Friday, December 30, 2005

My Favorite Movies of 2005

As they compile their best-of lists for 2005, it’s like critics are trying to keep themselves employed by convincing everyone we really should have gone to the movies more often this year. So many top 10 lists I read this month included a variation on “this year was much better than everyone thinks.”
Nah, it really wasn’t.
For the majority of 2005, there was absolutely nothing worth leaving the house for, especially with ticket prices going through the roof (nearly $10 apiece here in the D.C. suburbs). I just can’t afford to spend every weekend at the movies, so when I go, it better be worth it.
Thus, for the majority of this year, I just stayed home. The spring and summer were filled with total crap; by comparison the end-of-the-year Oscar push proved worthwhile, but now there are so many movies out at the same time, I can’t afford to go to all those, either (when will the studios learn?).
So, here’s to making the best of a bad situation. There were a few gems this year, but all in all, this list pales in comparison to 2004 (for reference, click on the February 2005 link on the right side of this page). And this is by no means an objective list; these are simply the movies that made me glad to be in a theater in 2005. It’s sad I couldn’t even come up with 10.

1. “Walk the Line”—It’s not overstating things to say this film changed my life by turning a mild interest in Johnny Cash into a full-blown obsession (in the good sense of the word). Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are absolutely stunning as the Man in Black and the love of his life, June Carter. By putting Cash’s classic material up on the big screen and blasting it in surround sound, his brilliance was finally brought home to me and my eyes were finally opened to an artist I’d been missing all these years. What more can you ask for from a movie?
2. “Serenity”—I can’t remember when a creator was better to his fanbase than Joss Whedon and his “Firefly” devotees. This is a farewell kiss to the faithful, and it’s a joy from start to finish. Taken in context with the TV series, this is one of the best space action epics of all time, and certainly the best of 2005 (sorry, George, you suck now). Nevertheless, “Serenity” was a box-office bomb and thus sealed the fate of Captain Reynolds, River, and the rest. But they’ll never be forgotten.
3. “Cinderella Man”—I really don’t understand why this fantastic biopic of Depression-era hero James Braddock wasn’t better received. It can’t all be because Russell Crowe threw a phone at somebody, can it? Come on, people! Combining the best elements of “Million Dollar Baby” and “Seabiscuit,” this is one of the greatest boxing movies of all time. Love him or hate him (most hate, I know, but I don’t), Crowe is the best big-ticket actor in the business, and ditto for Renee Zellweger. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti, playing Braddock’s manager/trainer, gives his third straight Oscar-worthy performance (that probably will go unrecognized by the Academy for the third straight year).
4. “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe”/”King Kong”—I liked the latter much more than I expected and the former wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, thus these two fantasy epics met in the middle ground. Director Andrew Adamson (“Shrek”) got just about everything right in “Narnia” (how special is Georgie Henley as Lucy—what a find). But he got Aslan very, very wrong, and that’s a big, big problem. Peter Jackson, on the other hand, made no missteps with his own CG beast, and the magnificently realized ape shows this filmmaker is now officially the best in the business. I didn’t write full reviews for either of these films, but I gave “Narnia” an A-, “Kong” an A.
6. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”—Yeah, I can’t believe it’s even on the list, much less this high. But this has got to be one of my most pleasant surprises of all time. Despite all the Brangelina hype, the two megastars are spectacular in this near-perfect popcorn flick. Laugh-out-loud funny, clever, and full of eye-popping action, the only thing that tarnishes this excellent summer blockbuster is its ridiculously over-the-top finale. I’ve even watched it again at home, and this violently dysfunctional couple was just as fun the second time around.
7. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”—The best of the four movies so far in this billion-dollar franchise was so good, it finally made me want to read the books for myself. Thrilling, funny, touching and epic in scope, director Mike Newell came through big-time.
8. “Batman Begins”—Also the best installment of its respective franchise, “Begins” is great for the first two acts and unravels in the third. As Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale leads the strongest cast of the five Caped Crusader flicks, and indie legend Christopher Nolan effectively brought the series back from the dead. And then he lost his head with that ridiculous terrorism subplot and an outlandish conclusion. Ah well, at least there’s promise for a sequel.
9. “Elizabethtown”—I don’t know how or why Cameron Crowe fell out of favor with the mainstream media, but his charming ode to the classic American road trip was excessively reviled by critics. Orlando Bloom wouldn’t have been my choice for the lead role, but Kirsten Dunst and a killer soundtrack cover a multitude of sins.

On my to-rent list for 2006:
“A History of Violence”
“The Constant Gardener”
“March of the Penguins”
“Sin City”
“The Squid and the Whale”

Thursday, December 29, 2005

'Brokeback Mountain'

“Brokeback Mountain” is a fine, at times gripping, film, featuring a set of outstanding performances and artful, restrained direction from Ang Lee.
But it is not a great film, nor does it deserve its status as the odds-on favorite for picture of the year.
Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past couple months, you know what “Brokeback” is all about: Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as two cowboys who spend a summer together and end up falling in love. Such a movie is a stone-cold lock for controversy, but it is undoubtedly one of the best (if not the first) major motion pictures to depict homosexual men in a realistic, non-“Queer Eye” manner.
Hollywood and those that cover it have basically decided “Brokeback” is THE movie of 2005. It continues to rack up best-picture awards from various film societies, and is the best-reviewed movie of the year. Many critics have taken the position that the homosexuality is secondary to the overall story—it shouldn’t matter to us whether this movie is about a gay relationship or not, they claim, because it’s not about gay love, it’s about true love.
That theory is bunk, and this deficiency keeps “Brokeback Mountain” from transcendence.
The movie opens in Signal, Wyoming, in 1963, where we first meet Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal), both looking for summer work as sheepherders. They are hired and sent up Brokeback Mountain with their “cargo” (one of several beautifully shot scenes by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto), left to their own devices for a week at a time in between supply runs. So, yeah, they have some time on their hands. On one particularly frigid night, they sleep in the same tent for warmth and Jack pulls Ennis’ arm over his body; at first Ennis reacts with revulsion, but Jack quickly presses his affections and the two have sex. (For those wondering, although the sex is quite aggressive, the filming is tasteful.)
Did that feel like an abrupt summation? Well, the movie does, too, and that proves to be its undoing.
I wasn’t looking at my watch, but it felt like the sex scene was about 25 minutes in, at the most. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for getting acquainted with these guys, much less allow them to get to know each other. From that first summer, “Brokeback Mountain” follows the lives of these two socially-crossed lovers for the next 20 years of their lives as they both marry, father children, and continue to see each other several times a year in a series of trysts back up the mountain. This portion of the film is too long, while the first part is too short.
No, this movie is all about the fact that these two characters are gay, male lovers. All of the tension is created by Ennis’ resistance to Jack’s plea for the two of them to settle down on a ranch together and live happily ever after. They’re “stuck,” Ennis says, not because he doesn’t want to leave his lifeless relationship with his wife, but simply for fear of “coming out.” As a child, Ennis was exposed to a violent scene of bigotry in which a gay man was sadistically murdered simply because of his sexual orientation—Ennis is literally scared to death of suffering the same fate.
If this movie was a love story between a man and a woman, it would fall flat. But Ennis’ and Jack’s homosexuality distracts us from the lack of depth in their affair—it makes for compelling drama, sure, just not the drama we’ve been promised. In the end, there is very little in the way of explanation for why these two lovers would risk their families and, in Jack’s case, drive 14 hours one way just for a few days together. Other than the sex, of course, but they could find that elsewhere (Jack does, in fact, but he still “can’t quit” Ennis—why, nobody knows, including, apparently, the two characters).
And we are also distracted by the amazing acting on full display in this movie. As the stoic Ennis, a man more of grunts than words, Ledger gives not just the performance of his career, but of a lifetime. It’s nearly impossible to believe the man so fully inhabiting this character is the same blonde-haired Australian pretty boy from such flops as “The Four Feathers” and “A Knight’s Tale.” His vocal delivery is reminiscent of Billy Bob Thornton’s Karl Childers from “Sling Blade” (without the mental retardation, of course), and he speaks as much with his body as his mouth.
As Ledger’s counterpart, Gyllenhaal does not provide quite the same revelation, but he certainly holds his own. Meanwhile, supporting actresses Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are fantastic (in that order) as Ennis’ and Jack’s wives, respectively.
But in the end, “Brokeback Mountain” still comes off as an agenda-driven film, and I go to the movies for entertainment and hopefully a little enlightenment, not full-on preaching (which is why I haven’t seen “Syriana,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” or “Crash”).
Grade: B

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Somebody Shoot Me

This will probably guarantee I never get a "real" movie critic job, but I'll press on …
After tonight's Wizards game (they finally won, what a shock), I was just flipping around a little bit before heading to bed and for some reason came across "The Charlie Rose Show." He was sitting around a table with four other rather strange-looking people and it took about five seconds to realize they were film critics talking about the movies of 2005.
I've made it pretty obvious that one of my "dream jobs" would be reviewing movies for a living—unless it turned me into a version of one of these leprechauns. If I wake up one day 10 or 20 years from now and I look and sound like these circus freaks, someone, please shoot me.
Since I came very late to this depressing little party, I only caught two names: Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) and A.O. Scott (NY Times). Schwarzbaum actually was the most sensible and least pretentious of the four (also the only woman on the panel, but I don't know if that has any bearing or not). I typically trust EW's reviews more than most, and she seems to at least have her pinky toe in mainstream culture (evidenced by her "A" review of "King Kong").
Scott, on the other hand (a mousy little creep of a guy), was abominable. He came right out and admitted that the only movies he likes are the "small" budget films—that no one outside of New York or LA ever sees, of course. His top three movies of the year are two documentaries and one Italian film. Give me a freakin' break.
Look, I'm all for artistic expression and trying to raise the level of the motion picture above that of, say, "Cheaper By the Dozen 2," and I am certainly not a neophyte when it comes to "indie" movies. But I'm also a person who believes it's more difficult to make a big-budget film like "Spider-Man 2" emotionally resonant than, say, "In America" (which I LOVED). I have a love and respect for both types of films, and can enjoy them equally, if differently.
These self-absorbed windbags need to spend more time outside of darkened rooms with flickering lights, because they've lost all sense of relevance in mainstream culture. If you're so pretentious and arrogant that you can't bear to praise a movie that has a modest chance at becoming a hit, then I have no use for you (which is why I never read Scott's work).
And that is why I've tried to loosely model my reviews after Roger Ebert who, though I disagree with him as much as I agree, is one of the few critics who accepts movies for what they are, and judges filmmakers by how well they accomplished what they set out to do. That's why he can give the same rating to "Capote," "King Kong," and (gasp!) "The Passion of the Christ" (the only four-star review I found for this one, by the way, save for mine). He's one of the few big-timers that still gets it: Movies are allowed to be fun, and we shouldn't turn our noses up at those who do them well.
I guess I should have known better tonight, because when I found the show, three of the four (not Schwarzbaum) were trashing "Walk the Line" and continuing to praise "Ray." That tells me all I need to know.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Bittersweet Revenge

