Thursday, December 15, 2005

Huh?


Kelsey Grammar as the Beast in the upcoming X-Men 3. Why was this a good idea? I mean, let's forget that both X-Men movies were disappointing; in fact, so many people expected them to be much worse than they were that they convinced themselves they'd enjoyed the films after they were over. But the multiple endings, the multiple characters who have to fight to get any screen time, the multiple storylines...these movies simply do not work. If they're enjoyable, it's in spite of all of their multiple deficiencies. It all clicks in two statements. A lot of fanboys I knew said that the X-Men movie was so good, it was like the perfect comic book movie for people who had never read the comics. Meanwhile, Roger Ebert said he enjoyed the movie, but that they should have comic book readers in the lobby to explain everything afterwards. Either way, I really think there isn't a way to make a truly great X-Men movie, and if there is, it ain't gonna be done by the guy who directed Red Dragon and Rush Hour 2.

Anyway...Kelsey Grammar as the Beast? All I can think of is his pompous portrayal of Dr. Frasier Crane (who was never such a queeny fussbudget on Cheers, as my friend Carl was quick to point out), his pompous attempts to pretend he didn't rip off his every mannerism from Jack Benny, or the pompous way he read his pompous memoirs when my manager and I put a damaged copy of the audiobook in the tape player at Barnes & Noble just to make fun of his incredibly pomposity. Now, the Beast isn't much of a character in the first place, really, but does he have to be pompous, too?

Easily the most ridiculous picture from an upcoming comic book movie since Brandon Routh in the maroon and dark blue Superman costume. Or Nicolas Cage's dark wig in the upcoming Ghost Rider, which is pathetic. Seriously, he looks like a fifty year old man pretending he's 19. You know, like Tom Cruise. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Film Week

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

SEVENTEEN AGAIN (2000)
Ah, the body-switch movie. Why did this incredibly stupid idea become its own genre 20 years ago? This one was for Disney Channel and starred Tia and Tamera Mowry just after they'd gotten suddenly hot. Young black twin girls? Great. Everything else? * star.

THE ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS PRESENT (2000)
No, it isn't. * star.

CLOSER (2004)
A movie for actual adults, for once. I have to say, this movie had a lot of things going against it--the cast, for one, and the pretentious way this movie was received by critics, and the direction of Mike Nichols, who never has as much to say as he thinks he does. I was prepared to hate it, but a lot of people whose opinions seem sane recommended that I see it. And let me tell you, I'm glad I did. This is one of the few movies I've ever seen that I would say treats relationships with any kind of grounded reality. Hell, every character reminded me, heart and soul, I've someone I've known in the past (and Christy, wherever you are, the world would be so much nicer a place if you weren't in it, ruining it for everyone; oh, and you too, Ray). The story is simplicity itself; the lives of four people--a writer played by Jude Law, a stripper played by Natalie Portman, a doctor played by Clive Own, and a photographer played by Julia Roberts--run together through a series of relationships, hook-ups, and romantic affairs. The actors themselves work, though I don't care for Julia Roberts (here stuck in her dead-eyed, emotionless mode that she thinks passes for Serious Acting) or Jude Law (do girls really find him that attractive? He's not even pretty, he's just haggard and hideous). Clive Owen is someone I've hated ever since I saw King Arthur, but between this performance and Sin City, my opinion of him is reversing itself. Natalie Portman, usually such a lame showboat (the way Winona Ryder was) is used effectively here as a character who raises a lot of questions about moral honesty. That's the genius of this movie: we're never once certainthat any characters are genuine. Are they doing things because of how they feel or because of how they want other people to feel? Are we more honest with strangers than we are with those close to us, or even with ourselves? Patrick Marber, who wrote the screenplay from his stage play, wisely never answers those questions, but leaves us to sort out our own feelings. I can see why this pissed off a lot of people, but those people tend to be emotionally weak and artistically cowards. Mike Nichols also shows excellent restraint in not over-directing, but simply letting the dialogue speak for itself. Dialogue this good is hard to screw up, so even Julia Roberts and Jude Law come off alright (and Law can handle himself, now and then). An excellent, excellent **** star movie.

