Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review: Catfish

It's hard to talk about a movie like Catfish without getting into spoilers. Documentaries come in many flavors, but a well-crafted one can be as thrilling and affecting as any big budget film. The most fascinating tend to take on a life of their own, stemming from a seed of an idea and blossoming beyond anything the filmmakers could have anticipated. Catfish aspires to be one of those movies, but is unable to capitalize on a fantastic story and becoming frustrating and laborious when it should be satisfying.

Catfish centers around a New York City photographer Nev Schulmann, a young man who strikes up an interesting friendship with 8-year-old Abby from Michigan after she sends him a painting she made after seeing one of his photographs. As they begin to foster a friendship, other characters become embroiled in the story, including Abby's mother Angela and Abby's older sister Megan. What began innocently becomes complex when Nev develops feelings for Meghan and resolves to pay the family a surprise visit on his way home from a Colorado dance convention. Needless to say, things are not as they seem.

I won't get into the twists and turns of the final third of the film, but suffice to say that there are some revelations that would make M. Night Shyamalan blush. Twists aside, this is where the film began to lose my attention and my patience, not good for a film that clocks in under 90 minutes. Moreso than any other genre of film, Documentaries carry with them a risk of distorting or infusing the story with opinions when they should remain impartial and let the story tell itself. The situation becomes even more precarious when the filmmakers themselves become characters in the documentary and are controlling the arc. Their every action has to be taken with a grain of salt and you can't help but ask if they are doing the things they do for a good story or their brother's well-being? At the same time, when a filmmaker takes the bold step to insert themselves into the story, they can't expect to be a fly on the wall and revert back to being a silent observer. Catfish tries to have it both ways and fails on this account.

Throughout the film, the directors interact with Nev, encouraging him to pursue things with Megan offering advice and counsel, while documenting every minute of it. When the film moves to Michigan, they tag along and outfit Nev with hidden microphones and stake out the scene from their car. But when the twists are revealed and the film strikes a different tone, they are nowhere to be found. When the climactic scenes are begging for a voice of reason or a critical eye to drive home a larger message, they make no effort to push the story to a conclusion or even hold people accountable. You didn't film hours of footage and spend months of your lives on this film to take a knee in the last scene. What could have been a powerful commentary on internet relationships and human nature instead settles for a sloppy music montage and a few lines of text to tie things together.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lord Lord Lord

It sounds silly to say that Kanye West has reclaimed everything he was before 808s and Heartbreaks nudged him into avant-garde territory and the Taylor Swift fiasco pushed him out of the pop lexicon altogether, but it's true. It feels cheap to compare him to someone like Robert Downey Jr or Michael Vick, men who were at the top of their respective games and suffered a precipitous fall from grace. He didn't really "do" anything. Being an asshole isn't really a prosecutable offense, but prosecuted he was. In the aftermath of the Swift episode, his name was mud (or "jackass" if you're President Obama). No one was interested in what precipitated the outburst, it was easier just to write him off and watch him burn. Well, if there's anything we enjoy more than our celebrities in the US, it's a good redemption story.

Well months went by, and we heard nary a peep from Mr. West. Maybe he was hoping he could bide his time and introduce himself again to a public with a notoriously short memory. Whatever the case may be, he released "Power" in May and immediately seized the throne that had remained vacant in his absence. The strength of "Power" alone would probably have been enough to catalyze a redemptive Rolling Stone article, but Kanye had other plans. He unveiled plans to release a new song every Friday for through December. Not a remix, not alternate versions, no half-baked incomplete pieces. New fully-realized songs every week. The first G.O.O.D. Friday song was the spectacular "Monster", featuring appearances from Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and hipster darling Bon Iver. True to his word, G.O.O.D. Fridays became a holiday for music fans, with Kanye offering a glimpse into his dazzling Rolodex on a weekly basis. At a time when some of the biggest names in music lamented the death of the LP and publicly worried where the medium was headed, Kanye not only made music exciting and buzz-worthy again, but did it for free.

