Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bad Lip Reading

The genius of the Bad Lip Reading videos is something not enough people have been exposed to yet. A man, still managing to remain anonymous, has taken videos of political candidates and overdubbed his own audio, using something called the "McGurk effect", that makes them say nonsensical things like "Save a pretzel for the gas jets" and "We could shoot a Russian unicorn". He tries to match the mouth movements, leading to some of those random bits of hilarity that have had me laughing for days now. Michael Buble (whose song "Haven't Met You Yet" is turned into "Russian Unicorn") is a fan, and has been telling people to check it out on YouTube. I agree with him, and these are my favorite three BLR videos so far.

Herman Cain, my favorite:

Michael Buble's "Russian Unicorn":

The wonderful Rick Perry video:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Spotlight: Brett Dennen

So I came across a new (to me) artist a few days ago while surfing around iTunes. Brett Dennen has been on Rolling Stone's "Artists to Watch" list, on Entertainment Weekly's "Guys on the Rise", and reviews have compared him to everyone from Dave Matthews, Tracy Chapman, Jason Mraz, and Nick Drake to (most oddly, I think) Billie Holliday and Bob Dylan. Dennen has been around a couple of years, his first album came out in 2005, and although I've only listened extensively to his newest album, Loverboy, I'd say he sounds more like an amalgamation of Jack Johnson, Paul Simon, Loudin Wainwright III, a bit of My Morning Jacket's Jim James, and a touch of the soulfulness of Van Morrison. He even name checks Simon's album Graceland (as well as Joni Mitchell's Blue) on the wonderful "Make You Fall in Love with Me".

He's an artist I've only just discovered and will continue to explore, but he's got a goofy charm (where I get the Wainwright comparison) and enough catchy melodies and grooves to keep me coming back. The first three songs in particular, "Surprise Surprise" "Dancing at a Funeral" and "Comeback Kid (That's My Dog)" are ones I've had on repeat for days now. If you like what you hear, check him out like I did, maybe it'll be something new.

"Surprise Surprise" from this year's SXSW festival

"Dancing at a Funeral" album version

"Comeback Kid (That's My Dog)" official video

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

Now, I love westerns and I love science-fiction, but I would've never thought to combine the two. Scott Mitchell Rosenberg did just that in his 2006 graphic novel Cowboys and Aliens. Now director Jon Favreau, producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, and executive producer Steven Spielberg bring the comic to life with a tremendous cast including James Bond and Han Solo. Seeing the first previews many months ago, I thought "Well that looks stupid. Those genres will never go together." Thankfully, I was proven wrong.

Cowboys and Aliens, beautifully shot by Oscar nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique, has both the fun humor and the tremendous action that it needs. Favreau meshes the genres together onscreen, and gets his cast to give the ridiculousness a certain character grounding and believability that helps us in the audience accept it despite its fantastical happenings. Leading the cast, Daniel Craig doesn't exactly have a difficult role to pull off, he's the typical monosyllabic action hero we've come to expect from movies, but he's as great as he can be in the role. Harrison Ford plays a bit of a bad guy, which I didn't quite believe at first, but came to accept as his performance grew on me. Best of all, as expected when I saw the cast, are the performances of Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, and Keith Carradine. All are amazingly under-appreciated actors, with Rockwell in particular proving he's among the handful of best actors we have right now.

Surprisingly, Cowboys and Aliens hasn't made much money and didn't receive the best reviews from critics. I say it's surprising not because it's an amazing movie, but because it's a good one, and at least ambitious when it comes to the action genre. I was pleased to see something different, happy that the seemingly opposite genres worked together, and entertained as best as I could've hoped to be. It's not a great movie or one we'll be referring back to over the years, but it's certainly worth watching. In these days of the continual dumbing down of the box office, we really expect anything more from a big summer blockbuster?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Stooges - Raw Power

I recently came across some CD's that a friend had given me that I didn't have burned into my iTunes yet. Among the music I found was the first three albums by The Stooges (or Iggy and the Stooges as they would come to be known): The Stooges, Fun House, and Raw Power. The first album certainly has its moments, but is brought to a screeching halt by the 10-minute drone fest "We Will Fall" that takes the rest of the album to recover from. Fun House is among the greatest "punk" albums ever made and is something I would recommend to anyone with an interest in such a type of music. Their third album, Raw Power, however, is among the greatest albums of all time, "punk" or otherwise. I say "punk" because that term didn't really exist in our minds when The Stooges were initially together. Their albums came out in 1969, '70, and '73, long before The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and others burst along in the late 70's with what we call punk today. As such, The Stooges can kinda get lost, I feel, as they're not really classic rock, but were ahead of their time as far as punk is concerned (they're lumped into a small sub-genre called protopunk, alongside groups like MC5, The Velvet Underground, and others). I personally decided to lump them in with those they influenced, I hate having too many categories and normally call nearly everyone just a rock band, but for my money only The Ramones' Rocket to Russia can compare to the greatness of Raw Power for the title of "Best Punk Album Ever".

Original guitarist Ron Asheton switched to bass for the album, and he and brother Scott make for one hell of a rhythm section. The brothers' former high school buddy James Williamson had joined the band as guitarist, and thanks to him I'd name Raw Power as one of my favorite guitar albums. The opener "Search and Destroy" is already one of those songs that I had to learn once I'd heard it (I'd heard it before, it's a classic song, but I had no idea what or who it was). But the real star, as it is for most people, is singer Iggy Pop. Part Mick Jagger, part Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop is one of the great front men in all of rock music. His unpredictability onstage is legendary, but has overshadowed what a great singer he was as well. He has a tremendous snarl and rasp throughout The Stooges and Fun House, but the mix on Raw Power (expertly done in just a day by David Bowie) lets his vocals shine through much more clearly and reveal a guy who had more dimension to his voice than he's ever given credit for.

So I'm really geeking out on an album that came out 10 years before I was even born, that just goes to show that great music is timeless, and The Stooges most definitely made great music.

