Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Disgusting Rat

It's been quite a while since this blog has deviated from its traditional formula, so today I wanted to share a surreal anecdote from Sunday afternoon. SS and I had just started a short bike ride on a route of his choosing, and I was doing my best to keep up with him along the bike path*. The weather was foreboding, but the path was bustling and we were zipping our way past sidewinders and their ilk, having an all-around splendid time.**

Shortly after passing Trader Joe's, I noticed a small Gray Squirrel (Scurius Carolinensis) bounding down the trail in our lane, not more than 30 yards in front of us. As SS saw it first, he managed to gracefully swerve around it and keep going. I, in my prescient glory assumed that if I held my line, this squirrel would concede my dominance and hop on his merry way.*** Well, my friend, do not play chicken with a squirrel.

By the time I got within 20 feet of him, he was no longer moving and had instead chosen to sit on his haunches and stare at me. It was now clear that he wasn't going anywhere and I had no choice but to brake. Of course, in all this commotion I forgot I was clipped into my pedals and had to do a "desperate leg flail" to keep from falling over into the grass. When the dust settled, I had stopped LITERALLY an inch from his eyeball. An inch from his tiny snout and tinier brain. It was like a movie. This is about the time things took a turn for the bizarre.

As long as SS was the only person witnessing this rodent shaming, I was more amused than embarrassed. But this squirrel had other plans for me. As I was concerned for his well being, I took this opportunity to try and shoo him out of the path by wiggling my bike tire back and forth and tapping his arse. No response. In fact, he continued to look at me with a glint of amusement in his eye. Flabbergasted, I decided that if this squirrel had a death wish, who was I to stop him? I got off my bike, lifted it over him, and began to clip in again. At the sight of this, the squirrel instantly did a 180, ran over to my bike, and proceeded to climb in/around my spokes like a miniature jungle gym. SS was laughing further down the trail at my plight, but was more  probably more confused at this point, as it had been nearly 5 minutes since we first encountered the creature.

I managed to intimidate him off my bike with my bike shoes (no small feat), and started walking my bike down the trail at a healthy clip, hoping to get enough of a lead on him that I could clip in and get started before he climbed on again. Of course, people were running/biking all around me during this, and the squirrel was relentlessly hopping after me like Night of the Living Dead. It was emasculating, and strangely terrifying. I began to wonder if the squirrel had rabies and wanted to infect me. I inspected his gait for wobbles and his face for frothing. He seemed normal, but I didn't want to find out first hand. By the time I had gotten a good 30 feet ahead of him, I decided to clip in. Like a teenage girl trying to start her car in a horror movie, I frantically slid my foot all around my pedal trying to get it to clip in, but I was too slow. He had caught me again. This time he was even more curious than before, entangling himself in my bike chain and winding around my frame; all the while staring at me with his cold dead eyes. I had half a mind to walk my bike over to the grass and let him have his way with it and tell SS I would catch up with him later.

Rather than forever be known as the man who lost his bike to a squirrel, I decided to shake the squirrel off one final time and make a run for it. After I pried his little paws off, I ran my bike down the path until I was a hundred feet away from him (he was running again at this point), felt the hearty snap of my shoes in the pedals, and left him in my dust. I asked SS if we could take another route home because I didn't want to deal with him again, or more likely, discover his freshly killed body. If the events that just transpired were any indication, an animal that dumb did not have long left on this fair earth.

Miraculously, we biked out and back without incident and saw no sign of him as we passed the spot again. I theorize that he shacked up with the Albino Squirrel and they are grooming an albino army to take back the bike trail.

* I'm convinced there is something wrong with my bike or my bike shoes or my helmet or something other than me because I cannot keep up with SS whatsoever. He has acknowledged (probably for my pride) that I can make mincemeat out of him on a run.

**As far as "social" exercising goes, I greatly prefer trying to hold a conversation while running over biking. In fact, the only athletic activity harder to converse during is swimming and that's debatable.

***I was once told a horror story from a reputable source that involved someone biking over a squirrel only to have it get tangled up in his chain, causing him to fall over his handlebars and become a paraplegic.****


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On Repeat: Tennis - Marathon

Sometimes you hear a song once and love it instantly. Such is the case with Denver husband/wife duo Tennis when I heard their debut single "Marathon" a few weeks ago. Girl-group snaps, a burbling organ and a beautiful female voice are briefly ambushed by electric whirs and a snare drum, before relenting for a second verse. They manage to coexist for the 2nd half of the song, somehow reinforcing the personality and adding swagger. Tennis seems to understand that simplicity and melody are important, but there's still room for things to get a little messy if you play your cards right. By proving their merit with the initial melody, they earn themselves the right to tease other sounds and spice things up, so long as they compliment what's already there. More bands need to understand this dichotomy. It doesn't take much to please a listener, and once you have them hooked, they'll follow you anywhere. Just ask Lady Gaga.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Review: Inception

For those who found the visuals of Avatar arresting but the plot flimsy, your wait for a thoroughly satisfying big budget film is over. Fittingly, it comes courtesy of Christopher Nolan who was responsible for the last critically acclaimed summer blockbuster (The Dark Knight). Inception finds him positioning his camera inside dreams, using this foundation as a limitless springboard for action sequences that defy traditional rules and questions that focus their sights on the very nature of happiness and humanity.

