Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Y'see, the title has a double meaning


With just three movies under his belt, director Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman has already managed to establish his own distinctive, confident filmmaking style, without - so far - becoming trapped by it (see Andersonian; Tarantinian). Like Juno and Thank You For Smoking, Reitman's latest, Up in the Air, has a killer soundtrack, stylish montages, is cynical but life-affirming, and at times, probably a little too clever for its own good.

George Clooney, in full on charming-but-emotionally-unavailable mode, stars as perpetually traveling corporate downsizer Ryan Bingham, and again, as with Reitman's other films, Up in the Air is fueled by solid, honest performances from an engaging cast of characters. When Bingham's detached lifestyle is threatened by the relationships he reluctantly forms - with a young coworker (Anna Kendrick) whose newly developed software threatens to put Bingham himself out of a job, a fellow frequent flyer/romantic interest (Vera Farmiga), and his about-to-be-married sister (Melanie Lynskey) - the story grapples with, but never spoon-feeds, hefty life lessons.

With its focus on unemployment and opportunity, technology and disengagement, the movie certainly feels timely - a sentiment further bolstered by the inclusion of real-life testimonies from the recently laid off (including one in the form of a song which plays over the end credits) - and its grownup premise is a rewarding one. The script (by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, whose only prior credits are dreck like Longest Yard and Texas Chainsaw remakes) may often be acerbic, but its emotions are very real; whenever the film threatens to venture too far into the cliche-ridden motivational speech territory it purports to send up, the story takes a different turn. If Up in the Air's message is ambiguous, that simply speaks to how effectively it serves as a current cultural barometer.

Grade: B+

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hooray for talented friends

It's pretty cool to be friends with some very gifted folks.

Case in point, Jonathan Green, frontman of Boston area-based electro-indie rockers, The Image Ends, whose debut LP arrives soon. Here they are, jamming "John 10" live:


Jon also has an excellent series of solo Hymns records. Find Volumes One and Two on iTunes, or JGHymns.com - along with a few tracks from Volume Three, due next year - as well as a nifty collection of b-sides.

Mythological Creatures, the new LP from Chicago's folk-rocking Bill Tucker, also drops early next year on Bill's 1980 Records label, and finds him working with a solid lineup of Chicago artists. Download Bill Tucker & Friends' Blind Animal Courage EP, released last summer, free at Cave Sounds.

Here's Bill's "Gameshow Fear," off of last year's Illusions of Repetition, which you can pick up at iTunes:


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Thursday, December 17, 2009

You might even say it's...gold

Whatever your opinion of Jimmy Fallon, his Neil Young-sings-the-Fresh-Prince-song is pretty inarguably great:

Via Today's Big Thing.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

A cussing good time

A couple of years ago, upon hearing about Wes Anderson's new project, I speculated that a stop-motion-animated adaptation of a children's novel might be just the change of pace the director needed to break out of his "Andersonian" box. While the cluttered trailer didn't convince me of this fact, the film itself certainly did: living up to its title, Fantastic Mr. Fox is easily Anderson's strongest since The Royal Tenenbaums.

The best thing about the movies Anderson made in the interim, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, was that they clearly showed that the director was interested in exploring new territory, even if the films were ultimately too derivative of his own work to effectively convey their intended effect. Mr. Fox joyfully melds the sensibilities of Roald Dahl, the book's author, with Anderson's own, and the breezy result isn't suffocated in the same stylistically overbearing way that his recent entries have been.

While the combination of Wes Anderson and stop-motion may initially seem a little jarring, it actually makes perfect sense: the painstaking method allows for the ultimate in composition control, and is tailor-made for the filmmaker's meticulous, storybook style. While some controversy has surrounded the director's alleged level of involvement in the film, whatever the process was, the product is unmistakably Andersonian. It's worth noting that there aren't a ton of people who can do stop-motion on a large scale, so tensions between animation experts and traditional directors are bound to surface (there's a reason Tim Burton co-directed Corpse Bride). Anderson doesn't share a "directed by" credit with animation director Mark Gustafson, but the movie is light years ahead of Eddie Murphy's stop-motion series, The PJs, for which Gustafson served as supervising director.

In any case, Mr. Fox employs a rough-hewn, ingratiating aesthetic that compliments Anderson's quirky characters, dialogue, and timing surprisingly well. Visually, the movie is more "Rankin/Bass Christmas special" than Coraline; tonally, its closest cousin might be Wallace & Gromit - which is certainly not a bad thing.

