02 February 2010

2009 in retrospect (part II)

I didn't award any awards in that last post, did I? How foolish of me. Let's address that before moving on:

The Andy Roddick Memorial Award: Russian Circles - Geneva, Alice in Chains - Black Gives Way To Blue, The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love, Mastodon - Crack the Skye


The Spirit of Planet of Ice Award: ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - The Century of Self
 


The Bourne Identity Soundtrack Award: Animal Collective - Meriwether Post Pavillion


The Phantom Award: Porcupine Tree - The Incident, Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown (maybe - we'll have to see where I stand further down the road)


The "Holy Shit! I Care About You Again!" Award: Kylesa - Static Tensions


The Samuel Beckett Memorial Award: He Is Legend - It Hates You



The '04-'05 Phoenix Suns Memorial Award: Torche - Meanderthal

[new for 2010] The Chairless Award (for my favorite comedy album of the year): Patton Oswalt - My Weakness Is Strong



Moving on... Actually, no. Before I move on, I'd like to look into an alternate reality for a moment and muse on the possibility of breaking my self-imposed rules.


2009 was, in a ridiculous number of ways, a year of rereleases, at least from my perspective. Since I bar rereleased albums from consideration for my favorite album of the year list, they didn't get to make their way onto the list. However, if I lived in the reality where I didn't care about my self-imposed rules, my favorite albums of 2009 list might look something like this:


1. Pearl Jam - Ten
2. The Beatles - Rubber Soul
3. Converge - Axe to Fall
4. Michael Giacchino's Star Trek soundtrack
5. Booker T. - Potato Hole

Now, it's seriously time to move forward and focus on film.



There were more than a few movies that were excellent this year, and all for a grand variety of reasons. Some were spectacularly well-done (District 9, Moon, Inglorious Basterds), while others were marvelous adaptations of source material long-thought unfilmable (Watchmen), while still more were fantastic character studies of men about to snap (Observe and Report, Big Fan), or proof positive that 3-D might be the next great immersive step in filmmaking (Coraline, Avatar), and others were just so fucking fun that gaffes and logical gaps didn't even matter (Star Trek, Zombieland). And, of course, Up continued Pixar's virtually inassailable track record as the single best film studio in the 21st century.


Now, if anyone were to ask me which movie I saw in 2009 should win the Best Picture Oscar, my answer would be immediately, "Inglorious Basterds was the best movie of 2009, by far. Tarantino's movies are always better than everyone else's, anyway, but Inglorious Basterds was the work of a master operating at the absolute top of his game. Everything about it was perfect, from the way it demanded its audience's full attention from the first moment to the last, to the music, to the way the camera moved, to the performances, to that final, beautiful, hilarious orgy of violence. Inglorious Basterds was filmmaking at its absolute best, and if no one else is willing to recognize it... It's kind of okay, because I know the truth." 


Actually, there would probably be more cursing in my defense of what I feel was the best movie of 2009.


However, the most fun I had at a movie theater in 2009 was when I went to see Star Trek on opening night, no question. It was, to a grand degree, what I'd hoped the experience of watching the Star Wars prequels would have been like (if they'd been, you know, good movies). By the end of the film, I'd renewed my vows with Star Trek, and no movie released in 2009 could have any chance of competing with it.


I also found myself wrapped up in Moon more than I'd ever anticipated; it, and Observe and Report, were the two movies I wound up loving that I'd not expected to love. They were, after all, committed. Fully. District 9 was, too, but it didn't capture me on the basic level that I'd hoped it would.


In the interest of brevity, I'll say that my five most enjoyable moviegoing experiences of 2009 were as follows:


1. Star Trek
2. Observe and Report
3. Inglorious Basterds
4. Moon
5. Up (despite the fact that the fucking opening makes me cry every time)



25 January 2010

2009 in retrospect (part I)


I am so totally over this end-of-the-year list thing that it's not even funny. Why, then, you ask, am I compiling and submitting to the Internet my own list? Mostly, it's for the purposes of an historical experiment I'm attempting to run.


Let me explain. No, is too complicated. Let me sum up. I think the only way to truly know what was significant and good about a particular year is to look back five years after the fact. That way, you're emotionally distant enough that there is no way you can be caught up in the hype (*cough*AVATAR*hack*), plus, enough time has passed that you can see which stones cast into the pond created the most significant ripples. You can't do that right at the year's end. We have no way of knowing if a spate of alternate history revenge films will get kicked off by the success of Inglorious Basterds, or if elderly people are going to get leading roles in more films than Up, or if any kind of potential boycott of Jay's re-return to the Tonight Show will have any affect on NBC at all. We just don't know.


