Friday, June 27, 2008

Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers Not So Sad Nowadays


Idolator just linked to a great piece chronicling the rise of indie slow-burners The National, currently touring with R.E.M. and Modest Mouse.

I had their Boxer in the lower half of my 2007 top ten, but it turns out even six months' consideration wasn't enough to properly rate that masterpiece of an album. If I had it to do over again, it'd be #2. Easily. It's been almost a year now, and I'm STILL discovering things. New shit just keeps coming to light. How can something make so little of an impression, and then make such an unmistakable one? It's beyond my comprehension... and I'm a pretty smart motherfucker.

That is, in a nutshell, what the linked story is all about. These guys REALLY know what they're doing, and they were absolutely nowhere for five years. So how does this happen?

Fascinating reading for anyone who's into them... or, really, anyone who's marginally curious about how a great band, toiling in anonymity in spite of their best efforts, can plow forward anyway. (And, of course, hit the jackpot in the end.)

One side note: I get that the author has a personal relationship with The National, and that their tourmates, R.E.M., are the blueprint for slow-burning success... but what of their other tourmates, Modest Mouse? Their career trajectory makes the author's point even better than The National does! I wasn't on the front lines for them, but it's not as if The Lonesome Crowded West or The Moon & Antarctica were instant oatmeal. And there was a long, inactive period between those albums and the "Float On" phenomenon. Given that a correlation was drawn to R.E.M., and that the tour as a whole intentionally features slow-burning acts, it certainly feels more like a singling out of Modest Mouse for some reason than clarifying the argument. Just an observation.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Jump In The Line

Been a long time since I've listened to Harry Belafonte.

I was sitting at home the other night, minding my own business, when I found myself humming to nobody in particular... jump in the line, rock your body in time, OK, I believe you...

That led me down two separate lines of nostalgic superlatives: remembering that Beetlejuice is one of my favorite movies (and characters) ever, and remembering that Belafonte was the best Muppet Show guest ever. I dare you to watch this video without feeling warm.

Thank goodness for the Interwebs... without YouTube, I'd have had to go out and buy something to feel that good.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I Got Chokes And Chokes And Chokes...

Choke, a film adaptation of one of Chuck Palahniuk's better novels, is coming down the pike in a few months. This pleases me tremendously. Fight Club was a coup for him, but Palahniuk's scolding, snide voice is too important to be adapted just once every ten years.

Choke probably wouldn't have been my first choice for a Palahniuk adaptation, since the story backbone isn't quite as strong as Fight Club or the equally satirical Survivor. His post-Fight Club stuff has this nasty habit of indulging and exploring a good idea without bringing it to rest on the right note (see Lullaby).

Then again, even top-notch Palahniuk is wandering and unfocused (with the exception of the notorious Guts) so Choke is as good a choice as any. Besides, it's a riotously funny book. And sexy, as you can tell from the YouTube freeze-frame down there. If Clark Gregg has clarified those pesky narrative strands, this should be a winner.

(The un-embeddable QuickTime version is way less dark, much easier to see.)

As for the trailer... I deduct 10 points for using Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (a.k.a. "Jeff repellent") on the soundtrack, but everything else is aces. The wicked sense of humor looks intact, and the roguish Sam Rockwell is the ideal lead for pretty much any Palahniuk story. I can definitely see him referring to his penis as his "dog." Which is key.

Iron Man

A neat little movie. The core idea and how it plays out is pretty excellent. Where most comic book franchises are somehow rooted in youth and the transition to adulthood, Iron Man is unabashedly adult and middle-aged by comparison. It's not Amadeus or The English Patient or anything, but simply adding a little maturity to the equation does wonders.

Iron Man is in many ways a scolding response to the shallowness of Transformers. The erroneous cynicism of the Michael Bay movie ("admit it, asshole, you just want to see robots beating the shit out of each other") is reversed ("you are going to love Tony Stark... also, he beats the shit out of some robots"), resulting in a movie with quite a bit more heart. So to speak.

