Monday, July 28, 2008

Film Review: The Dark Knight

With well over $300,000,000 in 10 days (one of many sales records broken), I suppose The Dark Knight would coast by just fine without one more rapturous review. But even though I've seen the film three times, I can't stop thinking about it, and wanted to jot some thoughts down.

Like this year's other genre masterwork, Iron Man, The Dark Knight is a big-budget crowd-pleaser that manages to remain grounded without betraying its comic book origins. Yes, it's got a big budget and huge action sequences. It's a movie to see again and again, if only for one more chance to chuckle, cheer and cringe along with the crowd at scenes like the Joker's pencil trick, Batman's balcony interrogation of Maroni and the first revelation of Dent's disfigurement.

But the action is matched by detailed characterization along with - and this is where it surpasses Iron Man - a plot that raises legitimate, difficult questions about the burden of being a (super)hero, of making extraordinary decisions for a greater good. Batman may have saved lives by unmasking, at least in the short run, but would that have stopped future terrorists from doing the same thing the Joker did? Or worse? Batman might also have prevented killings by taking the Joker's life. But does any one person have the right to make that decision?

The question becomes increasingly urgent as the Joker's "social experiments" slowly raise the stakes from the life of one thug in a bad Batman outfit to a boatload of civilians. A real sense of danger develops. The Joker goes from being dismissed as "some guy in a clown suit...a nobody" to a threat so great that there's talk of bringing in the National Guard in just two hours of screen-time. He may be limited to Gotham, but as the camera pulls away from an exploding hospital it feels like the entire world is at stake. (Compare this to a dud like Superman Returns, where Lex Luthor was somehow able to raise contents without raising any sense of menace.)

It may be impossible to determine how much of the hype behind Ledger's performance stemmed from his death. But perhaps the best compliment I can give his acting is this: not only did the name "Jack Nicholson" not cross my mind until an hour after I'd left the theater, but I don't know that the name "Heath Ledger" did, either. There is not a single scene with the Joker that is not instantly memorable, yet the audience is in awe of the character, not the performer.

Perhaps this is because Ledger sells the Joker as so twisted that he'd act just as bizarrely whether or not anyone was watching, just to make himself laugh. With touches like his pratfall exit from the overturned semi-truck and his dainty skip away from the hospital, it's like the Joker is mugging for a camera that's not even there. The Joker is horrifying because his giggle can switch to a scream of rage at any second, and there's no reason why. Like No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh, the Joker has no past, no history, no motivation beyond "fair" chaos; "nothing in his pockets but knives and lint."

Chigurh's sinister interpretation of "fair" as a life-or-death coin flip also brings us to Harvey Dent. As mentioned before, The Dark Knight poses difficult moral dilemmas, and Aaron Eckhart's performance as Dent should not be overlooked. In many ways, The Dark Knight is really Harvey Dent's movie. Eckhart has got to carry the film's themes through his character's growth and change. Most of them come down to moral relativism; a vigilante is only a hero until he steps over the line, or "until he lives long enough to see himself become the villain," to use Dent's words. Batman and the Joker are well-defined on their opposite poles of discipline and chaos, and reveal each other's nature, but change very little.

Dent's caught in the middle. He is a good man, but too idealistic for his morals to survive the reality of Gotham City. Unlike the Joker, origin is everything for Dent. My little brother complained there wasn't enough Two-Face, but the film gets it right: the character is meaningless without Dent's fall. The final showdown with Lt. Gordon's family at gunpoint is perhaps most chilling when Dent asks "You think I want to escape this?", indicating that even in his madness he realizes the immorality of his actions, but is so distraught he wants revenge anyway.

Dent may try to deceive himself, but his crimes are all the more horrific because, unlike the Joker, he is, or was, too decent a man to act above the law. Once he becomes Two-Face, Dent uses "chance" as a rationalization of the violence he wants to commit. While Chigurh's coin flip is at least a true 50/50, Dent loses any semblance of fair when he starts flipping until he gets the result he wants, like when a coin flip spares Maroni, but a second kills his driver and crashes his car.

The Joker wants to prove that everyone has the potential to sink to his level. Batman really is incorruptible, but he is a vigilante, and the public cannot hang their hopes on him. Dent can bring Gotham together, but the loss of his reputation would be devastating. The symbolism of Gordon turning Dent's face over from the scarred to the untouched side as he and Batman decide to preserve his reputation as Gotham's "white knight" may not be subtle, but the melodrama is befitting of a comic film. And, in a roundabout way, it answers the question of who has the right to make such broad moral decisions as the ones the Joker poses.