Five years ago, 2004 had ended. That particular year saw the release of:


Patton Oswalt's Feelin' Kind Of Patton
The Dillinger Escape Plan's Miss Machine
Converge's You Fail Me
The Beastie Boys' To The 5 Boroughs
TV On The Radio's Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes,

Green Day's American Idiot
The Arcade Fire's Funeral
Devotchka's How It Ends
Isis' Panopticon
The Roots' The Tipping Point
These Arms Are Snake's Oxeneers or The Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home
that enormous Nirvana box set With The Lights Out
Mastodon's Leviathan
Kanye West's The College Dropout,

and a shit ton of other music that I don't have in my iTunes library at the moment.


[ASIDE: In the interest of providing some perspective on how dramatically the contents of my iTunes library differs from the prevailing taste of the American public, here are the 10 best-selling albums of 2004 - thanks, Wikipedia:


Usher's Confessions
Avril Lavigne's Under My Skin
Britney Spears' In The Zone
Eminem's Encore
Norah Jones' Feels Like Home
Ashlee Simpson's Autobiography
Kenny Chesney's When the Sun Goes Down
Gretchen Wilson's Here for the Party
Tim McGraw's Live Like You Were Dying
Maroon 5's Songs About Jane

And here are some of the 2005 Grammy winners - thanks to CBS.com:


Album of the Year: Genius Loves Company, Ray Charles and various artists
Record of the Year: "Here We Go Again," Ray Charles and Norah Jones
Song of the Year: "Daughters," John Mayer
Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal: "Vertigo," U2
Country Album: Van Lear Rose, Loretta Lynn
Rap Album: The College Dropout, Kanye West
R&B Album: The Diary of Alicia Keys, Alicia Keys
New Artist: Maroon 5.
Rock Album: American Idiot, Green Day.



END ASIDE]


In the world of moving pictures, we got to see:


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,
Collateral,  
Spider-Man 2,  
Anchorman,
Hotel Rwanda,

The Corporation,
Fahrenheit 9/11,
Shaun of the Dead,
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,

Control Room,
Dodgeball,
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring,
The Incredibles,
Friday Night Lights,
The Bourne Supremacy,
Kill Bill Vol. 2,
Million Dollar Baby,

Hellboy,
The Aviator,

Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead,
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,
Spartan,
and Team America: World Police.


[ASIDE: The 10 top-grossing films in America in 2004 were:


Shrek 2
Spider-Man 2
The Passion of the Christ
Meet the Fockers
The Incredibles
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The Day After Tomorow
The Polar Express
The Bourne Supremacy
National Treasure

And the major Oscar winners in 2005 were:

Best Picture: Million Dollar Baby
Best Actor: Jamie Foxx (Ray)
Best Actress: Hillary Swank (Million Dollar Baby)
Best Director: Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby)
Best Writing: Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
Best Animated Feature: The Incredibles
Best Foreign Language Film: The Sea Inside

 
END ASIDE] 


The Apprentice, Deadwood, Rescue Me, Lost, Veronica Mars, Boston Legal, Joey, House, Pimp My Ride, Desperate Housewives and Drawn Together all premiered on television in 2004.



The point that I think I'm making with these oversized lists is that if you look back on 2004, there were some pretty damn good movies and albums released that year (and I'm sure I skipped far too many things), many of which were ignored in favor of... other fare (it's certainly the best that a glorified snuff film will ever do at the American box office), both when you look at the final financial tallies and at many awards lists.


It's like with those big award wins Avatar had a few weeks ago. For good or for ill, everyone can get caught up in the hype, the excitement of the moment, the anguish of death, and ignore things that were quieter/less recently released in favor of that overwhelming feeling. It happens every year, so it's not really worth complaining about that much, but this is why I'm advocating this five year plan of mine.


After five years, you know what influenced what, what you listened to steadily, rather than for six months and forgot about, what you thought was good enough to buy and regularly watch on whatever format you prefer, and what stands some variation of the test of time. You never know that at the end of the year, especially when some things have only been out for three months, rather than almost twelve. 


To this end, I'm going to fashion two sets of lists this year (and see if I can keep this up, so that in five years, I can compare lists and see how my tastes have morphed). One wherein I list off the things I enjoyed most this past year that were released in this past year (like everyone else), and the other wherein I try to define what's meant the most to me from five years previous. The really substantial stuff, you know? A critical list.


Part One will be the standard lists, music and film (actually, it'll just be the music list. Tackling music and film in the same posting smacks of overkill). I'd like to fashion some kind of "favorites in graphic fiction" list as well, but that's probably going to take a lot more work. So, that's forthcoming (except to say that Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of Richard Stark's first Parker book - The Hunter - was incredible. It's the kind of comic that even people who know nothing about comics should be impressed by). Part Two is also forthcoming.


