One for Friday: The Candy Skins, “She Blew Me Away”

I find band names fascinating, especially considering the ways they can evolve over time to just feel like second nature. R.E.M. and U2 probably sounded a little odd at first, but they eventually developed natural associations with the bands and, in these instances, their distinctive sounds. I don’t even think about the other meaning of, say, the Jesus and Mary Chain. I also find it interesting when a band’s name can somehow completely convey the sound that’s going to be found on their records. Maybe I’m applying too much of the knowledge I already have rattling around in the record warehouse in my head, but I think you know exactly what you’re going to get from a band called the Candy Skins.

The preferred nomenclature for the band apparently pushed those two words together, but my copy of their debut CD, Space I’m In clearly has it listed as “Candy Skins,” so that’s what I’m going to stick with for our purposes today. However it’s written out, the band name promises a certain sleek, colorful brand of pop music. They should be delivering singles that practically explode out of the radio speakers, burrowing into the brain, as addictive as M&M’s. That was largely the case, although the song that I connected with most forcefully was a little more of a slower builder. “She Blew Me Away” had the same sort of pristine pop quality with a little tinge of moody longing that was completely irresistible to me as I was entering into my twenties and realizes that, no matter how much I held my breath and stomped my feet, it was time to give in to adulthood.

When I weigh what I really miss most about college radio, I rapidly come to the conclusion that it’s songs like this. It wasn’t the track that was most aggressively pushed (although I think it may have been an official single at some point), but it was the one that I found and loved. Any song could become a sort of hit, if only for a sole DJ.

The Candy Skins, “She Blew Me Away”

(Disclaimer: The Candy Skins’ debut album seems to be out of print, though I’ll concede that I was lazier in the hunt than usual. For all I know, they have a significant cult following and there are all sorts of compilations, reissues, box sets and QR code stamps that cause smartphones to project holographic images of old live shows onto low-hanging clouds. My point is that I post it here with the belief that it can’t be purchased from a local, independently owned record store, so sharing it shouldn’t hurt that much. I think it can be purchased digitally, so there are plenty of options to fill out the Candy Skins part of your iTunes if you’re so inclined. Should I be contacted by anyone with due authority to request it’s removal, I will delete it from the interweb at the earliest opportunity.)

Who’s gonna tell you when it’s too late

drive

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was one of the true sensations of this year’s Cannes film festival. Though it may understandably seem otherwise, I don’t mean it as a knock when I note that I can completely understand that the contrast it offered potentially elevated the critical assessment of the work. I’m not as seasoned as some, but I’ve been a dedicated participant at enough film festivals to know that prolonged exposure to the achingly serious, defiantly arid works that dominate the fest circuit can make any movie that has a measurable pulse to it seem like an astonishing bolt of aberrant filmmaking genius. If the movie in question also adheres to the deliberate pacing and casual nihilism of the arthouse circuit, all the better. Drive arrives in theaters with a nearly insurmountable rag pile of expectation. It redefines action films while also fulfilling the deepest desires of the most serious moviegoers with its existential gloom. Despite the fevered predictions, it can’t really be all things to all people. However, it can by a sly, evocative movie that outshines its elements of overt homage to feel like a hybrid that develops into something original.

Ryan Gosling plays a character named in the credits as “Driver,” but more commonly named only as “Kid” in the course of the movie. He’s a part-time movie stunt driver who also earns extra scratch serving as the wheelman for, it is implied, a variety of illicit endeavors. When he becomes enamored with a neighbor, played by Carey Mulligan with her usual sweet, slow burn charm that makes the whole enamored thing fully understandable, he’s also drawn into the surprisingly fraught scenarios that surround her, including a big, dark tangle with east coast mobster thugs. Part of the sleek appeal of Drive is the way it presents its terrible dilemmas with a sort of icy detachment. Other movies may aspire to play it cool, but Drive achieves it. In its transparent and effectively attempts to apply artistry to the trashiest of storylines, Drive doesn’t only walk the fine line between the two extremes of film styles, but calls into question if that line existed in the first place.

