Thursday, December 17, 2009

Current Cultural Diet - December 2009

Wow, there sure is a lot of dust around here. Let me clear some of this off and have a seat.

OK, then. Where was I? Somewhere in the middle of my favorite rock albums countdown, which I will get back to at some point. Movie awards season is in full swing, and I want to watch some of the nominated movies before the Oscars this year, plus there are some other film-related things I want to get to. I was going to post something about Tiger Woods and actually got it half-written, but I junked that because I realized I didn't have anything new or interesting to say about the whole sordid story - suffice it to say, the guy has crashed and burned more spectacularly than any outsize celebrity has in, well, perhaps forever.

To get myself back in the blogging swing, I'm going to spend a few minutes on the music, TV, and literature that's currently occupying my limited attention span.

Music - Hunky Dory, by David Bowie. I've never been that big of a David Bowie fan, although my brother gave me a bootlegged live recording a few years back that I really enjoyed.

I picked up Hunky Dory, really, because of Rolling Stone magazine - it was #107 in their top 500 albums list a few years back, and then they recently did a piece devoted entirely to the album itself. Since I've been trying to work more classic rock albums into my ongoing musical education, I nabbed it from the used record store (yes, they still have those) and immediately won the store manager's respect--"cool!" he said. I don't know the guy but he listens to a lot of music, so that made me even more inclined to give it a shot.

Before Hunky Dory, I actually thought that "Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow" was an original lyric by the 90's Nirvana-aping band Bush. Now I know that Bush lifted it from David Bowie and "Life on Mars?" and that Gavin Rossdale is even more of a thieving hack than I thought he was.

Ahem. So anyway, my reaction to Hunky Dory? At least a half dozen end-to-end spins since I picked it up a few weeks ago, and I can see this as a staple of my audio diet for quite awhile to come. It's ambitious, a bit reckless at times, but also fearless. "Changes" and "Life on Mars?" and "Andy Warhol" and "Queen Bitch"--great, great album. Now I want to get around to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane.

Book - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. Got this in paperback, well after the groundswell of popularity that attended its hardback release. Not sure why I picked it up exactly, as I'd been offered a copy for free before and had passed on it. I'd heard it was good, engaging, exotic mystery, but I'd also heard it was a bit dull in the beginning.

I may have been persuaded by the press surrounding the second novel in the late author's so-called "Millenium Trilogy," The Girl Who Played With Fire, published in English earlier this year. (Larsson died of a heart attack at 50 years old in 2004).

At any rate, I'm just over 100 pages in and can report that, yes, while it is a bit dry in the early going, it evolves into pretty nimble little thriller that I'm looking forward to finishing. The translation is a bit stiff and certain parts come across rather clinically, but the Swedish locales are interesting and the central mystery has real promise. Look for a follow-up later...

Television - Californication, starring David Duchovny. This show just wrapped up its third season on Showtime (and will be back for a fourth sometime next year). I've seen every episode to date, although I'd hardly call it great TV --some of the plot mechanations are so stupid that they leave me beating my skull against the headboard. Some of it is so patently contrived that you want to choke. And the actress playing Duchovny's daughter acts like a robot. At times I wonder why I even bother to watch, but then I remember that I like Duchovny--even as a loser, he's a winning presence, a perfectly deadpan mix of dry wit and moral rot who can be a drunk and a serial philanderer and still somehow likeable. He carries the show.

And the third season finale was a winner. Hank Moody (Duchovny's character) had to fess up to one of his more egregious sins, committed way back in the show's first-ever episode. I liked the way that karmic boomerang worked--it makes it seem like the writers have control of the show, even if they don't--and that turned out to be a very well-done scene. At first I was irritated that the show copped out on letting us actually hear the dialogue between Hank and Karen (Natasha McElhone), opting instead for playing Elton John's "Rocket Man" over the scene, but as it went on and the situation obviously escalated, the emotion on the actors' faces did the lifting, and what do you know, it actually worked. The dialogue wasn't necessary, and maybe would have been overwrought. The music, scoring what looks to be the final disintegration of an already fragile relationship, made it more memorable.

And it all left things in what could be a really interesting, game-changing spot for the fourth season, if the writers don't wuss out. I've been hard on the show in the past, so it's time to give it kudos for a job well done.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire, Belatedly

As much as any aspect of parenthood, I've struggled with the sudden lack of time. Once you've got a completely dependent human being on your hands, your time is no longer your own. Books gather dust on your nighttable. The TV stays off longer than it used to. Scheduling becomes much more difficult, even with only one child. That's just how it is. As Hunter S. Thompson used to say, buy the ticket, take the ride.

So it took me a year - and eight months after its Best Picture victory at the 2009 Academy Awards - to finally watch "Slumdog Millionaire." I was curious, I wanted to watch it sooner, but I just didn't get to it.

I've had other opportunities. It was on DirecTV Pay-Per-View for awhile, and then I almost picked it up a couple of times in Blockbuster, but it just never felt right. I can't say why. I'd heard parts of it were kind of depressing but that it was really uplifting in the end, but I picked up both "The Wrestler" and "Milk" before ever seeing "Slumdog," and both of those movies are pretty depressing too. So the darkness of it shouldn't have scared me away, especially since I knew it ended pretty happily.

Again, something inside me was just lukewarm about the film, despite all of the accolades and awards.

It wasn't because of any dislike for any of the actors, because there aren't really any names in the picture.

It wasn't because I don't like director Danny Boyle - I personally own "Trainspotting" (talk about depressing) and liked "Sunshine" a good bit, along with "28 Days Later"--neither is a world-beater, but they're both pretty solid entertainment, and come to think of it I have a copy of "28 Days Later" around here somewhere, too. And I maintain that "The Beach" is a lot better than most people give it credit for being - it would've been much better if the movie had retained the book's ending, and there was some stuff that just didn't work, but also a lot of pretty cool ideas.

It's not the only Best Picture winner I hadn't seen, not by a longshot. There's a lot of stuff that has won the top Academy Award that I'm just not interested in, which I suppose makes me not that much of a cineaste. But even if every now and then I think I ought to try to be a little more well-rounded, I just can't force myself to sit through something that I have a really good feeling is not going to work for me, no matter how many awards it's won, in the same way that I can't force myself to try to read David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" or Thomas Pynchon. I'm too old for homework. When I get free time, I want to spend it on something I actually think I might enjoy on some level.

So anyway, "Slumdog Millionaire." It's a small thing, but I always kind of like it when a movie doesn't hit you with its title right away. I think it shows confidence on the part of the filmmakers to not start off by broadcasting the title of the thing (although plenty of good movies have done exactly that, like "The Godfather" and "Star Wars" and "Jaws" and "The Matrix" to name a few), and I love confident filmmaking. Let's say you didn't know anything about "Slumdog Millionaire" and didn't have any kind of Guide button on your remote control or didn't have a newspaper or TV Guide, you wouldn't know what the movie is called until you were quite a few minutes in.

And Danny Boyle is an interesting director because he's always trying something different. Like Ang Lee and Paul Thomas Anderson, he's got a checkered resume. "Trainspotting" (heroin addicts) isn't like "The Beach" (rebel backpackers on an island paradise), or "28 Days Later" (zombies) or "Sunshine" (straight-up SF). That's not his complete resume, either. I find any artist that challenges him or herself to be interesting, so there's another point in the movie's favor.

It's got a good look, too. It's well shot. The cinematography really lets you feel the stink and grime of Bombay or Mumbai or whatever it's called now.

And Frieda Pinto, the girl who plays the mature Lathika - she had to be amazing to inspire this years-long quest, and she is, absolutely. What a beauty, even with a knife scar on her face. I mean, just flat-out stunning. You can see a guy going to great lengths for a girl like that.

So, why didn't I like the movie more?

I'm still trying to figure it out a week later. It wasn't bad, not at all. I didn't hate it. But something about it just left me kind of cool. I sensed something a bit glib about parts of it, a little bit facile. Part of that, I think, is because it's such a large tonal leap between comedy and stark human drama, and it's very difficult to stick that landing, especially if you're doing it multiple times over the course of two hours or so. In the end, a movie that tries can feel like it's just dabbling between the two without fully committing to either.

And there's also what I call the Catcher in the Rye syndrome. You know The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger's iconic novel, even if you don't really know it. It's assumed an almost mythical status in American fiction, is perptually cited as an influence both good and horrible (Mark David Champman, for instance), and only gains stature from its creator's impenetrable mystique.

All of the hype that has accrued to The Catcher in the Rye since its publication may well make you think that you're going to read something staggering, something immense, something that pushes the boundaries of prose with every single line, something that's going to change your perception of the world, but it really isn't so. It's really a pretty straightforward and not very hard-to-grasp story.

It wasn't bad, I kind of liked it, but that's all.

I think that happens quite a lot in our culture. Books, movies, and music all get digested by the mainstream and ribboned with this outsize applause. But if you miss the initial wave, and all you get is the hype for months or years, you can't separate it from the work itself.

So if a movie wins awards and gets great reviews, and months go by before you see it, you're probably going to be expecting something immense, profound, life-changing. Just being good isn't going to be good enough.

It's not fair to the work itself. Everything deserves to be judged on its own merits.

There's a larger point to be made about prejudice and the power of suggestion, but I think I want to leave that for another day. For now, it's enough to say that "Slumdog Millionaire" was all right. I doubt I'll ever see it again, and I don't really think it's going to leave much of a lasting mark on cinema, but that's OK.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Top Albums #6: Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets

Year released: 1998

Tracklist: Pantala Naga Pampa, Rapunzel, The Last Stop, Don't Drink the Water, Stay (Wasting Time), Halloween, The Stone, Crush, The Dreaming Tree, Pig, Spoon

Dave Matthews Band?!?!? Ewww! Didn't they sell out? Don't they do, like, love songs and stuff? Aren't all of their fans fratboys and underage girls?

