Friday, January 29, 2010

Wasted Postage: Reports from the Netflix Theater

Stranger than Paradise (1984)
Jim Jarmusch's breakout, second film is an exercise in constraint and black-and-white minimalism. The camera barely moves inside the spare and grimy New York City apartments of the films first act, the frozen Cleveland streets of the second, or the cheap Florida motel of the third. Sudden moments of poignancy are littered among the quite spots between conversations and circular chatting. Stranger than Paradise follows Willie, a 20-something Hungarian immigrant who does his best to be all-American — watching baseball, eating TV dinners, speaking without an accent — until his teenage cousin Eva comes to visit from the old world. Willie is not exactly the consummate host to his fish-out-of-water (Jarmusch's favorite archetype) cousin, but by the time he finally sees the fun in teaching her his interpretations of America, she's on a train to Cleveland.

A year later, Willie and his friend Eddie, bored with their recent race-track winnings, head to Cleveland to visit Eva, innocently believing it will be a beautiful city on a lake. What they find is snow-blanketed and rusty. "You know, it's funny... you come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same," Eddie remarks. Soon, Willie, Eddie and Eva ditch the cold for Florida, searching for a place to call paradise.
Jarmusch's camera has a way of finding the rough corners and shaggy dogs in each on-location set, and nearly any still from the film would make a fantastic album cover or framed print. Stripped of action, with little plotting and sparse dialogue, Stranger than Paradise boroughs in and stays. The moments that stick — the little things matter — leave a strange, unnerving resonance waiting to be revisited. A

Big Fan (2009)
Patton Oswalt turns in a memorable dramatic performance as a man self-detrimentally obsessed with professional football. Working a dead-end tollbooth job, Oswalt passes the hours listening to sports talk radio, jotting down notes for his best moment of every day: his turn to call in and talk smack against Philadelphia Phil.
But when a chance encounter with his favorite NY Giants player ends with Oswalt in the hospital with brain hemorrhaging and a black eye, he is faced with either pressing charges against the man who nearly ended his life, or allowing the best player on his favorite team back on the field.
Big Fan is the directorial debut by former Onion editor and writer of The Wrestler Robert Siegel. It's namely a drama, but the first half showcases the kind of "funny because it's so true, and so depressing" observations often seen in Onion briefs. The rising action may leave some feeling manipulated, but the climactic point is worth the hardship and excessively depressing moments. B+
Funny People (2009)
Funny People works because it lets Adam Sandler essentially play himself, if he were a morbidly-depressed, sad-sack horseshit excuse for a human being. The role allows him to make fun of the inherent silliness of his "shibby-be-do-wa" shtick, the excess of entertainment's top rungs, and the self-deprecation that forms the basis for some of the best stand-up comedy, while at the same time allowing our generation to feel empathy for a character we grew up with in Billy Madison, etc. Integrating actual archival footage and pictures of Sandler, we are introduced to him as George Simmons, the aforementioned comedy superstar, told by his doctors in the first scene that he is dying of leukemia. This diagnosis prompts Simmons/Sandler to reevaluate his priorities and, you know, "find whats truly important." Enter Seth Rogen, a struggling up-and-coming stand-up still stuck in the doldrums of open-mic night at a popular improv club. He lives with Jonah Hill, a slightly more advanced but still struggling comic, and a hilariously clueless and vain network TV star played by Jason Schwartzman. After a chance meeting with Sandler, Rogen is offered the chance to write jokes for the dying comedian and serve as his all-around assistant/bitch, before, uh, they actually become real friends and stuff.
The best aspect of Funny People, besides the barrage of one-liners, the artful mastery of the dick joke and perfect ensemble cast, is the nuanced way they treat Sandler's "I'm-a-piece-of-shit-with-no-friends" epiphany — he doesn't use his illness so much to become a better person, he uses it as a tool of manipulation in a desperate attempt to win the heart of "the one that got away" (Leslie Mann). It may all be a bit fatalistic, but years of habit and personality don't change over the course of 2.5 hours, they just budge a little bit.
Also, they got James Taylor to say "fuck Facebook." B+

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Download a new track from Yeasayer's sure-to-be mind-blowing new album "Odd Blood," out Feb. on Secretly Canadian, here:

UPDATE: Upon further review, I don't like this track nearly as much as the first single released, "Ambling Alp," one of the best tracks of all of last year. Still pumped for the decidedly '80s leaning full-release next month.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I want you to be as quiet as an ant not even thinking about pissing on cotton

Several months back, I wrote a small bit here expressing my dismay with the stupidity of our criminals. Can't we have a few burglars who, at least, wear gloves and a mask, or don't leave footprints in the snow leading directly to a not-so-secret hideout? Apparently someone was listening:

It's so refreshing to see people take pride in their work. This should give the fuzz more to do than speed traps and the war on seat belts/smoking in-doors/texting-and-driving/mattress-label removal.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Half-assed record review: Vampire Weekend - Contra

I was going to say that without guitars, Vampire Weekend becomes too precious. Too cute, too island-y, too pop, too ..... something. But that's not true ... some of the best tracks on Contra lean almost completely to the electronic/laptop side of the equation.

