Saturday, August 20, 2005

Hilary's New Stuff

Now, where did we leave off? When I reviewed Hilary Duff's last album, the surprisingly good Hilary Duff, the album sales had stalled because of an emergent dark complexity that was leaving her tween fans baffled. Was this Hilary, she of the pink frosting running through her veins? The one that played Lizzie McGuire on TV for two years? Why was she battling tragedy in Raise Your Voice (a box office flop), and wrestling with inner turmoil on her sophomore album? Give us another "Come Clean"!

It’s been a rough year since, I imagine. Her last film, The Perfect Man, sunk quickly in theaters, and no new single was on the horizon (her last, "Fly," was released in August 2004). Meanwhile, Hilary herself kept getting thinner and thinner, looking less and less happy with her career, and wearing a lot of dark clothes and heavy eye makeup. For a while now, she’s been following some of the punk-pop trends, attempting to break free of her teen pop trappings and into a slightly edgier sound. Hilary Duff could be seen, between the bet-hedging manufactured "hits" and the badly miscalculated attempts to replicate the sound of her platinum bubblegum hit Metamorphosis, as an album about finding oneself, about rejecting the fakeness and the attempts to be turned into someone else and following one’s heart in the direction it wants to go. It was darker than her first album, sure, but it was also stronger, more personal, and had more of an identity to it. But the album failed, and Hollywood Records seems to have nearly forced her back into the studio to record four new songs and remix some of the old ones to put together what is being called, charitably, a hits collection.

Of course, if you follow that sort of thing, you’ll recall that the Duffster has, in fact, had a mere five singles: "Why Not" (from The Lizzie McGuire Movie), "So Yesterday" and "Come Clean" (both from Metamorphosis), "Our Lips Are Sealed" (from A Cinderella Story), and "Fly." The proposed second single from Hilary Duff, "The Getaway," was never promoted or released, sitting comfortably on her album (and maybe getting some light radioplay; I understand she had other songs that were hits on Radio Disney, but I couldn’t tell you for sure). So, why do a hits collection this early in her career? It sounds like a contractual obligation filler to me. And after hearing it, I have to say I hope it is.

Most Wanted, as it happily turns out, represents the next step in Hilary Duff’s continuing evolution into a real musician. She’s gone into the studio and recorded four new songs, one with teen pop super producer Kara DioGuardi (who has written songs for Lindsay Lohan, Ashlee Simpson, and others of the same vein), and three with "the Dead Executives" (actually her boyfriend Joel Madden and his brother Benjy from poseur band Good Charlotte). What I had feared is that Hollywood Records would use this album as an opportunity to refashion the Duffster into a sickeningly cute pop princess, keeping her a kid for as long as they could. But Hilary has used it to renew her commitment to a stronger sound, an eighties vibe, and more adult feelings of empowerment and angst.

The following tracks represent the Collector’s Edition of Most Wanted.

WAKE UP
Starting off with Hilary’s new single, a game attempt at a club track. It’s one of those "no one knows who I really am" songs that famous teenagers are always writing, but the production is pretty good: very bouncy, fun, not too threatening. Hilary’s starting off slow, in a sense, playing to form as if to assure her listeners that she’s still the Hilary they know, for the most part, but also urging them to "wake up" and listen to who she really is. It’s kind of sweet; maybe she oversings it a little. This is one of the Dead Executives tracks. Good opener.
Empowering lyric: "I know I make mistakes, I’m living life day to day; it’s never really easy but its ok."

THE GETAWAY
This was, ultimately, my favorite track from Hilary Duff, and the song that was meant to be the second single off that album. A song about either stalled romance or attempting to escape her past, it’s got a dark, sad urgency to it (especially since she hasn’t really made up her mind where to go yet). A great song that sounds like a poppier version of the Smiths or Nick Cave. Seriously.
Empowering lyric: "Is this just a detour, cuz I gotta be sure that you really mean what you say."

BEAT OF MY HEART
This is the most New Wave of the tracks on the album; the beat mimics a heartbeat which doesn’t really change much, but moves very quickly and somehow feels immediate. The lyrics are deceptively shallow; she’s found herself, promises she’ll be true to herself, but once again shrugs off the need for help and promises not to be a slave to love. Another Dead Executives track, and very well-produced. Maybe Joel and Benjy should stop singing whiny songs about suicide and just produce...
Empowering lyric: "I’m not going to drown, I’m taking a stance, I won’t miss my chance, I want you to see I’m not scared to dance."

COME CLEAN (Chris Cox remix)
It’s a little risky, I think, putting your biggest and most popular single on a hits collection and then not even including the version that people heard on the radio. I’m impressed Hilary had the guts to do it, and I think it works out fine; the remix is a rare good one, giving the song a club beat and a real eighties vibe that meshes much better with her new songs. If people want the other one, they can buy Metamorphosis, or the single, or one of the 50 million hits compilations that have it.
Empowering lyric: "Trying to fit a square into a circle was no life; I defy."

