Archive for May, 2010

A Letter to Robert Kirkman

Dear Mr Kirkman,

Word around town is that your comic series, The Walking Dead, is nearing the finish line.  I imagine you’ve already got plans on how to end it, but I’ve got some friendly advice you should hear-

Don’t pussy out.

So many of your contemporaries in the pantheon of popular storytellers have tarnished the legacies of their series by ending them on overly saccharine, sentimental notes that feel tacked on and not in spirit with the bulk of the work.

What brought this dilemma to my attention was the series finale of Lost.  While things wrapped up quite nicely on the island, the alternate universe that was created this season ended things on the single worst note possible.  (begin spoiler warning)Christian Shepard showed up again.  At first, I assumed that he was really the Man in Black, somehow still kicking after getting shot by Kate and pushed over a cliff.  After all wouldn’t that have made sense?  All season long, he was trying to get everybody together in the same place so he could kill them, and here everybody was-Every person in the show (except Michael and Walt, because I guess they don’t count.)  If he can turn into a smoke monster and assume the form of the dead, is it that implausible that he could also have done this?  Instead, Cuse, Lindeloff, and whoever else was involved with this travesty of an ending decided that the alternate universe was some sort of new-age pseudo-limbo.  Meaning everybody was dead.  You know, the thing they’ve been promising, since the first season, is absolutely NOT going on?  Was the big twist at the end that they lied to us?  “Sure, everything that happens on the island is real and it matters, but these flash-sideways don’t.”  What really burns me about the route they took is that it essentially doesn’t matter.  Every flash-sideways this season was pointless.  It doesn’t connect to anything in the rest of the series.  The producers knew people would hate this ending, I wonder why they did it at all? (end spoilers)

All complaints aside, the sixth season of Lost was probably the worst, but it was still better than everything else on network TV.  I don’t think the finale will do much to tarnish the reputation of the show.  The island is what really mattered, and they finished that side of the story with style and grace.  (more spoilers ahead) It reminded me of Bone.  Both involved dire showdowns in magic caves.  I was a little confused by The Man in Black losing his powers.  At first I assumed Desmond had become the new smoke monster when he uncorked the glowing magic light stuff.  (No, they never really explained what it was, but that’s okay, because it doesn’t matter.)  Oh well, at least Des got to return home to his family.  I didn’t see Jack’s death coming, but it was a slow death, so it wasn’t exactly shocking.  Once he went back to the cave, I assumed it was over.  Leaving Hurley and Ben in charge of the island was a fitting ending.  I loved Ben’s last lines, where he tells Hurley he doesn’t have to do things by Jacob’s rules anymore.  Sly and manipulative to the bitter end!  If there was a season seven and it was just those two going fishing and doing laundry I would watch it. Rose and Bernard would also be stars of season seven now that I think about it.  Nice to see them again, but why the hell didn’t Michael or Walt ever show up?(end spoilers)

All of this finale fallout reminds me of Twin Peaks, the show considered the best of its generation.  Coincidentally, Twin Peaks also had a lackluster finale, but hardly anybody ever talks about that.  The ending of the show was weak, but I can live with it.  It was a fun and engaging ride while it lasted, and I’ve got a new Favorite TV show now, it’s called Breaking Bad, it’s about a cancer stricken chemistry teacher who makes crystal meth and I look forward to catching up with the episode I missed the other day due to the Lost finale.

But I digress, Mr Kirkman.  I apologize for regaling you with details about Lost.  We’re here to focus on you and your work.  However, there’s certainly a lesson or two to be learned from Lost.  One-The pressure is on.  Two-If people are expecting you to screw up, and they are, this is how they expect it to be done.  Lost was not an isolated incident.  Garth Ennis got excessively sappy in the last issue of Preacher.  All of those letters are like the comic book equivalent to the excessive flashbacks that plagued the Lost finale.  The last chapter in Harry Potter almost ruined the entire series for me, it was so cheesy.  Planetary got away with it, but I imagine that’s because I read the trade.  If I had to wait a year between issues I probably would’ve been pissed.  The Walking Dead has never been a comic to pull punches, so it’ll be even worse if you blow the ending on some undeserved sunshine.  If you want to get sappy, save it for the ending of Invincible.

