December 31, 2009
Fortunately, like Brendan and his fam, everyone can agree on the movies. Sort of. A couple days before Christmas, my wife, brothers-in-law, and I ventured out to see the first movie any of us had seen in the theater in a long time. Some of us initially pushed to see Avatar, but, in a beautiful scene that could, nay, should have been filmed for inclusion on a self-help DVD about Marital & Familial Compromise, we instead decided on Up in the Air. The brothers-in-law seemed pretty bored when all was said and done, but the wife and I enjoyed it, with some reservations. Ultimately, we may not have had as much fun as good friends Greg & Brendan, but we avoided playing tennis in December for 109 precious minutes, so I consider that a small victory worth mentioning.
Generally, I'd argue the whole film is a partial victim of overhype, which I will attribute to awards shows growing increasingly desperate to find some movie -- any movie -- in the mainstream with a whiff of quality about it to laud. Is it a good movie? Absolutely. Is it the Best Drama of the year with a Best Actor-winning lead performance and the Best Screenplay and the Best Director, BestCostumeDesignBestAnimatedShortSubject and Best Everything in the Whole Universe, Totally? Well, no. It's "just" good. The movie hangs on three really excellent lead performances from George Clooney and two women I had never seen or heard of before -- Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. If anybody gets any award for Best Anything in this movie it should be the three of them (for Best Trio?). Other than that, the movie makes some somewhat dubious claims about honorable vs. dishonorable ways to fire people, and throws in some topical montages of non-actors discussing their real-life layoffs. Most of it made me sad and uncomfortable and unsure as to the merit of including these real-life hardships in this relatively slight dramedy. I appreciate the seriousness with which the movie was made, but the non-actor stuff felt purposeless and just pulled me out of the film. After firing a parade of "real people" there's no seamless way to have Juno's dad and J. Jonah Jameson get fired last. It's jarring.
On the plus side, the move generally avoided providing "easy answers" and navigated well the tricky waters of characters "learning lessons" without becoming maudlin. That said, some moments felt a little glib as in, for instance (spoiler alert), Clooney talking goofy Danny McBride out of his pre-wedding cold feet. But on the whole everything managed to seem mostly real and natural, not forcing any great realizations or major epiphanies or Learning Very Important Lessons that cause you to turn your while life around on a dime. A bit of a tough streak ran through the whole film, which I appreciated, since I have a pretty low tolerance for contrived happiness -- well, really, for anything contrived. (See my post on Glee for more thoughts on contrivances and Lesson Learning.)
Ultimately, the three lead performances were terrific and I like a movie with heart that avoids sap. Would my rare, precious time inside a huge movie theater have been put to better use seeing Avatar? Possibly. But the wife & I both give Up in the Air a cheerful-family-compromise two thumbs three-quarters-of-the-way up. I can't speak for the bros-in-law.
Today, my friend Greg and I saw “Up in the Air.” I liked it very much and I think Greg did too. After the movie, I said I thought it reminded me a little of “In Good Company” in that both centered on a mentor/mentee relationship that is thrown into turmoil over the “new” way of doing business. Greg said he didn’t think the movie was anything like “In Good Company” since “Up in the Air” didn’t have Marg Helgenberger in it. I said that wasn’t my point and then we didn’t talk for a while.
Marg Helgenberger is in "In Good Company" but NOT "Up in the Air." Photo courtesy of Yahoo.tv
We both said that we really liked the music and Greg said he would probably buy the soundtrack. I told him I have Dan Aeurbach’s album (his song “Going Home” is used effectively in one of the final scenes) if he wanted to borrow it and Greg said that would be cool.
My favorite part was Vera Farmiga, because I thought she was pretty and made you believe all the different sides of her character (I don’t want to say too much more because I don’t want to spoil anything for you, Diary. I’m just glad that she’s not playing the mother to psychotic little people hookers anymore). Greg’s favorite part was Anna Kendrick, because he said he related to her struggle of balancing professional and personal expectations in your early twenties. I said to Greg oh do you relate to her because you followed a guy to Omaha and he punched me hard in the arm and then we didn’t talk for a while.