WHO’S THAT GIRL (acoustic version)
One of the more dramatic and passionate songs on Hilary Duff, one that I had previously said was about jealousy and anger, but now reads to me as actually being about losing yourself to expectations and obligations. When she asks in a sad, mad voice, "Who’s that girl living my life?," she sounds like someone pleading into a mirror to reconnect with what they really want and what they really know. Hilary is at her best as a singer on songs like these, where she’s obviously angry and sad, bittersweet and wrapped up in the turmoil of secrets and complex emotions. She’s passionate here, but strong, too. This is also the first place where the album slows down to be a little soft, introspective. Hilary’s vocal track sounds like it hasn’t been re-recorded (which is fine, because it’s one of her strongest-ever reads), but the acoustic arrangement, which slowly builds up to a powerful, dramatic finale, benefits an already great song by turning it into something truly beautiful.
Empowering lyric: "I’m not sorry for what we did, who we were; I’m not sorry, I’m not her."
NOTE: This is only available on the Collector’s Edition.

MR. JAMES DEAN
I like Hilary’s smug, angry reading, but I thought this was the worst song on Hilary Duff, and it’s the worst song on Most Wanted. It actually sounds a little more shallow, especially following up a song as confident as "Who’s That Girl." It’s basically the same ground she covers on "So Yesterday," only with harder guitars.
Empowering lyric: "Now you move to the next set...next town...next girl; have fun, baby, I’m taking back my world."

SO YESTERDAY
The song Duffster will probably never escape. I’ve never been overly-enamored of this Metamorphosis single, but it does have a sense of sarcastic humor to it (I love a girl who takes smug joy in her revenge). There’s a nasty, cruel underside to Hilary’s music sometimes, and it’s all over this song, despite the bubblegum production by the Matrix (it takes that many people to make a song this ordinary?). It’s a sudden pop break on what has, for the last six tracks, been a rather dark album with a clear momentum.
Empowering lyric: "You made my mind up for me when you started to ignore me; do you see a single tear? It isn’t gonna happen here."

METAMORPHOSIS
If you needed any further proof that Hilary has grown as a singer in the last two years, check out this title track from her first album; so many overdubs... It’s got a fairly interesting tinge to the production, and the lyrics are a bit of a come-on that might sound more appropriate coming from someone like Lindsay Lohan (in fact, one of the nicer things about the Duffster is that she’s never had to crassly capitalize on her sexuality to get attention). Thematically, it fits: it’s not only about growing up, it’s about her change from actor to pop singer, and now stands in for her transition from bubblegum to young adult. But it still sounds a little like filler.
Empowering lyric: "It gets me nervous, but it makes me calm to see life all around me moving on."

ROCK THIS WORLD (remix 2005)
One of the weaker, more filler-oriented songs on Hilary Duff, now remixed for a heavier guitar sound. The problem is this: Hilary Duff doesn’t, when it comes down to it, rock. The boastful tuff chick thing is a little silly; she reaches too far on this one. Duffster, listen to the complete works of the Runaways before attempting another song like this. Then talk to the Dust Brothers or Dave Grohl about producing it...
Empowering lyric: "Sometimes getting what you want is easier than it seems."

BREAK MY HEART
The last Dead Executives track on the album, and the best of the three. Talk about smug–the lyrics are typical break-up stuff ("All I ever wanted has left me standing here alone"), but the music is so breezy and carefree that this can’t be anything else but a perfect, sarcastic kiss off. I have to admit, I did not expect this from Hilary, and it blows away Kelly Osbourne’s recent attempt at New Wave. This would be a great single. The production has a nice sense of direction and focus; Hilary is really finding her sound, and she sounds more confident here than on any other track on the album.
Empowering lyric: None, really, it’s just the way she sings "Why don’t you break my heart? Watch me fall apart?" with such indifference that completely make this song.

JERICHO (remix 2005)
I loved this song on Hilary Duff, but this one is remixed. Maybe she felt it sounded too bright, but I think that was the whole point of the song: the affirmation of finding one’s direction and following it. The remixed version keeps the same lyrics, but offers a harder, clubbier edge to it that’s at home on this album–the remix isn’t bad, necessarily–and sounds a lot tougher. I’m torn on this one; it has the same spirit, just a different execution.
Empowering lyric: "My heart won’t crumble if we ever say goodbye."
NOTE: This is only available on the Collector’s Edition.

FLY
On Hilary Duff this song, the opening track, served to steel the listener for the uneasiness to come (the song itself sounds like its fighting to breathe, adding to the dramatic tension). On Most Wanted, where Hilary has moved beyond the sound of her last album and is comfortable with the parts of her artistic soul that she revealed on that album, it fits in well around the middle. It’s still a call of self-confidence, but with the surrounding songs it sounds more bitter and ready than hopeful and trepidatious. And it’s still a very, very good song, with some stabs at real majesty.
Empowering lyric: "Reach for something when there’s nothing left and the world’s feeling hollow."

