Thursday, December 31, 2009

Borrowing a Ouija Board Is Different Than Buying One

I watched Paranormal Activity. My verdict follows this word.

Paranormal Activity (2009)
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat
Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

An even 10 years after The Blair Witch Project offered up a relatively fresh take on the horror genre, Paranormal Activity shows up to alter that formula ever so slightly. Much like the kids in Blair Witch, Katie and Micah find themselves hostage in a seemingly safe environment, and it's a place we can all picture ourselves being in: their home.

We find out early on that Micah and Katie have recently moved into a new home together, and that they've been dating a few years. Everything we see is taken directly from Micah's fancy new camera. It turns out Katie has been having strange things happen to her since she was eight years old, and just recently these incidents have been cropping up again after years of lying dormant. She thinks she has seen strange things and even heard voices. Micah's idea is to place his new camera in their bedroom so that any strange occurrences will be on tape for them to figure out. Katie isn't too fond of the idea, but she eventually lets him have his way.

Without giving too much away, strange things do continue to happen. Katie explains the full story of what she experienced as a child, and she starts to get more and more freaked out as things continue to go bump in the night. Micah, on the other hand, sort of thinks these developments are cool and interesting. He spends most of his free time on his laptop trying to analyze what was caught on camera the night before. He becomes somewhat obsessed, but he doesn't want any help. When a psychic comes over to give the couple some advice, he tells them that he senses an evil presence, and that they should make sure they don't anger it by calling it out (i.e. using a ouija board). Doing so could bring whatever is there into an angry state. Micah feels like he knows what's best for them, so he shuns these words of wisdom and goes on his own path. His bull-headed ways wedge a divide between he and Katie, and as things continue to spiral out of control, they don't even fully have each other to lean on.

Paranormal Activity, much like Blair Witch before it, preys on the viewer's imagination. This movie is scary because of the places it makes each individual mind go, not because it tells the viewer it is. You won't see the big, dumb, bloody scenes that dominate most horror outings these days. You will, however, see plenty of subtle, unnerving images that will make active imaginations drift into some dark places. After all, we can always imagine something far more terrifying than reality. I can certainly see how this film would be a divisive one, though. Those who are more visually-oriented might be bored by all the time the film's makers take in setting everything up and building tension.

Another similarity to Blair Witch lies in the way we view the proceedings. Everything we see is through the lense of Micah's camera. Thankfully, the camera stays mostly steady, so no one is likely to complain of a headache or dizziness like they did when viewing Blair Witch or Cloverfield. The movie also shuns true credits in order to make everything appear to be a documentary about a true event. Of course we know it isn't, but this adds to the "this shit could happen to anyone" aspect the filmmakers were going for. And ultimately, that's what makes horror tick. The viewer needs to be scared for the characters on screen, and that is usually accomplished by putting them in positions that could theoretically happen to anyone. It's for this reason that I'm much more likely to be creeped out by Paranormal Activity than some shitty, blood-soaked mess like Halloween II. While not on par with Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity still holds its own.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Big and Fucking Blue

I'm not talking about some sort of gigantic cookie monster float or anything. I'm talking about Avatar, James Cameron's 37 billion dollar extravaganza complete with 3D glasses and, well, huge blue aliens. Avatar represents the first movie I've ever seen in 3D, so I tried to make sure and not let the visual experience overpower the rest of the film. That said, Cameron himself has gone out of his way to pimp the 3D aspect of Avatar, and he's wise to do so. The visual strengths of the film do exist, so after further consideration, I'm factoring them in.

Avatar (2009)
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi
Rating: 7.0 (out of 10)

While all the hype surrounding Avatar might not be completely accurate, the much-ballyhooed visual effects and 3D wizardry are every bit the spectacle they were promised to be. All the fantastical elements of the film pop with authority in 3D, whether it be an expansive forest that is home to a unique culture, jellyfish-looking beings that float in the sky to signify importance, or even arrows flying through the sky. This movie is certainly a rare example in which all of the money spent to create it shows up in front of the audience. Everything here is just enormous, larger than life.

If only the other aspects of the movie held up quite as well. Avatar, on the surface, is the story of Jake Sully, a marine whose legs have been rendered inoperative after an accident. Following the death of his brother, Jake is given a very unique opportunity, an opportunity that could only occur in the year 2154, which it happens to be. Jake's brother was part of a military program that trained him to live in an avatar resembling the Na'vi, a race of people who inhabit the planet Pandora. Pandora is rich in resources, and of course the good people of Earth have decided it's their right to take them. The avatars are created for deception. Jake's brother was supposed to get to know the Na'vi, earn their trust, and then fuck them over. Jake is recruited to take his brother's place in the aforementioned program due to the similarities in their DNA, and if he succeeds, he is promised an expensive surgery that will allow him to walk again.

Jake's a very gung-ho individual, and it's this enthusiasm that accidentally lands him in harm's way. During his first day on Pandora as an avatar, he winds up having to flee from a giant triceratops-like creature. His escape from one danger leads him to another, as several small predators gang up on Jake, who has no real way to defend himself in an avatar body he isn't familiar with. Fortunately, a Na'vi female named Neytiri rescues him. She quickly figures out that Jake isn't a native, but she senses he is special based on her own intuition and the presence of the floating jellyfish creatures I mentioned earlier. Neytiri introduces Jake to her people, who eventually let him stay in order to learn to become one of them.

Needless to say, the powers that be back on Earth, namely a meathead colonel (Stephen Lang) and a sniveling government asshole (Giovanni Ribisi), are pleased. Now Jake can try to convince the Na'vi to head elsewhere so that the Earth dwellers can nab their bounty of resources. For a while, Jake happily spends his days in Pandora as an avatar, learning everything he can about the Na'vi, and then returns to his human body at night to record video logs and brief everyone on what he has learned. Things get more complicated when Jake begins to fall for Neytiri and the peaceful community she comes from.

The acting in Avatar is fine, but I have to stop there. No one steps up and delivers a memorable performance. Sam Worthington was more impressive in Terminator: Salvation, and it's not like Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi haven't done better. The screenplay gets a little annoying at times, as many characters are forced to say things that come across as lazy and/or contrived. None of this is too big a deal, though, as the movie tends to move quickly past its miscues.

Already being hailed by many critics and fans as an overwhelming cinematic achievement, James Cameron's long-awaited followup to Titanic feels more like a good movie disguised as a great one. While the story is solid enough, it's not even close to original. Jake is sent on a mission to infiltrate a foreign culture, he starts to see their side of things, he falls in love with one of their women, and then he is forced to decided which side of the line he stands on. This has been done plenty of times, most recently in The Last Samurai. The allegorical aspects of Avatar are strong as well, obviously referencing the damage that is constantly being done to the environment around us. All of this is good stuff, but is it groundbreaking? No. The visuals and technological advancements are amazing, but that's where the true acclaim has to end. Avatar is certainly enjoyable, and it doesn't honestly feel too long despite its running time (2 hours and 41 minutes), but it isn't 2009's best movie. It's a good pop song featuring a chord progression you've heard before and expert production.

Avatar's ending was something of a problem for me. The inevitable showdown between the evil Earth folks and the Na'vi looks great, but the direction taken is less than inspired. It seems like there was at least one alternate choice here that could've made things more interesting, and going that direction could've left a bigger emotional thumbprint on the viewer. I don't want to downplay Avatar's quality; most directors would have completely messed this up. I just don't think Cameron's latest should be canonized anytime soon.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New Design

Photographer/drummer/artist/beardface James Phinney said something about the white-on-black situation of this page being difficult on the eyes. Whether or not he was giving me shit, I made a change. You'll notice now that Illogical Compulsion appears as if a flamboyant candy cane exploded all over it. That said, it somehow is easier to read, and it's much easier to discern the words written in bold face. The verdict? I win.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Year's Best: The Top 15 Albums of 2009

How's it going, everyone? I've been extremely busy with the upcoming re-launch of on January 1st (go there/go there/go there), so I haven't really had the time to regularly update here. Then again, regular updates are sort of like my kryptonite. I did make sure to take the time to construct and organize my top 15 albums of 2009, so it's not like I'm a complete asshole. My other big idea is that I intend to revisit the past couple of years to let you guys know my formal top 15 from 2007 and 2008. I also want to do a sweet top 50 of the '00s list. Will I follow through? I might. Anyway, here are my favorite albums from the last year of this decade. I didn't take the time to include album covers, so if you really need that sort of thing, go get it yourself. I'm sick of waiting on you hand and foot.

15. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest

The first time I tried out Veckatimest, I was really pretty bored by the whole experience. I've liked Grizzly Bear since I randomly bought Yellow House a few years ago, but this wasn't really doing it for me. Because I'm stubborn and interested in giving albums a real chance (some of my favorites weren't well-received by yours truly at first), I gave this thing a few more spins and grew to really appreciate it. The songs here are calm and collected, but they're also nuanced and relaxing. "Two Weeks" is the real standout for me, as the chorus is just irresistable. "All We Ask" features a very nice change that makes the song work. Grizzly Bear aren't as exciting as a lot of the other bands featured here, but they're reliable and steady. They're like Mark Buehrle. And that's worth something.

14. Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind EP

I'm going to be the only person in the world who eats up indie music and doesn't have this band's newset full-lenth, Merriweather Post Pavillion, at or near the top of my year-end list. That's okay, though. I'll deal with it. Animal Collective's Fall Be Kind EP is another story. The bizarre instrumentation and enormous sonic soundscape on this five-track release just really took me by surprise. I've always liked Animal Collective, and I realize that this EP is sort of like MPP's little brother, but for some reason the songs here resonate much better with me. I don't know, maybe it's the smaller sample size. "What Would I Want? Sky" is the big winner here, as it really showcases the band's ability to hide irresistable melodies under a wall of effects, a trick that perhaps makes the song stay with the listener much better than it normally would. "I Think I Can" feels like some sort of alien abduction begging for exploration before managing to get even more obtuse. Fall Be Kind EP is really good, and it's really sneaky. Just listen to it half a dozen times and see what happens.

13. Russian Circles: Geneva

I'm not really sure anyone is better at the whole post-rock thing than Russian Circles. They do the whole emotive buildup thing as well as anyone, and they're simply more willing to get mean when they have to. Russian Circles have always been willing to wait around and tinker before doling out a really severe payoff. "Fathom" gets things going by sending chills up the spine and then proceeding to rip the spine out entirely with a smile and a growl. "Geneva" and "Melee" keep the thunder going, while "When the Mountain Comes to Mohammad" sort of creeps me out. Russian Circles aren't one to deviate from their central style, but when they sound this good it's hard to care. The timing and execution on display throughout Geneva is simply first-rate.

12. Built to Spill: There Is No Enemy

Built to Spill and I are developing quite the long, rich history. Perfect From Now On soundtracked a lot of my best and worst moments, Keep It Like A Secret let me get mad, and There's Nothing Wrong With Love reminded me that it's okay to shrug the bullshit off sometimes. So color me surprised that after a pair of good but not inspiring releases this decade, the aging band decided to release There Is No Enemy, something of a return to form. Complete with swirling guitars, epic forays into progressive experimentation, and the occasional perfect three-minute pop song, Enemy is a somewhat lesser version of what this band used to deliver in spades. "Hindsight" uses slide guitar and a great hook to stay firmly between the ears, "Pat" gets its point across in breakneck fashion, and "Things Fall Apart," well, falls apart. Then there's "Tomorrow," a classic album closer. This record sounds like it was made by a band that, while still solid in the meantime, took their collective finger off the auto-pilot button.

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It's Blitz!

It's Blitz! is so inappropriately named. The band's debut, Fever to Tell, was a blitz. Their second effort, the excellent Show Your Bones, was a well-balanced attack. This, however, is sort of a pain killer. This is what you listen to after you spent your day getting run over by the first two albums. Largely absent are the searing guitars, the barking, the overall menace. Instead, we're left with an album full of organs and keys and elegance. And hey, that works too. "Zero" was the first single off the album, and it was an excellent choice. It's activity is carefully controlled but effective, the calm before a storm that never comes. It also really sets the tone for a completely different Yeah Yeah Yeahs record. "Little Shadow" is soothing, while "Hysteric" is anything but its title. It's Blitz! kind of feels like a white flag, a symbol of peace. As good as the album is, I'm sort of hoping the band brings back the war on their next effort.

10. From Monuments to Masses: On Little Known Frequencies

This certainly isn't the best name for a band, or for an album, but since when has that mattered? From Monuments to Masses specialize in sweeping post rock, which of course means things get epic as fuck here and there, and that the drummer can do whatever he wants. "(Millions Of) Individual Factories" starts out with a funky swagger and winds up heaving its heft all over the place like a prize fighter. "An Ounce of Prevention" covers just about every turn one could hope for, while "Checksum" eschews grace. All of this combines with spoken word samples that are almost eerie at times. Here's to hoping we hear more from these guys.

09. Girls: Album

I really didn't expect much from Album despite all its glowing reviews and happy hype. Most music described as "sun-soaked summer music" sounds terrible and boring to me. I've been so disappointed by those adjectives in the past that I've been conditioned to simply think the words must have a different meaning to me than they do others. Girls get it right though, as Album gives me a wistful feeling that I'm not often struck by. Opening track "Lust For Life" is just so jangly and lively, while "Laura" is sad and lamenting underneath its harmonies. The songwriting here is top-notch, and the little things don't go unnoticed. The vocals are so distant on "God Damned" that you can feel the whole thing just sort of slipping away. "Big Bad Mean Motherfucker" sounds like what might happen if the Beach Boys all lost their minds and started punching holes in doors. "Hellhole Ratrace" oozes hazed-out beauty while reminding the listener that being a sadsack really isn't fucking worth it. If this is summery pop music, then sign me up. Otherwise, I'll be listening to what winter has to offer.

08. Atlas Sound: Logos

Atlas Sound main man Bradford Cox is that emaciated little bastard you always see on all of the indie web sites. He sings for Deerhunter as well, and all accolades aside, this guy can really craft a song. Cox is known primarily for his work with Deerhunter, but his songs on Logos are impressive in their own right. Electronic effects hum and circle the listener while Cox plays beautiful guitar-driven melodies and coos his sweet, sweet harmonies. Right from the start, Logos feels like a dream. "The Light That Failed" feels like the soundtrack to a tender moment in Six Feet Under, while "An Orchid" is just achingly beautiful, some sort of fucked up lovechild of Elliott Smith and Animal Collective. Reverb is all over the vocals here, but the guitars and electronic effects are right up front. It's as if Cox's words feel too damaged to rival his music. This approach works well, as Logos produces some truly goosebump-inducing moments.

07. Mastodon: Crack the Skye

This isn't Blood Mountain, my hindsight pick for Album of the Year 2006, but then again, what the fuck is? Crack the Skye makes no apoligies for itself, using truly unusual symoblism and insane riffing to push past what anyone could reasonably have expected for a followup to such a great record. "Oblivion" and "Divinations" chug and pummel along, paving the way for "The Czar" to unravel. Everything here is excellent, but it all sort of feels like its a warmup for "The Last Baron," a complete mindfuck of a barrage that jumps all over the place and honestly leaves the listener feeling a little bit tired. Mastodon isn't quite as brutal on Skye as they have been in the past, but the chops are most certainly still in place, and the future is bright. For a full review of Crack the Skye, check this site's April archive.

06. Cymbals Eat Guitars: Why There Are Mountains

I feel kind of silly saying this, because basically every review of this album I've read has already said it, but Why There Are Mountains does a phenomenal job of capturing the energy and excitment of the early work of some of indie rock's elderstatesmen. While not really sounding the same, Cymbals Eat Guitars manage to hearken back to the day when Modest Mouse or Built to Spill would just lose their shit and give everything they had to a song, whether it was practical or not. The vocals get intentionally sloppy and impassioned, the guitars shriek in all the right places, and the musical sensibility is impeccable. "...And the Hazy Sea" starts the album out on such a high note that there isn't really much of anywhere to go but down; this is a truly awesome song that I really can't get enough of. Fortunately, the fall down to the bouncy "Some Trees" isn't far, and "Indiana" impresses as well. I really had fun listening to this the first time, and I still do.

05. The xx: xx

The first album from The xx, appropriately titled xx, sort of looms above like a big, black crow. The bass lines are scarily dark and clear, while the lead instruments chime and prod. This is an indie pop record stripped of all its happiness, a sad but hopeful experience. The xx don't seem to feel all that playful, but they're wishing that better days lie ahead. This band employs a pair of singers, one male and one female, and neither of them ever stretches for anything above basic range. It just wouldn't make sense on songs this subdued and focused. "VCR" acts like it's going to eventually bring the joy, but it doesnt ever bother. "Crystalised" is a fantastic track that uses its lead guitar part to string the listener along a bumpy road. "Islands" shifts gears late for a nice but not obvious emotional payoff, while songs like "Infinity" and "Stars" leave a lot of sonic room for interpretation. The production here is crazy crisp, and repeat listens don't ever lessen the experience.

