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by John Bohannon

14 Aug 2008

When the Old Grey Whistle Test DVD Set came out, for some reason I wasn’t surprised that the Replacements performance wouldn’t make the cut. Although I never got to see the band during their days of performance, countless hours have been spent on YouTube seeking out their performances—and “Kiss Me on the Bus” has been one of the most consistent, exceptional pop songs that the Replacements ever produced.

This performance, circa 1986—shows the Replacements in their prime. Although not quite as memorable as their famed Saturday Night Live performance, this highlights Paul Westerberg’s raw vocals at their best, and Bob Stinson whips up a solo variation that has the guitar sounding massively out-of-tune, and massively wonderful. Every time you watch the Replacements play, there’s something different to be offered, and that’s part of the glory of the Replacements. They never tried to be something they weren’t and the songs were never perfect. They were more focused on a valued performance and a songwriting that left an impression—a lesson a plethora of bands that spend entirely too much on their image and exact reproductions of the studio sound can learn from.

by Bill Gibron

14 Aug 2008

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the rich are different than you or me”, and if by dissimilar he meant boorish, obnoxious, and self-absorbed, he couldn’t have been more right - especially when it comes to their motion picture counterparts. Unless they are decked out in period piece garb and surrounded by palatial estates that warrant consideration as characters themselves, their ambiguous angst fueled by an existence outside the reality of regular people can grow oh so very tiresome. Apparently Woody Allen doesn’t think so. In his new movie, Vicky Christina Barcelona, he follows two disaffected American gals with tons of disposable…emotions as they laugh and love their way through Spain. Sadly, both the humor and the matters of the heart are indulgent and quite dull.

Having decided to spend the summer in Spain, New York gals Vicky and Christina become intoxicated with Barcelona’s beauty. One’s there ostensibly to study art and architecture. The other just wants an adventure. They enjoy indulging in the local wine, and the somewhat unwelcome advances of artist Juan Antonio. Inviting the pair to a romantic weekend in the country, he comes on very strong. Vicky hates this aspect of his personality, while Christina is intrigued. Eventually both bed the painter. Vicky is tormented by her rashness. Christina, on the other hand, moves in with Juan. It’s not long, however, before an element from the man’s past inserts itself into their situation. It’s Maria Elena, Juan’s highly strung ex-wife. Under the guise of being depressed, suicidal, and needing to protect her former husband, she becomes the third wheel in Christina’s connubial bliss. Of course, it’s not long before the passionate duo become a trio - with all the attending problems. 

Sometimes, a movie just doesn’t click with you. Try as it might, and conversely, as much as you would like to meet it halfway, something stops the connection. The clash can either result in outright anger, or in most cases, downright disinterest. Such is the case with Vicky Christina Barcelona. For all its nuanced subtleties, arty experiments, references to wealth and power, and bubbling libidos, this is a film that just can’t find a way to seem real. It appears locked in a dream, drowning in painful superficialities that few would want to invest time in. Even worse, it takes characters and turns them into types, constantly forcing what could be interesting individuals into purposefully placed pigeonholes. By the end, you just want the whining to stop, to have some sense of the way life really is whack these hedonistic snobs right in the face.

Sadly, such a comeuppance never arrives. Instead, Allen drops back into casual observer mode and lets its cast simply bore us to death. From the Spanish side of things, Javier Bardem is given the thankless role of confused, compassionate lothario. On the one hand, he can’t wait to bed these statuesque Americans. He’s like horniness tempered with a come hither accent. On the other, he’s like a momma’s boy missing the teat. We’re supposed to sympathize with his undying devotion to crazy mixed up Maria Elena, to see how his pseudo soul mate torments him so. But when Penelope Cruz arrives, all tussled hair and raccoon eyes, she’s like an invader from a failed version of Warhol’s Factory. And then she speaks, and all the stereotypical shrill insanity comes cascading out. Somewhere along the line, Allen mistook psychosis for passion. Here, the two aren’t even remotely related.

