What is the Big Deal about the Big Lebowski?

For years now, your Monkey has been puzzled by how popular the movie the Big Lebowski has been among film geeks and hipsters.

Having seen the movie only once (shortly after it was released in 1998), your Monkey found all this Lebowski worship to be pretty confusing.

He did not remember it as being particularly good or entertaining. In fact, the film felt like a letdown after the Cohen Brothers’ excellent film Fargo.

Your Monkey was ready to dismiss the Big Lebowski as nothing more than a sub-par Cohen Brothers effort, but it just kept creeping back into his life.

It was mentioned time and time again on the Filmspotting podcast.

It kept showing up on top 10 favorite movie lists on the internet.

And then the House of Blues in Boston announced that it would be hosting a Lebowski Fest in September. Here’s a link to that event for all you fans.

Curiosity finally got the best of your Grumpy Monkey, and he had to take another look at the film. What kind of movie could spawn an event that would draw enough people (presumably) to fill one of Boston’s larger music venues?

So your Monkey added the Big Lebowksi to his Netflix queue, and rewatched the film with an eye toward figuring out what the fuss was all about. Perhaps now that he was older and wiser and geekier, he might see what he missed the first time around.

Here’s the trailer for any of you who might not have seen it yet.

The verdict?

Still mixed. Okay, the movie does have its strong points. Jeff Bridges’ character of the Dude does have a certain charm that might have been lost on your Monkey the first time around. His cool stoner demeanor and willing to roll with whatever punches life dishes out (and there are a lot) make him fun to watch.

John Goodman is also appealing (if not maddeningly frustrating) as the amped-up Vietnam Vet Walter Sobchak. Goodman is the unstable and emotional counterpoint to the Dude’s cool and detached demeanor, and you can’t deny the way that his energy crackles on the screen, even if you don’t particularly like his character.

Goodman here is playing a character similar to the one he plays in Barton Fink. This Monkey would argue that his performance in that earlier Cohen Brothers’ film is better because it starts off small and builds to a boil. Here we pretty much have only one speed — full raging lunatic.

The story itself also offers a nice twist on the traditional “kidnapping goes bad” story. There is a point early on in the film where it threatens to become a formulaic cautionary tale about greed. How many movies have we seen where the characters try to grab the money and run, only to have everything go horribly wrong?

But the Cohen Brothers are smart enough to play with this formula and take it into a different direction before it becomes tired and predictable.

On the negative side, there are some parts of the plot that are confusing and overcomplicated. The movie gets a little too silly at some points.

And while it is entertaining to watch, it’s not exactly a must-see. Your monkey watched it in bits and pieces over the course of a week. It never once grabbed his attention and refused to let go.

Overall, though, the movie had enough going for it.

It’s fun. It has good lines. It has a good vibe.

Is it something that is worthy of such a rabid cult following ?

Maybe not.

But people could do worse.

So enjoy, Lebowski fans. Your Monkey won’t be joining in at Lebowski Fest this year.

But he doesn’t mind if you go and have a good time.

Music, Work, Writing

Darkened by the Blues, Lightened by Lightning Dust

Your Monkey has had a tough few weeks at work, my friends. His workload has increased, his department has been downsized, and his life has generally seemed pretty gray and dull.

So dull, in fact, that even the usual roundup of podcast suspects has left him feeling dull and dry. His computer is backed up with unlistened-to episodes of Radio Nowhere, Coverville, and the KEXP Music that Matters podcast.

His ipod is jammed full of Filmspotting episodes that he has not gotten around to yet. He is about a month behind schedule. Even the Adam Carolla podcast is about a week behind schedule.

But things will change.

Things have to change, don’t they?

Sooner or later your Monkey will regain some of his equilibrium and start to be able to enjoy conversations about movies and music and science and life again, right?

At some point work won’t seem so much like a dull gray dungeon. His writing career won’t seem like it has come to a grinding halt, and his mood will perk up again.

Someday, he will feel like posting here again. He will recover his slim and trim girlish writing figure and start writing about movies and music and psychedelic freak out jams.


But for today, here is one cool song for your consideration.

Lightning Dust is a side project of the Vancouver-based psyche band Black Mountain featuring BM singers Amber Webber and Joshua Wells.

The band has a softy, more folksy sound than one finds in the riffy space jams of Black Mountain. Webber is a talented singer, but sometimes goes a little too far in letting her voice vibrate.

Here is a song from their previous album. If you like it, most definitely download “Antonia Jane” from their new album.

