Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Man on Film: Worst Films of the Aughts - The Top Five

So here we find ourselves, staring down at an abysmal five films. The honorable mentions and the bottom half of the top ten have been covered. It's time to put the waders on because we've got a veritable stream of shit to make our way through.

5. The Master of Disguise - 2002

Every person I have ever met with Down Syndrome has been absolutely delightful to be around. Their disposition generally makes me feel bad for being such an awful person, and the thought has certainly crossed my mind that I'd be a lot happier if I had Down Syndrome. As much as I might like people with Down Syndrome, I don't really want to see a movie conceived by them, and that's the only explanation I can think of for the existence of The Master of Disguise.

There was a time when Dana Carvey, much like Billy Crystal (who we spoke about in the first installment), was considered funny. In retrospect, was the Church Lady that funny? Was Opportunity Knocks the high point of the 1990 comedic film docket?

Hindsight is 20/20. Seeing him go on the late night talk show circuit in the past ten years has just been sad, with each host tossing up incredibly lame softballs to let Carvey bust out his 20-year-old impressions.

This movie is a Dana Carvey star-vehicle at least eight years later than such a thing ever should have happened. If the picture above doesn't drive my point home, then here is the trailer:

I assure you, this movie is as dumb as it looks. I had to watch it at work once with some kids. I couldn't leave the TV room.

I should have quit that job when faced with the likeliness that I was going to have to watch it...

4. X-Men: The Last Stand - 2006

Now unlike many who took great offense to this film, I didn't actually care for the first of the three X-Men movies. It seemed like Singer & Co. tried to fit way too much into the film, the film lacked a narrative focus and direction, and the selection of X-Men for inclusion in the first film seemed a bit off to me. Add some questionable casting decisions (read: Anna Paquin as Rogue and James Marsden as Scott Summers) into the mix, and I came out of the theater very underwhelmed (definitely less than whelmed).

The second film in the series, however, was outstanding. Were I to make a list of the best superhero flicks ever, it would be in the top five* with ease. So when Brett Ratner's name was attached to direct, it became clear the film-going public would be the ones to pay.

*I think Spider-Man 2 was better and would probably place Batman Begins and The Dark Knight ahead of X2, but that's it.

Just how much they were going to have to pay would be impossible to imagine without actually seeing the film. To sum it up succinctly, Bryan Singer is having to be brought back on board after essentially being run off when he agreed to do Superman Returns and they are having to do an origins flick with Charles Xavier in his 20s.

Yes, X-Men: The Last Stand is that awful. The plot is paper thin. There is no set-up for anything that happens. It meanders from scene to scene with little regard for keeping the audience involved. Largely it is a film with set pieces around which a story is loosely tacked on. If it were a stand-alone movie it would be awful on its own merits. Given that it follows such a great film and essentially shits all over the goodwill that was built up in the second film makes its release a travesty.

Adding insult to injury, Ratner sees fit to anticlimacticly kill off characters that the majority of the audience has at least a decade of involvement with going back to the comic books and multiple cartoon randomly throughout the film, thus fucking the franchise going forward. The performances of all but Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Ellen Page (shockingly, but more on that later) range from mailed in to abysmal.

*Can someone please tell me how Shawn Ashmore continues to get work?

It was obvious when Brett Ratner, the 'brains' behind the Rush Hour franchise was signed to direct the third installment that it was going to be awful, but no amount of reshooting was going to save this film, Marvel Entertainment. You should have given this film the third-term, partial-birth abortion it warranted and just gone back to the drawing board with a competent director at the helm. Instead, we all get this, and you will find yourselves scrambling to dig out of this hole for years to come. I hope you're satisfied.

3. Southland Tales - 2006

It may be hard to remember, but there was a time when the entire film world was buzzing about Richard Kelly. Donnie Darko had worked up a feverish cult following on DVD after having had an unfortunate release concurrent with 9/11. Kelly's script for Domino was snatched up by Tony Scott, who proceeded to make a film that failed to crack a 6.0 user rating on IMDB, but eager fans chalked that up to the director not the scribe. We waited anxiously for Southland Tales, which from everything we heard was going to be enormous in scope--so big, in fact, that there were going to be a series of graphic novels that would come out beforehand to lay the groundwork for his magnum opus.

But the reaction was so overwhelmingly bad that I was was scared off until video where I watched as a mutual dare/suicide pact. This was my response after seeing it (when this blog was still clumsily walking a line lacking the requisite focus to have a semi-decent following):
Now hopefully (for you), the quote in the title is unfamiliar. If it does ring a bell, I'm sorry. That line is said not once, not twice, but three times in the most incomprehensible film ever made. Based on what the filmmaker said, this was a film that was supposed to be all things. Comedy. Thriller. Satire. Action film. What it ends up being is an utter piece of garbage.

The 'it' of which I speak is Southland Tales, and trust me, you do not want to see it.

Going in, the Old Lady, J-Bone, and I knew that we were about to watch a movie that was reportedly bad. That being said, I think we all were fairly open-minded and were expecting to find at least a few redeeming qualities. What we were treated to was essentially what would happen if Brett Ratner's ambitious, half-tard brother made an homage to Brazil. A disaster.

And all of us liked Donnie Darko. Sure it was convoluted and had some plot holes, but it was still enjoyable at the very least.

Southland Tales is anything but enjoyable. It clocks in at 2:15 (maybe more, my brain was hurting a lot by the time the movie was over), and I can safely say that there was only one scene that was actually good--and the faux domestic disturbance between Wood Harris and Amy Poehler was hilarious only because of my boy Avon Barksdale's gesticulating. The rest of the film is basically a series of events that take place involving characters leading up to this huge explosion, only there is absolutely no tension, and even if you are following what's going on and can makes sense of it there is simply nothing of any interest whatsoever.

I wanted to walk out of Pirates of the Caribbean 2 after about half an hour. I wanted to shoot myself after about fifteen minutes of Southland Tales. I guess I wasn't much of a pimp.

But I did finish the piece of shit, so I guess there's that.
This movie was completely and utterly worthless. If you need a reminder, here's the trailer:

I mean, Jesus Christ, he wasted The Rock and the opportunities that should have arisen from having Sarah Michelle Gellar play a porn star.

2. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - 2008

Cinematically speaking, this film comes as close to travelling back in time and raping your 12-year-old self as anything else could. It's like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg got together and decided that they were going to tie you down into a chair, murder your boyhood dog, and then skullfuck its corpse.

When trying to come up with anything positive to say about IJ:KoCS when initially reviewing it, I could only muster the following:
Shit script aside, there really isn't a lot to like about this film. Shia LaBeouf did what he could with a crap role loaded with cliche-ridden, greaser dialogue. Cate Blanchett's hair looked good. There's something about Ray Winstone I generally like, I guess.
This film single-handedly ruined a treasured (perhaps unjustly so) franchise from twenty years ago, ushered a new phrase into the pop-culture lexicon to augment and possibly rival "jumping the shark" ("nuking the fridge"), and made grown men cry. It gave us a leaden, humorless, and geriatric Indiana Jones complete with a horrible Harrison Ford performance that probably would have been better suited for the portion of Regarding Henry just after he is shot but before he starts to get his bearings about him. There are child-pandering transgressions here that are far more egregious than Jar-Jar Binks and the Ewoks combined, like the moronic vine-swinging sequence.

In short, fuck this movie.

1. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Dead Man's Chest - 2006

I wrote the following diatribe on IMDB within hours of walking out of the theater:
This film is like having a fat man who ate at IHOP run a marathon and then drop a diarrhea dump on your chest and proceed to use your face as toilet paper

I should preface this review by saying that I was indifferent as to how I might feel about this film going into it. I thought the first film was fairly good. It was entertaining, but nothing that made me yearn for a second one. That being said, I hadn't read a review of this film (and still haven't) and had only heard that it had received mixed reviews. I had tempered expectations going into the theater, but I was certainly open to a good time.