Well if an album's worth of free music wasn't enough for you, Kanye had a little bit more up his sleeve last night. Not exactly a 35 minute music video as much as it was a cinematic event directed by Mr. West and simulcast on VH1, MTV and BET during prime time. "Runaway" is nearly dialogue-free story of a beautiful phoenix who crash-lands on earth and is rescued by West, featuring several unreleased songs off his forthcoming album. Sounds cheeky, it's not. It is gorgeously shot, beautifully scored and impressively realized. There are less than subtle parallels to West's own fall, but it resists heavy-handed melodrama, no small feat for a film with a 9-minute, meticulously choreographed ballerina sequence smack-dab in the middle of it. Kanye is hemorrhaging creative energy these days, maybe because the past year has shown him how quickly it can all evaporate, but it's been something else to witness.

My Favorite G.O.O.D. Friday song "Christian Dior Denim Flow"

"Runaway" film - "Clean" Version

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Repeat: Warpaint - Undertow


My name is Michael Dunn and it's been 8 days since my last blog post. Not that it's something I need to confess, or that I've been consciously not blogging, it's just that I haven't found the time. But gee willikers is there a lot to tell you. I ran the Boston Half Marathon in 1:37 (please hold your applause until the end), I took a massive Pathophysiology exam Tuesday night, I nearly won a Pumpkin Cook-off (stay tuned for the blog post), and I have become the proud owner of a real, respectable, fully functional (?) beard. Well, complete with mustache and minus that little part on my left cheek from where my parents must have branded me when I was 2. Now that you feel caught up on my life, let's get to the meat and potatoes of this blog, eh? Over the last year (!!! seriously, blog started Oct. 5, 2009. I probably should have blogged about that (META)), you've surely become accustomed to my writing style (I like to think it's TS Eliot meets Cormac McCarthy), and my tastes (overwhelmingly good), but personally, it's been interesting to read over some early blog entries and see how things have evolved. If any of you have ever done something substantial over a long period of time (doubt it), you can probably relate. It's kind of like when I found my Trapper Keeper diary when I was 16 and re-lived 2nd grade. On that note: if you think my handwriting is bad now, just IMAGINE me at 7 years old. I do want to take this opportunity to thank everyone for reading this blog, and for your support, be it in the form of an even snarkier comment or just by admitting that you read it. As evidenced by my beard, I've grown up a lot this year, and I'm glad you were along for the ride. Now back to the show:

I don't usually like female rock vocalists (except for Karen O, but she doesn't count), and have an  ESPECIALLY short attention span with ALL-GIRL groups that aren't doo-wopping or named Destiny's Child (GET BACK TOGETHER LADIES!). So imagine my response when I first got wind of Warpaint, the all-girl quartet (I don't know where the other one is the above photo. Taking the photo perhaps?) from Los Angeles. No thank you. But miraculously, the god's conspired to change my mind and it wasn't long before Undertow trickled out of my radio speakers one afternoon, and I was positively smitten. It's hard to say exactly what makes them so darn enchanting. Maybe it's the multi-part harmonies you just don't hear anymore these days, maybe it's those eerie disembodied vocals or the slippery bass lick. They are just good, and that's that. Take a listen, won't you?


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On Repeat: John Cage - 4' 33"

In the classical music community, John Cage was by all accounts a rock star, and 4' 33" is his Freebird. He dabbled in philosophy, printmaking, mycology and poetry before dying in 1992, but he would never achieve more recognition than he did in the aftermath of his 1952 maiden performance of this composition. Cage has rightly called it the "most important work" of his career, and its shockwaves can still be felt today.

While accessible enough for even the most unrefined ear, 4' 33" finds its strength in this simplicity, wholly offering itself to its listeners; at the mercy of their interpretation and preconceptions. Personally, it's my go-to music when I've exhausted my Zune catalogue. I often listen to it before bed, and sometimes on the way to work. I listen to it when I try to study, and when I ride the bus to class. It works everywhere because it is everything. Regarding classical music, it's been said that no two performances of a piece are ever the same, which to many fans is part of the allure. Not necessarily that a note will be sharp in one and flat in another, but that every variable experiences some sort of shift, whether it be acoustics, or pacing, or the length of the coda. 4' 33" is the epitome of this phenomenon, and in many ways, even larger than it, possessing the uncanny ability to be transformed by the mood of its listener and the audience at-large.

In an era where pop music is a thinly-veiled game of one-upmanship, it's refreshing to hear from someone who is utterly unconcerned with what is popular and challenges us consider the very foundations of music.

A performance of 4' 33"

Cage speaking about the piece

Monday, October 11, 2010

Review: Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

It's hard to feel bad for Sufjan Stevens. Some artists are pigeon-holed by overzealous blogs or their unique sound, others dig their own grave by revealing a 50-States-Project, wherein they aspire to write an album for every state in the union. I think you can guess in which category Sufjan falls. While he put himself in this situation, there are worse things than receiving reams of fan-mail begging you to do your next album on their state. I only write this preface because since 2005's Come On Feel The Illinoise!, it was widely assumed that Stevens had "Chappelle'd" out via some nervous breakdown, frustration, or some combination of the two. Bizarre project The BQE (about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, of course) notwithstanding, it had been 5 years since Sufjan had made a peep, before he discretely released his All Delighted People EP in August. The "EP" was classic Sufjan, clocking in at just under 60 minutes and featured two versions of the titular "All Delighted People" and closing with the 17-minute "Djohariah". The EP may have satisfied those who pined for any scrap of the Sufjan responsible for 53-word song titles, but rather, it was the swan song of the indulgent, obtuse Sufjan.

The Age of Adz has been deceptively billed as Sufjan's "electronic" album, and though he uses many industrial sounds and loops, I would argue that Adz features some of his most personal and beautiful work to date. He treads a very fine line here, darting between the bloops and squelches of his new tools and the harps and fluttering woodwinds he is familiar with. What keeps the songs from being jarring or discordant is Sufjan's confident voice, having evolved from a shaky whisper to a Thom-Yorke yowl on "I Want To Be Well". This versatility is impressive from a man whose earlier songs had deferred to a choir or a instrumental flourish for gravitas.

Lyrically, the songs on The Age of Adz come from another place than the sterile (though affecting) history lessons of Illinois and Michigan. There are more personal pronouns in The Age of Adz than there are in Sufjan's entire discography. Each song paints a conflicted and flawed man, one fraught with regret but also struggling to become a better man. In the astonishing "Vesuvius", he goes one step further, singing "Sufjan, follow your heart/follow the flame/or fall on the floor", something he (or anyone else for that matter), wouldn't dream of doing. It is especially stirring because Stevens used to revel in ambiguity, even in his most personal songs.

This transformative album would all be for naught if it didn't take us somewhere. Album closer "Impossible Soul" is a brisk 25-minutes, and winds and twists through every nook of the album, flushing out every trick and theme he touched on earlier. An electric guitar squiggle, celestial blinks, trumpets, evolve into a piano and an autotuned segment. After these diversions are satiated, a true chorus rises like a distant sunrise. "It's a long life/better pinch yourself/get your face together/better stand up straight" is repeated over and over until your irony sensors threaten to go off. Just as you begin to feel duped, cheated and otherwise betrayed by the preceding 70 minutes, the choir finally exclaims "It's not so impossible!" and everything falls back into place. After witnessing Sufjan dig himself out of his hole, they may have a point.

The whole album is currently available for streaming on NPR. Click here to listen.


Friday, October 8, 2010


I read a lot of blogs. Well, Google Reader helps me read a lot of blogs, but that's a topic for another day. Most of the blogs I read center around really nifty things that I lust about until I a) find a good deal and break down and buy it, b) it is within two months of my birthday/Christmas and I can make someone else buy it for me, C) I find something cooler to usurp it in my prefrontal lobes. Here are a few things that I haven't bought but are on my SOMEONEPLEASEBUYMETHIS List. Today's episode. Kitchen Gadgetry.

1. Hand Blender

I don't know how much this would help me in the kitchen, but that's part of the allure actually. I hate blenders, and food processors are a major P in the A to clean and take apart and expensive to boot. A hand blender is the perfect alternative. It makes any container a blender. You can make drinks, sauces, soups, any number of things faster than you can say "Who the fuck hid the top of the blender?". My sister works at a kitchen store and I will be asking for one of these under the tree.

