Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Favorite Movies of 2010

In honor of tonight’s Academy Awards, let’s all put 2010 to bed. I’ll do my part here with my favorite films from last year:



9. The Town

Ben Affleck, where you been all my life? This guy is undergoing a career resuscitation the likes of which are rarely seen. First, his sparkling directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone,” and now this, a tense thriller that is worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as “Heat.” And, man, Jeremy Renner is must-see viewing once again.


7. The Fighter/True Grit

These are listed together because they both left me feeling the same way: They’re both solid genre films with excellent performances, but neither raises to the level of truly “great.” That’s not a knock on them, either. It’s just we’ve seen the boxer/Western before; making a film that doesn’t just parrot the genre is an achievement in itself, and these are both excellent examples of well-worn areas. But neither rose above their respective worlds to set themselves apart.


6. The A-Team

This is where I remind you, this is not a “best of” list, but rather a ranking purely on favortism. “The A-Team” is not a better movie than those listed above it, but it was such a pleasure to watch. This should’ve been a bigger hit than it was. The casting is the key: the four leads—Neeson, especially—take their roles seriously and give the film a gravitas most stupid action movies lack. It helps, of course, they have a great script to work with, packed with one-liners that leave you chuckling long after the credits roll. Pure fun, this one.


5. Inception

I didn’t actually love this movie; the gotcha ending was extraordinarily irritating. But I rank it this high because it was so fascinating. Christopher Nolan has a singular vision, and he’s the only director working in Hollywood today who could’ve pulled this off—the Spielberg of this generation. We always complain about not seeing anything original in the Cineplex … well, you certainly can’t make that claim here. Nolan twisted our minds and our senses into pretzels this summer, and irritating ending or not, it left us all talking afterward. That, alone, is a worthy achievement. Add the stunning visuals and whirlpool storytelling, and “Inception” is one I think we’ll still be talking about a decade from now.


4. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows—Part 1

Director David Yates pulled off a magic trick of his own with this one, somehow making J.K. Rowling’s complex mythology (confusing even when reading her novel) understandable. And along the way, he made a movie with the heart and soul of an indie wrapped in the budget and trappings of a blockbuster franchise. Not many directors would take the time in a production like this to allow for one of its best scenes: Harry and Hermione’s dance in the darkest of nights. The best installment yet of this series, “Deathly Hallows—Part 1” will go down as “The Empire Strikes Back” of the Potter films.


3. Get Low

The most underappreciated, underrated film of 2010. Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, and Lucas Black (you know, the kid from “Sling Blade”) all give outstanding performances in this story of love, betrayal, guilt, and redemption. It starts out as an offbeat comedy about a man planning his own funeral, and then in Act 3 morphs into a touching tale of a man in search of forgiveness for a sin he’s carried with him for far too long.


2. Toy Story 3

If asked a different day, this may be my favorite film of last year. A true masterpiece, Pixar somehow managed to top itself yet again in its signature franchise. Laugh-out-loud funny, edge-of-your-seat exciting, jaw-droppingly imaginative (toys as mafiosos!), and an ending that can make grown men cry … this is a tremendous film for all ages. Its message of looking to the future and not clinging to the past is one to live by.


1. The Social Network

A portrait of an online artist as a young man, this fascinating and gripping tale of Facebook creator (?) Mark Zuckerberg left me pondering for days what the cost of fame, wealth, and success. Aaron Sorkin (though I loathe him personally) delivers the crowning achievement of his career with a script that deftly weaves what is essentially two legal proceedings into a spellbinding narrative. Add the sure hand of director David Fincher, a career-defining performance from Jesse Eisenberg, and the fact “The Social Network” left me puzzling over its revelations for days, and that all adds up to my favorite film of 2010.


***


A Note About ‘The King’s Speech’

I understand why this film earned so much critical acclaim and so many nominations, but it left me feeling too cold to make this list. Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter are all outstanding, but Firth’s character is a little hard to root for. I hope it doesn’t win tonight.

Monday, February 21, 2011

‘Unknown’

Ah, I had such hopes for this movie. “Taken” is one of my favorite films of the past five years, so the idea of Liam Neeson stomping around Europe again in another leather jacket had me looking forward to another go-round. Heck, it even has an abrupt, one-word title!


