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John Carter

29 Apr

John Carter is a confounding feature film, in part for the ways you may have heard (a sky high budget for a film based on a property few have heard of, its foolishly simple name), some you may not have (internal Disney politics, being the debut live action film by the acclaimed director of Wall-E, its source material being an inspiration for Star Wars and Avatar) and because, in fact, in spite of everything it is a film that flirts with being quite good while largely ending up quite the mess. At the end of the day, with a budget of $250,000,000, it needed to be great and to be pretty perfectly marketed and managed. It was neither.

When it comes to the film itself, it looks every bit of its giant budget. There are many set pieces that do well in conveying a mysterious alien world but its greatest achievement is likely the alien race of the Tharks. They are tall, green, skinny creatures who manage to interact in the world of Barsook (the native’s name for the planet Mars) which fulfills the ideas of the book that it is based on, which imagined Mars as a vast desert like expanse.

That book ‘A Princess of Mars’, the first in the ‘John Carter of Mars’ series by Edgar Rice Burroughs was the author’s second most successful franchise. His most successful was Tarzan of the Apes, a concept that has been spun into more movies, radio plays, film serials and television programs than nearly any property in history. This, however is the first time John Carter has been adapted, although not the first time its concepts have been mined.

The most famous examples of films indebted to Burroughs series are Star Wars and Avatar. George Lucas is on record, as is James Cameron, of being not just John Carter fans but having been inspired by the books. The Tharks resemble the alien creatures who populate Pandora in Avatar, Princess Leia resembles in many respects the titular ‘Princess of Mars’ who is the titular character of the first Burroughs book in the series, of which this film was based.

Filmmakers have tried to adapt the material for many years, including a recent attempt by Robert Rodriguez, but it took Andrew Stanton, a veteran writer-director of ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘Wall-E’ and the fact that Disney, before its purchase of Marvel and LucasFilm, was utterly devoid, save maybe ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ of a franchise with appeal for boys, for the film to get on the production schedule.

There are few films where it seems more central to the film to establish such context of its origins before its screenplay was ever written, yet for John Carter it seems needed. Because without that context we would not have gotten the film we did for with a smaller budget would come a far lesser realization of the project. And yet, paradoxically without the astronomical budget, we would not have had a film so well remembered as a flop- it’s possible we may have gotten a film that blandly made its money back and disappeared. And yet there are other factors in play.

It’s also important to view the film as the aborted first in a franchise- Stanton had wished to make at least a trilogy of films. Asked recently about the idea of a sequel Stanton was enthusiastic to make it. There is, in fact, a small cult of fans who have also championed this cause. A large enough group that ‘John Carter 2’ is the #2 suggestion to autocomplete in Google when you type in ‘John Carter’ into the search engine. It easily outranks ‘John Carter flop’ in that measure, yet in terms of the number of hits the latter far outreaches the former.

And so we have the tale of the film- one given an enormous budget (rumors of it going over-budget turn out to have been false- all involved seem to agree, $250,000,000 was the original budget and Stanton came in on budget), that lost its title and became the near anonymous ‘John Carter’, sans any mention of Mars (2011’s flop ‘Mars for Moms’ indicated to them that Mars wasn’t marketable, it seems) and which, once it arrived was met by a company that had changed Presidents twice since it was greenlit, had just bought Marvel (and was in negotiations with Lucasfilm) and thus suddenly had all the boys franchises it could ever need and which placed the film, without a major star and sans a recognizable mainstream character or hook, precariously outside of Summer and yet right in the crosshairs of the obvious to be smash hit ‘Hunger Games’.

It was dead on arrival- vague marketing, making the blandness of the film’s title shine even brighter in the spotlight and Disney’s eventual announcement of having been written off to the tune of $200,000,000, announced oddly just weeks into the theatrical run have lead its boosters to speculate at conspiracy- did George Lucas tell them to killbit if they wanted Star Wars, for instance. Given how poorly nearly every step went one almost wonders.

So, then is the film as bad as some might say? No, surely it is not. It’s very lovely to look at, is ambitious in its scope and plotting and is enjoyable to watch in many respects. Is it as good as its boosters claim? No, regrettably, it’s a bit of a mish mash of ideas, has a largely wooden lead performance by Taylor Kitsch and has some regrettably awful dialogue at times.

It might take an hour to summarize the ins and outs of the plot but the short version is that a man who wishes to escape the Civil War is teleported, via a magic talisman to Mars, gets involved in a 3 way civil war on that planet and learns he can leap great distances. He then gets involved with a Martian princess, who is betrothed in an attempt to put an end to the war. Predictably they fall in love and live happily ever after, in spite of running afoul of all manner of baddies, from enormous ape creatures to shapeshifter demigods.

And yet one can also see why the story was so beloved and the film, in some circles, well loved. It’s a sci-fi epic with interesting visuals and ideas, new environments and creatures the likes we’ve not encountered before. The princess, Dejah Thoris, is a fiery female lead and clearly one of the highlights of the film, although she too often ends up a damsel in distress near the end of the film.

The screenplay, attributed to Stanton, as well as Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon, manages some good ideas, such as the wraparound sequences that establish a fictional version of Burroughs deciding to write the book and some poor ones, of which I would consider much of the dialogue. On his previous films Stanton had been able, as with all Pixar films, to take the pieces as built and rebuild them over and over. The average Pixar film is given several tries, the equivalent of having reshot the films numerous times, over months and sometimes years, whereas here the shooting lasted little more than two months. I can imagine if Stanton had the same leeway to work with here he may have made a masterful film, in the vein of his first two films. This, however, never fully comes together.

