Monthly Archives: December 2013

Is ‘Ado’ Whedon’s worst?

Dogberry (Nathan Fillion, right) and Verges (Tom Lenk) made for welcome comic relief in Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing."

Dogberry (Nathan Fillion, right) and Verges (Tom Lenk) made for welcome comic relief in Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

The short answer: Yes, Much Ado About Nothing is Joss Whedon’s worst offering.

The long answer is more interesting, though, when the final product is filtered through the lens of the limitations imposed on the production.

1. Time and assets. Whedon shot this during a break in The Avengers over two weeks, in black and white, in his own home, on virtually no budget. Two weeks. No budget. Name another director who creates movies on the scale of The Avengers that could do this. It took James Cameron two weeks to get the tables set in the grand ballroom during the shooting of Titanic. Steven Spielberg thinks “low budget” means you have to choose between Will Smith and Tom Cruise instead of having both of them in your movie. Much Ado About Nothing is barely related to The Avengers, Avatar, Jurassic Park, etc. Its blood kin are Clerks, El Mariachi, Pi. Yes, Whedon was lucky to get pals like TV star Nathan Fillion and Avengers everyman Clark Gregg to appear in his little indie flick, which made it bankable come time to put it up in theaters. But the filmmaking itself was quick, cheap and dirty.

2. Dated source material. First of all, before a bunch of overstuffed Anglophiles get their barrister’s wigs in a bunch, I’m not bashing Shakespeare here. However, some of Will’s writing doesn’t translate well to the modern era. The subplot of Hero faking her death to bring back an aggrieved Claudio falls so very, very flat. If the daughter of a wealthy, well-known industrialist (here, royalty in Will’s original) was “dead” in current times, the scheme would never work because it would be on Twitter in about 3.7 seconds, followed by every news-generating machine on the planet sending reporters immediately to the front door of her father’s home and camping there through the funeral. And if that young woman was dead because her wealthy, famous groom had found out that she’d been deflowered? The E Network would establish a bureau in that very neighborhood, and People magazine would enact mandatory overtime for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t work in Whedon’s Ado, and I’m not sure you can make that work when – as Shakespeare favored – you do the play in modern settings and costume. As good as Willy Shake is, some of his work isn’t as universal as your high school English teacher would have you believe.

3. Too much of one, not enough of the other. Sorry, but the Hero-Claudio stuff is pretty lame, even without the carbon-dated, fake-death sub-plot. The real story is the Beatrice-Benedick battle of the sexes. And that’s what shines in Whedon’s adaptation. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof capture the love-hate relationship, the uncertainty, the fear of commitment, the comedy and the pathos. Dy-no-mite! But we unfortunately have to keep going back to Hero-Claudio, which is really only worth it when the “palace guard” – the po po, here played by Fillion and Tom Lenk – do their Keystone Cops routine. Fillion and Lenk make the Hero storyline worth watching, but are barely on screen. What I’d have liked to have seen was Whedon really tear apart Ado and make it modern, with a heavier focus on Beatrice and Benedick. (Or, hell, just write his own romantic comedy.) I’d have to imagine that would have been an amazing feat, much like what author Christopher Moore did with King Lear in his book, Fool.

Final verdict: Yes, it’s Whedon’s worst. But much like Shakespeare’s worst, that makes it better than about 98.5% of the comedies/dramas/etc. produced on the planet in any given year. Take the plunge. It’s still worth it.

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Best of 2013: The songs

Black Joe Lewis, Skulldiggin – I prefer 2011’s Scandalous album (with the Honeybears) over this year’s Electric Slave. But the big, deep, dark guitar of Skulldiggin drew me in to this track.

The Blow, I Tell Myself Everything – It’s cheeky and quirky, a syncopated electronic pop delight. “I heard a rumor that I was amazing.” You are, Blow. You are.

Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams, Get Lucky – Daft Punk lays down the groove, Pharrell emcees the party. Goes down smooth.

