February 25, 2012

Academy Awards

Not because I plan to watch The Oscars this year, but more because it's been on my mind ever since the movie was released, but I really hope Tree of Life snags the award for best picture on Sunday.

It was the one movie I watched this year -- and I've watched a good many -- that really affected me as a viewer. I'm not claiming to be a worthy film critic. In fact, in the case of this movie by Terrence Malick, I'd have to recuse myself from reviewing based on the emotional response I felt as a result of watching it. Saying I felt connected with the story or characters truly is an understatement. I even hesitate about writing anything here because there's no way I'd do the movie or my own response any justice. But still, some brief notes.

Here's the list of nominees for the award for best picture (bolded are the ones I've seen):

The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and War Horse

Commence my amateur musings on the following films:

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: I was intrigued with this movie the first time I saw the trailer (ignore the U2 song). The premise behind its message -- which really set on display the wonders of human inter-connection -- seemed akin to my favorite aspects of This American Life, so there was no trouble getting me into the theater. And while I enjoyed the film, the main character blossomed into a rather intolerable subject, ultimately sapping any emotional connection I might have felt for him. The movie is framed around Sept. 11, which is well-positioned for the ultimate emotional response from viewers. I cried. Several times. But at the same time I couldn't help but consider a passage from the review I'd read in The New York Times by Manohla Dargis (who I've grown to appreciate over time):

In truth, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" isn’t about Sept. 11. It’s about the impulse to drain that day of its specificity and turn it into yet another wellspring of generic emotions: sadness, loneliness, happiness. This is how kitsch works. It exploits familiar images, be they puppies or babies — or, as in the case of this movie, the twin towers — and tries to make us feel good, even virtuous, simply about feeling. And, yes, you may cry, but when tears are milked as they are here, the truer response should be rage.

I didn't trust the movie or the motives behind it, and I didn't really like the main character. It wasn't until the very end, when a fairly revelatory moment passes, that it drew me back into the folds of the story (which was a bit far-fetched to begin with).

Midnight in Paris: I appreciated this film for all the same reasons I feel like I always appreciate Woody Allen's work. And while I walked in expecting a good amount of novelty, it was ultimately lathered on a bit to thick. The idea of time travel, of Paris (in general), and even Owen Wilson as the lead character, didn't click with me. It was a fun film (at best) but kind of, maybe a waste of my time (at worst). I definitely don't regret seeing it, but do I think it should be stacked up against some of the other nominees? Nah. See the trailer here.

Moneyball: It's been awhile since I've seen the movie, so I'm going largely on memory here. Walking away it was an enjoyable film, but one I felt like I'd seen before. Another sports movie with a leading man who tussles against the odds (literally), sticks with what he believes in, wins, gets a big!wonderful job offer (akin to selling out) and chooses to turn down the offer to remain his own man. Eh.

Yes, I realize this is an adaptation of the Michael Lewis book. Yes, I realize it is regarded, among many circles, as a well done adaptation. However, there is an award for that -- and it shouldn't be best picture.

The film was long, and as it meandered along, I couldn't help but keep track of the time as the entire lower half of my body fell asleep. Brad Pitt had a good performance, I'll say that. Good story, decent movie, but stacked against Tree of Life? I just don't see this one meriting the prize. See the trailer.

Tree of Life: I could go on and on about how much this film floored me. I drove an hour to Orlando just to see it at the charming Enzian Theater. I accidentally left my phone at the cinema, and drove back the next day only to see the movie for a second time. Both occasions practically had me on my knees.

On two occasions, the director, Terrence Malick, left me feeling like I might need to step outside to catch my breath. The way he opted to tell this story, abandoning a traditional narrative structure to embrace what I'd consider to be a well organized series of raw imagery, scenes and feelings, left me with a sensation I'm not used to feeling. Scenes that otherwise would have been dulled by dialogue were instead sharp and visceral in silence. There's no doubt, when it comes to showing rather than telling, Malick went to an extreme, but it worked wonders ... and left me rattled.

The film's protagonist, a young boy named Jack (played well by Hunter McCracken), shared a relationship with his siblings that I found to be incredibly realistic, with notes that hearkened back to my own upbringing. His story revealed the relationships between brothers, sons and fathers, and sons and mothers with undertones that reflect a very deep reality.

Malick got the family dynamics down so accurately, I think. All those moments that are so quiet or short or unaccented in real life -- things you feel in the moment, but easily forget within seconds. Malick found those lost moments, and under his microscope, you really get an idea for how raw and meaningful they can be.

This passage, again from The New York Times review (by A.O. Scott), really resonated with me:

"There are very few films I can think of that convey the changing interior weather of a child's mind with such fidelity and sensitivity. Nor are there many that penetrate so deeply into the currents of feeling that bind and separate the members of a family. So much is conveyed — about the tension and tenderness within the O'Brien marriage, about the frustrations that dent their happiness, about the volatility of the bonds between siblings — but without any of the usual architecture of dramatic exposition."

