THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN

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I remember there was this filmmaker who could craft breathtaking populist entertainments. Steven Spielberg used to be the master of swiftly-paced, perfectly-shot, unpretentious adventures. Somewhere along the line he began chasing meaningless statuettes and accolades, and wound up with his head up his ass – so much so that when he returned to the genres where his mastery would have previously seemed beyond question, he made bland, forgettable product that was utterly devoid of heart or – perhaps most disappointingly – the spectacle he’d proved so adept at creating. He would up, in many ways, eclipsed by filmmakers who’d grown up looking to him as a deity of sorts.

Perhaps that’s why The Adventures of Tintin is the best film Spielberg’s made in years – he’s working side by side with people who worship him, and so he knew he had to be that man again (The Beard’s partners in crime here include Peter Jackson, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish)? Or maybe I’m just concocting the kind of narrative that would give Kenny Powers’ a boner – that tale of the one-time heroic gunslinger reclaiming his former glory against all odds?

In any event, in bringing Herge’s legendary book-bound protagonist to life, Spielberg has found perhaps his purest hero; Tintin is an intrepid adventurer and inquisitive journalist – a spritely, youthful Indiana Jones with a joyful, bottomless optimism and a righteous fire in his belly – and his director can (and does) put his artfully-designed cinematic incarnation through his paces with a velocity the old Ford could never have handled. This is an immensely charming film – and alongside Scorsese’s Hugo, it stands as proof that the best filmmakers can use 3D to absolutely glorious effect.

THE DESCENDANTS

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This family-in-decline drama earned Alexander Payne and his writing cohorts Nat Faxon and Community’s Jim Rash an Adapted Screenplay Oscar, and garnered nods for its editing, Payne’s directing, the performance of its lead, George Clooney. I think the film’s cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, was completely snubbed – but that’s because it’s about time someone who worked on Stripped to Kill II receive their long-due props from the AMPAS – and we know, unfortunately, that will never be Katt Shea (who should have at least been nominated for her performance in Barbarian Queen).

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (CHRISTERION)

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I saw this film as a teen, and just didn’t get the hatred. Far from blasphemous, it paints a picture of a Christ who actually fights against real human failings – and human injustice – to become the light of God on Earth. It seems to me that Scorsese and Kazantzakis concocted a narrative that is more compelling than the Bible blather on which it was based, giving the hero trials and depth, rather than merely regurgitating the tale of a flawless, almost alien being. And since that was supposedly the point – that God put a HUMAN incarnation of himself on Earth to show his love for man, and that humanity is flawed…but with the power of faith in God, we can triumph over those flaws – what is the crime, exactly?

Of course, I sorta’ wish Dafoe played Jesus as Raven from Streets of Fire, and the whole film ended with a hammerfight against Judas, but I’m not everybody…

MELANCHOLIA

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Brilliant, crazed bastard Lars Von Trier’s latest frothy romantic soufflé is the story of two sisters (played by Kristen Dunst and Gollum in a fright wig) who have very different reactions to the impending death of the world. Von Trier’s crazy comedic comments at Cannes (EXCELSIOR!) threatened to overshadow the film itself, which is his most polished, gorgeous, and accessible film.

Though…it’s accessible only insofar as no one in the cast pisses blood through their crushed hwhang. It is still a grim, challenging work – and a fascinating look at depression.

THE THREE MUSKETEERS

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I’m going to go ahead and surrender any aspirations to being perceived as a dignified film fan with the following statement:

Paul W.S. Anderson is a solid-as-hell director.

When you dare to examine his films, his sense of pace and his grasp of film grammar give him away as someone who really and truly knows how to shoot. Sure-sure, he’s prone to diving headlong into a deep duffel of unnecessary stylistic tics; sometimes I think that his three-dimensional return to the Resident Evil franchise would only be about seventeen minutes long if it were projected at regular speed – but then we would be deprived of endless footage of a moist, snarling Milla Jovovich – which…I’ve gotta’ confess…is kind of a thing for me. I feel very close to you all, so I’m sharing.

Anderson strikes me as Michael Bay minus misogyny plus restraint. His issue isn’t what going on behind the camera – it’s what’s on the printed page. I don’t understand why it’s allowed to keep happening over and over, but he’s constantly allowed to write his own films. This, as anyone who has seen them can tell you, is an oftentimes horrifying mistake.

I doubt it’s any different this time, honestly – but if the pre-release materials can be trusted, this is another gorgeous-looking, sloppily-scripted film from a guy who seems to specialize in them.

And if Quentin Tarantino can be trusted, it’s a better film than DRIVE, so…yeah.

YOUNG ADULT

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I watched a film written by Brooke Busey and didn’t want to shoot myself in the face fifteen minutes in. You Go, Girl!

