Monday, September 22, 2008

Film Review: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading is driven by coincidences, but never feels contrived. The Coen Brothers are among the few filmmakers who could draw up characters so singular in their purposes to make the bad decision after bad decision required to move the story along so effortlessly that it's almost glib.

The plot, such as it is, might almost be called "screwball noir." The characters bounce around, entangling themselves in sex and crime. Two gym workers, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), stumble upon a computer disc containing the memoirs of a disgruntled ex-CIA agent, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich,) who has been fired for his alcoholism. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), in preparation for divorce, has also put his financial records on the disc. Linda and Chad contact Osborne and suggest a reward for returning the files, which he interprets as a blackmail attempt. Meanwhile, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a US Treasury agent who is sleeping with his own wife, Osborne's wife, and various women he solicits online--including Linda--gets wrapped up in the reward/blackmail scheme, and on, on, on, on...

In other words, it's one of those movies where everyone's connected, although not everyone gets to meet. We miss out on the perpetually perky Linda pestering Osborne face-to-face, or the happy-go-lucky Chad colliding the frigid Katie. The movie's two biggest stars, Clooney and Pitt, meet for only a moment, although it's long enough to provide the movie's biggest shock, and--depending on your disposition--biggest laugh.

The various motivations are work are preposterous, but endearing. Linda is convinced she needs the money to pay for some cosmetic surgeries ("My job involves interfacing with the public," she tells an unsympathetic health insurance agent) while Chad is so naive he's "really fucking surprised!" that Osborne scoffs at the mention of a reward.

If the Burn After Reading has a flaw, something that makes it merely "another very good Coen Bros flick" instead of "another Coen Bros classic," it's that the characters are wildly entertaining but not always relatable. The Coens pile on so many quirks that it's surprising this problem doesn't drag their films down more often. Only The Hudsucker Proxy, which had characters so affected they just seemed insincere, was derailed by this.

The biggest offender is Katie Cox. Where Linda and Osborne's singular characteristics compelling, Katie just seems one-note. Swinton's performance is fine, but when her only characterization is being an "unrelenting bitch", she turns out to be a drag. It's never explained why she's so sour or, more important, why anyone puts up with her. Maybe she and Osborne shared their misanthropy before he hit his slump, but the chatty, clueless Pfarrer? Her icy demeanor does lead to a great gag when we see her at work. Needless to say, she doesn't make the greatest pediatrician.

More often, however, the actors sketching out oddball, but well-defined, performances which give nice little opportunities for character study. Take how McDormand and Malkovich deal with frustrating phone conversation. Linda gets into a (literally) one-sided argument with an automated phone service that keeps asking her to enunciate. "A-gent. A-GENT!" she hollers, and you get the impression she's the kind who will keep complaining aloud once she hangs up, even if no one's around to listen. Osborne takes the more direct approach, responding to a bank teller's simple request for an account number by screaming "unfortunately I don't sit around all day trying to memorize the fucking numbers! Moron! " Both of them would act the same in person, but it's more telling that they keep up their respective forms of aggressiveness even when they're alone in a room shouting into a phone.

The last scene (some spoilers in this paragraph!) shows how the films' insubstantial ature works for and against the film. In the second and final scene in the office of a CIA Superior (J.K. Simmons in a hysterical bit role), two agents go over the events of the film, unable to make much sense of it, and actually glad that a few people got killed, simply because it gets them out of their hair. (Why they don't seem to think they'll be bothered again once relatives and friends ask where these missing characters went is another question.) Their callousness and cluelessness garner big laughs, sure, but it undermines some of the warmth and depth the characters built up, despite the stylish plot. They even agree to pay for Linda's surgeries just to put the case behind them, but it's played for an off-the-cuff laugh, and brings no on-screen satisfaction for Linda.

Then again, the movie wouldn't work so well if it was played excessively straight. Burn After Reading doesn't aspire to break much ground, but it's amazing well-crafted. And, hey, even "just" another very good Coen Bros. movie is still something to celebrate.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

No. 1 Single Reviews: "So What" by Pink

I had a sinking feeling when I first heard this one. It was so obnoxious, so grating, so aggressively stupid that any kind of popularity was unfathomable. So, of course, now it's atop the charts (see also: Girl, Hollaback.)

Just listen to the first ten seconds of this song. Like that shrill "na-na na-na na-naaaa naaaa/na-na na-na na-nahhh" that sounds like a spoiled, shrieking little schoolyard brat? Well, get used to it, because that's the main vocal melody for the verse lyrics, as well as the guitars. At least she has the courtesy to alternate between ending on sharp and flat notes, proving her versatility in delivering off-key vocals.

It's all the worse because the pre-school cadence leaves nothing to focus on but the inane lyrics--something about a break-up, but it's okay because "I'm still a rock star/I got my rock moves/And I don't need you." Not (m)any rock stars I know would ever say "check out my flow," reference losing their table at a bar to someone called "Jessica Simp" or end their song by blowing a raspberry, but hey.

