July 25, 2008
Why is vacation reading different from regular reading? Nobody’s 100% sure. But undoubtedly we all (or should I just speak for myself?) feel like vacations are a break for body AND mind, so vacation reading should be just as mentally relaxing as lying on a beach, or dock, or whatever is for the body and soul. Summertime is Grisham-time, Crichton-time, Nora Roberts-time (!!), time for all the geeky fantasy novels or embarrassing romance novels or brain-dead right-wing military thrillers. Books that are wish-fulfillment, adrenaline-soaked, and/or easily decipherable mysteries. Fun books, weightless books, meaningless books.
Yet, I have felt a nagging pull in recent years of summertime vacationing that there may be no better time to tackle the tough stuff. I mean, nobody’s ever going to get through Ulysses on their morning commute: if the early morning hour and the need to be constantly aware of where your bus is in relation to your stop doesn’t divide your focus enough, how about the smell of the semi-vagrant right in front of you? How about the larger lady slowly pulverizing you against the greasy bus window? The thrash-metal that verges on being fully audible emanating from the iPod-listening goth-kid sitting behind you? Not ideal conditions for the focus a tough book requires, nor can you be fully transported away – there are too many real-life hooks tugging you back into the present moment on the gross, sticky bus where you are actually sitting. Wouldn’t the quiet hush of vacation be exactly the right time to give your brain the space it needs to finally enjoy Gravity's Rainbow or Foucault's Pendulum or one of those huge Dostoyevskys or Tolstoys that have been staring at you from the bookshelf for literally years?
No, of course not! But so goes my thinking the past couple years. Fortunately I seem to always manage to ignore that nagging, pretentious voice. Vacation time means I get to pluck up those books I typically overlook from my bookshelf: my long-suffering copy of Be Cool (I think I have read one Elmore Leonard per vacation for the past four or five years), my much-maligned Poker Nation: A High-Stakes, Low-Life Adventure into the Heart of a Gambling Country, my prestige-copy of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which probably bridges that gap of fun and respectable fiction, and will therefore almost certainly be “saved” for last and never read.
Sure, it’s probably all backwards, and when you are sitting, crammed into your winter parka, trying to get through Updike’s Rabbit Novels with some asshole’s messenger bag smacking the back of your head every time the bus driver applies the brakes, you’ll think “I need some peace and quiet to properly savor this masterpiece.” But when it’s summertime again, you’ll stare long and hard at The Sound and the Fury and Moby-Dick, then decide to re-read the entire Harry Potter series.
July 17, 2008
I spend so much time reading reviews, entertainment news, gossip, rumors, etc, that it’s somewhat rare that a movie truly surprises me. If I know ahead of time that I’m really interested in seeing a particular movie, I often like to wait to read reviews until AFTER seeing it, but with the volume of entertainment information readily accessible all the time, it’s hard to not know at least SOMEthing about a movie going into it. That's kind of a weird thing to think about. The positive side of that coin is that it's interesting, and I enjoy keeping up with all that silly entertainment news; the flip side is that knowing so much about every detail of a movie’s development, every lead and supporting actor’s personal life, every autobiographical and semi-autobiographical element utilized by the director, all the critical and blogosphere chatter, it takes away so many of the surprises in a given movie. You can’t be surprised by an M. Night Shyamalan movie anymore (sure, probably a bad example), because you go in expecting to be surprised, knowing full well that some twist is coming. Which, of course, defeats the purpose of surprise. Even with a big movie based on secrecy and utilizing indirect, often opaque “viral marketing” like, say, Cloverfield, everyone knows going in that there’s going to be a huge scary monster, and sort of what the monster looks like. Enough anyway that it’s hardly huge and scary enough by the time you actually see it.
Last night, though, I saw WALL-E, the new Pixar film, and am happy to say I walked in having not seen a single preview or read a single review. Pixar has a good enough track record, and I have liked their films enough in the past, that I was pretty excited to see it, even knowing nothing about it. I knew WALL-E the character was a robot – that was the extent of my prior knowledge. And boy, am I glad I didn’t know anything beforehand: what a strange and beautiful, sad and surprising movie. I was really taken aback by its sophistication and its complexity. (As a side note: I can’t imagine what, if anything, younger children might enjoy about this movie, though ostensibly it’s for kids. It seemed far too subtle and sophisticated to me, but that's also all the more reason I selfishly loved it...)
As a result of my happy surprise I really don’t want to say anything about the plot or specifics of WALL-E, though if you’re like me you’ll just avoid reading anything about it until you’ve seen it. Regardless, I would suggest going into the theater with an open mind and a willingness to be surprised: I think you will enjoy this film very, very much. I found myself really moved by the simplicity of the story and the purity of the emotions, while awed by the grandiosity of the visuals themselves. It’s really just a fantastically made film.