The Devil Makes Three, Hallelu – “They say Jesus is coming / But he’s walking / He sure ain’t running.”

Eminem, Berzerk – Nice to hear Eminem at the top of his game. Throw Rick Rubin in the mix, and kapow!

Frightened Rabbit, Holy – I prefer these folky Scots to their English counterparts, Mumford & Sons. They’ve matured well, learning to fill out their sound. Holy is a perfect example of that.

Iron & Wine, Low Light Buddy of Mine – I&W does that “so hushed it’s almost like it’s not there” thing better than anyone.

Hanni El Khatib, Family – Hanni rocks. All day. Every day. And twice on Thursdays.

Haim, My Song 5 – There are a scad of good pop songs on Haim’s 2013 disc, Days Are Gone. My Song 5 is the best of the bunch.

Har Mar Superstar, Lady, You Shot Me – Killer soul track that sounds like it was pulled out of 1972.

The Hawk in Paris, Freaks – Weird, cool and fun.

Houndmouth, Penitentiary – The Louisville roots rockers sing, “C’mon down to the penitentiary.” It sounds so good, you’ll find yourself considering it.

The Julie Ruin, Ha Ha Ha – Dance to this punk rock gem as the world ends.

Valerie June, Tennessee Time – My favorite new female vocalist of 2013.

Bill Kirchen, Down to Seeds and Stems Again – Mr. Kirchen wrote himself a Willie Nelson song, sad and funny, like most good country music is.

Little Green Cars, The John Wayne – Simple and easy to love.

Melvins and Mark Arm, Set It on Fire – I like me some loud, dirty Melvins. This fits the bill.

M.I.A., Y.A.L.A. – Bombs go off when she enters the building!

Milk Carton Kids, Honey, Honey – It’s got that sincere, Simon and Garfunkel quality to it.

Juana Molina, Eras and Bicho Auto – Argentina’s female Beck? Close enough.

nine inch nails, All Time Low – Not nin’s greatest album, but there are some truly excellent tracks on Hesitation Marks.

Parquet Floors, Stoned and Starving – It took me awhile to get into PF’s disc, Light Up Gold. But I’ve now boarded the bus and am taking the trip.

The Postelles, You Got Me Beat – An unabashed, joyful pop rock nugget in that lands somewhere between the Cars and Jackson Browne.

Britney Spears, Work Bitch – The producing crew gives La Brit an awesome musical tapestry to front, and the vocal processing perfectly masks her weak pipes. This will be banged from spinning classes in Peoria to strip clubs in L.A.

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Siamese Cat – Martin does what he does best – pick a banjo – and leaves most of the singing up to Edie. This track is a nice mix of melancholy and sass.

The Virgins, Flashbacks, Memories & Dreams – A new wave dance rock track with some terrific fretwork.

Kanye West, Black Skinhead – I loved Kanye West. Kanye Kardashian is growing on me.

Gin Wigmore, Black Sheep – Gin’s bluesy pop is so damn catchy.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Subway – What I love about this track is Karen O’s voices sounds so light it could float into the ether if it weren’t tethered to this plane by the sound of the subway car rolling over the tracks.

Young Fathers, Queen is Dead – A minimalist approach initially, then the volume and noise explode. What it lacks in catchiness is makes up for in madness.