The film it consistently reminded me of was Ti West’s The House of the Devil. Like that effort, Drive lovingly adheres to all the tropes of a widely and wisely maligned genre of film in a specific era, while also transforming it, largely with a level of patience that emphatically belongs to the world of independent film. Devil was a tribute to horror films of that bridges the late seventies with the early eighties, and Drive is a devoted disciple to the action films of the exact same era, right down to the cursive scrawl of the credits and the bending electronica score by Cliff Martinez that plays like the great long lost Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It’s derivative, but proudly, knowingly so. It doesn’t strive to reinvent a genre, but it does make a herculean effort to reconceptualize it. This, Refn seems to say, is what an action movie can be if it embraces the sun-dappled pretensions of art. The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, in particular, is an overt act of imposing gorgeous artistry onto genre conventions, a conceit best exemplified by the ludicrous golden sunlight that intrudes through the windows of a dirty garage where some of the dirtiest dealings go down.

Some have argued that Drive is a film that will be best appreciated ten years from now, when the hype and inevitable backlash have both died away and an actual film, with aspirations separated from constructed expectations, can emerge. That may be right. In the here and now, I can easily imagine arthouse audiences being put off by the overt car chase adoration and action fans feeling overly lulled by the film’s considered pacing. With a little distance, it seems more likely that the film will stand on its own as something that compresses different eras of filmmaking sensibilities into a single work, trading on archetypes for the purpose of finding stark, heartbreaking truths. For now, if it mostly comes across as chilly and challenging, that’s its own accomplishment. Drive may leave some audiences baffled, but they should certainly know that they’ve seem something crafted with outlandish ambition.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Fourteen

#14 — The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)
I noted at the start of this traipse through a decade of movies that these are the films that were arguably most formative for me. These were the films that I grew up with, evolving from a fidgety kid who found bawdy comedies to be the height of the form to a slightly less fidgety young adult who was beginning to see the deeper artistry that could be achieved when the right personnel was positioned on both sides of the camera. Given that, it should be no surprise that an effort which celebrates the elusive magic of the movies themselves ranks this high on the list.

The Purple Rose of Cairo begins with a keen understanding of the power of movies as a form of escape. Set during the Great Depression, the film stars Mia Farrow as a mediocre waitress stuck in a miserable, abusive marriage. She gets her meager doses of happiness by going to the local movie house, where she repeatedly watches a silly little romantic comedy about an archaeologist sporting a safari hat who’s brought to Manhattan from Africa by socialites and then winds up falling in love during a dizzying weekend of big city glamor. The woman’s mundane life takes a turn for the fantastical when the strapping hero of the picture, inspired by her devotion to the film, breaks the fourth wall by looking across the screen and talking to her. Then he does the seemingly impossible and steps off the screen altogether to take her hand and race off into the night.

Writer-director Woody Allen may be letting his imagination zip of in fanciful directions, but he’s not making some sweet, simple lark. The Purple Rose of Cairo is infused with the same sprightly mix of inspired humor and sullen cynicism that’s the hallmark of all his very best work. He also thinks through his conceit, dramatizes the logical consequences of a highly illogical situation. With the leading man suddenly absent, the other characters onscreen have no way to move the plot forward, leaving them to bicker with the dumbfounded audience and play cards on the penthouse suite set. It also creates a unique dilemma for the Hollywood studio bosses, since a movie that can’t end is also a movie that can’t sell fresh tickets. To fix the situation, the dispatch the actor who played the wandering character to the dismal New Jersey town in question, and one of the oddest love triangles in cinema history is the result.

Allen’s film has tinges of affection for the sweet diversions of old Hollywood movies–and he concocts one here with a master satirist’s accuracy–but the prevailing thesis of Purple Rose is a deconstruction of the false promises inherent in cinematic fiction. Movies promise happy endings that, in Allen’s estimation, simply aren’t available in the real world. Much of the film’s bite comes from watching all the subtle ways that the tender hopes of Farrow’s character are dashed. This film probably contain’s Farrow’s very best performance for her then partner and chief collaborator, representing the pinnacle instance in which her natural overwhelming vulnerability comes across as gentle and moving. She’s matched by a wonderful performance by Jeff Daniels as both the reality-hopping movie character and the actor who plays him. Without relying on bold, showy tricks and signifiers, Daniels artfully plays a tricky dual role. Both characters are elusive, uncertain, primarily defined by their lack of definition. Identity is a slippery thing. Both the actor and the acted, it seems, can shift as easily as going from one reel to another.

Allen was on a remarkable run at this point in his career, the eternally prolific auteur signing his name to an enviable number of spectacularly successful artistic achievements that began with a mid-nineteen-seventies transformation from a comedian playing around in movies to a director of astoundingly casual inventiveness. For a time, it seemed he could work pure magic with movies, so it only stands to reason that one of his best offerings was centered on the unlikely, if deceptive magic that movies could work.

