Friday, November 27, 2009

FANTASTIC MR. FOX

Fantastic Mr. Fox
2009, Twentieth Century Fox
In Theaters
9 out of 10

Writer and director Wes Anderson has made a name for himself in cinema, producing precious, whimsical and hilarious films that, underneath their thrift store veneers, pack a two-note wallop centering around betrayal and redemption. Almost all of Anderson's film involve a self-serving patriarch or protagonist that, by film's end, learns to be a mench, while everyone else learns a lesson in forgiving. Yet, out of all the dysfunctional twee at the core of each of his films, no other Anderson outting has ever been more absolutely delightful than in this, his latest, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Based (loosely) on the Roald Dahl children's book of the same name, we meet the "Fantastic" Mr. Fox (George Clooney) just as he's on the cusp of retiring from a career of poultry thievery, and he discovers that his wife, Felicity Fox (Meryl Streep), is pregnant. "12 Fox Years Later", Mr. Fox has settled into a life of staid suburban domesticity as a dedicated husband, father and Op-Ed newspaper columnist. Buying into the suburban ideal, Fox even pines for an "above ground" abode, moving his family from their cozy hole-in-the-ground into a lofty hollowed-out tree, against the advice of his lawyer (Bill Murray).

Of course, Fox's new dwelling gives him the perfect view of the factory farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, three of the meanest farmers in all the land. As responsibility gives way to animal instinct, Mr. Fox plots three "last big jobs." Enlisting the help of his friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky) and Nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), the thieving goes off without a hitch. That is, however, until they cross the meanest, most determined-to-kill farmer of the three, Franklin Bean (Michael Gambon), who is aided by his security rat (Willem Defoe) and his lackey Petey (Jarvis Cocker, of the legendary Britpop band Pulp).

Amidst all the mayhem, hole digging and one-upping of the deranged farmers at every turn, is the the plot thread centering around Ash Fox (Jason Schwartzman) competing for the attention of his Father from his intelligent, conscientious, confident, athletic, and warm-hearted cousin Kristofferson. Ash, you see, is "different". He wears a cape and pajamas (with the legs tucked into his tube socks, natch!) at all times. Compared to his Father and cousin's accomplishments, ash is a runt whose defense mechanism is to resentfully spit on the ground and make snide, hurtful comments. In other words, Ash is a bit of an asshole.

But honestly, where would an Anderson film be without the "daddy issues?" Anderson's last couple of movies, The Dajeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and (especially) The Royal Tenenbaums, were packed to the gills with narratives centering around the aftermath of a self-centered Father and the turbulence left in their wakes. Fantastic Mr. Fox, however, takes this Anderson trope to surprisingly precious heights. When the redemption comes (as it always does in Anderson's films), it's gratifyingly magical and heartwarming.

Now, I am a fan of Anderson's work. His second film, Rushmore, still ranks as one of my personal "Top-10 Movies Of All Time." This director's work can be preening and too-precious at times, but beneath the sentimentality and attention to dusty knick-knack detail, Anderson's films have a heart and soul to them that easily transports you to a more whimsical and warm place. Fantastic Mr. Fox, though, is the zenith of Anderson's ability to dispense his magic thus far; as if all those threads in his cinematic canon where leading to this.

Keep in mind that the performances here are one-half animation (stop-motion animation, to be more exact). More-so than in any of his previous films, Anderson has channeled more pathos and humanity through these "dolls" than any living actor he's placed on screen. Take for instance the scene where Fox and his friends are digging below the farmers farming complexes. Fox stops his digging and motions upward as if to say, "This is the spot." Then he looks up, if only for a second, and digs upward. That's it: he just glances skyward. It's an involuntary gesture, but here, in this stop-motion arena, it's subtle. It's human.