GARDEN STATE (2004)
I almost think it's cute how people still believe that independent film exists. Where was this love for independent films in the days of, you know, porno? I mean, without the "indie sensibility" (how I despise that term, a buzz word created by marketing people for faux hipsters and people who want to appear artistically literate) of porno films and low budget horror, there would be no independent film industry (and it is an industry, let's not mistake that). Garden State, an annoyingly glib "meditation" on personal loss and the fear of aging that plays as little more than a smarmy soundtrack advertisement, is not really an independent film. It was released by Fox and financed by Miramax around the same time that Zach Braff was recording his voice role in Disney's Chicken Little, alright? How hard was it for the lead actor on a sitcom that, against all reason, has been very popular, to get his movie financed? Give me a break. And doesn't Natalie Portman get sick of playing that annoying wise suburban pixie role that she played in Beautiful Girls and several movies since then? And that soundtrack; I've been railing on about the use of contemporary music in films ever since the "Tiny Dancer" scene in Almost Famous back in 2000. It's a cheap way for limited filmmakers (and yes, I'm specifically referring to Cameron Crowe and Quentin Tarantino) to plug holes in their screenplays. Hey, why waste time trying to make people feel something genuine when they can put up a song that was popular thirty years ago to make us remember something we've already felt that is at least similar to what we're supposed to be feeling in the film? It's kind of cowardly, really; a second-guessing of what one has to say. So, all in all, I'm giving this film * star for Peter Sarsgaard; he's quite good in a film that has absolutely nothing to it. It would almost be a waste if this film and its manufactured angst weren't so generic; yet another version of The Graduate.

I HEART HUCKABEE'S (2004)
I love David O. Russell, but he always seems to have a problem pinpointing what it is he wants to say. He hasn't directed a film since Three Kings (1999), which was easily his best, and it's almost disappointing to see him come back with this one. Part of the problem is with the cast; do we really need another Coppola in film so badly that Jason Schwartzmann must be inflicted on us? Who moved the rock? And there's the ubiquitous Jude Law, and the unattractive and untalented Naomi Watts (a sidenote; all of the attractive women in this movie are older; Isabelle Huppert, Tippi Hedren, and Lily Tomlin, who wears a push-up bra under a cleavege-swelling dress in one scene that...wow). And goddamn if Marky Mark isn't in it, too. There's a lot of limitations there. And part of the problem, too, is that Russell tries to make this a movie about existentialism, but doesn't seem to quite understand what existentialism is. Dustin Hoffman gives us some semi-fascinating lectures on the sameness of all existence, but that's not really existentialism; existentialism says that the human experience is unique in a universe that is basically unordered and cruel. But when this concept is introduced, Russell calls it nihilism and seems to be confused between the two. Like most Americans in film, Russell confuses existentialism with "quirky" and absurdism with dadaism. Either way, in the end, he comes out on the side of that old comforting American saw: that we're all connected, that there needs to be some middle ground, that what we should care about is our own lives and how they touch the lives of others. It's a long runaround that, at times, is so fitfully entertaining and flirts with an interesting discussion. But to come to such a hackneyed and cliched conclusion? It's a disappointment that keeps threatening to be fascinating, but in the end reaches too far and grasps very little. **1/2 stars; an interesting failure (as opposed to most film failures these days, which fail in the same way as every other failure; you do have to credit Russell with at least making the attempt).