I'm not even really sure what "selling out" means. Yes, they do do love songs. And I'm neither a fratboy (never was) or an underage girl.

I'll admit, DMB sticks out amongst my favorite bands somewhat like a sore thumb -- they aren't like any other band that I follow, for the simple reason that they aren't like any other band. And this album makes my top ten because, while I knew of DMB several years before this came out, this album specifically is the one that made me pay attention to them.

Specifically, it was the dark crazy-quilt lead single "Don't Drink the Water" that grabbed and pulled me in, with its banjo and wind and vocal flourishes. It exploded in 1998, immediately distinguishing itself as different from anything else on the radio-scape, and hooked me on first listen.

Now, not every Dave Matthews Band sounds like that. But that song was the hook, and pretty soon I was openly devouring their music and going to their concerts. I estimate that I've now seen the Dave Matthews Band in concert something like 30 or 35 times. They don't always wow me, but I usually enjoy them. The thing about DMB live that most people who've written them off as pop opportunists don't understand is this: in its own way, when properly motivated, this is a band that can rock as hard as any other out there.

I actually wrestled with including this album over Crash, which immediately precedes it in the DMB discography. I love a lot of Crash, played it a ton when my DMB appreciation was in its heyday, and still probably hear it once or twice a year. But Crash's debits, in the end, proved too much for me: sure, it has "Lie in Our Graves" and "#41," but it also has the drippy single "Crash Into Me," my alltime least favorite DMB tune (which they played on both nights of two-night Atlanta stand earlier this year, to my chagrin, and which the crowd lapped up both times), along with "Let You Down."

Before These Crowded Streets isn't perfect, either - "Stay (Wasting Time)" does exactly that, well past its welcome, and my ability to tolerate "Crush" comes and goes. In fact, the highlights of Crash and BTCS could make one hell of a record put together, but thematically they don't really fit (maybe a double album??). Crash, overall, has more bounce, and a lighter touch. Before These Crowded Streets is generally darker, but is also a more ambitious, confident record on the whole, full of texture and color, bursting at the seams with ideas.

It's still the best studio album that the Dave Matthews Band has made, more than a decade after its release (they flirted with surpassing it with their last release, Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, but ultimately fell short).

What's best about Before These Crowded Streets is how much the band seems determined to use their opportunity. Remember, back in 1998, the Dave Matthews Band was still on the rise, still ascending in popularity, and this album was the third stage in their rocket to stardom. A couple paragraphs up I said that BTCS is bursting at the seams, and it really is, strikingly so--I can imagine the band in the studio, listening to the record as a work in progress, looking for new colors to use and new places to add a detail or two. That kind of effort can easily lead to something schizophrenic and overwrought, or just ponderous and joyless and dry. Happily, while BTCS definitely flirts with being overwrought, it avoids those pitfalls and still feels fresh today.

It's fitting that the word "crowded" makes up part of the album's title, because in many ways, it's like a crowded street fair with something interesting going on literally everywhere you look. It juggles genres from jazz to bluegrass to world beat to straight-out rock in a way that shouldn't work but somehow does. The band even includes a number of transitional interludes between songs, snippets of conversation or throwaway melodies that make the album feel like a unified, almost thematic work.

In fact, for quite awhile, I thought of Before These Crowded Streets as a concept album, like something Pink Floyd might've done, even though there isn't a readily discernible unifying concept to the songs -- there's a love song ("Rapunzel") and a hate song (the legendary "Halloween"), songs about religious fanatcism ("The Last Stop") and the evils of colonialism ("Don't Drink the Water"), loss ("The Dreaming Tree"), regret ("The Stone"), and getting the last laugh on a former lover ("Spoon").

Thematically, it's all over the place, but that's completely fitting for DMB, a band with influences as diverse as their instrumentation and cultural makeup. Relentlessly, almost exhaustively entertaining, even through some serious darkness, Before These Crowded Streets comes as close as any record can to clearly defining the polymorphous, continually evolving collective known as the Dave Matthews Band. And since I love the band, even after all of these years, I love the record. Still.

This Just in: Yes, Rush Limbaugh is a Jackass

So his Rushness was on the Today show earlier this week. I watch sometimes in the morning while I'm getting my breakfast or getting my kid ready for daycare. Hey, I like Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera. What can I say?

I knew Rush was coming on and I should've shut it off (or at least muted the TV) because it's never good to get one's blood pressure too high, especially not that early in the morning. But I couldn't quite get my finger to reach the remote in time, it was one of those car-crash impulses where you can see the flashing lights and a bit of the twisted wreckage coming up ahead and you know you should look away but you just can't help yourself.

So during Rush's segment--there he was, wearing some kind of Viet Cong black-pajama getup, or maybe he's just finished practicing some Kung Fu on liberals -- spouting off on this and that, and then the reporter asked him to play some word association. She gives a name, and Rush is supposed to give his first reaction.

I'm gonna paraphrase some because I don't remember the exact words:

Barack Obama: Disaster. OK, no surprise there.

Michelle Obama: Rush gets all cute and belittling and says "garden." Because, yuk yuk, she planted a garden at the White House. You card.

So far, so good. I mean, I certainly wouldn't expect him to say anything positive about Barack Obama.

George W. Bush: something like, the most decent, real person you'd ever want to meet.

Screw you, Rush. Screw you and whatever brain the OxyContin binges left you with, you preening, bloviating, smug, overpaid windbag.

There was your chance, your chance to show some small glint of objectivity, and you just passed on it. Because that's the right-wing way: never, ever admit, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that you were even the slightest bit wrong.

Say nothing about the sad state of the economy after W's watch. Nothing about the garbage like line-item vetos, maniacal expansion of executive privilege, and disregard for Consitutional rights. Nothing about the federal inepitude typified by the response to Hurricane Katrina. Nothing about the absurdly ballooning deficit. And certainly nothing about not one but two wars that are both ill-conceived and very possibly unwinnable.

Are we still looking for WMD's in Iraq? No? What's Rush's response to that? Wasn't that why we invaded in the first place? What's that? Saddam Hussein didn't have any, you say? There was no clear and present danger to the United States? He wasn't in league with Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda after all? Hmmm...well, it doesn't matter. Because George W. Bush is real, dammit! And he's nice! And down-to-earth! And...

Oh, I can feel myself slipping...I didn't want to, but here I am, falling down the rabbit hole.

Why do I hate Rush Limbaugh and his ilk? Because they're stupid. Because they're blind. Because they just want to sit there and beat their tin drums all day long and even though they're stupid and blind, a lot of people still seem to pay attention.

Look, I voted for Barack Obama (and John Kerry before him, and Al Gore before him, and Bill Clinton, too, twice).

What grade would I give Barack Obama as president so far? A low B. But because of the curve created by the plateful of shit the previous adminstration left with their hawkishness and greed and cronyism and inepitude and myopia, he might really only be around a C-average President so far. He's gotten some stuff right. He's gotten other stuff wrong. He isn't perfect. I look at him and I see some strengths, but I also see some real weaknesses that he should--and hopefully will--address.

But I don't see George W. Bush. I don't see a stupefying lack of curiosity and bull-headed stubborness. I don't see klutzy mush-mouthed, malpropism-riddled speeches.

Let's play word association:

Barack Obama: decent, but still has much unrealized potential.

George W. Bush: fool.

Rush Limbaugh: asshole of the first degree.

I feel a little bit better.

Monday, October 5, 2009

I'd Be Too Afraid That the Coffin-Shaped Light Rigs Were Gonna Fall On Me To Play, a.k.a:

Is It Possible To Get a Hangover Just From Music?, a.k.a:

James Hetfield Looks Like Gregg Allman Now (Well, Kinda)

You've gotta love Metallica, and if you don't, you've gotta respect their steadfastness: with the exception of a strange dalliance with eye makeup* back in the 1990s and the fallow period of St. Anger while they were weathering a personnel change and James Hetfield was getting sober, they've pretty much stuck with the same recipe for over twenty-five years.**

I saw 'em last night on the second leg of their Death Magnetic tour, and ten hours after the last double-barrelled shotgun guitar blast I'm still a little confused and stiff about the head and shoulders. But that's what you sign up for when you go to see Metallica.

They're older now, sure - Hetfield does bear a certain resemblance to Gregg Allman, at least from a distance, all gray-bearded now and everything, and Lars Ulrich is almost bald (I think but am not sure that Robert Trujillo, the bassist who replaced Jason Newsted, is somewhat younger than the core group, and Kirk Hammett appears basically ageless, which may or may not be due to some sort of Satanic pact), but my fourth full-frontal Metallica show was pretty much the same as the other three, maybe even a little more intense than the last couple. They were flat-out awesome as recently as 2000, still with Newsted, absolutely one of the best & most intense concerts I've ever seen. The Summer Sanitarium tour a couple of years later has to be graded on a curve because a) it was a stadium, and stadium shows almost always suck, and b) it was their first tour with Trujillo, and the lineup hadn't really meshed yet. The St. Anger tour was OK, but kind of uninspired because the band didn't even like the album they'd just put out. But you can tell they're happy with Death Magnetic - a lot of ink has been spilled about how it harkens back to the classic Metallica sound from albums like Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning, etc.--and they've even got giant coffin-shaped light rigs on the stage setup (plus some very Pink Floydy lasers, which were interesting) to prove it.

In all honesty, it's kind of odd for me to be seeing Metallica. I wouldn't call myself a huge fan of theirs, or even of metal music in general. The only Metallica albums that I own are the so-called "Black Album" and Load, both fairly latter-day in terms of the band's ouevre, and I hardly ever listen to either. Great chunks of output from their early trail-blazing days sort of bleeds together sonically for me, but that's because I've never really tried to make it stand apart - sure, I know "One" and "Seek and Destroy" and "Master of Puppets" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and maybe one or two more, but I don't own any of the albums they're on and probably never will. I just don't feel the need to put 'em on for recreational listening.

