Sunday, April 29, 2007

Unqualified Rave

I just saw an absolutely fantastic film. It's a breathtaking tale with consequences that force each member of the audience to reexamine what it means to participate in a responsible society.

It's got everything. Great performances. Technological breakthroughs. Arresting music. Moving story. Thought-provoking subtext. Stunning imagery. Poignant observations. An underlying, immovable faith in humanity and love. What more could you ask for?

I cannot recommend this movie heartily enough. I believe everyone should see this movie. It's an absolute home run. If I hadn't locked up my best-of list from a couple months ago, this one would be shooting towards the top.

I am, of course, talking about United 93 World Trade Center Babel Letters From Iwo Jima OMGWTFBBQ??1?!?!?

Oh right, I forgot to mention the jokes. It has jokes.

Seriously, it's all about the Happy Feet. I loved this movie like Jay and Silent Bob love monkeys. It's not perfect, but I don't care. I'm giving it a perfect 5 Stevie Wonder-obsessed penguins out of 5.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Grindhouse: It Never Misses

Man, what a fuckin' nutty experience. I'm sure the inevitable unrated DVD will be even nuttier. But this is as entertaining as a movie gets without being particularly good in its own right.

Its box office "failure" has become a story, but I think that's 100% unfair. That entire story is more about attacking the Weinsteins, or the tracking numbers, than the film. Weird cultish stuff like this rarely breaks out anyway; to expect otherwise is silly. It's doing about as well as a three-hour garbage fest ought to do.

Anyway, let's actually look at the movie, beginning with the hilarious and ingenious trailers. From worst to best, I'd go Werewolf Women of the SS, Don't, Machete, and Thanksgiving. The only worthwhile element of Werewolf Women (besides the celebrity cameo) is the starring role for Udo Kier. Dear reader, if you think you don't need more Udo Kier in your life, you're wrong. And Thanksgiving is just incredible. It doesn't really go for the "grindhouse" theme as much as the "creepy, seedy, cheap 80's video horror" theme, but the quality of the work forgives its mismatched period. Eli Roth should get some kind of special Oscar for the part where the killer fucks the turkey.

On a related note, the filmmakers get serious props for digging up those interstitial bumpers. The use of the song that was later sampled by DangerDoom for "Old School" was pretty awesome, according to me.

As for the double-feature itself... nothing against Planet Terror, but Death Proof wins in a landslide.

Planet Terror is a spectacular zombie film, and one of the more disgusting films I've ever seen. Robert Rodriguez certainly gives it his all. It's definitely as over-the-top as it gets. And I enjoyed it. There's some really classic stuff in there, like Jeff Fahey's hilarious disembowelment gag. And the "medical" photographs of what happens to people's genitals as a result of exposure to Project Terror is as big a fuck-you to the audience as possible. Hilarious stuff.

Unfortunately, Planet Terror only works as a take-off on other zombie films. You kind of need that context, because the movie's stupid and puerile otherwise. You need to say "oh, right, this is a parody, therefore I need not be embarrassed to be watching that dude from Lost slip around in the disembodied testicles he collects." And even on that front, it's too slick and stylized to really work as an el-cheapo zombie movie. Everything happens at night. There's no inconsistency, no actual grit, no unforced errors. All the errors are forced. Like the whole "missing reel" thing: cute, but at the same


Death Proof, on the other hand, is not only the truest in style to the theme of the project, but also stands on its own as an entertaining flick. 30 minutes of pure dialogue immediately after Planet Terror and the trailers is a dicey proposition. Anyone besides Quentin Tarantino wouldn't have been able to pull it off. But pull it off he did.

Then there's the much talked-about chase scene. There's a special giddy look I get on my face whenever I can tell that some crazy-ass classic shit is about to go down, particularly at the Uptown. The part in the Helm's Deep sequence where they topple that huge orc ladder apparatus... the asteroid belt/sonic charges sequence in Episode II... and the moment when Stuntman Mike appears with his binoculars, checking out the white '70 Dodge Challenger, smiles, and hops into his car. Just totally, totally awesome, all the way until the brilliantly sudden credit roll.

