Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Matador

Great, great, great movie.  Highly recommended.  The neurotic-criminal-has-nervous-breakdown storyline certainly isn't new, but this was one of the most entertaining versions I've seen, if not #1.  In fact, let's think of some other recent examples:
  • Grosse Pointe Blank
  • Analyze This (& That)
  • Gun Shy (DEA agents are criminals, right?)
  • Tits McGee
OK, so the last one was made-up.  My point is that The Matador is not the first movie to come along that features a lovable hit man who ponders a career move in the presence of a fish-out-of-water "regular guy."  But it's definitely the most effective, and possibly the best.

The reason for that is its outbursts of violence actually fit into the tone of the movie.  The intermittent gunfire in Analyze This, for example, was an extreme departure in tone.  One minute it's a takeoff on The Godfather, the next it actually is The Godfather.  It's as if the movie is saying to us, "sure, I've got some funny jokes, but we kinda need to move the plot along and prove that these criminals are violent, so here's a firefight with Billy Crystal getting shot.  Hilarious."  They're cute and cuddly mobsters one minute, then they're blowing each other to bits the next.  You couldn't maybe have them act a little more dangerous?  Makes no sense.  As for Grosse Pointe, much as I love the movie, it's too big a reach to see John Cusack as a contract killer.  He's not likeable in a roguish way, he's too unlike the image of a hit man.  So when he shoots people, or slams televisions onto their heads, or stabs them in the neck with pens, you accept the violence as a plot point, but you kinda go "huh... oookaaaay."  With Julian, though, we feel from the very beginning that he's a scumbag hired killer.  He has sex with schoolgirls and he'd kill ten single moms at the drop of a hat for a lap dance.  That guy kills people.  And that's why the movie actually makes you feel like you're seeing a culture clash, instead of just telling you that you are.

This is not to say that it's easy to dance along the line between comedy and black comedy.  I don't know that having DeNiro's flunkies tell war stories instead of shooting guns would do less harm.  I certainly don't think Grosse Pointe Blank would be better if John Cusack weren't so damn lovable.  I'm just saying that Pierce Brosnan found the right balance, and nobody really has until now.  So good on him.

Oscar Noms

Oscar nominations came out this morning.  The list is as snub-less as any I can remember.  You have to dig down to the technical awards before you find the most abominable snub: Episode III being shut out of the technical nominations, except for Makeup Effects.  That's an absolute travesty.  The movie may have been a turd, but it's as technologically stunning as any movie that has ever been made without hobbits.  To not even nominate is clearly meant as an insult.

I'm also a little surprised that Walk The Line didn't get a Best Picture nomination.  Of the nominated movies I've seen (all but Munich) it was the best of the bunch.  I personally think Crash was sort of an embarrassing pick... it's self-congratulatory and it's nothing close to a real .  that I'd also throw out there that Capote wasn't nearly as deserving as WTL.  I nearly fell asleep.  The acting was great, but the story itself was kinda blah.  That's a bit of a puzzler to me.  But I kinda understand how it happened... Fox released Walk The Line too early.  There's no way you're getting nominated when you release so far before Christmas, because the later Oscar bait will overshadow you.

So the Best Picture race is over, and probably Best Director as well.  Brokeback Mountain will win.  There's nothing else that's been embraced by the public, or that people agree is good, to the same extent as Brokeback.  Crash has too many detractors, Good Night And Good Luck is a political statement by the Academy, Capote are too narrow, and Munich has been kind of a commercial disappointment.  None of them have enough momentum.

The big race is Best Actor.  Honestly, I don't think any of the five choices would count as a disappointment.  Heath Ledger will be the one whose win would be most due to help from the film as a whole... but his performance was just as good as the others, and if anything was more creative in building a character (only he and Terrence Howard are playing fictional characters).  The biggest underdog is David Strathairn, but he did no worse, and no showier, a job than the others.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is a better actor, is probably the favorite, and gives a perfect performance.  But Joaquin Phoenix was more perfect.  To even sing like Johnny Cash, let alone look and act and talk and feel like Johnny Cash, is proof of how wholly he embodied the role.  He's the gold standard by which "straight-ahead" biopics must be judged from here on out, and I think that merits recognition.  Of course, I haven't seen Hustle & Flow yet, so Howard still has a chance to blow everyone else out of the water.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Nip / Tuck (S1)

I just finished watching season one of Nip/Tuck.  Great show.  It lost some steam towards the end though... I suppose they couldn't really keep it up for 13 episodes of 100% unexpected drama.  The season finale was a bit more deus ex machina than I expected.  I figured they'd give me the kind of finale that creates more problems than it resolves.  The out-of-nowhere 180 on the divorce is primarily what bothers me, because there was really no justification for it... all the justification she'd need came before she gave the ring back.  It just seemed a little half-baked to me.  Like, it's the last episode, and they had to do something about it, so shazam!  Their unflinching depiction of the divorce situation's grey areas is one of the show's strengths, so it was disappointing to see a classically melodramatic conclusion.

But on the plus side, watching Dr. Troy become the butt of a classic "who's the father?" joke was priceless.  After a season of scream-at-your-TV twists and turns, including a shot of botox to the junk and a tube spewing liposucked fat from a pedophile, that trumped them all.  I never expected it, though I figured it out as soon as his expression changed.  What a moment.  I constantly laugh at how this show makes me react in outrage to a TV show, like I'm some old biddy on a floral couch.  But it's so much fun to watch them straddle the line between dramatic bravery and utter ridiculousness.

I guess they do leave a few matters unattended, but this is a show that's usually brave enough to leave us disturbed, not comforted.  Maybe that will happen with the next couple seasons.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Cancellations Will Continue Until Morale Improves

Another one bites the dust, though this is actually good news: The West Wing will end this spring.  Totally predictable, given how they've stretched Martin Sheen's last year in office across two seasons of television.  Now the election that never ends will finally go away, and we won't have the winner wiping himself all over TWW's legacy.  They'll make Santos win, but at least nobody will have to watch him or his annoying wife anymore.  But this is good news, as any attempt to maintain the old cast would have been ridiculous, and any attempt to reload would have caused mass abandonment of the show.  It's not like ER, where people love the format and the adrenaline... the characters are why people still stick with such a subpar product.  It's a catch-22.  Anyway, rest in peace, and I'll gladly get my Sunday nights back.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

NOW It's Cancelled

It's now somewhat official... but maybe not.  Arrested Development will be finished after this season, barring a pickup from ABC or Showtime (both of whom have inquired).  But the show is so expensive, I gotta think it's not gonna stick around.  We'll keep those fingers crossed.

The great news is there's a 2-hour (!!!) finale scheduled for February 10.  Those will be 2 incredible hours.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Finally... New Homestar Runner!

Good news: they finally posted new material on Friday!  It had been over a month.  Have at you!

Great news: it was posted on Friday.  That means I share a birthday with Trogdor!!!  OMFG

Friday, January 13, 2006

Scatology Today

If you ever make miso soup, be careful not to get any miso on your hands.  Your hands will look like they're covered in doody.

This message brought to you by the American Society of Six-year-olds (motto: "That Spells ASS!")

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Plans = Transatlanticism II

After reading here on Stereogum that Ben Gibbard has a degree in environmental chemistry (not so dissimilar to my own chem degree, researching the exact mechanism of Sydney Chapman's kinetic model for ozone metabolism), I stumbled upon a 2003 web feature, written a couple months before Transatlanticism's release.  I especially liked this quote:
Gibbard’s heard from people that [Transatlanticism] doesn’t rock like the old stuff, and that’s okay with him. “I don’t want it to rock like the old records,” he says. “I want to be this new thing. I want us to concentrate on texture and arrangements and not bang through things like we’ve done in the past.”
Telling, since this is the same charge I leveled at Plans, the follow-up to Transatlanticism.  I can kinda understand the point, though I disagree.  I can see how the tempo slowed down and the energy tempered itself between The Photo Album (their best) and Transatlanticism.  But Transatlanticism does have a good deal of bite... one can't listen to "The New Year," "Expo '86" or the title track without acknowledging that.  And you can't sit through a 13-minute snorefest like "Stability" and then assert that Transatlanticism doesn't rock as hard as its predecessor.  I mean, look how much deeper the chasm is now... the sharpest edge on Plans is the side of the CD.  (Zing!)  Anyway, I thought it was neat how they had no idea what kind of rocking-ness dropoff they were in for.

Groucho Marx Fights The Power

I've got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.

Tearing The Warners A New One

Annoying Singers

I have no good answer to the following question, but I want to try and figure it out anyway... why is it that I can forgive an annoying singing voice for some bands (Decemberists, Green Day, Bright Eyes, Flaming Lips, LCD Soundsystem, Sigur Rós, even Art Brut) but not Crap Your Pants Say Yeah?  Why do I appear to have chosen Clap Your Hands as a battleground for this problem, about which I do feel strongly (people, please stop affecting your voices unless you're punk, OK) when I listen to so much other stuff that could provoke a similar response?

I've had oodles of time to come around on CYHSY and stop hating their guts, and it hasn't happened because their singer is so unforgivably terrible.  He sounds like garbage, contributes absolutely nothing to his band, and yet sings in a way that only a more talented singer should attempt.  You know how sometimes people will say someone like, say, Billie Holliday has a voice like an instrument, because of how impressively she can contort the tone of her voice around a song?  Imagine someone with no talent doing that, and you'll have Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.  Every time I hear that fucking idiot pretend like he's David Byrne, I want to break a guitar over his head and scream "I Zimbra" while I beat my chest.

I think what bothers me the most is that it just doesn't work for CYHSY.  David Byrne adopted his affected singing style for a reason... an audience will connect more with a singer who has an imperfect voice.  (Byrne is on the record saying this, though I can't remember where.)  The To draw attention to himself?  It sure isn't to make the band sound good.  Everyone else in the band is doing a decent job; he's the guy who's holding them back.

Now, here's what bothers me about the question.  As someone who knowingly takes a long time to come around on music, there's an implication that I will eventually like Crap Your Pants.  There's plenty of evidence to support that idea.  I, at one time, wanted to hunt down Rush singer Geddy Lee.  The intro to "Today's Tom Sawyer" was enough to send me flipping away from WAAF.  But I know now that Rush kicks ass, and admit being wrong.  The eventual  acceptance into my heart of Bright Eyes, Coldplay, Flaming Lips and others that I'd dismissed only goes to show that no matter how vitriolic my distaste for a particular band, there's always hope.

But not for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.  They friggin suck.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Crash, redux

The more I think about Crash, the less universal it seems.  It makes sense as a point of conversation, but only if you can see through the material's weaknesses.  There are all kinds of conceits required to make the movie happen.  Engaging in stereotypes is an obvious one, and the onslaught of convenient coincidences is another.  To an extent, those implausibilities can be glossed over in the name of making a film that speaks faithfully about race.  Character implausibilities, though, cannot.

While looking over The Internets for other perspectives, one in particular struck a chord.  The author of an email printed at the bottom of this column points out that the two major encounters between the police and black characters, both of which are critical to the film's structure, require decisions that a rational black person would never make.  They would have to be insane to agitate the police as they do, knowing what the cops in LA are like.  So what is undoubtedly a filmmaking conceit (make this event happen) seriously undermines the film's legitimacy.  I think that's a fair argument to make.

I would argue, however, that those moments of character implausibility aren't limited to black characters.  Take Ryan Phillippe's scene with Larenz Tate towards the end of the film... would a white person who claims to be enlightened judge a black stranger, in his face, as Phillippe does?  No.  Just as Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton's characters didn't act within the boundaries of expected behavior for a black person getting profiled by cops, Phillippe didn't act within the boundaries of expected behavior for a white person picking up a black hitchhiker.  He's enlightened enough to pick up a black hitchhiker in a rough part of town, but not enlightened enough to keep from condescending Tate when he talks about country music and ice hockey?  Is that any less ridiculous?  I don't think so.  In each case, a similar conclusion could have been reached with a little more patience, and a little less of the ham-handed screenwriting.

The point is, Crash has plenty of weaknesses, but they aren't enough to outweigh the poignant observations it makes elsewhere.  I don't consider it a damaging film because of its faults.

Monday, January 09, 2006


I found Crash thoroughly entertaining, as accurate a microcosm of racial politics as you're likely to see. But charges of "realism" are bogus. It's not shades-of-grey as much as it's alternating black and white. A character like Sandra Bullock's rich white woman is petty and obnoxious at one moment, weak and needy at the next. Ryan Phillippe is a hero at one moment, shady at the next. Matt Dillon is a racist MF at one moment, and a genuine hero at the next. It adds up, but you have to take the long view in order for anything to add up.

I'm OK with plot contrivances, like the coincidental appearance of everyone in everyone else's story arcs. But I'm not OK with contrived dialogue, like Chris "Ludacris" Bridges' speech when he and Larenz Tate first appear. Those moments in which people seemed a little too conscious of their own position in life... there's gotta be a better way to accomplish that.

The acting is what elevates Crash to relevance. Everyone did a great job, though the quartet of Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe and Matt Dillon do the best, most complex work in the film. Of particular note are Dillon, who seems born to play his role, and Howard. Based on his performance here, I see what the big deal about Terrence Howard is about. He owns the screen whenever he appears, like he's ready to explode at any moment.

All in all, pretty good. I'd give Crash... ohhhhh... 3 out of 5 Hitlers.