Friday, July 8, 2011

My 10 favorite cartoon characters

Anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) knows that I love animation and watch quite a bit of it. Naturally I've run across many animated characters in my time, and I thought I'd cobble together a list of my favorite animated characters. I know I'll have left out someone that when it's brought to my attention I'll think "How the hell did I forget them?!" but still, here we go:

10. Jake Morgendorffer, from Daria

Jake is one of those great supporting characters that always liven up a show when they come around. Some characters, animated in particular, get lodged into your mind with a certain catch phrase. Jake doesn't exactly have a catch phrase, but it seems like he says "Dammit!" at least once in every episode. He's by turns sweetly innocent, wildly self conscious, and hilariously angry, often at the most mundane things. One of my favorite scenes is when Jake and his wife Helen are having problems and are talking with a therapist. He says she doesn't let him drink milk anymore because it makes him all riled up. This, of course, riles him up even more since milk is his comfort food "Got milk? Not Jakey, dammit!"

Another great Jake moment

9. Daffy Duck
I don't know why Bugs Bunny became the face of Looney Tunes, Daffy was always the best and most interesting character. Besides being the star of the best of the Looney Tunes output (the classics Duck Amuck and Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 century), Daffy was also the funniest of the gang, especially when he had someone to play off of like Marvin the Martian or the animator in Duck Amuck. There are so many great Looney Tunes characters, but Daffy stands head and shoulders above everyone else.

The great Duck Amuck

8. Totoro

The most lasting image from the resume of Hayao Miyazaki, the silent Totoro helps the young heroes of My Neighbor Totoro through their new surroundings and helps them deal with the sickness of their mother. Amazing in his ability to be cuddly and mysteriously powerful at the same time, Totoro has a remarkable complexity despite not uttering a single word. Miyazaki allows so much space for us to project onto Totoro that even though he's not in the movie a whole lot, he is the defining creation of the master's entire career.

This is my favorite scene from the movie, as Totoro watches over the girls while they wait for their fathers bus (which is very late), it's one of the sweetest moments in all animated film, I think.

7. Wall-E
Man, has there ever been a more loveable character than Wall-E (yes, actually, and he's coming up next)? He's so pure, so admirable, so curious, and so in love with EVE that he hitches a ride on the outside of a ship and travels through untold amounts of space just to be near her. Not only is Wall-E a great character, but he's about the only robot you actually wanna pick up and hug. That's quite an accomplishment!

6. Winnie the Pooh
I wrote about Pooh a while back, and I'm very excited to see what Disney does with the upcoming Winnie the Pooh movie. Pooh is just the most adorable and loveable character ever created, though he is a teddy bear, so that's not too surprising. I can't really think of much to say about him, he's just so wonderful I'll let him speak for himself

5. Mickey Mouse

If there were a President of Animated Characters, Mickey would be it. He's been the face of the biggest animation company in America for longer than most of us have been around. Sadly, I think his starring role in some of the great animated shorts of all time has been diminished due to his iconic nature. But, a person needs only go back and watch Brave Little Tailor, The Band Concert, or my favorite Lonesome Ghosts, to see why Micky became the legend that he is.

4. Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz
The most surprising addition to the list, for many, I know, Dr. Doofensmhirtz is the antagonist on the best kids show on TV, Phineas and Ferb. The show itself is consistently hysterical, smartly written and not condescending to its audience. It has none of the wink wink to the parents bullshit that so much stuff written for kids has, and if it does, it's incorporated into the show and not just a wink wink. Anyway, Dr. Doofenshmirtz is the best character and usually the reason for the biggest laughs. His increasingly pathetic childhood (it seems to get worse with every flashback) and love life, and of course his relationship to his arch-nemesis Perry the Platypus, combine with the often hilarious evil inventions, make him the funniest evil villain we've ever known.

3. Dr. John Zoidberg
I could've easily chosen Bender, Fry, The Professor, Zapp Brannigan, Scruffy, or any number of amazing characters in the Futurama universe, but it's gotta be Dr. Zoidberg. He's the most hysterically pathetic character in the history of animation, and the voice that genius actor Billy West uses for him may be my favorite voice ever. Like many other great characters, he's best as a support, but when he's used, it's usually the best part of this incredible show.

2. Eric Cartman
Now, I called Dr. Doofenshmirtz "the funniest evil villain we've ever known" only because Cartman is not technically the villain of South Park. He is, after all, still in elementary school. From his many attempts at getting rich through the most awful ways (a Christian rock band, having crack babies fight each other and filming it, and so many others), to his repeated schemes against not just his Jewish "friend" Kyle, but the Jews as a whole, Cartman is without a doubt the most awful character ever created. Thankfully, he's also one of the funniest. There's something about Cartman's unfailingly evil nature that we just can't get enough of. Although South Park has noticeably faltered the last few seasons, Cartman's greatness cannot be tainted.

1. Homer Simpson
No big surprise at the top of the list, Homer has been the best animated character for a long time now. The Simpsons has been on forever, and Homer has nearly always been the biggest star (Bart went through his moments in the early 90's, but then took his rightful place behind Homer). Because of the show being on for so long, Homer has been able to show so many sides of his character. He's best when trying to be a good father, I think. Many of my favorite episodes either revolve around his relationship to Marge or his children. He's not always great (or even decent) at either job, but even then it's to humorous effect. Not only do I simply never tire of Homer, he's always supremely fun and interesting to watch, and after 20+ years and many hundreds of episodes, that's quite a feat.

Great characters that I thought of but didn't make the list:

Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty
Doug from Doug
Ioz from Pirates of Dark Water
Tommy Pickles from Rugrats
Darkwing Duck from Darkwing Duck
Scooby and Shaggy from Scooby Doo
Batman from Batman the Animated Series
Goliath from Gargoyles
So many of the great Pixar characters
And you know, I love Snoopy (and all Snoopy memorabilia), but he's really just not that interesting of a character the more I look back on him. Charlie and Linus are the greater characters in the Peanuts universe.

