This is a weird one. I mean, the thing about doing a top 10 list podcast is that it’s hard to break the formula of top 10 albums of a year, movies about a subject, video games on a console, that sort of thing. There are plenty of people out there doing lists like that. But not everybody is doing what we do, and that means sometimes we end up breaking the mold. Was it a good idea to do a list of sitcom characters, ranked not for how great they are but for how hang out-able they are? Maybe. Did it turn out well? I’ll let you decide.
To anyone who has ever visited this blog, human or spambot, you might have noticed that I, John Alowishus Otteni, am a proud supporter of found footage horror films. For many, this gimmick has been old (and nauseating) since Day 1, when three dumbasses wandered into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland to shoot a documentary about witches and then some guy stares at a wall or something and it’s over.
For me, this Cinéma vérité (french term for someone who can’t hold a camera straight) style of filmmaking feels more relevant than ever. Look in your pocket. What do you see? A camera. How about on your computer? You see what I’m getting at? In today’s go-go gadget wristwatch society, cameras are everywhere filming everyone and everything at all times. That being said, there’s no better time than the present to capitalize on this idea.
Unfriended is something new. Regardless of its actual quality, you have to commend it for being fresh. If you’ve never heard of Unfriended it’s probably because you’re not a 16-year-old. Unfriended is a horror film done entirely over a computer screen in real time. Yes, for 83 minutes you watch what is essentially a ghost slasher flick through Facebook, Skype, and Gmail. Sorry, Snapchat fans, your horror movie will have to wait. The film’s plot concerns a group of teens being haunted via social media by the ghost of their dead friend. Hilarity ensues. Although I’m not sure that was intentional.
WARNING: Before I continue I must inform you that this review will have spoilers. I’m going to spoil the whole movie. So if you still want to see this movie then stop reading here. Don’t feel bad, though, reading is for losers anyways. 🙂
Unfriended is told through the screencast of typical teen Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig). You know she’s a typical teen because she likes cool things like Forever 21 and Teen Wolf, both of which are present in the tabs section of her browser. She uses Google Chrome by the way. No Internet Explorer. We don’t want the film to be TOO scary.
Blaire heads to YouTube where she watches a video of her former bestie, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), committing suicide by gunshot. Not sure who filmed it. Did someone point a camera and say, “I wonder if this girl is gonna do something crazy if I stand here and film for no reason?” Well, something does, and even after a year, Blaire hasn’t gotten over it. We also learn that Laura killed herself after an embarrassing viral video of her surfaced online. What could be so devastating as to make a young girl kill herself? We don’t find out until later.
Blaire is Skyped by her boyfriend Mitch Roussel (Moses Jacob Storm) who has no defining traits other than he wants to bone. Sorry Mitch, gotta wait ’till prom night. Things get a little steamy between the two over video chat, as things often do on Skype, until they are interrupted by their three friends: Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), and Ken (Jacob Wysocki).
Let me take this opportunity to note that all of these characters can be described using one word. Blaire: concerned, Mitch: boring, Jess: blonde, Adam: douche, Ken: fat. And not to pick on the fat guy, but he does not fit in with this group. He’s a fat slob and everyone else looks like cast members from Laguna Beach. Oh my god, did I date myself by referencing a ten-year-old show and using it as a modern representation of young people? Did I say “young people”? Back to fatty, my guess is that they keep him around for his computer programming ability, which does come in handy later. I wish the real world worked like that.
The convo starts and right away Blaire notices something is wrong. A faceless account with the screen name billie227 has joined their friendly little video chat, and they can’t get rid of it. Laura’s Facebook account then starts sending cryptic messages to all of her former friends, angry ones.
Around this point we learn that apart from Blaire, everyone hated Laura because she was a super bitch, pardon my language. Still, no one wants to jump to crazy conclusions so they theorize this little prank must be the doing of a snotty girl named Val Rommel (Courtney Halverson). What do they do? They add her to the conversation. Yes, that’s now six people in the group video chat. Never have I seen Skype work that well with so many people in video chat. I can’t even do Google Video Chat with four people before it crashes. Then again, that’s Google Video Chat. Even ghosts are too cool for that.
The group talks to Val, who is quickly vindicated when embarrassing photos of her smoking da ganja and drinking beer surface on her Facebook timeline. Facebook says they were posted by Jess although she denies it and deletes it. Though as soon as they are taken down, the photos are posted again by Adam’s profile. FACEBOOK IS HAUNTED! Everyone screams a lot and Val calls the Fresno Police: Cyber Division.