* Best of the rest: Arctic Monkeys, Arabella; Avett Brothers, Vanity; Best Coast, I Don’t Know How; Blood Red Shoes, Cold; Brainticket, Black Sand; Neko Case, Nearly Midnight, Honolulu; Childish Gambino, Zealots of Stockholm [Free Information]; Cloud Cult, Sleepwalker; J. Cole, Villuminati; Dead Prez, No Way As the Way; Deerhunter, Leather Jacket II; Dengue Fever, The Province; The Dirtbombs, Crazy For You; Earl Sweatshirt, Whoa; Hanni El Katib, Nobody Move; Elvis Costello & The Roots, Walk Us Uptown; Frightened Rabbit, Holy; Haim, Falling; Houndmouth, Comin’ Round Again; Ivan and Alyosha, Be Your Man; JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound, Security; Joanna Gruesome, Secret Surprise; Valerie June, Somebody to Love;  Janelle Monae, Dance Apoclyptica; Janelle Monae feat. Erykah Badu, Q.U.E.E.N.; Janelle Monae feat. Prince, Give ‘Em What They LoveLaura Mvula, Make Me Lovely; nin, Disappointed; Parquet Courts, Borrowed Time; Pissed Jeans, Loubs; The Postelles, Sweet Water; Reignwolf, Are You Satisfied?; Savages, I Am Here; Sebadoh, I Will; The Shouting Matches, Mother When?; Sleigh Bells, Bitter Rivals; Skating Polly, Lost Wonderfuls; Speedy Ortiz, Cash Cab; Vampire Weekend, Diane Young; Waaves, Give Me a Knife; Dale Watson, I Lie When I Drink; Gin Wigmore, Kill of the Night; Wild Nothing, The Body in Rainfall; Young Fathers, Come to Life

* Honorable mention: Arcade Fire, Relektor; Avett Brothers, Open Ended Life; Blood Red Shoes, In Time To Voices; Civil Wars, The One That Got Away and From This Valley; Cults, I Can Hardly Make You Mine; Daughter, Youth; Dave Grohl & Friends, Your Wife is Calling; Devil Makes Three, A Moment’s Rest; Disclosure feat. Sam Smith, Latch; Elf Power, A Grey Cloth Covering My Face; Hanni El Katib, Sinking in the Sand; Elvis Costello & The Roots, Refuse to be Saved; Eminem, Rhyme or Reason; Flaming Lips, Be Free, A Way; Frightened Rabbit, Acts of Man; The Front Bottoms, Skeleton; Future of the Left, The Male Gaze; Ghostface Killah feat. Master Killa, I Declare War; Daughn Gibson, You Don’t Fade; Haim, Forever; Houndmouth, Come On, Illinois; Iggy & The Stooges, Burn; Jason Isbell, New South Wales; Jim James, Know Til Now; Valerie June, Somebody to Love; The Knife, A Tooth for an Eye; Talib Kweli, Turnt Up; The Last Bison, Quills; Shvona Lavette, All the Gold; Little Green Cars, My Love Took Me Down to the River; Mazzy Star, In the Kingdom; Juana Molina, Lo Decidi Yo; Pistol Annies, I Feel a Sin Comin’ On;  Pusha T, Numbers on the Board; Queens of the Stone Age, Keep Your Eyes Peeled; The Relatives, Speak to Me (What’s Wrong With America?); Rogue Wave, Used to It; Seve Duo, Rid of Me; The Shouting Matches, Mother When?; Speedy Ortiz, Plough and No Below; Sterile Jets, Sustenance Jar; Tal National, Kaani; Justin Timberlake, Mirrors; Justin Timberlake feat. Jay-Z, Suit and Tie; Frank Turner, Recovery; Tyler, The Creator, IFHY and Treehome95; Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Day; Waxahatchee, Dixie Cups and Jars; Kanye West, Bound 2; Matthew E. White, Big Love; Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sacrilege and These Paths

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Best of 2013: The albums

Haim, Days Are Gone – This sisterly trio from Cali manages a very interesting balancing act: Paying homage to 1980s era melodies while sounding like the future of pop. Bravo.

Hanni El Khatib, Head in the Dirt – Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys produces, so it’s no surprise that Hanni’s Dirt is bluesy. That said, Hanni’s is a strong songwriter and performer, so he manages to keep Dirt uniquely his own.

Houndmouth, From the Hills Below the City – These Louisville roots rockers aren’t innovators, just damn good at what they do.

Juana Molina, Wed 21 – Molina is an Argentinian psychedelic folkstress who makes some brilliant noise on Wed 21. I mostly think of Beck as I listen to her, although the connection isn’t as direct as sounding alike, but more of their openness to unique sounds and arrangements while hewing to a traditional folk sound.

