Friday, June 20, 2014

Ida Review

I wrote my first piece for The Ithaca Voice, a new online venture founded by my good friend and former Sun colleague Jeff Stein. I am not going to copy-paste what I write there to my blog, for reasons of traffic and professionalism. But I'll provide a link of course - RIGHT HERE - and I hope you all will read it. This is a great film - 4.5/5 star material.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Governors Ball 2014 Wrap-Up

Vampire Weekend, GovBallNYC Stage
Governors Ball
Randall's Island, New York City
June 6-8, 2014

Her eyes bulged out of their sockets when she saw him. She pointed her finger at his face and screamed, “You’re here! You’re fucking here!!!!” Her blushing friend pulled her arm along as the girl craned back her neck and cackled to the sky. At a loss to make sense of what just happened, I looked at the mystery man to my left that was the target of this strange outburst. He was wearing a red and white striped sweater and beanie. Like Waldo. Where’s Waldo. He was right next to me. 

For its fourth year, Governors Ball attracted what must be the largest congregation of carefree twentysomethings to ever descend onto Randall’s Island, and sure, there were times when our numbers proved overwhelming: waiting on line for entry, water, restrooms, $16 lobster rolls. But as an experience to pocket and carry with me, Governors Ball 2014 was a great time, thanks to both the musicians and the good-humored, damn inspiring masses that showed up for the love of music and a good time.

Strolling into the Gotham Tent Friday afternoon to see Washed Out, my first set of the festival, I saw Jeff Goldblum. Not in the flesh, but the next best thing: A cardboard cut-out, roughly four feet wide, of the bare-chested actor splayed across a table, an image familiar to anyone who grew up watching Jurassic Park (so everyone in attendance). Some friends brought multiple copies of Sexy Goldblum so they could find each other in crowds, and one even had a blow-up T. Rex that he used to chase around the others. It was Exhibit A of the festival’s hilarious signage; other winners included a Steve Buscemi head, a screaming Schwarzenegger from Total Recall and a Face-Off poster folded down the middle, so we could admire either Nic Cage or John Travolta in profile. Seeing any of these stupid faces waving above the throngs of festivalgoers added a strain of irreverence, community, even mythology to the long weekend.

When Julian Casablancas + The Voidz, a spin-off band he is set to release an album with later this year, took to the main stage Friday afternoon, an already packed crowd bum rushed forward to destroy any lingering fantasies of personal space. Which was just fine, since Julian inspires that kind of fanaticism and his short set offered an opportunity for Strokes fans to chill together before the real thing the next day. When the synthesizers rolled into “Instant Crush,” Julian’s hit with Daft Punk last year, everyone mumbled the unintelligible lyrics along with him. Hunched over, his hands wrapped around a microphone and a vocoder, Julian looked pained as he belted the high-pitched, “I don’t understand!” refrain twice. Not long after, some guy collapsed to my right, likely due to dehydration. After he came to, an onlooker deadpanned, “Julian is just so overpowering.”

Outkast summoned an unbelievable mass of people for their headliner set Friday night, and they did not phone it in, as they reportedly did at Coachella in April. Emerging from a transparent cube, André and Big Boi launched into “B.O.B.,” their motormouth classic that ended, of course, with the crowd jumping up and down yelling, “Power music electric revival!” And while Janelle Monáe bounced on-stage to shake it like a Polaroid picture during “Hey Ya!,” I must mention TV on the Radio, which played a furious set just before Outkast across the park on the Big Apple Stage. A homecoming of sorts, the Brooklynites tore through classics with the help of lots of red spotlights and a dude who looked like Jesus playing the tambourine, trombone — everything really. “Halfway Home,” the opening track off their greatest album Dear Science, barreled through any audience fatigue, while “Wolf Like Me” inspired a mosh pit that nearly broke my best friend’s glasses. He was all smiles, of course.