But live is another story. There's a certain genius in what they do, and last night's bill made it obvious. I got inside the venue right as the second opening act, a buncha long-haired yahoos called Lamb of God (oh, the irony), were thrashing out their opening set (the first warm-up was some outfit called Gojira, which I missed completely), and every single song sounded exactly the same. Exactly. Loud, fast, unintelligible lyrics, completely free of anything resembling a hook or melody, and absolutely as boring as shit. It's the exact kind of unsubtle stuff Metallica would do if they were about fifty percent dumber, and it's probably a lot like how Metallica first started out. But all of the guys in Metallica, depsite being complete drunkards, were too smart to stick with that for long, which is why they're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and why bands like Lamb of God will just grunt their way along the regional club circuit until one band member gets brought up on child molestation charges and another dies in a puddle of his own vomit.

Dig it, metalheads: melody isn't just for wussy shit. Melody doesn't have to be pretty; it can be bruising, but it's gotta be there. And if you go back and listen to early Metallica, you can hear some surprisingly complex rhythmic and melodic ideas at work in there, and some real ambition, too.

Fame and riches may have dulled a great deal of Metallica's ambition by now (let's be honest, it's a litle silly for forty- and fifty-something dads to be putting out albums called Death Magnetic with song titles like "My Apocalypse" and "Cyanide"). But the fact that they ever had ambition in the first place is the reason we're still talking about them today.


*To be completely fair, the Load era did yield at least a few good songs, like "King Nothing," "Hero of the Day," and the Mission Impossible II contribution "I Disappear," which by itself was better than the movie.

**After I wrote this part I realized I forgot the DVD they did with the symphony, the LA Philharmonic I believe it was, but that was really more of a one-off, "what the fuck, we're superstars and millionaires so we might as well try this" kind of thing, and it actually worked. Which is more proof that there's more to Metallica's music than just straight ahead power-chord fastballing.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Top Albums #7 - The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground + Nico

Year released: 1967

Tracklist: Sunday Morning, I'm Waiting for the Man, Femme Fatale, Venus in Furs, Run Run Run, All Tomorrow's Parties, Heroin, There She Goes Again, I'll Be Your Mirror, Black Angel's Death Song, European Son

There's an old joke about The Velvet Underground + Nico that goes something like this: "only a hundred people bought it, but ninety-nine of them started bands." The joke is meant to both tweak the album's lack of commercial success and laud its influence simultaneously. More than one hundred people bought it back in 1967 and the years since, but not millions more; ninety-nine percent of them didn't start bands, of course, but the weight of this record's influence on subsequent generations of musicians is obvious on almost every track. There's a reason that Rolling Stone magazine called it "the most prophetic album of all time."

Never mind not getting it: I didn't even hear VU + Nico until earlier this year. One day, I started to fully realize the generally sorry state of my rock n' roll classics resume - plenty of Pink Floyd, sure, and I know great chunks of discography from Zeppelin and the Beatles, the Stones and Who, but it's all piecemeal: I hadn't really heard the albums. I'd never really sat down with some of the true classics of rock and listened to them end to end, I'd just taken what radio was giving me. And there's a lot out there that's untouched, untapped, preserved, just waiting to be discovered - whole worlds of music, really, and a lot of them can be heard on this album.

In a lot of ways, it's album about masks, about deceptive appearances. It also may be the most New York rock album ever made. Some of The Velvet Underground + Nico is pretty straightforward stuff--the Berryesque blues stomp of "Run Run Run," for instance--but throughout most of the album's other tracks, lyrics hide under cover of rhythms and melodies that suggest something completely different. "There She Goes" could be any up-tempo 1960's pop-rocker about a girl, but it could also be about a hooker with a drug problem.

Off the bat, the lulling, idyllic "Sunday Morning" seems to promise an album of calm, sunny pop--after all, what's more peaceful and inviting and calm than a Sunday morning? But there's already something underneath, the restless feeling described upfront in the lyrics, the hints of wasted opportunity, the feeling of suspicion and paranoia ("Watch out, the world's behind you"). It may be the most gorgeous despair on record.

That prettiness gives way the surging urban grit of "I'm Waiting for the Man," the first of two songs to directly address heroin addiction, a vividly seedy ballad of a junkie going for his score, bedecked with gallows humor. I don't know where 125 Lexington is, but after hearing this song, I felt like I did--and it's not a nice place at all.

The campy, vampy Nico makes her first appearance on the third track, making the word clown sound like clan on "Femme Fatale," a beautifully strange little ditty that hints at some of Lou Reed's doo-wop influences in its chorus. Nico is a bit sunnier later on in "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "All Tomorrow's Parties," but there's still a cold imperiousness to her delivery that's really fascinating--it sounds more like she's giving orders to subordinates than actually singing. It's just another example of the record's genius--in context, you can see how inspired Andy Warhol's pairing of the singer with the band actually was.

Song four, "Venus in Furs" is a groundbreaking paean to S&M that's so truly unsettling in its suggestive lyrics and off-kilter instrumentation that I was originally hesitant to listen to it twice. But now it feels just like a bad habit, something that you know you shouldn't enjoy but that you can't stop loving anyway. Almost as unnerving is the perilous psychofolk of "Black Angel's Death Song," in which Lou Reed's delivery may be parody or tribute or both, accented with screaming viola and instrumental flourishes that sound like a hospital respirator, suggesting a life in crisis, on medical support.

The crown jewel of The Velvet Underground + Nico is "Heroin," the epic, seven-minute ode that's the greatest drug song of all time. Reed is said to have patterned the song, with its crests and breaks, after the ups and downs of a heroin rush. Many have tried, but no song before or since has so eloquently portrayed the junkie's plight, so evocatively painted the abandon and surrender, the self-loathing and self-delusion, the push-pull of addiction.

The Velvet Underground. They were weird, hip art-pop operators that foresaw punk and grunge and noise rock, that forefathered all manner of alternative avenues, many of which are still being explored today. Most of the ninety-nine bands that were first spawned by this album never made it out of the garage, and those that may have are long defunct. But the record's still there, waiting to shine its black light in the corners that rock radio doesn't often show you. There's dirt in there, and some scary stuff, but there's also some incredible possibilities, as big as the city that spawned the album. The Velvet Underground + Nico will change your perception, if you let it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Alien Angels and Gay Straights

Within the past week, I watched two movies that could hardly be more different if they tried, unless you want to consider that they both featured Best Actor Academy Award winners: Knowing, with Nicolas Cage, and Milk, starring Sean Penn (who, in addition to the Oscar he won for Mystic River, picked up one for this, too).

Now, Nicolas Cage has taken a lot of heat for the roles he's played since winning Best Actor for Leaving Las Vegas. A quick sampling: The Rock, Con Air, City of Angels, The Wicker Man, and Ghost Rider. All pretty bad movies that he wasn't particularly good in. In fairness, he was actually really good in Adaptation, and he also made a movie called The Weather Man which was OK.

But if you have a chance, take a look at the size of Cage's filmography: a fairly whopping 62 credited actor roles according to IMDB, 24 or so of those since winning the Oscar; another dozen producer credits. Now, maybe he isn't doing that much to earn those producer credits, but the point is obvious: the man works. Even if he's sold his soul and makes crap now.

The great underground film critic Vern said that he didn't really like Knowing until he realized how crazy and subversive it was, especially for PG-13 mainstream Hollywood movie. Now, I have to say I didn't really like it at all, but I agree about the crazy and subversive part: this movie has the balls to go for one of the battiest climaxes you'll ever see in a big-budget star vehicle, and deserves quite a few kudos for that.

The plot concerns a time capsule that's buried in front of an elementary school and then dug up 50 years later. It turns out that one of the items in the time capsule, put in by this creepy little sad-eyed girl, is a sheet of paper covered entirely with what appear to be random numbers. Except that when they open the capsule and Nicolas Cage's kid gets that piece of paper, he realizes that numbers aren't random at all: they actually predicted every major disaster of the previous fifty years. We learn this because even though Nicolas Cage guzzles whiskey by the glass he manages to stay up all night and crack the code without passing out.

(If I seem a little like a smart-ass for saying 'Nicolas Cage' all the time instead of the character's name, it's because I don't remember the character's name - John -something - which is kind of an indictment of the movie, to be honest. But also, it doesn't really matter what the character's name is, does it?)

I don't want give the ending away because it's not nice, and besides, this post is dragging on and I haven't even gotten to Milk yet - but let's just say, that where a lot of S-F movies with this high of a concept might lose their nerve and decide to play all ambiguous at the end and cop out, Knowing definitely does not cop out. It goes absolutely for broke, and whether or not you're laughing (or kind of smirking, in my case) at the alien angels and bunny rabbits and floating rocks at the end is up to you, but you can't deny that they went for it. And I think that's kind of good. Where a lot of movies might've pulled some deus ex machina trick of an ending to totally knock the movie off the track it clearly has been heading in for its entire running time, Knowing doesn't. You might say it skips the machina and gives you the straight-up deus.

Onto the other half of one of the weirdest double-bills ever, we have Gus Van Sant's Academy Award-winning biopic Milk, the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected in the United States. I only feel a little bad for saying that I was afraid at first that the movie was going to be too gay for me.

Too gay as in, too gay. It's not especially graphic, but there's a good bit of kissing in the beginning, and speaking of going for it, Sean Penn and James Franco did--they don't even use stand ins or lighting / camera tricks, it's all pretty up front.

Now I realize that it sounds petty and homophobic and mean to call out a movie for guys kissing guys, and maybe what I'm about to say sounds like a denial of a closet case, but sorry, I just don't roll that way. Make of that what you will, but I know what it means. Men kissing men is just not something I'm used to seeing but I think it's OK because I was able to get over it and finish the movie, even if my squeamishness returned briefly during some shadowy nude wrestling later on.

I don't like it, it kind of grosses me out, really - but psst, there's gay sex probably going on within a mile radius of where you're sitting right now, like it or not.