In the end ‘John Carter’ could not have been made well for less money- in many respects expensive reshoots might have actually been the best thing for it – and yet for the money it was made for and with the scrutiny and financial risks that come with it, it needed to be a great film, promoted well, in a way that revealed those strengths it had at its center. This film had neither advantage, instead becoming, in so many aspects, a how-to guide as to lose hundreds of millions of dollars on an only all right film. In the end ‘John Carter’ is in all ways a mess and yet a charming one. Unfortunately those charms aren’t nearly worth the films considerable weight in gold.

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Roger Ebert RIP

5 Apr

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I’m remembering well today a wthought I had a few months back. I don’t recall what, if anything prompted it but I recall thinking that when Roger Ebert died I was going to be terribly sad. Turns out I was right.

I’ve long been a person who cared about and paid attention to reviews and critics. As far back as I can recall I have looked to critics and reviews for guidance, and none more often or more intently than I did Roger. I remember as a teenager getting into arguments with family about why I cared what a critic thought about movies or music and I’d be told it wasn’t the end all, be all. And it wasn’t and isn’t but it was always the guide into what might be worth my time.

More than that though, Roger was one of the first and most prominent examples of someone who looked at culture the way I did. I can tend to be critical of all forms of culture, reflexively, in a way that sometimes rubs people wrong. Whatever it is I’m watching or reading I tend to do it with a critical eye- is this a 3 star record, a 4 star book, an A episode of TV? On some level I don’t know where or when this started but I do know that it’s people like Roger Ebert that made those thoughts seem OK, it made it actually seem like a good thing.

I’ve read plenty of memoir pieces about someone feeling an outsider and a piece of art making them feel understood but to me, understanding the arts, quantifying them, making lists, considering what this or that detail may have meant- that’s the stuff that makes art real and relevant and interesting to me. I think, pretty possibly that, when it comes to the media, to realizing that was something other people really thought about and considered was watching ‘At the Movies’ in it’s various incarnations. I feel sad to have likely seen far more Richard Roeper than Gene Siskel but all the same, I’m glad to have seen Roger.

It’s an odd thing, as well, that I’ve never really been what most would consider a film buff. I see my fair share but there are innumerable classics I’ve never laid eyes on, and yet Roger Ebert always exemplified the best of what criticism could be. As I grew older I’d read, listen to and consume reviews on so many things, from pro wrestling (which in so many ways is beloved by me for being a form that is incredibly rich with ability to be scrutinised, for whatever reason), to comic books (wherein I for years would read and consider reviews and at the peak of my fandom talk about and debate furiously on message boards) to music (where I’ve made lists of my favorite records of the year for what is coming up on nearly a decade, though the ten year old one is probably an embarrassment and also a singles, rather than album list) and finally- TV where in recent years I’ve felt endlessly drawn to watching and considering, as much of this blog and my ill-fated Mary Tyler Moore series reflected.

In all these cases, whether it was debating the merits of Spider-Man on the Bendis Board, listening to Bryan Alvarez overthink an episode of Monday Night Raw, rolling my eyes at an undeserved ***** Springsteen review in Rolling Stone or wondering how the latest episode of Parks and Rec only got a B+ on the AV Club, the sheer time, thought and effort given to understanding the world of ideas that others might find completely trivial has always not only given me joy but made me feel OK for doing the same.

With no one person was this more clear than Roger Ebert, a man who I’d view as a patron saint of criticism- a man who made his life’s work seeing, writing and talking about movies. The first place I always went, for as many years as I can think, to get perspective on not just what was in theaters but also whatever random film I had just seen was to his website at Chicago Sun-Times, where I’ve been sad to see the reviews get fewer and farther between, as the days went by.

All the same, even as his health declined and his show ceased to have him along for the ride he also became, as years went on an oddly heroic figure. Suddenly small and eventually with a face showing the horrors of cancer, he was always a chipper presence on the internet, sending out one-liners to The New Yorker and answering questions on his site about arcane subjects, and even publishing a review of Thor, then a long detailed defense of it that I gladly and interestedly read and gave long thought to. It was interesting, as always, seeing something through his lens (even if in this case he was crazily wrong- that was almost even better, his review of Fight Club is still one of the reviews I’ll remember best, even if it was wildly off-base)

He was such a figure of gleeful polarity. To embrace Roger Ebert, especially in his best known role as TV host, was to embrace well considered and well thought out argument. It is why I watched and felt a twinge of misunderstanding in the air when on CNN’s Crossfire, Jon Stewart ripped into them. For sure the show, and sucessors in different arenas like ESPN’s Pardon the Interuption, never had the panache he and Gene had but the best aspects of the idea of getting into a good, constructive argument about something that really matters to you is something I think gets lost in the conversation about what a shame it is that people are getting so angry about their opinions. They might be like assholes, but an opinion doesn’t make you one- Roger knew that.

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Near the end, as cancer took it’s toll, he took on a second role for me. His public battle with the disease called easily to mind the one that had previously taken up nearly as much of my time and thought as all those reviews, my father’s losing battle with it. Through each surgery and new setback he fought against it in a way that mirrored the struggle I’d seen up close for months and years, several years back. When he lost his voice it brought to mind my father, always so talkative, struck mute by the disease. And so through it all I think I very likely saw him as a second chance to see that these things can be conquered and while both of them tried, ultimately no one suceeds forever in that battle.

Another lesson one can take from culture, when you give it thought like he did, though, is that unhappy endings aren’t always the worst thing. Once I get to the end, good or bad, I’ve always loved to read the reviews. I’d glance at the ratings and a paragraph or so before but after? Then I’d read the whole thing and get to weigh in. So far I’ve read several remembrances, obituaries and articles about him- the closest thing a life gets to a review, and while I’m taking less joy in these than most reviews, seeing the raves come in from The White House to Facebook, it’s an interesting satisfaction to see his life in review.