SUPERGIRL
The fourth new song on her album, this one written by Kara DioGuardi (who co-wrote "Fly"). It’s actually a pretty good song, almost a follow-up to the uneasiness of "The Getaway." Very assured, very swaggering and tuff, with Hilary asserting herself as a full woman. But I want to say this, too: Duffster, please stop recording songs by this woman and by John Shanks. Let me tell you right now, your finding a new sound hinges on not doing the old one anymore. I know common wisdom seems to say that if you want a commercial hit, you have to go with these people and record the newest version of "Pieces of Me," but you really don’t. That said, I like this song; if the instruments were better spaced (man, I miss spacing) and you gave it some bongos instead of drums, it would almost sound like a T. Rex song. This would be a good single for her, too.
Empowering lyric: "Haven’t you heard? I’m Supergirl. You don’t wanna mess with me."
NOTE: This is only available on the Collector’s Edition.

PARTY UP (remix 2005)
This song was forgettable on Metamorphosis, and it’s forgettable here, too, despite remixing to make it sound harder and more guitar-oriented. And you want to talk about shallow, teen pop lyrics? Ugh.
Empowering lyric: Sadly, none.
NOTE: This is only available on the Collector’s Edition.

GIRL CAN ROCK
This song appeared on the soundtrack to A Cinderella Story, and at one time seem destined to become a single (she used to open live with it, too). It’s a bold, self-aggrandizing song that owes a tiny bit to Mick Jagger. It’s grown on me over the last year, and it fits in here thematically to a T. Although the jury is still out on whether the Duffster can rock, she sure sounds like she believes she can, and I guess that’s enough for now. This version is mixed differently from the version on the soundtrack: all of the disco sound effects (similar to the ones very prominent in "Wake Up") are buried deep in the mix under a newly-added heavy guitar, and I could swear it’s being played slightly faster. I approve; it’s a fun tune, and it finally has some sleazy rock laid onto it. Nicely done.
Empowering lyric: "I can’t hold back what I feel inside, and if I make you nervous, you better step aside."

OUR LIPS ARE SEALED (with Haylie Duff)
The Duff sisters did a cover of this Go-Go’s tune that was more fun than the original (although the Fun Boy Three did the definitive version), and a nice little radio staple last summer in support of the film A Cinderella Story. It’s become a bit of a signature tune for Hilary, but now it seems so irrelevant and out of place given the edgier context of the album that has proceeded it (although it would be a crime to not include it). It once again fits into her favorite theme, though: "Nobody knows the real me, and maybe I’m a little afraid to let the real me take control." Good guitar layering. It’s also, I think, the apex of her teen pop career; from the Lizzie McGuire movie soundtrack (as well as a song on the series and two tunes on the first and second Disneymania albums) to Metamorphosis to this song, we have teen pop Hilary. From "Girl Can Rock" to Hilary Duff to Most Wanted we have the angsty Hilary.
Empowering lyric: "When you look at them, look right through them; that’s when they’ll disappear, that’s when you’ll be feared."

WHY NOT (remix 2005)
Oh, this is sweet. I know the Duffster doesn’t care much for this song (the single from The Lizzie McGuire Movie), but I think it’s a hell of a lot better than "So Yesterday." It’s hopeful and sweet, but it’s also playful and a little elusive. This remix doesn’t change the melody, it just makes the song a little rockier. But the real sweet part is this: she’s re-recorded the first verse. I didn’t notice right away, but she has, making the song a little more... well, judge for yourself.

Original First Verse:
You think you’re going nowhere when you’re walking down the street,
Acting like you just don’t care, when life could be so sweet,
Why you wanna be like that, cuz if there’s nothing new,
You’re not fooling no one, you’re not even fooling you.

New First Verse:
You act like you don’t know me when you see me on the street,
Making like I turn you off, when I know you think I’m sweet,
It don’t have to be like that, I guess you’re insecure,
If you say what’s on your mind, I might answer "Sure."

Nicely done, Duff. Nicely done, indeed, turning this song into a playful romantic come-on rather than just an assertion of individuality. What’s nice about it is that it completely puts Hilary in the driver’s seat, playing with a guy she thinks is cute just to have fun. It’s pure pop ephemera, but really good pure pop ephemera and a perfect place to close the album.
Empowering lyric: "You’ll never get to heaven, or even to L.A., if you don’t believe there’s a way."

Songs That Could Be Easily Dumped from the Album: "Mr. James Dean," "Metamorphosis," "Rock This World," "Jericho," "Party Up."
Songs I Wish She Had Included: "Hide Away," "Anywhere But Here," "Dangerous to Know," "Crash World," "Someone’s Watching Over Me."

The mastery behind Most Wanted is this: rather than releasing a quickly cobbled-together hits package to satisfy her Hollywood Records contract and go for the easy sell of teen pop, Hilary has managed to pull together her past and present music to paint a picture of herself as she is now. Maybe this is how she always wanted her music to sound, and she’s finally won the battle. First a Metamorphosis, then an exploration of Hilary Duff, and finally, she’s what she Most Wanted. She might still be learning the difference between saying you rock and actually rocking, but she still knows how to pop. This is Erasure for a new generation, Depeche Mode with less musical layers, the Smiths without the self-importance, the Cure without the self-pity. All of the romanticism and drama and emotional intensity and momentary urgency of her predecessors is here, much more so than in the case of someone as pretentious and calculated as Avril Lavigne.

Congratulations, Hilary: you’ve finally found your sound.