Rarely is the emotional finale done right, but Y The Last Man immediately springs to mind.  I don’t want to oversimplify things and give you the idea that it works because it’s also depressing, but uh, it works because it’s also depressing.  Still, I’d try to avoid something like that because 1) You’d be ripping off BKV, and 2) Heavy speeches aren’t exactly your strong suit.  Y was a great ending, but I’m most partial to the finishes that go out with a bang.  Take a look at Brian Michael Bendis’s and Ed Brubaker’s respective runs on Daredevil.  When the characters get written into a corner, sometimes it’s better to have the floor drop out beneath them than to whip out the dues ex machina.

Damn, I haven’t covered Deus ex Machinas.  Here’s another pitfall you’ll want to avoid.  Not that they can’t work, but I can’t see it working in the context of The Walking Dead.

I’ve got faith in you, Mr Kirkman.  You managed to keep The Irredeemable Ant-Man a pretty despicable guy all the way through his cancellation, so keeping the world of Rick, Carl and company bleak and gory should be no tall order.  You seen like a smart guy.  Don’t make the wrong decision.  Make sure it wasn’t all a dream or everybody was dead, or inside a giant cage being controlled by aliens.

P.S. –Could you make sure Bryan Lee O’Malley gets this too?

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New Music-LCD Soundsystem and Sleigh Bells

I’m not exactly dying for new music.  There’s plenty of old music to go around.  I try to keep up to date on what bands are cool, but they usually end up being sucky and boring.  Vampire Weekend and their cronies have been invading our websites and rock fests for the past few years, and before they popped up, it was all of that faux-folk bullshit.  But I think we’ve almost reached the tipping point.  Dear god, I hope we’re reaching a tipping point.  This musical pussifying has about run its course.  It was cool when Modest Mouse was doing it, because they knew how to rock.  It didn’t even matter for a while, because people still seemed concerned with making good music, and not just writing lyrics that made teenage girls swoon.  Arcade Fire?  TV on the Radio?  They knew what was up.  Band of Horses?  Not so much.  The indie rock landscape’s gotten so damn clean recently, it’s a little disgusting.  I understand that phases like this are necessary for music to grow, but I think it’s time to call it quits on that shit guys.  We’ve let the Colin Meloys and the Ben Gibbards of the world have their turn, it’s time to change the guard.  They’ve been in charge for so long, their whining’s ringing a little hollow.  Now don’t get me wrong, I fuckin love me some angst, but there’s more than one variety.  It’s time to get evil again.

One guy who’s gotten away with not being evil is James Murphy.  James Murphy a.k.a. LCD Soundsystem has been floating around the musical landscape for the better part of the decade, seemingly impervious to whatever everyone else is up to.  Because the music is made in a weird little bubble universe, I’ll allow him to do whatever.  The music feels a little more timeless because of it.  The new record, This is Happening, doesn’t get very evil, but it does get plenty snide.  It also gets sad and angsty a few times.  That usually seems to work when you don’t make every song a breakup song.  There’s misery but there’s also swagger.

One thing first, I’m not sure how much of a band they exist as in real life.  I’ll be seeing them in a few days, so I’ll report back on what they’re like live.  I think Murphy does the Trent Reznor thing, where he just makes the album alone and then recruits a band for performances.  There’s definitely loneliness in a lot of LCD’s music, but I dig it because Murphy’s got a great “fuck you” attitude.  “Dance-punk” is the genre listed on Wikipedia.  I don’t buy that title because that genre sounds stupid and vague.  I refuse to believe that LCD Soundsystem, Death From Above and Mindless Self Indulgence all play the same type of music.  In LCD’s case though, I can kind of see where the label comes from.  The music itself isn’t that punk.  The attitude though, very punk.  This is the music of a guy who sneers a lot.  They’re two dominant themes to the songs, either “You think you’re so cool, but you’re not as cool as me” or “I’m sorry.  I fucked up.  Please forgive me.”  Murphy’s vocals are also delivered with punk-like effort.  He’s got a very limited voice, but I like it when he manages to get something done with it.

I liked the new album, but a disc of (nearly) nothing but songs over seven minutes can take a toll on you.  At least half the time, I just wanted James Murphy to get to the fucking point, and I started building up expectations for where the song was going, but then he’d just keep zigging when he should’ve been zagging.  The second half of the album tends to get obnoxious because the songs just get so damn repetitive.  If that was the process he had to go through to make “All I Want” then I guess it was worth it.  “All I Want” is going to be this album’s “All My Friends” aka the song that makes all the critics get hyperbolic.  It’s like the Brian Eno song that never happened.  The guitar tones are ripped straight out of “Here Come the Warm Jets.”  However, unlike Here Come the Warm Jets, we can understand what the words are about, and this is where that hyperbole will really start pouring in.  Murphy makes it a song of forgiveness, constantly returning to the line “all I want is your pity.”  He succeeds with the message.  I don’t feel sorry for him, but I also don’t want to scoff at him.  That’s an accomplishment.  That’s a damn good song.  I’m gonna go out on a limb here and declare it to be better than “All My Friends,” his previous “masterwork.”  I just wish the rest of the album could measure up to it.