The film's tale of a fox-led crew of ragtatg outlaws is also slightly remniscent of the animated Robin Hood (which, while not Disney's best, was nonetheless my favorite growing up) - a suspicion confirmed by one scene's use of the Robin Hood soundtrack as score, and another featuring a mocking campfire folk song, led by Jarvis Cocker (who provides a voice and some of the score). The movie's winsome energy is infectious, and by the point in the story that the titular Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has risked the safety of his family and friends by reverting to his repressed, chicken-thieving ways, we're genuinely drawn into the characters' underground world.

Anderson and Noah Baumbach (Squid and the Whale writer-director/Life Aquatic co-writer) build on Dahl's bare bones narrative - about a cunning fox who steals from three nasty farmers - by crafting a script that, like so many great kids' stories, hinges on themes of family, identity, and purpose. It's clever and ocassionally touching, but mostly, it's filled with enjoyably offbeat humor.

Fantastic Mr. Fox doesn't resonate emotionally in the same way that some of this year's other family films have (Up, Where the Wild Things Are), and it isn't helped by arriving months after Coraline, which may just be the most accomplished stop-motion feature ever produced. (Incidentally, director Henry Selick also helmed the animated sequences of Life Aquatic.) But the movie is inventive, fun, and marvelous to look at - as well as a welcome return to form for Wes Anderson...which is pretty fantastic.

Grade: B+

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Yeah, but can they shred?

International peace and educational program PeaceJam is auctioning off some way cool, hand-painted guitars, signed by Nobel Peace Prize winners, on eBay. (Obama is decidedly not among them.)

Now, when you're sitting around, trying to compose some profound song about all your problems, you can look down and see the Dalai Lama's or Desmond Tutu's autograph, and remember that you've never known adversity. Just kidding...go bid on one!

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Genius or atrocity?

...I still can't quite decide. Let the busting out of holiday music commence! When news that Bob Dylan was recording a Christmas album was first reported, the world scratched its collective head. The more I heard about it, though, the more I thought, "Ok, he might make something interesting out of this." Turns out - for my money - Christmas in the Heart is every bit the (albeit somewhat winking) SNL-sketch-that-never-was we feared it might be.

Behold, the new video for first single, "Must Be Santa." It's kind of hard to believe this exists, but it's so insane that I find it strangely endearing, and it's hard not to be charmed by Dylan in a top hat and creepy wig (I think?) staggering around:
Merry Christmas?

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Did you see that Spider-Man made his triumphant return as a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float this morning, back for the first time in ten years?
Yup. Plus, the Roots performed, so I guess I'm thankful for that.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

A match made in geek heaven

NME reports that Watchmen author Alan Moore will be working with Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett on the duo's new, as-yet-untitled opera, following last year's Monkey: Journey to the West.

Albarn and Hewlett, co-founders of Gorillaz (and Blur frontman/Tank Girl creator, respectively) have enlisted the comics god to write the libretto—or "script," to those generally unenthused about opera—for the new piece, for which Albarn has reportedly written 70 songs. In return, Moore hopes to feature Gorillaz in his new magazine, Dodgem Logic. Joy!

Incidentally, the "Ultimate Cut" of Watchmen arrived on DVD last week, which splices the animated Tales of the Black Freighter short into the film, thus staying that much truer to Moore's original creation—not that he cares...

Monday, November 16, 2009

But where's the pop culture sass-talk in 3D?

Wall St. Journal has an interesting story on the labored process of bringing next month's The Princess and the Frog, Disney's bid to revive hand-drawn animated musicals, to the screen.

Frog is a gamble for the studio, not so much for the generally accepted "reason" that today's audiences only want computer-animated movies, but because Disney has hyped the film as the return to its early '90s heyday (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Lion King are prominently featured in Frog's original trailer), and deviated from the standard Hollywood pattern in the way that they made the picture.

As the article reports, cel-animation workstations were recreated or hauled out of storage, and writer-directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, Mermaid), who'd been laid off when Disney closed its traditional animation department, were rehired to make Frog. Additionally, news that the story was set in New Orleans, featuring a mainly African-American cast, was not received without controversy.

All of which sounds pretty risky for a studio not known for such behavior in recent years. No surprise that Pixar founder John Lasseter, who now also heads Disney Animation, is behind the bold moves. Pixar got to where it is by taking chances, and the Mouse House will have Lasseter to thank - or blame - for Princess and the Frog's performance at the box office.

