Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reading Rainbow: Wilco: Learning How To Die by Greg Kot

Obviously one is probably going to be a Wilco fan if he or she is going to dive into this book.  As one who could be qualified as such, the book is pretty damn pleasing. 

For those of you whom the author's name does not ring a bell, Greg Kot is the co-host of music talk show, Sound Opinions, and the music critic at the Chicago Tribune.  If you are familiar with his work, then you would not be shocked to find that Wilco: Learning How To Die is a thoughtful look at Wilco as one of the bands that sprang forth from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo to become one of the most critically acclaimed rock bands of this past decade.

Learning How To Die essentially begins with Jeff Tweedy's childhood quickly getting into his work with Jay Farrar, first in The Primatives which eventually became Uncle Tupelo.  It is interesting to see the portrait painted of the unsure young Jeff Tweedy, and the elucidation of the dynamic between Tweedy and Farrar helps to frame the earlier Wilco releases, especially A.M.

From there, Kot works through the demise of Uncle Tupelo and through the early years of Wilco, showing Tweedy in many shades, not all of them flattering.  Flattering or not, though, Tweedy the Figure is a compelling one, and this makes for an interesting character study of sorts.  

Now most Wilco fans have seen the Sam Jones documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, and as such already have a pretty strong working knowledge as to what went into the recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, one could reasonably make the leap and assume that the last 50 or 60 pages of the book would be re-covering familiar ground.  Fortunately, Learning How To Die actually brings a little clarity to what had been a somewhat surprising and glossed over departure of a key figure in Wilco's rise, Jay Bennett.  In the film, Bennett is suddenly at odds with Jeff Tweedy in the mixing stages, and then he's out of the band.  Kot's painstaking work shows that Bennett had kind of been losing it in the studio, and that much of what Jim O'Rourke has been accused of doing by Wilco alt-country purists was actually off base.  Bennett had been layering track upon track upon track of material in the studio, and O'Rourke helped Tweedy strip down Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to its bare essentials.  The rest of the band's relief at Bennett's dismissal is also driven home. 

Wilco: Learning How To Die is a very quick read, and one that any serious Wilco fan should read, as Kot works in more than his fair share of music criticism, which is obviously his bread and butter.  His countless hours of interviewing and seemingly boundless access to the band make for an absurdly candid look at the band, warts and all.

(Weird video with a ludicrous intro/segue to follow)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Musicalia: Jónsi - Austin Music Hall - 10/26/10

Well, I definitely haven't been staying on top of things in the Musicalia department, as I never got around to writing about the Pavement* or Caribou** (thanks again, Luke Perry's Distant Cousin) shows that I saw, let alone my ninth time see The Drive-By Truckers, and that's just over the past month.

*Actually better than when I saw them on the Terror Twilight tour.

**First time I'd seen them as headliners.  Still great.  Weirdly felt very old at the show, which weirded me out because most of the crowd was in elementary school when Caribou was still Manitoba.

Speaking of not staying on top of things, this was actually the second time this year that TSLF and I had seen Jónsi, having traveled up to Lawrence in April to see the production when it rolled through the U.S. in the spring.  As described here by a better writer, that show was great.  Liberty Hall was definitely a better setting at which to take in the Jonsi show.  For starters, it was seated, even though the venue normally is not set up for this.  We were in the third row then.

Austin Music Hall is quite a bit bigger, and if you asked anyone who ever went to a show there, the sound is pretty shitty.  Yes, it was recently renovated, but I can guarantee you that acoustic tiling existed before the renovation. 

Aside from the difference in sound, there was also a difference between sets from April 22nd and yesterday, and I don't mean setlists.  The AMH physical set was missing a significant amount of set pieces from the earlier incarnation of the show.  This may not mean much to the lay person, but if you saw that previous version of the Jónsi show, hinted at here, the product at Austin Music Hall was going to leave you wanting.

