Frenzy On Blog Archive for December, 2010

Best Albums of 2010

(Warning: this post is not about movies.  Proceed with caution.)

I don’t claim to have the same knowledge about music (historically or currently) that I do about movies.  (I am NOT an expert on music.)  But I do have a passion for listening to new music.  In fact, I find it damn near impossible to write anything without music playing in the background.  Music inspires me and I find the best lyricists today to be some of the best poets; writing poetry is difficult enough without having to set it to a particular beat or rhythm.  This year I spent a lot of time listening to music that was new to me, but wasn’t necessarily new, but I’m going to focus this list on albums that came out in 2010.  As a reference, my favorite artists of all-time are: David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, The Strokes, Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, The Beatles, The Clash, The Doors, The Streets, Fiona Apple, and about a million others – but if you appreciate that cross-section, then you may or may not agree with my choices below.

(Note: I’m going strictly with LPs, but the best things I listened to this year was the EP by The Rassle and the music of Jared Evan.  Full Disclosure: the members of that band are some of my best friends and I’ve known Jared since he was 11.)

10.  Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

I wasn’t a particularly big fan of Arcade Fire‘s first two albums, finding them a bit meandering, pretentious and overly wrought.  I felt with this album, they had a focus which helped me connect to it on an emotional and visceral level; more than that, they created songs that really lingered.  Songs like “We Used to Wait” or “Sprawl II” evoked feelings of emptiness and nostalgia while “Month of May” is just a really good straight-up rock song.  Overall, as a band, I find them to be a bit boring but undeniably talented.  And while I didn’t love this album, at least I can finally see why everyone went nuts over them after Funeral.

9.  Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

Damon Albarn is just a twisted genius and with this album, he’s finally lifted Gorillaz to the same plateau as Blur.  At first, it seemed like Gorillaz would be a one-off gimmick, but now they seem more relevant than ever.  The two previous Gorillaz albums seems to be trying really hard to blend a lot of different styles of music, while Plastic Beach blends those genres seamlessly.  Cuts like “Stylo” and “Sweepstakes” get an assist from hip hop artist Mos Def and they flow incredibly well with a song like the hypnotic “Some Kind of Nature” with a guest vocal by the legendary Lou Reed.  Snoop Dogg, Mick Jones, and De La Soul also make appearances on this undeniably fun record.

8. Wavves – King of the Beach

I was a fan of Wavves last record, which relied heavily on “noise” and feedback and distorted vocals.  I was wondering if Nathan Williams, the man behind Wavves, would be a one-trick pony and if he’d continue to use those same noise elements in his sophomore record to hide his deficiencies.  Well, King of the Beach is a much cleaner album and Williams had nothing to hide.  This is an out and out beach record, as the album’s title suggests.  The title track, “Post Acid,” and “Super Soaker” just make you want to rock out with a few friends in the sand.  But what I found really fascinating were songs like “Linus Spacehead” and “Idiot” which are about alienation, loneliness, and depression.  The lyrics aren’t that incisive, but the way Williams sings them and the way he hides his emotions inside of “upbeat” songs, really resonated with me.

7.  Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I didn’t really care about Taylor Swift and I don’t particularly care that Kanye is brash and full of bravado.  Like any great artist, all that should matter is the art that they put out there.  And for me – as someone who listened exclusively to hip hop as a child but grew weary of the direction it went int – Kanye West is the only artist that matters in the rap game right now.  Nobody else sings about their own securities quite like he does and on this album, he puts it all out there.  He talks about getting cheated on, cheating, lying, what his dreams and fantasies are, the whole ballgame.  But what makes this record so special is that it isn’t derivative of anybody else’s work.  No other rapper would have the insight or the gall to sample an Aphex Twin track for a heartbreaking cut like “Blame Game.”  No other rapper would admit to his douchebaggery so candidly, as West does on “Runaway.”  And no other rapper would talk so insightfully about fame, as West does on “Power.”  People can talk all they want about Jay-Z‘s guest appearances or Nicki Minaj‘s insanely brilliant verse on “Monster,” but this is a peek inside the brain of a genius named Kanye West and he’s the first to admit that it’s not always pretty in there.