And so this has happened and those will keep coming in. And tomorrow I’ll tell a group of classmates what I think of their short stories drafts, probably focus a little too intently on the Hulu replays of some of my favorite sitcoms and hope that anyone who might read this gives it a thumbs-up. It’s in these ways, and myriads more as days go by that I’ll hope, in my agnostic way that I can get some approval shining down from the balcony. Regardless the reviews, though- I’m going to keep going till I get to the last of it, just like he did, and maybe, if there is something after I’ll get the pleasure of comparing notes on that too.

‘February in Greece’

1 Aug

Some incomplete short fiction…

‘Greece is totally in Latin America, dude’ Jim had declared to him, all of the sudden. It was an odd statement. Wrong, for starters but also so oddly wrong and impossible as to be hard to believe someone would hold this misstatement as a matter of fact. He began to argue but he was cut off by the blonde girl butting in, quickly, he forgot her name but she’s always hanging around Jim, who agreed. He assumed she did this just to score points with him, she couldn’t possibly believe it to be true.

‘It is not’, he stated, adding ‘All I was saying is that it wouldn’t be hard to confuse a Greek person and a Hispanic person. There is a common skin tone, almost’

‘Yes – because Greek people are Hispanic, Paul.’ – this literally unbelievable sentiment was continuing. It had to be stopped. He demanded Jim look it up on his phone, right now. Jim pulled up Wikipedia. He waited to be proven correct. He knew he was and he almost felt bad for embarrasing the guy like this. Jim normally isn’t this dumb, this seemed terrible out of character.

‘There – see’, Jim declared, pulling up a map showing Greece, couched beside Argentina and dwarfed by Brazil above it . He starred, galled by it. It had to be a Wikipedia prank and this had to be something Jim was just playing along with. It felt odd, though, it had come up in conversation quite naturally – Jim couldn’t have known he’d say it, surely. Odd.

‘I’m going to need to see another site – you can’t trust Wikipedia’

‘Why can’t you just admit you’re wrong?’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, does your phone not GO to other websites’

‘Fine’ he said and then, moments later a variation on the same map was shown to him. He starred, slack jawed at it. It made no sense. Greece was, well it was somewhere in Europe, right? It kinda looked like a boot? This didn’t even look like Greece as he remembered it, it was an awkwardly ridged square. Something about the whole experience had him doubting himself and confused.

‘You know, guys, I think I’ve had a few too many drinks’, he said, suddenly getting up to go.

‘Wow – you really can’t just let this go, huh?’

‘It’s not that, I just feel-‘

‘Embarassed?’

‘Confused. And drunk, I guess? I mean… yeah, that must be all. I’m just going to walk it off.’

‘Walk it off? Where to?’

‘Home. It’s only like a block away.’ he said – matter of fact, somewhat confused by the question.

‘Shit, man – how drunk are you? You don’t even know where you live?’

‘What?’ – this was getting out of hand. He lived a block away. 48 Concord Street. He told Jim this. Jim told him that might well be his address but that he knew for a fact that he lived all the way across town.

They both looked at each other, each of them confused and a little taken aback. It was an uncomfortable moment. It felt oddly intimate, in the worst way. They only knew one another from the bar, this moment felt oddly personal. It was especially odd for him, because it had no reason to feel this way. Jim had been right, (maybe? It still seemed impossible) about Greece but this was his home, this was an important detail and even if he was blackout drunk he’d know this, wouldn’t he? Where he was?

‘This… is Gregory’s… right?’ he asked, trying to maybe finger the problem being that perhaps he didn’t know where he was. Perhaps he’d had that much to drink. It hardly felt like he’d pushed himself at all tonight, though. Maybe something was wrong with one of the drinks. Did he get drugged. That was possible, right? But why?

‘Yeah, man, it’s Gregory’s. And Gregory’s is all the way across town from your place. I dropped you off that one time’

‘When?’ he asked, perhaps too demandingly.

‘Like a few weeks ago. A month? You were hammered. It was nothing like this though. What did you have?’

‘God… I… I don’t know. I feel really disoriented. Ever since the whole Greece thing, I guess?’

‘Shit. Well, I can’t drive you home, I’m 3 beers in.’ He looked over to the blonde girl ‘Hey, Jen? Favor?’

She looked up from her drink, a little woozy ‘Anything for yoooou.’ she slurred. He sighed ‘Actually, nevermind’ he told her. She shrugged and went back to her drink.

‘I really don’t think I can let you leave like this, bro. You just seem… off your rocker.’

‘I feel it.’ he said, ignoring that Jim, a man who it appeared was at this moment his intellectual superior had just called him ‘bro’. It seemed safest at that moment to ignore most of his inclinations. His inclination was still that Greek was in Europe and home was a ten minute walk away and, well… you know, actually, maybe he was giving Jim too much of a benefit of the doubt. The internet is often wrong and who’s to say it still wasn’t a prank. Maybe he just felt weird because it was so hard to take something so wrong as the truth. And maybe this whole ‘across town’ business was false too.

‘I’m going to go take a walk to my apartment and it’s going to be fine’, he declared.

‘Man, what the fuck. You can’t walk to your apartment. The. Other. Side. Of. Town.’

‘I’m going to walk where I know it to be and it’s going to be there. And then I’m going to give you a call and we’ll have a laugh about it. It’s fine.’

‘It’s not fine. Shit. You know what? How about we take that walk – you could use the fresh air, I think and for some reason I seem to be the only one that gives a shit around here’ and with that Jim got out of his stool and put his arm around him. It didn’t seem like he was having trouble walking at all. In fact, Jim felt more drunk than he was, with a slight stagger.

‘Where are yooou going?’ asked Jen, drearily.

‘I’m going for a walk with Paul here’

‘We cooould take a walk! To my bed! Ha ha.’

‘I’m gonna pa-‘

‘SEX! HA HA!’

Jim sighed and from all appearances began to ignore her and he started to lightly stagger toward the door, his arm still awkward strewn upon Paul’s shoulder. They exited the bar into a cold alley. This all felt not quite right. He wondered if this wasn’t just a different exit than he was used to.

‘Why did we go out this way’ he asked.

‘This is the only exit, bro – which way to your house’

‘I don’t think I’m where I thought I was’

‘Right. Of course. Well… we’re out here now, we might as well get some air, right, buddy?’

He paused for a moment. He was collecting himself. On some level this made the whole thing make more sense. If he wasn’t where he thought he was then it made sense that his apartment wasn’t where he thought it was. But why was he somewhere else?

‘Air might help’, he concluded.

‘It’s not really the best day for it, though’ said Jim, as an aside.

‘Yeah, it’s a good thing February is short’ he said trying to make small talk.

‘What? What does that even mean?’

Tonight was not Paul’s night. ‘I mean, it’s a short month and that’s good because, I… I don’t know, I guess because it’s a shitty month for weather’

‘What the fuck does ‘it’s a short month’ even mean’

‘It’s like 28 days. Or, well 29 in a Leap Year’

‘A what?’

‘A Leap Year’ he said, becoming slightly more distressed. Maybe Jim was just a moron? Maybe he just never noticed. But if so, that still wouldn’t explain where he was. And the internet wasn’t a moron and so it’s hard to argue the Greece point, right? Shit.

‘I still don’t know what that is. You’re not making a lot of sense.

He decided he’d try to explain, though he knew already that it would get him nowhere: ‘February has 28 days…’ he started.

‘No… nope, it has the standard 30. Fuck – did you have a stroke or something? You’re not acting drunk, just… weird’

‘February has 28 days! 29 in a Leap Year!’ he began shouting.

‘What the fuck, bro! I don’t know what a Leap Year is, I don’t know what you’re talking about and YET AGAIN you are wrong. 30 days. 30 days is a month. February is 30. Days. I don’t think I can do this anymore.’

’30 days? What about 31?’

‘What about it? 31 days is one more day than a month.’

‘No! NO! That is NOT right. 30 Day has September, April, June and November. All the rest have 31! 31 days! And February has 28! Or, well 29 every 4 years…’

‘I’m about to just leave you here’, Jim said and Paul realized suddenly that they’d gone a bit of a ways since they started. He felt like he was in a haze still, though, so maybe that’s why he hadn’t noticed. He was very caught up in the conversation. It was beginning to make him feel like he was going a little crazy, actually. He couldn’t possibly be wrong about all of this.

‘Maybe I did have a stroke. Is this what having a stroke feels like?’

‘I don’t know. I’ve never had a stroke, bra. But I mean, isn’t it more like slurred talking and all that. You don’t just start spouting off about the days in a month and all that. I mean, I don’t think?’

‘Yeah, me either. Shit shit shit. What the fuck happened. Am I on drugs? Did someone drug me?’

‘Maybe. You know what, man? I think we should just call you a cab and it’ll take you home.’

‘Only I don’t even know where home is! We’ve established that!’

Ryan’s Random Reviews – 2012 Capsule Reviews Con’t

27 May

Mount EerieClear Moon

Grade: A

A lovely return to form for Phil Elverum’s second iteration of his band (which you might know better as The Microphones) and the first full record under the Mount Eerie name to really reach it’s potential. After the noisier ‘Wind’s Poem’ a few years ago, his attempt at making a more organic black metal (coined ‘Black Wooden’), this is a no less Earth-y but more focused and arresting record.

‘Through the Trees pt. 2’ kicks things off and sets the quiet, patient course for the rest of the record. In interviews this has been said to be a record about his home town and it paints a lovely picture of Ancortes, WA. There are a few instrumentals and experiments but they’re fewer and farther between than in some of his other records, this is primarily about mood and songwriting and it succeeds (though not to worry if you want more in the experimental vein from Phil, he has another record coming this year that is more in that vein)

The deliberate mood is one of the highlights and is seen well in highlights like ‘Lone Bell’, built around a slow building synth riff and the slightly ominous ‘The Place I Live’. The songs are given time to develop and bloom and it plays best, I think, as a full record (as I think most records ought to)

One of my favorite records of the year so far and a welcome return to form from an artist I’ve longer been enamored of.

Listen to it on bandcamp:

Mount Eerie – Clear Moon – Bandcamp

Rufus WainwrightOut of the Game

Grade: C

Expectations were heightened for some for this new record by perhaps the best known of Wainwright family of singer-songwriters when it was announced that Mark Ronson, producer of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back in Black’ and Adele’s ’19’ was working on the record. And the influence of that sound certainly shows. But overall the results are less than desirable.

I actually very much enjoy the title track, which opens and is the first single – it feels vibrant in a way that most of the other tracks on the record feel flat. It’s pure pop but it’s well mannered, well written pop and it’s a joy.

But yes, the rest of the record falls short. It feels overly produced and by the numbers in a way that it really ought not to. A disappointment.

