Friday, March 30, 2012

Man on Film: 21 Jump Street

To say that 21 Jump Street is far better than one could anticipate is a gross understatement. The notion of a reconceptualization of the 80s series seemed harebrained at first glance and was certainly not one to get excited about. Knowing virtually nothing about Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs--and therefore nothing about the directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller--past the fact that it was a children's movie, it was hard to imagine this film being funny in any way past the most safe and saccharine way, even after seeing the trailers that at least pointed to a movie that might be all right. These expectations were way off.

21 Jump Street was uproariously funny. It was so funny that: a.) I am hard-pressed to think of a movie in the past few years that measures up comedically; b.) it elicited perhaps the loudest laugh I've ever had at the expense of a certain show on Fox; and c.) it left me hoping for another film soon.

Perhaps the most shocking thing of the whole endeavor is that Channing Tatum was unbelievably funny. I never thought the words "Channing Tatum was really great" would come out of my mouth, but sure enough when exiting the theater I couldn't help but utter those words. While hearing that Jonah Hill was pretty damn funny wouldn't shock the average person, Tatum was a revelation. Upon having been freed from roles calling for him to either dance or be a Roman centurion, he spreads his wings with aplomb. This isn't like his hosting SNL, which may have been all right (who actually watches fucking Saturday Night Live to be able to say whether he was or not?) but couldn't have been fantastic largely because there's no way the material is good enough to distinguish Tatum as a comedic talent. Along with his partner in crime [stopping] Hill, the success of an entire film and possible franchise lie on his comedic skills, and it is his chemistry with Hill makes the film. Tatum's work on Greg Jenko's transformation from cool jock to science nerd is as awesome as Daniel Desario's dabbling in Dungeons & Dragons at the end of Freaks and Geeks.

Any doubts one has heading into the film should be more or less instantly assuaged with the joke that Hill's character Morton Schmidt is made up to look exactly like Eminem in 2005. The laughs start at the onset of 21 Jump Street and come hard and fast from that point on. The screenplay--credited to Michael Bacall but which also saw Jonah Hill, Joe Gazzam, and Alias scribes Andre Nemec and Josh Applebaum taking a stab at things--is consistently smart and more importantly relentlessly hilarious. Despite all the cooks in the kitchen, 21 Jump Street is spectacularly funny and seems to be driven by a unified vision. Its gags are crisp, its playing up and against genre conventions is done with equal parts affection and self-awareness, and its blend of comedy and action are exceptionally well-executed.

In short, 21 Jump Street is one of the funniest films in recent memory. That this is such a surprise is all the better.

Fuck you, science.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

As Luck Would Have It: Fin

Luck, what could have been? The series closed the curtain with an excellent episode that blends well drama at the track with gangster business betwixt Ace and Michael. All TV series walk a fine line between compelling drama and cheesy soap opera cliché. Irish red-headed jockey with a heart of gold and an accent that would make a Lucky Charm’s executive blush? Check. Several montage scenes that make the “montage” scene from Team America seem understated? Check. An unexpected pregnancy? The grizzled veteran old trainer sitting on the bench at dusk, with is dog at his side and his horse in his heart? Yes. Yes. Yes.

It all worked.

Some of the racing scenes read more like visual poems to the beauty of the horse than they did to plot considerations. Despite the unfortunate equine deaths that ultimately sank the show, Milch’s love for the horses bleeds through the screen. Milch cares far more for horses than the Coen Brothers do for the vast majority of their characters. Tis scrawled across the screen in blinking neon. Who knows, in another world, in which Luck had a successful three or four season run, it’s not unthinkable it could have raised the profile of the sport considerably. The demise of horse racing, and current state of crises is largely speculative. This as a counterpoint to that.

Paired nicely with the soft gauzy beauty in motion of horse racing, was the intense cat and mouse bullying and mind-fuck Michael puts on Ace. Kills, dismembers, and disposes in the ocean his guy Israel. Ominously flies in his naive grand-son from out of state. And sets a bad-ass British assassin on his path. Seeing Gus and Ace duck and dodge the assassin over the course of the day ratcheted up the tension nicely.

Towards the end, the series slowly but surely brought the threat of violence and menace from the back to the front, to much benefit. A particularly satisfying scene demonstrated the history between Gus and Ace, when during lunch, Gus sets an ambush in motion by simply asking Ace “do you remember that time in Chicago?” The resolution of that scene, shows a weary Gus washing his hands and coming to the cold realization that he’s too old for this shit. Another stand out scene reveals Ace cracking under the pressure of dodging death all day, his big horse race coming up, his grandson in peril. He gazes out of Escalante’s stables through a veil of horse leg wraps, which have been hung to dry, but for all intents and purposes look like Buddhist prayer flags waving in the breeze. Michael shows up to taunt Ace in the paddock. Leering and jeering like a ghoul on the edge of your bed. Discordantly pale and powerful. Well done.