Whatever it is, I don't like Contra nearly as much as the debut, and it's probably because singer Ezra Koenig doesn't have jack shit to say. His vacations were all sailboats and lobster and filet mignon, his education Ivy League, and his wealth (likely) trust-funded. And that lifestyle and the carefully chosen keywords peppered throughout the debut was the message itself: "I come from the East Coast and I am here to rock you like something quite less than a hurricane." But that's about the entire depth of Koenig's tale, and any attempt to branch out smells like fake crab meat. Nearly very lyric on Contra is all pretense and almost no meaning. What the fuck is "I think you're a Contra" supposed to mean? We are supposed to receive the sentiment as a mystery, words to be deconstructed, analyzed, eventually understood. I call bullshit. Ezra doesn't even know what the fuck it's supposed to mean. Of course it's soooo cool to be meaningless, but it distracts from an album chock-full of interesting percussion and keyboards (and too few guitars). But, of course, all this would be moot if Ezra dug up as many great melodies as were found on the debut. That's all we really want, if we're honest, and when they aren't there, we start looking at everything else in the room.
Contra is still playing in my car, but with every trip through the album, more and more tracks are being skipped immediately. Oh yeah, and sometimes it just sounds like ska, hahaha. C+/B-

Wasted Postage: Reports from the Netflix theater

Hey look! Three spineless movie reviews, they all got Bs!

When Office Space writer/directer Mike Judge announced his return to the workplace comedy with Extract, it was something akin to Michael Jordan's return to basketball for the Initech cult. Alas, Extract more resembles Jordan's return to the Wizards, not his return to the Bulls after baseball — the quick first step and fade-away jumper are mostly still there — but of course it just doesn't feel the same. No two movies are the same, and if that were possible, it would just be redundant. So, it was wise for Judge's workplace follow-up to take place in a totally different world than Office Space — Extract's nameless southwest setting has more in common with Judge's long-running cartoon King of the Hill than it does the white-collar hell of Bill Lumbergh-land.

Jason Bateman stars as the owner of a small factory producing flavor extracts for cooking. His days typically deal with settling disputes between the lunkhead line workers and trying to find a buyer for his company before coming home each day to a sexless marriage. Things take a turn for the strange when con-woman Mila Kunis reads about a former Extract employee who recently lost his balls in a workplace accident, and sets about convincing said employee to sue for all the money he can. Ben Affleck turns in one of several great supporting performance as Bateman's bartender friend/drug-pusher who further complicates things when he convinces Bateman to fix his marital woes in the least honest way possible. Extract is very funny, I found myself laughing throughout much of its lean 90 minutes, and Judge still knows exactly how annoying people can be, nailing the ticks and quirks than can make your neighbors and co-workers unbearable. Perhaps it was a bit unfair to expect one man to define hourly-wage malaise for a second decade in row. B

Up (2009)
Pixar has never made a terrible film, but not every feature from the CG animation powerhouse is going to be a classic, no matter how hard critics try to convince us. Like every good Pixar production, Up gifts the adults in the theater with serious themes and emotions (Up deals with grief, memory, loneliness, friendship, goals, etc, especially well in a masterful, extended vignette showing the old man growing up) without stripping the film of colorful characters, humor and plot. I don't know how to say this in any interesting way, but Up just got kind of boring, I found myself begging the characters to just get the damn thing over with. I toyed with the idea of writing a review that sarcastically complained about how unrealistic Up is ("Hey, balloons can't pull a house!"), but there is actually some validity to believability and consistency issues, i.e. all that can be asked of any film is that it follows its own rules, the rules of whatever universe is established for the story. In Up, one minute the old man is totally reliant on a walker, the next he's fighting the villain while stopping an entire house from floating away by holding onto a garden hose. I can only suspend my disbelief for so long, even in a cartoon with a floating house and talking dogs. I'm a god-damned adult, right? B

In the Loop (2009)
This profane British political satire involves US and UK bureaucrats, generals, politicians and their young aids telling each other to fuck off, eat shit and die for 106 minutes, which is fine, because apparently the British have found ways to curse I didn't even know existed. I mean, these motherfuckers really know how to fucking curse. They make Goodfellas look like a goddamn episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. As Americans, we should be ashamed. Filmed in the one-camera style of The Office, In the Loop often feels more like a long television episode than a feature film. At times, it brilliantly skewers the way war policy can often be a comedy of errors, incompetence and falsehoods. Other times it amounts to little more than hearing political rivals telling each other to fuck off, eat shit and die. B

Monday, January 18, 2010


Much talk surrounding the unfortunately-coined and excessively-hyped "glo-fi" or "chillwave" genre has to do with memory -- its proponents say the music brings them back to childhood -- listening to music on tape, playing 8-bit video games, humid summers, all remembered through the memory-altering haze of late teens and early 20s drug experimentation.