In his review, Roger Ebert called Inception "immune to spoilers", citing that the film is not about snippets of plot or twists, but more a product of the journey it takes. Some shards of plot are planted in our subconscious early in the film, only to achieve a new context when their meaning is revealed later on. Other crumbs of plot are unsettling or unintelligible and we are forced to trust Nolan that this will all make sense. Many films revel in ambiguity, often to a fault, relying on their audience to piece together strings of plot independently without any sort of reinforcement that they are on the right track. With Inception, Nolan very nearly goes the other way with it, using the first hour of the film as a glorified tutorial session featuring Dicaprio's Cobb (the "Extractor") tutoring a new "Architect", Ariadne (Ellen Page). Dreams are tricky business, and it stands to reason that there are some rules that need to be made clear before one goes mucking around in other people's minds, but one can't help but wonder if Nolan could have taken a page out of Hitchcock's book of "show don't tell." With that being said, these training sessions lend themselves to some of the most jaw-dropping visuals of the film, speaking to the awesome power of dreams when you can control your mind.

The central conflict of Inception involves the "planting" of an idea into an unwitting victim. Cobb and his team typically do just the opposite, hijacking the subconscious to remove critical information for their clients. His team deems it impossible, but Cobb has an added incentive to make it happen; being reunited with his children. The hiring of his team to enter the dreams of a young heir seems a bit awkward as a plot piece, as does the tagging along of the client Saito (Ken Watanabe) through the adventure. Perhaps if the Inception was done to a Judge or politician with the power to help Cobb reunite with his children with the stroke of a pen, the sense of urgency would have been more realistic. I suppose it would have been harder for him to recruit a team to risk their lives if there wasn't a hefty financial incentive, but the whole set-up of the Inception seemed a bit too convenient.

Regardless of how I felt about the introduction, the final 90 minutes of the film is an incredible ride that careens from perfectly timed event to perfectly timed event, keeping you paralyzed in your seat much in the same way The Dark Knight was able to do with many of The Joker's scenes and action sequences. While the Dark Knight became bogged down in philosophy towards the end, the stakes in Inception are such that you have no time to wax poetic about what you are seeing. There are frequent cuts between different scenes all playing out simultaneously to every character to the point where the term "meta" is insufficient. Once Nolan establishes the rules of his world, you have no choice but to try and keep up, because everything will be on the final.

Nolan's dreamscapes are much like the hidden memories of Joel Barish in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind. Subconscious feelings and unrelated materials cannot be denied during sleep and frequently invade where they do not belong. In Eternal Sunshine, this led to visuals of things shrinking out of sight or merging with other memories. In Inception, Nolan employs an "architect" whose job is to make sure the dreams themselves are as vivid and realistic as possible. I'm sure people were clamoring for more trippy dream visuals, but with such a complicated plot, you're going to have to settle for crumbling buildings and anti-gravity brawls. That's not to say there is a lack of innovation here (far from it, thematically and visually).

While some of the emotional heft of the narrative threatens to shake us out of the thrilling action scenes that sandwich it, the final scenes make the subplot worthwhile and serve as one of the more fitting final frames in recent memory. So rare are the films that manage engage the viewer on this many levels, that Nolan has earned the rare distinction in Hollywood for which budget and script should be of no concern. Give him the tools he needs, and get out of the way.  

Thursday, July 22, 2010

This Dashing Canadian Celebrates 70 Years today.

A. Who Is Alex Trebek?

Here's to another 70 Alex. And then another 70 after that hosted by your reanimated cyborg corpse.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Gadget Lust: Panasonic Lumix LX5

What a beautiful chunk of metal and glass. This is the logical sequel to 2008's LX3, Panasonic's venture into the world of high-end Point and Shoot cameras. As Point and Shoot cameras continue to pack features that rival an SLR in a smaller and cheaper package, I think you'll find fewer and fewer people splurging for a $2,000 SLR when they can save $1500 and get one of these without sacrificing much. The most interesting thing about this camera is that it signals an end to the Megapixel war; the inane pissing match between Camera manufacturers that involved them slapping a few extra megapixels on every new camera iteration rather than making any improvement to the guts. The LX5 has only 10 megapixels (the same number it has had for the last 3 models), but has made vast improvements under the hood. New Leica lens, new screen, improved battery life, wider angle lens, faster shutter speed, higher ISO. All significant advances that actually improve image quality, rather than stuffing more pixels into a dark, blurry photo.