Phoenix, GovBallNYC Stage
First thing Saturday, I caught the last two songs from Deafheaven, the post-rock metal band from San Francisco behind 2013’s Sunbather. They carry this mystique with them, in part due to the way some songs start with spaced-out guitars and not so much segue as violently rupture into a heavy metal maelstrom for the song’s remaining duration. Then there’s George Clarke, the band’s lead screamer, sporting an all-black button-down and raising his hands in the air like a fascist leader. His hypnotic presence could not contrast more with the jovial antics of Chance the Rapper, the next star to rule the Gotham Tent. In a tight Superman t-shirt, Chance had the packed house in his hand as he conducted sing-alongs to “Pusha Man,” from his breakout mixtape Acid Rap, and Ziggy Marley’s “Believe in Yourself,” the theme song from Arthur (yes, that Arthur). With thousands of happy millennials before him, Chance used a break between songs to conclude, “This is the best concert of all time.”

A sunbaked crowd kept chill as it grew in anticipation of Disclosure’s Saturday afternoon set. This hot electronic duo is comprised of two English brothers, one of whom is younger than me (sigh). Pulling from the hits off their 2013 debut Settle, they did not do much on-stage but at least kept the rest of the crowd moving. Aluna Francis joined them for “White Noise,” and a merciful breeze complimented the trance bridge of “You & Me.” As my friend and I ducked out early to get a spot for The Strokes, I heard a French girl gushing, “I can’t believe how the music is in my body. It’s amazing.” Call it heavy bass, ecstasy or just really, really good music. Call it all those things.

The Strokes were The Strokes: They were awesome — what more do you want from me? They covered it all: “Reptilia,” “Take It or Leave It,” “Hard to Explain,” “Last Nite,” “You Only Live Once,” which Julian introduced with a laugh when he said, “YOLO, that’s right.” The calibration of the main stage speakers brought out Albert Hammond Jr.’s locked-in rhythm guitar, the secret ingredient to their music’s good vibes. I am still unsure if I like how their recent material sounds like a SEGA video game, but The Strokes of old were on stage late Saturday afternoon and all was good.

Quick sidebar: I did not attend The Naked and The Famous’ Saturday show, but I overheard an anecdote from someone who did. As disembodied hands smacked beach balls across the thousands waiting for Jack White, this guy to my left talked of a stray volleyball blindsiding people at that earlier set. Apparently, the ball bludgeoned a number of heads because the victims were so infuriated that they immediately pegged it in some random direction. The story could be apocryphal, and I do hope it is, but the image (and sound!) of a volleyball ricocheting through a horde of heads is so funny to me that I could care less about investigating if it is actually true.

While Jack White took his time finding his way onto the main stage, this adorable Indian dance troupe performed on the grass, grainy footage of which was projected simultaneously on the Jumbotron. The Hindi lyrics sure confused some, but this little gesture prompted me to look around and realize how I was part of one of the most diverse, in all respects except age, crowds I have ever seen. Jack White united all of us to bleed from our ears, equally, as he let loose a set of rock and roll spanning from Lazaretto, his latest solo album, to White Stripes classics like “Seven Nation Army.” With a stoic face and 19th century goatee, Fats Kaplin proved to be the night’s secret weapon, as he accompanied White on fiddle, pedal steel guitar and it-looks-like-he’s-a-Jedi theremin. At this point, I have seen White’s face on so many Rolling Stone covers that I forgot he was, like, legit. Thanks, bud, for correcting me on that one.

Sunday afternoon boasted an Odd Future double bill, starting with Earl Sweatshirt on the Honda Stage. “Governors Ball has AIDS, bro,” Earl said, because, you know, he’s Earl. Tyler, The Creator and Jasper Dolphin joined him on stage, and the three of them transported across the field to the Big Apple Stage for Tyler’s set immediately following. Although I rarely listen to his music, I dig Tyler’s sense of humor, even if it makes me sick. When he botched the opening for a song, he growled in his deep voice, “Can everyone boo me for fucking up the set? I’m an idiot. I’m sorry.” He then took aim at the VIP section of the field, saying, “Your rich parents pay for this shit? Fuck you guys.” Tyler’s flippant sensibility has led to regrettable moments in the past, and I still have no clue what to do with a song like “My Bitch Suck Dick,” but he’s a man of the people. At the very least, two white girls no taller than five foot four moshing with Jansport backpacks on during “Yonkers” embodied all the contradictions to Odd Future’s appeal.