A good time was not had. This film was quite simply awful. I have not seen anything in a long time that made me marvel at the fact that it was actually the finished product of a gigantic summer film churned out by a Hollywood Studio. I saw X-Men 3. While that was dreadful, this was eons past X3 in terms of excrement put to celluloid.

The plot was akin to a second-grader's class project. There was zero character development and not a single moment in which you thought you were seeing an original thought projected onto the screen. While it is a sequel, at some point the things that happen to the characters should matter, and if something bad happens to a character, the events that have molded him or her to that point should affect the audience somehow. Instead, the tools responsible for this screenplay have events happen without emotionally investing the audience in any way, shape, or form as to the fate of the characters on-screen, simply hoping that writing an event will somehow tug at the heart-strings of the audience without ever having to earn it.

I don't know that it is entirely the filmmakers' fault, because it seems that Verbinski & Co. were tied to some P.O.S. script that was churned out in a matter of days to get the cameras rolling, so Disney could bend the movie-goer over and sodomize them while getting paid for it. In the place of an actual story, they were probably told to blow up the film with mind-numbing action sequences and lame special effects.

To add insult to injury, the film clocks in at a mere two-and-a-half hours, which for a film with a plot wouldn't bother me in the least, but when you can write out the entire plot of this film in a matter of moments, seeing that paper-thin storyline stretched into 150 minutes is unbearable.

I could even make an exception to all of the aforementioned gripes and say that there was something in the film worthwhile if there was one performance from the cast that was mildly amusing. Alas, there is not. The actors all seem to have mailed it in, including Depp, who had a single chuckle-worthy moment as a follow-up to an Oscar-nominated turn in the previous Pirates outing.

***********SPOILER ALERT*************** When it comes down to it, all you'll get from this film is an obscenely long prologue to Pirates of the Caribbean 3: The Search for Spock--I mean Jack, because the entire plot of this atrocious piece of refuse is enough to fill a mere introduction to a real story.

Now, as one could imagine, I did not bother with the third, At World's End. I am sure that it would make the list, but one of these is enough.

I still feel like I did when I wrote that. This was a wretched film. This was, by far, the worst movie of this past decade, and it's not even close.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Man on Film: Worst Films of the Aughts - Numbers Ten Through Six

The List 10 - 6

You've gotten the introduction and the films qualifying for honorable mention. Here is the first half of the top ten.

10. Minority Report - 2002

You might be able to tell by the fact that this is one of two Spielberg-directed films on the list that I might not like Steven Spielberg. While I think he can be a great visual director, his repeated steps up onto his soapbox are tirelessly aggravating to me. Minority Report along with IJ: KoCS are the last two Spielberg movies that I saw in the theater. Each time, I left the theater wanting my time and money back. In the case of Minority Report, I only spent $2 at a bargain theater.

I remember (and this was 7 years ago) sitting in my seat and becoming aggravated by his heavy handed preaching no less than ten minutes into his take on Philip K. Dick's dystopian vision of the future. Getting to watch Tom Cruise non-act his way through the film was brutally painful, something that a more intuitive director would have taken care of by pacing the film more responsibly. Two-plus hours of watching Tom Cruise occupy the big screen has since been added to the Geneva Conventions as a torturous offense. By the time Spielberg was done spelling out what you were supposed to believe with Days of Thunder as his lead, my brain hurt and I felt dumber for having sat through the film.

I'm not sure that I have recovered those lost IQ points, but you readers of the blog who knew me before 2002 might be able to shine a light on that subject. Regardless, Minority Report stole two hours and 15 minutes from my life that I'll never get back, and it brutally raped the memory of Philip K. Dick, further cementing Spielberg's place in the special part of hell reserved for people who take good source material and make turgid, piece-of-shit movies out of them.

9. Max Payne - 2008

Based on the trailer, I really thought this movie had the potential to be a solid dark action flick. Seriously, tell me how this doesn't look like it should be good.

Mark Wahlberg, who was just coming off the ass-kicking, Bronson throwback Shooter (I'm choosing to block out We Own the Night--if I didn't see it, it didn't happen, right?...), looked to have a super-dark, hyper-stylized revenge flick newly added to his resume. Mila Kunis looked super hot and was purported to be kicking ass, and good-looking ladies kicking all sorts of ass is never a bad thing. All looked good.

Then the movie came out. Holy Hell was I dead wrong. Any aesthetic appeal to the film was ultimately deemed irrelevant by the complete lack of anything resembling a story. Absolutely nothing happened other than his family being killed and then his finally starting to get revenge like 90 minutes in. I know video game movies are more often than not going to be awful, but they probably could have ripped the script directly from the game and at least had something happen in the first three-quarters of the movie. I cannot remember a single plot point from the first hour of the film, and that is probably because there wasn't one. This was basically an even more egregious sleight to storytelling in favor of making something look cool than the most effective advertisement in favor or steroid use ever, 300.

Regardless, Max Payne was interminable and just sporadically meandered for 90 minutes until he finally started shooting the people who killed his family. Stupid.

8. Elizabethtown - 2005

I have absolutely loved two Cameron Crowe movies: Say Anything... and Almost Famous. I don't count Fast Times at Ridgemont High because he didn't direct it, even though it is arguably more about him than any of his films other than Almost Famous. Singles and Jerry Maguire were both flawed for many reasons but were not necessarily horrible. Elizabethtown, however, is absolutely terrible.

This is basically a film that consists entirely of rehashed moments from Cameron Crowe's earlier films. Making a film that is basically ripping off your own previous films is reprehensible enough, but he chose Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst as his leads, sealing this film's fate as an unforgivably awful movie. In their hands, even an intelligent script would fall flat, but this is the filmic equivalent to the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication, which might be the worst non- Weezer album of the past twenty years, in that it is basically a covers album of one's own greatest hits with shittier lyrics. That it is from the mind of Cameron Crowe, who is capable of much better, makes it all the worse.

The thing is I knew going into it that it was supposed to be awful. I had not heard a single positive reaction to the film. Such a resounding disapproval lowered my expectations mightily. I thought it would be bad. Then I put it in and started watching, and each scene made me more and more angry than the one before it. It is a saccharin exercise in forced self-discovery with no rationale or plausibility to the protagonist's eventual self-actualization. Elizabethtown was a bullshit movie from someone who should know better. It's cloying and melodramatic and gratingly cutesy, all for the sake of trying to generate some feel-good ending, but it's all for naught because this movie blows.

7. House of the Dead - 2003

Uwe Boll had to make the list somewhere, didn't he. Now, unfortunately, I have not seen Alone in the Dark or any of the BloodRayne movies, but I think we can all agree that Uwe Boll is a mainstay on this kind of list. House of the Dead is absolute horseshit. When realizing that this is somehow an adaptation of a video game*, the first question that popped into my mind was, "The video game can't have been this bad, right?"

*I had sex in the decade prior to this film coming out, so why would I know this beforehand?

Seriously, it's a horror movie with no suspense, no rationale behind characters' actions, nothing resembling acting, and no budget. I could bore you with "plot points," but there aren't really any. The characters are supposed to be going to the rave of the century but, having gotten a glimpse of it in the opening minutes of the film, expectations for such a rave are comical as there could be have been no more than 15 people there. It is rare that a film has such a disconnect between what is supposed to be going on within the context of the film and what is actually shown on the screen. Hell, there are little shots from the video game spliced in intermittently to the film despite the fact that there appear to be very few similarities between them.