In our CGI movie-making world, it's easy to take the impossible for granted. Sure, it still looks glossy, bright and fake, but computer generated graphics are now tumbling beloved landmarks, making bullets fly around people and allowing transforming robots to bore us to death. Stop motion in today's special effects climate is the work of the dedicated and insane. Watching Fantastic Mr. Fox, I sat there mesmerized by each and every frame. The hours poured into every motion, every glance, every syllable coming out of every characters mouth: transfixing. Here is a lo-fi, outdated discipline of animation unfolding flawlessly on screen, and I was amazed by every second of it.

I dare say that this may be Wes Anderson's finest film so far. Fantastic Mr. Fox is intelligent, witty, funny and accessible to audiences of all ages. And in a rare coup, Anderson has included "inside" gags young and old can enjoy together, on the same level (what a novel idea!) He has also given his audience a world and characters that populate it, making you want to return to over and over again. Every Anderson trademark is in there: the camaraderie, the redemption, a montage featuring a Rolling Stones song, the vintage tchotkes (albeit, manufactured in miniature instead of mined from thrift stores and grade school surplus auctions), the whimsical score augmenting the hand-picked play-list of mix CD-worthy songs, etc.

This director has a seemingly effortless spirit and flavor marking his films as his, and his alone. Anderson stylistically can be placed on the shelf next to other American auteurs with a penchant for aesthetic branding: Scorsese, Tarantino, Jonze, Burton, Jarmusch, et al. With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson has his most substantial work to date (and that is really saying something, giving this directors proven track record and quality cinematic out-put). Fantastic Mr. Fox lives up to it's title, especially that "fantastic" part.

A cussing good film!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA - DVD

G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra
2009, Paramount Pictures
DVD and Blu Ray
4 out of 10.

As a child consumer of the 1980's, a little bit my soul whithers and dies every time I hear that Hollywood is grinding yet another one of my beloved boyhood cartoon shows/toy lines into a fine, powdery feature length film. As with the utterly awful Transformers movies, the Hollywood threshing machine has turned it's sights on Hasbro's other hot toy property from the '80's (other than My Little Pony, that is): G.I. Joe. Of course being the fan of the cartoon, toys and comics that I was when I was a child, duty compelled me to see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

If you go into this film with your mind made-up that G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is going to be the worst movie you will ever see in your life (and for this, I would recommend either Frozen Assets or Eden Log), you may be pleasantly surprised to realize that Joe is only moderately mediocre. It's markedly better than Transformers 2 (which also came-out last summer), easier to take than a car trip with your boss, and much more pleasant than a small dog humping your leg. Like making a meal out of cotton candy, G.I. Joe is big on presentation, but virtually evaporates upon consumption.

The plot, as far as I could understand it, goes something like this: Arms dealer James McCullen (Chris Eccelston) seeks to avenge a centuries-old grudge against his family (ancestor issues, anyone?) by building intricate weapons systems, selling them to industrialized governments and then stealing them back with the help of a murky mercenary squad which, if you didn't figure-out when seeing them on-screen for the first time, will become (SPOILER ALERT!) Cobra. Oh, and McCullen really hates France.

Luckily for the World, there's G.I. Joe, a (now) international military strike team at the ready to thwart this tech-savvy, pre-Cobra menace (it's fair to say that the Joe's hate France as much as McCullen does, judging by what they later do to Paris). We meet Joe members Scarlet (Rachel Nichols), Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Snake Eyes (Ray Park, who is blessed with absolutely no lines of dialog what-so-ever) the way our main protagonist Army grunts Duke (Channing Tatum) and his best buddy-in-arms Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) do: with guns a-blazing!

Duke and Ripcord, you see, are charged with delivering weapon's manufacturer McCullen's nano-warheads to the U.N. (?!?) when they are ambushed by the sultry Baroness (Sienna Miller) and her puffed-up battalion of gimp-masked, laser-rifle toting thugs. With their platoon all but wiped out, Duke and Ripcord are rescued by the Joes, but not before Duke is able to identify the Baroness as his old flame, Ana, whose brother, Rex (Joseph Gorden-Levitt), was killed in action alongside Duke several missions earlier, thus breaking-off Ana and Duke's engagement (you following all of this so far?) Soon Duke and Ripcord are full-fledged Joe's under the command of General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), who trains our heroes at the Joe's under-sand, multi-tiered fun-bunker, The Pit, in Egypt.

