Archive for December, 2012

Two More From Justin Townes Earle (Music Review)

Midnight At The Movies cover

Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At The Movies

The opening track to Justin Townes Earle’s Midnight At The Movies is probably the closest he has ever gotten to sounding like his father Steve. Taking on the persona of a soulful man honest enough to realize what a loser he is, Earle tells a brief alt-country story about the lost souls who sit by each other in a lonely theater. But after that, Earle parts ways with his father, delving into the bluesier sound that he is known for. And as usual, the songs don’t quite fit the youthful singer.

In some ways, this has the same message as my review last year in which I looked at one old and one new Earle album: He’s an excellent songwriter who seems too young and innocent for the soulful, heartbreaking works he is drawn to, but who has started to find the right balance in his newer songs. However, neither of the albums this time around appeal to me as much as the previous round. Midnight At The Movies, Earle’s older album, aims for a style even more deep and sincere than The Good Life did. There are some great songs – I especially like “They Killed John Henry” and “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This” – but even those best ones don’t feel quite right. This is almost worth buying for the quality of the songwriting, but it feels lacking throughout. Maybe Earle can re-record all his early works in twenty years. That would probably be a masterpiece.

Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now cover

Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now

His new one, Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, also fails to hit the highs of Harlem River Blues. Earle should be praised for his willingness to experiment with each new album, but his decision to play with a “Memphis Blues” style this time moves it away from the more personal feel of his last work. (That’s not to say it isn’t personal. The lyrics seem more directly about his life than ever before, with “Movin’ On” touching on the parts of his life that keep him restless, and “Won’t Be The Last Time” taking responsibility for a run-in with the police. It just doesn’t feel as personal, thanks to the hint of affectation in Earle’s chosen style.)

Earle does continue to grow into his folk-blues style, so much so that those tracks now feel more right than the rock experiment of “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea”. He’s getting there, and continuing to write some great songs. I expect this album to age fairly well, but I also expect his later works to far surpass it.

Midnight At The Movies: C+

Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now: B-

 

Comedy Movie Capsule Reviews

Wrapping up my movie reviews for the year (unless I manage to sneak away from my new daughter long enough to watch The Hobbit), here are three slightly older comedies I watched on video over the past several months.


Horrible Bosses movie poster

Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses

This is one that a friend practically had to force on me. A comedy about three men with bosses so bad that they plan to murder them, the trailers expected big laughs from the reverse sexual discrimination of one of the bosses (a sex-starved Jennifer Aniston). It seemed dumb, unrealistic, and potentially minimizing real-world problems.

I was wrong, and that subplot is actually a good example of why. Horrible Bosses is an irreverent black comedy that may deserve its R rating, but puts a decent amount of effort into justifying its offensive content. Aniston’s character is a ridiculous caricature, but we do get explanations for how her subordinate got stuck in that position and why he can’t leave or turn her in. It’s still ridiculous, but it’s acceptable for a comedy.

In fact, “acceptable for a comedy” describes this whole thing, but the movie is so consistent that the whole is greater than the parts. This starts as a simple buddy comedy, then mines some humor out of three hopelessly lost men trying to plot murder. But the plot grows in complexity, the stakes rise, and its twists and turns always feel consistent with the movie’s internal logic. It’s a Coen Brothers-lite plot with a slightly warmer worldview. This never really feels like it threatens the heroes, and its grossest jokes seem carefully calculated not to actually offend sensibilities. That’s not a problem: Horrible Bosses knows what kind of comedy it wants to be, and it delivers.

(Speaking of the Aniston plot, I do suspect that it was put there to make the movie easier to sell. While the other plotlines get mixed together into a complex tangle, hers always seems separate. It works, but barely, thanks to the decision to cast Aniston against her normal type.)