It’s really very good, and it’s all about the precision character work she brings to the table. And Charlize Theron is amazing here, sinking to frighteningly unglamorous depths I didn’t think she was capable of. Annd yes, I’ve seen Monster. Aileen Wuornos would take one look at this trick and be like, “NO THANK YOU.”

The Adventures of Tintin
America’s National Parks Collection: Yellowstone/Yosemite/Grand Canyon
American Pie
American Pie 2
American Wedding
Arthur and the Invisibles 2 & 3: The New Minimoy Adventures
The Descendants
Dolphins and Whales 3D: Tribes of the Ocean
Grimm’s Snow White
History of the World in Two Hours
The Killing: The Complete First Season – Chudboss Nick Nunziata’s favorite series comes home.
The Last Temptation of Christ
Mardock Scramble
Melancholia
My Week with Marilyn – I guess there’s an incredible performance here…in the midst of a by-the-numbers drama.
Nature: Raccoon Nation
Neverland
Ocean Wonderland 3D
Scooby-Doo: Music of the Vampire
Sharks 3D
The Three Musketeers
Triad Trilogy
Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention
Wizards – Ralph Bakshi takes another warm, muddy shit on the field of animation.
Young Adult

THE DECEMBERISTS – WE ALL RAISE OUR VOICES TO THE AIR (LIVE SONGS 04.11-08.11)

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A large part of the appeal of The Decemberists’ live performances is the ramshackle spontaneity that can break out at a moment’s notice (last time I saw them, they invited a newlywed couple onstage for a “reception” that involved the band switching instruments and running through a lame set of oldies). The great danger of committing that sort of thing to… well, we used to say “plastic,” but whatever… is that “gimmicky” doesn’t always hold up on repeated listening What’s more important for the repeated enjoyment of an artifact is the FEEL of spontaneity – fans of the Marx Brothers are often amazed at just how precisely even the most casual aside was scripted in their films, and Elvis’ devoting forty takes to “Hound Dog” robs the final version of none of its freshness. So, amusing as it may be, Meloy’s dry greeting, “This is not the Keith Urban concert. If you mean to be at a Keith Urban concert, you will be sorely disappointed,” isn’t going to wear well over time, nor is his “this half of the room / now this half” singalong, or Jon Moen’s yodeling; and the epic length of “The Mariners Revenge Song” gets a bit wearing without being in the audience while Meloy leads the whale-chomping hand motions–I can imagine the DVD version playing better. So the question for the individual listener is, how invested are you in the “complete aural experience” versus just some bracingly excellent live performances of Decemberists favorites?

Because that’s what this album offers, in spades: the band (ably supplemented by ex-Nickel Creeker Sara Watkins, and with organist Jenny Conlee back after her cancer treatment) tears into virtually every song as though discovering it for the first time. Each official Decemberists release is represented by at least one track, though longtime fans may be disappointed at the prominence of selections from The King Is Dead (which, after all, was the band’s first #1 album) instead of a more balanced career overview. But even if you’d rather have traded, say, “Rox in the Box” for “Angel Won’t You Call”, or if, like me, you’d have enjoyed a live souvenir of the vocal contributions of Becky Stark and Shara Worden from the Hazards of Love tour, the stunning performance of the complete sixteen-minute “Crane Wife” suite is one of those times when “worth the price of the album alone” might not be hyperbole. Essential for fans; recommended for those who like a bit of standup with their raveup.

KRZYSTOF PENDERECKI AND JOHNNY GREENWOOD WITH AUKSO ENSEMBLE – THRENODY FOR THE VICTIMS OF HIROSHIMA/POPCORN

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The fact that the frequently atonal music of Krzysztof Penderecki became an invaluable resource for the makers of horror/sci-fi movies isn’t particularly surprising when you consider that his most famous work was named (well, technically re-christened) in honor of one of the twentieth century’s greatest real-life horrors. And given that Jonny Greenwood’s best-known work outside of Radiohead is the score for a film with plenty of horrifying elements of its own, it’s a logical pairing of composers.

While I know several previous recordings of the Penderecki pieces here, these by AUKSO Ensemble are more than serviceable, and are sonically devastating when listened to side by side against the slightly thin “premiere” versions from EMI, or the rather dry acoustics that were the staple of Deutsche Grammophon during the 70’s and 80’s. The shrieks that open the “Threnody” are biting, and the massed textures that rise and fall during the course of the piece’s nine minutes have enough air around them to avoid congestion while still achieving their unifying power. The profundity of Pendercki’s influence on film composers can make some of his effects sound over-familiar to today’s listeners (in the same way that Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton’s genius can be hard for a modern film audience to appreciate, having grown up with movies that pilfered many of their innovations), but there are times when Penderecki’s baton manages to pull off a hint of the startling effect the piece had on audiences when it was new. “Polymporphia” is only slightly less well-known (relatively speaking), and is an extraordinary kind of “found art”: Pendercki based its compostion on encephalographs of mental patients’ reactions to listening to the “Threnody”: again, the dynamic range possible in modern recording serves the piece particularly well, as it rumbles ominously up from dead silence.

