Archive for August, 2007

The National — Boxer (2007)

August 27, 2007

If albums can take on the traits of seasons, Boxer is as autumnal as they come. Arriving amidst a flurry of praise, Boxer—the National’s fourth full-length—is subdued, gray and a lot like the last of the summer’s warmth being sapped away as leaves drift groundward.

But that’s not a bad thing. The band sounds like a blend of Tom Waits-style roots music with ‘80s underground rock, with heavy measures of U2, classic music and Leonard Cohen tossed in. Vocalist Matt Berninger mumbles casual, roundabout lyrics in a lazy baritone, dredging up self-deprecating scenes that are buoyed by humor. Drummer Bryan Devendorf is the real star here—he catapults the slower piano/string section-based songs along, and hems down the few loud tracks to an intense slow burn. This flip-flopping of the whole “loud song vs. soft song” convention is amazing.

And it’s all weirdly hopeful and beautifully done. Boxer just SOUNDS better than almost any album I’ve heard in a while, and for a year full of good releases, that says a lot.

-jason panella

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Superbad (2007)

August 27, 2007

To the undiscerning viewer this film may seem like just another teen sex comedy like the less-than-thoughtful American Pie franchise. And while it is rated R and contains plenty of crude lauguage, a closer look at the work of Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and who was a producer on this Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg-written film) reveals Superbad as an interesting picture of our culture. And an all to accurate one at that.

The plot centers on two average high school friends and their crazy plans on how to explore their raging sexuality a few weeks before their graduation. Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) have learned what culture has told them about who they are and who they should be. They want to pursue this, but there is also something deeper holding them back. So they end up getting invited to a party and asked to bring the booze, which they convince uber-geek Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse)–aka McLovin, a twenty-five year-old Hawaiian organ donor–to buy with his fake ID. The plan goes horribly wrong and the night gets progressively worse.

Eventually, they make it to the intended party and find that getting drunk and hooking up with women isn’t the glamorous “meaning of life” that our culture often sets it up to be. In fact, coming to understand one’s sexuality in high school turns out to be an independent study with one’s close friends as the teachers. This makes for many awkward situations and conversations when the characters, niavely charging ahead- making it up as they go along.

While providing plenty of laughs and gags, the seriousness of Seth and Evan’s friendship soon becomes apparent; it confronts the audience with the questions of one’s identity and the friendships and committments that make us who we are. And like all of Apatow’s work, the film ends with a fable-like moral: our friendships are what maintain order and intimacy amidst the overwhelming chaos and fear that often invades our relationships.

greg p veltman


rotten tomatoes

The Smashing Pumpkins — Zeitgeist (2007)

August 27, 2007

The Smashing Pumpkins broke up in 2000 with over a decade’s worth of albums and tours in their pocket. Before frontman Billy Corgan announced last spring that he intended to get the band back together, he and Pumpkin drummer Jimmy Chamberlain palled around and recorded lots of music under various short-lived monikers.

And this fact hangs over Zeitgeist, the first new Smashing Pumpkins album in seven years. It comes across as more of a chance for Corgan to get back in the public’s good graces after several years of lifeless music, using the Pumpkin name as a springboard to do so. The result is a simply a fair, one-dimensional album with a handful of good songs.

Pumpkin albums during the ’90s were good because they had variety, and the band excelled no matter what hat they wore. But aside from a few mid-tempo pop songs, Zeitgeist is one giant riff-fest of over-processed robot guitar fuzz. It sounds soulless and artificial, as do the naively political lyrics. It gets old before the album is even half over.

And the culprit? Corgan’s hands are red–he plays the bulk of the instruments on the album, his ego filling the void left by much-missed guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky (they opted not to join up last spring). The band’s current touring line-up almost plays like a bad joke, too–the new bassist (Ginger Reyes of the Halo Friendlies) and rhythm guitarist (Jeff Schroeder of the Violent Burning) are excellent musicians…but they look almost identical to Iha and Wretzky. I think I see where Corgan was going with this, and I don’t like it.

All of the negatives aspects of Zeitgeist don’t completely sink it. A handful of tracks, especially “That’s the Way (My Love Is),” are among the best the band has ever released. That said, Zeitgeist is a return all right–but not necessarily a great one.

-jason panella

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The Invasion (2007)

August 27, 2007

I think that since it was running on the local public television channel with no commercials, my parents thought that watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) on a Saturday night at the age of nine would be pretty harmless. It scared me half to death. There was no way I was going to sleep now. The neighbors could be aliens and I wouldn’t know. They could have taken over my emotionless Sunday school teacher for all I knew. Well, I did fall asleep. And I haven’t been the same since.

Actually, the memory didn’t last long; then I heard that a fourth attempt was going to be made on adapting Jack Finney’s novel the Body Snatchers to film. It didn’t take me nearly as long to get over my fear and paranoia once I saw that Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig were going to be the main stars. When was the last time Kidman or 007 failed in their attempts to save the world?

While the plot is relatively simple: an alien organism is able to infiltrate human DNA, turning their hosts into automatons once they have slept and allowed it to meld. But it is the larger questions of what makes humans “human” that makes this story potentially interesting and illuminating.

The Invasion engages this question by setting up a conversation between Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and a foreign ambassador named Yorish (Roger Rees) at a dinner party. Yorish makes the claim that it is human action that gives humans meaning in the world, and that the greatest threat is humans apathy toward being responsible- and not taking action against evil, even if it requires violent. The updates that have been made to this film provides added relevance by informally responding to the current theories about transhumanism and technological singularity that continue to bring the questions of being human down to earth from the worlds of science fiction.

Yorish’s voice is muted as the film mimics Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, focusing on the psychology of an alien invasion, action sequences and suspense of whether Carol can stay awake, find her son, and get to the medical facility where the cure has been developed.

The film ends with the voice of Yorish reminding Carol and the audience that this film has broader implications than just as a vehicle to escape life for an hour and a half. Unfortunately, the film ends up as just that sort of escape and the theme gets lost as the audience must be told what the film failed to show. Unlike its predecessor, the film did not open my imagination to the possibility of an alien invasion. Instead, the Invasion was a distraction to the very real political fear that consumes our current times and culture.

greg p veltman

rotten tomatoes

Sugarland Live at the Crawford County Fair

August 27, 2007

County fairs and country music go together like milk and cereal. They are better together–you could even say they were made for each other. Similarly, the mud-soaked arena of the Crawford County Fair in Meadville seemed the perfect backdrop for Sugarland’s set.

The band crackled with energy as they ripped through their hits. The crowd’s raucous enthusiasm showed that the longing embodied in songs like “Something More” and “Happy Ending” struck quite the nerve with the audience.

In fact, the longing for a better life–for something more–was the predominant theme of the band’s set. The most poignant example of this was Sugarland’s performance of Bon Jovi’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” As Sugarland played the chorus, the audience drowned out the band as they roared along, “who says you can’t go back? I’ve been all around the world, and as a matter of fact there’s only one place left I want to go.”

Sugarland’s set was powerful and dynamic and successfully tapped into the longings filling the hearts of their audience.

-nate campbell

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