As with Deadwood, the unintended final episode kind of sorta works as a coda.  

The Kentucky Derby is just a few weeks away. The real life drama will be unfolding at tracks across the country every weekend between now and May 5th. Do yourself a favor and follow the lead of the Foray Stable guys. Grab a racing form, do a little studying, and head down to the nearest simulcast joint. Nothing beats the real thing.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Prick Tunes: Bon Iver "Lump Sum"

The worst week of the year is almost over for me. Fantasy baseball drafts have briefly taken over my life, and as such pretty much everything in my life other than working has taken the backseat to this unhealthy habit of mine.

Here is a version of "Lump Sum" recorded in the studio at M[innesota]PR's signature format-free music station, 89.3 The Current, a station that didn't launch until I'd already left the state. Thanks a lot.

Bon Iver, everyone.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Prick Tunes: Justin Townes Earle "Look the Other Way"

This video is from KUT's series they do every year during SXSW from the Four Seasons. "Look the Other Way" is the second track on his upcoming album Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, an album I couldn't possibly be any more excited for. It is certainly worth checking out the KUT page to be able to stream the whole performance, and there is access to a lot of other material, some more of which may be coming tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

As Luck Would Have It, or Luck Running Out

Luck will culminate after just one season. The apparent result of three equine deaths that occurred during production of season one, and two episodes into season two. Because of the arcane subject matter and relatively unsexy ratings*, there is a lot of speculation that canceling Luck was more of a business decision than a response to horsey-cide. Although HBO's business model seems much more insular to the whims of the market than most television series, I'm inclined to believe poor numbers and bad pub were too steep a price.

*Luck was averaging approximately 4.8 million views per episode - including DVR viewings, repeats, and on demand numbers. For comparison's sake, Game of Thrones averaged around 9.3 million, and the vapid True Blood 12.6 million.

Luck had already been guaranteed a second season, but probably needed a Hail Mary of sorts by scoring some prestige awards to keep going beyond that. By all accounts, Luck was one of the most expensive series that HBO had ever undertaken. The sprawl and logistics of filming at Santa Anita Park, and the care of all that horse-flesh, is obviously an expensive proposition. Are three horse deaths evidence of cavalier animal stewardship? Probably not. It would have been more significant if an 18 episode show about horse racing was produced without fatality.

Horses are an incredibly fragile breed.  Allegedly, Luck had more equine fatalities than Secretariat, War Horse, Sea Biscuit and hundred's of previous TV, film, and commercial projects combined. Prior to Luck, the last fatality was during filming of 3:10 to Yuma remake--"No one forgets velvet." However, Luck had far greater ambitions at re-creating honest to God horse racing than the aforementioned flicks. This year at Aqueduct race track in New York there have been 18 fatalities since the season opener in November. More than a dozen died last summer at Del Mar Park's meet in California. The sport is notoriously tight-lipped about fatality numbers, but the general rule of thumb is one fatality per 500 races. For context, a horse meet is generally 3-6 months long, with approximately 40-50 races a week. Where there is horse racing, there will be horse death. Racing fatalities are a dark and repugnant side to an otherwise grand sport. I'm hopeful that the pressure animal rights groups applied to HBO--and are currently leveraging against Aqueduct Park in New York--will result in much needed dialogue and reform for a sport that will obviously need to change to survive. As Luck has often displayed, there is a mythic love affair between the people and horses. As Lorca famously said, "All that has dark sound has duende."

As for episode eight. Things are coming to a nice crescendo towards the finale on Sunday. The hint of violence that was evident from the beginning has crept into full view. Most satisfying is seeing some cool brooding menace from Denny Farina's Gus Dimitriou. Equally at home playing Ace's nurse-maid and late night pillow talker, he also stood down one of Mike's business partners in a horse stall with a heavy threat of bodily harm hanging in the balance.

Episode # 8 Recap

Monday, March 19, 2012

Prick Tunes: Sufjan Stevens "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."

Here is a suitably disturbing video juxtaposed against this haunting tune from Sufjan Stevens's second state album Illinoise. I do wish that he was go back to that endeavor and work out a few other

Man on Film: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

In Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Jay and Mark Duplass turn their character-driven brand of dry indie comedy toward a scarred and breaking Thompkins family. At its center is Jeff (Jason Segel), the 30-year-old titular younger brother who has been aimlessly adrift since the death of their father 15 years earlier. Living in his mother Sharon's (Susan Sarandon) basement, he hasn't had a meaningful connection with another human being while waiting for his destiny to come to him.

While sitting on the couch waking and baking, he gets what he perceives as his call from destiny. The rest of the day sees Jeff--a believer in the interconnectedness of the universe and predestination (although not a strict Calvinist)--following what he hopes to be the signs that will give meaning to his life. Jeff's path down the path to his destiny takes him off the task his mother initially asked him to embark on and brings him into the heart of his brother Pat's (Ed Helms) crumbling marriage.