Speculation is running wild on the internet right now that this will be Duffster’s last recording for Hollywood Records (leave them to deal with pretty pop pussies like Jesse McCartney), and that she and Joel Madden are already working on music that sounds much closer to her new singles here. Most Wanted, if it’s true, serves as an effective preview for an entirely new direction that is, one day, going to blow people away.

Which is kind of odd, considering how much I hate Good Charlotte.

Let's Get One Thing Straight About Tim Burton

The new issue of Entertainment Weekly (the Fall Movie Preview Issue) makes the boastful claim that "if it weren't for Tim Burton, stop motion puppetry (as opposed to Chicken Run-style Claymation) might be altogether, well, dead." In addition to being boastful, it's also absolutely, incredibly wrong.

Let's start with the movie they're talking about, The Nightmare Before Christmas. I'm sick and tired of Tim Burton getting all the credit for this masterpiece of a movie. Tim Burton once wrote and drew a nice little storybook that no one bought, and after he had made millions with Batman, Disney (who published the book and therefore owned the rights to the story) asked Burton, a former animator, to turn it into a movie. Tim Burton, who is not a writer, turned the screenplay duties over to Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, The Addams Family, and The Secret Garden). And since Burton was no longer an animator, directing duties went to Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Monkeybone). His former producing partner, Denise Di Novi, oversaw much of the production and Tim Burton went off to direct Batman Returns.

So, Burton may have walked onto the set of Nightmare once or twice, but he really had very little to do with the film other than giving over a book he had written in something like 1983 and putting talented people in charge (and giving his name to it, so that the title is far too often written as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas). Okay, and the character designs are inherently his. But the lasting quality of the movie, whose cult audience seems to get bigger and bigger every year, is really down to Caroline Thompson and Henry Selick, who actually did the hard work of making the fucking thing.

We also have to mention Danny Elfman, who burned himself out creating an almost constant musical atmosphere, including some absolutely wonderful songs and even singing the role of Jack Skellington. Without Elfman's contribution, the whole film is for shit.

Well, now we have another movie with the unwieldy title Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (which is as good a description of the hideous Helena Bonham Carter as I've ever heard), which Burton is taking all of the credit for. But how much did he have to do with this movie? He's credited as a director, but the real director of the picture is Mike Johnson, who worked on the short-lived series The PJ's. And the characters weren't even designed by Burton, but by Carlos Grangel of DreamWorks, who designed the characters for The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado. And the screenplay? Written by John August (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, um, both Charlie's Angels movies), Pamela Pettler (executive producer of the series Clueless and writer of a Sabrina the Teenage Witch movie), and, of course, the wonderful Caroline Thompson. And I notice Danny Elfman's name in the music credits...

So, how much credit will he be soaking up this time, especially since we know he had to be very busy directing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the same time this was being made?

Oh, and as a side note, Chicken Run was not clay-animated, but in fact stop motion puppetry. Aardman Animation has been using stop motion puppets since at the very least the second Wallace & Gromit short, The Wrong Trousers, in 1993. And after The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton and Di Novi produced James and the Giant Peach, directed again by Selick and with wonderful character designs by Lane Smith (author of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales). And the movie was considered such a failure that Disney stopped production on Selick's next film, Toots and the Upside Down House, which was already shooting and is now lost.

Burton didn't save shit. I'm tired of hearing that he did.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Throwdown 8/19

15 random thoughts, questions, and observations for the week.

1. The SCIFI Channel (as it wants to be known) has been moved on Comcast from a basic cable station to a digital cable station, climbed from channel 63 to 160, and now geeks will have to pay for the converter and the digital package just to watch endless reruns of MANTIS and "hit" shows like Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, Stargate Voyager, The Road to Stargate, Stargate & Me, Stargate Babies, and Stargate Finds a Son. I almost want to pity every nerd who wants to make it with one of those new Cylon babes so badly that he’ll have to pay out more money (or beg his parents to) every month just to watch his precious Battlestar Galactica. But those losers are so pitiable already that this latest whorish move by the Whore Channel makes me laugh my ass off.

2. So, Eminem is "exhausted," and it’s "complicated by other medical issues," eh? Dude, if we don’t believe Lindsay Lohan, what chance do you have? I mean, you’re not even as pretty a lady.

3. My requisite Lindsay Lohan news item: the My Scene Goes to Hollywood Lindsay Lohan Doll is finally available. I’m sure proud parents everywhere will be buying up this little role model for their kids. Really, between My Scene and Bratz, it’s like buying kids a little guide to how to be a Hollywood whore, anyway. Bathroom stall for snorting coke, puking up dinner, and making it with random college guys sold separately.

4. Okay, so now Lucy Lawless, who has been resisting the inevitability for years, wants to do a Xena: Warrior Princess movie? I don’t know, has that window passed? I’ve seen the show in reruns recently, and there’s, like, zero shelf life on the thing. It doesn’t hold up very well. She also says she wants the movie to be more of a comedy than the series was. Is that possible? Gee, will it smack its fans in the face just like the show did, too? This is only happening because Lucy’s movie career went straight-to-network and Rob Tapert is a money whore.

5. I don’t know, when I see Christians outside of a church, praying in protest that someone is filming The Da Vinci Code there, I’m just reminded of Tolkien fans complaining that Ian McKellen is too frail to play Gandalf. What’s the point of having faith if it’s so weak that it can be shaken by a shitty novel?