6. The Walkmen – Lisbon

I’ve always had a soft spot for The Walkmen.  “The Rat” is just one of those instant classic songs that brings me back to a time and a place of my youth and still resonates with me, almost a decade later.  I’ve admired a lot of their work, a song here and a song there, but I hadn’t found a complete album of theirs that I liked from start to finish.  Lisbon is not a perfect album – the last three tracks are shrug-worthy – but it’s so beautiful and evocative for two-thirds of it.  It opens up with the song “Juveniles” and the lament that, “You’re with someone else/tomorrow night/doesn’t matter to me” and it’s clear that this is a break-up album.  And it’s a heartbreaking one.  The stand-out track is in the middle of the album and it’s called “Stranded” with the gut-wrenching refrain of “And I’m stranded…and I’m starry-eyed.”  If you want to lay in bed and think about your past loves, this is the album for you.

5.  Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today

I don’t often agree with Pitchfork, but we’re definitely on the same page when it comes to “Round and Round” as the best song of the year.  That song just has such a perfect bridge and chorus that I would have put Ariel Pink’s album on here even if the rest of it sucked.  But the truth is that the rest of the album is almost as good.  Songs like “Fright Night” and “Beverly Kills” are just stellar.  Pink’s music might not be to everyone’s taste, but this is certainly his most accessible music.  There’s a nostalgic quality to his music, as if it comes from some undefined era in your childhood that you can’t quite place.  This album is like a mixtape you made when you were ten years old and just found again recently; all of the songs sound familiar, but you can’t quite sing along to them.  “Round and Round” is a nice entryway into the album for those who aren’t familiar with Ariel Pink’s style because it’s the poppiest song he’s ever recorded.  If you haven’t yet, then give it a listen.

4.  Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – The Social Network Soundtrack

For someone who claims to be a film-loving lunatic, I’m not the kind of nerd that plays the scores for movies all day long.  I think there are only a handful of scores that I actually bought and I think two of them were by Clint Mansell.  The problem for me is that I like to listen to music with lyrics.  I mean, I love classical music as much as the next person, but when I come home at the end of the day, I want the music to literally speak to me.  But, as I said earlier, I’m an enormous Nine Inch Nails fan and therefore, I’m a huge Trent Reznor fan.  This is the best score for a film since Jonny Greenwood’s compositions for There Will Be Blood and it’s some of the best music period that I’ve heard all year.  In between seeing the film in theaters and getting my screener, I found myself re-living the experience again and again by listening to the score; the music and the images are married together in such perfect harmony that I couldn’t help but picture scenes of Mark Zuckerberg created FaceMash juxtaposed with images of Final Club parties while listening to the masterful “In Motion” which could easily be an instrumental track on a NIN album.  And I certainly re-lived the regatta race scene again as I listened to Reznor and Ross’ electronic cover of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”  This is moving, soulful, and rocking music and it’s what every score should aspire to.  If this doesn’t win the Oscar for best musical score, I may throw a shoe at my television.

3.  LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening

I really hope that James Murphy doesn’t make good on his promise that this, his third record, will be the last LCD Soundsystem album.  With each successive album, they are getting better and better and tighter and tighter.  The opening track, “Dance Yrself Clean” is such an assured, confident piece of music, lulling the listener into safety for the first three minutes until it explodes in a cacophony of bass, synth, and drums and all of a sudden your body is demanding that you move.  A lot of critics have made comparisons to David Bowie‘s Heroes, especially on “All I Want” and I think it’s an accurate assessment.  But songs like “I Can Change” are more reminiscent of early 80s New Wave groups like Devo than anything else.  But really, by the time you get to the finale “Home,” it’s pretty clear that LCD Soundsystem isn’t really like any other band.  Sure, they have influences and borrow some bits and pieces from the groups that have come before, but I can’t really think of any other band that sounds quite like them as a whole.  And I hope they continue to put albums, if only to see where they could possibly go from here.