This is why the marketing people at Warner Bros. make so much money, because I’m sure there were thousands and thousands just like me who went out to see this dreck based on those same warm, fuzzy “Taken” feelings. Unfortunately, the similarities end just about there.


“Unknown” is like a combination of “Taken,” “The Bourne Identity,” and “The Fugitive”—with all the bad clich├ęs and none of the smarts and wit of those three far superior films. The story starts off quite well, with Neeson as a biologist in Berlin for a big conference who gets into a car accident and has his brain rattled (hello, Mr. Bourne). So he then tries to piece his life back together and prove he is who and what he says he is (hello, Dr. Kimble). All the while, he’s dodging shady people in dark SUVs trying to capture and/or kill him. Why on earth is this happening to him? That’s actually a very intriguing question that Neeson handles with the grace and charm you love him for.


It all starts to unravel, though, right around the time Neeson escapes his stalkers via an obligatory car chase through the streets of Berlin (not a cop car in sight!). There is no way a middle-aged scientist should be able to drive like that, and it’s the first hint all is not what it seems in “Unknown.”


Ever since “Taken” was so resoundingly embraced by conservatives for its strike-first-strike-hard-no-mercy-sir! attitude toward bad guys, I think Neeson’s been scrambling to resuscitate his liberal cred. First he said C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels weren’t strictly Christian stories (please!). And now he stars in a movie where a poor, plucky, working-two-jobs-to-get-by illegal immigrant plays a critical heroic role, all the while an American government/big business complex tries to steal an agricultural development that would, of course, feed the poor around the globe for free. Can't have that! Give me a break. It’s all so stereotypical, unoriginal, and, worst of all, boring.


It’s no surprise that “Unknown” veers dramatically off course as soon as these ideological elements begin to make themselves clear. The third act is so stupid—with dialogue to match (this movie even makes January Jones sound terrible)—people in my screening were laughing. And not in a good way. I just rolled my eyes and got the heck out of there.


At least I’ll always have “Taken.” Maybe I’ll go watch that again to get the taste of this disaster out of my mouth.


Grade: D+

Saturday, February 19, 2011

'This Is Where the Fun Begins': The Avett Brothers, Live in D.C., 2.18.11

Sunday night’s Grammy performance was a big one for The Avett Brothers, perhaps the most important five minutes of their career. Paired with Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons, these good ol’ boys from North Carolina were one of the most buzzed-about groups both before and after the show aired, exposing them to millions and millions of people who I’m sure had never heard their brand of bluegrass/folk/country/punk/rock before. Even Tony Kornheiser gave them a shoutout on his TV show, “Pardon the Interruption.”


They didn’t directly address the Grammys during their show Friday night at D.C.’s soldout Constitution Hall (their first gig since), but they let their songs do the talking. I believe it is absolutely no accident they opened with “Murder in the City,” a gorgeous ballad off 2007’s “The Second Gleam” EP that features just Scott and Seth Avett, one guitar, one mic, and one spotlight. The key line goes like this:


A tear fell from my father’s eyes

I wondered what my dad would say

He said, “I love you and I’m proud of you both

In so many different ways.”


So, yeah, it’s only two minutes into a nearly two-hour show, and I already have goosebumps. There would be more.



The Avetts certainly show no signs of folding under the pressure of their burgeoning fame. Friday’s show sold out long before the Grammys, and Constitution Hall is the largest D.C. venue the brothers have headlined to this point. Their sound and stage presence is so assured, they definitely did not seem undersized for the room. The big, full-band moments exploded off the stage, while the quiet numbers were captivating.


The key, I think, is how authentic and genuine they are as they go about their business. These songs they play are too intense—be that intensely emotional or intensely fun—to just go through the motions. And it’s not like this is some outsized rock outfit that can rely on squalling guitars for support: They go up there with an acoustic guitar, banjo, cello, stand-up bass, and occasional drumkit and piano and just let fly. At the end of “Kick Drum Heart,” for example, Seth did something I’ve never seen before: to punctuate the heartbeat drum cadence at the end of the song, he walked back to their stage drape and started hitting it in time with the kick drum, causing the whole thing to flutter like a heartbeat. At another point he climbed on top of their gear boxes at stage right—almost into the laps of the people in the box seats—to lead a crowd singalong. As is his practice, meanwhile, Scott broke a banjo string rather early in the show (see start of "Paranoia" video below).