But because I’m me, I have to throw out a couple criticisms – all very minor. I thought some elements of the satire, specifically human-related, were overdone and sledge-hammered home. Especially in a movie with such a finely hewed sense of nuance and delicacy – with so many stunning and moving moments, visually and emotionally – it seemed especially discordant to hit these satirical elements as hard as they were hit. Some small parts (I do want to be intentionally vague) felt like transplants from a kids’ movie (overly broad) inside a wonderful (understated) film that could probably never be categorized as a kids’ movie. Also, one of my friends – and I agreed – felt that violence was used as an excessive tool (for good) in the movie, with no real lesson or learning opportunity about the consequences of such. Again, not what you’d expect in a movie at least marketed towards kids.
Of course, I can nitpick anything. The overall point remains that WALL-E was a fascinating, exciting, surprising, beautiful, simple, grandiose, and sad movie. I thought about it long after I left the theater, and am still thinking about it. Standing right beside the incredible feats of animation were the feats of storytelling and emotional resonance – rare in any movie, but especially surprising in a summer (kids) movie like this one. Wow. I kind of wish I hadn’t written all this; I wish everyone would go into the theater and get swept away and surprised by this awesome movie like I did.
-Culturephiles Personal Note: I don’t know why, but something that never fails to make me sad in movies is super-organized collections of things. I can think of The 40-Year Old Virgin as a prime example right off the top of my head, and it’s famously used to devastating, if obvious, effect in The Glass Menagerie. What else? Ariel’s treasure trove of human items in The Little Mermaid is another example (which is sort of an interesting animated-Disney parallel in and of itself). What are some more? Help me out, people! Anyway, there's just something simple and heartbreaking to me about characters with careful collections. It plays a big part of the pathos of the character WALL-E for me.
-Culurephiles Official Talkback Session: I just realized a WALL-E plot hole that requires a MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. But I have to post this because I want some opinions on this; maybe I’m missing something. I don’t know why I am soliciting reader feedback on a blog that has no readers, but here goes: (please stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie!) Why doesn’t EVA scan and accept our friend the cockroach as a sign of Life? He’s there all along – he’s like one of the first things she encounters! What the hell? What am I missing??
July 10, 2008
The Weepies – Hideaway
I am a huge fan of The Weepies, and it seems that they appeal to all segments of my friends, with all their different musical tastes. Everybody I’ve talked to loves The Weepies too. So it goes without saying I was insanely excited for their latest release, and it is a good one. It’s not the masterpiece I was hoping for; it’s just a good record. As a matter of fact, I think that their debut EP Happiness might actually their best record to date. Say I Am You – their first full length album – is really great, and now Hideaway is good, not great. I don’t think they are on a declining slope or anything, but the reality remains that even Good albums from The Weepies are a wide margin better than most bands Best records. So I’m not complaining – I really like this new record and think you will too! I just want The Weepies to dig deep next time out: we know what they are capable of: “Happiness,” “Jolene,” “Gotta Have You,” “The World Spins Madly On!!!” Those are great songs. Great songs! I don’t think anything on Hideaway quite measures up to that standard. With this in mind, here is my Memo to The Weepies for the next album:
1) Not everything has to be an upbeat “Happiness”-type of song…be OK with slowing it down, or at least not staying exclusively in mid-tempo-land.
2) Don’t be afraid of those country-influences! (I know you have them. You can't hide them from me completely; I hear them.) Songs like “Jolene” are great and can serve to keep your albums from sounding too same-y.
3) Embrace the darkness every now and then! “The World Spins Madly On” is one of the best songs of recent memory, and is also one of the most depressing. Don’t shy away from those darker impulses, they make for great art.
4) Lastly, while keeping point #3 in mind, don’t forsake your senses of humor either; “Dating a Porn Star” has an obvious tongue-in-cheek element at the same time as it has plenty of pathos and rises above its joke-y subject matter. Be comfortable walking those thin lines! It’s hard to do, but when you succeed, you stand head and shoulders above the rest!
Emmylou Harris – All I Intended to Be
Talk about being a huge fan. People that know me know that Emmylou Harris is a close #2 in my heart to Linda Ronstadt. And at the risk of sounding like a toady, this most recent record is pretty damn great. After barely writing any songs herself for the first stage in her career, Emmylou’s past few records (Stumble Into Grace, Red Dirt Girl) have focused on her songwriting almost exclusively. And while she is a capable songwriter, her real strength remains in plucking out brilliant, obscure songs and beautifully interpreting them. So it was doubly exciting to see that Emmylou had a new CD coming out and that it was a mix of covers and (mostly co-written) originals. The balance she strikes on this album is great; some songs I’ve heard, most I haven’t, and a few originals sprinkled in for spice. Perfect. She has a bunch of wonderful collaborators – notably her longtime buddies the McGarrigle sisters, and Dolly Parton – with her ex-husband (and original producer) Brian Ahern producing. All in all, it feels like a wonderful mélange of classic Emmylou Harris records and sounds, like she has plucked the best of all those elements that made her long career so stellar and put them all into one record: great interpretations of little-known songs, unfussy production with some nods to her reverb-heavy (and awesome) “Wrecking Ball” period, deft collaborators. It doesn’t sound like anything she’s done before – it sounds like the best of everything she has done before.
Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends
Now I know Coldplay isn’t for everyone, and I’m not immune to the anti-Coldplay backlash a little bit, but remember Parachutes? Remember A Rush of Blood to the Head? Those were good records! I know that some songs off A Rush of Blood to the Head were seriously overplayed (the backlash begins) and their third album X & Y was terrible (backlash unleashed). But still, two good albums out of three ain’t bad. That's a good enough hit-to-miss ratio that I will give your new one a try, Coldplay! Now, the new one is obviously a little more experimental, clearly trying a little harder for more, for better, for something. And you know what? I think it succeeds. I like it, all in all. It’s still a little schmaltzy, but I like a little schmaltz. It reminds me of their first album, Parachutes, which is my favorite of theirs, so it’s a good comparison from my perspective. It also seems a little less directly oriented for radio, while obviously still being catchy and poppy and sonically pleasing. There are some long(er) tracks, some multi-part songs, as well as a healthy dollop of pretension, naturally. Yet for some reason the pretension doesn’t bug me and the catchiness doesn’t get to be too much. It’s a strong batch of well-constructed, fun pop songs. Hard to go wrong with that, fundamentally.
This post is getting too long, so let me also just say that I did finally get a copy of Eddie Vedder’s Into the Wild soundtrack – if you are paying attention or care – and it is great. See the movie and then get a copy of the soundtrack – some great, emotional songs on there.
Lastly, co-blogger Greg burned me a copy of Oracular Spectacular by indie it-band-of-right-now, MGMT. Aside from all that obnoxious buzz and indie-cred, it’s a really fun, cool album. I like it, and the leadoff track, “Time to Pretend,” is about as catchy as a song can possibly be. It’s pretty tongue-in-cheek (I think?), but there’s a great lyric in there that really speaks to me, stuck as I am in my summertime office:
This is our decision: to live fast and die young.
We've got the vision, now let's have some fun!
Yeah, it's overwhelming, but what else can we do?
Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?
Song of the summer? Maybe???
Anyway, keep it coming everybody. I need those summer songs now more than ever.
July 2, 2008
So, the summer movie season is upon us all, and I have heard good things about (but haven’t personally seen) various and sundry flicks like Iron Man, Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Sex & The City, etc etc. I’m looking forward to heading out to the local multiplex to sit in the air conditioned splendor with my large bag of buttery popcorn on my lap and be transported away by some good old fashioned Hollywood magic. Can’t you just hear that famous Indiana Jones theme song piping up right now?? THAT’S what moviemaking is all about. *whip crack!*
Wait, no? You don’t care about The Incredible Hulk? What, do you hate fun? Maybe Hancock? Everybody likes Will Smith! No? Ok, what about Kung Fu Panda? Still no? Really? Sheesh.
Well, if you’re not into any of those blockbusters (last chance: Get Smart?), maybe what you need is a good cry. In that case, I guess you could also rent the 2005 independent flick Vera Drake* by noted British auteur Mike Leigh, starring Imelda Staunton. Looking to be devastated? Want to be put through a super-intense emotional wringer? Like seeing nuanced, naturalistic characters deal with tragedy in a heartbreaking manner? Hollywood star power, special effects, and hilarious sidekicks are nowhere to be found in this tiny, ultra-realistic period piece, but boy, it is a knockout. I bet that there’s not as much emotional wallop in all those movies I listed above COMBINED as there is in Vera Drake’s final, 5-second-long silent shot. It’s just an incredible movie, with an honest-to-God incredible performance at its heart by Imelda Staunton as the title character. Turns out Staunton was nominated for an Oscar – and every other award under the sun – for this performance, and probably should have won them all. (Seems that she lost the Oscar to Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, a movie I once saw but have since completely and entirely forgotten. I don’t think I’m liable to forget Vera Drake anytime soon. Wait, Hilary Swank died or something, right?)
Anyway, I don’t really have anything further to say about this movie other than I thought it was really incredible and brilliant. I think you should rent it right now. But not if you need cheering up or anything. Cheering up is what The Love Guru is for (I assume).
*Official Culturephile Endorsement™
PS: Happy 4th of July from your friends at The Culturephiles!