6. Juno - 2007

In case you missed it the first time I wrote about it, I hated this fucking movie. Watch this trailer, and tell me what about that is going to be good...

(I do realize that the sound isn't synchronized on this one, but the other trailer doesn't get my point across as well.)

Seriously, this movie is godawful. The dialogue is wretched. The characters are nothing more than caricatures. Everything is entirely too cute and precious. Juno is a bottomless pit of precocious witticism in a pregnant teen vessel. There is nothing that even approaches a real moment in the first two-thirds of this film, and when an attempt is made to bring this film back to reality it is all the more irksome because it just drives the point home that this film made no attempt at all to be about real people or real situations.

It is also indirectly responsible for "The United States of Tara," the biggest waste of the talents of John Corbett ever, so there is a tangential reason to hate this even more. That's kind of irrelevant because there is next to nothing redeemable about this movie. The fact that legitimate talent is attached to this film is just more aggravating because they could have been working on something good rather than this trite horseshit.

The fact that there are five movies that I hated more than Juno should have you coming back for the final installment of this series on Tuesday. Happy Jesus Day.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Man on Film: Worst Films of the Aughts - Honorable Mention

When getting down to the business of compiling decade's end lists, there is the obvious issue that there is no way for the writer to have seen all of the films released in that window of time. So while this list will obviously be incomplete for that reason, I can say that I have seen a fuckload of movies over the past ten years.

Now in most places doing these lists, you'll find a best-of list pounded out by some fanboy eliciting arguments from other fanboys about how Oldboy should have been higher than Audition or how the Lord of the Rings trilogy should have held the top three spots (even though it wasn't even the best trilogy of the decade). Obviously, my list would have been Rambo and then everything else, and where's the suspense in that?

Putting together a list of the worst movies of the decade is a lot more fun, and you know it.

Now since we're talking about awful movies, it will be hard for me to dial back the language to an even remotely family friendly standard, so if you are sensitive to harsh language, this is the post that you should probably avoid. There is also the obvious shortcoming of not having seen movies like Daddy Day Camp, Malibu's Most Wanted, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, White Chicks, Dracula 2000, Wild Hogs, Saw VI, or The Love Guru*, so this list will be mostly comprised of movies that it will have made sense for someone to have seen. This means that these films had some sort of expectation of being more than they were, meaning they failed much more than a Jamie Kennedy star vehicle, which was obviously going to suck from Jump Street.

*There is also the curious phenomenon of the Tyler Perry catalog. I saw 20 minutes of Madea Goes To Jail and was horrified. I'm not sure what to make of these films and how they would fall into this list. Don't get me wrong that 20 minutes was painful and transvestism for comedic effect rarely works, but I wonder if it's really worth my time to write anything about them. And if I did, I would be afraid that my favorite person to make the BALCO investigation list would come after me...

It also should be noted that I have not seen From Justin to Kelly, Crash, Van Helsing, or either of the Fantastic Four films--all of which I fully believe would contend for spots on this list. I have seen the first 20 minutes of Norbit, and I am confident that it would make the top two if I had been able to finish it. Unfortunately for this list, fate and work intervened, and I have not seen the entire film.

I also feel like there is a very good chance that I will hate Avatar and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, both of which come out as the Aughts come to an end.

Without further ado, here is the list of the Worst Movies of the Aughts...

Honorable Mention:

These films were all terrible in their own right. They just do not happen to have been so bad as to make the cut.

America's Sweethearts - 2001

Holy shit. There was a time when Billy Crystal was funny. Seriously. Well, he co-wrote and co-starred in this shit heap. It starred Julia Roberts (who only Steven Soderbergh can coax a remotely bearable performance out of) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (who sucks outright), stacking the deck on the "this is going to blow" side of the argument from the get-go, but also managed to make the inherently likable John Cusack come across as unsympathetically whiny.

Battlefield Earth - 2000

Do I really need to say anything about this? If this came out more recently, maybe this would crack the top ten. If I hadn't missed 45 minutes of it while a roommate was watching it on cable, it might make the top of the list. Having missed one-third of the film did not dull the pain enough to have BE not make this list.

Death Proof (The Grindhouse cut) - 2007

So I'm cheating a little bit here, but there is no fucking way I was going to sit through the director's cut that meant I was going to get to hear more shameless name-dropping of Austin landmarks and poorly written dialogue for female characters. The car sequences were decent enough to exempt this from the top ten, but it still makes the honorable mention cut. It somehow manages to waste Kurt Russell, which I thought was impossible, but casting against type doesn't automatically make something good.

Righteous Kill
- 2008

Al Pacino and nuance have been estranged since at least 1983. He hasn't carried a decent movie since 1992*, if we're being generous. Robert DeNiro hasn't been in a strong serious film since 1998's Ronin. You could tell from the trailer that it was going to be awful. It didn't disappoint. Given their decade-plus track records of churning out garbage, it was hardly a surprise. If the honorable mentions were being ranked this would be wrestling with Battlefield Earth for making the top ten.

*Michael Mann's Heat is the shit, but that is absolutely an ensemble piece.

Swordfish - 2001

How does a movie containing the first Halle Berry topless scene on celluloid become the most boring Heineken ad ever? Ask Swordfish because it accomplished that feat.

Complete and utter shit, and it solidifies John Travolta as this generation's Al Pacino.

Check back Monday for the bottom half of the top ten.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Man on Film: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Since The Royal Tenenbaums, it has kind of felt like Wes Anderson was treading water. In each film, he seems to have been desperately seeking his father's approval, and each has ultimately drowned in paternal pathos. Even the shine of Anderson's perpetual quirkiness has begun to lose its luster, as his characters have become increasingly unlikeable and decreasingly tethered to a reality anyone in the audience can share.

As the real world has become a less than integral element in Anderson's ouvre, the leap to The Fantastic Mr. Fox makes sense.

Now if one were to assume that since The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a movie for children that there wouldn't be any daddy issues, one would be mistaken. For nearly the entire film, the Jason Schwartzman-voiced Ash begs for his father's attention/approval.

Luckily, since there is a clear break from reality and stop-motion animation is a new medium for Anderson to work within, this doesn't feel as tired as The Darjeeling Limited and (especially) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou did.

For the most part, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a fun ride. The kiddie flick 'cuss' alternative is amusing for the adult. The farm-robbing hijinx breathe enough life into the film not to bore.
Visually speaking, the stop-motion animation that he first experimented with in The Life Aquatic gets to breathe a full breath, stretch its legs out, and make itself comfortable. Given the time of a feature-length film and the hand of a director who doesn't seem to have a whimsy off-switch, the full breadth of what the stop-motion can do is realized to great effect. That combined with the boisterous agri-capers that the George Clooney-voiced Mr. Fox ventures out on, make for a fun, family-friendly romp.

The one thing I do wonder is whether or not children are going to get this film. I mean, I'm not a kid so personally I don't give a damn whether it works for children, but I doubt that most six-year-olds are going to be drawn into a film in which the character that they would most closely associate themselves with is conniving and whining for a good chunk of the film.

Again, that does not color my view on the film, and I liked it walking out to the car, so I guess that's all that really matters.

Now if only Wes Anderson's father would express some pride in his son's work, so we could all get to see what might happen if he made a film with a different thematic template...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reading Rainbow: Love is a Mixtape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield

Over the past year or two, I have come to realize that I rather enjoy reading about the role that music plays in other people's lives. Maybe it started with Fargo Rock City. Maybe it predated that. Regardless, there is something comforting to me about reading about how important something as arguably unimportant can be in someone else's life as it adds an air of normalcy to my perception of my life that probably shouldn't be there.

