Sunday, January 27, 2008

Revenge of the Nerds: Part Three

Click here for part two

From A. O. Scott's review of Juno:
Ms. Cody, Mr. Reitman and Ms. Page have conspired, intentionally or not,
to produce a feminist, girl-powered rejoinder and complement to Knock-
ed Up
. Despite what most products of the Hollywood comedy boys’ club would have you believe, it is possible to possess both a uterus and a sense of humor.

From John Anderson's take on women in 2007 film:
One of the more prominent roles of the year is the mail-
order blow-up doll Bianca in Lars and the Real Girl,
which really has to say it all. Because she certainly won't...
It's like real life: When a woman walks into a room full
of men, behavior changes; when a woman walks into
a movie full of men, the movie changes
. It gets more
serious. And since audiences are avoiding serious, they're al-
so avoiding women. And the movies are avoiding them, too.

Manohla Dargis on 4 Months,
3 Weeks and 2 Days
4 Months deserves to be seen by the largest audience pos-
sible, partly because it offers
a welcome alternative to the coy, trivializing attitude toward abortion now in vogue in American fiction films.

4 Months opens in Seattle on 2/8 (venue to be announced).

Finally: Five Films in Which Women
Actually Go Through With Abortions

Endnote: And here's something I just wrote for Amazon.
While I wouldn't label the following film "feminist," the POV
is decidely female. "Since the 1980s, the nerd has triumphed
in comedies from Weird Science to Napoleon Dynamite, but
what about the female of the species? In Eagle vs. Shark,
New Zealand's Taika Waititi presents his offbeat romance from
the perspective of the likeably quirky Lily (co-writer Loren Horsley)." So, Horsley writes and stars in her significant other's feature (in his commentary, he says they've been together for 12 years). Horsley also created the character. Not exactly a cor-
rective, but certainly a subtle improvement. And when Lily and Jemaine Clement's Jarrod sleep together? Well, they use a condom.

Images from That's So LA! and

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Three of an Imperfect Pair

Black Lips, Good
Bad Not Evil, Vice

[G]arage-flavored punk
rock with a Southern ac-
cent, a messed-up and bluesy undertow, and the gleefully destructive impact
of a 15-year-old with a bag of firecrackers.
-- Mark Deming on the Black Lips

The fourth record from the Black Lips was the musical
discovery of the year. I'm just not sure which one—which
year, that is. I discovered the infectious single "Veni Vidi
Vici" in 2007; I discovered Good Bad Not Evil in 2008.
In either case, it's the most satisfying blast of garage-punk to
hit the streets since the Dirtbombs' Dangerous Magical Noise.

Not that anyone would con-
fuse this Atlanta quartet
for the Detroit combo. A
few tracks betray a count-
ry influence. Others work
humor into the equation.
Arguably, "How Do You
Tell a Child That Some-
one Has Died" borders on
bad taste, yet I suspect it's
something this foursome has genuinely pondered—after "preparing" for such ponderings.

[Coincidentally enough, James C. Strouse's feature debut, Grace
Is Gone, centers on a family man (John Cusack) agonizing over this very subject for 85 minutes. It is, incidentally, a fine film, although it goes without saying that it isn't very humorous.]

Mostly, Good Bad Not Evil is an instant mood enhancer.
There's a time for Nick Drake and Ian Curtis—the Lords of
Mopetown—and then there's Miller Time! Or the musical
equivalent thereof. It begins the minute you spin this disc.

Click here for the "Katrina" video.

Pretendo, ][, Country Club Records

This New York trio titled their second album ][ rather than II.
The press notes explain that "two" references Atari. If I hadn't
read that, I never would've guessed. [I blame Sigur Rós for get-
ting this minimalist party started with the "parenthetical" ( ) rec-
ord.] The group's name, meanwhile, references Nintendo...a fur-
ther indication that I'm not a member of their target audience.

That said, Pretendo's
prog-oriented alt-rock
is perfectly competent
stuff. And competency
takes skill. While I would-
n't claim they're complete-
ly generic or that these 12
tunes are over-produced—
two major turn-offs—I feel
like I've heard it before.

Nonetheless, ][ does feature a selection called "My Archi-
tect." Could that be a reference to Nathaniel Kahn's first-per-
son doc about his father, architect Louis Kahn? If so: cool.