SILENT SHAKESPEARE (2000)
This is a compilation of Shakespeare adaptations from the Early Silent Era. It's only fair to review the films themselves.
King John (1899)
A very short film (as they all were in 1899) that shows only a piece of King John. ** stars for historical interest, but nothing really happens that is dramatic. It's more like an illustration of a famous scene.
The Tempest (1908)
A decent adaptation; one has to consider that, even though films originally had more in common with plays than any other medium, the lack of dialogue forced an impressionist take on literature. Here, the images and performances are very interesting and highly likeable. The names of the actors have been lost, but the person playing Prospero and the young lady playing Ariel are very compelling. **** stars.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1909)
Nice to look at, and the actor playing Nick Bottom is hysterical. Short, sweet, and to the point, with some interesting special effects (though nothing to put Meilies to shame). The young woman playing Puck seems to be having the time of her life. *** stars.
King Lear (1910)
An Italian production that makes interesting use of color tints and colored scenes (I can't quite figure out what the process here is; it looks like the frames have been painted). The costumes are alternately beautiful (the gowns of Regan and Goneril) and ridiculous (the fake Viking helmets with wings and horns prefigure the Flash Gordon serials more than they recall Shakespeare). *** stars.
Twelfth Night (1910)
Dull and convoluted (which seems unfair, since Shakespeare wrote it that way, but this film distills it without bothering to provide much of an explanation). * star.
The Merchant of Venice (1910)
Another Italian production, with more of that beautiful color. It doesn't do much for a play I find to be very problematic, but it's nice to look at. ** stars.
Richard III (1911)
Stagey, but ambitious. Easily as dull as the original play. *1/2 stars.

OTHELLO (1922)
If Shakespeare had had an actor as expressive and riveting as Emil Jannings to play the Moor of Venice, he might not have bothered with the dialogue in the first place. This version of Shakespeare's angriest play (in my humble opinion) is lavished with attention to detail in costumes and sets, but the center of it all is Jannings, who plays Othello with dignity and enraged honor, creating what has to be the definitive screen version of the character (I like Orson Welles, too, but he seemed to disinterested in the role). That said, Werner Krauss is quite good as Iago (one of the stage's greatest possible roles to play), but there have been better; poor Krauss is also saddled with a flamboyant Caesar haircut and a costume far too tight for such a round man. He looks rather like a gay superhero: Eddie Izzard as General Zod, only with more mime-like mincing about. But even that can't make this less than a **** star movie, and the best screen Othello.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (1935)
What a time the 1930s was for MGM; they're still remembered as the best studio of the time for the attention (and money) they paid to adaptations of great works of literature, from Dickens and Shakespeare to Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. This certainly isn't the best possible adaptation of Shakespeare's most needlessly complex play (and one of his funnier), but it is the best version I've seen. There is a lot of money spent on costumes and settings, although the costumes owe much more to the Elizabethan stage than to the Greek setting of the play. The actors are mostly very good; even Victor Jory's over-the-top and camp portrayal of Oberon becomes kind of endearing. Olivia de Havilland is excellent and sexy, too, and I like Mickey Rooney's much-maligned comic version of Puck. But the real center of the film is a brilliant performance by James Cagney, who plays Nick Bottom with such passion and such open-faced earnestness that it raises the entire film. Cagney was quite simply one of the greatest actors who ever lived, and he never had a need to prove it; but he did prove it, over and over again (it's a crime that today he's mostly remembered for his gangster performances in The Public Enemy and White Heat, rather than the full scope he was capable of). But the entire film almost meets Cagney at his level. Interestingly, Mendelssohn's famous symphony is used as the score to the film, and is orchestrated at a grand level by no less a person than Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Despite the deficiencies that begin with Shakespeare himself, this film makes it to **** stars for me. Something truly inspired.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Whiplash the Cowboy Monkey!


Since I mentioned Taco John's below, it just put me in the mind of the little guy starring in their commercials: Whiplash the Cowboy Monkey. Apparently he really does perform in rodeos and cowboy shows. I'm usually immune to the power of ad mascots, but this monkey is so awesome I almost do want to eat at Taco John's. The only way Whiplash could be cooler is if he was fighting a giant evil robot. Man, I want some tacos. Posted by Picasa

Christmas Tunes

Well, it's that time of the year, and since I'm one of those mixtape guys, that means it's time to collect all of the Christmas music I have and make myself a Christmas collection to listen to while wrapping and unwrapping presents this year. And, since I have nothing better to talk about today, I thought I'd share with everyone the music I've decided to put on this year.