Beyond the obvious character/conceptual advantages, the nucleus of Iron Man's plausibility is the time the filmmakers take to show us how the suit works. You get a detailed, tactile introduction to how it's built, how it evolves over time, the specific capabilities. During the fight scenes, you know exactly what's going on, and you believe that the suit can perform as it does. The action isn't ground-breaking or kinetic on its own or anything, but at least you know who's punching who. It's still CGI, but the effort made to ground the suit in reality pays off when asses starts getting beaten.

On the other hand, I couldn't tell you a damn thing about who did what to whom in a single fight in Transformers. Couldn't tell you how they inhabit the cars they choose to impersonate, what moves they were executing on each other while the camera was flying through their legs, etc. The fight sequences may have a greater sense of grandeur (the Iron Man finale seems to have little effect on anyone but the three principals) but what does it matter if you don't know what you just saw? (THEY JUST KICK ASS, OKAY? YOU LOVE ROBOTS BEATING THE SHIT OUT OF EACH OTHER, SO SHUT UP!!!) Jon Favreau may not know kinetics, or demand things to be awesome*, but at least he and his team can put together a coherent action sequence.

Then there's Tony Stark himself. The pitfall for this character would be the Superman Problem, where invincibility breeds boredom. But he's so rooted in plausibility and rakish charm that minor details like funding sources and sentient robots go down smooth, like the medicine buried in a spoonful of sugar. Not much more needs to be said about Robert Downey, Jr.'s superstar turn, except to comment that it not only continues a recent tradition of "serious" Hollywood personalities slumming it with genre movies, but also provides us with a competitor to Johnny Depp for Beloved Weirdo Of The Moment. I have a feeling RDJ is going to cement that status once Tropic Thunder drops.

Anyway, enjoyed myself a lot. Not perfect, not a rules-changing phenomenon or anything, but definitely a good movie, and one that should be fun to see playing ten times a day on TNT in a couple years. All in all, I give Iron Man four iterations of the suit out of five.

* - I actually really enjoyed this commercial. You get a clear idea of which items on his patio are exploding, and when. Not that hard!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of Incongruous Nonsense

Whoops! I got my franchise turds mixed up for a second. But The Phantom Menace is pretty much where we have to start the discussion.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls is a truly remarkable cinematic achievement: an Indy sequel worse than Temple of Doom.

It's not worse because of the ludicrous central conceit of the story, as I first thought. I will not detail the ways in which the crystal skull notion is silly, because a) it's actually not that bad an idea, in and of itself, and b) this is the franchise that gave us God, popping out of the Ark of the Covenant like a jack-in-the-box, in order to melt Nazi faces... can we really split hairs here? As such, I'm not going to fixate on the silliness... in and of itself, anyway.

The problem is more the usage of that silliness. Yes, God himself rained down his fury at the ends of both Raiders and Last Crusade. But in each case, the melting of the face was the climax of a story that was otherwise 100% grounded in reality-based adventure. The leaps of logic were in the stuntwork, which was so kinetic and exciting that we ate it up.

But in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, as in Temple of Doom before it, the implausibilities lie in the journey, not the destination. Their stories are propelled forward based solely on preposterous details. The suspension of disbelief is central, rather than collateral.

In Temple of Doom, for example, we are asked to believe and accept, amongst other things:

* that the human body can live without a heart
* that Indiana Jones is subject to mind control
* and voodoo dolls, too
* that Indiana Jones would drag a loud-mouthed blonde bitch along with him on a life-threatening adventure

Kate Capshaw hatred aside, there's only so much horseshit we can be asked to accept in one bite. It's as if the artisan-style heart removal's WTF-ness is meant to distract us, so that the filmmakers can shove in a bunch of ridiculous details while we're still reeling. If it were the only campy moment, perhaps it wouldn't have been such a crime. But by that point in the movie, we in the audience have seen about 50-60 minutes of pure camp. We're not exactly eager to accept more idiocy. The heart-ripping scene and its hypnosis-dependent aftermath thus stand more as opportunities to roll one's eyes and jump out of the mine cart.