Edit: Somehow, I forgot the character(s) that initially inspired me to do this list. Wallace and Gromit (because to me they're inseparable and must be listed as a team) must be on the list, but since I've already made the list and don't want to kick anyone out or rearrange, they will get a special unnumbered entry all to themselves.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Midnight in Paris

I have a soft spot for Woody Allen movies. Even supposedly terrible ones like Scoop are films I can enjoy a great deal. Granted I've only seen about half of his movies, but there hasn't been even one that I downright disliked, simply a couple I haven't cared for as much. This year's offering (I say "this years" because Allen works so regularly that 1991 was the last year he didn't have a movie, and he still released 11 movies in the 90's) is the charming romantic comedy Midnight in Paris. It's not as deep or as impressive as Allen's best work, but damn if it isn't romantic, funny, and highly enjoyable.

Owen Wilson takes on the lead role here, that of hack screenwriter Gil Pender. He churns out crappy Hollywood movies but yearns to write a book and be important and worthy like his literary heroes. He's in Paris on vacation with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams), they tagged along with her parents who're there on business. He's a romantic who wants to roam the streets and stop in cafes, drink wine and walk in the rain. He's the only one in the group who even likes being in France until he and Inez meet up with Paul and Carol (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda) who want to take them to Versailles and drone on in pseudo-intellectual talk about French history and art. Gil just wants his simple pleasures (and to be out of the presence of the insufferably pompous Paul) and Inez is happy to get rid of him, so she lets him go.

While the clock strikes midnight one night, a car pulls up and a jovial group of people pull Gil in with them and take him to a party. At the party he sees a guy who looks mysteriously like Cole Porter singing songs to adoring listeners, and meet a couple who introduce themselves as the Fitzgerald's, F. Scott and Zelda. Scott takes a liking to Gil and offers to take him along to a bar they're going to to meet up with Hemingway. Gil finds himself magically drawn into the world of 1920's artistic Paris, a time and place he'd dreamt of his whole life. He runs across Dali, Bunuel, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Matisse, and TS Elliot, among others during his few extraordinary nights. He also happens to run across the beautiful Adriana (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard), who has Picasso, Hemingway, and legendary bullfighter Juan Belmonte fighting for her affections. Gil falls for her just like the others do as he dreads the inevitable end of his miraculous journey through 1920's Paris.

Owen Wilson is one of the better actors when it comes to playing the traditional "Woody" role. He has a bit of Allen neurosis, while also keeping his strangely laid back charm, and some shades we've not seen from him before. His ability to portray Gil's hopeless romanticism, while those around him try to destroy it, is essential to making the movie work. Wilson's Wedding Crashers love interest McAdams is pitch perfectly hateable as Gil's relentlessly unsupportive fiancee, so obviously crushing on Michael Sheen's pedantic Paul while Gil is too busy being annoyed by him to notice. Marion Cotillard is as luminous as Paris itself, making it unsurprising that so many of the artists are using her as their muse.

The script is Allen's strongest since Sweet and Lowdown, the sweetness and romance fully coming through without being forced in the slightest. The gorgeous photography by ace cinematographer Darius Khondji brings an extra amount of warmth to the movie that fits in nicely with the unassuming romanticism Allen's going for. I also like Allen's comments on coming to terms with the times you live in and not getting bogged down in the nostalgia of the past, because the people in that time probably didn't think everything was so great and idealized a previous era too. Even with a little bit of intellectual comments on nostalgia, it's still hard not to think of this movie as simply one of the sweetest love stories I've seen in a long time, and glad to see one of my favorite filmmakers working at such a high level.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Best and "Worst" of Pixar

In honor of this weekend's release of Cars 2, I've decided to take a look back at the features Pixar Studios has given us so far. I love what are generally termed "kids movies", although I don't judge them any less harshly because they're "just kids movies." Every movie should be held to a high standard, and since these are what we're feeding to our kids developing minds, I'd hope people would actually hold them to a higher standard, but I could rant on that subject all day.

As I've written before, with their track record and the consistency they've shown with their 11 movies over the last 16 years, I'd put Pixar on equal (if not higher) ground as classic Disney and Japan's Studio Ghibli. They've simply given us amazing movie after amazing movie, with barely a misstep anywhere in sight. That said, let's get to the list. I've watched every one of these multiple times, so none of my comments are coming from memories recalled from long ago.

11. Cars

The least ambitious and least interesting of any of the Pixar features, Cars is not a bad film. It's simply a nice, sweet little picture that can't hold a candle to any of the other movies the studio has put out. The story of "big city hotshot who learns to appreciate small town life" has been done 1,001 times before, and Director (and Pixar Chief Creative Officer) John Lasseter does nothing to dress it up in the slightest way. Cars is a straight forward and fun movie, but without any desire to be more, it really just kinda sits there at the bottom of the heap as obviously Pixar's weakest moment.

10. Toy Story 2

This one has bothered me for the past dozen years. As soon as it came out, Toy Story 2 was hailed as superior to the groundbreaking original, and one of the great sequels of all time. While I was sitting in the theater, I couldn't help but feel like it was good, but it wasn't really special. There's nothing wrong with it necessarily, but there's nothing that keeps me wanting to come back over and over again. Jesse's heartbreaking past notwithstanding, there isn't anything here on a story level as magical as the simplistic first movie, and eventually the third explored the idea of "lost" toys and kids growing up much better than it's done here. So I kinda have a tough time with Toy Story 2, I can't find many flaws (you can always nit pick at something, but I mean real flaws) other than I just don't find it that interesting or enchanting or memorable.

9. A Bug's Life

Ok, now, only the third from the bottom, but I'll just say this: I love this movie! I've always had a fascination with what the world looks like through different eyes, and Pixar's cute-ification of the tiny world of insects is lovingly realized. It's one of their less complex movies (only their second time out of the gates, I'll cut them a bit of slack for growing pains), and basically juts a crossing of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai and Aesop's The Ant and the Grasshopper, A Bug's Life kinda got lost in the shuffle when it was released. Although made concurrently, and pitched to its studio after A Bug's Life had begun production, Dreamworks Studio's Antz was released a month prior, giving people two bug-central, ant starring movies withing a few weeks of each other. Antz was rushed through production to make it out first, and time has not been nearly as kind as it has been to Pixar's release. While A Bug's Life is bright and colorful and fun, Antz's CGI animation has dated badly, and the story is not handled nearly as expertly. A Bug's Life is not one of Pixar's greats, but it's deserving of a better reputation than it currently has, I think.