My theory of Christmas mixes is the following: no comedy songs (I used to say novelty songs, but the very nature of holiday music being so specific kind of makes ALL Christmas songs novelty songs, I guess) and nothing too modern (98% of recent original Christmas music sucks). I goddamn despise "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," and a funny Christmas comedy song like anything from South Park or Weird Al's classic "Christmas At Ground Zero" would break the mood I want to set, and something by N'Sync or Britney would just be kind of silly--although, as you will see, there are two exceptions to this rule.

1. White Christmas (Bing Crosby)
You have to start with this one, you just have to. Not only is it traditional, not only is it really a great song, but the opening strains are kind of like the opening of The Wizard of Oz. I like to open with the feeling that you're entering another world.

2. Sleigh Ride (Leroy Anderson)
The instrumental one with the great trumpets.

3. Winter Wonderland (Louis Armstrong)
Burl Ives's version is good, too, but Satchmo has more personality. Plus, not much beats Armstrong's voice on a dark, cold night.

4. Christmas Time Is Here (Vince Guaraldi Trio)
Yes, from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Man, remember when jazz used to be good? Kind of dark, kind of soft, very nice and comforting. Then again, my favorite jazz album of all time is Dave Brubeck's Dave Digs Disney, so what do I know?

5. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Andy Williams)
This reminds me of being a kid on Christmas, though I'm not especially sure why. Kind of comforting.

6. Little Saint Nick (The Beach Boys)
Christmas-themed rock music was good in the sixties. Not so much these days, though the new Brian Wilson album, All I Want for Christmas, is really, really good.

7. Santa Baby (Eartha Kitt)
Specifically this version. There are others out there, most notably by Madonna and Kylie Minogue, but they're just doing bad faux-vampy impersonations of Eartha.

8. The Chipmunk Song (Dave Seville and the Chipmunks)
I don't qualify this one as a comedy song by this point; it's made the leap to traditional.

9. Here Comes Santa Claus (Gene Autry)
He just sounds so laid back.

10. Run Rudolph Run (Chuck Berry)
11. Sleigh Ride (The Ventures)
Man, they could play guitar in those days.

12. Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth (Bing Crosby & David Bowie)
I do think this song's very pretty, but hey, was I not going to put a David Bowie song on something?

13. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (John Denver & the Muppets)
Specifically Rowlf the Dog; I find Jim Henson's voice comforting, and this is a nice quiet moment after some rockers and an appearance by Bowie and huge orchestrations.

14. Frosty the Snowman (The Ronettes)
But I do like to punctuate the quiet moments, too. Ronnie Spector's voice does strange things to me inside.

15. Blue Christmas (Elvis Presley)
A must.

16. All I Want for Christmas Is You (Mariah Carey)
This is the only new Christmas song that I really love. It's the most perfect pastiche of the classic Phil Spector "Wall of Sound" style that I've ever heard, and it doesn't go overblown--at least, not in a tasteless manner. This is the only Mariah Carey song I've ever liked, too.

17. O Holy Night (Nat "King" Cole)
My favorite version of my favorite Christmas song.

18. Good King Wenceslas (The Ames Brothers)
My favorite version of my second favorite Christmas song. "Good King Wenceslas" has kind of gotten itself lost from contemporary times, hasn't it?

19. Do You Hear What I Hear? (Bing Crosby)
Good old Christmas drama; no one uses the orchestra anymore in popular music... At least, not well.

20. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (Darlene Love)
I think this is because it's the song used on the title sequence of Gremlins, but this has always been firmly identified with Christmas for me. The only thing that could make this Phil Spector song more perfect is if Ronnie Spector had sung it.