Why Egypt? It may have something to do with director Stephen Sommers' (the Mummy Trilogy - *blah*) having sand on the brain. Who knows?

You get the idea Sommers hopes you aren't paying close attention to his movie. Along with this convoluted plot, he gives us an evil ninja so brazen he wears all white, ice burgs that fall to the ocean floor, the destruction of the Eiffel Tower, a U.S. president played by a Brit (Jonathan Pryce), and more continuity goofs than an IMDB member can shake an empty Mountain Dew bottle at. And if this isn't enough, how about (c)ramming every G.I. Joe jingoism in the 'verse into this flick: "Realistic hair," "Real Kung Fu grip," "Knowing's half the battle," and the famous battle cry "Yo Joe!" All delivered at odd times, and spoken as if to make you feel slightly embarrassed for the actors saying them. "Cobra!", indeed.

Of course, by the end, you realize that the entire movie you have just digested has been played as a sort of prologue for sequels to come (oh, you know they will!) At least Sommers has spared us the sequel-as-prequel formula inundating lousy action movies as of late (I'm looking at you, Underworld franchise), so there's that.

All-in-all, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra isn't that bad ...for a big, dumb action movie that has more in common with science fiction than military fact, that is. I've seen worse. And so have you, since I'm assuming you saw Highlander 2: The Quickening. Still, I couldn't help thinking that I've seen G.I. Joe done better, with a better storyline, more action and more imagination. Hmm, when was that?

Oh yeah! It was when I was slightly more immature than I am now, playing with my G.I. Joe toys!


SWOBO "SANCHEZ" - BICYCLE FRAMESET

Swobo Sanchez
Bicycle Frameset (frame, fork and headset)
Swobo, Inc. - www.swobo.com
8 out of 10

I've wanted a Swobo Sanchez ever since I first started riding fixed gear bicycles three years ago, and now I have finally one. Let me just say that this frame-set lives-up to the hype that I had managed to build-up around it t in my head. I can honestly say that I absolutely love this bike.

I had been aware of fixed gear bicycles (a bicycle with a single "fixed" gear that doesn't allow for "coasting") for quite a while before finally cobbling together my own conversion (a road bike converted into a fixed gear). I'd see these bike being ridden around by friends and bathing-adverse strangers every now-and-again, slightly intimidated by the potential for bodily harm (most fixed gear bicycle rider don't use brakes, but rather the torque from their legs to the chain to the cog in-order to stop), yet still intrigued by the sheer simpleness of these machines. Then one day my girlfriend's friend (and by extension, now my friend) Gina came over with her fixed gear bike, and that was that.
As my girlfriend and Gina chatted in the living room, I stood in the kitchen, just marveling at Gina's bike. "No derailer? No gears to 'ka-chunk' and eventually throw? Hmm...," I thought to myself. "Just that one gear. How 'bout that?" And damn if these simple bikes don't exude an clean, sexy aesthetic. I was doomed. I had to have one.

Sure, sure, in the 'roid rage that is hipster-hating (which is, in itself, ironically "hip" these days) , fixed gear bicycles rate about as high as the electro/clash music genre, white belts and the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Fixed gear bicycles are derided by chunkheads, "proper" bicyclists and even "former" fixed gear riders alike (talk about jumping "off" the bandwagon!), and seem to be as far from the subversive bike messenger culture that spawned this "trend" as Urban Outfitters (who just happen to have their own brand of fixed gear bicycles for sale) is from your house.

But even mountain bikes (a multi-billion dollar industry unto itself these days) were once considered a "trend" by spandex-clad "purists"; likewise, this fixed gear "fad" doesn't seem to be fading away anytime soon, either. These days, it seems that almost every bicycle manufacturer has a fixed gear division with a quasi-bohemian, urban slant. Which leads us to Swobo.