Grade: B


Pineapple Express movie poster

Pineapple Express

Pineapple Express

Part of the Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen series of gross-out “bromance” movies, Pineapple Express does not find the perfect mix of elements like Horrible Bosses did. It goes for a genre-mix with elements of stoner comedies and light action films, but they mix poorly. The main problem is that the frequent bloody violence feels wrong next to the low-stakes humor of the rest of the movie. I have no problem with black humor or murder (Horrible Bosses had both), but it needs to feel right. The low-budget, sadistic violence is more unpleasant than interesting, and that’s a bad quality for a comedy to have.

The plot features Seth Rogen as a disagreeable stoner who tries a new strain of pot, called “Pineapple Express”, with his (disliked) dealer. When he later witnesses a crime boss murdering a rival, Rogen flees so fast that he leaves the pot behind. Later realizing that Pineapple Express is still so rare that it could be traced back to him, both Rogen and his dealer go on the run from a criminal who wants to eliminate witnesses. Can the two man-children learn to get along, despite the fact that neither seems to deserve friends?

This could have been a stronger film if their flight was all drug-induced paranoia. They are funny on their own. But no, the ridiculous premise really does have a murderer chasing after them, and that’s where the unpleasant distractions from the humor come in. (Strangely, the unrealistic paranoia ends up as part of the drug lord’s character instead. He keeps interpreting the protagonists’ mistakes as signs of a clever organization, in a recurring theme that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s like Apatow just saw some other film where comedic misunderstandings led to a criminal’s downfall, and felt obligated to duplicate it. But just like the other elements of the movie, this never pays off.)

Painful to watch on multiple levels, Pineapple Express mixes a weak Apatow plot with ideas that just don’t work.

Grade: D+


The Gamers DVD cover

The Gamers

The Gamers

In contrast to the other movies I reviewed, this is actually a low-budget 45-minute film shot on a college campus and distributed by gaming company Paizo Publishing. Obviously, the production and acting are weak here. It works surprisingly well, though.

It’s main strength is that the creators (Dead Gentlemen Productions) captured the tone of a Dungeons & Dragons session perfectly. Jumping between a group of friends playing in a cramped room and in-game scenes, this feels like an evening-long game session somehow compressed into its short running length. The amateurish acting generally feels right for the geeks they are playing, and for the stilted high fantasy of their game world. (To see their acting skills fail them, you’ll need to watch the other shorts included on the DVD.)

The decisions about the game’s portrayal are excellent, with the characters in the game sometimes talking on their own, and sometimes holding still while their players discuss them via voice-over. When appropriate, we just see the players directly. Minor corrections to events cause the game world to rewind and change actions, and a lot of the sillier aspects of D&D are played straight. Among other things, it captures the rules-lawyering, refusal of players to role-play when they could skip to the killing, and handling of players who couldn’t show up. Sure, it’s obvious beforehand which dice rolls will lead to unexpected success or hilarious failures, but that gives the whole thing the feel of a “you won’t believe what happened!” story after-the-fact. (Except that this is a rare case of those stories being interesting for the listener.) When the characters have ridiculously cool ideas, it’s actually exciting to watch them pay off.

There are several amateur mistakes, including a lengthy self-aware monologue in the middle (“WHY would anyone want to spend time with an attractive woman instead of this?”) that betrays the honest geekiness of the rest of the film. It also starts with several minutes of awkward banter, and while there are good things to be said for the “clever” ending, I felt like it weakened the cleverness of everything leading up to it. In such a short film, those issues do eat up a lot of time. But the rest of it works well enough to make up for that.

Grade: B-

 

Three Poet-Songwriters (Music Review)

2012 saw new albums by three of the Twentieth Century’s leading poet-songwriters. None were bad, though their quality did vary. Here are the reviews.


