From the Archive — The Family Stone

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I don’t really have much preface for this week’s excavated movie review, except to note that this was written for my former online home within my first six months of jumping back into the film criticism game.

There are times during The Family Stone when you can just feel control of the film slipping away from writer-director Tom Bezucha.

The film begins with a fairly straightforward hook: a woman is accompanying her fiance home for Christmas to meet his family for the first time. This tightly wound career woman is played by Sarah Jessica Parker,making her first real stab at a post-Carrie Bradshaw film career. The man’s family is comprised of two upper class, bohemian parents and a total of five adult siblings.

That simple count is the beginning of the difficulties. Besides the fiance, played by Dermot Mulroney, there are: the agressive, abrasive sister; the deaf, gay brother; the pregnant, slightly put-upon, peacekeeping sister; and the documentary film editor with a roving eye and a touch of prodigal son aura. Bezucha expertly introduces each of these characters with some ideally constructed expository writing. Everyone is established with a line or two of dialogue that manages to feel natural while conveying key details. But as the film winds on, and Bezucha’s plot moves to the forefront (and picks up a complicating element in the form of the career woman’s fetching sister, played by Claire Danes), this array of characters has less and less to contribute. Bezucha wants to have a big bustling film, a film that shows how large families can support and strangle you, usually at the same time. But he either loses interest in that big family, or the capability to pull together the large cast of characters in a meaningful satisfying way. The most likely explanation may involve a bit of both.

At its best, the film shoots off sparks. It has a nicely barbed comic tone, sort of like a less satirical version of Ted Demme’s The Ref. Bezucha also proves highly capable at balancing his tonal shifts, moving smoothly between wisecrack roundelays and more dramatic fare. There’s a dinner table scene in which Parker finds herself in a sort of verbal quicksand after a poor choice of phrasing that nicely illustrates Bezucha’s skills in this area.

It softens up as it goes, however. By the end the film has gotten all gooey, and the underlying point seems to be that finding a sweetheart is the solution to all problems. The disappointing nature of that conclusion is compounded by the unsavory subtext of two of the female characters seemingly achieving this contentment by completely transforming their personalities.

That’s an awful lot of writing without touting the achievements of Rachel McAdams in the film. She’s extremely impressive as the character described at one point as “the mean sister.” McAdams shows the bristly nature of the character and her vulnerability without overplaying either. Diane Keaton is equally strong as the matriarch of the family, in large part because she also fearlessly lets some edges show. Together, they actually give you a sense of how the mother’s influence formed the daughter, and how the daughter continues to fuel the mother. It’s a film about connections; this one is the strongest.

One for Friday: E-I-E-I-O, “Hey Cecelie”

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When I was first committing myself to the happy tasks of music fandom in my teen-aged years, I never quite understood why there wasn’t more excitement over local and area bands. This was well before the internet put practically every song a few swipes or keystrokes away, so the main conduit for hearing new music was still the radio. And this was also the era when radio stations were largely under local control, rather than answering to some corporate behemoth that based all programming choices on bloodless focus group determinations and heavy-handed record company persuasion. If the local commercial rock ‘n’ roll station wanted to play a record, all they needed to do was slip it over the spindle and drop the needle. No exterior clearance required.

So when those handful of songs did make the rounds, I took a heightened interest. If a natural reluctance was overcome, the song must have been a beaut.

“Hey Cecelie,” by E-I-E-I-O, is a beaut.

The Milwaukee rockers signaled their romping, county-tinged sound with the Old MacDonald evocation of their band name. Across a pair of albums (and a later reunion effort) they were largely unsung contributors to the cowpunk movement, the meager traction they had undoubtedly hurting a bit because they were from a state that was, of course, lousy with actual cows.

“Hey Cecelie” deserved to be their breakthrough hit, or at least a celebrated standard locally. Built around a iron-clad hook and deliciously yearning lyrics, the song roars forward. It’s a grabber from the thunder-rumbling first moments. And it just gets better as it goes on, wrapping up in a tidy three-and-a-half minutes. It bears repeating yet again: it’s a beaut.

Listen or download –> E-I-E-I-O, “Hey Cecelie”

(Disclaimer: I admittedly haven’t dug too deep, but I believe the bulk of the E-I-E-I-O discography to be out of print, at least as physical objects that can be easily procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. If not, let this act of music sharing be an enticement to buy the band’s music rather than a substitute for such an act of commerce. Even so, I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my litlte corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request. Also, go support a local band. It’s good for the soul.)

Now Playing: Atomic Blonde

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Easily the most thrilling aspect of the new film Atomic Blonde is watching the fiery freedom of Charlize Theron. Long an actress of uncommon fearlessness, Theron thrives as Lorraine Broughton, an agent dispatched by Britain’s MI6 to Berlin as the creaking collapse of the Cold War is threatening to bring down the wall that divides the city. While Theron has it in her to do refinement, intricately messy character work, and high beam important fare, there is a different, devilish sharpness to her as she gets down to the business of delivering and taking punches. As she showed in Mad Max: Fury Road, she can be as commanding as any big male titan in the action genre.