In the end, This is Happening isn’t as good as Sound of Silver, but it was still pretty good.  I’m not a person who absolutely adores LCD, I’m the guy who finds half the songs really, really good and the other half kind of boring.  This album might’ve had some higher highs-Drunk Girls, Dance Yrself Clean, One Touch, the previously mentioned All I Want, but it also had some pretty abysmal lows.  What the fuck was the point of “You Wanted a Hit” being nine minutes long?  That song goes nowhere.  You better not be fucking with us James, I get the feeling that you’re fucking with us.  Which gets me to this other song, “Infinity Guitars.”  “Infinity Guitars” feels like it might be one of those songs that take for fucking ever.  Sooner than I expected though, they cut loose with the most blown out guitars and drums possible.  Good thing, because the song’s only two and half minutes long.  Coming back to it, it’s the perfect song of anticipation.  The build-up isn’t gratingly long, and the release actually feels worth the wait.  It’s like a damn wave of noise washing over you.  Oh, “Infinity Guitars” isn’t an LCD song either.  It’s from Sleigh Bells debut album, Treats. I was just looking for a nice segue to the next topic.

Treats is the album I’ve been waiting for.  All year long, I was waiting for somebody to come out and kick my ass and make ME get hyperbolic.  Earlier here, I was talking about my desire for a changing of the guard, how we need something really new and nasty to kickstart the next loud music movement.  Sleigh Bells can be that band.  Their level of loud is up there with the best.  Holy shit, this band is loud.  I was so happy to see a “best new music” review on Pitchfork that didn’t revolve around what a well-educated, well coifed pussy the singer was.

The guitar is distorted beyond all recognition.  The synths are equally brutal.  The drums hit like a baseball bat to the skull.  This music is fucking grimy.  It’s also pretty damn poppy.  Is that a bad thing?  Nah, when you’re at this level of noise, you can get away with whatever you want.  The shit’s so hard, it even comes as a relief when they do slow down for a track here and there.

Sleigh Bells could certainly be bogged down in the murk with other acts who get by emulating other bands, but they do it so much better than the rest of them, and they do it with a completely opposite style.  Where everyone else is finding new ways of being melodic and catchy, Sleigh Bells already have that part down and are finding new ways of being loud and abrasive.  Neon Indian this aint.  Part of their trick is combining a bunch of shitty sounds until they get a good one.  For example, “Run the Heart” takes dubstep* bass, really shitty hip hop synths (think T.I.), and Cranberries vocals, combines the three for a genuinely good song, then throws in some nu-metal guitar just for the hell of it.  And it works.  Just to prove they’re not limited to one trick, they threw in “Rill Rill” a few songs later.  Easily the most pleasant thing on the record, it does a better job emulating 60’s pop than just about everybody this side of Grizzly Bear.  Shit man, give em an album or two, and they’ll probably have those guys beat too.  They’re on point even when they’re not!  Songs aren’t wasted on showcasing anybody’s crate digging skills.  Sleigh Bells hit hard and they hit fast.  They’re an electronic pop band that approaches their songs via stoner metal and dubstep (or drum ‘n’ bass.  Whichever’s faster.  Electronic genres are stupid and confusing and there’s too many of them.)  While everyone else is getting back into 80’s synths and basic hip hop beats, Sleigh Bells are taking it one step further.  They’re like a musical rescue mission.  They give new life to all kinds of shitty sounds, and not just the usual stuff.  I’m talkin shit that hasn’t been heard since the glory Days of Linkin Park.  The only thing more impressive than their sources of theft is how easily they make it their own.  They fucking rock, and that’s not something I can say about a lot of new bands, let alone electronic duos.

*At least that’s what I think you’d call it.