The most important thing that Lasseter brings to Disney, though, may be his belief in the idea that story trumps everything else. In a veiled reference to Disney's relative lack of success in both hand-drawn and computer-animated fare over the past decade, WSJ quotes Lasseter as saying, "I've never understood why the studios were saying people don't want to see hand-drawn animation. What people don't want to watch is a bad movie." It's hard to believe that the average moviegoer sees a film based on what kind of animation methods it employs; whether or not the film's story is compelling and emotionally affecting is, generally, a much better gauge of why audiences connect with certain pictures.

Having said that, I trust Lasseter, and I'd like this foray back into hand-drawn animated features to do well, but I'm just not sold yet. The trailer is...a little boring and familiar:


But maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised. On the plus side, Randy Newman wrote the songs, so it's got that going for it. Thoughts?

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Uuuuuggh

Just in case you didn't know...
1.) Weezer's new album is called Raditude
2.) This is the cover:

It's like something you'd find in the $1.00 bin, or how the CD of your cousin's band might look. Sigh.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

It's probably some powerful allegory, but it's lost on me

A couple months ago, I speculated that, based on its first single, "The Field," Mason Jennings's Blood of Man might just be the folk singer's best album since 2000's Birds Flying Away. Now, I can confirm that that is, indeed, the case.

Blood is Jennings's darkest, heaviest record yet, as evidenced by new single, "Ain't No Friend of Mine." I can safely say that I never thought a Jennings song would remind me of Rage Against the Machine (or, at least, Audioslave). Enjoy its video below, featuring animation of drawings done by Jennings - about battling demons...or something along those lines:


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Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the biopic?"

The Tribune has a fascinating, albeit brief, interview with the celebrated Angels in America and Munich scribe/controversy magnet, Tony Kushner, who comes off surprisingly restrained. No doubt the influence of Lincoln - about whom Kushner just finished a screenplay, reuniting him with director Steven Spielberg - has had something to do with Kushner's seemingly newfound pragmatism.

Famous for his unabashed liberalism, Kushner, due to receive the Tribune's Literary Prize at this weekend's Chicago Humanities Festival (a great lineup this year), has some none-too-kind words for the far left in the article. I actually think Munich is one of Spielberg's best, and I appreciated its ideological ambiguity, so, I'm looking very forward to Lincoln.

Incidentally, Kushner's partner, Mark Harris, wrote a great book last year, Pictures at a Revolution, about the ways in which American filmmaking changed in the '60s.

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Who better to celebrate the day with than the scariest dude of them all, Mr. Christopher Walken? I find his spooky recitation of Poe's "The Raven" a pretty solid way to kick off All Hallow's Eve:

God bless us, every one!

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

One weird rumpus

I've generally enjoyed the two movies that I was most looking forward to seeing this year, Watchmen and Where the Wild Things Are, but as the credits for each rolled, I found myself wondering whether they really needed to be adapted from the beloved books on which they're based. It's still hard to believe that either film even got made, and I'm grateful to Warner Bros. that they did, but I can't help thinking of them more as worthy experiments than solid movies. Both were helmed by former music video and commercial directors who treated the material reverentially, and it's probably no coincidence that the stylish trailers for each turned out to be better than the movies themselves.

Nonetheless, both are truly unique pictures, with Wild Things the more deserving of that description. While many childhood staples are routinely, cinematically plundered by movie studios (I'm looking at you, Cat in the Hat), Warners seemed genuinely interested in effectively serving the material of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, and kept him involved throughout the process. Sendak's choice of Spike Jonze as director—and Jonze's choice of Dave Eggers as co-screenwriter, as well as the Jim Henson Creature Shop as effects providers—all but ensured that this would be no typical kids' film.
The result turns out to be an engaging experience that, like its source material, refuses to talk down to its target audience of elementary school-age children. Wild Things captures the ferocity, imagination, and emotions of Sendak's story, and always feels a little dangerous. When picture-book Max chases his dog around with a fork, it's rascally; when movie Max (in a fantastic performance by newcomer Max Records) does the same in the opening scene, it's a little chaotic and violent.

Not surprising then, that—again, as with the book—some parents have lashed out against the film as being inappropriate for (little) kids. I suspect, though, that more stories exploring childhood's wide range of unpredictable emotions might be just what kids need. I saw Wild Things with my nine-year-old niece, who's probably the perfect age for it, and found it helpful to see the film through her eyes. It made me appreciate that the story of a boy who deals with a turbulent homelife by imagining elaborate worlds can serve as a discussion generator, allowing children to talk through complex feelings. Having said that, I'm not sure it makes for the most entertaining movie.

