T3 89: Top 10 Snacks

In the beginning there were three meals a day. That wasn’t enough. Top Ten Thursdays said, “let there be snacks!” And there were snacks. And they were good. But which were the best? This was a topic worthy of considerable debate, for what truly is a snack if not any food eaten ‘tween meals? Could it be cookies? Could it be cake? Could it be hastily microwaved miscellany? Lo and behold, this podcast hath risen! Top 10 Snacks is its name and subject. Praise be to it!

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Waterfall Back Down

My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall

For a brief time in high school, My Morning Jacket were my favorite “modern band”.  This is a very “me in high school” label considering that right now I couldn’t tell you who my favorite modern band is (uhh, The National maybe?), but it more just clarifies that I didn’t listen to all that much new music in high school, so I needed to differentiate between the old reliable rock behemoths I listened to and the few newer bands I liked.  Also, it probably puts in context my reluctance to seek out newer bands when one of my favorites was a band like My Morning Jacket, who borrowed a lot from the past, while their masterwork 2005’s Z took a page from the one modern band from the 00’s that everyone could get behind, Radiohead.

But in the years since Z and it’s 2008 follow-up that now seems dumber and messier in retrospect, Evil Urges, I’ve kind of lost my enthusiasm for My Morning Jacket.  2011’s Circuital was particularly indicative of this, as I remember that album coming out, and I just had a completely passive and detached experience listening to that album.  So what happened?  Had this band strayed too far away from it’s Southern-rock-with-a-dash-of-alt roots?  Or had I just become more and more disillusioned by this band’s resemblance to a hippy jam band than any other act that I was willing to give my time?  Well whatever it was, I wasn’t sure whether to care about MMJ’s new album, The Waterfall, but I started to warm up to the idea after revisiting some of their earlier albums (still good!) and have even found myself enjoying this album, which does a bang up job of combining this band’s Kentucky-fried backbone with its more spaced-out eccentricities.

Jim James’s spiritual side seems to have become more and more pronounced in the last few years, as probably evidenced by that solo album that had God in the title that I never listened to (sorry, as I’ve said, I’ve kind of been out of the loop with the MMJ universe in the last few years).  Anyways, that spiritual one-ness becomes apparent on The Waterfall right from the get-go, as its lead-off track implores us simply to “believe” as the band backs up this peaceful call-to-arms with a good deal of smoothed-over gusto.  If anything, it’s the most cohesive-sounding My Morning Jacket album since It Still Moves, since the band chose one particular sound to go with for once, which is a pleasant mixture of prog-rock maximalism, soulful intimacy, and the occasional guitar freak-out.  It’s the kind of sound that reminds me of this band’s willingness to sit outside of any and all categorization and just let their freak flags fly, and even has me thinking that I should perhaps make an attempt to see them live for the third time on whatever overblown tour they got coming up.

Favorite Tracks: “Believe (Nobody Knows)”, “Thin Line”, “Big Decisions”

Mad World

I’ve been a fan of Mad Men for nearly as long as I’ve been writing for this blog, and yet I’ve basically never written about the show in any sort of in-depth manner.  And there’s good reason for that I suppose.  Mad Men for me belongs in a class of it’s own in terms of thematic richness and it’s subtle ability to leave little metaphorical crumbs for it’s viewers to chew on with each episode.  And where lots of the great TV shows of the last decade have tried to rise to the cinematic quality of the movies, Mad Men went for something smaller, like some sort of great American novel, except that each chapter aired after a rerun of a Die Hard movie (thanks AMC).  What I’m trying to say is that writing about Mad Men is hard unless you’re willing to get deep, but here are a few words anyways about this most prestigious of prestige dramas, which just ended about a day or so ago and has already left a big, booze-drenched hole in my heart. Continue reading

Secret Wars

Agents of SHIELD Season Two

Of all life’s big questions – who am I, why am I here, what do I believe in – undoubtedly the one I’ve spent the most time wondering is which super power I would have if I could pick one. Maybe that’s why I’ve stuck around as the guy enjoying the MCU while everyone else got bored and left, only to occasionally pop in just to see if I’m OK. This stuff is important to me, probably too important. And it’s because I care so much that I started watching Agents of SHIELD, though it’s not the only reason I keep watching. That’s because this year saw the show flirt with being truly good, before ultimately settling with being highly entertaining.