Now, to the lists! First up, music:


[ASIDE: As always, this is in some kind of order, likely "Fifth Most Favorite" to "Most Favorite." And I reserve the right to mock myself incessantly if, at any point in the future, I discover I made a horrible decision. END ASIDE]


5. Pelican - What We All Come To Need


I love Pelican, almost as much as I love to complain about them. They're so hit-or-miss, when it comes to their releases speaking to me, that what I consider their finest work, The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw, becomes more appropriate as a career-defining work by the year; it's rather replete with stunning highs ("March To The Sea" - which is not as good as its longer twin, "March Into The Sea," which was available on the EP of the same name) and lackluster lows (most of Larry Herweg's stunningly inappropriate drum parts). Pelican's imperfect, but that's sort of what makes them awesome.


It was time for a great Pelican album with What We All Come To Need, since their previous record, City of Echoes, just didn't do it for me (they evened out the peaks and valleys from The Fire, but that made it infinitely less interesting). They succeeded pretty spectacularly with What We All; it reaches much further than City of Echoes, and since ambition's much of what defines Pelican's music for me (what can you do with two guitars, a bass and a drum kit? A hell of a lot, it turns out), that alone makes it infinitely better. I adore "Glimmer;" it's the kind of song you can only make without vocals (plus, it groves as well as any song anyone heard in 2009). "The Creeper" is like the perfect track 2 (building on what came in the first awesome track, while pushing the music out in new directions the rest of the album can explore." The last two tracks would've been enough to make me trek south for their show, if I'd purchased the album before the band's latest trek through Denver. And while Pelican's music is less cinematic than Explosions in the Sky's, there's a brawny, muscular quality to their music (even though their guitar players - Laurent Schroeder-Lebec and Trevor de Brauw - get exponentially better with every record. They were, unquestioningly, the saving grace of City of Echoes. I didn't care for the songs, but I did like hearing Laurent and Trevor play them).

A song like "Strung Up From The Sky" (far from the best track on the album) is made far more interesting because of its bookending by "Specks of Light" and "An Inch Above Sand." Pelican's at their best when they're being aggressive; the acoustic breaks on The Fire were iffy at best, but they made the music surrounding them better for their inclusion. "Strung Up From The Sky" is not much compared to the songs that precede and follow it, but it makes them better by its presence and placing on the album. I think that's kind of daring, and it speaks to me.


Also, and the importance of this cannot be overstated, Larry has figured out how to incorporate his drumming into the music, and not just string together nonsensical flourishes that do nothing to advance the song as a whole. He's figured out, well, what a drummer (a musician, really) is supposed to do. Now, if Pelican could just get back to playing 10+ minute epics...



4. Booker T. - Potato Hole

One of the first CDs I ever owned was The Best of... Booker T. and the MG's. My father bought it for me, and in the interest of being efficient with digital space, you can read the story (plus my initial reactions to Potato Hole) here.


Nothing about my opinion of Potato Hole has changed from the first time I heard the record. It became my default "released in 2009 album to listen to" when I didn't have anything specific I wanted to hear. That may not sound like a resounding endorsement, that it's the CD I preferred to listen to when I didn't have anything I desperately wanted to hear, but I'm going to stand by it. It almost brings me comfort, which is a strange thing to say about a recently-released CD, but there you have it.


3. Michael Giacchino - Star Trek (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

It's a matter of record that I loved J.J. Abrams' Star Trek (read my reaction to it if you don't believe me). It was not the best movie released in 2009, but it was, without question, the viewing experience I had that I enjoyed most. The boost that Michael Giacchino's music brought to the table cannot, under any circumstances, be undervalued. Hell, it even works without the onscreen action.


It's important to note, before I dive fully into my nerdgastic exploration of the Star Trek soundtrack, that I seriously doubt anyone not so terribly enamored with all things Star Trek would find nearly as much in this collection of music (and, of course, if you weren't in the pro-Star Trek camp, you likely won't enjoy reliving the aural component of the film). Giacchino's repeated tips of the hat to the musical history of Star Trek (the 0:09 mark of "Nailin' the Kelvin" one of many examples) nearly turns the Star Trek soundtrack into the musical equivalent of a Tarantino film, so replete with knowledge and self-awareness is it.


The greatest thing about Michael Giacchino's music is its rapacious sense of adventure. It infused the film with the scope that it demanded; Star Trek did, after all, rewrite over 40 years of entertainment history (it did not make them irrelevant, it simply spun them off in a new direction, and if you didn't like that, well, I'm sorry). The propulsive force of the music, always a moment away from bounding off in a new exciting direction, does just as excellent a job of holding my interest as a listener as it did when I was a viewer.


A song like "Does It Still McFly?" shows off Giacchino's composition skills like few others. In the span of two minutes and three seconds, he whips the listener from loud to quiet and back to loud again with the sort of flair nominally reserved for bands like Nirvana and the Pixies (but, of course, Giacchino also had to tailor his to support a motion picture). "Enterprising Young Men" reappropriates the title music to bring back memories of the introduction not only of this film's Enterprise, but of every miniature/digital ship to share her name. "Nero Death Experience" is like a little movie all in itself, with the highs, lows, crescendos and climaxes that every grand adventure film begs to possess.