I used to be a big Canon fan, until I resolved to find a camera with three criteria that Canon couldn't offer (at the time). Optical Image Stabilization, HD Video, High Optical Zoom lens. Canon had a few offerings, but none of them could compare to the Panasonic TZ5 that I ended up buying and love as much as man can reasonably love an inanimate object.

Nowadays there are newer versions of the camera as well as Panasonic's most recent entry into the Micro Four Thirds arena, the drool-worthy GF1. At $600-800, this SLR is probably the first thing I would buy if I won the lottery. Well, the GF1 and these.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Review: Best Coast - Crazy For You

1. Want (26)
2. End (24)
3. Just (23)
4. Miss (20)
5. Love (19)
6. Ooh (16)
7. La (16)
8. Crazy (16)

Above are the results of processing the Best Coast's lyrics through a word counter. Over 31 minutes and 13 tracks, they are the most prevalent words and a thorough synopsis of the subject matter on "Crazy For You". Every song serves to further gray the line between love balladry and stalker anthem, but by the end I'm reasonably sure I'm terrified of Bethany Cosentino (lead singer/lyricist). 

While the breezy tracks of her early EPs and singles buried her summery voice under fuzz and reverb, the lyrics that you could make out embraced this philosophy, spreading the beach-warmed melodies and simplicity. With "Crazy For You", her voice is cleaner and the production brighter, but the lyrics reflect something deeper beneath the waves. 

Perhaps the most unsettling part of the album is that it's nearly impossible to tell who she is pining for. Like a lustful teenager, the songs find her caterwauling "All I do is think about you all of the time" and "Every time you leave this house, everything falls apart", painting scenes of her as Betty Draper, thoroughly helpless and counting the minutes until her husband walks in the door and her world can begin to spin again. Other songs have her conceding "Maybe I'm just crazy" and "I want to kill you but I'd miss you", casting a Kathy-Bates-in-Misery shaped cloud over everything and you begin to wonder if the subject of these songs even exists. 

It would be easy to dismiss on these accounts, but the lyrics notwithstanding, there is some really great Beach Boy channeling going on here. Lead single "Boyfriend" bolsters a wholesome love song with charming background Ooh's and Aah's and a guitar riff that would make Dick Dale proud. Likewise, "Bratty B" finds Cosentino finding her inner girl-group, with a chorus that begs for hand claps and hip-swaying. Despite an exceedingly simple formula, Best Coast spans several genres, not afraid to go to darker places or slow things down when the song calls for it.
Truth be told, the album as a whole is light enough and catchy enough to overlook the disconcerting parts and enjoy the album for what it is; a collection of love letters fed through a Motown-era reverb machine. I just hope her boyfriend can finagle a spot in the witness protection program should he ever decide pull the plug. 

Monday, July 19, 2010

On Repeat: Shad - Rose Garden

Who'd've thought Canada was the next hip-hop stronghold? With Drake beyond huge, it's only fitting that people take a closer look at what Canada has to offer. If Shad is what's hiding up in the Great White North, Jive records should be swarming Ontario. Shad (real name Shadrach Kabango) hails from London, Ontario by way of Kenya. He's one of those hyper-literate rappers who pummels you with obscure references and wordplay that dares you to hit pause every 15 seconds to try and keep up. More than simply being a know-it-all, Shad isn't one to shy away from controversy or touchy subjects, having addressed Rwandan genocide and the Bible on recent albums. His newest single "Rose Garden" is none of the above.

Re-cutting a vague country sample and repositioning it as his chorus, Shad fuses Motown and big band production, skittering a brass section and a hodgepodge of other instrumentation behind his textbook verses. If the initial sample wasn't seductive enough, the true chorus slows matters down a bit and allows Shad (and us) to catch our breath. It's the next verse that Shad displays what makes him such a singular talent.

"I'm not in the zone, there's too much in the way
I weigh two bucks and if I had two slugs to spray like: RAH RAH,
Glenn Beck better duck like Foie Gras
Make shots poke his face like Gaga,
But mama says forgive,
So I'll give him that bar like a Mars and let him live.