That might sound like what a praised the last half of the first season Agents of SHIELD for, but it’s different this time. Those episodes worked because something exciting happened in Captain America: The Winter Solider and we got to see the effects of that play out on TV. With that gone, I was afraid the show would revert back to being as difficult to sit through as it had been before, and for the first few episodes of this season, it kind of looked that way.

It picked up some time after Hydra’s attempt to destroy SHIELD was thwarted, with Coulson directing the new, underground version of the organization toward defeating Hyrda and figuring out the mystery of the alien stuff inside him and Skye. The team added some new members in Bobbi Morse (Mockingbird from the comics) and Lance Hunter (snarky British guy who was annoying at first, then really fun) and spent the early days going on missions and running away before the US government could catch them. It was OK. And then Inhumans started showing up.

Inhumans are people who posses inside them the potential to have super powers as long as they are exposed to magical alien gas. They are a result of aliens interfering in human development a long time ago and it can be argued that every Marvel super hero is technically inhuman. But in practical terms, they are a sub-group in the comic who are due to come to prominence in the MCU, especially since they can’t use mutants. That they debuted on this TV show is a big deal.

Agents of SHIELD is always better when there are more super powers on display, so having inhumans automatically makes the show better. But they also gave the show something to worry about that is important to the MCU without being tied directly to it. While playing off Winter Soldier made the show fun last year, this year Age of Ultron barely made a dent on the show. And that was OK because the show had its own story to tell.

At the center of that story was Skye, the character that needed the most work following season one. Fortunately, the writers put that work in, building Skye up into an agent who could hold her own in the field before revealing that she was really Daisy Johnson, a.k.a. Quake, and giving her sweet vibration powers. More than the cool power scenes though, the show also made Skye a surprisingly tragic figure by linking her “birth” as an inhuman with the death of a member of the team and introducing tons of family drama in the form of her long lost parents. Speaking of which, Skye’s dad is played by Kyle Maclachlan, who is the best thing to happen to this show (sorry, Patton Oswalt).

While the first MCU show, Agents of SHIELD has yet to reach the highs of its siblings Agent Carter and Daredevil (which reminds me, I should write something about Daredevil). But I always looked forward to it on Tuesday nights this year, which was a nice change of pace. I’m excited to see where it goes from here, and happy that ABC decided not to break up the ensemble by doing that ill-advised spin-off. Everything has started to click, the best thing to do is leave it alone.

Come As You Were

Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck

When it comes to Kurt Cobain as a person, there tend to be a lot of contradictions.  There are even contradictions in writing about Kurt Cobain, as a lot of times it feels hard to write or say anything new about a guy that was seemingly everyone’s personal ’90s rock Jesus.  And yet at the same time, it can often feel hard not to write about or compare or put things in the context of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s legacy, as evidenced by my recent review of a silly album that taken on its own has nothing to do with Cobain.  But there in lies the challenge for a documentary like Montage of Heck, which attempts to peel away all the mystery and mythologizing of this figure that so many connected with on a personal level, and yet probably never felt like they could ever really get close enough to.

There’s a fairly radical approach to Montage of Heck, which isn’t too surprising considering the doc is helmed by director Brett Morgan, who made my favorite of the 30 For 30 documentaries, “June 17th, 1994”.  That documentary was marked by the fact that it didn’t feature a single talking head interview or voice-over narration, and though Montage Of Heck does feature some interviews, they’re mostly kept to a minimal, and don’t really go far beyond Cobain’s family as well as bandmate Krist Noveselic.  Instead, more often than not the film attempts to tell Kurt Cobain’s story seemingly through his own words, as Cobain’s journal entries inform a lot of the narrative, while these macabre pieces of animation are used to bring Cobain’s personal sketches and artwork to life.