All the comparisons being made about that scene are pretty fair, although I don't think it's quite on the level of Bullitt or The French Connection. Those films' seminal chases derived their thrills exclusively from the cars themselves; Tarantino needs to put someone on the car in immediate danger in order to generate the same emotional response. Still, masterful stuff.

While we're nitpicking, I don't really buy Death Proof's perceived "chick power!" message. It's about as feminist as Charlie's Angels, which is more in line with the Russ Meyer feel that QT is after. The female protagonists are entertaining and plausible, but their primary source of appeal is their more fantastic qualities... looks and sass. That's true of the first flock of chick meat more than the second, whose appeal has more merit and depth by design. But even with Rosario Dawson and friends, the appeal comes from having charmed the (largely male) audience into falling in love with them, which in turn leads to a rooting interest once Stuntman Mike rolls along. That's not feminist... that's characterist. And ultimately that's not only fine by me, but also totally appropriate for Death Proof and its influences.

In conclusion, it's a hell of a fun time, and a sure-fire cult hit on video. I give Grindhouse 3 1/2 dismembered testicles rolling around on the ground out of 5.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


I never thought for a second that the album would be better than the movie.  But it was.  Idlewild is structured like a musical, looks like a musical, and has heart like a musical.  But it was nothing more than a bloated, ambitious, well-meaning music video.

They apparently chose the Moulin Rouge! approach, where you make a mixtape rather than writing a slew of original songs.  But where Moulin Rouge! was a spectacular success, having cherry-picked the perfect lyrics from over three decades of pop music, Idlewild forces story relevance upon the best songs from just over two albums.  I wonder, what's the point of setting up the movie like a musical, slapping together dance numbers and so forth, even having your characters sing into the camera, if the songs aren't particularly germane to the story?  When the action and lyrics don't work in concert, you end up with a storyline that only loosely relates to the songs, and vice versa.  Like your average music video.

Given the tepid stuff on the Idlewild album, their first non-essential work to date, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they intended the musical numbers to be original, but ultimately fell back on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below's highlights when push came to shove.  Sure, said highlights were the absolute best tracks ("Church," "The Rooster," and "Bowtie") from the absolute best crossover hip-hop album ever, but those songs are three years old.  Given that they were making an album in parallel with the movie, how could they not use the new album's songs?  How could they have entered production on the album/film pair without having three or four can't-miss songs that would appear in both?  What happened?  I'm sure there's a good reason, but I'm awfully curious about what it might be.

The real shame is this: this could have and should have been a true hip-hop musical, and it wasn't.  If a hip-hop musical were ever going to happen, Andre 3000 and Big Boi would be the two guys to hire.  No hip-hop group in history is as artistically sound or as creative as OutKast.  They've got the acting chops, the charisma, the songwriting talent, the vision, you name it.  Their particular brand of hip-hop is tailor-made for the project.  And yet it still didn't come together.  Too bad.

As a movie, it's not awful.  It wasn't cringeworthy; there were definitely some good parts to it.  The acting was perfectly fine.  The music videos themselves were pretty sweet.  I like the way that the anachronisms were handled.  And I give the ambition of the project its due.  But it's nevertheless pointless.  A waste of a great idea.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Prestige

Excellent movie.  It is indeed as surprisingly gripping as it was said to be.  I did have the ending figured out, although I didn't guess the exact mechanism.  But the story itself is awesome.  And you have to respect the balls it takes to make a movie about magicians after Will Arnett ruined them forever.

I'm not a huge fan of the "two people obsessed with the other's annihilation" genre, but this one's basically the ultimate mano-a-mano film.  It doesn't quite treat the competition as a sideshow, but it certainly concentrates more on what drives the two magicians, their weaknesses as men, the sacrifices each makes in order to beat his opponent.

I do have one beef, which is that the finale could have been absolutely devastating, whereas in reality it was more of an "ohhhhhhhh, so that's how it ends" situation.  There was no shock, no WTF?!?!? element to it.  (I did figure it out, after all.)  I think that's a result of the fact that both men abandon morality in the quest for ultimate supremacy, and thus give us paired antagonists, or at best a de facto protagonist, rather than a true protagonist to whom we can connect ourselves as an audience.  It makes for a hell of a story, but it also deflates the power of the ending, because we're detached observers instead of invested participants.  We aren't rooting for anyone... we just want to see how the trick turns out.