Buscemi waiting for James Blake, Honda Stage
James Blake was by far the weirdest experience of the weekend. I’ve been a fan of this guy since his debut album dropped my senior year of high school, and yet I totally get why someone would not like him. Blake’s sparse post-dubstep delicacies do not share a lot in common with Disclosure and next to nothing with Skrillex, both acts that graced the Honda Stage before Blake’s Sunday 6:45 set. His music makes use of silence and simple percussive loops, so when the Jumbotron cut to a girl drifting off over the front-row barricade, the crowd erupted in ironic cheers. He won back the lizard brains with a groovy jam called “Voyeur,” off his last album Overgrown, and cut through the disrespectful chatter with hits “Limit To Your Love” and “Retrograde.” He capped his time with an a cappella rendition of “Measurements,” which he prefaced with a plea for silence. Every audience has a few assholes, so there were some catcalls committed to the looping vocals he recorded on the fly, but by the song’s end, when a whole choir emerged from this one man’s voice, Randall’s Island silenced for a few precious seconds to marvel at the rarest of festival phenomena: grace.

The Governors Ball programmers ended the festival with two of New York’s own. First was Interpol, strumming through hits like “Evil” and, fittingly, “NYC” at the Big Apple Stage. Opposite Axwell Λ Ingrosso on the Honda Stage, Vampire Weekend capped the night for a jolly sea of bodies young and old (so here, meaning around 30). Getting “Diane Young” out of the way first, they played pretty much everything a fan would want to hear. Slowed down and augmented for improvisation, “Ya Hey” flaunted the weirdest chorus in indie pop, in case you forgot. Ezra Koenig milked the beauty of “Hannah Hunt” for all it is worth, with a cutesy intro full of suspenseful pauses, just as he should have. In the middle of “Cousins,” a conga line at least one hundred bodies long snaked away from the front rows and onto the grass. I asked my friend, rather boneheadedly, why so many people would do this and forfeit the nicest spots in the audience. A Vampire Weekend skeptic, he nevertheless shut me up with his response, “To be a part of something.”

It was something all right. When the spritely bliss of “Walcott” came to an end, the lights went dark but, without missing a beat, Sinatra crooned “New York, New York” from the speakers. As tens of thousands of us turned our backs to the stage and made our way back to civilization, we sang along. Unexpected musical accompaniment came from the beer cans, littered about the pavement and island grass, that clanged together when our shambling feet kicked into them. The sound of hollow aluminum scraping and crunching against the ground roared louder and louder, nearly drowning out Ol’ Blue Eyes. It was not a pretty sound, but its effect — with Sinatra, the voices singing along, this city we revere, the chemical and communal intoxication of the weekend — moved me terribly.

I looked up to see fireworks lighting up the sky. Later I would discover that they were synced to Axwell Λ Ingrosso’s ongoing DJ set across the lawn, not to “New York, New York,” but the matter of intent made little difference. Here was the lot of us, a collection of know-nothing young people, drunk or high and next to broke after the long weekend, and here we were laughing and singing. It was our filthy Eden for a few days, and it was now time to go home.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West Review

A Million Ways to Die in the West
Directed by Seth MacFarlane
Released in 2014

Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) opens the door of his frontier cabin house to find his father reading a book and mother embroidering in their usual chairs. The father looks up to his son and barks, “You’re late!” Cut back to Albert, who responds, “For what?” Cut back to the father who looks down at his book and grumbles, “Fair enough.”

That is the only joke in A Million Ways to Die in the West that works as is. It is not a feat of genius, nor is it in the least bit complex. In fact, it is funny because it is so stupidly simple: We get four shots, assembled in typical shot reverse shot fashion, leading to the punchline that life in the Old West is dull — there is nothing to do. Like any good joke, it is best told through its original form, which, here, is film. It’s better to watch it than read me describe it, you know? Nothing else in this movie can claim that passable distinction.