Getting back to Kurt Cobain’s many contradictions, they seemingly started in childhood, as Cobain was a fairly typical child of divorce, just wanting to find a place to call home, but always lashing out and constantly rebelling when either parent would have him live with them for an extended period of time.  To this end, the most surprising thing for me about the documentary was crystalized in one interview with Noveselic where he says “Kurt hated to be ridiculed.  He haaaated it.”  These themes of Cobain’s fear of shame and will to be loved are probably something you’d expect from a lot of massive entertainers that would do anything they could to reach the top, but it’s odd to hear it coming from a guy who was known for his “who gives a fuck”-ery.  Also, due to Cobain’s childhood abandonment issues among a lot of other things, while watching this I had a hard time not drawing parallels between Cobain and John Lennon, sort of like the two are rock n’ roll’s Lincoln and Kennedy.

But what I think the documentary does best, due to the intimacy of the material used here, is its ability to bring us into Kurt Cobain’s troubled headspace.  Granted, it doesn’t make for the funnest viewing experience, as Montage Of Heck for the most part is a “feel bad” movie, but I think it would have failed on its own terms if it wasn’t.  Kurt Cobain clearly was a guy with a giant shroud of darkness hanging over him (though the film does show a few glimmers of his dark sense of humor that people tend to forget about), and it’s what gives the earlier childhood scenes an emotional sense of foreboding, and the home videos of Kurt and Courtney Love’s trainwreck of a marriage that much harder to watch.  And for what it’s worth, despite being a documentary that was authorized by the Cobain estate, Montage Of Heck does a pretty even-handed job of not letting Courtney off the hook for further fueling Cobain’s heroin addiction.

Many have already hailed Montage Of Heck as the definitive Cobain documentary, and if there’s one thing I can fault it for, it’s that it might be trying a little too hard to earn this distinction.  As a guy who’s always had a fascination with Nirvana for it’s impact on popular (and independent) music, I’m more than willing to pick the brain of the guy who was finally able to make punk mainstream.  But at a certain point, the documentary’s overabundance of unedited home movies and over-reliance on trippy animation makes the doc’s 134 minute running time feel not entirely earned, and that some of this stuff might just be for die-hards.  Still, as a guy who’s also always liked Nirvana less out of choice, but more just a fact born out of my rock-obsessed Northwest suburban upbringing, the movie does get to the heart of what made Cobain so alluring.  His melancholy always seemed like something that could only be born out of the perpetual green/gray-ness that is Washington State, and yet he was just like any messed up kid from the middle of nowhere who just happened to find a profound way of expressing himself.  Which again, isn’t anything we don’t already know about this ridiculously talked-about figure, but it helps remind us why we connected with the man, and not the myth, in the first place.

Golden Living Dreams of Vision

Avengers: Age of Ultron

I’ve consistently praised Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for it’s willingness to use sequels as a chance to explore other genres. Iron Man 3 was a dark comedy crime movie, Thor: The Dark World plunged completely into sci fi fantasy (I think I said it was like Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars), Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a spy thriller, and Guardians of the Galaxy basically was a space adventure movie starring characters who are only technically super heroes. Avengers: Age of Ultron bucks that trend hard, as if writer-director Joss Whedon set out to make the most comic book-y comic book movie of all time. Luckily for us, he’s maybe the only guy on the planet who could actually pull that off.

As someone who has written several comics himself, Joss Whedon understands The Avengers and the kind of stories that people expect from the super team. I am sure that it was Whedon who decided to do a version of the “Age of Ultron” story – because who else could have been pushing for this relatively obscure villain to be the centerpiece of the biggest sequel of all time (until the new Star Wars comes out). More than that, he knows that outside of the fighting and the powers stuff, what people enjoy are watching these characters play off each other. And this movie gives you a chance to see how just about every conceivable combination of these characters would turn out.