Janelle Monet, The Electric Lady – I’ve never quite bought into Monet because she always seemed heavier on the image than the music. With Electric Lady, she’s changed that perception.

Savages, Silence Yourself – Ignore the fact that they have Courtney Love’s seal of approval. This quartet of female post-punkers is more Rid of Me than Doll Parts. If I had to say, “This is the best album I heard this year,” Silence Yourself would get that nod.

The Shouting Matches, Grownass Man – Solid blues rock, track the first to track the last.

* Best of the rest: J. Cole, Born Sinner; Daft Punk, Random Access Memories; M.I.A., Matangi; Pissed Jeans, Honeys; Tylor, The Creator, Wolf; Kanye West, Yeezus; Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito

* Honorable mentions: Elvis Costello & The Roots, Wise Up Ghost; Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP 2; The Flaming Lips, The Terror; Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse; Har Mar Superstar, Bye Bye 17; Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone;  Parquet Floors, Light Up Gold; Queens of the Stone Age, … Like Clockwork; The Relatives, The Electric Word; Speedy Ortiz, Major Arcana; Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience; Gin Wigmore, Gravel & Wine

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That’s My Jam #12: ‘The Seed (2.0)’, The Roots feat. Cody Chestnutt

The That’s My Jam manifesto is here.

From Phrenology – one of my favorite Roots’ discs – comes The Seed (2.0). The original Seed appeared on Cody Chestnutt’s 2002 double album, The Headphone Masterpiece, which he recorded on a 4-track in his bedroom.

The Roots fill out and funk up The Seed (2.0), and some of the more salacious language from the original track is scrubbed clean. The final products is a simple, compelling groove to back Black Thought’s smooth verses and Chestnutt’s urgent tenor on the chorus.

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The ups and downs of ‘The Blacklist’

James Spader as Raymond Reddington in "The Blacklist."

James Spader as Raymond Reddington in “The Blacklist.”

UP: After his painful turn on one of the lesser seasons of The Office, James Spader returns to NBC to ham it up as manipulative, mysterious rogue CIA agent and underworld info maven Raymond Reddington.

DOWN: When Spader is not on screen, The Blacklist suffers. A lot. Megan Boone is solid as neophyte FBI agent Elizabeth Keen, but she doesn’t have the presence or the story line to carry it (yet). The other agency suits are mostly uninteresting, bland cardboard cutouts at this point.

UP: The pilot and the two-part, mid-season finale have heart-pumping, clever story lines and really show what The Blacklist is capable of being.

DOWN: The rest of the episodes? They seem … mostly OK, often cheap. There are a few times cuts from one scene to the next are made, and continuity is just tossed out the window. I’m assuming that is because there aren’t enough funds to re-shoot and that, until the show starts generating the advertising dollars, this will continue to be an issue.

UP: Joe Carnahan, the director behind the gleefully twisted Smokin’ Aces, is one of the minds behind The Blacklist, as well as director of the pilot. The pieces set up in the first half of the first season – Who is Lizzy’s dad? Is her husband an assassin? What’s Reddington’s end-game? – should make for some interesting drama down the road.

DOWN: On AMC or HBO, Joe Carnahan’s hands aren’t tied. NBC is trying to loosen up with show like Revolution (which has gotten unexpectedly and significantly darker this season) and Hannibal. But it’s still one of the big four, so there’s only so much they’ll allow. Is that going to limit The Blacklist?

VERDICT: We’ll see how it plays out, but for now, I’m optimistic.

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That’s My Jam #11: ‘Work B****’ by Britney Spears

For the That’s My Jam manifesto, click here.

On the one hand, pop music can be too stupid. And that’s been part of the mission of my That’s My Jam series, to rail against the mindlessness of both mainstream tunes and those that consume it without thinking.