The lovely video for the aforementioned title track, featuring Helena Bonham Carter:

Santigold – Master of Make Believe

Grade: B+

Featuring guest appearances by Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O & Nick Zinner and boasting guest production from TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek this blends those indie dance influences with the hip hop sensibilities from Diplo and M.I.A. collaborator Switch into an interesting messy mesh.

Lead single ‘Big Mouth”s video took aim at Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and while Santigold avoids bubblegum, for the most part, the results of the record are similarly dance pop confections. The second single ‘Disparate Youth’ is probably the both the best and most complicated to pin down song on the record – it spins itself into what I’d describe a manner tizzy.

Much of this recalls a slightly less ambitious Janelle Monae and that’s nothing to scoff at. An interesting record and one well worth coming back to.

Disparate Youth:

Coke WeedNice Dreams

Grade: B+

Maine  psych-rockers Coke Weed are better than their questionable name would perhaps imply (in looking at rival reviews I see I’m not the first one to point this out). Their sound recalls something akin to the classic 60s and 70s psych scene, recalling things as disparate as Jefferson Airplane and The Velvet Underground but also, in Nina D’s sultry vocals, sometimes a spacier Cat Power as well or in the boy/girl dynamics a (much) less restrained xx.

The highlights here, ‘Pure Pattern’, ‘Gangland’ and especially ‘Golden Apples’ build to a pure enjoyable, controlled mess. And if some songs never quite get off the ground (I don’t quite ever cotton to lead single ‘Magpie’) there’s never a moment that whole-y doesn’t work or any real lowlights.

An enjoyable record beginning to end that shows a band that has a lot of potential going forward. (But really guys, the name? C’mon.)

One of their videos:

To buy or download:

http://shop.cokeweed.com/product/coke-weed-nice-dreams-album-download/

They’ll also be at the 2012 Thing in the Spring, at the Saturday after-show at Harlow’s Pub. 

Spiritulized Sweet Heart, Sweet Light

Grade: A

Jason Pierce returns after spending last year touring behind his now classic record ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space’ with a record that might just go on to challenge it as the height of his discography.

Recorded during a long, hazy health scare this is a fairly bi-polar record – it kicks some killer rock and pop notes but it’s nothing if not a bit of a downer, if you’re listening close. With names like ‘Life is a Problem’ and ‘Too Late’, perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. But what is surprising is how well it rides both poles, giving you a chugging, propulsive rock record, which also inspiring big questions.

Another thing this record does well is wear it’s inspirations on it’s sleeve – ‘So Long You Pretty Things’ (the closer, a highlight) is obviously a direct reference to David Bowie’s ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ and yet it manages to have a life of it’s own. And lead single ‘Hey Jane’ directly references ‘Sweet Jane’ by The Velvet Underground, as the current of their influence hangs over not just the song but the record overall.

Another one of my favorites of the year – I’ve found it endlessly playable.

Here’s the short-film video for ‘Hey Jane’:

Introducing: Retro TV Reviews featuring The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and explanation of why)

21 May

It’s a wonder to me, as an appreciator of good television and good sitcoms especially, that The Mary Tyler Moore Show is not better remembered. Sure, it turns up in lists of great television shows here and there but you hardly ever hear of it otherwise. It’s a shame not only because it’s a classic of the highest order when it comes to sitcoms but because, like many an old film it stands up as being tremendously good.

There seems to be a divide in the world of movies and television when it comes to appreciation of the classics. It’s seen as a shame if someone hasn’t seen a classic 70s film like ‘The Godfather’, ‘Taxi Driver’ or ‘Annie Hall’, especially if that person is a serious film fan. But old television is seen, oftentimes, as disposable. There is an audience for it, in re-runs, for a certain amount of time and there exists such things as ‘TV Land’ but it isn’t viewed as something that people with good taste gravitate toward.

Reasons exist for this, of course. Television is seen as a medium that exists to sell advertisements. And what is popular in television is often not very good. Not to mention that some of the finest television produced, when it disappoints the bottom line and doesn’t draw ratings can tend to be cancelled despite being at it’s creative peak. The cream doesn’t always rise to the top in television and while that’s true for  movies, as well, and all of pop culture, it can be more pronounced in television, especially broadcast television.

This is reason to celebrate those shows that maintan a level of high quality and manage to connect with a large audience. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of those shows. And yet it feels as though it’s been largely forgotten. For a show that lasted seven season, spawned three spin-offs and won and was nominated for more Emmys in it’s seven seasons than all but one other show in the history of television, this seems quite odd. And yet it’s consistent with how television, especially what is seen as old television, is treated.

I would argue that the shows contemporaries, most notably ‘All in the Family’, seem to have faired slightly better in the memories of the general public, but not by much. Old television is put out to pasture in a way that old movies never are. Even something like the aforementioned TV Land, that is supposed to celebrate the best of old television, is more interested in promoting things like Everyone Loves Raymond or The King of Queens and, it seems, see it’s older shows as more filler than filet mignon. This may have to do with the fact that there are more Film Aficionados out there than anyone who much care about the history and quality of television, especially when it comes to the sitcom, a form that is disrespected not only by audiences but by, in many cases, creators as well.

In this day and age, however, television and the criticism of it have become something that has an audience on the internet. Websites such as The Onion’s AV Club and web personalities such as Alan Sepinwall take television seriously and review it on an ongoing basis. There are flaws with this, of course, as many programs have a level of serialization that makes week to week reviews a hassle but the rise of shows ranging from Community to Mad Men have the presence of the web to make these reviews things that people (such as myself) will read and enjoy and debate. And while the AV Club’s TV Club does have a selection of ‘classics’ it reviews, as of yet there is many a fine series that has not gotten such treatment – ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ being a prime example.

