Monday, March 31, 2008

Hipster Douchebag Music Recommendation Of The Week: "And I Remember Every Kiss" by Jens Lekman

This week's somewhat-late recommendation was made possible by the letters A and N (with a little help from a music-software program). Admiral Neck found a program that would allow us to make "videos" of all the songs that don't already have entries on YouTube. They're a bit like those educational "videos" you watched in middle school where the people behind it were too cheap to actually film their script, so they'd simply take a handful of still photos of kids with bowl haircuts and bell-bottoms acting out a morality play and run a soundtrack of dialogue over them. Think of these videos as our homemade version of What's Harry Got In His Mouth?

So, this week's selection is a song by Jens Lekman, otherwise known as the Swedish Stephin Merritt. If you don't know who Stephin Merritt is, you must this minute beg/borrow/download (i.e., steal) 69 Love Songs, his magnum opus (with one of his many bands, The Magnetic Fields). Or perhaps you are a hipster douchebag too, and know that 69 Love Songs is one of the essential albums required for membership. And that if "Grand Canyon" and "The Book of Love" don't break your heart, you probably don't have one. So there.

As I've mentioned before, Stephin Merritt is one of my all-time favorite lyricists; his lyrics are intelligent and clever and witty and occasionally incredibly sad. His arrangements are almost as interesting; his songs range over almost every conceivable genre, sometimes in loving tribute and sometimes in acid parody. They are sometimes a bit precious, but they are always knowing, willing to puncture their own importance.

Jens Lekman is very much in this mold -- intelligent, hyperliterate, and best of all, funny. Most songwriters can string together some decent-enough lyrics -- or at least make their lyrics so incomprehensible that people assume they must be deep (I'm looking at you, Michael Stipe, you jive-dancing, perpetually-terminally-ill-looking star). But Lekman is one of the few who make close attention worthwhile, and one of the even fewer who actually do it with humor. I could count on one hand the number of musicians who write (intentionally) funny lyrics (I'm avoiding your needy gaze, Weird Al Yankovic); it seems odd that there are so few lyricists that bother to try being funny, given that most other forms of entertainment, even dramatic or tragic ones, usually contain elements of humor.

Perhaps it's because most songs catch your attention with their melody (still my first requirement; a song could be a mind-bendingly brilliant poem set to music and I wouldn't care unless I liked the sound of it), and you often don't especially notice the lyrics until you've had a few listens. Maybe it's just harder to fit humor into music without sounding like a novelty act. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen managed it, but their kind of talent is pretty rare. Or maybe it's because so many musicians are self-important douchebags who can't conceive of putting humor in their Art.

I've only listened to one of Lekman's albums so far -- Night Falls Over Kortedala -- but only because of our hard drive failure and the fact that iTunes is a shitty program that won't pull songs off my iPhone unless I've purchased them through iTunes and that won't let me put any new songs on my iPhone now without wiping my current songs off it because it thinks I'm synced to a different library and I can fix all this but it's incredibly time-consuming and annoying and arrggghhhhhhh I hate you Steve Jobs for making me love your product and then attempting to destroy that love at every turn!!!

Night Falls Over Kortedala is a good place to start, though -- it's Lekman's second full-length album, and nearly every song on it is a gem. I'm not going to do a close reading of the song this week, since Lekman's lyrics are so straightforward and front-and-center that there's not much point, but I think it's pretty obvious what's appealing about this song. Lekman's voice is Merrittian in its deep, resonant delivery, and the contrast of his throaty bass with the furious wind-up and clash of the orchestra creates a song of thrilling power. It's called "And I Remember Every Kiss", and it perfectly captures the feeling of a first kiss -- the incredible build-up, the choral explosions, the naming of deadly weapons after a beloved. The following video, I remind you, was made by Admiral Neck. See if you can spot any tell-tale signs.

The song is drenched in emotion but still has an appealing wry detachment -- "Your Arms Around Me" (the Admiral's favorite song on the album) is much the same, making a trip to the emergency room into a bittersweet love ballad. Oh, and I can't forget to mention my favorite Lekman pronunciation -- in this case, his pronunciation of "soldier". Most of the time you can't even hear his accent, and I find it strangely endearing when it comes through on certain words.

Super-special bonus Jens!! Here's the hilarious and touching retro-sounding "A Postcard to Nina". Any song that can fit in the lyric "I send back Out of Office Auto-Replies" is a classic in my book (especially since the laugh is one of guilty recognition). I hope Nina and her girlfriend had a happy ending.

ETA: Canyon posts this and The A.V. Club goes and interviews him! I truly believe they did this because of us. - AN

Friday, March 28, 2008

Burnout Paradise Is A Dirty Life Thief

Last week Canyon and I were lucky enough to be able to enjoy a long weekend together (trapped in the house because public transport in the UK shuts down during holidays. True fact!), a period spent catching up on Mad Men (we warmed to it by the time it had finished) and eating large meals. However, our equilibrium was threatened by a very stupid decision made last Thursday. I bought the latest installment of the superb Burnout franchise for Xbox 360, and even though it has failed to do the one thing I wanted it to, it has taken over my life.

At about this time of the week I usually post a long long dissection of the most recent episode of Lost, a week late but just in time for the next episode. Of course, it's off our screens for four more weeks, so I don't have that time limit going against me, but I still wanted to get it done, because, you know, it's Lost. Instead I have virtual-journeyed back and forth across the fictional Paradise City, from the Naval Dockyards to the Observatory, along Angus Wharf and then up around the top of the city into the windfarms, then down to the Wildcats Stadium, trying to memorise everything, find every hidden shortcuts and ramp and destructible billboard, all the time attempting to upgrade my licence and unlock better cars.

Last night I managed to find an untouched section of the city, and spent half an hour trying to crash into one billboard. I went up and down the same stretch of road about 100 times, each time missing my mark by a couple of inches and crashing into the same goddamn tree over and over again. When I finally smashed through that heinous billboard I screamed like Roy Scheider when Jaws blew up.

If you've not heard of Burnout before, a quick explanation. It's a racing game, and an incredible one at that. At least, it started out as a racing game, in the first iteration, but with traffic and suchlike to complicate matters, as well as a Burn Gauge that allowed you to drive faster for a short space of time, like a nitrous injection to your engine. That meter was filled when you did reckless things, a feature that partially explains its popularity. The other was the use of the Renderware engine (designed by Criterion), which ran fast enough to allow crash moments to be animated with more detail than was usual.

It was this feature that allowed Criterion to add a Crash Mode to the sequel, Burnout 2: Point of Impact, which was my introduction to the franchise, and is possibly my favourite version of the game. Part of that is because it's great fun and still remains a very entertaining racing game with only a few distracting bells and whistles (see below for more on the bells and whistles), but most of it is because a few years ago my mother fell very ill and while helping her convalesce I needed to switch off the clatter of worry in my brainblob, so I played this constantly. Like, for nine or ten hours at a time. And this coming from someone who only enjoyed one other racing franchise before (the futuristic craziness that was Wipeout), and usually think racing games are a load of old blah. Perhaps it's because I can't drive. (Another true fact!)

I also liked that it allowed you to play any music you liked while driving, and so I burned a couple of Blink 182 albums to the Xbox hard drive. Say what you like about that band, they are the perfect accompaniment to driving a virtual car at about 160mph into traffic. It's a hell of a rush, made all the more exciting because the music gets louder when you hit the Boost button, and that's before we get into the Burnout chains. Boost is only available once you've filled your Burn Gauge, and as you Boost, your Burn Gauge will run out. If you've managed to Boost without crashing, your gauge gets filled again, and you keep Boosting. If you keep doing it right, it fills up again and again, and you can keep Boosting until you screw up. I think my longest chain was about 13 Boosts in a row, though afterwards I realised I had forgotten how to blink and my hands wouldn't release the controller.

If you're not interested in the racing, Crash Mode in Burnout 2 allows you to use the car like a kind of wrecking ball, sending it hurtling into traffic and trying to cause as much damage as possible. That damage is calculated in dollars, and you get medals for surpassing certain targets. It's great fun, though it was at this point that the series started to concentrate less on the racing and more on unique modes like Crash Mode and Canyon's personal favourite Road Rage (where the tracks become demolition derbys and you have to destroy as many enemy cars as possible by slamming them into walls or traffic).

They're kinda gimmicky, but that's not to say they aren't generally awesome, and they set the game apart from your bog-standard straight racing games. They also work well as a party game, and guests have been sucked into it completely (it's one of those games that will be played by people without their own console who will subsequently talk feverishly about getting their own machine just to play that game). Though I'm nostalgic for the relative purity of the second version, the following editions with their insane multiplayer modes were where our obsession really took hold.

Burnout 3: Takedown generated a lot of attention for its increasingly complex crash physics and astonishing speed and beauty, and I love it dearly too, but it still felt a little gauche compared to its predecessor. There were little tinkerings with the game that annoyed me. The ability to listen to your own music was present but selecting songs was finicky, boosting using the Boost Gauge was made easier (which meant no more Burnout chains, and Boosting was available no matter how much flame you had in your Burn Gauge), Crash Mode was altered and less chaotic, though it was more fun to play with a group, etc.

Actually, I bitch about the music thing, but Burnout 3 features the best soundtrack of any of the games, with a brilliant set of "EA Trax", as they're called (yes, EA are trying to copyright a new word for "music"), including I Wanna Be Sedated by The Ramones, Orpheus by Ash, and many others, though none of which are as reality-alteringly awesome as Decent Days and Nights by The Futureheads [more like reality-stabilizingly boring. Zing! --Canyon], which remains one of my favourite songs ever, an opinion not affected by the weakness of their second album. With choices like that, not being able to play my own music wasn't as big a deal as it would become in later versions where the music is much less interesting.

Burnout 4, or Burnout: Revenge as it is known, was the first game in the franchise to graduate to a next-gen console, and the result is staggering. The non-racing stuff is more prominently featured, often with differences from previous games that harm the game as much as they improve it, but those next-gen graphics were astonishing, making the experience even more exhilarating and immersive. I have both the Xbox and Xbox 360 versions, and playing the older version is now a waste of time. Burnout: Revenge is the version we've played the most (as Road Rage is particularly incredible in this version), though some of the choices (such as fiddling with the Crash Mode and adding Traffic Attack, where you can knock traffic out of your way if you crash into it) are not so great. [Admiral Neck only complains about Traffic Attack because he sucks at it. Traffic Attack is awesome! --Canyon] But that Road Rage. Hooboy! I'm serious, Canyon is more than formidable at it. In the apocalyptic Mad-Maxian future, I'm calling shotgun with her, soon-to-be-crushed bitches!

So, being huge fans of the franchise, we figured getting Burnout Paradise would be a smart choice, filling our long weekend with much Road Raging and Crash Moding, in-between watching Don Draper ruin that weaselly little shitball Peter Campbell. However, it was not to be. Much to our disgust, Paradise doesn't feature offline multiplayer modes, so we can't play it together. Canyon is particularly disgusted by that, and though she likes the game in general, she considers the loss of offline multiplayer is the biggest strike against it, and I have to agree.

This version is the most different of all, gambling on reinventing the franchise by creating an enormous and complex city to drive in, with four types of event - Race, Road Rage, Burning Routes, Stunt Run and Marked Man (the latter two new twists on old formulas) - starting at junctions throughout the metropolis. As expected, this new format has angered a lot of people. Screw up an event, and you have to drive back to the junction you started at to redo the race, which can be very difficult if you haven't memorised the city. As I'm happy to forget about an event if I've screwed it up, I'll just move on to something else. Canyon is much less happy about that, and I see her point. If you want to get an event right by redoing it over and over, it's totally counterintuitive.

However, even though neither of us are fans of sandbox games (though I did enjoy Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and Crackdown), the sheer size and complexity of Paradise City is a marvel. This interactive map of the city doesn't even begin to show how much is going on. I've been playing it all week and have only completed 24% of the game, though I have been concentrating on exploring and trying to memorise the city instead of trying to finish the events. What's most amazing is how real it feels. When trying to explain my love of gaming to others, I have tried to describe the joy I get from exploring virtual spaces and being moved by their design. A truly great game, like Halo or Silent Hill, will often exist in a virtual world so well designed that it feels like a real place.

Burnout Paradise is one of the best examples of that I've ever experienced. It has a character all its own, helped by the road names, range of different areas, Crash FM radio station (whose DJ Atomika is that rarity, an in-game narrator who is helpful and not annoying), etc. It's cohesive and varied and beautifully designed. Plus, its theme song is Paradise City by Guns n' Roses. Perfect.

The music in this version is frustrating. When I loaded it up the first few songs made me think I was onto a winner: Us v. Them by LCD Soundsystem, Would? by Alice in Chains, Stand and Deliver by Adam and the Ants, My Curse by Killswitch Engage, and a few other great choices (the Avril Lavigne song included, Girlfriend, works much better than you would expect). Then the generic rock anthems kick in, many of which sound like they're sung by Chris Cornell imitators, made all the more embarrassing by the inclusion of the mighty Rusty Cage by Soundgarden to show them how it's done. Once the rock tracks have stopped the game cycles through themes written for earlier versions of the game, and that's kind of the whole point of the game, something I have grown to realise after hours of gameplay.

Beyond the enormous city with its shortcuts and secret playgrounds (and coming soon: downloadable expansions!), and the awesome visuals, and mostly great soundtrack, the best thing about it is the nostalgia. Different cars have different attributes, allowing you to play the game as if playing previous versions of Burnout. Some cars are powerful enough to use in a Traffic Attack mode, knocking smaller cars out of the way. Some allow Burnout chains (yay!). Many allow Boost whenever there is a flamey thing in your Burn Gauge. It's like a compendium of previous versions, which is the sweetest surprise of all. Basically, you can make the game into the version of Burnout you want it to be by making a few selections. Though Canyon is right when she says that the amorphous nature of the game makes it less appealing than the very linear previous editions (especially in terms of being able to replay certain events), you still have the ability to make it resemble the game you once played.

And yet, and yet... That multiplayer option is still missing. Yes yes, I know, it can be played online, and is probably intended to be played online more than as a single player experience (Microsoft love to get people to subscribe to Xbox Live, after all), but a) it's still too expensive (not prohibitively, obviously, but I still think subscription fees are steep) and b) playing Halo 2 online for a couple of months meant I've had a lifetime's fill of being told to go fuck myself by 12 year olds. In theory I love the concept of online gaming, but the little jerks who are on there all the time waiting for their genitals to drop are not worth dealing with, and no, it's not because they are much better at gaming than me. Seriously. It's not that. Seriously. Oooh look, an interesting shiny object behind you! ::jumps into virtual car and drives into oncoming bus::

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I'm Very Serious When I Say This Qualifies As An Event, Not A Movie

Really. Ferrell/McKay movies are, Chez Canyonneck, cultural events as significant as Scorsese/DeNiro collaborations are for others. Anchorman is possibly our favourite comedy, and Talledega Nights was almost as good, if it wasn't for the slackening of the pace during the last half hour or so. This is their latest collaboration, with John C. Reilly forming the third corner of their Triangle of Genius.

Other than the incredible ensemble casts gathered for these movies, the thing I love most about them is the progression of the set-piece scenes in Talledega Nights and Anchorman, with the principals ad-libbing dozens of lines (most of which are generated during intensive rehearsals), which are then edited together according to which moments got the biggest laughs during test screenings. This annoys a lot of people (according to comments I've read online) as their films have a very slender plot that serves as a frame for stream-of-consciousness joking that is either your bag or not, but that relentless chain of absurdity is what I love most about these films.

Talledega Nights turned up on Sky Movies the other day and the first scene with Sacha Baron Cohen as Jean Girard is a great example of it. All it has to do is introduce the antagonist and his reasons for hating Ricky Bobby, but it goes on for about five minutes, taking in jazz, pancakes, redneck gay panic, and a dozen other things, all the time satirising some of the more ridiculous cultural cliches about America and France brought up during this insane War on Terror. Best of all, it is treated by McKay as if it is a serious dramatic scene (listen to the musical stings), making it all the funnier. It is sheer perfection.

Plus, the DVDs feature tons of extra material, which is the same for the other Apatow movies released recently, but they have nothing on the scale of the Anchorman/Wake Up Ron Burgundy disc set we have, which has hours of extra footage, almost all of it pure gold. So yes, we're as excited about Step Brothers as Batman fans are for The Dark Knight, and we're not ashamed to admit it.

That is all.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Introducing The Wahlberg Awards

I recently wrote about forthcoming summer movies, many of which were high on my own list of highly anticipated events though I foolishly missed off the Ferrell/McKay comedy Step Brothers. That should be a punishable offence, though it's nowhere near as egregious a sin as releasing it in the UK two months after the US GAH!

Anyway, since then I have been haunted by an image from the trailer for M. Night Shyamalan's It's My Happening, Baby, And It Freaks Me Out (as Canyon has retitled it). If you're a regular reader, you know the one.

It definitely ruins that trailer, and I'm looking forward to seeing it on the big screen, in the hope that the audience will react in the same way. That said, it struck me that Mark Wahlberg has an amazing face for selling "OH SHIT!" moments, and it occurred to me that I need to lavish praise on those moments in film in which an actor memorably conveys the feeling of pooping their pants with shock and sudden realisation. And so, I present to you the inaugural Wahlberg Award, for Best Response To Global Ecological Catastrophe.

The statuette's in the post, Marky Mark. Okay, it's not an Academy Award, but it's better than not winning one for The Departed and then having to put up with Ellen DeGeneres trying to involve you in an unfunny joke during the Oscar broadcast last year.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Commercials: The Good, the Bad, and the Burberry

You could say that watching Mad Men (along with recently taking a copywriting course for work) has made me more aware of commercials and what they're trying to achieve, but really, the inspiration for this post came from one of the worst ads I've ever seen -- not a commercial, actually, but a print ad on the tube that made me so angry that I had to share it with our small corner of the internet in hope of bringing its purveyors to fist-filled justice.

But first, some good ads. Obviously I don't get to (or have to) see most of the commercials from America anymore (except the ones that get famous and end up on YouTube), so this will be UK-focused, but I've found videos of all the ads in question. The good ones tend to be few and far between, perhaps for obvious reasons -- most commercials seem to set out to be annoying, most likely so that you'll remember the product (e.g., the ubiquitous Sheila's Wheels ads -- Australia, you have a lot of explaining to do, beginning with why you think it's acceptable to use the word "bonzer"). If they're not annoying to begin with, they are by the time you've heard them 400 times. I'm not going to go all Hidden Persuaders here and delve into the subliminal psychological techniques advertisers use, but it is terrifying to think that I can still recite the Oscar Mayer jingle by heart, and yet I can't remember the full text of a single poem. Sure, the jingle's better and more accessible than half of what John Ashbery wrote, but then again, he didn't have weiners as his muse. Or did he?

A rare good one that got particularly famous a couple years ago was the Sony Bravia ad that featured a lovely song by Jose Gonzalez (one of the only good ones he has, I'm afraid -- and it turns out it was a cover as well. I hope you're getting residuals from Sony, Jose) and a whole bunch of bouncy balls rolling down a San Francisco street. I think this ad got so popular because one, it's beautiful, and two, who hasn't wanted to dump a truckload of bouncy balls down a hill and see what happened? According to Wikipedia, source of all internet knowledge, David Letterman did it on his show before the ad ever happened, which doesn't surprise me, given his propensity for smashing watermelons and making guys in stilts jump over cars. Anyway, here's the ad, for anyone who hasn't seen it:

It's a mesmerizing ad; every time it was on, we'd stop to watch it. I even had a picture of it as our laptop's desktop for awhile. We still haven't bought a Sony Bravia tv, though (but not for lack of coveting). Sony tried to recapture the magic with a few similar ads, but the idea was really a one-off stroke of inspiration; the others seem a little pathetic by comparison.

More recently, we've found a new set of ads to love -- Teletext holidays. This is the first one we saw and still my personal favorite:

The rest can be found here. They're a world away from most ads that feature animals (see: the weird Volkswagen ads featuring a singing CGI dog), though I have to admit that they're still pretty anthropomorphic, since a visual representation of our cats' brains would probably look more like this:

Now on to bad ads. I will warn you ahead of time: this first one features Joss Stone rooting down her cleavage for a candy bar.

Joss Stone is so authentic! She's just like a real person who rehearses in a professional studio while singing an insipid, supposedly ad-libbed tune about how great Flakes are! (I know I will inspire outrage by saying this, but Flakes are disgusting anyway. They taste like chocolate ash.) Poor old Joss is already a national laughingstock after her Brit Awards appearance, where she displayed a poor sense of humor and an even worse American accent -- and now she's managed to annoy the Cadbury-loving public. Big mistake. As we will see later, no one can resist chocolate (even suspect ashy chocolate), so whose reputation is going down? Not flaky tempting chocolate's. No, it will be flaky pseudo-hippie warbler Joss Stone's.

Our next awful ad also has to do with chocolate, although that's not the product advertised -- instead it is Lynx body spray, previously seen making misogynist commercials about how Lynx will make women writhe uncontrollably with lust when they smell it (I'm sure Lynx does make women writhe uncontrollably; it's just that it's not with lust). What has lovely sweet delicious chocolate ever done to anyone? Besides this:

I don't know where to begin hating Lynx for this commercial. With the implication that women are such helpless creatures that a whiff of an "erotic" smell will make them sex up a nebbishy loser (and the matey, wink-nudge tone that comes with -- hey, it's like GHB, but you won't go to jail!)? Because of the implication that chocolate is such catnip to women that they will turn into drooling maniacs willing to do anything for a piece of it? Or perhaps the best part -- the fact that the women are eating pieces of his body and that's not incredibly creepy and disgusting. Yay cannibalism! Mm, that viscera was so chocolatey delicious. Try the bone -- it's got all that gooey marrow inside! Yes, it's chocolate, but the guy's walking around handing parts of his body over to be devoured. We also get the oral sex implication at the picnic in the park (finally she'll suck it, am I right, bro?), though that turns out to be something even more horrifying: she's swirling a strawberry in his belly button!!! There is not enough GAHHHH in the world for that. I think the thing that annoys me most about the Lynx ads, though -- along with the Nuts ads that ran recently -- is the implication that this is all good-natured fun, and if you're a woman and you don't find it funny, you're just a humorless feminist bitch. I hope those women rip his chocolatey Cadbury's eggs off.

This next one was suggested by Admiral Neck (as was the Lynx one), because this model has recently become inexplicably ubiquitous in the UK press -- she's usually pictured on the society pages in weird stripy dresses draping herself over people like a banded wombat. Admiral Neck hated her in particular, above all the other weird-looking models who become inexplicably famous, because of her "awful pill-shaped head" and faux-punk style. [Hate might be too strong a word. How about "severe twitch-inducing dislike powerful enough to make me scream obscenities at the TV"? - Admiral Neck] We also both hate her listless underwear-based dancing, which looks like an updated version of how everyone in The Great Gatsby danced (what's up with the horizontal arm slide? Is that how you dance without spilling your gin and tonic?).

I have to admit that I kind of love the way the announcer says "Burberry": she pronounces it "Buuuuuurrrrrbry" in the most bored, haughty parody of a posh voice ever. The worst thing about this ad, though? The model is named Agyness Deyn. Yes, that's right. Agyness. Deyn. (Real name: Laura Hollins. God, she could have just fixed it by calling herself Lho'Rah HyolLinS.)

And now we come to the worst ad of all. An ad so vile that we both tried to take pictures of it but couldn't, so had to scour the intertubes for it. Turns out we're not the only ones who hate it.

If you can't read the text, it goes: "Chris had a long face. The wife wanted a new family car and this had the potential to blow a huge hole in his finances, not to mention the other plans he had for his money. A little bird told him to get down to Cargiant, where he bought a quality used car that kept the wife more than happy and saved himself a tidy little sum in the process. Just enough for a wicked weekend in Paris...with the girlfriend, tweet tweet!"

Ha ha! Adultery is hilarious! Who is this ad trying to appeal to, actually? Cheap adulterers who like trumpeting their conquests to the world? Smug assholes with faces made for punching? It's got the chummy, matey vibe of the Lynx ad ("the wife," keeping financial decisions safely away from the hands of women, who only use money to buy purses and shiny baubles), but then it suddenly hurdles over any semblance of reason into insane lechery ("tweet tweet"? WTF?). The ad fails on all levels -- it could only appeal to a very niche audience of douchebags, and everyone else who sees it will be horrified and avoid Cargiant forever. (I can't help but think their salesmen all look and act exactly like the Chad in that ad.) All I know is, if I ever see that actor in real life, I'm going to kick him right in the Cadbury's.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Hipster Douchebag Music Recommendation Of The Week: "Made Up Love Song #43" by the Guillemots

This wasn't really the second song I wanted to feature, since we heard about the Guillemots a couple years ago and the thrill of discovery has worn off a bit. They're pretty well-known in hipster douchebag circles -- at least UK-based hipster douchebag circles (er, roundabouts?) -- since they were nominated for the Brit Awards and the Mercury Music prize, and their album got pretty high in the charts. But as far as I can tell, they're virtually unknown in the US, so my douchebag cred can remain intact in at least one English-speaking country.

I've used it now basically because I can't find videos of the other songs I wanted to highlight, and it'll take too much time to figure out how to make my own video to get any of those out today. Nevertheless, this is an excellent song, and just cause I'm a little inured to its loveliness, it's certainly no knock on it. I was obsessed with it when I first heard it, and it gave me The Joy, more so than any other song in recent memory. (And I just found out through a stroll through Wikipedia that their next album is out in a few days, so hey! Relevant!)

So I was thinking I'd do kind of a close reading of these songs -- specific moments that make the song for me, since it's easy enough to say, "Oh, I love that song" but not so easy to actually explain why you love it. So here's my best attempt:

:05 -- Love the tuning up / tv coming on / distorted tape deck noises -- they feel like the hesitation of someone who's not quite ready to begin but forced to anyway.
:22 -- "Love you through sparks and shining dragons I do" -- dragons? They'd sold me 20 seconds in.
:25 -- This simple little keyboard refrain, along with the wobbly distorted-circus sample (which metaphorically reinforces the song's false starts), is what makes the first part of the song. We know it's going somewhere and the lovely circular lead-up heightens the anticipation.
:3o -- "Now there's poetry in an empty Coke can" / "Now there's majesty in a burned-out caravan" -- These lines cut to the heart of what it's like to be newly in love -- the most ordinary, even depressing sights have a certain magic to them. I love that the image of an empty Coke can has made it into a love song -- throughout the song, mundane images are contrasted with the operatic highs of the music.
:41 -- Great little guitar/banjo/ukulele/whatever the hell that thing is riff here, as the various instruments seem to wake up to the song.
1:10 -- Here the song kicks into a higher gear (and in the video, the images turn from a dingy black-and-white room to a full-color beach -- obvious, maybe, but the song seems to demand it. However, the song does not demand Fyfe Dangerfield's [!] seemingly earthquake-induced dancing. He dances like I imagine Faraday would dance). The bass and guitar take over the keyboard's riff, pushing it to the front of the song and propelling it forward. The tension mounts through the next minute as the song builds towards its catharsis.
1:30 -- "And the symmetry in your Northern grin" -- this line always makes me smile, though that may just be because I understand the cultural meaning "Northern" has in England now that I've lived here and feel unduly proud of myself.
1:45 -- Here a little barely-audible piano refrain sidles in, again propelling the song to even more tension as the tempo increases and the instruments all kick in.
1:47 -- "You got me off the sofa / Just sprang out of the air / The best things come from nowhere" -- Again, these are very simple, even cliched words, but in three lines Dangerfield's able to capture the essence of falling in love -- feeling like a whirlwind came from nowhere to propel you out of your ordinary life into something extraordinary (but still mundane because it's so common).
2:00 -- "I can't believe you care" -- the song reaches its catharsis here, both musically and emotionally. Where before Dangerfield sang that "I love you, I don't think you care," here he finally accepts it, extending the word "care" into one long, swooping, ecstatic note that is the musical equivalent of spinning around with your arms out on top of a mountain, feeling like you're a part of the sky (or dancing like a maniac on a beach, as they do in the video). The instruments go nuts, and the chorus of backing vocals joins in. I fucking love this part, and I think it would be pretty hard not to feel uplifted by it. And though I've attempted to keep this pretty chaste so far, I'd be remiss in not comparing the song to a musical orgasm -- the build of tension, the increasing urgency, the ecstatic release, and the dizzy, murmuring wind-down. (I don't like thinking of Fyfe Dangerfield having an orgasm either, especially since it seems to involve screeching and copious throwing of luggage and cookie cutters.)
2:33 -- And here we have the murmuring wind-down: "Yes I believe you" and "I'm in love" (I think) repeated over and over and mechanically slowed down to mimic a hazy afterglow. We could read this two ways: either Dangerfield has just convinced himself into believing the object of his love loves him back by pleasuring himself to thoughts of her, or the object of his love has just sexed him up to convince him of his/her devotion. Or I'm a sex-obsessed crazy and the song is about really appreciating your garbageman. Either way I think it works.
3:20 -- We get little goodbyes from all the instruments here, winding the song down in much the way it wound up.