Naturally, every demented ebb must have a fathomless flow, and our two ‘lost’ tourists provide a perfect pair of undaunted doormats. Of the two, Rebecca Hall’s supposedly sensible Vicky is the most aggravating. Initially, she makes a grand point about being in love with her fiancé, recognizing Bardem’s wolf in seducer’s clothing, and standing by her moral and sexual convictions. So guess who allows her libido to undo two decades of determination? For the rest of the film Hall appears unplugged, using flustered frustration as an excuse for any and all interpersonal faux pas. At least Christina makes no bones about being unstuck in her pointless, prone to hastiness life. Scarlett Johannson has a hard time conveying ditz. It frequently comes across as her character being sleepy. But if Allen was looking for someone to match his foreign actors bump for grind, this voluptuous star will definitely do. 

None of this explains why Vicky Christina Barcelona is so lifeless though. Allen name checks Gaudi and other familiar artists, yet he uses their work as the most uninteresting of backdrops. Equally uninspired are the people who float around this foursome. Bardem’s father cuts an intriguing image - he’s a poet who does not publish because he doesn’t believe the world deserves his beautiful words. Quite intriguing, but Allen pushes past it for more shots of Juan Antonio making cow eyes at Christina. Even worse, moments of supposed comedy are treated in such an off hand, ill timed manner that we’re never given a chance to laugh - or better yet, a reason to do so. It’s all just so idyllic and lazy, like a typical vacation except without the planned itinerary and accidental dysentery.

It’s hard to tell if this is a failure in idea or execution. Allen’s camera is relaxed here, the cinematography frequently as drunk on the locations as the characters. He does use a rather annoying voice over narration, the explanations often doing what clever blocking and actual acting would accomplish. In fact, everything is spoon fed to us in ways which become increasingly annoying. Indeed, one’s tolerance level of this material literally evaporates as the plot and the peccadilloes plod along. While it may not be fair to judge any artist by their past, Woody Allen isn’t winning over many new fans with his recent direction. While he may never recapture the quality of his classics, it’s hard to support such wayward expressions. Vicky Christina Barcelona is really nothing more than rich people bitching. Now where exactly is the fun in that?

by Bill Gibron

14 Aug 2008

You’ve got to give George Lucas credit. Who else but the man behind the whole Skywalker family space saga could systematically rape his past while still producing staunch defenders? While he used to bemoan his inability to make “small, arthouse fare”, he now seems permanently stuck in Gene Simmons mode (read: endlessly remarketing his myth for future fans - and profits). After completing his horrendous prequels, many thought he was done with a galaxy far, far away. As it turns out, he was just getting started. As a live action TV series looms, we are currently being treated to the theatrical release of the pilot for his soon to be weekly animated effort, The Clone Wars. Based on the lifeless collection of computer generated chaos offered, things may be ending before the even begin.

For those unfamiliar with the storyline, a separatist movement, led by Count Dooku, is attempting to overthrow the Republic. The Jedi, including Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, have been put in charge of keeping things from spiraling out of control. As we catch up with the characters, Jabba the Hutt’s son has been kidnapped, and Yoda wants his two best knights to negotiate his return. Unfortunately, they are engaged in a massive battle on a far away planet. Adding to the problems is a new padawan, Ahsoka Tano. The youngling is assigned to Anakin, much to his initial chagrin. They eventually form an uneasy alliance. After tracking the huttlet to an abandoned monastery, the trio heads out to battle Dark Lord Asajj Ventress and her droid forces. While concerned over the safety of the hostage, they fail to realize that this may all be a trap to poison the Jedi in Jabba’s eyes.

Welcome to George Lucas’ latest bad, bad decision. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, is easily classified as an “if you don’t mind” styled production. If you don’t mind unfocused battle sequences that seem to go on forever, if you don’t mind characterization clearly aimed at the under seven set, if you don’t mind overly cute merchandising bows and dialogue as ditzy as any Jar Jar monologue, you probably will enjoy yourself. But if the very thought of a drag queen Jabba the Hutt horrifies you, or if your fandom is killed by the concept that our future Darth Vader is referred to, lovingly and often, as “Skyguy”, Clone Wars will close the door on your love of this series forever. Sure, it’s merely the set up for an upcoming Cartoon Network/TNT series, but leave it to Lucas to drive a stake in his space opera’s vampiric heart once and for all.