We can go to Alfred for an answer: "...that's the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice." The turning over of Dent's face is important because it shows that Dent, like Batman, or any "hero," is most important as a symbol. This is another reason the Joker's threat feels so pressing: unlike other comic movies, where the girl or the city or the planet is in danger, The Dark Knight takes on the very nature of the struggle between good and evil. Aiming for that can so often seem silly, which keeps even the best comic flicks as just comic flicks, The Dark Knight tackles the underlying themes without sacrificing the pace of the tensest, grittiest and most gripping comic adaptation to date.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Concert Review: Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park, Chicago, July 20

(The Aluminum and Connector stages are the main stages, which have hourly sets on the hour. Balance is the side stage, where there are hourly sets that stagger a bit, usually starting around the half-hour mark.)

1:30 p.m. Dirty Projectors (Aluminum)

Low-key but very interesting set. I saw the first 20 minutes or so before heading over for Boris, and I was a bit dizzy from the bizarre vocal harmonies. Band leader Dave Longstreth has got a strange voice, but the combination of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian produces some wonderfully strange melodies. Some unexpected dynamic changes and odd time signatures popping up, as well. Certainly the most worthwhile band I wasn't familiar with that I looked into.

2:00 p.m. Boris (Connector)

Apparently in a Japanese psychedelic metal band, all crowd-hyping responsibilities fall upon the drummer, who works the crowd by waving his white gloves and banging a massive gong. When Boris became the festival's biggest sound problem casualties - only halfway into their allotted hour-long slot, equipment problems stopped them - it was the drummer who abruptly (albeit awesomely) ended the set by jumping up, kicking over his cymbals, and diving into the crowd. Like Animal Collective, a set that was really peaking when it got cut off.

3:00 p.m. The Apples in Stereo (Aluminum)

The Apples in Stereo's set was solid, but the band does not benefit from the rougher edge of a live rock performance. Too much of their charm comes from the studio sheen that gets lost when guitar amps choke out the keys and harmonies. New Magnetic Wonder highlight "7 Stars" lost a lot of it's kick without the shimmering ELO-style effects on the backing vocals, and even stacking the first 20 minutes of the set with other recent "Can You Feel It?" and "Energy" couldn't keep the band from sounding more ordinary; one friend described them as a "more cerebral Weezer." Since the Hold Steady already concerned the weekend market on nerd-rock, the Apples were just a midday time-killer.

3:15 p.m. King Khan & the Shrines (Balance)

Performance of the festival? Perhaps. My only reservation is that seeing Khan at the Bottom Lounge the night before was even better, although he pulled out some new tricks for the big crowd. Not enough people have heard of this guy, but he got people to pelt each other with garbage for one tune, then to wave (and later tear up) dollars bills for "Welfare Bread." If enough people were watching, it could certainly be a pair of breakout performances. His rough garage rock (with something like a nine-piece band here) is enough on its own, but no one all weekend matches Khan's showmanship. Why is a chubby Indian guy singing a gospel song about crawling into a woman's uterus? Is that a blue stormtrooper helmet he just put on? Do you think his cheerleading back-up dancer is single? Why aren't his albums even released in the U.S. yet?

5:00 p.m. Occidental Brothers Dance Band International (Balance)

This group mixes Chicago natives with African musicians, and they held up very well despite a tough spot between Khan and Wu-Tang. A lot more energetic than Vampire Weekend, who played at the same time the day before on a main stage. You haven't heard New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" until you've seen the guy singing it banging along on a gourd. Also a decent substitute for El Guincho, whose cancellation was heartbreaking.

6:00 p.m. Ghostface Killah & Raekwon (Balance)

Ghost and Rae may not have caught GZA's run-through of Liquid Swords last year (the Genius was, in fact, missing a Wu-Tang show in Amsterdam that night, if that decision can be rationalized) but seemed to avoid all the pitfalls that brought his set down. They did have the advantage of a side-stage set, meaning the smaller crowd was packed tight and hyped up, where GZA was preceding a sea of hipsters just staking out spots for Daydream Nation. But where GZA simply demanded loyalty by shouting "let me see them W's!" after every song, Ghost and Rae came bounding right out of the gate. A few 36 Chamber touchstones ("C.R.E.A.M." and "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nothing to Fuck Wit" close to the front) heated the crowd up before the duo plowed through 2-3 minute blocks of tracks off their respective solo efforts. The quick pace and spontaneity never sagged; Ghost dismissed beats he wasn't feeling by frowning to the crowd and giving a thumbs down, while Rae did a cut a capella when the DJ didn't have the track. Even the standard ODB nod at any Wu-Tang show, a run-through of "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," beat last year's. Getting Wu together long enough to run through 36 Chambers would be next to impossible, but Ghost and the Chef seem up to tackle one of their efforts as long as they could keep the off-the-cuff feeling: Cuban Linx or Ironman, anyone? (Some research after I wrote this blurb shows me they actually did the former in London in May. Keep yr fingers crossed!)