Jónsi live show by 59 Productions from Jónsi on Vimeo.
Moving past the fact that last night's show didn't meet the absurdly high standards that one would have had if they'd seen the tour at a previous stop (I'd imagine this was a shortcoming that lies on the venue's shoulders, but it is also surely possible that some of the set has taken on casualties since April, which would be unfortunate), the performance was still pretty stellar.  Obviously if you're going to a Sigur Rós, Riceboy Sleeps, or Jónsi show, you have probably gotten past the potentially problematic aspects of the band, namely the made up language that much of Sigur Rós's material has been presented in.  Assuming you can move past that (I didn't have any problems), any show is going to be affective.  The sweeping epic post-rock is going to suck you in.  This time was no different.

Sure, half of the backdrop didn't come crashing down as the deer was eaten this time around, but when the storm hits in the encore, it is transcendent.  If a concert can give you that transcendent moment, even just one, I think generally the ticket (whatever the cost) was worth the price.  After all, isn't that really why we go to concerts?

To be swept away in the moment?

To have the music overpower us and forget about everything else? 

Regardless of the sparser arrangement of set pieces, the Jónsi Go tour will give you that.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Man on Film: Animal Kingdom

Under the misguided idea that this was a contemporary Australo-Western, I went into a "Katy's pick" not really expecting the film that I was about to see.  What Animal Kingdom ended up being was a dark as hell crime drama centered around a boy being re-introduced to the extended family that his deceased mother had tried to keep him away from.

While I am somewhat hesitant to liken films to other films within this space, this film does feel akin to City of God, with its young protagonist thrown into a world rife with violence.  Animal Kingdom is much smaller in scope than the Fernando Meirelles masterpiece, and J, Animal Kingdom's hero, is much less charismatic and endearing than his City of God counterpart, Buscapé.

The real strength of the film is in the supporting cast.  James Frecheville, the young lead, is (presumably/hopefully) called upon to play a character essentially in a daze.  As the film kicks off, his addict mother has overdosed, and he heads back to her family, a family of criminals.  It is those criminals who make the film compelling.

Joel Edgerton* stands out in his relatively brief time on screen as the immensely likable Baz.  It's is his character's presence that the entire film essentially hinges upon.  Without his charm, the Cody family (Baz is the eldest son Pope's best friend and partner)  is not one that can be empathized with.  While they are criminals, Baz, their leader, is such a strong presence that it is easy to root for the crew from the start.

*Recognizable to many (for better or worse) as Owen Lars from the abysmal Star Wars prequels.

This is important because once that element is missing, the rest of the family begins to unravel, and it's not pretty.  Once the shit hits the fan and the paranoia reaches a fever pitch, the brothers Cody begin to self-destruct fantastically.  J's coke-fueled drug-dealing uncle, Craig, implodes before our eyes, and Sullivan Stapleton does his best to channel Ray Liotta when making this turn.

The performance that really makes the film though is that of Ben Mendelsohn as Pope.  Pope's presence is an unnerving one.  A sociopath at his core, the danger Pope poses to everyone around him lingers in the air, tension building uncomfortably, released intermittently and randomly through outbursts only to build right back up again almost instantaneously.  Pope's desire to fit in with and ultimately be depended upon by his family and friends at first seems slightly pathetic but slowly this effort on his part shows evidence of his attempting to be a human--something he is in form only.  The chaotic energy he brings to the film is frightening, and Mendelsohn brings unhinged to a seldom-seen cinematic level.

I would also be remiss if I made no mention of the performance of Jacki Weaver.  The family had to get fucked up somehow, and it was her turn as the enabling mother who always wants to be in the middle of her boys' schemes and misdeeds.  Her willingness to do anything for her boys, no matter the moral implications, is ultimately what sets the stage for their demise.  As the movie progresses, her moral ambiguity gives way to a complete and utter amoral core, where she is willing to do anything to anyone to protect her sons, even if it means fucking her own grandson over. 

As Guy Pearce's Detective Leckie tries to protect J, he ends up throwing him to the wolves that are his family. That is where Animal Kingdom sets itself apart from the standard crime drama fare.  By the time, the end of the film rolls around the cub, J, either has to eat or be eaten.

