Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why the New Harry Potter Isn't As Good as Everyone Thinks

In the months leading up to the release of the newest installment in the Harry Potter series, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” my desire to see the movie went through considerable fluctuation. I’ll admit that the initial release seemed exciting; I’ve been enjoying the movies since “The Prisoner of Azkaban” changed the series from childish junior-high fantasy to dark, horror-suspense action. The acting has never been superb, but I’ve come to accept that as part of the territory. However, when the release of the newest film was pushed back several months, I found myself caring less and less about the series as a whole. It’s been so long since I read the books that I feel the studios are losing a portion of their audience to boredom.

Nonetheless, going into the theater to finally see the movie had me excited again. Social hype and positive reviews galore set up what I expected to be at least another good, if not excellent Potter film. Let me just say that I both expected and wanted this movie to succeed, regardless of my continuing annoyance with the series’ increasingly obnoxious fanbase.

The movie didn’t exactly start on the right foot; an awkward scene of two average-looking teens flirting in a train station isn’t exactly how I would have set up suspense for the impending takeover by the world’s most dangerous villain. Nevertheless, I gave the movie a chance.

I sat through about an hour and a half of the film before I started to realize that this pointless drivel was not going to end any time soon. I was particularly struck by the overall disingenuous portrayal of the film’s favorite subject: awkward teen romance. One scene in particular drove this point home for me, when everyone’s favorite ginger kid tries out for the Quidditch team. I discovered several things in this scene and the following few. First of all, the decidedly average-looking Lavender is every teenage male’s fantasy: a fawning, physically aggressive moron who wants nothing more than to suck Ron’s face off. Second, it turns out that Ron is kind of a douche. I know the movie wants us to think that he doesn’t see Hermione’s affection for him, but I’m not buying it. No guy is that stupid. Most guys go out of their way to convince themselves that any female who gives them the slightest amount of attention is trying to seduce them, and I refuse to believe that Ron is that stupid. I mean, he’s pretty stupid, but I’m trying to give the guy credit here. And last but not least, I discovered that Hermione is yet another high school driven stereotype, the girl who breaks into exaggerated sobs whenever her ginger of choice glances at other females. Bear with me, because this all has a point, which I will soon relate.

Another matter to discuss is how incredibly boring the villains of this movie are. Say nothing of Lord Voldemort (he never shows up), but let’s examine the next most obvious one: Draco Malfoy. For the first time in the series, my disgust with his character had nothing to do with the acting, but instead with the writing behind it. Throughout the movie, I counted exactly two things that Malfoy actually succeeded in doing: pulling sheets off closets and brooding. That’s it. He does nothing else. Yeah, he breaks Harry’s nose, but what happens because of that? Nothing. He’s supposed to kill Dumbledore, but it turns out that he’s even better at whining than he is at looking depressed, so he complains to the old headmaster for a while before the much more interesting Snape shows up to cover his inept ass. As for the old potions master, he’s almost completely irrelevant to the plot of the movie, despite the fact that it’s named after him. I fault the writers here for giving no weight to their best asset, which is Alan Rickman’s considerable talent.

Whatever. In the end, none of this matters. Dumbledore’s murder scene contains exactly zero tension, and off the balcony he goes. Despite the fact that an evil witch can’t shut the hell up and starts breaking all kinds of shit in Hogwarts, no one has noticed the presence of the villains, so no one tries to stop them. This is where I was most disappointed with the film. If you’ll remember (like I didn’t; I had to be reminded), there is a massive battle scene at the end of the sixth book that is mysteriously absent from the film version. How odd; the filmmakers seem to have found a way to completely ignore the literary progression, and have skipped from buildup and gone straight to resolution. Amazing, isn’t it? One minute, the greatest wizard in the world is falling off a tower, and the next, the sun is shining and Harry is looking forward to his next meeting with Ginny.

I guess the point of all this is that the movie removes everything that is good about the Harry Potter franchise and replaces it with everything that is bad. Essentially, then, “The Half-Blood Prince” takes Harry Potter where no story should ever go: into the “Twilight” realm. Magical action and dark suspense have been replaced by teenage awkwardness and forced romantic conflicts, and no one seems to have noticed.