Amidst all of Sunday night’s Redskins euphoria (and it was euphoric—I'm still stunned) a lot of people in this city probably missed two of its most beloved athletic stars sticking it in the eye of the hometown pro basketball team.
University of Maryland legends and current Portland Trail Blazers Juan Dixon and Steve Blake combined for 34 points to down their former team, the Washington Wizards, in front of a barely-there crowd in Oregon late Sunday night. It was sweet justice for Juan and Stevie, who were unceremoniously dumped by the Wizards in the offseason after giving nothing but their all for three and two years, respectively.
Wizards coach Eddie Jordan and GM Ernie Grunfeld—it was explained to us, the stupid fans—wanted more size in the backcourt. Dixon and Blake are just too small to fit in here, you see. So the Wizards went out and got two journeymen guards, Antonio Daniels and Chucky Atkins. Never heard of either ’em? I didn’t think so. Because they’re no different than a million other guys who have wandered through the NBA.
Juan and Steve, on the other hand, are hometown heroes who still receive standing ovations in D.C., even though they now play for the opposing team. Daniels and Atkins are two veterans that have done absolutely nothing in this league of any distinction, other than managing to stay in it.
Dixon and Blake were never given a fair shot by Jordan, who, apparently, is the first coach in the history of this duo’s combined careers not to absolutely love these guys. Juan received irregular minutes at best in his tenure with the Wizards, and Blake was lucky if he saw the floor once a week. I’m convinced it was all about ego for Jordan—he wasn’t about to let the fans tell him how to coach his team, and he got rid of the heroes wouldn’t have to hear the “We want Juan!” chants anymore.
So how’s that working out for you, Coach?
Playing without three starters, Portland nevertheless dismissed the Wizards Sunday night, led by the former Maryland duo playing together once again in the backcourt down the stretch. Washington’s Gilbert Arenas hit a three-pointer to cut it to one with a couple minutes to go, but Dixon and Blake combined to run off seven points in a row and put the game on ice, dropping the Wizards to a pathetic four games under .500.
If the Wizards don’t make the playoffs this year, Eddie Jordan should be fired. He’s been a mediocre coach that has stuck around because expectations were so low, making the second round of the playoffs last season was the equivalent of winning the NBA championship around here.
But Jordan has made as many mistakes with this team in his three and a quarter seasons as he has made good decisions. No one can figure out his rotation (Juan said as much this season), and he runs his stars into the ground (Arenas is continually ranked among the top minutes played in the league). He and Grunfeld essentially blew up a backcourt that last season was arguably the best in the league. I was never a big Larry Hughes fan, but the team undoubtedly misses him this season. And the Wizards certainly miss Dixon’s instant offense off the bench, as neither Atkins nor Daniels have shown any propensity that they can score and hit outside shots with any consistency (Daniels is hardly even playing nowadays).
Guys like Juan Dixon and Steve Blake—who make up for the lack of natural ability with heart, smarts, and passion—don’t come along nearly as often as faceless roster-fillers like Daniels and Atkins (heck, Dixon is outscoring the latter duo all by himself this year). The Maryland stars made coming to Wizards games worthwhile; last time I checked, professional sports teams do need fans every now and then to pay their salaries—it’s not like MCI is selling out every night.
But even more than all that, Jordan said cutting Dixon and Blake was all about winning. Well, what have you done for me lately, Coach? I thought the Wizards were supposed to be better this year after making the playoffs for the first time in two decades. Dixon singlehandedly won three or four games for Washington last season—including a clutch performance in the PLAYOFFS against Chicago—but for some reason that didn’t matter to Jordan. His ego is too big for his size and his success.
At first I questioned why Dixon and Blake went to a rotten organization like Portland. But new coach Nate McMillan has a mind to turn that whole team around, jettisoning the chaff (like, I assume, Darius Miles), and moving forward in a new, positive direction. If that is the case, he knew exactly what he was doing by bringing in Juan and Stevie. They’re not good enough to make up a starting backcourt in the NBA, but they’re two guys that every team in the league—teams with any sense, anyway—should want. All they wanted was a genuine chance to show what they could do.
No matter what the Wizards go on to accomplish this season and beyond, losing Dixon and Blake will always be an open wound. And it should be. The Wizards got exactly what they deserved tonight.

Monday, December 12, 2005

My 22 Favorite Bands, as of Dec. 12, 2005

This is an ever-evolving topic that never seems to get old—or complete. I have a hard time adding some bands to my list, because I tend to go for longevity and "legacy" over anything else, but my fall concert tour cemented the status of some bands that were starting to wilt. And, I'm so into Johnny Cash right now, just putting him on the list was reason enough to update. (I reserve the right to forget some, no matter how hard I try.) Here goes …

1. U2—The concerts cemented their status at the top. The live show wasn't as good as No. 2's, but nobody's are.
2. Pearl Jam—Philly was incredible, but I'm still nervous about the next record.
3. Led Zeppelin—I listened to the radio on Saturday for the first time in I don't know how long, and for some reason heard three Zep songs. Yep, I still knew the words to all three.
4. Bruce Springsteen—Great year for The Boss. I wish I could have gotten to more than one show, especially on the last leg when he really started digging into the back catalog, but those tix were steep.
5. The White Stripes—Their performance on "The Daily Show" was great; the "Conan" appearance sucked. Pretty much sums up how I feel about "Get Behind Me Satan."
6. Dashboard Confessional—I'm really curious to find out what the next album is like. I wonder how long Chris Carrabba can hang on to his older songs now that he's hitting his 30s.
7. Wilco—Jeff Tweedy solidified his status on this list all by himself in November.
8. PJ Harvey—Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any way she can ever surpass “Stories.”
9. Johnny Cash—Rising like a rocket ship. What have I been doing all this time?

THE REST (these are in no particular order)
10. Pink Floyd
11. Ryan Adams
12. Smashing Pumpkins
13. Ramones
14. Franz Ferdinand
15. The Who
16. Otis Redding/Al Green
18. Coldplay
19. Sleater-Kinney
20. Flogging Molly
21. Uncle Tupelo
22. Fall Out Boy

Alkaline Trio
At the Drive-In
The Beatles
Collective Soul
Dave Matthews Band
Foo Fighters
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
Rage Against the Machine
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Saves the Day
Stone Temple Pilots
The Tragically Hip
Paul Westerberg

And then there are those staples that don’t deserve a spot on the list but I just couldn’t live without. It’s more like I acknowledge how great they are and love their music, but it doesn’t reach out and grab me the way it does others.

The Clash
The Doors
Bob Dylan
Marvin Gaye
Green Day
The Rolling Stones
The Sex Pistols
Neil Young

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Welcome Home: The Sounds of 2005

After a seven-year absence, the D.C. area welcomed me back with open arms in 2005 in many ways, including (and especially) live music.
In the year and a half I spent in South Carolina, I attended a grand total of three shows (one of which I had to drive BACK to D.C. for); in 2005, I tripled that number. And we’re not talking about some no-name bar bands here. No, these were the real deal—it was like the music gods conspired to provide me with a dream lineup for my return to a place I never stopped loving, no matter how many miles and years I was away. It was essentially a who’s who of my favorite artists and bands: U2 (twice!), Pearl Jam, Springsteen, Dashboard, Jeff Tweedy, Ryan Adams, Billy Corgan, and Coldplay (and I could have seen The White Stripes if I hadn’t been so picky about them playing a ridiculously large venue like Merriweather Post). There’s almost nothing I’d rather do than go hear my favorite bands live and in person, and there probably will never be another year as special as this one. By the time it was over, I was referring to my musical journey as “Schooly’s Tour 2005.”
But there was more music in my ears than what I heard in concert. Back in April, I was given my very first iPod (U2 Special Edition, no less, thanks to my generous wife and family), and it basically never leaves my side. Ironically, I bought fewer CDs this year than in the past, but most of what I did purchase really stuck in my head. Any glance back through my site will basically tell you what I liked and didn’t like from an album perspective, so instead I’m going to run through the individual songs I just couldn’t get enough of in 2005. (Considering the iTunes culture in which we live, a list like this gives me pause, because I hope we never see the day where the album goes away. I still much prefer CDs to digital downloads, but that’s an issue for another column.)
You’ll notice right off the top that not all of these songs were actually released in this calendar year (much less this millennium), but everything on this list made an impact on me during one incredible run of music. Unless noted otherwise, I highly recommend you check all of these out, along with the albums they’re on.

“Bad,” U2 (from 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire”)—It sounds hokey, but somehow I just knew I would finally get to hear this legendary song in person when U2 came to town this year. I could almost feel it, even when I bought my tickets way back in February. So, more than any other song, “Bad” dominated my musical landscape in 2005. I listened to this beautiful, haunting masterpiece more than any other song this year, and, sure enough, I got it. They waited until the very last song on the second of back-to-back nights in D.C., but U2 closed Night 2 at MCI with a fantastic, full-throated version of “Bad.” It was like a dream come true. Seriously.

“Cocaine Blues,” Johnny Cash (from “The Legend” box set, released this year)—I am coming so late to this party, it’s ridiculous. The Man in Black isn’t even alive anymore (our loss), but the fantastic biopic “Walk the Line” set fire to a spark I’d been nurturing for a few years. I can’t get enough Johnny Cash now, and I could have picked any number of entries for this slot (“I Walk the Line,” “Jackson,” “Ring of Fire,” or his intimate cover of U2’s “One,” just to name a few). But “Cocaine Blues” was the song featured in my favorite scene from the movie: the concert at Folsom Prison.

