Tag Archives: Steely Dan

Wesley Don’t Lose That Number or: does Moonrise Kingdom prove Steely Dan right?

You wouldn’t necessarily peg (pun totally intended, dude) acerbic rockers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan as the types to break from their glazed cocoon of smooth jazz ennui to offer cross-medium advice. But, around the time of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, that’s exactly what they did.

In an hilarious missive to the director, they identified something of a malaise affecting Anderson; a refusal to or – more perturbingly – an inability to move on from the meticulous constructions that defined his early work. They warned that his “career as an auteur is mirrored in the lives of [his] beloved characters as they struggle in vain to duplicate early glories”. They also offered up a theme tune (sample lyric: “Darjeeling Limited / That’s the train I wanna get kissed on / Darjeeling Limited / But I’ll be lucky if I get pissed on”), but frankly, that’s beside the point. If the glorious Fantastic Mr Fox represented a tantalising leap outside the hitherto hermetically sealed Anderson box, then Moonrise Kingdom – all pretty colours, exact framing and mannered dialogue – jumps straight back into it, elegantly shod feet first.

Moonrise Kingdom is a simple tale of two young, disaffected runaways in love. The boy is a social outcast, scout and an orphan (though brief scenes suggest his residence is less an orphanage, more of a training school for would-be Arthur Fonzarellis), while the girl is a troubled soul, sired by a thoroughly miserable couple, prone to violence and squabbles with her trio of little brothers. Despite the promise offered by such a set-up, the film is oddly cold, flat and hard to get involved with.

One of the biggest obstacles to enjoyment is the dialogue which, far too often, simply dies in the mouths of the actors. Of Fox, Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek wrote: “I’m not sure I can explain why Anderson’s trademark dry, clever patter seems less tortured, and so much funnier and more believable, when it’s emerging from the mouths of animal puppets with scruffy, disarranged fur”, and this observation certainly rings true in the case of Kingdom’s cast, most obviously the kids, who shoulder a great deal of screen time. Like the mid-section of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Lifewe’re supposed to be seeing things through the hazily irrational filter of the child’s eye view, yet this pair are so painfully self-aware and unbelievably hyper-articulate that it’s hard not be irritated from minute one. The boy, Jared Gilman, seems to struggle particularly to square his character with the overconfident enunciations demanded by the script.

And surely Anderson’s creative inertia is no better exemplified than in his criminally flaccid deployment of Bill Murray; here, again, wasted as a cuckold prone to the occasional manic depressive outburst. The lines between the actor and the performance are now blurred by a messy, desultory greyness. One just wants him to be funny again. It’s a toss-up between Edward Norton and Bruce Willis for the film’s most interesting character, perhaps as much for what Anderson provides them with as what he doesn’t. They’re both cast against type, as sad-sack authority figures (scout leader and cop respectively), which is compelling in itself, but save from one or two desperately brief snatches of pathos, they’re given frustratingly little to do.

Moonrise struggles narrative-wise, too. It starts cogently enough, but by the end it has all but flown off the rails in a messy explosion of pernickety farce. We’re subjected to a reedy, hipster-Magnolia deus-ex-machina; a religious invocation that PT Anderson – the other great white hope of modern American cinema – gets away with because his passion seeps over, through and under his style. While W. Anderson’s boxy camera moves around the family stead impress on a technical level – and mimic the God-like drift of Dreyer in Ordet – they lack clout, and betray an absence of interest from the director to get down and dirty with his characters; he’s all artful distance.

Darkness lingers in the shadows (parental infidelity, depression, whispers of electro-shock therapy) but never emerges to assail the viewer on an emotional level. Perhaps that queasy vagueness is Anderson’s intention, but to me it seems like a cop-out. The (quaintly soundtracked) mood of the 60s bangs on the door, but never gets in. Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, a debut which initially looked callowly in hock to Anderson’s oeuvre, seems close to the real deal in the light of this effort; it finally parked the tweeness in favour of confronting grave familial sadness head-on.