8. Finding Nemo

The release of Finding Nemo seemed to be when critics and audiences first started seriously looking at Pixar as more important than just "kids movies". It received unheard of critical acclaim (Roger Ebert named it the 4th best movie of 2003), and made boatloads of money. I've watched it many times, and the story of a dedicated but overprotective father searching out for his kidnapped son certainly pulls the heart strings in a way that may affect me more with my impending fatherhood coming some months away. As for now, I can't help but just look at the breathtaking underwater animation, so lovingly realized that I forget about the story sometimes and simply watch the sides of the screen for those beautiful little touches Pixar does so well. The chemistry between Albert Brooks and Ellen Degeneres is hard to not get caught up in, and even if the actual Nemo storyline, and that of the sharks, isn't quite as great, they're certainly good and don't bring anything down. Finding Nemo is a great movie, and further proof of Pixar's genius that it's only their 8th best movie.

7. Up

Again, a movie I'd give 4 stars only lands in 7th place, you just can't beat that kind of quality. I wrote a full review of Up when it came out (here), and it was released to a great amount of critical acclaim, even snagging a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars (when their 10 nominee experiment took place). The thing that Up has going for it the most is that it has the single best piece of film in Pixar's catalog: the "life" montage near the beginning of the picture. It's one of the greatest achievements in all of animation, I think, for its wordless telling of an incredibly emotional story, proving once again that you don't need dialog to further your story. I cannot praise that sequence enough, even if I watch it removed from the context of the movie as a whole, I still tear up. Sadly, the rest of the movie simply can't live up to such an amazing creation and even though it's a lot of fun (though the talking dogs are a bit hard to stomach sometimes) and has a lot of heart, I simply can't have it any higher than this.

6. Toy Story 3

I've also written about this one since I've had this blog (here), and named it as my best movie of 2010. The issues it explores of Andy (and other children that toys belong to) growing up and moving on is handled with a tremendous amount of depth and care. I knew Pixar had the creative balls to end on a down note, so I was completely engaged in the trash sequence, but I'm also glad that they ended on a different and much more emotionally satisfying moment. One of the most grown up of American animated movies.

5. Monsters, Inc.

No Pixar movie has benefited from re-watches more than Monsters, Inc. I liked it ok when I originally saw it, but didn't find the magic that I'd been hoping for. Over time, as I've revisited it, it grows and grows in my mind and I love it more every time I see it. Billy Crystal and John Goodman are so incredibly good together that even though their voices are so distinctively their own, I always felt like I was watching Mike and Sully, and not actors voicing a character (this is a particularly excellent recurring theme for Pixar movies). There is so much invention going on in Monsters, Inc. that just got lost on me the first go 'round, I suppose. Around every corner, in the sides of the frame, in the boundless references from Ray Harryhausen to yellow snow, this movie has so much life in it! In addition to that, the bright, fun colors and sets, the easily hateable villain in Randall (voiced to perfection by Steve Buscemi), and the wonderful door chase scene keep me coming back again and again. I also think it may have Pixar's most sweetly perfect ending.

4. Toy Story

Ah, the one that started it all. I remember sitting in the theater watching Toy Story and not caring in the slightest about all the technical innovations, no idea of the watershed moment I was witnessing with the dawn of the CGI animation era, I was simply excited and enthralled with a wonderful, wonderful movie. Although we can go back now and see that the animation is noticeably inferior to the other movies in the Pixar catalog, it's not bad and it gets the job done. What we care about when we watch Toy Story are the exquisitely drawn characters, pitch perfect voice acting, and engagingly simple story. The recurring theme of the Toy Story movies, the theme of getting replaced and children growing older and moving on, is put all on Woody's shoulders in the first movie. It's only Woody that's being tossed aside, not everyone. Woody is the one who has to deal with Andy finding a new favorite toy, and he doesn't always handle it well. Tom Hanks brings such life and nuance and depth to Woody that it's impossible to think of another voice emanating from that characters mouth. And Tim Allen is so terrifically pompous and arrogant and clueless that I still identify with Woody's hatred and eventual acceptance of him. It's certainly the simplest (and shortest) movie in the group, but there is not one single thing about it that I would change.

3. The Incredibles

This is the best and most thrilling action movie ever made, if you ask me (which by reading this blog, you're kinda doing). I also think that with the issues of marriage and family and trying to find yourself when you don't know who you are anymore, The Incredibles is Pixar's most adult movie, most thematically complex, even though it's disguised as a bright colorful action movie for kids. Each character is created with a distinct personality, each speaks differently about their feelings and actions (you'd be surprised how little this happens in movies once you start paying attention to it), and the voice acting brings that last little bit to make these truly remarkable characters. All of that said, it's also just a mind blowingly amazing action movie, with set pieces that put Bond and Bourne to shame. The attack on the plane is my personal favorite, as the mounting fear in Helen's voice, and the parental actions she takes to possibly sacrifice herself for her children are a rare action sequence that makes me tear up with its dramatic implications. Then there's also the "discovering the joys of your abilities" quality of Dash vs. the flying machines. When Dash starts running (with unexpected success) on the water of the ocean, he lets out a little "oh man, that's so awesome I can do this" kinda giggle that lights my face up every time I watch it.

2. Ratatouille

So just like Big Night, I think Ratatouille ranks so high on my list of favorites if only because of its shared passion for food. The characters and story are flawless, the animation is beyond gorgeous, and the music is my favorite in any Pixar movie. But Remy's love of food strikes a nerve with me because I have that love as well. I think, honestly, Pixar's biggest achievement with Ratatouille might be making a story about a rat being in a kitchen cooking completely undisgusting and wonderful. I would've initially assumed impossible the feat of making me not be revolted by rats in the kitchen, even if both are animated. I think it starts a bit slow, but once Remy gets to the big city and starts on his true journey, I don't think it has a weak moment. And I must say that the scene of Anton Ego remembering a childhood moment when his mom was there to comfort him when he was upset (just crashed his bike, from the looks of its misshapen spinning wheel), is such a perfect moment that I can't even quite describe how it makes me feel.

