Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Movies watched at home last week, from favorite to least.

The better of the two Fox Searchlight films from 2007 to prominently feature "I'm Sticking With You." I'm not sure why The Savages opens with elderly dancers and slo-mo wide shots of sterile suburbia, other than that it's a Fox Searchlight film from 2007 that prominently features "I'm Sticking With You," but the sub-Kubrickian aloofness of this Wes Anderson era doesn't hang around long. Instead, the portrait of neurotic intellectuals dealing with a familial crisis is done in the equally familiar but infinitely preferable style of sitcom-verite.

This isn't the first stifled, overburdened woman sleeping with a married man while trying to hold a family together that Laura Linney has played, but I'm glad indie directors are playing to her comic skills. I didn't even know they existed when she was pooping parties like Congo and Primal Fear in the 90s. As an unathletic older brother trying to make living writing while dealing with the increasingly evident reality that my parents aren't going to get any younger, I enjoy watching Philip Seymour Hoffman do the archetype justice. It's a miracle he hasn't gone K-Pax after winning that Oscar.

This story of a father's quest for revenge after his son is the victim of a hit-and-run is allegedly a political metaphor, but Mark Ruffalo's fear and regret doesn't humanize terrorists so much as hit-and-run drivers, and Joaquin Phoenix's anger is only believable when it isn't monstrous. It would be worth noting that two Oscar winners are stuck playing suffering wives/supporting roles if the Oscar winners weren't Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino, who actually do a decent job. Had writer/director Terry George not burdened the cast with TV-movie contrivances and a mano-e-mano climax - had he found an actual case and given it the Billy Ray treatment - all four might have been nominated again. Maybe even him.

For some reason, everyone stops shrieking and hopping in the last third, and the finale consists of lifeless crane shots of the group performing the not-gay-enough theme song in sequins, joined by middle aged women. It's still a camp classic if you stop it after "YMCA." Leila couldn't stop saying "he turned down Superman for this" every time Bruce Jenner appeared on screen, but would he have gotten to wear daisy dukes and a midriff-baring shirt as the Man Of Steel? And how did Valerie Perrine get to be in both?

Expected a clumsier Crank, got My Dinner With Andre 3000 instead. Imagine Smokin' Aces with fewer gunfights and more passages from The Art Of War. A lot more. SPOILER!!! The film, which sat on the shelf for two years, ends with documentary footage of Deepak Chopra discussing the perils of ego. Oh, the irony.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Walking out after Harold & Kumar: Escape From Guantanamo Bay, I wasn't just offended by its disgust with the physical realities of homosexual sex, I was practically heartbroken. For a film that does such a great job of lampooning ignorance (while never once aiming for applause instead of laughs), lesbians making out were awesome and men making out were befuddling. Even if you wanted to argue that the jokes about having to give blowjobs and handjobs were acknowledging Harold & Kumar's heterosexual reality rather than promoting their revulsion, its surprising that the makers never bothered to give it a twist - every other subculture got one! I've enjoyed stupid movies that lazily played with "gay fear" before (most comedies do), but rarely does it go so far against what makes a film remarkable.

Then I remembered Neil Patrick Harris. Having one of the most well-known out actors under 40 steal the movie by playing himself as a ball-tripping cocksman is more than enough subversion to make up for some easy prison rape jokes. The way Escape From Guantanamo Bay expands on the original's cultural observations without going slack makes it the Godfather, Part II of comedy, complete with revelatory flashbacks. So I'm praying they leave it at this.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My eyebrows ain't plucked, there's a gun in my truck.

Songs new to the Billboard Top 50 singles chart, and the top debut.

#23 (debut): Mariah Carey, "Bye Bye"
A snap ballad for anyone who ever lost anyone without getting to say "bye bye, bye bye, bye bye."

#40 (from #81): Nelly feat. Fergie, "Party People"
I declare their speed-rap battle a tie. No one wins.

#41 (from #54): Brad Paisley, "I'm Still A Guy"
Reaffirmations of male jealousy and horniness are cute enough, but the song sours with a verse about metrosexuality no modern country star should dare. "Yeah, with all of these men linin' up to get neutered, it's hip now to be feminized." Someone who looks this much like a porn star shouldn't be mocking "facials."

#44 (from #53): Ashanti, "The Way That I Love You"
It seems commercial anxiety has Ashanti pretending she's Beyonce. Why she chose "psychotic with jealousy" Beyonce is beyond me, because "psychotic with jealousy" is beyond her.

#48 (from #61): Three Doors Down, "It's Not My Time"
It seems commercial anxiety has inspired Three Doors Down to release a song with a beat. It's possible they've done this since "Kryptonite" and I just missed it; there have been years where I've left Three Doors Down to their own devices.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Movies watched last week, from favorite to least.

A small community helps a harmless but troubled local work his way through a kooky delusion. It's refreshing that they avoid creating villains - no scrooge is determined to shatter his fantasy or taught to love - but once the happiest of endings is telegraphed, strong performances can't keep the film from getting tepid fast.