The missing saga continues, ranting
While my DJ's lamping like Green Lantern, sampling
Mansions? Nah, I ain't rich as Richard Branson
I'm King Kong meets Vince Vaughn and I play like a champion
In my Monday ball league? Nah B, all week
Seven days of black power naps every forty eight half hours
That's twenty four star Jack Bauer
Can't cower when the rain falls
And it falls whether you're Gandhi or you're Adolf"

More than just simple name-dropping and pop-culture references, there's mature anger here playing amongst the chest pounding and soap-boxing. Too many rappers use a nifty reference to round out a verse or to elicit a chuckle and cast them aside. Shad is more intuitive than that; wrapping his larger message in a blanket of pop culture and puns. More rap needs a message behind it. That it happens to be great and unfathomably catchy is just gravy. The music video is awesome too, check it out below.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Top 10

The middle of the summer is as good a time as any to take a breather and take stock of things. Things like music. I mentioned that I haven't seen many movies lately (mostly because all the best films tend to wait for Oscar season), but great music waits for no man. We are barely halfway through the year and I've already agonized over narrowing a long list down to my favorite ten albums and ten songs of the year so far. Here they are, complete with links to my reviews of them, if applicable.


Wavves - King of the Beach
Yeasayer - Odd Blood
The Love Language - Libraries


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review: Notoriety - The J.A.M.

Mixtapes are all about momentum. It's not uncommon to have over twenty tracks on one, not to mention skits and interludes that can push the whole thing into double LP territory. With over an hour of music, quality control becomes critical. With their follow-up to The Toast EP of from February, Notoriety has released another 19 songs to prove the energy and enthusiasm of their debut was more than lightning in a bottle.

Opening with a spoken word piece that works much better than it has any right to, Notoriety chooses a fantastic lead off beat. From the very first bar, it becomes clear that the group has evolved. The wordplay and the cadence of the rhymes are improved across the board, keeping perfectly in line with the rhythm of the Motown vocals and brass arrangements and allowing momentum to build and carry from track to track. The opening songs are also much more personal that anything on The Toast, bubbling with personality and details, a refreshing change of pace from the traditional money/drugs/women fodder. That's not to say that the wordplay has been compromised or that the swagger is gone, it's simply that these songs feel fully realized from start to finish.

I've never understood them, but as far as skits go, the ones here aren't terrible and serve to reinforce my previous point that the album as a whole feels more personal than the last, which is good, provided you have something interesting to say. Through the first 5 songs, Notoriety is firing on all cylinders. Vydle Sinez conjures an electric opening verse on Can't Stop Now, Just Rite deftly dances around the beat on Spoken Word and Incredible Chuck has a fantastic flow and wordplay on his Crowded Bus verse and an even better chorus.

With so much momentum behind them, Ghosts of Parties Past nearly fetters it all away. Party songs are hard to resist on a mixtape, but are well-worn territory and need a great beat and energy to truly work. The muzak trumpet production and Chuck's chorus sound tired and too smooth for a party song, sapping the energy from the verses and becoming repetitive by the end. Feelin' Alright recaptures some of this magic, but the next few  tracks are uneven and suffer from trying to shoehorn in a chorus from Chuck when the song doesn't need it or would be better served by simply using a sample or having some sort of back-up singers to give him some volume and depth. Not every song needs to follow the Verse/Chorus/Verse formula, and sometimes these choruses slow the song down too much. The Toast was successful because it was about rapping first and foremost, and if/when choruses arose, it felt natural.

They shake out of this funk with When I Was Young which brilliantly samples "Cowboys to Girls" by The Intruders. It's the perfect example of a balanced song. The sample pushes the song along and offers a great beat for the group to play on. No chorus necessary, no overstuffing, just solid rapping over a solid beat.

With so many tools at your disposal, it becomes difficult to decide when to "stop" on a song. The digital age of music has made it incredibly easy to record and edit and manipulate songs from a laptop. With this flexibility comes the risk of losing the simplicity and the spontaneity that made the songs so great to begin with.    If you don't have the production skills or the rap chops, this critique is moot from the start, but once it's clear that you have talent, it's important to keep things simple. Many of the songs on The J.A.M. match the intensity of their earlier material and even surpass them with improved lyricism and tone, but others feel bloated with too many ideas that need room to breathe. Too many ideas is a good problem to have, but make sure to give them the stage they deserve.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

EDU: Screen Printing

I'm not one for Arts and Crafts, but if you want to gain entry into the hipster syndicate, sooner or later you're going to need to try your hand at screen printing. It's kind of a rite of passage like buying a fixed speed bike and trying to grow a greasy mustache. I have no intention of trading in my Tommaso and have already established the limits of my facial hair, so screen printing was the final item on my hipster bucket list.

Thankfully, my friend Jenny B was game to indulge me in this. A few weeks ago we jitterbugged down to Artist and Craftsman in Central Sq. and picked up a screen printing kit. It had everything we would need. I also bought a high powered light bulb (will explain later) and a few t-shirts at AC Moore. On Sunday, she came over and we gave it a whirl.

Note: All photos compliments of Jenny B and her fancy DSLR.

Here is Jenny and her racy design. It is a topless owl. She printed it out and then photocopied it onto 2 transparencies which we taped together to make sure the image was nice and dark (IMPORTANT).

This is me laying down newspaper because I had no idea what sort of mess we would be getting ourselves into. Next to me is the photo emulsion and the squeegee which you use to spread said photo emulsion onto the screen.

This is Jenny spreading photo emulsion. She wanted to do this as a photo op and we ended up using way too much emulsion which made everything else take longer. It's all her fault. I made sure that she wasn't actually doing anything in her subsequent photo ops. You want to spread a thin, even layer of emulsion on the screen, and then place it in a cool, DARK place to dry. I did this in a closet which I had outfitted with a fan. Even with the fan it took nearly an hour to dry. During this hour I watched the World Cup finals and Jenny doodled.

After the emulsion has dried, you take your image and place it on top of the treated screen. You want to either tape the image down (with scotch tape) or put a piece of glass on top of it to hold it tight to the screen so light doesn't get underneath. The reason for this is simple. When the emulsion is exposed to light, it  hardens. Anything that light does not permeate (the dark parts of the image) will not harden and will come off with water. After your image is set where you want it, you need to put it in a dark place again with a light bulb. Depending on the wattage of your light bulb, this will take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes. As I said, I bought some sort of super bulb that took 15 minutes. Standard light bulbs take 45 minutes. You can also use straight sunlight but that takes close to 90 minutes, and who has that kind of time!?

Note: If your image includes text, you need to make sure that you are reversing the text when you lay the image on the screen, as you will be flipping the screen over when you actually make your prints.

Once you've given your emulsion time to harden, you need to find somewhere with nice water pressure to wash out your image. What better place for this than the shower? Note: Do not tell John Lamb I did this in the shower. After a few minutes, your image should be completely washed out (see below).

Parts of the screen weren't covered by emulsion and other parts of the emulsion had washed away, so we put duct tape over them so the ink wouldn't bleed through onto the t-shirt.

This is the trickiest part of the whole process, trying to see what the hell you are doing on the t-shirt. Is it straight? Is it in the middle of the shirt? Is the shirt flat against the table? You can't really tell. I'm sure there's a better way to do this, but like I said, we were noobs. Just do it.

The trick to getting the ink through the screen is to first gently bring the ink across the image with the squeegee to flood the image, and then to pull the squeegee across a second time with more force/pressure at a 60 degree angle to actually push the paint through the screen. At least that's what the videos told me.

This is me surveying what just happened. Note all the ink leftover, this can be dumped back into your paint receptacle. It is about this time when you realize where things didn't set properly. Too much emulsion, too little time under the light, too light of an image, these can all rear their ugly head at this point and give you a less than ideal print. Ours turned out pretty well all things considered, and Jenny was able to touch up a couple parts with a paintbrush that didn't get enough ink. Here's the finished product.

Nifty. You want to wash the paint off the screen ASAP once you're done making prints so it doesn't try on your image. I did this in the shower too. Miraculously there wasn't too much clean up. I remarked to Jenny afterwards "I thought there'd be more of a mess. Probably because we did it in the shower." I promptly TWSSed myself and we both had a laugh. A fun experience! Would try again! A++!

Monday, July 12, 2010

On Repeat: Best Coast/Kid Cudi/Rostam Batmanji - All Summer

Tapping Best Coast to write a song about summer is about as surprising as casting Michael Cera as an awkward teenager. They've been reliably churning out beach-centric tunes for the better part of a year, so when Converse propositioned them to take part in their new cross-culture commercial, they probably said "Sure, we can do that in our sleep." You may remember the original incarnation of this idea, resulting in a catchy Julian Casablancas, Santigold, Pharrel collaboration a few months back. This time, Converse has out-indied themselves, bringing together Best Coast, Kid Cudi and Rostam (from Vampire Weekend). The result is better than you might expect. Best Coast trades in her fuzzed out sound for clean (relatively), chunky guitars, Kid Cudi's popsicle voice slips and slides around a marching drum beat, sounding cooler and happier than he did at any point on his debut album. Best Coast has always had a sunny sound, but frontwoman Bethany keeps her boy-crazed lyrics in check here, mostly waxing on about drinking water and "trying to keep your eyes" in her chorus. Rostam's production is a but muted at the start, but as the second chorus rises, his fingerprints start to show and the churning guitars morph into zippy synths and the drums are buoyed by churchbells. Not bad for a slapdash corporate jingle, not bad at all.   

Download HERE.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Review: Toy Story 3 - Exit Through The Gift Shop

I'm aware I haven't written a movie review since the film festival, but in my defense, I haven't seen a good film since then. Many of the films from that festival are now playing in the Boston area (especially Kendall Square) if you want to revisit my IFF Boston roundups (Part 1 and Part 2). I highly highly recommend Cyrus, Winter's Bone and Micmacs if you have the chance. With serious rain in the forecast today, you could do worse than a double feature at the Somerville Theatre. I caught Toy Story 3 and Exit Through the Gift Shop this afternoon/evening.