1. Wall-E

The lonely, lovely, inspiring, inspired, and brilliant magnum opus of Pixar is Wall-E. There's no more loveable character they've created, no more fascinating world than Wall-E's solitary journey through the endless trash, and no sweeter love story than that of Wall-E and EVE (or EE-vuh, as he so endearingly puts it). It's so simple and perfect that you almost don't want them to go to the ship were the humans are. It goes anyway and even through its environmental preachiness, Wall-E never loses its hopelessly romantic heart, and makes me hope I never lose mine. It's simply one of the 5 or so greatest animated features we've ever been given, and quite easily Pixar's masterpiece.

Who knows where Cars 2, next years Brave, or the following year's prequel Monsters University will end up on an updated version of this list. Surely a sequel to the bottom movie on my list feels totally unnecessary, especially seeing as Cars is also the least critically acclaimed movie in the Pixar catalog, but with supposed Cars merchandise sales of $5 billion, it's not surprising that we're getting another go round with those characters. I'll go in with an open mind, seeing as Pixar hasn't yet let me down and always surprises me, and I'm sure I'll give Cars 2 a write up when I finally see it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

We've lost the Big Man

Clarence Clemmons 1942 - 2011

The Big Man, sax player for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, has passed away after complications from a stroke suffered earlier this week. His tenor sax additions to Springsteen's sound are among the greatest sideman additions in the history of rock and roll. His legendary outro solo on the Born to Run closer "Jungleland" famously took 16 hours to record, before both were happy with it, and was worth the time. Only the Rolling Stones ever used sax as well as Clemmons and Springsteen integrated it into their sound. A 6'4" former football player, Clemmons towered over his bandmates onstage and was a longtime fan favorite for the Springsteen diehards. Clemmons contributions and the many solos and melodies he added will be missed immensely and it's safe to say that the E Street Band will never be whole again. R.I.P. Big Man

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Film I Always Go Back To: "Big Night"

To join in a little blogathon that Kid in the Front Row started over at his blog (check out his entry if you want), I'll make my entry into the subject of the movie I go back to again and again, like the movie version of comfort food. Well, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's Big Night is my mac and cheese (or meatloaf and mashed potatoes or lasagna or whatever your comfort food favorite is). I've written about it twice before (in 2008 when I first saw it, and again when recounting my favorite movies, where it has since risen a few places), and I went back and revisited just a couple of weeks ago when I was feeling a little down.

The movie came about when Stanley Tucci was working on a movie he didn't enjoy and complaining about how there were no good projects for him to work on. So, he decided to create his own project. As co-writer, co-director, and star of the picture, Tucci is even more flawless than ever in his portrayal of Secondo, an Italian immigrant trying to find love, peace, and financial success alongside his brother Primo (Tony Shalhoub). They look for love in their respective women (Minnie Driver and Allison Janney) and look for some way to make it in a land where a restaurant like Pascal's (Ian Holm) can be packed every night when they serve such abominations to Italian food, or as Primo says "RAPE! RAPE! That's what that man serves every night, the rape of cuisine!" Made even harder by the customers they actually do get, making for scenes like this one:

Spaghetti is its own dish, meatballs are their own dish, each plate should have a starch, but not multiple starches. And Seco is repeatedly disheartened by Primo's refusal to compromise anything with his food. Pascal, on the other hand, tells Seco "The customer doesn't wanna look down at his food and think 'what the fuck is this?' he wants to look down and think 'it's steak... I LIKE steak.' Give them what they want, and then you can start giving them what you want."

What's amazing about the movie is the care given to each and every character. Pascal, who would seem the villain in a normal movie, is given dimension not only by Holm's terrifically over-the-top portrayal, but by the script as well. He's given motivations for how he treats Seco and Primo, continually asking Seco to come work for him (and there are multiple motivations for that as well) and for how he runs his restaurant and his relationship with Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini). He's not even the second lead in the movie, but he's treated with the care that many movies don't treat their star role with. No one is given short shrift, but I think I keep coming back to the movie for its sibling relationship that hits home to me even though my brother and I don't have the same type of relationship as Primo and Seco, nor are we Italian, nor are we business partners. It's just that indefinable something about the connection they have that is 100% authentic. There are also small moments like this one that the movie lets play out that crack me up every time:

The emotionally affecting, and mostly silent, final scene of Seco making an omelet (high heat, of course, that's how Italians do eggs) the morning after the "big night" of the title, is my very favorite closing scene to a movie for how it answers so many questions without really addressing any of them overtly. I've gone back to this movie over and over again, and I will continue to for a long time. It's a rare creation of deceptive depth and power, and it is most definitely my comfort movie.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Spotlight of the week: The Civil Wars

The Civil Wars are a band I just came across this past week, so they're perfect for a Spotlight. A collaboration between singer/songwriters John Paul White and Joy Williams, the duo's indie/folk/blues sound grabbed me right off. Though not a romantic couple (both are married), their voices intertwine in a way rarely seen outside of siblings or longtime partners. The way they sing over and under and alongside each other weaves a stunning web of vocal harmonies and Southern Gothic atmosphere. Generally just White's guitar, with occasional accompaniment from Williams' piano, the group keeps a down home vibe that conjures up images of late night living room jam sessions, or lonely field recordings.

I've found wonderful videos on YouTube of the group performing covers of songs like Michael Jackon's "Billie Jean" Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" and The Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm" (when Williams says "you might recognize this one", White counters with "and if not, then we wrote it"). They show they have a rare musical connection and a sense of humor as well as some varied tastes. All of that just makes me want to see more from them. They'll definitely be a group I'll follow for years to come.

Sidney Lumet - 1924 - 2011

The world of cinema lost one of its great giants today in American director Sidney Lumet. Lumet has been a personal favorite of mine since I was a teenager going through an Al Pacino phase, coming across Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, and noticing the same directors name in the credits. Like many of his films, both were New York set, with the city becoming almost a character unto itself. He has often been called one of the directors most associated with the city, even though he was originally from Philadelphia. Lumet's films were nominated for a total of 46 Oscars, including 5 for Lumet himself (one for co-writing 1981's influential cop drama Prince of the City, the others for directing 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict), and he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2005. His last movie, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, was one of the first I reviewed on this blog, and is among my favorite movies of the past decade.