6. Ashton Kutcher won three awards this week at the Teen Choice Awards. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: kids are fucking stupid.

7. Why is the cast of Lost allowed to speak? They always say something exactly this stupid. Evangeline Lilly, whom my girlfriend thinks looks like Howdy Doody, was recently defending the show against charges that the cast looks "too glamorous" to be plane crash survivors, and said the following sentence: "I think I look exactly how I would if was genuinely stranded on a tropical island." Babe, before you say anything even dumber, just repeat to yourself: it’s only a TV show.

8. Speaking of plane crashes, there was a plane crash the other day, and it was all the media could talk about. "Why did this happen?" "Over a hundred people died!" You know, hundreds more people die every week in freeway accidents. Why are those accepted as commonplace?

9. Tonino Delli Colli died this week at the age of 81. He was a cinematographer who shot two of the most beautiful films ever made: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967). Watch even five minutes of one of these classics; most of today’s movies look like crap in comparison. He was a real gem.

10. Scarlett Johansson hits back at evil producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, who blamed her for the failure of The Island: "This is a clear-cut example of the producers passing the buck and not taking responsibility for their part in making calculated mistakes throughout the film’s marketing." Good for Scarlett for not letting their idiot comments go, but I wonder what’ll happen one morning when everyone wakes up and says: "Jesus, we’re fighting over The Island!"

11. Jennifer Garner is furious with the media for announcing her pregnancy. Isn’t it cute when you see a starlet who hasn’t figured out how this whole media thing works yet?

12. PETA (Pro-Environmental Terrorist Actions, I believe it stands for) is all pissed off at Paris Hilton for dumping Tinkerbell at her mom’s so that she can carry around a new Chihuahua. Apparently, Tink got too old for Paris to look "cute" carrying it around anymore, so she’s got herself a new dog named for a Disney character: Bambi. Yeah, what happened to all of those dogs that starlets were carrying around? Didn’t Hilary Duff have, like, five of those things? Nicole Richie had one, even Lindsay Lohan carried one around for a minute or two. Are they not trendy this year? Poor little dogs.

So, do they eat these things when they’re not cute anymore, or what?

13. Well, it turns out that Christopher Walken is not running for president. I’m a little disappointed, but I’m not sure why. I think it’s because, with an actor running, people might have actually participated in the election this time around. And it’s going to take someone with a lot of charisma to beat whichever Bush crony they run in 2008.

14. So, some guy who used to be an extra on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers is being accused of a fairly brutal murder (he and his wife allegedly tied couple of senior citizens to a yacht anchor and dropped them in the ocean). I just think it’s hilariously, predictably stupid how the media goes right for the connection with a show made for children to make it seem even more brutal, as if it weren’t cold-blooded enough. The Internet Movie Database carried this story with the masterful headline "Mighty Morphin’ Murderer." The dude was an extra; his career as a child actor was so unnoticeable that the guy doesn’t even have his own IMDb entry. Could you just, like, report the news instead of trying to shape public opinion?

15. Tomorrow is the funeral party for the great Hunter S. Thompson. Johnny Depp is financing the entire affair, which the formerly gonzo one wanted to be a party, not a wake. Depp has also had a cannon constructed to shoot Thompson’s ashes into the sky, in accordance with his wishes. So, this weekend, if you want to read a little bit of Thompson and remember just how much we need people like him in the world, that would be something else. Thompson once said: "No man is so foolish but he may sometimes give another good counsel, and no man so wise that he may not easily err if he takes no other counsel than his own. He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master." Damn it, we needed him around. Goodbye, Gonzo.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Pleistocene Park

There's a group of enviornmentalists who want to bring lions to America.

Yeah, it's true. Many scientists and conservationists are opposing it, but there is a group out there who thinks that relocating endangered animal species from Africa to American animal reserves will help to stem the tide of species being wiped out. This is, of course, a fairly terrible idea. Bringing foreign animal species to another part of the world can severely damage not only the native economy, but the foreign animals themselves. Doesn't it seem awfully cold on the Great Plains for animals that live closer to the equator? Or am I getting that wrong?

Either way, the argument to the traditional scientific "You'll ruin the American enviornment!" is the insufficient "But, America had large animal species 10,000 years ago!" Yes, in the Pleistocene Era, America was home to mastodons, camela, and smilodons. But that was during the Ice Age, before the arrival of mankind on this continent. But the retreat of the glaciers brought about a rapid extinction of the large mammals, and humans have changed the land an awful lot since then. The proponents of this argument say that relocating large animals here will help repair the damage that humans have done.

Huh?

Today's issue of Nature should outline this plan in greater detail, but I have a feeling that the science is pretty thin. Of course, moguls like Ted Turner smell the possibility of tourism and are very interested in the idea. But I tend to agree with people like Donald K. Grayson at the University of Washington, who points out: "It is not restoration to introduce animals that were never here. Why introduce Old World camels and lions when there are North American species that could benefit from the same kind of effort?"

