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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is This Reality?: "Wendy and Lucy"

By Luke

Wendy and Lucy is a "small" movie. It's small in size (80 minutes with credits) and it's small on story - there's just Wendy (a girl), Lucy (her dog), and a handful of other nameless characters who occasionally appear. Wendy is "passing through" rural Oregon and headed to Alaska, and the movie documents a rough couple of days along the way. But there is no backstory or explanation for the journey, the story is too "small" for that.

What we get instead is an apathetic heroine who doesn't seem desperate so much as indifferent. When a security guard pontificates that in society, "everything's fixed" against people, Wendy replies, "that's why I'm going to Alaska," and that is as close as we get to her intentions. She phones her sister's husband, tells him simply, "I'm in Oregon," (her roots are in Indiana), which he casually accepts. Her sister comes onto the phone, says shrilly, "We can't give you anything, we're strapped," when Wendy adds that her car has broken down, the sister replies skeptically, "What can we do?" This sounds more dramatic than it is, from the way they are speaking, they might as well be discussing the weather. A moment later, Wendy's sister has already become disinterested and gotten off the phone, and Wendy tells the husband, "It sounds like you're busy, I'll talk to you later," which he accepts and they hang up.

Movies "small" in budget tend to be big on "reality," using their relatively low-tech circumstances to their advantage when creating gritty, "natural" films. But "Wendy and Lucy" feels comatose, somehow less dramatic than real life. It isn't helped by the amateur actors playing some of the supporting roles, all of whom deliver their lines with blase non-energy.

Finally, close to the end of the movie, there is a scary moment that causes Wendy to have a meltdown. The moment is shocking because we are jolted into feeling emotion again...and maybe that has been the movie's intention all along. For the first time, Wendy seems to grasp the reality of her situation, which "brings her back to earth." But, it is too late for the audience to be invested in her hardships. The movie feels like watching the aftermath of a car crash from your bedroom window...you recognize the drama, but are personally removed from the outcome.All of which leads to one conclusion. It's a struggle for me to say it because of how cliche it sounds, and because it alludes to the misconception that all movies have to make you "feel" all kinds of things...the more the better. But in this case, the conclusion holds true: Wendy and Lucy is small on heart.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Neil Young with Wilco: Live at the DCU Center in Worcester, Massachusetts (12-13-08)

By Rob

NOTE: My setlist for Neil Young conflicts with that of SugarMountain.org -- the popular source for Neil Young setlists. I'm confident in my setlist. For instance, I am positive Young performed Old Man directly before Heart of Gold, whereas SugarMountain.org has Old Man following Heart of Gold. Disparities like that put faith in my setlist being the more accurate of the two. Here is the setlist, according to SugarMountain.org

A shot of Neil Young at the DCU Center in Worcester, MA (12/13/08)

On December 13th, James (fellow contributor to TWOTF) and I saw Neil Young live for our first time, and Wilco for my second time. Our tickets were for general admission on the floor, and we had an excellent line-of-sight. We caught the last two or so songs from Everest, the opener. Their stuff seemed nice, albeit slightly underwhelming. Then came Wilco... I saw Wilco for my first and only other time 4 or so years ago when they played in gymnasium at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy at Saturday's show in Worcester, MA

I didn't know what to expect going into yesterday's show. Neil Young has gone by the same set list for many of his recent tour dates, with the exception of three or so songs each night. Don't get me wrong, it is a spectacular setlist. It's just that both Neil Young and Wilco have done a lot of touring, and Neil Young has been playing some of the same songs for over 30 years, let alone a single tour. It was hard not to wonder whether these acts would phone it in to some extent. What happened, in short, was this: Wilco seemingly phoned it in on a few songs (see below), while Neil Young played his set like it was a going away party for the elite portion of the songbook.

The following is Wilco's setlist from last night:

* - This is an great rendition. Why would I pay $90 to hear the studio version? There has to be something special about it. In this case, there was something very special and worthwhile about this song.