Whether or not that particular element is intrinsically Australian (I'll refrain from stepping into the realm of cultural stereotyping, fun as I may find it to be), the film seems to be imbued with the lawlessness that we Americans tend to place upon the wild continent of Australia. There is a sparse, contemplative nature to the film that boldly compliments the narrative, a self-assured decision from the first-time feature-length writer/director David Michôd.  This is an impressive debut to be sure, and it leaves me looking forward to an Australian film that doesn't even exist--Michôd's follow-up to Animal Kingdom.

Oh, and I totally forgot how hot Laura Wheelwright was in this movie until I rewatched the trailer.
Ben Mendelsohn and Laura Wheelwright in Animal Kingdom
Katy would have been upset if I hadn't mentioned this.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tube Steak: The Most Important Question of Our Time

Is it weird to anyone else that David Spade is the new Orlando Jones?

Corollary:  Is it weird to anyone else that Orlando Jones is funnier than David Spade?

And, no, 7-Up, I do not want any of your product.  Your shit is gross and sucks Sprite's balls (and Grant Hill's by proxy).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Man on Film: Jackass 3D

When I expressed my intense interest in seeing Jackass 3D at work mere days before its release, my enthusiasm was met with an incredulous utterance to the effect of "Who would want to see that?"  My response was, "Everybody.  The first two opened at number one, and this one will too."

One record-setting weekend later*, one man stood vindicated.

*On its opening weekend, Jackass 3D became the largest October opening ever.
Since the 3D re-emergence began, the oft-mentioned/alluded to Chad, Mark, and I have joked about a hypothetical Jackass 3D, complete with the lewdest things possible, surely including a 3D teabagging.  Years passed in which we joked about the movie.  We talked about it so much that we began to believe it was going to be a reality.  Then came word that it actually happened, and just like with Piranha 3D, the sequel that made the most sense to be made in 3D was on its way.

Alas, there was no teabagging.  There was, however, plenty of ridiculously dangerous, asinine, and offensive stunts. 

In other words, Jackass 3D was predictably AWESOME. 

It is in everyone's best interest that I say very little about what lies within this film.  Know as little as possible.  Half of the enjoyment is in the surprise.  Well, that and the absurd lengths that these mostly affable* fools will go to for an extreme laugh. 

*I'm excluding Bam Margera from the affable crew, as he seems to be the only total dick among them.

There is a reason this movie opened huge.  Catharsis. 

Laughing is cathartic, and you'll laugh your ass off...  when you're not cringing or holding back vomit.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Man on Film: The Social Network

Despite the fact that David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin were teaming up on this project, I approached this film with trepidation.  The seemingly universal rave reviews for the film couldn't outweigh the fact that the movie was about Facebook, and I couldn't reconcile the subject matter with a world in which that could be good film.

Well, my world has been turned upside-down.  Sure, David Fincher was at the helm, but heading into this film, he spent the last ten years directing Panic Room, Zodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  With the exception of Zodiac, I've not even been compelled to finish two of his last three films.  Fight Club was released just over 11 years ago.  Fincher has hardly been riding a red-hot comet of success into this release.

I should have trusted my main man, Aaron Sorkin, to deliver the goods though.  Sorkin's track record as a storyteller includes being the show-runner for the first three-and-a-half seasons of The West Wing and the short-lived but wonderful Sports Night, along with writing the screenplays for The American President, A Few Good Men, Malice, Charlie Wilson's War, and at least one incarnation of the upcoming adaptation of Moneyball.

What the teaming up of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher equates to is a compelling, occasionally funny, not especially flattering portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg.  Somewhat surprisingly, Jesse Eisenberg churns out a pretty damn good performance.  His schtick has been wearing as thin as Michael Cera's, only his films have been slightly less appealing than Cera's (I'll pretend that Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist never happened because I've never seen it, nor do I intend to).  Unlike many, I found Zombieland somewhat tedious, as it had a 20-minute lull in the middle of what was only an 80-minute movie, and Adventureland was a forgettable movie that managed to squander the presence of Ryan Reynolds and cast the mouth-breathing dullard Kristen Stewart as the romantic interest.  The Squid and the Whale was solid, but it is not rewatchable and is largely carried by the misogynistic turn by Jeff Daniels and the sublime/unexpected brilliance of Billy Baldwin (whose bare ass has no doubt been inadvertently emblazoned in your subconscious if you've seen Sliver even once, as every male who was a teen when I was can surely attest to). 