2.  Best Coast – Crazy For You

A lot of people might point to some of the simplistic lyrics Bethany Cosentino uses as a sign that she’s not a talented songwriter.  I humbly disagree.  Yes, a lot of the lyrics are trite, but that doesn’t make them any less true.  And when she sings these pained lyrics with her soulful voice, it’s almost like they’ve never been sung before.  All of the songs on her first full-length album are, more or less, about wanting a guy, losing a guy, finding a guy, wishing a guy would like her, smoking pot, and her cat.  But the music is beachy (no surprise, she’s dating Wavves lead singer Nathan Williams) and fun, never allowing Bethany to mourn her situations for too long.  But the best thing Bethany has going for her is her humility; on tracks like “Bratty B” she talks about missing her boyfriend but then apologizing for being so needy.  One of the stand-out tracks for me is “I Want To” which starts out with the repetition of the line “I miss you so much” with the same chord plucked over and over again until  it erupts in a wave of emotion as she pleads for things to go back the way they used to be.  The single, “When I’m With You” is a good place for any newcomer to start, it’s a fun and yet poignant song about being lazy or crazy and having the best time with the person you love.  It’s a miracle that this wasn’t my favorite album of the year.

1. Vampire Weekend – Contra

I know, I know.  I hated them too.  Or, at least, I wanted to hate them too.  They seem so pretentious and posed, with their Ivy-League educations and well-to-do backgrounds, what could they possibly know about love and life and suffering?  Well, apparently a lot.  I gave this album a listen and was absolutely floored by it.  The depth of their lyrics, the boldness of the music, the way lead singer Ezra Koenig’s voice hits these amazing high notes – no, no, no, I can’t possibly be loving this band, could I?  Contra is the rare sophomore album that actually made me go back to the band’s first album and realize that I had them wrong all along.  Contra actually makes their debut album better because it shows that they are committed to a certain sound and style and they are capable of growth.  Most of their music happens to deal with rich kids with rich kid problems, but hell, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about rich people, it doesn’t make The Great Gatsby any less heartbreaking, does it?  The song I listened to the most this year is Vampire Weekend‘s epic “Diplomat’s Son” which is a six minute song about having a crush on your friend and the one night that the feelings are reciprocated.  A close second is the song “Run” which is about a couple growing older together and never leaving their mundane lives but keep telling each other that they could always run away.  At least, that’s what I think it’s about.  Like I said, the lyrics are deep and dense and there are many possible meanings.  People listen to the shake of the music and think that Vampire Weekend is just a silly little band, not realizing that what they are accomplishing is extremely difficult.  This is what rock should do: the music draws you close enough to pay attention to the lyrics, which add a whole other layer of enjoyment.  I’ve listened to Contra upwards of fifty times this year…I’m still enjoying new layers.

Okay, so what did I miss?  What should I have put on this list?


Top Ten TV Shows

I’m a bit of a pop culture junkie.  Aside from seeing an average of 150 new films of every year, I also watch a lot of television, listen to a lot of new music, and I read quite a lot of fiction.  As I begin the early preparations of my top ten films of the year list, I decided to give TV its due.  And to answer the critics who will inevitably shout about the ridiculousness of lists…well, I like them and I think they help provoke discussions and (friendly) arguments.  Hopefully my top ten shows of the year will do that.

I want to start by talking about one show you won’t see on this list: Lost.  It was, without a doubt, my favorite show on television while it was airing but I thought it completely crapped the bed.  It wasn’t just the finale, which clearly showed that the creators had no idea what they were doing, but the entire last season.  Within the first seconds of the new season, with Jack on the plane, I thought, “this is not where I want this to go.”  I will always love Lost for the enjoyment it gave me for the first five seasons, but anyone who defends the last season is completely deluding themselves.  I got choked up during the finale, only because it was super manipulative.  I didn’t expect answers to all of my questions, but I expected something that would have satisfied me in a more tangible way.  Every character spoke in vague generalities right down to the very end and I wanted something concrete…I think we all did.

(Note: I’m not including reality shows for two reasons.  1) It’s embarrassing to admit which reality shows I watch (coughRealWorldcough) and 2) I don’t really see the artistry in those shows (coughTopChefcough).)

Honorable Mention:

I really wanted to put Dexter on this list, but I can’t ignore the fact that the first two or three episodes fell flat and the season finale was incredibly disappointing.  Michael C. Hall was as fantastic as ever, but after last year’s killer season finale, this one seemed a little too easy.  Julia Stiles gave the show a new energy in the middle part of the season as Lumen and the deepening of her relationship with Dexter was the most enjoyable part of the season.  I hope she’ll be back next year and I hope the stakes are a bit higher.