I’ve only been listening to The Avett Brothers for a year or so. Their catalog is so deep I haven’t had the time to explore it all and know every song from the first chord, like I do with my favorite bands (that will change, though, after this show). But their songs are the kind that feel like best friends by the end, even if you’ve never heard them before. Their music is one big open invitation to come join the family. They played three unreleased cuts Saturday night, and the best for me was easily “Open-Ended Life,” a wide-open rocker that’s one of the most straightforward uptempo songs they’ve ever written. This must be on their next album.


I guess they’re still technically touring off their breakthrough album, 2009’s “I and Love and You,” but you’d never know it by the setlist, which reached as far back as “November Blue” from their first full-length album, 2002’s “Country Was.” Every album had at least one representative at the party, most notably 2007’s “Emotionalism.”


That record’s “Paranoia in Bb Major” was one of my favorites of the night. Again, I believe this song was intentionally selected with the Grammys in mind, due to this utterly appropriate verse:


I’ve found myself in

A place that I’ve never been

A place that I thought that I would never be

These people looking back at me


Cue 3,700 voices raised in a unified cheer. More goosebumps.



The two showstoppers of the night, however, were probably their two best-known songs. “I and Love and You” was the perfect way to close the main set, as that song builds to a huge crescendo and then ends with a massive a capella singalong. And then there's “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise.”


This is the song they played Sunday at the Grammys, and I thought it was a poor choice. Following Mumford & Sons’ intense intro, the Avetts pushed “Doubt” too far to try and match (or perhaps it was just nerves). Back in the friendly confines of their own show, though, they played it with just the right mixture of strength and tenderness. What I love so much about this track is how everyone on it shines: when it hits that final glorious chorus, the entire band is at full power, and the heady brew they stir up is exactly right for whatever room they’re playing. If The Avett Brothers have written a better song, I haven’t heard it yet.


The show wasn’t perfect, but that had nothing to do with the band and everything to do with the venue. Constitution Hall is a horrible place to see a concert. The sound is often muddy and difficult to mix (Scott’s banjo was lost early in the show and the bass was up way too high). The seats are so close together on the floor it’s almost impossible to move and dance around with any genuine fervor. And the room’s just big enough to let in the tourists, yet small enough that those same morons can shout obnoxious things during quiet moments (quiet songs included!) and still be heard clearly. Can someone just go build a 9:30 Club that’s about three times the size of the original?


That said, the Avetts’ abundant joy easily overcame these shortcomings. Theirs is the type of show where you clap your hands until they’re red and sore … and then just keep clapping some more.



The Avett Brothers

Constitution Hall

Washington, D.C.

2.18.11


Murder in the City

Salina

Kick Drum Heart

Down with the Shine

Pretty Girl from Cedar Lane

January Wedding

Paranoia in Bb Major

Slight Figure of Speech

NYE Song

Will You Return

I Killed Sally’s Lover

Colorshow

Sanguine

Bella Donna

Shame

Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise

Open-Ended Life

November Blue

Go to Sleep

I and Love and You


ENCORE

And It Spread

Distraction #74

Talk on Indolence


Show Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Sunday, February 06, 2011

‘And Now A Thousand Years Between’: Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, Live in D.C., 2.1.11

So there he was, one of the legendary hedonistic rock stars of all time, standing at the front of the stage bathed in red light, singing about Satan. Only now, Robert Plant is performing a song about Satan’s destruction.


What a strange and wonderful career Plant has had—certainly the most productive and fulfilling of any of his former Led Zeppelin bandmates. He’s changed his sound effortlessly over the years to suit his ever-curious musical inclinations. At 62, Plant has found yet another muse in America’s traditional music, the stuff of Tennessee mountains and Mississippi riverbeds. It started in 2007 with his unlikely but sublime pairing with Alison Krauss, and continues today with his own Band of Joy, an all-American all-star cast.