Old Ideas cover

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen’s output has been uneven: He predominantly writes poems and relies on others to make them work as songs. (He’s also the artist I’m least familiar with in this article. His only other album that I know well is Songs, and even his fans tell me not to bother with many of the others.) Fortunately, Old Ideas is one of the good ones. The music perfectly fits the plainspoken art of the lyrics, with understated backup singers and a gentle, introspective rhythm. It would be easy to give Cohen’s music a pretentious choral flair to recognize his status, or the stripped-down plucking of a starving artist busking on a corner. By splitting the difference between the two, Old Ideas’ music emphasizes the ways both apply to him while avoiding the pitfalls of either extreme.

Cohen always had an old soul, but as an old man still has some youthful restlessness. The “old ideas” of the album title are sex, love, pain, and death, and the songs feel like they could have come from any point in his lifetime. Cohen’s lyrics are direct and grounded in reality, creating evocative images with straightforward language. For example, a troubled relationship puts its members “on different sides of a line nobody drew”. Even when he moves away from literal reality, it’s not very far: The “broken banjo bobbing on the dark infested sea” is one of a couple tracks which treat “darkness” as a literal force that can invade us. The only literary conceit is in the standout opening track, when the muse speaks directly to us to explain how it forces Cohen to deliver these poems.

I listened to this album repeatedly, sure that I was missing out on the true depth of the songs. Eventually, I realized that their surface appearance was the extent of it. Old Ideas features no more and no less than songs distilled down to their beautiful essence. It’s not everything that some people claim this master can deliver, but it’s very good.

Grade: B


Tempest cover

Bob Dylan – Tempest

Bob Dylan: Tempest

The modern era of Bob Dylan began with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind and seemed like it would be a brief final phase for him. But after fifteen years and five albums, it is obvious that this is one of the most powerful eras of his long career. This man never sounded like he had anything to prove, but he is more confident than ever.

Don’t expect the wordplay or verbal gymnastics of the young Dylan. He has embraced the old-time sounds from before he was even born, and plays it fairly straight. The genius of most of these songs is not his unique fingerprint, but the feeling that you’re finally hearing the best songs of the early 20th century. (There are catchy lines, like “I’ll pay in blood, but not my own” and “if I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday”, but he’s not trying to reveal the human condition here.) The band provides bluesy folk with an energetic bounce, and Dylan’s voice is fuller than ever before.

Dylan’s an old man now, and his songs embrace it, but he isn’t quietly facing the end of life. As the title implies, nearly all songs involve tempests of some sort or another. From brawls to romantic tiffs, Dylan’s persona is that deeply passionate old man as likely to pick a fight over his “flat-chested junkie whore” as he is to sacrifice everything for his loved ones.

The classic song topics are all here, from trains to love to murder, and they often capture those archetypes perfectly. Consider “Tin Angel”, based on the trope of a king tracking down the wife who ran off for love. The title track is his take on the sinking of the Titanic, a forgotten topic that used to be as common as dance songs are today. Much has been made of the fact that this song is fourteen minutes long, but what I haven’t heard anyone point out is that it feels like it flows by in five. It’s as if Dylan is trying to personally make up for the loss of Titanic songs in our culture, and accomplishes it in a single track. (With verses ranging from serious to comedic, this is also the closest Dylan comes to exploring greater meaning. The songs about the Titanic were fundamentally about making sense of tragedy.)

Tempest stands among the best of Dylan’s long, accomplished career. If you like Dylan or traditional music, this is a must-have. If you don’t, consider this your gateway.

Grade: A


Banga cover

Patti Smith – Banga

Patti Smith: Banga

Though known as the preeminent “punk poet”, Patti Smith has spent the better part of her career as a folk-pop poet. She doesn’t often hit the highs of her youth, but this hasn’t been a bad move for her: Smith has a good singing voice, and it conveys her fervent passions as well as her punk songs did. Banga, her first album of new music in eight years, has only a few hints of rock. This may disappoint anyone who knows Smith mainly from her 1970’s work, but it could be her most consistently pretty album ever.

However, it also feels like one of her less meaningful albums. Smith always has a lot to convey, and if it’s easy to call her an idealistic hippie, she does find creative and honest ways to express those ideals. None of the songs in Banga directly touched me, though, and the meanings to many are obscured. (Where they are obvious, they are less impressive than past works. The discovery of the Americas comes up a few times, with a focus on the peaceful “Eden” that it offered. I am uncomfortable with the patronizing “noble savage” attitude that some people take towards Native Americans.)

What really makes this album worthwhile is the CD booklet. (Hopefully you didn’t already buy it digitally…) Featuring a six-page essay, plus photos, it helps to put the album in context. While the other two albums I’m reviewing here feel disconnected from the modern world, her inspirations ranged from old friends to Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov to The Hunger Games. Some explanations help a lot (such as knowing that “This Is The Girl” eulogizes Amy Winehouse), while others don’t at all (I’m not familiar with most of the works that inspired Smith, and while “Nine” was written as a birthday present for Johnny Depp, I don’t hear any of that in the song). Even so, Smith’s writing and photography are always a pleasure.

Smith’s plans aren’t always well-executed (“Constantine’s Dream” is an improvised speech about Constantine’s conversion, Christopher Columbus, and Smith’s research into artists they inspired, but it doesn’t really go anywhere in its ten minutes), but her conviction and songwriting remain strong. The album’s main weakness is the ever-more obscure reference points Smith has, even when she draws from pop culture. Fans will find plenty of meaning to unpack. To others, this is a collection of beautiful-sounding songs, but they will feel surprisingly slight.

Grade: B-

 

Prometheus (Movie Review and Discussion)

Prometheus move poster

Prometheus

I strongly disagree with the common consensus about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. While most people dismissed it as incomplete, illogical, or just a well-meaning mess (that last one would be much better applied to The Dark Knight Rises), it really fulfilled my hopes for an Alien prequel. It was a stunning spectacle that felt like a love letter to the originals without being beholden to the past. I don’t plan on giving a typical review here. Instead, I’ll focus more on the criticism of this movie. Just know that my experience in the theater was a solid A, and it feels like a B or B+ in retrospect. I officially give this an A-.

I really have to wonder what most people were expecting: I’ve challenged friends to name another movie series that provided a more satisfying ret-con after a years-long break, and no one has been able to. Expectations for follow-on movies are always confusing: Remember that Alien and Aliens came out in a very different culture than we have today, partly just because those very movies had yet to make their impact. Making something too different now would disappoint people, but on the other hand, one of the major criticisms of Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection was how closely they copied the first ones.

I should admit that I’m a fan of all four movies. (I haven’t bothered seeing the Alien vs. Predator spin-offs.) While I normally would complain about the repetition in the third and fourth movies, in this case I think they’re vital to the our understanding of the series as a whole. The first two movies portrayed conflicts that seemed winnable, but by the end of the fourth, the struggle feels hopeless and eternal. Ripley can win battles, but human nature and the uncaring universe combine to ensure we never escape this nihilistic cycle. Those last two may not be great, but the context they provide is what turns the first two into masterpieces.

Knowing all this, it’s not surprising that I would like Prometheus. All the key elements of the original mythology were there. But rather than being an Alien 5, the new characters and setting gave the movie an excuse for a slightly different atmosphere. By splitting the difference between the old and the new, I feel like Prometheus opened up fertile ground for a new series.

(There are thematic spoilers for Prometheus from here on.)

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The Dark Knight Rises (Movie Review)

The Dark Knight Rises movie poster

The Dark Knight Rises

Though I haven’t made it to a lot of movies this year, I did see a couple during the summer months that I never got around to discussing. Since I’m in catch-up mode now, this week I’ll post some reviews that I should have written months ago. First up, The Dark Knight Rises.

Though Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies have been praised for their weighty take on the character, his secret is that he simply puts a serious sheen on the old stories we are comfortable with. Pretty much any Batman story, no matter how campy, can be translated into the Nolan Style with minimal effort. For example:

Scene: The Bat-Copter flies over the ocean. A Bat-ladder drops down, and Batman begins his decent to the water. Suddenly, a shark attacks!