Come on, Americans have already opposed the reintroduction of wolves to the Plains, so what kind of support are lions or elephants or giraffes or camels going to get? Even African organizations are opposed. According to Elizabeth Wamba of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Nairobi, Kenya: "Such relocations would affect future tourism opportunities for Africa. The welfare of the animals would have been reduced by transporting and exposing them to different eco-climatic conditions."

Have we learned nothing from what the rabbit, the wild horse, and the cane toad have done to Australia? The author of this proposal, Josh Donlan of Cornell University, at least has the grace to admit that "there are huge and substantial risks and obstacles." And, to be fair, there is some merit in wanting to save African species. But this seems the wrong way to go about the whole thing, and as someone who lives in a Great Plains state, I can live without the fear of African lions on a daily basis, thanks.

One of Animation's Leading Lights Extinguished

Joe Ranft, story editor of Pixar, was killed on Tuesday at the age of 45 when his car ran offroad and fell into the ocean in Mendocino County, California. Ranft got his start at Walt Disney Feature Animation in the eighties, and wrote for the films The Brave Little Toaster, Oliver & Company, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Fantasia 2000. He also supervised storyboards on James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas before making the move to Pixar, where he had a hand in the screenplays for Toy Story (for which he won an Oscar) and A Bug's Life. He continued to edit story and was continued one of the important operators. His voice can be heard as Heimlich in A Bug's Life, Wheezy in Toy Story 2, and Jacques in Finding Nemo.

In a statement released Wednesday, Pixar said "Joe was an important and beloved member of the Pixar family, and his loss is of great sorrow to all of us and to the animation industry as a whole". A Pixar spokesman added, "Joe was a big part of Pixar's soul". Ranft is survived by his wife, Su, and two children, Jordy, 13, and Sophia 9. A memorial service for family, friends and close associates is planned for Sunday in Mill Valley, California. Pixar is planning a memorial for fans at a date to be determined.

Go to Cartoon Brew for lots of links and nice sentiments about one of animation's brightest.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Leaps of Jeppy

My girlfriend and I have something we call "The Jeppy Plot Flaw," and we see it often in movies. It’s coined for a plot device in the terrible movie Sphere, which goes something like this:

In the movie, an otherworldly intelligence makes contact with some researchers at an abandoned undersea lab. It communicates through numbers, and when Dustin Hoffman runs through equations and so on he is able to crack this numerical code and correspond them to letters (I know, a five year-old could do it, but the movie thinks this is a high science). The computer message reads the following: "I AM JERRY. I AM HAPPY." Which leads Dustin Hoffman to attempt to make the audience of retards (I assume they’re the only ones who went to see in the theater) go "oooh" by asking: "What happens if Jerry gets angry?"

Well, later in the movie, our resident smarty-pants realizes that–whoops!–the equation is off, and the message should read: "I AM HARRY. I AM HAPPY." Apparently, the computer is reading the mind of another character or something. "I was off by a letter!" Hoffman wildly proclaims. But what the movie fails to realize is a tragic logical flaw that collapses the entire story under its own weight: because numbers have constant values, "one letter" cannot be off. If the equation is fucked, than the entire message changes. By this scientifish logic, "I AM JERRY. I AM HAPPY" becomes "I EM HARRY. I EM JEPPY."

Hence, the Jeppy Plot Flaw.

Here are some other Jeppy moments from the last 10 years.

The Craft: If the spirit of the witches’s powers is something larger than moralistic concepts of good and evil, why does this same power punish Fairuza Balk for being evil?

Independence Day: So, the aliens also use Windows 95? I guess it’s lucky for humanity they weren’t on a DOS-based system, otherwise the virus could never have been uploaded.

Batman and Robin: Batman has a credit card? Under the name "Batman"? What bank would insure that? Are there special FDIC regulations in place for pseudonymous credit? How does he even rate credit with no name? How can Bruce Wayne not be traced to this credit card? What the fuck?

Shakespeare in Love: Wait, someone English has tobacco plantations in Virginia in 1595? A mean feat, considering Jamestown wasn’t even founded until 1607...

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me: Whatever happened to the second Austin that was called into an existence as the result of the time travel?

Eyes Wide Shut: Explanation, please.

The Matrix: I still don’t buy it that a man could gain power and mastery over the computer environment and become the savior, and then have to spend two more movies learning to use his powers before finally reshaping the Matrix. Does he just like to play in God Mode?

The Sixth Sense: You’re telling me the entire country of filmgoers couldn’t figure out that Bruce Willis was dead? Jesus, he was shot in the movie’s opening scene!

Frequency: How does shooting the killer in the hand in the past solve the crime? And if it did, why is the killer still in the house in the present?

The Patriot: The opening scenes of the movie take place in 1776. The remainder of the movie takes place in 1781. Why haven’t Mel Gibson’s children aged in five years?

Attack of the Clones: Does anyone else have trouble believing that Padme Amidala would still want to marry Anakin Skywalker after he murdered an entire village of men, women, and children?

The Ring: So, whose voice was that on the phone?

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: You do know that your car chase is taking place in Venice, and that Venice has no streets, right?