04. Japandroids: Post-Nothing

Technically amazing music always makes me raise my eyebrows, but something like Post-Nothing (which is well-played; I don't want to give the wrong impression) does a little more for me. Japandroids deal in fuzz, feel, and vocals that sound like they're recorded by a guy who's just sort of letting it all out in the other room. This band isn't afraid to let songs take their time to unravel, and they spread the duration of their debut over just eight tracks. "Young Hearts Spark Fire" is sort of gorgeous without trying to be, "Crazy/Forever" is brilliant in its simplicity and universal appeal, and "I Quit Girls" is an exercise in blunt frustration. Everything about these songs is big, whether it be the guitars, the cymbal crashes, the raw themes, or the shouting. I was a little thrown off by Post-Nothing upon first listen, but after a couple more it was clear to me that Japandroids had done something memorable.

03. Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Phoenix fall into one of my wheelhouses. They make hook-laden pop music with electronic leanings, and they do so with varying song structures and unique vocal ideas. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is really fucking great, with the opening couple "Lisztomania" and "1901" probably representing the album's early pinnacle. Both these tracks are instantly catchy, but it's not until several listens later that the full quality of the songwriting becomes entirely evident. "Love Like a Sunset Pt. 2" is a beautiful and abbreviated measure in open space and anticipation, while "Countdown (Sick for the Big Sun)" gets back to clawing its way to the center of the senses. Phoenix is as capable a band as there is at making worthwhile pop music, and I can't wait to see where they head from here.

02. Baroness: Blue Record

Baroness is so badass. I love Red Album to death, but I like Blue Record more. Still mired in southern animosity, Baroness bring some new elements to the table this time around. Yeah, the dual guitars still crunch and blare like hammers and sirens, but the song structures here seriously have something of a pop sensibility about them. Baroness just doesn't give a fuck what you think, MetalFan88. There are moments of honest-to-God quiet here, with desperate vocals somehow in the forefront. There are catchy riffs masked with spite and venom, but made of candy underneath. I don't know if this is just me, but I sort of feel like Blue Record is turning some sort of genre-bending corner. If I don't get lazy/busy, I intend to post a proper and full review of this one later on.

01. Sunset Rubdown: Dragonslayer

So I like most everything Spencer Krug does with Wolf Parade, but I had never really taken the time to listen to Sunset Rubdown for any meaningful length of time until Dragonslayer came out. This is progressive pop at its finest. Bizarre changes happen with regularity, great vocal harmonies come out of nowhere, screeching electric guitar bursts come at you from the bushes. It's just a lot of fun to listen to. Opener "Silver Moons" is plenty exciting right up until a change near the end that really makes the song. "Idiot Heart" follows this game plan as well, while "Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!" uses a beautiful guitar line to lead into alternating male and female cries that work immensely well. Then there's "Black Swan" with its starts and stops, its silence and its loudness. My favorite, though, is probably "You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)," which uses a silly but infectious keyboard intro to propel itself into an epic, unforgettable climax. It's always nice to get taken back this much by a record I wasn't even particularly anticipating before the year began. I'd wager that this is the collection of songs I returned to most often over the past year.

Anyone want to disagree? If so, send me a list and I'll post it here. Please do it. I'm lonely.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Sexy (fake) Evening With Tony La Russa

I'm hardly making a revolutionary point here, but what exactly does a manager do to help a baseball team? I was watching the Cardinals/Reds game earlier this evening and I noticed that Dusty Baker was batting Wily Tavares in the leadoff spot, thus ensuring that the Reds lineup would make more outs and make them as quickly as possible. Of course, not all managers are this stupid. We are talking about Dusty Baker here, a legendary proponent of all that is "old school," "scrappy," and "dumb as fuck." There are better managers out there. While he may be a bit boneheaded at times, at least Cardinal manager Tony La Russa isn't quite on big Dusty's level. After the Reds 7-2 victory over my Redbirds, I had the fortune of sitting down with Tony for a one-on-one chat on what makes him tick.*

*This conversation did not actually take place in any universe other than the one that is inside my own head, but I do believe it to be an accurate simulation of what might have actually been said.

Brian Vaughan: Hi, Tony, how are you this evening?
Tony La Russa: Well, Brian, I'm doing fine. Our guys played as hard as they could tonight but we just couldn't come up with the win. Joel looked great out there except for the three really long home runs he gave up.
BV: Speaking of Joel Pineiro, do you think his recent struggles are an indication that perhaps he is reverting back to his old peformance level?
TLR: That's just ridiculous. Joel has given us a lot all season, and it would be crazy to think that the five good months he has turned in this season are a fluke just because of several bad years before it. Next question.
BV: Okay, Tony, I'm sorry if I sort of hit a nerve there. I'll move on to a more positive question. A lot of people think Adam Wainwright's awesome 2009 will earn him his first Cy Young award. Do you think he picks up his 20th win Friday against the Brewers?
TLR: I don't want to comment on individual accomplishments. Individual performance has nothing to do with team success at all. We're not out there to win ball games, we're out there to try as hard as we can and stay scrappy and hard-nosed.
BV: I really don't think it's possible for a team to be successful without an individual performing, Tony. Could you elaborate on that theory?
TLR: Well, a player can contribute, but not with things like home runs or a good strikeout-to-walk ratio. The only way a player can help his team win is by bunting, hustling, staying gritty, and being over 35.
BV: Um, okay. Uh, next question, I guess. Is there any team that really scares you in a short post-season series?
TLR: Ryan Franklin is our closer. I'm tired of you reporters always asking me. He has been dominating all season, and a few blown saves are ot going to change his status as one of the game's best. Just like with Joel, you try to overshadow his months of success with the flimsy argument that he had a few bad years before that. I just don't get it. Ryan is our guy.
BV: Tony, I was, I wanted to know what team might be imposing to you in a playoff series. I didn't ask about Ryan Franklin. I'm sorry for the confusion.
TLR: Ryan is our guy, bud. One more question about him and I'm ending this interview. You wouldn't ask Joe Girardi if he was planning on pulling Mariano Rivera from the closer's role, would you? La Russa then sighed and wiped his brow.
BV: Never mind. Okay. I'll, um, I'll just move on. Albert's contract is up here in a couple of years. Do you think the team will start making attempts to lock him up for a long time?
TLR: We don't really think about those types of things. That's a long way down the road. We don't worry about things in the future, we can only worry about hustling and playing with heart for the rest of this season.
BV: So you aren't worried at all about losing one of the best players in baseball history?
TLR: Skip is still under the team's control for a little while, so I'm not worried at all. He'll be wearing a Cardinal jersey on the day of his Hall of Fame induction.
BV: But I was talking about-never mind. I'll try something else again, something lighter. You've been sporting those tinted glasses and that shaggy hair cut since the 1970s now; any chance you make a change soon?
TLR: It's only the third year of the '70s, man. Give me a break.
BV: Tony, who is the president of the United States right now?
TLR: Richard Nixon. What kind of reporter are you? I mean, I know you're not exactly Cronkite, but surely you know who runs the country. You have to have television by now. We've had it since '51 now.
BV: So if I was to tell you that I was posting this interview on the internet, what would you say?
TLR: The what? What are you talking about?
BV: The internet, Tony. It's a global information system using computers. Anyone can use it. It's basically the present and the future of the whole fucking world.
TLR: I have to go.
BV: Tony, I have more questions. Tony...
TLR: Alien! Alien! Future man! No! You will not have me! No!

Tony then bolted out of the clubhouse, leaving me all alone with nothing but a tape recorder and a clouded mind. I tried to contact those close to Tony, but was told to "stay away, you dark devil." Hopefully my next interview will go better.

Monday, August 24, 2009

An Era of Productivity... what I appear to be in. Three posts in roughly a week? Holy shit! Anyway, I watched a movie. Here's what I think.

Adventureland (2009)

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Margarita Levieva, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader, Kristin Wiig
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Certain things are very difficult to capture on film, and one of those things is the fleeting feeling that your life is changing and entering into a new era. It's a feeling just about anyone with any emotional intuitiveness has felt wholly. It possesses an exciting but terrifying presence that just overwhelms you at once and won't let go until it just slowly fades away into the comfort and sometimes complacence that time brings. Fortunately, Adventureland just nails that feeling, a fact that alone makes it worth spending your time on.

