Thursday, December 24, 2009

Up In The Air Is An Awful Movie

As longtime readers of this space know, I happen to think Armond White's a first-class contrarian idiot. For example, recently he claimed that "all [Sandra] Bullock’s films promote an edifying sense of human experience—she has an instinct for what people like to see," a claim which (a) is utter bullshit and (b) a claim which Armond himself doesn't even believe in - see his review of The Proposal mere months ago , or his for-once on-target evisceration of Crash - and is just making to befuddle the idiots who read his shit into thinking he's some sort of genius intellectual who sees things beyond the ken of the 99.999999% of the world that thinks Bullock's a hack. That said, the nice thing about Armond White is that he's the one critic in America, aside from the good people at Slant and Reverse Shot, who I can always count on to see through the Oscar bait de jour - though of course he usually does so for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, I was happy to come home from the Tray Family's Christmas Eve Movie Viewing and see that Armond had trashed Up In The Air.

That pointless prelude out of the way, Up In The Air might be the worst Best Picture favorite in quite some time. Unfortunately, most of the critics who have bashed UITA have done so for purely political reasons - "the movie doesn't care enough about fired people." J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader went so far as to accuse the movie of being a modern day Cary Grant film - and mean that as a bad thing! Frankly, if this thing were remotely comparable to a modern day Cary Grant film, I wouldn't care if it glorified cannibalism or the slave trade. (Depending, of course, on which Cary Grant film this thing would supposedly be a modern day version of - he made a lot of bad pictures.) No, the trouble with the movie is that there's just simply nothing aesthetically, dramatically, comedically, intellectually, whatever adverb you like, good about it.

Aesthetically, the movie's composed of several types of shots. First, you've got your pointless quick-cut montages of Clooney packing his luggage, or negotiating an airport, or going to a wedding. Second, there are a lot of aerial shots of cities and slightly tilted establishing shots of cheap hotels that look like something I might've shot in high school photo class. (For some strange reason, the director saw fit to actually shoot in each of the many cities where Clooney's character fires people, although he never actually shows you these cities, so that, with the exception of differences in weather, every location looks absolutely the same as every other.) Third, you have your conversations. Each and every one is all shot-reverse shot, and each of these shots is an over the shoulder shot, with the listener's shoulder or ear completely out of focus. Over the course of the film, you get very familiar with what George Clooney's blurry shoulder looks like. Everytime Clooney speaks to Vera Farmiga or whomever, you see his face and her shoulder; then, when she has her line, you see her face and his shoulder. There are no reaction shots, no off-camera speakers, no close-ups, and very rarely any shots with more than one interlocutor in a frame; it's just this cutting rhythm ad nauseam. Fourth, in moments of high emotional impact, you just might get a long shot of 10 seconds or less, with the camera banally zooming back to indicate so and so's loneliness.

With the director bringing absolutely nothing cinematically to the table, to the point where, by dint of his inability to ever hold a shot for more than 5 seconds, he manages to kill each and every scene where the audience might be actually moved to something resembling an emotional response to what's going on on screen, the movie's forced to rely completely on its actors and its script. Unfortunately, Clooney's a void. I know he's supposed to be something of a void - that's the point! - but he's such a bland, charmless (if handsome) void that the movie becomes quite a bore, as he's in every scene. He's slick enough, but doesn't have a personality to speak of. Exchange Clooney for Aaron Eckhart, who starred in the director's first film, Thank You For Smoking, and you might begin to have something watchable.