Known for his ability to work with actors (17 Oscar nominations and 4 wins under his direction), Lumet also had a reputation as an almost invisible director. He often spoke against any directorial flourishes that would draw attention to the camera placement, or things that looked too unnatural or self-consciously pretty. He is too often overlooked by film fans and scholars due to this, being unable to recognize a distinctive "Lumet" style the way you can identify a Hitchcock or Scorsese or Coen Brothers movie. Lumet felt the directorial style should be dictated by the script and what the story needs, that form should always follow function and not the other way around. Also, due to his preparation and his insistence on weeks of rehearsal before shooting, Lumet was famously able to work quickly and efficiently in regards to his shooting schedule and budget. On his dislike of more than a few takes before moving on to shooting the next scene, his The Verdict star Paul Newman said ""I call him Speedy Gonzales, the only man I know who'll double-park in front of a whorehouse." As evidence of his swift style, Lumet released two movies in one year 9 different times.

With such an extensive filmography, one could be overwhelmed if looking to delve into Lumet's 50+ years of work. But if I were to pick a group of his most essential films, I'd list Dog Day Afternoon, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Pawnbroker, Network, Prince of the City and The Verdict. He has many others worth checking out, but those are all terrific movies, and a couple of them all out masterpieces. I'd been looking forward to where Lumet would go next, but he had a long and fruitful career and we'll just have to go on appreciating what he gave us. R.I.P.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I'm sorry, but Radiohead is not a good band

I've tried and tried to see what is so great about them, and there's not anything there. They have occasional flashes of great rock song craft and melodic brilliance, on songs like "Creep" "True Love Waits" and "Karma Police", yet they mostly just seem to dabble in creating clusters of uninspiring noise which critics sycophantically praise.

Now, many a Radiohead fan has told me that Thom Yorke's lyrics are what keep them coming back to the band. Fair enough. I'm not a lyrics person, it's the very last thing that I pay attention to from an artist after I've gone through each instrument and how they relate to each other. I've skimmed through some of the lyrics Yorke has churned out over the years and although not finding anything I thought was brilliant, they don't suck either.

As a musician, I need something I can grab onto. It could be a vocal melody, a drum beat, a subtle bass line, guitar lick or whatever, but I need something. This is where Radiohead fails me the most. I've listened to all of their albums (save the one that came out this year) as a whole and as playlists jumbling the songs haphazardly together, and I've come away unimpressed on nearly every aural level. I occasionally enjoy the melodies that Yorke sings, and although I don't expect technical virtuosity from each band member (Radiohead doesn't strike me as a "look what I can do on my instrument" kind of band), I would like something that grabs me as a listener and makes me want to come back for more.

I think a lot of this comes down to my general boredom with the "avante-gard" or "experimental", or whatever you want to call it, genre. It could simply be down to a matter of taste in that they live in places that, musically, I don't give a shit about. Still, when a band is praised as high and as often as Radiohead is, you at least want to give them a chance and see if they're for you. I've tried many times over the years and have come up with the same conclusion each time: I just don't think they're a good band.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Spotlight of the week: Hanson's "Shout It Out"

My wife told me early into our relationship that she was a huge Hanson fan. I overlooked such a lapse in judgment because of the fact that Hanson at least always played their own instruments and wrote their own songs and since she would've been one of those 10-year-old girls screaming at the band when they first became famous, naturally she would have some nostalgic attachment to them. She showed me a couple of their "grown up" songs, and I was happily surprised at their lack of suckiness, so her sense of taste may not have been totally misplaced. Then she told me that Hanson had come out with a new album and I absolutely had to buy it for her. Begrudgingly, I did, and what I ended up finding was an incredibly catchy and enjoyable album.

Shout It Out is Hanson giving a big injection of r&b and soul into their immaculately crafted pop sound. Horns, B-3 organs, and soulful guitars abound on the album, and the songs truly shine with the combination. Lead singer Taylor's voice has grown up, there's no trace of the kids who infected us with "Mmmbop" all those years ago. Of course, when Hanson was on tour for this album and came through their hometown of Tulsa, my wife insisted we go. So, still begrudgingly, I took her and I was totally blown away. They had the tightest vocal harmonies I'd ever heard in concert, and I've heard a lot of live vocals over the years. Youngest brother Zac has turned into the best musician of the group, laying down some juicy beats and tasty fills. Guitar playing Isaac looks the most grown up of the three (not surprising, being the oldest), and his restrained playing adds a lot of backbone to Taylor's deliciously hammy frontman tendencies.

I've seen two of the songs from the album on VH1, lead single "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'" a few months ago (the video's a parody of the Ray Charles section of The Blues Brothers, watch for Weird Al Yankovic cameo-ing as the tambourine player), and just this past week the dance inducing "Give A Little". Who knows, maybe the boys will stick around a while longer, and if they continue to grow like this, I'll not doubt my wife's tastes anymore. I've had Shout It Out on heavy rotation on my iPod for a while now and it doesn't look like it's going anywhere.

"Thinking 'Bout Somethin'"

"Give a Little"

Spotlight of the week

Ok, so I took it upon myself to do the whole "Song of the Week" thing thinking it would force me to write more often (which I want to do, but don't always make time for), and because I seem to always be stuck on a song for about a week, so it'd be a beautiful marriage. Instead, I've slacked off and come up with blanks when trying to think of songs to feature. So, I'll try something else and start simply doing a "Spotlight of the Week" on either a song, or an album, or an actor, or whatever. Hopefully, this will help me achieve my goal of writing more often.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Top 100 British films

TimeOut recently polled many critics, actors, directors, producers, and journalists to compile a list of the top 100 British movies ever made. Surprising to me, as I like to think of myself as a film buff, I've only seen just over 1/5th of the list. I've at least heard of the majority of them, but even then there were more than I expected where my reaction was "What the hell is that? I've never even heard of it." The list shows the growing reputations of Nicholas Roeg, and the continued legendary status of Mike Leigh, and the revered legendary status of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Of what I've seen, nearly all of them deserve to be there, and the #1 on the list is a personal favorite of mine, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it. But really, what lists like this tend to do is give people recommendations and hopefully spur them into seeing some great movies. I know this's done that for me, many of the movies that would not previously have been on my radar now are, and I hope to get a chance to see as many of them as I can.