Tony Stark is still definitely the star of this franchise, slightly more than even other-guys-who-got-sequels Captain America and Thor. Avengers-only characters like Hawkeye and the Hulk are given more fleshed out subplots – I especially like that Hawkeye got some cool moments after the first movie shafted him – but don’t expect much screentime to be given to anything that doesn’t tie into the whole saving the world thing. Even at two and a half hours, there are so many characters that it still feels like there was a lot left on the cutting room floor.

Much hoopla has been made about Age of Ultron‘s portrayal of Black Widow, which to me is a bit of a mountains out of molehills thing. There definitely seems to be reason to worry about the way that Disney and or Marvel feels about female super heroes, but I don’t think that’s anywhere on screen here. Black Widow kicks as much ass as anyone else on the team, and her romantic subplot is compelling – another tragic chapter in this woman’s story about wanting to be a good person. Plus, Black Widow isn’t even the only female super hero in the Marvel Universe, there’s Peggy Carter (on a TV show no one watched, apparently), Agents of SHIELD‘s Mockingbird and Quake (that’s a TV show definitely no one watches), and Scarlet Witch (who spends a decent chunk of this movie as a villain)… Let’s hope that Captain Marvel movie gets here real fast.

Speaking of Scarlet Witch, she’s in this and OK. So is her brother, Quicksilver, who my dad called Speedo which is pretty good. The third new Avenger is Vision who is great but barely in the movie. I guess they didn’t want to get you confused between him and Ultron? Oh yeah, Ultron. He’s an evil robot who wants to save humanity by destroying it, I guess. Kind of like Skynet, but if it was more pulpy and melodramatic. But the end result is about the same: super heroes get to fight basically an infinite army of terminators.

The one kind concerning thing about the first Avengers movie was how the big action sequence at the end was like a well-done version of the end of a Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Age of Ultron is full of big fights and none of them feature a giant sky laser, so I’m happy to report that we don’t have to worry about that comparison this time. In fact, I would say that, in general, the action in this movie is some of the best we’ve seen in the whole franchise – even if it was a shift back to the CG violence which made me miss the more brutal style of fighting from The Winter Soldier. Really, the only action problem I had was that there was so much of it. You will see every single Avenger kill hundreds of robots over the course of these 150 minutes, which disarms the admittedly limited tension of these battles.

That’s another thing – we all know there are so many movies in the pipeline that pretty much everyone is safe. More than that, Ultron starts the movie as a terrifying monster, something that seems impossible to defeat, but the more time I spent watching him get beaten up, make jokes, and come up with weird plans, the less threatening he felt. I get that he’s supposed to be like an evil mirror image of Tony Stark, but he’s also an alien AI – why wasn’t that more reflected in his behavior? Ultimately I was disappointed by the character, and I do worry that Marvel still has yet to find a good villain who isn’t related to Thor.

Whedon cut his teeth making beloved, nerdy TV shows and I’m just now realizing that’s why he is so great as part of the MCU, because Marvel has brought the serialized delight of television to cinema. Phase Two wraps up this summer with Ant-Man, the twelfth Marvel movie, and Phase Three is supposedly 10 more movies that will keep testing everyone’s super hero fatigue through 2019. I’m not saying super hero movies need to stop at that point, but I hope that all the creative people involved remember that the best TV shows knew when to call it quits and the endless nature of comics is what makes them so damn impenetrable for everyone else. Avengers: Age of Ultron concludes on a message of change, new adventures, and hope – don’t ignore that.

Cool Whip

Blur – The Magic Whip

There’s a stigma attached to the reunion album, and with good reason. How many bands have come back from the dead and lived up to your memories with a new album? For most artists the reunion album is a nostalgic cash grab–Psycho Circus by Kiss and That’s Why God Made the Radio by The Beach Boys come to mind. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we get a new “Remember the 90’s?” LP from Oasis too. Noel Gallagher himself has gone on record to say if Oasis ever reunited “It would only be for the money.” At least he’s honest about it.

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