See, the great thing about the Harry Potter series is that it manages to create a beautifully magical realm that is almost entirely separate from our own. The books are interesting because, while teenage romance factors into the stories, it always takes something of a backseat to the intricately woven good-vs.-evil plotline. Want to know why? Because high school problems are boring. Awkwardness isn’t funny in these stories; it’s just awkward. Maybe I’ve grown out of these movies, but I really think that the hype created by shitty, boring romances like “Twilight” has seeped into the Potter franchise, and I’m disappointed by that. The fact that two movies are being made out of the final book doesn’t dissuade me from this conclusion, either. I can only hope that the filmmakers ignore the misplaced hype and get back to what made J.K. Rowling’s fantasies great to begin with.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bonnaroo 2009: Part 6 (Sunday, Final)

Sunday morning found us awake early, baking in the early Tennessee sun for one last time. We took the opportunity to take down our tent and canopy, as we were planning to leave the festival grounds right after the last set that night. An hour later, we gathered enough energy to make the trek to Centeroo one last time. Our schedules diverged a bit today, as Ben wanted to see Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, while I was more interested in Dillinger Escape Plan. I figured, they added a ton of energy to Nine Inch Nails’ performance of “Wish” the previous night, so they would probably put on a pretty decent show on their own. Unfortunately, it turns out the Dillinger’s music falls into the same trap as much of today’s hardcore/metal scene. Jerky phrasing and overemphasized screams ruined what could have been a decent metal band. While the band’s instrumental ability is not to be underestimated, their songwriting leaves much to be desired, focusing on confusing riffs and arrhythmic time signatures instead of melodic, traceable song construction. I couldn’t take it for more than a few songs, and soon stepped back to grab some shade while I waited for the next act.

After Ted Leo had finished, we met up and headed over to What Stage to catch rising hip-hop vocalist Erykah Badu. Her latest album, “New Amerykah, Pt 1: 4th World War,” garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews, and I wanted to see if her voice translated to the live setting. I should feel lucky to say this, but this turned out to be the first really frustrating show of the festival. Badu set herself up for failure early by delaying her scheduled set time by over thirty minutes, and then sending out a backing band to play the same funk rhythm over and over again for almost another ten. The fact that artists can get away with being so late is one of the only things I hate about live music. By the time she showed up, I was almost willing to forgive, but her actual show fared no better. Both her attitude and her music were annoyingly pretentious and preachy, and her sound was thin at best. The only part of the set I actually enjoyed was at the end, when her DJ played her offstage with Lil’ Wayne’s “A Milli.” I’m not kidding. I was so pissed at this point that I felt the need to rant, so I did, as Ben will confirm. The only thing that kept me going was the promise of a few good shows before the end of the festival.

We grabbed some much-needed barbque fare from the What Stage area and waited for the last show I was eagerly anticipating, Snoop Dogg. Now, regardless of your feelings about hip-hop, Snoop is the shit. He just is. I can’t think of a more gangster person in the world, much less one who makes good music and doesn’t come off as washed up. The show started almost on time, and we weren’t disappointed. As simple as his show was, Snoop provided the musical and comic relief that I desperately needed after the dual frustrations of Dillinger and Erykah Badu.

I then headed over to That Tent to catch the last few minutes of Coheed & Cambria. I was actually pretty excited for this, as I like a few of their songs, and I’ve always enjoyed appreciated their instrumental ability. It didn’t really matter that they’re essentially a less talented, more poppy version or Rush, because I like Rush. I got there in time to catch fan favorite “Welcome Home,” which rocked considerably harder than I expected. However, the intensity was short-lived, as the band soon moved into less familiar territory, and I was quickly put off by their insistence on playing five-minute guitar solos without structure or melody. The show ended soon enough, and eventually it was time for us to head back to What Stage for Phish’s closing set.

Now, I knew going into the set that I didn’t really like Phish, regardless of their immense hippie/Deadhead following. I’ve just never been able to get into their music. I did expect to be able to get through the entire set, though. The deep fatigue and jam-induced boredom soon had us itching to get out of the festival grounds, and we left with well over two hours left in Phish’s set. We stopped only to grab a waffle ice cream sandwich, which turned out to be a highlight of the day. Seriously, these things are amazing. They go beyond just waffle and ice cream; there’s something transcendental about them that I can’t quite describe, a combination of flavor and texture that leads to an almost religious experience. I can’t accurately describe it in words, but I’d imagine that the face of God provides a similar experience. They were an excellent way to end the festival, and I felt energized as we navigated our way out of the campgrounds and onto the road home.

That’s it for the Bonnaroo review. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed it, and I’d love to have feedback on any part of it. New, more random posts will soon follow.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bonnaroo 2009: Part 5 (Saturday Nighttime)

As much as I’d like to say that I’m a huge Springsteen fan, I can’t really claim to know more than six or seven songs, despite his relatively huge catalogue. Mostly, I was excited to see the man onstage, where his crowd-pleasing prowess surpasses legend. Though his set started twenty minutes late and we were past uncomfortable from standing so long, I was not disappointed. The Boss took the stage to massive roars from the crowd, launching headlong into “Badlands.” Though I didn’t know the song, I knew for sure that this man is no joke. The first truly poignant moment came when Bruce stepped to the microphone to sing the chorus line, and the crowd simply took over for him. The look on his face was priceless; it betrayed even his surprise from the crowd’s enthusiasm, and the pure honesty of his expression made me realize that despite his superstardom, the Boss is a real person, without the pretentiousness that so often affects aging rockstars. The show continued with an amusing rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the epic tale of “Outlaw Pete,” and a truly inspiring performance of “Born to Run,” which again had the entire crowd singing with an excitement that I’ve rarely witnessed at any concert.