You can get tangled in a ball of rubber bands and twine

moneyball

I never read Moneyball, the 2003 nonfiction bestseller by Michael Lewis that serves as the source material for Bennett Miller’s long-awaited follow-up to the wonderful Capote, but I didn’t come into the film entirely blind either. The film focuses on Billy Beane in his role as General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, beginning with the team’s elimination in the 2001 playoffs. Shortly thereafter, three of the team’s superstar players announce their intentions to take big dollars elsewhere through baseball’s free agency process. Being among the smallest of the so-called small-market teams with ownership that insists the payroll can’t be expanded, Beane is resigned to a constant cycle of developing young players that will be plucked away by the competing franchises with overflowing coffers seemingly at the very point when those players are reaching their performing peak. It is, as the original book’s subtitle proclaimed, an unfair game, and Beane’s only hope is to find a way to exploit the weaknesses that have developed from an atrophy of thinking endemic to a game that lives side-by-side with its own history.

At the time this transformation was taken place, I was spending way too much time on Baseball Prospectus and other sites that championed this different approach to the grand old game and celebrated those who were, by their estimation, getting it right. Beane was chief among those venerated souls, and I found myself rooting for the A’s, once a team that I really disliked. It wasn’t my natural inclination to root for an underdog that drove this. Instead, it was the satisfaction on cheering on people who seemed to be doing things right, and developing a more exciting brand of baseball in the process.

So I’ll concede to an automatic inclination towards Moneyball, or at least enough of a working knowledge of the ideas conveyed and addressed that it wasn’t difficult for me to parse the battle that centered around the fierce debates over evaluating talent on the basis of either stats or feel. It seems to me that Bennett handles these elements deftly–mostly by making the baseball arcana part of easily graspable conflicts rather than taking great pains to explain the competing theories–but, admittedly, I may not be the best judge. That noted, I’m arguably equally inclined to judge the film more harshly, to see the inevitable tweaks for the sake of developing drama to be misbegotten betrayals of the truth. Trying my best to put aside any preconceptions, I land on this conclusion: Moneyball is fantastic.

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane as a baseball executive whose tenure is informed by his own experience as a can’t miss prospect who missed. He’s not bitter, but it does lend him a healthy skepticism about the prevailing philosophies of the old-timers who run the game. Pitt invests the character with personality, but always making sure the details of the performance reasonably match the clear nature of the man he plays. As was the case with Tree of Life, wearing the mild burden of age suits Pitt. It causes him to set aside the distancing sheen of stardom that has dogged him for most of his career and settle into the character with an enlivening ease. He has less vanity here than in the roles from earlier in his career when he scruffed himself up in a transparent stab at raggedness. He especially good in the scenes that allow him to play off Jonah Hill, admirably strong as the numbers whiz plucked from the Cleveland Indians front office to help reshape the team. Again, it may be my endearing love of the inner workings of the sport typing, but I felt like I could have happily watched a whole film about the two of them work the phones together on trade deadline day.

Working from a screenplay credited to Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Miller entirely rejects sports movies. A veteran player who’s challenged to be a mentor immediately discovers just how hard that is, and reality argued against a triumphant ending, at least one not reliant on a metaphor meant to be a balm on the pain of disappointment. Miller’s directing is as sleek and refined as it was in Capote, but with an extra surge of energy that comes naturally from a story about men who make the living by taking to a big green field and throwing a ball around. Capote was necessarily grave, but Moneyball allows for some fun to be had. Miller acknowledges the ingenuity and inspiration of what Beane and his cohorts did, but also, as evidenced by his light approach, doesn’t get bogged down by a belief that some transformation of the greatest import took place. It’s only a game, after all. It’s still a joy to watch a small group of smart people learn how to play it in a whole new way.

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 3

violent-femmes-3.jpg

3. Violent Femmes, 3

While I’ll admit to loving that an album titled 3 landed in the third spot of the Top 90 chart, I swear that the tally wasn’t doctored to make that happen. Sure, I might find the temptation to finesse a ranking to accommodate such symmetry entirely irresistible at times, but accurate reporting prevailed in the matter of assembling this list. The scientific method employed in determining the Top 90 may have had some gaps in it, but I followed it assiduously. 3 is at #3 because #3 is where 3 belongs.