My only complaint about the song is that it's not long enough -- that glorious catharsis should go on longer, for two verses, though of course metaphorically it doesn't work. We saw the Guillemots live a year or so ago, and I was looking forward to this song all the way through, but when they played it, it was a bit of a disappointment. I don't know if it was just because the venue wasn't big enough or they didn't have enough instruments or what, but it just didn't have the same joyous lunacy that the original did (their version of Sao Paulo was pretty great, though, and that's got even more of a bonkers ending).

Now, then. Want a smoke?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lost - Ji Yeon

I've tended to go on a lot about each of the episodes of season four (and probably would have done to earlier episodes if this blog wasn't so young), and I've been happy to do so. Absurdly happy, in fact. This week, however, I've been thinking of this post as a chore to get through, postponing it until so late that this will probably be kind of short, at least compared to the other Lost posts -- and no, it's not just because we only got a bit of Frank-time, during which he was a bit of a dick.

Partially it's because it was a Sun/Jin episode. If I'm ambivalent about Kate episodes, I'm downright bored by these, even though I like both characters and find the quick glimpses of Korean corporate life interesting. Sadly, there is very little forward motion in them, and even with two characters, it often feels like they don't have enough to do to justify a flashback episode (which is often the case with Kate and Jack as well).

Also -- and I could be wrong here -- I often wonder if these scenes are less an insight into Korean culture than they are a misapplication of preconceptions about Japanese culture. I've never seen any other film or TV show even attempt to portray that aspect of Korean life, and in Lost it seems very similar to the cliched scenes of salaryman who supplicate excessively when they meet corporate higher-ups. There's a strong chance both cultures share this unfortunate heirarchical reflex, and I shouldn't be so concerned about it. I'm afraid my many years as a stay-at-home nerd means my only real exposure to Korean culture comes from watching films by super-genius Park Chan-wook. Any information about whether my fears about this portrayal of Jin at work are justified would be appreciated kthx.

I will admit I got very interested in Sun and Jin's backstory when it turned out that Sun's life depended on the paternity of her child, and that was a very big part of why my admiration for the show went up about 100,000% last season. I love that the show took one of the things that gets criticised most and paid it off so well that only the most churlish of critics could have moaned about it. Of all the Sun/Jin episodes so far, D.O.C. was by far my favourite. This one, though? Not good. Not good at all.

Which is not to say it wasn't without some great moments. This is Lost, after all. There's always something of interest going on (I'll get to that in a bit). First, though, I will moan, and after feeling like the only person who liked The Other Woman, it's nice to feel a part of the mob again. It seems the odd commentator was okay with the big twist of the plot, but most weren't, and I have to side with them. I like twists as well as the next guy, and this show has had some real corkers (the best being in Walkabout, which is still talked about as being the best episode yet in some corners of the internet). My other favourite was in Exposé, which did nothing to further the overall plot, and was straight out of a Twilight Zone episode or EC comic, but was thoroughly entertaining nevertheless. And hey! Maybe the cameo appearance of Nikki and Mr. LeShade hinted there was a twist to come! (Yes, that is a screencap of the Lostverse TV show Exposé on Sun's TV.)

This episode was written by the Exposé team of Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, and I've been a cheerleader for them for a while, but they lost me this time. Flashback/forward twists like the one employed here have been used to great effect so far. The end of Through The Looking Glass totally discombobulated us, and now that that new show format has been introduced, every episode begins with confusion, as we wait to see whether we'll be in the past or the future. In The Other Woman, there was a bit of clunky writing about Juliet being a celebrity that led us to believe she was one of the Oceanic Six, even though I would have been very surprised if the showrunners intended to use one of those six slots on someone who was never on the plane.

Well, if that was clunky, having Jin be shown in flashback and Sun in flashforward was not only kind of obvious (Jin's suit, hair, phone and generally hostile demeanour pretty much gave the twist away), but was done for no other reason than to screw with us. This is what many criticisms of the episode focused on. Most of the time, Lost is surprisingly rewatchable, considering it depends on slow revelation for dramatic effect. I've thoroughly enjoyed going back and seeing episodes from previous seasons, and AV Club writer Noel Murray is currently rewatching the first season while he recaps the current one.