My tense anticipation of Abrams & Company's second Star Trek is followed closely by my desire to hear Giacchino's score for the next film. I never thought Trek would be able to match Jerry Goldsmith (or James Horner), but clearly (and gleefully), I was wrong.


2. Converge - Axe To Fall


There's a lot that I can say about Converge (and I started to right here), but the upshot of all the things that I could say is that Converge was rather like the gateway drug that got me into the weird little world of metalcore/hardcore metal/whatever you want to call it. My affection for United Nations, or Dillinger, or The Refused, or Isis, or Intronaut, or Torche, or Yakuza, or any of these weird bands, all dates back to the first time I heard You Fail Me. So, thanks for that, Converge.


Despite the great debt of gratitude I owe Converge, Axe To Fall pretty much kicks the ass of every piece of music released in 2009 on its own merit. Sure, a familiarity with Jane Doe and When Forever Comes Crashing and the rest of their catalog would be handy when approaching Axe To Fall, but it's not entirely necessary. "Dark Horse" clubs you over the head with its on-all-fronts sonic assault and doesn't care if you were eagerly anticipating hearing it or stumbled upon it purely accidentally. The guitar solo on "Reap What You Sow" shreds you from top to bottom whether the words "Deathwish Inc." mean anything to you or not.


Compared to You Fail Me (which not only demonstrates the virtues of a smoldering introduction, but actually slows down for a song or two), or No Heroes (which saw the band experimenting within the boundaries of its style of music and pushing those boundaries out further than anyone might've imagined - but should've expected), Axe To Fall is a return to form of sorts (whether I'm actually going to where I fear I'm going to, which is to compare Axe To Fall to All That You Can't Leave Behind... Well, I guess I just did. I know Converge won't begin the slow slide into self-parody that U2 is coming precariously close to doing, but just like Bono and the lads, Axe To Fall does signal a return to the form that the band made its name on, just like ATYCLB did for U2), recalling the days of their masterwork, Jane Doe.

There's a lot of Jane Doe in the tracks from "Wishing Well" to "Slave Driver," actually. That album's fascination with the exceptionally close relationship between "music" and "noise," the exploration and tweaking of the riff, the emphasis on the sound produced by the band rather than different elements of it... The parallels are there, and they are most clear.


"Cruel Bloom" and "Wretched World" are probably as close as the band will ever get to recreating the epic nature of the title track on Jane Doe, but they attack it from a different angle. Instead of relentlessly crashing against you like a typhoon of music, "Cruel Bloom" builds to the freakout of its closing seconds gradually, before unleashing itself, and, just as quickly, bottling itself up again. Jacob Bannon's as intelligible as he's ever been in "Wretched World," morphing his mournful moaning into what has to be one of the top five or ten cathartic screams ever put to tape. And, considering how much screaming Jacob's done, I reckon that's saying something.



1. Thursday - Common Existence


I've come pretty far around on Thursday in a rather short span of time, I think. Oddly enough, this means that, for two years running now, I've declared a Geoff Rickly-helmed album as my favorite of the year. Appropriately, though, the circumstances conspiring to make United Nations my favorite album of 2008 are fairly similar to the ones that banded together to make Common Existence my favorite of 2009. Most of them, shockingly, are depressing.


At least in 2008, I had the somewhat tenuous hope that things were going to turn around. Maybe they wouldn't right themselves right away, but at least I was able to convince myself that the seemingly unending spree of disaster that the last eight years had brought was coming to a close. And yeah, when I look back on the words I wrote on November 5, 2008, I feel some of that old cynicism creeping back in, the stuff that I've worked so hard to expunge from, if not my script-writing, at least my daily life and attitude. I also feel guilty, that in less than a year, I've fallen back into my old smoldering fury towards that most ineffective of American political parties, the Democratic party.


The nice thing about Common Existence is that it doesn't limit the target of its anger to ineffective politicians, or posing, fraudulent patriots, but anything that does a spectacular job of letting you down. It taps nicely into that high schooler inside of me who still loves nu metal, as well as the older fellow who's developed an appreciation for more out-there musical stylings, and the large aspect of my personality that will always and forever be able to find fifteen things about which to be disappointed.


There's still something beautiful to me about the music in this album. "Beyond the Visible Spectrum" and "Time's Arrow" sound almost fragile at times, and the hollow echo that drowns Geoff's voice in "Subway Funeral" is one of those rare moments where the literal becomes gorgeous.


Common Existence speaks to me on a variety of levels, and does so in a way that's easy to internalize. For that alone, it deserves my respect, but because it does everything and more so very well, I can't not name it my favorite album of 2009.


I'll follow up with my (abbreviated) list of movies as soon as I can.