The film opens in 1987 with recent college graduate James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) sharing his excitement with a close friend about their upcoming summer trip to Europe, which is immediately to be followed by beginning graduate school at Columbia. Everything seems directly lined up for James' life to take off in the path he's made for himself. Soon, though, things begin to go vastly awry. First, James' parents let him know over lunch that things have been rough for them financially of late, and that James isn't going to receive his graduation gift as planned. What was the graduation gift in question? His trip to Europe. Completely devastated about having to spend his last summer before grad school at home in Pittsburgh, James later gets the news that the lack of money has gotten worse, and even a semester at Columbia isn't going to be possible. Without any other way of getting where he wants to be, James decides to take a meaningless summer job at Adventureland, a local summer carnival.

At the carnival, James makes several friends. First there's Joel (Martin Starr), who he works directly with in the games department, Em (Kristen Stewart), another games girl he begins to fall for, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a slightly older maintenance man whose life is marred by lies and infidelity, and Lisa P (Margarita Leviera), the girl everyone has a crush on. All of these characters are created with love and drawn out carefully. No matter what we think of their actions, there's not one of them we don't at least feel something for.

The key here is that director and writer Mottola makes sure no one is a vacuous, generalized character. A less intelligent and talented writer would have taken the easy way out. James could have easily been an awkward literature nerd who is too shy to do anything or meet anyone and then overcomes this with flying colors by movie's end. But Mottola realizes this isn't realistic, and it's not interesting. James is outlined as a sometimes awkward literature nerd, but he has abundant feelings and opinions, he isn't terribly afraid of girls, he drinks and smokes pot from time to time, and he even gets in a fight when it's completely necessary. He is far from a cardboard cutout. The same can be said for Kristen Stewart's Em, a girl who is clearly intelligent and attractive, but isn't even close to believing in herself. While she has plenty of angst, Em isn't just an angry punk kid with a gruff exterior that she eventually sheds. She's a very complicated person who is deeply afraid to let herself feel as happy around James as she does because she doesn't feel like she deserves it.

Mottola also freely allows his characters to make realistic mistakes that reinforce the fact that Adventureland is head and shoulders above its peers in the genre. We find out quickly that Em has been having a periodic sexual relationship with Mike Connell. Most movies would make this into a dirty spectacle of moral outrage. Adventureland certainly does not. Em is doing this because she hates herself and Connell, as messed up as it is, makes her feel cared about. It's implied that Connell is doing roughly the same thing, looking for the companionship an empty marriage isn't giving him, but only semi-realizing that he is taking of advantage of someone in the process. Even James, who is amazingly nice and we constantly root for, goes on a date with Lisa P while his love for Em is still blooming. None of this would be effective if the movie's characters weren't so three dimensional.

Another thing Adventureland succeeds wildly in doing is feeling like a certain time and place. Set mostly at the carnival itself, the movie uses a 1980s indie rock soundtrack and awful '80s clothing trends to help heighten the sense of where this is. None of this is done carelessly or in an over-the-top manner. In fact, the music and backdrops used help to accentuate the life-changing feelings most of these characters are having, just as we all associate certain songs and places with certain periods in our life. You just get the sense that this is the summer all of these characters are going to remember when they reflect back on their lives.

Despite no major setbacks, there are a couple of things that just don't fit well within the movie's atmosphere. On hand to play a couple who runs Adventureland, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig often appear in the movie solely for punchlines, and most of the time it feels forced and out of place, like it would have been more at home in Mottola's last outing (Superbad). Both featured sets of parents in the movie are also a bit underwhelming. James's mom and dad don't seem the least bit remorseful about his dreams going up in flames, and Em's dad and stepmom both appear as awful selfish people who don't know she exists until she acts out ferociously. Despite this, Adventureland is a fantastically crafted coming-of-age story that has nothing to do with high school, jocks, nerds, or anything like that. It lands much closer to real life, and as a result hits much closer to home. As far as I'm concerned, that's a noteworthy achievement.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The John Smoltz Signing: A Complete Analysis

Still searching for some help in their surprisingly awesome starting rotation, the Cardinals picked up the freshly-released John Smoltz today to man the number five spot. Clearly the Cards are hoping Dave Duncan works some of his good ol' fashioned pitcher-fixin' magic, because Smoltz was thoroughly terrible in Boston after returning from yet another injury. Over the course of 40 gross innings, the future hall of famer has struck out 33 and only walked nine, which is cool until you see the rest of the 42 year-old's numbers. Perhaps the reason Smoltz has kept his walk total so low is that opposing teams have been too busy hitting the shit out of the ball to bother with taking pitches. Smoltz has been raped to the tune of a .343 batting average against, complete with 59 hits (eight of them home runs) in those 40 innings worked. Even more unimpressive is the fact that Smoltz has allowed 37 earned runs thus far, good for a Lima-esque 8.33 ERA. This sounds like exactly what the Cardinals need to stave off the competition and hold on to first place in the NL Central! It's like John Mozeliak read my mind!

Wait a second, though. Maybe I'm being a bit pessimistic. After all, Smoltz is moving from the ridiculously stacked American League East to the much less talented National League Central. Plus, Smoltzy flourished and built his legendary career as an Atlanta Brave in the league he is now headed to. After discussing this transaction with Spencer Hendricks, baseball expert and creator of the infinitely influential, we decided we should make a list of ten things that are unquestionably positive about the Smoltz acquistion. After all, we like to think of ourselves as "glass half full" kind of guys. So here are the things we believe John Smoltz represents for the Cardinals:
1.) A lights-out, one-out specialist when the opposing pitcher is batting. "There's real value in a guy who can be counted on to retire the worst hitter in the lineup when the game is really on the line," former teammate and leading advocate for Smoltz's acquisition Mark De Rosa insisted urgently. "Please don't compare my stats with Chris Perez since I was traded for him. That's just embarrassing."

2.) A way for Colby Rasmus's dad to save 15% on lumber from Home Depot. "I remembered seein' John on them commericals with all them lawnmowers a couple years back, and I remembered that my daddy was tryin' to finish his deck back home," recalled rookie standout Colby Rasmus. "Now at first I didn't put two and six together, but after I did I figured John could probably help out daddy by gettin' that wood a little cheaper. I just went up to Tony and asked him real nice if we could get John to be on our team and he said that would be okay and patted me on my head."

3.) A veteran La Russa can pretend makes a difference simply because of his tenure. "Honestly," La Russa finally admitted after years of speculation," I don't really even write a lineup card or fill out a pitching staff based on names or stats or anything. I just look at two things: age and experience. Sometimes I get a little risky and play someone just for the hell of it. The truth is, Albert never would have gotten a chance in the first place if I didn't secretly have a feeling he was 39 all the way back in his rookie season. He just had that look, you know. The look of a liar. Plus, you know how those Dominicans are with their age. It's not their fault they never tell the truth about it. I don't even think they have birthdays in that country." La Russa's tirade went on for a while longer and was said to have involved several subtle references of a homosexual nature to both Skip Schumaker and Rick Ankiel.

4.) A logical mentor for Brad Thompson. "We feel like John's knowledge of the game will be very beneficial to a lot of our pitching staff, especially a guy like Brad Thompson," pitching coach Dave Duncan said shortly after the signing. "See, Smoltz can really give Brad some perspective on how to pitch once you literally have no stuff at all, once your fastball is just straight and boring and slower than Jamie Moyer's. Of course it took John twenty years to get to that point and Bra just sort of started out that way, but you get what I'm saying. They're similar pitchers now," Duncan continued. "They certainly weren't a couple of years ago, though. God, no. Smoltz had that nasty slider and hard fastball with all that movement. Brad has never had any of that. Brad's awful. What am I supposed to do with him? Why does Tony keep him on the roster? If Tony and I hadn't been lovers for so long, I wouldn't put up with this." Duncan then looked awkwardly from side to side and quietly left the room.

5.) Another pinch-hitting option for when the Cardinal roster consists of only six position players and 19 pitchers. "Sure, it's very likely the Cardinals realize there's not much left when it comes to Smoltz and his old, sad arm," renowned broadcaster Rick Sutcliffe analyzed. "But that's not to say he can't still lift the lumber. Have you seen that beard? What a lumberjack! There's no reason, no reason at all he couldn't club 20, 25 homers down the stretch for the Devil Birds. If they really wanted to make a splash in their rotation, of course, they'd obviously have signed me."

6.) A way to prolong the career of former Cardinal fan favorite David Eckstein. "We kind of figure that if we're playing the Padres and we have a big lead, which against the Padres most teams do, we could put John in there to face Eckstein. David hasn't had a lot of success since he left us, and I'd really love to see him crank a couple of extra-base hits and hang around the big leagues a little longer," manager Tony La Russa speculated Wednesday. "And John's just the man to give up those hits. I mean, if I looked at stats ever I would know he gave up about a hit and a half per inning with the Red Sox this year."