1. Via Chicago*
2. Impossible Germany
3. You Are My Face
4. Spiders (Kidsmoke)*
5. Hummingbird
6. Forget the Flowers
7. Jesus, Etc.
8. Hate It Here*
9. Walken*
10. I'm The Man Who Loves You*

Nels Cline put on a great show, as is custom to a Univeristy High School (Los Angeles, California) alumnus. Any song that I've indicated to have been a strong, live rendition was made as such in large part to, if not entirely by, Nels Cline.

It took close to 40 minutes (OK, maybe it was closer to 35 minutes) to break down Wilco's equipment and set up for Neil Young. The stage looked like a stop on Antique Roadshow. One amp appeared to be at least 20 years old. I'll never forget the artist at the back of the stage who, for most of the set, had a spotlight on him while he painted. I had read that a man painted on stage during NY sets, but I hadn't thought about the logistical aspects of that. I don't want to make it sound like Kanye West at Bonaroo -- the wait for NY wasn't neither unusual nor painful ...But watching two roadies carry the painters equipment on stage doesn't help the clock move any faster.

Luckily we were surrounded by a group of characters, and the wait was actually enjoyable for us. For those who didn't have the best 35-minute wait, NY made it worth the wait...

The following is Neil Young's setlist from last night:

1. Love And Only Love*
2. Hey Hey, My My*
3. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere*
4. Powderfinger*
5. Spirit Road
6. Cortez The Killer*
...Fantastic guitar solo and back-up vocals
7. Cinnamon Girl
8. Oh, Lonesome Me
....Introduced the harmonica for the first time in set
9. Mother Earth
....Played on organ w. harmonica (solo)
10. The Needle And The Damage Done*
....Acoustic (solo)
11. Light A Candle
12. "Cough Up The Bucks"
13. Fuel Line*
14. "Hit The Road And Go To Town"(?)
....I don't recall which song this was. I know it was a new one. A lyric I remembered: "no fear of failure for a crazy fool." If anyone has the complete lyrics for this song, I'd greatly appreciate it. (Post in the comment section!)
15. Old Man*
....Popular sing-a-long
16. Heart Of Gold*
....Popular sing-a-long
17. Get Back To The Country*
18. When Worlds Collide
19. Just Singing A Song*
....A great guitar solo -- fantastic jam
21. Cowgirl In The Sand*
....Possibly the best guitar solo of the night
22. Rockin' In The Free World*
ENCORE: A Day In The Life

Saturday, December 13, 2008

In Opposition of the Chinatown "Bust"

By Luke




Charles Lindbergh once said, "I'll always pick the side of the argument with a pun in the title." And he was right.










Above: Charles Lindbergh. Not to be mistaken for Tony, who has the same goggles.

Obsession in "Che"

By Luke

For better or worse, Che isn't interested in either glorifying or demonizing Che Guevara (which some might classify as giving him a pass). It makes no effort to get inside Che's thoughts or motivations. For the most part, he doesn't even seem human. Even though we see his first several interactions with his future wife, there is no hint of romance or even the consideration that Che sees her as anything other than a "comrade." Che is an object of singular focus and, coincidentally, so is Che.

Benecio Del Toro at a premiere of Che: Part 1 (aka The Argentine; Che: El Argentino)
There isn't much narrative arc to Che, some critics have called it "boring" or "monotonous." There isn't much variation either, just a lot of training sequences and ambushes in the jungle (with one B&W sequence of Che in New York City mercifully showing up from time to time in Part One). There are emotions, but only a few: frightened locals, angry government regimes, and, mostly, the soldiers who are either heroic or cowards. At one point while being interviewed in New York, Che tells the interviewer that the most important quality for a revolutionary to have is "love," and the word hits you hard because you realize that's exactly what this movie has been missing.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Che's personal trait that fascinates director Steven Soderbergh (below) is the same trait which guides the movie: unwavering, detail-oriented obsession, and if you wanted something else...well, too bad. Soderbergh (who serves as his own cinematographer) has shot a beautiful movie which revels in the monotonous, slowly ticking off the days even when new developments are few and far between. All of this gives Benecio del Toro plenty of time to scowl, pace, bark orders, and train, always train, in preparation for revolution. Part One focuses on the Cuban revolution, and more than two hours later, just as the first signs of victory appear, it ends. Part Two doesn't resume until eight years later when Che has arrived in Bolivia, and then that part concentrates on the (very similar) attempt to bring about revolution there. Like Che himself, the movie lives for the revolution, and isn't interested in the extraneous...or the consequences (the splendors or ills of victory). This movie is about the journey, a journey in which one has to, in Che's words, "live like you've already died." The film's MO in one sentence might be, "Rome wasn't built in a day."

Che
is not for all tastes, and it makes little effort to convert the skeptics. If you criticize movies for "being too slow" or "not being about anything," this is not for you. But, if you are going to see this movie, see it in the theaters. See both parts at once (and see it during the roadshow, so you only have to pay one admission). This movie demands nothing less than your full attention, and the spell will be broken on DVD.
Personally, I found the experience worth it, it's a great showcase for Soderbergh and del Toro's respective talents and the roadshow environment (the two parts played together, with an intermission in between) is rare and exciting. But it's likely to elicit different reactions from every audience member, depending on who you are, you'll consider that a weakness or a strength.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Drama Done Right: Doubt and Milk

By Luke

NO SPOILERS

Part of a continuing series of previously neglected thoughts on movies that are out or about to come out... America, it's your birthday.

Late December can be a time when theaters drown in prestigious, starry-eyed bloat. The running times lengthen and the stories get more serious (Holocaust! Terminally ill! Neglected genius!) but nothing is really gained as far as we, the viewers, are concerned. Movies are manufactured with getting Oscars in mind and the results on screen are pretty, but empty (like Rob's dream girl). Based on the reviews it's been getting, "The Reader" seems to be an early 2008 example of this phenomenon. Color me uninterested.

But really, this has been a long way of saying Doubt and Milk are both immensely satisfying Hollywood dramas, driven by ideas and images, not just big name stars or "safe" story formulas. This is Oscarbait at it's finest, which is to say it's not really Oscarbait at all.
In Milk, Sean Penn (seen right) gives the performance of the year (a premature statement considering there are probably thousands of movies I haven't seen this year, but award-hyperbole is as common this time of year as eggnog). I was very skeptical going into Milk because nothing raises my suspicions like "biopics," and only when the New York Film Critics named Milk Best Picture did I decide it was worth my time. One of the most tiring elements of biopics is the syndrome of "stars-getting-serious," which involves a movie star dressing down, doing drugs, singing songs, and getting lots of close-ups. It's an immense relief that Penn doesn't act in this movie so much as live in it, just like Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, he is surrounded by a huge world of a movie, and he manages to stand out through sheer character-wattage (and therefore there are no super close-up reaction shots or break-down-crying-alone scenes or anything else of that ilk).

This is not a biopic. We don't start at Milk's birth and follow him through his misunderstood childhood and early life, etc. etc. etc. We don't cut back and forth all over his life or waste time introducing characters to perform psychiatric analysis (so, unlike biopics, no one ever says "You're not like everybody else, you're special," or "Gosh, you could be great some day!"). This is MILK, the man, the symbol, the movement, this is a Greek tragedy. Early on Harvey Milk explains his love of opera to a skeptic, saying "Listen, can't you hear all the emotion?" and opera becomes a bit of a motif throughout the movie (most notably at the end).

Gus van Sant (left) and Sean Penn (right) on the set of Milk
After exercises in minimalism (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park), Milk is Gus van Sant's opera: full of splendid color, smart performances, and most importantly, brilliant scenes that keep the story speeding at a perfect pace. Like the man himself, Milk gets a lot accomplished in a reasonably short period of time (128 minutes is nothing for most biopics) and the credit lies with both screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who, improbably, has earned his full-screen credit in the trailer) and van Sant who has left the Hollywood formula days of Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting (sure, it's a decent movie, but unspectacular) behind and planted his name firmly on the A-List (or my A-List anyway). I went in expecting to be underwhelmed, expecting to be led along all the predictable plot points, to be told explicitly why I should should care. I came out enthralled and thirsting for more.

