Frank Kogan posted a blistering response to Ann Powers’ weekend Beatles feature, to which I say, A-fucking-men. His title says it all. What the hell does “poptimism” mean in 2009 – that Pitchfork can review The-Dream without worrying about robbing Iron & Wine of space?


This week:

Bloc Party goes house, Taio Cruz discovers Auto-Tune, Pitbull and his female companion discover Expose, Chris Brown discovers his no-surprise douchebaggery, Mark Ronson discovers a protege, DJ Quik and Kurupt keep making fresh discoveries,  The Pastels and Tenniscoats discover late eighties dream-pop, Wilco discover George Harrison, and Madonna discovers how often she can raid her bag of costumes and tricks.

About “District 9….”

Fun for thirty minutes, until director Neill Blomkamp loses interest in his own faux documentary style and refuses to sort through his incendiary concepts. The hero’s Cheney-esque father-in-law, the Nigerian gang dealing in cybernetic weaponry, and the Soweto-style township in which the aliens live demand more than Blomkamp’s affectlessness. Also: Sharlto Copley’s a shrill, one-dimensional actor.

The lion of Camelot, the dean of Chappaquiddick

The announcement of his death hadn’t yet been linked on a million Facebook pages when Our Corporate Masters decreed that all references to the late Edward Kennedy would confine themselves to the tags “Camelot,” “Lion of the Senate,” and “Chappaquiddick.” No mention more than a minute long of his legislative accomplishments, of which I was unaware.

Slate‘s Timothy Noah has a good round-up – and some criticism.

Lost in music

The Last Days of Disco disappointed me in 1998. Writer-director Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan formula of putting hyperaware preps in the same room for just under two hours had worn thin; his low budget crimped the production values; and scene to scene the movie didn’t cohere.

Sadly, these things remain true. Criterion’s sparkling DVD transfer (the movie’s been out of print since its VHS release in fall ’98 but enjoyed multiple cable showings subsequently) only underscores the multitude of shortcomings. I’d totally forgotten this one: Chris Eigeman’s character pretends to be gay to get girls. Not so absurd in 2009, but totally daft in the “very early eighties” period in which the film is set. His confessional monologue, centered on “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” (complete with hamhanded Marlin Perkins reference if we didn’t get the joke) is the most leaden, offensive writing of Stillman’s career.

That’s why Disco is so disappointing. Like one of Bunuel’s Mexican films, the writing in Metropolitan helped you ignore the wrinkled tuxes and paper napkins substituting for linen. Here, Stillman’s bon mots are mostly stale pastries: he directs conversations about the erotic possibilities of Scrooge McDuck and Lady and the Tramp lovingly and serenely, as if his characters were debating Lionel Trilling (there’s one bright exchange late in the film between Eigeman and sleazy club owner about the use of the past perfect).  The production design still looks chintzy; the Studio 54 manque in which most of the action happens looks like a late eighties imitation; the men wear bowl haircuts. Chloe Sevingy does her Chloe Sevingy thing, slumping her shoulders like she’s carrying a wooden cross stolen from a Home Depot. Stillman, the gossamer-light ironist, can’t even maintain a steady tone: the last ten minutes, complete with magic-realist musical number, belongs in another movie.

There’s no sense of danger or discovery in the project. I’m not expecting Bright Lights, Big City from Stillman — he’s too smart, too frightened of crassness — but he either doesn’t understand the period’s generational and sexual fault lines or can’t work up enough energy to lampoon them. And he’s clueless about the music. 1998 was also the year of 54, the terrible movie about the awful things that happen to Ryan Phillippe at the disco; but as nattering as it was, the movie understood how its characters nourished themselves on the visions of excess offered by Evelyn “Champagne” King, the O’Jays, Chic, and Gloria Gaynor. I don’t know — maybe it was Stillman’s intention to make a film whose characters are so detached from their surroundings that music exists as wallpaper.

Using her female attraction

One of Tina Turner’s biggest hits (three weeks at #2 in the fall of ’86) is nevertheless one of her least remarked on. Written by Terry Britten, coauthor of  “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” with drums by Phil Collins, this rather frantic piece of aural machinery deepens the character that Turner inhabited on “Private Dancer,” “Show Some Respect,” and “Better Be Good To Me.” Not particularly good at or interested in showing affection, she demands loyalty, companionship, or something. Turner’s voice here — now dulled to an ear-catching, strangled gasp — is essential to the image of a performer who still remembers what womanhood was like because she can’t stop her heart from skipping a beat after a meeting with her tax lawyer. This newly inducted member of rock royalty likes to match her wits with the best of them, even if “them” includes said lawyer, on whom she’ll file a suit for defamation of character if he tells all to the Post.

The banality of banality

Too many reviews have concentrated on the utter banality of the Amy Adams section of Julie and Julia, and while they’re right they also overlook one point: the utter banality of Ephron’s conception of “self-fulfillment.” Where it not for the pure charm of Meryl Streep’s impersonation of Julia Childs (the audience was mooing to itself as it exited the theater — a tribute to how well Streep-as-Child’s mannerisms had impressed themselves) and Adams’ commitment to transforming a whiny bore into a human being, I couldn’t have swallowed (sorry) the notion that a woman as talented and weird as the real Julia Child became a master out of sheer frustration with her lot in life. Child and Julie Powell, Ephron argues, deserve parallel story lines because both women would have stayed unrealized — mere appendages to their husbands’ genial will. Child herself — a well-traveled secretary with the Office of Strategic Services, the first incarnation of the modern CIA — would have balked at the hint of a shared destiny with this ninny. Ever the canny operator, Ephron allows herself an out by including a scene in which a reporter calls Powell with news that Child is contemptuous of the young blogger’s efforts. Right. It smells just as badly as a fight earlier in the picture between Powell and her husband; he accuses her of narcissism. Only a hack screenwriter resorts to these escapes. Acknowledging problems with your script doesn’t end with characters acknowledging there’s problems.

For all that, Julie and Julia rolls along at a comfortable pace. This is the first Nora Ephron picture with actors allowed to spark off each other; she lets them sit back and fly, especially whenever Stanley Tucci and the excellent Jane Lynch (as Child’s almost as weird sister) are on screen.  I’ve said a lot of nasty things about RoboStreep over the years, most of which apply to early acclaimed performances in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, and Ironweed, in which she’s concentrating so hard on perfecting accents and how to relate her makeup and costuming to them that she gnawed her characters to ribbons. Starting with The Bridges of Madison County, though, she started to relax on camera, and her new impishness enlivened One True Thing, Adaptation, and, best of all, The Devil Wears Prada (she suffered a relapse in Doubt; she had an accent and a wimple to worry about). Where before her best performances were as frosty women with an absurd sense of their own importance (Plenty, Out of Africa, A Cry in the Dark),  she now blooms when she gets to laugh and act silly. I can’t think of another actress with this trajectory — maybe Ralph Richardson comes closest (The Fallen Idol to Greystoke is quite a distance). What’s delightful is that audiences are responding: every Streep movie since Prada has been a moderate to huge hit.

The politics of cowardice

It bears repeating: we have not elected a liberal US president since Lyndon Johnson; and Johnson, we should remember, had nothing but contempt for liberals. Eric Alterman correctly notes that the foreign policy elite and conservative ideologues (albeit quietly) thought Bill Clinton would make a more hawkish president than the hapless George Herbert Walker Bush. In his journals the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. despaired that Jimmy Carter presented himself as a shrill, vengeful, sanctimonious technocrat considerably more “centrist” than his reputation suggests.

Since January Obama has done little to deserve the ire of conservatives: fully supporting last October’s Bush administration bailout of the financial industry, supporting the indefinite detention of enemy combatants, endorsing his Justice Department’s position on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, increasing the number of troops committed to Afghanistan. That sort of thing. As far as health care, Glenn Greenwald catalogues examples of Democratic cowardice over the last eight years:

the Democratic Party has specialized in offering up one excuse after the next for its collective failures. During the early Bush years, the excuse was that they endorsed Bush policies because his popularity and post-9/11 hysteria made it politically unwise to oppose him. In later Bush years when his popularity plummeted, the excuse was that Democrats were in the minority and could do nothing. After 2006 when they won a Congressional majority, the excuse was that Bush still controlled the White House and had veto power.

After 2008 when a Democrat won the White House, the excuse was that Republicans could filibuster.Now that they have a filibuster-proof majority, a huge margin in the House and the White House, the excuses continue unabated, as Democrats are now on the verge of jettisoning one of the most significant attractions for progressives to the Obama campaign — active government involvement in the health insurance market. The excuses for “compromising” are cascading more rapidly than ever: We need Republican support to ensure it’s bipartisan. The Blue Dogs won’t go along with what we want. Centrist Senators will filibuster. There are similar excuses being made to defend Obama from accusations that he deserves some of the blame for the failure of the “public option.”

If we get nothing but a lovely band aid for health care reform that Obama can tout in 2010, blame his cowardice.


This week’s singles: very good singles from Pearl Jam, Yo La Tengo, and former Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley, a super one by Pills that I grievously underrated (thanks to watching its uproarious video), a rote Beastie Boys comeback, Mos Wanted Mega ft. Janee, a Calvin Harris effort that might have worked as a Black Box album track in 1990, Humphrey ft. Rohff, an anachronistic collab between Monica and Missy, Bless Beats ft. Charlie Brown and Wiley, and nonsense by Mika and Girls Can’t Catch Up.