To be honest, I was not impressed when I heard about the prospect of Toy Story 3. While the original Toy Story ranks up there with Pixar's best work, I've never warmed to Toy Story 2 like others have, and a 3rd reheating of the same lost/discarded toys escape story didn't do much for me. Trilogies are for Sci-Fi movies or the Shrek series that has no dignity/shame; Pixar should know better.

Imagine my surprise when the movie obliterated my expectations. While the plot outline is just as I expected (Toys are accidentally discarded and then donated to a Day Care facility from hell), there are significantly more profundities this time around that I did not expect. Gone (mostly) are the "WE NEED TO GET BACK TO ANDY!!" drumbeats. This time the toys are forced to come to grips with reality and whether it is better to be loved by a revolving cast of children or to sit in the attic of your original owner and subsist on memories. Of course there is a more prevalent antagonist in the form of the thuggish Lotso bear who runs the Day Care facility like a prison and has a checkered past. While the set-up is familiar, the final hour of the film is when Pixar shows what separates them from every other film studio doing this kind of thing. There is an exhilarating 30-minute escape scene that compares favorably with the best ones ever put to celluloid. The final 15 minutes are fraught with emotion and a tenderness that the other Toy Stories and other Pixar films for that matter have only hinted at culminating in a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. Did I neglect to mention how hilarious it is? Several new characters are introduced, the most notable of which is Ken, portrayed as a self-conscious nitwit with a weakness for fashion. The regular cast of characters also get plenty of laughs, especially when Mr. Potato Head loses his potato "head" and is forced to make do and Buzz Lightyear is reset into Spanish. Highly, highly recommended.

Documentaries are my favorite. They are simply about a story. No CGI, no acting. Just a story. The doesn't mean they aren't interesting/exciting. Most documentaries have more plot twists than an M. Night film; it's just that they don't really need dramatic music or a dream sequence to bring them to fruition. It wasn't until recently that I dug a little deeper and realized that documentaries about Art are some of my favorites. My Kid Could Paint That and Who the $%#@ is Jackson Pollock are two such examples, but one of my favorite films of all time is Orson Welles' F for Fake, which addresses the not-so-simple question of "What is art?".

Exit Through the Gift Shop starts as an innocuous story about street art and a man (Thierry Guetta) who obsessively documented its rise over the past ten years but ultimately becomes a modern retelling of Welles' classic film. To be frank, Thierry Guetta is at best an obnoxious fanboy and at worst a pathetic self-important fraud. Simply by happenstance he becomes drawn into the world of street art by his cousin (moniker: Space Invader) and somehow acquaints himself with and becomes accepted by many of the biggest names in street art, including Shepard Fairey and the one and only Banksy. They originally tolerate his eager camera because he is also a serviceable accomplice and knows the city well, but as time goes on they begin to enjoy his company. Street art is such a personal and solitary art form that being able to share it with someone becomes too tantalizing to resist and Thierry filled that role perfectly. It wasn't until he began creating his own street art that he went from harmless gnat to someone who threatened to destroy the artform. After using his trove of footage to make a terrible documentary about the art, Banksy suggests that he try his hand at the art himself. Taking this as a direct order from the most famous street artist that has ever lived, Thierry throws his entire life savings into literally buying his own art exhibit. He contracts artists to realize his ideas, and spends much of his time barking orders into a cellphone, conducting interviews with magazines or hitting up big name artists for a friendly quote to build hype.

It is during these last 30 minutes that the definition of art becomes ambiguous. Is Thierry an artist because he refinanced his house to hire other people to produce his ideas? Who has ownership of the art? The one who thought of it or the one who made it a reality? These scenes are not kind to Thierry, portraying him as a narcissistic, entitled boob who has no business doing what he is doing. While artists like Banksy spent years building a name for themselves, Mr. Brainwash (as Thierry calls himself) buys it. Of course, this should be hilarious, but the fact of the matter is, people fell for it. Thousands of people lined up to visit the opening of his Los Angeles show and more still visited during its 2-month run. Even more disappointing are the equally moronic art collectors who get into the act by snapping up his artwork to the tune of nearly one million dollars.  What began as the story of a zealous street art fan, by the end has evolved into a sad commentary on the nature of art and the importance of criticism, lest you be swept into every fad.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Review: Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Legend of Chico Dusty

Do you ever wonder how art would develop on an alien planet? Would film evolve and be used in the same way? Would cave paintings still lead to the Mona Lisa? Would they use an entirely new medium? If we met a parallel civilization, what would their music sound like? Thankfully, Big Boi's Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty puts all that speculation to rest. It would sound like celestial bloops, intergalactic funk and a bit like the dirty south. In a word: awesome.