Doubt isn't the epic that Milk is, but it's not trying to be. Its source material isn't a man's life, but a Broadway play which unfolds entirely on the campus of a Catholic school and church. I can't remember the last Hollywood movie to be at once this contained and this satisfying, the best comparison I can think of is Chop Shop, which also utilizes only one location and crafts an engaging narrative without much really "happening." Like the title suggests, Doubt is a movie about human uncertainty, and the fact that the main characters are nuns in a faith steeped in rules and tradition makes their inertia even greater.

It is left to the cast to bring the drama to life, and Merryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (seen below) do just that. I was pretty much alone last year when I thought Hoffman gave one of the year's best performances in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, my guess is his comparably brilliant work here in another small, adult drama will also go ignored.
Let's hope he doesn't trade these roles in entirely for showier stuff like Charlie Wilson's War. I'd read disparaging reviews of Streep, mainly comparing her with the play's original actress on Broadway. I can't speak to that, but her role is certainly the hardest to pull off--it must be broad, but not parody. In my opinion, she just about nails it, and considering the Actress races are always less crowded than Actor, she's probably deserving of yet another Oscar nomination. Finally, Adams is solid as the innocent caught between the two titans, even if she sticks around just long enough to introduce the audience to the conflict before becoming useless and practically disappearing.

Most of the rest of the cast is kids, and if the youths can't keep up with their thespian elders...well, picking at weak spots seems needless with a movie this satisfying. It's even more time efficient than Milk (just about 100 minutes) and if it lacks the overt MESSAGE we can typically count on finding in "Oscar dramas," well, that's because with "doubt" and in Doubt, nothing is that simple.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Unfortunate Case of "Benjamin Button"

By Luke

Spoilers within (no ending ruined or anything...just reveals from the first hour or so)...

The talent attached was too tantalizing. Arguably Hollywood's best director (David Fincher), biggest movie star (Brad Pitt), best actress (Cate Blanchett), and most reliable screenwriter (Eric Roth) making a movie based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, all wrapped in a huge budget (over $150 million) spent on state of the art CGI effects.

For exactly 1 act, it works.

The first act of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button might be the most "magical" Hollywood filmmaking this year, with great performances, beautiful cinematography, and breathtaking scenes. Benjamin's world is slowly, painstakingly constructed with all of the attention to detail found in Fincher's past movies like Se7en and Zodiac. The unconventional premise of a child being born with the body of an old man and physically aging backwards could have led to narrative-slowing scenes of exposition, but Fincher and Roth don't get bogged down in the details, letting the on-screen events speak for themselves.

All the movie's best characters appear in the first third...characters brought marvelously to life - like the ship captain who fancies himself as an artist or the wife of the British spy who attempted to swim across the English Channel or the old man who has been struck by lightening 7 times. By the end of the movie, these characters have all disappeared, or been fed on-the-nose monologues explicitly stating what their characters represent. But there's something "magical" (no other word conveys the feeling as well) about these people when they are allowed to be unhinged...to just "be" and Benjamin, like the audience, is content to explore them and their eccentricities.


I can pinpoint the exact moment when the movie takes a severe turn for the worse. It probably comes about 50 minutes in, and Daisy is all grown up. She is out with Benjamin alone, for the first time they are both adults. They clearly love each other, but he has been at sea and she's been in New York. Finally, they're together.



She seduces him, eventually being straight-forward and telling him she wants to sleep with him. He demurs, but we don't know why. Benjamin's voice over is a guiding light throughout the movie, but it is surprisingly absent here. He says "no," the scene is over, the audience is expected to move on, but the first false note has been sounded. Him saying "no" feels like nothing more than a plot device to keep them apart. What follows is even more dismaying. Suddenly, Benjamin's voice over is like a crutch, briskly traversing long periods of time, shown in fast montage. The movie cuts more to Daisy in the present, introducing a needless subplot between her and her daughter. WHY do movies continue to be constructed around the person telling a story on their deathbed? Does anyone not react adversely to that cliche at this point?

But faster than you can ponder this conundrum, we continue to
blur through Benjamin's history, with none of the precise timing found in the first third. Fincher and Roth seem incapable of creating a convincing romance, so they are content to just "tell" the audience what is happening instead of allowing the scenes to develop and "show." The last straw is when Benjamin reaches his "40's" and "30's" (in reverse) and Pitt's jaw-dropping good looks become a distraction. The audience was laughing (not in a good way) at how gorgeous he is.