And homosexuality doesn't offend me nearly half as much--nearly a third as much, or a tenth as much, really -- as people who try to tell other people how to live. Now that I fucking outright hate. I could actually hold up a sign and demonstrate against that. Homosexuality? A mild distaste. A little skeeviness. Slight turning of the stomach, based on how flamboyant it is. That's it.

Consenting adults ought to be able to do whatever the hell they want to do behind closed doors, as long as it's not hurting anyone. Let 'em make love to dogs, for all I care (well, unless the dogs don't want to). That's just the way it should be, and there isn't a right-thinking person in the entire world who feels differently.

Now, about this movie Milk - Sean Penn really was great in it. I'm not that familiar with the real Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978, but this is certainly a very different Sean Penn from any I've seen before. In last year's Best Actor race I was kind of in favor of Mickey Rourke over Penn because I thought his win would make a better story--Rourke was a guy who had flushed a once-promising career completely down the toilet, and here he was, up for an Oscar. But I have to admit, having seen both The Wrestler and Milk now, I think Penn was better.

And after awhile in the movie, a funny thing happened: I didn't really care that it was about homosexuals. It was just about people who fought for a just cause, and even though it was pretty much based in fact, I found myself rooting for Milk and his friends to defeat the proposition against gays (or whatever the hell it was, I wasn't exactly clear -- but it doesn't really matter).

And they did, which makes it an even better story, but Milk did wind up dead, too, shot by some closet case of a fellow politician, and the coda of the film, after his death, is actually pretty moving.

But I started to wonder, though: how come all of the gay parts in Hollywood (or just about all) are played by straight actors?

There's considerable impirical evidence that Sean Penn is straight, and I'm pretty sure that James Franco is too. Now both the director (Gus Van Sant) and writer (Dustin Lance Black) are acutally gay in real life, but the guys portraying the two main 'gay' roles actually aren't.

I wonder if gay people mind that?

There really seems to have been a turning in America lately. Just a couple of decades ago, it was big news when someone came out of the closet. It was big news when it turned out that Rock Hudson was gay. It was big news when Ellen DeGeneres came out, too.

But now? Doogie Howser, MD came out of the closet - Neil Patrick Harris - I pretty much think that the general consensus was OK, whatever. American Idol had this pretty-openly-gay-without-actually-saying-it runner up Adam Lambert (who finally did say it, actually) and it wasn't a big deal at all.

Now, I know there are still plenty of gays out there who haven't come out, and won't, because they're afraid to--there's a significant scene about that very issue in Milk--but in general, this seemingly collective shrug, at least by the majority of America, suggests a pretty big turning in the country--and one that, if actually laid out and examined on a timeline, has come up pretty quickly. It means people are generally more open-minded than they were twenty years ago, and if this keeps up, we might have weeded out just about all prejudice (or at least the really nasty ones) in the gene pool within the next forty or sixty years.

Yeah, OK, probably not. But there's hope. And like they said in The Shawshank Redemption, hope is a good thing.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

On Diablo Cody

You can sue me if you want (I don't have that much), but I kinda liked Juno.

It wasn't perfect, and it was mostly carried by the performances. The script rang completely hollow and false in spots, and tried way too hard to be quirky-cool in others. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. I don't remember the other scripts it was up against, but I don't recall feeling any particular outrage at that victory because the end result was a pretty enjoyable movie.

That script and its Academy Award victory launched Diablo (I've heard her real name but I don't remember and don't care) Cody's career as a screenwriter. Now she has a TV show ("The United States of Tara") and a regular column in Entertainment Weekly magazine, and she's written a new movie (Jennifer's Body). She's gone from stripping for dollars to rubbing elbows with Spielberg.

You've heard at least a precis of Cody's story; she was a stripper ('coming up on the main stage, three songs with...Diablo!") and then turned to writing, wrote the script for Juno, sold it, and starting turning up on Oprah and elsewhere; suddenly a small but vocal contingent soured on her because she got too popular and started sniping at her work on Ain't It Cool News and other web hangouts for the malcontent.

Like I said, I thought Juno was pretty good. I had some problems with the script, or at least the version of it that made it to the screen, but it had some heart and wit and told an engaging story. I think I read the dialogue get praised somewhere for its realism, but it wasn't real at all - it was an idealized reality, a shiny sparkling hyperreal image buffed up by Diablo Cody, with bits that rang sort of true and bits that clanged off of the truth like a basketball flung from half-court clangs off of the rim. But that's OK. It was fiction. It's no crime for fiction to reflect the truth as the writer sees it; that's actually fiction's entire job.

I haven't seen Jennifer's Body yet, but I don't think I'll have much of a chance because the box office isn't good. Early reports indicate it boasts that same wink-wink, nudge-nudge self-aware "reality" in its dialogue that Juno did.

Predictably enough, the same malcontents are all over this one, ripping the carcass to shreds, shouting "I told you so" at the underwhelming box office.

That's what you do when someone gets too popular: you pull the knives out.

Now I happen to believe that the majority of this backlash is simple jealousy. I don't know if Diablo Cody is a great writer; time will tell, I guess. I don't personally think Academy Awards necessarily attend greatness -- the list of great scripts that haven't won awards is far longer than the list of those that have.

But Diablo Cody, at least, had the discipline to sit down and create something. I don't know what breaks she got along the way, but success is usually only a product of some hard work and opportunity. Sometimes it's a 50-50 split between those two elements; sometimes it's 80-20 for hard work, and sometimes it's the other way.

But work has got to be part of it. Sooner or later, if you want the success, you've got to get off of your ass and do something. If you don't, the only thing you can do is take bitter potshots at those who did.

Patrick Swayze, 1952 - 2009

(I'm a little late with this. What can I say? Wife / life / home / kid / job - sometimes all of that stuff gets in the way.)

The only Patrick Swayze movie that I own is Point Break. I think I've seen all of Red Dawn by now, although I'm not completely sure of that, and I'm pretty sure I never sat down and watched it end-to-end. Ditto for Ghost. I've only seen chunks of both Road House and Dirty Dancing, although at least in the latter case it's mostly the more important stuff, the nobody-puts-Baby-in-the-corner stuff, and that's enough make me feel like I've seen the whole thing.

I don't have strong opinions on a lot of Swayze's filmography, but I do love Point Break. I love everything about it, really, even the stuff that unfolds after Keanu Reeves's Johnny Utah and Swayze's Bhodi know each other's secret identities and then they still act like they don't. I love it even though Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey look about as much like FBI agents as I do, which is to say not at all. I love the energy of it, the sheer delirious confounding implausibility of it all, even the cameo from Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a psycho surfer.

A big part of the reason that Point Break works so well, even though it really shouldn't, is Patrick Swayze's performance as Bhodi, the zen bank robbing surfer. As many others have noted in the wake of Swayze's death this week from pancreatic cancer, which he had been diagnosed with earlier this year, this performance in particular stands out in Swayze's career because of the actor's commitment to it, his apparent belief in this gloriously improbable character who really anchors the entire movie.

I happen to think Denzel Washington is the best actor of his generation. Now, I'm not going to suggest that Denzel Washington, a two-time Oscar winner, has that much in common with Patrick Swayze, except in one very crucial way: Washington never seems anything less than absolutely, postively, 100% invested in his performance, regardless of the movie, regardless of the role. From alcoholic Army Colonel to crooked narc to high-school football coach to time-traveling cop, Washington always, always seems committed. Now some his movies have been more successful than others, certainly, but I've never once seen Denzel Washington phone it in. A movie that he's in is going to have a certain quality just because he's in it, no matter what other factors may be working against it.

It sounds a little funny to call Patrick Swayze a great actor, but I'll tell you this: like Denzel Washington, he always seemed to believe. Even his goopiest roles, in Ghost and Dirty Dancing, resonate with a certain honesty and dignity that elevate the entire enterprise. You may not have liked his movies, but you couldn't honestly ridicule anything he ever did. He never seemed to give less than 100%, and he seemed to do so effortlessly. Those qualities have to be barometers of greatness - if they aren't, then nothing is. So, yeah - I know he didn't win many awards, but maybe Patrick Swayze was a great actor after all.

Time can be a great healer - distance and perspective can often shrink what once seemed huge. Someone who's fucked up as many times in life as I have has earned that knowledge for sure. But time can also be unforgiving, and when the curtain comes down, it's time to leave the stage whether or not you've finished saying what you want to say.

Patrick Swayze probably had more to say. He was only 57, well short of a full life. But what he did manage to get out there in this time moved people and will last long after his death, and that's a pretty damn good legacy. If you've got to go too young, you could do far worse than leaving behind a body of work that will continue to be watched and loved for many, many years to come.

I haven't watched Point Break in awhile, but I know this much: if it were on right now, I wouldn't turn it off.

Thanks, Patrick.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Is "Duplicity" Acid in the Face of Quality Film?

I don't know Clive Owen. He might be the greatest guy in the world, for all I know. He might be the kind of person who makes people say, "wow, there goes a real super guy." He's probably rich, and pretty busy - the guy's made 13 movies since 2004, which is quite a lot - so something keeps him getting hired, although damn if I can figure out what it is.

His good movies aren't good because of him -- Children of Men was good, because it had a cool, original idea, a great production design, a really well staged extended action sequence toward the end, and a shout-out to one of the best albums ever, Pink Floyd's Animals. Inside Man was pretty good because it had Denzel Washington and a decent little plot that kept you guessing, but anyone could have played Owen's role. Derailed stank because Jennifer Anniston is a terrible femme fatale and the central 'twist' was plainly visible a mile and half away. If anyone has ever seen King Arthur, The International, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, or Shoot 'Em Up, I haven't met them.

Point is, I look at Owen and watch him on film and see nothing more than a sorta-handsome-I-guess guy who delivers every emotion, every mood, from bemused indignation to tender romance, exactly. The same. Way.