Unfortunately, I felt pressed to leave the show a couple songs early in order to head over to Which Stage, where industrial legends Nine Inch Nails were set to play at 1am. Now, I feel it’s necessary to preface this by admitting that I am biased in favor of NIN, as they have been my favorite band for a while now. I was lucky enough to start the show about twenty feet from the stage barrier, pressed into a crowd that was wild beyond any previous concert experience I’d had. This would be the third time I had seen Nine Inch Nails, the first being in Columbus on their now-legendary Lights in the Sky tour, and the second being on the Wave Goodbye tour in Denver. I was unsure if anything could surpass the Columbus show; it was incredible both musically and visually, as the light setup was a true marvel of performance technology, and the setlist was nothing short of perfect.

Despite comments suggesting otherwise, it seemed that Trent Reznor and company came admirably well-prepared for their late night set, which was to be their last in the US (until recently). The band kicked off the show on an unconventional note, opening with “Home” from their 2005 release “With Teeth.” The band then drove into slightly more expected numbers like “Terrible Lie” and “March of the Pigs.” However, the Reznor still managed to surprise the crowd with deeper cuts like the remix of “Piggy (Nothing Can Stop Me Now)” and “The Becoming,” the latter of which was a stunner for me, it being my favorite (and rarely played) Nine Inch Nails track. The show included and appearance from metal outfit Dillinger Escape Plan for “Wish,” which rocked both my and the crowd’s shit to new levels. The set concluded after about 3.5 hours with Reznor’s introspective ballad “Hurt,” which served as a fitting end to both the frighteningly intense show and a very, very long day.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bonnaroo 2009: Part 4 (Saturday Daytime)

This segment will be divided into two parts, for length purposes.

By Saturday, the last trace of cool air from the rainstorm had dissipated, leaving our tent baking under the glaring sun. The heat had us out and sweating in the open air by 9 o’clock, forcing a frustratingly early start to what would be a very, very long day. The fact that the first act we wanted to see didn’t start until 5pm didn’t help, either. We ended up walking around Centeroo, taking whatever shade we could find, until we found something worthwhile to do.

As it turned out, this occurred sooner rather than later, as we were pleasantly surprised by an act playing around noon. Reports earlier in the festival had indicated that Ilo and the Coral Reefer Allstars would be joined by Jimmy Buffett, whose music I’ve always enjoyed, despite my almost all-encompassing dislike for country music. It always seemed like he took himself much less seriously than many other artists of the genre, while still managing to tell interesting stories colored with a wide palate of emotion, ranging from tales of drunken loneliness to choruses of cheeseburgers. The set with the Coral Reefer Allstars was good afternoon entertainment, especially since we were able to enjoy most of it from a shady vantage.

Five o’clock found us waiting by Which Stage for Gov’t Mule, who I’ve seen once before at Red Rocks in Colorado. I’ve always felt like I didn’t get a great taste of the band from that show, despite the excellent venue. They played that gig with moe., who I find to be overzealous imitators of everything that is wrong with Phish. Musical dynamics escape those fellows, and I had trouble focusing for more than, say, three minutes. This could be excused with any other band, but moe.’s songs tend more on the half-hour side of things, so you’ll excuse me for tuning out. Regardless, Mule didn’t impress me much then, and I wanted to give them another chance. The daytime venue didn’t help, but the show felt better, for some reason. The memorable moment came when Mule broke out Radiohead’s “Creep.” Unsurprisingly, this roused the crowd out of a midday stupor, lending some much needed energy to the afternoon. Unfortunately, this only went to support my theory that for all their musical talent (which is substantial), Gov’t Mule is only excellent when they are covering other great songs. To be sure, they’ve proven themselves adept at making good songs great, especially when they go outside the confines of southern rock. It’s just a shame that their original songwriting leaves so much to be desired.

Anyways, after the Mule set, we wandered over to What Stage for some much needed relaxation time, stopping to grab some barbeque fare along the way. We camped out by the main venue while Wilco set the stage for the evening with their brand of alt-country rock, which proved to be even better then when we caught them at Bonnaroo 2007. The music brought excellent closure to the daylight hours, and as the sun disappeared, I felt like a kind of peace had descended over the festival. I applaud Wilco for truly recharging the day as we waited for the great Bruce Springsteen to take the stage.