Until recently, I’d not even seen the program, I’m willing to admit. It’s been a few months now since I really gave myself up to the fact that I very much enjoy sitcoms. On some level it was something that I felt a certain level of shame about. The sitcom is not the most revered of forms – it’s often viewed as a hacky, laugh tracked bad joke. At a certain point, however, I had to admit that the vast majority of what I liked on television existed in the medium of the sitcom or at least something resembling it – modern shows as distinct and interesting as ‘Parks and Recreation’, ‘Louie’, ’30 Rock’, ‘Happy Endings’ and a myriad of others are among the best things going on television today and the classic early seasons of ‘The Simpsons’ to ‘Seinfeld’ to even such things as ‘Friends’ exist as being as beloved as most any movie. I’m a sitcom fan and as one, I have recently felt a need to give myself a history lesson and one of the places I started was getting the first season of Mary Tyler Moore from Netflix where I was pleasantly surprised. So much so that I decided it needed to be shared…

It’s with these things in mind, I welcome you to an ongoing series of reviews of the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which will start soon with the pilot episode: ‘Love is All Around’. I’ll have further thoughts on the series and why I think it’s important and even, in fact relevant to today’s culture in that review, which I’ll be posting in the next few days.

Are NaMoWriMo & Script Frenzy Worth the Trouble?

15 Mar

Consistently I question the concept of the two yearly month long challenges that the non-profit ‘Light and Letters’ promotes, National Novel Writing Month (or NaMoWriMo) in November and Script Frenzy coming up in April. And yet the last two years I’ve participated in NaMoWriMo with a lot of enthusiasm. And for two years running I haven’t been sure of the results especially.
To fill you in on what I’m speaking of, for those not in the loop, NaMoWriMo is a challenge to write the first draft of a novel to the tune of at least 50,000 words in a single month. It was created nearly a decade ago and has in the last 3-4 years blossomed into a fairly well known and well talked about internet entity. It’s biggest success story is probably the novel ‘Water for Elephants’ which started as a project for it. It’s open to all to participate and as it’s become a larger deal it’s been able to offer, for verified success in the 50,000 word goal several small thank you gifts, the best promoted of which is the production of a single bound copy of your manuscript.

Script Frenzy is a sister concept, which deals with the writing of, well, a script, be it a screenplay, a teleplay, radio drama or stage play. It encourages people to write 100 pages of material in the month of April and is more targeted at being a contest and a ground wherein people may be judged for their talents, whereas NaMoWriMo is more interested in just getting you on the ground running.

Having participated twice in NaMoWriMo I’m mixed in my thoughts. On one hand, it definitely did make me write more than I ever had previously. On the other hand it made me write at such an accelerated pace and with so little interest in revision (in fact, revision is frowned upon) that I ended up with pieces that I didn’t much like, not to mention in the first instance, wherein I completed the assignment, I was feeling entirely like it was an imposition to continue writing what I was writing.

The problem, perhaps, was that I started with little to nothing, a small hook to hang my story on, and tried to take it and turn it into a novel, even past the point where I decided, early on, I neither liked the story much, outside of base concept or felt much momentum to continue with it.

My first NaMoWriMo had a plot borrowed from what was a small indie blog story at the time, the onstage break-up of the marginally popular indie band Women. They had a large onstage blowup and stories that resulted from that seemed to hint that there were perhaps complicated relationships with all involved. Between that and the general Fleetwood Mac type well documented strife in many bands I thought the idea of having a story where a band breaks up on stage and then we flashback to find out what happened was interesting. And on the surface I still think that’s a solid concept.

The problem, however, was that I hadn’t had the time to think it through. I tried to graft to that story, also the story of someone become an internet sensation through their lo-fi internet electronic project and having to put a band together. This too, was an interesting hook, I thought. And again, I still do. But I had little to no real idea what or how the dynamics of either concept really want and as much as I had an imagined idea of it it never really panned out to anything I was entirely comfortable with.

In the end I mostly tried, in vain, to try and take personal anticdotes and put them on the characters I was creating. I decided, in retrospect, that the problem was that I needed to try and do something more personal, that was deririved from my real life, perhaps.

So, after succeeding, in theory, with the 50,000 words and being unhappy with it, the next year I took a different approach. Given it needed to be a novel and given the weird nature of much of the fiction I was reading at the time, much of it non-linear and expirimental and some of it rather meta, I tried to write a once removed variation on a memoir.

Conceptually the project was going to be me, being interviewed by no one in particular and using that to talk about various experiences I have had. And then, to complicate things, the same interviewer would ask the other particpants in those experiences to tell their side of the story. I thought this was interesting meta concept. And I still do. But I got about 25,000 or 30,000 words in before I just threw in the towel, running out of steam of wishing to exhastively talk about myself and find cute ways to get around telling the facts as straight as if I was writing an actual memoir (and using the idea of the absurdity of self-involvement of writing a memoir for comedic effect at times)

The thing is, at the outset of both projects I had an entirely different story in mind that I had been thinking about for several months before the initial NaMoWriMo attempt and now several years has been rattling around my brain. I’ve pitched this idea to people to varying responses and honestly I like it a lot. But it doesn’t feel like novel to me – it feels like a screenplay.

Oddly, in addition to that feeling, is the fact that I believe I’m a more convincing writing of scripted fiction than any fashion of prose. So, one would believe that I would then be a great fit for Script Frenzy but honestly? I’m not entirely sure that’s true.

Something is keeping me from writing this screenplay and it might be the same thing that hurt the previous attempts at ‘novels’ – I’m not sure I really have what it takes to hit it out of the park. It’s an odd thing, because people will tell you that you should try and that failure is part of the creative process and in theory, I agree. In fact, in reality, I believe that to be the case – but failure isn’t something I’m comfortable with, especially when it comes to things I really believe have merit.

