Usually the first three months of any given year are a down time for movies, a decent time for music, and a great time for TV. This year, thus far, all have been relatively strong. Here’s a quick rundown of the entertainment that’s been occupying and preoccupying—me, at least—for the first quarter of ’09:
After a rocky start last fall, Fringe started to develop into something quirky and consistently entertaining towards the end of last year, and the show’s rousing-but-all-too-brief return at the start of ’09 leaves me hopeful that when the show comes back for good in April, it’ll continue to establish itself as worthy of sci-fi/horror/action fans’ attention. Similarly, it looks like Joss Whedon’s problematic Dollhouse is finally finding its voice, and should be worth sticking with for the duration. Lost hasn’t been great every week, but lately it’s been awesome more often than not, and with episodes like “316” and “LaFleur,” Lost has almost felt like an entirely new show—one devoid of many of the annoying character quirks and contrived delaying tactics that have so often driven fans nuts.
Speaking of driving fans nuts, the debate over the quality of Battlestar Galactica’s big finish will likely rage on for years and years. Myself, I could’ve done with fewer “big summary” speeches and a little more character/plot development in the extended coda, but I found the majority of the finale—and the complicated, often challenging episodes that preceded it—to be as nerve-jangling, brain-bending, and, yes, beautiful as the show at its best. This may sound perverse, but I give a lot of credit to Ron Moore and his team for being willing to alternate exciting, fan-friendly episodes with episodes that were almost purely esoteric. (The finale was a little of both.)
Lastly, while Burn Notice was spottier in the second half of its second season than it was in its first half, it remained consistently fun and wonderfully wonky throughout. And two 2009 episodes in particular—the thwarting-a-bank-heist thriller “Bad Breaks” and the falling-dominoes finale—were about as good as TV gets.
The New Troubadours
After my year off from new music (as well as new old music) I’ve been enjoying hearing albums as they come out, and exploring some artists I’ve always wanted to spend more time with. Thanks to some simpatico colleagues, I’ve been hooked up with Poco, Gene Clark, and all the non-canonical Randy Newman albums. And on my own I’ve been digging deeper into the development of ‘60s folk, via Phil Ochs, Tom Rush and Tom Paxton.
But this year I’ve been just as impressed with a handful of contemporary guys and gals with guitars in their hands and slightly bent senses of what pop music should be. I’ve long been a fan of Neko Case, A.C. Newman and M. Ward, so I’m not surprised that I’ve been enjoying their latest albums as much as I have, but I’d never heard Vetiver until this year, when I took a crash-course in advance of getting into their amazing new album Tight Knit. And though I’ve liked Andrew Bird before, I’ve never loved any of his albums as much I love the flawed-but-beautiful Noble Beast.
First the bad news. After a great start in ‘08—with some of the better challenges in series history—Top Chef limped to the finish in ‘09, with an unsatisfying finale and an unfortunate controversy over creative editing. Also disappointing in the early going: American Idol, which has reached a new level of creepy. Despite a fairly strong field of competitors, the increasingly obvious judges’ bias and emphasis on stories over talent is making the show feel more manipulative (and manipulated) than usual.
Now the good. CBS’ two top-shelf reality competitions—Survivor and The Amazing Race—have been hitting on all cylinders so far this year. The introduction of the cross-tribe alliance (with an immunity idol for each faction) has led to some intriguing tribal-council strategizing on Survivor, and the presence of multiple power-players (plus the improbable goofball “Coach”) has made this group of competitors much more likable than any I’ve seen in a while. As for The Amazing Race, a slate of entertaining challenges and a group of offbeat but not annoying contestants—including the incredibly lovable, recently eliminated Mel and Mike White—has made TAR one of the shows I rush to watch almost immediately after my TiVo finishes recording it.
The DVD Archives
The DVD market has been especially kind to cinephiles in the first three months of the year—even before the announcement of The Warner Archive project. The most significant release of the year to date has been the film-school-in-a-box collection Treasures IV: Avant-Garde 1948-1986, but the year has also seen a stellar Criterion edition of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (with John Stahl’s earlier version thrown in for good measure), a fine edition of Michael Powell’s masterpiece A Matter Of Life And Death (with the pretty-good Age Of Consent filling out the package), a gorgeous Blu-ray of Pinocchio, and a packed set of the legendary regional film The Whole Shootin’ Match. That's just a really good mix of acknowledged classics and worthy obscurities to pick through.