Some parents may be upset at the film's content, but just as many are bored by it. Which is likely due to the fact that, once Max reaches the island of the Wild Things... not much happens in the way of a plot. The strange story meanders, and is driven by emotions, rather than narrative—in much the same way that real-life make-believe goes. The fantasy segment (the bulk of the movie) is technically brilliant in terms of cinematography, tone, and the Wild Things themselves, but I found myself wanting the character to return to scenes of the real world, which provide strong bookends to the film.

I certainly didn't mind that Wild Things is unconventional, but I wish that it reflected more of the book's fun in the same way that it's able to effectively translate other elements of the story. Still, as an only child who grew up escaping to well-defined realms of make-believe, I felt closely connected to Max, and was emotionally affected by the movie in a rare, powerful way. I won't ruin the last scene, except to say that it's free of dialogue and pitch-perfect.

If Jonze's goal for Where the Wild Things Are was to enhance the book's ability to capture the experience of childhood in a way that isn't patronizing, he nailed it.

Grade: B+

Friday, October 23, 2009

This news pleases me

Bust out your Technodromes, gang, because the World's Most Fearsome Fighting Team is poised for a major reemergence. (Don't call it a comeback, of course, as they've been here for years.) Nickelodeon acquired the rights to the Ninja Turtles this week for $60 million, and have plans to develop a new CGI TV series - in the vein of 2007's decent TMNT - as well as a new, live action/CGI movie.

The replacement of
Jim Henson's Creature Shop's puppets, used in 1990's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie - still the gold standard among Turtle adaptations - with computer animation is regrettable, but The Hollywood Reporter's assertion that the planned film will "return to the franchise's roots" is encouraging. "In addition to the action and humor of the first film, it would have the darker tone of the original comics," reports THR. Cowabunga! (Vanilla Ice is reported not to be involved.)

In celebration, here's the dudes' not-hit song, "Pizza Power," from the Coming Out of Their Shells '90 live tour...I may or may not have been in attendance:



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Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Teargarden by Kaliedyscope"...

...is the name of the new "Smashing Pumpkins" (Billy + some studio musicians and a newly hired 19-year-old drummer) "album" (a 44-song series of EPs, to be released one track at a time online, for free). Corgan tells Rolling Stone that Warner Bros. Records "should have left this mystic free, because I am way more of a pied piper than they could ever fathom.”

I was going to make fun of all of this, but really, it's much too easy a target. That title sounds like something out of a story in The Onion that never was. Has the dude become a parody of himself - or is he, just maybe, a genius? If he revolutionizes the music industry, I guess the joke will be on all of us...

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

"I see (profitable) dead people"

Well, kids, it's that time of year again: when the impending debauchery of candy and costume parties is best complimented by good, ol' fashioned, horribly scary movies. Good thing, then, that Slamdance Film Fest hit Paranormal Activity, opening wide next weekend, has repeatedly been called the scariest film of the last ten years - with many viewers (including premiere horror site Bloody Disgusting) declaring it one of the most terrifying movies they've ever seen. Sounds good to me!

The $11,000-budgeted, handheld DV-shot ghost story is well poised to capitalize on the hype that made similar "found footage" horror pics (Blair Witch, Open Water) breakout successes. Snatched up by Paramount at Slamdance, Paranormal has been aided by an ingenious marketing campaign that's proven extremely effective, thus far: for its first couple weeks of release, it played only in select cities, exclusively at midnight screenings. Over the weekend, the film expanded to showings throughout the day, but still employs a feature on its website which allows viewers in areas where the movie hasn't yet been released to request it in their city, via an online "Demand It!" function. The result? It grossed $7 million this weekend - on just 159 screens.

Needless to say, the review is forthcoming...if I can find someone to go with me (my wife refuses, and I'm not seeing this one alone).

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Happily, no 70s funk is featured

Given Inglourious Basterds's marketing (Brad Pitt-led ragtag crew of misfits goes on wacky, bloody Nazi hunt!), some may be disappointed by the new Quentin Tarantino movie's opening scene: a long, methodical conversation between two people in one room. For the many in the audience who bought tickets simply because it's a Tarantino film, though, it shouldn't be too shocking. Indeed, Basterds is different from what I was hoping for, as well - but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed what it turned out to be.