As for the script, it's a joke; the whole thing reads and even sounds like its own high school English paper explication of itself. Every event in the movie is freighted with symbolism or cheap irony, every fifth line is a little thesis statement. The Cornell grad who comes in to Clooney's termination firm and convinces his boss to switch to firing by webcam is shocked that her boyfriend broke up with her by text. The irony never seems to dawn on Miss Cornell, presumably to make us feel smarter for "catching on" to these hidden depths. Clooney gets his 10 million air-miles card at, of course, the very moment in the story where he's finally begun to yearn for a solid home. When the pilot comes to his seat to congratulate him and asks him where he lives, Clooney replies, "I live up here." Deep! There's even a pathetic third act where he comes back to his native Wisconsin to attend his sister's marriage and discovers how real middle-class people with real relationships live. At which point he takes his fuckbuddy/partner in frequent flyer derring-do back to his high school and gets back in touch with his childhood. At this point in the film, a happy little indie-folk song starts playing, and the movie is so badly directed that when he's sitting in his old high school gym with fuckbuddy and his sister calls to tell him that his future brother-in-law suddenly has cold feet and Clooney needs to come to the church fast to change future bro-in-law's mind, the song keeps playing. Either suggesting that the editing was done by a robot, or worse, that the potentially dashed marriage only matters to the director, and is supposed to matter to us, on the level of Clooney returning to his family and doing cutesy little family business shit, in which case the jaunty indie-folk playing over the "your sister is getting dumped by her fiance on the day of her wedding" call would make sense... in a perverse way. This sort of trivialization of other people's real lives as some kind of vehicle to Clooney's process of self-discovery goes on throughout the film, if you can even call this teledrama a film. Critics of more liberal sensibilities have jumped on the similar way the armies of terminated workers (including one cavalierly glossed-over suicide) are treated by the movie, but the problem isn't really political; it's a blithe indifference to anything in the film but Clooney's trite personal drama. The thing is though that the movie could get away with this sort of solipsism if it knew how to make Clooney's character matter to us, but it fails even at that, ultimately ceasing to care about the character as a person at all and treating him as a pat parable of our collective selfishness and alienation. Which hardly seems to be an accurate diagnosis of That Which Ails America; as the movie somehow forgets there are a whole lot more faceless fired people in America than there are George Clooneys. But really, who even cares about the muddled message of this piece of junk on stilts when there are ever so many things wrong with it besides whatever it's feebly trying to say?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Yeah, I'm SILKK THE SHOCKER!!! - and Yeah, That's Me

Just wanted to briefly call your attention to this No Limit classic, which I enjoyed playing repeatedly during my contracts exam this Friday. I've always found the whole "if you're not a soldier, then what's your purpose in life" concept that runs through the No Limit Soldiers tracks strangely attractive. Obviously there are lots of meaningful non-No Limit Soldier lives, but I guess I'm attracted to the view that there's some single type of valuable life to be led out there (like being a genius attorney), and that all others are pointless at best. I could ramble for a while about the similar types of essentialism at work in Westerns and 90s gangsta rap (although the best Westerns deconstruct/interrogate the masculine ideal, see for example The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but then, perhaps you could argue that the best gangsta rap - Mobb Deep for example with their preoccupation with the 'foul'-ness of their deeds - deconstructed its ideologies?), but anyway, I love No Limit, it's dumb but it's good dumb. Silkk, for once, has the best verse on his own song. Actually, you could make a case for Mystikal, but Mystikal on No Limit posse tracks always annoys me, he detracts from the so amateurish it's genius vibe. Not sure why I like Silkk's "I'm a psycho" put-on so much, but I do and it always cracks me up when he goes:

So don't flip me, cuz you'll end up empty

and then I'll reload
and reloadandreloadand reloadandreload
whole barrel explode!!!!

Also when he explains that 'yeah, I'm Silkk The Shocker, and yeah, that's me.' Most of all when he says, "mention meeeeee to my enemieeeeees, they thinking of PAIN" and sounds like an adorable hyperactive five-year-old doing a Tupac imitation on Youtube. In fact, describing TRU as a band of three little kids, each doing his own very different and usually very bad Tupac imitation, would not be too far off the mark. Though such a description does grave injustice to C-Murder.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

This Wasn't Actually Funny,,,

but every night poor Anderson Cooper, in the little sneak preview of his show he does during Larry King, says how he's going to keep some officeholder or would-be officeholder or corporate exec honest. For instance, "was Sarah Palin totally full of shit in her new book? We're keeping them honest." Well that's nice, I guess, if a little sloganeering and dense, trying to position your cable news channel as the one that actually reports on stuff and holds politicians' feet to the proverbial fire. So last night in the middle of Larry's horribly disappointing interview with the Jackson 5 ("the only one who isn't here is Michael" - he's, don't you know, dead) Anderson shows his face and says:

A woman commits suicide at a James Arthur Ray spiritual retreat. Remember the guy who killed three people in a sweat lodge? Did Ray try to cover up this death? We're keeping 'em honest.