In doing my research (wherein I just Googled "fixed gear bike"), I came across an interesting little company named Swobo out of San Francisco. A seemingly little, independent bicycle manufacturer, Swobo may or may not be an off-shoot of the Santa Cruz Bicycles mountain bike division, overseen by ex-professional skateboarding bad-ass Rob Roskopp, and headed-up by former Bianche design chief Sky Yeager.

After patiently waiting and saving-up my money for three years, I was finally able to purchase a Sanchez. It didn't hurt that Swobo had recently reduced the price of this frameset from $399.00 to $199.00, either (sorry, but as of this writing, it looks like the sale is over). This package came with the frame, a straight-blade fork, seat clamp, track-end adjustment screws and a Cane Creek headset. The Sanchez also comes with "complete" with various Swobo parts (wheelset, handlebars, saddle, etc.), but I like this stripped-down arrangement much more; augmenting this set-up with higher quality components of your choosing.

The first thing you notice about the Sanchez is the galvanized tig-welded steel tubing. Actually, the frame and fork are painted that galvanized steel color (from what I understand, early Sanchez frames were actually galvanized steel, but cost became a factor, so subsequent framesets were simply "galvanized-like" painted). The next thing you notice is the weight, as in "light as a feather." Built-up, the Sanchez can be easily lifted off the ground using only your index and middle fingers. The last thing that you will notice is people guffawing "dirty Sanchez" upon telling them the name of this bike.

I built my 60cm Sanchez up using a variety of cheap-ish parts. I purchased the saddle, seat post and handlebars directly from Swobo. The Velocity wheelset was purchased (surprisingly trued) from a dealer on eBay. The Thompson headset, MKS pedels, and Strong V grips were purchased at The Bicycle Business here in Sacramento (www.thebikebiz.com). And the used Shimano Octolink crankset, a new Ritchey bottom bracket and a set of Vittoria Zaffiro tires were purchased where this Sanchez was built-up: at Whitworth Cycles (www.whitworthcycles.com). All-in-all, building-up this bike cost me no more than $600.00.

The Sanchez has a very tight, track inspired geometry which lends itself very well to its tight handling. Even at 60cm, this bike feels bigger than it really is. It's hard to explain: you feel that you are mounted atop a taller steed than it is, yet the Sanchez handles almost as nimbly as BMX bicycle. And I don't know if I just want to believe this, but it seems as if the Sanchez actually absorbs bumps, train tracks and other abrasively hash road anomalies. As my daily commuter, the Sanchez performs flawlessly

So, how about some bad news, then? The Sanchez that I purchased was surprisingly free of flaws, save for two. The first was found on one of the drop-outs on the fork, which was, shall we say, "tighter" than the other. This could be a rare variance (Swobo's frames are manufactured in Taiwan), but annoying, nonetheless. Even after filing the drop-out out a bit, fitting my wheel's hub spindle in was a bit of a tight squeeze. Of course, were some wretched wheel thief to come a-calling on a day when I didn't secure both my frame and front wheel to a poll (I'm ashamed to say that it's been known to happen), they'll have a bit of a time getting this wheel free. Moving on...

Now, I'm not a fixed gear freestyler myself, but Swobo claims its two taller Sanchez framesets (60cm and 62cM only - sorry fans of smaller frame sizes) can do bar spins. I'm 6', 1" so I found the 60cm frame a perfect fit for me. However, one day while lofting my bike over my shoulder, I noticed the very top of my front tire rubbing against the downtube when the Zaffiro spun around 360 degrees (the tires measure 700x23c). Since I'm not a "tricker", this doesn't really matter to me. But a promise is a promise, Swobo. I'm just saying...