“Crown of Thorns,” Mother Love Bone (as performed live on 10.3.05 in Philly by Pearl Jam)—An all-time favorite from 1992’s “Singles” soundtrack was pulled out of the hat for one of the best concerts of my life. An epic written by MLB frontman Andrew Wood before his untimely death, it’s a momentous song for PJ, and Eddie told us as much that night. Played for just the sixth time in Pearl Jam’s history, Ed said they save it only for special occasions. I’m still floored I was in the building for this one.

“I Predict a Riot,” Kaiser Chiefs (from 2005’s “Employment”)—Sure, they’re a bit of a Franz Ferdinand knock off, but this song is infectious and subversive at the same time. A great little tune.

“Let It Ride,” Ryan Adams and The Cardinals (from 2005’s “Cold Roses”)—Adams returned to his alt-country roots in a major way this year, and the results were stellar. “Let It Ride” is not only the best track on a great album, it’s one of the prolific songwriter’s best of all time, and that’s saying something.

“Let’s Call It Love,” Sleater-Kinney (from 2005’s “The Woods”)—The absolute, stone-cold lock highlight of a magnificent Sub Pop debut, “Let’s Call It Love” is S-K’s best song, even with five minutes of instrumentation at the end. Simply brilliant.

“Long Time Comin’,” Bruce Springsteen (from 2005’s “Devils and Dust”)—Springsteen’s latest solo album isn’t chock-full of classics by any means, but I fell in love with this song instantly and it hasn’t diminished one bit with time. The story of a father who’s smart and humble enough to realize when he’s been wrong, this is redemptive, mature Springsteen at his best. One of my all-time favorite songs, Bruce or otherwise.

“My Doorbell,” The White Stripes (from 2005’s “Get Behind Me Satan”)—The cool kids say “Satan” is the Stripes’ best album, but I just don’t get it—and I’ve really, really tried. “Get Behind Me Satan” is without a doubt the most over-praised album of 2005. “My Doorbell” is the catchiest of what, after repeated listenings, I still find to be a bunch of atonal, unmelodic, messy songs that comprise my least favorite Stripes record. Here’s hoping this is just a brief detour.

“Out of Control,” U2 (from 1980’s “Boy”)—I’ve made no bones about the fact that this has been U2005 for me—I’ve listened to more U2 this year than all other bands combined. Last year’s new album, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb,” in part was a return to the band’s roots, so I decided to do the same by delving into their first album, “Boy,” which I had never given a fair shake. Tucked in the middle is “Out of Control,” U2’s first single, and I simply couldn’t get enough of it. I know, I know, every U2 fan already loves this song, but I came way late to this party, too (try 1998), and you can only get to so much. Anyway, I grew to love “Out of Control” just in time because, once again, they pulled this rarity out for Night 2 in D.C., too.

“Remember the Mountain Bed,” Woodie Guthrie (as performed by Jeff Tweedy on 11.12.05 at Messiah College in Pennsylvania)—I could have chosen several highlights from a great night with the Wilco frontman, but this beautiful number stuck out from all the rest. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know it prior to checking setlists in the days leading up to the show, but it comes from Wilco’s collaboration with Billy Bragg to write melodies for a batch of unfinished Guthrie songs. Tweedy’s solo acoustic performance of this song is even better than the full-band version found on “Mermaid Avenue,” and it was the undiscovered gem of the night for me.

“Save Me,” Remy Zero (from 2001’s “The Golden Hum”)—Where did this one come from, you ask? No, I didn’t get tipped off to the now-defunct Remy Zero through the “Garden State” soundtrack, but you’re close. This summer, my brother told me I HAD to check out “Smallville,” the television show that reimagines the story of Superman’s youth. I had resisted this series simply because it’s on The WB, and I just assumed it was aimed at people much, much younger than me and wouldn’t resonate. Wow, was I wrong. The show is a revelation, and “Save Me,” written long before the pilot was ever produced, is absolutely perfect for the opening credits. It’s really spooky how perfectly the song and the show fit together—much like A3’s “Woke Up This Morning” and “The Sopranos.” “Smallville” is, overall, an uplifting tale, and every time I listen to this “Save Me,” those feelings come rushing in all over again.

“Speed of Sound,” Coldplay (from 2005’s “X&Y”)—I had resisted this band for the longest time—mostly because of the overwhelming hype that surrounds them—but “Speed of Sound” and its accompanying video are spectacular, and they finally broke through to me. This was my song for the summer, and it went everywhere with me. Whenever I hear it, I will always think of planes, trains, and automobiles—windows down, warm breeze blowing on my face—and the terminal at Heathrow in London. Long story.

“Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down,” Fall Out Boy (from 2005’s “From Under the Cork Tree”)—Probably the best song from one of the year’s best albums. Fall Out Boy mastered the art of pop-punk with their sophomore effort, and they’re a rare example of a band that deserves every ounce of publicity they’ve received this year. I’ll say it again: If you don’t own this record, what are you waiting for?

“The Fallen”/”Do You Want To,” Franz Ferdinand (from 2005’s “You Could Have It So Much Better”)—This opening salvo from the Glasgow quartet’s unbelievable second album is just too good to break up. Forget the sophomore slump; FF is here to stay. This is my favorite album of 2005.

“Wake Up,” The Arcade Fire (from 2004’s “Funeral”)—Okay, so this song got a big, big bump from U2, who used it for their walk-on music during the Vertigo//05 tour. Every time I hear it, I see Bono popping up out of nowhere at the tip of the ellipse, arms outstretched as confetti falls from the ceiling, anticipation at a fever pitch. The lights going down is one of my favorite concert moments (no matter the show). The killer riff and chorus in “Wake Up” capture that vibe perfectly.

“Wreck on the Highway,” Bruce Springsteen (from 1980’s “The River”)—I’m naturally drawn to uptempo songs and The Boss’ double-album classic is packed with them, so it’s easy for me to see why “Wreck” got lost in the shuffle. So thank goodness for 5.14.05: Springsteen’s stop at the Patriot Center in Virginia during his Devils and Dust solo tour. Performed for just the second time in 20 years, “Wreck” made its tour debut at this stop (on piano, no less), and it stopped me dead in my tracks. First off, Bruce’s vocal was crystal clear since it wasn’t battling for space alongside the E Street Band. Drawn in by his voice, I focused on the lyrics for the very first time, and they blew me away. Like the narrator, I, too, am occasionally wracked with anxiety wondering how I could possibly handle the news of my wife’s death; that feeling is captured perfectly in this song. Springsteen’s performance of “Wreck on the Highway” that night is my answer to anyone foolish enough to ask me why I go to so many concerts. That song went from obscurity to favorite in the span of a few minutes. You can’t get an experience like that anywhere else.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Juan and Stevie, You Have Nothing to Worry About

Michael Wilbon can be full of pretentious hot air sometimes, but his column in today's Washington Post about Juan Dixon and Steve Blake is simply fantastic. I suggest everybody read it, because it basically explains why I have three different Dixon jerseys hanging in my closet. Man, I miss those guys.
Check it out:

Saturday, November 26, 2005

I’ll Show You a Magic Trick: Grading the Potter Movies

Don’t listen to critics and don’t pay attention to reviews—good or bad—when it comes to the Harry Potter movies, because they’re impossible to judge. There’s too much going on, and I’m not just talking about wizards and Muggles, here.
Go look at Entertainment Weekly’s “Critical Mass” chart that rounds up critics’ grades for various movies and you’ll find “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” received a “B” from seven out of nine critics polled. That’s hogwarts. The Potter films are such cultural touchstones, some of the only surefire blockbusters in the business, they’re either going to really succeed or really bomb (and that’s got nothing to do with box office numbers); most critics just don’t know what to make of them, I believe, so thus you get a bunch of “B’s” (and I should know, since I gave 2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” a “B+” (check the June 2004 folder to find that review)).
No matter who is at the reins of these films, that person has essentially an insurmountable task. How do you condense several hundred pages of text into a workable movie under, I don’t know, four hours? And how do you condense said material without enraging an absolutely rabid built-in fanbase? And how do you then make said condensed text relatable and, most important, understandable to the Muggles who wander in off the street?
The answer is, you don’t. You simply make the best of an impossible situation.
But that’s what makes reviewing the Harry Potter movies so difficult, because they are so different from "normal" films; you have to throw out any typical “scale” by which other movies are judged.
In the year and a half since “Azkaban” hit theaters, I’ve finally read the first two books of the series. So when I sat down to see “Goblet of Fire,” everything on screen made a little more sense to me and had a lot more emotional impact; even though I hadn’t read this particular installment, I knew the characters much better through the books than the previous three movies, and I brought that deeper relationship with me into the theater experience.
And, as it would happen, this was my best time at a Harry Potter of the four by far. But would I feel the same had I not read a few of the novels? I’ll never know, and therein lies the rub.
“Goblet of Fire” is extremely entertaining—but here’s another problem for reviewers: Is it the source material or the filmmakers that make it so? Or is it simply because the series’ actors are all getting older and better?
It’s even difficult to compare one filmmaker’s work to another within the series. Sure, the first two Christopher Columbus-directed installments stunk (to this Muggle’s eye), but maybe he would have handled the more mature subject matter better than the lighter fare of the early novels. Then again, those that followed Columbus don’t even get to pick their own cast!
The only way to really judge the Harry Potter movies, then, is much different from your average screenplay-to-silver screen production. You have to determine how well the filmmakers successfully captured the essence of the written words in moving pictures. No one is going to be entirely happy—critics are always going to slam the films for following too closely to the text (although Columbus was ridiculously slavish), but critics aren’t the ones spending $100 million on opening weekend. Fans are always going to complain about leaving things out (from what I understand, there are significant chunks removed from “Goblet of Fire”), but a four-hour movie is simply untenable. The answer, then, is finding that delicate balance and creating a movie that will essentially stand on its own but gives more to those who know the source material well.
Given that extreme set of circumstances, “Goblet of Fire” director Mike Newell (“Pushing Tin”) and his predecessor, “Azkaban” director Alfonso Cuaron (“Y tu mama tambien”) succeeded where Columbus’ first two films in the series did not. I favor Cuaron’s directorial style above the others, but Newell’s “Goblet of Fire” is probably my favorite of the four based on overall excellence—even though it contains the series’ darkest material to date, I laughed out loud more this time around, too, and that’s an achievement.
Grade: A- (But this is one time I’ll tell you not to take my word for it)

Friday, November 25, 2005

'Alias': R.I.P.