Likewise, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's progression is dependent upon accepting the skull's magical function, and its effect on both Indy and Harold Oxley. Which I don't, because the rules are not established with even the most remote believability. When rules get invented in order to move things along (Indy resists Irina's psychic powers, but not the skull's, and oh by the way he doesn't go crazy-go-nuts like Oxley) the natives get restless.

Further, each such deus ex machina intervention means that we sidestep proactive behavior from the protagonists. For example, how do Indy and friends escape the Soviets' clutches? Why, vine-swinging CGI monkeys and flesh-eating killer ants, of course! And did I mention that the crystal skull's presence creates a FUCKING FORCE FIELD around Indy and Oxley? Compare this to Indy slamming a bad guy's face into an airplane propeller. One is Indy's doing, another is Indy floating along like the rest of us.

And why do the Soviets need Indy? Because the skull turned Oxley into a babbling moron. Oh, I see. So Indy has to look into it himself, in order to communicate with Oxley... but not too much. Because it's too much skull-staring that makes you babble. Isn't this all so convenient. Never mind that the primary tool the Russians are using to discover the skull is... ANOTHER SKULL! COME ON!!!


Now, this isn't the first time Indy has been involved in something silly. But much as I loathe Temple of Doom, even that film eventually finds its legs and keeps us on board. Stupid? Absolutely, but Indiana Jones comes out of the experience relatively unscathed as a character. And as I began, all of these movies are outlandish and ridiculous in some core way.

What makes KotCS so different is that Indy's not himself. He's just along for the ride.

The appeal of the series isn't simply in paying homage to 30's serials and (now) 50's B-movies, but in the elevation of that material through one of the most charismatic heroes in film history. The sag of KotCS comes directly from the sag in Indy's step.

I can't say it any better than this guy, whose exhaustive and uniformly spot-on list I discovered well after I started working on this. (Sigh.) But I'll sum it up:

* Indiana Jones doesn't care about the Crystal Skulls, so neither do we.
* Every twist is foreseeable and telegraphed, which undercuts every opportunity for tension.
* Those two absences keep our attention focused on the ridiculousness, which we reject because there's no reason not to.

Simple as that. Not even Sean Connery could save a movie with such a disastrous skeletal structure.

One interesting point I've seen made to contradict the utter ridiculousness of KotCS is that Indy isn't really after the Crystal Skull... his object of desire is Marion Ravenwood. The idea being that Indy has matured, has come face to face with death and mortality, and realizes that Marion, and a family, are how he digs himself out of his old rut and reclaims his Indy groove.

Not a bad notion... but if it's in there, it's the only well-kept secret in the whole goddamn movie. but I don't feel that was established. Nothing Indy does is firmly rooted in a desire to protect Marion. He doesn't even know who the hell he's protecting until he gets to Peru! And everything else is so half-assed that they could not possibly have effectively established that as Indy's true quest.

Anyway, all ranting aside, it may be a well-made good time, but so is any old amusement park ride. There's a high standard to meet in this series, and this one falls well short of the mark.

Two horribly animated jungle creatures out of five.

(Maybe I should be grateful that the prairie dogs didn't talk. Naaaaaaaah.)

New Sigur Rós Album Stream

The upcoming Sigur Rós album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly), has been made available for streaming via this little thingy:

[h/t Stereogum]

It's futile to judge music when given such a poor audio stream; that goes double for Sigur Rós. But it certainly seems like a significant departure from the epic noise rock that they do best. This has its dramatic moments, but the band appears to be emphasizing the acoustic and earthy this time around... no doubt a partial byproduct of their recent Icelandic barnstorming tour. I eagerly await the version you can actually hear.