Deeper Into Movies: Inside Llewyn Davis + Looking: The Movie + Star Trek Beyond

A rare turn of events for this weekend meant a chance to sit down and burn through a couple of films: one, an instant classic recently released by Criterion Collection (and recently obtained by me as part of Barnes & Noble's annual 50% off sale); the other, the movie-length farewell to an HBO series that failed to catch fire after two seasons; and yet another, which was the latest installment in the Star Trek reboot series. 

I hadn't seen Llewyn Davis since it was released in 2013, but like so many Coen Brothers movies, the images of the film have been burned deep within my mind since. As great as they are at writing dialogue, they have become true masters (with the help of their well-chosen set and costume designers, and their keen choices of cinematographer) at conceiving and executing visual scenarios that you simply can't forget. That's why even middling fare like Hail, Caesar! and The Ladykillers are still so fun to look at. 

I was struck once more by Oscar Isaac's fully-realized performance in the lead role and those little jagged bits of humor they toss into almost every film (Llewyn's attempt to stash a box of remaindered albums under a table only to find a similar box featuring his friend's own forgotten LPs; the man driving to New Jersey who somehow doesn't wake up when Llewyn slams the brakes on, etc.). But I walked away from it feeling like it was a spiritual sequel to O Brother Where Art Thou?, one that follows a similar odyssey by its lead but has far more emotional depth to it. That likely goes without saying as the 2000 film was a pure comedy. And it's probably because I relate more to Llewyn than I ever would to Ulysses McGill or anyone in O Brother.  

I'm still not entirely sure how to feel about the Looking film. It exists in this strange universe, post-Supreme Court decision to legalize LGBTQ marriage, pre-Orlando. The characters in this film are more concerned about whether they should go through with the wedding rather than worries of a madman showing up at a Pride parade with a bag full of explosives. It feels like an anomaly in that way. 

There was some small hope in my heart, too, that the extended running time would allow them to slow down their storytelling and really dig deep into the lives of these characters, an issue that really hobbled the series in its half-hour format. Sadly, as they were hurrying to wrap everything up, it felt as mismanaged as usual. Dom was pretty much shoved to the outskirts of the story, even after we found out about the success of his "chicken window" and his desire to avoid relationships for a while. Agustin, too, got only a small chunk of the story even though his wedding was the central point of this whole weekend adventure by the boys. 

As it was with the series, the movie was really all about Patrick and his wrestling with his snap decision to leave San Francisco for Denver and the men he left behind in his wake. It was there that the film carried its emotional weight the best. Patrick's attempt to "close the chapter" with Kevin was brilliantly staged, with both men forced to maintain their poise while holding an intense conversation in a public space. And the moment with Dom and Patrick sharing a very stoned kiss that devolves into laughter was as honest as anything in this series. The lived-in feeling of their friendship and their feeling that maybe they could work out together made perfect sense. The rest of Looking: The Movie didn't follow suit, unfortunately. It beautiful to watch but sadly uneven and stilted throughout. I still hold the series and everyone involved in such high regard, but really wish they could have done more with the elements they had. 

Star Trek Beyond is, well, a Star Trek movie. At least the Star Trek that we've come to understand and appreciate since these characters returned to theaters in 2009. The crew of the Enterprise have to save humanity from an evil force. Many conflicts within the crew and with the bad guys go down. The good guys survive and move forward to film #4. 

I still enjoyed the heck out of this even if I could walk away feeling like it was oddly edited at times and left major characters like Uhura and Sulu twisting in the wind for the most part. The folks we did get to follow throughout did a great job, and the new characters they introduced—particularly the lithe and fierce Jayla and Krall, the fearsome enemy that gave Idris Elba a chance to act under piles of prosthetics and makeup. 

If there was a message of tolerance in the film, it got buried beneath the CGI, the explosions, and the little self-aware moments that are starting to become a pall on most sci-fi/fantasy films. The nonsense with the Beastie Boys song was much too much. But try as Gene Roddenberry might have when creating this series, Star Trek Beyond doesn't need to change the world in the way it intends to. Just letting us escape from the ills of our planet for a couple of hours is more than enough. 