By the end, the magic of the first third has completely worn off, causing one of the most frustrating movie experiences I've ever had. The talent attached was too tantalizing, but the groupings weren't quite right...and Button falls short of expectations.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

IN DEFENSE OF THE CHINATOWN BUS

written by Tony

a conclusive analysis for travelers and seekers of true wisdom everywhere. originally published on the bwog.

Charles Lindbergh once said, "If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes." Today, we have essentially two options of bus to travel from New York to Boston/Philly/DC: the Fung-Wah Bus, classically known as "The Chinatown Bus"; and a new, flashier generation of MegaBuses, BoltBuses, and other Power Rangers-influenced vehicle names. Pragmatically, stylistically, and sentimentally, the choice is clear. The Chinatown Bus is better.

First, purchasing a Chinatown Bus ticket beats the process and costs of purchasing tickets from any other bus company. To buy a Chinatown Bus ticket, you exchange a straight 15 bucks, several feet from the actual bus itself. Sometimes, mere minutes from departure time. Occasionally, seconds. The Power Ranger buses universally demand that you buy online, requiring additional Internet and service fees, locating your credit card, printing shit, memorizing reservation numbers. In a word, the Power Ranger buses expect you to plan ahead. They flaunt the possibility of $1.00 tickets, but you have to know your exact time and place at least a month ahead of the fact, and even longer before for holiday departures, to reserve these tickets. If you don't know your precise schedule this far in advance, The Power Rangers can shoot up to $25.00. And we are college students with unpredictable schedules. One of my Wednesday classes was canceled this week. Then, a professor moved the due date of an assignment forward to Wednesday afternoon. Then, my parents moved to Canada. And won't tell me why. The Chinatown Bus respects the fluctuation of life, which is why it is always and forever fifteen bucks.

The Chinatown Bus is not really that dangerous. I've taken it to and from Boston somewhere upward of twenty times in my whole life, without even the slightest problem. But don't take my word for it: check out the Wikipedia page. It lists only six notable safety issues in the bus' history to take account of, and the last one sounds like it was totally that dump trucks fault. This number is reasonable, given the tremendous number of buses are driven. People exaggerate the minor mishaps they've encountered. And even though that's pretty legitimate because I like to exaggerate too, given the statistical likelihoods of these safety problems, you'll have a comparable experience with safety on the Power Ranger buses.

While the Power Ranger buses boast about having the Internet (most often used to spend another 25 minutes reserving your return bus ticket), the Chinatown Bus amenities are actually far superior and more unique. Right next to the Chinatown Bus ticket counter rests a hidden gem - the famed hole-in-the-wall hot dog stand Jumbo Hot Dogs, reviewed as one of the best and cheapest insider hot dog joints in the city. Perfect before a four-hour trip. On the trip to Boston, The Chinatown Bus reliably stops at the biggest McDonald's rest area in Connecticut. Always incredibly well timed to a ninety-minute REM nap cycle. And most importantly, people on the Chinatown Bus are intriguing and animated. You'll find people of all sizes, shapes, colors, and ages. Sometimes, people snore loudly. Sometimes, people talk loudly about the snoring. Often, the people are kind of weird. But they make you think.

Ultimately, we need to be reminded of why we are emotionally attached to The Chinatown Bus. I believe lyrics in Bishop Allen's song "The Chinatown Bus" aptly reflect some of this sentiment:

"I remember Shanghai, how I wasn't sure just what was safe to eat.

The chickens pecked and wandered at the barefoot of the children hawking figurines of workers smiling.

What's the Chinese word for cheese?"