Robin: Holy Sardine!

Batman (To Robin): Hand me down the Shark Repellant Bat-Spray!

Becomes…

Scene: An experimental military helicopter flies over the ocean, Batman approaches the water, lowered by a rope from a remote-controlled winch. Suddenly, a shark attacks!

Robin: <Robin says nothing. Batman works alone.>

Flashback to a Waynetech R&D room. Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox are talking.

Wayne: I hear there is a shark problem in the waters where I’ll be doing my… extreme diving.

Fox: Well, we do have a way to drive them off. Too bad Waynetech could never convince those penny-pinchers at the Pentegon to fund it beyond the prototype stage.

Though I can make it sound silly, this has been incredibly successful, especially since Warner is willing to put the sort of budget and talent into these stories that would make just about any movie enjoyable. Some cracks in the serious façade began to appear in the second half of the previous movie, when The Joker suddenly transformed from a scrappy improv murderer to big-budget criminal mastermind, and Harvey Dent became a gimmicky psychopath with little more justification than “We all know this is supposed to happen, right?” The fact that that was still a masterpiece is a testament to the skills of everyone involved.

The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t have the same quality material to build on, though. Instead of Heath Ledger’s brilliant Joker interpretation, this features Bane, a stilted tough guy in a breathing mask that makes his voice more ridiculous than Batman’s. The movie has great potential, since it’s telling a single story with an ending that lets it do things to its characters that the comics could never allow. But the seven years Bruce Wayne has spent as a recluse end up meaning little more than a chance for him to go through the same sort of training he had in the first movie. And Gotham spends three months under siege in an unprecedented way, but we barely see the psychological adjustment or cultural changes within the city; Instead, it’s just a chance for people to shout about how serious this is. Meanwhile, the talents and motivations of the villains never fit the convoluted plot they come up with. Beneath the violent exterior, their logic has changed little since Adam West’s days as Batman.

Other parts work out better. Anne Hathaway’s character is perfect in every sense except that it doesn’t feel like she’s portraying the character of Catwoman. As her own ass-kicking thief, though, she is everything that Tom Hardy’s Bane fails to be. (To be fair to Hardy, the writing of Bane gave him nothing to work with. Catwoman’s success is a mix of the writing and Hathaway’s talents, though.) Also, the continuing story about Bruce Wayne’s own mental health reaches a surprisingly powerful conclusion, thanks to the movie’s ability to go places that an ongoing serial can’t allow. (This is especially important because these movies are the first Batman stories I’ve seen, in any medium, to make Bruce Wayne a real character instead of an occasional mask for Batman. While I don’t think of this as the canonical version of Batman, my mental image of Bruce Wayne now is the one Christian Bale portrays.)

The saving grace of the movie is that, like the rest of the trilogy, the Warner budget and Nolan’s drama-meets-summer-blockbuster sensibilities still make this a gripping experience. Everything, from the score to special effects to cinematography, are excellent, and while I complain about the believability of some situations, the actors never give any hint that this isn’t real to them. The movie veers wildly between fascinating and ridiculous, but always with a professionalism that makes suspension of disbelief possible.

To twist around an over-quoted line, The Dark Knight Rises is not the ending this trilogy deserved, but it is the ending it needed. It provides clear demonstrations not only of what makes “serious” superhero movies work, but of the ways they can fail when they take the wrong shortcuts. I hope the right people are taking notes. In the meantime, while this doesn’t give us the series-ender that we all hoped for, it still provides worthwhile closure and a fun action movie experience.

Grade: B-

 

Two Releases from Screaming Females (Music Review)

Usually when I review multiple albums by the same artist, they all get pretty similar grades. But I was surprised by how differently I reacted to two releases by Screaming Females. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least part of this difference is unique to me, so your impressions may vary. Still I found their 2011 release to be uninteresting and their 2012 one to be great.