I also would have loved to have put Weeds on the list, but I just think it’s petering out.  My biggest gripe with the show from the beginning has been that Nancy Botwin is one of the most despicable characters on television and certainly the worst mother.  I’ve grown tired of seeing her get painted into a corner only to find a way out only because I can no longer root for her to succeed.  Mary Louise-Parker is such a wonderful actress, but I think she needs to spread her wings with a different character.  Justin Kirk, however, still makes the show an entertainment.

30 Rock is still consistently funny every week, but is suffering from the problems that most sitcoms have as they mature: the characters become caricatures of themselves.  Rather than each of the cast members becoming a deeper and more nuanced character, they settle into certain personality traits that ultimately define them.  So Tracy is merely the wacky guy, Jenna the narcissistic actress, Jack the Republican, Liz the lonely gal, etc.  I tune in to every show and I laugh consistently, but I don’t care about the characters in any real way.  It’s like watching a cartoon.  A very funny one.

The Office is like hanging out with old buddies.  I know each of the characters so well that I feel like I know what they’re going to do in every given situation.  It’s a comfortable situation rather than one I tune in to for something mind-blowingly original and dazzling.  I think the show is running out of real stakes for these characters because there is no major conflict unless you count Michael and Holly or Andy and Erin, but those are lightweight issues compared to Jim and Pam’s courtship in the early seasons.  I still love it, but it’s not transcendent television any longer.

The first season of Eastbound and Down was pure gold from start to finish.  The second season finished stronger, but it started out of the gate a little bit slowly.  It took a while for the show to find its rhythm in Mexico, but once it got going (right around the time that Stevie shows up), it really took off.  The last episode was not only hilarious, but oddly poignant and it showed what a terrific actor Danny McBride can be when he wants to.  If only the first two episodes were as good.

Both Modern Family and Parenthood just missed this list because of  a last-second inclusion of something else.  Both of these shows are as funny as they are soul-soothing.  I know that I can flip these shows on and feel the need to call my own family.  Modern Family‘s Phil is proving to be one of the funniest characters on television thanks to a wonderful performance by Ty Burrell and Parenthood‘s Peter Krause holds that show together every week, just as he holds his family together.

Okay, so here’s the top ten:

10) Skins

Nothing gets under my skin (no pun intended) quite like the fact that MTV is re-making this wonderful British show.  The original is frank in its depictions of drugs, sex, and just being a damned teenager.  The fourth season of the show, which follows its second generation of teens, starts off with the suicide of a young girl after she takes some drugs.  The first episode seems to clear up the mystery of why and how, but the repercussions follow our main cast as the season ambles along.  This season falls apart towards the end, especially as Effy develops a strange relationship with her therapist, but it’s engaging enough throughout that we forgive its moments of silliness.  It’s certainly not on part with the first two seasons, mostly because the characters are not as likable and the actors not as charismatic, but it’s still better than most shows on American television.  Jack O’Connell as Cook really surprised me this season, taking a character that I did not care for in the first season and deepening it, making him the true hero of this generation of kids.

9) True Blood

If you think this show about vampires, werewolves, fairies and shifters is too silly, then I completely concur.  But if you can embrace the fact that it’s going to be ridiculous, then I think it’s one of the most entertaining shows on TV.  The political points it tries to hammer home are a bit on-the-nose, but otherwise this is a show that is not meant to be taken seriously.  It’s about watching these insanely beautiful people inhabit a strange world where sexual tension pervades every word and action.  I think Anna Paquin deserves a great deal of credit for being the guide that allows us to believe in this world for an hour every Sunday.  This is a soap opera, but a great one.

8) Louie

Louis C.K. is the funniest stand-up working today, but he’s a difficult person to cast in a television show.  He’s raunchy and dirty, but he brings a strange kind of sweetness to his comedy, a sweetness that is really buried in neuroses.  Lucky Louie was not the project for him because it pigeonholed him in an typical (yet ironic) sitcom.  With Louie, he gets to plumb the depths of his own psyche and he does it by writing and directing every episode; this is Louis C.K. through and through.  It’s a ballsy show too, that is comfortable with whole sections that are not designed to make you laugh.  I especially liked a scene where Louie shares a smoke with the dad of a bully on the steps of his Staten Island home; it’s not funny, but it’s true and it felt right.    With Curb Your Enthusiasm taking the year off, it’s a good thing we had Louie to take the “awkward comedy” reins.