Review: Sting & Peter Gabriel @ Key Arena, July 21, 2016

Once again something I intended for publication at one of my outlets didn't end up getting used. So, I offer it for you, my friends and readers. Hope you think well of it. 

The abyssal separating the songwriting abilities of Peter Gabriel and Sting was never more apparent than from the opening salvos by both artists that kicked off the final U.S. date of their Rock Paper Scissors tour.

After a long intro of pre-recorded drones, the 11-piece band (a combination of the two men’s regular touring groups) thundered through an appropriately sweat-inducing version of “The Rhythm of The Heat,” led by a serious and seething Gabriel. As the last notes faded out, Mr. Sumner bounded on the stage in his well-toned glory and led the ensemble in his sunny 1993 hit ”If I Ever Lose My Faith In You.” It felt like a dizzying smash cut from an Amnesty International documentary to an episode of Friends.

And that’s the way it carried on for a full three hours with each artist going back and forth through their respective catalogs. They shared the stage often while also ceded the spotlight to other, as well as welcoming special guest Eddie Vedder to growl along to a couple of tunes (“Driven To Tears” and “Red Rain,” for those of you keeping score at home). Sometimes the transitions would feel well considered and wise. The move from the moody “Invisible Sun” to Gabriel’s tense “No Self Control,” for example, was particularly great. Other times it felt confused, like the weird downshift from “Roxanne” (with an added jazzy interlude that slid into Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”) to “In Your Eyes.”

Though this new tour is simply a repeat of similar jaunts the two did in 1986 and 1988, it’s difficult to parse out the logic behind it. On paper, it’s a sensible choice. Both men are well-known for leaving their well-known bands—Genesis and The Police—at the height of their creative and commercial power (respectively) and carving out massively successful solo careers. And both are vocal supporters of various humanitarian causes. Oh, and I’m sure these two serve to make a boatload of cash from this joint venture.

Beyond that, the stark differences between how each man approached songcraft and performance only became more glaring. Gabriel has long embraced the theatricality of the live show, bringing costumes and choreography into the mix. There was as much of the latter as the 66-year-old’s body would allow, but it was simple and effective. He didn’t need to march around the stage as he and Sting traded off lines during a militaristic rendition of “Games Without Frontiers,” but it drove the song’s point home even harder. As well, he and his backup singer Jennie Abrahamson could’ve handled the poignant duet “Don’t Give Up” without Gabriel acting out the disaffection of his lyrics, yet when they eventually joined hands at the song’s climax, there was an electric thrill to the moment.

Sting had his own part to play: that of the well-heeled rock star. It’s one he’s accustomed to, and, well, it works for him. He’s lean and muscular and compelling, making it incredibly easy to gawk at him for the better part of an evening. And I’d like to think that he knew that his buddy Peter would have the more showy aspects of the night wrapped up, so he stuck to his own strengths: his unwavering voice and his crack backing band.

Things only got muddied in his song choices. Sting, surprisingly, avoided nearly all of his biggest solo hits, leaning instead on his work with The Police and some world music-influenced material in, I’m guessing, a nod to his tour mate’s career supporting musicians from far flung parts of the globe. Did anyone at the Key Arena necessarily want to hear “The Hounds Of Winter,” a relative deep cut from his 1996 album Mercury Falling instead of a guaranteed crowdpleaser like “Fields Of Gold”? Hard to say, but from the reaction that he got throughout the night, he could have broken out his lute and run through the full Songs From The Labyrinth, his 2006 pop-classical hybrid, without anyone blinking an eye.

If we were scoring this like a boxing match, Gabriel took the night on points. As he’s done throughout his career, he deftly balanced comedy and sincerity, smoothly adjoining a hilarious bluesy cover of “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” and a touching dedication to murdered MP Jo Cox before a performance of a new song “Love Can Heal.” But give Sting some credit for getting his shots in, like tossing a quote from the Genesis anthem “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” into the set before “Message In a Bottle.” But looked at as a whole, neither man ran away with the night alone. They instead clasped hands and supported each other as they went the distance together.

 

Book Report

Not staring at my iPhone for hours on end as I scroll through various social media feeds has opened up a lot of free time for me. More than I was really expecting. (Being in a typical December work lull certainly helps too.) Which is why I finally started getting some reading done after a long...long...long hiatus from getting through any book that I wasn't reviewing. (Been watching a bunch of movies too, but you can track my progress on that front here.) So, while I've got a few minutes, I thought I'd blog a bit about the books I've finished this month. 