Two Reviews-The Quick and the Dead & Friday

Two  reviews for ya today.  Enjoy

The Quick and the Dead

I started watching this movie and the opening credits came up and I thought to myself “Whoa.  There’s a lot of people in this-Keith David, Lance Henrikson, young DeCaprio, Russel Crowe, and the motherfucking Hackman.  Right on.”  Then the movie got underway and I thought to myself “man, this movie is absurd” then I kept thinking about how absurd it was about every five or ten minutes until it was over.  I don’t consider myself a Sam Raimi expert.  However, this is the ninth movie of his that I’ve seen, so maybe I am qualified to call it his most Raimian.  (Y’know, like how people use “Lynchian” as a real word.)  That means it’s his most self-indulgent and stereotypical of what people expect from a Sam Raimi flick.  Are there a lot of zooms?  Hell yeah.  Are the actors’ performances suitably mega to fit the cartoonish plot?  Oh, hell yeah.  Is the supporting cast a bunch of colorful, outlandish cartoons? Hell. Yeah.  And what about those weird shots where it zooms in and out and the same time; are there a lot of those?  Man, I lost count after a while.  The movie is genuinely good as well, if a little on the goofy side.  (Nah, I’m just kiddin.  It’s pretty fuckin far on the goofy side.)

Most of the actors are good enough, but Hack-Man is the best thing on screen here.  He’s a good actor.  While guys like Dennis Hopper got really over-the-top in the 90s by doing mountains of cocaine (Super Mario Bros.) the Hackman manages to be absurd and ridiculous with the smallest of effort-a laugh her, a glare there.  Hack-Man’s got a subtlety to his hilarity.  Sharon Stone and Russell Crowe are bland and dull as the two straight-ish characters, but Hack-Man and Decaprio kick ass as the villain and his cocky son.  Good performances.  They’re two of the more outlandish characters, but also two of the most believable.

As a western, The Quick and the Dead verges into parody, but they pull it off.  The plot is barely there-Sharon Stone rides into town.  There is a gun dueling contest.  She wants to kill Gene Hackman for reasons that are actually pretty cool.  I imagine this is what a western by the anime companies that made crap like Naruto or DBZ would be like.  The tone’s similar to his shitty movie he made with The Coen Brothers-The XYZ Murders.  It’s a live action Looney Toon, but he’s got a bigger budget, and better actors, and about a decade or so of experience under his belt, so it’s a big improvement over that one. Also, it’s one of the few movies with shots like this-

Wacky!

Nobody’s trying really hard to make fun of westerns, they’re just trying to make fun, trying to be ridiculous.  None of the actors seem too self-conscious.  They play their characters like characters instead of caricatures.  Russell Crowe might be taking the comedic route, but he’s so incapable of being funny it seems unlikely.  Hack-Man and company are just flexing their acting chops, but a combination of great shots and great acting save what could’ve been the Jason Statham joint of its time.

Well shit, maybe this is the Jason Statham joint of its time?  You’ve got the ridiculous story, the cartoony effects and physics and the dull lead who’s not in many good movies. (Sharon Stone.)  However, you’ve also got competent direction and a supporting cast instead of a bunch of shitty stereotypes.  I haven’t seen any of The Transporters, but I can say with confidence that this movie is infinitely better than Crank.

Friday

Ah man.  This was a tough movie to watch.  Not cause it was bad, I just really, really, really wanted to be there hanging out on the porch with Ice Cube and Chris Tucker.  Friday is about Ice Cube and Chris Tucker sitting on the porch, and sometimes going inside the house or next door or across the street.  Also, they do take a trip to (spoiler) the convenience store. (end spoiler)  So, as you can see, it’s pretty thrilling.  Apart from the convenience store detour, the entire movie takes place on the same block, usually not going farther than Ice Cube’s line-of-sight.  I’ve had a rough relationship with movies where nothing happens, for every The Conversation, there’s a Limits of Control.  For every Slacker, there’s a Waking Life.  For every Hiroshima Mon Amour, there’s a Mon Uncle.  Friday falls into the first half, I’m happy to say.  The jokes aren’t always the greatest, but the characters are likable-they drink 40’s and Kool Aid, not 8$ fruit smoothies, is what I’m saying.

Ice Cube plays Craig, who just lost his job for stealing boxes.  He claims it wasn’t him, but nobody (including himself) seems to really give a shit.  His dad (John Witherspoon) wants him to go find a new job, but instead he’s gonna sit on the porch and get high and talk about girls with Smokey (Chris Tucker.)  Smokey’s a small time drug dealer who smokes half the product that his boss, Big Worm, supplies him with.  So, as you can see, the shit will eventually get real.  I think this could be a requirement of all Ice Cube movies.  “Guys, I’m not gonna be in it unless shit gets real in the third act.”  That was his way of keeping his urban edge when he started acting.  He needed people to know what it was like living with Ice Cube-At the end of the day, you get shot at, and then you fight somebody.