The one that won the Oscar does worse than the ones that were nominated for Oscars, who do worse than those that were ignored, namely the supporting cast. While I was prepared for the effusive (if blessedly frontloaded) stabs at wit, I was surprised that the descent into adolescent romantic fantasy would follow a relatively stark look at adult ugliness. Diablo Cody could be the new John Hughes if she keeps things PG-13 and continues to tell teenagers what they want to hear, and I've got enough sympathy for the precocious and under 18 not to resent it. Oscar voters, though, what the hell?

Two fuck-up brothers in New York City fuck up royally. Why and how they became NYC fuck-ups or why we should care is barely explored, but it's something to do with family. Still in love with loud, Sidney Lumet avoids the ambiguity usually inherent in a story that moves back and forth in time; not only are the jumps announced with cheesy visual stutters, he provides title screens like "Andy - Two Days Before The Robbery" in case you couldn't piece it together yourself. The chronological cross-cutting's only real purpose is to make the tragic story less predictable, not that the score ever lets you forget how sad this all is. Philip Seymour Hoffman does a good job yelling, Albert Finney doesn't. What a waste of a great title.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is only the fourth funniest "Apatow" movie, which is sort of like saying Sticky Fingers is only the fourth best Stones album. Admittedly, the plot contraptions are more stagey and rom-com than in Superbad, Knocked Up, and The 40 Year-Old Virgin. TV stars, goofy surfing instructors and a comical beach resort crew won't resonate like retail lackeys, obstetricians and high school. So it's a good thing that Paul Rudd plays a seriously funny surfing instructor, and that the beach resort provides one of the most likable supporting casts in recent memory. The performers may benefit from familiarity, but they're certainly not coasting on it. After Walk Hard and (I can only assume) Drillbit Taylor, Marshall is a refreshing reminder of how strong the craft on Apatow-produced films usually is.

I was worried that the ex-girlfriend aspect would throw a "women are the disease" theme in with the already problematic "women are the cure." But as the film progresses, Kristen Bell's Sarah Marshall becomes more sympathetic, getting some jokes of her own. Despite the awkward scream of "you're the devil!" Marshall's left with (it's not really clear if we're supposed agree with him on that or not), it'd be hard for critics to claim the film doesn't give the female leads nuanced roles. I mean, compared to what? Russell Brand's Aldous Snow?

While Marshall does help make up for the cold winter this crew gave us, I think it was wise that they busted out the trailer for Pineapple Express before this rather than one for You Don't Mess With The Zohan.

Friday, April 18, 2008

No, I haven't been lazy or consumed with Idolatry. Over the last ten days I've been enduring an ear infection probably brought upon by springtime sinus magic. I haven't had any problems of this kind since living in Indiana in '94, so fuck you very much NYC. People sounded like they were talking into a fan and music was full of wrong notes and feedback. Pianos sounded like someone punching a music box. Extreme tinnitus would come and go. I was still able to josh about pop news on Idolator, but I couldn't enjoy music or movies. I've never experienced anything like this, and it was truly nightmarish. I'd rather be deaf than permanently aggravated by sound itself. Since I only have one working ear as is, I was too paranoid to post that it was merely an infection until I knew that it was on the wane. While I've still got some pressure in my ear, the distortion is definitely fading. I am so glad that the last song I listened to before noticing the symptoms, Fred Schneider's "Bulldozer," is not the last song I'll ever hear clearly. Not that it isn't awesome.

Regular programming next week, knock on wood.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Movies watched over the last week, from favorite to least.

I think Hopkins does an impressive job of creating the kind of dream-drug-reverie state people can go through. I trust you enough, dear reader, to tell you something I should keep private: During a period after my surgical emergency, when I was on what Mr. Limbaugh so usefully describes as prescription medications, I had dreams more real than my waking moments. Then the fog cleared, my health returned, the medication stopped, and I resumed writing brilliant and lucid reviews like this one. But I know Hopkins gets it right, because I've been there. - Roger Ebert

Slipstream does resemble the fever dreams of an aging film critic who once wrote Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. It's also not unlike a double-speed INLAND EMPIRE directed by Oliver Stone. For Anthony Hopkins to have written, starred, directed or composed the music for a movie like this would have been baffling enough. That he did all four makes him the most surprising Space Cowboy of the decade.

Stray moments: A man at a cafe says "a dream within a dream," which is looped four times and intercut with images of Hitler. Christian Slater rubs a gun against Jeffrey Tambor's cheek, calling him a "sly boots," for not telling him that he once saw Kevin McCarthy. "Is my resemblance to Dr. Phil getting you hot and bothered...bewildered..." "Juicy?" The world's oldest Native American looks on. "Caffeinated pussies" played backwards and then repeated. Suddenly, we're in a film within a film. Camryn Manheim appears with a head wound. "You know why they have to stay alive? Because they are mainstream, baby!" John Turturro and 'Detective Buzz Larrabee' are yelling at Hopkins from inside his computer screen. Banana colored sports cars turning pink for a couple seconds. Kevin McCarthy discusses Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers with Hopkins as he drives off into the sunset with a corpse in the back seat.