Grizzy Bear, Friend EP, Warp Records

With their larger-than-life harmony chorales and
meticulous transitions, Grizzly Bear's songs are
already cinematic. That makes the Friend EP (Warp)
something like extras on a director's-cut DVD.
-- Jon Pareles in The New York Times

As with The Fiery Fur-
naces EP
, Friend isn't
really a mini-album, mak-
ing these releases econom-
ically advantageous over
most others, since they feat-
ure 40+ minutes of music
for the price of an extended single. Of greater importance, both offer material superior to the usual castaways and cutouts.

Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger crafted their EP on their own, while Grizzly Bear gets by with a little help from their friends. They include Atlas Sound (Deerhunter's Bradford Cox), Band of Horses, Beirut's Zach Condon, CSS, and the Dirty Projectors.

I passed on sophomore effort Yellow House (2006), because it was too pretty. I'm all for beauty in indie rock, but I need a few sharp edges here and there—and not just lyrically. Friend does what the best EPs should: It puts the band in a new perspective.

Certainly, there's some heavenly stuff here, like the epic "Little Brother." Then there's CSS's sprightly cover ("Knife," which is al-
so covered by Atlas Sound) and BoH's rollicking contribution ("Plans"). The compositions of Edward Droste and Daniel Rossen lend themselves surprisingly well to such divergent approaches.

But the main reason I pick-
ed up the EP is for Grizzly Bear's version of Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)." To hear this controversial Crys-
tals number sung by a man—let alone a gay man—is a rev-
elation (and due credit to the Motels and Hole for preced-
ing them to the, um, punch).

That Rossen—I'm assuming it's Rossen—sings it so beautifully doesn't reduce the cringe factor inherent in the words, i.e. "He
hit me and I knew he loved me / 'cause if he didn't care for me /
I could have never made him mad / he hit me and I was glad."

Instead, he raises worthwhile questions about gender politics
in girl-group pop (and pop in general), about domestic abuse
(not exactly the exclusive province of heterosexuals), and ab-
out denial, i.e. I mean, when exactly does a hit feel like a kiss?

I love the idea of a lovely little number that can inspire debate
for decades. Thanks to Grizzly Bear for keeping the conver-
sation going—and for giving fans some real bang for their buck.

Endnote: For my money, Black Lips is a terrible name.
Just a few weeks ago, I confused these guys with Black Dice.
And I'm sure I'll do it again. Further, after the Flaming Lips
came to fame, "lips" should've been retired. "Black" bothers
me less, though it's hardly original, i.e. Black Sabbath, Black
Keys, etc. Images from the AMG and the Pretendo website.

Monday, January 21, 2008

There Will Be Dissent

Here are some (slightly edited)
messages I sent a friend, now that
I've had time to digest both titles.

I'm sorry to inform you that my biggest cinematic disappoint-
ment of the New Year is...There Will Be Blood. I realize I'm part of a tiny minority. I enjoyed much
of the film—especially the supporting performances, the cinema-
tography, and Jonny Greenwood's striking score—but I just can't abide that ham-fisted final act. And I'm a P.T. Anderson/Daniel Day-Lewis fan (though the jury's still out on Paul Dano).

Click here to hear Daniel Plainview's infamous milkshake line.

I'll spare you any more negativity. Instead, I have some-
thing positive to share. Though I had some reservations ab-
out the ending—or endings—to No Country for Old Men, Anderson's overheated oil opera has swept them from my mind.

I now appreciate the Coen Brothers' masterful achievement
more than ever (or as you termed it, "the Coen miracle"). I'm
not suggesting every movie should conclude on such an existen-
tial note, but I'll take it over yelling, screaming, bad food anal-
ogies, flying spittle, and slurping noises (?!) any day of the week.

And here's how I respond-
ed once my friend assured
me I hadn't offended him:

No Country was off my top 10 for a spell, but once I put
it back, it was there to stay.

I did read much of the commentary at Jim Emerson's Scanners site, and there's some great stuff. Then I came across the following:

"No Country for Old Men is one of those movies
I think provides a critical litmus test. You can quibble
about it all you like, but if you don't get the artistry at
work then, I submit, you don't get what movies are."

I couldn't disagree more, whether that statement is attached to
No Country, There Will Be Blood—or Inland Empire, which dropped off my list in favor of No Country. Consensus is nice in theory, but we shouldn't all be expected to agree on what con-
stitutes "artistry." That would be boring. It also implies that crit-
ics should evaluate movies using identical aesthetic criteria.