What a Girl Wants: Will everyone shut up for a moment so we can figure this whole thing out?! Okay, Kelly Preston left you because she thought you knew she was pregnant and you wanted her gone. Seventeen years later, you find out you have a daughter in the form of Amanda Bynes. You tell Amanda that you never knew she existed. You call Kelly and tell her that you never knew she had a kid. But through the whole movie they treat you like you just neglected them because you didn’t care? Hey, how about the following sentence: "I’m so sorry, someone must have lied to you, but since we’re together now, let’s make up for lost time?" There, problem solved, movie over, I just saved everyone an hour.

Fahrenheit 9/11: With so much evidence mounted that implies George W. Bush and his criminal gang have deceived us, people voted for him a second time?

The Stepford Wives: Okay, Faith Hill has a malfunction and shorts out, and there’s a remote control that can make her boobs bigger, so obviously she’s a robot, right? And there’s one woman who spits cash out of her mouth like an ATM, so obviously they’re all robots, right? But, then we see a film that says that the Stepford technology implants a woman’s brain with nano-chips that curb their individuality and make them obedient, so obviously they’re women with microchips in their brains, right? But then, seconds later, we see a robotic Nicole Kidman, which implies the women are robots, right? But, at the end of the movie, Matthew Broderick turns off the main computer signal, and all of the microchips short out, and the women return to their normal selves, so obviously they’re women with microchips in their heads. Or, was it the robots?

And then my brain exploded faster than a robot given a logic problem by Captain Kirk.

Revenge of the Sith: Why are Republican forces firing on General Grievous’s ship when they know that the Chancellor’s inside?

And a classic Jeppy from a movie I hate so very much. In Somewhere in Time, the old Jane Seymour gives Christopher Reeve a modern penny. When Christopher Reeve goes back in time to see the young Jane Seymour (through some kind of mentalism), he accidentally pulls the penny out of his pocket, sees it, and returns to the present. Then he goes crazy and dies. So, presumably, this is all on a loop: 50 years ago (or some damn thing), Christopher Reeve went back in time and to see Jane Seymour. Then she found him in the present and gave him the penny back. And then he went back in time. But where did the penny come from originally? Where did the penny come from originally?

And an honorable mention: any cop movie made since the advent of caller ID where the cops are tracing a phone call and they say: "Keep him talking, we need time to trace the call!" Um, not in a world where I can see caller information on the first ring, you don’t.

A Rude Theory

Is it just me, or is Toy Story really about impotence? You start off with a cowboy who is the most popular little man in the bedroom: Woody. But, floppy and old, awkward around his girlfriend (Bo Peep), and shouting in inferiority, the cruelly-named Woody is the ultimate manifestation of sexual inadequacy. But for however long, his primacy goes unquestioned–until, that is, the arrival of the powerful, current, plastic, battery-powered 10-inch Buzz. With only the press of a button, Buzz’s "wings" pop up, erect. Deflated Woody is no match for the big man in the helmet, is he? No, it isn’t until Woody, er, stands up to Sid, the repository of his inner turmoil, and Buzz discovers that he’s "only a toy" and accepts it that things get back to normal in the bedroom.

Now, dispute that.

Oh, as a side note, here’s a question about another classic family film: is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial a Christ allegory, or is it really about a boy’s discovery of his own penis and how it makes him feel like an adult?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Runaways


One of the greatest bands ever. From left, Joan Jett, the gorgeous Jackie Fox, and Lita Ford. In front, Sandy West and lead singer Cherie Currie. Posted by Picasa

My Helen


Helen Mirren. From Age of Consent in 1969, all the way to today...
...always absolutely gorgeous.Posted by Picasa

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

EDGEPLAY: A FILM ABOUT THE RUNAWAYS (2004)
It seems like, these days, every fucking band has a documentary about it. But unlike the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, bands from the seventies remain fascinating, not only because they put out memorable music, but because the time was so much more interesting. Though a great glam/punk/hard rock band, the Runaways were a commercial creation. Kim Fowley, the producer of KISS, among other bands, gathered the girls together and attempted to launch them to stardom, and–according to the documentary–exploited them heavily. The Runaways are unjustly known today as just the girl band where Joan Jett and Lita Ford got their starts, but their music is still great. Vicki Blue, the last girl to join the Runaways, made this documentary, so the girls are all pretty willing to open up about their experiences (except Joan Jett, who I guess refused to be interviewed). It’s interesting to see what they’re still hurt and bitter about, and how their impressions and anecdotes differ (sometimes wildly). And Jackie Fox is still really, really hot. Fascinating stuff; the quality is a little amateurish, but it definitely works for a punk doc. My only major complaint is the music: why only two Runaways songs? Most of it is Suzi Quatro and solo Lita (not that it isn’t awesome stuff), but a little more by the band in question would have been nice. **** stars.

DICKIE ROBERTS: FORMER CHILD STAR (2003)
Meh. It was cute, but Joe Dirt was funnier. **1/2 stars.

SHAMPOO (1975)
An interesting movie about sexual politics, but it feels very dated now. Warren Beatty plays a hairdresser who sleeps around–the husbands don’t realize he isn’t gay–and wants to open his own salon. And then he falls in love, which complicates everything. It’s well-acted (especially by Goldie Hawn as the long-suffering girlfriend), but it only goes so far. Shocking in it’s day, I understand. Directed by the great Hal Ashby, who made several better films. *** stars.