Well, I hate it when I'm right, but it's official: ABC announced this week that "Alias" is calling it quits in May, when the show completes its fifth season.
I can't say I'm surprised, because I actually think last season's finale (WARNING: Spolier Alert!) felt like a great way to end the series, until Syd and Michael's little car-crash coda. I know I speak for a majority of "Alias" fans that killing Michael off at the beginning of this season was not a welcome—and, I believe, unnecessary—choice. I think everybody would have been happy to finally see our two favorite agents drive off into the sunset, but I guess Syd's life has been too harrowing to work out perfectly. (We'll see, though, because on "Alias," no one is ever quite as dead as they seem.)
Anyway, even though it was more a critical than popular hit, this show has to go down as one of the best action/dramas in TV history, featuring certainly one of the best lead characters to come down the pike in a long, long time. It's made Jennifer Garner a superstar, turned J.J. Abrams into a Joss Whedon-esque cult figure, and provided four years of spectacular, witty, fun, emotional entertainment (and if you think it's easy to mix all of those into one bag and still get your show on the air, you're crazy—just ask the cast of "Firefly"). The jury's still out on Season 5, but I have to give major credit to Abrams and his writing team for rolling with the Bennifer Pregnancy so well. This season is definitely a step down, but only by "Alias" standards. I can only wonder what was on tap for this year had Jen been able to control herself, but I guess we'll never know.
I'm going to hold off on a full-fledged series retrospective until sometime next summer, after I've had a chance to digest all that's in store for this fabulous show's stretch run. The network is promising it will go out with a bang; the last four season finales have been so phenomenal, I can't even guess what in the world the writers/producers have up their sleeves. But the writing's on the wall for "Alias," and I'm glad Abrams and Co. had the sense to shut it down before we reached an "X-Files" type meltdown.
It's been fun, Ms. Bristow. You'll be missed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

An Amazing Day

This is a personal-story post that I want to avoid in this space, but this was just too cool to pass up.
On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to spend a day at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which I will be writing about for March's issue of FUNWORLD. It is almost beyond description how incredible the aquarium is, which is problematic since it's my job to, hello, describe it.
Anyway, here are a few pictures from Saturday, with more to come. The first is me standing in front of a recreation of a coral reef. The other two are taken from inside the "tunnel" that literally goes through the aquarium's six MILLION gallon tank.
I recommend everyone go to this place at some point in their lives.

Monday, November 21, 2005

‘Walk the Line’

I haven’t been a Johnny Cash fan for very long. I’m ashamed to admit it, really, because his catalog has always been one of those holes in my CD collection that I know is there but have no idea where to start filling it in. His career began in an era where “records” were singles, not “albums,” so there are so many different collections of his work, it was too overwhelming to go out and pick one. So I only have “American III,” “American IV,” and “Live at San Quentin”—and, of course, I love them.
But after seeing “Walk the Line,” I must have much, much more, because this movie is so stunning, it must be considered one of the greatest movies about rock and roll of all time.
It all starts with Joaquin Phoenix, who spent a year and a half in vocal training to sing like Johnny Cash. Yes, he does all his own vocals and the results are unbelievable. Phoenix disappears into the character, not only through Cash’s throaty inflections in both singing and speaking voices, but also the way he holds the guitar and attacks the microphone onstage. He commandeers the same commanding presence that only a person dubbed the “Man in Black” could manage. There are times in this movie—much like Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Jim Morrison in 1991’s “The Doors”—that just listening to the music, it’s hard to tell whether or not that’s actually Cash. It’s a shame that Jamie Foxx won an Oscar last year for a similar role (albeit an inferior performance, compared to Phoenix), because I doubt the Academy would give back-to-back awards for a music biopic, no matter how deserving.
But as good as Phoenix is, the emotional center of “Walk the Line” is actually found in Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter, the woman who would eventually become not only the love of Cash’s life, but his path to salvation, as well. Witherspoon also does all her own singing and is equally as fabulous in this role, unarguably the best of her career. When she and Phoenix take the stage for the first time, the screen crackles with energy that sustains the rest of the way.
Everyone knows Johnny and June went on to get married and spent the second half of their lives essentially inseparable. “Walk the Line,” directed by James Mangold (“Girl, Interrupted”) and with a script approved by Cash himself, shows us how they got there.
It opens with John as a young boy who can’t tear himself away from the radio, much to his father’s chagrin. When tragedy strikes the family, John takes the brunt of his father’s drunken, abusive anger (played well by Robert Patrick). From there we jump ahead to John’s early adulthood, as he struggles to make ends meet with a wife (Vivian, played by Ginnifer Goodwin) and children. The first great scene in the movie comes when Johnny and his two buddies audition for label-owner Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts), who helps Cash find his real voice and starts him on the road to superstardom.
(On a side note, "Walk the Line" also highlights pop music in its infancy, when the unbelievable lineup of Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and many more all toured on the same bill, traveling from hall to hall in a caravan of cars. In an era when you have to choose sides between "sellouts" or indie "cred," it's so refreshing to look back on an era when music was just about talented artists wanting to put their work in front of the public and entertain them. Where did it all go wrong?)
Trouble finds Johnny early and often on the road, as childhood guilt and access to fame, fortune, women, and, most importantly, drugs lead him on a self-abusive path to near-destruction. Life on tour shreds his marriage and his career, leaving June—who no matter how many times she was hurt never quit seeing the good in him—to pick up the pieces. The film’s climax is Cash’s legendary performance at Folsom Prison, which is filmed so well, you’d swear it was a documentary. This film is meant to be turned up loud.
People’s real lives don’t lend themselves to making great movies, because nobody’s story ever has an actual dramatic arc to it—especially one that can be boiled down into a couple hours. That’s why biopics are so hard to pull off—inevitably they become just a series of scenes, rather than a seamless whole (see last year’s “Ray” or “The Aviator” for proof).
But that challenge is what makes Mangold’s work here such a triumph. John and June’s story is so transcendent and the performances so brilliant, you don’t have to be a Johnny Cash fan to love this film. It’s the best thing I’ve seen this year.
Grade: A

ZooTV 2005: It just keeps going, and going, and going …

Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of U2’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” and what a calendar it’s been. Over the past 363 days, the band has sold several million copies of its latest near-masterpiece, played 97 concerts (all sellouts, with two more tonight and tomorrow at MSG) to rabid fans in Europe and North America (and soon the world), released a DVD to commemorate the Vertigo//2005 experience, pushed Apple’s iPod into uncharted territory, and been featured on television too many times to count.
It’s the latter that has me all worked up this morning. U2 was on CBS twice last week—they participated via taped recording in a Johnny Cash tribute special Wednesday night and then were featured in a lengthy story for “60 Minutes” on Sunday.
For the Cash show, the band pulled out “The Wanderer,” closing track from 1993’s “Zooropa” which featured the Man in Black himself on lead vocals. For this performance, Bono took Cash’s part, and I am continually amazed at the resurgence in his voice after essentially a decade of decline. This was the first time “Wanderer” has been played live (that anyone in the public’s ever heard, anyway), and it made me wonder where it’s been all these years. The rendition was absolutely brilliant and a fitting tribute to Cash, whose life story is currently on silver screens all across America in the fabulous biopic “Walk the Line,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
The “60 Minutes” piece was similarly outstanding in that I was surprised I could learn anything new from a U2 interview at this point, what with all the media saturation they’ve received in the past year. But I was literally laughing out loud right off the bat when Bono was asked, “Do you still want to be the biggest band in the world?” and he replied with a classic, “Want? What want? Line them up!”
He then went on to talk about the Beatles and had the guts to say they had “their heads up their arses” in the late ’60s, allowing the most important group in rock and roll history to implode because of ego and money. Kudos.
Bono also praised the Bush administration and conservative Christians for their roles in making AIDS relief in Africa a reality. Meanwhile, he slammed the French for being the world’s biggest snobs (priceless); Adam talked about why they fled Britain (where the Irish weren’t looked upon with favor, to say the least) and found solace in the arms of America; Larry discussed what it was like growing up in a country where you feared for your life on a daily basis; and The Edge tried to explain how they manage to keep a level head in a world where they live like (or better than) kings.
Usually I tape U2 stuff on TV, but, unfortunately, I didn’t set the VCR last night. I honestly thought to myself, “I’ll have heard all this stuff before, so why bother?” Now, of course, I wish I could watch that interview again. It stuns me that U2 is still capable of stunning me every time I see them.
But let me get back to the album that started all this madness. In my review of “Atomic Bomb” (click the November 2004 link on the right side of this page to find it), I wrote it would take hearing the songs live before making final judgment on where this collection stands in the U2 pantheon. Little did I know it would be nearly a YEAR before I got my eyes and ears on the band, but it was certainly worth the wait. (In case you missed my obscenely long review of U2 in D.C., click on the October 2005 link.) As far as the new songs went, Vertigo//2005 was everything I could hope for, because all of the “Bomb” songs I heard came off not just well, but great, including “Yahweh,” which should have been arranged acoustically on record, the same way it’s performed in concert.
For the recent (enormous) interview with Rolling Stone, in a bit of genius, Bono was asked to review all of his own albums. What he says about “Atomic Bomb” puts into words much of what I, too, feel about the record: “It’s the best collection of songs we’ve put together [I don’t agree with this, though]—there’s no weak songs. But as an album, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, and it fucking annoys me.”
I would argue “Atomic Bomb” is a second-tier U2 album, behind only “Achtung Baby” and “The Joshua Tree,” and right alongside “Zooropa” and “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” Do U2 have another masterpiece in them? At this point, with the Vertigo tour already slated to extend well into 2006 (there have been rumors of a North American stadium leg over the summer), it will probably be 2008 at the earliest before even the possibility of a new album—more likely 2009. By that time all of the boys will be nearly 50-year-old men, and it will take a Herculean effort to maintain relevance in a world skewing younger and younger all the time (although, I said the same thing about this record). Bono believes his band hasn’t done its greatest work yet. If that’s true, I believe that in order for them to find another “masterpiece,” they won’t be able to try and recapture and reimagine the sounds of their youth. Instead, the next album will have to be something from left field, something so completely different and thrilling, something un-U2 and U2 at the same time, that it shakes everyone up—for, what, the third or fourth time?
U2 have already done more in rock and roll as 40-year-olds than any of their predecessors—ever. If they are somehow able to stay relevant in their 50s … well, I guess I shouldn’t put anything past them at this point.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A Shot in the Arm: Jeff Tweedy, solo and acoustic, at Messiah College, 11.12.05