The film does, in fact, center on what might've happened, had such a cast of characters conspired to take down the Third Reich...but for a war movie, it doesn't feature much war. Instead, the picture plays out as a kind of exercise in tension building, via theatrical one-act-like scenes of backroom deals and espionage.

In that regard, among his body of work, Basterds may most closely resemble Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino's debut (and still my favorite). While the violent atmosphere is inescapable, much of the action takes place offscreen, and arises from characters talking about what has happened and is going to happen. I've heard complaints about just how talky the movie is, but the dialogue is truly a treat, allowing viewers to become enveloped in the unique world of characters the writer-director carefully creates. (If Christopher Waltz - leading a solid ensemble cast - doesn't receive a slew of award nominations for his role as the villainous Col. Hans Landa, it'd be a real shame.)

Of course, not uncharacteristically, this approach can translate a little episodically, but it's enjoyable to watch the story satisfyingly come together, in a way that doesn't suffer the bloat of Tarantino's last few entries. Basterds includes some classically Tarantinian qualities - filmic references, over-the-top monologues, clever editing - but it feels much more free of contrivances than most of his work, as if allowing his typically mile-a-minute style to breathe a bit more. It's his most serious, least trivial, film to date - though, at times, it's also very funny.

Visually striking, as always, Tarantino's revisionist history (which, refreshingly, may be his only pop culture "wink" this go-round) ends up hinging on the power of propaganda, storytelling, and cinema itself, to shape our collective trajectory. Pretty heady stuff for a movie that feels so fun.

Grade: B+

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Jackson good with aliens, hobbits

Neil Blomkamp's sleeper hit, District 9, succeeds where other blockbusters have failed this summer by delivering a kind of guerilla filmmaker's Independence Day: it hits all the exciting, intense, and funny beats of a big, sci-fi actioner, but does so through the lens of its wildly original premise and execution.

First time feature director Blomkamp expands on the elaborate world established in his 2005 short, Alive in Joburg, by further developing the story of aliens unexplainably arriving in South Africa, only to be set up in a government-enclosed refugee camp, among the shanty towns of Johannesburg. Naturally, the film's setting lends itself to themes of apartheid and racism - as well as war, and corporate and governmental bureaucracy and brutality - but isn't satisfied to be bogged down as a "message movie, " instead heading in directions you won't expect. While that's probably a good thing, District 9 sometimes goes so many strange ways that the story borders on silly, but nonetheless, is routinely brought back to its captivating, intense premise.

In focusing on the chaos of the slum the creatures inhabit, and the panic that ensues when military contractor MNU's "relocation" plan goes awry, the film calls to mind two of the most effective sci-fi entries in recent memory: Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (for its assaultive war zone depictions) and Cloverfield (for its minimalist, handheld approach to monster-fighting), both of which made effective use of their reasonably modest budgets. That District 9 - nearly every scene of which features effects shots, often heavily - doesn't look any cheaper than its summer movie competition, at a fraction of the cost, is a testament to Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson's ability to do more with less.

For better or for worse (usually, the former), this is a film that takes risks, starting not only with its inversion of the typical "Aliens Attack!" plotline, but with the fact that we don't much like the protagonist, MNU field operative Wikus van der Merwe - or the aliens, for that matter. Like many great science fiction tales, District 9's story is a pretty bleak one, centering on humankind's capacity for inhumanity and self interest - as well as brief glimpses of hope.

Grade: B+

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Friday, August 14, 2009

New Song Friday

A couple new tunes for you on this Friday afternoon, from two very different artists, whose featured songs navigate somewhat similar thematic terrain.

Entertainment Weekly is streaming Mason Jennings's "The Field" - from the folky singer-songwriter's forthcoming Blood of Man (due September 15) - about a parent whose son goes off to war. Inspired by a desire to introduce his kids to electric guitar, as EW shares, Jennings's new LP is likely to be a bit harder-rocking than his most recent records.
.
"The Field" doesn't exactly shred, but it sounds great, and is evocative of Birds Flying Away, Jennings's first (and best, IMO) full-length, which saw the singer at his most rocking. The song offers a nice fusion of his early-career protest songs and more personal, later material.