That being said, the Swobo Sanchez is a fantastic bicycle, and one that I highly recommend for anyone looking to upgrade from their conversion. Or for those attention-deprived among you looking for a bike that will get "looks." Or for anyone who desires fellow bicyclists to approach your bike, rub it with two fingers and say "Is this galvanized?" (Quick tip: let them believe that!)

For nearly the cost of a Bianche Pista, you can get a complete Sanchez that you can easily assemble in no more than 15 minutes, from box to ride (or so claims the Youtube video below.) For the full "fixie experience", give generously at you local bike shop and slap some higher-quality parts on-to your Swobo rig. Peel-off the oddly-placed top tube "Swobo - Sanchez" badge near the seat post (it's metal, but it's secured to the frame like a sticker), and away you go.

Ride through some mud, even! ("Dirty Sanchez." *snort!*)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

YO LA TENGO Popular Songs - LP

Yo La Tengo Popular Songs
2009, Matador Records
8 out of 10

For over 20 years, 12 albums and countless singles, You La Tengo have been churning-out more wonderfully heart-felt bedroom waltzes than a rock critic could shake an adoring pen at. And while it's unfair that this Hoboken, New Jersey trio hasn't received the same adoration and appreciation lavished upon less talented acts (Cough! The Killers. Cough!), we "cult followers" of the band have been able to secret the their tunes away, keeping them all to ourselves.

Popular Songs finds Tengo'ers Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew back on familiar, soft-focus ground after 2006's adventurous I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. That is to say, really, that the band has returned to it's roots, as they were; introspective songs that feel like a warm blanket made just for you. This is not to say that the curiosity that produced ...Beat Your Ass has left the building. No, not at all. If anything, that album helped Yo La Tengo expand their reach with Popular Songs, and allowed them to spread their wingspan a lot more. Bedroom rock, if the bedroom were a warehouse, say.

"Here To Fall" opens the album with a monsoon of strings, Hammond Organ and deep bass, as if to mark it's territory on your turntable. This is followed immediately by the Mama's and Papa's-esque "Avalon Or Someone Very Similar", and it's here where Yo La Tengo's intentions become quite clear: they have swells of brilliant harmonies and they aren't going to hesitate to use them one bit. In fact, it's as if the band has taken everything they've learned over the years and condensed all of that knowledge into one album.

Take "All Your Secrets" for example; your tried and true YLT road song that hums like a warm breeze on your cheek. Or "By Two's", which finds Hubley whispering plaintively over midnight-hour instrumentation that sounds as if it's weeping. And "Nothing To Hide", a chug-chug rocker that has become de rigeur since Painful. There's even two - count 'em two! - songs that clock-n over the 10 minute mark ("The Fireside" and "All the Glitter Is Gone"). Now, if this sounds like a complaint, as if I was saying each Yo La Tengo Album has seemingly become predictable, well ...it's not, but I am.

But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. And "predictable" is a bit loaded. Rather, let's say, "consistent". Yes, Yo La Tengo's albums have become consistent. The band writes great songs and nowhere is that more obvious that here on Popular Songs. And honestly what's wrong with listening to something that has almost come to be expected?

Popular Songs marks yet another cobblestone in the subtlely inclined road that Yo La Tengo finds themselves leisurely ascending. In a time when music seems so cold, so anonymous, so mediocre, and so overcrowded, it's great to hear a familiar face. Hello, old friend. Let's hear some of those popular songs you've been playing.


THE CLIENTELE - Bonfires On the Heath - LP

The Clientele
Bonfires On the Heath
2009, Merge Records
8 out of 10

Of the select group of my friends who pride themselves on being knowledgeable in music that matters, not one could be counted on to posit an opinion when asked the question “What do you think of the new Clientele album?” One audiophile in particular, who is in possession of a considerably great ear for folk-tinged English melodies, told me that his interest in The Clientele had waned ever since the band’s second album proper, Strange Geometry. How could it be that one of the best slow-rock bands in the World has been reduced to being so woefully under-appreciated by people who (should) know better?