21. What Child Is This (Vince Guaraldi Trio)
More jazzy calm.

22. The Christmas Waltz (Frank Sinatra)
A perfect version of a perfect song; I almost cry when I hear this one.

23. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (Dean Martin)
Boy, everyone's into Dino this Christmas, it seems. But if you're a guy my age, I think this song says the same thing to you as it does to me: the end credits of Die Hard. You know, just for a second. Otherwise, a great song.

24. A Holly Jolly Christmas (Burl Ives)
Unassailable Christmas classic.

25. Feliz Navidad (Jose Feliciano)
This year, all I can think of is Taco John's, who are using it on a commercial. I love that monkey!

26. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (John Lennon & Yoko Ono)
The Christian Children's Fund or whoever it was nearly ruined this song in the 1980s and 1990s with their commercials, but it really is a beautiful sentiment. Probably Lennon's most touching song after "Imagine" and "Beautiful Boy."

27. Baby, It’s Cold Outside (Jessica Simpson & Nick Lachey)
The other modern exception; Jessica's Christmas album ReJoyce was more of a tribute to her grandmother (the Joyce of the title) than a Christmas pop album, so she hits a more traditional note than others have. And it's the only album so far on which she's been able to work her voice out in that jazzy way she likes to sing in (and which Columbia Records tried for three albums to stamp out). Her version of the classic Christmas come-on with her husband Nick (one of the few white men who can actually sing in a jazz/R&B style) is sexy, breathy, and kind of erotic.

28. Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band)
How can you not?

29. The Christmas Song (Nat "King" Cole)
I opened traditionally, I ended traditionally. This song more than any other says Christmas to me, and it would be horrible not to hear it this year.

Well, that's all of that, although I need to edit a bit because I think I'm over the time limit on this one. Still, this is my Christmas, and I thought I'd share it.

Anyone else have any suggestions?

UPDATE 12/17: As for practical application, I can't locate two of my favorites: "Sleigh Ride" by the Ventures and "Good King Wenceslas" by the Ames Brothers. So those two will have to wait for my Christmas 2006 mix, assuming this becomes a yearly thing. But, as fate would have it, if you cut off those two songs, the CD runs an hour and sixteen minutes, so it all works out pretty perfectly, actually.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

JP Manoux


I love this guy. You probably recognize him from something, but can't figure out where. That's because he's appeared in over 60 television commercials, most recently as a shlub at a dating service in a DiGiorno commercial (he was also playing the green grapes in Fruit of the Loom spots). JP is mostly a character actor, but every time I see him he makes so much of his role that it's easy for him to steal entire scenes from the leads--especially when he's in movies as bad as Inspector Gadget, Malibu's Most Wanted, and Starship Troopers 2, where the leads can be easily outpaced. He's funny as hell, too; as a human robot street performer, he has the funniest line in Eurotrip, a very funny movie: kicked in the groin, he laments "Ow! Mon ball robotique! (Ow! My robots balls!)," and falls to the ground repeating "error, error, error." The dude even does voices, not only for a lot of Disney video games (his turn as the Emperor Kuzco in the Emperor's New Groove video game led to his reprising the role in the upcoming Kronk's New Groove movie), but also turning as the gigantic Scrappy in Scooby Doo and as the brain-enhanced Scooby in Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, both of which I surprisingly liked. And you've probably seen him on television, usually playing mimes, waiters, and bellhops. He's appeared on ER, Becker (a bad show, but his appearance was hilarious), 3rd Rock from the Sun, Just Shoot Me, The Drew Carey Show, The King of Queens, Grounded for Life, Nikki (a show I actually enjoyed), The District, Charmed, Angel and many others. And, of course, he's doing an exceptionally funny job right now playing both Vice-Principal Hackett ("I do wish you'd call me Vice-Principal Neil") and Curtis the Caveman on Disney Channel's Phil of the Future, a show I just enjoy all to hell. I just love him; he's hilarious and talented. If only more actual lead actors were like that...