Big Boi's long gestating masterpiece has trickled out morsel by tasty morsel over the last two years. Some tracks released as singles, some leaked unfinished, other still mysteriously showing up online after a dispute with Jive records forced songs Big Boi recorded with his Outkast partner Andre 3000 off the record. With every tidbit you heard of the album, be it the weed opus "Fo Yo Sorrows", the transcendent "Shine Blockas" or the teeth-rattling ode to bass that is "Shutterbugg", the expectations for the album rose impossibly higher. There was no way that Big Boi could make an album that existed on the same level of these songs and actually WORKED. Well thankfully for us, Big Boi revels in being underestimated because he has obliterated these lofty goals.

Sometimes I think that Big Boi and Timbaland were separated at birth, both born with an unparalleled sonic palate and a penchant for ruthless hooks. Timbaland sharpened his skills as a superstar producer, stringing together hit after hit in the 90's before deciding to fetter his best beats away for his solo work a decade later. Big Boi went the other way, broadening his talents through collaboration in the form of Outkast, widely recognized as the most innovative and genre-pushing hip-hop act of the last 20 years. While he was decidedly  less commercially successful than Timbaland, ask anyone worth their salt and you'll see how critically revered Big Boi is. I make the Timbaland comparison because to my ears, what Big Boi does here is analogous to what Timbaland did in the 90's, taking unique and familiar ideas and combining them in an irresistible, albeit edgier way. Which is more admirable: the one who machete'd the new musical path or the one who blew it up with dynamite, paved it with gold and rolled a red carpet out on it? For my money, if you compare the solo outputs, Big Boi is the undisputed champion.

What does it say about an album when every song on it has been caught in your head at different points during the week? This morning I found myself humming the grungy chorus of Tangerine in the shower, mouthing the words to "Daddy Fat Sax" at work and cranking "Back-Up Plan" to ear-shattering levels on my drive home. I haven't even mentioned the smooth Jamie Foxx ballad "Hustle Blood" that reminds me fondly of K-Ci and Jojo or the achingly beautiful Janelle Monae collaboration "Be Still". It's only fitting that Monae guests here, as Boi made an appearance on The Archandroid and she is his only galactic competition so far this year. Sadly, Sir Lucious also has an obligatory commercial rock/rap track a la Timbaland's absolutely putrid Nickelback collaboration on Shock Value 2. It's a testament to Big Boi that he nearly saves this song from the emo depths with two fantastic verses, but that doesn't excuse it. Trust me when I say the album more than makes up for this minor speed bump.

Listening to Sir Lucious it makes me wonder about the folks who fell over themselves in recent weeks to praise Drake's inconsistent debut album. Maybe it's because Lil Wayne is in jail, Kanye West had isolated himself from the rest of the world and TI and Gucci Mane were been serving prison terms, but have our standards fallen that much? I mean, Tha Carter 3 was only two years ago. Hearing Big Boi destroy track after track with surgical precision and ferocious strength is like watching an episode of Arrested Development after having your sense of humor pummeled into submission by Two and a Half Men. Maybe Charlie Sheen and that goofy kid extracted a pity chuckle or two out of you, but once you bask in the relentless wit and density of AD, you feel sheepish for having even wasted your time.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Great googly moogly, have you BEEN outside?! I'm not one to make small talk about the weather, but me oh my is it toasty. I don't even mind the heat generally, but when I sweat through my t-shirt unpacking groceries, what is a boy to do? Well, if you are this boy and live on the 3rd floor of a house that sits directly on the bowels of hell, you make like a banana and split. When the temperature gets above 80 degrees, my room rivals the world's foremost greenhouses. Stale air sits like soup and suffocates my tiny fan. Sometimes I try to balance the fan on the foot of my bed and sprawl out accordingly. This is usually enough to keep the sweat rivulets in check, as long as I remain absolutely still and take shallow breaths.

More often than not I avoid my room entirely and simply pretend we have no third floor. I calculate whether my tent can fit on the porch or how much shriveling the human body can endure if I decide to sleep in a full bathtub. In the past, I've found the best defense is eating enough freezepops (1-2 boxes) to reduce my core temperature 5 to 10 degrees and induce a semi-conscious hibernation state. This followed by 4-6 Ambien in quick succession usually do the trick. Of course, if I wake up at any point, this entire process must be repeated. Lately, my route of choice has been introducing myself to someone with an air conditioned apartment and feigning paralysis/heat stroke. Not the most dignified route, but in July, dignity takes a back seat.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Review: Drake - Thank Me Later

Drake has a lot on his mind. He tells us all the time. I guess it's understandable when a year ago the boldest font on his curriculum vitae was playing a half-Jewish half-black paraplegic on a Canadian tween soap. It was about this time last year when he released his So Far Gone mixtape, and the fuse on his career was ignited. The free mixtape spurred 2 hit singles which his label despicably repackaged as the "So Far Gone" EP in a desperate attempt to hitch a wagon to his star. In the wave of publicity that has followed, it's hard to tell exactly where Drake lies on his career trajectory, a scary thought when you have yet to release your debut album. It is this pressure that Drake surely felt while recording this album, and is in large part responsible for the air of melancholy that hangs over the album.