The video is also a collection of Pink showing off her "rock moves," which include rebellious behavior like riding down Sunset Boulevard on a mini tractor (?), smashing a guitar in a music shop and assaulting the employee, and accidentally getting her hair set on fire in a scene that is disappointingly brief and non-graphic.

But what really bugs me is that someone on YouTube wasted three minutes of their life laying down a piano cover of the song, which is almost entirely the left hand stumbling over the main nursery rhyme melody, somehow managing to make it sound even less musical. And who the hell are the YouTube users materializing in the comments section to praise the pianist for banging out four notes of trash that a toddler could accidentally bang out on a toy xylophone?

If this isn't the worst No. 1 hit of the year, my disbelief just might force this review series into early retirement.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Concert Review: Tricky, the Trocadero, Philadelphia, Sept. 5

How does Tricky's music translate to a live setting? Well enough, though in a different manner than might be expected. Anyone who's followed Tricky knows that he's rejected his reputation in favor of following his own instincts (including a dogged refusal to make good records for the second half of his career.) One only needs to look at the set-up to guess Tricky's current live approach: he uses a more-or-less standard rock line-up, including live drums. As on his albums, Tricky's live set relies on a female vocalist. I couldn't identify the current singer, but she was definitely no Martina Topley-Bird. The current set seems about as good as it could be without catering to those into trip-hop Tricky and expecting to hear a lot of his voice or more than a handful of cuts off the early albums. Tricky's put out some unconventional and sometimes hard-to-classify music, but today's live show accommodates audience singing and clap-alongs.

Still, it's the vintage material that works the best, even when reworked. His covers of rap classics "Black Steel" and "Lyrics of Fury" got good run-throughs, and "Pumpkin" sounds majestic, mysterious and menacing even when it's a live guitarist instead of samples. The highlight by far, however, was Pre-Millennium Tensions opener "Vent." A paranoid, ashmatic breakdown on record, "Vent" became an eight-minute rise-and-fall, verse and explosion mantra live. When Tricky rocks it up, he goes all-out, grasping the mic with both hands and vibrating on the balls of his feet as he bounces up and down, or pointing to the ceiling and shaking as he shouts like he's singing to a God he's angry with.

The problem is, Tricky isn't always that invested in the show, especially during new material. This is best demonstrated through Tricky's smoke breaks, during which he faces the drummer, does a little back dance and inhales a joint during any song that doesn't involve him - very irritating for the concertgoers suffering in the non-smoking venue. If Tricky needs to be blazed to perform, maybe he should at least cut back to the point where he doesn't need a J every three songs just to keep a buzz going.

Opening for Tricky was Telepathique, from Sao Paulo, Brazil. They were adequate, but far less entertaining than the true opener - the homeless black dude who told my friend and I racist jokes for pocket change while we were waiting outside the venue. ("Do what black people and Batman have in common? Robin! Hahaha, okay last one, what's the best kind of nation? That' a DO-nation, folks, so whatever you've got, coins, bills, Visa, Mastercard...")

Telepathique had the elements to be interesting, a three-piece with a female singer and two vaguely hipster-looking dudes handling guitar, drums, and two laptops. But, true to the slot of an opening band, Telepathique falls squarely under "cool for two songs" territory. Their tunes rotated between three parts: the over-processed '80s dance segments, the driving rock segment where the actual drum kits gets used, and the occasional foray into noise and distortion. It became rote quickly, especially with the lead singer's "tip-toe around the band to the computer/synth table and join the boys" manuever, executed no less than three times. The act just never seemed forceful or raucous enough. The Brazilian element's promised add some swing and swagger to the group never delivered, and the frontwoman seemed sterile even when tossing out rock-star movies like flipping the bird then sliding the finger down between her thighs.

Tricky's show is enjoyable enough, but hard to pin down how successful it is: the crowd seemed enthusiastic, but when I wiggled my way to the second row, I realized that the crowd was diluted enough to allow anyone to saunter up next to me without bumping into anyone. He's putting out decent enough stuff, but the disappointments mean fewer are listening than should be.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"What does God hate?"