7.) An interesting extracurricular science project for his teammates.
In between innings, on flights from city to city, or even just on a rainy Monday afternoon off day, the players can gather 'round and study the repeatedly surgically repaired body of John Smoltz. Think of it as a hands-on way to appreciate the miracle of modern science. "No way this guy would still be alive at his condition 50 years ago, " outfielder Colby Rasmus, born just two years before Smoltz's rookie season, was heard musing.

8.) A new way to feed Dave Duncan's ego. With Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright both in the Cy Young race this season, pitching coach Dave Duncan has been feeling a bit neglected by the mainstream media. "I'm really used to some random pitcher having half a season that's way over his head and me getting credit for that," Duncan told a local media outlet earlier this morning. "But everyone knows Carp and Wainwright are both legitimately good, and that I didn't do anything to get them there this year. With Smoltz on board, now I've got something to work with. I'll have him back to mid-90s form within a week. All he has to do is throw a sinker all the time and keep the ball down. And drop even more off that fastball if possible. It never fails." Duncan became frustrated after the reporter asked about Kip Wells and later left the interview after being questioned about Rick Ankiel's pitching career. "It never fails!" Duncan was heard screaming as he drove away.

9.) An opportunity for fans and players alike to relive the 1996 season, when Smoltz had the greatest year in pitcher history. "Back in '96," Smoltz will be heard muttering numerous times while watching from the dugout as the bullpen cleans up the remaining seven innings of a game in which he surrendered 14 home runs in just 38 pitches, "this field would be littered with the corpses of my enemies, all of them slain by my filthy, filthy slider." John's eyes grow distant and then misty as he removes the towel previously wrapped around his aching shoulders and covers his ancient face, sobs racking his body and threatening to send him to the DL.

10.) An easier way for Albert Pujols to win the 2010 home run derby. After being eliminated in the second round of this year's home run derby at the All-Star game in St. Louis, Cardinals star Albert Pujols felt humiliated and embarassed. Realizing the pain his best player was feeling, general manager John Mozeliak quickly signed Smoltz as soon as he became available. "I could just tell Albert was frustrated out there this year. I want Albert to be a Cardinal for life, and we're going to do whatever we can to make sure he's happy. Albert really wants to win another home run derby, and next year is the year," asserted St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak. "We kind of felt like the batting practice pitcher was throwing a little too hard, and like he had a little too much movement on his pitches. That's a big reason why we brought in Smoltzy, to take his place as Albert's derby pitcher in Anaheim next year. John couldn't throw it past Chris Duncan if he tried, let alone Albert," Mozeliak chuckled.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Wal-Mart: A Snapshot of America

Here in Springfield, Missouri there are several fine Wal-Mart locations to choose from when you just have to get toilet paper, gourmet guinea pig feed, and a small paring knife at 2:30 in the morning. I happen to live directly between two of Sam Walton's bullshit emporiums, meaning that I have a wealth of options at my fingertips every day and every night. While this may seem like a luxury, both Wal-Mart locales in close proximity to me have their distinct drawbacks. First, we have the Wal-Mart on West Bypass and Sunshine, which probably has the most depleted inventory of any Wal-Mart I've ever been to and happens to be directly across from two buildings marked "X-Spot" and "Bakery" respectively. This combination of facts makes the Bypass Wal-Mart nothing more than a last resort. The other murderer of small business near me is located at Kearney and I-44 and suffers from having a terribly small Redbox DVD selection and a greeter who always wants to see my fucking receipt even if I'm carrying 18 bags and have stashed my proof of purchase away safely in my wallet between three one dollar bills and my Ozark Fitness membership card from 1999.

What does this mean for me and my Wal-Mart selection? A lot of times my fiancee and I end up heading to the Glenstone and Kearney location, a magnificent venue complete with newly finished floors and a surprisingly large entertainment section. The story I am about to tell happened at said location on a hectic Sunday afternoon. Let me set the scene for you. I've already told you it's Sunday afternoon, so you can assume that there are roughly 120-150 octagenerian couples roaming the aisles in search of dietary regulators and Sunday papers (the neighbor kids stole the one that would've been delivered to them, leaving them couponless). You can also assume that there are plenty of churchy folk who have just finished praying and singing and whatnot and are ready to fucking buy some shit. None of the people I've just generalized figure prominently in this story, but a third demographic does. Which demographic are you referring to, Brian? Hungover single mothers in their mid-30s who have ugly children with self-inflicted bowl cuts, of course!

So Kimmy and I are standing in this express checkout line and we're on deck. There's one guy in front of us and he is swiping his credit card as we speak, meaning we're about to check out and then be on our way home. Wal-Mart is packed as all hell right now, so we're in a very enviable position. Directly behind us is a woman around age 35, her bangs twirling in all directions. She's wearing an odd-fitting striped shirt and some sort of baggy jean shorts. I'm fairly certain there's something wrong with her eyes. We'll call her Tina. Right beside Tina is her eight or nine year-old son, a skinny little bastard who is clinging to their full shopping cart with his grimy left hand and holding a WWE hat in his right. You don't need me to tell you he doesn't have any sleeves. We'll name him Cody, because that just has to be his fucking name.

The express lane to the left of us opens up, and the cashier calls out to everyone that she can help the next person over there. Seeing as how the guy in front of us is paying already, there's no reason for us to line jump. That would just be greedy. We've already ascended this far in the pecking order, why crush someone else's opportunity to get out of this hell a few minutes sooner? Because I'm the nicest person in the whole world, I turn to Tina and smile, politely offering for her to go ahead and take her rightful position as the first person in line at the register to our left since we were getting ready to pay anyway. After all, we had the right of way, so it's pretty much our duty to bestow the open position in the newly formed line to the party behind us should we choose to refuse it. Tina looks at me and responds with, "That's okay," and then proceeds to move her cart and her dirty child into the eighth spot in the line to the right of us.

What. The. FUCK!

So here were Tina's three choices:
1) Remain third in line in her current checkout lane
2) Move to the checkout lane to the left and become first in line
3) Move to the checkout lane to the right and instantly become eighth in line and waste 15 more minutes of a life that has already obviously been comprised of mostly wasted minutes

I'll never know why Tina picked door number three, but what I do know is that I'm done being surprised by the logic and utter disregard for physical or intellectual appearance that Wal-Mart occupants often display. I wanted to follow her into the line she chose and explain to her thoroughly why she would have been better off doing literally anything other than what she did. She could have started screaming Journey lyrics and gorilla tossing items from her cart into nearby aisles and I think I would have respected her decision-making skills more. I mean, seriously. How hard is it? It's like a math professor walked up to her and asked her a quick multiple choice question: Which number is the lowest, Tina? One, three, or eight? And then she picked eight.

Fuck it. I'm going to bed. My face hurts.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Czarist Russia?

Crack the Skye (2009)
Rating: 9.0 (out of 10)

There are few better feelings than just really getting into something. You know, really letting it get in your skin, flow through your veins. When you can just let your raw emotions be hijacked, taken over by grace or force, it's a glorious thing. You can lose your constraints and just let go for just a little bit. You can forget your thankless job, your interpersonal problems, your inability to communicate, your terrible golf score last Wednesday, or whatever else it is that's been bothering you. Everyone has been there, where you just lose youself in a whirlwind of...something. For me, my whirlwind has always been comprised of music. From time to time, the right song or record hits me so, so hard that it hurts (in the good way), and for the third time in a half-decade, Atlanta's fantastic Mastodon have beaten me to within an inch of my life (again, in the good way).

Since their inception into the metal realm, Mastodon have been getting progressively, well more progressive. Gone is much of the gutteral howling, some of the relentless churning, and a few of the moments of complete and total mean-ass facefuckery. I don't mind at all, though. This is a band that's done balls-to-the-wall, face-punch metal before, and it's okay that they're calming down just a little bit on Crack the Skye.

Don't get me wrong, though; Skye still kicks ass. Whether it be the post-noodling riffage of "Oblivion," the giant hammer drop after the intro on the title track, or the more mind numbing portions of "The Czar", Mastodon haven't lost their ability to really tear shit up. All I'm saying is that, in the tradition of 2006's Blood Mountain (now probably adorned with my 2006 Hindsight Album of the Year tag), there are more sonic shifts here, more attempts at singing, and more opportunities to try and dissect the usual bizarre story the band is trying to tell. The other well-documented factor in play here is the production change from Matt Bayles to mainstream stalwart Brendan O'Brien. Rest assured, O'Brien's presence is not a problem. Despite this one really awful dream I had, he doesn't have Troy Sanders wearing a wig, and there aren't any songs that have shit to do with anything Papa Roach might write about.