Where the brothers Duplass succeed is in making their characters real. As always, their film is populated with imperfect people. They are neither wholly good or bad. Rougher exteriors give away to softer interiors. Characters are vulnerable one minute and hurt someone else the next. While their characters don't always do the right thing, the Duplasses never lose contact with the film's heart. Sure, the characters are capable of doing hurtful things, but there is never the sense that the filmmakers do not have a love for their characters.

For their part, the cast drives the film home. Susan Sarandon hits each note of quiet loneliness with perfect pitch. Judy Greer finds her place in the pit of marital discord and settles right in, nailing the discontent, sadness, and disappointment. Managing to be both a prick and vulnerable, Ed Helms zigs and zags across the line between being callous and being sympathetic. Most important, though, is Segel. Given the type of role he excels in--the emotionally damaged but kind-hearted slacker whose quirky outlook can make him seem odd to others--Segel is the heart of Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Like Nick Andopolis or Peter Bretter before him, Jeff Thompkins is a role tailor-made to play to Jason Segel's strengths.

While some could take an ideologically oppositional stance with the larger implications of the film's conclusion, and by extension its message, it seems like the Duplass brothers manage to step back a little bit from a place that could be considered preachy or heavy handed. By keeping the film's focus and subject matter relatively small, they avoid applying too unwieldy a belief system over the simpler foundation of Jeff, Who Lives at Home. What they are left with is an affective indie comedy for which they can be proud.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Prick Tunes: The Civil Wars NPR Tiny Desk Concert

I am not getting paid by John Paul White, Joy Williams, or anyone else with something to gain by The Civil Wars getting mentioned as often as they do in this space. I swear. I was simply paging through old Tiny Desk Concerts, and I stumbled across this one. What can I say that you shouldn't already know? Just watch the fucking magic happen.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Prick Tunes: Leo Kottke "Bumblebee"

Today's tune comes from Leo Kottke's 1971 album Mudlark. Mudlark was Kottke's fourth album and his first to feature other musicians. It was also the first album he released on Capitol Records. While Kottke is certainly best known as an acoustic virtuoso, there's something about "Bumblebee" that really grabs me.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Rediscovering the Past: James Cagney: Not So Much Yankee, A Lot Doodle Dandy

Another oldie but goodie, this one originally appeared in November 13 of 2008 and marks another instance in which I irrationally dwell on some actor of yesteryear, focusing an unhealthy amount of energy on someone who hasn't been relevant in roughly fifty years. 
Not buying what he's selling.
I don't know if I could count the times I've engaged in a conversation with my friend Chad about how difficult it is to buy guys like Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney as tough guys.

Chad hates Edward G. Robinson. Loathes everything he stands for. Thinks EGR is a mama's boy. Begrudgingly allows for him to have been all right in Double Indemnity but won't go further than that. I pretty much agree with those sentiments. If you need to hate the man, here's a clip:

What the hell is with him here?

Where Chad hates every fiber of what was Edward G. Robinson's being, I fucking despise James Cagney. Now, I don't hate him as much as I hate Ray Milland. That's simply not possible, but I would like to re-animate James Cagney's corpse just so I could kick his zombie ass. In every movie he was in, he just oozes overacting dandy trying to come across as a tough guy. Moreover, look at the guy.

How did anyone think that little POS was tough?

It is possible that I should have prefaced this entry into the annals of retarded blog entries by stating that I have quite a few old school Hollywood figures that I hold an irrational hatred for--Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, the aforementioned Ray Milland--but the point still remains that these two "tough guys" are dandies through and through. The thing I don't get is how the Greatest Generation bought these little douchebags as tough. I honestly think anyone who came up during the Great Depression could kick just about anyone's ass nowadays. They were tougher times, and it was probably a lot more common in regular society to have to get into a scrape here and there. Hell, most of these guys would have been ashamed if they couldn't go off to war. None of us pussies want to go off to war. But these tough old motherfuckers--these tough Robert Mitchum-like dudes--bought James Cagney as a tough guy.

What the fuck?

Prick Tunes: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds "Red Right Hand"

This song was my gateway into the dark twisted world of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It was featured on the Songs in the Key of X compilation--an anthology of songs tied to The X-Files either in theme or actually having been featured on the show. Chris Carter actually stated that "Red Right Hand" had been the inspiration for putting the collection together in the liner notes for the collection. While not a huge single at the time of Let Love In's release in 1994, even in Australia or the UK, its mark has been much more significant than its charting would imply, as it's been featured in all of the first three Scream movies (in one way, shape, or form), Dumb and Dumber, and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant. That last credit makes it only the second weirdest gateway to the modern youth demographic with that dance in the tent scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1, taking the cake for most unexpected place to find Nick Cave.