PRIVATE RESORT (1985)
Johnny Depp should thank the stars every day for getting him out of teen sex comedies like this and into Oscar-nominated, thoughtful films. On the other hand, this is from that wonderful era when Americans liked nudity and didn’t fear it with all of their moral fiber, so there are some wonderful shots of Leslie Easterbrook in see-through outfits and there are tits all over the place. So, that’s nice. ** stars.

CALENDAR GIRLS (2003)
A cute British movie that doesn’t know when to stop. After Julie Walter’s husband dies of leukemia, she and her friends (all older, Welsh women) decide to pose for a cheesecake calendar in order to raise money for a nice couch for the cancer ward of their local hospital. It’s a good notion, and there are some very lovely performances (especially the always-wonderful and sexy Helen Mirren, still showing off her breasts into her sixties and I am ever so grateful for it), but the movie falls apart in the third act and becomes very preachy. From quirky comedy to pretentious statement in just under two hours. *** stars.

EXECUTIVE SUITE (1954)
Who knew Robert Wise could direct a movie this good? And one starring William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck, actors I’m not particularly fond of. This is an intense, gripping drama about office politics and the attempts of an overzealous accountant (one of my favorite actors, Frederic March) to take over a corporation after the death of its CEO. What it boils down to is an argument over business models–should we give the shareholders the maximum short term return on their investment, or should we grow the company through quality and production so that it remains alive? It may come out on the side of one, but fairly acknowledges the good intentions of the other without being angry or condescending. Fascinating stuff, still very relevant today, and extremely well-acted. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. **** stars.

THE MAGDALENE SISTERS (2002)
Harrowing, powerful film about the abuses of Irish Catholic girls in Church-run laundries during the 1960s (and based on factual events). It primarily follows four different girls (one of whom is sent to the laundry merely for being a bit flirty) and their experiences as they are beaten, punished, abused, raped, and sexually humiliated by the nuns and the priest who run the place. Let me tell you, I was in tears several times; this movie must be seen. Geraldine McEwan’s performance as the head nun is chilling, especially at times when she’s being congenial and Nurse Ratched-like. You’ll never forget this movie. You might never look at the Church the same way. **** stars.

A FATHER...A SON...ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2004)
A nice documentary charting the careers and relationship of Kirk Douglas (one of my personal heroes) and Michael Douglas. Kirk is always fascinating to me, and Michael comes across very warmly, and when the two of them have conversations with one another: to this day, Kirk is still disappointed over One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kirk starred in the play on Broadway–he produced it–and when Michael produced the movie, he cast Jack Nicholson in the lead, despite Kirk’s dream to play the role on film). And Michael still wants his father’s approval as much as Kirk wants to be certain that he was a good father. A wonderful film about fathers and sons, and what they do to one another’s lives. **** stars.

WHO’S YOUR DADDY? (2003)
Stupid crap about a kid who inherits his father’s porn empire. Always fun to see William Atherton and Lynn Shaye. Ali Landry (yawn) and sexy Patsy Kensit somehow manage to play centerfolds without ever once taking their clothes off. Dumber than the average teen comedy. * star.

THE CHURCH (1988)
I understand there’s a severely cut version of the film, but this one is the original Italian horror film co-written by Dario Argento and directed by Michele Soavi. I’m not going to pretend that I completely understood the story, and it seems to be part of the point. On the spot where Templar Knights slaughtered a village of pagans a thousand years ago, a church was erected. In the modern day, a librarian exhumes the demons trapped beneath, and the rest of the film is mostly hell breaking loose and gory deaths and sex with Satan and so forth. The plot really isn’t important in this kind of film; the style is. And this movie is directed with a lot of style and visual flair (and great Philip Glass music performed by Goblin). Plus, it stars little 12 year-old Asia Argento, who is very cute and already a natural actress. Good role for Hugh Quarshie. Italian women are the best in the world. If you like horror films or supernatural weirdness, don’t skip this film. ***1/2 stars.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Oh, Mandy!

A few months ago I commended the pin-up and sketch artist Dean Yeagle to your attention. I'm doing so again for two reasons: first, because he contacted me to say thanks, which is completely flattering to my ego. And second, because I want everyone who likes good art to go and take a look at his free gallery here, which is loaded with a lot of great pictures of his character Mandy, and from which you can order merchandise. I've been in love with his art since I first saw it in the pages of Playboy magazine. It looks like animation caught in mid-motion, and he draws with what my art history professor used to call "a pleasing roundness." Check it out for yourself, it's great stuff.

If you'd like to order some of his stuff from an online service, check out Bud Plant Comic Art; I order from them as often as I can. I've got my copies of Scribblings and Scribblings 2, but there's also a new book, One Mandy Morning, and a Mandy statue that, believe me, I wish I could afford. He's also got a book out that illustrates Robert Frost's comic poem The Cow in Apple Time. And at his gallery, you can get a Mandy poster.

Anyway, check these out. I wouldn't recommend this stuff if I didn't think it was great, and if you love pin-ups, cartoon art, and sexy girls, you'll love Mandy.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Sunday Hottie 28


MISTY MUNDAE Posted by Picasa