7:00 p.m. Spiritualized (Aluminum)

I get why Spoon had to headline, being just good enough that everyone agrees on their being decent, but their set two years ago was a total chore, and the little I caught this year was mostly tired people half-heartedly nodding. The weekend really ended with Spiritualized, who deserved the night skies that Spoon got. A brass section or strings might have helped flesh things out, but the additional of two female gospel singers compensated nicely, especially on "Soul on Fire." The set stayed in a rock mode, including a riveting take on "Come Together" and a noise jam so intense that it apparently shorted the sound system for awhile; it had sounded like a quiet breakdown at first, but when things abruptly cut back in the crowd realized that Spiritualized had overpowered a stage that withheld all of Daydream Nation a year before. Fantastic set with a slightly low-key crowd, but that may be because it's a band to let wash over you, not necessarily to move to; although try telling that to Jason Pierce, who concluded the set by chucking his guitar into the floor like a dart and leaving at the conclusion of the loudest thing to grace Pitchfork's stages this year.

Concert Review: Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park, Chicago, July 19

(The Aluminum and Connector stages are the main stages, which have hourly sets on the hour. Balance is the side stage, where there are hourly sets that stagger a bit, usually starting around the half-hour mark.)

1:30 p.m. Jay Reatard (Aluminum)

My inexperience at navigating Chicago's public transit means I missed the first five minutes of Reatard's set, which is devastating for someone who bangs them out 1234let'sgo Ramones style. I couldn't get far enough up to get into the pit where people were really into it, but even a bit further back his energy is overpowering. An early afternoon main stage set was probably not the best place for him, as evidenced by the contrast between the tiny pit in Union Park and the total havoc he wreaked at the Bottom Lounge at the aftershow (in the best performance of the weekend, bar perhaps King Khan.)

3:00 p.m. Fleet Foxes (Aluminum)

Fleet Foxes into Fuck Buttons into Dizzee Rascal was my most diverse two hour block of the festival. The Foxes' record relies on perfect vocal harmonies and spacious reverb, but the band can replicate it live crisply, even in a less-than-ideal outdoor venue. Well-placed in a midday set, something to sway to with closed eyes and take a much-needed chance to relax in the hot sun.

3:15 p.m. Fuck Buttons (Balance)

The set was delayed a little by sound problems, but the duo compensated with a lot of energy. Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power stare each other down from opposite sides of a large table with all their equipment, looping noise and flailing as they add live percussion and screaming vocals distorted into total incoherence. An electronic noise duo could easily turn into a laptop snoozefest live, but Fuck Buttons keep things manic and mesmerizing at the same time.

4:00 p.m. Dizzee Rascal (Connector)

Dizzee Rascal's talent is disgusting. He's 22, but has enough material off three albums to construct a show that sounds like a run-through of his greatest hits. Dizzee's set effortlessly bounced from his dark instant classic "I Luv U" to the electro of "Stand Up Tall" to the dance floor jam of "Flex" to the classic rock big beat of "Fix Up, Look Sharp" to the fake gangster call-out "Where Da G's At." But who knows if he'll ever truly break stateside. His encore of "Dance Wiv Me" was a little frustrating. It's a number one hit in the U.K., but over here people couldn't be bothered to hang around for an extra three minutes before catching Vampire Weekend. To be fair, while he had the crowd he worked them well, and the amount of people shouting his name back at him in "Jus' a Rascal" gives some hope. Another top-notch hip-hop set in what becomes the trend for the weekend.

7:00 p.m. The Hold Steady (Aluminum)

For a moment I struggled on what to say about the Hold Steady. What they do isn't complicated - glossy rock with big hooks - but what's impressive is that I had not listened to the band before about two weeks ago, and just spinning Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive in the background on my way to and from work prepared me to sing along to nearly every chorus in their set. I didn't care about the band two weeks ago, and there I was, seven rows back, pumping my fist and chanting. Convert that to thousands who thought they made one of the best records of 2006 and know every word to every song, and the crowd energy is overwhelming.