But somehow reading someone whose own pop obsession rivals mine validates my perpetual preoccupation.

Rob Sheffield's account of music and the role it played in his life is compelling, funny, and even devastating. You see, while Love is a Mixtape is a chronicle of the musical experiences of a rock writer, it is at least as much a stirring elegy paying tribute to his wife, Renee, who died one afternoon in their Charlottesville apartment at the age of 31 from a pulmonary embolism.

And weirdly, this book works fantastically well, and I don't think that it is solely because it plays to my biggest fear* and my appreciation of music (fandom).

*Despite my gross self-centeredness, my biggest fear is actually losing The Special Lady Friend, not my own death (but trust me, that's way up there on the list). Death fucks me up anyway, but every time TSLF is abnormally incommunicado and unaccounted for my imagination works into horrific overdrive and I start to freak the fuck out. Maybe I'm a morbid person, but I'd be fucking shattered if anything happened to her.

Sheffield lovingly paints a picture of a vibrant, magnetic woman, one whose relationship with him was colored largely by shared musical interests. If ever he worried that Renee would be forgotten, this book assures that she won't. After endearing her to the reader, illuminating her quirks and injecting her joie de vivre into nearly every page, her death knocks you on your ass. His account of the aftermath is heartbreaking, and it seems clear that he'll never truly be over her.

Music was a backdrop for their life together, permeating nearly all of their experiences together. Their consumption of music of all types informed and enriched their lives. Their shared experiences are defined by their mutual love of music, and his memories of Renee are rehashed, rekindled, and recalled at the insertion of a mixtape into a tape deck.

It may sound weird, but somehow reading a book with each chapter of the author's life framed by a mixtape from the time period is insanely entertaining. The tragic sudden death of a young bride makes for a heart-string puller, and his recount of trying to pick up the pieces of a broken life afterward certainly resonated with me.

In short, it's a good music read that's not nearly as light as most similar works.

(If you read the book, you'll get why that trailer is there...)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Man on Film: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Imagine a film in which Nicolas Cage is cut free and allowed to be 110% Nicolas Cage.

Now you don't have to. It exists, and it is The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

I will freely admit that when I heard the Werner Herzog was going to team up with Nicolas Cage on this project I was not sure what to expect. It really owes nothing to Abel Ferrara's The Bad Lieutenant. There are certainly thematic similarities, as both feature corrupt, drug-addicted cops, but Herzog has never seen Ferrara's film, so anything past that is mere coincidence. Knowing the subject matter and the talent involved, you knew this was going to be mind-blowing.

If you have any doubts, here's the trailer. It will convince you.

This is unbridled Nic Cage. If you are a reader of this blog or know me at all, you know that is all I want from life.

Despite my insanely high expectations for the film, I walked out ecstatically pleased with my film-going experience. There were weird reptile motifs complete with reptile cams. It is insanely quotable with Cage rattling off brilliant lines like:
Shoot him again... His soul is still dancing.

You don't have a lucky crack pipe?

I'll kill all of you. To the break of dawn. To the break of dawn, baby!
It really seems like Herzog had the intention of making a vehicle for Cage to go balls to the wall for a full two hours because he trusted Cage's instincts, and Herzog was rewarded with perhaps his best feature film yet. Each stylistic choice is spot on. It is perfectly exploitative. It has the grit of post-Katrina New Orleans permeating every shot. The score envelops the film with a doped up swampy haze that pulls you in. And there is Nicolas Cage, who I may have devoted more space and time on this blog to than anyone else, and here he justifies that status.

Hell, any movie that ends with this line:
You know, Chavez, I still hate that I ruined my underwear for you
followed by a quasi-maniacal laugh, should be seen regardless of what else is in the film.

Judging by the trailer above, you should know if this is a movie for you. If it isn't, I feel bad for you because there is something missing from your life and it is the joy of seeing this crazy, fucked up movie.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Reading Rainbow: Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

Not being an historian of any sort myself (I haven't taken a proper history class since my junior year of high school in 1996-'97), I have to admit that I am no authority on the American Revolution.

With that admittance out in the open, Nancy Isenberg's thoroughly researched 2007 biography of the controversial Aaron Burr is absolutely convincing in painting its portrait of a man who has been short-changed in the larger eye of history. Taking into account the hyper-partisan press, the Alexander Hamilton-led Federalist party, and the myriad jealousy-driven factions within his own disjointed Republican party, Isenberg lays more than ample groundwork to make her case.

Through her extensive research, she is able to tell the story of the nation's third Vice President. His potential for broad appeal affixed a target to his back, and his opponents (read: nearly every man wielding any political power after the slightly mishandled election of 1800) took nearly every chance they got to take him down. Despite his best efforts--or possibly because of them--to remain neutral and independent, he ended up getting dragged through the mud worse than any of his peers.

*The notes and index run a whopping 125 of the hardcover's 540 total pages.

Having had his character repeatedly assailed by the spurious and pernicious Alexander Hamilton, the fed-up Aaron Burr finally made the fateful challenge. All of this came closely on the heels of his President abandoning him, fearing for the preservation of the Virginia Dynasty and buying into the baseless lies sold by Burr's foes in print and politics (although little separated the two).

Following those two career-destroying events and fueled by his financial woes resulting from his failed land speculating in years past, he made a run at a privatized liberation of Spanish territories to the west of the Louisiana Territory (any government involvement would have been viewed as an act of war). Unbeknownst to Burr, he had taken a double agent into his inner circle, who then sold Burr out to sitting President Thomas Jefferson by misrepresenting Burr's intent as having been secessionist.

Already we're talking about a pretty compelling story, complete with very vivid personal letters lending Burr's own voice to his biographers set of tools. There is also further characterization of Thomas Jefferson as a politically insecure, passive-aggressive douchebag with a penchant for trusting the wrong people. So clearly what we're talking about is one of the most interesting, historically maligned figures from out batch of founding fathers. Coupled with a fresh take (I hesitate to label this revisionist because of the bitter pang that the term takes for me, personally), this is totally worth your time and effort.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tube Steak: "White Collar," You Surprised Me

(updated with video at the bottom of the page @ 9:00 pm)

So I was going to sit down and begin to work up a "Family Ties" centered Munch My Benson blog entry(ies?...) after finishing up with the "White Collar" fall finale, but now I can't.

Now I've not spoken about the show on the blog before, but I have written about some of the USA Network's other programs at length, which is kind of weird I guess. And there is the matter of having started up an entire blog with other people solely devoted to one program that they air about 15 episodes of every Tuesday... Suffice it to say, I watch a fair deal of USA, and I'm not sure how I feel about that.

In their newest show, "White Collar," they have quite the little hit on their hands (it generally pulls better ratings than "Smallville" does on Friday nights, although they are in different time slots).

"White Collar" seemed very much akin to "Burn Notice" in that they both feature impossibly cool protagonists who are capable of doing just about anything their work requires, and their work is pretty fun to watch. Where "Burn Notice" has its super spy, "White Collar" has its master thief/forger/conman. And, of course, Matthew Bomer is a dashing man who wears a suit well with a winning smile, so it makes it really hard to root for his character...

*****Spoilers ahead*****

So much of what has been driving Caffrey is the yearning to get his girlfriend, Kate, back. At the same time, he has had to earn the trust of his partner in the FBI (he's on work-release essentially), Peter. As cards have been turned over, it has become evident that Kate is being controlled by a third party.

As this fall finale played out with Neal wiggling free from the grips of sure imprisonment (this time wrongful) using his wiles and charm, he got a phone call from Kate telling him to trust no one.