For the uninitiated, The Clientele are three English lads (Alasdair Maclean, James Hornsey, Mark Keen) and one gal (Mel Draisey, added to the line-up in 2007, whom I also presume is English) who produce brilliantly wispy Merseybeat chamber pop that I can only imagine sounds better on an overcast day while piloting a 1967 Jaguar X-Type in the English countryside. Landing somewhere in the neighborhood of Nick Drake, Cardinal, Belle and Sebastian, and Love, The Clientele’s mix of sorrow and whimsy makes for a brilliant lovelorn companion.

On their forth album, Bonfires On the Heath, The Clientele still retain much of what made their early singles so appealing: thoughtfully expansive and melancholy AM radio melodies akin to that of a frozen lake of honey for lead singer Maclain’s hushed vocals to effortlessly glide upon. Due in no small part to Draisey’s myriad contributions, (violin, piano, organ, backing vocals, and even the glockenspiel are employed as a compliment to arrangements), Bonfires On the Heath is a brilliant affair from start to finish.

As with their 2007 release, God Save The Clientele, the band seems to be slowly charting out more – dare I say - "upbeat" tiers of their ivy covered cottage. “I Wonder Who We Are” opens the album with a marimba boardwalk beat so infectious it would make you appear to be a complete ass if you didn’t shake and shimmy along to it. The same can be said for “Share The Night”, “Sketch”, and the Arthur Lee-esque “I Know I Will See Your Face”. Melancholia is, however, The Clientele’s stock and trade, and they do so with absolute heart-breaking aplomb on tracks such as “Graven Wood”, “Jennifer and Julia”, and “Harvest Time”. The title track is the perfect accompaniment to watching yellow and orange leaves fall from the arched trees on your street.



If I had to register one complaint with Bonfires On the Heath, it would have to be the track order. While “I Wonder Who We Are” is a wonderful song, it starts the album a bit abruptly and is immediately followed by not one, but two ballads (which, as I’ve just mentioned are quite wonderful). “Share the Night” is a great Side Two opener, while “Tonight” would have made a much better album closer than “Walking In the Park.” Of course these are the small, irrelevant quibbles of a lowly reviewer for an album that is admittedly near flawless.

As for this record being ignored by my audiophile peers? Well, I must admit that I’m at a loss. How can the honeymoon be over when The Clientele has brought fractured romance to spare?

I’m sure these friends will come back around… at least I hope they will.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Welcome!

Greeting word nerd(s), and welcome to my review blog. Tis nothing extraordinary, mind you, but writing reviews is the absolute best thing I do. You might ride your skateboard extremely well, make the perfect quiche or launder clothing like a seasoned professional. Mozel tov! For me, it's words constructed in such an order as convey a clear and concise review of a said item and/or experience.

This blog, then, is the depot of my written, opinion-based missives. Here you will find reviews on those things I hold near and dear: records, live music events, films, vintage tchotckes, and other such things I'm willing to shell-out my hard-earned money for. In short: worth-while consumer goods.

The breakdown of this blog goes as such: New, recently released albums (in LP form, mind you. CD's are shit.), the most recent movies I've seen in the theater and the latest junk I've purchased (bicycles, toys, food, etc.) Some blog entries will also contain "second looks" at records and DVD's from the past that I feel may warrant more consideration on the part of blithely ignorant bastards that bare absolutely no resemblance to you. Others, may contain a strongly worded essay on my cat's cleaning habits. It's my blog, and I'll review if I want to. Review if I want to...

So yeah, there it is in a nutshell. THE RUB. A blog about reviewing stuff (music and movies, mostly) by a freelance writer with no fixed media address (for more about your nebbish writer, see my profile information over there --->). In lieu of actually writing for an established publication - and getting paid for it, I might add - here is my blog. You know, to keep in shape.

Hey, it's your dime. Let's waste it together.

Love,

-Tony King
Editor and Writer, THE RUB







P.S. Blogs are not a substitute for unbiased, fact-checked news reporting. Read a newspaper, ya lug!