Plant brought the Band of Joy to D.C. Tuesday night for an intimate gathering (for him, anyway) at Constitution Hall. The nearly two-hour set was a countrified showcase of Plant’s entire career, from his work with Zeppelin through his solo stuff and, of course, several selections from his excellent new release, 2010’s eponymous “Band of Joy.”


The Band was more rambunctious than Plant’s last time in the D.C. area with Krauss and T-Bone Burnett, but not as much as I expected. Plant kept himself in check for much of the night, only occasionally letting rip with his Golden God howl (which is still in fine form). He was clearly pleased to be onstage with the likes of Buddy Miller (lead guitar/vocals) and Patty Griffin (vocals), as he meshed with instead of sang over them. In fact, some of the best songs of the night came when Plant moved to the back of the stage and let his bandmates take the lead, most notably a wonderful version of “Satisfied Mind” with multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott out front. Plant’s harmonica work on Miller’s bluesy “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” was fun, as well.


Though Plant didn’t choose my two favorite songs off “Band of Joy” for this particular night (“The Only Sound That Matters” and “Central Two-O-Nine”), he still showcased why this latest effort really is such a joy. Highlights included the silky smooth “Harm’s Swift Way,” the slow burn of “Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday,” and “House of Cards,” which ends with Plant, Griffin, and Miller harmonizing at full throat.


Plant chose three songs from his solo career; two of them—“In the Mood” and “Tall Cool One”—were fantastic, while “Down to the Sea” was just OK and killed a bit of the momentum early in the show. “In the Mood” was slowed down to an elegiac chant, while “Tall Cool One” brought all the flair you’d expect.


But, let’s be clear here, the best selections of the night were, of course, the Zeppelin tracks, all of them reworked into classic Americana.


The show opened with a stripped-bare version of “Black Dog” similar to the one Plant revamped for his shows with Krauss, with perhaps a half-step up in intensity. “Tangerine” was as beautiful as you’d hope it would be, while the Band allowed Plant to embrace the folk roots of “Ramble On” and “Gallows Pole” with more strength than their original incarnations. “Rock and Roll,” meanwhile, was transformed into a honky-tonk juke joint stomper. And Plant made my night by including a verse from “In My Time of Dying” into his medley of spirituals with Patty Griffin.


My favorite Zep track of them all, though, was a total surprise: “Houses of the Holy” has never been one of my upper-tier songs, but Plant’s rootsy reworking of it with the Band of Joy turns it into a masterpiece. He slows it down and allows Miller to give it a pure country ballad flair that builds into a spectacular final minute where the Band really kicks in and lets loose, spurring one of Plant’s most impassioned performances of the show. It’s wonderful stuff, and I encourage you to check it out below:



It seems to be fashionable in the blogosphere these days to undermine Plant’s work with Krauss, but you’ll never hear that from me. I missed her presence at this show, even if it did allow Plant to expand his horizons even further. But I continue to watch in amazement at the transition Plant’s made these past few years. He’s experiencing a career resurgence the likes of which most artists his age could never dream of. He could go out and make a bazillion dollars touring with Led Zeppelin, but instead he’s content and excited to play challenging little shows in venues like Constitution Hall.


The magic didn’t last with Krauss, which saddens me. Here’s hoping Plant can keep this Band of Joy together for awhile, because if Tuesday’s concert is any indication, they have a lot of potential left to explore.



Robert Plant and the Band of Joy

D.A.R. Constitution Hall

Washington, D.C.

2.1.11


MAIN SET

Black Dog

Down to the Sea

Angel Dance

Houses of the Holy

Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down

Move Up (Patty Griffin)

Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday

12 Gates to the City/Wade in the Water (Griffin)/In My Time of Dying

Satisfied Mind (Darrell Scott)

Tangerine

Harm’s Swift Way

House of Cards

Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go (Buddy Miller)

Monkey

You Can’t Buy My Love

Ramble On

Tall Cool One

Gallows Pole


ENCORE

In the Mood

Rock and Roll

And We Bid You Goodnight


Show Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes