30 April 2009

on the subject of green day

I'll attempt to conserve words here: American Idiot is an amazing album. It just goes to show you that you never really know what people are capable of (well, I did, but that's kind of beside the point).

Based solely on "Know Your Enemy," a song I've listened to about nine times this morning (another perfect three minute Green Day song, with lyrics so simple and potent that they're white-hot), I feel pretty confident in Green Day having learned the virtues of competing way above your expected weight class. That is to say, 21st Century Breakdown, which was a hotly anticipated album of mine, is now the big thing for me this summer, with the exception of the release of the new Star Trek movie.

Go here. Listen to it. Don't even watch the video (which is a great video, by the way - it's smart, simple, and beats you over the head and through the heart with its point, just like the best Green Day songs). Listen to it again. Maybe even one more time. If you still don't feel it, well, you can't say I didn't try.

22 April 2009

potato hole?

I think the first steps I took down the road of music geek-ery were when I purchased, sight unseen, George Lucas' American Graffiti for my parents (I think I was in middle school - there was a Blockbuster close to our house, and I'd walk there during summer vacation. Perhaps I have the long talks with the guy that was there every day to thank for the film geek-ery, too. That's worth some consideration). I don't know why; we only watched it the one time, and I'm pretty sure they've not looked at it since. Most of the presents I've bought for people have gone over as well as the proverbial lead zeppelin, so I'm certainly not surprised.

I believe the song that started it all was Booker T. & the MG's "Green Onions." I'd heard it before, in The Sandlot, but in the same way I'd later have to get a Dire Straits album after watching Spy Game ("Brothers in Arms," while used better in the last episode of Season 2 of The West Wing, was a great soundtrack choice for the end of Spy Game, a movie I feel not enough people appreciate, but again, that's for another time), I found myself filled with the need to seek out the people who'd created the nearly-three-minutes-of-perfection that is "Green Onions." I've yet to meet a person that disagreed with me on that, actually...

We have my father to thank for the next step, for he was the one that went out to our favorite local records store (Twist & Shout) and picked up The Very Best Of... Booker T. & The MG's for my listening pleasure. While it's important to note that I was raised on a lot of bluegrass, classic Capitol records releases, Lyle Lovett, and more jazz artists than I can possibly remember, but it really was Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper (who, along with "Duck," appeared in The Blues Brothers, and the significantly weaker Blues Brothers 2000), Donald "Duck" Dunn (who learned the bass guitar because it had the smaller number of strings), and Al Jackson, Jr. (who was murdered in 1975) that caught me. I know for sure they're responsible for my lifelong love affair with the sound of a keyboard, what I'm going to call a "groove," and absolutely opened the door for me to fall head over heels in love with Dave Brubeck (something I would love to thank Booker T. for, should I ever meet him).

But, as usual, I'm getting off topic. On March 30th, I was perusing the Huffington Post, when I came across a posting from one Mister Booker T. Jones. A Huffington Post "premiere," as he called it, of a song from his new(!!!!!!) album. Honestly, though I had no information to confirm it, I thought Booker T. was dead, and had been, for a while. It was nice to learn I was wrong.

"Native New Yorker," the track that was posted (that featured Neil Young on guitar), hit me, and hard. It sounded a lot like an MG's song, but with the rocking edge (more than an edge... a core, really) that only Mr. Young could provide. Every part of the song rang out clear and true (reminiscent, in that way, of the Brendan O'Brien remix of Pearl Jam's Ten), and grooved in that fantastic way that songs written and performed by guys who really know what the hell they're doing can.

In case you couldn't tell, I was taken from the start. And if all that wasn't enough (Booker T! Neil Young! An awesome song!), I found out that if you preordered the album from the store his website linked to, Booker T. Jones himself would autograph it. That was a pretty dramatic shift for one day, going from thinking he was dead to ordering a CD that would soon bear his signature.

Well, it's arrived, and, indeed, has his signature on its front. Let me just start by saying that it's a fantastic record, one I didn't even know I'd been waiting almost half my life to hear. It lives up to the promises made by "Native New Yorker."

"Pound It Out" is probably my favorite song on the album; the way it effortlessly shifts from hard-rocking to hard-grooving is just something to envy. Booker T's keyboard dances around the backing band the way Gene Kelly shines in front of a troupe of dancers.

"She Breaks" reminds me the most of an MG's song (perhaps with the exception of the title track); the minimalist nature of the song probably does that for me. Nothing really tries to draw attention to itself at the expense of any other instrument. Everything's working towards the common goal, up until the 2:40 or so mark where Booker T. just gets to unleash the gods of the keys for a few glorious seconds, until they rein everything in. Again, this is like a master's thesis in "how it's done."

They've apparently been covering "Hey Ya" for a while on their tours (Booker T. & the Drive-By Truckers), but this is the first I've heard of it. I'm kind of glad, because this came as a fantastic surprise. This is the first time on the album that the guitars and the keys really get to play together, taking turns replacing and ripping around Andre 3000's vocals. And, frankly, it rocks.

The next track is "Native New Yorker," so let's just jump ahead to "Nan," which is where things slow down for a bit, but only about two minutes. It's speaks to me mostly as a bit of a break in the action, so I'm going to jump ahead again to "Warped Sister," which is kind of a spacy song. I kind of lose my head in the guitar fuzz when this comes on.

"Get Behind the Mule" kind of pounds it out again, but in a less rocking and dancable way than the first song. It's kind of like the band plays more for itself than the audience this time. "Reunion Time" chills things down again, and fuses a little more of what I associate with the Drive-By Truckers (Southern twang, basically) with the Booker T. keys. The slide guitar in concert with the keyboard fashions a beautiful sound, almost like a church song.

"Potato Hole" is where things start to grab me again, where everybody sort of gets their turn in the center of attention (a seven minute song helps to make that happen). "Space City" takes things down again, and slowly slides away, leaving you fat and happy from the generous helping of great music you've just ingested.

Potato Hole is kind of like a throwback album, a record made for real music fans, where the songs might work well by themselves, but are far better in sequence, where they can feed off each other and grow into something all too uniquely themselves. It's a great experience, this album, and one I think many, many people should seek out.

As great as these songs are on the record, I imagine they'd be even better live. I'll have to make my way out to Salt Lake in September to see. Wish me luck.

20 April 2009

unpackaging (or, the latest photoblog) (or, man, is my girlfriend ever cute)

A few months ago, Vanessa and I learned about a website called EntertainmentEarth.com, that sells all manner of nonessential, but awesome, stuff (like a scale replica of Captain Malcolm Reynolds' sidearm). They were, at the time, taking preorders for the toy replica of the Starship Enterprise ("no bloody A, B, C, or D") from the new movie. Having so many fond memories of Star Trek toys, I wanted to recapture that feeling, and thus begged her to preorder it for me (I don't precisely recall why she was nice enough to do so, which means I had best repay her in some exceedingly dramatic fashion). Well, it arrived on Saturday, and a short, photographic essay follows, documenting its "unboxing" and subsequent display atop a bookshelf. Enjoy.

Shameless promotion. They didn't even pay me.

In the parlance of our times... "OMG!"
The blurred photo here conveys the excitement, and the urgency, of the moment.
The box promises flashing lights. I wasn't aware I'd be receiving such technological treats.
The U.S.S. Enterprise, in all its cardboard-boxed glory.
The stages of Enterprise-getting: 1) Excitement
2) Affection
3) Love
4) Willingness to die to protect it

Almost... there...
Shades of movies past!
The stand. It's an arrowhead (surprised?).
I like the nacelle design. It strikes a nice balance between the original series and the refit/Enterprise-A. They're also bulkier, which I think befits it.
The design of the ship in general strikes a good balance between old and new.

Ensign Luna, reporting for duty?
Yes, that is a Portal(tm) poster you spy on the wall. Product placement is just everywhere!
Almost there...
Ooh... pretty...

This shot kind of reminds me of the end of Star Trek VI, only with the Enterprise emerging from the sun, rather than sailing off into it.

It does light up! It does light up!

Note the red impulse engine light.

the exceptionally late-to-the-party-movie-review presents: observing and reporting

Most everyone that knows me has heard my rant about "committing to the joke" before, particularly if we've worked together in some sort of filmic capacity. If you've not had the pleasure before, it goes something like this: commitment to "the joke" (which is kind of an overall thematic concept, one that shines through in specific moments of the film), is, for my money, the most important element of any comedy. Your production value can be shit, your acting can be subpar, your script can be all but incoherent, but if you commit yourself to "the joke," with no reservations, I'll be on your side forever (mostly).

This is more difficult than it might seem at first grok (though, naturally, the difficulty level is fluid, depending on the nature of "the joke"). If you want an example of a movie that doesn't commit to the joke well, I'll give you Tropic Thunder (or any Ben Stiller movie, really. Except maybe Dodgeball). The "red band" trailer was fully committed to the skewering of everything its stars had ever accomplished, and the masturbatory nature of event films in general (though, I must agree with my friend that said Tug Speedman would've been better served as played by a legitimately washed-up action star, and not Ben Stiller. Some of the self-reflexivity was gone, right there). It was a far better experience than the film itself, whose commitment to "the joke" wavered in the second half, and was completely repudiatedby the end, as RDJ all but apologized to the camera for his blackface performance.

Robert Downey, Jr.'s performance as Kirk Lazarus/Sgt. Lincoln Osiris was [obviously] the most extreme of the lampooning choices the movue made (not to discount Tom Cruise's career-saving turn as producer extraordinaire Les Grossman), but what's important to note about it is that it's a great performance. It had to be; he could not have wavered for an instant if he wanted to be believable as a man who had his skin dyed so that he could play a black man, an actor who doesn't break character until the DVD commentary. He pulls it off until the very end, when he (predictably - this is a Ben Stiller movie. He doesn't make the money he makes by making truly edgy, bizarre comedies - he knows how to play it safe) takes off his afro wig and screams to the heavens about how he knows he's not really a black man. When the movie doesn't respect its jokes enough to commit to them, that's when it loses me, and Tropic Thunder lost me but good in that instant.

The problem with a full-throated commitment to "the joke" is that, in the case of movies that really require it, such a commitment is probably going to consign you to "cult movie" nights on TCM, or at the very least, box office oblivion (not so much in the case of Borat, but there were other factors at play there beyond Mr. Baron Cohen's total commitment to his joke). It's like RDJ.'s speech about how you never go "full retard" in Tropic Thunder, like Stiller knew the movie was going to take back every powerful statement it'd made in the last 10 minutes, and wanted us to prepare for it.

The reason I've spent so much time on a movie that I don't much like and that doesn't even really matter is so that you understand me when I say that Observe and Report commits to the joke as well as any movie I've ever seen, and that it will forever have a place in my heart because of that. Its conviction does not waver for an instant, it doesn't take a step back to make you more comfortable, ever, and there is absolutely no way that any moment of the film ever takes place inside the fantasy realm that exists between Head of Mall Security Ronnie Barnhardt's ears (but more on that later).

[ASIDE: It's worth making the somewhat tired point that it's tough to imagine a much worse time for Observe and Report to get released to theaters. Between the [depressing] success that the Kevin James "vehicle" Paul Blart: Mall Cop already experienced (it's like the Capote to OaR's Infamous...), the Seth Rogen overexposure (I certainly enjoy watching him in films - even the movies I don't find all that compelling, like Pineapple Express), the ubiquitous "economic downturn" that's giving everyone cause to pinch pennies everywhere they can (and for a movie with a marketing campaign as lackluster as Observe and Report, that's not even remotely exciting), and a time of year that I could probably best describe as the calm before the shitstorm, I wouldn't have a whole lot of hope for this film to make a lot of waves at the box office, were I a person whose life was defined by such things. END ASIDE].

The "lovable loser whose reach exceeds his grasp" is a template for a main character so familiar that it borders on the obnoxious. How many times have we been introduced to a guy (sometimes a lady, but not as often) who yearns for something more than his menial station in life, who knows that, given the proper opportunity, he could rise up, phoenix-from-the-ashes style, and turn everything around in the most delightful way, only to see his hopes and dreams crash around him as we laugh ourselves silly (and he finally manages to realize how good he had it in the first place)? The answer is probably, "too many," but the important thing here is that Observe and Report turns that needlessly overdescribed trope and flips it with such dedication that it finally becomes something worth watching.

Now, in the above paragraph, I pretty much outlined for you the arc of OaR's story, except for one crucial omission: Ronnie Barnhardt's reach does not at all exceed his grasp (or wouldn't, were it not for those pesky mental health issues that plague him, Travis Bickel, Rupert Pupkin, and their ilk). The movie proves this point again and again, as he demonstrates his capacity for, well, violence (a necessary part of the law enforcement game, though certainly not the only element of it). This is really what sets Ronnie apart from many other characters cut from the same comedic mold; when it comes time to separate the men from the boys, he won't run away, he won't go down easily, and he just might shoot your ass if you push him too far.

The fact that Ronnie's big break (to recycle an old Simpsons quote, did you know the Chinese have the same word for crisis as they do for opportunity? "Yes, crisitunity!") comes in the form of a flabby male flasher (who puts Jason Segal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall to shame, actually) is interesting, to say the least. It finally gives him the opportunity to protect the helpless from a fairly appalling threat, a chance to shine, to be a beacon of hope at this otherwise helpless time in which he sees himself. Obviously, he's exemplary of the "any means necessary" culture that's been apparently grown these last 7.5 years, nurtured Keifer Sutherland and the rest of the people involved with 24. George W. Bush had Osama Bin Laden, and Ronnie Barnhardt has this fat guy running around with his dick hanging out.

Of course, no one takes Ronnie seriously, so he has to prove his mettle. A motivated Ronnie Barnhardt is a dangerous Ronnie Barnhardt, as a group of skateboarding children soon discover. Along the way, he has to find that true love was staring him in the face all along (and is bossed around/verbally abused by Patton Oswalt. Patton Oswalt!), that the people closest to you aren't always the people you can trust, and that maybe, just maybe, everything you really needed was right inside you all along. Is one of those plot points an egregious lie, you think?

Devin Faraci over at CHUD.com, in his review, writes enough about the "tone" of the film that I won't waste your time saying that I agree with him, and then spending three paragraphs restating everything he's said that I agree with. I will say, though, that I appreciate a movie that understands the balance of light and dark that's supposed to exist within it. Observe and Report should be one of those movies that causes you to reexamine contemporary life, or to consider how devastating a shattered dream can be, or even just why you shouldn't fuck with authority, but you're laughing too hard to notice (assuming you get "the joke").

Seth Rogen's performance... well, I will think twice before ever again accusing him of having played basically the same character since Freaks & Geeks. Maybe it's just that he's such a comfortable performer that I don't really appreciate the nuances that go into his performances, or haven't until now. That's really one of the most jarring choices Jody Hill (director) made, and probably the one that got his movie greenlit: casting Seth Rogen as a smoldering psychopath. You will believe that Seth Rogen could take down a motherfucker or two diving out of the Black Beauty by the time the film is done (maybe I'll start referring to this as his "audition tape" for the part of the Green Hornet, minus the fact that he was signed on to write/star in the film for a while before the release of Observe and Report). Of course, Ronnie is far more mentally unstable than a man who dresses up in a uniform and beats criminals to a pulp (hey, wait a second...), but the point remains: Seth Rogen, action star, just might work.

But, that's not doing him justice. Every character in Observe and Report has a very fine line to walk between being dislikable because they're a totally pathetic, retrodden joke and being dislikable because they're just such fucking horrible people (with the exception of Collette Wolfe's "God, I Look Too Much Like Tara Reid" Nell - she's absolutely adorable). Every actor rides that line perfectly, but no one moreso than Seth Rogen. He retains just enough of that difficult-to-describe Seth Rogen...ness to command our attention, but he knows exactly when, and how, to let the rage and hate that lie within Ronnie bubble to the surface, like some kind of magma-spewing geological force. He's not a wholly bad guy; he's stuck with his disaster of an alcoholic of a mom, after all (the scene where he places the blanket over her after she's collapsed to the floor is actually kind of sweet, as is the scene where she tells him she's switching from drinking hard liquor all day to beer).

Anna Faris is a pretty close second to Rogen, in all fairness. There's nothing about Brandi that's even remotely attractive, except what's on the very outside of her, and why Ronnie thinks there's something inside of her that's worth discovering is totally beyond me, but it's not like she's actively a bad person or anything. She's exceptionally funny, and at least honest. [ASIDE: The uproar over the sex scene in the movie, I honestly don't quite understand. I understand that "date rape" - which I don't think it is - isn't as intrinsically as funny a subject as, say, alcohol poisoning or a monkey in a tuxedo, but that's precisely what I'm getting at when I talk about committing to the joke. A Ben Stiller movie would've jumped right over that; Observe and Report doesn't. She didn't even look passed out to me, frankly, just... inactive. Everyone's had an inactive partner before, right? She's drunk, by her own doing, not Ronnie's, so she's not going to be jumping up and down on him or something. END ASIDE] I certainly don't like her, especially when she's compared to Nell, but I just as certainly don't hate her, either. She's a good character in a good movie.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Ray Liotta looks like he's lost about 15 years of age between Narc and Observe and Report. The wonders you get from dropping weight and an amazing goatee.

Observe and Report is one of the best subversive films I've seen in years, but not in what I consider the traditional sense, not the sense I'm accustomed to. It's not pushing a skewed political agenda (though I guess I've made some pretty overt parallels between Ronnie and George W. Bush... I think I'm reading too much into it that way), it just lures you into thinking you're going to see one sort of movie, and has shoved a totally different one down your throat by the end. And it's so much better for it.

14 April 2009


I've been reading a lot of articles talking about how Congressional Democrats are the victims of dropping approval ratings, while the President's remain quite high, and how that's (obviously) bad for any attempts at pushing a truly progressive agenda. And, once again, instead of charging full-speed ahead into the Republicans, countering their unconscionable misinformation ("lies") with truth, justice, and a John-Wayne-haymaker-sized dose of reality, many of those who purport to "lead" the progressive contingent are still trying to placate the crazies on the other side of the aisle.

Health care, unemployment insurance, environmental protection, reimagining/fixing capitalism, social security... That's actually what got the wheels in my head turning. "Social security." It's a tried-and-true Republican tactic to hit liberals/progressives/Democrats on national security, since we (I say this like I'm a contributor to the "movement" as a whole) often seek to cannibalize the military budget to pay for big, sweeping social welfare programs, and if you don't want to fund development of the Multiple Kill Vehicle (may it rest in peace), well, you might as well just bend over for Osama and his little rascaly band right now (even though the radical, fundamentalist, evil wing of Islam hates homosexuality with a fire that the reddest of necked people could only dream to).

Why don't we just expand the definition of national security, "reframe" (to steal a line from a fellow much smarter than myself, Jeffrey Feldman) the argument to make the case that security really should involve more than explosives, body armor and huge rubber tires. Keeping Americans secure should involve all of those causes nearest and dearest to the hearts of the progressive. A secure America is one that isn't worried about losing its home from medical bills, or having a child grow up severely disabled because of environmental contamination, or needing to work well into their 80's because people concerned only with next quarter's profit outlook played fast and loose with their retirement fund. If we're safe, but not secure, what have we gained?

There has to be a way to make people understand. Maybe this'll help?

[ASIDE: I imagine someone else has already thought of this. Perhaps it's been tried, and failed. Perhaps not, though. END ASIDE]

07 April 2009

thanks, seattle

for being (mostly) awesome, for putting on a great convention, and for being a great place to spend some time. I absolutely did not want to leave on Monday.

Good things that came out of the convention experience include (in no particular order):

- meeting Wil Wheaton, purchasing two of his books, and getting him to sign the aforementioned books (as well as one of my TNG DVDs). He wrote in Dancing Barefoot about how important it is to him that the convention-goers that come to talk to him/get him to sign autographs have a good experience when they're with him, and that absolutely bore itself out. He was a spectacularly nice guy, who even remembered us when we came back to his table on the second day (had to tell him how much we loved his books - they're fantastic), had great conversations with us, posed for pictures, and even indulged me in a little story-telling of my own (plus, Tim got him to laugh by proxy. That's got to make Tim feel good).

I think I've developed a man-crush on Wil Wheaton. Wesley Crusher. I don't know how I feel about that.

- meeting Ed Brubaker. Captain America's been my favorite superhero since I was quite small (I think it initially had something to do with the shield, but who knows after 20 years), and the fact that Brubaker's writing great issue after great issue means a lot to me. More than I can say, really. Even though he killed the Red Skull, killed Steve off, brought Bucky back from the grave, turned Bucky into Captain America... He's just written it so deftly, and with such palpable enthusiasm, that I just get sucked in and can never escape. Brubaker's "Captain America" is spectacular, there's no other word for it.

I told him all of this, and he listened quite intently, and actually reacted pretty well to my ramblings. Turns out we have a favorite superhero in common. What a surprise.

I got to meet a guy who's basically a hero of mine, and he wasn't a dick. That was a big deal, my dream not getting shattered.

- discovering "Sheldon," a phenomenal comic strip about a 10 year-old Internet billionaire (the titular Sheldon), his grandfather, a talking duck (boy genius Sheldon's doing), a pug (who does not talk), and a lizard that thinks the talking duck is his father (who only says, "Squee!"). It's geeky at times, drawn very nicely, and exceptionally funny. Plus, Dave Kellett (who writes and draws the strip), is one very nice guy. He drew us sketches of the pug and the duck.

- purchasing a shit-ton of really awesome stuff, and for not a whole heck of a lot of money. A lot of guys were selling off prints of their artwork for cheap, or bundling a couple of prints together, or made up a bundle on the spot (thanks again, Mike Hampton and Dexter Vines). As Vanessa says, "The awesome room keeps getting more awesome." President Evil, Hot Zombie Chicks, ROM the Spaceknight, Batman's gallery of foes, Iron Fist, Mouse Guard, Tiny Titans, the Goon, Usagi Yojimbo, Monster Commute, and more... all will adorn the walls in the new apartment. Oh, and the Blue Sun t-shirt. And the Invaders mini-mates (Cap, Bucky, original Human Torch, Namor). And the Blue Beetle action figure.

- seeing Bruce Timm draw Harley Quinn.

- watching Vanessa work her short/cute magic on all of the people we met, with the exception of the guy who drew cartoons for Playboy. That's all right, though, because the conversation she had with Howard Chaykin afterwards was priceless.

- winning a can of Nite Owl coffee (organic!).

- being surrounded by so much joy, so much overwhelming happiness, for two solid days. Does the spirit wonders.

- rekindling my desire to break into the comic industry some way, somehow...

- meeting Aaron Douglas, and discovering that the Chief isn't leaving television soon.

For all of this, the great music, and so much more, thanks, Seattle.