The film is hyper-introspective, and I loved that about it.

By the same token, it isn't just that Malick put his characters under a microscope, after all, the film does tackle macro subject matter -- things like God, the beginning of time, and the universe. It sounds silly, and it's true that the viewers watch as major archetypes collide on screen -- and tiny emotional moments weaving into a massive and epic story. But it works, and maybe it's because the film is so rooted into Malick's own past, his own imagination. Sometimes huge and dreamy subject matter -- not always straightforward -- will make sense because the themes dip so deep into a sense of humanity we all share. Malick tapped this area of our imaginations, I think, and pulled out a truly deserving film. I really think it's something special, and it deserves further recognition.

I'll stop gushing. It's the clear winner in my book, at least when placed up against the other films I did see. Some viewers criticized Malick (with much vitriol) and accused him of being self-indulgent. The ones that didn't feel that way seemed to love it without reservation. It was one of those divisive films this year, but I agree, at least halfway, with the last line of New York magazine reviewer David Edelstein's NPR piece: "You might find it ridiculously sublime or sublimely ridiculous — or, like me, both. But it's a hell of a trip."

See the trailer here.

I won't wax on the films I've not seen, that wouldn't be fair, but for the sake of full disclosure (and because it seems to be the favorite), I remain dubious about the kitsch factor of The Artist, with its black and white style and throwback regard to the silent film era. It kept me from seeing it, but that's also a reflection of my own close-mindedness.

Anyone else have any thoughts about this year's contenders?

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The Economist Style Guide


It would seem that The Economist has decided to post online the entirety of its style guide. This excites me. They even open with a substantial reference to Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."

See it here.

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February 21, 2012

Soul finger

I never knew what this song was called. They always used it as bumpers during the late innings of Cardinals games, and I thought it was groovy. Except I never knew who did it, or what it was called.

(*cue "as seen on TV" announcer voice*)

"Until now...!!!!!!"

OK, it's not like the iPhone needs any free advertising. But I got my iPhone less than two weeks ago and... well, this sounds dramatic, but it literally has changed my life already.

I used Shazam to figure out that the Bar-Kays sang that song.

(The best part is the canned party sounds in the background... I always imagined that the song would be used to soundtrack a 60s beach movie. For some reason those horns are, to me, the aural equivalent of running through the sprinkler. They ripple while they're employed, then dissapear, then make two or three more passes. I want to keep getting wet.)

I have also, in a span of 10 days:

1) Upped my tweeting for work ten-fold. (Our work account, which I started and is finally starting to catch on, is @EDNSports. The kids love us!)
2) Done lots of photo tweets. (Well, not lots, but more than before.)
3) Set up the NHL Gamecenter app to make a loud goal-horn noise whenever the Red Wings do anything. This, obviously, was very important.
4) Used the Maps feature to find my way to Hume, Illinois. Apparently the high school there does not exist on any other GPS-enabled divice. But the iPhone... it KNOWS! (Just for fun, this was my route. Now imagine taking that route — especially the 25-mile jaunt from Tuscola to Hume, which is a two-lane highway — in four inches of snow. I still filed my story afterwards though. NBD.)
5) Sent an email from a mobile device. Another first for me.
6) Had a FaceTime chat.
7) Tried to figure out how to properly use Instagram (Tony's post was very time-appropriate for me.)

So as you can see, getting the iPhone has been a very formative experience in my young life.

I realize that this is a very sad thing to say about how much our culture uses technology as a crutch.

But you know what? It's awesome. If I can be in the middle of nowhere in Illinois in a tiny school gym that is literally adjacent to a pig smokehouse yet still receive up-to-the-second updates on the Red Wings/Dallas Stars hockey game, I won't complain.

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February 20, 2012

Jeff Mangum in Chicago, "How huge are his lungs?"

That question, "how huge are his lungs?" was just one shred floating out there in Twitterland after Jeff Mangum completely blew away all expectations during his first show in Chicago, Feb. 6, at The Athenaeum Theatre.

Reviews from earlier shows said he's better than ever before, and I agree. His voice was less reedy and his melodic dee dee dees and moans stronger than comes across on the records. Said another way, I went in wondering how the show would be without a backing band and was quickly glad no one else was around -- for most of the show -- to distract from Mangum. There was superb cello accompaniment on "Naomi," and the merry group that marched on stage for "The Fool" seemed to be exactly how that song should be played (rag tag, one big thumping drum, and so on).

Mangum encouraged sing alongs and shouted questions, and for most of the evening, the Chicago crowd offered up sincere, sharp questions. And we hung on every answer.