Funny that in a movie that claims to leave nobody unharmed, the Jews made it through the movie without being stereotyped. Maybe the sequel will start hating on people for their religions instead of their races. At any rate, the Jews' victory finally puts them on the scoreboard, where the score is 723,879,234,879,287,435,287,345-1 in favor of Goyim.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

I've Had A Breakthrough

It happened.  The unthinkable finally happened.  I was trying to avoid it, put it off as long as possible, but I just couldn't do it anymore.  Liking similar bands like Death Cab and Snow Patrol, while resisting Coldplay, was too much.  So I gave in.  Now I like Coldplay, and no longer think they're a bunch of pussies.  I still have my reservations, but I've concluded that being woefully inoffensive is not offensive in and of itself, and listening to them is nothing to be ashamed of.  "Talk" pushed me over the edge.  I listened to it a couple times this week and concluded it was too good a song for me to actively dislike them anymore.  (And no, I don't suddenly feel like buying a Swedish car.)

I actually feel a lot guiltier for listening to The Decemberists.  I feel like a real nerd for liking Picaresque.  Colin Meloy is either the lovechild of a three-way between Katharine Hepburn and Gilbert & Sullivan, or the explanation for why you shouldn't read too many Herman Melville novels.  Getting into the ups and downs of his tales of woe makes me feel like an absolute dork every time it happens.  Brilliant stuff though.  The musical concept reminds me a lot of what Sufjan Stevens does, except with more polish and less God.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


I saw Brokeback Mountain last night.  I liked it, but not that much.  Ebert's way off comparing it to Bergman, though I do think it's nuanced and evocative.  It's definitely a thinker, though... I needed to spend a looooong time thinking about why things were presented as they were in order to get the point.  It was kind of a letdown compared to the building hype, but it's a good story, it's beautifully photographed, and the acting is excellent.  And it's hard not to identify with Ennis, who stifles so much of himself in order to follow the rules.

But there's a paradox inherent in how the romance is handled.  The majority of Ennis and Jack's physical relationship was implicit, and largely ignored after the first act of the film.  But that assumes the nuts and bolts of the relationship was a non-issue after being established, which I don't think is true.  Ennis and Jack's relationship was an escape from the shackles of their marriages, and the fulfillment of their most urgent physical needs... but only in the very first moments of their realization, when their instincts first took over, do we see that need.  Beyond that point, their bond is assumed, but rarely demonstrated, if at all.

I see two sides of a coin, only one of which can be true in one's mind:

I didn't see that side of their love, and thus do not identify with or buy into their feelings.  This undermines the main current of the story, which is that they are each other's true love, despite having settled into heterosexual marriages.  I'm not saying you have to depict a lot of gay sex in order to establish that your characters are sleeping together, but there are other ways to establish their intimacy as the story unfolds.  The motel room was a great example, but there needed to be more moments like that.  I'd rather not take their word on something as important as their attraction, especially when it's supposed to be this huge relief from the throttling marriages they've entered into.

The sparseness of explicit homosexuality makes one think to oneself, "Self... they're not being gay all over the place, they're basically normal people."  Exactly!  They're normal people!  Just a couple of guys.  If you didn't know they were gay, there would be nothing remarkable about them.  The absence of sex also forces you to concentrate on the characters' personality, which really is the point... not to condition America towards depictions of gay sex on film.  Brokeback thus implores us to stop fixating on the mundane physical side of sex, gay or otherwise, and concentrate instead on their situation.  You could even argue that the lack of visible romantic consummation is a statement on how unfulfilling their relationship is.  On a small scale their visits may be deeply fulfilling, but on a larger scale it was barren; concentrating on the long view is therefore just a filmmaking decision.

While the Tails perspective works, it serves as a better political statement than a film construct.  I can buy it, but to do so requires a leap of faith equivalent to the leap required to believe Jack and Ennis love each other so deeply.  Would it kill them to convince me a little?  Wouldn't take much.  But I can also see how adding warmth and intimacy to the later parts of the film might not serve the story.  I can believe that Ang Lee decided he preferred it like this, barren and poetic instead of warm and erotic.  His films (even The Hulk) are nothing if not considered and thought-out.  So I want to trust that he knows what he's doing.  But I'm not totally convinced.

As you can see, I'm pretty torn.  Too much grey will do that, I guess.  It's weird, because the movie is so sympathetic, and yet there's a polarization that's bound to happen based on whether you buy the romance or not.  It took me this long to come around on whether the movie worked at all.  I can tell there's depth there, which makes it too easy to simply dismiss, but that doesn't mean Ang Lee didn't screw up somehow.  Maybe I'll figure it out eventually.