3 was the fourth album by Violent Femmes. The number in the title seemed to refer to the number of members of the band. More explicitly, it could be read as a direct refutation of the band’s previously album, the Jerry Harrison-produced The Blind Leading the Naked, which was widely considered an overstuffed mess by the Femmes’ fan base. 3 was a back to basics effort, emphasizing the sort of the sounds that emerged when the original trio played together, the sort of sounds that got them noticed in the first place when Chrissie Hynde discovered them busking on the Milwaukee streets and invited them to open for the Pretenders that evening. Maybe more pertinently, the band was striving to make a record that sounded like their seminal self-titled debut, an album so defining that every mild deviation was greeted with disappointment. After the Femmes stumbled with the moodiness of Hallowed Ground and the rambunctiousness of Naked, maybe the clearest way to reestablish themselves was to embrace their original spirit.

It may be a measure of how far Violent Femmes had slipped that the arrival of 3 was something of a surprise. There was a widespread impression among the radio station staff that Violent Femmes had broken up, speculation that largely seemed to be based on the lukewarm feelings toward the more recent records and the releases of various solo outings and side projects by the band members. There was no expectation of another Femmes album, and no one was especially clamoring for it, either. Most of the staff had happily resigned themselves to busting out “Blister in the Sun” or “Kiss Off” every once in a while (the line “Why can’t I get just one fuck?” meant that “Add It Up” was reserved for party mix tapes). There was no real need for something new.

But 3 was a surprise in more ways than one. Beyond its mere existence, the record was damn good. Opening with the marvelous lead single “Nightmares,” songwriter and lead singer Gordon Gano established that he was back to the lyrical preoccupations that made the band’s music the life raft of relatable angst for sullen teens everywhere. There’s a thin line between romantic longing and damaging obsession, and the most earnest expressions of existential pain lap over into unsettling emotion quicker than the average person can count to ten. Paring back the music brought all that subtext back to the surface, giving special prominence to the bracing expression of a hypersexual id in songs such as “Dating Days” and “Mother of a Girl.” The warped sense of bravado was nicely tempered by the painful fragility of “Nothing Worth Living For” and the goofy skewering of hypocrisy on “Lies.” And, as if to demonstrate that they weren’t solely relying on old tricks, there’s “Fool in the Full Moon,” which was, at least to that point, one of the sharpest, most pile-driving straight-ahead rock songs the band had recorded.

Being a fine collection of songs from one of the touchstone bands of college radio would have been enough to guarantee 3 a generous amount of airplay, but there was one other little detail that added uncommon enthusiasm around the radio station. I suspect most college radio kids have a mildly antagonistic relationship with the campus programming board, the group of students charged with bringing in comedians, hypnotists and other performers to campus. At a lot of schools, especially back then, there was a disconnect between the bands celebrated on the radio station and those brought in to play live shows on campus. At the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, for example, the campus radio station was a relatively prominent part of the community with a respectable listenership, and yet the campus programming board paid no mind to the music radiating out of the antenna one building over and had used their budgetary outlay for “major” concerts to bring in the likes of Paul Young and Quiet Riot in the mid-to-late-eighties. So when the rumor started spreading that Violent Femmes were coming to play a spring concert at Quandt Fieldhouse, those of us who spent our days playing records in the radio booth thought surely it was untrue.

Our cynicism was misguided. Violent Femmes did indeed come to our humble university that spring, playing a concert in the darkened gymnasium to a large group of beer-addled college kids and similarly woozy high schoolers. It was, if I recall correctly, the show that kicked off the tour to support 3 and their first live gig in a few years. And, being central Wisconsin in the spring, it took place on a day that was notable for a huge blizzard that dumped several inches of snow on the town. In fact, we spent most of the day anxiously wondering if the band was actually going to make it. Sure enough, they made it there in plenty of time. Through tactics that I no longer recall, I wound up in the gym during the sound check and even chatted with drummer Victor DeLorenzo for a bit. He even took me up on stage to see his tranceaphone, the metal washtub inverted atop a snare drum that he invented and contributed mightily to the Femmes’ signature sound. That night, he was proud to tell me, he was using the original one.

Our collective enthusiasm for the show led to a lot of spins for 3 at the radio station (the debut was sampled a lot, as well), both before and after the date in question. We also felt a certain sense of obligation. Another part of the college was finally staging a program that suited and reflected out sensibilities. Of course we needed to support it as vigorously as possible. Thankfully, there was no reluctance on our part. It was no burden to play a track from 3. If anything, many of us were glad to have an excuse to repeatedly revisit the album.

