Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Movies In Brief-ish

I knew that the new Bond, Daniel Craig (Layer Cake, Munich) was going to do an amazing job; I was more worried about the movie itself.  Fortunately, it's the most natural, most real-feeling Bond film in quite a while.

Personally, I prefer the Bond movies that are grounded in some degree of plausibility.  It's more in the style of For Your Eyes Only, which had been the gritty, earthy response to the ridiculousness of Moonraker; likewise, Casino Royale is the response to the icebound satellite-laser madness of Die Another Day.  Even the wacky enemies like Oddjob or Jaws have at least some modicum of believability.  They're ridiculous, no doubt, but not so much that they inspire disbelief.  Lasers being shot out of the sky at a guy driving a BMW across a glacier, or even the notorious opening scene from GoldenEye where Bond defies gravity to catch up with his plane... those inspire nothing but disbelief.  There was only one moment in Casino Royale that required so much as a minor suspension of disbelief, and it really wasn't that big a deal.  Well done.

Anyway, I'm glad to see that Daniel Craig will be a household name after this film.  He's easily the most talented Bond yet, the most tailor-made for post-Bond stardom.

Love, love, love this movie.  Thoughtful, observant, cynical, subversive, anarchic, beautiful, unflinching, disturbing, and outrageously funny.  Just see it.  I imagine being high would augment your experience, though it might kinda run counter to the point of the film.

There's pluses and minuses to the animated look of the film.  This is definitely less of a "gimmick" movie than was Waking Life.  Whereas that was an experiment, this was an artistically necessary use of rotoscoping technology, given certain critical plot elements (the scramble suits, Freck's "bug infestation") that would have looked preposterous any other way.  The imagery that results from the rotoscope animation process is tough to connect with in any emotional way.  It kinda trivializes the story... disconnects the audience from it.  But in another way, the dreamlike quality of the animation is really unsettling, which is highly appropriate for a drug-paranoia/what-is-reality-anyway movie.  Also... and this is no small point... it's cool as hell.

Of special note is the ingenious performance of Robert Downey, Jr.  He was just classic, from beginning to end.  You are constitutionally incapable of not shutting the fuck up!!!

I was underwhelmed.  Not by the fighting, though... the fighting and stunts were jaw-dropping.  And Tony Jaa is the real deal.  He kicks some serious ass in this movie.

But everything else was just brutal.  Most martial arts movies have the decency to entertain you when the star isn't doing anything... this time, Totally devoid of any appeal.  The story might have filled a seven-minute Magilla Gorilla cartoon if you stretched out certain parts, and yet they made an 80-minute feature film.  It wasn't funny, the characters weren't even remotely memorable, and the story was totally pointless... even by martial arts standards.  It makes Home Alone look like Chinatown.

What hurts the most is that it's a matter of filmmaking competence.  The director and writer have none.  They set up a premise, and then just completely abandon it for like twenty or thirty minutes.  Nothing whatsoever happens on the premise front... just some fighting and chasing that has nothing to do with the premise.  And when I say the fighting is irrelevant, I mean by the standards of action movies... which means it's really irrelevant.  There is no way even the most brilliant philosopher could cobble together a connection between the fighting and the plot.  No matter how crappy the movie, you still have to make at least a nominal effort to fit the action to the story.  Ong-Bak has none.  Whoever made this movie has absolutely no idea how to tell a story.  Heck, given the instant-replay effect that was used on literally every stunt, I'm not even sure they know how to shoot action.

Basically, this movie's purpose was to put us on notice that Tony Jaa is coming to beat our faces into a bloody pulp, in better movies, in the years to come.  Fine by me.

I was worried that they wouldn't slap together enough material to make a whole movie.  I was wrong.  I had a great time and laughed my ass off.  They cut it awfully close, but they still made it, just by the skin of their scrotes.  It's right up there with High Fidelity and School of Rock as definitive Jack Black showcases.  JB had me at "A long-ass fuckin' time ago / In a town called Kickapoo," and I was with him all the way after that.  I'll spare you the anecdotes, since cult movies don't translate so well to "I liked the part where he ________."  The fact that I enjoyed myself immensely will have to suffice.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Live: Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
11/7/06 @ D.A.R. Constitution Hall

In Five Words
Hey, I remember these guys!