They're not all good, though. The Ana-Lucia, Boone and Shannon episodes feel like a huge waste of time, as those arcs went nowhere (though the quick shout-out to Ana-Lucia during The Other Woman was nice). I often feel the same about Eko's episodes, although there was enough going on in those to make up for it. Same with Charlie's. This flashback episode, however, contained no new information about Jin's past, and what little tension it created was down to the strenuous efforts of first-time director Stephen Semel, graduating from the editing room after over 20 episodes splicing and Aviding and whatnot.

During the first viewing, the dramatic Michael Giacchino score, fast cutting, and panicky performance by Daniel Dae Kim certainly made it feel like we were watching a mad scramble to get to hospital in time for the birth of his daughter (though I started wondering what was happening early on, as this was very obviously pre-island behaviour for Jin, and the thought that he would become a wimp after being so fighty was disheartening). Second viewing, while getting these screencaps, and the whole thing looked ridiculous. Jin needs a panda! Will Jin get a panda! Yes! But no! It's been improbably stolen! Hurry, Jin! Or Mr. Paik will be very angry! I couldn't give a fuck about Mr. Paik being angry with Jin, and even worse, this is two months into Jin's employment, which means that while his panic is justifiable (he was certainly this nervous when first employed), it serves no narrative purpose other than to be a plot device.

That the show had other good things about it has almost been overshadowed by the absurdity of these moments. It was as if Jason Bourne was buying a panda, not Jin. The only thing interesting moment came when an impassive stranger knocked his clunky phone out of his hand and it broke, and then someone stole his cab from him with the panda inside (the sort of thing that happens in bad movies set in New York), which led to another intense trip to the toy shop. For a moment I wondered if he was in hell, destined to eternally search for a panda toy, thinking he was missing his daughter's birth and not knowing he was dead. Perhaps a step too far outside the boundaries of the Lost mythos, but it would have justified all the drama over something that, in terms of the show, means nothing. Though Jin's anger face is always a joy to behold.

My only other hope for this season is that Mr. Paik will play a larger part in the show in future (he is in cahoots with evil Charles Widmore, after all). Maybe his daughter somehow figures into things. Or the panda had a virus in it. Or a bomb. Anything to make this bait-and-switch mean something! That said, though plotwise it was cheap and empty, of course the first time we saw the episode, it had an emotional charge, and though I'm mad at Kitsis and Horowitz for making this twist so mechanical and information-light, I have nothing but praise for Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim for selling it. And this panda plot did remind us of what Jin once was: a cog in a machine. Nothing like the man he became over four seasons of this show.

As usual, it was a joy to see the Kims together, but Semel (who did a good job first time out, though it was a shaky script to be working from) only put them in the same frame toward the start of the episode as they discussed what their baby would be called.

After that, as the flashback/forward separation progressed, we still saw them in the same frame, but distance was represented with the camera positioned far away (more on that use of distance in a bit).

How awesome is the island breakfast nook, btw? I'm beginning to think living on the island wouldn't be such a bad idea, as long as Smokey keeps to him/her/itself. Of course, at this point in the island plot, Sun and Jin are getting on okay, but after Kate spreads some gossip about her island nemesis Juliet, Sun worries enough to confront Faraday about his (nonexistent?) rescue plans, which doesn't quite go the way she expected. (Again the camera is positioned farther away.)

Sun is uneasy with Faraday's non-answer, and she chooses to go to Locke's camp. Jin acquiesces, and that's when Juliet provides the episode highlight, telling Jin about Sun's affair, something that came so completely out of nowhere that we wore this next face for the next five minutes. Wow, Juliet is cold. And awesome.

Special Bonus Screencap! Jin's not the only one with a magnificent fury-face.

At that point Sun and Jin begin to become separated visually just as they are in the flashback/forward narrative. This is probably the last time they are properly shown onscreen in the same frame, and this is where Jin separates himself from her.

Kudos again to Daniel Dae Kim. There'a lot of speculation about whether he's dead or just stuck on the island, and I really hope it's the latter. I've liked DDK since first seeing him as the useless Gavin on Angel, and watching him get minor parts in almost every show on TV (most notably bringing Jack Bauer the phone a lot in 24) was simultaneously heartening (Hey! It's Daniel Dae Kim in another show!) and frustrating (Oh, he's dead). We need Jin to survive because one, he's gorgeous and the ladies think he's a hunk (I have this on good authority), so he needs more screentime, and two, he's a good actor. Perhaps not Michael Emerson level good, but still, he really goes through the wringer in this one, selling a lot of the absurdity with his intensity. We need more DDK!

Of course, he comes to an understanding that the man he was in the past (that we're seeing in flashback, though we might not know that at that point) doesn't exist any more, and it's all down to the ever-wonderful Bernard, played by Sam Anderson, to point this out.

Of course, this is a special moment for Angel fans, as Anderson played Holland Manners, Gavin's evil boss at Wolfram and Hart. I'd like to think this was put there for us Mutant Enemy fans, and not just because Bernard is the only other husband on the island (at least, husband with wife present that we know of).

The final scene between Jin and Sun, with Jin explaining that he understands why Sun cheated on him, was simple and moving, but we don't see them together, even though they're in the same room.

At first we see them in profile, looking at each other from one shot to another.

Then we get third-person shots over their shoulders...

...but we can barely see the person in the foreground. (Sun is actually in this shot, but the way it's lit means you can't even tell it's the back of her head taking up half the screen.)

They reconcile and hug, a powerful emotional moment, and beautifully played by both, but still we don't see their faces together.

The next time we see Sun, she has a daughter, and then we find out that Jin isn't coming (that silly contrived twist!), but we do find out that he has or would have had a daughter. The birth goes kinda okay, especially considering in an earlier scene, there's a possibility that she might have to have a C-section. When her doctor give her the news, she freaks out and starts calling out for Jin, which is just another way to trick the audience prior to the twist. At the end of the scene, after the writers have put Sun in enough distress with the threat of surgery to call out Jin's name, the birth gets back on track, and the C-section is forgotten. A low point for Lost in general. But look! Baby covered in ick!

Even though I didn't like that narrative silliness, that birth, and Sun's reconciliation with Jin, is made heartbreaking as the twist is revealed and we see that Sun is alone in the future, with only Hurley to keep her company, and only then so they can go and visit Sun's grave. (And what's with Hurley's relief that only Sun would be there? Is this linked to his guilt over joining Locke's group?)

And yes, I was annoyed with a lot of things in this episode, and yes, this scene contained no forward-motion information and some pretty simple dialogue, but my God it made me cry, and watching it again to get screencaps made me cry even more. As soon as you see the gravestone, and Michael Giacchino's music rises up, I was finished off. I'm mad at Kitsis and Horowitz for the sloppiness earlier, but the final scene was so great it almost doesn't matter.

Though really, how much did they do at the end? Any writing is going to shine when you have an actress as talented as Yunjin Kim involved. The scene's simplicity was what made it work, and it made up for a lot of contrivance. Good job, too. But is Jin alive or dead? I'm hoping he's alive, but bear in mind that the music that moved me so much is a theme from the first season called Win One For The Reaper. It might not count, but I'm not hopeful. I gather someone dies in this week's episode. Maybe we'll find out right away. ::sniff:: I know how you feel, Sun.

So, with the show in low-info mode, what did we learn this week? Precious little, really. I don't think we even still know what the boat doctor's name is. For now, as he's played by Marc Vann from CSI: Classic, I'll just call him Ecklie until I hear differently.

We also learned that that breakfast nook is seriously great. I got obsessed with it, and figured I would probably go on about it in this post. I was right!

I liked that they're getting some use out of the boat that Kate and Sawyer stole from Other Prison Island, though it made me anxious that going too far out will trigger the time-travelling that affected Desmond and Minkowski.

Also, we discovered that Kate's stinksheen cannot be banished for long, if this picture is anything to go by (and how catty can she be when one of her hunky fellas is being seduced by former cohorts of Ben? That was another episode highlight).

Most importantly, Sayid doesn't like beans, apparently.

I'm forgetting something pretty important: this was the week we found out who Ben's spy was. Frank had an important job to do; the task handed to him by Keamy, who approached our aviator hero from the shadows. Was Keamy the spy?

Not long after that we finally got to meet Regina, played by Death Proof superhero Zoe Bell. When we first see her she's at the end of a corridor, her face obscured by her hair. Was Regina the spy??!!!?!

Erm, nope.

Or if she was, working for Ben was not much fun. Nice to see Cuselof made the most of having a stunt hero in the cast. The fact that you can see her face as she plummets into the ocean really sells that moment. Superb stuff. Of course, this event finally brought Captain Gault out of hiding. We first see him at a distance as well. Was Captain Gault the spy?

Seeing as how the spy has been warning Desmond and Sayid not to trust the captain, he would have to be playing a really convoluted game, even for someone working for the patron saint of convoluted plans. He takes our dishevelled heroes to his cabin, and shows them the black box of the fake Oceanic 815, and sticks the death (or exhumation) of 324 people on Ben's shoulders. Okay, definitely not the spy.

Later on, Dr. Ecklie Until I Find Out The Character's Actual Name finds a room for our hunky protagonists, but it's all gross due to cockroaches (which Sayid seems to hate more than beans) and a big bloodstain on the wall. I mean, come on, someone blew their brains out in there? Seriously, there's cabin fever, and then there's Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Luckily there's a janitor at the end of the corridor.

He approaches from a distance, his face obscured by shadow, and OMG IT'S MICHAEL!!!

Who would've thought it? Other than pretty much everyone who follows the show, who would have heard about Harold Perrineau's return, either through the really big announcement last year or by seeing his name in the credits for the past six weeks. Still, it's great to see him back as "Kevin Johnson", and at least now we know who Ben's spy is, though hopefully Michael the spy won't go nuts and blow his brains out. With him gone, who would clean it up? Desmond and Sayid look like they're in no mood to sort it out, though Dr. Ecklie has almost certainly seen worse.

Or do we really know for sure? We know Ben has a spy onboard, and know Michael is onboard (or that he's an older Walt, if some of the online theories are to be believed), but that doesn't mean they're one and the same. Does Michael owe any debt to Ben? He only helped deliver Jack, Kate and Sawyer to Ben because of his debt to Walt, and not because he felt any fondness for the Others. For all we know Michael is just there because he feels the same pull toward the island that Beardy Jack and Hurley feel in their flashforwards. That could be enough to make Michael go to the trouble of hiding his identity and figuring out a way to get back onto the island.

Considering how Keamy and Regina were introduced this episode, it could be one of them. Certainly Regina was looking pretty tortured, either by island-generated brain-craziness, or guilt over working for Ben. As for Keamy, who knows what he's up to. Actually, all of this is massive conjecture. It's almost certainly Michael. Now we get to find out how he came to be involved with Ben in tonight's episode. Or not, as is often the case.

Also in tonight's episode, more Captain Gault!

More Desmond and Sayid yay!

Less Hurley in a suit boo!

And a lot less of another character, who will die tonight. Who will it be? Join us in our weekly chant: NOT SAWYER NOT SAWYER NOT SAWYER!!!!!!