Those proponents (Pitchfork, et al) and even the opponents (Cokemachineglow, etc) often agree on one thing: albums by scene-leaders Neon Indian, Washed Out, etc stir a nostalgia for the idea of those memories more than the real thing. And here is where my confusion starts: these albums don't even remotely bring me back to those halcyon days. Other than the occasional 8-bit reference to a Nintendo game sound settling into the mix of warped synth, crunchy guitars and ethereal vocals, this music doesn't connect with me on any nostalgic level, and I assume that I had a pretty standard childhood experience, with cultural touchstones shared with the other brats close to my age and those a few years older. Neon Indian doesn't sound like an old cassette found in the street any more than any other electronic music does. Heavily processed electronic sounds always sound like the future to me, even if they are referencing the technology of the past. Perhaps this is because I wasn't listening to lo-fi, tape-only record labels in the 1st grade, but I have a hard time believing the other gen-y bloggers and music writers born in the early to mid '80s were either.
Curiously, the conscientiously post-modern music that connects with me best on a hazy-nostalgia-emotional-memory level is music that samples '70s and '80s television, like The Go! Team's 2005 masterpiece "Thunder, Lightning, Strike." The album is full of horns and strings found in soundtracks and theme songs for shows like "CHiPS" and "Charlies Angles" that were hits well before my time, but played repeatedly on WGN during Saturday afternoons, once the cartoons were over. "Thunder, Lightening, Strike" immediately conjured feelings of bright primary colors, "Sesame Street," the school bus, art class, aforementioned Saturday afternoons, tree houses, everything good from 20 years ago. But, again the album is likely more about the idea of those memories than the events themselves.

Sidenote: I actually enjoy Neon Indian's debut, "Psychic Chasms," despite the efforts of the hype-machine to ruin it. I'm just lost as to why I seem to be reacting to it in a completely different way than every review I've read.

Is anyone else not having the reaction to the glo-fi genre that the online-music press is wetting them selves over? Thoughts? What new music puts you in a nostalgic mood?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Wasted Postage: Reports from the Netflix theater

Gomorrah (2009)
Gomorrah is so dense, it's details so esoteric, that some of its elements only reveal their relevancy during the epilogue. Waiting two hours and 15 minutes for an entire sub plot's potency to ferment is asking a lot of an audience, but it's worth it. Based on the gritty Roberto Saviano book, Gomorrah follows the violent path leveled by the Camorra gang in one of the most depressing concrete-and-steal housing projects I've ever seen. The terraced, immense structures look like stills from any number of post-apocalyptic films. It's hard to believe anything lives there, let alone festers and kills and eats and sleeps and fucks there. As Newsweek described the crime-infested projects in Naples, they "aren't as bad as (Gomorrah) makes them out to be. They're worse," or as the epilogue says, they're the "biggest open-air drug market in the world."

Like an Italian City of God, hand-held cameras and frenetic, unpredictable events give the film a documentary look and feel. Without City of God's more straight-forward narrative and plotting, Gomorrah instead focuses on several parallel characters dealing with an environment they can't control. Every fragments of the drug trade's devastating affect on Italy — everything from its hands in high fashion, to pollution, to street drug deals and of course, unrestrained killingare shown with an unflinching eye. Gomorrah is a relentlessly bleak film without an ounce of sanitation, compromise or the kind of audience-pandering that has rendered Hollywood embarrassing. A-

Thirst (2009)
Thanks to Twilight, the Twi-hards, Twi-moms, Fangbangers, and all the rest, a working person can't even enjoy the simple pleasures of a vampire movie without immeasurable shame and hiding. You find yourself pleading with judgmental friends, "B-bu-but it's the new film by that Korean dude that directed 'Oldboy,' haven't you seen 'Oldboy'!?!" This was apparently not enticement enough, so there I was, watching a vampire flick by myself, curled on the recliner with a blanket like so many 16-year-olds. Oh, but of course Thirst is not really about vampires, you tell yourself, the title describes both the thirst for blood our protagonist, Priest Sang-hyeon, feels after a blood transfusion accidentally grants the vampiric blood burdens and pleasures, but also his thirst for lust and violence and all the prurient interests resisted in the priesthood. As we learn early in the film, the order was not a good fit in the first place for Sang-hyeon, a man more interested in science, who, during confessions, advises depressed followers to seek pharmaceuticals and not prayer (my kind of Priest!). Once infected with vampire blood, he's enjoying the shit out of extra-marital affair, and scheming with his lover to free her from the bounds of wedlock. This is where Thirst goes certifiably Lynchian, with dreams and life intersecting into a bloody mess of guilt, love and horror. Director Chan-wook Park loves the grand, Shakespearean tragedy — arch-enemies standing between star-crossed lovers, ugly fate and revenge tackling doomed inevitability, themes that become all too clear as it reaches the bloody conclusion. B