In More Words
Death Cab was a lot better than I expected. I've made no secret of my complaints about Plans on this here Interblog, but I kinda figured those songs would have more life in person. Indeed, they did.

It was an extremely consistent show. The songs themselves were played straight, with one exception (more on that later), so there's not a lot of "ooh, remember when they played X"-type moments to point to in retrospect. But the flip side of that coin is that there were no lowlights either. They have so much quality material in the arsenal that there's no shortage of excellent music for them to plow through. Judging by the set list for the 11/6 show, I tend to think that first show got more of the "interesting" pieces (like opening with "405"... ballsy, given the MTVU crowd). But I like ours... they did play personal favorite "I Was A Kaleidoscope," so I'm glad this was the show I got to see.

The crescendo was the main-set-closing one-two punch of "We Looked Like Giants" and "Transatlanticism." Closing the encore with "The Sound of Settling" seemed like an afterthought by comparison... it's their best song, but it's so short! And it really paled in comparison to "Giants" in particular, which contained what is apparently DCFC's lone stage trick: extending the closing riff with a Jason McGerr vs. Ben Gibbard drum duel on separate kits. It was like Horse... Gibbard would play something and McGerr immediately outdid it and then some. And it wasn't like "everyone stop what you're doing, cause I'm doing a drum solo," which literally any drummer can do. The song groove kept going, and the drum soloing had to hold the riff together. It was just straight-up skills from a highly-skilled band. Very impressive.

Ted Leo's set was just as excellent. That they were an afterthought on the evening is awfully unfair, but I really enjoyed hearing them live. Makes me want to see more of them when their new album drops next year.

But as great as the music was, this show was defined by the externalities that arise when you put a rock show in Constitution Hall.

1) First off, Con Hall is an execrable venue for this kind of show. Sure, it's nice to have space to yourself (as my Decemberists post indicates) but it just sucks the life out of everything. You're stuck in a wooden auditorium chair, in a cavernous, lifeless, pristine, venerable venue. Nobody's at ease, due in no small part to the ushers Gestapo manning the aisles, checking tickets. What fun is that?!? What is this, a fucking school assembly? It's hard enough for acts in Venue Purgatory to connect with audiences in a place like Con Hall even when you aren't holding guns to everyone's heads.

2) The spaciousness and emptiness of Con Hall resulted in a criminally poor reception for incomparable ass-kicker Ted Leo. The place was goddamn empty. Come on, people. Ted Leo is a big deal. Show some respect.

3) The crowd, on the whole, sucked. The venue gets the lion's share of the blame, but a quality crowd could have overcome that. Seriously, everyone in the balconies was just sitting there like they wanted to puke. What'd you buy the ticket for if you're just gonna sit there like a dead fish all night? Too cool to rock out? Don't even get me started on the skew towards new material like "Crooked Teeth" that doesn't hold a candle to anything on The Photo Album. They couldn't ALL have been there to have their tears jerked by "I Will Follow You Into The Dark." I imagine that if I said, "We have the facts... aaaaaaand?" to 99% of the audience, they would be incapable of finishing the thought. (On election night, no less!) Anyway, I guess it's more evidence that sharing is bad.

But having said all that, I still have an exceedingly positive take on the show.

1) Just to reiterate, Ted Leo is awesome. Even from a distance, with naught but empty seats surrounding him, he really rocked out. I'd love to see him headline a show sometime... preferably after I've had a chance to become better-acquainted with Hearts of Oak and The Tyranny of Distance.

2) I forgot how great Death Cab is. It's been a while since Plans came out, and they've been out-of-sight/out-of-mind ever since. This show reminded me that DCFC, in their heart of hearts, is the same awesome band that made Transatlanticism, and not the merely-good incarnation that made Plans. I recall watching their concert DVD, Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, and thinking the band in the concert video wouldn't exist going forward. Entirely untrue. The set list shows an awful lot of older tunes... it's not as if they were catering to the new fans. They rock in spite of their new audience, and it's the new fans' job to come around, not vice versa. That's the right approach, and I'm glad they went that way. In short, rumors of the band's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

3) They played a long set, plus three songs in the encore. Definitely got my money's worth out of them.