The phrase "red right hand" is from John Milton's Paradise Lost and is a reference to the vengeful hand of god, according to Wikipedia.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Prick Tunes: The National "About Today"

This isn't the first time I've featured The National in the space. It surely will not be the last. 

Fans of the film Warrior (which was awesome) may remember this song as the one that plays over the film's conclusion--or at least I'm 80% sure that this is the song playing over its climax and through the coda. Originally, "About Today" was found on The National's Cherry Tree EP which came out in 2004, between their sophomore release Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and their third full-length album Alligator. For its inclusion in the film, it was reworked, stretching the song from its original four minutes to just over seven with the new version sounding much more contemporary with The National's last two albums, Boxer and especially High Violet

Whilst playing in Kansas City on April 20th of last year, they dedicated this song to the memory of Gerard Smith, the bassist from TV on the Radio, who had succumbed to lung cancer earlier in the day. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Prick Tunes: For Squirrels "Under Smithville"

If their album had come out at any other time in my life, I can't imagine that I'd have been particularly into For Squirrels. If something could sound "Very 1995," For Squirrels' Example did*. Sure there were sonic similarities to earlier R.E.M., and they had their louder moments that hearkened to the sound and vision they paid homage to in their modest radio hit "The Mighty KC," an elegy to Kurt Cobain, but their Floridian jangle somehow seems very specifically of that year.

Perhaps some of this temporal specificity owes to the tragic car accident while returning from the CMJ Music Marathon in 1995 that resulted in the death of lead singer Jack Vigliatura, bassist Bill White, and their tour manager Tim Bender. The remaining members of the band continued on as Subrosa for a few years before going their separate ways, but it never seemed like they put everything back together, thus limiting their existence for all intents and purposes to that very year.

Hearing this tune again almost 17 years after I was initially into it (goddammit did typing that make me feel old as shit) makes me feel a bit nostalgic for afternoons hanging out in Ryan's basement or playing basketball at the group home while drinking insane amounts of Wild Cherry Pepsi. The realization that the sound doesn't hold up especially well is secondary to the trip back to a more innocent time of pining over girls with whom nothing ever happened, thinking that On the Road was life-changing shit, and having zero financial responsibility for anything other than figuring out how you were going to pay for books, CDs, and awful junk food.

If you want to see a concert video of this, go here.

The Queue Continuum: Birdemic: Shock and Terror

Holy shit is this movie awful. It is so fucking bad that I cannot believe I hadn't seen it already.

More often than not, when Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, and June Diane Raphael select a film for their spectacularly funny podcast How Did This Get Made?, I have already seen it. What this says about me and my movie-viewing habits is probably damning, but the fact remains that of the 31 movies they have done up so far, I had seen 19 of them already (I've seen others since). Having just now seen Birdemic, I am positively giddy to listen to their newest episode.

I usually refrain from writing about them, even when positively shocked by the poor quality of the film. The voluminous work I could put forth regarding The Room would likely be my undoing.

Birdemic: Shock and Terror makes The Room look like Citizen Kane. All right, maybe that's not true, but I'd posit that Birdemic might actually be worse than The Room, which is saying a fucking lot. Writer, director, and (not shockingly) producer James Nguyen has absolutely no idea what he is doing.

For starters, he chooses what has to be one of Hitchcock's worst films to pay homage to. The Birds is utter horseshit. Rod Taylor is a non-actor, devoid of any charisma or gravitas, and finds himself cast alongside the abysmal Tippi Hedren, whose acting chops are shockingly just as limited as her daughter, Melanie Griffith. The Birds is absolutely the beginning of the end for Hitchcock, the first nail that is driven into the coffin of what had been a spectacular run, specifically putting an emphatic and decisive end to his otherwise sterling post-war work. That he became obsessed with Hedren later while working on Marnie, a film that not even Sean Connery could save, just serves as proof that Hitchcock had completely lost it. In choosing The Birds as his inspiration, Nguyen instantly forces the sane viewer to question his judgment.

That is the question raised before seeing the movie. The questions that arise while watching it are far more baffling. They are also questions that you need to ask yourself. While you also watch Birdemic. Do it.

You have to if for no other reason than to see a movie that has no knowledge of white-testing, boom mics, appropriate framing of a POV shot, the actual effects of global warming, sound recording, plotting, realistic animation of the movement of birds, the sound a gun makes, or countless other basic aspects of filmmaking. Say what you will about the ADR in The Room, but it puts this to shame.

Hell, watch this if for no other reason than there's a Ford Aerostar in it. It was filmed in 2008, at least eight years past the point at which I last saw a Ford Aerostar.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Man on Film: John Carter

It may seem odd that 2012 is realistically the first time in cinema's history* that A Princess of Mars could have been adapted in a (presumably) just way, especially considering that the source material is 100 years old, but Edgar Rice Burroughs's Martian world of Barsoom is far too fantastical to have been a live-action film up until now. In the hands of Andrew Stanton, director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo, the world of John Carter comes alive on screen.