And I have no idea whatsoever why Julia Roberts ever became a star. Where others see (or claim to see) etheral beauty and incandescent acting talent, I see a broad face and a huge mouth, and moderate-at-best range. I've liked her on film exactly once: when she was playing someone pretending to be 'Julia Roberts' in Oceans Twelve, a meta-celebreality joke that I'll admit worked for me. But even at around five minutes, that gag overstayed its welcome. In every other movie, in every way, I can only wonder why there was any fuss over her to begin with. Bland as a field of wheat.

Owen and Roberts were the two stars of a movie I watched the other night, Tony Gilroy's Duplicity, and as I watched and my indifference began morphing into contempt as the story elaborations unfolded, I thought for a second that I'd found the ne plus ultra of good movies gone bad. I say good movie gone bad because there's some talent at work here - Gilroy's first directing effort was Michael Clayton, with George Clooney in the title role, and even if that movie became way overrated, I liked it because it had a good story and good acting and was clever enough to portray Clooney against type, as a 40-something loser.

But it's no stretch to say I hated this one, hated its cuteness and patness and self-love for its own cleverness. I didn't like the characters or the actors that played them. I didn't like the winking and mugging and rancid stylistic tricks. Really, I didn't like anything about it. Oh, wait, I guess the cinematography was OK.

Gilroy apparently likes stories about powerful corporations and he really likes to have his movies unfold nonsequentially, because both Michael Clayton and Duplicity share those qualities. But Michael Clayton's timeline-trickery was reduced to an opening sequence that laid out certain parameters of story and then a flashback that moved everything to the point where the movie began: a circle, basically, and even though the movie would've been just as good if it had been told in a linear fashion, that technique at least didn't do any real harm.

It's probably a debit for Duplicity that Michael Clayton paid off so well--big box office and a ton of Award nominations--because that just encouraged Gilroy to go for broke in his next story about corporate greed, hip-hopping the narrative all over the damn place - six years ago, present day, three years prior, present, eighteen months earlier, etc. It's so damn tiresome and confusing (especially since the narrative is shifting geographically and introducing new characters left and right at the same time, too) and pointless, the worst kind of "just-because-I-can" trick that adds nothing and feels like a filmmaker jerking off, like almost every Quentin Tarantino effort outside of Pulp Fiction.

It's also a damn shame that the Oceans movies of Steven Soderbergh paid off so handsomely, because Duplicity is rife with the little stylistic flourishes that were all over those movies too, all of the split screens and grating wanky-hip soundtrack. This isn't a movie, it's pasteurized-processed cheese product disguised as a movie, corporate crapola about, well, corporate crapola.

Sorry, Tony - you're not a bad writer, but why don't you change subjects and just tell a story, a straightforward, linear story? I bet it'd be pretty good, or at least better than this bullshit.

Oudin Adieu

Well, that's that.

I'll admit, I got a little caught up in the Melanie Oudin hoopla at the US Open. I still like tennis, even though I don't play anymore. Maybe my fascination was because of the local connection. Maybe because she's American. Maybe it was the string of improbably, come-from-behind wins. Maybe because she's cute. Maybe all of the above.

But a 6-2, 6-2 loss in the quarterfinals to some player I've never heard of before brought it all to a crashing halt last night. The feel-good sports story of 2009, at least so far, is now history and we've got to wait to see if Oudin makes any further impact on women's tennis, or if it's just a one-season-and-done, flash-in-the-pan deal for her. I'm still hoping not, but only time will tell.

In truth, Oudin killed herself more than the other player (I think it's Wozniak or Woznacki or something) did -- I watched a bit, and she was spraying shots all over the place, long and wide, losing point after point on unforced errors. It was pretty obvious from early in the match that she wasn't up to it. I'm sure fatigue had a lot to do with that.

She had her chances - a couple of break points early in the second set - but couldn't convert anything.

Now, some people are saying that Oudin got more buzz than the Williams sisters did when they first got on the scene, and that's because Oudin is white while the Williamses are black. I'm not really sure that Oudin got more buzz to begin with, because I don't really remember how much buzz greeted the Williamses - I recall it was a lot, but how do you measure such an entirely subjective thing?

Now, if Oudin did receive more adulation than Venus and Serena, that may be at least partially due to race. I can't deny the possibility, since Barack Obama's election has done nothing if not make the lingering racial issues in the US even more obvious.

But I prefer to think that if there really was any disparity in coverage, it was more due to the fact that Venus and Serena's father Richard is an wacko asshole--admittedly, one with some vision, but a wacko asshole nonetheless--and that Serena is a charter member of the Sore Loser Hall of Fame, but that's just me.

Then again, we just learned that Oudin's father is divorcing her mother because of her mother's affair with Melanie's tennis coach, so it isn't like everything is all cheery and proper and tidy in that family circle.

And there's the fact that even though she's only 17, Oudin oughta know better--and be coached better--than to get excited over her opponent's mistakes. It's obviously no formal violation of etiquette, but it's still really poor sportsmanship. If you hit an incredible winner, it's fine to get pumped up. But if you only get the point because your opponent hit the shot long or wide or into the net, that's no cause for celebration. You take the point and move on.

Same goes for the crowd, too. Cheering a double fault? That was embarrassing.

Well, anyway. That'll about cover tennis for a few months.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Current Coolness

A few things currently on the pop culture radar that make me happy, in no particular order:

Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer. Former NFL player-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman was a (perhaps unwilling) poster boy for an America united against terror, and his death in Afghanistan became a political and social football when the coverup about the circumstances came to light--after being posthumously cited for gallantry and even earning the Silver Star, one of the highest combat awards short of the Medal of Honor, his family's persistence forced the Army to admit that he'd actually been killed by friendly fire. It was a horrible tragedy and abuse of trust, but it's also brought about the perfect marriage of author and subject matter. Krakauer's Into the Wild and Into Thin Air are as good as any two nonfiction books of the last generation. The subject matter alone would make this a probable buy for me, but after I learned it was Krakauer behind the keys, Glory jumped immediately to must-read status so high, I'm even planning to break my usual prohibition against hardback purchases when it comes out on 9/15 (the closest release date to 9/11 - coincidence?).

Entourage and True Blood on HBO - I had all but given up on Entourage by the time of this season's (the show's 5th) premiere, and the first few episodes did little to change my thinking -- they felt stale, flat, forced. Once upon a time, the show was a nice, light palate-cleanser after the Sunday heaviosity of Six Feet Under, but then it became a phenomenon and almost immediately started to go downhill. But what do you know, it's gotten a lot better in the last few weeks -- the current Vince's-crazy-stalker storyline is the closest that this typically sunny-side up show has gotten to the dark edge of celebrity. I'm sure the plotline will be played mostly for laughs as it works itself out over the final few shows of the season--Entourage is primarily a comedy, after all -- but it's given the current season some bite that the show has too sorely lacked of late. As for True Blood, whose second-season finale hits Sept 13th, there hasn't been a quality show this batshit in-fucking-sane on any network in, well, maybe ever. The plotting is occasionally as wobbly as a bad shopping cart wheel, but the show as a whole is as pulpy and soapy and bloody and adult and fun as it gets, TB is the unholy offspring that resulted when Dark Shadows and Melrose Place hooked up and moved to the Louisiana bayou.

Football season - the sports doldrums between the final horn of March Madness and the first whistle of football season always bring me down, but this year I've felt it even more acutely than normal. Baseball gives you more games, sure, but it also puts me to sleep. But now that college football is in session with a ton of storylines already -- the power vacuum created by Oklahoma's sudden demise being the juiciest for the moment--and the NFL is hot on its heels, the good sports times are rolling once again.

Melanie Oudin - hailing from right here in Megacity 8, the teen tennis dynamo has reinvigorated the sport. Precocious, adorable, intense, and possessing some wicked groundstrokes, it doesn't matter if she gets any further in the US Open, she's already given tennis a sustained buzz after a pretty punchless season, aside from the Andy Roddick - Roger Federer final at Wimbledon (which was really more like an endurance test than a real blast, anyway). Bonus points: the difference in opinion on how to pronounce her last name--some commentators say ooh-dan, others opt for oh-deen. Whichever is right, she's a phenom.

Backspacer, by Pearl Jam. Anything new from my favorite band ever is a cause for celebration, I don't care if it's Eddie Vedder's spoken-word recitation of the latest Ikea catalog. This new album--the quintet's eighth studio set--promises punk-rock urgency (it supposedly clocks in at just 36 minutes) and already boasts two great new tunes, "Got Some" and "The Fixer." Now if I could only get them to tour the southeast, my life would be temporarily complete. No news on that for a moment, but I'll take what I can get.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

"State of Play"=generally OK

I'm no student of world cinema, but I know that Americans, at least, tend to love a good conspiracy theory on film. When a country is founded on insurgency and rebellion, it's natural for a strain of mistrust to remain encoded in the cultural DNA for generations to come. It may be less voluble from time to time, but it'll never go completely out of style.

State of Play, starring Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, and Ben Affleck, is 2009 model of the Hollywood paranoid thriller, and it sports a good bit more craftsmanship than most 2009 movies and actually feels like a throwback to when little things like plot and acting mattered a bit more.

It's not a bad movie overall. It didn't wow me, but I also didn't feel cheated. You can tell the movie was striving to be something that was a little out of its grasp. At the end of it all, you may very well be bothered by a lingering sense that everything doesn't wrap up quite as neatly as the filmmakers think it does, but that could also be because of editing.

Herewith are some points about the film, which I suppose will require me to divulge a few mild spoilers, but nothing about major plot points -- so if you're still considering a rental, you're safe.

WTF does the title mean? If anyone actually explained it during the movie, they slipped it right by me. Now, I know this was based on a BBC series of the same name that was apparently quite good, so maybe that show offered some explanation. But here, my suspicion is it just kinda sounded good so the producers figured audiences would you give it the benefit of the doubt. It does have a certain ring to it. The Parallax View. The Manchurian Candidate. State of Play. Yeah.