Yeah! We're keeping guys who killed people in sweat lodges honest. Holding them accountable to the American people. Oh Anderson.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Larry King Does Plato

Larry King is like Greeks in Egypt learning something deep from their teachers.

Last night Larry did an episode on Tiger's infidelities and what he should do to repair his public image. I don't get the assumption that it's necessary for Tiger to worry about his public image. The man is a great golfer and makes plenty of money from golf itself. And as far as endorsements go, he's obviously not losing them. But even if he were in danger of losing the endorsements, why should he care? Why is there this assumed, oddly quasi-moral imperative for the guy to maintain his brand at all costs? He has other sources of income and even if he didn't he could live on what he's made. Who's to say that Tiger even likes being a huge brand? I have no idea, but the way Larry's guests talked about Tiger you'd think that the real thing he'd done wrong wasn't cheating on his wife, but harming his brand and violating some sort of trust we had in him, a trust he has an ethical duty to repair via carefully coached and phonily sincere interviews. (One even said that he shouldn't come out with his wife because that's such a cliche and would detract from the appearance of sincerity. Well what if he sincerely wants to make a statement with his wife, and she with him?) Anyway, Larry had a surprisingly Platonic moment with his panel of damage control doctors last night. They're all saying what Tiger should do and suddenly Larry asks:

Do you teach remorse? You're either remorseful or you're not. Or do you guys teach it?

BRAGMAN: You teach him how to show it, I mean, you know...

KING: Would the old George Burns thing, the secret of sincerity -- if you can fake it, you've got it made?

Compare this to this exchange from Plato's dialogue, Gorgias:

Soc. Let me tell you then, Gorgias, what surprises me in your words; though I dare say that you may be right, and I may have understood your meaning. You say that you can make any man, who will learn of you, a rhetorician?
Gor. Yes.
Do you mean that you will teach him to gain the ears of the multitude on any subject, and this not by instruction [by which Socrates means the teaching of actual knowledge] but by persuasion?
Quite so.
You were saying, in fact, that the rhetorician will have, greater powers of persuasion than the physician even in a matter of health?
Yes, with the multitude-that is.
You mean to say, with the ignorant; for with those who know he cannot be supposed to have greater powers of persuasion.
Very true.
But if he is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?
Soc. Although he is not a physician:-is he?
And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows. Gor. Clearly.
Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge?-is not that the inference?
In the case supposed:-Yes.
And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?
Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?-not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Video Hoes, Beware (And A Couple Good Songs):

"A 38-year-old former Miss Argentina has died from complications after undergoing cosmetic surgery on her buttocks.

Solange Magnano, a mother of twins who won the crown in 1994, died of a pulmonary embolism Sunday after three days in critical condition following a gluteoplasty in Buenos Aires.

Close friend Roberto Piazza said the procedure involved injections and the liquid "went to her lungs and brain."

"A woman who had everything lost her life to have a slightly firmer behind," he said."

Normally I wouldn't really sympathize but a mother of twins, shit.