*We'll just pretend that 2009's Princess of Mars starring of Antonio Sabato, Jr., and Traci Lords didn't happen...

John Carter's scope is grand and fantastical. Set largely against the backdrop of the magnificent vistas of Utah serving as a surrogate for Mars, the scenery is visually arresting in its own right, and fortunately the special effects wizardry on display is rendered faithfully and realistically enough so as not to quash that natural beauty. Stanton's crew clearly worked tirelessly to do this, and their efforts paid dividends that so few similar ventures before them have reaped. Unlike, say, George Lucas's second trilogy or more recently Thor, Andrew Stanton has created a false world that feels real. Perhaps this should all have been expected from one of the brains behind the wild success of Pixar, but the fact remains that Stanton's first foray into live-action is a mostly successful (if poorly marketed) one. 
While Andrew Stanton's vision can be largely considered to be the root of the film's success, it would not be what it is without the talents of Taylor Kitsch. Sure, he may not be pitch perfect every second of the film, but it is Kitsch's skill for being both self-deprecating and macho, his preternatural ability to exude both selfishness and selflessness on the drop of a dime, that lifts this film's heart. Kitsch has a charm that is evident from his first moment on screen. As he's ditching a tail on the streets of a rainy Williamsburg (I think), he ducks into a doorway and shields his face along with that of an unsuspecting lady, who he takes in embrace. As he lets her go, it isn't a stretch to assume that her swoon isn't requiring much acting on her part. His repeated escapes while in custody of the U.S. Army on the Arizona frontier, solidify both his charm and his humanity, as even while pissing there is something innately endearing about him and while seemingly willing to run into walls head-on he is always left battered for having done so. Upon finding himself on Mars, his realization of his newfound abilities play exceptionally well, his clumsiness with them playing to great comic effect. 

And that is one of the better aspects of the film. John Carter manages to mix in a hearty dose of comic relief, often through Carter's own very loose control over his powers. His battles, his ventures into flight, his acclimation to the world; all are played with just enough sloppiness as to humanize his supremacy on Barsoom. Even relatively late in the film, John Carter is still jumping into dicey situations headstrong and slipshod, rarely landing on his own two feet. This gets at the root of what makes Kitsch so magnetic in the first place.

Stanton and company also cast both their villain and love-interest well in choosing Dominic West to play Sab Than and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. Dominic West seems to thrive in the role of movie villain, which should come as no surprise to fans of The Wire. Too often his film roles are limited to that of mere heel or traitor, but he easily steps into the role of cutthroat warring prince, possessing all of the requisite gravitas to own the role. As for Dejah Thoris, fanboys (and any red-blooded American male, really) probably would have preferred a Dejah Thoris that was much more scantily clad than Lynn Collins was, but unfortunately this is a PG-13 movie. While the accent may come off as forced from time to time, there is no denying her smoking hotness, and she is able to bring the physicality to the role necessary to buy her both as a princess and a warrior. She is also able to viably endear herself to her co-star, upon which the success of the movie largely hinges.

Now there are hokey aspects of the film, most of them owing to the century-old source material. The native names of the planets and the races all seem hopelessly antiquated. There is a faithfulness to the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories that must be upheld, but whenever someone refers to Mars as Barsoom, there seemed to be a subconscious urge to cringe. It is, however, a tale of fantasy, so much of that sort of thing should probably be expected. What does work, works pretty damn well. The screenplay, courtesy of Stanton and Mark Andrews with a polish by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon, is perhaps a bit deliberately paced, but there wasn't any point in the film in which one's attention was allowed to wander too far. 

Despite the fairly tepid reviews, John Carter was a lot of fun. All you should really have to hear though is this is a movie in which a shirtless Tim Riggins kicks a bunch of Martian ass. Having Lynn Collins look just as good is a bonus.

If you locals do see it at the Alamo, there is now a nice clip of Kitsch telling people not to talk or text in the theaters. Awesome.

Here is the trailer.

Or if you would prefer to watch the first ten minutes of the film (basically the lead-up to when he finds himself on Mars), this clip will take care of that.

Prick Tunes: Iron and Wine NPR Tiny Desk Concert

For those who were turned off by the production of Kiss Each Other Clean, this session in which Sam Beam straps on a guitar and picks through "Half Moon," "Big Burned Hand," and "Tree by the River" should assuage any doubts as to the quality of the songs themselves. Perhaps the production that was said to hearken back to early-to-mid-70s Elton John records wasn't what you were looking for in an Iron and Wine record. That need not be your concern today.