Now if they left it at this moment that reeked of "The X-Files," it probably would have kept me wanting for the six weeks between now and the next new episode.

Then it took a turn for the dark side, and after the break Kate entered her hotel room to find her pinky-ringed pseudo-captor seated behind a high-backed chair.

And then there was the reveal.

Ho. Ly. Fuck.

Color me shocked.

Now maybe there is more to this story, but if Peter* is really some crazy double-life living mastermind, then you can consider me utterly surprised.

*By the way, love that Tim DeKay is in this. He was great in "Carnivale" and has been insanely likeable (/hate-able?...), and his play with Bomer has been some of the best buddy cop chemistry in recent television.

That is a first from a show on this network, and this viewer is pleased as punch.

Needless to say, I really cannot wait for January 18th to roll around because that curveball threw me way off.

And since I can't find an embeddable version of the Private Eyes "Psych" promo, here's an oldie but a goodie...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tube Steak: Semi-Shameful "Glee" Confession

All right.

I watch "Glee."

It might be the gayest thing I do.

I actually enjoy the show for the most part. There are moments when I cringe*, but they don't outweigh the good.

*Any of the musical numbers that are fantasy sequences within individual characters' heads, thus breaking with reality: the thing I hate most about musicals in general.

With that out of the way, the pregnancy ruse that Terri was pulling on Will definitely had to end. It was intriguing for a while, but it had gone about six episodes too long. I guess there are bound to be some growing pains when you get an Executive Producer used to 13 episode seasons having to stretch his feet out on network full-season television, but Ryan Murphy need not worry, he is not going to be compared to Kevin Williamson* or "Degrassi" when it comes to burning through narrative arcs.

*Maybe my memory is doing me a disservice, but it really seemed to me that stories that should have taken months to play out on "Dawson's Creek" ended up being resolved in two or three episodes. With reasonable narrative pacing, I probably would have kept watching that show past its first season. OK, probably not. Its "Buffy" lead-in was the reason I watched in the first place, I never had a thing for Katie Holmes or Michelle Williams, and its dialogue was laughably inappropriate for the age-group being portrayed. "Dawson's Creek" was never really going to be a show that I could have stuck with...

But this faking of a pregnancy and the awful sister-in-law scenes was killing all momentum every fifteen minutes or so.

It had to end.

Now I get that Will and Jayma need to be kept apart to leave viewers wanting for something to happen. The sexual tension between the two is one of the most compelling aspects of the show--that, and the roughly tri-weekly transcendent full-group routines, starting with the outstanding "Don't Stop Believin'" number in the outstanding premiere--so keeping them lusting after one another with no release is vital to the overall chemistry of the show.

That doesn't mean the Will/Terri pregnancy drama needed to go on this long. It was excruciating, but I guess I've now gotten just a bit more of the good ol' catharsis from it, so there is that.

Thank God that's over.

I can now look forward to the season-long story arcs moving forward.

Here's a gift...

You're welcome.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Man on Film: 2012

So much of the film-going experience is dependent upon expectations. The expectations come from a lot of places, but I think most of us go into a movie with a pretty good idea what to expect.

With a limited amount of time, there is only so far for a movie to go. With a healthy amount of movie watching under our belt very little is going to hold a surprise, so we suspend our disbelief, shut off our brains, buckle in, and try our damnedest to enjoy the ride.

So, when walking into 2012, it is not without the knowledge in hand that the movie you are about to see is going to be mostly retarded movie in which the world (as we know it) is likely to end in some scientifically flawed way, but a ton of shit is going to blow up on a macro scale. It is, after all, a Roland Emmerich film*.

*From here on, there will be plenty of spoilers. I'm going to assume that--even if you haven't seen this film--you know what is going to happen. It is a Roland Emmerich film.

And it did not disappoint on any of those grounds.

A ton of shit blew up. Hell, Yellowstone became a super caldera, and California fell into the ocean. Turbo tsunamis* wipe out the entire Indian subcontinent and reach Himalayan China. A fucking aircraft carrier rides a wave and crashes onto the fucking White House. It is safe to say that shit hits the proverbial* fan.

*I don't really want to look it up because it would cut into the SVU research I'm doing right now, but I am sure I'm anglicizing the plural of tsunami in a grotesquely ethnocentric way.

**You remember that passage from Proverbs in which there is shit flying everywhere and hits the fan and sprays everybody, right?

As for the science, I'm no plate tectonicist (or maybe it's a geologist...), but I would imagine that there are some holes in the theory behind the sun magically heating the earth's core to the point that the tectonic plates begin to float on the molten mantle.

On the retarded front, I'll cite one thing specifically. As it becomes evident that Africa is where they'll need to go to start anew, a captain spews out the line:
That's why they call it the Cape of Good Hope.

Luckily, the film is loaded with likable stars. Obviously, there's John Cusack, who we all know and love. It is refreshing to see him as the lead in a big film again. Hopefully, this will reopen doors, and he'll have another film that rivals his creative high points of High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank (sorry, but War, Inc. didn't do that). Woody Harrelson continued his comeback from five self-imposed years off as an Alex Jones-type character. Amanda Peet was her usual, endearing self. Chiwetel Ejiofor was appropriately impassioned as the crusading scientist. We even got Little Shawn from "Psych," the heel reporter from "The Wire," and Danny Glover as the President.

That kind of cast made most of the potentially grimace-inducing lines at least somewhat believable. In fact, the only time that any of the principle cast really stepped over the line into full-on cheese was when Ejiofor was quoting Jackson Curtis' (Cusack) book to preserve humanity.

The long and short of all of this is that if all you are wanting out of 2012 is a movie that is light on substantive plot, lighter on believable dialogue, and full of huge explosions, then you will be happy. All we really want is to escape, and there is nothing that is tethering this film to the real world, so we are all ultimately allowed to leave this world for 150 minutes.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Musicalia: The Swell Season - Paramount Theater, Austin, TX - 11/15/09

Last night, The Special Lady Friend and I ventured out to what has become a familiar concert venue over the past few months to take in The Swell Season's headlining gig. If you need a refresher, I just saw Glen Hansard open for Sam Beam at the Paramount in July, and it was amazing. (I've also written about Once on more than one occasion). Every time I've seen him with now three different acts has been top notch, and this time was no different.

Hansard's solo acoustic rendition of "Leave" was absolutely transcendent. The full-band "When Your Mind's Made Up" was moving. Marketa Irglova led the band for a great run through the new stand-out track "Fantasy Man." They opened the encore up with a phenomenal Glen and Marketa duet of "Falling Slowly". In between, they covered much of the two Swell Season releases*, along with a few old Frames tunes sprinkled in.

*The new album, Strict Joy, is pretty damn solid, by the way. I'm a pretty shitty music reviewer, if we're being honest here, largely because music is a medium that I feel more than anything else and I have fairly major issues with the transition between the way I feel about music and finding the words to illustrate that feeling. That being said, the first three tracks are great, and the album manages to maintain its momentum through to the end.

Now you may have noticed that this recap has been fairly superficial, and I assure you there is cause for this. The cause for the cursory nature of this recount is because I was ceaselessly distracted by the insanely irritating super fan sitting right behind me for pretty much the entire show.

I freely admit that I am an irritable person, surely more so than most, but there is something especially grating about the person directly behind you singing through the entire concert. It is even worse at a quieter show at a sit-down venue. And all of that is further exacerbated when that person thinks herself a good singer, therefore singing loud, singing proud, and singing in a different register than the person singing on stage. Compound that irritation with a five-minute sneezing spell and hand-clapping for something like five straight songs roughly two feet from my ears, and you've got one irritated dude. For the record, I was not the only one irritated, but I'm the only one writing about it.

