Monday, January 30, 2012

Jeff Mangum Soars Into U Street's Lincoln Theater

My brother claims Jeff Mangum's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (by his band Neutral Milk Hotel) is the greatest album of the 1990s, I would only agree to so much as it being in the top 10. Regardless, it meant my brother was dead-set on paying big bucks to get front-row center seats at the Lincoln Theater on U Street in DC on Saturday night. It also meant he needed to drag me with him. It was worth every penny. This show was a *****-star treat.

And my friend Fran Chung wrote such a great DCist review for the Friday show that I'm reprinting it here. The only difference between the Friday and Saturday shows seems to have been that the show I saw Saturday featured more singing along by the audience, which was as into it as I can imagine a critical mass of well-mannered hipsters ever could be.


Having bypassed D.C. in favor of Baltimore last September, Jeff Mangum finally made his long-awaited return to a local stage on Friday night, playing his first show in the District since 1998, the year his former bandNeutral Milk Hotel released its incomparable magnum opus, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Kicking off a sold-out two-night stand at the Lincoln Theatre, the reclusive singer-songwriter delivered a memorable, mostly solo-acoustic performance, regaling an adoring (though surprisingly reserved) crowd with some of the most beloved songs in the indie-rock canon.
After erstwhile Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster’s The Music Tapes warmed up the crowd with a whimsically entertaining set of art-pop/prop-comedy, Mangum took the stage and threw his distinctively resonant voice headlong into “Two-Headed Boy, Part Two,” Aeroplane’s wistful final track. As the seated audience applauded warmly, Mangum announced that “it’s okay to sing along,” though only a smattering of fans took up his offer during the ensuing acoustic rendition of “Holland, 1945,” an evocative ode to Anne Frank which sounded a bit subdued without the overdriven guitars and propulsive drumming that helped give the studio recording its ecstatic kick.
Though much of the set list was rightly devoted to songs from the richly allusive Aeroplane, Mangum also played a few selections from Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1996 album, On Avery Island, including the choppy “Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone,” adding a couple of deeper cuts such as “Engine,” to which Koster contributed touches of ethereal singing saw. The post-Aeroplane track “Little Birds” was a stunning mid-set highpoint, Mangum’s vocals sonorously enveloping the theatre as he chanted haunting, dirge-like melodies, his words conjuring a harrowing, surrealistic tale of child abuse.
From there, the performance began to pick up momentum as Mangum worked through a sequence of his most indelible compositions. The infectious “The King of Carrot Flowers, Part One” segued directly into the effusive opening incantation -- “I love you, Jesus Christ! / Jesus Christ, I love you!” -- of “The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two and Three.” Mangum gamely hummed the song’s rousing trumpet line, and while his staccato acoustic strumming couldn’t generate the careening, fuzzed-out exhilaration of the album track, it did enough to get a few intrepid fans dancing in the aisles. Much of the crowd clapped along to “Ghost” and added their (still timid) voices to “Two-Headed Boy” but listened in rapt silence during the plaintively magisterial “Oh, Comely,” Mangum giving his most poignant vocal performance of the evening.
Capping the main set (and showing where Beirut’s Zach Condon probably learned a few of his tricks), Koster and the rest of The Music Tapes paraded out to add trumpet, marching drum, and accordion to Aeroplane’s Balkan-flavored “The Fool,” drawing a standing ovation from the suddenly invigorated crowd. Koster stayed on during the encore, coaxing some theremin-like atmospherics from his saw during “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” Mangum strumming jangly chords as he declaimed joyfully existentialist lyrics about “how strange it is to be anything at all.” The majority of the audience refused to leave after that stirring anthem, cheering ardently for a second encore which came in the form of On Avery Island’s spirited “Song Against Sex.”
It was probably the most cathartic and synergistic moment of a performance that, while not quite sublime, ultimately held its own in the face of years of fervent expectation. 

The Top 10 Jason Bateman Movies

Who would have thought that all those episodes of Little House on the Prairie, Silver Spoons, and The Hogan Family would have led to something great. But that's just the case with Jason Bateman. I'll go ahead and say it: he's my favorite comedy actor. Take a look at this slate of powerhouse laugh-a-thons:

10. The Change-Up (2011)
09. Horrible Bosses (2011)
08. The Switch (2010)
07. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
06. Couples Retreat (2009)
05. Extract (2009)
04. Up in the Air (2009)
03. Juno (2007)
02. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
01. Arrested Development (I know, it's a TV show, but it's unbeatable, and supposedly there will be a movie version someday)

What do you think?

Bateman and Reynolds Surprisingly Bring the Laughs in The Change-Up

I went into watching The Change-Up with surprisingly low expectations. You know me: I love stupid comedies, especially the ones starring Jason Bateman.

But this one looked to be so bad and unoriginal. And although it is indeed pretty stupid, it's much more aligned with the "bromance" or even "chick-flick" genre than is usually expected of these kinds of silly productions.

Bateman plays a family man who has been too focused on his high-powered lawyer job. He sleepwalks through the abuse that his baby twins shoot at him. Into his mouth, to be semi-specific.

Ryan Reynolds (Adventureland, The Proposal, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle), like Bateman, is lovable and funny. He plays a stoned playboy. The plot of the two of them switching bodies is admittedly lame, but these two work well as a comedy team, and The Change-Up proves to be a great option for a brain-dead Netflix night of laughs.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Monday, January 23, 2012

Margin Call a Sleeper Pick for Movie of the Year

The New Yorker magazine recently called Margin Call "easily the best Wall Street movie ever made." That is a fair judgement, and although I still think Wall Street is the best of the genre for pure entertainment's sake, Margin Call is much deeper and wholeheartedly gripping.

The film leaves the viewer asking questions every step of the way and serves as an analogy for how greedy the 1 percenter executives are and how helpless the 99 percent investing public.

Kevin Spacey shines as his usual unlikeable, slightly creepy, yet somehow sympathetic self as the boss of his floor of mortgage-backed traders at an investment firm patterned after the likes of Lehman Brothers. Demi Moore, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, and Jeremy Irons as fellow executives doing their parts to cover-up a scheme that will leave potentially millions destitute are also wonderful. And Zachary Quinto (pictured) is a young star-in-the-making as the brainiac numbers-cruncher who helps his boss, played typically well by Stanley Tucci, figure out the internal crisis that is already underway at the firm. Incidentally, Quinto also has a role in one of my favorite new TV shows, American Horror Story.

This is certainly a sleeper as one of my finalists for movie of the year.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

George Clooney Shines in Layered Performance of The Descendants

I went to see George Clooney in The Descendants the other night at the same time the film was named best dramatic picture at the Golden Globes. And while I'm a little surprised this is considered the year's top drama, there is no doubt that it is the study of a complex individual in a heartbreaking situation.

Clooney also won best actor in a drama. He was the reason I wanted to see the movie. Along with the always-lovely-to-see setting of Hawaii. And Clooney does not disappoint. This layered performance is one of his deepest character explorations and ranks high in his top 15 movies.

Shailene Woodley is also amazing as one of Clooney's daughters, left behind by a mother lapsed into a coma after a boating accident. She is believable and lovable all the way through her transformation from a crazy kid to a responsible and helpful adult during the short time arc of the story.

Director Alexander Payne now has a perfect trifecta of Election, Sideways, and The Descendants. He, along with Clooney, have really solidified themselves as a couple of the greats.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hollywood Movies Stink Up a Recent Flight for Me

Being a newish dad, I don't watch the sheer amount of movies I did when I was younger. So I either make sure most of what I see is award-worthy or at the other end of the spectrum and completely brain-dead fun.

Apparently, I'm not missing much out of Hollywood these days. And unfortunately, I only hit the mark of my requirements for three of the movies I watched on a recent really long flight.

Pathetically, the film that met those requirements was Bad Teacher. And when that is the pick of your film marathon, it inspires a big "oh boy."

That said, my expectations were low, and Bad Teacher was actually pretty enjoyable. Cameron Diaz was back near her It's a Shame About Mary level of hilarity, Jason Segal (see The Muppets and Forgetting Sarah Marshall) seems to be can't-miss these days, and Justin Timberlake was sufficient. Perhaps I was delirious towards the end of said long flight, but it seemed to actually be a pretty decent statement on the quality of many of our schools and some of the superficialities of our society in general.

Where the allure of the latest film version of the classic novel Jane Eyre lies, I don't know. I just didn't get the boring BBC production of this one. I think the main problem was that leads Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender had no dramatic range whatsoever, despite the next-big-thing status of each. This is one of the few movies I've seen lately that was almost routinely adored by critics but shrugged off by me.

But the movie I was really disappointed by was Super 8. It seemed like this would be Stand By Me-like, with a bunch of unproven kids steering a Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams (of Lost) production. It starts promisingly, and then a massive train explosion that the group witnesses seems like it will take the story in interesting directions. But then it dragged so slowly towards a completely forgettable conclusion that badly wanted to be E.T. but was more like a SyFy Channel show that gets cancelled after the pilot. I can't begin to understand what Hollywood was thinking with Super 8.

Bad Teacher: *** out of ***** stars
Jane Eyre: ** out of ***** stars
Super 8: *1/2 out of ***** stars

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Second City Ramps Up the Absurd at Woolly Mammoth with Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies

If you haven't been to DC's Woolly Mammoth to catch Second City's Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies, you've got one more weekend to hop to it. Actually, it's probably sold out, so good luck.

But it's sold out for good measure. This is by far the funniest show I've ever seen at DC's best theater. While the plot gets at something to do with death, mortality, fate, and civilization's impending doom, the real point of seeing this show is that it's like a classic episode of Saturday Night Live, up close and in person.

Some audience members are more up close than others. The cast starts by pretending there is a delay and technical problems, so it engages some audience members in chit chat, some of whom then get reinserted into the action as the play unfolds.

Aaron Bliden is the funniest actor of a funny bunch, especially in his absurd vignette with a burrito. Scott Montgomery is wildly creepy as a TSA agent who details the personal statistics of several surprised audience members. Maribeth Monroe, of Comedy Central's Workaholics, is hilarious as a leathery casino patron. And James Alfred does a pitch perfect Barack Obama, and even strips a little like he might in real life.

This is a great slice of entertainment, and I hope Woolly continues to go in this direction. A Bright New Boise, which preceded Spoiler Alert, also headed down this absurdist path.

****1/2 out of ***** stars