Previously
Introduction
90-21
20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
13. The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
12. The Godfathers, More Songs About Love & Hate
11. Guadalcanal Diary, Flip Flop
10. The Pogues, Peace and Love
9. The Weeds, Windchill
8. Hoodoo Gurus, Magnum Cum Louder
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother’s Milk
6. The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul
5. XTC, Oranges & Lemons
4. Lou Reed, New York

Spectrum Check

My posted work came entirely from the movie beat this week. I started with a French film that was a little wisp of of a thing. It may have sometimes felt like a foreign film softened into an American sitcom but it also featured Gérard Depardieu, who remains a marvelous actor, at least in his mother tongue, despite his recent unseemly exploits that made him the fodder for silly jokes.

I also reviews a documentary about the Black Power Movement of the late-sixties and early-seventies. It had some basic structural flaws, but much of the footage was amazing. Angela Davis, in particular, comes across as a wildly charismatic figure. A strong documentary that’s just about her is greatly needed.

Finally, I made my first contribution to the new round in our ongoing Oeuvre series, this time tracking through the films of Samuel Fuller. He’s one of those towering old figures of Hollywood that the cool kids gravitate towards, but I’m woefully incomplete in my viewings of his work so this will be a perfect impetus for me to play catch-up. As it rolls along, I was also finally get the chance to review a Burt Reynolds movie for the site.

My Misspent Youth: The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Let me concede right up front that the term “youth” is indeed a misnomer in this instance. The series featuring the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing that was written by Dan Slott and featuring art, at least initially, by Andrea DiVito made its debut with an issue cover dated January 2006. Only the most generous or deluded would have seen me striding into a comic book store at the time and thought I was some sort of a kid. As I’ve documented previously, my childhood dalliance with comic books blossomed into a full-blown codependent relationship as I moved into adulthood. I continually convinced myself it was time to turn away from the colorful exploits of hand-drawn superheros only to find that there was some new title that I simply couldn’t resist.

I had recently made an impulse buy purchase of the collected mini-series centered on the lengthy friendship of Spider-Man and the Human Torch that was written by Dan Slott, and I was struck by the way his storytelling paid loving tribute to the exact comics I’d loved as a kid, capturing the quality of those old adventures in a manner that was nostalgic without taking on the tinge of fanboy pandering that was becoming all too commonplace. So when Slott was announced as a writer for a new solo series featuring the rocky Fantastic Four powerhouse who’d long been my personal favorite, I knew I was stuck plucking a new series off the rack again. From the brief appearances by the Thing in the mini-series, I had a sense that Slott found the character appealing for all the same reasons I did.

THING statue

He understood the ways in the which the character was defined by his sense of otherness, and, most importantly, the way he confronted an existence largely defined by indignities by leavening his understandable self-pity and a barbed sense of humor. Within the reality the Marvel Universe, the Fantastic Four are arguably the most beloved heroes, the only ones who never need to deal with a blaring “Threat or Menace?” headline on the front page of The Daily Bugle. So the Thing is a celebrity, which he can occasionally have fun with, even if it comes with regular reminders of his freakish physical form.

If the series weren’t already bending towards my favor, Slott made the ideal selection for his first supervillain in order to render me helpless. Ridiculous as the character may be, Arcade was the bad guy in the first X-Men comic I ever bought, and I have an eternal soft spot for him. Nostalgia aside, the character’s very approach to his criminal endeavors–he’s an assassin who plops his targets in the middle of a specially constructed amusement park equipped with creative, deadly traps–invites the creator to indulge the wildest turns of the imagination.

THING murderland

Slott was also able to use the inherent looseness of the series to draw fully upon his sense of humor, especially his pitch-perfect predilection for spoofy inside jokes, such as naming a section of Arcade’s latest perilous attraction after the portion of the Universal theme park inspired by Marvel superheroes.

THING Island

Like a lot of Slott’s work, the series exhibited a clear affection for a lot of Marvel’s twisty history. In many ways, it seemed to be patterned after the old Marvel Two-In-One series with different heroes finding ways to pitch in on Thing’s adventures. All it was missing was the guest stars logos bursting forward from the cover. And, as any devoted fan of bashful Benjamin J. Grimm knows, there absolutely has to be a point where the Yancy Street Gang makes an appearance.