One can only hope that a filmmaker with such obvious talent circumvents further creative putrefaction, and looks to do something outside his comfort zone – perhaps a genre shuffle or new collaboration. However, few other comfort zones in Hollywood are as luxuriantly upholstered; Anderson’s followers are so loyal – and vocal – that he might just be tempted to carry on down this well worn path. As in almost any instance, it might just be beneficial to listen Steely Dan.

Moonrise Kingdom is in cinemas now.

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Minute by minute: A look back at Yacht Rock

“Oh hi… I’m Hollywood Steve. You caught me relaxing in my music nook! From 1976-1984 the radio airwaves were dominated by really smooth music, also known… as ‘Yacht Rock’ “

…and so began one of the best, funniest web series’ of recent times. Written, directed and produced by J.D. Ryznar, Yacht Rock took an affectionate, fictionalized (though grounded in some biographical truth) look at the trials and tribulations of the soft rock scene of its chosen era, with actors playing heightened versions of genre stalwarts like Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins and, memorably, Steely Dan, whose portrayal as a pair of evil, scatting overlords was perhaps the show’s highlight. From McDonald’s uncannily immaculate conception of ‘What A Fool Believes’ in the first episode, to his desperate struggle to stay relevant in the era of ‘We Are The World’ in the last (featuring a truly ludicrous cameo from “extraterrestrial” producer Giorgio Moroder), the show was astute, funny and packed with the kind of fanciful detail and genuine love that could only come from real fans.

Yacht Rock lasted 10 episodes as a primetime show on rolling internet-based film festival Channel 101 from 2005 to 2006, but was so popular as a download, and garnered so many YouTube hits, that the creators made two more episodes in 2008 and 2010. By this point, the show had established such a cultural cache that it was able to attract the likes of Kevin Bacon and Jason Lee (aka Earl from My Name Is Earl) to cameo.

Though the music in the show is never actually referred to as ‘Yacht Rock’, its presence has certainly helped a generation of younger fans to come out of the “soft rock closet”, as it were, and take to the streets to declare the likes of Steely Dan and Hall & Oates among their favourite bands. Though I’ve always been open about my love for this type of music, I know not everyone has, so I hope that me re-posting this can assist others in finding the confidence to be themselves. (For further, Dan-specific reading, check out this excellent primer from The A.V. Club).

Here, then, follows a handy (yet probably computer-crashing) compendium of all Yacht Rock‘s 12 fantastic episodes in one place. Of course, mad, mad, crazy props go to JD Ryznar (whose YouTube channel can be found here) and everyone involved in its creation and distribution.

“Accused and tried and told to hang
I was nowhere in sight when the church bells rang
Never was the kind to do as I was told
Gonna ride like the wind before I get old”

Christopher Cross – ‘Ride Like The Wind’

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

  

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

Everything Must Go

In Everything Must Gobased on the short story ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ by Raymond Carver, Will Ferrell stars as Nick Halsey, an alcoholic salesman who, having lost his job and wife on the same day, finds all of his belongings strewn on the lawn. Soon, he forms a tentative bond with a lonely, overweight neighbourhood kid, and resolves to stage a 5-day yard sale in front of his house, initially borne of a bloody-minded obstinacy to stay put, and eventually to purge his demons and advance tentatively toward a new beginning.

The key themes of memories, loss and new starts are nothing new for an American indie, and neither are the burnished, gentle tones of the cinematography, insistent bursts of sad acoustic guitar or drifting evocations of suburban disquiet and disillusionment.  There is a gentle humour at work, occasionally tinged by a more scabrous edge; one explicit yet incongrous scene pitches for Lynchian suburban hell, but just feels wrong.

Laura Dern, appearing and appealing in one scene, is underused, and Rebecca Hall’s lonely, pregnant new neighbour is really used as little more than a device to bring us to the conclusion that Ferrell’s egregious externalisation is a mere variation on the rest of the world’s desire to keep their troubles behind closed doors.

The melancholy vibe, however, is pervasive and Ferrell, with his sad eyes, furrowed brow and gently imposing presence, gives the film real heart. With his relentless drinking, morally questionable past and salesmanship patter, he appears to have walked in from Steely Dan’s world of dissolute drifters, lapsed family men, addicts and schemers; a Deacon Blues or Cousin Dupree for our times. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film’s title has been taken straight from the sardonic duo’s 2003 album.

