staying indie, it definitely outclasses the likes of Butter and The Oranges, two limp suburban satires I saw and wound up reviewing together. Two more indies that didn't work for me that I watched via review screeners: Josh Radnor's weirdly meandering and wan Liberal Arts, and Ry-Russo Young's, uh, also weirdly meandering and wan Nobody Walks.
Adding to the fall deluge, I got press accreditation for this year's New York Film Festival, so I was able to see some movies that are just coming out this month, and a few others that won't be out until next year. My favorite was Frances Ha, which doesn't seem to have a release date yet; in other undated 2013 release news, I also have a great deal of affection for Brian De Palma's Passion, which I reviewed with The Bay, a pretty decent horror movie from Barry Levinson (!), out now in limited release. I didn't have a chance to write about Ginger and Rosa, because I didn't have much to say: I admire Elle Fanning's performance, and the movie kind of gets sidetracked from its strengths. I also saw The Paperboy, which seriously might be one of the worst movies of the year! So there's that.
The closing night selection of the festival was Flight (mostly positive review), which is currently making way more money than I would've expected for what is essentially a gritty addiction drama tailing a very exciting plane crash sequence. Tom Cruise, Adam Sandler, and Tom Hanks all had disappointining grosses this year, and even the Will Smith movie wasn't top-five Will Smith material -- so is Denzel Washington actually the Last Big Movie Star?
That Hanks underperformer was Cloud Atlas, the last movie we saw before we took off for vacation, and a very popular movie in the demographic of "people who really liked The Fountain." I maybe didn't like it quite as much as The Fountain, or at least didn't connect with it as emotionally, but the nutty Wachowski-and-Twyker adaptation of a sprawling, ambitious book I haven't read still captivated me for most of its three-hour running time. I guess the book has six nested stories; the movie shuffles them up and intercuts them, but not with the plodding one-two-three-four-five-six-repeat rhythm you might expect. The rhythm is weirder and more complex than that, with segments pairing up and alternating for awhile, then re-pairing and connecting, like some kind of space-time square dance (that's what square dances are like, right?). I actually would've liked to see the segments go even weirder and more hallucinatory, but I guess the sextuple-casting of many actors across race and gender, the two stories set hundreds-or-more years in the future, and the open-hearted earnestness of the whole thing get it weird enough. The suppose race-bending stuff works for me; it seems like a theatrical device more than anything, not a serious attempt to fill Asian roles with white people or anything else. In filmmaking terms, it's not quite as wild as I might hope based on Twyker's Run Lola Run or the Wachowskis' Speed Racer, but that's probably a product of the respect they all have for the material, and their desire to tell these stories in a mostly-coherent way, so fair enough.
Actually, the real last movie we saw before going away was Looper again.
Now we are back in the U.S. after two weeks without new movies, and I'm going to try to fit in as many as I can in between work trip, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
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