Quotes approximated:

What's he been doing?
"Living with the love of my life."
[Cheers and woots.]

What's he reading?
"The memoirs of (trailing off...) [barely a laugh or peep] ... A popular title, I can tell."

What are your thoughts on reincarnation?
"I'm doing it right now."

Who would win, Spider Man or Batman?
[with the most seriousness he showed all night] "I do not know."

Are you writing new material?

Do you like hot air balloons?

What's your favorite song to play?
"That last one, actually ["Oh, Comely"]

Will you play "Little Sister?"
[second-most seriousness] "Probably not."

It's hard to describe how happy he seemed. I'll try. At one point near the end of the show, he announced "Engine" and there was some applause and such, and someone right behind me said loudly, "Wait, what?" Another nearby man answered, "Engine," as everyone was listening, and amid the hubbub Mangum peered right back toward us and smiled with a sharp: "Engine."

When Mangum left the stage, it was my brother's friend with the gloomy-but-somehow-satisfied statement of the night: "And that's the last time we'll ever see Jeff Mangum."

Here's what the Tribune writer said about it, including a quote that he initially put out incorrectly via Twitter and which I may or may not have helped correct before the print version: review.

Set list:
Two Headed Boy Pt. 2
Holland, 1945
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Song Against Sex
Little Birds
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3
April 8th
Oh Comely
Two-Headed Boy
The Fool

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

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February 18, 2012

Psalm 40:2 by the Mountain Goats

Thoughts about Instagram

For today's paper I wrote about the local Instagram community, and in a couple hours I'll be meeting many of these hobby photographers face to face for the first time. It was that thought — the transition from digital to real life friendship — that seemed intriguing enough to warrant the story.

My most interesting Instagram stories:

1) I once saw a photo with a unique perspective of the Nashville skyline. I realized which apartment building would yield the view, and noticed that someone commented on the photo, wondering where that place was. I guessed, and the photographer confirmed it.

2) While on the road trip through N.C. and Virginia earlier this month, I would search the next day's city for photos of signature landmarks and buildings. Almost always, I could find a great shot of my favorite building. (In part, this prevented me from needing to stop to take my own.)

3) I look at a lot of #bullmastiff tagged photos. A lot.

Here is my Instagram photo feed, run through Embedagram. Otherwise, I usually search and browse (when not on my phone) with Gramfeed.

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February 14, 2012


A weekly sampler of what we're listening to (new and old), and what we think you might like, too.

MWM 54 by Jack Hittinger on Grooveshark

JACK: "Serpents" by Sharon Van Etten
I heard this on NPR the other day. It was on "All Things Considered" (I know, I know) and I was immediately drawn to it. She's got this lovelorn and exasperated croon that stands out over the (admittedly) pretty standard indie rock-out going on in the background (although I'm digging the propulsive drumbeat). I heard the rest of the album and she's a gifted songwriter. Unfortunately most of it is less PJ Harvey than I expected. ("I am a badass, I am going to turn this motherfucking amp up to 11 just to prove to you that I am totally not writing this song about you. At all.") It's a little more understated. Not as many electric guitars. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing... this song is also really good. I just really like "Serpents."

TONY: "Fluid," The Gerbils
This song is really weird and oddly beautiful. It cropped up during the opening act for Jeff Mangum, with the round and bearded Scott Spillane giving his nasally best. I can't believe this voice comes from that man.

CHASE: "I'm Not Ready" by Surfer Blood
There is only reason I'm submitting this song, and that is because I'm obsessed with Surfer Blood. Everything about them, from their music to their Twitter account. I'm adding them to my unabashed fanboy list.

ECON: "Season's Trees," Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi
It's hard to pluck a single song apart from the whole of Donuts, because the tracks just fit together so perfectly. But "Lightworks" is a flashy number that stands well on its own, even if it's not necessarily representative of the album, which is all over the place (in a good way). In an interview not long after J Dilla's death, his mother put it this way: "'Lightworks', oh yes, that was something! That's one of the special ones. It was so different. It blended classical music (way out there classical), commercial and underground at the same time."

EVAN: "On a Good Day," Joanna Newsom

OATESS: "1979," Smashing Pumpkins
Beers and this video had me surfing old '90s videos the other weekend. It reminded me that the Smashing Pumpkins exist, and that I like this song.

JON: Benny Goodman, “Jumping at the Woodside”

MARK: "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?" by the Mountain Goats
Here's a song from one of my favorite albums. This song, though, is was not one of my favorites until this past weekend when Tom and I drove the three-and-a-half hours to Greensboro to see the Mountain Goats. It was one of the best shows I've ever seen--possibly the best. John Darnielle played this during the encore, and it was the most moving song I've ever heard at a concert.

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