More than any other bus today, The Chinatown Bus revives the childhood sense of adventure and curiosity. As Lindbergh feared, transportation -- and our lives -- have become overwhelmingly no-nonsense, slick, and ordered. And though there are certainly merits in that, life is far more interesting when it's a little chaotic, messy, and mysterious.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

XXL's 10 Freshmen: Hip-Hop's Class of '09

James dropping by with a short post. Everybody should check out this month's issue of XXL. It's all about this year's ten breakout rappers (Wale, B.o.B., Charles Hamilton, Asher Roth, Cory Gunz, Blu, Mickey Factz, Ace Hood, Kid Cudi, & Curren$y). It's a great introduction for a whole slew of new young rappers that are worth checking out. I've been a Wale supporter for well over a year now and still can't wait for his debut album on Mark Ronson's Allido Records in Spring 2009. Asher Roth's mixtape with DJ Drama is very impressive. As a young white guy, he's getting lots of comparisons to Eminem (they sound a bit alike) but they're very different lyrically. Blu, Mickey Factz, Kid Cudi, Hamilton, and B.o.B. are all doing some cool shit too. Check out Johnson and Johnson (the collaboration between Blu & Mainframe). All of them have great mixtapes out that are worth searching for. Here are links to a few of them:

The Mixtape About Nothing by Wale
http://elitaste.com/blog/2008/12/03/ladies-and-gentlementhe-mixtape-about-nothing/

100 Miles and Running by Wale
http://elitaste.com/blog/2008/11/11/wales-100-miles-and-running-mixtape-at-61000-downloads/

B.o.B.'s Mixtapes
http://www.myspace.com/bobatl

The Greenhouse Effect by Asher Roth (with DJ Cannon & DJ Drama)
http://www.asherrothmusic.com/

Charles Hamilton's put out 8 mixtapes in the past two months!

A Kid Named Cudi by Kid Cudi
http://www.10deep.com/KIDCUDIMIXTAPE/

The future of hip hop is here!!

-- James

Monday, December 8, 2008

Greater Boston Alternative Comedy Festival

By Rob

Robby Roadsteamer is a former WBCN dj who has achieved legendary status in the Boston music scene over the past 8 or so years. Chris Coxen, who is also Boston based, has what I consider to be one of the best character-based comedy routines in the country.

On December 2nd, Robby Roadsteamer and Chris Coxen (both of whom are very nice, in addition to being very talented) performed at UMass-Lowell in Lowell, MA. They put on a really fun show!

All that being said, if you haven't seen Robby or Chris, there's no better time than December 17th when they'll be performing at what has the makings of a very special event. Here's a description of the "Greater Boston Alternative Comedy Festival" found on chriscoxen.com:

Folks - there's a great comedy/music show happening in December. Here's the press release:

Greater Boston (Cambridge, Allston, Somerville, Brighton) is producing some of the best Alternative comedy acts this country has. Unfortunately in a Boston comedy scene often times focused more on traditional standup comedians a lot of these acts tend to get overlooked. For one night at The Paradise on Wednesday, December 17th, we hope to change that and give an underground scene it's due on one of the biggest stages......

"The Greater Boston Alternative Comedy Festival"
Sponsored By WFNX Radio
Doors open at 7pm... 8pm start 18+ $15

December 17th
The Paradise
Boston Massachusetts
967 Commonwealth Ave.

Shane Mauss

The Walsh Brothers

Robby Roadsteamer

Chris Coxen

Anderson Comedy

Mehran


Bethany Van Delft


Mc'd By Shane Webb

And a musical performance by The Campaign For Realtime

For more information please e-mail at
robbyroadsteamer@aol.com

This is a unique kind of show, with a unique kind of talent. If you like a). comedy and live in the Boston area, b). pretend to like comedy and live in the Boston area, or c). like comedy and pretend to live in the Boston area (creep), then you'll want to be there. I've seen The Walsh Brothers, Chris Coxen and Robby Roadsteamer and I'd quickly shell out $15 to see them again.

Here's a funny video (found on roadsteamer.com) promoting the show:



Check out the show if you can!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

How I know your retarded

The most obnoxious, stupidest faction of people in the world is the one that writes "you're" as "your" online.  These are two completely different words that happen to sound similar like "write" and "right" or "no" and "know."  Every time I see "Your awesome!" on Facebook (which is unfortunately very regularly because everyone knows I'm awesome), 1% of me dies.  Well, I'm operating at 13% right now and I beg you to stop this practice.  Realize that substituting "your" for "you're" means you are and forever will be an idiot.  Thanks.

-The Management