I think, my reasoning, basically, for not writing this script, is that if I write a script, with the plot that I have been massaging in my head for a few years off and on, and it sucks, that that means that it’s dead and those years have thought have been a waste of time. It’s amazing though, how much time I’ve wasted avoiding wasting my time, however.

All of this is to say that I think I tried to use not terribly interesting and well thought out concepts for my previous attempts at making art because I thought that it was low stakes – if the concept didn’t work, well, I just should have tried something that had a little more oompf and really it was just a learning experience. And in the end – it is just a learning experience, in none of these scenarios do I expect to take a story, write it in whatever way in a month and then end up with a fully formed complete idea. But at the same time the fact that it ends up with such a mess and that so much time is put into making the mess then makes it very easy to disown those messes and discourage me from doing something more well thought out and potentially even more time consuming.

I also believe that part of why these contests are appealing is that they force you into a peer encouraged situation wherein you know what you need to do and you know you must write a certain amount every day, every week to make it to the total for the month and for the project. And something about that idea is very motivating in way that self-motivation does not tend to be. Encouragement is something that I have a very small well of naturally and that I need more of and am incredibly poorly equipted to manufacture, it would seem. I’m consistently seeking a creative concept that will attract a groundswell of support that will push me to create something that people will enjoy, which will push me to create more for those people who enjoyed the previous thing and so on.

That said – these competitions seem like the easiest way to manufacture something in the mold of what I’m looking for – you can find, in nearly every internet community, every message board especially, a community of people doing these contests, especially NaMoWriMo. And the push to complete your project can be cheered on by these people – to a point. There is very little individual attention, it’s somewhat a series of small socialistic societies, where everyone is encouraged to do their best and achieve their goal but where no one is celebrated above others.

Perhaps that’s my flaw, perhaps I have a need to be celebrated above others, to be told I am doing something above and beyond, something special that I must continue for the sake of the others enjoyment. It’s an odd idea, because it runs rather contrary to my overall worldview – not to say that I wish to be but a cog in the machine of things but I also do believe in everyone’s individual merits and don’t especially wish myself great fame and fortune. But perhaps that’s a lie. In fact, there’s a case it most certainly is.

Most of my goals and especially the creative goals, require a certain level of skill, if not fame and the best possible result from those endevors is, if not worldwide celebrity, a small scale niche celebration of the ideas and creative energy of the projects and their creator.

I think, on some level, the ideal level of success I could achieve is being a contributing part of something great and perhaps it would involve me being the previously mentioned cog in the machine but being the cog in the machine of something great, that I really believed in.

I don’t know that I ever want to be a great novelist or a celebrated famous writer, to the extent that such things exist outside of a niche these days outside of the crassly commerical likes of Stephanie Meyers or James Patterson, but rather I wish to just become a good writer who is appriciated and involved in things that many people enjoy.

Perhaps this wish is what makes me ill suited for either National Novel Writing Month or Script Frenzy. Their base appeal seems to be that they will help you break through and encourage you to become something great. And maybe that screenplay I’ve thought of is interesting but I’m not sure I want to be the guy who got wrote a pretty good screenplay that got made into a small independant production that faded into the background of the media landscape, there is a lot to be said, in my current feelings of things, about getting in on the ground floor of something grand and interesting and just being an active part, playing my role and being appriciated.

In the end, from what I can tell, the idea is unappealing both from a personal lack of hubris and also, somewhat disassociatively a lack of feeling like I’d be working on something that truly matters.

In spite of all of this, it should be noted, that as April keeps getting nearer, I keep thinking that maybe, just maybe, I’ll write that screenplay. But my better judgment makes me think I’m better off just getting down the basic gist of some television sitcom ideas I have marinating in my head so that they might be presented to some other creative funny types I know and that I might be able to spark a collaboration with. Whatever I do, if I have learned anything, it can be certain I will remarkably overthink it. But as time goes by I get more and more comfortable with my own overthinking.

So, that’s something, right? I’ll think about it and get back to you…

February Music Capsule Reviews

10 Mar

Sharon Van Etten

 

Tennis
Young & Old

Grade: B+

 


Coming into their second record with considerable buzz, Tennis, a wife and husband band who in their first record sauntered through sunny languid songs about their romance trade that relaxed sound for something more substantive and insightful, not to mention more traditionally melodic.
Their debut ‘Cape Dory’ was a critical favorite but was lacking something tuneful. It was pleasant and an easy, breezy listen but I never felt it had much to say. I think they have more to say here and it comes across with better, catchier and more entertaining songs.

Opener ‘It All Feels the Same’ kicks things off with a solid rock chord, lead single ‘Origins’ has a certain doo wop charm with a big chorus and ‘My Better Self’ hits a contemplative note with a certain level of panache. ‘Traveling’ keeps things going by hinting back at their prior records tone but I will say the record falls off a bit from there but never stops being fairly entertaining with only ‘Take Me to Heaven’ standing out as above average.

It’s definitely frontloaded but I think it’s a solid step forward for a band that will hopefully keep growing into one to continue watching for some time.

Hospitality
Hospitality

Grade: A

Hitting all the right twee indie pop notes, Hospitality’s debut self titled LP is catchy, engaging and probably one of my favorite records of the year thus far. It’s hard to stop listening to it – I tend to be caught up in a groove of listening to it twice or three times if I listen to it once.