Here, though, Eisenberg gets to stretch his legs a bit, wriggling out from under the Poor Man's Michael Cera rock.  Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is an aloof, socially retarded*, prick.  The legal proceedings and the dinner with Rooney Mara (the younger sister of Kate Mara as Erica Albright) are where Jesse Eisenberg's performance really sets itself apart from his previous turns.  Moreover, it enables this film to stand as tall as it does.

*That marks what is likely the first time in the history of Inconsiderate Prick that retarded is used in a quasi-clinically correct/semi-inoffensive way.  If anyone takes offense here, they can go fuck themselves.  For serious.

That isn't to say there aren't other performances of note.  Justin Timberlake builds upon a somewhat surprising résumé as an actor with a scene-stealing, magnetic portrayal of Sean Parker.  As Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Andrew Garfield seems to set a permanence to the trajectory of his rising star with the likeable, vulnerable, and innocent characterization of a Zuckerberg casualty. 

Perhaps the most out-of-the-blue performance was that of Armie Hammer (great-grandson of industrialist and art collector, Armand Hammer*) as twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.  Getting to play each twin as one pulled against the other when dealing with the early stages of their conflict with Zuckerberg allows him to show range and channel both restraint and anger.

*Yes, that's where Arm & Hammer came from.

So far, I've spent a lot of time talking about performances while speaking little to the film itself.  The narrative deftly shifts through time, gradually parceling out the invention of Facebook, interspersed amongst scenes of the legal proceedings that would eventually follow.  Freed from chronology, the film dances back and forth through time, giving glimpses of what is to come while still playing its cards close to the chest.  

At its center though is the polarizing Mark Zuckerberg, and The Social Network manages to leave the viewer unsure as to how they feel about the main character.  In a world of consisting largely of different shades of gray, this is refreshing.  Sure, it is hardly an exercise in flattery, but The Social Network is not a villification either.  Perhaps the film could have delved into the privacy issues inherent in the nature of Facebook, but the film likely focused on the more narratively compelling aspects of the genesis of the site, ranging from dubious origin to legal tiffs to the intensely flawed figure at the center of it all.  While the film may not have the reach or social import that it could, it seems like Fincher and/or Sorkin made the right call in paring it down to what happened behind the scenes at the inception of Facebook.

This left them with a supremely satisfying film--one that I was not anticipating being that way.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Musicalia: GAYNGS - Emo's, Austin, TX - 10/9/10

(Sorry about the delay on this post.  I started it early last week, when it would have been much more timely.)

After four EPTs, three First Responses, and a ClearBlue Easy Pregnancy Test, I can nearly categorically say that I am not pregnant despite my concerns after having taken in what was ultimately GAYNGS' last show* of their brief fall tour. I do have an appointment set up with TSLF's OB/GYN just to make sure, but I think that the supremely potent baby-makin' tunage that I took in on Saturday managed to miss impregnating my by some strange twist of fate, thus sparing me some serious urethral damage in nine-and-a-half months.  

*In a sordid tale, their gear was abducted and driven to Nashville in the dark of night as a possible result of non-payment for bus services--not taking sides here, but I know that playing a stage at ACL pays a fuckload, and they were surely going to have money to spend the next day on such things as tour buses.  It seems like cooler heads probably could have prevailed--as the owner of CJ Star Buses sketchily saw fit to stoop to responding to chat room baiting here, I have a hard time believing that any less than professional behavior on GAYNGS' and Nate Vernon's part were likely a response to similarly shitty behavior on CJ Curtsinger's behalf.  Who does Curtsinger think he is, the CEO of Whole Foods**?***

**What a douche.****

***I also got more of the story after having written that passage from a quasi-inside source, and it sounds like Curtsinger may very well get his ass handed to him in court.  That's all I feel comfortable saying right now.