14 January 2010

conan o'bama?

This might be stretching the boundaries of metaphor beyond repair, but might Conan's [soon-to-be] aborted run on The Tonight Show be compared to President Obama's time spent thus far in the White House? Unrealistic expectations, forces allied against them, unfortunate economic circumstances...


I'm still trying to figure out how the Masturbating Bear factors into this.

26 December 2009

the not-completely-late-to-the-party movie review presents: avatar

It's taken me a couple of days to be able to sit down and write this reaction in one shot because, well, it has. I don't know if I should be blaming some of the reviews I've read (Devin and Nick, if I should, I blame you), or my sometimes aggravating ability to see both sides of an argument, or straight-up ambivalance, but for whatever reason, I'm writing this, hopefully you're reading it, and maybe we can have a good little discussion about it later.

Avatar. The movie that's taken Jim Cameron god-only-knows-how-long to finish, cost anywhere from $17 to hundreds of millions of dollars, required the development of a new motion-capture system for film, and might just be the movie that saves cinema (financially) as we know it. It's billed as a movie that everyone needs to go and see (preferably on a 3D IMAX screen – if you have access to one and anywhere from $13-$17 to burn, yes, absolutely, go and see it this way) because it will. Change. Your. Perception. Of. Film. FOREVER.

Let's jump to the end and back here really quickly: Is Avatar the best movie I've seen all year? In the last five years? In my life? In reverse order: No, no, and it depends on how you define “best.” Were I inclined to make a list of the five films I liked best that I've seen in 2009, the list would include (in no particular order) Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, Watchmen, Moon, and Observe And Report (I need to see District 9 again to shake out how I really feel about it. The fact that Wikus is basically Michael Scott, and later action-hero Michael Scott, might still be too much for me. Or not. That's why I need to see it again. And I greatly enjoyed Up and Big Fan). I tend to weight writing more significantly than most anything else in the movie (being a “writer” myself), with acting coming in a close second, and everything else kind of getting jammed together after that (unless something really stands out – like the production design in From Hell. One really awesome aspect of a film can make up for some weaker ones, but that's not to say that I actually like From Hell. It's a pretty shitty movie, all things being equal, but that production design is fucking incredible). 

There are, of course, those rare “perfect” movies, where everything's working in harmony and the film winds up being more than the sum of its rather impressive parts (perfect movies for me would include John Carpenter's The Thing, Galaxy Quest, Jackie Brown, Bringing Up Baby, Yojimbo, Bowfinger, Batman Returns, and certainly others that I can't recall at the moment). But, I know those when I see them, and that's usually on a repeat viewing. If you were to ask me if I saw any movies that were anything like “perfect” movies this year, I'd say the closest I got were either Observe and Report or Moon. But, ask me in five years, and I'll be able to give you a real answer that's not operating on a Seth Rogen/Sam Rockwell hangover (as much, anyway).

By my rather ill-defined criteria, Avatar was not the best movie I saw in 2009. Now, to be fair, Avatar was probably the best looking movie I've seen this year, and in quite a few years. The movie's design is a tribute to Cameron's single-mindedness, and the team he put together to help him realize his vision. The film's tech cannot be denied – it's frankly kind of scary how good CG can be when it's placed in the hands of people who know how to use it (as my good friend Mister Tim Davids said, it's difficult to believe that the human base camp isn't one gigantic miniature). The facial expressions of the Na'vi blow away anything that motion capture has offered up in the past (a note that our friends at Marvel may want to consider closely as they prepare for the Avengers film); Zoe Saldana's Neytiri (a character who, by the way, dominates every scene she's in. Abams and Cameron have given us the next great lady action star; Hollywood better not fuck this one up) looks and moves the way I'd expect her to look and move as that character, as does Sigourney Weaver's Dr. Grace Augustine's Na'vi avatar (damn, does she ever do a great job as Cameron's Cassandra, once again). Pandora feels, to me, as fully realized as any world in the history of science fiction film.

The story is pretty weak sauce, can we all just admit that? If there's ever been a retread of a story, Avatar's narrative would be just that. White guy from soulless society finds the true meaning of life among the tribal people that his own people are planning to ruthlessly exploit... This is not a groundbreaking sort of story that no one's ever tried to tell before. Admittedly, a movie as tech-focused as Avatar will, probably, push other aspects of itself off to the side in order to maximize that which makes it significant, and there's certainly nothing wrong with telling a story that's been told before, as long as it's done interestingly and well, but Avatar hits all of the expected beats perfectly. My problem with that was that it felt too easy (a point I'll try and touch on later) for a film of this magnitude; if you're going to set out and try to change movies forever, why not try and tackle every aspect of motion picture storytelling? Ambition in one focused area is all well and good, but ambition in all things is enviable and worthy of appreciation, even when it falls flat on its face. 