At its best, the movie just feels like you’re hanging out on the porch with Craig, listening to Smokey’s dumb stories.  This could be the movie’s biggest flaw if being Ice Cube’s pal aint your thing, but I was into it.  It’s a very relaxed flick.  I want this thing on VHS.

Michael Clayton

A month or so ago, some friends and I were talking about all of the movies we hadn’t seen.  Not literally all of them, that would be absurd, strictly the really famous and semi-famous ones.  I later wrote down a list of about 60 flicks that seemed like the most pertinent.  I started working my way down the list and watched Midnight Cowboy the next day.  So, you can see I got started immediately.  But then I slacked off.  I looked at the list the other day, and noticed that I had only watched two others that month-Drugstore Cowboy and Wall Street.  Now, I wasn’t in any rush to blaze through the list, but this was disappointing.  Three movies?  That’s weak man.  However, I’ve gotten back on track this week.  I nailed five of those suckers.  Michael Clayton, Friday, The Wages of Fear, Rashomon and Manhattan.  I might finish the other reviews eventually, but for now, here’s Michael Clayton.

Whoa, I finally did it.  When this came out a few years ago, all I heard was the ridiculous hyperbole Peter Travers and his ilk usually reserve for Jason Reitman movies.  Everybody loved Michael Clayton.  They might have wanted to hug him as much as Juno, but holy shit, people were diggin Michael Clayton.  So there was no way it could ever live up to the hype, right?  Well no, when all of the sane people finally got around to reviewing it, the situation looked even worse.  “Yes, this movie really is good.”  They said, “but it’s gonna be one where you really have to pay attention.”

“Nuts.” I said.  “There better not be a bunch of characters for me to keep track of.”

“Nah.”  Said everybody.  “There’s not too many.  But you do have to keep track of all of them.  Seriously, you’re not allowed to blink or you’ll miss something.  If your focus drifts away for over a second, you’re fucked.  However, it really is a great movie, so you’ll have to see it eventually.”

“Damnit.”  I said.  “Will I ever be ready for Michael Clayton?”

So I watched The French Connection.  I watched Primer.  I watched all three Matrix movies in the same sitting.  I watched Videodrome.  I watched Southland Tales-multiple times.  I watched Inland Empire.  Last night, I watched Michael Clayton and I have good news.

Michael Clayton is not nearly as confusing and incomprehensible as any of the above movies.  Well, most of them anyway.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s still pretty tough.  For example, the movie opens with Sydney Pollack delivering this incomprehensible speech to Cloon the Goon, and then some stuff happens four days later in the timeline, and then, half an hour into the movie, Sydney Pollack picks up again.  It’s probably as hard to follow as the second Matrix, but not as confusing as the third.

The director is Tony Gilroy, who mostly just writes other people’s thrillers-Devil’s  Advocate, The Bourne series, Bait, some other stuff.  This is his first shot at directing, and it comes off like a lot of other first-time efforts from other guys who’ve been working in movies for a long time.  It reminds me a lot of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Tommy Lee Jones debut directorial joint-slow, quiet, but plenty of stuff going on.  But that was an actor’s movie, and this is a writer’s movie.  Dialogue is important here, and not in a “drawing attention to itself” Glengarry Glenn Ross way.  It’s more about what’s not being said than what is, so I guess we’ll also give props to the actors, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Cloon the Goon, etc.

Michael Clayton is confusing, but not in any weird metaphysical ways.  It’s confusing the way a good crime story is, because that’s what it is.  The title character is a lawyer, but not a trial lawyer, he’s a different kind of guy his prestigious firm keeps on staff to do their dirty work.  Inevitably, Mike (Cloon the Goon) gets involved in some stuff he shouldn’t be getting his head into, etc, etc.  Not to say the story’s predicable, it just fits into a certain mold of crime story.  It’s not a lawyer movie or a mystery movie, it’s a crime movie-It’s not about solving the problem, it’s about living with yourself when you do shitty things to people for a living.  It’s a damn smart movie too.  Only once did I notice it dipping into the land of heavy-handed symbolism, but it comes so early on, and there’s so much that has yet to be explained that it pulls it off.  I guess there was the bit with the horses that I didn’t really get, but it’s not like there was a Chris Cornell song playing in the background, so I’ll let that one slide too.  This is classic noir.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll leave you with that.