Now I don't have a big problem with singing along to certain things, especially when it is done tastefully or relatively quietly (the girl next to me was singing along, too, but she was doing so quietly and was shockingly not irritating), but singing out and harmonizing on shit is just fucking aggravating. If we were in a loud club, it'd be different, too, but it's a fucking theater.

I didn't pay $90+ dollars for a pair of tickets to hear you sing, lady.

Rant done.

The show was good, but some irritating broad* kind of took me out of it.

*I kind of want to bring the word 'broad' back. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Reading Rainbow: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

From what I have heard (and I can't say that I frequent book review sites and publications), the newest Thomas Pynchon book has been received with a somewhat tepid reaction. Having read everything of his but Against The Day*, I can see where the disappointment may arise from. That being said, my reaction wasn't one of disappointment, per se.

*I was about 250 pages through Against The Day when I stopped having a reason to ride the bus. As the bus ride went, so went the time to read. I was pleased with what I had read but knew the climb would be a long one, and a disservice to the reading experience. I'll probably revisit if I'm ever in white collar prison or too poor to have a television.

In Inherent Vice, we find the inimitable Thomas Pynchon stretching out in the genre of the Private Eye novel. If you told that to someone with only a vague idea as to who Thomas Pynchon* is, they would probably think it odd. Hell, a good deal of casual Pynchon readers would look askance at someone bringing them that news.

*The author, of course, not the person, as there are only a handful of people out there with that kind of information.

The thing is almost all of his books have found their protagonists on a quest to solve a mystery. In V., Herbert Stencil is searching for the answer to Who V. is. In The Crying of Lot 49, heroine Oedipa Maas is trying to get to the bottom of a centuries-old battle between rival mail distribution companies. For Tyrone Slothrop, the quasi-hero of Gravity's Rainbow, it is the quest to discover the cause of his erectile conditioning having been tuned to the dropping of V-2 rockets. I could go on, but you get the point.

There is a sense to this slight transition. Rather than have non-detectives trying to solve a labyrinthine mystery, Inherent Vice features Private Investigator Larry 'Doc' Sportello being put onto a case by his ex-girlfriend that starts out simply enough but quickly devolves into the multi-layered, multi-faceted post-modern yarn we have grown accustomed to. Present is the drug-induced paranoia, perverse corporate greed, silly character naming, and fear of authority. It is just operating (loosely) within the constructs of the noir genre--or as others have labeled it psychedelic noir.

The easiest way I can describe this book is to say the following: Imagine that Thomas Pynchon was writing an homage to The Big Lebowski but set it in 1969.

And really, by setting it in the time and place that clearly begat the mindset that has been a driving force in all of his works* no matter their setting, it allows him to finally return to the ground that has so deeply permeated all of his work, while not having actually been the setting since The Crying of Lot 49.

*Just try to tell me that the Benjamin Franklin of Mason & Dixon wasn't a Californian hippie at his core.

The elements of California in the 1960s are able to flourish in their own habitat in Inherent Vice.

Now, if I'm being totally honest, I am not a writer with enough skill, nor a reader with enough intelligence for that matter, to be able to decipher what each bit of minutae means symbolically or historically. When talking about Thomas Pynchon, few are. That being said, this was probably his most accessible book yet. I read it in a week and a half--roughly half the time it took me to read the much shorter Lot 49--and at no time did it feel like a chore. Coming from someone who read Gravity's Rainbow twice*, I know what a chore reading Thomas Pynchon can be.

*Don't worry, my comprehension was limited, too. I still feel like I need to go back and read it a third time, this time taking very detailed notes.

If you've not read Pynchon before, this actually isn't a bad starting point (of course, neither is V.). The book is good fun and is maybe the weirdest entrant into the noir genre yet.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Diversions: Another Blog?

All right, so I launched yet another blog, and this time there should be some help (and I'm certainly willing to allow for other contributors, if you're interested).

Right now, it is an undertaking that was born from the haze of a recently completed fantasy basketball draft. Having alluded to it on my twitter feed (an experiment, I assure you), I have started up a "Law & Order: SVU" blog. The amount of time I spend talking about how awesome that show is with people who share my feelings regarding the show is a little ridiculous.

The first entry is up here. The name of the blog is:

Munch My Benson

I encourage you to check in there, as I have high hopes. If you, too, share a love for all things "SVU" and are interested in contributing, your fandom and writing is welcome.

Diversions: Shout Out?

Yo, Dannenbring.

Dubya tee eff?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tube Steak: "Curb Your Enthusiasm" Cameo

All right, this season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has been absolutely outstanding. The play between Larry and Jerry Seinfeld has been great. All of the reunion stuff has been great.

But on the newest episode, "Officer Krupke," there was a special gift. I'm not going to give anything away, but--out of the blue--a special guest entered the "Curb" universe tonight. No, I'm not talking about former Duke of Hazzard and troubadour John Schneider. It's not the beautiful Elisabeth Shue, either.

No, in the first scene in Banana Republic, as the clientele are forced to evacuate the store, a certain bearded gentleman makes his way through the frame.

That bearded gent?

None other than, Ben Affleck.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tube Steak: A Rare Day Off and An "SVU" Marathon

As USA unfurls another "Law & Order: SVU" Tuesday, it occurs to me that this network actually doesn't air enough "Law & Order".

I'm not kidding.

Pretty much every time I am not watching something I Tivoed, I am wishing that SVU or CI* was on**. A lot of the time, I luck out. Too often, however, I am left out in the cold, jonesing for some Stabler and Olivia crime-fighting action, or lately some weird Goldblum-being-Goldblum detecting.

*I am going to drop the formality of putting SVU and CI or any other television series in quotes for the rest of this post. Let me assure you that I know they're supposed to be in quotes, but I would rather write a couple long sentences preemptively detailing why I'm dropping the quotation mark charade for a post than actually hit "Shift - Apostrophe" multiple times.

**This being largely because Frasier is not in HD and not on an HD channel, and I've seen every episode of House, many of them multiple times. Those are my other syndication mainstays.

There are so many reasons to love these shows, which is certainly an odd description for two shows that focus on rape, murder, and sexual abuse, but I guess I'm an odd dude.

For starters, it seems like there is at least one great guest star in every episode. Right now, Ellen Burstyn is playing Stabler's bipolar mom. In the last episode, we got a de facto Sports Night reunion of Dan Rydell and Rebecca Wells as Josh Charles and Teri Polo guested as a strained couple who were parents of potential child molester. I can't think of a single member of the cast of The Wire* who hasn't been on an episode. Yesterday, Namond Brice (I know, his real name is Julito McCullum) was a bespectacled bully on an episode of CI. Luke Perry and Julie Bowen were on an episode earlier as a married couple, who... wait for it... wait for it... got married after (unbeknownst to her) her raped her. Oh, and Dylan McKay totally raped Darlene Conner in that episode, too. What a crazy fucking world we live in!

*(Anyone who has not seen Season One of The Wire should not read this italicized paragraph) Speaking of The Wire, Wallace is all grown up now. Holy shit. He looks like a MAN on the season premiere of Friday Night Lights. Weird aside: I was driving up Red River past the campus, look over at the sweet convertible next to me and there's Michael B. Jordan! It's like The Wire is in my hood now, too, only a bizarro universe of The Wire in which Wallace wasn't offed, he simply relocated.

But past the sweet guest stars, the real draw to SVU is the cast. Everyone loves Ice-T, and Belzer, reprising his role from Homicide (see how I'm sticking with the non-quotes?), is clearly the shit. Christopher Meloni is great and manages to always project that essence of being on the edge of flying off the handle. His simmering intensity adds an element of tension that isn't present in OG Law & Order (but is alive and well in the person of our modern-day Orson Welles, Vincent D'Onofrio in CI, but CI is really another entry, so I'll avoid too much exposition on that subject matter).