7) Boardwalk Empire

This is a dense show that I think will grow into something gorgeous and even more complicated.  The first season did a wonderful job of giving us this ensemble of great characters that will hopefully be utilized even more in future seasons.  Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt do wonderful jobs of giving us characters that are duplicitous, murderous yet not evil.  Both men have charitable streaks, moments where they do incredibly loving things for the people they care for.  As the season progressed, though, I found myself completely engaged in two other characters: Chalky White and Richard Harrow.  Chalky, played deliciously by Michael K. Williams, is just flat-out awesome, doing what he needs to do for himself and his people.  Richard is just one of the most original and engaging creations on television, a man who lost half his face in the Great War and is now the most sensitive yet cold-blooded snipers ever.  Characters like this (and the ones played by Kelly MacDonald and Michael Stuhlbarg) make up for the fact that Paz de la Huerta is giving one of the most terrible performances I’ve ever witnessed in a great show.  I just don’t know what she – or the creators – are going for with that character, but she doesn’t resemble a rational human being in any way.

6) Bored to Death

Being an aspiring novelist living in New York City, I probably have a greater affinity for this show than most people.  But I will say that I didn’t like most of the first season, finding it off-putting and strained.  But it’s really come into its own in the second season by giving us more Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis.  More importantly, the show has done a good job of getting all three of the main characters together more often because that’s when the show really takes off.  Danson, especially, should be given every award there is for his performance as George Christopher, the perpetually stoned magazine editor and benefactor to Jonathan, our hero.  I think Jason Schwartzman also did a wonderful job of giving us a more sympathetic (emphasis on pathetic) portrait of a struggling author with a love for white wine.  The season started off with an episode in which Jonathan runs around Times Square with an S&M bodysuit on and ends with he and George going to smoke some pot; in between, there were moments of hilarity and startling poignancy.  Poignancy, you ask?  When George is headed off to surgery and the nurses asks him if Jonathan is his son, I was already in tears before he said, “Yes, yes he is.”

5) Saturday Night Live

Know what the worst opinion to have is?  “SNL hasn’t been funny since ________.”  That bothers me so much because it shows that whoever said that doesn’t know much about SNL.  Go back and watch those early “great” years of the show and you’ll see that was just as hit or miss as it is now.  The show was never consistently funny all the time, the skits always ran on too long, etc.  Then there’s “this cast sucks.”  People said the same thing when the cast had future superstars Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and Chris Rock or when Will Ferrell and Jimmy Fallon were on.  The point is that, yes, it sometimes misses the mark and there are off-shows, but when it’s on, it is the funniest live-action comedy show out there.  Between the Digital Shorts and Seth Meyers’ wonderful job on Weekend Update, SNL is still going strong and I’m still watching it (well, DVRing it) every Saturday.  If you disagree, then I suggest you go on Hulu and check out Bill Hader’s “Stefon” character who recurs on Weekend Update from time to time…pure deranged genius.

4) Friday Night Lights

This is not a show about football.  I’ve had so many friends of mine who aren’t sports fans tell me about how they have no interest in “a show about football.”  It’s a show about a town, a family, a group of friends and they just happen to be connected to each other through football.  Sure there are scenes of games, but they are way less dramatic than the intimate moments between people.  This season, the show has taken a drastic turn with Coach Taylor stuck with the newly formed East Dillon High football team and we just know that there’s going to be a showdown with his old squad, the Dillon Panthers.  This season took a cue from Necessary Roughness, where there is no shot the team is going to win the championship but you just hope they can stick it to the bad guys.  However, the heart of this show has always been about Coach and his wife Tami, who are the greatest married couple on TV and played expertly by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton.  Also, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is still around breaking and mending hearts wherever he goes; he’s the character that I’ve become more drawn to as the seasons pass, a different take on the reformed bad boy who is not quite reformed but not that bad.  This season introduces new characters and brings back old ones and its to the show’s credit that it all meshes seamlessly.  I wish that this upcoming season (currently airing on DirecTV) wasn’t its last because I can see how it could go on forever…at least as long as Coach and Tami stick around.