Concept Album Land
The Decemberists divisive rock opera The Hazards Of Love is getting all the attention—and rightfully so—but Southeast Engine’s From The Forest To The Sea is also quite good, tracing a primordial quest in reverse, moving from the rudiments of civilization to the ooze from which all life began. If you’re a fan of albums that play best straight through, ’09 is starting off right.
Return To Apptopia
Remember how when Tetris first came out, people reported becoming so obsessed with the game that when they closed their eyes, they’d see falling polygons? That’s the way I feel when I get hooked on a new iPod game, like Trism or Burning Monkey Puzzle Lab. A few weeks ago I got hung up on Meltdown, a classic “arrange the pipes to create a conduit” puzzle game with 50 “Mission” levels and 50 “Puzzle” levels. I’m not wild about the missions, which are timed and a little nerve-wracking, but I blew through the puzzles in about ten days, stealing any spare moment I could to work on them. Not only did I start seeing pipe-joints when I closed my eyes, but I played so much Meltdown while watching the finale of Battlestar Galactica that the two are now almost inextricably linked in my head. When I play Meltdown now, I hear the voice of Gaius Baltar, giving a clunky speech.
Other games I’ve been enjoying include Shuffleboard, a quick, fun simulation of the pub classic; 10 Balls 7 Cups, the best skee-ball simulator out there (complete with tickets and prizes); Word Fu, a Boggle-like game with special bonus die and the option to change letters on the go; and Bloom, a music-and-art generator co-created by Brian Eno, and a good way to relax. (I know Bloom’s been out for a while, but I just bought it after my last Apptopia column, based on reader suggestions.) Also, I recently bought Let’s Golf, and under any other circumstances I’d be killing time with it constantly. It’s got great graphics, intuitive controls, pleasing design… a winner all around. Unfortunately, I also bought a Wii last week, and ever since, my iPod has gone back to being a music-player, not a game player. A temporary lull, I’m sure.
After a long stretch of interchangeable issue docs during the Bush years, documentary filmmakers seem to be stretching themselves a little bit again. The best doc I’ve seen so far this year is the relatively conventional Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead (which weighs the necessity of vengeance in death penalty decisions), but I’ve been impressed with the effects achieved by four highly problematic films: Must Read After My Death (which tries to reconstruct a family’s tangled history out of home movies and audio recordings), Our City Dreams (which traces the impact of women on the New York art scene through a series of character sketches), Guest Of Cindy Sherman (which skips merrily around in that narrow line between artist and celebrity) and the fiction feature Memorial Day (which opens with a 30-minute verité sequence of kids partying on the beach that’s one of the year’s most bravura and horrifying pieces of filmmaking). I can’t heartily recommend any of the above apart from Robert Blecker, but I found all of them more challenging and intriguing than the kinds of earnest documentaries I’ve had to suffer through for much of the last half-decade.
Though we make every effort to review all the significant albums that come down the pike, sometimes we don’t catch up to things until after they’re past their release-date window. Thanks to the suggestion of some Popless readers, I picked up Umphrey McGee’s Mantis early in the year, and though I don’t love it unreservedly, I find its why-not mix of laid-back jam-band moves and kitschy ‘70s/’80s style pop-prog (a la Styx) to be hugely, unironically entertaining. I’ve also just started getting into Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears’ Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is!, a compact and high-spirited blast of retro R&B in the Dap-Kings mode, produced by Spoon drummer Jim Eno.
It’s probably not fair to include items on a “best of ’09 so far” list that haven’t been released yet, but I look forward to seeing how the world at large greets some of my favorite movies from Sundance when they get released later this year: particularly the limits-of-cool comedy Humpday, the twisty sci-fi drama Moon, the dark-but-uplifting inner-city melodrama Precious (formerly Push), the bleak sports-enthusiast dramedy Big Fan, the brutal Bronson, the deeply personal racial identity musical Passing Strange, and the hip-hop doc The Carter. And along those same lines, based on my first few listens of the forthcoming debut album by The Horse’s Ha—a Chicago folk-rock band formed by members of The Zincs and Freakwater—I can tell it’s going to be a factor in my inevitable Third Quarter Report. Good things lie in wait, in other words.
The World’s Biggest Comic Book (And More)
Though the oversized Kramer’s Ergot 7 technically came out late last year, it’s taken a while to pore over its enormous pages and decide if the project is a major artistic coup or a sophomoric con job. (I lean towards “major.”) Otherwise, the best comics I’ve read this year have been a trio of translations of European books: Why I Killed Peter, Kaspar and Nicolas. As I wrote yesterday, I’m getting increasingly skeptical about the ability of cartoonists to deliver long-form comics of enduring quality, but what I like best about the three graphic novels above is that they don’t try to take on too much: one’s a sketchy, personal story about the long shadow of sexual abuse; one’s an even sketchier, personal story about coping with the death of a brother; and one’s a retelling of the Kaspar Hauser story with childlike drawings that capture Hauser’s point-of-view. All three are subtle and almost deceptive in the way they creep up on the reader, leaving a deeper impression than their slim page count and rough styles seem to promise.