8:00 p.m. Jarvis Cocker (Connector)

Trying to headline the Connector stage against the crowd favorite triple-header of Vampire Weekend-Hold Steady-Animal Collective over on Aluminum is a difficult task, but Cocker's showmanship matched any of them without even touching on a Pulp song (although Titus Andronicus reportedly opened the day with a cover of "Common People.") How a skinny Brit in a navy blue suit and thick black rims was the suavest guy at the festival isn't easy to explain, although moves like the world's slickest disrobing sure helped.

9:00 p.m. Animal Collective (Aluminum)

The Animal Collective are getting way out there with their live performances now, pushing electronic loops as the basis of their material, most of which is new (I only took note of "Peacebone" and "Fireworks" off Strawberry Jam, in addition to the surprise inclusion of Panda Bear's "Comfy in Nautica.") It's impressive not only that the Animal Collective is pushing for such a departure in sound (as if they weren't experimenting to begin with), but that they retain a large fanbase who follows them through their experiments. As aforementioned, the set abruptly ended at around 10 with Avey Tare politely apologizing for the band's curfew, just as the crowd's trance seemed to be heightened. While it lasted, however, the hour-long swirl was the perfect end to the day.

Concert Review: Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park, Chicago, July 18

(The Aluminum and Connector stages are the main stages, which have hourly sets on the hour. Balance is the side stage, where there are hourly sets that stagger a bit, usually starting around the half-hour mark.)

6:00 p.m. Mission of Burma performing Vs. (Connector)

Burma had the silliest approach to doing a classic album, playing the four bonus tracks before actually starting the proper album and punctuating the set with prerecorded vinyl crackle to represent flipping the record over. Perhaps not as essential as their set two years ago, but only because the specific setlist meant the absence of the Signals, Calls and Marches heavy-hitters. There was one big improvement: two years ago, Burma cut "Trem Two" from their setlist because Roger Miller's loop pedal overheated and malfunctioned, but the rain earlier in the day must have kept the stage cool enough not to melt their equipment. Burma plays with more grit despite their age, their records are still as progressive as any contemporary bands, and they were built to play as a whole all the way through, making them a great fit for a Don't Look Back set.

7:15 p.m. Sebadoh performing Bubble and Scrape (Connector)

Poor album choice aside - it seems like a recent Bubble and Scrape
reissue helped edge this over their classic Bakesale - Sebadoh's set was a welcome return from the slightly undersung indie rock heroes, and provided and an interesting peek into how the band's dysfunctional dynamics (read: weed) made the group so frustrating. Lou Barlow took two minutes between every song to retune, while a glassy-eyed Eric Gaffney giggled from behind the drumkit. It did, however, make for an entertaining set, especially because once the band ripped into a song they usually played very tightly. They got a little sloppier as the night went on; on Bubble and Scrape, "Elixir is Zog" thrives on the back-and-forth between quavering and screamed vocals, but live Gaffney hummed his way through it in a drowsy monotone. It was also mildly disappointing that Sebadoh was the only Friday night act not to squeeze in any encore selections (although a request "The Freed Pig" could have made that Sunday night Dinosaur Jr. set a little awkward.)

8:30 p.m. Public Enemy performing It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Aluminum)

First, a minor complaint: the Bomb Squad's pump-up-the-crowd, we-ain't-bringing-Public-Enemy-out-til-you-make-some-fucking-noise routine somehow started up before Sebadoh even finished their album and then continued to run for nearly half an hour before Chuck D even dragged himself on stage. More on this later. Flav's absence in body, if not prerecord vocals, made "Bring the Noise" a bit bizarre, but once the hit the stage the set had the crowd in a frenzy. His role as comedic foil adds some interesting dimensions to the live show, whether it's: 1.) countering the jeers he got for a cheap plug for whatever reality show with the psuedosensical "Boo? What are you, motherfucking ghosts?" 2.) constantly drawing attention to his vocals, Flav was a riot (Psst: If you're going to lip-synch, don't do it with your face in the lens of the Jumbotron camera) or 3.) inexplicably telling us how great some album called A Nation of a Millions is. Also interesting was that the group actually takes the Don't Look Back booking pretty seriously, giving trivia and historical information about each song and really giving the crowd a reason to feel they're hearing a historic album. (Millions being the Pitchfork classic album selection with the most actual pop-culture impact helps, too.) A lengthy encore kept the crowd going, as a belligerent Flav disregarded the 10:00 p.m. curfew and declared the band would play til they got shut down. They didn't, but the next night Animal Collective would be suddenly stopped at 9:55 p.m. Did we really need 30 minutes of the Bomb Squad to prepare us for a set that was going to be two hours long? But this is how you do a Don't Look Back set, and Public Enemy handily wins the honors for best of Friday night.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Initial reactions to the new design's new look has most of the tell-tale signs of a bad Web site redesign. What should be the real purpose — easy access to data about listening habits, and lots of it — is no longer the site's main function. The top most recently listened tracks used to be visible at the top of a user's profile, but now the list cannot be seen without scrolling down the browser. Old profiles showed the top 50 overall songs and artists, which can be adjusted, but the default is now just fifteen. And the expanded overall charts only seem to go to 200, down from 500. That's 300 overall top artists and top songs that users no longer have access to, not matter how the settings are adjusted. How can removing content be seen as an upgrade?