In a recent Billboard interview, Jeff Tweedy, founder and frontman of Wilco, said he loves occasionally going out on solo tours simply for the freedom. During a typical Wilco show, he can’t pull any old song out of his head because he has the rest of the band to think of. On stage by himself, Tweedy can play anything he wants.
Maybe it’s time to dump the band.
Okay, of course that’s an exaggeration. But solo Tweedy is a refreshing change from the new-millennium Wilco, the band now tinged with too much Sonic Youth-esque “experimentation.” The group’s last two albums make you work to find the melodies and great songs are hidden behind layers and layers of ambient noise and sound effects.
I’ve come to love Wilco’s now-legendary “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” from 2002, the record that cost the band its original record deal because they refused to tone it down in search of a radio-friendly hit. As chronicled in the 2003 documentary “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” Wilco stuck to its guns and made the album it wanted, even if it took an extra year for the set to find record store shelves. With that kind of stick-it-to-the-man backstory, “Foxtrot” was overhyped by critics, the majority of whom were crawling over top of one another to be the first to call the album a masterpiece.
On first listen, I simply didn’t hear it. Nor did I get it the second time through, or even the third. No, it probably took six months or more before I finally “got” it. My friend and I now use the album as a label for other similar albums. Yeah, that new PJ Harvey album is a “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” situation, we say. And I still skip a few songs with regularity.
Things only got more inscrutable with Wilco’s much-anticipated follow-up, 2004’s “A Ghost is Born” (I refuse to use the pretentious lowercase style on the cover). There are some good songs on there, but they’re either surrounded or buried by even more masturbatory noodling than the previous set. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is a fabulous riff hidden amongst 10 minutes of filler—and that’s not even the longest track on the album! “Less Than You Think” clocks in at an untenable 15 minutes, which concludes with 12 minutes of atonal beeps, squawks, and squeals.
“Ghost” is actually the culmination of the musical journey Tweedy’s been on for more than a decade, dating back to his days with the glorious alt-country band Uncle Tupelo (they basically invented the genre back in the late ’80s, paving the way for Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, and many more before calling it quits in the early ’90s). It’s my feeling Tweedy has always considered himself more than just a lowly rock and roll singer—he’s an artiste who refuses to be pegged into something as awfully mundane as “alt-country.” You can hear it written all over the Uncle Tupelo songs; just listen to the differences between songs like “Graveyard Shift”—fronted by Tupelo co-founder Jay Farrar—and Tweedy’s “Gun.” On the surface, they sound basically the same, but “Gun” (a great song, mind you) has some choppy, melody-killing moments that are precursors of what Wilco would become. Farrar, on the other hand, went on to embrace his genre in new band Son Volt; Tweedy would spend the next decade moving as far away from alt-country as possible. Ironically, neither may quite be as good apart as they were together (Son Volt certainly isn’t as good as Wilco). You could call them the McCartney (Farrar) and Lennon (Tweedy) of alt-country.
Trouble is, Tweedy’s been moving away from what he does best. Never was that more apparent than Saturday night during his solo set at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
I’m thinking specifically of one song that illustrates this whole point: “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” the opening track from “Foxtrot.” On the album, this song is so choppy and overwhelmed by bells and whistles, it’s almost a non-starter and it’s to blame for keeping me from getting into the album back when I first heard it. “Break Your Heart” sets the tone for the entire set—and it’s off-putting.
Played live with no band getting in the way, however, this is one great song. The stripped-down acoustic version allows Tweedy to let the melody roll along, highlighting a stirring lyric about admitting how stubborn, stupid, and irrationally hurtful we can be, even in the face of true love. It was one of my favorite songs of the night.
But I’m getting ahead of myself—and the setlist.
Everything about this setup is perfect for the type of vibe Tweedy is trying to create: He walks on stage with no fanfare whatsoever (other than a roaring crowd), steps into a spotlight that never wavers for the entire main set (no light show, just a bare bulb for the first 1:15), and walks up to a single microphone on a stage that allows the huddled masses to get within arm’s reach of their low-key troubadour.
Tweedy’s battle with drug addiction has been well publicized and, thankfully, he seems to have finally kicked all of his bad habits (he mentioned this several times throughout the night), including cigarettes. It’s all done him good, because it’s apparent right from opener “Sunken Treasure” that his voice is as good or better than it’s ever been. His gravelly baritone still breaks and cracks in all the right spots (sometimes flaws can be the biggest strengths), but when he wants to, he can now nail high parts with crystal clarity. For anyone who’s seen the version of “Treasure” on the documentary DVD, the version he’s now capable of pulling off is so much better, there’s really no comparison.
Tweedy was quite chatty throughout the show, and some of it may be attributed to nervousness at playing his second Christian campus in less than a week. After “(Was I) In Your Dreams,” he began what would be a rather lengthy discussion of religion that stretched across the next two songs. I never had any illusions that Tweedy is a Christian, and that notion was confirmed Saturday night; he did say he was flattered to be asked to play the campus (he was the headliner for a two-day conference on Christians engaging popular culture), and he “admires” Jesus Christ and “respects” anyone of faith. It’s typical pap I’ve heard from countless other people who are too gutless to make a choice, but at least he did appear genuinely reverent. The whole thing was rather bumbling, though; there’s a reason why musicians write songs instead of speeches—I haven’t known many that are particularly eloquent orators (Bono’s about the best of the bunch, and even he’s not that great).
Tweedy then played a new song (believed to be on the next Loose Fur album (a side project)) that has Christ giving up drug use; yeah, I don’t get it, but Tweedy said it’s how he relates to Jesus, and it really wasn’t disrespectful in spirit. After that, though, he continued to discuss religion for a minute (“I feel like I need a pulpit,” he quipped) before going into “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” which he said he felt he “needed” to play to balance out the previous song.
Once the elephant in the corner was finally out of the way, Tweedy seemed to settle down and really get into a groove.
The Woodie Guthrie cover “Remember the Mountain Bed” and “Please Tell My Brother” were the emotional high points of the next block of songs, the former now possibly one of my favorite Tweedy songs of all time after hearing Saturday’s performance.
The mellow intensity led into a string of favorites to close out the main set, starting with “Heavy Metal Drummer,” another fantastic reworking of a “Foxtrot” song (complete with closing line, “Playing Uncle Tupelo songs/Beautiful and stoned” that drew rousing shouts) leading into “Break Your Heart.” After making good on his promise from a few songs earlier with Uncle Tupelo’s “Black Eye” and the quiet “Someone Else’s Song,” Tweedy closed the set by offering up two rollicking old stand-bys: “ELT” and “Someday Soon” (with plenty of crowd participation on both).
For the encores on this tour, Tweedy has been bringing Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche (a percussionist extraordinaire who’s also been opening for Tweedy) out on stage to close the shows in rock-out fashion. Saturday was no exception, starting the encore with “Not for the Season,” a great Loose Fur song. Another Tupelo favorite, “New Madrid,” appeared in the second slot, followed by another trio of personal favorite songs: “A Shot in the Arm,” “War on War,” and possibly my No. 1 song from “Foxtrot,” “I’m the Man Who Loves You.”
The show seemed to be over with “The Late Greats” (also the closing track from “Ghost”), especially when the house lights began to flicker on. But this truly was one of the best crowds I’ve been in, aside from the requisite idiots yelling out requests and other stupid comments during between-song breaks. Overall, though, most everyone was quiet and respectful, and Tweedy seemed to realize that, too, because he came back out for one more solo song, “Acuff-Rose,” to close a 1:45 set and a great night in the hills of Pennsylvania.
For all the negativity I’ve felt about Wilco—and Tweedy, in particular—over the past couple years, Saturday night went a long way to redeeming his recent work and keeping me hooked for the future. He could have come out and tried some sort of awful avant garde solo performance art—I actually half-suspected this would be the case, honestly. Instead, I was on the receiving end of some old-school honesty.
Again, this is why I go to concerts, folks: Nothing beats live music. With this great show floating around my head, I’ve already gone back and listened to (most of) “A Ghost is Born” more in the past few days than I had in the 18 months since it was released.
Rock and roll may not be my savior, but it continues to change my life—in big and small ways.

Jeff Tweedy
Messiah College
Grantham, Pa.

Main Set:
Sunken Treasure
Airline To Heaven
(Was I) In Your Dreams
New song
Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down
Blue Eyed Soul
Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard
Remember the Mountain Bed
Sugar Baby
Lost Love
Please Tell My Brothers
Heavy Metal Drummer
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Black Eye
Someone Else’s Song
Someday Soon

First Encore (with Glenn Kotche on drums):
Not for the Season
New Madrid
A Shot in the Arm
War on War
I’m the Man Who Loves You
The Late Greats

Second Encore (solo):

Sunday, November 06, 2005

‘I’ll Always Remember the Sound’: Dashboard Confessional at Washington College, 11.5.05