Gentle, absorbing and entertaining, Everything Must Go is a promising debut for writer-director Dan Rush, and well worth a watch.

Everything Must Go is in cinemas now. A version of this review first appeared in PPH coverage of the 54th BFI London Film Festival in October 2010.

Will Ferrell: A Nice Bunch of Guys

PPH @ LFF 2010

By accident rather than design, the last two films I’ve watched have both featured the mercurial talents of the manic-yet-melancholic man-bear Will Ferrell.  Firstly in the absurd buddy comedy The Other Guys, and then in the upcoming drama Everything Must Go, based on the short story ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ by Raymond Carver.

In EMG, Ferrell stars as Nick Halsey, an alcoholic salesman who, having lost his job and his wife on the same day, finds that all of his belongings have been strewn on the lawn. Forming a tentative bond with a lonely, overweight neighbourhood kid, Halsey resolves to stage a 5-day yard sale in front of his house, initially borne of a bloody-minded obstinacy to stay put, and eventually to purge his demons and advance tentatively toward a new beginning.

The key themes of memories, loss and new starts are nothing new for an American indie, and neither are the burnished, gentle tones of the cinematography, insistent bursts of sad acoustic guitar or drifting evocations of suburban disquiet and disillusionment.  There is a gentle humour at work, occasionally tinged by a more scabrous edge (one explicit yet incongrous scene pitches for Lynchian suburban hell, but just feels wrong).

Laura Dern, appearing and appealing in one scene, is underused, and Rebecca Hall’s lonely, pregnant new neighbour is really used as little more than a device to bring us to the conclusion that Ferrell’s egregious externalisation is a mere variation on the rest of the world’s desire to keep their troubles behind closed doors.  However, the melancholy vibe is pervasive and Ferrell, with his sad eyes, furrowed brow and gently imposing presence, gives the film real heart. With his relentless drinking, morally questionable past and salesmanship patter, he appears to have walked in from Steely Dan’s world of dissolute drifters, lapsed family men, addicts and schemers; a Deacon Blues or Cousin Dupree for our times. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film’s title was taken straight from the duo’s 2003 album.

In stark contrast to the sombre tale of EMG, Ferrell is back to his usual tricks in The Other Guys, an unholy mixture of broad sight gags, surreal touches, genre spoofery, pop culture reference overload (Michael Keaton’s hapless Captain single-handedly mentions TLC more in this film than the rest of the world has in the last 5 years) and explosive action sequences.   Tonally, the film is all over the place, and is notably weighed down from about midway-on by a tiresome and convoluted (if at least topical, and perhaps laudable for such a film) plot about major-level financial misdemeanors.

However, when the film is funny, it is genuinely hilarious – see the silent fight at a funeral, and the inexplicable deaths of a pair of turbo-cops played by Samuel L Jackson and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. An expository subplot which details Ferrell’s accidental graduation to becoming a pimp at college, although stolen straight from an episode of South Park, gives Ferrell the opportunity to revert to his unhinged best – although it falls short of his finest ever moment on screen (Find me a better phone booth scene than this Anchorman panic attack).

Ferrell gets to pal up with Mark Wahlberg, who is here in good form; wired, beady-eyed and intense a la I Heart Huckabees, although every time I see Steve Coogan slumming it in Hollywood (here as Ershon – not Enron – Ershon, the Ponzi scheming bad guy), I yearn for a return to the days of prime Partridge. I guess his own bank balance is doing OK for it…

The lasting impression from both films is Ferrell; a sad clown, a maniac, a savant, a broken man, and a genuinely versatile actor. I wonder – I really do wonder – if, like Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here, the Academy might come calling for Ferrell’s performance in EMG . More nuanced than his previously best-known straight-faced work in Stranger Than Fiction, Ferrell lifts up a film that might well have languished in the hands of a lesser talent.

Everything Must Go will screen in October at The 54th BFI London Film Festival