Castle Talk cover

Screaming Females – Castle Talk

The band’s skill is definitely evident on Castle Talk. Marissa Paternoster, the only actual screaming female of the group, has a bold punk snarl with a hint of traditional singing to it. The band displays a wide range that gives the songs too much complexity to be described as punk. The pieces just don’t mesh, though: Paternoster spends the majority of the album projecting her voice in a flat, atonal way, and the music usually sounds hesitant while she is singing. If not for the fact that Paternoster was also lead guitar, I’d come away from this with a story about an indie-prog band trying and failing to find a way to work with a punk singer.

There are good songs here, most notably “I Don’t Mind It”. Otherwise, too many of the memorable parts of this album stick in the mind not because of their quality, but because they’re reminiscent of simple elementary school rhymes (“Laura and Marty went to a party…”) It’s notable that the band has more success when they seem to scale back their ambitions: “A New Kid” contains a simple mess of electronic guitar fuzz, rather than the more intricate music of the other songs, but at least it provides good support for the vocals.

With obvious potential, but rarely good for more than a few lines at a time, Castle Talk is a frustrating album. It was just good enough to convince me that I should also check out their newer album before writing a review. I’m glad I did, because Ugly is where the individual pieces of talent suddenly fit together.

Ugly cover

Screaming Females – Ugly

The major complaints I had about their previous album are gone in this one: The music doesn’t drop out when Paternoster sings, and she uses a much broader vocal range. Though not a classically pretty voice by any means, it rises above the bouncy, lo-fi hard rock to provide a very comfortable dissonance. Non-traditional hooks fill the album, and feel completely natural. If Castle Talk was less than the sum of its parts, Ugly finds the alchemy that makes them something greater.

The lyrics seem personal, but in an obtuse way that discourages interpretation. (Sample: “My fingers swarm the gun as blinding as the sun but I’ve got to point it to the right and fascinate the night that begs to mourn the moon…”)

The highlight of Ugly is “Doom 84”, a seven-and-a-half-minute song that feels like twelve, in a good way. Sludgy, driving rock slowly builds in tension as Paternoster sings with a release that seems to proclaim life’s secrets. That the lyrics actually seem to be about dirty, submissive sex just make the song greater. If she can find such empowering joy in “your piss on my pillow, your filth in my veins”, well then, there is hope for everyone to find what they need. The song’s end is the ultimate release, as the light, saccharine “Help Me” provides an immediate change from the heady darkness.

Screaming Females feel like a long experiment in the ways one can merge guitar with the human voice. Like all experiments, there are going to be successes and failures, but we are fortunate to have all the best results grouped into one album.

Castle Talk: C

Ugly: B+

 

Shakespeare: A Discussion and Review

This might be a weird article, because it’s the one where my geeky pop-culture blog discusses Shakespeare. And after praising a lot of trashy modern works, I might not have much credibility when I say that I’m not a fan of his.

In general, I have a complicated relationship with classic works. I think it’s very important to understand the past, and there is a lot of good that comes from a shared cultural knowledge for modern artists to reference. On the other hand, I believe that most art is and should be ephemeral. Whether it’s for pure entertainment or a deeper understanding of the human condition, a person picking up a book or listening to a song has different needs and cultural touchstones today than they did in past centuries. There’s nothing wrong with that. And while my personal rating system can be arbitrary, the most important thing is how much entertainment I get out of a specific work. (Being me, “entertainment” might be anything from amusement to deep thoughts and new ideas, but it has to be something.) If a story gives me an appreciation for its time and place, then that is a mark in its favor, but if it assumes that I already know the events it refers to, or the language of the time, then I’m not going to cut it slack for that. Half of the works that I give A grades to today will probably be irrelevant in 20 years, and many of the classics that I dislike would have seemed great if I’d lived in the right place and time. I’m ok with that; If I think that art is ephemeral, I can’t expect anything more from the opinions on this blog.

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