I'm not a contrarian by nat-
ure. Often, I like the same
films as everyone else, and
for many of the same rea-
sons. But sometimes I don't.

The placement of No Country at #10 on my list doesn't mean I "get what movies are" any less than you, Emer-
son, and everyone else who ranked it higher. It just means Away From Her, Into the Wild, and a few other titles moved me more.

And here's Godfrey Chesire in The Independent Weekly:

"Though I've regarded Anderson as something of a fraudu-
lent striver from the first, I go into every new film hoping to
be won over. And I must stress that in the first half of There
Will Be Blood, I was—completely. If there were Oscars for
portions of movies, I'll grant you that the initial hour of
Anderson's opus would deserve that Best Picture trophy."

Funny, but I've liked Anderson since
his debut, Hard Eight—though I found Magnolia bloated and self-indulgent—
yet I agree about There Will be
Blood. Click here for his full review.

Endnote: Coincidentally enough,
I recently came across a James Wol-
cott piece
, in which he quotes The
New York Times: "If you don't end
up liking each one of [Jonathan]
Franzen's people, you probably just don't like people."

Though I haven't read Franzen's Corrections—I've been mean-
ing to for years—there's a distressing God-like quality to these sorts of statements, i.e. If you disagree with me, you're wrong. Yet, as this author reminds, "Criticism is an art, not a science."

I've always believed that. While I'm sure I've committed my share of critical crimes over the years, I try to explain what I think, and not what anyone else should think. For the record, I find Emerson to be a terrific writer and a fine person. I still value the film re-
views he wrote for The Rocket in the 1980s. Chances are good I would've discovered enduring favorites like David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch on my own, but I remain grateful for his wise counsel.

Images from I Drink Your Milkshake, The Original Playlist,
The Cinematic Art, and Film Comment (click the link for Rich-
ard T. Jameson's Hard Eight review). Note that an anachronistic
milk bottle—rather than a milkshake—figures in No Country.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

But I Might Die Tonight

Howlin Rain, Magnif-
icent Fiend, Birdman/
American [3/4/08]

I've always believed your records should be something completely different from your live show. To me, it should be like a big Hollywood movie experience, where you don't want to see all the details, all the lit-
tle things that make it come together, you just want the result to hit you.
-- Ethan Miller on Magnificent Fiend

Howlin RainHowlin Rain
"Roll On The Rusted Days" (mp3)
from Howlin Rain
(Birdman Records)
Buy at Amazon

[I'll post an mp3 from the new album as soon as it becomes available.]

Magnificent Fiend , the second record from singer/guitar-
ist Ethan Miller's Howlin Rain, is a throwback to another time. Specifically the golden age of guitar rock. Though the group is based in Santa Cruz, there's as much of a groovy Southern vibe
to their sound as a jazzy West Coast one. (Miller is best known
for his work with fiery psych-rockers Comets on Fire.)

So, they play guitar rock or what
used to be called album-oriented rock, except you could just as easily call it organ rock. There's a lot of Hammond B3 on this thing, and guit-
ar + organ = two great tastes that go great together. (Alas, "organ rock" doesn't have quite the same ring.)

Miller's cohorts include guitarists Mike Jackson and Eli Eckert, bassist Ian Gradek, drummer Garett Goddard, and
multi-instrumentalist Joel Robinow. John Moloney
(The Sunburned Hand of Man), who played on their 2006
self-titled debut, has since returned to his original band.

As influences, the press notes namecheck the Grateful
Dead, Procul Harum, Vanilla Fudge, and the 13th Floor El-
evators (among others), so it's not as if Howlin Rain are
dodging references to the music of their formative years.

Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel also gets a nod, but Bernie Wor-
rell (P-Funk's keyboard wiz) deserves a mention. In addition, I hear a dash of the Allman Brothers in the instrumental interplay and the Faces in the vocals (see "Dancers at the End of Time").

Further, I've been listening to Cat Stevens lately...and there's nothing unusual about that. On the surface, the American rock outfit has little in common with the British pop purvey-
or—Miller's raspy pipes certainly don't—but on "Riverboat" and "Calling Lightning Pt. 2" ("Lord, have mercy on my soul/have mercy on my soul"), they evoke his harder-edged material, like the organ-drenched "But I Might Die Tonight" from Tea for the Tillerman and the movie Deep End.