On another note, two good songs. In one corner, B.G. f. Soulja Slim, Boosie and C-Murder - 'Nigga Owe Me Some Money.' You can't go wrong with B.G. and Soulja Slim - 'Fired Up,' which I believe I've written about here, was one of the great songs this decade - and you can't go wrong with B.G. and C-Murder. And I don't really like to acknowledge Boosie for stupid reasons but he's good too. Unfortunately, Soulja Slim just does, or rather, did the hook (R.I.P., Soulja), and C-Murder sounds like he's getting a little old - still raps just as well, but his voice has become a slightly blunter instrument. As if he ate Juvenile circa today for lunch. But a great song nonetheless. B.G., like Kurrupt, is the sort of minor talent that just doesn't decline with age. I actually happened to pick up his first album, True Story, that he made with a 12-year-old Wayne when he was 14, and he was just about the same rapper then that he is today. I'll say something about it sometime. In the other corner, Gucci makes up for the deficiencies of previous album leaks (see previous post below) with some virtuosic technical fireworks on 'Gingerbread Man,' over a Mannie Fresh track that sounds nothing like vintage Mannie Fresh but thankfully sounds nothing like his recent crappy work either. More of a solid approximation of a Zaytoven beat, which is good enough given how great the rapping is, and OJ has a surprisingly good verse, although perhaps I like Bad Goofy OJ more than Surprisingly Decent OJ. At this point I'm fine with the fact that Gucci's weedcarriers can't rap, and when they do rap well it's a bit like if ODB were to have suddenly busted out a really solid 16 on some Wu-Tang song - defeats the whole purpose of his being a member instead of, like, Killah Priest, or that guy in Killarmy. Actually though, it would be okay if Waka Flocka learned how to rap, as he doesn't have the personality to make up for it. Guy doesn't have an accent. It's like, who invited the fifth-rate N.Y. mixtape rapper to the party? But anyway.

Brief And Reasonably Clever Larry King Remarks (White House Party Crashers' Friends)

More articulate people have said it less tritely before, but you've got this weird phenomenon in today's media where, out of a concern to appear unbiased, reporters will actively avoid coming down on one side or another of a question of fact. Which is understandable, because the line between questions of fact and questions of opinion can be a hard one to draw (for instance, whether Obama's healthcare bill will improve or hurt the quality of our healthcare is both, in a sense, a factual matter, but also such a heavily disputed and somewhat unknowable factual matter that it's really just as much a matter of opinion), and because questions of fact can become politicized and therefore picking a side can look like partisan bias. But some things are just hardcore questions of fact and should be treated as such, not as issues where reasonable minds can disagree or state their views. And one such question is whether the Salahis were invited to Obama's big soiree last week. They weren't, and they didn't get confused and think they were either. They just crashed. But in a journalistic world where objectivity has come to mean that it's forbidden to actually report that someone is lying about something, that can become hard to say. And it's particularly hard for Larry King, who seems to inhabit a world where the sky could be blue - or it could be green. We just don't know.

So Larry has on three friends of the Salahis the other night, two of which are just stupid people and one of whom was wildly insane. And how does this go down? The first question Larry asks the friends is how the poor Salahis are doing. Gee, Larry, how do you think they're doing? They've just become famous for being colossal buffoons. But Larry's into seeing both sides of a story, so that's what he asks, and they say that the Salahis aren't doing so well because people are running around taking pictures of them now. OH NO. Then Larry asks why they went if they weren't invited. The one woman says "as far as I know, they were invited." Which only means - as she admits that she has no evidence of that fact - that her friends lied to her and said they were. Really, what is the point of this exercise? This is like having Jeb Bush on and asking him why his brother invaded Iraq, and Jeb saying, "Larry, as far as I know George didn't invade Iraq. That was his evil twin. George TOLD ME so." Larry, however, doesn't ask why we should give any credence to the lies Miss Salahi Friend has been told by these two nuts; he just moves on to the next guest, who is the insane one.

Since Larry has no bullshit filter, you can basically walk out of a mental clinic and say whatever you want on Larry King Live. Unless you're a beauty pageant contestant, in which case Larry must hold you to the highest standards of journalistic scrutiny, because hedging about the confidential contents of your settlement with Miss USA Inc. is really important stuff. Otherwise, though, you're good. Well, Mr. Matthew Christian Davis, author of The Best of D.C., is here to defend his friends proudly. For Mr. Davis featured them in three, count 'em, three different areas of his book, the purpose of which is to chronicle the defining change in America's leadership. The first area is design and couture; Ms. Salahi rocked the runway fashion show. She's leading the way in America in couture. #2 is D.C. for Divas in Charge, an event where Ms. Salahi, a D.C. Diva in Charge, wore a green number. And the third was the book launch at the National Press Club, where she emceed with three other ex-Miss D.C.'s. So you can see that Ms. Salahi is really the best of D.C., and part of that defining change in our nation's leadership. This is all direct quotation, more or less.

