Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Night Catches Us (2010)

I watched this on our local On Demand, from what I understand its supposed to come out in theaters this Friday. I had never heard of the movie until I happened to click on a banner on the side of the page, I believe on the AV Club. In some ways this is an old story: a man, Marcus Washington, played by Anthony Mackie, comes back to Philadelphia in 1976 after a number of years. He returned for his father's funeral. He left because he was a part of the city's Black Panther movement, he was eventually arrested, and the people he left behind, believe him to be a snitch, whose snitching led to one of the local leaders of the Panthers to be killed by Federal agents . Basically he comes back and has to face people and events from his past, and the still open wounds from back then. Like I said, plotwise its nothing you haven't seen before. But it looks nice, and its well acted. This seems to be Tanya Hamilton's featur debut and it shows a lot of promise. Also nice to see are castmembers from The Wire: Wendell Pierce (bunk) as a detective (big stretch) and Jamie Hector (Marlo Stanfield) as a former panther turned sort-of local kingpin. The Roots do a great job with the score too. It being Philadelphia and all, of course they were called upon. But whats interesting is that, and I am not sure if this is done intentionally, but they cover old soul and r&b songs in instrumental, but they also choose songs that became samples for Wu Tang songs. From what I remember they did covers for songs that ended up sampled in "C.R.E.A.M.", "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'" and Raekwon's, "Criminology" Sadly I only recognized them as the samples, and was too lazy to go and check out what the actual songs were. (Perhaps if Tina reads this she can enlighten us.)


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In Search of the Perfect Opening Second

I recently made an incredibly dope mix for my soon-to-be one-year-old niece for her birthday in December.  Some might think this is a cheap gift, but let’s be honest.  She’s going to be freaking one.  She is as entertained by extravagant toys as she is by a cardboard box, she mainly passes her time by chewing on things, and she doesn’t even really know who I am yet.  But if I can get a head start and implant some crazy good songs into her subconscious, I might have some influence over her yet.

As I do with all mixes I make, after the burn has completed I listen to it a few times in my car.  You know, just to get a feel for it and make sure it turns out alright.   And while listening to this particular mix, I had sort of an epiphany that led me down the path of a topic I never heard presented before.  For it just so happens that on this mix I included, what is in my opinion, two songs with the greatest opening second ever.

Oftentimes, friends and fellow music fanatics will discuss their favorite songs or albums, and they may even go into more specific categories of favorite summer songs, or favorite opening tracks (as was hilariously discussed in the brilliant film “High Fidelity”)

But I've been thinking about a topic I just never heard anyone talk about: the best opening second of a song. 

At the core of my music fandom, I am drawn to a catchy hook and a great melody.  So naturally, I’m a pop guy regardless of what genre it comes in.  And while compiling this mix for my niece, I selected all catchy songs with infectious hooks and in many cases, songs she can dance to (eventually).  But two of the tracks stood out for me and I never really thought about why until hearing them so close together.  The opening second is phenomenal.  And let me be clear, I’m not talking about the first ten or five or even two seconds.  I’m talking about one second.  That brief moment that appears and quickly flees as the digital clock on your stereo turns from :00 to :01.  It’s so quick that after I tell you what songs I’m referring to, I will not be able to expand upon it any further, for that second, although immaculate and perfect in so many ways, is nearly impossible to describe why it is such for me.  All I can say is it draws me in almost before the song even starts.  Maybe you know what I’m talking about and maybe you even have a few songs of your own that fit the criteria to which I’m describing.  Or maybe I have too much time on my hands and am just plain lame (especially when you see which songs I’m talking about).  So take it for what it’s worth.  But I have thought about this a lot and I can’t really think of any other songs that grab me in that first second like these do.  Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the rest of these songs are great as well and are some of the best pop songs I’ve ever heard.  And yes, you have my permission to mock me.  I'm OK with it.  For I am totally comfortable with my affinity for these songs and will defend them to the day I die.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Baseball, a Kid and a Grown Man Weeping in a Library

So I've been a little bit emotional lately. But not because graduate school is hard or a girl broke my heart or the politics of the day. 

Actually, it's because I watched a special on ESPN about a kid who has an incurable disease. Usually the sobby stuff doesn't get to me, but this one hit me like a runaway freight train without Denzel there to save the day. If you can, and I would HIGHLY suggest it, please check out the video on ESPN's website and read the article. It's really well done and really touching. I can honestly say nothing on TV has ever affected me so strongly. If you don't tear up watching this, I don't think you're human: 

Being the emo kid I am, I had to put into words the emotions I'm feeling. So let's begin at the beginning: 

It's not every day that I find myself sitting in the university library with my hat over my face trying to hide the fact that I am crying. There was snot, tears, everything. 