This is a record that sucks you in and never really lets go – the worst tracks here have a lot to recommend, from the slow building ‘Julie’ which, the longest track here at four and half minutes, takes it’s time but is as engaging as a lot of bands better work to ‘Aragonaut’ which I’ve played plenty of times and couldn’t really tell you what it’s about other than having a fun hook and catchy chorus.

But then there is the standouts – ‘Eight Avenue’ estimates something in the range of classic Belle & Sebastian and hits the note with undue grace, ‘Sleepver’ manages to be just a bit touching while staying light and sunny, ‘Liberal Arts’ has a lot of satirical bite and then the standout among standouts is ‘Friends of Friends’, which is easily the catchiest thing I’ve heard this year and a highlight on a record full of things to recommend, with a full, fun chorus and a tremendous swagger to it.

Weighing in at just over a half hour, it never overstays it’s welcome one bit and recalls both the early Belle & Sebastian and a more twee, lady fronted early Weezer-esque sound. The first thing it makes me think of, honestly, is the straight-forward fun of The Blue Album back in the mid-90s.

If you couldn’t tell, I quite like this record.

Shearwater
Animal Joy

Grade: B-

Shearwater is a band that I have a complicated relationship with. They’re a spinoff of a longtime favorite of mine, Okkervil River, and their early records, still intertwined with the frontman of that band Will Sheff are records that I enjoy quite a bit. Their last three records, prior to Animal Joy were a ‘trilogy’ about, well, I’m not entirely sure – birds, it would seem?

Shearwater, especially in their last three records have been a very niche project – Jonathan Meiburg, the frontman has a falsetto that takes some getting used to in spite of being very pretty and lyrically they can be a bit hard to decifer, sometimes just because Jonathan, with a PHD is the study of birds, tends to have a lot to say about birds, which honestly isn’t a subject that I think most people can relate terribly to and combined with a very orchestrated indie classical influenced sound thus at best the easiest thing to say about most Shearwater music is that it’s ‘pretty’.

With ‘Animal Joy’, however, they take a step forward, into ground slightly more personal and with a bit more of a rock influence showing. It’s not a full step forward – the things that kept many people from latching on in the past are still present but are easily toned down a notch and there are a few standout songs here – the title track, ‘Breaking the Yearlings’ and a slow methodical climb in ‘Dread Sovereign’ lead things off well and it has a consistent, interesting sound to it that continues through the record.

It seems to sacrifice some of the genuine beauty of previous records to look at new landscapes (and to take a break from singing so much about, say, landscapes) and while it thus doesn’t hit quite the highest notes of their catalogue it’s both their most accessible record and probably a move in a direction that if they can find a way to tap further into will make them a more formidable force going forward and bode well for their ability to do something different and exciting in the future.

Sharon Van Etten
Tramp

Grade: A-


Sharon Van Etten’s public profile has been rapidly on the rise for the past few years. Her first record ‘Because I Was in Love’ was beautiful and sad and caught the eye of several people but never really broke through to the larger public. Her second record ‘Epic’ pushed her further into something more resembling standard singer-songwriter territory with a fuller sound and caught the attention of not only a bit larger audience but peers such as Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver fame), who covered it’s highlight track ‘Love More’, as well as fellow Brooklynites The Antlers (who had her provide lead vocals on one of the tracks on their breakthrough LP ‘Hospice’) and The National, who had Sharon guest on recent track ‘Thought You Could Wait’ and a member of whom, Bryce Dressner, provides production for ‘Tramp’

Here Sharon opens herself up to even more complex orchestration without really comprimising her personal tone that shone so bright on her first two records. The atmosphere of something like ‘Give Out’ add to the cathartic notion of the song in a way that never cuts into the appeal of it. Guests from bands such as The Walkmen and Beirut compliment their respective tracks with appealing duets. A standout is the first single ‘Serpents’ which is the first time Sharon has fully done a song that fits comfortably into the category of a ‘rock song’ – and it works rather well and forcefully.

I wouldn’t argue that this is a better record than her previous two, both of which have fairly immense charms, but it is on par and another move forward for an artist who seems to have, in the course of a three year career, be getting better and better as an artist – it is a move toward a more fully realized sound and the songwriting continues to get better and more complex. It feels like a real coming out party for an artist who has been moving further and further on to the radar of the mainstream of indie rock stardom and who’s star will likely be shinning only brighter in the future.

Bruce Springsteen
Wrecking Ball
Grade: C+

This is, in my estimation, the best standard issue Bruce Springsteen record (which is to say, excepting projects like ‘The Seger Sessions’ or ‘Devil in the Dust’) in several years. That is, however, rather faint praise, considering ‘Magic’ felt like was warmed over leftovers from his early 90s shmaltzy period and ‘The Rising’ was tremendously over-rated and rode on a sentimentality borrowed from the sad events that surrounded it in late 2001.

This, however, is Springsteen going back to his roots as American anthemist – aiming for something in the vein of either classic ‘Born’ record and sometimes pulling it off, albiet never as well as one might hope. It can tend to be heavy handed and a bit broad lyrically and it doesn’t have the same charisma that his earlier recordings have that seem to be able to push those sorts of concepts into something more palpable.

All that being said – it’s consistently decent and has it’s moments of Springsteen-ian uplift, although they’re somewhat fleeting. It’s built around what ends up being a mixed bag of folksier elements and stadium swagger, the latter of which might just be the reality of needing to work in a 2012 Bruce Springsteen tour environment but which takes several of these songs down a notch.

If this was a little more focused and able to tone itself down it could have been a very good record. As it is, it tends to be something more in the range of ‘acceptable’ and given the last ten years of Springsteen in the studio, well, that’s something I’ll accept, I suppose.