Meanwhile, an Instagram post surfaces on Laura’s old account with a screenshot of a conversation she had with Val where Val tells Laura she should kill herself. Jeez. Kids are mean. Val’s webcam gets all glitchy until it cuts to her in a laundry room with some bleach and then glitches out again with her passed out and presumably dead on the floor. Cyber suicide. Nice job Cyber Police.
Everyone wants to log off but the ghost tells them if they do they die, because this ghost has every power. Primarily it makes you commit suicide by like, possession? Blaire reads this on a ghost forum that conveniently pertains to their exact dilemma. Ken concocts a plan to rid the malicious account from their profiles by emailing everyone Trojan Horse removal software and it appears to work. Movie over, right?
Nope. Billie227 revealed to be Laura comes back and convinces Ken to kill himself. His webcam glitches out and then he shoves his hand in a blender. Which I have to say, funniest thing I’ve seen in the theaters all year. It’s a good thing my brother and I saw the film alone. I’m sure we would have pissed someone off with how loud we were laughing. Oh, and then the fat guy is dead, that’s no so funny.
Next, the ghost makes everyone play the game “Never Have I Ever.” If you don’t know what that is it’s because you’re a grandpa. I’ll at least say it’s a game where people reveal secrets about themselves. Except whoever loses in this game loses in real life. In this sequence, we learn about everyone’s hot problems including; Jess spreading a rumor that Blaire was anorexic, Adam bargaining with Laura to trade his life for Jess’, Mitch ratting Adam out to the cops for weed, Jess defacing Laura’s grave, and Blaire sleeping with Adam. NO!!! They were supposed to save the bonin’ for prom night. ”
Everyone is at their breaking point when the ghost sends Adam and Blaire messages to their printers. Does the ghost have Kinkos’ powers? Wait, does Kinkos still exist? Anyways, both of them inform the group that they cannot show the printed messages to anyone, but Mitch insists because he is pissed. So Blaire shows her message and sure enough, it says: “If you reveal this note, Adam will die.” So Adam pulls out a gun and shoots himself in the face. Should have seen that one coming.
Now desperate for any kind of help, Blaire goes on Chatroulette of all places to find help. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be haunted by a ghost than see half a dozen dudes jerking it. I don’t recall Blaire coming across any jerking videos, and I feel like I’d remember that, but she does have to fan through a bunch of idiots. Eventually, she finds some girl in Arizona who calls the Fresno Police department for her. Apparently, no one in the group can use their phones because they’re all ghost phones now.
At some point, we finally get to see the entirety of Laura’s embarrassing video, and it’s a doozy. The video is footage of Laura, drunk at a party, passing out and then… pooping her pants. It’s crazy for to think a movie exists where the plot is set into motion after someone poops their pants. BTW, you see the poop and it’s grosser than the goriest of gore scenes.
“Poop should never be on camera,” which is one of my favorite quotes from Alfred Hitchcock. Of course, the whole fecal fiasco leads to cyber bullying and Laura’s suicide. We also learn Laura had some bad things happen to her when she was little concerning her uncle, the details of which are never disclosed.
I don’t think it comes as a shock to anyone when it is revealed that Blaire is the one who shot the poop video with Mitch uploading it to YouTube. Oh, also Jess dies for some reason choking herself with a hair straightener. Mitch stabs himself in the eye with a knife and Blaire gets so scared she closes her laptop. The film switches to a POV shot and Blaire sees a really scary ghost jump at her and it’s all over. Everybody’s dead.
My biggest problem with this ending is that it sacrifices what little logic the film had for a cheap shock ending. Not only could Laura control every aspect of the internet, she could control all technology, possess you, and kill you in a physical form. It’s a little much, isn’t it? Every horror film needs rules. You can’t let your antagonist do whatever they please with no justification. It’s a shame too because there’s a lot here that I do like.
The performances are good. Everyone feels very natural and very much like a stupid teen. I also loved the gimmick. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to watching someone else’s screen and enjoy it as an alternative to typical found footage. It was an interesting take on delivering the film’s scary scenes. What I didn’t like was the film’s inability to deliver a payoff to any of those scary scenes.