Girl In A Band by Kim Gordon I think my friend Colin had the right feeling about this book: it felt like the product of someone hurrying to tell the story about her marriage's demise before the other party piped in. Even with that, this hardly felt like a book. It was scattered memories from Gordon's life that only cohered because she was the central figure in all of them. More than anything, it felt like a weird excuse to drop as many names of famous or soon-to-be famous people that she bedded or collaborated with. As much fun as it was to learn that Gordon had an on-again/off-again thing going with Danny Elfman, I would have much rather she kept the same tone and emotion that was evident in the sections about her troubled older brother. The big selling point (if you can call it that) where she goes over the affair that ended her marriage felt as tawdry as the pictures of Thurston's mistress that she found. I didn't really need to know any of it. The whole thing was sad and pointless...kind of like this book as a whole. 

Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge by Mark Yarm A perfectly constructed history of a genre that has been raked over the coals, over-analyzed, and often needlessly deified. By staying out of the way and letting the artists and label owners and other figures on the scene tell the story, Yarm truly brought the bizarre rise and fall of the Seattle scene as cultural landmark to life. An even smarter decision was taking the time to do the follow up interviews that would allow for certain people to argue and contradict what other people said about events or rumors. The sections on Candlebox were particularly potent in revealing how the music industry fed off the lifeblood of that scene and turned some young musicians into thirsty vampires. 

Don't Thank Me All At Once: The Lost Pop Genius of Scott Miller by Brett Milano Someday soon there will be a dutifully dense biography written about the late Scott Miller, the leader of the cult pop bands Game Theory and The Loud Family. Until then, we have this book which was, according to the foreword, built off of a failed 33 1/3 proposal and hurried into existence following the suicide of its subject. For the uninitiated, this is a decent place to begin your studies into Miller's singular musical visions and his apparently troubled inner life. What you don't get are any great insights into his songwriting (Milano keeps referring to the brilliance of his lyrics and the cross-referencing knottiness of the albums, but never really offers up any examples) nor the kind of insight from the people that knew him that longtime fans would really want (it is quickly apparent that Milano conducted many of these interviews via email which very, very rarely read as well as we hope they will). 

High-Status Characters: How The Upright Citizens Brigade Stormed A City, Started A Scene, And Changed Comedy Forever by Brian Raftery Again, a book that succeeds if you have a good working knowledge of the practices of long-form improvisation and of the people central to the UCB world. Choosing to do this as an oral history feels like a cop out as this could have used a lot of fleshing out to go along with the great quotes from various improvisors and comics that helped build the theater and did some particularly unsavory stuff within its walls. And when the story gets to the point where UCB opens a theater in L.A., the whole thing just peters out. Would love to see Raftery or another author take his raw materials and use them to build a bigger and better history of this theater and the original troupe. 

Barbara Manning @ Turn Turn Turn, 12/12/15

I'm as guilty as anyone of being a nostalgist, even as I continue to rifle through the current spate of artists sluicing down the pipeline, looking for the prime cuts among the offal. I buy more than my fair share of reissues and hit up theaters/clubs to gawk at the greying hair and creasing faces of those acts that I adored in my youth but was too broke/dumb/indifferent to have seen them during their heyday. 

This performance, though, went beyond simply longing for the indie rock days of yore, or anyone involved really trying to capture some spark of youth. Surrounded by a welcoming gaggle of friends and fans, and her husband looking on with pride, Barbara Manning and her backing band (including her old World Of Pooh bandmate Brandan Kearney on guitar) basked in the moment, in the present tense that was still vivid and apparent even in the throwback set that they played. 

There was an added sense of triumph to it when thinking about the last time Manning came to Portland. At a sparsely attended show at the soon-to-be vanquished dive bar Slabtown, she dared to take the stage alone and let nerves get the best of her. A few songs in, she left the stage to collect herself. But she returned, and graciously serenaded us with some lovely renditions of pieces from throughout her career and a few lovely cover tunes. 