In the role, Theron also employs the approach that has been her secret weapon from film one: treating the role with respect no matter what it is, which in turn brings authenticity to even the most ludicrous fare. (The projects dire enough to undercut this ability are rare, though they do exist.) Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay (based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City) has only the barest interest in Lorraine as anything other than a figure of striding cool, a glamor girl with a split lip and a mean left hook. Without caving in to the brand of trembling vulnerability that would never be expected of a male action here, Theron shows little signals of the human being within the expert spy. She always proceeds with certainty, but also needs to figure things out, improvising solutions as she stays afloat with the swirling eddy of chaotic fisticuffs.

Atomic Blonde is officially the feature directorial debut of David Leitch (he’s acknowledged to have done uncredited work on John Wick), a stuntman and action choreographer with dozens of credits to his name. As might be expected, he excels at the brutal set pieces, structuring them with an eye towards strikingly honest physicality. When Theron flips an adversary over her back, sending him tumbling down a flight on stairs, it looks like work. Other filmmaking aspects are shakier. Leitch occasionally overdoes the image-building, flipping the camera and overlapping scenes to the point of near goofiness. And any time he’s working with an actor who’s less automatically capable than Theron, the performance shows some ugly seams (James McAvoy is especially stranded on an island of hamminess as a fellow agent). An extended continuous shot following one action sequence in and out of an apartment building demonstrates the near-greatness Leitch can pull off when operating in his area of expertise. An unfortunate amount of the remainder of the film illustrates the struggles when he’s outside of that realm.

Of course, Leitch’s infractions can be considered minor and wholly forgivable because he got it exactly right when confronted with the most important task of Atomic Blonde. Point the camera at Theron, and accept the grace that comes with letting her be in charge of every moment.

Beers I Have Known: Toppling Goliath King Sue

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

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I try not to get too caught up in the chase for beers that are deliberately hard to come but, but there are exceptions. Since returning to the Upper Midwest, my household has gone all in on Toppling Goliath, the Iowa-based craft brewer routinely included on lists that try to wrangle the sprawling beer community into some summation of “the best.”

Previously, I wrote about the good fortune that led to our introduction to the brewery via the then-vexingly-elusive pseudoSue. Today, that beer’s complicated cousin — the double IPA called King Sue — landed in stores in the college town I call home. There’s a rule in this house about King Sue: When it it near, we seek it out. After extra miles on the afternoon commute — and more stops than I care to admit — we have a few tantalizing bottles chilling in the beer fridge.

I still feel a little silly for bounding around so fervently when there are plenty of other fine, fine beverages on premises. That sense of sheepishness will fade, though, as soon as I get to pop off the first bottle cap.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Beers I Have Known” tag.

The New Releases Shelf — Out in the Storm

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It causes me some amount of pain to acknowledge that an album with a distinctly nineteen-nineties alternative rock sound is a throwback. My aged bones ache a touch more heartily at the mere thought of it. But here we are again, with Out in the Storm, the fourth album from Waxahatchee. It doesn’t pummel the nostalgia cluster of my cerebrum in quite the same way as its immediate predecessor, the fine Ivy Tripp, but there’s still a buzzy, ponderous guitar and backbeat sound that gives it a clear lineage to the days when grunge and grunge-adjacent music ruled the left end of the radio dial.

Where Ivy Tripp could feel a little depersonalized because of its sonic antecedents — not an echo so much as someone yelling back repeated words from across the canyon — Out in the Storm carries the weight of heavy truth. Katie Crutchfield, the main creative driver of Waxahatchee, has acknowledged that a romantic breakup fueled the songwriting, and the album has that trembling pain built into it. There’s less “If You See Her Say Hello” directness to the lyrics and more of a precise capturing of a heart-rattling feel, descents into misery and then emergence into a stronger sense of self, albeit not one that is basked in sunlight just yet.

The album’s opening track, “Never Been Wrong,” is appropriately the one that sounds the most like the Waxahatchee that Ivy Tripp fans will be seeking: a guitar sound that is rich and rough, keening vocals, and a bassline that takes its low groove churn straight from the Kim Deal fake book. It’s an ideal introduction, if only because of the intricate, enticing ways the remainder of the album diverges from the template it sets. The very next track, “8 Ball,” downshifts the power, and then “Silver” restores it, only to dress it up in the sort of candy coated dark pop that Tanya Donelly carries with her from project to project. After Crutchfield establishes who she is as an artist, she proceeds to rapidly, convincingly show all the range she has without that identity. The album never shocks with shifts to wildly divergent styles, but it offers a gratifying thesis on variety of musical thought within parameters.