Now, I know that no one has ever gone to see a James Cameron film because of the penetrating social insight, or his deep characterization, or any of the things that mark, say, an Ang Lee film (or a Spike Lee film, for that matter). Cameron's a different kind of filmmaker entirely, and that's not a bad thing. He does what he does very well. Would I love it if he recognized his limitations and got himself a writing partner who could say, “Jim, you've created an amazing world here in this script. Now it's time for you to let me populate it with compelling characters and for the two of us to work together to fashion a story worthy of our imaginations”? Hell fucking yes. But, the fact that he doesn't almost makes him more of an artist. He's committed to his vision, no compromises, no outside influences, no nothing. He's kind of like George Lucas in that way, except that Cameron's had more than two good ideas in his life (at least, he's shared more than two good ideas with the world. Okay, three).

You see what I mean when I say that I'm still not sure what I can say about Avatar?

“Unobtanium” is kind of a stupid word, but it seems like just the sort of shorthand dickhead space capitalists would come up with (and, by the way, Giovanni Ribisi is a great spiritual son to Paul Reiser's Carter Burke. Burke was a better character than Selfridge, but to complain would be the same as splitting hairs, and I'll do that plenty more later). None of the scientists in the film call the mineral that, and there's so much about the world of Avatar that's left unsaid (like the great science fiction films – Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, Alien, and so on – the world is so complete that it doesn't need to spend weeks and months and years explaining itself. It just is) that I can't imagine that real scientists would have been unable to fashion a better name that “unobtanium.”

[ASIDE: The following paragraphs... I still have problems with them. They don't fit anywhere in the flow of my text, and I don't precisely know how qualified I am to write any of it, being a white guy, and all. That being said, the following points kept flashing in my mind during the film, and I'd like to think that, by writing them down, I can figure out what they mean. But, if that's the case, I haven't figured them out yet. Anyway, here we go:

Now, I'm well aware that Cameron's never busied himself with much subtext in his movies. If it's there, I'm pretty sure it's there by accident (“greedy, moralless, monolithic companies are bad” is not subtext here any more than it was in Titanic or Aliens – hell, in Aliens, he was just picking up where the first film left off). And, yes, I imagine that, until now, the most significant performer who isn't white in any of his films would be Jenette Goldstein's Private Vasquez in Aliens was not by design. I doubt that factors into anybody's casting decisions, frankly. That's not why we watch his movies; he doesn't have anything to say about the persistent race issues on our planet, and that's fine, that's who he is.

It's weird to me, though, that, with the exception of Michelle Rodriguez and Dileep Rao, every speaking human on Pandora is white, and the most significant ethnic actors are blue. Zoe Saldana, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso... They're all digital, they're all tribal. They're all great performers, who certainly help the movie soar where lesser actors would've brought it down, but if you have complete casting freedom with the mo-cap, the way Cameron and his people did, it seems... well, lazy to slide into stereotype territory with the Na'vi. It was so glaring that it almost blinded me at times.

I also think something needs to be said about how it's the white man – in the body of a blue man – that unites the natives. I'm not the right person to do it, since I don't have cultural/philosophical baggage that would allow me to make a cogent and passionate point about it, but I think it's there (and that's not to say it hasn't been there before. Cameron certainly didn't invent that), I think it's significant, and I think it's worth recognizing.

And, before I forget, there's this weird rape allegory that comes up when Sully captures his first flying lizard creature – the humans call them Banshees - and again with the gigantic second one, the one that he rides to unite the clans of The People against the human interlopers. It's not explored at all, but to me, it very much smacks of rape. I get that the nerve tendrils are a literalization for how the Na'vi are connected to Pandora – if there's one thing sci-fi is great for, it's making a point with the subtlety of a sledgehammer – but, in this case, it actually made me uncomfortable.]

Seriously, though, there's a lot about Avatar to like, and to say that I wasn't caught up in the moviemaking for most of the film's runtime would be a lie. When Sully climbs out of the ship and emerges in the human base of operations, when the Na'vi clans wage all-out war against the private military forces of the Corporation/Company, the moments when Pandora unfolds itself to Sully and us... Much of the film was a spectacular theatrical experience. Avatar used 3D exceptionally well; it didn't force itself upon the audience so much as it drew us in. Like Coraline, it utilized the depth of the screen as well as popping the images out at us. It was, in short, a filmgoing experience unlike any I'd ever had before.

The good, for me, most definitely outweighed the bad (the good, after all, was deliberate, while I think the bad was not. This isn't me saying that I don't think Cameron and his crew are smart enough to pick up on what was “bad;” far from it. I just think that they chose to focus their time and energy on how the film looked, rather than what it might've said). When I walked out of Inglourious Basterds, I remarked that no one makes a movie as well as Quentin Tarantino. Well, James Cameron makes himself one hell of a movie, too. I'm glad I've been able to see a Cameron sci-fi film in theaters; I would've felt cheated if my opportunities had begun and ended with Titanic. And, a Cameron sci-fi film scored by James Horner? I felt spoiled, in parts.