Apparently, thinks users are less interested in scrobbling and having access to their own charts than they are with turning into an underdeveloped and unnecessary social networking site: the Shoutbox is creeping up the bottom of the screen like a mutated MySpace comments box, and do we really need a Facebook-esque recent activity section?

The only plus to the new direction is the increased focus on in-site listening. The top tracks playlist high on people's profiles, but they seem slow to load, and there's already a lot of mistakes with songs where the playlist will include a live cut or a remix that is clearly not the intended song.

No precedent comes to mind of a Web site reverting to an older layout after doing a redesign, no matter how much the users complain, but the least can do is restore the full scope of the charts instead of cutting info out, even if they keep the eyesore design.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

No. 1 Single Reviews: "I Kissed a Girl" by Katy Perry

How can a song called "I Kissed a Girl" be so utterly sexless and sterile?

It's certainly not for a lack of trying. The arrangement tries to straddle a line between rock and electroclash, but the processed guitars are dulled of any edge, and the synths are sterilized. The music video tries even harder, beginning with Perry literally stroking a pussy(cat) in the clumsiest metaphor in a No. 1 single since, well, since "Lollipop" was on top two weeks before it.

A quick look at Jill Sobule's 1995 single of the same name shows why Perry fails. It's not a great song, but it's cute enough, and Sobule's innocence is far more erotic than Perry's showboating. Sobule saves the titular lyric for the end of the chorus, as if she's shyly admitting her kiss the first time. Perry whips the line out right as the chorus starts, and repeats it over and over, crassly flaunting it in a weak attempt at sex appeal.

While Sobule actually thinks to include some flirtation before the kiss, Perry's courtship is limited to the admission "I got so brave drink in hand/Lost my discretion." That's right: she's that college sophomore spilling her drink and putting on a little show with her girlfriend at a kegger to rile the guys up. Replace the video's lingerie-clad background dancers with a ring of frat boy's chugging and cheering her on, and you're closer to Perry's true intentions.

That's probably why it's a number one hit; the average American radio listener isn't interested in a single that treats female homosexuality on terms other than a Girls Gone Wild one-off make-out session that exists only for the sake of the audience.

Covers: "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" (and others) by Fiona and Emily

Sitting on a mattress, leaning against a bare wall, two British girls stare blankly into the camera, their vacant looks suggesting sedation, or perhaps abduction into a cult. The poor video quality gives the whole thing a slightly psychedelic tinge. The girls are singing Radiohead's "Street Spirit (Fade Out)", and it's really, really good.

They are Emily, 16, and Fiona, 13, two English girls who "like to sing and play songs for you all to watch and hopefully enjoy on youtube!" Outside of the strange videos, they seem like normal enough girls with normal enough interests. According to their Web site, they both love McFly and the Beatles, although Emily - somewhat bizzarely for a British teen - lists Lynyrd Skynyrd as one of her favorite groups. They're both fine singers, and Emily's guitar work usually supports even songs with more layered arrangements just fine.

Yet there's something off. Maybe it's the slight dissonance of their harmonies, which makes every song slightly eerie. Maybe it's the nervous way Fiona habitually and intently glances away in the videos - checking the lyrics, presumably. Maybe it's the fact that a thirteen year-old shouldn't be singing lyrics like "Rows of houses all bearing down on me/I can feel their blue hands touching me/All these things into position/All these things we'll one day swallow hole."

Maybe it's the fact that she's convincing when she does.

Other account highlights include: the wildly inappropriate way Fiona bounces on the edge of her bed as she croons the voyeuristic lyrics of the "Mr. Brightside,"; their unnerving, warbling "la la" harmonies on "Horse With No Name,"; the insanity of the girls doing the "ooooo!" noises in the chorus of "I Am the Walrus,"; and Fiona's oddly blank stare in "Wonderwall" (Challenge: make it through the first ten seconds while matching her death gaze into the camera.)