Both of us thought George Clooney was good but that he has played this part (charming bachelor whose fear of commitment messes up his personal relationships) a lot before. I said I will be happy when Clooney plays a devoted family man and Greg said that’ll be the day and then I said it could happen and he said we’ll see. I bet if George played a part like that I would like the movie a lot. All the supporting players were really good, especially the lady from “Two and a Half Men” who was also in that creepy Kate Winslet movie about killing your mother.
It was a really good movie and a fun day at the movies with my friend Greg.
Talk to you soon!
But even the rambunctious pack of animals couldn’t deter the charm of the movie. While it is nothing new (plucky heroine overcomes adversity through song and talking animals), the vibrant animation and vocal performances pulled me through. Yes, some of the song lyrics by Randy Newman are a little tired (at one point the main character shills the value of hard work so didactically I thought she was a character in a George Orwell novel) but Anika Noni Rose has such a gorgeous voice that all is forgiven. I haven’t seen “Nine” but I am almost certain the movie would have been infinitely better if she had been in it. At the very least, she should play a substitute teacher on “Glee” next season. I am sure I will put “THPATF” on my Netflix queue to watch again when it comes out on DVD, if only to catch the parts I missed the first time because the theater was functioning as an illegal daycare center.
“The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” in contrast, suffered neither from inattentive audience members or over-familiarity with other works. It is a gorgeous movie, crammed with so many beautiful images and jokes that it is just fun to watch. The story diverts loopily from the source material while still being respectful to it, and manages to make some astute points about the animal vs. civilized world. I cared a lot more about the weird crew of characters that made up the Fox family (even –to my surprise- Jason Schwartzman’s malcontent son) than I ever did any of the characters in “Princess and the Frog” (see you at the crossroads, Randy the firefly). Plus, the “Boggis, Bunce and Beans” chorale has been playing in a loop in my head for the past twelve hours (and I mean that in a good way). Go see it!
December 24, 2009
Maybe I am a born contrarian, but unlike Martin, I thought 2009 was chock full of remarkable music. With the growing reach of Grooveshark (instant previews!), and the reliability of All Songs Considered, Sound Opinions, Hype Machine and the like, I feel like making my list this year was more challenging than ever before.
Though I have consumed a lot of great stuff, I had to go back to the drawing board and think about what I listened to most in forming the soundtrack for 2009. Maybe this recession has made me introspective? It hasn't curbed my music spending at all, that's for sure. There are names missing from my list that I appreciated (Grizzly Bear, Jay-Z, K'nann, Discovery). I tried to stay away from flash-in-the-pan groups, as well as stuff I was impressed by, but can't sit through an entire album (cough, Animal Collective). This said, 2009 was largely the year of beautiful orchestration by sensitive indie bands. I know, sue me.
1. Avett Brothers - "I And Love And You"
I'm not sure why it took me so long to get into the Avetts. Great song writing; honest, funny and pretty with the appropriate dash of southern influence to make me feel right at home. "Slight Figure of Speech" wins for catchiest, and the title track for honesty award.
2. AC Newman - "Get Guilty"
When I blogged about AC Newman earlier this year, I had sneaking suspicion that this album would remain near and dear. Newman's ability to write pop songs with catchy off-kilter phrasing shows a truly talented musician playing within the form. "Like a Hitman Like a Dancer" is the winner track here.
3. Noah and the Whale - "First Days of Spring"
The minute I heard this band I downloaded everything they have made. Lush, broad landscapes of music. Lead singer Charlie Fink's voice is just broken enough to provide the tension needed when things are too pretty.
4. The Swell Season - "Strict Joy"
A total upset pick, as I didn't intend to like this album at all. Crucify me, but I was not a fan of the film "Once," nor did I really like their first album which I found too precious, quiet, and ultimately forgettable. But add some heartbreak to this star-crossed pair, and we get "Strict Joy" an album with raw emotion, along with a few songs that feel like they could break in your hands.