The underlining tension in Unfriendable was always good. I could always feel that tingle when something was about to go wrong, but then when it did it was always lame, laughable even. It reminds me of Final Destination if all the kills sucked. There’s very little ingenuity in anything that happens to these teens, who don’t deserve what they get.
My next point is why did Laura Barns do anything? Maybe Blaire and Mitch were mean to her but that hardly seems deserving of murder. I’m not even sure what the rest of the group did. Are they targets by association? Laura was way meaner than any of these kids, it’s not like she was an innocent ‘lil angel. I’m not saying she deserved to die but her reasons for revenge felt forced. If this movie had dealt with something really traumatic; a rape or a murder, maybe I’d understand why these kids need to be killed. Poop pants? That’s a shitty setup.
Unfriended is dumb, and it doesn’t make much sense. That being said I had fun watching a new spin on found footage. I’ll give anything praise for that. So go forth Unfriended, go viral and give those pesky teens something to think about next time they act like a troll. Maybe they’ll end up under a bridge with their throat slit. jk 😉
Where do I even begin with the comedy of Scharpling & Wurster? Not only have these guys created some of the most unique, sprawling, and just flat-out hilarious comedy that I’ve ever heard, but there also happens to be a ton of it in existence. When Tom Scharpling started The Best Show On WFMU in 2000, the plan was to have indie rock drummer Jon Wurster call in to the show every week as some weird character, which continued to happen pretty much every week of the original Best Show‘s run until its conclusion in late 2013. And from what I’ve read, Scharpling & Wurster have supposedly amassed over 10,000 hours of comedy together, which sounds kind of insane when you hear it, but then sounds less insane when you consider this duo’s innate ability to spin radio airtime in to these long, sublimely bizarre strands of comedy gold. Which all makes this new box set of the best Scharpling & Wurster bits a great place to begin for S&W newbies, as well as an essential artifact for die-hards like myself who at this point feel like they’ve spent more time in Newbridge than in the boring reality of their everyday lives.
Pretty much every article I’ve ever read online about Scharpling & Wurster or The Best Show at some point takes the time to explain what exactly the comedy of Scharpling & Wurster/Newbridge is, and even though that doesn’t make for the most exciting reading, it does help point out what a distinct and beautiful creation Newbridge is. Because when Scharpling & Wurster started doing their seemingly-off-the-cuff routines (which were in fact 90% written) in the early 2000s, long-form radio comedy wasn’t really a thing. And sure, that isn’t really the case anymore, what with the recent rise of podcasting, but there still isn’t anything out there that’s as filled with in-jokes and callbacks to other characters in this universe, but is also just so brilliantly funny that it can be enjoyed by someone to whom the name Sheila Larsen means nothing. Oh, and I guess I should explain that Newbridge is a fictional New Jersey town in which all of Jon Wurster’s characters (and the fictional Tom) live in, most of whom express their desire to either sabotage or possibly murder Tom Scharpling before the call is through.
As I mentioned, this box set works for both new and longtime vistors of Newbridge because it has a nice mix of “greatest hits” and more obscure rarities. All-time greats like “The Gas Station Dogs” and “The Springsteen Book” are included as well as Scharpling & Wurster’s first call ever “Rock, Rot, And Rule”, but at the same time there were a bunch of calls that I hadn’t ever heard or possibly just didn’t remember. There are even a few snippets of WFMU calls that pre-date The Best Show, and in turn give the listener a few formative snapshots into how this comedy universe came to be. Also, there’s a giant hard cover book as well as a bunch of other knick-knacks thrown in to the box, which despite (or possibly because of) the fact that it weighs about five pounds, has quickly become one of my favorite things that I currently own.
I have to heap even more praise on to the timelessness of these bits because even though I’d probably already heard about half of the stuff on this box set, I still had a hell of a time listening to all 26 hours of this collection. Which is strange, considering there are probably less than 10 stand-up comedy albums I’ve listened to more than once, and yet I’ve listened to many of these S&W bits multiple times, and could see myself revisiting them many subsequent times in the future. I suppose I would attribute this to the fact that because there are so many different calls that these guys have done, it’s easy to forget the specifics of a lot of them. I’d also attribute it to the fact that these conversations don’t rely so much on huge punchlines that every bit is heading towards, but is more about the minutiae of how Wurster’s pompous characters talk to Tom, while there’s also a wild unpredictability to where a lot of these conversations go. I think it also speaks to the replay value of these bits that in the liner notes of the box, Jon Wurster frequently insists that he has zero memory of a lot of the things he’s recorded over the years.
