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“First Man”: The Last 2018 Review

first man!

If that had been me in 1969, the first several recorded minutes of the moon landing would’ve been me screaming, “AAAAAHHH! THAT’S THE MOON! WE’RE ON THE FREAKING MOON! AAAAAAHH! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!”

Here at Midlife Crisis Crossover we try not to hold ourselves to too many fixed rules, but one I haven’t broken yet is: every film I see in theaters gets its own full-length entry. Sometimes they can take a while because I get distracted by other things I’d rather write about first. Sometimes shifting into overthinking mode takes more brain muscle than I care to exert. Sometimes I don’t feel like a movie needs more than a shrug and a “meh”, but I refuse to settle for a three-word entry. Sometimes I’m not enthusiastic about sharing candid thoughts on a film I thought would be much better than it was, and would rather see succeed despite my tepid reaction to it, particularly if it’s not doing well in theaters in the first place.

That reluctance brings us to First Man, the latest film from Damien Chazelle, director of La-La Land and Whiplash, two films I loved. Our family saw it back in October on its second week of release. In the past we’ve sought out spaceflight history in our entertainment as well as in our vacation choices (cf. Kennedy Space Center, the Cosmosphere, et al.). I assumed this would be one of my favorite films of the year.

it kinda wasn’t. Hence the nearly three-month delay on the mandatory wool-gathering. But I can’t get to my annual “Best/Worst of the Year” pop culture listicles until and unless I finish all the movie entries first. So here we go, checking the one missing box. Because it’s always exciting when you have to force yourself to write.

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You Can’t Spell “La La Land” Without L.A.

La La Land!

After the 2014 Best Picture nominee Whiplash gave us a world where collegiate jazz is a nightmarish torture chamber of brutal perfectionism that only the most warped can survive, director Damien Chazelle rebukes his own darkest timeline with the nostalgic club jazz and vintage Hollywood set pieces of La La Land, an eye-popping, romantic pageant wired like an old-fashioned musical but keenly aware of our compromised 21st-century tableau that rewards far fewer dreamers than previous eras did.

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“Whiplash”: Bang on the Drummer All Day

Whiplash!

I was in band for all three years of junior high. I was in the last group allowed to audition. By then all the cool saxophone slots were taken, I couldn’t make flutes or any brass instruments work, clarinet reeds tickled my mouth to distraction, and my rhythms were judged inadequate for their percussion needs. By process of elimination they assigned me to the bass clarinet, an instrument that’s like the love child of a clarinet and a saxophone that lacks the clout and pizzazz of either of its parents. The mouthpiece and reed were a larger, better fit for me than the normal, socially acceptable clarinets. I liked the sound, loved the foghorn rumble of the lower register. Higher octaves were like fingernails raking across my brain, and our parts were usually boring. The percussion-section runt who played the triangle frequently had more interesting measures to play than we did.

When my high school years approached, I was relieved that the art classes I’d dreamed of taking left no room for band class anymore. After I turned in my tenth-grade schedule, one of our conductors sat me and a few other quitters down for a Serious Talk, as if our decision to opt out of the grueling rigors of high-school marching band would ruin our lives and resumés, possibly turn us into dope fiends. It didn’t work. I was free.

I was surprised and saddened when quitting cost me a few friends. I wasn’t a virtuoso, but I wasn’t last chair. I do miss the elation of nailing complicated pieces, which were maybe 5% of my lifetime playlist. I’ve never regretted walking away from the monotony of dwelling among the second-string rabble cursed to play nothing but “BOMP. Bomp. BOMP. Bomp. BOMP. Bomp. BOMP. Bomp.” It would be inaccurate to joke that my parts could’ve been replaced by a machine, because that would imply my parts were essential enough for music scientists to consider them worth replacing.

The experience taught me a lot about music-making firsthand, about the importance of dedicated practice sessions, about sheet-music literacy basics, about inequality between instruments, and about my apparent unsuitability to this career track. I haven’t held a bass clarinet in twenty-seven years, but some of the old songs and the vocabulary still bounce around my head and resurface on occasion.

A lot of the lessons that I’d forgotten since then, Whiplash brought vividly back to mind.

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