This time around, drummer Brann Dailor has decided to go completely off the rails in his concept for the album. From my understanding, what we're dealing with here is a conceptual story about a parapalegic boy who inhabits the body of Rasputin through time travel. Yeah. More to the point, the record's name pays homage to Dailor's late sister Skye, who died far, far too early. So, while I haven't been able to decipher any metaphors explicitly pointing to it, Dailor may have another storyline under the floorboards here. At any rate, Crack the Skye features more actual singing, so give the lyrics and a listen and see what you come up with. It's fun if nothing else.

Another Mastodon trademark that remains untouched is the musicianship in place here; the band weaves between time signatures and in between song suites like they came out of the womb doing this shit. One minute the band has digressed into a psychedellic breakdown, the next they're churning through something that might scare a child or senior citizen. It's truly amazing, and it makes me love music. "Divinations" is one of the strongest tracks here, showcasing equal parts screaming and singing, equal parts proggy barrage and metal scowl. It makes me want to drive really, really fast and not bother stopping for anything at all. "The Czar" turns a hazy introductory segment into a mood-altering force to be reckoned with, while closer "The Last Baron" just fucks with us over and over and over again, jumping all over the map and leaving the listener wanting more of the juiciest parts. It's almost like Mastodon leads us to the figurative well to get some water and then pushes us in, only to later offer a hand to help us out. But we know better than to take it.

Crack the Skye is another tour de force from a band that has grown to specialize in such. It falls slightly short of Blood Mountain and probably Leviathan (2004) for me, but that's not a bad thing. Each of the last three Mastodon outings possess their own identity, their own strengths. All of the progressive, jazzy, and psych elements present on this album leave me inclined to wonder exactly what these southern bastards intend to do next. All I know is I'll be awaiting it with open arms and ears, reading to receive my bloody beating once again.

My Eyes Hath Seen Movies

Seven Pounds (2008)
Starring: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Michael Ealy
Directed By: Gabriele Muccino
Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

One of the most-discussed aspects of Seven Pounds is its emotional clout, and there's good reason for that. It is the biggest driving force behind everything that goes on here. As viewers, we spend around 90 minutes without really fully knowing what is going on, and we do so to get to the emotional apex we're lead to. While this conclusion is somewhat gratifying, and while it does tug at the heartstrings for sure, it's clear Muccino could have trimmed the fat and made the proceedings a bit less over-the-top.

Seven Pounds begins by showing Will Smith's character, Ben Thomas, huddled in a bathroom while calling 911 to report his own suicide. Things only get stranger from there. We learn that Thomas is an IRS agent who takes special interest in seemingly everyone he meets. Thomas visits all sorts of places to meet those who have tax problems, whether it be the hospital or their own homes. But what we notice about Thomas isn't that he's dedicated to his job, but that he seems dedicated to doing extravagantly nice things for people he doesn't really know. However, Muccino confounds us by also showing Thomas in a much different light, such as when he phones a meat company to complain about bad pork. Thomas winds up berating a blind salesman named Ezra (Woody Harrelson), and even calls the man's handicap into question. By the end of the phone call Thomas has asked Ezra if he's "ever even had sex before." So as you can see, in the earlygoing, it's very difficult to know what to make of Thomas.

One of the recipients of Thomas' charitable work is Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), a young woman with heart problems whom Thomas gives an extension on money she owes to the IRS. What Thomas doesn't count on is that he falls in love with Posa and even her dog, Duke. He finds himself drawn to her, even if he knows he maybe shouldn't get so close. Several times it's very evident that Ben wants to kiss Emily, but he holds back. Seven Pounds continues forth in this manner, drawing us in and pushing us away, not really pulling back much of the curtain covering what's really going on until the last possible moment. We get hints, but we aren't likely to piece them together until much later.

The professionalism with which Will Smith handles the portrayal of Ben Thomas is absolutely what drives home the film's emotional climax. Smith wears the aches and pains of his character so, so well. Each big moment gives him another chance to shine, another chance to present Ben as a terribly conflicted man who is clearly headed toward something bigger through the film's duration. Rosario Dawson is quite good as well, as she makes Emily someone we truly like. She shows Emily as a scared woman who wants to share her life and wants to give her love, even if she may not have long to give it.

As I said in the opening paragraph, though, this movie's extremely solid build-up should have probably been given an ending devoid of well, bullshit. While I won't divulge the details here, I'll go on record as saying that the actual events that occur are mostly effective, but they could have been presented in a much more subtle, much less bombastic manner. This doesn't affect the film to a great degree, but just enough to frustrate me. What was a truly engaging and interesting movie shifts into an emotional wreck. And that's fine. But for the love of God, did everything have to get so huge and meaningful? Over-the-top emotional pomp aside, Seven Pounds is particularly arresting, and you certainly won't get bored. Add to that the performances of the two primaries and you have yourself a film well worth spending your time on.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I got off work at 11:00 PM central standard time. I really can't ever sleep after I get out of there, so I ate Taco Bell (which I love) and watched Weeds (which I love) with Kimmy (who I really really love) whilst drinking some delicious Leinenkugel's (which I love). A couple of hours later, here I am, full of beer and Bell, listening to Mastodon's newest thunderfuck Crack the Skye (which I love). I'm trying to avoid reviewing it right now because I'm terribly afraid the influence of some alcohol will tamper with my objectivity and lead me in the direction of the extensive hyperbole. But I'm seriously getting my skin rocked off, one filthy riff after another, and I'm not quite sure what to do about it. This music makes me want to grow a bigger beard, crush a dragon's head with my bare hands, and learn how to really play guitar. MASTODON. Aw, shit. Here comes "The Last Baron." I may review this thing anyway, distorted perspective or not. After all, what album is worth its weight in anything if isn't God-like under the influence of booze? Stay tuned, everybody.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Healthy People Eat Dirt

On Sunday, Kimmy and I (accompanied by her mom and sister) went to Mama Jean's natural market on the south side of our very own Springfield, Missouri. We like to cook here and there (well, I mainly stand in the kitchen and talk), so we figured we would acquire and try some new spices and such. We didn't.

Mama Jean's turned out to be one of those places. People wearing deliberately strange clothes wandered the aisles plucking obscure oils and roots off shelves so they could make sure that only natural things straight from God's teat entered their mouths. Grown adults were picking up cereals with names a seven year-old would mock. Hell, there was even this teenage kid wearing all black to counteract his washed out blonde hair who was waving his arms about in time with a Pet Shop Boys song. When they were done, they all marched in lockstep to their gigantic gas-guzzling SUVs and hopped in, ready to really give it to the very earth they claim to dedicate their lives to. Fuck them. Anyway, you get the point. You can see it. So here are a few products I managed to take pictures of, along with a quick synopsis of each. Needless to say, I didn't buy any of this shit.

Don't you just hate it when you get up to eat breakfast in the morning and your waffles and pancakes taste good? Guess what, everyone! Mama Jean's has the answer to your conundrum! It's Organic Buckwheat Waffle and Pancake Mix! No longer will you have to endure another morning of honest-to-God "delicious" waffles or pancakes, because this product will ensure that anything you make tastes like chalk and has a nice, turdy aftertaste. Thanks, Mama Jean! You're the best!

Is your baby putting his mouth on everything to try and cut his burgeoning teeth? Well have we got a solution for you! It's Earth's Best Barley Teething Biscuits! After lil' Bobby puts his budding chompers on this, he'll never have the desire to chew on anything ever again (assuming he lives)!

Whoa! Straight from Barbara's, the makers of Shit Loops, comes Organic Wild Puffs, the tastiest thing to ever grace your spoon in the morning! I mean, just look at that crazy-ass bird on the front of the box! His beak didn't turn unnatural, harmful colors on its own! Go get your own box

Long day at the office? Need a snack? Also need to make sure your movements are regular? Bobo's Coconut Oat Bars are sure to take on all your daily hunger and poo managing needs! Just down one in a hurry (you don't want to actually taste it), and you won't drop a number two for months, maybe even years!

Have you ever wondered why there are so few reported murders in France? Have you also felt the deep yearning your tummy has for a delicious dessert snack? Kill two birds (or ladies, wink wink) with one cookie by buying French Lady Fingers! Made with real French lady fingers,
French Lady Fingers are sure to stave off hunger and fulfill that cannibalism fantasy you've always had but never admitted. So head on down to Mama Jean's and bite the hand that feeds!

Poor hermits. They're so reclusive. Not! You just never see them because you're too busy fucking eating them, asshole!