There are a few different essays contained within the booklet that came with this box (including ones by Patton Oswalt and Fucked Up’s Damien Abraham), but my favorite comes from Julie Klausner, in which she points out that friendship, of all things, is a big part of Scharpling & Wurster’s magic. Which is odd considering the hostile nature these calls, and also the fact that most of them squeeze humor out of the more unseemly sides of human nature, like arrogance and entitlement. Yet I think underneath all of this heated absurdity there is the underlying charm of hearing two guys make the kind of untethered comedy that above all else makes both of them laugh. This makes it all the more fun to hear bits like “Count Rockula” or “Sucks”, in which this usually straight-faced duo struggle to fight their own urges of breaking into laughter. Thankfully, they’re the only two people on Earth that have to fight this seemingly insurmountable fight.
Favorite Tracks: “The Springsteen Book”, “Darren Takes The Van Mellen Cruise”, “Power Pop Pop Pop”
Apparently the only way to move on from a new Fast and Furious movie is visiting the worlds of Noah Baumbach. I guess it’s appropriate to check in with storytelling that is pretty grounded after watching some of the preposterous stunts you’ll ever see. After Fast and Furious 6‘s counterpart Frances Ha showed us a slightly different side of the writer-director, Baumbach once again wields Ben Stiller as a weapon for and against ageism in While We’re Young.
This is the story of an uptight, narcissistic documentary filmmaker called Josh (Ben Stiller), who gets swept off his feet by Jamie, an aspiring documentarian (Adam Driver), and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) have been going through a rough patch – Josh is into the eighth year of his latest documentary with no end in sight and Cornelia is being fazed out by her friend who recently had a baby – so they find the young couple’s exuberance rejuvenating. But will they be able to change their ways or would it be better if they acted their age?
It’s concerning that I found myself relating much more to the 43-year-old Josh than the pretty-much-exactly-my-age Jamie. Josh is selfish and sometimes says pretty shitty stuff, especially to his wise father-in-law (Charles Grodin), but mostly he’s a guy who wants to make something great without really knowing how to do that. He’s someone who wants to be better than he currently is, but without the discipline to really do that either. He’s one of Baumbach’s best characters and a pleasant reminder that Ben Stiller is pretty good.
Not to undersell the rest of the cast, but it’s definitely Josh’s story. Cornelia gets plenty of screentime but I’m not sure I ever figured out what her story was about. She seemed to just be along for the ride. Jamie starts out as a sort of Bohemian, New York, artsy, dude which I guess is pretty much Adam Driver’s ally. Sadly he and Amanda Seyfried kind of devolve as the movie goes on, with Seyfried’s character seemingly getting written out of the movie in time for the third act. It’s a shame, Seyfried brought a lot of intrigue to her character and it would have been nice to get to know her better.
The reason for that is a kind of frustrating detour the story takes into Broadcast News territory. While We’re Young starts out as a story about a couple dealing with not having had a kid and getting old, with Josh, Cornelia, and Jamie’s careers in documentaries tying into that. However, the movie eventually decides to just straight up dive into that world, with our characters talking about the right way to make documentaries as well as history’s greatest documentarians and the precarious state of the form in an age when everyone already videotapes and shares everything online. This is not a subject I’m an expert on, and the namedropping of famous old documentarians goes right over my head. I don’t get it, but maybe I’m an idiot.
I guess I’d put While We’re Young on about Greenberg‘s level – it’s not as triumphant as Frances Ha nor as resonant as The Squid and the Whale. It’s not hilarious or profound, but it’s easy to enjoy and laugh at and complex enough to get you thinking about the modern era, technology, aging, mortality, and art. We’re all headed in the same direction, you know? We’re all going to get older and die. Might as well try to figure that out while we’re still young enough to deal with it.
I’ve been holding off talking about Carrie & Lowell for awhile. Not because I wasn’t excited to talk about the album, rather I was so excited I didn’t know how to articulate that excitement into coherent sentences. It’s not easy to give a five star review. What that means is you listened to an album and found no flaws. The style, writing, production, length? All perfect. That’s quite a claim to make about any album. You don’t want to look foolish. Look at film critic Ben Lyons after he declared the 2007 zombie-vampire movie I Am Legend, “One of the greatest movies ever made.” Did anyone ever hear from that guy ever again? Also, has anyone even said “Ben Lyons” in the last five years? Is he even still alive?