And you know, I dislike a movie that decides to be thuddingly obvious about its title, like Crash (where Don Cheadle explains the significance of the title in the first two minutes) or As Good As It Gets (where Jack Nicholson says it to the camera).

So maybe this ambiguity is really a plus for the movie.

Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck as college roomies. Russell Crowe actually has about eight years on Ben Affleck in real life, and though they've made some attempt to make Affleck look a bit older in the movie, the idea of him and Crowe as contemporaries is a bit of a stretch.

But that's not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that the entire relationship, which is central to the movie, is a complete contrivance. One goes on to be a hotshot congressman, one turns into a shabby, sorta-skeevy journalist with bad hair and a gut. College roommates taking divergent paths after college isn't really that remarkable, I guess, but it just feels too neat and I don't really know why the characters had to have that much of a background. Crowe just could've been the old-school DC journalist who won Affleck's trust somehow, and when the big plot thing that happens actually happens and Affleck seeks out a journalist, Crowe could be the guy...OK, I'm thinking too much.

Oh wait - they had to have a relationship because there's this bit about Crowe having had an affair with Affleck's wife back in college that...really doesn't mean anything to the movie, except to add a layer of emotional complication that...doesn't provide any payoff and could've just as easily have been left out. Are we supposed to think that Robin Wright Penn would still be attracted to Russell Crowe even after he's put on thirty pounds and looks like he hasn't cut his hair since Woodstock? Hm.

On the plus side, about romances - they resisted the urge, at least in the final cut, to work in any sort of romantic angle between Crowe and McAdams, which was a good move. A lesser movie would've almost surely had them hook up at some point, or at least kiss. Now, Crowe seems to bond with the young reporter a little too easily, but that was at least tolerable.

In the final analysis - there aren't any really bad scenes in the movie, and there are at least a couple of good ones, including one pretty nice and suspenseful stretch that works even if it's hard to believe that Crowe's overweight desk jockey would be able to elude a trained killer. And the plot has some nice momentum and keeps you guessing.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a 7 or 7.5, which these days is actually pretty good. It's like being a .290 hitter in baseball -- not outstanding, but capable. If you've got four or five dollars to spare and you want a couple of hours' entertainment, consider State of Play worth a rental. I realize that's faint praise, but faint is better than none.

You might think the movie's a dog from the blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical run, but I chalk that up to 50% marketing, 35% not enough violence or sex, 10% people not being able to figure out exactly what happened at the end, and 5% people who still give a shit that Russell Crowe threw a phone at some guy once.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Top Ten Albums #8 - Lifes Rich Pageant by REM

Year released: 1986


Begin the Begin - These Days - Fall on Me - Cuyahoga - Hyena - Underneath the Bunker - The Flowers of Guatemala - I Believe - What If We Give It Away? - Just a Touch - Swan Swan H - Superman

The soundtrack to my high school years ran on 1/8th inch tape between two plastic reels inside a small plastic box, about the size of most cell phones today. CDs were still a thing of the future. We never imagined anything more advanced or possessing greater fidelity than the humble cassette tape. It wasn't that we wouldn't have wanted more, if we'd known it was possible - we just didn't know. We accepted tape's limitations as state-of-the-art.

Sometimes I heard tapes on a Sony Walkman, sometimes on a boombox, sometimes on a rattling, echoey car stereo with all kinds of exposed wiring and an add-on equalizer that did something, although I had no real idea what.

One day I happened across REM's "I Believe" on one of those cassettes, and my brain immediately said, "What's that?" It was one of those inner connections that gets made with an almost audible click in your head. Something about the song took me away to somewhere I'd never been. I believe in these types of profound yet spur-of-the-moment connections, just like Michael Stipe believes in "coyotes, and time as an abstract" (if that's really what he's saying) in the song.

It wasn't just the words or Stipe's delivery on that song that hooked me, it was the loping jangle of the rhythm and how it all worked together - a shambling but beautiful little handmade engine of a song that carried the flavor of the underground, a hint of a life off the beaten path.

I took a roundabout path to discovering more about REM - that must have been '87 or so, and my Pink Floyd mania was at its peak. I went back to Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, over and over and over, and REM fell by the wayside for awhile -- but I filed away that first taste for later examination. I didn't forget.

Just as my full appreciation of them took awhile, REM's career had a very slow burn. They stayed on independent I.R.S. Records (still the coolest logo ever) for their first five discs, and their commercial peak didn't come until after their sixth album. And although they have tons of great songs on either side of Lifes Rich Pageant, what thrills me so much about this particular work is how it captures the sound of an original band in transition, already accomplished but still reaching for something, confident but not yet complacent.

Stipe's vocals on this album are closer to the front than on previous records, far less cloaked and secretive, but still just as difficult to penetrate, just as wryly inscrutable right off the bat -- "A birdie in the hand / of life's rich demand / the insurgency began, and you missed it," is Stipe's gruff tee shot for "Begin the Begin," which isn't just the record's first track, it's one of the best. Throughout the album, the lyrics sport references to insurgency and colonialism and South American nations and bunkers and entities--corporations, presumably--that "buy the sky and sell the sky" ("Fall on Me"), hand-in-hand with other complex ideas, but the exact meaning of Stipe's lines and couplets is rarely ever completely clear, giving these songs and the record as a whole a beautiful, enduring extra life.

Flavored with nods to pop and guitar rock and world beat and bluegrass, the music is from everywhere and nowhere, a new point on the American musical map fixed by Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry. The last time I encountered someone who scoffed at REM's influence, I nearly fell out of my chair in disbelief - this was the band that launched a thousand others, that suggested new possibilities, that basically created what became known as alternative rock.

Life's Rich Pageant captured them at the height of their powers but still looking up. That's why it's a great record, a lasting statement--of both power and potential--by one of the truly great, original American bands.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Top Ten Albums, #9 - The Bends, by Radiohead

Year released: 1995


Planet Telex - The Bends - High & Dry - Fake Plastic Trees - Bones - [Nice Dream] - Just - My Iron Lung - Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was - Black Star - Sulk - Street Spirit [Fade Out]

Once upon a time, before they were the saviors of modern rock or their generation's Beatles or whatever other superlative has been placed upon them, before too many viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey made them all arty, Radiohead was just five guys from Oxford, England with a lot of guitars and a love of noise.

I've always had a fondness for their 1993 debut hit "Creep" because it was the last video I saw on US MTV before leaving for a year in Korea. Since that journey was really my first step into true adulthood, I'll probably always remember that day with more clarity than a lot of surrounding others. And "Creep" is a good song, too - there's that pretty, lilting, arpeggiated intro, and that repeated stuttering power chord that feels just like a creepy geek smashing his fist into a door or wall in frustrated rage over the girl he can't have.

The Bends, their second album, has little aside from some weird squiggly drawings and off-kilter typesetting in the CD booklet and a few guitar effects here and there to suggest the sharp left turns and outright artistic leaps that Radiohead's music would take in still-to-come sets like OK Computer, Kid A, and especially Amnesiac, but it's also their most cohesive and approachable record, with the most consistently high-quality set of songs from start to finish - all killer, no filler. So maybe nothing on The Bends is quite as jaw-dropping as the one-two opening assault of OK Computer's "Airbag" and "Paranoid Android," but The Bends also doesn't wander nearly as much as Computer does.

The chill electronic wind that opens "Planet Telex" recalls Pink Floyd's transition from "Wish You Were Here" into the last half of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" on Wish You Were Here, and I think Radiohead might've once been tagged as a Pink Floyd heir or successor because of their spacey side, but Radiohead has also always been noiser, more opaque, and less bluesy than Floyd.

While there are mopey, blackish post-Grunge titles like "Sulk" and "My Iron Lung" on The Bends, Radiohead rip into the album with pretty much straight up rock gusto - the title track is a big ole wall-of-guitars anthem that even sports a lead, and Thom Yorke actually sounds kind of amused by it all -- the burden of being a rock star doesn't seem to have hit him yet. The angst doesn't really take hold until the 3rd and 4th tracks, "High and Dry" and "Fake Plastic Trees," which are also two of the best songs on the album - particularly "Trees," which lopes along all hushed and downtrodden until Yorke's anguish and frustration boil over right around the 2:40 mark and the guitars climb to a swarming wall of hornets. It's one of the best moments on any rock album for the past twenty years.

The most rocking spot of The Bends is the jangling, ringing 3:09 of "Bones" in which Colin Greenwood 's bass assumes an unusually prominent role and Yorke makes like Michael Stipe; when he sneers "I used to fly like Peter Pan," it's not in the least bit silly.

"Street Spirit [Fade Out]" brings The Bends to a hushed, funereal close, appropriate after the gorgeous noise overload of the previous eleven songs. As Yorke moans about "rows of houses / all bearing down on me," the music swells and crests before finally just rolling to a stop, like a car running out of gas. It's a beautiful climax to an album full of beautiful moments, a fitting capstone to Radiohead's suite of carefully orchestrated abandon.

While OK Computer and Kid A may have been the albums that brought Radiohead to mass awareness, it's really The Bends that first showed they could be more--much more--than a one-hit wonder. For Radiohead conoisseurs, it's far from a throwaway record, even though it may seem a bit out of place against the bulk of their later output, because so much of what continued to evolve (and continues to evolve still) started here. The Bends, moreso than their debut, Pablo Honey, was the definitive opening statement of a band with places to go and the drive and talent to get there.
For the rest of us, it's worth celebrating on its own, a gleaming-dark jewel of guitar rock perfection. It's the kind of album that energizes you, that feels like a new discovery almost every time.

Monday, August 31, 2009

funnybooks revisited.

When I was a kid, I read comic books. I probably should've been playing sports more, but oh well.