Do you ever finding yourself wishing you had a delicious breakfast cereal that smelled strongly of throw up and birdseed? And don't you wish that once you had such a cereal you could share it with a 42 year-old mother of three that fantasizes about Pat Sajak and a 56 year-old Asian man who's been to jail a couple of times on misdemeanor charges? From the same minds that brought you Honey Nut Nuts 'n' Blood comes Good Friends, the cereal that delivers on that pungent order you so desire, AND lets you stare at those aforementioned citizens you so badly wish you knew. It's a win-win!

Shudder. My solution to all of you savvy shoppers out there? Don't spend big bucks on Mama Jean's overpriced "gourmet products. Ask yourself: what would Clint Eastwood consume? I know I did, and the answer is below. For those playing at home, I give you Spaghettios and beer. Everyone enjoy your Tuesday.

It's Spring and I'm Thirsty

Hi. I've got something to review. Oh, and before I forget, my review of The Wrestler has been fixed where you can now actually read it. I'm not sure what happened there. Anyway, eat up!

Gran Torino (2008)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her
Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Rating: 8.0 (out of 10)

Clint Eastwood is such a man. Everything he does exudes blatant manliness, and his angry Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino is no exception. Kowalski hates everyone. He doesn't like his neighbors, he doesn't like his priest, and he doesn't like his own family. He feels like his sons are good for nothing, his grandchildren are good for less than that, and that his best friends in the world are his dog and his never ending supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The only thing constantly by his side is his shotgun.

As the movie opens, we learn that Kowalski's wife has just passed away, leaving him all alone in a world he very much dislikes. In a few early scenes, we quickly see that Walt doesn't want anything to do with anyone he doesn't respect (everyone). His sons are ready to take off as soon as they can after the funeral, his granddaughter spends her time "mourning" over text messages, and his priest just wants him to come to confession. Walt can't be bothered with anyone of this, and he also can't be bothered in any capacity by his Hmong neighbors, who he resents simply because they aren't white and he doesn't understand them.

Eastwood comes up with racial epithets for his character I swear I've never heard at all in Torino. It's downright over-the-top how frequently Walt tries to insult his Asian neighbors, even if there appears to be no reason at all to do so. Left alone in the wake of his wife's death, Kowalski begins to interact with these neighbors, and takes a legitimate liking to Sue (Ahney Her). He sees her as spunky, intelligent, and interesting. Gradually he also sees the good in her quiet younger brother Thao (Bee Vang), who winds up working for Walt after being forced by his gang-dwelling cousin to try and steal Walt's most prized possession, a 1972 Gran Torino.

The quick, somewhat surprising ending is sort of appropriate. I'm obviously not going to flatly say what it is, but it's sad and faintly disappointing. But it also makes sense, and there's sort of a build up to it once you recap what you've seen in your head. I mean, was there another way?

It's rather obvious that Gran Torino's intention is to show that we're all on this earth together, and that we all need to get along. Racism is stupid, petty, and ignorant, and if a guy like Walt can get past it, can't we all? The film adeptly follows Walt and Thao's simultaneous transformations. Walt becomes the loving, tolerant man he has always been capable of being. Thao becomes the confident, sharp kid that has always been bubbling beneath the surface. The key is, they really need each other to make this happen, and their journey is an inspired one. Gran Torino is emotionally involving, and all of the principal actors turn in satisfactory performances, even if this isn't anywhere near Eastwood's best work. After all, he can play a mean-ass son of a bitch in his sleep. While Gran Torino is a bit formulaic and preachy, it's also a very good film that is enjoyable to watch and know how to manipulate the audience's emotions. It also really drives home the notion that anyone is capable of what they allow themselves to become, for better or worse.

So I totally used to write tiny lil' review nuggets on MySpace every time I saw a movie. I've decided I might as well throw those up here, along with adjusted ratings for the new system. Here you go, salt shakers.

Black Snake Moan (2007) Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

I sort of liked this movie. It should've felt a lot more ridiculous than it did. I'll explain why. Left to deal with her past demons alone after her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, who actually does a passable job) heads off to the army, Rae (Christina Ricci) falls back into a life of semi-prostitution and pill popping. One night, at a huge outdoor party, Rae gets quite messed up thanks to some OxyContin pills, and winds up lying in a field half-naked, unconscious and confused. Things get worse from here, though, as she is sexually and physically abused, and when she turns down the advances of one of Ronnie's friends, he beats her near death and leaves her by the side of the road to die. That's where Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a former blues guitarist, comes in. Lazarus hasn't been doing well, either. His wife Rose has just left him for his brother, and he's having a lot of trouble coping with the fallout. Lazarus happens to stumble upon Rae, and decides to take her back to his house and nurse her back to health.

This isn't an easy task, though, as he learns Rae couldn't possibly be much more damaged psychologically. To keep her from leaving and continuing about her sleazy ways, Lazarus chains her to his water heater. Yes. He seriously does. One has to wonder if Lazarus also really just likes having company. The two learn a few things from each other, as Rae tries to fix what's broken and Lazrus tries to let everything out the way he used to: through his guitar and voice. Both lead actors do well for themselves, and their interaction with each other completely makes this movie. All in all, this feels like a really bizarre, dirty-ass movie with a really big heart. I'm not sure why it earned so much criticism from the masses.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hard Candy (2006) Rating: 7.0 (out of 10)

I'm starting to think Ellen Page is well on her way to being a historically excellent actress. Recently praised for her work as the title character in Juno, Page is probably more impressive in Hard Candy, a movie in which she plays Haley Stark a 14 year-old girl who is being seduced online by a 32 year-old photographer named Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson). Haley meets Jeff at a coffee shop, where after some conversation, she convinces him to take her back to her apartment to listen to music and have some drinks. What Jeff doesn't know is that Haley has no intention of being his prey, but instead wants to achieve the opposite. Haley fixes Jeff's drink for him, adding in some medication that knocks him out. When Jeff wakes up, he's tied up and sitting in a swivel chair. From here on out, Hard Candy ups the ante, as Haley tries to unearth secrets about Jeff and Jeff tries to bargain his way out of the situation he's in. Both actors are great in their respective roles, and that's a big reason the characters resonate so well and the tension feels so thick. Another interesting aspect of the film is Haley's revenge: is her joy over torturing Jeff, which is seemingly just below the surface, something that should be condoned given Jeff's crimes? Is this something the movie implies? Additionally, there are some strange, somewhat unexplained holes in the plot. They aren't huge, however, and they don't take much away from what amounts to a compelling work featuring a truly great performance by Ellen Page.

American Psycho (2000) Rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

This is Christian Bale week on my MySpace blog. I'm wasting my life. Anyway, American Psycho is based on Bret Easton Ellis's novel of the same title, and much like the book, the movie doesn't pull a lot of punches. Patrick Bateman (Bale) works on Wall Street, is engaged to his longtime girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon), and resides in an expensive apartment full of expensive things. He also enjoys killing people, and he simply can't hold back his blood lust. As he says near the film's beginning, he has skin and flesh, but he is "simply not there." Bateman also admits to feeling only two emotions, greed and disgust. All of this becomes increasingly evident, as Bateman is driven to kill over things as trivial as business cards. Much as he always does, Christian Bale steals the show with ease, making Bateman delightfully over-the-top and truly believable as a closet psychopath. At times, Bale makes Bateman seem genuinely terrifying, and other times he makes him coy and funny. In other words, Christian Bale transforms his character into one that truly does appear to be insane to the core. American Psycho's ending is also great, bringing to light a lot of things and clarifying the movie's underlying ideas. All in all, this is a memorable experience.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cloverfield (2008) Rating: 6.0 (out of 10)

Buried in thick layers of hype, the J.J. Abrams-produced Cloverfield seemed a little weaker than it probably was. As all of you who have or haven't seen the movie know, this thing's all about a monster that attacks New York City, and the event is documented on a handheld camera. A few problems present themselves quickly. First off, the camera work is relentlessly shaky, even when it seems irrelevant. This I can forgive, because the approach in and of itself (not the exagerration of it) is part of what makes this movie unique and worth seeing. Second, I dare anyone who has seen this to honestly say he or she wasn't disappointed with the monster coming into full view near the movie's end. Having the monster appear only in glimpses created the aura of some unknown terror and made the middle section of the movie much more effective. And finally, the characters were all mostly boring, feeling like pretty cardboard cutouts. While I appreciate the attempt to really humanize them (most horror-esque movies don't bother), the writing doesn't warrant it. As you can see, each of these complaints are sort of met with compliments. In the end, Cloverfield just sort of feels like a missed opportunity. It's worth seeing, but damn it, it could've been such a cooler monster movie.