This past month or so seemed to be just bursting with possibilities in terms of new music. Not only was there that great debut from up-and-comer Courtney Barnett, but there were also new albums on the horizon from old indie stalwarts like that Mountain Goats album I just reviewed, as well as albums from Death Cab For Cutie, Modest Mouse, and Sufjan Stevens, which have all been so middling that I’m not sure anyone will go to the trouble of reviewing. And yeah, that’s right, I’m gonna go ahead and call that critically lauded Sufjan album a disappointment, since it’s hard for me to call it anything else when every time I listen to it all I can muster up in terms of a response is the constant feeling that it’s trying to lull me into a state of deep sleep/depression. So in that regard, I have to look at Waxahatchee’s Ivy Tripp as a nice surprise, since it manages to be not quite as good as the 2013 break-out Cerulean Salt, but comes pretty darn close.
The aforementioned Cerulean Salt was a remarkable little album I think because it managed to sound stripped-down and intimate, but with a nice ragged hint of lead singer/songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s punk-ish roots. Ivy Tripp, on the other hand is pretty much what you would want in a follow-up, since it has that same feeling of Crutchfield sitting in her bedroom and spouting off her random thoughts in a pleasant-but-never-pandering vocal register. I can’t say it’s a vastly more mature record, since Crutchfield is the exact same age as me, and I wouldn’t quite expect anyone my age to have the capacity to put out a “mature record”, but she definitely takes a couple crucial steps forward. There’s still a stomping, guitar-driven quality to these songs, but there’s also a good dose of keyboards and organs thrown in to give the album just a tiny bit more scope, and also the underlying sense that there’s a whole other world out there outside of your mid-20’s.
Also, due to the fact that basically every album I’ve enjoyed from this year has come from women with guitars, I’m starting to suspect that there might not be a single swinging dick on my top ten albums of the year. Which I’m completely fine with, it’s just, come on fellas, where is the rock?
Favorite Tracks: “Under A Rock”, “La Loose”, “The Dirt”
I think we can just spot John Darnielle on this one, right? Because despite Beat The Champ being just an alright Mountain Goats album, it seems like a bit much to ask that every Mountain Goats album be great, since even though I haven’t heard all their albums, I’ve heard quite a few, most of which are pretty great. And sure, it’s been a while since Darnielle has put out an album with The Mounatin Goats (their last was 2012’s pretty great Transcendental Youth), but during that time he was focusing on writing and publishing the novel Wolf In White Van, which upon it’s release last year was nominated for the National Book Award For Fiction. So yeah, I think the guy has earned at least a pass or two, and especially when I can’t accuse Darnielle of not daring to try something new with this concept album about professional wrestling, and how its heroes draped in tights and masks shaped Darnielle’s childhood.
Since I’ve never really had any interest in professional wrestling at any point in my life, and because I have even less of a connection to the kinds of regional, slightly underground wrestling of the ’70s and ’80s that Darnielle is singing about here, it’s hard not to feel a little disconnected from the subject matter here. However, there are some nice lyrical moments on Beat The Champ where we see Darnielle cutting through the ludicrousness of colorfully dressed men flying through the air, and revealing the humanity lying underneath these costumes. Though I feel like there isn’t ever a clear throughline that comes across musically, as some of the songs are disarmingly upbeat, while others seem so shrouded in darkness that it makes the album feel a little unfocused, and especially for what is supposed to be a concept album.
Still, there are a couple stand-out tracks that are more than deserving of their place in the Mountain Goats canon, and which I look forward to seeing live when The Mountain Goats roll into town in late May. “The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero” has served as a nicely rockin’ single, and an infectious example of this late-period iteration of The Mountain Goats that has featured the heavy drum-hand of Jon Wurster. “Foreign Object” is also a surprisingly brassy number that calls back to the band’s last album, which showed a more full-sounding version of this band that wasn’t afraid to reach beyond its more modest folk tendencies. But unfortunately, I haven’t had much luck connecting with the back half of this album, and thus makes Beat The Champ less of a knockout, and more of a, well, whatever you call a tie in wrestling.
Favorite Tracks: “The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero”, “Foreign Object”, “Heel Turn 2”