Music, Podcasts

NPR’s Newport Folk Festival Coverage

When your Monkey first saw the lineup of bands for this year’s Newport Folk Festival, he nearly dropped his banana and fell straight out of his tree.

The Fleet Foxes, The Decemberists, Iron and Wine, The Avett Brothers and Gillian Welsh all on one stage? Are you kidding me?

It sounded like a great show, but tickets were expensive and your Monkey had a vacation already planned. So he had to pass on it.

Luckily NPR and the All Songs Considered Program was there to cover the event and has been providing your Monkey with enough live music podcasts from that day that he almost feels like he was there.

All he needs now is a pair of Birkenstocks, a sunburn, and a guilty white liberal conscience.

But seriously folks…

Let’s talk about the good, the bad and the surprising from that day.

The Good:

Oh Gilllian Welsh! Your talent as a singer and songwriter is matched only by your suprising knowledge of Red Sox folklore.

Sure your flight was delayed and you barely made it to Newport in time for your show, and sure you had to get a police escort to the festival grounds like a certain Red Sox catcher once needed to get to Fenway, but boy did you knock your performance out of the park.

Awesome job with your standard stuff (The Revelator, Look At Miss Ohio) and a great cover of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit.

Find her performance here.

The Bad:

OK, bad is a little harsh for this act. Maybe disappointing is a little bit better. Your Monkey has had a love/hate relationship with Iron and Wine’s music for a long time now. Sometimes it is great and sometimes it seems so soft and dull that it almost disappears.

Sam Beam (the singer and guitarist behind Iron and Wine) started off strong with a cover of the Postal Service song Such Great Heights, but his performance then seemed to fade away into less interesting stuff.

Your Monkey would have been much happier had he played “Boy With a Coin” from his previous album or his excellent new song “Belated Promise Ring.”

But alas, how much can the non-paying, non-attending customer complain?

Judge for yourself. Iron and Wine’s performance is here.

The Surprising:

The Low Anthem. There is a great do-it-yourself story behind this Rhode Island band’s appearance at this year’s festival that you can listen to on the NPR All Songs Considered Saturday Roundup podcast here.

But aside from the story, the band’s performance of “Oh My God Charlie Darwin” from their new album of the same name beat out material from the Fleet Foxes, the Decemberists, Billy Bragg and others for the honor of most memorable song of the day. (At least in the opinion of a Monkey who wasn’t there and has only heard highlights.)

Here is a song from the Low Anthem.

Also, your Monkey has only listened to day one of the festival coverage so far. Perhaps there will be another update for day 2. Stay tuned to find out more.

Music, Podcasts

KEXP Live Performance Podcast Roundup

Your Monkey has been hard at work this week typing away and feeding the beast with new copy, but he has had a chance to catch up on the past three weeks of KEXP live performance podcasts.

A good mix of new bands, old bands, and one talented female singer with amazing potential.

Japandroids — This duo from Vancouver, British Columbia are the critical darlings of the moment. Another guitar and drums duo like the White Stripes and the Black Keys, the Japandroids make a huge wall of sound using just two instruments. They are nice guys and well worth a listen, but your Monkey is wondering if their sound will sustain itself for an entire album. Three or four tracks at a time seems just about enough for the moment.

The Vaselines — This Scottish band is perhaps best known for being an early favorite of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain. Nirvana memorably covered/interpreted the Vaselines’ song Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam during the band’s MTV unplugged performance. What this Monkey did not know is that two other Nirvana songs from the Incesticide EP (Molly’s Lips and Son of a Gun) are Vaselines covers as well. It is fascinating to hear the male and female vocal harmonies on these original tracks.

Bat for Lashes You don’t need this Monkey to tell you that Bat for Lashes (real name Natasha Kahn) is the real deal. She has a soaring voice and a talent for writing atmospheric songs that are laced with mysticism. Or something like that. Once again this is a good listen, though your Monkey can’t help feeling like it’s not quite as great as it could be. Perhaps Kahn hasn’t reached her full potential yet. But hey, she’s young, she’s talented, and she’s got plenty of time.

Plus she makes a great video. Check this out.

You’ll have to click through and watch it on youtube because embedding is disabled. The video is worth it, though.


Does Pixar Sometimes Get a Free Ride?

Let’s think for a moment about two movies that have a lot in common.

Ratatouille, released in 2007 by Disney Pixar, is a whimsical tale about an unusual rat who happens to be a great chef.