It’s not an altogether unpleasant experience, at least at first. We are given a simple set-up -Anakin gets new padawan, she’s a spunky little thing, they both learn lessons from each other while saving a baby slug from some slightly confusing double cross. Dooku does his thing. Cue John Williams inspired theme. But thanks to the relatively lifeless realization of this material by director Dave Filoni (who almost out snores Uncle George in the filmmaking department) and writers Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching, and Scott Murphy, we are stuck with nothing but cause and effect. It’s all set up and problem solving, the characters given limited access to anything imaginative, instead relying on the same old moves and screenplay mechanics to maintain the story arc.

Once we get beyond the narrative pleasantries, The Clone Wars has little else to offer. The battle sequences are sloppy and wooly, delivering little scope and even less excitement. The proposed suspense never arrives, and since we know the fate of these characters beforehand (some, if not all, have to survive to star in Revenge of the Sith, right?), there is little surprise or satisfaction. The newer additions are merely tossed in, given little time to impact the uninitiated. Unlike live action clashes, where character and other physical elements can be added to up the adrenalin, the flat 3D characters present simply spin around like videogame targets. There’s none of the stylized grace of Genndy Tartakovsky’s excellent hand drawn version of these events, which is odd when you consider that animation is as much about art as anything else.

No, the stench of preplanned marketing pours off this title like sugared cereal and sickening kid sweat in a Shrek queue. Everything here is dumbed down, turning potential science fiction and fantasy into overly cute concepts for toys and bubblegum flavored toothpastes. Looking even more closely, you can see the reach for the highly coveted girl demo (a speculative rarity), the equally elusive under 10 set (awwww - isn’t little stinky Rotta the Huttlet adorable!), and even those interested in alternative lifestyles. Yes, Star Wars gets its first openly gay icon in Ziro, Jabba’s wildly flamboyant and campy Uncle. Speaking like something out of a Tennessee William’s play and doing everything else to suggest homosexuality aside from lisping, this totally misguided creation is like a hate crime waiting to happen.

And speaking of anger, fans will be furious when they hear the sound-alike voice actors hired to bring their former favorites to life. Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christiansen, Natalie Portman, and Ian McDiamond are nowhere to be found among the credits. In their place are capable mimics, accented by the real voices of Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, and Anthony Daniels. Granted, we don’t get the return of Jar Jar Binks, but one imagines the lilting nasal whine of Ashley Eckstein (as Ahsoka) will be enough to give devotees a migraine. She turns this epic battle between good and evil into a highly costumed High School Musical. Indeed, everything is pitched so far over into outright juvenilia - the imbecilic droids and their incredibly dumb shtick, the lack of realistic violence, the continual arrival of new creatures - that the entire production feels like a love letter to Saturday morning spendthrifts

While it only truly drags toward the end (at almost 100 minutes, it’s 20 too long) Star Wars: The Clone Wars clearly suffers from a severe case of “why?” Why did we need more connective material between already unnecessary Episodes Two and Three? Wasn’t the first time through under Tarakovsky’s imaginative reign good enough? Why aim this material directly at kids? Don’t you realize that your biggest supporters remain the arrested adolescents who fill up Comic-Con with their aging geekdom, Smart Cars, disposable income, and costume making fanaticism? Clearly, the powers behind this convenient cash grab can’t see the real reason Star Wars remains culturally significant. The Clone Wars is proof that, in some people’s minds, it’s nothing more than an easily reconfigured revenue stream.

by Anthony Henriques

14 Aug 2008

I once attended college in Los Angeles, where I came across a lot of rich So-Cal kids (or rich, wannabe So-Cal kids) who casually used the n-word to insult each other and openly admitted their racism, even expressing pride in it.