Despite my litany of misgivings with the film, I would not steer anyone away from seeing this film [while it's in the theaters. I suspect this'll be a King Kong-like situation, where I don't have much interest in seeing the film when it's not on a gigantic screen. Which seems to be what Cameron's going for, filling those seats]. Avatar was, in many ways, an experience unlike any I'd ever had before. I'd like to have it again, if I can scrape together the cash to do so.

[SECOND ASIDE: I read in an interview that Sam Worthington would love the opportunity to test for, and play, the part of Captain America. If he can do a better job consistently reining in his Aussie accent, I don't think I'd have any problems with him playing Steve. He's got the physicality for it, and his speechifying late in the film was very promising. Assuming we can't travel back in time six years and get Nathan Fillion.]

03 December 2009

arise, pop culture junkie, arise

Well, hello blog, I didn't see you there. I'm sorry I've been more inattentive than a bad, alcoholic dad who arbitrarily decides he prefers one of his children to another. I've been working pretty hard to get my comic strip off the ground (though I don't know if you could tell that by looking at the artwork), and now that I've kind of got it chugging along (seeing as how it's viewable on blogger, DrunkDuck and Facebook), I think a return to the classic blog is overdue. I'm going to try to write more regularly here, but don't be surprised if I fail miserably in my endeavor with surprising speed.


In an attempt to kick things off with a less ambitious sort of posting, one wherein I spend a little time reacting to bits of media that I feel are worth taking some time to discuss. This is in no particular order of preference, or organized in any way, really. Just as much to help me get my thoughts in order as it is to provide some (hopefully) insightful words about things that are less important than, say, health care reform.

Movies (in the theater)

I haven't gone to see a movie in the theater in nearly two months; the last time, Vanessa and I went to see Zombieland when we were in Utah. Plenty of people have already written more than enough positive things about this television pilot-turned-major motion picture that I would just be restating prior points, so we'll just keep moving on (except to note that I appreciated everyone's respecting of the blackout on the identity of the celebrity cameo. That was a fantastic moment, particularly that it wasn't ruined by spoilers in reviews).

Moving pictures on plastic discs

The director's cut of Watchmen is even better than it was in the theater, Star Trek loses some of its awesomeness when it's not on a 40-foot screen (but is fantastic, nevertheless), Observe and Report is almost funnier at home, and I'm still hooked on How I Met Your Mother. I didn't see that coming, ever. I also didn't know that Will Ferrell's You're Welcome America was ever going to come to DVD. Thank god it did.

 

Music

There's over a month to go before I can even start thinking about assembling my top 5 favorite albums of the year, so everything here is preliminary, but candidates currently in the running include:


Thursday - Common Existence (having consumed their entire back catalog this year - thanks, United Nations - I can safely say that this record is the one of theirs that speaks to me the strongest. It's almost like a work of art, how it blends sounds together, and is so very, very topical. Plus, I'm always in favor of loud and angry. Less so than in the past, but I still enjoy it).


Converge - Axe To Fall (the band that got me into this whole hardcore/abrasive/whatever scene just can't release a bad album. Axe To Fall pretty much kicks the ass of any record that anyone released this year, and 2009 saw the release of new Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, BTBAM and Mastodon. It's not quite as "deep" as the Thursday record, but it kicks it in the face repeatedly).


Booker T. - Potato Hole (I'm going to let my response to the album from earlier in the year speak for itself. Suffice to say, it's only grown on me more and more).


Mastodon - Crack the Skye (Leviathan was mind-boggling because of its ambition and technical precision, Blood Mountain was a step back technically, though it had far greater fidelity to its concept, and Crack the Skye may well be the ultimate Mastodon album, fusing together bizarre ideas from every corner of the band members' brains. And, to continue on a theme, it rocks some pretty serious shit).


Pelican - What We All Come To Need (it's almost like a rule that I have to dislike every other Pelican release. The untitled EP? Fucking amazing. Australasia? Meh. The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw? Oh, I don't know, it only contains the best fucking song they're ever going to write (March to the Sea - extended on the March Into The Sea EP, which is 20 minutes of pure aural bliss). City of Echoes? Better than Australasia, and certainly slick, but it's too even for me. The Fire was ambitious as hell, with emotional peaks and valleys the likes of which few albums have ever matched for me. City of Echoes? I got bored. The new album throws all of that to the curb and frees me to love Pelican once again. I don't know if anyone has tracked such improvement on the guitar from album to album as Trevor and Laurent have. At least not since the heyday of rock).