Then Larry asks whether this eminently honorable woman was actually invited. Mr. Davis has an answer for that. He comes from three generations of law enforcement and proudly served his country in "such places as Rwanda during the genocide in 1994." Being a patriot and a proud servant of this country, he is "a strong believer that our nation has a front line, a first line of defense that will protect our leader, our commander in chief by all means necessary." What are you saying, Larry asks? That they must have been invited because otherwise they couldn't have gotten past the first line of defense? Yes, Mr. Davis replies. But quick, we've got to take a commercial break.

When we return, the one friend continues to say that the Salahis were invited to the best of her knowledge. This is turning into the Watergate hearings. She admits, however, that she never saw the invitation. Larry asks Mr. Davis what would happen if he went to the White House without an invitation. Mr. Davis says that Larry has a blanket invitation wherever he goes, because he's such a hell of a guy, and that "I do not want to make any comments in terms of seeing that you're not being considered welcome to a party." Mr. Davis won't even consider the hypothetical because it's too offensive. Larry follows up; aren't the Salahis well-known too, like Larry? Why yes, Mr. Davis says, "they are D.C.'s dynamic couple, another acronym for them in the book. However, in this particular case, D.C. also represents diligence and courts. I feel they are innocent until proven guilty." Pay attention to what Mr. Davis just did. He's spelling out D.C. acronyms about the Salahis. They're the Dynamic Couple. But they also should receive the benefits of our justice system's Dilligence and Courts. All this is just flying over Larry's head. If Larry realizes he's talking to a madman, he doesn't show it.

After the break, Larry probes some more about that invitation, and this time the Salahi Friends admit they had the feeling that the Salahis were not invited to the dinner, but only the reception. But they're really sure that they were invited to the reception. Because the Salahis told them so. Why Larry hasn't finally started booking serial killers' best friends and beloved pets to testify to their innocence, I don't know. It would make no less sense than this. Finally, Larry says that he can imagine how heartbroken the Salahis must be and that he looks forward talking to them. For as he says, "we don't have an agenda on this program. I would like to learn what this was all about." No agenda! No bias! Just lively debate about the color of the sky.

Another Annoying Tray Complaint About Rap (See 3rd Paragraph)

I'm (obviously) abandoning my Larry King wrapups, as I don't find them too entertaining, and I really don't care too much about rap right now, and I don't really have anything interesting to say about the weird Pill/Gibbs flare-up on the blogs a couple weeks back, other than that, yes, Pill and Gibbs, pretty great rappers, but admittedly, it is a little weird that these somewhat limited talents are the most ballyhooed rappers in the rap blog world right now, and there is something a little - I don't want to say retro about their work, because I don't particularly hear any kind of blatant Outkast imitation going on the way you did with the Knux or Da Backwudz - but a little "cinema of quality" to their output. Cinema of quality being a term of derision a group of young French film critics (who ultimately became great young French directors) in the late 50s used to throw up at the very competent and finely crafted, but a touch lifeless and certainly not at all innovative, movies made by their elders. And that's kind of how I feel about Pill, though he's not one bit lifeless, but I do feel that we've perhaps progressed beyond finely polished rapping of the sort he has to offer being the gold standard anymore, and that it's just a bit of an artistic dead end in the very large scheme of things. In the not so large scheme of things, it's just a relief to hear some very good rapping these days, and it's not like it's thematically barren stuff either.

Anyway, I've become a partial Gucci Mane convert, and listened to about half of his new mixtapes (skipping Brrussia and Great Brrrrtain) with a fair amount of approval, though all the songs do seem to blend into one big ad-lib, aside from interesting changes in flow (I love the Jeezy imitation on 'Dope Boys,' since Jeezy is no longer very interested in being himself, and the slurry mumbly mess that isn't actually a mess at all that's 'Trap Goin Crazy') and some stupid-funny jokes that help to distinguish tracks from each other. But the album cuts, so far, have not been so wonderful. For a mixture of reasons. With 'Heavy,' Gucci's reaching the point of diminishing returns in his fun "my whole life can be reduced to one word that expresses its awesomeness" subgenre. Why he can't just put 'Wonderful' or 'Awesome' or 'Gorgeous,' or maybe my favorite, 'Disaster' on the album, I don't understand; in the great old material vs. the exciting new material that's not nearly as good as the old, I always come down on the great old material side. That way, you might actually have an album worthy of reissue ten years from now, at which point no one will remember how new the material was. Then there are songs like 'Bad Bad Bad,' where the guest appearance (Keyshia Cole) actively detracts from the quality of the song. Gucci Mane's the kind of artist who needs his own Blue Raspberry to fit into his insular world of mealy-mouthed vocals and Brrrr's, not some top-of-the-line chanteuse. But it's an album and record labels seem to think that big names help move records, in addition to which rappers seem to genuinely like working with big names. So okay, excusable pitfall of the medium.