The Tale of Desperaux, released in 2008 by Universal Pictures, is a whimsical tale about an unusual mouse who happens to be born without the timidness that comes naturally to all other mice.

Ratatouille was a smashing success. The Tale of Desperaux fared much more modestly at the box office.

Ratatouille is a critical darling with a 96% percent favorable rating at Rotten, the premier site for collecting and averaging the critical grades for movies.

The Tale of Desperaux received only lukewarm reviews and averages a 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Having seen both movies, your Monkey is perplexed by the overwhelmingly positive response to one and the underwhelming response to the other.

If anything, Desperaux is the superior film of the two.

Sure, Ratatouille has some good things going for it. Pixar can’t help but make a visually impressive film. They do 3D animation better than anyone, and they are usually great at telling a story.

Brad Bird is a very talented director whose work on the Incredibles and the Iron Giant made this Monkey all too eager to see what he could do with the story of a rat who dreams of being a chef.

The problem is that Ratatouille just falls flat.

It is so predictable and uninspired that we find ourselves sitting there waiting for the next predictable plot point to hit.

  • The good guy who turns out to be the bad guy.
  • A hostile relationship between a male and female cook that turns into a budding romance.
  • A protagonist who fails, then succeeds, then suffers a setback due to a misunderstanding (or deception), then finally succeeds with the help of some friends.

Perhaps Ratatouille’s  biggest crime is that it left the viewer with nothing to discover. Only the next step in the formula to anticipate. It made this Monkey feel like he was just seeing the same rote story played out again.

And he was feeling like it was no longer worth taking the ride.

In fact, your Monkey almost didn’t feel like it was worth seeing Wall-E, which would have been a tremendous shame because Wall-E is exactly the opposite of what Ratatouille is.

Desperaux, like Wall-E, is a movie that shows a lively imagination.

It manages to create unique situations and challenge expectations through clever storytelling and wry humor.

It might not be a perfect movie, but it’s a refreshing and inspiring one that manages to deal with dark issues like death and grief and disappointment without ever wallowing in pity (self or otherwise).

It is about the inspiring power of storytelling, and of hope, and of doing the right thing and being heroic and all that good stuff.

While this is not a “Pixar” film and is not immediately granted all the unassailable prestige that a Pixar film is given, a great deal of care was taken with the animation.

It is grand when it needs to be grand, simple when it needs to be simple, and the action sequences pack plenty of thrills without being too hectic.

What is the point of all this? Aha. A good question to ask, my friend.

Your Monkey is worried about these weighty issues because

  • He genuinely liked Desperaux and thinks that it got something of a short shrift from critics and audiences
  • He genuinely found Ratatouille to be boring and dull and predictable, and can’t understand why people seem intent on falling all over themselves to praise it
  • He can’t help but wonder if the mere fact that Ratatouille was a Pixar film automatically made it a critical darling.

Your thoughts?


Back from Vacation Update

Your erstwhile grumpy monkey narrator has been away on vacation for the past week and has not had much time for blogging. Thanks so much for all your concerned emails, letters and personal appeals for more posts. (OK, there were none. Thanks for not caring).

Having returned to civilization, your Monkey was interested to see these new developments in the story about the horrific wrong-way car crash in New York earlier this month.

What at first seemed like an inexplicable decision by a well-respected woman to drive her car the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway and cause a crash that killed herself, her daughter, three of her nieces and three other men now seems a lot more explainable due to the fact that she was drunk at the time of the crash.

But as this excellent follow-up article in the New York Times reveals, there are still no easy answers in this tragedy. Did her family know she was an alcoholic? Was she able to hide it from them completely? What caused her to drink so much that day when she was responsible for so many lives?

Lots of questions remain.


Did Ortiz Come Clean?

So after more than a week of silence, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz has finally addressed a report in the New York Times that he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Ortiz says that he did not take steroids at any time, but may have been careless in his use of over the counter supplements.

It’s probably the answer us Boston fans wanted to hear, but is it a truthful one? Only time will tell, I guess.

Your Monkey hopes that Ortiz is telling the truth, not just because it means that he didn’t take steroids, but because lying at this point will only further muddy the issue and prolong the debate and generally distract from the fact that the Sox are playing really bad baseball.

It is hard to respect somebody who is a cheater (even a cheater as good-natured as Ortiz), but if you can’t respect someone for playing the game clean, you can at least respect them for coming clean once they are caught.

Here’s hoping Ortiz is telling the truth and isn’t creating more headaches for himself down the line. It’s been disappointing enough just having his name connected with this scandal.