3) In Treatment

This is just such a fantastic example of how great writing plus great acting equals a great show.  There are no elaborate sets or special effects, just two people talking in a room and the dramatic tension within those conversations.  Gabriel Byrne’s Paul is an unusual therapist who gets close with his patients and the way in which he aligns with the people he treats is one of the big themes this season.  Irrfan Khan, who has always been an underrated and fantastic actor, absolutely kills it as Sunil this season – a man who is living with his son and his son’s family in the States and the friction between he and his daughter-in-law.  Debra Winger’s episodes weren’t as strong for me, but I thought she was good in them.  I didn’t respond to the “Jesse” episodes early in the season because he seemed like such a brat, but as I continued with it they became some of my favorites and it’s in no small part due to Dane DeHaan’s complicated and conflicted portrayal.  But this season for me was all about Paul’s relationship with his new therapist Adele, played by the uber-talented Amy Ryan.  The episodes start off by turning the “Gina” sessions from the previous two seasons on their head, making us question the ethics of Dianne Wiest’s character.  Then, of course, the complexion of Paul and Adele’s counseling changes and we veer off into unexpected (although not uncharted) territory for this show.  The last episodes weren’t as satisfying as they have been in the past – nothing is really resolved – but I’m hopeful that HBO will renew it for another season.  There may not be a large number of In Treatment fans (although there should be), but we are passionate and loyal.

2) Archer

Hands down the funniest show on television.  It took me a while to watch this animated show on FX, but when I did it absolutely floored me.  I’m not the kind of person that laughs out loud a lot when I’m alone, but this show had me crying from laughter and my neighbors must have thought I was insane.  The show follows the most self-centered and hilariously deranged secret agent, Sterling Archer, who works at an agency called ISIS that is run by his mother Mallory Archer.  I don’t really know where to go from here because I don’t want to ruin a single second of this show for those of you haven’t seen it, but I’ll just say that H. Jon Benjamin does incredible voice work as the titular character and Arrested Development alums Jessica Walter and Judy Greer (as well as Jeffrey Tambor) also do excellent work.  I’ve been quoting this show non-stop since I saw it – the humor is really quite insane, especially when it’s derived from the relationship Archer has with his butler Woodhouse.  Here’s an example and if you don’t find these this type of humor funny then it might not be for you:

Archer: I have to go. But if I find one single dog hair when I get back, I’ll rub… sand… in your dead little eyes.
Woodhouse: Very good, sir.
Archer: [pause] I also need you to buy sand.
Woodhouse: Yes, sir.
Archer: I don’t know if they grade it, but… coarse.

1) Mad Men

The funny thing about putting these two shows together is that the style of the clothes in Archer is heavily based on the clothes in Mad Men and Archer is kind of a dead-ringer for Don Draper himself.  But, there is no longer any doubt in my mind that Mad Men is the best show on television right now and is possibly in the running for greatest television show of all time.  That is not just hyperbole either; I honestly can’t think of another show that has been this dense and this beautifully crafted.  This season of the show could be called “MadMan.”  It  puts Don Draper in a new office with a new apartment, having moved out following his divorce from Betty, and in the early going he does not handle it well.  Gradually, Don tries to become a better and healthier person.  By the end of the season he is engaged and we’re left wondering if he’s really made any strides at all.  The episode where Don and Peggy spend the night arguing as they try to figure out the ad slogan for Samsonite is certainly one of the best in the show’s history, but I think the season finale is even better.  When Don travels to Disneyland and he sees his secretary Megan cleaning up a spilled milkshake with a smile instead of the scowl that Betty would have worn, it’s one of the greatest moments in the show because no dialogue needs to be spoken for us to understand what is happening.  Everybody at that table, including Don’s kids, has a revelation in that moment, but it’s a subtle one.  And it’s moments like that that make Mad Men such a wonderful show, the way it doesn’t feel the need to spell out its intentions, giving us the benefit of the doubt.  It doesn’t talk down to us and it doesn’t talk at us, it asks us to pay close enough attention so that we can make the most out of our experience of watching it.  The agony of waiting another eight months for a new episode is excruciating.


127 Hours (Dir. Danny Boyle)

127 Hours is, so far, my pick for the most overrated movie of the year.

Don’t get me wrong, 127 Hours is not a bad film, it’s just one that doesn’t really strike me as having a particular point of view or an interest in characterization.  For some folks, that won’t be an issue, they’ll walk into the film wanting to see a man stuck in a perilous situation for an hour and change and then cut his arm off.  For those folks, that will be enough and they’ll walk out satisfied.  But for me, I need arcs, I need characters, I need to walk out of a film knowing more than when I walked into it.

