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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