The top ten ended up looking like this, with comments on the ones I've seen:

1. Don’t Look Now (1973), directed by Nicholas Roeg

I've seen this movie a couple of times, and it's a brilliant psychological nightmarish horror movie. Like all great horror movies, there isn't much in the way of gore or onscreen carnage, but Don't Look Now drips with atmosphere. There's also a legendary sex scene between the lead characters (played flawlessly by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) that is the reason many people know the movie.

2. The Third Man (1949) directed by Carol Reed

Famous for its cinematography, the first appearance of Orson Welles' character, and a speech he eventually makes on a ferris wheel, The Third Man was a movie that, I felt, didn't live up to its reputation. It's a very good movie, highly recommended, but hardly #2 of all-time deserving.

3. Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) directed by Terence Davies
4. Kes (1969) directed by Ken Loach
5. The Red Shoes (1948) directed by Powell and Pressburger
6. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) directed by Powell and Pressburger
7. Performance (1970) directed by Nicholas Roeg
8. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) directed by Robert Hamer

Supposedly a brilliant black comedy, I simply found it boring. Alec Guinness is absolutely wonderful in his multiple roles, but other than that I couldn't find a single thing I cared about in the movie. I seem to be in the vast minority though.

9. If… (1968) directed by Lindsay Anderson
10. Trainspotting (1996) directed by Danny Boyle

I thought perhaps that I simply didn't "get" Trainspotting the times that I watched it, but from Danny Boyle's career since this movie, it seems I simply don't like him as a filmmaker. Again though, I seem to be in the minority.

You can see the rest of the list, including TimeOut's writeups on each movie, here: http://www.timeout.com/london/bestbritishfilms/

Should 'based on a true story' movies have an obligation to facts?

My wife and I got into an argument on this subject recently. After watching The Social Network and looking into what the real people depicted in the movie thought of the movie, one of them described it as "about 40% accurate." This really upset my wife, because although she didn't love the movie like I did, she felt that the filmmakers had an obligation to not make up what are essentially "lies" about the actual people they were portraying onscreen.

I have always felt that a filmmaker has only an obligation to the audience in the form of making a good movie. The truest of "based on a true story" movies is still a fiction film, so I don't take any scene in the movie as "what actually happened" anyway and only take it on the value of what it means to the movie. My wife contends that a majority of filmgoers believe any "based on a true story" movie wholeheartedly, so if a film is making up 60% of the story (especially when it portrays its lead character as a douchbag), it's a form of slander against the real people.

I agree that your average moviegoer believes "true story" movies without question, but I don't see why that is the problem of the filmmakers. Roger Ebert once said "Artists cannot hold themselves hostage to the possibility that defectives might misuse their work." He was talking about even negative portrayals of the KKK possibly seeming cool to Joe Idiot out there, but the point can be used across the board, I think. Then again, writer Paul Schrader has said he felt a certain responsibility for Taxi Driver supposedly inciting John Hinckley, Jr.'s attempted assassination of President Reagan.

So where does a filmmakers obligation lay when it comes to telling the truth in "based on a true story" film? And do filmmakers have a responsibility in regards to audience response to their work, positive or negative or blissfully ignorant of facts? I don't think so, what do you think?

Oscar Bait

This is a term thrown around a lot when it comes to this time of year. Recently crowned Best Picture The King’s Speech had been called “Oscar Bait” by many people, accused of playing to the Academy’s penchant for royalty, movies based on a true story, triumph over adversity, and of course Britishness. But I wonder when the term started coming into vogue. When Robert De Niro was banging his head against a concrete wall in Raging Bull, were there some people in the audience thinking “Oh, this is Oscar bait” or were they just thinking people were trying to make a good movie? I guess that’s my biggest problem with the term Oscar bait, because I feel that it negatively applies to filmmakers trying to make serious attempts at storytelling.

Moviefone.com wrote an article back in October called “2010’s Most Transparent Oscar Bait”, which included 5 of the 10 movies eventually nominated for Best Picture. They had criticisms like “The Fighter has Oscar bait written all over it. Just look at all of its Oscar-friendly traits: It's a Paramount Vantage flick, Christian Bale lost a ton of weight for it, and it's based on a true story. Not to mention it's a boxing movie, which have been Academy attention magnets for films like Million Dollar Baby and Ali” Couldn’t it be possible that the filmmakers were just trying to make an interesting movie? That notorious weight fluctuater Christian Bale simply was at his old tricks again (none of which had previously nabbed him an Oscar nomination)? I guess it’s the cynical view of artists making art for money or awards rather than for the sake of creating art that bothers me. Call it naiveté, but I sincerely believe that these folks were just trying to make a good movie. Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t filmmakers out there who maybe tailor some things to awards voting trends, but I have rarely seen a movie that made me actually think it was made solely for awards contention.

So, why do some people use the term “Oscar bait” when referring to the serious movies we’re treated to at the end of the year? Is it simply to disrespect the movies, or is it because they actually think the movie was created simply for awards consideration?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Song of the week: Paolo Nutini's "Coming Up Easy"

I bought Scottish singer/songwriter Paolo Nutini's first album, These Streets, back in 2006, on the strength of its singles "New Shoes" and "Last Request" and discovered the eventual single "Jenny Don't Be Hasty" as a highlight afterward. Sadly, nothing much else on the album stuck out to me. There was nothing unpleasant, but nothing exceptional either. I was at a CVS Pharmacy a month or two ago when I heard this great soul song on the radio. I wrote down a few of the lyrics in my phone and made sure to look up what the song was when I got home. I found out it was Paolo Nutini's single "Coming Up Easy", off of his new album, Sunny Side Up. I was a bit hesitant to buy the album, afraid I'd only get 3 good singles and some filler again, but I went ahead and took the plunge. Well, the album is a wonder, miles beyond what was on These Streets. Full of passion and nuance and a certain amount of unassuming ambition. At just 24-years-old, Nutini has made something of a masterwork. At the very least he's made the statement that he's a true blue artist and someone worth listening to, not just a guy who can write a couple of goods songs on an album, throw some listenable pap in there and call it good. But "Coming Up Easy" is still the song that lights me up the most.