I don’t know Aron Ralston any better now that I’ve seen a movie about him than I did before I walked into it.  Before the film started, I knew him as the guy who cut his arm off because he was trapped in a crevice for five days, his arm pinned by a rock.  Now that I’ve seen the film and had a day to digest it, I will still think of him in the exact same way.  He is still nothing but a fascinating symbol of the human will for survival.

And all of that is fine and dandy, except that a film is an opportunity to shape that symbol into a character and bring him into focus.  Danny Boyle instead eschews traditional narrative tropes that would have worked to the film’s benefit, instead just giving us minute after minute of James Franco screaming and gasping and slowly dying of thirst.  And while I admire Boyle’s courage in trying to make an interesting movie about this struggle, I don’t think he completely hits the mark.

Imagine Into the Wild, except the entire film is set in the “magic bus” at the end of the film.  After all, that part of Chris McCandless’ life is what brought him to our attention to begin with; had he not died in that bus, nobody would have known who he was.  But instead, the film travels back to give us a picture of how this character came to get to that bus, what drove him as a person.  As a result, when McCandless dies, we feel we have known this character and feel the loss of him.  Conversely, in 127 Hours, we don’t feel like we know Aron Ralston at all, so we he finally decides to cut his arm off, I didn’t feel the film earned that moment.  I didn’t understand what that moment meant to Ralston or what it was supposed to mean to us beyond the surface act of actually doing it.

The film gives us snippets of Ralston’s life, of how he doesn’t return his mother’s calls and his fractured relationship with a girlfriend.  But I’m not sure what these snippets signify other than that Ralston had lived a fairly normal life and had fairly ordinary motivations to get out of this situation.  This would have been the film’s opportunity to deepen the characterization of Aron by deepening his relationships with the people around him.  One could say that, “oh, but what if those relationships were boring in real-life?”  Well, this is a fictionalized account of what happened, the film therefore has license to change things around in order to fit the screen in a more interesting way.  That is the difference between feature and documentary filmmaking, the ability to shift the truth (and some would argue that documentary does the same thing).  I guarantee you that there are many elements of 127 Hours that were completely made up, but even if Boyle didn’t want to invent something entirely that would make Aron’s past more interesting, I’m sure there must have been something already there.  Human beings are inherently complicated, I’m sure there was something in Aron’s past that would capture our attention and make us care more about his plight.

Instead the first half of the film is especially trying to watch because it’s, frankly, boring.  After the initial fall in the crevice, all I was thinking was, “how long until he cuts off his damned arm?” because much of the running time is focused on Aron chipping away at the rock with the knife he eventually uses to do the deed.  There are a few good moments where Aron talks to the camcorder he brought with him (the best moment in the film is probably the “talk show scene”), but I didn’t like the fake “escape” sequence.  If you have to pad your running time by including a five minute long scene that didn’t actually happen, then you might want to think about how to better structure your film.

James Franco is good in the role, but I don’t understand the unanimous acclaim for his performance because I don’t know what he does that another (good) actor couldn’t have done.  The role doesn’t demand that much from its actor other than to scream a lot; there are very few choices that an actor could make that would change the complexity of the character.  If you had replaced Franco with, say, Jake Gyllenhaal, would the film/performance be vastly different?  Franco was certainly convincing in the role, probably his best performance to date, but I’m not convinced of its greatness, especially in a year with so many fantastic lead performances.

As for Danny Boyle, I suppose this is the kind of film you’re allowed to make after you win an Oscar, but I was disappointed with a lot of the visual “tricks” he used in order to keep the story entertaining.  A lot of the close-ups of the water being drunk reminded me of Aronofsky’s work in Requiem for a Dream, only not done as effectively.  I always found that Boyle has had a lot of trouble with the endings of his films (besides Shallow Grave and Trainspotting) and at least here, he found one with a ready-made perfect ending.

The scene of the actual arm-cutting itself wasn’t as disgusting as I anticipated it would be.  Blood doesn’t have the same effect it once did, but the moments where he has to break the bone and then cut through nerve endings were powerfully rendered.

But I got the feeling as the film went on, careening towards its inevitable conclusion that I was essentially watching a snuff film minus the death.  There are some that would be excited by that prospect, but I’m not one of them.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon