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Archive for December, 2009

Dear reader,

I give you these 10 suggestions (from the 35 films I saw this year) to consider as eminently watchable and deeply worthwhile cultural experiences…

10.  The Road:  It was bleak and heart-wrenching and so difficult to watch…but it was unflinchingly truthful and often had a kind of tarnished beauty.  An amazing film that I never want to see again.

9.  (500) Days of Summer:  I think I was dead center in the sights of this film’s demographic appeal.  Indie soundtrack (& Smiths shout out to boot!), check.  Ernestly romantic guy, check.  Lack of ambition as virtue, check.  Creative, non-linear, brain-teasing narrative structure, check.  By all accounts, a non-conformist, iconoclastic, incredulous contrarian such as myself should have seen right through this.  But I ate it up.

8.  District 9:  The Office with aliens.  Original and touching beyond all expectation.

7.  Avatar:  Utterly predictable storytelling, but I was almost literally transported into the world of Pandora (course, I DID see it in IMAX 3-D, which made this almost a given).  The mythic instinct come to life…

6.  Adventureland:  This film tapped into something pretty nostalgic for me, but it also is an amazingly honest portrait of summertime post-teenage angst in low-pay limbo.  Performances from main & minor actors hit me in the melancholy bone…and the songs made me shudder with recollection of an adolescence lived to that soundtrack (ROCK ME, AMADEUS!).

5.  Up in the Air:  My only criticism of this very fine and relevant dramatic comedy is in the casting of non-leads:  actual unemployed people as the victims of redundancy came off as schlocky & the hip actors (Zach Galifianakis, Danny McBride, Jason Bateman) in minor roles felt distracting (see The Invention of Lying for the most egregious use of this type of “pack casting”—i.e. “if I show up in your movie, that lets everyone know I’m in your crew”)

4.  Up:  I did not want to like this in order to resist the Pixarification of my soul, but alas my brain is fully washed and my heart is clay in the hands of these masters.  I saw it once with my wife & once with my kids.  So great & unforeseeably ingenious.

3.  Inglourious Basterds:   I really did love this movie, though my reservations of whether I SHOULD have loved it still haunt me.

2.  Where the Wild Things Are:   Never was a fan of the book…creeped me out.  Didn’t particularly want to like the movie, though I am a fan of Jonze & Eggars.  But after viewing, I could not get it out of my thoughts for days.  I feel like I lived that film somehow.  Moved me in profound ways on many different levels.  It will gain the recognition it deserved someday…

And in FIRST PLACE:

The furthest thing from the cluster cuss this could have been.

1.  Fantastic Mr. Fox:  The dialogue, the look, the details, the heart, the growling, the outfits, the voices, the humor, the pacing, the panache, the feel, the stillness, the child-likeness, the tears, the speeches, the GENIUS.  I will see this film many times more before I die…

Note: It’s fascinating to me to see THREE (ostensibly) Children’s films at the top of this list.  Regression?  Longing for a care free world?  Return to innocence?  My only response is to ask what the cross is between an elephant and a rhino.

Honorable mentions:  I Love You Man, Watchmen (the credit sequence alone was among the best looking cinema this year), Star Trek.  ADDITION:  Zombieland!

Wish I could have seen:  The Hurt Locker, Bright Star, Moon, A Serious Man, In the Loop, It Might Get Loud, The Informant!, The White Ribbon, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Thirst.

Biggest disappointments (and my respective “microview”—aka review with minimal words involving some sort of pun on the title):

The Brothers Bloom                                  The Brothers Wilt

Away We Go                                                Eww, Go Away

The Invention of Lying                             The Venting of Denying

Ponyo                                                            Panyo

Not as bad as everyone said it was:

The Box (from Richard Kelly, writer/director of Donnie Darko):  which had some genuinely creepy, intriguing and touching moments, solid performances, lovely sense of time/place, before it crapped out.  And a score from (pretty much) The Arcade Fire!

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On behalf of the CAI writers let me wish you a very Merry Christmas, and a wonderful new year to come.  I hope you have a great season and hopefully get to relax from work for a bit.

And a Merry Christmas to you as well, courtesy of Mao Zedong on the white house Christmas tree.

Huh?

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About Band Names

Here’s a question that interests me: What role does the name of a band play in our enjoyment of said band? Is a bad band name a small hurdle to get over before enjoyment may ensue, or can it be a deal breaker? Or is it a non-issue? I have found this to work a few different ways- sometimes a bad name starts to grow on me as I begin to like a band, as in the case of Built to Spill. I never cared much for that name, but once my fandom for the band took root, the name stopped bothering me, and I almost began to like it. In other cases, a name that I initially dislike gradually grows on me to point where I actually begin to realize its genius, as in the case of Superchunk (as a huge Superchunk fan, I’ve come to believe that there could be no more fitting name for this band). On other occasions I’ve been duped into buying a record from a group with a great name, only to find out the music doesn’t live up to it (see Silkworm).

So against this backdrop I offer the following lists of band names:

Great band names, one syllable:
The Kinks
The Germs
Love
The Fall (one syllable, two meanings!)
The Damned
The Smiths
The Who
The Band
The Clash
Slint
The Cure

UPDATE: Queen- one of the best and most apt names of all time.

In all cases, the name fits the most important criteria: simplicity. And in all cases, the name implies something interesting and tells you something about the band.

Great Band names, one word, more than one syllable:
Dinosaur Jr.: They were originally just Dinosaur, which was a better name (and why it makes this list), but had to change it due to a copyright problem. In either case, it’s a great name because of its playful nod to dinosaur rock, which this group channels, and because dinosaurs are awesome.

The Creation
The Meters
Unwound
Television
Tortoise
Parliament
Wire (is that one syllable or two?)
Fugazi

The Embarrassment

The Muslims- This group has since changed its name to the very unawesome “soft pack.” Talk about a step down.

These are slightly less pithy, but still successful in communicating an interesting idea or notion in a word.

Great band names, two words, in the form of adjective, noun:
Sonic Youth
Beachwood Sparks
Led Zepplin
Black Sabbath
Velvet Underground
Modern Lovers
Big Star

In each case here, the second word is used skillfully- if more than one word must be used, make your second one count!

Great band names, two words combined into one:
Minutemen
Bedhead (I generally disapprove of any band name with the word “head,” since it’s so overused, but Bedhead is the perfect way to describe this band, and they’re quite old, so it works for me).

Three words, all of them essential:

Drive Like Jehu- An obscure Old Testament reference used to perfectly describe ultra rocking euphoria.

Bad band names of groups that I like anyway:
Meat Puppets (Not only does this name instantly make me think of male genitalia, it’s also just entirely misleading as to the sound of this band)
Flaming Lips (I cut them some slack for the fact that the name was originally used to describe a psychedelic punk band with little musical talent in the early 80s that bears little resemblance to the Flaming Lips of today, but it’s still a terrible name).
Band of horses (no band name should ever begin with the word “band”, except for “The Band”)
The New Year
The Sea and Cake

UPDATE: Bad Finger- This band name makes me think of rectal examinations- hardly an appropriate way to frame the beautiful music that Bad Finger made in it’s prime.

Band names that I can’t decide if I love or hate:
Papa M (OK, it’s really just a guy, but still, funny, ironic pseudo hip-hop moniker or just plain stupidity?)
Modest Mouse (As a general rule I hate names where the first word does nothing to modify or explain the second, but somehow this name just kind of flows in a pleasant way- I can’t explain it).
Death Cab for Cutie- Give it points for a Big Star reference, but it still sounds pretentious and twee.

Great band name, post band names:
Peter, Bjorn, and John: I love that they didn’t even try to come up with a name. The beauty of this name is that it’s impossible to judge this group without listening to them- their name conjures up no imagery, style, or scene (unless you immediately link them to Peter, Paul, and Mary, in which case you’re way off track).

Band names that I hate so much, I avoid listening to them no matter how many people tell me they’re great:

Fountains of Wayne
Television on the Radio (I know, I know, everyone says they’re great, but I’m not going to make the effort- someone’s going to have to tie me up and force to listen to these guys Clockwork Orange style).
And you will know us by the trail of dead (or whatever)
The pains of being pure at heart
We were promised Jet Packs (Sorry Greg and Elijah on those last two- it’s nothing personal)

In the case of the first two, I hate names that just don’t make any sense. There’s a lot more of them, but I can’t think of any right now. In the case of the other three, they all display varying degrees of pretension, are too long, conjure too much specific meaning, and are too much work to say. I don’t have the time to tell someone I’ve been listening to the Pains of being pure at heart. Not only does it take forever, but then I’ve got to explain that it’s a band, not a medical condition or whatever.

Band names that are funny, but still suck:
Butthole Surfers
Gay Dad

So I open it up to you, the CAI reader, to contribute your own favorite or least favorite band names, or to tell me I’m wrong and correct my wrong-headedness. What importance do you ascribe to band names? What makes a band name great or terrible?

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Our friends at Powerline (does being a Facebook friend count?) offer a link to a Claremont Review of Books review by James Keller entitled, “Is Deregulation to Blame?”  The review is on two texts, A Failure of Capitalism by Richard Posner, and Getting Off Track by John Taylor.  I highly recommend reading the review, as it is deals with the ol’ ‘capitalism is to blame’ theory of this most recent financial calamity and recession.

The topic of financial regulation is one that I find extremely interesting as it parallels many views I have on other issues such as education, welfare, etc.  In this blog I will many times bemoan the lack of accountability to consequences that many government institutions create.  James touches on this in his closing paragraph:

Regulators need not be heroes if creditors have an interest in being vigilant; and creditors will have such an interest if recklessness faces the penalty of real loss. Unfortunately, we have just assured all creditors that their interests will be protected, no matter how reckless they are. (emphasis added)

Regulation is a fashionable word amongst those who despise capitalism and the free market, and even those who just mildly distrust it.  But as this review points out, the very areas that are most heavily regulated are most often the ones with the greatest problems:

The anticipated chain of events was a large hedge fund failing and taking down its lenders in a chain reaction. Instead, the banks failed, threatening the hedge funds. The rush to re-regulate ignores the reality that the least-regulated entities in the system—hedge funds—fared far better than the highly regulated entities like banks and insurance companies.

This article is far too small, and the financial collapse far too large to be covered sufficiently, however a benefit of Claremont reviews is that they are not the one paragraph People Magazine reviews, but longer articles that typically are able to be quite thorough in presenting the case of the author.  I will admit that relying too much on a review versus actually reading the reviewed text itself can be dangerous, so I won’t make any disclaimers about Posner’s or Taylor’s books or the arguments they make… but it is still well worth the read in that it can only serve to perk your interest in this topic and to maybe cause you to look into it a little more.

Whatever your views on capitalism and its evils, this review does provide a quick overview of the problem and offers compelling objections to the claim that the financial sector needs renewed regulation.  I find it ironic that the very regulators who didn’t respond to signals and warnings that existing regulations provided, now are asking for more power and regulations to administer.  As Keller states of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, “What in the world had he been busying himself with beforehand?”

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Expressing my objective journalistic intentions with this favourable press shot of Mrs Sarah Palin

Former Alaskan Governor and Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin has been the primary topic of discussion (courtesy of Mark) in three different posts on Criticism As Inspiration thus far:

I have remained rather silent (for the most part) regarding my specific views of Sarah Palin.  One might assume that because I typically espouse views that lean toward the left to varying degrees that I despise Palin on the grounds that she is a conservative.  That is simply not so.  Frankly, there are plenty of conservatives that I am far less irritated by.  It is not my goal to lay out with great detail why I have this distaste for Palin, but I will mention several specific things, beginning with the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ and inspired this post.

Just this week President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.  Sarah Palin was interviewed by USA Today regarding his acceptance speech.  Several news outlets (including USA Today) have expressed shock at Palin’s comment, “I liked what he said.”  Unfortunately this comment was quickly overshadowed and devoid of all value with the follow-up comment:

I thumbed through my book quickly this morning to say ‘Wow!  That really sounded familiar.’  Because I talked in my book too about the fallen nature of man and why war is necessary at times.

Of course.  I must make sure that this is known: my grievance has nothing to do with my negative view of war.  I could criticise that (and I do, not only against Palin, but also President Obama), but I must acknowledge the very broad acceptance of ‘Just War Theory’ (which was espoused both in Obama’s acceptance speech and Palin’s comments).  The issue that I take with Sarah Palin’s comments revolve around her self-referential statements, which have become extremely familiar.  Ever since she emerged onto the national political scene and into public’s eye it seems as if she has been shamelessly selling herself – and it’s getting really old.  Palin went on to say that President Obama should behave more like President George W. Bush.

We have to stop those terrorists over there…We’ve learned our lesson from 9/11.  George Bush did a great job of reminding Americans every single day that he was in office what that lesson is.  And, by the way, I’d like to see President Obama follow more closely in the footsteps of George Bush and [Bush’s] passion keeping the homeland safe, his passion for respecting – honoring our troops.

I can hand the benefit of the doubt to Palin and assume that this interview was rather off-handed, but could she please use slightly more sophisticated language when speaking about such serious issues (“those terrorists over there…”).  She speaks so vaguely.  What lesson did American learn from 9/11 and how did President Bush do a “great job of reminding Americans [of that lesson] every single day that he was in office”?  I am not necessarily disagreeing with her statement, but I want to know what she means.  I suspect (as evidenced from her interviews and writing) that she doesn’t mean anything, it’s simply her default: empty rhetoric.  Also, how does President Obama fall short of Bush’s supposed passion for “keeping the homeland safe,” and “for respecting – honoring our troops.”?  Once again, maybe he does fall short (though I doubt one could really make a case for that), but how?  Sarah Palin is not here to answer these questions (though Mrs Palin, if you’re reading, please feel free to enlighten us with responses), so I’ll move onto another recent irritation…

In a radio interview last week Palin was commenting on the recent news that former Arkansas Governor and Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee used poor judgment nearly a decade ago in his granting of clemency to a convict who went on to murder four police officers.  Palin commented,

It was a bad decision obviously, but my heart goes out to Huckabee.  I love him, and I feel bad for him to be in this position.  But I feel even worse for the victim’s families in this situation.  I do feel bad for Huckabee, but it was a horrible decision he made.

Way to stab Huckabee in the back while giving him a hug?  In typical Palin fashion she went on to make sure that the listeners knew that during her gubernatorial service she never once pardoned or granted clemency to prisoners.

I don’t have a whole lot of mercy for the bad guys, I’m on the good guys’ side.

It’s strange for Palin to compare her two-and-a-half year service as governor Alaska to Mike Huckabee’s 10+ year service as governor of a state with more than four times as many people as Alaska.  But strangeness aside, she did it and will continue to make statements like it.  Also, it’s good to know that Sarah Palin is on the “good guys’ side.”  We need more of the Bush-era absolutist ‘good vs. evil’ talk.  I am not denying the existence of absolute goods and evils – they most certainly exist.  What I am saying is that one ought to exercise a little caution and humility when placing other people (and even ourselves) into those two categories.

In the same interview Palin was asked about her political future.  She didn’t rule out the possibility of running as an independent in the 2012 election, stating,

That depends on how things go in the next couple of years…There are enough Republicans who are realizing, ‘Oh whoops, some of us liberal Republicans have screwed up.’  And I’m not including myself in that group, but some liberal Republicans have screwed up.  If the Republican Party gets back to that base, I think our party is going to be stronger and there’s not going to be a need for a third party, but I’ll play that by ear in these coming months, coming years.

Once again, Palin barrages the interviewer with folksy, inarticulate language, vague statements and self-referential moral absolutism (“I’m not including myself in that group, but some liberal Republicans have screwed up…”).  How have “liberal Republicans screwed up,” and what does it mean for the Republican Party to get “back to that base.”?

I’m not suggesting that Sarah Palin thinks that she is perfect, but she is trying really hard to sell herself as such – morally unscathed, fighting tirelessly for the average American! When President Reagan didn’t have an answer he would respond with humility, yet confident in the conservative principles that he embodied.  Like him or not, Reagan was true to his well-established core values.  Palin is a very different story.  The self-referential image she so desperately seeks to sell (her vastly [and terrifyingly] popular memoir is called Going Rogue – how many ‘rogues’ do you know and how many of them are self-professing rogues?) seems pathetic and empty.

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MARK ADDS: Just read something that could serve as an addendum to this post…. by Charles Winecoff at Big Hollywood.  His take is unique in that he is a gay man that challenges Jennings generally, but more specifically the agenda of progressive gay curricula pushers.  To wit:

Ninety-nine percent of gay kids are the products of straight homes, so why force the issue with a claustrophobic “queer and questioning” curriculum?  Are straight boys and girls encouraged by the state to go to titty bars and hook up with horny MILFs or divorced dads?  Why this outrageous double standard when it comes to gay kids?

++++++++

A none too pretty picture of Kevin Jennings, the “czar” appointed to run the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools in the US Department of Education.  And by none too pretty, I mean his organization GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), touted to promote tolerance of homosexuality in schools, featured many texts that they offered to schools and students as suggested reading.  A highlight from one (note – sexually explicit):

My sexual exploits with my neighborhood playmates continued. I lived a busy homosexual childhood, somehow managing to avoid venereal disease through all my toddler years. By first grade I was sexually active with many friends. In fact, a small group of us regularly met in the grammar school lavatory to perform fellatio on one another.

Just what I would hope my child is encouraged to read.  And I posted one of the least explicit texts that have been found.  The explicit link above has more clips, but read at your disturbance level as you will be shocked and saddened to think this is considered educational for young people.

I’m sure there will be much spin about Jennings past, and rampant accusations of homophobia among middle America.  But the fact is that this is just another reason why I don’t want government controlling…. anything really.  This is highly inappropriate material to be putting in the hands of children.

To be clear, this is not anything the Department of Education has pushed onto students (to my knowledge), but this is the content that the founder of GLSEN, who is now running a department within the DOE, pushed and pushes from that organization.  So unless he does an about face on all his strategies and values in his former position it would seem naive to think this wouldn’t be something he would have as an agenda in his current one.

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I noticed today on our blog dashboard an incoming link from The New Yorker website blog.  The writer, one Ben Greenman, from that venerable publication highlighted his “top 5” end of year music lists and included ours in his review.  How delightful!  As I clicked to find out more information about Mr. Greenman, I found a link to a collection of short stories he had written (“Superbad”–unrelated, I believe, to the film with Michael Cera and that fat, fro’d kid/adult from all of the Judd Apatow movies).  The cover of the collection of stories displayed a work by one of my favorite painters, Mark Tansey.  Immediately, I knew I liked this guy (and I bought his book!).  So HIS best of best of the year list has now made MY best of best of best of lists!

My only other entry in this meta-category is from Lareghearted Boy, who each year compiles a mind-numbing amount of best of lists, which is a perfect way to spend/waste 4-5 hours of your life.  What a service to give to the community of list obsessed web surfers…

As a teaser, I will say that I am planning on jumping on the “decade” bandwagon and putting out a “best culture of the 21st century” list soon.  Perhaps Elijah would be interested in publishing such a list in tandem?

[ELIJAH ADDS] Speaking of lists, don’t forget to check out our fine collection of oft updated lists:

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