I can't claim much familiarity with Comets on Fire or How-
lin Rain's first recording, but their follow-up scratches
my itch for first-rate guitar rock. I've listened several times
now, and it sounds better with each spin. These guys aren't
exactly reinventing the wheel here. Rather, they're perfect-
ing and refining it. Magnificent Fiend distills the heyday
of freeform radio onto one convenient disc.

Cross-posted at

Endnote: Black Mountain and Howlin Rain play Neumo's on
Thurs., 1/31. For more information about the band, please see
their official website. For more info about the Northwest Film
Forum screening of Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End—my favor-
ite film of the year—click here. Images from the Howlin Rain My-
Space Page
(starting with Comets-era Miller at LA's Arthur Fest).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

We Are Stardust, We Are Golden

There is not one good or authentic country & western song in the entire movie, but there's still Debra Winger riding the mechanical bull like it was meant to be rode and that's enough.
-- Don Graham, Giant Country

Mechanical Bull, A Million Yes-
terdays, Woodstock MusicWorks

The name conjures up images of Debra Winger in Urban Cowboy (you know, simulating sex on the barroom fixture
in question). I'm not sure that's such a good thing, although
your mileage may vary. Nonetheless, this Woodstock sextet
does put a citified spin on country, so it seems somehow fitting.

Yet describing Mechan-
ical Bull's second full-
length as country or alt-
country is rather reductive.

I'm reminded more of Fleetwood Mac in the way Chase Pierson and Avalon Peacock (the daughter of composer Annette Peacock) harmonize. They've got a Lindsay Buckingham/Christine McVie thing going on, except Pierson sounds more like Steve Earle than Buckingham.

A Million Yesterdays conjures up California's country-rock scene of the '70s combined with the Paisley Underground's more independent-minded approach—except for that West Coast part...and those mountains of cocaine. Nice touch: Medeski, Martin and Wood's John Medeski contributes Hammond B3 organ to the torchy "Luke Warm Coffee."

Bret Mosley, Light & Blood, Woodstock MusicWorks

Click here to listen to "Run It Again"

A New Yorker-by-way-of Texas, Brooklyn's Bret Mosley makes front porch music. I'm thinking of the sequence in I'm Not There
in which Carl Marcus Franklin (the son of director Carl Franklin) and Richie Havens duet on Bob Dylan's "Tombstone Blues."

Granted, similar scenes feature in most movies
set Down South, like John Sayles's upcoming Honey-
. That doesn't make them any less enjoyable.

[And Havens's well received
appearance in the original Woodstock "brings it all back
home," to paraphrase I'm Not There's slippery subject.]

This isn't to suggest that Mosley plays "the straight and natural
blues," as Mississippi Fred McDowell used to say; Light & Blood moves more like an amalgam of country, blues, and soul. Mosley handles dobro and stompboard, while other musicians add har-
monica, pedal steel, and bass, but you can hardly hear them.

For the most part, Mosley's Chase Pierson-produced deb-
ut sounds like one guy on one porch singing and strumming
his way through 11 originals
and two covers, Son House's "Preachin' Blues" and the traditional "Amazing Grace."
And sometimes that's all you need. Recommended to fans
of Taj Mahal and Ben Harper.

Endnote: The lyrical subject line stems from Joni Mitchell's
song "Woodstock." And I tried to find a still of Debra Winger
riding a mechanical bull, but my search came to nought.

Images from The Weinstein Company, the official Bret Mosley website (when he was a few years younger than Franklin), The
80s Movies Rewind
, The Mechanical Bull MySpace Page (Pea-
cock), and The Hungary Page. (Apparently, Winger is Hungar-
ian. According to this site, by way of the Associated Press, "People
with some claim to Hungarian ancestry have been nominated
for Oscars 136 times since 1929, when the first ones were hand-
ed out, and have taken home 30 of the golden statuettes.")

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Rude Boys

Yoni Gordon and the Goods, Bur-
ied in the Basement, self-released

I dreamed I saw Billy
Bragg last night, and he spoke
these words so true / He said,
"The songs that you sing, they
won't mean anything, if singing
songs is the only thing you do."
-- "I Dreamed I Saw Billy Bragg Last Night"

The first thing I noticed about the sophomore release from Yoni Gordon and the Goods—after admiring the nifty cover—is that it sounded instantly familiar. I can't say whether the Somerville, MA trio were influenced by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, or simply by the same artists that inspired those Brooklyn rock-
ers, i.e. Elvis Costello, the Jam, the Clash, and Billy Bragg.