Thing Yancy

A series this joyful was destined to have a short life in the mighty Marvel monstrosity at the time, which had already succumbed to the crassly manipulative “event” storylines that relied on the sort of absurdly destructive, logic-defying buffoonery that had previously been relegated to the harmless realms of the What If series. The Thing was cancelled with the eighth issue, which at least gave Slott the time to concoct an issue centered on the eponymous titan playing poker, something he surely has no time for in the ever-more dour Marvel Universe of today. It may not have been a series that I read as a kid, but it was one of the few in recent years that truly carried the spirit of the adventures that first enthralled me.

Previously…
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire

Resign yourself that radio’s gonna stay

R.E.M. had a lot of theoretical end-dates. I may be misremembering, but it seems like various band members used to speculate on the moment that they’d collectively decide to call it quits, pegging that date as roughly equivalent to their thirtieth birthdays or coinciding with the dawn of the year 2000. I’m fairly certain that there was open discussion that the band wouldn’t soldier on if any member of the original foursome–Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe–decided they didn’t want to do it any more. R.E.M. endured past all of those proposed last calls. There were digressions for individual band members, but no true solo efforts. No matter what, they went on being R.E.M., offering another new album every few years. Different fans might peg different albums as the point when the group should have dissolved (it’s been an awfully long time since a new R.E.M. was greeted with the sort of critical and fan enthusiasm the band enjoyed during their extended heyday). Increasingly, that didn’t seem to matter; their last couple of releases demonstrated that they might have the sort of late career pioneered by the Rolling Stones, with efforts that were admired for being respectable enough to not leave an ugly dent in the legacy forged by their best work.

REM-Radio-Free-Europe

I first set foot inside a college radio station in the fall of 1988. By that time, R.E.M. already stood as the undisputed titans of the left end of the dial. With five largely beloved full-length albums already filling the bins of cooler record stores everywhere, the little ol’ band from Athens, Georgia were seasoned veterans and yet still at the peak of their jangly powers. Even though they’d crossed over to the Billboard Top Ten with “The One I Love,” the lead single from their 1987 album Document, the band still belonged to us. U2 had turned into international pop superstars with barely a backwards glance, but it seemed like R.E.M. would forever reside in the mustier, cozier land of college radio, no matter how many major magazine covers they snared. There was something homey about the earnest abstraction they brought to their music. Even if they weren’t going to turn down the millions that were dangled before them, they also didn’t seem to covet them. Even after they got a taste of major success, it never seemed like R.E.M. was anxious for that next hit. They made the music they wanted to, it seemed. That doesn’t seem especially revolutionary to me as I type it out, but it sure made them seem like a band that made it worthwhile to keep the faith.

mike

R.E.M.’s Green arrived during my first semester in college. I can still recall the tactile sensation of easing the album jacket out of its duly designated place in “Heavy Rotation,” the little thrill that came with being able to play new R.E.M. There were all sorts of cryptic details that we tried to puzzle out. Why was there a ghostly image of the number 4 superimposed over uses of the letter R on the front cover? Why did the letter R replace the number 4 in the track listing on the back cover? Why did they choose to make “World Leader Pretend,” and only “World Leader Pretend,” the first R.E.M. song to have its lyrics printed within the album’s packaging? I had multiple debates with friends about the deeper meaning of the song “You Are the Everything,” pushing my slightly offbeat theory on anyone who’d listen. In retrospect, much of what we wrestled with probably represented little more than the band goofing around, but part of the accidental genius of R.E.M. was the way the cryptic nature of the lyrics, especially on the earlier records, imposed added mystery onto absolutely everything they produced. They seemed less a conventional band and more like an extended art project, asking observers to serve as collaborators in creating the deeper meaning. A new R.E.M. album invited study and devotion. And afterwards, we’d talk about the passion.

michael

Before I was done with my college radio days, R.E.M. released two more great albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People. After I graduated and moved on to commercial radio, working at a “new rock alternative” station, there was a new R.E.M. album to welcome me there. Monster came out in the fall of 1994, and was arguably the last release from the band that made a major impact on the pop culture landscape. There was still excellent music to come (I think the next album, New Adventures of Hi-Fi, is an underrated wonder), even if their influence waned. After drummer Bill Berry collapsed on stage due to a brain aneurysm and subsequently retired from the band and music in general, it really seemed like the band’s true era had passed. They were even eventually something of an afterthought for college radio, considered a worthy part of music history, but not the beneficiaries of the sort of the long-term adulation enjoyed by the likes of Sonic Youth.