That said, sometimes pop music should just be fun. And Work Bitch is exactly that: High-decibel, higher-energy, sugar-coated, ass-shaking glee. Will.i.am, Knows and Sebastian Ingrosso kill on the production, and the work Will.i.am and Anthony Preston did to mask La Brit’s thin-as-paper voice and make it listenable is Grammy-worthy.

So pick up what she’s putting down, and get to work, bitch.

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In the beginning …

What always draws me into Margaret Atwood’s work is her sense of humor. Yes, there’s no denying her abilities as a storyteller. From the speculative fiction of the Maddadam trilogy to the epic historical fic of The Blind Assassin, the Canadian has proven to be a masterful craftswoman when it comes to plot and is about as insightful a judge of character as you’re going to find.

But for me, what really keeps me reading Atwood, is her sense of humor. The Blind Assassin is a dark tale: Child sexual assault, possible incest, abortion, political and economic malfeasance, families broken and alienated, etc. It’s a long book and not an easy read. However, when Atwood shifts the perspective to that of elderly Iris, the narrator who is looking back on her life, the book finds its funny. Iris’s recognition of her own aging process and how it’s affecting her life is both stark and hilarious, sometimes at the same time. What really tickled my funny bone was Iris’s “hobby” of using public restrooms, in part to read what the kids have carved or marked into the stalls. It’s oddball in an endearing way, it works for the character and it really helps break up a hard story with an occasional chuckle.

In Maddadam, Atwood creates her own theology and mythology. By design, the Crakers were bred and raised apart from the corrupt world Crake eventually destroys. However, Crake misjudged what the post-floodless flood world would be. Yes, genetically, the Crakers are designed for the post-civilization landscape: No need for protien means eating pretty much anything that grows from the ground keeps you alive, no jealousy to drive wedges into the group dynamic, a rapid reproduction cycle, etc. But because some hard people fought through the global pandemic, the Crakers can at best be taken advantage of, at worst used, raped, tortured and killed.

So what do the Crakers need? Guns? Training? Nope, good, old new-fashioned religion, courtesy of Jimmy/Snowman and Toby, an ad man and an abused woman turned post-apocalyptic leader. Both to answer the questions about what has happened and how the Crakers now need to behave to live safely, Jimmy and Toby create their a mythology origin story casting Oryx and Crake as the all-knowing deities.

And while it sounds ludicrous – and in many ways, it is – it is precisely how religion began: An attempt by humans to explain the world around them without scientific knowledge or the necessary tools to examine the universe. In some cases, it worked. We see in the Bible in Numbers that Moses orders the soldiers who have conqured the Midianites to stay out of the camp for seven days to cleanse themselves. Think of battle then: Face to face, nose to nose, slicing off limbs, crushing skulls, breaking bones, all very personal and up close. After that sort of fighting, many of these soldiers were at least borderline PTSD. They need the silence, the prayer, the time to heal mentally before returning to society. It wasn’t called that, it wasn’t interpreted as that by the people of the time, it was framed as spiritual purification, but that’s what was really being observed and “treated.” On the other hand, belief in the power of the devil led lunatics to order the murder of girls in colonial Massachusetts.

Writer’s note: This was an unfinished post that I thought I had scheduled for a few weeks down the road. But apparently that was not the case. I’ll re-visit Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy at some point.

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‘Catching Fire’ + ‘Warm Bodies’ = ‘Reboot’?

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While my I pat myself on the back for the attention-getting headline, that’s not entirely what Reboot is.

Reboot envisions a post-apocalyptic/post-really, really bad scenario, and humans are scarce. A virus swept the world, and now only Texas – run by a ruthless corporation, since no government exists – stands. The virus has not done all of its damage, however. People are still dying from it, and when they die, they don’t always stay dead. Adult “reboots” are killed, believed to have gone mad with the change. Child reboots are claimed by the corporation and become a servant-class hit squad-slash-police unit, mostly in charge of preventing the spread of the virus any further.