It starts off in a relaxed sorta groove, B-3 in the background and a few horns giving a sense of soul. Nutini lets his accent shine through a bit, which is nice. Too many singers try to lose their accent, losing a bit of distinctiveness in the process I think, but that's another topic for another day. Nutini sings of a guy wavering on breaking up with his girl. His friends tell him he should, she tells him to remember the good times they've had, watching the sun coming up or laying out in the rain. But when the break comes is where my interest truly piques. The line that struck me while I was standing there in the pharmacy was "It was in love I was created, and in love is how I hope I'll die." The drums start building, the horns start blaring, and Nutini repeatedly and jubilantly belts out the line like he's Otis Redding. That last 90 seconds or so of the song are what drew me in, it's what keeps me coming back, and really it's the reason I picked this song as my song of the week. It's a great bit of a young artist nodding to one of his influences and yet making it his own. It sounds easy, but it can actually be very difficult to show your influences without simply stealing from them, but Paolo if flawless in his execution, I think.

I want to reiterate how tremendous his new album is overall though. And "Coming Up Easy" is not the only Otis Redding tribute on Sunny Side Up, the song "No Other Way" is an even more overt attempt at a Stax Records sound (and it's a great attempt). But Nutini covers a lot of ground, does it well, and gets me excited for his next album. I really recommend picking it up if you get a chance.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Song of the week: Cee Lo's "Fuck You!"

One of the few times I regret not keeping up more with pop culture is when a worthy part of it slips through the cracks and I don't discover it until later. Cee Lo's "Fuck You" came out in late summer 2010, was named as the best song of the year by Time magazine, and is up 4 Grammy's including Song of the Year and Record of the Year. It's even, apparently, been covered on the hit TV show Glee, although naturally in its censored form "Forget You!". I only heard "Fuck You!" a few days ago, and I have to say that it's the best song I've heard in a long time. Of course the title grabs the attention, but getting past it I found one of the best Motown songs Motown never made. Pumping with tremendous R&B bass and percussion, and skanking along with classic funk guitar, Cee Lo's amazingly distinct voice shines through, the rasp, the falsetto, and his humor perfectly in tact. Going into a song called "Fuck You!" one doesn't really expect lyrical complexity, and Cee Lo doesn't disappoint. Nothing groundbreaking here in subject, just a wronged guy giving the middle finger to his ex and the new guy she's going out with. But we're shown yet again why something doesn't have to be new to be great. We're treated to an absolutely perfect pop/soul song, an instant classic that'll be around for a long time to come. I won't write any more, since I'm on the late shift getting onto the bandwagon, the original video has over 42 million hits on YouTube, the clean version hasn't hit 3 million yet, I thought that was funny. But if you're even further behind the 8 ball than I am, here you go.

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

Possibly my favorite doc we watched, documentary genius Errol Morris's portrait of extremely specialized knowledge and dedication in 4 very different fields had me glued to the screen from opening to closing credits. A wild animal trainer, a topiary gardener, a robot designer and an expert on the naked mole rat are our studies, and although each is fascinating in his own right, the way that their feelings and thoughts overlap one another in such different fields adds another layer to the intrigue. It's difficult to describe, but when Roger Ebert described Morris's narrative as more like music than a standard documentary, that felt right. When we're listening to one of the guys talk, we're not just staring at their talking head, and I'm not always sure why Morris is showing us the images he is over the speech we're listening to, it always felt right. Another one that still has me thinking today, Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control will likely have me ruminating for a while.

Blood into Wine

An interesting doc detailing the obsession that Maynard James Keenan has with wine. For those that don't know, Maynard is the lead singer for the bands Tool and A Perfect Circle and is just about the last person I would've ever thought about sitting around with comedian Patton Oswald and talking about the tannins in red wine. Knowing Tool's lyrics, I knew that Maynard was an intelligent and interesting person, but his journey into wine maker is a really fascinating one. Little bits on a fake talk with belligerent hosts, supposed to be comedic, falls flat, but almost everything else was interesting to me. It's certainly recommendable to anyone with an interest in wine and finding out a little more about what goes into the making of wine and the setting up of a vineyard.

Jesus Camp

A movie that would've been disturbing to me if I didn't know that these people already existed, and have had too many exchanges with them already. Jesus Camp instead just became boring to me and we eventually turned it off. I normally hate doing that, but the filmmakers were making every attempt to not judge the people on screen, and their seeming indifference to the goings on just left me not caring in the slightest whether I finished the movie or not.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

The one I'd most looked forward to, as I'd heard nothing but the highest praise, I'm still thinking on this. It's extremely entertaining, as street art legend Banksy takes the reins for the first time as a film director and leads us through the bizarre world surrounding Thierry Guetta. Guetta is a strangely hypnotically fascinating character, and his worship of street artists and his eventual becoming of one makes for a nice narrative. Banksy's insistence on keeping his identity secret is a little annoying, but I expected that going in. The community turning on Guetta once he "creates" his own art and has an exhibition was slightly surprising and I'm still not quite sure where everyone was coming from on that front, but Exit Through the Gift Shop is certainly a wonderful ride to take and one that still has me thinking a couple of days later.

How to Cook Your Life

I went through moments of zoning out while watching this one, I was tired and I was actually kind of annoyed by "Zen Chef" Edward Brown. Much of the food on display was delicious looking, I'm always a sucker for homemade bread (his apparent specialty), but a lot of Brown's babbling just became monotonous white noise after a while. Nice enough for a lazy afternoon, but not one I'll be going back to anytime soon.


This one was absolutely delightful! I was happily surprised to find that there is no distinct narrative, and no narration, to the story of about a year in the lives of four babies around the world. Instead, we're treated to just under 80 minutes of these adorable babies getting into all kinds of entertaining situations, and just being all around cute. It was a nice break from the seriousness of watching Lost, which my wife and I also started watching over break (more on that when I get further into it).