Michael Giacchino's Star Trek soundtrack (I love Giacchino's music anyway, but this fantastically nerdy tribute to the history of Star Trek was one of the best parts of my favorite movie of the year. It takes a little work, and a familiarity with the audio that's come before - music and sound effects, both - but its secrets are virtually bottomless. I'm not going to make the same mistake I made with Eddie Vedder's Into The Wild soundtrack).


I was bullish on the Animal Collective album when it came out earlier this year, but now I'm not so sure. My interest has rather waned. At least I was big into it at some point, unlike the new Porcupine Tree record, or 21st Century Breakdown, with which I've never been able to connect.


It is worth noting that, were I to break my own rules and open this list up to remasters and rereleases, it's entirely likely that only the Star Trek soundtrack and Axe to Fall would make it onto my list, seeing as how it'd be filled with Beatles remasters and the Ten reissue. Maybe even Paul's Boutique, now that I think about it...


Television
It sure didn't take long for Dollhouse to get canned, did it? It's particularly sad, seeing as how the second season has (thus far) taken the great realizations and energy from the end of season 1 and just kept rolling with it. There were a lot of reviews of the last episode before the hiatus (the one that focused on Sierra, that was directed by Jonathan Frakes) that called it the best episode of the show thus far. It's certainly the best episode of S2, but for my money, "Epitaph One" is still where it's at. But, every episode has been remarkably entertaining and fascinating, which is saying quite a bit for this show that I've grown to adore. I just wish we'd had more time with it, and that Joss hadn't decided to go with Fox again. If he could temper down his imagination somewhat (in terms of budget, that is), I would really love to see what he could do with the creative freedom he'd find with the right cable network (since I don't know what the general experience is with SciFi/SyFy, I'm going to be less than specific here).



Not working nights has actually freed me up to watch some shows during the time they broadcast this year. My Thursday night comedy shows continue to treat me well (I choose them over Fringe, which I really do prefer to watch without commercials), and the freshman show Community has blossomed into the show I'm least likely to miss during the week. I knew from the get-go that it had a strong chance to be good, that it just needed time to find its legs, but I didn't know it'd become fantastically funny. Chevy Chase returned triumphantly to television, Joel McHale became that leading guy everyone kind of knew he was destined to be, and ensemble comedy rules over NBC for two solid hours every week.


I didn't care for the parts of FlashForward that I saw (trying too hard), and really didn't like V one little bit (if I don't like a single character on your show, that's - in the words of Liz Lemon - a dealbreaker). Sorry.


Video games
2009 has been some kind of banner year for awesome. The best Batman game ever made (which might be the equivalent of damning with faint praise, but Arkham Asylum would be a great stealth action game whether or not it had the license to accompany its top-notch design and gameplay), the best Halo game (ODST, or "Halo Without The Flood, and starring several actors from Firefly," did everything right in its story mode, and has already eaten up way too much of my time with Firefight), Brutal Legend (Jack Black being ridiculous and awesome in a world where everything sung about in every heavy metal album actually happened), Dragon Age (despite the fact that I felt like I might've felt while playing WoW at times, BioWare saved their best writing for an original IP. Man, was that ever the right decision), Modern Warfare 2 (not as jaw-droppingly awesome as the first one, it pushed mainstreams video games in a whole new way when the Moscow airport level began), Borderlands (first-person, multiplayer looting? More, please), and a little game called The Beatles: Rock Band (about which I do not need to say a single thing).


And, oh yeah, I guess I don't care about the Wii one little bit anymore (though I do very much want to play Super Mario Galaxy 2 when it releases next year).


That's plenty for today. I'll try to write something that's real, and not simply a list next time.

28 August 2009

shauna macdonald might be the british sigourney weaver

At least insofar as monster movies go. The Descent, which I think is a phenomenal film, didn't really need a sequel, but neither did Alien. I adore Aliens - I'd probably rank it in my 25 favorite movies of all time - and so maybe The Descent Part II will live up to its spiritual predecessor's achievement. There's a trailer out that gives me hope.

Frankly, I didn't even know Marshall was done making it, let alone that it'd be coming out in December (in the UK).

26 August 2009

new project

I realize I've been remiss in my postings for the month, but there's a halfway decent reason. After having once again tried, and once again failed, to get my long-stalled film project off the ground, I've decided to focus my energies in a different direction for a time. I've always wanted to write and draw a comic strip, and although I can't draw, I can certainly make up for a lacking form with content.

Attempting to combine my hatred of all things evil with my love for comedy and the ridiculous, I've fashioned the beginnings of what might be, well, something. A strip about drone workers at the most evil corporation ever (also the name of the strip, "Incorporated Hate" - Hate, Inc. is a rather shitty clothing company, it appears, and I'd rather not be associated with their product). Like "executive vice president of raping and pillaging" evil.

Come and pay the new project a visit if you like. I don't know if I'll be able to do it daily at first (or ever), but hopefully quality will (eventually - I'm quite aware that it's finding its legs) trump quantity.