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The season of bombs
I am always pleased when big-budget crap movies fail miserably. I know, I’ve seen the “Movies. They’re Worth it” ads. I should feel for the poor gaffers who suffer when people don’t buy tickets to Timeline. But in my heart and soul, I do not care. When bad movies fail, an angel gets her wings.

Take this weekend’s gross sheet from Box Office Mojo. My eyes race down to #11, and The Matrix Revolutions. It cost $180 million to make and market. By this point in the life of The Matrix Reloaded, that movie had made $248 million. However, it sucked. Viewers remembered this. Revolutions has made $133 million, and will probably tap out at $145. If Entertainment journalists are paying attention, this is the failure of the year.

Or is it? Brian Grazer’s shitfeast The Cat in the Hat has made back half of its $150 million cost. But its immediate inspiration, 2000’s The Grinch, had made $137 million by this point, for a similar cost. Moviegoers remembered that the first movie sucked. They didn’t show up for a second helping. As the Matrix series’ lame Merovingian character would point out – “cause, and effect!”

The clever decision to spent $180 million on Master and Commander has backfired – that movie has made only $68 million, and is already being pulled from theaters. The Michael Crichton adaptation Timeline, which threw over $80 million down the path of an author who stopped being hot before the Clinton impeachment, made $12 million in its debut and will probably top out at $25 million. The same thing happened to the Grisham-inspired, star-packed Runaway Jury – an $80 million cost and $47 million gross. Sadly, the new live-action Looney Tunes movie looks to have lost $60 million. The Oscar bait of The Human Stain cost $30 million and has sold less than $5 million worth of tickets. But this is a story about a college professor and his sex life. How did it cost $30 million?

It’s really stunning how many bombs dropped this year. The Rock’s vehicle The Rundown lost more than $60 million. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on an extraordinary story by Alan Moore, lost $40 million. The sequel to Tomb Raider cost $130 million and made $65 million. This is just depressing. They join other 2003 bombs like $110 million Tears of the Sun ($43 million gross), $75 million Out of Time ($40 million), the $85 million The Core ($31 million), and most gratifyingly, the $105 million Harrison Ford/Josh Hartnett vehicle Hollywood Homicide ($30 million).

Are there any lessons? Well, two of these movies featured the oh-so-witty line “Shut up!” in their trailers, which probably didn’t help them. A lot of them attached big stars to underwritten properties. That just doesn’t work for a star after he’s made maybe two bad movies in a row. Finally, it seems like a lot of these pieces of shit were based on ideas successful before September 11, 2001 – Cat, Matrix, Grisham/Crichton, Tomb Raider, disaster movies, and cartoons meeting reality.

It’s mostly depressing, though. How many excellent 28 Days Laters could have been made for the cost of the Wachowski’s silly, bloated train wrecks?

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Guided By Voices, Nov. 22 2003
The Abbey Pub is much harder to get to than it should be, and illustrative of how the Chicago transit system makes fools out of all of us. According to directories, you can reach the bar at “Addison.” I went to Addison, then asked where 3240 Grace was. And it was 25 blocks away. What the directories mean is that you can use the Blue line Addison, but not the other Addisons. And how to you get to the Blue line from Evanston? You go downtown, which takes about 45 minutes, then you switch and go back up the Blue.

I took a cab.

A line was forming 25 minutes before the doors opened, and 85 minutes before showtime. It was here that I was reminded why I like going to GBV shows. The people behind me – two thirtysomething guys and their thirtysomething galpal – were wondering about the physics of Bob Pollard. How can he drink and smoke to excess every night and not be dead, or at breathing through a machine? Then somehow they started talking about the movies “Irreversible” (shit) and “Audition” (insane, but not shit). And I sort of sidled into the conversation and learned that they had all flown in from LA to see the show – their second GBV show this month. When we finally got in and moved to the stage, we traded business cards (in my case, a “School of Rock” ticket with my address on it) and agreed to trade show photos for a DVD this guy had recorded of the band’s St. Louis Show.

The excitement inside was thick – unusually thick. It just so happened that tonight’s opening act was Tobin Sprout, who had played guitar and wrote songs for the band’s best albums before leaving the group in 1996. Rumors ruffled through the crowd. Jim from Michigan, who – I’m serious – punctuated every other sentence by saying “Rock and Roll!” – had heard that Tobin would come onstage and play with Bob.

“You know, you can see it, right?” he said. “Bob comes out and puts him in a headlock. ‘Hey buddy!’ He’ll act like they’re best friends.

We’d find out. Tobin came on at 10:20, and looked as different from the voice I heard on Bee Thousand and Carnival Boy as could be imagined. On record, Tobin sounds 17 years old – thin, embarressed and reedy. In person, he’s a middle-aged guy with a Hawaiian shirt.

His voice was completely buried in the mix – his band of Stephen Malkmus lookalikes, on guitar, bass, keyboard and drums (more than Sprout actually uses on his records), drowned out most of his singing. But the setlist was impeccable. He played the best songs from his first three solo albums, and ramped them up beyond recognition. “Get Out of My Throat,” an angry little tune off Carnival Boy, turned into riff rock.

At this point it’s useful to discriminate between the songwriting styles of Sprout and Pollard. Pollard has always relished rock star poses, dance moves, and interspersing slow songs with three or four epic rock songs. Sprout, on the other hand, is an indie rocker. He stands on stage motionless, occasionally looking at his fretboard to see if he’s got the chords right. His songwriting swings between two poles that happen to be three inches apart – there are slow songs that sound like The Cars, and there are fast songs that sound like The Cars. Tobin finishes the set without smiling or interacting with the crowd, and walks off stage at 10:55.

Then he comes back, and Bob is behind him.

The crowd goes completely insane. Understand, a GBV fan necessarily owns 5 times as many records as a Radiohead fan, or 10 times as many as a White Stripes fan. These guys recorded more than 150 songs together, and they mean more to the crowd than church. (Tobin’s performance of “Gleemer” from Vampire on Titus got the best crowd reaction previously). So they sing “14 Cheerleader Coldfront,” which is about 70 seconds long. And that’s it. The two middle-aged guys leave and the band and roadies start playing with cords.

The atmosphere gets uglier in the next 30 minutes. Some asshole in a three piece suit with Cheap Trick buttons on the lapel muscles up to the front row, holding a glass of Johnny Walker Red. “I JUST WANNA GIVE BOB A DRINK!” he says. Dumbass that he is, he tried to give it to guitarist Nate Farley when he becomes the first guy onstage. Nate stopped drinking hard liquor this year. Some fan.

GBV play with our emotions – Bob sticks himself in the doorway behind the stage just enough to cast a shadow. When we see his shaggy hairdo in silhouette a roar builds up, and the people behind me make devil horns and chant “G-B-V! G-B-V!” The band are introduced as castmembers of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Bob grabs the whisky – “Thanks for the drink. Because that’s just what I need, another fucking drink.” Then, wham, into “Lethargy,” then “Beg for a Wheelbarrow.”

I am directly in front of the stage. If I look straight ahead I see Bob’s knees. This has the effect of improving the show 1000%, because Bob can hear everything I say, and when he starts passing out Miller Lites from the band’s cooler I get two. Jim from Michigan is right next to me, and he lights Bob’s cigarette three times.

Bob only has six or seven beers in addition to the Johnny Walker – 12 less than when I saw the band in February. The result is a tighter, better show that makes up for the unexciting setlist. For some reason, the long middle stretch – about 16 songs – is b-sides and new songs that are really hard to get excited about. I mostly pay attention to Doug Gillard’s soloing – even though they skip over his best songs from Mist King Urth and Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, he lets rip amazing, melodic guitar lines on the songs from Earthquake Glue

When the band DOES play the classics – “Echoes Myron,” a fucking incredible “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” – the effect is stunning. Bob holds his trademark kicks and mikeswinging for as long as possible – he’ll kick up a leg and sit there, sweating, as the band pounds the melody.

The set ends at 1:20, and Tobin comes back out to join Bob in Nate’s place. More crowd insanity. Unfortunately the tune of choice is “Hot Freaks,” and I’m still not able to get into it. I actually prefer the shit-hot renditons of “Game of Pricks” and “I Am a Scientist” that come next.

I file out at 1:50, after the encore, walk around Grace Street, and get a ride to the el station from another guy who saw the show. Normally, I hate going out if I’ll have to shell out more money for cabs and wait 30 minutes for late trains. The show was so good, I honestly forgot to worry.

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Movie Review X: Lost in Translation
I can’t judge this one objectively, because it immediately wormed its way into my brain and has stuck there, more like The Lord’s Prayer than a movie. There are three immediate reasons.

1.)Scarlett Johansson is the most beautiful woman in movies, for a number of reasons. The ones I can nail down: face, mannerisms, voice, and body. It’s hard to watch this movie and not walk away disappointed that you’re not going on a date with her within the next few days.

2.)The soundtrack is perfect, just like everyone’s been telling you. Sofia Coppola managed to get Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine back in the studio, and commissioned (for the second time) new work from the band Air. And these are in the median, as far as the songs go. Coppola chose one of the three or four best MBV songs, “Sometimes,” to soundtrack Charlotte (Johansson) and Bob Harris (Bill Murray)’s a.m. taxi ride back to their hotel. When they’re in a stupid nightclub, she flips the stupidest song of the decade, “Fuck the Pain Away” by Peaches. Like all great movies that use pop music, this one warps and transforms the songs and changes the way you’ll listen to them.

3.)I’m not a happy person. When I saw Lost … I had burnt out my skull laying out a newspaper that was stolen, in some locations, the next day. I was stressed out over deadlines, and over a relationship that had just expired for no good reason. But if none of that happened, I would still be generally solitary and unhappy, thinking mean things about people who get on my nerves. In that way, this movie might have well has been copied from a readout of my DNA.

So Lost in Translation means a lot to me. I don’t know how people who don’t identify with the characters would think.

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Movie Review IX: Love Actually
Standing in line for Elf, I eavesdropped on the two loud high school girls behind me. They were on their cell phones of course, and they were going to see Love Actually. When they finally got to the front of the line, they noticed that the marquee had been blinking “FULL” – one of them joked, “Ha, let’s just see Elf.” I took my Elf ticket, got it clipped, and followed the teller’s directions to enter Theater 4. The marquee here had blinking lights, too. For 5 seconds the number of the theater would glow; then it would switch to the name of the movie. Had I waited around, I would have realized I was seeing Love Actually. Instead, I watched scenes of people hugging each other in Heathrow Airport, listened to Hugh Grant’s narration about “11 September,” and realized no one was going to prance onscreen in green pantyhose. So I stayed. Good decision.

I want to say this is a collection of four-star movie ideas that result in a three-star movie. It’s packed with little romantic comedy moments that obviously made writer/director Richard Curtis punch the air and say “WOO!” when he thought them up – a surprise post-nuptial performance of “All You Need is Love” (audience members get up and play instruments), a guy declaring his love to a married woman with flash cards (the key phrase is “to me you are perfect”), Colin Firth and his housekeeper diving into a lake to rescue his manuscript. Probably the best moment in the movie actually surpasses this predictable stuff – one character proposes in broken Portuguese, and the subtitles reflect his bad grammer (“We can inhabit here or we can in England inhabit”). Then the girl responds in broken English.

But what is there to Love Actually besides really good scenes? Hm. The thing is, Curtis cut his teeth writing plotless, brilliant episodes of “Blackadder” for the BBC. His dialogue has always stood on its own, bantered between airy (but not boring) characters, and his endings are always either happy or ironically funny. That’s all there is – dialogue and endings. I guess my favorite aspect of this particular effort is that, of the 10 interlocking plots, at least two end inconclusively, and we’re allowed to wonder if the characters will coexist in enternal bliss, or if they won’t. Compare this to the “everything is perfect and we all have money!” ending in Notting Hill, and you’ll see which movie’s more successful.

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Lengthly absence explained
I was busy.

Well, that’s really the extent of it. I didn’t post anything for 11 days because I had newspapers to publish, group projects to compile, tests to take and papers to write. But I’m back and in a list-y mood, so look for some of that here soon.

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Ten fine white guys
And now I will post the ten musicians of European descent who’ve had the biggest impact on my life. I exclude Bob Dylan and the Beatles because they’re a bit obvious.

10.Robert Smith of The Cure

Probably the best pop songwriter to come out of the British punk movement. He started out writing brittle new wave (“Killing an Arab”), moved on to moody goth pop (“One Hundred Years,” “Primary”), and by 1985 had stumbled onto a simplistic, bass-heavy songwriting style responsible for some of the best music of the decade (“In Between Days,” “Just Like Heaven,” “Pictures of You”). Got spottier into the 1990s.
Quintessential album: The Head on the Door
Quintessential song: “Just Like Heaven”

9.Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo

You don’t become a sought-after orchestral composer without an outstanding command of melody. Danny Elfman always had a great sense for hooks, from the early singles (“On the Outside,” “Little Girls”) on. The early Boingo new wave-with-horns style was whittled down into the 1980s, as the band got commissioned to theme major movies (“Weird Science,” “Dead Man’s Party”), and eventually mellowed into adult listening (“Out of Control”). I’m a bit disappointed Elfman hasn’t sung anything since he soundtracked Tim Burton’s “Nightmare before Christmas.”
Quintessential album: Good for Your Soul
Quintessential song: “We Close Our Eyes”

8.Lloyd Cole of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions

I’d say Lloyd Cole has influenced more artists than he’s sold records. He basically gave Matthew Sweet a career, letting him play bass on his 1990 comeback record Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe. And the early Commotions songs (“Rattlesnakes,” “Perfect Skin”) are copied by all kinds of unsuccessful bands, like the Go-Betweens and Teenage Fanclub. But I like his most recent songs (“Past Imperfect,” “No More Love Songs”) best. It’s like he’s internalized the moody pretentious that other artists work at.
Quintessential album: Lloyd Cole
Quintessential song: “No Blue Skies”

7.Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys

The modern Cole Porter. A brilliant lyricist who couldn’t be more cynical if he got a degree in it, Tennant is also the best songwriter in the broadly defined genre of “dance music.” The early hits (“West End Girls,” “It’s A Sin”) absolutely shamed bands like Erasure as well as the shitty British invasion popsters like Duran Duran. The long remixes and melancholy hits (“Being Boring,” “Left to My Own Devices”) were slower and more thoughtful. My favorite era came in the early 90s, when they churned out single after brilliant single (“Go West,” “Se a Vida E”) and became a nostalgia act. Never understood why.
Quintessential album: Very
Quintessential song: “Go West”

6.John Linnell of They Might Be Giants

Probably did more to expand the lexicon of pop than anyone on this list. Started out writing about Shriners (“She’s An Angel”), had a hit about a nightlight (“Birdhouse in Your Soul”), stumbled with a song about palindromes (“I Palindrome I”), and sailed into middle age singing childrens’ music (“Bed Bed Bed”).
Quintessential album: Lincoln
Quintessential song: “The End of the Tour”

5.Peter Gabriel of Genesis

I was born in 1981, so of course my first exposure to him was “In Your Eyes.” But that’s an excellent song. None of Gabriel’s goofy transglobalism would work if he didn’t write wonderful songs with weird, beguiling melodies. His later period is dominated by bassist/deity Tony Levin (“Red Rain,” “Come Talk to Me”), but his early, prog rock songs (“Solsbury Hill,” “Games Without Frontiers”) display what he can do without a crutch.
Quintessential album: So
Quintessential song: “San Jacinto”