If you've known me for awhile, you'd know that I am not a big crier. In fact, this was the first real cry I've had since my dad died almost ten years ago (unless you count the time I was coming off the oxycontin after my first shoulder surgery and started bawling, but that's a different story).

So I'm settling in at the UPF biblioteca, writing some bullshit paper on the welfare state's impact on poverty. In the interest of killing time, I head on over to ESPN, as I do on occasion (every five minutes). Somehow I come across the story of a kid who has Hutchinson–Gilford Progeria Syndrome. It's a disease where the bodies of children age 10 years for every year they live. I click on the link and I was sucked in from the first moment. 

The kid's name is Josiah Viera. He is six years old and he loves playing baseball and the Philadelphia Phillies. Despite long odds of not surviving his first two years, he did. And to many he has become one of the most inspiring people they have ever seen. Despite the disease, he has an amazing spirit and a smile with enough wattage to light up all of Paris. 

His story and his sheer joy with baseball struck something really deep within me, on an almost spiritual level. Maybe he sort of reminded me of myself when I was little. Maybe it's because I have a niece I adore who is the same age. I don't know. All I know is that I was touched in a way that a TV program had never touched me before.

I mean, yeah, you know me. I've always been a little bit emotional, if not a big crier. But I am the same guy who cried at an episode of Highway to Heaven when I was a little kid and who sometimes feels bad for pitchers getting shelled during big games (unless they're on the Yankees). Well, a couple of minutes into this video I started tearing up in a major way. There were tons of people around me doing work and I don't know how well I hid it. After all, the tears were dripping off my face and onto the table. 

There's just something transcendent in that smile Josiah gets when he's playing baseball. It's such an exuberant, joyful, full-of-life smile. And at the same time it's so heartbreaking. He doesn't have much time left. He gets sick a lot and regularly has strokes and seizures. His story is bittersweet and beautiful and tragic and uplifting, all at the same time. 

Words can't describe all the intensity of the feelings I had in watching this. Throughout the rest of the day I kept tearing up in the library and had to run to the bathroom a couple of times to compose myself.

In some ways, this shows just how unfair life can be. I think we all wish there was something more we could do for him. To make his life even more special. He's given us all so much, we want to give something back. I wish with all my heart I could take away all the pain and suffering. So he can play baseball for a long, long time. So he can play catch, run the bases and watch his Phillies win another World Series. So he can smile for us and inspire us for many more years. I'm honestly getting teary-eyed just typing this. 

Seeing the smile on his face when he got that hit during his Little League game was the beauty of life distilled in one moment. 

At the heart of it all is a kid who has a wonderful, beautiful spirit who has touched the lives of so many people in ways he probably doesn't even know. I want to tell him how much he has meant to me, even if he is too young to really comprehend it. 

Now I'm just rambling. There's so much I'm feeling, so much unsaid that I can't get out. The kid inspires me while at the same time shattering my heart into a million pieces. I went on the website for his family and gave $50 to help pay for his medical bills and wrote his mom an email trying to describe what Josiah's story has meant to me. I couldn't write it in one sitting because I kept getting overwhelmed by emotion.

I'm even toying with the idea of running the NYC Marathon next year as a fundraising event for him. It wouldn't be much, but it would raise a little awareness and probably get the family a grand or two. I don't know what else to do.

I'd give everything I had if it could buy him more time. I do take solace in the fact that he has been able to have a joy-filled life thus far. He played Little League. He's heard his name chanted from the stands. He's met his heroes, the Phillies. It's a beautiful thing.

I hope the rest of his days are filled with love, joy, laughter and baseball. He deserves it more than anyone.

PS If you get the chance, check out the website his mother created and throw a couple dollars their way:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Veterans Day Mini Marathon

I have to admit, that compared to Memorial Day, there are little to no war movies on today. I thought someone would be showing Band Of Brothers. Although I will admit, I am not interested in the John Wayne movies being shown on AMC. So I caught two others by accident on HBO.

How many movies make a marathon? I am going to say three or more, hence the two almost make it but not quite. Its a really scientific thing and I don't have the time to go into my reasoning right now:

Away We Go (2009)

I have to say, I really enjoyed this and it made me sort of sad that I hadn't seen this previously. I am not sure why I put it off either. One thing that probably counted against it was the fact that the campaign for it made it look like and adult Juno knockoff. But this is so much better than either that movie and the writing of Diablo Coady. In fact, Dave Eggers wrote this, and it is actually a good look at a likeable couple (Jon Krasinski is the king of playing likeable guys, and he does really well here. Both Maya Rudolph and him make for an enjoyable couple who I wouldn't mind hanging out with.) Sure, the conceit is a little much, as a surprise pregnancy forces a couple to reevaluate their relationship, but also go on a road trip to figure out where they want to live and raise their child. It sounds trite, but it plays out much better in practice. And I like the ending especially in one crucial way...this couple isn't married but they make a commitment to eachother nonetheless. There is a specific reason in the script why the woman, Maya Rudolph, doesn't want to get married, but still wants to be with Jon Krasinski's character..and, well, I like that they stayed that way and didn't suddenly decide to get married, that they were all right in their arrangement and secure enough with eachother that there wasn't some surprise change of heart in the end. I am going to go out on a limb and say, to me, this is definitely Sam Mendes best movie. I also want to say that the supporting cast, especially Jeff Daniels, Catherine O'Hara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Paul Schneider, Josh Hamilton, Allison Janey, Greg Gaffigan...are all pretty terrific too.