But then you have something like 'Stupid Wild,' of which I can only conclude that no one involved gave a shit. 'Stupid Wild,' you know, if done right, could actually have been a pretty important song for this generation, the way 'Black Republicans' was supposed to be for people old enough to care about Jay or Nas, the way 'Mr. Carter' kind of maybe actually was, the way, I don't know, the Flava In Your Ear remix was. Think about it - the three critical darlings of the decade, each one of whom was or is a pretty huge cult figure outside of critical circles, all on one track. Produced by Bangladesh! What could go wrong? Well apparently everything. First, Bangladesh decided to refurbish 'You Don't Want Drama.' What is that about? Maybe it's not on him and Gucci particularly wanted to rap over that track? Well if so, that was a mistake, because he sounds suffocated by it (note how he just gets off one muffled 'Brrr' and one 'Well damn!'). Wayne reuses the same forgettable verse he had on previous Gucci/Wayne collabo, 'Bitches Wanna' - although perhaps that was a leaked incomplete version of this track, but given that no one liked 'Bitches Wanna' much, shouldn't this have been a signal to go back and actually record a good verse, instead of this collection of throwaway lines like "Mr. Coach Carter, or Mr. Go Harder" and "and if you wanna fight, come on, you can fight my guns"? And then there's Cam, who just can't much rap anymore. "Started getting on my nerves so I hit her with a BRRRRR" is about as embarrasing as any of Jay's recent exercises on overemphasis and punched-in adlibs. (It's also very typical of rap these days that no one thought to partially redeem this lame idea by having Gucci complete Cam's line, which would at least create an illusion of chemistry and shared studio time that your average 90s rap posse track thrived on.) Who to put Cam's verse on is hard to say; it's between Cam, who is capable of working around his deficits for a 30-second spurt or so (see 'Popeye's'), and Gucci, who didn't have the gumption to say the verse wasn't good enough to make the record. You know, the way rappers used to do when a guest appearance sucked.

If this were just one disappointing song, it wouldn't be worth taking a break from studying contracts to write about, but the thing is, virtually every big collaboration or remix is like this these days. One generally gets the sense that today a rapper decides to do a song with someone, sends him the instrumental, gets a recording of his verse back, and puts the verse on the song regardless of whether it's any good. If it's good, we get lucky and get a good song, and if it's bad we're unlucky and don't. What was the last time you heard of a verse being shot down? You do hear about it occasionally, but usually in the context of replacing one rapper with another with a bigger name - more for the sake of marketing than quality. Compare this to some of the old XXL write-ups about the making of Cuban Linx or what have you, where you read about artists rejecting bad verses, listening to different verses - in the case of 'Verbal Intercourse,' for example, telling Nas that the legendary verse that made the record was the one he should use, when he apparently wanted to go with another - and you can see one major reason for why today's album rap is rarely better than mediocre. A reason, I might add, that really isn't on the label so much as it is on artists not giving a shit. It goes beyond that though - one doesn't get the sense, with today's big collabos, that the featured artists get up for them the way they undeniably did in the past. Wayne's verse on this song, or Gucci's or Cam's, definitely can't be their idea of a great verse. They're just passable at best, and they have to know that. Maybe this is the fault of mixtapes - anything but your lead single, a torch-passing collaboration with Jay, or the intro to your album is just another song out of millions, so why bother trying to make something unusually good - but even if that is the cause, it's no excuse.