Sometimes a year can be defined by as much by its disappointments as by its successes. Neither Bruce Springsteen’s Working On A Dream nor U2’s No Line On The Horizon are in any way bad records; the Springsteen has a rousing, pop-oriented sound that’s undeniably appealing, while the latter features some of The Edge’s best guitar-playing since the early ‘80s. But the lyrics on both are often either simplistic or silly, and their broader reach-for-the-cheap-seats moments verge on the painful. Still, it’s hard to completely knock albums that feature songs as good as Working On A Dream’s “The Last Carnival” (a touching farewell to longtime E Streeter Danny Federici), or No Line On The Horizon’s “Unknown Caller,” which best realizes U2’s vision of combining their signature sound with more abstract, Eno-esque soundscapes.
Movie-wise, I expected to be spending March basking in the awesomeness of Watchmen, but alas, though I went into the movie with an open mind, I spent most of the film shaking my head sadly and mumbling, “Nope… nope.” I covered some of these issues in my review of the Tales Of The Black Freighter DVD, but it really felt to me that Zack Snyder took from Watchmen what too many comic book creators took from it in the late ‘80s: that making super-hero stories “adult” entails adding profanity, nudity and extreme violence, not necessarily thematic depth. Without Alan Moore’s complicated narrative structure (or his humor, because Moore’s inspired as much by Mad magazine as by old pulp comics) Snyder’s Watchmen played to me like a very expensive fan video, and an example of what Moore tried to criticize with the original book. I didn’t hate it by any means, and I admire some aspects of the film a great deal, but I don’t quite understand those who excuse Watchmen by saying it’s the best movie that could’ve been made from a basically unfilmable book. There are plenty of ways that Snyder’s Watchmen could’ve been better.
The New Classics
I’m still waiting for the one album that’s going to knock me flat and define my ‘09, though the five artists I cited up above under The New Troubadors have all done work that comes close. In addition to those, I keep returning to the latest by two other old favorites: Antony & The Johnsons and …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. The former’s The Crying Light is stark and spiritual—the perfect music for staring at the ceiling and recovering from a rough day—while the latter’s The Century Of Self delivers the kind of transcendent surge that makes every small bump feel like part of a larger plan.
On the TV front, we’re only four episodes into the second season of Breaking Bad and it’s already looking legendary, exploring the repercussions of suddenly deciding—at middle age, and while riddled with cancer—to become a criminal. Each episode has been about careful plans, carelessly undone (which is pretty much what every headline in the paper is about these days too). Meanwhile, in addition to being one of the only shows whose opening credits I never fast-forward through, Friday Night Lights has reached a kind of rare perfection in its third season. Fans of the show were up in arms about the rape/murder plot in Season Two, but to me, as much as I liked Season One, it too was pretty sensationalistic at times. (Steroids? Race riots? Secret affairs?) This third season has had its share of contrived uplift, but the dramatic conflicts—quarterback controversies, economic hardship, bad boyfriends, feeling stuck in a go-nowhere town—have been far more down-to-Earth and affecting. (Plus, FNL is maybe the most gorgeous HD show on TV.)
Lastly, at the cinemas, the arthouse has seen a steady stream of several worthy '08 fall fest leftovers, including the neo-neo-realist Italian crime saga Gomorrah, the jagged domestic dramedy Tokyo Sonata, the aestheticized Irish history play Hunger, and the offbeat New York romance Two Lovers.
But there are only two early ’09 movies likely to land on my end-of-the-year best-of list. One is Coraline, the Henry Selick adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s juvenile novel. It’s visionary, cranky, rich and enveloping—a story about childhood fantasy worlds that’s as knotty and moody as a classic fairy tale. (And I didn’t even see it in 3-D.) The other is Duplicity, a labyrinthine corporate espionage comedy-thriller that like the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading doubles as a satire of high-powered people who think they’re in control of their fates but are actually in way over their heads. The dialogue sparkles, the soundtrack kicks, and the supporting performances—especially Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as rival cosmetics magnates—are every bit as compelling as the leads. It’s funny, surprising, and a little bit cruel—the perfect movie for our roller-coaster times.
So that’s been my 2009 so far. What have you been digging?