There’s a soulful openness across the album, rendered to piercing effect on the tenderly questing “A Little More” and with a relaxed urgency on “Sparks Fly.” Compounding my sense of musically-complex confession, “Brass Beam” sounds to me like the product of a mystical land where Lucinda Williams fronted Guided By Voices. I keep circling back to the the somberly beautiful “Recite Remorse” as my touchstone. The track offers some of the most purposeful emotional fragility I’ve ever heard on a record, as if Crutchfield is transforming splintered vulnerability into steely strength within the bars of the song. “For a moment, I was not lost/ I was waiting for permission to take off,” Crutchfield sings, and it is devastating and inspiring all at the same time.

My summary of “Recite Remorse” works quite well for the entirety of Out in the Storm. It is album that asserts its staying power. It makes its point immediately and strongly, and then it resonates.

Laughing Matters: The Ben Stiller Show, “Low Budget Tales of Cliched Horror”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I swear I’m not going to make this recurring feature into nothing but a showcase for comedy sketches from The Ben Stiller Show.

Well, I’ll try not to. That might be a more realistic promise.

I spent much of today gradually, reluctantly coming down from the high of being on the radio at my broadcasting alma mater, WWSP-90FMWWSP-90FM, the student-run radio station at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. My mental acuity dulled and wistfully directed elsewhere, I flailed around a bit for what to put here in my little corner of the digital world today. Eventually, I started thinking of instances of radio in pop culture, for which I’ve long had a strong affinity. Seeing a radio station turn up in a movie or a television show, no matter how ridiculously, always gave me a little thrill.

That joy included the sketch “Low Budget Tales of Cliched Horror” on The Ben Stiller Show, even though the radio setting was hardly the target of the satire. Instead, it expertly mocks the syndicated horror anthology television series that were weirdly prominent for a stretch in the late-nineteen-eighties and early-nineteen-nineties. And it takes a little swipe at Talk Radio while it’s at it, which I also greatly appreciated at the time.

And he’s actually wearing headphones while on the air, a detail most visual depictions of the medium opt to omit. It’s no wonder I enjoy it as much as I do.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 10

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10. Midnight Oil, “Beds are Burning”

Diesel and Dust, the sixth album from the Australian band Midnight Oil, had in origins in a tour they had undertaken the year before. In 1985, a group called the Warumpi Band released a song titled “Blackfella/Whitefella,” their one and only single from the album Big Name, No Blankets, their debut release. Although the group had several indigenous Australians in the lineup, it was a white member, Noel Murray, who chiefly wrote the song, basing it on his experiences working in a community primarily populated by the people who had the longest lineage in the country, but had been largely displaced and cast aside.

“Blackfella/Whitefella” wasn’t a hit in Australia, but it did catch the attention of certain, politically-minded people. The members of Midnight Oil were among that contingent, and they were equipped to transform their fandom into action. While they were still largely unknown away from their homeland, Midnight Oil enjoyed a great deal of success in their main stomping grounds. Their 1984 album, Red Sails in the Sunset, topped the chart, and they’d registered a Top 10 single with the 1982 song “Power and the Passion.” So it was a boon for the Warumpi Band when Midnight Oil suggested the two groups tour together, mounting a series of free concerts in indigenous Australian communities. They called it the Blackfella/Whitefella tour.

The tour was transformative for Midnight Oil. They certainly had an awareness of the pains suffered by indigenous Australians, but seeing it up close made a different impact. And it spoke to the band’s ethos of directly addressing the social and political problems they saw in the world. “There’s a feeling in Midnight Oil that the band should be involved in doing these things, or lending itself to doing these things, that it should not be unaware,” lead singer Peter Garrett explained around that time. “There’s a feeling that to have the kind of audience and long-term success that this band has had is a privilege: it’s not a right.”

The result was Diesel and Dust, an album that fiercely rages against the injustice leveled against the indigenous Australians. The passion of the political statement is exemplified by “Beds are Burning,” the album’s second single. Specifically addressing the travails of the Pintupi people, who were some of the last to be displaced from their desert home to settlement camps. The message of the song is direct and plain: the land belongs to the Pintupi and the Australian government should give it back to them.

“There was a sense of hopelessness about the issue at the time,” guitarist Jim Moginie said later. “It felt like screaming into a fog of indifference. When the album was ready to be released, we were prepared to be shouted down by every closet racist in the country. The issue of Aboriginal dispossession had been effectively ignored up to that point.”

“Beds are Burning” became Midnight Oil’s first global hit, including a trip to the Billboard Top 40 in the U.S., the band’s sole appearance in that chunk of the chart. And it has remained arguably the biggest, most famous rock song to hail from Australia, holding a place of such significant notoriety and esteem that Midnight Oil was asked to perform it during the closing ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, held in Sydney. Since it was already an unlikely venue for angry protest rock, he band made certain to emphasize the pointed fury of the song. They dressed all in black with the word “SORRY” emblazoned across their clothes in popping white.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.