Elsewhere, BBC has Radiohead's "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)," about the British WWI vet who recently passed away. Its lyrics - Patch's own words - are the most Radiohead-y thing about the song (apocalyptic imagery abounds), which features only Yorke's vocals over guitarist Jonny Greenwood's lovely string arrangements. It's both pretty and pretty boring, especially for the first studio material we've heard from the band since In Rainbows.
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"These Are My Twisted Words," another apparent new track of the band's, is more typical Radiohead fare (and unfortunately, for my money, is also pretty boring). Unlike "Harry Patch," the song isn't currently available to download via their website - though you can get it for free at Stereogum - but it may be included on a new EP (reportedly titled Wall of Ice), which the band just might be releasing this Monday. Keep an eye out...

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Trailer Watch

Welcome to today's Trailer Watch, friends, in which we'll take a look at the new trailers for four hotly anticipated fall/winter releases...

First up is the second trailer for Where the Wild Things Are, which, if you've followed this blog at all, you know I'm superpumped about. Aside from a couple of minor quibbles (I'm still beyond glad that they used Jim Henson Co. instead of going 100% CGI for the Wild Things, but their animated faces might take some getting used to), it doesn't disappoint:


Next is another revered children's book adaptation, Wes Anderson's take on Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. I've speculated that a change of pace might be just what the director needs to break out of his Andersonian box, and I love me some stop-motion animation, but I'm not sold yet...if this weren't a Wes Anderson movie, would we be thinking about it as something other than fairly typical looking kids' fare? Although, I gotta say, Jason Schwartzman is pretty hilarious:


Rounding out the book adaptations is the decidedly not-for-kids Lovely Bones. I'd say the jury's still out on this one for me; if it weren't helmed by Peter Jackson, or based on such an interesting novel, I wouldn't be very intrigued:


Finally, the first glimpse of the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man is a little surprising: it's a comedy set in the '60s midwest, but its edgy trailer (edited, Tom Waits-ishly, to various percussive sounds from the movie) seems to occupy the avant-garde territory of Barton Fink humor, rather than Burn After Reading screwballism. It's strange, tense, and funny - and thoroughly Coen Brothers:


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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It's all part of the plan...

So, apparently, this poster of President Obama in Heath Ledger-Joker makeup started popping up around LA over the weekend, and has subsequently sparked plenty of interest. While not a remnant of some kind of ComicCon shenanigan from a couple weeks back, its creators' line of thinking is pretty transparent: "How can we get our right-wing ideas to go 'viral,' as teh internets kids say? I know! We'll inexplicably attach them to the king of viral marketing campaigns, The Dark Knight!"

Unfortunately for them, I fear their logic may have backfired: when I first saw the image, I just thought, "Hey, neat - Obama as the Joker!" The problem is that people like the Joker - they find him cool. In my mind, associating Obama with the character only enhances the president's "hip" factor. Then, there's the added, general inconherence of the whole thing: so, Obama's a joker, because he's lying to us, or something? He's a "socialist," and thus, like the Joker...who's an anarchist?

Turns out (surprise, surprise), the image was originally Photoshopped by some dude in Chicago who just thought it looked cool. It took the brilliance of these Los Angelino guerillas to add the word "socialism" - in a font that looks nothing like the "hope" text of the Shepard Fairey posters, which I presume they're referencing - and throw them up around the city. And yet, here I go giving them more viral attention, anyway...

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

And the excitement grows...

Do not get on my case for this being my seventh post about October's Where the Wild Things Are. Just enjoy this behind-the-scenes featurette of author Maurice Sendak talking about why he loves the movie: 

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Drug references remain intact

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp premiered the trailer for their upcoming Alice in Wonderland a few days ago at Comic-Con. The result? A resounding, "Meh," in my opinion.


As I was concerned might be the case, the thing looks way too CGI-heavy, and might be destined for Burton's "disappointing remakes" pile, considering dude's hit-or-miss record. 

Still, maybe I'm judging too harshly without seeing much, and it'll turn out great. But his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory still leaves a decidedly un-sweet taste in my mouth...

Thoughts?

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

LollapaNEWSa (...see what I did there?)

When this year's Lollapalooza lineup was announced, I told myself that, should Saturday - the day that Beastie Boys play - also offer a few other acts I'd want to catch, I'd go ahead and fork over the exorbitant day-pass fee. Turned out the date would also include Animal Collective, Atmosphere, TV on the Radio, Santigold (formerly Santogold), Ben Harper, and Tool, so I was in. The Beasties have been favorites of mine since the Check Your Head poster hung on my bedroom wall, and since this fall's Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 1 will be their first proper LP in five years, I was pumped.

Then, the bomb was dropped Monday that Adam Yauch - aka MCA, aka Nathaniel Hornblower - was recently diagnosed with a cancerous neck tumor, and the Boys would subsequently be canceling all of their summer shows and postponing Hot Sauce's release. The good news is that, according to Yauch, the condition is "very treatable, in most cases," and patients generally remain free of cancer, post-surgery. The other (more selfish) good news is that, if and when the dudes tour later, they'll be more likely to play headlining shows, rather than festivals.

No sooner did Yauch's announcement hit the wire than speculation began to brew about who would replace them at Lolla. Two days later? Cue the excitement...Beastie Boys' slot will be filled by none other than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who I'd originally complained about not playing the fest, as was rumored. Sure, Radiohead or Kanye would've been nice, but I'll certainly take two YYYs shows in three months. Color me stoked.

We're pullin' for you, MCA...

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Everyone's a critic

Despite the fact that I'm not a real one, I've always struggled a bit with the idea of "critic" as vocation. However harsh or misguided, there's probably some degree of truth to the accusation often leveled against critics: that, were it not for lack of talent or drive, many professional critics might prefer to be doing whatever it is they're critiquing, rather than making a living off of writing about pieces that others have produced. While that argument discounts the talent and drive needed to write, think, and conceptualize effectively and interestingly, a part of me still has a hard time trashing a piece—regardless of the "greatness" of its art—that people have usually worked hard to produce.

When "contribution to society" (whatever that means) apparently isn't the artists' primary intention behind making something like G-Force, for example, does a snarky takedown hurt? Does it matter whether or not a bad review can deter moviegoers from buying tickets for such blatant product-by-committee? If not, people ask, what exactly does the professional critic contribute to society? The thing is, all critics (and many readers) have to have some level of belief in the idea that, given a certain set of parameters, the critical community is a positive force that helps to shape art and cultural dialogue in meaningful ways. In this age of click-throughs and hits, though, there's an increasing temptation to gain a reputation as an overly-clever smack-talker, when most of us would probably prefer to use culture journalism as a platform for championing and discussing work we're interested in and appreciate.

All of which is why I enjoyed The A.V. Club's recent post on depictions of critics within popular culture, including the expected (Siskel and Ebert imitations abound), the funny (The Muppet Show's Statler and Waldorf), and the bizarre (Bob Balaban in Lady in the Water). But my favorite example given is from Ratatouille, in which the critic character, initially presented as a pretentious stereotype—his name is Anton Ego—is revealed to be much more complex. As The A.V. Club points out, Ego is invested enough in food, the culture he critiques, to put his reputation on the line, defending an unlikely artist whose work reminds Ego of why he became a critic in the first place.

Ego's review, which comes at the film's end, not only changes the trajectory of both his and chef Remy's life and work, but prompts questions about the nature of an artist, and the positive and unexpected ways art can change people. The A.V. Club post's comments are also worth a look, if only to hear from the many readers whose passion for film was stirred by growing up watching Siskel and Ebert thoughtfully debate the cultural merits and impact of art. And isn't that what we want out of a critic?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

If you ever feel bad about the world...

...just check out some videos of Brooklyn's (of course) PS22 Chorus. These kids are pretty awesome. Here they are singing Bjork's "Joga," one of my personal faves:



Via We Love You So.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Stop motion = cooler than CGI

Aside from Up, the movie I've probably enjoyed most so far this year has been Coraline - which reflects less, I believe, a predilection for animated, 3D, family fare, than those films' abilities to tell original stories, truly for audiences of all ages. 

While some editions of the DVD - out next month - will come with standard red-and-blue 3D glasses, director Henry Selick plans to release another version, with more sophisticated technology, in the future, when he hopes home 3D systems will become more commonplace. (For more of Selick's thoughts on the production and stop motion-animated art of the movie, go here.)

In the meantime, fans can check out the new, Off Broadway stage production of Coraline, with music and lyrics by the Magnetic Fields' Stephen Merritt. Or revel in the news that Selick and Neil Gaiman, upon whose book the movie is based, are planning on working together again.  More good news? Gaiman's latest novel, The Graveyard Book, is being adapted by Crying Game director Neil Jordan. 

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

In Concert: Jenny Lewis (Park West, Chicago)

I may not have missed Jenny Lewis's Rilo Kiley bandmates too much when I last saw her play solo, but Friday night at Park West (Toronto's Sadies, who opened, got the crowd revved up with a nice balance of honky tonk and surf-pop), I did find myself missing the Watson Twins - with whom Lewis recorded her debut LP, Rabbit Fur Coat, but ditched for her latest, Acid Tongue. It wasn't that she didn't have a great five-piece band with her - including beau Jonathan Rice and "Farmer" Dave Scher (who also opened) - it's just that I preferred the gospel-country of Rabbit to Acid's bluesier, jazzier leanings.

Still, the new album provided much of the evening's highlights, including "See Fernando," which showed off Scher's considerable pedal steel talent (and which the crew launched into after Lewis began the set with a solo, acoustic version of Rilo Kiley's "Silver Lining"); driving duet "Carpetbaggers," in which Rice stood in for Elvis Costello, who sings on the record; and the barnburning "Jack Killed Mom." And, as she did by going solo with an alt-country album, credit is due to Lewis for trying new things.

Lewis is clearly growing in her musicianship, and was, as always, a great performer Friday, whether placating overly-adoring (how many times can you hear, "I LOVE YOU, JENNY! WOO!" in one night?) fans with sultry glances and smokey vocals, or proving a consummate bandleader, with a command of dynamics, showcasing her meek-to-powerful voice. Even more engaging than the build of "Bad Man's World" (for which Lewis moved to electric piano) to "Jack Killed Mom," was following the latter with the quiet stillness of Acid's "Trying My Best to Love You" and "Happy," off of Rabbit. The Park West, with its great sound and intimacy, proved an ideal venue for Lewis.

The first set was closed with another barnburner, "New Messiah," preceded by the rollicking, new "Just Like Zeus," about "many things," as Lewis introduced it, "Lindsay Lohan and VD among them." The encore opened with "Acid Tongue," followed by another new jam, "Big Wave," which Lewis led on electric guitar and prefaced by saying it reflected, "what's going on right now," and sharing a story about recently visiting the White House.

I was disappointed that there wasn't more from Rabbit Fur Coat (no "Big Guns"?), but the evening closed strongly with the LP's "Born Secular," highlighted by guitarist Danielle Haim's and drummer Barbara Gruska's vocal harmoines and eventual dueling drumming, which they continued after Lewis and the rest of the band had left the stage. Ms. Lewis & Co. put on a fun, engaging evening, and - especially given the new material - I look forward to seeing what comes next.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Cool Guys (Don't Look at Explosions)

I guess it just proves how out-of-their-demographic I am, but I had no idea the MTV Movie Awards would be so Twilight heavy (the young adult/vampire romance flick walked away with nearly every award). To that, I say, "meh."

I watched last night's show for host Andy Samberg, who didn't disappoint, by providing segments like these:


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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Family movie producers, take note


Pixar has become synonymous with quality filmmaking to the extent that I'd go see anything they released. Thus, my interest in Up, the studio's latest, remained high, even when the trailers and premise (a man flies his house around the world) didn't immediately grab me. Unsurprisingly, my trust was well-deserved: Up is outstanding.

Perhaps my original hesitancy was due to the movie's light-on-story-details marketing, which was (again, unsurprisingly) actually a smart promotional maneuver: as with last year's Wall-E, the details of the plot aren't nearly as important as the emotions which propel it. Suffice it to say that director Pete Docter's (Monsters, Inc.) Up is centered around the journey of 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen and the relationships he builds—including an important one with young "wilderness explorer" scout Russell
—along the way.

While most contemporary "family" movie storytelling remains lazy, the Pixar team seems to dare itself to make cartoons about subjects which Disney execs surely initially find inadvisable: foodies, dialogue-free robots, and now, the elderly. Many movies might introduce the curmudgeonly Carl as a cranky, older person and leave it at that, but we meet him in Up by way of a beautiful opening sequence
— similar territory was explored, though not as effectively, in Toy Story 2—which proves that this studio's filmmakers have a unique ability to effectively capture the human experience. Pixar may traffic in grand stories and ideas, but it's the little touches of character behavior and background details that allow for audience connection—a sentiment echoed in Up's message.

As with many Pixar and Disney (and other great) stories, this is an adventure tale about finding meaning in life. If Wall-E was about love and purpose, Up is ultimately about loneliness and, convergently, fulfillment. It's exciting and fun, inventive and funny.

[Note: The movie is presented in 3D, and though there may not appear to be much by way of obvious effects, the viewer comes to realizes the device is just another tool the filmmakers use for advancing the story, rather than the other way around; it's essentially subtle 3D, which seems almost oxymoronic, but also makes complete sense. (Hear more about it on Docter's fascinating interview from NPR's Fresh Air last week.)]

Grade: A-