4.Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo

I got into an argument at Dr. Wax about this. The clerk swore that the early, punk Devo records (“Mongoloid,” “Jocko Homo”) were best, and the rest was pop crap. I disagreed. Not only do the hits rule (“Whip It,” “Girl U Want”), but the later MTV songs (“Shout,” “Through Being Cool”) rule beyond their reputation. No one could cut up the typical pop song and make it work like Mothersbaugh.
Quintessential album: Freedom of Choice
Quintessential song: “Snowball”

3.Alice Cooper of Alice Cooper

Do not believe the Pravda line on this guy. He did NOT stop being worthwhile after the Alice Cooper Band (“School’s Out,” “Under My Wheels”) broke up and he stole their name. His early solo records are brilliant, filthy, sleazy rock (“Cold Ethyl,” “Go to Hell”), and his strangely affecting ballads (“Only Women Bleed,” “How You Gonna See Me Now?”) are as good as anything else from that decade. OK, he lost it in the 1980s. Arguably.
Quintessential album: From the Inside
Quintessential song: “(We’re All) Clones”

2.Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground

As a fellow moody bastard who doesn’t take much seriously, I think his songs mean more to me than anyone else’s. This is unhealthy, but I already knew that.
Quintessential album: New York
Quintessential song: “Coney Island Baby”

1.Bob Pollard of Guided by Voices

I have no idea what he’s singing about, except for “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” because I asked him about that. I just know he writes more classic songs in a month than the Strokes have in a career.
Quintessential album: Bee Thousand
Quintessential song: “Tractor Rape Chain”

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Five great songs
I got sick, missed a class, and STILL worked unti 2 a.m. today! But I had excellent musical accompaniment.

5. Sparks, “Mickey Mouse” (1982) – Many people talk down the band’s post-Moroder work, saying it’s dated 80s hackwork that deserves to rot in the teen movies that featured them. I strongly disagree. The “Rocky Horror Picture Show” guitar work, Muppet percussion, and insane lyrics (Disneyland as a metaphor for everything) make this one a keeper.

4. The Left Banke, “She May Call You Up Tonight” (1967) – My favorite of their Holy Trinity (completed by “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina”). There’s not a wrong note here, and the middle-eight and final key change (in the harmony! Just in the harmony!) are heavenly.

3. The Jayhawks, “Blue” (1995) – I admit, I first heard it covered by Matthew Sweet and “The Thorns.” But the original is even better. Listen to the delicately placed horn section.

2. Tom Waits, “Ol’ 55” (1973) – A chorus you cannot remove from your head. The Eagles covered it – no matter what you think of them, know they’d never grab an inferior piece of songwriting. (Did Lionel Richie rip the harmony off for “Easy”?)

1. !!! – “Me and giuliani down by the school yard” (a true story) (2003) – The best single of 2003, up there with “Hey Ya” and “Bad Day.” Ten minutes of dynamic melodies and tempo changes, and lyrics I would disagree with if they were comprehensible.

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New Spam technique
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Notice something? Spammers are breaking up and garbling words so as to break through filters. The funny thing is, I use Zoloft. So these sons of bitches are destroying a word that I use in very, very important e-mails. This is no longer a freedom of speech issue, if it ever was.

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Johnny Cash, unearthed
The (final?) Johnny cash record has a street date and a track listing. A 79-song track listing. If my paychecks reach me by then, I won’t care.

Some possible highlights –
– “Pochohantas” – If this is the 1978 Neil Young song, it will rule without mercy. That was one of Neil’s chugging acoustic death ballads that was clay in his hands, and will be molded by Johnny’s.

– “Bird On A Wire (Live with orchestra)” – A LEONARD COHEN SONG WITH AN ORCHESTRA. No further commentary.

– “He Stopped Loving Her Today” – That’s right, the best damn country song ever written, as sung by Johnny Cash, who had just lost his wife. Expect glory.

– “I’ll Fly Away” – The roots classic popularized again by Allison Krauss in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”