peter

There are already some jaded music fans that have greeted today’s news of the band’s dissolution with snide insinuations that it will only last until the outset of some inevitable reunion tour. Maybe so, but I don’t think so. Any band that has three decades of miles under the tires of their tour bus probably has a pretty good idea of whether or not they’re actually up for any more. And, unlike other bands that pendulum back-and-forth between inactivity and cash-in concerts, R.E.M. seems to be framing their decision as a true closing of the book instead of a natural outcome of splintering relationships. They may very take the stage as R.E.M. again someday, but I suspect it will be some one-off that feels right instead of a crass grab for filthy lucre. It’s seemed lately that the whole process of creating music together and then bounding across the globe to promote it hasn’t been all that pleasurable for them, especially Peter Buck, who’s long struck me, rightly or wrongly, as the one whose readiness to pick the guitar (or mandolin) back up in the service of R.E.M. drove the band’s timetable. These guys are all in their fifties in what is ultimately a young man’s game, no matter how much crusty old-timers like Mick Jagger and Stephen Tyler try to prove the contrary by continuing to gambol across stages.

Could this be the legitimate final end of R.E.M.? To borrow a few words from an album with which I recently had the great pleasure to become reacquainted, “I believe my shirt is wearing thin/ And change is what I believe in.” Me too, gentlemen. Me too.

The Unwatchables: Due Date

due date

The worst thing to emerge from the success of the 2009 movie The Hangover is the misconception that Todd Phillips makes good movies. Before that, the matter seemed to be fully settled, the opposite conclusion largely agreed upon across the board. The film that preceded Hangover was the widely ignored 2006 release School for Scoundrels and before that was the properly loathed (and also unwatchable) 2004 mess Starsky & Hutch, which is mostly notable for providing the material for one of the best single jokes Ricky Gervais cooked up on the show Extras. Even his biggest box office success, Old School in 2003, is nothing that needs to be studied for its comic genius.

But then The Hangover earned baffling positive reviews and became a summer sensation, completely shifting the entertainment industry’s perception about the viability of R-Rated comedies. Phillips was now a guy who was supposedly worthy of added attention, a little more trust, a richer budget and a sturdier group of actors in his cast. Theoretically, his next film after The Hangover is the true test, right? Success buys freedom in Hollywood, and the follow-up would surely demonstrate decisively the magic could work with a comic premise. His 2010 release Due Date, reuniting him with Hangover standout Zach Galifianakis and adding Robert Downey, Jr., still astride the unlikeliest career resurgence in memory, would seem to be a fair test of what he could really do, right? If so, what he can really do is exactly what he’s proved previously: make a bad movie.

I’m not exactly a fervent fan of Planes, Trains & Automobiles, the 1987 John Hughes comedy that Phillips plainly pilfers from, concocting ludicrous reasons to put a mismatched pair together on an extended road trip in the name of easy conflict and the ostensible comedy that will emerge. The Phillips approach of layering on raunchy nonsense doesn’t make it any more appealing. Downey plays a fairly stiff architect who’s trying to get home to Los Angeles from Atlanta when a mix-up on the airplane gets him stuck on the no-fly list, and the circumstances of the incident improbably leave him without money or identification. He hitches a ride with the puppyish dimwit who got him into the mess in the first place. This is the Galifianakis role, and, funny as he can be, the actor is running the risk of being permanently typecast as nothing but addled, gross man-children.

As was the case with Hangover, Phillips doesn’t shape humorous situations or work comedy out of well-drawn characters. He just puts something that’s challenging in its filthiness on screen and expects that the gasps will turns into guffaws. I guess there’s plenty of people out there who think it’s hysterical to see a dog apparently follow his owner’s lead and engage in a little casual masturbation in a parked car, but I find it painfully stupid, and, worse yet, lazy. Phillips is credited with three others on the screenplay, so he’s as culpable as anyone for the dispiriting mixture of cheap shock gags and unearned sentiment. By the halfway point, it was clear enough that Phillips and his collaborators had no ideas that could generate even the most meager enthusiasm in me. When the most interesting thing about a movie is the way Downey is aggressively underplaying his role–admittedly an incredibly rare sight–then that’s simply not a very interesting movie. Halfway was far enough for me.

Previously in The Unwatchables
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen directed by Michael Bay
Alice in Wonderland directed by Tim Burton