5. M. Ward - "Hold Time"
Hands down, this is the best songwriting of the year in my book. It is M. Ward doing what he does best, sounding like he always does, which is a great thing. This album has enough epistimology for all the reprobate Protestants out there, and "Blake's View" will be played at my funeral.
6. Brother Ali - "Us"
I'm not sure what a partially blind, Muslim, albino, rapper from Minneapolis and I have in common, but the sing-song tone of his voice, effortless vintage-y hooks, and clever lyrics have me sold. Plus, I like when my rappers to talk about family, peace, love, and some social issues. Gangsta rap dies with Tupac, whenever he decides to die.
7. Bill Carson - "The Whale"
I am not sure where you will get a copy of this record, but when you do, you won't regret it. Charleston resident Bill Carson flies under the radar, but his time is coming. For fans of Jeff Tweety and Will Hoge, there are some great rock tunes, as well as simple ballads. The production is intimate; a great headphones album.
8. Antlers - "Hospice"
I started reading the blog of NPR's Robin Hilton after he kindly posted about the Dave Matthews: Regrets video I was in. Because of him, I found out about this album, which is the most heartbreaking thing you will listen to this year. Warning: don't listen if you don't like to feel.
9. Phoenix - "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix"
So this might be a breach in avoiding the 'band of the moment,' but if I am honest, I listened to Phoenix as much as anyone in 2009. Who needs French pop with classical composer references in their life? Me. Though Phoenix might go the way of of bands like Postal Service, MGMT, Passion Pit and Gnarls Barkley for me (groups I like to refer to as "Song of the Summer" bands) for now, they made it.
10. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros - "Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros"
A sprawling, fun, road trip required record, this album has enough whistling in it to allow me to leave poor Andrew Bird off my list this year. (!) After all, we must not let our sacred cows get too sacred. "Janglin'" will make you forget, momentarily, that you are freezing your ass off at a bus stop, transporting you to some desert with the Merry Pranksters.
Honorable Mentions: Islands, Andrew Bird, Allen Toussaint, Anathallo, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, The Dodos, Bon Iver ("Bloodbank" might be song of the year), David Mead, Fanfarlo, Joe Pug, Heartless Bastards.
December 17, 2009
It's the most wonderful time of the year, and that means year-end, "best of" lists. (If you are the blog Largehearted Boy, it may mean LOTS of lists...)
This year I found myself in the something of the same mindset as Greg last year, bemoaning a lack of "greatness." Perhaps this past year I slacked off on finding new & exciting artists, or perhaps the collapse of the record industry has winnowed major-label options down to only mass-market superstars, most of which don't appeal to me, or perhaps the rise of the "music-blog-overhyped band" made cool new musicians rise and fall too quickly to catch my eye. Or maybe -- and I think there may be something to this in my case -- I was simply inundated with too much easily accessible music to let anything properly take root and flourish in my mind (and heart). It felt like a year I listened to a lot of music but nothing really STUCK with me. It's also the first year in a long time I had to scrape to come up with 10 albums I really loved -- usually I'm guiltily grafting 3-5 extra albums onto the end of my list. Not this year. So, without further ado, my top 10 albums of 2009:
1. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
I hate to say that I predicted this back in February, but I did. And while a hard-hearted cynic might make the case that it's easy for me to self-fulfill my own prophecy, as it were, I guess you will just have to trust me when I say I would happily have found an album I liked more in the intervening ten months, if only one had presented itself. Regardless of the quality of the year overall for me, this is a great album. Like I already said.
2. Noah and the Whale – The First Days of Spring
Greg introduced me (and us all) to these guys, who put together certainly the biggest surprise of 2009. It's a breakup album -- my favorite kind of album -- at heart, and nicely balances heartbroken folk with lush orchestration, and a lo-fi aesthetic with some elaborate production values.
3. AC Newman – Get Guilty
This solo project from one of the New Pornographers' brain trust stands right up there with anything that favorite band of mine has released. Catchy, smart songwriting on top of a sound that is almost indistinguishable from the NPs (and that's a good thing). Again, a tip of the cap to Greg for mentioning this one back in May.
4. Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels
This album, the Great Lake Swimmers' latest jam, doesn't rise to the sublime heights of their second-to-last album, Ongiara (as I have mentioned previously), but it's still a solid effort from beginning to end. Bonus points for having been recorded in and around The Thousand Islands in upstate New York, my favorite place on earth.
5. The Low Anthem – Oh My God Charlie Darwin
Unabashedly pulled from an NPR piece I heard in July, this album pulls off a tricky mix of shimmering, beautiful, sad, folk songs with a couple of Tom Waits-style rock & roll rave-ups. For those folks who don't want to listen to an entire album of depressing music, unlike me.
6. Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi
The surprise of the year for me -- an album that, as I listen to it again now, I wonder if I should move up in this list. It has the feel of an effortless, instant classic. I don't know hardly anything about Allen Toussaint, and don't even really care. This album of New Orleans jazz/blues/pop (or something?) is almost entirely instrumental and is absolutely terrific.
7. Monsters of Folk
Yes, I lauded them in October...it's a great album, I stand by my guns. Some folks (Greg) have opined that they'd rather hear an M. Ward or Jim James solo record, but I think this whole ends up managing to be just as good as the sum of the parts -- not always the case with "supergroups"! Easygoing, low-key collaborations, like the unavoidable Travelling Wilburys comparison, can be a lot of fun when they don't take themselves too seriously but aren't a joke. The unfortunately named Monsters walk that line impressively well, to my tase.
8. M. Ward – Hold Time
Just a great, solid, album from one of the aforementioned "Monsters." Loved it in March, still love it today.
9. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
Much buzzed-about, acclaimed indie-rock boys are pretty hit-or-miss, but these guys don't get too indie that I get annoyed, and yet don't really sound like anybody else. Where lots of electronic music gets repetitive and overly weird, Grizzly Bear pulls off super-produced, baroque pop songs like nobody else I've heard. Again, these guys have previously appeared here at the Culturephiles.
10. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
This is where I start scraping the bottom of my barrel for the year. This is a super-fun album from another much-buzzed-about-band that I didn't really know much about. I debated putting Buddy & Julie Miller in this slot, but once the initial bloom wore off their album "Written in Chalk", I haven't found myself drawn back to it. In contrast, whenever I need some good pump-you-up music, I find myself drawn back to this danceable, hook-filled record. And wanting to listen to an album again seems to me to be a prerequisite for making a top ten list.
There you have it, Culturephiles. Anybody want to take issue with me or fill in any blanks I may have missed?
December 9, 2009
December 8, 2009
At any rate, we have sort of found that new show in Glee, which is, I guess, sweeping the nation (?). Or something. You can tell I'm head-over-heels, right? Brendan turned me onto Glee sometime around the first or second episode, and we have endured a rocky, guilty-pleasure, off-again-on-again affair since then. (I include my wife with me in this belabored analogy.) Perhaps Brendan will join in this discussion and enliven it with his own passionate viewpoint sometime. But as for me, the show vacillates between being campy, guilty-pleasure fun, and utterly, painfully, stupid and infantile.
There's admittedly lots to like, but plenty to hate, too. On the hate side, my primary problem is that this show is generally operating just below the emotional level of your typical Sesame Street episode. In a recent episode all my discomfort came to a head when our heroes, the titular McKinley High glee club, arrange a friendly scrimmage with a rival glee club from a neighboring high school...for the deaf. Our McKinley High kids put on a terrible show, watched politely and bemusedly by the deaf kids, who then follow with a signed and spoken-word version of John Lennon's hoary, undeniable, 38-year-old anthem of peace, love & unity, "Imagine." Halfway through, our glee kids get up, yes, one by one, and start singing the melody and signing along with the rival deaf club as Mr. Schuester, the gleeclub director, chokes back tears and Learns a Valuable Lesson. It's a scene that, handled deftly, or with subtlety, might have been moving. Instead it is totally, deadly serious, blatantly manipulative, and completely cringe-inducing.