For good measure, "Naked As We Came" rounds out the four-song set, and as always it is spectacular. From January 21, 2011, Iron and Wine.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Prick Tunes: Johnny Cash "Hurt"

Goddammit do I ever love this song. 

Best cover ever?

Reading Rainbow: Pronto by Elmore Leonard

With Pronto being the book in which Raylan Givens was first introduced, it made as much sense as any other book when choosing a re-entry point for Elmore Leonard, who I had not read since the late 1990s.

While readers flocking to the book in search for more Raylan than their weekly fix of Justified can give them may wade through the first 33 pages wondering where the hell he is, it isn't too long before he saunters in wearing his Stetson hat. Given the fact that Leonard can spin a yarn as easily as he might pour a drink, it's hardly even noticeable that Raylan hasn't made an appearance until he does--with an air of mystery about him.

What might be most odd about the whole book (in retrospect and given that Raylan Givens has become a rather iconic figure much after the fact) is that its events largely take place as a result of Harry Arno--a 66-year-old bookie from Miami--giving Raylan the slip for the second time in their dealings with one another. Knowing Raylan as we have all come to know him, this makes for an odd and almost incongruous introduction.

Regardless of the fact that one has to reconcile Raylan's error with the character on Justified, Leonard's penchant for taut, funny, unpredictable storytelling is on full display in Pronto, and there is the added bonus of getting to read the Tommy Bucks scene from the open of the pilot as it was originally written, complete with the full back story.

If you watch Justified--and if you don't, what the hell are you doing wrong with your life?--there is plenty to love here, even if there are slight changes from the source material that Graham Yost & Co. made with regards to Raylan's back story.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Prick Tunes: The Smiths "Asleep"

I can't say I am a fan of The Smiths. I don't dislike them, but it is rather that I have no feelings on them one way or the other. That being said, I love this song. Penned by Johnny Marr and Morrissey, this elegy for oneself is so damn haunting with the wind rooting through the background and Morrissey's vocals set against the mere backdrop of a lilting piano line. My indifference to The Smiths does not apply to this tune.
Originally released as the B-side to the pre-street single for The Queen Is Dead, "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side" (a slightly different mix than what ultimately ended up on the album), "Asleep" is found much more commonly in the US on the rarities compilation Louder Than Bombs

As Luck Would Have It: Horses, Humanity's Last Hope

"I have seen people profoundly changed simply by being in the proximity of horses. Their size, their virtue, their complicated nature bring out patience and respect. Don't be afraid of that Chester." 
                    "Afraid of what?" asks Ace.

                    "Of everything that can be."

On its shiny surface, Luck reads like a wise-guy revenge series. The Sopranos meets Guys and Dolls. The viewer is (in most cases) given just enough information to vaguely grasp Ace Bernstein's general plans for revenge with his former business partner Mike. The cornucopia of dysfunction at the track is merely background noise to the chess match between Ace and Michael. However, the exchange above between Ace (Dustin Hoffman) and Claire (Joan Allen) gets at the blood and marrow of the series. Redemption via animal. Horse's humanity to man. Why not? You've seen what happened on Super Tuesday. Horses may be humanity's last hope.

Milch veers from his pattern of building each episode around a signature race, and in chapter six blesses us with two. Although lacking the drama of previous races, the cinematography is outstanding. As someone who has literally watched a shit-ton of horse races, I'm stunned by how close Luck comes to getting the feel of a live horse race. Typically, sports re-creations in movies or television series are embarrassingly faux. Not so with Luck.

The degenerate bastards who comprise Foray Stables are forced to sweat through an "inquiry" in their horse Mon Gateau's race. One measure against blatant in-your-face crookedness in horse racing is the fact that each race is filmed, reviewed, and watched live by three stewards. Referees. A retirement gig of sorts for the more honest backside track officials. If they see something unfair, like a horse crossing over into another horse's path, cutting in line so to speak, they have the power to disqualify the offender. It's a heavy penalty for all involved, but it happens regularly. If you've spent anytime betting horses, you've either been victimized, or somehow less frequently it seems, benefited from a horse who gets taken down. It can turn a winning ticket into a loser, or vice-versa. Like officiating in any sport, the rulings seem inconsistent and spiteful. Not so much officials, these stewards, as they are Gods on Mt. Olympus with us as playthings. Leaving the results as-is for Mon Gateau seemed liked rare justice to me. For what it's worth, jockeys have the ability to throw a flag on the play by lodging a formal "objection" after the race. Objections are seen as less honest than inquiries. 