I was a reader, not a collector. Sure, the idea of the comics that I bought being someday worth money was as cool as it would be to any capitalist kid, but I wasn't very interested in keeping them in special UV-resistant bags on acid free board in a cool, dry place. I wanted to read them, and then read them again. If the colors flaked a little around the staples or the pages got creased or the spine started to roll, too bad.

Marvel and DC were the two biggest publishers and probably still are today - sort of like the Democratic and Republican parties or the Coke and Pepsi of comics. Sure, there were some independents, but Marvel and DC pretty much sucked all of the air out of the room. I was into Marvel--Superman and Batman were classic characters even then and cool, but something about DC seemed too plain, too formal, too staid for my taste. Marvel just felt more hip, more cool, more energetic, more alive, more willing to take a chance, edgier. DC was a little too square.

Marvel had cooler characters - Frank Miller's Daredevil was my favorite, followed by the Avengers, then the X-Men. My discovery of comics came just as John Byrne's run as artist on the X-Men was winding down with the Dark Phoenix saga -- that's right, a saga--and he was white-hot, easily one of, the premier artists in the entire industry. Just a few months after ending his stint on the X-Men, he took over as writer and artist of one of Marvel's flagship titles, the Fantastic Four, dubbed--with typical Marvel bombast--"the World's Greatest Comic Magazine" (notice the use of the more sophisticated "comic magazine" instead of "comic book." Stan Lee may not have been the greatest writer ever, but he was one hell of a promoter). But around the time that my interest in comics peaked, the FF was running on vapors, trudging through uninspired stories and artwork.

Putting John Byrne on the Fantastic Four was one of the smartest things Marvel ever did and couldn't have happened at a better time. He completely reinvigorated the book, made it relevant again to comics readers, recharged it -- all by going back to the roots of it.

I'm rereading Byrne's FF run now, thanks to the "Marvel Visionaries" (again with that hyperbole) trade paperback series, full-color reproductions of comics that I haven't read in almost three decades but remember like yesterday -- Doctor Doom, Galactus, the X-Men. Frankie Raye. Ego, the Living Planet. Quicksilver and the Inhumans. Byrne gave the FF back their cosmic reach while staying focused on the four-character core. This is back when comic books were 50 or 60 cents an issue, $1 for the occasional double-sized edition, not the $2 or $3 or more they routinely are today.

The artwork is rock solid, superbly detailed when necessary for the right sense of scope, full of Byrne's typically sensual curves and smooth dynamism. The stories have aged surprisingly well -- they have the feel of an overarching vision and Byrne was deft with his storylines, unafraid to plant plot hints that wouldn't be resolved for an issue, sometimes two or three. Sure, some of the action is cheesy and there are thudding in-jokes and the dialogue is pure corn syrup in places, but that's forgiveable. It's comics, after all.

I liked to draw when I was a kid, and I suppose I wasn't completely without talent. Once upon a time, my dream was to become a comic book artist and writer myself, following in the footsteps of Frank Miller and John Byrne and others. I couldn't grasp a more fulfilling career than to sit around drawing the amazing adventures of superheroes all day. I had hundreds of comics and even How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which showed you how to break down items like handguns and airplanes and cars into a series of geometric shapes and how to draw figures and faces and how to portray action in that Marvel style. It even went into inking and coloring and lettering. It was a really cool book and I fooled around with it for a few years, even developing my own crude comics, a super-hero team called "The Victors" and a lone adventurer named "Captain Canadian," stolen almost totally from Byrne's own Vindicator character from a series called Alpha Flight.

But my comic book career never went anywhere because I didn't try hard enough. I could try to blame my parents for not supporting me more, but that would be a cop-out. They gave me drawing tables and pencils and pens and art lessons and all kinds of other support that I was just too callow, like most children of that age, to recognize for the gifts they were. It all comes down to me --the fact that I didn't want to sit up in my room drawing for hours and hours on end, learning and honing skills, just proves that I didn't want it badly enough. It's a shame, really. If I could turn back the clock to when I was thirteen or fourteen, maybe I'd force myself to work harder at it, to really try to make a name for myself there, but it just wasn't in me.

Alas. But I'm enjoying these comics from my youth, at least. I feel a little bit self-conscious reading comics again, and writing about it, to boot - but what the hell. Good stories are worthwhile, and it's nice when, every once in awhile--sometimes a great while--nostalgia doesn't let you down.

My Top Five comic-book artists:

1) Frank Miller - Daredevil, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
2) John Byrne - X-Men, Fantastic Four
3) Walt Simonson - Thor, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Alien: The Illustrated Story
4) Mike Golden - The 'Nam, ROM: Spaceknight, The Micronauts
5) George Perez - The Avengers, The New Teen Titans

Friday, August 28, 2009

Where Have You Gone, Michael Myers? A Nation of Horror Freaks Turns Its Lonely Eyes To You

There's a new movie out this week called Halloween 2.

But it's actually the 10th, or maybe 11th, or maybe the 12th movie in the Halloween series.

A few years ago, director Rob Zombie decided to "reboot" the Halloween franchise. "Rebooting"--basically, starting it over with a bit of fresh spin--has become more and more popular in the last decade or so of Hollywood's collective creative bankruptcy, the primary idea being that it's easier to revisit a proven idea than it is to generate a new one. And so, a lot of once-profitable enterprises have been recently "rebooted" to mixed effect: Batman, Star Trek, & James Bond (yes!), Superman and Friday the 13th (meh), the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (who cares).

Michael Myers burst on the movie scene in 1978 as a quiet but bloodthirsty force of nature, a rare and brutal combination of power, endurance, and single-minded purpose: to kill a bunch of teenagers. He was the template for dozens of others that followed, a paragon of implacable psychosis. Young madmen wanted to be him. They probably put posters of him up on their insane asylum walls. He was the face of horror before horror got too silly and self-effacing. If slasher films were football, he'd be that bruising fullback that no one could bring down near the goal line. If they were basketball, Michael was the Michael Jordan of mad slashers: he let his game do all the talking, and he was absolutely merciless.

Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Important to the genre, yes, and certainly influential in his way, but more like Doctor J. - a different era, a different player. Jason from Friday the 13th? He's a Kobe Bryant - highly effective, occasionally transcendent, but never enough of his own killer to get fully out of Michael's shadow. A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Kruger? He had potential in the early going, but he just got too silly in the long run, cracking too many jokes. Call him Derrick Coleman -- highly talented, but he just didn't respect the slasher-movie game enough.

It feels a little silly to call John Carpenter's original Halloween one of the best movies ever made, but in its demented, low-budget way, it's certainly one of the most effective movies ever -- a sharklike engine of a movie with only a very few basic goals. Halloween didn't set out to enlighten anyone, except perhaps in how effective a film can be on a limited budget. It set out to scare people silly, and for decades it was one of the leading players in that field. I clearly remember the giddy terror of that first viewing, in an edited-for-TV format, no less - it scared me and I loved it. I don't have my own copy, but I should. Every October, I check the TV listings for a showing somewhere, and I can usually find one. Of course, it's never as good as that first time, but seeing it again always lets me recapture just a little of that original thrill. To this day, I can't think of five movies that have scared me more.

One of the best things about the original Halloween is that it didn't explain Michael. We never knew what drove him to kill, why he snapped one Halloween night and murdered his sister, and why he bided his time for fifteen years before escaping from the asylum at Smith's Grove to return to Haddonfield on Halloween night. We didn't know how he could survive getting stabbed and shot and keep coming. We didn't know and not knowing made him scarier, because the unknown is always more terrifying than the familiar.

It's understood that a "reboot," to be successful, needs to change the gameplan a bit. And some "reboots" are successful - Batman Begins proved there's still a lot of tread in the Caped Crusader's tires by taking a dead serious, noirish approach that hadn't been tried with the character onscreen. Casino Royale recast James Bond as tougher, more brutish than past screen incarnations, closer to how Ian Fleming originally intended - far more of a blunt instrument than we'd previously seen, and it worked in spades.

But Rob Zombie's Halloween made the critical mistake of explaining what should be left unexplained. Like the original, Zombie's version starts with Michael Myers as a child, on Halloween - but it took what was originally just a few quick strokes of prosaic, middle-class, middle-American upbringing that gave no apparent hint of shocking violence and madness and recast it into squalid, garish, grating white-trash hell, one of Zombie's favorite canvasses.

Michael's sister was still fooling around with her boyfriend on Halloween night, but his mom was suddenly a stripper who had to work instead of taking him Trick-or-Treating. His mother's boyfriend was a drunk, abusive lout who flung insults for sport and said fuck every other word. Michael was the target of bullies at school. His house was a rundown mess. And so on.

Zombie's Halloween is actually somewhat interesting for about ten minutes, while you're still getting acclimated to the landscape and before the trashiness of the characters descends into shrill parody. The scene where Michael stalks and kills (or at least savagely beats) a schoolroom tormentor is reasonably effective, if too long and needlessly graphic. Although scary as hell and Rated R, the original Halloween is largely a bloodless affair.

But by the time the drunken layabout boyfriend has uttered about his sixteenth f-bomb, it's painfully clear that all of the preamble that Zombie provides in his version has only the effect of neutering Michael, making him actually less interesting instead of more. Now, instead of a terrifyingly inexplicable force of nature, Michael's just a kid from a bad home.

The backstory of Michael Myers is far from the only mistake made by Zombie's version, but it's probably the most crippling one. Rob Zombie's Halloween, rather than provide any scares or thrills or relevant take on the material, enlightens us to the fact that some material doesn't need to be "rebooted," or at least that some directors aren't the right people for the job.

But this Halloween redux made enough money, apparently, at least with regard to cost, to demand a sequel, and now we have one -- Halloween in late summer, which is all kinds of wrong to begin with, and just shows how out of step this whole enterprise really is.