When I entered middle school, rather than correct eight teachers instead of the usual one, I decided to go by "Anthony" rather than "Tony." When asked why, I'd say "hey, Anthony Hopkins or Tony Danza?" After Slipstream, I couldn't be prouder to share a first name with this lunatic. Stay for the credit scroll to watch the entire movie played backwards at high speed, set to midi-file jazz.

Mike Nichols has an uglier sense of composition than any other director with a sense of composition. So while Aaron Sorkin's script is unnecessarily dense and the tone of whimsy and accomplishment jars with the historical outcome of our actions in Afghanistan (which is acknowledged as vaguely as possible), he's too busy cramming in all the dialogue to make too many garish set-ups.

Despite their horrifying coifs, the actors actually carry the film past its many obstacles. Tom Hanks gives the most charismatic performance I've seen from him since he became President Of Hollywood in the mid-90s. His Charlie Wilson is a cocky rogue living off largess and minor larceny, but you can see that he's always listening to what people tell him and that he says what he means. It's a role that keeps him busy without undercutting his innate likeability. Philip Seymour Hoffman has yet to turn Kevin Spacey on us (we'll see after a second Oscar), and Julia Roberts seems inspired by the company she's keeping. Pretty good for Hollywood Oscar squad bullshit.

Hearing college classmates scream "that's so money!" through dorm walls kept me from going anywhere near this proto-brodown for a decade, but the film is nowhere as obnoxious as I feared. Aside from some brief moments of cinematic homage (as was the style at the time), the characters' Rat Pack affectations are always presented as the dreams of schlubs. The ending is pat, feel-good bullshit starring Heather Graham (as was the style at the time), but I'll take light over maudlin. Vince Vaughn's face is so youthful here it's almost scary.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Bringing you what you want, if not what you expect.

Songs new to the Billboard Top 50 chart, and the top debut.

#3 (from #68): Madonna feat. Justin Timberlake, "4 Minutes"
Hey, I love Timbaland autopilot. He's got nothing to prove, let someone else do mindblowing things with cricket effects for a while. As long as the song feels good and hooks in my brain, it doesn't have to be groundbreaking. Madonna doesn't owe us anything either, so who cares if its really Timberlake featuring her. Once a track is on my ipod's "2008 hits" playlist, its success as an "event" is irrelevant. It just has to move.

#22 (debut): Fall Out Boy feat. John Mayer, "Beat It"
Why, yes, I am feeling this song. Thank you for asking.

#38 (from #57): Natasha Bedingfield, "Pocketful Of Sunshine"
Booooooooooooo. Booooooooooo.

#45 (from #51): Taylor Swift, "Picture To Burn"
The best Avril song since "Girlfriend," and it has lots of banjo!

#49 (from #52): Colby O'Donis feat. Akon, "What You Got"
Colby, who allegedly had a song on the Stuart Little soundtrack ten years ago, sounds like Craig David and looks like a modern Valerie Solanas. If he wishes your materialist mouth didn't get in the way of your grinding ass, why does he work at a women's clothing boutique? Thanks for finding this guy, Akon.

#50 (from #55): James Otto, "Just Got Started Loving You"
I find the lyrical signifiers of adult monogamy in pop country appealing. Maybe, in another decade, I won't be bothered by the rote steel guitar and violin fills used to signify that this pop is country.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Aw, hell yeah.

Been posting like a bandit for Idolator this week, and I must admit the pop culture perusal fries my brain to the point where I haven't had the energy to say much here. Plus I couldn't find a worthwhile youtube of the Guess Who. I'm kind of obsessed with the Guess Who right now. These dudes were basically Canada's Beatles, Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Motown. They may have been their Doobie Brothers and their Grand Funk as well. Their 2CD anthology is a pretty sweet overview, but if you see The Greatest Of The Guess Who for a buck on vinyl, pick it up. Like Paul Revere & The Raiders, their hits (in Canada they had over 30 in the top 40) rock with a casual craft you don't get from more visionary artists. The Guess Who also kind of help me make sense of other bearded Canuck acts like Nickelback. Doesn't make me like them, just helps me understand what they're going for.

I couldn't find a good youtube for early Fairport Convention either. I've been listening to a lot of classic artists lately, but its been years since an album struck me like the comp Fairport Chronicles did recently. Richard Thompson, Sandy "Battle Of Evermore" Denny and a bunch of cronies, trained on English folk and drunk with inspiration from Dylan's then-unreleased Basement Tapes, which producer Joe Boyd was kind and wise enough to let them hear. Gorgeous. The looseness dried up fast (had to take one song off the comp to fit it on a CD-R and the 7-minute based-on "Tam Lim," based on a Scottish faerie tale, was an easy delete), but Chronicles includes some solo Denny and cuts from spin-off acts Fothingeray and the Bunch. I hadn't listened to FC since checking out Unhalfbricking from the library in middle school, inspired by some album guide. Flew by me at the time, but this stuff is soothing now, and nowhere as stuffy as I feared.

Occupational issues aside, it wouldn't break my heart if the industry never put another album out, instead focusing on ringles and the like. There are so many great LPs that I haven't heard, and I wouldn't mind catching up.