In the past four years, Dashboard Confessional has had two hit records and three hit songs. They’ve been all over MTV and probably made more money than anyone in the band ever thought possible.
So it’s nice to know lead singer Chris Carrabba and Co. can still get on a barebones stage in a middle-of-nowhere gymnasium and play their hearts out like nothing’s changed.
Dashboard’s follow-up to 2003’s “A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar” isn’t due out until early next year (hopefully), but Carrabba can’t seem to stay off the road for long. So this fall, he and his band have been playing random shows across the country, raising money for hurricane victims (Carrabba lives in Florida and has raised more than $150,000 for the relief effort).
Low-key is probably the best way to describe Dashboard’s stellar set of nearly two hours Saturday night at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. After all his success, Carrabba still seems as humble and fan-friendly as ever—if this aw shucks sincerity is an act then, well, he’s a really fine actor. The stage was basically a platform at one end of the gym, with two simple banks of lights and an eponymous wall hanging at the back. Refreshingly unspectacular.
And it was fitting that one of the nicest moments from Saturday night’s show was Carrabba’s down-to-earth plea for hurricane relief. In one of his frequent between-song chat sessions, he mentioned Hurricane Wilma had ripped off the roof of his Florida home. “I can afford a new roof,” Carrabba said quietly, “but there are plenty of people who can’t, so anything you can give to the Red Cross would help.” No political statement. No extended message. No posing as some sort of world savior. Just short, sweet, and to the point, with no strings attached.
The night began with Carrabba sneaking onstage to play backup guitar for his friend and opening act, John Ralston. Carrabba spent most of the set nearly off the back of the stage noodling on electric guitar, only occasionally sidling up to a microphone to help out on vocals. Again, no fanfare, no spotlights, no special treatment. You get the sense this guy is trying to keep his life as simple and normal as possible, even though circumstances around him have changed dramatically.
I’ve seen Dashboard three times now on three different tours. The first was back in the summer of 2002, just as the band was starting to make waves on MTV2. They opened for Weezer that year, and the 45-minute set was basically “Dashboard Confessional Plays Their Hits.” In the fall of 2003, they headlined a club punk tour featuring Vendetta Red, Brand New, and MxPx; for that show, D/C played a high-energy set of about 70 minutes, ripping through their more uptempo, fan-friendly numbers in order to stay with the show’s overall vibe.
Now, I finally feel like I’ve seen the show Chris Carrabba really loves to play.
On Saturday he opened with the standard rollicking “Am I Missing” but quickly slowed things down for 45 minutes of mellow yet intense acoustic numbers. Highlights were everywhere: After “Missing,” the band went into three of the four songs off the “So Impossible” EP played back-to-back-to-back; that trio led into “A Plain Morning,” a song off D/C’s debut album (back when the “group” was just Carrabba and a guitar) that had been retired for a few years.
After a relaxed “As Lovers Go” (featured on the “Shrek 2” soundtrack), Carrabba strapped on his Spider-Man-looking electric guitar, mentioning how he likes the quiet songs but now he wanted to pick the energy up a bit. That led to “Rapid Hope Loss,” a great rocker that blew me away when I heard it for the first time in 2002 and hasn’t lost any steam.
Dashboard’s trademark singalongs then went into full effect, as six of the next seven songs were from the band’s breakthrough 2001 album “The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most.” We’re talkin’ home run after home run here, with “The Good Fight” leading into “Saints and Sailors,” “The Brilliant Dance,” “Screaming Infidelities,” and “Again I Go Unnoticed.”
With the crowd now in full-throated frenzy, Carrabba capitalized on that energy for the debut of a new song, “Don’t Wait,” which he said will be on next year’s record. If this is any indication of what’s to come, now I really can’t wait for this album. “Don’t Wait” is in the same vein as much of the band’s recent work, and—at least when played live—it has the epic quality of a song like “Several Ways to Die Trying.”
Following “Don’t Wait,” the rest of the band retreated behind the stage, leaving Carrabba alone in the spotlight to close the set with “The Swiss Army Romance,” a tale of college insecurity that seemed all the more appropriate given the setting. Carrabba doesn’t invoke the crowd participation as much as he used to (which is a good thing), but this D/C classic will always be a two-way street, and Carrabba still walks to the front of the stage, away from the mic, and lets the crowd close the song with him.
After a brief break, he was back onstage by himself again to open the encore with “The Best Deceptions,” another winner from “Places.” So with time running short, Carrabba closed the night with undoubtedly two of his best songs, “Vindicated” from the “Spider-Man 2” soundtrack, and “Hands Down,” originally released on the “So Impossible” EP and reworked into an electric anthem for “A Mark, …”.
“Vindicated” is without question my favorite D/C song, and the band NAILS it live. Carrabba roars into the mic like the vocals are coming up from his toes, defying logic that such a huge sound could come from such a tiny body.
“Hands Down” is like Dashboard’s version of Pearl Jam’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” For the finale, Carrabba invited Ralston and the rest of his band onstage so there were six guitars (I think) wailing away. With his mates alongside him, Carrabba has extended the ending of “Hands Down” to allow a little more jam time, but eventually everyone else slips away to leave him alone again to close the show and say good-bye amid raucous applause.
I know in my heart that Dashboard Confessional won’t go down as more than a footnote (if that) in the history of rock and roll. But they’re a nice band with an earnest, charismatic lead singer that puts on a quality, heartfelt show every night—and I happen to love their music. There’s a lot to be said for making the most out of what you’re given and not letting success go to your head. As such, Chris Carrabba is the most unlikely rock star you’re ever likely to meet (which I have, twice).
And, hey, “Vindicated” just RAWKS.

Dashboard Confessional
Washington College
Chestertown, Maryland

Main set:
Am I Missing
The Sharp Hint of New Tears
For You To Notice …
Remember to Breathe/The Moon is Down (Further Seems Forever cover!)
So Impossible
A Plain Morning
Carry This Picture
As Lovers Go
Rapid Hope Loss
The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most/California (Phantom Planet cover)
Ghost of a Good Thing
The Good Fight
Saints and Sailors
The Brilliant Dance
Screaming Infidelities
Again I Go Unnoticed
Don’t Wait (new song)
The Swiss Army Romance