****And, yes, I do expect "Rahodeb" to comment here shortly...

Now, I don't know about you, but when I wanna feel sexy, I've been throwing Relayted on since the instant I bought it.  How my entire apartment isn't reproduced at an alarming rate, I'll never know, but my TV can feel free to spawn a larger child any time now.  Needless to say, it's been a sexy past couple of months in my lair.

Luckily, this past weekend presented a chance to see what could well end up being the only tour that this smooth, saxy, early-80s-pop-loving supergroup.  Now, as someone who unironically owns albums by bands like Bread, 10cc, Prince, and Bruce Hornsby, GAYNGS is in my wheelhouse.  I was excited heading in, and my excitement was met with a fun as hell show.

Openers, Bear in Heaven started things off (for me at least) with their weird merger of dreamy rock and REO Speedwagon vocals that leant itself well to what was to follow, especially given its surely coincidental throwback to the decade that the GAYNGS project is reveling in.

Once GAYNGS took the stage, it was a blitz of classic prom night bliss and smooth, saxy pop.  For a taste of what the performance is like, a look at this performance video* should inform you.

*Filmed at First Avenue, where I have easily seen more shows than anywhere else in my life.  There are things that I miss about Minneapolis, and First Ave, for all its shortcomings, is one of them.  To bring everything full circle, Prince, whose fame came to its peak on the very stage in the video, was at this show.

Now maybe GAYNGS ain't your bag, but this show was fun as hell with covers of Sade, George Michael, and Alan Parsons Project sprinkled in with the songs from the album, which includes a cover of 10cc-off-shoot Godley & Creme's "Cry."  It might be too late for you to see the band in this form, as it is comprised of members of Bon Iver, Megafaun, Solid Gold, the Rosebuds, Rhymesayer P.O.S., Digitata, Doomtree, and more, all of whom surely have other musical lives and projects to turn back to.

Despite the fact that Relayted was probably a one-off, GAYNGS brought it like a band older than its years in the best way.  Knowing their love for the music drives the audience, the fun they had on stage was contagious.  There seemed to be a shocking lack of ego throughout the band, with the driving force behind everything, Ryan Olson, content to sit in the background, orchestrating the shindig from his laptop at the back of the stage. 

In short, the show was outstanding.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Man on Film: Piranha 3D

All right, first things first:  Does anyone else think it's ridiculous that the studio doesn't seem to acknowledge that the first two Piranha movies existed?

I can categorically say that the reason two of my friends (Chad and Peter, for you Austinite readers) were as excited as they were for Piranha 3D was that they were such big Piranha and Piranha 2* fans.  Why not exploit their fandom?

*Aquarena in the house!

Moving on...

Piranha 3D successfully executes what it sets out to do.  That is to make a trashy horror movie with tons of nudity and its tongue placed firmly in its cheek.  The cast is likeable.  The proper nods are made to the iconic films it owes a debt to, particularly the intro with Krippendorf.

Did I mention there's tons of nudity?

Oh, you want an example?  Well, Jerry O'Connell's* severed cock is eaten by a piranha, with the fish making its own slider.

 *And if for some odd reason, you harbor a soft spot for Kangaroo Jack, don't worry.  He is essentially playing the loathsome Ron Francis.

There's also a ton of Kelly Brook nudity.  I speak for humankind and probably a large chunk of the animal kingdom when I say that this is not a bad thing.

But what really works is that this film doesn't take itself even remotely seriously.  It is superbly cast with one glaring exception, its star, the charisma-less grandson of Steve McQueen.  Other than his utter lack personality or charm (think somewhere between Paul Walker in The Fast and the Furious and Chris Klein in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li*), the film is littered with a great supporting cast.  Adam Scott is woefully underused but still great.  Elisabeth Shue, in addition to still being very attractive, is spot-on as the local sheriff.  Christopher Lloyd is funny in what boils down to a cheeky Doc Brown cameo. 

*Witness the brilliance of Chris Klein here...

Ultimately, all Piranha 3D needs to do is entertain, and between ridiculous fish deaths and rampant nudity, it delivers.
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