The Princess Bride (1987) Rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

It's funny, but I remember seeing this movie when I was a child and finding it interesting and kind of suspenseful. I mean, I was probably six or seven years old, so my opinion didn't really matter, but it sort of serves to make a point. The Princess Bride flawlessly works on different levels. To a kid, it's a grandfather (Peter Falk) telling his grandson (Fred Savage) the story of a girl (Robin Wright) who believes her true lover (Cary Elwes) is dead, and in turn is later (as the law in her land constitutes) forced to marry a king who she really doesn't love. But what she doesn't know is that her lover is still alive, and is on his way back to her. To an adult, the plot remains the same, but wry humor is interspersed throughout. The Princess Bride certainly isn't meant to be taken dead seriously, and its witty dialogue allows for a seemingly ordinary plot to transcend into a terrifc and engaging film.

The Machinist (2004) Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

Perhaps the most widely-known fact about The Machinist is that Christian Bale dropped about 60 pounds to take on his role as Trevor Reznik, a beleaguered factory worker who can't stop losing weight and hasn't gotten real sleep in a year. Strange events start plaguing Reznik. First, a mysterious man who he hasn't ever seen before begins working alongside him, claiming that he's been there all along. Then a terrible accident happens on Reznik's watch, causing him to question the motives of everyone around him, becoming frighteningly paranoid. All of this leads to a solid ending that for the most part avoids a really obvious path and seeks somewhat new ground. Bale uses his emaciated appearance to make Reznik appear truly disturbed, truly haunted. In short, Bale's performance makes this movie much more succesful than it would've been otherwise, which doesn't really come as much of a surprise when considering his filmography.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006) Rating: 5.5 (out of 10)

I remember this movie being heralded by family-friendly critics over a year ago, and I just now got around to watching it. While Happyness has its plusses, it probably has more minuses. On the plus side, Will Smith continues to show that he can act, as he does a fine job portraying Chris Gardner, a down-on-his-luck father whose wife (Linda, as played by Thandie Newton) leaves him due to financial stress. On the minus end of things, Linda comes across as an unsympathetic cunt, probably more than she was supposed to. She also initially voices concerns about the couple's son (Christopher, played by Smith's real-life son Jaden), but then has no trouble never seeing him again from the time she leaves her family until the end of the film. By movie's end, it really is easier to feel good for the Gardners, but for God's sake, the amount of shit endured is a bit drastic. The overall result? Eh.

Deja Vu (2006) Rating: 5.5 (out of 10)

So many times an interesting concept gets thrown away on contrived plot twists and idiotic endings. Deja Vu is really no exception, as it remains interesting and fun for a good while before devolving into an ending I just don't like. Denzel Washington does his usual sort of crime-thriller work here as Doug Carlin, a cop who is supposed to investigate a ferry explosion that killed a great number of people. Carlin impresses an FBI agent with his analysis of the crime scene and winds up a member of a special task force with unique technology. The result involves the ever-intriguing concepts of time travel and changing the past. While this is all well and good, things spin a bit out of control in Carlin's attempts to discover who is responsible for the lives of the ferry passengers and also an innocent woman who is found murdered near the movie's beginning.

Happiness (1998) Rating: 7.0 (out of 10)

Happiness isn't like many movies I've seen. At the center of the story are three sisters, one a traditionally happy housewife, one a wealthy author, and the other an aspiring musician who has yet to reach success. Around these three women revolve a cast of characters with plenty of inner demons. The most prominent of these characters aree the sex-obsessed, socially inept Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the seemingly normal psychologist Bill (Dylan Baker), who actually turns out to be a pedophile. Throughout Happiness's two hours, these disturbed characters are thoroughly evaluated, letting the audience really see who they are, even beyond the initial labels that might seem evident. By film's end, it's evident that director Todd Solondz definitely doesn't intend his title to be taken literally. Happiness is at times disturbing, surprising, and saddening, and it's worth watching for anyone who doesn't have a problem with subjective material and won't mind feeling weird for a little while after watching it.

3:10 To Yuma (2007) Rating: 7.0 (out of 10)

A remake of a 1957 western, 3:10 To Yuma is captivating for a good while. The story centers around ultra bad guy Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), who has done a whole lot of robbing and killing, and rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a mild-mannered fellow dedicated to doing the right thing. After Wade is caught, Evans offers to help transport Wade to a train that will take the villain to Yuma, where he is to be imprisoned. After all, Evans needs the money he'd receive for doing this to help out his family. The journey is an eventful one, with Wade doing anything and everything to settle scores and regain his freedom with the help of his gang. This is an excellent modern western, right up until an improbably eyebrow-raising ending. Though I don't necessarily like the ending, it doesn't derail the entire movie, and 3:10 To Yuma stands as a solid effort.

Juno (2007) Rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Hey, it's a good teenage comedy! Ellen Page does a tremendous job playing the sarcastic Juno MacGuff, a 16 year-old girl who becomes impregnated by her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Juno decides not to abort the baby, but to find a worthy couple for adoption. Finally settling on Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), Juno seems to have found a win-win solution. And of course, things get complicated. The most important elements of Juno are the smart script and the excellent acting. Every single actor in a major role does a commendable job, and the script ensures that all of the characters come across as real, interesting people. It's just really cool to watch a movie about teenage pregnancy where characters react to things in a reasonable manner, and even cooler to watch a comedy that doesn't shoot for bullshit "outrageous" humor, but rather humor of the intelligent, verbal variety. I wish people who wanted to laugh would see things like this instead of witnessing Dane Cook try to act or Adam Sandler regurgitate the same old stuff. I've heard a lot of talk about Juno garnering some Oscar respect much as Little Miss Sunshine did a year ago, and that would be nice. It's great to occasionally see good, less flashy movies get a chance at a really long and mostly pointless awards ceremony.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Sleepers (1996) Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

Sleepers is a very solid, somewhat lengthy account of four boys growing up in New York that make a huge mistake and wind up in a correctional school where they endure unthinkable abuse. The movie then shifts to the boys later in life, as adults, as they try to fix what became broken within them. The movie moves at sort of a Goodfellas pace, spanning a number of years and readily showing ways of life in different places, whether it be Hell's Kitchen or the correctional school. None of the performers really stand out, but that may be because everyone involved is well-known (Robert DeNiro, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Patric) and does a capable job.

Wonder Boys (2001) Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

A lot of really traditional things happen here, and certainly no new ground is broken, but Wonder Boys is enjoyable, fairly funny, and well-performed. Michael Douglas plays a college English professor and successful but aging writer who takes a gifted student named James Leer (Tobey Maguire) under his wing. Both have a great deal of personal problems, and even create more for themselves in the process of trying to make things better. The general idea of the movie is certainly a bit regurgitated, but the execution is very good.

1408 (2007) Rating: 5.0 (out of 10)

The good news is that John Cusack and Sam Jackson are present, and that the idea of, as Jackson calls it, "an evil fucking room" is intriguing. Aside from that, things don't really get as exciting or intense as I would've preferred. While miles ahead of most recent releases in the horror genre, 1408 does at least manage to stay relatively smart, even if things don't get all that unique or, well, scary. Maybe I was just expecting too much.

Mr. Brooks (2007) Rating: 6.0 (out of 10)

I really hate Kevin Costner, maybe even to an irrational degree, and the idea of him being a serial killer is fairly laughable. That said, Mr. Brooks is actually kind of fun, even if it's a bit silly sometimes. While the movie was curiosity-inducing and well-paced, there are some really odd casting choices, maybe even more bizarre than that of Costner as a successful businessman/murderer. Demi Moore plays a cop, and, for some reason, Dane Cook (douchebag, can't act) has a role as a witness to one of Mr. Brooks's murders. I wish I was allowed to directly ask for this to be redone with a better cast (William Hurt was fine but barely present), but I'll take what I can get, which was a pretty entertaining movie.

No Country For Old Men (2007) Rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

This has got to be the best thing released in 2007. It's the Coen brothers bringing their weirdness to what amounts to a surprising meshing of several genres. No Country blends crime drama, thriller, action, western, and a little bit of comedy, and the results are amazing. the movie tells the story of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who accidentally stumbles upon the remains of a drug deal that went wrong, and as a result, finds $2 million. Several storylines weave in and out of each other, with the primary conflict centering around criminal/killer Anton Chigurh's (Javier Bardem) pursuit of Moss and his money. And may I say, Bardem's Chigurh is one evil, terrifying villain. He carries some sort of compressed air gun, sports a sweet shaggy bowl cut, doesn't really care if he's hurt, and according to one character, kills "with principle." Evil nature is certainly a big theme here among many interesting ones. No Country For Old Men works on every level, and should really be seen by everyone.