Still, it's a hell of a trick.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Saturday, April 07, 2007

BREAKING: I Might Have To Stop Hating On Arctic Monkeys

I haven't had a big musical mea culpa lately. Modest Mouse is the only major one in quite a while, as far as I can recall. So this would be a big one, given that when I've posted the words "Arctic Monkeys" on this blog, the words that follow are usually "poser," "fakes," "d-bags," or some confluence of the three.

I took another listen to the still-horrendously-douchebaggily-titled Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not tonight. And I have to admit, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I came to three realizations:

  1. They are a seriously, seriously powerful band. Maybe not that catchy, but they pack quite a punch.
  2. I'm not convinced by the sincerity of the fellow delivering those ascerbic, sarcastic, misanthropic lyrics... but I'm not sure I care anymore. It's the thought that counts, right? Besides, I was thinking about the kinds of songs I'd write if I were a singer/songwriter, and concluded that "all you people are vampires" and "what a scummy man" are not too far off from the sentiments that I myself would want to express. So I'll give them a break on that count.
  3. Pretty sure I hated them strictly because of the album title. (It's still on the all-time worst list.) And the hype, that too. But now, more than a year separated from the feeding frenzy, I can reflect upon the music and judge it rationally.

I feel that's fairly accurate. And for the album title thing, I think that's entirely valid. If you're gonna name it something so dreadfully obnoxious, and THEN give us this assclown as your cover boy...

...what else do you expect? Anyway, I'm sure the band regrets this grievous mistake. (Since I'm a forgiving guy, apology accepted in advance.)

The truth is that Whatever People Say I Am is, in fact, a pretty tight album. Not the instant classic it was made out to be, but still good. (I'm reminded of the time the Bluth Company was upgraded on Jim Cramer's Mad Money to a solid "Don't Buy," touching off extravagant celebrations.) Time will tell if I fall in love with the album after all this. But for now, I'll buy that the band is indeed a big deal, and that Whatever is worth a listen.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

NPR Concerts Online

One of the neat things about seeing shows at 9:30 Club is that NPR will broadcast most of the notable acts that come through on their website.  The archives are a fairly impressive collection of concerts, some of which are downloadable.  The sound isn't exactly soundboard-quality but not bad.

What's nice is that I can go to see Ted Leo + Pharmacists in person, and then download the entire show the next morning for my personal archives.  That way, if the biggest fucking asshole on the planet forces his way in front of me during the encore, and he and his ugly girlfriend throw their elbows around so violently that nobody can help but have the rest of the show destroyed by his self-centered shit, I can replace that experience with the experience of having been there without fucking Admiral Douchebag and his pancake-makeup whore.  Everyone wins!

It also comes in handy for two-night stands, as happened when The Decemberists came through last fall.  NPR aired the second show, but I went to the first (and best, as it turns out).  I was able to hear the other show without having to schlep down, shell out, and see them a second night in a row.  I guess I'd have preferred to have a recording of the first night for posterity, but no big deal.  The memories will live on in my soul forever until I get old for a couple years.

The archive itself is pretty much a who's-who of the too-big-for-indie scene since 2005.  Bloc Party, Iron & Wine, Death Cab, Sigur Ros, Secret Machines, Interpol, The White Stripes, My Morning Jacket, Belle & Sebastian, New Pornographers, Sleater-Kinney, Bright Eyes, Regina Spektor, Arcade Fire, Ted Leo... days' worth of concert up on the web for free.  And that's just the acts I like.  It doesn't count overrated mouth-breathers like Clap Your Hands and the Fiery Furnaces, what's-the-big-deal crooners like Jenny Lewis and Cat Power, or groups I haven't bothered to investigate (yet) like Wilco and Built to Spill.  There's plenty to hear, so run over and check it out.

(Thanks to DCist for reminding me the archives exist.)