Drake is a unique talent, one who with the chops to write serviceable verses and savvy enough to carry the melodies himself, making guest spots more of a luxury than a requirement. Most hip-hop artists contract out their hooks to someone like Usher, The Dream, or some other R&B Casanova to bring the swoon. The verses are for snarling and posturing. When you try and play both parts yourself, you toe a very fine line and run the risk of failing at both. With Drakes inconsistent cadence bleeding verse to chorus, the transition can make the verses sound lazy and the hooks insincere. Perhaps this is the root of Drake's frustration, trying to be everything to everyone, even on his own record.

If I'm harsh, it's only because I am as guilty as all the others anointing Drake as hip-hop's next superstar, inflating his ego but secretly hoping he remains humble enough to take criticism and improve. As Drake rhymes on the closing "Thank Me Later", "And that's about the time your idols become your rivals/You make friends with Mike but gotta AI him for your survival/ I swear sports and music are so synonymous/we wanna be them, and they wanna be us." This realization is proof positive that Drake is well aware that he could easily become the next Kwame Brown if he isn't careful. Perhaps this is why Thank Me Later is such a hip-hop Dream Team of guest spots. If we aren't going to keep Drake honest, maybe Jay-Z and Lil Wayne will.

It's no coincidence that the strongest run of songs begins with Nicki Minaj's guest verse on "Up All Night", carrying through T.I.'s ferocious verse on the exceptional "Fancy" straight into Wayne's spot on "Miss Me". All of these songs allow Drake to relax into the background a bit and catch his breath, allowing behemoths like The Dream to carry the hook for a while or letting Jay-Z round out a verse. When Drake is left to his own devices on the first and last sections of the album, he struggles to shake off his inner mope, instead opting to wade through the melancholy and the slow burn of a lonely snare drum. Drake is talented, but no one could make a good song out of the embarrassing components of Cece's interlude. Some hazy synths, a squiggly smoky guitar solo and Drake singing "I wish I wasn't famous". Oh boo-hoo Drake, something about this rings false when you were boasting about said fact two songs ago. We understand you are coming to grips with the trappings of fame, but try and meet us halfway like you do on the sensational Shut It Down, Thank Me Later's "Lovestoned" and anchor, an anthemic stroll that wends through interludes and a giant hook that Drake and The Dream take turns with.

I guess the bigger question at hand is where does Drake go from here? When you work with the biggest artists in the business on your first record, sign million dollar endorsement deals and have your pick of any 18-32 year old woman in America, what else is left? If your first piece of art was helping Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel, how can you go back to watercoloring? If your first at bat was a World Series walk-off home run, why go back to Spring Training? Considering that Drake is barely 23 and already plunging existential depths, who can say where the next 5 years may take him. While I can't speculate on what he will do, for now he should take a Xanax and enjoy himself. He has the rest of his life to look over his shoulder.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Last Airbender?

M. Night Shyamalan's star has dimmed so much in the ten years since he shook up Hollywood with The Sixth Sense and the even better Unbreakable, that studios would be wise to divorce his name from his work. From a filmmaker who has been scraping the bottom of the creative barrel for nearly 5 years, adapting a source material seemed like the sort of career life-support he was due for. Take the story out of his hands and let him  do what he is good at; namely suspense. While an adaptation of a children's anime series doesn't lend itself to atmospherics, I at least expected mixed reviews given his eye for detail and skill behind the camera. Funny thing about career arcs; they're a tough track to jump. Especially when you're on the downslope. It currently boasts a Tomatometer score of 7% (6 positive reviews, 78 negative), a number that makes his last film The Happening (18%) look like Raging Bull. Here are some choice quotes from a few reviews in case you are still on the fence (SS, ahem).

"The current national priorities should be as follows: reduce carbon emissions and stop funding the films of M. Night Shyamalan." - Cliff Doerksen, Chicago Reader

"It's rare to see a film so choppily edited, poorly scripted and spastically directed that you can barely understand what you're watching." - Rafeer Guzman, Newsweek

"If any movie ever warranted a class-action lawsuit against the filmmakers, it’s The Last Airbender. " - Keith Phillips, The Onion AV Club

"The Last Airbender is an insult to anyone with a triple-digit I.Q. and a willingness to use it inside the confines of a movie theater." -James Berardinelli, Reelviews

And finally, Mr. Roger Ebert,

"The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented" Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times