2. Bobble 

They look like something Astronauts would keep their space Gatorade in, but they work any gravitational field. The Bobble is a water bottle with a filtration system attached to the spout that filters water directly into your mouth. I'm sure most of you are screaming that "there's nothing wrong with tap water" and to you I say 3 things. First, there is a 30 year age limit on this blog Dad. Second, sometimes even though the water is perfectly safe it still tastes funny. Remember that time when all the water was contaminated with Poo??!? This would have been mighty handy! No? And third, it's a lot better than drinking bottled water all the live long day.  

3. Rice Cooker

Roger Ebert has been singing the praises of rice cookers for decades, (he even wrote a rice cooker cookbook!) and if there's anyone whose opinion I trust unflinchingly, it's Roger Ebert. He claims that it makes absolutely flawless rice that will make you salivate, even if you don't like rice or have salivary glands. I'm not a huge rice fan, but I would like to see what all the fuss is about. He also claims you can make all kinds of other goodies (soups, oatmeals, etc) too, which is good, because I versatile things.

4. Nice knife set (but will settle for nice Santoku knife).

SS has instilled in me the virtues of a nice sharp knife. I don't claim to be a knife expert, or even that I know how to use a knife properly, but I do know that the $8 knife that I bought from TJ Maxx should be able to cut a tomato without smushing it. I promise I will stop putting knifes in the dishwasher if I can have a nice knife. It doesn't have to be super expensive (CMM almost plopped $350 on this 6-piece Shun set on Woot yesterday (don't tell Deirdra)) it just needs to cut things quickly and consistently. I feel like an adult after that sentence.

5. Meat Thermometer

I'm conflicted on meat thermometers. Part of me says if you follow the recipe right and keep tabs on things you shouldn't need one. And the other part of me doesn't want to be making 20 slices into a pork tenderloin and asking everyone what color pork should be and what color these "juices" are "running". If you've ever consumed something undercooked, you probably understand that it is a dangerous game of Russian Roulette. Everyone is hypersensitive following the meal, listening mindfully for the first sign of food poisoning or gastrointestinal distress. And once one person feels "icky", you know it's a ticking time bomb for the rest of  you. Actually, I just convinced myself, I should really get one of these.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Old Song Review: Harry Nilsson - Without You

I saw a trailer for a the Harry Nilsson documentary "Who's Harry Nilsson?" a couple weeks ago, and thought the same thing. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but mostly it just stirred up textbook images of folk singers and Dylan clones. The trailer paints Nilsson as a massively influential artist (worthy enough for cred from The Beatles), but it wasn't until I tracked down "The Very Best of Harry Nilsson" that I was able to fully appreciate the swath of his influence on popular music.

Folk singer has become a bit of an insult. You think of a shaggy bearded man in a flannel shirt droning his 3 chords ad nauseum. Well, Nilsson was the original bearded folk singer, but his tools and styles were vast. As I listened to his album, I quickly discovered that he was responsible for a huge amount of songs that I love and had attributed to other artists. For example, I had no idea that he sang the original "One", the fantastic dialtone-inspired that rose to prominence after being covered by Three Dog Night and later by Aimee Mann for the Magnolia soundtrack. This song alone is enough to gain him entry to a songwriting pantheon, but he also wrote "Coconut" (you'd know it if you heard it), "Everybody's Talkin'" (from Midnight Cowboy) and the song that spurred this blog post, Without You.

If you listened to "Without You" for the first time today, you would without a doubt attribute it to Meatloaf, its cadence and build-up mirroring that of "I Would Do Anything For Love". But you would be wrong, oh so very wrong indeed. Where Meatloaf hams it up, jerking the song all over the place with faux emotion and tongue-and-cheek ambiguity, Nilsson lays it all out in song, simple verses leading to a logical chorus that still manages to surprise with turbulent vocals and inspired strings. When Nilsson reaches even deeper for the second chorus, the song transcends being a song altogether. It joins songs like "I Will Always Love You", "Nothing Compares 2 U" and "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You", that are so sincere in their ambition and affecting in their execution that you worry for the artist's sanity if things don't shape up soon.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Social Network