Nighttime review coming soon.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Bonnaroo 2009: Part 3 (Friday)

Fortunately, the remaining cloud cover from yesterday’s storm afforded the two of us an extra hour or two of sleep on Friday morning, though the cool weather didn’t last long. By noon, the oppressive heat that always comes with the Bonnaroo experience was upon us. Combined with the ridiculous amount of mud left over from Thursday, the environment felt especially hostile. However, the schedule went easy on us for the day, as we were able to stay at Which Stage for most of the daylight hours.

Though the little shade available was quickly occupied by sweaty hippies, we took comfort in the thought that the day’s music was sure to be excellent. Our schedule kicked off with Animal Collective, a band whose music I was not especially familiar with, but whom I was eagerly anticipating. While I didn’t quite understand the mass appeal garnered by their 2007 release “Strawberry Jam,” I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed their latest effort, “Merriweather Post Pavilion.” The album’s uniquely electronica-infused experimental rock sound caught me rocking to the beat more than I’d care to admit. Plus, Animal Collective’s fans had previously convinced me that the band was capable of a massively entertaining live show.

However, I was quickly disappointed, startlingly so for the hype the show was getting beforehand. The bright Tennessee sun left the band high and dry on a bland stage setup, combined with an altogether uninteresting setlist. Ben and I agreed that this was likely due to the venue, which didn’t seem to jive with AC’s groove. A smaller, closed-air venue probably would have lent itself better, as the band was left without the lightshow for which they are famous. The music itself lacked bounce, and I think the crowd agreed; the many dancing at the start of the set quickly dwindled to a dedicated few, by which point I had lost interest completely.

Following Animal Collective was indie-rock outfit Yeah Yeah Yeahs, another band with whom I was not very familiar going in. I feared another Animal Collective-style disappointment, but my worries were soon dissuaded as the band proceeded to rock a strong set despite the glaring sun. The crowd seemed very in tune to the band, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs took advantage, entertaining at the level that I would expect of a band playing a large-stage set at the nation’s largest music festival.

However, I should probably note that about 20 minutes into their set, I was hit with a massive head rush that sent me reeling through the crowd to a more spacious area. After stumbling through annoyed Rooers, I threw myself at the ground and waited until I could actually see clearly. Following this, I proceeded to waste 30 bucks on pizza, a poorly-wrapped burrito, a coke, and a frozen lemonade. Let’s just say that the heat did a temporary but effective number on me.

The refreshments did, however, help me make it to the first set that I had really been anticipating. Brooklyn-based rock stylists TV on the Radio have intrigued me since I first heard their latest release, the critically-lauded “Dear Science.” For a long time, I wasn’t sure what to do with this band. “Halfway Home,” opener for the album, stunned me with its sonic depth and instrumental grace, but many other songs left me wondering where to go. The band’s intense focus on diverse melody and quirky vocals lead me to think that they were just another indie/alt-rock group taking their moment before being forgotten in the blend. Then Ben introduced me to “Wolf Like Me,” a track off the previous album, “Return to Cookie Mountain.” The song changed my outlook completely, especially the live recordings; their sound was so monumentally huge that they simply had to be the real deal.

I therefore went into their Bonnaroo set with high expectations, and I was not disappointed in the slightest. TVotR started off on the mellow side, building to that epic sound that I had so far only experienced through Youtube videos. By the time the tandem of “Halfway Home” and “Wolf Like Me” rolled around, I was already convinced: this band rocks in a deep, complex, and evolving way. The grandiose “Staring at the Sun” was the first truly poignant moment of the festival, and when TVotR finished, I wasn’t sure how much more I could handle for the day.

It turned out that there was plenty left to experience. We chilled to the music of David Byrne of Talking Heads fame, who put on a solid, entertaining set. Deciding to skip the Beastie Boys, whom I’ve never really enjoyed much, we headed over to This Tent for Public Enemy, who put on a shocker by playing through their legendary album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” cover to cover. Chuck D and Flavor Flav still put out the goods, it seems, and the show was sick, to be sure.

The night concluded with a massively attended performance by mashup artist Girl Talk, who I also saw at Bonnaroo 2007. This year, his crowd was much bigger, his set much longer, and his mashups even crazier. He warned the spectators not to crush each other, apparently a common occurrence at his shows. If a DJ causes that kind of trouble, you know something’s up.

So, despite a slow start, Friday was definitely a fulfilling day. The euphoria from TVotR’s set continued through the night, and by the time we stumbled back to the campsite, we were fully ready for the weekend’s delights.

Part 4 coming soon, check back.