Peach (1:03:30 AM): Which I suppose is roughly $14 billion million billion.
Peach (1:05:26 AM): Well, I'm gonna go watch King of the Hill before bed.
Peach (1:05:38 AM): That Hank Hill is a man's man, I tell you hwat.
Pango (1:06:40 AM): Take it easy.
Peach (1:06:50 AM): Dude.
Peach (1:06:52 AM): Seriously.
Peach (1:07:01 AM): That Don Henley shit isn't going to make me take it any easier.
Peach (1:07:06 AM): And even if that's not your intent...
Pango (1:07:09 AM): WHOO-HOO-HOOOOO
Peach (1:07:10 AM): It's still burned there.
Pango (1:07:16 AM): Fuck that song.
Peach (1:07:23 AM): Fuck Don Henley.
Peach (1:07:27 AM): Who is Don Henley?
Pango (1:07:40 AM): Sounds like the name of a failed politician, who would drop out in the first round of a primary.
Peach (1:08:26 AM): I think "Don Henley" is how Dan Quayle incorrectly spelled "potato."
Peach (1:09:00 AM): Little known fact: Don Henley was the eighth shooter of Bobby Kennedy.
Pango (1:09:15 AM): Don Henley doesn't care about black people.
Peach (1:13:19 AM): When Robert Johnson died, his last words were "Don Henley."
Pango (1:14:03 AM): Don Henley is Robert Johnson reincarnated; his punishment for selling his soul to the devil to master guitar is reliving life only to play "Witchy Woman."
Peach (1:14:40 AM): In this famous picture of Robert Johnson, the ethereal vapor at the right of the shot is the ghost of Don Henley.
Peach (1:09:32 AM): On the eighth day, God created Don Henley.
Peach (1:09:54 AM): It was His only mistake.
Pango (1:09:55 AM): On the ninth day, God woke up with a hangover saying "Oh, man, what did I do last night?"
Peach (1:10:53 AM): "I'm always jotting things down on pieces of paper. I've got pieces of paper all over my house." -Don Henley (actual quote)
Peach (1:11:29 AM): "I grew up with Ray Cromie, and he turned out to be the normal one." -Don Henley (actual quote)
Peach (1:12:03 AM): "This one goes out to the one I love." -Michael Stipe (feat. John Henley)
Peach (1:12:14 AM): (Code name for Don Henley)
Pango (1:12:30 AM): "I believe in nothing. I know only the tangible power of steel and fire. It is the power to inspire fear in the weak." - Don Henley
Pango (1:15:39 AM): Don Henley is synthesized from lysergic acid derived from ergot, a grain fungus that typically grows on rye, and was first synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann.
Peach (1:17:29 AM): They say bitches ain't shit. But we all know what Don Henley is.
Pango (1:17:54 AM): You better check yourself before you wreck yourself, 'cause Don Henley in your ass is bad for your health.
Peach (1:20:23 AM): What does God hate?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

No. 1 Single Reviews: "Whatever You Like" by T.I.

"Hot wings, baby, do you have any?"

And so begins the greatest musical romance of the year. What's even going on here? In the video for T.I.'s "Whatever You Like", he stops into a fast food joint and flirts with the cashier. They flirt, he passes her his number, and we see them out on the town. But, as we find out in a surprise twist ending, the girl daydreamed the phone number, and in reality it was just a one-hundred dollar bill¹ to pay for the grub. So we get the poor chicken-pusher hallucinating herself starring in a hip-hop video as T.I. openly raps about being a sugar daddy ("a rich, usually older man who offers money or gifts to a less rich, usually younger person in return for companionship or sexual favors" - Wikipedia.)

Recap: to escape the drudgery of pushing cheap, greasy meals, she dreams of being exploited by a rapper in return for sex. Not only is the message that this is what young girls should dream of, but that they will never actually have it and be forced to pretend.

Silly if you think about it, but the song is too slick to give you the free time. It's really the beat that carries it. There are synths that approximate the tone and timing of stabbed strings, which gives it a vaguely classical feel that clashes just right with the thick synthlines and thumping bass hits (not quite "What You Know" epic, but suitably reminiscent.)

Although there are no clever rhymes, and T.I. is merely serviceable rapping about the good life, the delivery is smooth and sing-songy at all the right times, and the superficiality slips past. His high notes are sweet and insincere, and just about right for a shallow come-on. Nothing essential, but catchy and sleek enough to work as a No. 1 for a week, sure

¹ a.k.a. "Benjamin."

Monday, September 1, 2008

Mashups: "Wolf Like Rihanna" by ToToM

Someone put my number one song of 2006 and my number one song of 2007 - "Wolf Like Me" and "Umbrella" - together in a mashup. (Yes, they are officially number one. I make lists every year.)

And I do mean mashed em up. I am almost not convinced that this ToToM entity has audio software that allows him to do anything more sophisticated than literally play the songs over top of each other. It's mostly Rihanna's vocals ringing out over the guitars from TV on the Radio, and the dissonance between the overlapping tracks makes Rihanna sound ghostly and disconnected.

What's truly amazing, though, is what happens to Jay-Z's superfluous opening rap. It's a testament to the goodwill towards "Umbrella" that we all just kind of looked the other way for those forty seconds in the first place, and in the mash-up they come in over the opening feedback from "Wolf Like Me," as if ToToM is saying "You're not good enough for the riff, Hov." But then the bridge comes in, and the music drops. It's right where Rihanna's sweet "you can run into my arms" line should come in. Instead, the rap comes back in, slowed down, epic, the best moment in the mashup.

Maybe Girl Talk has changed the focus towards packing layers and layers of songs all into one, instead of finding two songs that have the same structure and dynamics and somehow complement each other, so you don't hear this kind of thing as much. But "Wolf Like Rihanna" is masterful.

Download: "Wolf Like Rihanna"