Reboots have a first name and a number, the number of minutes before they returned to the living. Our heroine, Wren 178, is the highest number anyone knows of and a serious badass feared by all humans living in the slums she patrols. She takes under her wing Callum 22, a sure loser who wasn’t dead long enough to lose the humanity necessary to roll with Wren. But Callum cracks the hard emotional shell of the Wren who loves her job, longs to serve and enjoys kicking butt. Wren finally realizes that their servitude will be the end of them, and the escape is on.

Catching Fire comes to mind because, once again, it is children who make the sacrifice to save the world. Even after death kids aren’t safe from becoming a corporate possession that undergoes Spartan-like training to be able to arrest, beat and kill those they once were the same as. Warm Bodies comes to mind because, let’s face it, reboots are zombies, and this zombie falls in love.

So while the Catching FireWarm Bodies comparison makes a nice introduction to anyone not familiar with the Reboot series (there’s a second book, as well), Reboot is more than the sum of those parts. I look forward to seeing where author Amy Tintera takes Wren and Callum.

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Don’t look too closely

Shooting high pays off, even if you come up a bit short.

Shooting high pays off, even if you come up a bit short.

I don’t want to talk about time travel, because if we start talking about it, then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws. – Older Joe (Bruce Willis), Looper

I really enjoyed Looper when I saw it in the theaters. Fast paced, an interesting concept, a terrific cast. There’s an element of Robert Heinlein to the plot, from the fantastic time travel element to the gritty realism that is portrayed. That first viewing was a blast.

The second viewing … that changed my perspective. The end of the second act into the third act is paced a bit quickly. Cid, the young man whose future actions drive the desperate pace, and Sarah, his mom, seem to come into the flick late.

Then, of course, there’s time travel. It works fine when it’s just the Loopers killing people from the future. But when Older Joe survives his initial confrontation with Younger Joe, that all starts to get a bit, well, loopy. During the initial viewing, everything was new and moving quickly and it’s well acted, so it didn’t bother me as much. But with knowledge of what’s coming next and some time to reflect, the time travel and related effects throughout the second two-thirds of the movie was a bit silly.

Disappointing, sure. But I give writer-director Rian Johnson for shooting high and for the quality and uniqueness of the work he has crafted, and that, to me at least, diminishes those issues.

A fun flick, but don’t over-think it.

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What was the point of that?

You're not scaring me ... You're not making me laugh ... What is it precisely you're trying to do?

You’re not scaring me … You’re not making me laugh … What is it precisely you’re trying to do?

What the hell, man? I know the stink of second-hand commerce wafts off of many re-makes and sequels. Generally, however, I can shake off my abundance of cynicism and try to enjoy the ride. But the Evil Dead revamp sinks to a new low.

The mark of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise was its humor, embodied by the face (or perhaps chin?) of the original franchise, Bruce Campbell. The over-the-top, poorly done special effects added to the wicked, humorous madness of the first three flicks. There was a preposterousness to the festivities that made it impossible to take seriously.

And the new Evil Dead? Well, it’s really just the standard “We’re stuck in the woods and creepy shit is happening” horror flick. Because without the humor, that’s all that’s left, other than an uninspired cast, terrible writing, worse direction and special effects that are meant to shock or titillate, but mainly just fall under the header “been there, done that” for anyone who has seen a half-dozen horror flicks over the course of their life. In other words, it’s a shitty film with the title of a much better film tacked on to it to sell it to the masses.

ED 2013 does have one thing going for it. The main character, Mia, is a junkie, and her friends and brother have gathered to help her get off the junk, taking advantage of the isolated woods surrounding the old cabin. Initially, the crew doesn’t believe Mia’s possessed by a demon because she’s acting, really, like someone going cold turkey.

And had directory/co-writer Fede Alvarez had the deftness or skill to work that angle more, he could have ended up with an interesting movie. Instead, from watching Evil Dead you get the impression that when Alvarez needs to crack open a few eggs for breakfast, he uses a jackhammer. There is no touch, subtlety, tension or pacing to replace the lack of humor, and that falls on Alvarez.

And, ultimately, it falls on the audience who wasted their time on this hunk of crap.

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