Now the first sequel to the first Halloween, Halloween 2.0, I guess you could say, wasn't any great shakes, tawdry and stupid and drawn out where the first was clean and lean and economical, so it's hard to see how this new Halloween 2 will be substantially worse. I'm sure it'll even make a nice little pile of money and there will soon be talk of a new Halloween 3, even though Zombie says this is his last foray with Michael Myers. Maybe someday we'll have a whole new set of 12 or 13 or 14 Michael Myers movies, but the kids today won't realize what Michael was like in his prime. Comparing Michael then to Michael now is like comparing 1990's Chicago Bulls Jordan with the Jordan who unretired a second time to go to the Washington Wizards. He looked pretty much the same, and had a lot of the same moves, but it just wasn't the same guy and we all knew it.

I'd rather watch the Halloween from 1978 again, even though I know every beat, even though every scare is telegraphed miles in advance.

Because the memory of what Michael Myers was is still miles better than who Rob Zombie says he is today.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Top Ten Albums - #10: Grace, by Jeff Buckley

Year released: 1994


Mojo Pin -Grace - Last Goodbye - Lilac Wine - So Real - Hallelujah - Lover, You Should Have Come Over - Corpus Christi Carol (For Roy) - Eternal Life - Dream Brother

I had this album for years before I really got it -- really, before I even gave it an honest chance. Back in those 90s alt-rock days before you could download singles and you had to buy a whole CD just to get one song, I picked this up in Savannah, Georgia on the strength of "Last Goodbye," the lone radio / MTV song. "Last Goodbye," with its dreamy-mournful slide and string break, was orchestrated like few radio songs I'd heard to that point, and all about swoony sacrifice and heartbreak. Having made a complete fool of myself romantically around that time, the song struck a deep chord and took me away to a place where I fantasized that I could actually turn the tables -- instead of the rejected, I could recast the whole overwrought scenario and become the rejector: "oh, you know it makes me so angy / 'cause I know that in time / I'd only make you cry / this is our last goodbye."

But the rest of the album? Too ethereal, too falsetto, just too far outside the accustomed rock album template for me at the time. Minimalist guitar, little percussion, the primary instrument was that voice of Buckley's, which even though I knew was amazing in its own right, I still couldn't fully appreciate.

When I heard about Buckley's death just a few years later, I recalled that I had the album somewhere, but I didn't go back to it then, or even for a few years afterward. It was actually the events of September 11, 2001 and a Leonard Cohen cover that unlocked the rest of it for me.

Some of the video montages that sprang up in the wake of 9/11 were scored to Buckley's version of Cohen's "Hallelujah," and while I'm not that familiar with Cohen's version -- I've only heard clips of it, I think, most recently during the movie Watchmen--I feel safe in saying that Buckley's cover outstrips the original quite handily. Cohen's lyrics are close enough to genius to endure, but when matched with Buckley's delivery, they border on incomparable. Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah," with its single lonely breath-intro and that cold, chiming guitar with a bridge that climbs away into the night like a fading memory, describes all of the beauty and sadness that come with lovestruck despair so fully that it becomes the song itself, one of those covers that so fully transforms and transcends the original--a la Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower"--that it is, in essence, the definitive version of the material.

Beauty and sadness - that's the whole album boiled down, really--largely contrasting ideas, here inseparable. And in the world that Buckley paints, it couldn't and shouldn't be any other way.

Key Tracks:

2. "Grace" - almost unnerving to hear Buckley, who died at only 28, sing "it's my time coming / I'm not afraid / afraid to die."

3. "Last Goodbye"

6. "Hallelujah"

9. "Eternal Life" - the album's most rocking track, and, per Buckley himself, an tribute to Led Zeppelin.

10. "Dream Brother" - combines with "Eternal Life" to close Grace on an up-tempo (if not upbeat) note, bringing guitar and drums closer to the fore, even letting them bear the load for much of the song's midsection.

Although a fairly significant archival material exists -- including much of the album that was in the works when he died, along with numerous outtakes and live material -- Grace is the primary output of Jeff Buckley's career. It's cold comfort, but ten years after his passing, worth noting to say that many lives have gone much longer without even approaching the highs that Buckely scaled with this one indelible collection of songs.

Next: #9 - Radiohead, The Bends

Friday, August 21, 2009

Top Ten Albums

I read a good article in the latest Rolling Stone about the last days of the Beatles, and that got me in a musical mood.

So over the next few weeks, I'm going to take each of my current favorite rock albums and give them a good spin and write about what I hear, reviewing them almost as if they were new releases. It's been quite awhile since I've heard some of them start-to-finish. Maybe I've forgotten some things. Maybe I'll hear something completely different. Maybe they'll rise on this list; maybe they'll fall off.

1 rule: no more than one album per artist.

Without further preamble, here is the list:

10. Grace - Jeff Buckley
9. The Bends - Radiohead
8. Lifes Rich Pageant - R.E.M.
7. The Velvet Underground + Nico - The Velvet Underground
6. Before These Crowded Streets - Dave Matthews Band
5. Everyday - Widespread Panic
4. Animals - Pink Floyd
3. Revolver - The Beatles
2. Yield - Pearl Jam
1. Superunknown - Soundgarden

Up next - part one...

Don't Mess with Beyonce

Once upon a time, some critics called the television show "In Living Color" the "black Saturday Night Live," even though it came on Sundays and wasn't aired live, on account of it being a comedy sketch show in which most of the performing cast was black. I'm not entirely sure, but I'll bet that label really pissed the creators of "In Living Color" off.

The movie Obsessed could be called "the black Fatal Attraction," and it probably was, because the media never met a convenient label it didn't like--just look at how many movies over the years have been described as "Die Hard on / in a bus/boat/airplane/house/etc." But in this case, I doubt there was any angst or fuss. For one thing, the comparison is to a 20-year-old movie that became a cultural touchstone and still holds up today; "Saturday Night Live" is a touchstone as well, but also a warhorse franchise with a decidedly checkered resume. And Obsessed is a profit engine, a highly calculated piece of work, not a scrappy comedy show looking to forge a unique identity on a fledgling network. Obsessed was designed to open in theaters in that late-winter-to-early-spring lull in most major studio release schedules, after the Oscars but before the summer blitz, a low-cost venture built to turn a tidy profit with a couple or three decent earning weekends. It's organized entirely to move characters to one particular scene, which I'll get to in a bit. If the comparison to Fatal Attraction got more butts in seats, I'd imagine the makers of Obsessed were all for it.

Obsessed stars Beyonce Knowles (hereafter just Beyonce) as the wife of a high-profile executive (Idris Elba) who learns that an attractive temp worker (Ali Larter) at her husband's company has developed a dangerous--maybe even fatal--ahem, attraction to her man. Now, this being a different film, Elba's character never succumbs to temptation, like Michael Douglas did in Fatal Attraction. But Larter's character still attempts suicide, and there's a bit where she menaces Beyonce's kid, and there's a climactic confrontation at the end. Then again, most of those same beats also occurred in Play Misty For Me, so maybe Obsessed is really the black Play Misty, except that there's no late-night jazz radio DJ and dewy soft-core interlude in the woods. After all, Fatal Attraction wasn't much more than a riff on Play Misty with a mid-80s corporate sheen.

It's never really revealed what Elba's character does for a living -- something to do with stocks or bonds or portfolios or something --but it's clear that he's successful, because he drives a sleek Mercedes and the house he shares with Beyonce is full of rich dark wood and his office is all bright glass and stainless steel and he wears nice shirts and ties. Elba, after being so good and full of cool, coiled menace as Stringer Bell for three seasons of HBO's The Wire, pretty much just plays a guy here, and you can't really see the role demanding much of an acting stretch, but you can't blame him for that; after elevating the role of the drug dealer so well on TV, he surely didn't want to go there, and it doesn't seem that there are a lot of other good parts for black actors out there outside of Tyler Perry movies.

So Elba is just a smart, hardworking, and successful dude who runs into the wrong woman--maybe he kinda/sorta leads Larter on, but it's also pretty clear that no one who wasn't already a psycho would ever go as far as she does.

Like much of the movie itself, this is all a lot of preamble--what really matters is the catfight, the sequence I alluded to earlier, the money shot. The movie has to have some build up to it, but it dispenses with the buildup pretty efficiently. In Fatal Attraction, you kinda thought that Glenn Close and her witchy black eyeliner actually hated Michael Douglas when they first met, but here you know Larter is into Elba right off the bat. And when it comes, the fight is pretty good, as far as these things go. Yes, it goes on way too long, and in typical movie fashion, both women sustain blows that would have put either in the hospital long before the climax, but there are a couple of really good flurries between Larter and Beyonce, and Beyonce even goads Larter on at a couple of points, and I'm sure a lot of audiences ate that up. And it doesn't take itself as seriously as any part of Kill Bill. If catfights are your thing, this movie probably deserves a place on your shelf.

And give the writers some credit--I was almost certain that the mirror that happens to be in Elba and Beyonce's bedroom ceiling was gonna come into play at some point, maybe in a dream sequence in which Elba looks up at night and imagines himself in bed with Larter, or maybe somehow in the final fight with Larter getting showered in falling glass from it, but that never actually happens. Maybe in the Director's Cut.

The acting is OK, nothing special, but there really isn't much that actors can really do with roles this transparent. Beyonce was in Dreamgirls I think, but I don't really remember--all I really remember of that movie is its crazy split personality and abrupt shift from musical biopic to full-blown musical. But while Dreamgirls was a prestige grab that wound up working better for Jennifer Hudson than it did Beyonce, Obsessed is just a disposable sorta thriller, and she comes out no worse than unscathed. In fact, none of the cast (including Jerry O'Connell in character actor mode) embarrasses themselves, except for Larter, but that's because her character has to -- if she doesn't, there's no movie.

My first reaction to this movie wasn't positive, but in the end, I didn't hate it anywhere near as much as, say, Rob Zombie's remake / defiling of Halloween. While I won't look back on Obsessed with any particular fondness, I don't feel unclean.

And I learned that Beyonce can be one badass bitch when she wants to be.