I’ll be damned if this piece of garbage doesn’t remind me of some of those old acquaintances. These guys might as well have filmed their minstrel video in blackface.

by Rob Horning

14 Aug 2008

Recently I started watching Family Guy, the animated Fox show that for a long time I assumed was sort of an vulgarized take on The Simpsons, with the jokes made dumber to appeal to the Maxim-reading frat crowd. That assumption was wrong; though there are plenty of surface similarities between the shows, Family Guy represents an entirely different kind of humor—mainly it’s a matter of arbitrary references piled up. Kind of like Mystery Science Theater, these are random stabs, meant to seem spontaneously generated as a reaction to events and seemingly designed to gratify the audience for its ability to recognize the allusions. It’s pleasant to know trivia; Family Guy works on the theory that remembering pointless pop culture tidbits is funny in and of itself. Just remembering there was such a cultural creation as Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life is the essence of the joke. It cuts both ways—it’s flattering to get what the show has dredged up, but at the same time that makes us the butt of joke for having remembered. 

There’s no attempt at coherent satire, like The Simpsons frequently presents, or clever plot architectonics, as in Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, where disparate plot threads are implausibly tied together. Family Guy defiantly rejects any kind of thematic unity, along with the rest of the Aristotelian rules. Its form is more that of a website like Fark.com than a sitcom. It’s anchored in an aesthetic that has probably never made it this close to the mainstream before in the history of mass culture: wrongness.

It’s probably best to define wrongness by what strikes me as the most notorious example, the extended sequences in which Peter, the dad character, fights a giant chicken. These are elaborate parodies of the fights in blockbuster action movies, but that is only part of what is meant to make them funny—that’s just the shallow surface premise. Their complete gratuity, highlighted by the complete absence of relation to the episode’s plot, is also part of the joke, but the core principle on which these scenes are based is their interminableness. They go on well beyond what the audience expects, well beyond the moment at which every possible person will have gotten the joke’s surface premise, and enter a realm of annoyance and discomfort. They seemed designed to provoke the viewer’s anger, to make us shout at the screen, “Enough already!”

One might protest that these are lazy ideas deployed to fill time when the show’s writers’ invention fails them, but these sorts of messed-up scenes are in virtually every episode. They are not accidental. They have their analogues, too, in several other aspects of the show, completing a sort of holistic spirit of wrongness. These moments, when Stewie (the diabolical baby) goes on and on about Brian (the family dog who, in a Snoopy-derived reductio ad absurdem, is the most intelligent and mature family member) and his procrastination about his novel, or when Peter deliberates over stupid Trivial Pursuit non-questions, provoke the same creeped-out feeling that is the basis for the character of Quagmire, the hypersexed neighbor who perpetually takes his advances too far with inappropriate people and derives sexual pleasure from things that are too bizarre. Herbert, the bitter old molester, prompts a similar feeling, as the moment we start to laugh at his skeevy advances, he becomes contemptuous and spews unfunny, ominous insults and threats.

And the show’s lack of a plot works this way too—ordinary markers of the “acts” of a sitcom episode are ignored, conflicts are introduced and then forgotten, unresolved. The show will end abruptly on an off beat, or introduce a digression that takes over as the main storyline. Traditional TV conventions are gestured toward and then suspended, not so much subverted as exposed, taken too literally, pushed too far to the point where they can’t be allowed to function as the shorthand they serve as in other contexts but become instead strange. This makes Family Guy weirdly Brechtian. It often tries to alienate us, as though that were now understood to be a cutting-edge form of humor.

The show’s writers seemed to purposely build in a moment to every episode where they make the equivalent of chanting “not funny, not funny, not funny” into something funny through sheer persistence. The scenes of wrongness refuse to let us sit back and passively tally the orchestrated moments when we are supposed to laugh (which sitcoms customarily choreograph with laugh tracks). Instead we are forced by frustration into a different sort of emotional engagement. It’s a pretty audacious approach, and it’s no wonder the show has been canceled several times. What puzzles me is that there are enough devotees of wrongness to keep getting the show resurrected.

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