Perhaps most importantly (at least from a male/lesbian standpoint) is the sexy Mariska Hargitay. Working as the small-screen version of Diane Lane, the womanly star is sheer tasteful sex appeal with a badge. The fact that both Olivia and her partner are emotionally damaged people in a Mulder/Scully sexually charged partnership certainly doesn't hurt, either.

Regardless, I could watch SVU any time of the day, and today I've gotten to watch non-stop.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Reading Rainbow: Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman

Last Tuesday, I sat down with the brand new Chuck Klosterman* book of essays, Eating the Dinosaur.

*By the way, he partook in a two-part podcast with Bill Simmons last week.

Last Tuesday, I finished Eating the Dinosaur.

Aside from changing the music* serving as the soundtrack to my reading experience, I didn't move from my seat.

*It was all instrumental.

Since starting this blog, I have voraciously consumed Chuck Klosterman's entire body of work, thanks in large part to the prodding of KRD (who apparently forgot she has a blog...) who loaned me a copy of Fargo Rock City as I was nearing the completion of another read. As such, I have read everything he's published (outside of articles not included in Chuck Klosterman IV) in the past year and a half.

His latest book is his first book of original essays since the superb Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. While it may not achieve the lofty heights of SD&CP, Eating the Dinosaur is an immensely enjoyable read. His subjects range from Ralph Sampson as a bust to Garth Brooks' alter-ego, from the popularity and constantly evolving nature of football to an examination of the interview, from a comparison of David Koresh and Kurt Cobain to a villification of the laugh track.

If none of those things sound like they could be interesting to you, you probably shouldn't talk to me.

Perhaps the weirdest thing to me is the fact that he essay on Garth Brooks' rock alter-ego, Chris Gaines. I find this mostly weird because over the past couple of years I have convinced myself that this record has to be awesome and that I need to find it. I occasionally meander over to the used CD bins while at the record store in the hopes of tracking down a copy of this never-heard but assumed-to-be-great vanity project. Further piquing my interest is Klosterman's analysis of the motives behind Brooks' release. Never fully knowing the Chris Gaines "biography", it fascinates me to know that Brooks elected to concoct such an in-depth life story for his Australian rock god other self, going so far as to detail Gaines' record sales on his previous critical and commercial successes. The essay, venturing into the realm of character study and distanced psychological evaluation, is spectacularly on point.

Klosterman's comparison of David Koresh to Kurt Cobain is exactly what we've come to expect from the pop-culture theorist extraordinaire. The point is surprising in its ability to convince the reader of its verity.

His football essay, delving into how the sport has become the gigantically popular entity that it is today, is perhaps the most complete section of the book. The support for his argument is compelling enough that I think he could actually write an entire book about the rise of American football to the top of the sports food chain and I would read that in a sitting as well.

What I do or don't say about this book is immaterial. The record shows that I am a big fan of Chuck Klosterman's work. My reaction to his newest book cannot be surprising. I will say that I am very glad he is already working on another book (talks about it in the podcast linked to above). I kind of need at least one a year. Could you please make that happen, Chuck?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Man on Film: Extract and The Informant!

This (along with many other posts) is long overdue. It has been three weeks since I saw The Informant! It's been even longer since I went to Extract.

To me, they're linked by the fact that they're autumn comedies featuring my boys, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

More than that, though, they are both comedies about seemingly normal people with normal jobs (unlike just about every comedy that comes out these days in which the characters have no discernible debt of time owed to anything that resembles a job). Each film spends a considerable amount of time in the workplace. Each film's protagonist is largely defined by his job.

In Mike Judge's latest film, Extract, he returns from the realm of the farcical satire that his dystopic Idiocracy occupied and elects to mine the world of the regular day-to-day life for his laughs. Obviously, that territory has proven to yield his most successful work (King of the Hill and Office Space), and for the most part it bears fruit here.

As has been the case in all of his post-"Beavis and Butthead" fare, the protagonist in our tale is the straight man while the color is added in heavy doses by the supporting cast. While much of the cast is great, I can gladly say that it is Ben Affleck who stands head and shoulders above the rest. My having vocally stood by (ask just about anyone I know how I feel about Ben Affleck, and they can tell you without hesitation that I am an unabashed fan) as his career nearly ran off the tracks following a string of commercial and critical flops seems to have paid off in the past few years. Following his Golden Globe nominated turn as George Reeve in Hollywoodland, he adapted and directed the outstanding Dennis Lehane tale Gone Baby Gone. Moving on from the solid Kevin MacDonald film, State of Play, America is now being treated to a brilliant comedic turn as Joel's (Jason Bateman) best friend, Dean. As the oft-stoned bartender who is stuck in his early 20s, Affleck plays the amiable dim-bulb and more-often-than-not bad influence to the everyman. Picture a 21st-century Eddie Haskell, all grown up.

Affleck aside, Judge & Co. elect to take a more character-driven approach here. This is not a joke-propelled comedy. At no point is it really trying to be, and on the comedic landscape of recent years, that stands out as being a unique trait. So while Extract does not deliver a laugh-a-minute, that was never its intent.

If the film does have a shortcoming, it is that we find Jason Bateman once again playing the repressed husband--a role he seems* to play every time out. It's not that he doesn't do it well; it's just that he's done it before--often.

*I use the word 'seems' here because I do recognize that he has played roles out of that character mold. Unfortunately, those are in bit parts in ensemble pieces like Smokin' Aces or State of Play. Sure, he was great there, especially as the lecherous lawyer in Smokin' Aces, but they are roles that for the most part are forgotten, which is exactly what I did until I stopped to think about what movies Jason Bateman has been in recently.

That being said, the film works for the most part, and it can be refreshing to see a comedy that isn't going to sacrifice narrative elements such as nuance and character development for a set laugh-to-minute ratio.

Now, while the new autumnal comedy featuring Ben Affleck was good if not great, the Matt Damon star-vehicle The Informant! was outstanding. While Steven Soderbergh has certainly been willing to push filmic boundaries with projects like Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, and his two-part Che bio-pics, one could certainly argue that he has been at his most enjoyable in films like Out of Sight or the Ocean's series. Sure, those films aren't what one would typify as weighty (read: they're not Solaris...), but I'll be damned if Out of Sight isn't one of the smartest and sexiest crime flicks in ages.

With The Informant!, Soderbergh has found potential drama that he can skew towards a comedic tone. Luckily for everyone, he cast the brilliant Matt Damon in the lead role of Mark Whitacre. The Informant! is a comedy of farcical corporate collusion, espionage, and intrigue with the larger-than-life Mark Whitacre at its center. With Whitacre as what we presume to be our hero, Damon is forced to inhabit the skin of a man who at various points is amiable and dislikeable, naive and cunning, confident and paranoid. The schizophrenia of Whitacre, while still occurring within the bounds of a comedy, call for an impressive range of emotion from its star, especially when that star is expected to maintain a tone that is conducive to a lighter comedy.

Damon delivers on all counts.

If the movie began and ended with Damon (and I suppose in certain regards it could), then no further words would need to be spent here. It doesn't, though.

From the onset of the film, there is another star: Marvin Hamlisch. Starting out underneath the brilliant titles, the score aptly sets the tone of a late-60s/early-70s political farce. Sure, the film is set a good 15 years later than that, but the setting isn't as important as what the subject matter recalls. It hearkens back to a film of an earlier era. Just like the film's throw-back protagonist*, the Hamlisch score does its part in setting the thematic elements of the film against the backdrop of what essentially boils down to a confidence film (albeit within the confines of an entirely different world, eschewing the standard setting of the insanely well-to-do for the contemporized corporate culture and the FBI), succeeding where its predecessor in genre exercise Catch Me If You Can falls short.