The Best Deceptions
Hands Down

Sunday, October 23, 2005

U2 and MCI: Wide Awake in the Nation’s Capital, 10.19.05//10.20.05

My general rule regarding two-night concert stands in any given city is simple: Always trust the second show. No matter the band, the first night is typically the standard, straightforward set the group has been perfecting the entire tour. Night 2 will usually have more variety, and the band tends to pull out the stops—and rare songs. So, give me the second night.
Unless, of course, I can go to both.
I was lucky enough this week to see U2’s two shows at the MCI Center. After purchasing general admission floor tickets for Night 2 way back in March, I managed to scoop up a single for Night 1 day of show through Ticketmaster (not a scalper), something I’d never tried before. Let’s be honest: This has basically been U2005 for me, and I didn’t want all that built-up angst and anticipation to ride on one night. And as this stop in the nation’s capital proved, it’s amazing how the vibe can change from one show to the next. Those little differences—they’re everything.
U2 has been at this playing live thing for a quarter century now, so they know their way around a venue. You could probably count the “off” nights for an entire tour on a few fingers—and we’re talking, what, 100-plus shows in 2005? That’s some feat. The band is always in search of the “perfect” setlist, with a precise placement of songs in order to create an overall theme and flow that sums up exactly where U2 is at this point in their career. Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave much room for improvisation, the “tour debuts” so sought after by hardcore fans.
Wednesday night’s outing was essentially the “basic” Vertigo 2005 show, which is not a complaint. “Basic” by U2’s standards is what most bands could only hope for on their best-of-the-best days. From my stellar seat (20 rows up on Edge’s side at what would be center court for a Wizards game), I had a perfect vantage point for all that makes up this tour: The lights, the movement, etc. The stage setup is very similar to 2001’s Elevation tour, only this time the catwalk that extends out from either end of the stage into the center of the floor is rounded off rather than heart-shaped. (As a side note, this setup is pure genius on so many levels. It allows Bono—whose persona is too big for the venue, much less a stage—freedom to roam and spread his wings. Also, it breaks up the mob on the floor and relieves some of the pressure by essentially creating twice as many front-row “seats.” And it gives everyone something interesting to look at other than just lights and four guys standing on stage.)
Night 1 was standard U2 excellence. Bono’s voice really has undergone an amazing resurgence in the four years since the band toured in support of 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”; in fact, his voice actually gets stronger through the course of a show. Bono believes it was his father’s dying gift to his son, and who am I to argue? The visuals are great, with chandelier-style light fixtures hanging from the rafters alongside curtains of lights that drop periodically and are also capable of showing images. Meanwhile, the main stage has a bull’s-eye-type light pattern and the catwalk also has running lights. All in all, U2 has perfected their live presentation, combining elements of both the stripped-down early years as well as the glam ZooTV and PopMart shows into one healthy whole that summarizes their entire career and at the same time, with the addition of the catwalk, pushes them forward into new territory. As with the Elevation shows, here the production only enhances the music, rather than overwhelming it.
Since walking out of MCI Thursday night, the song I’ve listened to most often isn’t even from U2—it’s “Wake Up” by The Arcade Fire, which has got to be one of the best walk-on songs I’ve ever heard. The Fire’s riff blares out from the speakers as the house lights go down and the chandeliers light up in red, crowd going absolutely berserk. The eye is drawn to the stage, obviously, as Edge, Larry and Adam walk in and strap on under spotlights; however, who is that little man in sunglasses at the point of the ellipse? Oh, yes, there’s Bono, arms upraised in exultation as confetti drops from the rafters and Edge kicks into the opening strain of “City of Blinding Lights,” one of the best songs from U2’s latest album, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” When I first saw way back in the spring that U2 was using “City” as an opener I really didn’t understand why. It has a slow build and a spacious, “epic” quality that seemed suited more for a slot late in the first set, a la “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Of course, stupid me didn’t remember U2 used to open with “Streets” as well, and after seeing the way they choreograph their entrance, I can’t think of a better hello than “City”—everybody screaming “Oh! You look so BEAU-TI-FUL tonight!”
From there the show rockets into the stratosphere with a succession of uptempo rawkers. “Vertigo” is in the No. 2 slot, and it absolutely blows the doors off the building—one of the group’s best live songs, hands down. Couple that with another crowd-pleaser, “Elevation,” and back-to-back tracks from U2’s first album, “Boy” (wow, tagging the Who’s “See Me, Feel Me” at the end of “The Electric Co.” is a goosebump moment!) and I’m not sure how they can keep this pace up.
Turns out, they can’t.
The band takes a breather with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which is probably necessary after that initial missive (remember, these guys aren’t kids anymore), and serves the dual purpose of giving the audience a song everyone can (and does) sing along to. But the energy picks up again with the next couplet: the now classic “Beautiful Day” and its cousin from “Atomic Bomb,” “Miracle Drug.”
Here Bono ventures back out onto the catwalk for one of my personal favorites, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” dedicated to his father and one of the only songs in which the singer removes his trademark Bulgari sunglasses. This is one of the best moments in the entire show, because there’s always a bit of anxiety about whether Bono will actually be able to hit the operatic “SIIIIIIIIIIINNNNGGGG” during the climax. After staying off to the side of the ellipse for most of the song, Bono makes his way down to the point for this part and it seems as though he has to twist his whole body up and then explode outward in order to hit it, but somehow he does.
Bono is without question the most magnetic, dynamic frontman I’ve ever seen. His outsized personality makes a 20,000-seat venue feel like an intimate club; I’ve heard stories of people sitting at the top of MCI behind the stage who were still moved by the show. There aren’t many in this business who can make that happen, but Bono is the best of the best. You simply cannot take your eyes off him the entire night, because there’s no telling what he might do, and you certainly don’t want to miss anything. Is that symptomatic of an egomaniac? Sure. But without that, U2 certainly wouldn’t be what it is today.
Never is that more apparent than the next song in the lineup, “Love and Peace Or Else,” which features Bono and Larry—yes, Larry Mullen Jr.—at the point. Larry wanders out to play a simple drum-and-cymbal setup while Bono rips through the song. Midway through, Larry retreats to his comfort zone behind the big kit at the back of the main stage, while Bono grabs the sticks at the ellipse and attempts to beat the living crap out of the drum to end the song; it sounds stupid secondhand, but it’s another of those Bono moments that you just have to be there to get.
“Love and Peace” is the first of this tour’s anti-violence suite, completed by two warhorses, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and a rarity that has been enjoying the spotlight lately, the beautiful “Miss Sarajevo.”
It’s interesting, though, that the latter, in which Bono nails the opera section originally recorded by Pavarotti, also signals the beginning of what ultimately proves Vertigo 2005’s fatal flaw. As “Sarajevo” concludes, the video screens broadcast the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, but it leads to what feels like a 20-minute public service announcement with, oh yeah, a few of U2’s best songs thrown in.
On paper, the trilogy of “Pride,” “Streets” and “One” seems almost overwhelming in its power. But, like “Bloody Sunday,” Bono has reimagined these three songs as part of his drive for debt and AIDS relief around the world—especially Africa. He makes that point abundantly clear during Vertigo 2005.
It’s no secret Bono is prone to “speechifying” (his word)—that’s who he is. Without his passion for world issues, he wouldn’t be the man and the musician he is, so U2 fans have always taken his preaching with understanding. Bono has been speechifying in concerts for his entire career, some people just don’t know it. That’s why “Rattle and Hum” is the band’s worst received effort to date; critics were turned off by, among many things, Bono’s anti-apartheid speech during the bridge in “Silver and Gold.” I wasn’t a fan back then, but I’m guessing fan reaction to such criticisms was something like, “Uh, duh. That’s just Bono.”
But nearly two decades later, everyone—and I mean everyone—agrees: Bono! Enough already.
These three songs that close the main set are overrun by speechifying, and the concert’s momentum and power suffers for it. From a certain point of view I’m OK with it, because it’s a credit to the quality of the songs that they can be adapted—20 years later, in the case of “Pride”—to meet new times and convey new meanings; this actually seems necessary, in certain respect, because I’d rather Bono reimagine his songs than simply blow through them like some kind of Irish jukebox. But I just don’t need an image of Africa up on the light curtains during “Streets.” And I certainly don’t need a 10-minute speech about Bono’s ONE campaign leading into the organization’s namesake (and one of my favorite songs of all time)—the rambling was so long Wednesday night, Larry actually put his sticks down and started timing his singer. It was ridiculous and excessive and overshadowed the music—and at these ticket prices, that’s a crime.
Thankfully, they totally salvaged the show with the encores.
The final six or seven songs of Vertigo 2005 get fans all jumpy, because this section of the show is most open to improvisation and surprises. Wednesday’s first encore began with an acoustic version of “The First Time,” a quiet gem from 1993’s “Zooropa” that until this fall 2005 leg had only been played nine times in the band’s history. It’s just Bono and Edge for this one; they start from opposite ends of the catwalk and meet in the middle to begin the second acoustic song, a fantastic version of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” I hadn’t particularly liked this song four years ago (I dubbed it “momentum killer” during the Elevation tour), but then I heard the acoustic version recorded for the “7” EP released exclusively through Target stores, and it totally won me over. Stripped down to its essence, “Stuck in a Moment” is a gorgeous song, and this version was no different, as Larry and Adam snuck onstage toward the end to finish out the number as a full band. This intimate first encore concludes with “With Or Without You,” deceptive in its epic qualities. It starts out small—with Bono bringing a girl up out of the crowd onto the catwalk for a personal dance/serenade—but by the time he returns to the main stage and Edge kicks into the full-on final solo, it’s an enrapturing moment.
The second encore begins on an up note with “All Because of You,” one of the rockers from “Atomic Bomb.” An acoustic version of “Yahweh” follows, another instance of instrumentation and production killing a song on record. “Yahweh” is just OK as the closer for “Atomic Bomb,” but played this way, it’s heartbreaking.
Finally, a highlight for any U2 fan, “40” closed Wednesday night’s show. After serving as the finale for every U2 concert from 1983 to 1990, the hymnal “40” essentially disappeared among the band’s irony-laden shows of the 1990s, making only a handful of appearances during PopMart. “40” resurfaced on the Elevation trek, but only as a snippet, typically finishing off “Bad.”
But the classic is back in a big way during Vertigo 2005, and it’s a welcome return. Everything is the same—Bono leaves first, followed by Edge and Adam, leaving Larry alone on stage for his final drum solo, an arena full of people screaming “How long to sing this song!” The chant continues long after Larry’s left the stage, ending only when the lights are finally turned on and everyone wanders out of the venue, stunned and exhilarated at what they just saw.
And that was the lesser of two shows in D.C.
While Wednesday night was really, really good, Thursday’s show was, well, nearly transcendent. Nearly.
I don’t know if it was because he had some really good meetings on the Hill, or maybe because of the politically-charged atmosphere of the nation’s capital, maybe it was that old second-night theory of mine, or maybe it was just an illusion because I was standing among the throngs on the floor three feet from the catwalk (Adam’s side). But U2 stepped their game up to another level Thursday, not merely playing but attacking their songs, turning the standard into exemplary.
The buzz was there from the beginning, an indescribable feeling of power and energy, cemented during “Electric Co.” when Bono—only about six feet from me—steps out onto the barricade between the crowd and catwalk and, hanging on to fans’ hands, balances perfectly while gyrating on one foot and singing into his mic. It’s a surreal experience, being that close to the band, which is why the catwalk is such a great invention. This is the second time I’ve had floor seats (Chicago IV in 2001), and I continually found myself not believing, after all the times I’ve seen these guys on TV or video or listened to them on CD, they are actually RIGHT THERE TWO FEET IN FRONT OF ME.
The first audible for Thursday night was a dream-come-true situation: “Out of Control,” which Bono introduced as “our first single.” I absolutely love this song, and even though Bono garbled the lyrics a little, it alone was worth all the money, all the waiting outside shivering in the cold before the show, all the defending my spot in the crowd before the show. It was worth it all. And little did I know what was to come.
The rest of the main set was the same as the previous night, but again, there seemed an extra edge to the performance—a little extra umph (maybe it was because Condoleezza Rice was sitting off to the side of the stage). The speechifying was back, as it has been every night of the tour, but it was thankfully trimmed back a little from Night 1. Still, on a night like this, these breaks were momentum killers and broke the spell of what a U2 concert can be. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also not going away this tour—it’s built into the setlist, so I just deal with it and move on.
And move on we did, this time to another fantastic acoustic duo to open the encore: “Walk On” (a favorite from 2001) and the ultra-rare “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” from 1991’s “Achtung Baby.” Leading into the latter, Bono, standing with Edge at the point, tells us they’re going to try something a little different tonight. “It’s fun, right Edge,” he jokes, getting a big laugh from the crowd (it’s one of my favorite little moments of the night). Well, they absolutely NAIL this song, making me wonder where it’s been all this time.
And instead of closing with the quiet “40,” U2 decided to send us off in a full-throated roar, pulling out what is without a doubt one of their best songs and one of my all-time favorites of any band, much less U2: “Bad”
This is the song that put U2 on the map back in 1985, when Bono went out into the crowd during Live Aid. This is the song that requires mandatory repeat viewings on “Rattle and Hum.” And this is the song that, during Vertigo 2005, anyway, U2 is saving only for special occasions. There’s no better way to close a show, and Bono let it all rip, hitting all the notes and closing the show with a howling “Wide awake! I’m wide awake!” like he was 25 instead of 45. Aside from giving a couple shout-outs to members of Congress (Why, Bono? Why? I’ve been waiting to hear this song for so long! Don’t talk about politicians!), this was a transcendent moment, complete with an excerpt from Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” (yeah, a little cheesy, but you had to be there), and the crowd knew it.
There’s another theory out there (I can’t take credit for it, though) that your favorite band really isn’t your favorite band if they don’t piss you off every now and then—you have to really care about a group in order to care enough to get mad at them. Did Bono piss me off with his excessive rambling and spell-breaking speechifying? Yes.
But in the hours and days since leaving MCI Center Thursday night, it’s the music and the power of its presentation that sticks with me and keeps me bouncing through my life on an emotional high. I don’t know when exactly it’s going to wear off. I don’t really want it to. This is U2, good, bad and annoying, and they’re unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

MCI Center, Washington, D.C.

City of Blinding Lights
I Will Follow
The Electric Co./See Me, Feel Me
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Beautiful Day
Miracle Drug
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
Love and Peace Or Else
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Bullet the Blue Sky
Miss Sarajevo
Pride (In the Name of Love)
Where the Streets Have No Name
Ol' Man River

First Encore:
The First Time (acoustic)
Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of (acoustic)
With or Without You

Second Encore:
All Because of You
Yahweh (acoustic)

City of Blinding Lights
The Electric Co./See Me, Feel Me
Out of Control
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Beautiful Day
Miracle Drug
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
Love and Peace Or Else
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Bullet the Blue Sky
Miss Sarajevo
Pride (In the Name of Love)
Where the Streets Have No Name

First Encore:
Walk On (acoustic)
Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses (acoustic)
With or Without You

Second Encore:
All Because of You
BAD/People Have the Power

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Southern Charm

I believe it’s impossible (okay, nearly impossible) for Cameron Crowe to make a bad movie. He loves his work too much to let that happen.
But there are times when an artist can be so infatuated with his material, his idea, his method, he drowns in it. That almost describes Crowe’s latest film, “Elizabethtown.”
It’s a meandering picture, and I don’t have a problem with that. Too many filmmakers do half-baked rush jobs of their movies, so I don’t mind someone taking his time to tell a story. But right about the time Susan Sarandon is tap dancing on a stage during a memorial service for her dead husband, I had just about had enough.
Then the film enters its final act—more of a coda, really—and totally redeems itself.
But first things first.
“Elizabethtown” is Crowe’s first movie in four years, a follow-up to the critically reviled “Vanilla Sky” (which I happened to really like). It stars Orlando Bloom as Drew Baylor, a rising star athletic shoe executive who’s just flamed out on a billion-dollar bust of an idea. Thinking his life is literally over, things take an even steeper turn for the worse when Drew returns home from being fired only to find out his father has died in his boyhood home of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Now the only man of the family, Drew has to go “take care of things.”
On the plane flight to Louisville, Drew meets spritely flight attendant Claire Colburn, played to ethereal perfection by Kirsten Dunst, who seems never to disappoint these days no matter the material. Claire’s profession brings her in and out of contact with thousands of people, spinning into their orbits for a few hours at a time. There’s something different about Drew, though, and she does her best not to let him get away.
When he first arrives in Kentucky, Drew is overwhelmed by his father’s large, loud Southern relatives. But as the movie rolls on (and with a little help from Claire), he begins to see why his father loved them so much, and how they helped shape the man his father became—even if he did move to the West Coast with a woman who, gasp, didn’t grow up in Kentucky. Crowe treats these people with respect, writing about them out of love, not mockery. Where most scripts use a token gun-toting, beer-swilling Southerner as a punch line, Crowe gets us to laugh with them, not at them. He has a way of writing and shooting a movie that is unlike anything else you’ve seen—sort of out-of-left-field funny and tender at the same time. Like I said, he loves his material.
And what would a Cameron Crowe movie be without a killer soundtrack? During an ingenious scene where Drew and Claire get to know each other by pulling an all-nighter via cell phone, Ryan Adams’ beautiful “Come Pick Me Up” blasts through the speakers. A song about wanting—and needing—someone to blow your world apart just so the two of you can put it back together again is simply perfect here.
“Elizabethtown” is a movie a lot of people are going to hate—just read the majority of the reviews (by the way, nearly all negative ones had the word “mess” in them—did the nation’s critics have a conference call I missed or something?). Sarandon is miscast, an actress too “big” for such an intimate film; her scenes are rather painful, and not in a good way. Bloom stumbles in spots as well, but proves he can play a part that doesn’t require a sword or medieval dress.
Just stick with this movie through to the end. “Elizabethtown” is like a Bruce Springsteen song: Full of romanticized hopes and dreams, yes, but hopes and dreams that make us aspire to reach for the unreachable and in so doing, maybe improve ourselves just a little bit. It has a lot to say about taking time out (away from work or anything else we deem “important”) to love someone and live life. And it does so in such a way as to show us how lucky we are to live in this beautiful country, with all of its hidden quirks and charming people.
Who doesn’t need that reminder now and then?
Grade: B+

Saturday, October 15, 2005

“Look at all the junk that's on TV”

Somebody needs to let Joss Whedon make more movies, because “Serenity” is so much better than I ever thought possible.
A little background (to get the most out of this movie, you’re gonna need it):
For the uninitiated, Whedon is the creator/writer/director/general guru of two cult TV hits, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its spinoff, “Angel.” However, back in 2002 he released a little-seen series called “Firefly” on FOX, which lasted less than half a season before the network canceled it (the same network that didn’t even bother to run each episode in the correct order).
“Firefly” combines two classic genres—Western and space opera—into one swashbuckling rollercoaster adventure ride. In this back-to-the-future scenario, the population of earth grew to the point where humanity was forced to seek out new worlds and “terraform” them to our specific set of living conditions. We humans discovered new planets and new solar systems, all of which eventually fell under the oppressive unified control of a new government, the Alliance.
Such overwhelming control of course led some citizens to rebel, forcing a war between the Alliance and the “Independents,” which the Alliance won, of course. The Independents (also known as “Browncoats”) scattered like sand in the wind, retreating to the ends of the galaxy to find their own ways of life separate from (and often in opposition to) the government.
Here’s where Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew of miscreants come in. Reynolds is a former Independent sergeant forced to go underground when he lost the war. Essentially a Han Solo for the new generation, Reynolds’ life revolves around the life of his ship, “Serenity,” which he uses to try and make his way in the galaxy, however he can (smuggling and mercenary work, mostly).
Like Whedon’s other two series, “Firefly” is over-the-top in its action and oversized characters, yet grounded in genuine emotion; this gained the show an instant cult following, devotees who were very disappointed when the show was so abruptly plucked from the broadcast schedule.
Under those circumstances, “Serenity” is like a blown kiss from Whedon to his fans. All of the major characters are back, and in two hours Whedon tells a story that ties up several loose ends left hanging by the original series while maintaining the show’s inherent sense of fun and adventure. It actually delivers on what 1998's "X-Files" movie merely promised—"Serenity" is more than just a TV episode on movie studio steroids.
But the film brings up an interesting contrast between two rival, yet similar, mediums: television and cinema. TV has a bad—and well-deserved—reputation as a melting pot of all things soul sucking and mediocre. Just look at any of the new batch of “reality” programs that force people to endure degrading situations to win a few bucks. Or how ’bout the latest moronic sitcom or over-sexed drama?
No, it’s Hollywood where the true “auteurs” reside, right? If the Academy Awards is for the court of kings and queens, the Emmy glitterati are merely dukes and duchesses.
In reality, though, television has a unique ability to tell stories the average movie can’t come close to matching (which is why the first two “Godfather” films remain the industry standard—and exception). It’s a simple matter of screen time, really: The average TV drama gets about 16 hours a year to explore its characters, where a movie gets, what, two and a half hours at the most? Whedon came up against this problem when writing the script for “Serenity”; according to an Aug. 16 Entertainment Weekly article on the film, the writer/director’s first draft was a massive 190 pages that Whedon said was essentially the entire second season of “Firefly” he had swimming around in his head. He had to boil it down to a two-hour space-chase thriller (making this movie’s success even more stunning).
That’s why “Serenity” received only decent reviews and probably won’t do as much for newbies who wandered in off the street—these are fabulous characters, but it’s impossible to get to know them well enough in the first few minutes of a film. To fully appreciate this movie, you have to watch the original 13 episodes of “Firefly” (out on DVD and airing on the Sci-Fi Channel). You have to see Mal and Wash tortured by a sadistic “businessman”; you have to learn the backstory between Wash and wife/soldier Zoe, as well as the star-crossed love between Mal and classy prostitute (excuse me, companion) Inara; you need 13 episodes to get to know the series’ pivotal character, the government experiment gone awry River; you have to get used to the way Whedon’s dialogue mixes Old West, Chinese, and brand-new curse words (it’s unnerving at first, but by the second episode, it’s charming and funny). Shows such as “Firefly,” “Smallville,” “Alias,” “Lost,” and the granddaddy of ’em all, “The Sopranos,” demonstrate TV—when done well—can offer a much deeper entertainment experience than film.
By the same token, though, there’s no way Whedon could have told this final chapter of his story so compellingly on the small screen. “Serenity” washes over you with kinetic energy and overwhelming images in a two-hour rush that leaves you, well, drained at the end. Even this film’s modest budget of $45 million still meant millions and millions more money than any episode of “Firefly” would have received, and Whedon (in his feature film directing debut, mind you) made full use of his newfound financial freedom, letting his imagination run wild—especially in some fantastic space battles. (On a side note, Whedon is signed on to direct a "Wonder Woman" movie, set for a 2007 release. I'm sure it will be the second of many.)
Where does that leave us, then? For those interested in seeing “Serenity,” I would obviously recommend watching at least a handful of “Firefly” episodes first. For those who already love the show, this movie delivers time and time again. It’s a gem.
Grade: Without “Firefly,” B; with “Firefly,” A

Monday, October 10, 2005

Can a Loss Really be as Good as a Win?

Now that the pain of Washington’s heartbreaking two-point loss on the road against the Denver Broncos has faded a bit, the reality of the situation has set in: Ol’ Joe’s done it—the Redskins are a good football team again.
Yeah, it would’ve been nice if Mark Brunell had completed that two-point conversion pass to David Patten and sent yesterday’s game to overtime, but those things happen. The Redskins made too many mistakes throughout the course of the game and it finally caught up with them. Denver is a playoff-caliber team, and it should win at home (one of the toughest places in the league to play, by the way).
However, there are several positives for Redskins fans. For starters, the offense racked up nearly 450 yards against a rather stout defense. Brunell continues to look like he’s back from the dead, this time going for 300-plus and two touchdowns. Clinton Portis ran well against his former team with 103 yards on just 20 carries for a crisp five yards a tote. Also, except for two bonehead runs, the defense continued to play well despite more injuries in the secondary. (Please, can we put the LaVar Arrington talk to bed? Sure, I want him to play, but the “D” doesn’t seem to miss him that much. I’ll trust Gibbs and Gregg Williams over LaVar any day. When they feel he’s ready, then he’ll play. Until then, everyone, enough already—shut up.)
And, most importantly, Washington proved yet again that it is never out of a game—no matter how much time is left on the clock and how long the odds. If someone had told me a year ago that this season the Skins—with No. 8 under center—would be able to go 95 yards for a touchdown on their final drive and nearly pull even with the Broncos, I would have thought that person was crazy.
But after five weeks, get this: The Redskins are eighth in the league in offense and fifth in defense. … OK, now that you’ve picked yourself back up off the floor after that shocking realization, here’s another: There’s absolutely no reason the Washington Redskins shouldn’t make the playoffs.
Just look at the rest of the conference: The Redskins have already beaten the best team in the NFC West (Seattle); they’re certainly better than any of the four teams in the dreadful NFC North; they should be able to hold their own against either Carolina or Atlanta from the South; and, oh yeah, the Skins are still in first place in the East.
Brunell and Gibbs seem to get more and more comfortable with their surroundings week by week, and the improvements have shown on the field. There are several should-win games on their schedule, including San Francisco, Oakland, St. Louis and Arizona. If Washington simply goes .500 in the rest of its games, that gives the Redskins 11 wins this year. Hello, playoffs.
Sure, we’re only four games into the season and a lot can happen over the next three months. But after Washington’s first three “lucky” wins, everyone was still skeptical and wondering whether this team is for real or not.
Consider that question answered. Just ask the Broncos.