There's even a song called "I Dreamed I Saw Billy Bragg Last
Night," which references the Clash. Then, in "Up the Punks," Gordon yells, "CUT THE CRAP!" (The all-caps come from the lyr-
ic sheet.) That is, of course, the title of the final Clash recording.

I'm not accusing Gordon &
Co. of ripping off someone else's sound. There's a fine
line between imitation and inspiration, and they strad-
dle rather than cross it.

Gordon's higher-pitched vocals don't bring Leo to mind, but musically, lyrically, and politically, these outfits are cut from the same rough-hewn
cloth. (As the front man confesses, "I'm a socialist at heart.")

So, he arpeggiates away on his guitar, Scott Eisenberg pounds away on the drums, and Faisal Aswat riddims away on the bass,
as in Leo's classic anthem "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?"

They're Yanks in love with British and Irish punk (think Stiff
Little Fingers and early U2). In "Only So Many Bridges You
Can Burn," Gordon even sings, "Oh Danny Boy, Danny Girl."

Hey, nothing wrong with that. Those are my "influences,"
too—artists who made an impact on me when I was in my
20s. Even if I didn't go on to form a band in their image.

A further look through
the lyrics confirms that
Gordon's stories aren't
twice-told tales; they're spec-
ific to him. And he some-
times writes as if he were
a director or screenwriter.

"When the Sidewalk Ends,"
for example, features the lines, "Cut to wide shot; sidewalk is white hot. You move like someone lit a fuse below / Cam-
era zooms in, but you're always moving / When the sidewalk
ends, where will you go/ Oh, you go on!" I can imagine Leo
singing something similar, but not in such cinematic terms.

I can't predict whether fans of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
will embrace these parallels or reject them. The same goes
for the Clash/Costello crowd. Buried in the Basement fol-
lows in their rousing tracks, yet a closer listen reveals interesting idiosyncrasies. No doubt the next release from Yoni Gordon and the Goods will bear even more of an original stamp.

The lights were going dim, a hush went through the crowd.
Who will have a song to sing when Billy's not around?

Endnote: For more information, please click here
or here. Pictures from Google Images (Gordon), Touch
& Go Records
(Leo and Co.), and PerformerMag (CD cover).

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

This Is the New Year

So this is the new year
and I don't feel any different.
-- Death Cab for Cutie,

"The New Year" (2003)

Reviews and assignments I'm working on this month.

Amazon DVDs: War & Peace [five-disc set] (the Beeb version with Sir Anthony Hopkins), Erik the Viking (with Tim Robbins), With a Song in My Heart: The Jane Froman Story (with the in-
comparable Susan Hayward), Canvas (with Marcia Gay Harden and Joe Pantoliano), Desires of a Housewife (with Sharon Stone and Timothy Hutton), Eagle vs Shark, Kurt Cobain: About a Son (for my SIFF review of the latter, click here), and To Kill a King.

Amazon Theatricals: Teeth (psycho-sexual horror), The Counterfeiters (based on the book by Adolf Burger), Grace
Is Gone
(domestic drama with John Cusack), and U2 3D.

Still playing: The Orphanage and Starting Out in the Evening.

Northwest Film Forum: Panel participant in "Filmmaker's
Saloon: Critics Critiqued," a panel discussion and socializing
event for the local film community (Tues., 2/19, at 8pm).

The media have been full of stor-
ies questioning the relevance of print critics in an Internet era that has ushered in a new democratization of opinion.
The prospect of babbling blogmeisters being the new kingpins of cinema has left many critics in a sour mood. This quarter our film saloon will
round up a group of critics from print, television, radio, and of
course, the blogosphere to ask them whether they think their role
in entertainment is significant. We'll examine how criticism im-
pacts the viewer, the state of art, and the opinions of other critics,
and, if these critics are losing importance, what does one do about it?

Seatle Sound: Best of local film feature in the current issue.

Siffblog: Elliptic and Unbridled: The Early Films of
Béla Tarr
[above right] and Deep End (Jerzy Skolimow-
ski; featuring music by Can and Cat Stevens). And in case
you missed it, here's a link to my 2007 top 30 film list.

Steadycam: Submitted my 2007 top 10 film list.

Endnote: "The New Year" comes from 2003's Transatlanti-
cism. Béla Tarr images (1982's Prefab People and directorial
portrait) from the Northwest Film Forum. For more informa-
tion about their early Tarr retro (1/8-30), please click here.