*We are, as the audience, rooting for him, aren't we?... While I may be stretching the bounds of what would generally fall under the umbrella of the protagonist, I think it's still applicable here.

As always, Soderbergh's direction is unassailable. The film looks great. I'd never expect anything less, especially after the visually arresting string of films he put together starting with Out of Sight and continuing on through The Limey, Erin Brockovich*, and Traffic.

*It is not without a generous share of begrudging (begrudgment? begrudgery?) that I allow for Erin Brockovich to stand as anything less than a bad film. It does look great--maybe I'm a whore for grainy, bleached-out films--but it is saddled with Julia Roberts as its star. Am I wrong or is she just a less attractive Helen Hunt**? Argh. I cannot stand the 'acting' of Julia Roberts.

**While at the Broken Lizard show at the Paramount Theater last week, they made a Helen Hunt joke and both Luke Perry's Very Distant Cousin and The Special Lady Friend were tickled pink because they somehow manage to end up complaining about Helen Hunt--usually about how she is always talking too loudly--every time they're together. The Helen Hunt knock did not go unappreciated, guys.

In supporting roles, Joel McHale, Clancy Brown, Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures), and Scott Bakula are great, The Bakula especially. But we all know how I feel about Bakula*... As the person who is perhaps most spurned by Whitacre's shenanigans, Bakula probably draws the most sympathy of all characters in the film. It is hard not to feel for him, however, because he is just so damn likeable.

*All right, is it just me, or does "Men of a Certain Age" look kind of good? I know it will be on TNT, and I am hard-pressed to think of a single TNT-show that has been even remotely enticing. Can The Bakula bring that network to the promised land? Only time will tell.

Now, I have not made mention of what probably makes the film stand out most: its voice-over narration from the standpoint of Mark Whitacre. With homespun observations like
Polar bears cover their noses before they pounce on a seal. How do polar bears know their noses are black? Did they look in the water one day, see their reflection and say, "Man, I'd be invisible if it wasn't for that thing."
the viewer gets a unique insight into the mental machinations of their slightly unhinged leading man. His voice-overs often approach a Larry Davidian (no relation to Branch) realm. Needless to say, this is a welcome ingredient.

In all, the film is great. It manages to be fun while continually revealing that a truth isn't quite what we thought it to be. It strikes a refreshing tone while detailing the uncovering of deeply disturbing corporate collusion and price-fixing. It is marked by spot-on performances and is lucky enough to be drawing from a too-good-to-be-true true story. Where its counterpart in this write-up may not deliver the laughs in droves, I found myself cracking up often in The Informant! It delivers on nearly every count and was one of the most pleasant surprises of this movie-going year.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Musicalia: Wilco - Cedar Park Center, Cedar Park (Austinish), TX - 10/8/09

A week ago, Wilco rolled through the Greater Austin Area and became the second act to play the new Cedar Park Center (it was built to house the Dallas Stars minor league affiliate).

For someone who lives in Austin and does his damnedest to never go past the Regal Cinema in Arbor Hills, the location was already a bit of an inconvenience, as it's about 15 miles (purely a guess there) past that theater. For those of you unfamiliar with Cedar Park, it is pretty much Bum Fuck, Nowhere.

So pulling in to the parking lot, it was great to find out that not only did I get to drive to Cedar Park to see Wilco, but I also got to pay $10 to park in an area where there was absolutely nowhere else to park within a reasonable walk because there is absolutely nothing else nearby.

Then we got inside, and it was a very unlikely place for a Wilco concert, what with the Pizza Hut concession stand and the other weird amenities that one would assume are at a quasi-suburban minor league hockey arena.

Finding our seats, it was soon obvious that despite paying for floor seats, we were further away from the stage than just about every normal seat in the house.

At this point, it would seem as though I was one unhappy camper. There was certainly a lot of hassle to see Wilco, but they do occupy a pretty lofty place amongst my personal list of favorite bands, and I have gone to greater lengths to see Wilco/Jeff Tweedy solo, so these setbacks would not have qualified as deal-breakers.

Liam Finn got on stage with his 'band', and my initial reaction was that I felt bad for him. From where we were sitting, it was hard to decipher if the seemingly subdued crowd was even awake for his set. Maybe risking life and limb driving out to the boonies had left everyone shell-shocked. Whatever the case may have been, Liam Finn did his best to get the crowd involved during his loop-laden set. Unfortunately for him, in this setting that didn't seem like it was enough.

After an intermission, on came Wilco, and from the start they were bringing it. Unfortunately the venue was so cold--in both temperature and vibe--that it was hard to tell how the audience was responding. That made it a little difficult to get really into the show.

As for the set, the regular pre-encore set was almost entirely YHF-to-present, which I get, but it started to worry me because I like to get a good balance in my Wilco shows. It was cool to see the new tracks live, but all things being said, I was much more excited to see the Sky Blue Sky songs live on that tour than I was for this tour for Wilco (The Album). Of the new songs, "Bull Black Nova", "One Wing", and "Wilco (The Song)" played particularly well. The first transcendent moment probably happened during Nels' insane solo in "Impossible Germany". It was jaw-dropping.

Insofar as Tweedy's between song banter was concerned, he comically urged people to tweet about how much better Austin was as a music town than Minneapolis. He also repeatedly lamented (without being entirely ungrateful) the fact that they weren't playing two shows in Austin (read: playing Stubb's, which for all its shortcomings is sooooooooo much better than the Cedar Park Center). Perhaps most importantly, he re-gifted an autographed Nolan Ryan baseball to "Patrick" in the crowd for his birthday. When giving the ball away, he posited that everyone in attendance must be Nolan Ryan fans, being in Texas and all, and then acted out the famous Robin Ventura beat down. That may have been my favorite moment in the show, but I'm kind of a baseball fan...

Once they started into the first encore, the older tunes were unfurled. The two encores were marked with greater highs. "Hoodoo Voodoo", which is really the only track that is completely changed from its originally recorded incarnation, is now a really great rollick featuring a great solo duel between Pat Sansone and Nels Cline. The changes to the song are very welcome, as it's probably my least favorite song on either of the Mermaid Avenue releases, but hearing it this way makes me want to hear it again. Gems "Monday" and "Outta Site (Outta Mind)" (the closer) always bring the house down and did not disappoint.

Perhaps the best part of seeing the show in the sticks was that a good quarter of the crowd headed for the doors after Wilco left for the second time, and missed the second encore. This also meant that the floor opened up a bit and the much shorter TSLF was able to see unobstructed for the last four or five songs.

Now, Wilco did everything within their power to fill that cold cavern with rock and succeeded for the most part. The place was just finished like a month ago (George Strait is the only other artist to have performed there), so it would have been impossible for them to book the show with any sort fo knowledge as to how it was going to play. Early on the talent seemed to have concerns. Those concerns were valid. I'd be shocked if Wilco ever plays there again, despite the larger capacity. After all, they can sell Stubb's out on consecutive nights, and that's a total of 3,600 tickets if memory serves me correctly. The Cedar Park Center was not especially large (I'm pretty sure it is smaller than the La Crosse Center, where the storied Catbirds played, so this would be small for an old CBA arena) and is not a place to see music.

I know I'll not be seeing any more shows there.

But I will pay good money to see Wilco again. And again. And again.

Hell, this was my seventh time not counting the time I saw Jeff Tweedy solo.
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