Greenwood’s contributions are, in a way, “fanboy” reactions to his opportunity to have his work paired with one of his idols, but they also provide an effective emotional counterpoint under conductor Marek Mos. “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” is a piece for 34 string players, inspired by the “Threnody,” and Greenwood reused portions of it in his score for There Will Be Blood. It’s a fluid, shifting series of movements that nods to Penderecki, rather than copying him; it’s propulsive (particularly in the “Part 2A/Part 2B” section), and its harmonies are more conventional, but even without associations from the film, the finale provides a bleak, evocative coda. Greenwood’s “48 Responses to Polymorphia” breaks down Pendercki’s furious insect swarm of strings into a more measured sonic landscape that seems of a piece with our more “enlightened” view of the mentally ill than was common at the time of Pendercki’s 1961 composition. Not only an outstanding release on its own merits, but a fine introduction to what remains, a half century later, “modern” classical music with an emotional directness that Beethoven or Mahler would have recognized.

CAETANO VELOSO AND DAVID BYRNE – LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL

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Byrne is as responsible as anyone for Americans of the past couple of decades having the opportunity to explore the range of Brazilian music beyond “The Girl From Ipanema,” so a pairing of this sort was inevitable. His too-brief onstage collaboration with the legendary Veloso has the fluidity that the sounds of Brazil can make so effortless… though the album as a whole might actually benefit from a bit more in the way of “effort” – that is to say, challenge – from a pair of important musicians who have been trailblazers in their respective genres.

I don’t know why this one sat on the shelf for nearly twelve years (the concert took place in 2004), but that’s a pretty good metaphor for the album: pleasant enough to enjoy, but easy to forget about when it’s done. It opens with each artist revisiting some favorite songs in a solo acoustic setting that adds nothing to the originals (Byrne’s “And She Was” badly misses the second guitar part, while Veloso’s “Desde Que o Samba é Samba” has been much more seductive), though the crowd is obviously eating up whatever their idols have on offer. When the two finally team up (with help from cellist Jaques Morelenbaum and percussionist Mauro Refosco), there are hints of what a full-on collaboration between them might have brought: both “God’s Child” and “Road to Nowhere” bring out the energetic weirdo persona that might have been Byrne’s greatest contribution to pop music, while Veloso’s earnest stabs at English on “(Nothing But) Flowers” nicely underscore the song’s wariness of a future dominated by American technology, and the duo performance of “Heaven” is gorgeously wistful and sweet. Be nice if the last few tracks here had resulted in a more full-on collaboration between the two, but the bulk of it isn’t really a much more compelling musical experience than reading the program from the concert would have been.

VIJAY IYER – ACCELERANDO

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For all his awards, Iyer occasionally takes some heat from jazz fans for his choice of covers of relatively contemporary music: in jazz, the “standards” of Gershwin and Porter remain lingua franca, but anything more recent than the breakup of The Beatles is regarded with a certain amount of suspicion (see Brad Mehldau’s covers of “Wonderwall” or “Paranoid Android”). In a way, it’s probably a product of the rock/post-rock theory that a “song” is the holistic blend of writing, singing, performing, and recording: an artifact that is diminished by being pulled apart. And there’s no question that Steve Porcaro and John Bettis’ “Human Nature” is impossible to hear apart from the memory of Michael Jackson, whereas something like Heatwave’s “The Star Of A Story” would seem to have little to offer outside the context of Temperton’s original production – or, at least, little to offer to an energetic jazz trio. But taking his cue from the album title (which translates as “play faster”), Iyer’s energy, and the fluid dynamics of his rhythm section, simply run roughshod over any such objections.

This is, in fact, Iyer’s second take on the Jackson song; having previously recorded it solo, he now opens up its possibilities to include bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore; Iyer’s approach retains the extroverted arpeggios of his solo performance, while allowing the rhythm section to pick apart and reassemble the tune. The electronica of Flying Lotus’ “Mmmhmm” is given a contemplative treatment, while “The Star Of A Story” rides an almost martial beat, with Iyer’s pianistic cascade washing over the top. There are re-interpretations of jazz classics, as well, both vintage and modern: including Henry Threadgill’s “Little Pocket Size Demons,” broken down into a flurry of pounding ostinati, and following the furious Iyer original “Actions Speak (featuring a particularly intense break from Gilmore), an excerpt from Duke Ellington’s “The River” provides emotional resolution. And if “Actions Speak” is the most immediately arresting Iyer original, “Bode,” “Lude,” and the title track provide astonishing interplay between the three (and you’ll have trouble sometimes believing it’s only three) musicians.