Perhaps bolstered by simply having a band or some volume at her back, or finally being settled into the comforts of adulthood thanks to her marriage and her move to Los Angeles, Manning exuded confidence and a spritely attitude. She tossed candies to the crowd to celebrate her birthday, ribbed the folks in her backing band, and kept things light and spirited. The set was a bit rickety and at times out of tune, but no one in the crowd cared. A space like Turn Turn Turn doesn't demand perfection, just heart. And Manning and everyone in that room had plenty to go around. 

Interview With Andy Partridge

When Spinner, AOL's music news site, went bye-bye last year, so did every last bit of work I did for them, including this article about one of my favorite all-time songwriters, Andy Partridge. Can't tell you how overjoyed I was to speak with this guy after obsessing over his music for at least 20 years. I might highlight some of my other Spinner work here in the future but for now, I'll just leave this one here.

Musicfest NW Diaries

As I've done for the past five years or so, I'm contributing to daily diaries of all the Willamette Week  writers who are bouncing between venues at this year's Musicfest NW. Rather than clutter up the main page of this site with those posts (damn festival is six days long  this year), I'm going to put them all here, adding them as they get published on the WW site. 

MFNW Diaries: Tuesday

MFNW Diaries: Wednesday

MFNW Diaries: Thursday 

MFNW Diaries: Friday + Saturday 

MFNW Roundup 

Q&A w/ Vernon Chatman

I was just reminded that I needed to find a place to host my conversation with Vernon Chatman about his work on the Andy Kaufman album recently released on Drag City, as accessing the original version is a little tough behind Paste's subscription paywall. Hence, I am putting it here in the blog. Enjoy!  

 

Vernon Chatman - Andy Kaufman Archivist - PASTE.COM.png

Wig Out

My mother has been making some token efforts to clean out portions of her home recently. And in doing so, stumbled upon a couple of stashes of stuff that I once held dear to my heart: a box of old journals and stacks of VHS tapes containing episodes of Twin Peaks and '90s-era music videos. 

Looking through them, I found a small bit of treasure (the rest is going to Goodwill or a burn bin): a few notebooks where I kept meticulous track of the playlists of a radio show I used to do at KMUN in Astoria. I started as a junior in high school with my friend, Fred, but he soon took off for college, leaving me with my own solo show on Friday nights called Wig Out  (the title taken from Girl Trouble's '90s zine). 

Looking through these notebooks, it's interesting to note the evolution of my taste in music at that time. I dug on lots of fairly sanguine British pop, the occasional radio hit, and assorted weirdness I would find stuck into the crannies of KMUN's record library. And there are many tracks here that I'm almost embarrassed to admit I had a penchant for some 20 years back. 

There's more research and thought to be put into what to do with these playlists, if anything. But for now, I'm going to type the first one in these two notebooks I brought inside with me here. All for your amusement. 

Wig Out 7/29/94 

Andres - L7

Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown - Mudhoney

They're Hanging Me Tonight - Marty Robbins

All I Wanna Do - Sheryl Crow

When The Sun Shines, I Can See Your Mind - Death Praxis

Yuri-G - PJ Harvey

Funk Me Dirty - Bootsy's New Rubber Band

Me And Some Drums - Shelly Manne

Dreaming Of The Queen - Pet Shop Boys

Thoughtforms - Lush

Visionary - Redd Kross

Doin' The Shout - John Lee Hooker

Fiesta Brava - Celeste Mendoza

Say Something - James

Animal Wild - Shudder To Think

The Becoming - Nine Inch Nails

Apply Within - Culture

In The Heat of the Night - Soul II Soul

Who's Sorry Now? - Jerry Murad's Fabulous Harmonicats

Thrupenny Tears/Even The Odd - Trash Can Sinatras

On Any Other Day - The Police

Shakin' Shakin' Shakes - Los Lobos

New Greenback Dollar - Roy Acuff

Someone Keeps Moving My Chair - They Might Be Giants

Water - Dinosaur Jr.  

All The King's Friends - Soul Asylum

Stompin' At The Savoy - Harry Connick Jr.  

Sweet Love - Anita Baker

Opelousas (Sweet Relief) - Maria McKee

Makin' Whoopee - Michelle Pfeiffer

Hello world...

Trying out this site as a place to cobble together my various freelance endeavors. Look for updates here or in the Recent Work section. Thanks for checking this out.