The second race of the episode featured Walter Smith's (Nick Nolte) Kentucky Derby contender Gettin' Up Morning. Getting Up Morning sets the track record for 1 mile at Santa Anita*. The real drama is the conniption fit that Nolte has when he sees the jockey use the whip on Getting Up Morning down the stretch. Why the bluster you ask? In the US, jockeys use the whip with about as much discretion and subtlety as Odd Future or LMFAO apply to the art of music. Horses get whipped because the jockey is bored, because the owner is in attendance, because the horse is drifting one way, because the horse is drifting the other way, and maybe because a 115 lb jockey whipping a 1500 lb horse can cause it to run faster. In Europe, whipping is much less prevalent, and tightly controlled by the stewards. Europe is pretty cool by most accounts. Nolte is likely chapped because he's painfully old school, cares about his horse (to be truthful, owners of big time stakes caliber horses aren't thrilled about seeing their million dollar investments whipped), and possibly because he wants to save that first time whipping a horse until it really needs the shock and awe it may provide. Legend has it that Affirmed bested his rival Alysheba in the 1978 Belmont stakes because jock Steve Cauthen threw a precious few left handed whips on Affirmed at a crucial point in the stretch drive. It was supposedly the first time Cauthen had whipped Affirmed on his left side.

*In reality, the 1 mile record at Santa Anita is held by Ruhlman, in a time of 1.33.25, which is a full second slower than Mon Gateau's time, or about 5 lengths.

I fucking love this series. I love the Miles Davis riffs that bubbled underneath some of the dark early scenes in this episode. I love seeing real life horse trainer Bob Baffert in background shots. I love Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens acting his ass off as the insufferable prick jock Ronnie. Thankfully, HBO has renewed for Season 2. I'm eager to see what happens when Luck gets some racing room and really hits its stride.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Prick Tunes: The Shins "Simple Song"

While on a Richard Swift kick, we may as well finish things off with the brand spanking new single from The Shins.

I'll admit to not having given a damn about Wincing the Night Away*, and that Broken Bells release never really grabbed me, but as the lead single from the forthcoming Port of Morrow, "Simple Song" has my interest piqued.

*I don't know whether it was the album itself that didn't work for me or the external factor of the ridiculous Garden State line effectively tainting whatever the band's subsequent release was going to be. Separating one from the other may have simply been impossible for me.

Without further ado, here's "Simple Song."

Musicalia: Happy Bruce Springsteen Day!

With the latest Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band album hitting the streets today, it makes sense to throw a little something up here today. Don't you fret though, despite the musical nature of this post, there will still be a Prick Tunes entry today. Bruce and the Boys (and Girl) were the only guests on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon this past Friday and they performed a song on Monday as well, and while it's likely you've already seen this all, it is certainly worth seeing again, particularly the raucous blow out that was "The E Street Shuffle"--a legitimate holy shit performance.

On Monday's show last week, they busted out "We Take Care of Our Own," the album opener...

...and then they took a run at the title track.

Moving on to Friday, here is "Jack of All Trades," the fourth track off of the brand new album Wrecking Ball.

Next up is the song that directly follows "Jack of All Trades" on Wrecking Ball but actually preceded it on the show, "Death To My Hometown" featuring Tom Morello on foot-stomps (and guitar).

And finally, what follows is the otherworldly performance of "The E Street Shuffle," the lead and semi-titular track from the classic album The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Musicalia: Justin Townes Earle's Fourth Album Due Out March 27th

If we're to judge at all by this video, Justin Townes Earle's newest release should be outstanding.

Recorded live in-studio, Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now is set to be released March 27th on Bloodshot Records, and I could not be more excited for it. You can pre-order the album here.
When looking down the list of tour dates (here), the show that has me most intrigued is March 31st show at the Ellen Kennedy Fine Arts Center in Cascade, IA, a town of roughly 2,000 people 25 miles outside of Dubuque. A cursory search on the internet gives me very little information about the space, which makes me even more intrigued.

Prick Tunes: Richard Swift "Lady Luck"

This past Friday featured a song from Damien Jurado's latest album, which was produced by today's featured artist, Richard Swift. In addition to being a member of the current incarnation of The Shins, Swift has toured opening for Wilco, produced albums for The Mynabirds and Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab, and released albums under the monikers Company and Instruments of Science and Technology. "Lady Luck" is the last track off of his fourth LP released under his own name, Atlantic Ocean, and it is so damn good. 

The Queue Continuum: Just an American Boy

As a Steve Earle fan, I found it a bit odd that the existence of this film had evaded my purview until now. Having seen it, I guess I can see why.

As a filmic experience, Just an American Boy is frustrating. Amos Poe's documentary follows the eloquent rocker/activist as he tours following his 2002 album Jerusalem, which was his politically charged response to the post-9/11/pre-Iraq War environment marked with near-jingoism and a thirst for payback. His song "John Walker's Blues," which sought to look at the person of John Walker Lindh with empathy, became a lightning rod for right-wing warmongers wanting to paint voices of reason and dissent as anti-American.

Taking place at the height of all of this, the actual film is unfocused and largely disappointing. With all of this going on and with all of Earle's activist causes, particularly his vociferous anti-death penalty stance, Poe is unable to form a narrative that has cohesion. The film jumps all over the place time-wise; its editing often making little sense. Shot digitally, it looks extremely dated, much more than its ten years. Poe opts to use extremely dated effects, to what purpose it is hard to decode, but the lasting effect is that the film feels much more like a low-budget rock-doc from the mid-80s.

This is a shame because just watching and listening to Earle is in itself engrossing. He's well-spoken, compassionate, measured, compelling, and magnetic. His political views center on conscience. He is able to convey his understanding of the history of music in such an engaging way that one could simply listen to him speak on that subject for days. It is unfortunate that given this access Poe is unable to do his subject justice.

That said, for Steve Earle fans, getting to see him--and his son Justin Townes Earle, for that matter--as he is off-stage has its merits. He gets to shine through in spite of the film's shortcomings.

Since I can't find a trailer for the movie, I'll just throw in a Steve Earle performance on Letterman in 1988.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Prick Tunes: Damien Jurado "Nothing is the News"

This tune kicks off Damien Jurado's (by my count) tenth proper LP, Maraqopa--his second straight collaboration with musician/producer Richard Swift. When contrasted against his earlier solo output, this could almost be from a different artist, at least in the sonic sense. Luckily the ability to craft a song didn't fall by the wayside, and Jurado's got a gem on his hands here, kicking off an album that seems to be netting positive reviews everywhere you turn.

Here is hazy throwback "Nothing is the News" from Maraqopa

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Prick Tunes: Erik Satie "Trois Gymnopédies"

Nothing like a little French minimalist action courtesy of the late great Erik Satie. I once kicked off a schizophrenic 'mix tape' with this and then followed it up with "Working for the Weekend." That cowbell was fucking jarring. I feel confident in saying that I'm likely the only person in the history of time who has juxtaposed Satie against Loverboy.

Man on Film: Wanderlust

Objectively, David Wain's feature-length directorial career has been a bit of a mixed bag. While Wet Hot American Summer has attained the much deserved cachet of being a cult comedy classic, The Ten was inconsistent with its thematically-linked sketch structure lending itself to relatively long stretches of film that work significantly less well than others. Role Models was a step back in the right direction after the misstep that was The Ten, marking perhaps his most conventional comedy, but it lacks the unhinged irreverence that runs roughshod through Wet Hot

All of that brings us to the latest film from The State-alum, Wanderlust. Teaming with former college roommate and frequent collaborator Ken Marino, Wain's fourth film takes a relatively normal if not slightly uptight New York couple--Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston as George and Linda--who have been reduced to moving to Atlanta after he loses his job and her documentary on penguins with testicular cancer doesn't get picked up by HBO. After getting waylaid for a night at Elysium, an "intentional community," they go to stay with George's brother Rick (Ken Marino) with whom George is going to work. Upon finding out that this job is essentially doing data entry for a port-a-john company and finding his brother unbearable, George and Linda go back to Elysium to give it a two-week trial run in an attempt to find happiness.

What follows is an occasionally funny comedy that obviously plays upon the concept of throwing two normal people into a hippie commune. There are seriously funny parts. Justin Theroux is legitimately funny as Seth, the quasi-leader of the commune, and his passive-aggressive rivalry with George is great. Sure, he's essentially reprising his turn as Jesus in The Ten, but he does it well. Every scene that Ken Marino is in, he kills, and the same can be said about Michaela Watkins, who plays Rick's hilariously miserable and detached suburbanite wife, Marisa. The naturally likable Paul Rudd is somewhat limited by what the role calls for--as he is once again playing the straight-laced, uptight husband/boyfriend--but does get a chance to steal the show with his pre-coital pep talk in the bathroom mirror. His diarrheal dirty talk is so creepy and disgusting that it seems likely to be memorable years from now.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the film doesn't work quite as well. This starts with Aniston, who is simply out of her depths when thrown into the deep end with some of these comedic talents. So much screen time is devoted to showcasing her, yet she is easily the least funny actress in the ensemble, which is saying something when Malin Akerman (pleasant, but not especially funny, despite the fact that she is almost exclusively in comedies) and Lauren Ambrose (who isn't bad, per se, just isn't particularly funny) are in the film. Talents like the aforementioned Michaela Watkins, Kerri Kenney-Silver, and the woefully underused Kathryn Hahn are here, sure, but it seems a shame that they aren't more prominently featured.

More importantly, though, Wanderlust just isn't quite funny enough. It has its moments, but they are slightly too few and just a little too spread apart.

What is awesome is Ken Marino's Macy Gray impression. Holy shit.

And since this is what is done here, let's take a gander at the Wanderlust trailer.

The shitty thing is, there are clips from this red-band trailer that aren't in the film and are actually funnier than what made it in, which is the somewhat worrisome aspect of what the heavily screen-tested Apatow productions hazard in seeing if the rubes in Peoria will go for something.
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