There are other crippling problems in A Million Ways to Die in the West, but I just cannot get over the incompetency of, if not disregard to its visuals. Why is MacFarlane, who co-wrote and directed this project, riffing on the Western anyhow? From Edwin Porter to John Ford to Sergio Leone to James Mangold (who remade 3:10 to Yuma in 2008), the genre has survived for over a century now, and throughout that time its directors have made names for themselves off the business they put on-screen: Monument Valley, Woody Strode drinking water from his hat, John Wayne walking from the right side of the frame to the left.

The credits for this film overlay old-timey font on top of sweeping shots of Southwestern rocks and desert. Clichéd, but it tries. From there, we first see Albert when he enters an empty stretch of street to face off some gunslinger looking to settle a debt. We get no spatial sense of this classic Western town, or the onlookers who turn out to be significant characters, before a static, distant shot chains us to watch Albert deliver a stand-up routine about the gunslinger’s colloquial language (In response to being called “yellow”: “I mean that’s kind of racist to our hard-working friends in the Far East, right guys?”). Louis C.K. shoots a more dynamic stand-up special on the fly than MacFarlane does with a studio behind him and a $40 million budget. And why, by the way, am I watching stand-up right now? Didn’t I pay to see a movie? The majority of the humor here could be delivered through a podcast.

This should not come as much surprise. MacFarlane has succeeded, commercially at least, as an animator totally uninterested in animation. Family Guy expresses nothing through its infinite possibilities of shapes or color: Most often a Family Guy joke consists of a guy on one side of the frame and another next to him. One delivers an overlong, repetitious pop culture reference or homophonic monologue (Stewie’s “Mama! Mami!” bit) while everything on screen, save for the mouth doing the damage, remains frozen in place. It is anti-visual comedy that looks even worse blown up on the big screen, to say nothing of the bastardization of Western iconography on display here. It explains why we have a graceless dance scene that violates Film School 101 continuity rules, or why an apparent on-location shoot leaves us with outdoor scenes that are laughably underlit. But hey I’m laughing, right?

In his review for Vulture, David Edelstein concedes, “Some of the jokes do land — maybe one in four.” I’d agree with that ratio, and take that for the backhanded praise that it is. Anything with the cranky dad is worthwhile, and when Albert reassures Indians with the “native” phrase “Mila Kunis,” MacFarlane briefly earns his stupidity. I should say that I laugh more often, and at smarter jokes I will not soon forget, when I browse Twitter for one or two minutes. I prefer humor that has some thread, narratively if not thematically, running through it, and the randomness of the delivery guarantees that most of the jokes will enter your one ear and leave out the next without visiting the brain or even the stomach before they’re gone to join the tumbleweeds.

I have not yet covered rudimentary plot summary in this review, so let me get that out of the way: Albert loses girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) because he’s not manly enough, mopes about that for a bit, and then mysterious Anna (Charlize Theron) enters town to lift his spirits. Anna married the rapey villain (Liam Neeson, in a part written against his strengths) when she was nine because she did not want to be “one of those 15-year-old spinsters” — never mind that the marriage was, in all likelihood, out of her control. Giovanni Ribisi plays a Bible-toting virgin courting a prostitute (Sarah Silverman), while Neil Patrick Harris twirls his moustache. The story is hardly there, which would be okay if this film did not lapse into laugh-free sentimentality when it strains to make a point.

That point being? Seth MacFarlane is awesome. Louise is just a bitch for not appreciating Albert’s soft-spoken goodness, and Anna wants Albert to know that he is “a real catch,” funny, handsome, the perfect man. I like to think I would have taken issue with this by default, but it is hard to ignore this nice-guys-rule-amirite woman shaming in light of the recent violence at University of California, Santa Barbara. That egregious, extratextual parallel notwithstanding, why is MacFarlane using his female characters to congratulate himself? Artists tend to be neurotic creatures, and comedians doubly so. Why, then, is the target on everyone but him? Reading those last two sentences back over, I think I just answered my own question.

Final Verdict:
1.5 Stars Out of 5

*For an entertaining tutorial on how to do visual comedy right, watch Tony Zhou’s essay on the films of Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz).

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.