OTHER NOTABLE 3/13 RELEASES:

Meat Loaf – Hell In A Handbasket One difference between this column and my paid writing gigs is that, when I’m doing it for free, I am under no obligation to listen to a fucking Meat Loaf album.

The Ting Tings – Sounds From Nowheresville Yeah, I got sick of the first one pretty quickly, too, and this one wasn’t available for preview. But if I get few entertaining listens out of this latest offering before it starts to curdle, all to the good.

Peter White – Here We Go Even smoother and slicker than the most recent from Kirk Whalum, who guests here as though to offer a challenge for the “lightweight” jazz crown. David Sanborn shows up, too, just in case you were afraid things might get… I dunno… funky or something.

Epica – Requiem for the Indifferent A category that includes myself.

Big Brother and the Holding Company Featuring Janis JoplinLive At The Carousel Ballroom 1968 If there was already a lot of great Janis out there, I might be pickier about the sound, and the occasionally scrappy ensemble playing on this one. But there isn’t.

Adrenaline Mob – Omerta Are you really a “supergroup” when your most prominent previous associations include Dream Theater and Avenged Sevenfold? Either way, that intersection is a pretty good description of what’s going down here.

Shooter Jennings – Family Man I don’t know if the polarized reception of Black Ribbons scared Jennings, or if he always pictured its alt-metal/roots mutation as a one-off, but he’s back in more familiar postmodern “outlaw country” territory this time, with the sentimental “Daddy’s Hands,” and the gritty “The Deed and The Dollar.”

VCMG - Ssss The reunion of Vince Clarke and Martin Gore is, unfortunately, another one I wasn’t able to hear in advance, but I would presume it’s a don’t-miss for fans of either.

Dropkick Murphys – Going Out In Style: Live at Fenway The title might mislead the unwary (the band is not breaking up), but nothing else will: furious Celtic energy at full volume on the lads’ home turf.

TALES OF GRACES f (PS3)

Even though I will probably never touch it, I’m excited we’re getting a Tales game stateside. There has been a serious lack of non-Compile Hearts HD JRPGs this generation, so I welcome any honest entry we get. Graces looks to be pretty much a Tales game, with all their insane old school (archaic?) charm and pointlessly deep mechanics. Like any great RPG, the battle system carries the game. The time-tested mix of button-mashing action and split second strategy is just plain fun. If you have any affinity for the genre, pick this shit up. Really, we should support any JRPG that isn’t creepy fan service full of embarrassing moe.

YAKUZA: DEAD SOULS (PS3)

Other side of the Japanese RPG spectrum: Yakuza with zombies.

Yakuza – Sega’s thug life beat-em-up…vs zombies – the overexposed undead creations of George A. Romero. Alright. I like both of those things in theory. I can do this. It could be horrible. Zombies are a terrible video game enemy and Sega has done very little to help the Yakuza series stateside. Not to mention, Yakuza‘s combat is all about stylish arena fighting, something I can’t see working with the shuffling masses. Hopefully, it’s more the cheesy Miike fun I picture in my head than the exercise in pandering to an audience that isn’t there that other zombified games have been doing recently.

OTHER STUFF:

Everyone can buy Journey on PSN now, after being a PS+ exclusive for a week. It’s great. Really, really great. It’s in the ‘interactive art’ vein of thatgamecompany’s other work, but it’s much more than a pretty thing to play with. It’s a haunting, lonely adventure in a very gorgeous world filled with brief encounters with real strangers. The experience is very much worth the fifteen buck price tag. FIFA Street is hitting 360 and PS3. Which is awesome if you are European or a douchey guy in college.

Although I’ve seen more episodes than I’d like to admit of Naruto, that’s still only like twenty. I know nothing about that show. Still, CyberConnect2’s Ninja Storm games are some of the most fun I’ve had playing 3D fighters. The newest entry, Naruto Shippoden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations is probably going to be pretty good. CyberConnect2 has it down to a very frantic and pretty science. The games look better than the anime does at this point and they play like every masturbatory fight you saw on Toonami and wanted in game since you were twelve. Worth a rent for anyone who can stomach the embarrassment of the license. Finally, Silent Hill: Downpour is coming out. Spoiler alert: it will have an unreliable narrator and will border on unplayable.

So now it ends…another time, Highlander!

FIN.