In recent weeks, a lot of ink has been spilled debating the accuracy of David Fincher's The Social Network, a film that attempts to tell the story behind the founding of Facebook and its meteoric rise to the 25 billion dollar company it is today. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg himself dismissed the film on Oprah last week, and the company has relentlessly tried to poke holes in Aaron Sorkin's script that he adapted from Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires. This raging debate of the facts has produced more buzz Fincher could have hoped for, and serves to reinforce the very conflict at the heart of the film. A small miracle for a film with a 50 million dollar budget and no big-name actors to bank on. I'm here to put this frivolous chatter to rest. The truth of this film is irrelevant because whether of not the Mark Zuckerberg portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg bears any resemblance to the real Mark Zuckerberg, what drives him is universal.

Computers get a bad rap in films. They are portrayed as cold, calculating hubs of wire and circuits which ruthlessly dispel protagonists with the logical precision that comes from being untethered to the human anchor of emotion. The Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network is little more than a powerful computer with some sophisticated algorithms. He codes, he dispenses resources, he performs functions. He recruits others to perform tasks he cannot do himself, whether it's providing the capital for his idea or a list with email addresses of popular students. He is gifted with a supreme understanding of the human condition, which allows what could have been a voyeuristic niche to become one of the largest companies in the world. His genius is made all the more interesting when it is contrasted with just how callous, jealous and awkward he his away from his computer. He views the world in stark logical terms, evaluating everything based on how it can get him closer to his goal. If it can, he must absorb and exploit it. If it cannot, it's not worth another thought. While some may think this makes him a monster (or at the very least an asshole), his refusal to play the social games we play to get what we want can be refreshing and exhilarating.

It is said that there is no such thing as an unselfish act. That no matter how friendly the gesture or how generous an action, there is always a egocentric motivation at its core. A man offers an elderly woman his seat on a bus? Well, wouldn't you know it but that simple act of kindness earned him a smile from a pretty girl across the aisle. A nice woman helps you change your tire on the side of the road? Now she has an excuse when her boss asks her why she missed the big meeting. Whether he was born like this or achieved this level of social indifference, to Mark Zuckerberg, we are suckers for being so coy. If only he had applied this attitude towards his social life, he could probably have been a Tucker Max clone. Instead, it seems he wanted to burrow his way into popularity and esteem by inventing a new world that he was the center of, and allowing everything else to fall in place around him.

Of course, in a world that still runs on favors and tact, this journey was not without conflict. His only friend (for reasons I can't understand) Eduardo is forced to become his PR man and CFO. He crashes and burns over dinner with a girlfriend in the opening scene that I can't fathom how he ever got past a first date with. He has a plan for Facebook that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with power and the satisfaction you can only get from succeeding where others have failed. He alienates and exploits people, decisions which will have legal repercussions but I'm not sure he would have done any differently in retrospect. All in the name of filling some mammoth hole in his psyche that feels judged and patronized under normal circumstances.

Despite what critics have been saying (it currently has 97% on Rotten Tomatoes), I don't believe The Social Network to be a masterpiece. It is an exquisitely well-crafted film, filled with razor-sharp dialogue and compelling characters. The acting is effective and characters are well-cast. Justin Timberlake is a howl as the playboy Sean Parker, Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg with a perpetually sour face and detached stare, but it is Andrew Garfield's brilliant role of Eduardo Saverin that shoulders the emotional load of this movie, and gives it heart it could stand to have a lot more of. He is the comic relief for most scenes with Zuckerberg, and the only one interested in asking the tough questions when things get out of control. Of course, his loyalty becomes his achilles heel, but it's riveting to watch.

The difference between The Social Network and There Will Be Blood, (another story of a man who categorizes humans as either "obstacle" or "tool") is that at the end of TWBB, we see Plainview in a bed of his own making, forced to come to terms of his actions and the consequences of a life devoid of compassion. At the end of The Social Network, the arc is incomplete. After 2 hours of scratching at these themes in a compelling and technically satisfying way, there's still a whole lot that feels unearthed. One day, Mark will have to reconcile being king of a digital world and a prick in the real one, but at 26, that day seems a long way off. Perhaps the filmmakers should have shelved the biopic for a time closer to his comeuppance.