If you hear a description of that scene and think to yourself "yikes," then you are on my wavelength. I don't mind a healthy dollop of sentimentality or even some sincere, heart-on-the-sleeve emotion every now and again, but this never managed to be anything more than, frankly, emotional porn. Singing and signing "Imagine" is going to be hard to pull off with integrity to begin with -- seems like that sort of stuff ought to stay in the "heartwarming-Richard-Dreyfuss-family-dramedy" niche -- but then having the other kids get up and sing...then magically and impressively learn sign language...then everybody laughs and gives heartfelt hugs at the end...while the earnest teacher chokes back tears and literally puts his hand to his heart and everybody Learns a Valuable Lesson. All in utter seriousness. I'm pretty sure this exact scene has been left on the cutting room floor of every single episode of Hannah Montana.
Glee is a show already dealing with some pretty thinly drawn characters (another word for that might be "stereotypes": shy Asian girl, big black girl, gay boy, oversexed jock, bitchy cheerleader, et al), so it makes me real nervous when we start involving the disabled (or differently abled) in these two-dimensional pastiches. At least Artie (aka "kid in a wheelchair"...sigh...) has a semblance of a personality. He's a character (sort of) on the show. But trotting out a bunch of kids who can't hear to sign "Imagine" together and teach a Valuable Lesson about Being True To Ourselves is simply playing a card off the bottom of the emotional deck. It just doesn't feel right to me.
This is especially true when you consider this scene in the larger context of the show, which overall feels muddled and confused: vacillating wildly back and forth between broad comedy and dark sadness, between snark and sentiment. Now, you can certainly have both moods if you treat them each with equal respect and subtlety and work carefully to shift the tone back and forth between them. I've never written a TV show, but I imagine it's really hard to pull off those careful shifts, which is why most shows are either "comedies" or "dramas." I'd love to see a show that does both equally well, but it can't be uncontrolled and inconsistent, as Glee feels.
Yet. And yet, sometimes the emotions can actually feel earned and genuine-seeming. An early-episode scene between Kurt Hummel (the stereotypical "gay kid" referenced above) and his dad was genuinely moving; Kurt, plainly terrified, finally comes out to his father, and, in an unexpected and welcome twist, receives his father's unconditional (if reluctant) support. It didn't feel like an after-school special; it didn't try to manipulate; it was an honest scene played honestly, and I appreciate that. Letting honest, sad, touching moments arise honestly from a generally comedic show is fine -- is GREAT -- with me, but forcing them, unearned, is awkward and disingenuous.
On the other hand, the music is totally cheesy but wonderfully fun; there's no denying it. I admit I'm a pure P.T. Barnum-sucker for cheesy songs. Guest star Kristin Chenoweth and glee club director Mr. Schuester, played by broadway vet Matthew Morrison, dueting on a balls-to-the-wall Heart cover? Hard to beat. (Check out the site to stream the Glee songs, and click on "Alone.") I can't find a video to embed, but it is pure, cheese-dripping, artery-clogging greatness. I CAN, however, find a video of one of the show's other supporting-character gems: the insanely flamboyant Kurt, played by Chris Colfer. This kid has an absolutely amazing voice:
Yow. My man can sing, friends. So can Lea Michele, as Rachel, the other "diva" in the video above. She's super-talented enough that her character on the show has to be written as the super-talented one.
Then, just when I let myself start to be swayed ("This music is cheesy but great; some of these dudes can really SING!"), the show will have two characters dealing with a teenage pregnancy and painfully breaking the news to their parents, so the glee kids will perform a song to buck up their embattled friends. And that song will be...
Oh brother. What's with this show? ("High FIVE, teach!") Like I say, I'm OK with some blatant emotionality; I will go along with what you give me, as long as it's coherent. But too often Glee is nothing more than an inexplicable mishmash of soap opera and comedy and musical-theater camp, topped off with uninspired, unenlightening, super-literal songs. In other words, if you have to sing the 37-year-old Bill Withers classic, "Lean on Me," which is probably one of the top 5 most overused songs in history, at least don't subject me to reaction shots of the two kids we're cheering up, slowly smiling and nodding like they're hearing this great song for the first time and it, like, totally, applies to them and stuff!
Yet...back over on the "like" side of my raging self-debate, Jane Lynch tears this show apart in her (strangely dwindling!) screentime. (More Lynch!) She gets all the best, catty, bonkers, pomposity-puncturing lines, and she wonderfully, masterfully makes the most of them. It's great to watch. Undeniably hilarious.
There's a lot to like about Glee, fellow Culturephiles, but too often it gets mired in kiddie-tv tropes and juvenile nonsense like "Valuable Lesson Learning" and "Friend Hugging" and "Blatantly Trying To Make You Cry For No Good Reason Other Than Music Can Be Beautiful So Why Not." The show needs more Jane Lynch-style bite, some gin to keep the juice from being too saccharine. It also needs a lot less choked-up, hand-to-heart moments (literally), and a whole lot less singing "keep holding on" to a scared, pregnant girl. You know, to get her to keep holding on. Get it? GET IT???
December 7, 2009
A Serious Man: I know I liked this movie, but I wouldn't necessarily be able to articulate why. I don't know anyone who has had a fully formed opinion about the Coen Brothers' latest. It seems like the shorthand smart person reply has been to say, "It's about the Book of Job," and then look meaningfully off in the distance. This obfuscation has caused me to answer any and all questions with a random book of the Bible and then get annoyed when the inquirer isn't able to draw the seemingly obvious parallels.
Q: How are you doing?
A: It's a Book of Ruth kind of day.
Q: What're you doing for lunch?
A: I might do a little Apocryphyl Texts.
Q: Do you love me?
An Education: This was a delightful and unchallenging movie filled with very pleasurable performances. Carey Mulligan is totally charming and her performance heralds an exciting career. She's like a classically trained Katie Holmes. Movie bloggers have been talking up Alfred Molina's role as her blustery father, but I thought Peter Sarsgaard gave the more nuanced performance as her lover. I've thought he was overpraised in other movies (I wasn't able to make all the way it through "Shattered Glass" but got a kick out of "The Skeleton Key") but here he brought depth to what could have been a one-note role.
This movie feels like something you've seen a bunch of times before, but the director, Lone Sherfig, wrings out some surprises and provides lots of unexpected shadings. I liked how her fellow students looked like they were seventeen or eighteen, which seemed to sharpen the world of innocence that Carey ends up leaving behind. Also, it was refreshing to see a coming-of-age movie where the girl wasn't ruined or punished for exploring her sexuality (Wish You Were Here, Madame Bovary, Dirty Dancing). This movie also brought to my attention another subgenre of movies I really like, Films Where Olivia Williams Plays an Idolized Yet Enigmatic Schoolteacher. I will be teaching an extension course on the subject this summer at UIC.
Precious: I saw this movie two days before Thanksgiving, and for the next week kept thinking, "I'm thankful I'm not any of the characters in 'Precious.'" I'm only half joking - everybody in this movie (with the exception of the teacher's struggling writer girlfriend, although she probably leaves the apartment to heal crack addicts) leads such a challenging life that you're ashamed for ever complaining about your own puny problems. Mo'Nique is ferocious as Precious' abusive mother, equally parts repellent, monstrous and pathetic. I never felt safe when she was on screen. And Gabby Sidibe is impressive as Precious; like many racist viewers, I had to see her interviewed on "Ellen" to realize that she was playing a character far removed from her actual self.
But this movie annoyed me because it is so unevenly made. As compelling as the performances are, they're sabotaged by amateurish camera work (the fantasy sequences look like they were made by your high school year AV club) and mawkish plot turns. I wish that Lee Daniels had exerted the level of craftsmanship on his story that the Coens and Lone Scherfig did on theirs. Still, the raw power of the performances elevate the film into something better than it is. Of the three, it is probably the movie I have spent the most time thinking about since seeing it. I'm not sure if that's because of the ugliness of its subject matter or because of its quality, but I would be remiss if I did not single it out for that fact.