You can read DCist for more substance about the show itself. But it should suffice to say that they exceeded my expectations, and alleviated most of my concerns. I still hope for a return to Transatlanticism-style rock for their next album, but even if not, at least I know I've seen them at the top of their game.

Set List
Marching Bands of Manhattan
The New Year
We Laugh Indoors
Why’d You want to Live Here
Crooked Teeth
Title and Registration
Movie Script Ending
Company Calls
Company Calls Epilogue
I Will Follow You into the Dark
Soul Meets Body
I Was a Kaleidoscope
We Looked Like Giants

Your Heart is An Empty Room
I'm Going Home (Sonics cover)
The Sound of Settling

Live: Tapes 'n Tapes

Tapes 'n Tapes
10/31/06 @ Black Cat

(Flickr user vassego... thanks again)

In A Word

In More Words
I liked it. I haven't got much to say beyond that. I like the band, and I liked the show. Nothing mind-blowing, but definitely recommended. They're a solid band, and they're on their way up.

I have to admit that the most memorable part of the evening, for me, was the band's Halloween costumes. Not that the get-ups were so great, but it added something to have Gordon perform all night as Tyrone Biggums. (He made it almost all the way through the show without coming out of character during his stage banter. So close...)

DIY was certainly the name of the game. TNT didn't even have a roadie. They hauled all their own shit, and didn't even have a proper "headliner" entrance... they just kinda went "OK, we're ready" and started playing. I dig that it's kinda endearing that they're not getting too puffed-up in the head about themselves until they have some real success and all, but it kinda took away from the drama of the moment. They're a band of note. The Cat was packed full of people waiting for them. I expected at least a little fanfare.

But that has nothing to do with the tunes. They were good. They were not revelatory, but they followed through on their promise. I had a good time. And I got to stand under the air conditioner (ahhhhhhhhh).

Live: The Decemberists

The Decemberists
10/29/06 at 9:30 Club

(Flickr user vassego)

In Ten Words Of Four Letters Or Fewer
It is the best show I have ever been to.

In A Great Many Words
It's official. Between my review of The Crane Wife, and my thoughts concerning this concert, I am no longer capable of discussing The Decemberists objectively. They inspire a serious and cult-like love amongst their fans, and I've chugged enough Kool-Aid to hydrate me into 2008. You have my permission to start taking grains of salt now.

But don't take too many. The passion I feel about this show in particular is legitimate. Sure, it's easy to just yell and scream "best sh0w evarrrr" or whatever in the immediate wake of a concert. You're running on adrenaline, it's immediate in your thoughts, and so forth. Knowing this, I gave it a couple weeks to marinate in my mind before posting. I've even been to a couple shows since, just to add some controls into the equation. I write this all in cold blood.

It's still the best show I've ever been to.

For a band to be so beloved (by me) going into a concert, and still come out exceeding my high expectations, is a real achievement. It was a perfect concert. Totally perfect.

What's funny is that you would never expect The Decemberists to be a "bring the house down" kind of band. The words used to describe their recorded work are along the lines of "quaint," "precious," "chamber pop," "literary," "anachronistic" and such. Not "knock your socks off your ass." And yet that's exactly what they did. I got rocked. Every song was slammed out of the park, hard as could be, every ounce of juice squeezed out as the song sailed over the fence. I can't help but feel that I saw the band at the peak of its powers.

As they did on The Crane Wife, the band proves itself to be an agile, highly-skilled unit. The songs were impressively faithful to their recorded versions, despite a wealth of strange instrumentation (bouzouki, hurdy-gurdy, others). And they had energy to burn. Much of the credit for that belongs to drummer John Moen. I never paid much mind to his drumming on the albums, but in person he really got my attention. He commanded the band, driving and fueling its grooves, as any great drummer should. I'm glad I finally noticed his work, because it deserves praise.

Perhaps unsurprising was the quality of the band's stage presence. Beyond simply appearing to have a good time, which goes a long way, they executed a number of crowd-pleasing, spontaneous-seeming "bits." Band members went into the audience and acted out scenes of Colin's choosing. Colin grabbed cameras and cell phones from the audience, futzing around with them during extended grooves. Nothing revolutionary, nor even particularly original in retrospect, but definitely fun. After all, even contrived theatrics can be made to feel genuine and special. The bottom line is that crowds love Colin Meloy, Rock Star, and he convinced us that everyone on stage was having as much fun as we were in the pit.

As if tunes and tomfoolery wouldn't have been enough, I have to say it was also the most pleasant concert-going experience of my lifetime. Nobody forcing their way forward by shoving people out of their way... nobody puffing their smoke away from their own face and into mine... nobody dancing into me with their elbows... not so much as a whiff of douchebaggery all night long. Having your personal space respected in its entirety for nigh on four hours at a sold-out rock show is a once-in-a-lifetime event; as such, I am highly appreciative. I cite three main factors:

1) The ban on smoking, by band request (THANK YOU)
2) My ears weren't ringing, even a little bit, on my way home
3) The laid-back, respectful, and all-around considerate demeanor of the average Decemberists fan

So not only did I get to see one of my favorite bands, playing what will likely be their best music, but the 9:30 Club just so happened to be a jerk-free zone for the entire night. I couldn't have been any happier.

Other fun thoughts:

* When I went inside, around 8:00, the balcony was full and the floor was about half-full. And the area around the bar was totally unattended. It was bizarre. My first instinct was that they were prevented from selling beer on Sunday or something. I actually asked the bartender if he was serving beer or not. (That question got quite a look.) I guess none of the early arrivals wanted to lose their place in the crowd by having a drink, but I was able to leave and return to my spot without incident. Just weird.

* If you're familiar with Castaways and Cutouts, the band's first full-length, you know the miserable story of poor, unfortunate, prematurely dry-ravine-birthed Leslie Anne Levine. During the encore, Colin held up a baby doll with "Leslie Anne Levine" written on it, and tossed it into the crowd. (The guy right next to me caught it, and gave to his girlfriend. Can't argue with that.) But that's exactly the kind of humor you don't expect right away from a guy who makes his living telling gut-wrenching tragedies. And it's a cute way to nod to the older material without having to actually perform it.

Crane Wife 3
The Island
We Both Go Down Together
The Engine Driver
Yankee Bayonet
Perfect Crime #2
Shankill Butchers
Song for Myla Goldberg
O, Valencia!
July, July!
16 Military Wives
Crane Wife 1 & 2
Sons and Daughters

Culling of the Fold
Legionnaire’s Lament
A Cautionary Song

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day

So I voted today.  The church in Silver Spring was pretty crowded; took me about an hour from start to finish.  Hopefully the folks in those parts will continue to pack the church... seeing as folks in my neighborhood are more likely to vote with their crispy moderate liberal minds and go with Cardin and O'Malley.

Random observations about voting:

1) There was a 13 month-old toddler behind me walking around and looking generally thrilled by life.  That made the time pass a little quicker.

2) I was expecting some Diebold-related chicanery, but it was even crazier than I expected.  Every time I checked a Democrat's name, the voting machine popped up a warning that read, "Are you sure you want to vote for the Homocrat?"  How nuts is that???  Maybe it's a bug or something... after all, everyone knows the Homocrat warning was supposed to come up for the Republicans.

3) There was a shortage of voter access cards in the polling area.  The church broke into two different lines... one for checking in to get an access card, and one for the Diebold Republ-o-matic machines.  But just like 2004, the second line grew too long, which meant that the first line couldn't move until enough access cards were returned.  While I realize that the rate-limiting step is the people in the booths, is it really that difficult to have a shitload of plastic cards lying around?  Given how easily the machines can be hacked, the little plastic doohickeys can't be that expensive.

3a) The word "doohickey" just made it through my spell-checker.  That's not about voting, that's just interesting to me.

4) I'm probably not the first to ask this question, but I wonder whether the Republicans' perpetual resistance to "facts" and "evidence" when discussing their policies has anything to do with their religion.  Christianity is a matter of faith; evidence is not just irrelevant, but frowned-upon.  Anyone know any prominent Republicans with a distaste for facts and evidence?  It could just be a matter of debate skills, but Bush is probably better at practicing blind faith than he is at arguing.