Fun Fact: Maya Rudolph's mom is Minnie Ripperton:

Taking Woodstock (2009)

You have to at least hand it to Ang Lee for working in all sorts of different genres, and trying things. But often when you try new things, sometimes they fall sort of expectations. This is one of those times for Ang Lee. And I have to admit, I come into this with a small chip on my shoulder. Mostly because I am sick of hearing about Woodstock and the myth of Woodstock. But, I have to admit that this isn't a bad movie, it's just not great. Its actually pretty likeable, if not hilarious. Its sort of an amiable, shambling coming-of-age/comedy about how Woodstock ultimately got put together. Its a nice enough diversion, but Lee lays it on a bit too thick about how the transformative powers of hippies changed everybody and everybody just decided to become all groovy because they came through their town and trampled their alfalfa fields. I really like Demetri Martin as a standup comedian, but he can't quite carry the load of a whole movie on his own. Eugene Levy, as usual, is awesome.

To be perfectly honest, I don't really like Santana either. But this performance of "Soul Sacrifice" at Woodstock is really amazing, credit where credit is due. It never seems to get highlighted like it should. Conspiracy!

I did end up watching the War Torn documentary on HBO last night. It highlighted the problem, and the evolution of the understanding of PTSD in soldiers from all the way back in the Civil War to today. To put it in its simplest terms: it was heartbreaking. And if you get a chance you should check it out.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In Defense of Kanye West

(for someone people get so angry at, Kanye West knows EVERYBODY)

This has been a long time in coming, and every day Kanye West does something else funny, infuriating, awesome or all three. Every day I wait there would be something else to add here, so I might as well just write this thing.

For example, just today, this happened. Where Kanye West just decided to perform an impromptu acapella joint on a Delta airplane. My mind would have been blown, and a stewardess would have to come around and clean my head off the seat.

There is no escaping the man. Much to a lot of people's chagrin. Even yesterday, none other than President George W. Bush was mentioning how mad Kanye made him with his "George Bush doesn't care about black people" comment in his exclusive interview with Matt Lauer. As much as I think it was funny and is still funny that George W. Bush fumes at the thought of Kanye West, him getting mad at Kanye illustrates something about West that I should find annoying but I actually find sort of endearing/funny (again.) (Although lets put some perspective on it. No matter what you think, Kanye was the only one on that special to speak out about Bush's handling of the Katrina aftermath. You can clearly tell he was upset and couldn't hold it in anymore. I'm sorry Bush feels bad now (sarcasm) but he deserved it.) He makes people (and I will just say this right now, often times, white people) SO mad. He makes them SO mad and I find it funny. If he were someone else I am quite sure I would find his behavior terribly annoying, probably. So why does  get a pass? Probably because I really do think he is really talented and I happen to like his music. Does it work all the time? No not all. But he's not afraid to experiment and to look nuts. I'll be the first to tell you that, yeah, he is crazy megalomaniacal egomaniac, and he does crazy (and obnoxious) things like interrupting Taylor Swift. Sure it's douchbaggy, but I really don't think warrants this clutching of pearls that usually happens when he does something annoying. So, to me, it ends up being more funny than him. He is a nut. But he happens to be a talented nut. I wrote about this before, and I think what I said still applies, to whit: "Kanye West gets boatloads of shit for his ridiculous behavior-most of it probably deserved. But this obscures the fact that in both beats and rhymes department, he not only is really good at what he does, he really does take a lot of risks with his music despite the fact that he manages his image so much. Like any risk (see Mos Def), they either work or they don't. Another fact that gets obscured is how Kanye's output in the 00's became the gold standard for hip hop (open for debate). Also, when he started, he was about as humble as a superstar producer and soon-to-be superstar MC could be. He used the sped-up soul samples that he made famous with his beats with Jay-Z. And while not the wordsmith that Jay-Z is, he was inventive, poppy, likeably eccentric, and retro and futurist at the same time."

I mean, even President Obama called him a jackass. He makes everyone so angry, it kills me.

I guess the other thing is, why does all this still surprise anyone? I said this a few years ago when all these people, once again, were SO mad at him at Bonnaroo because he threw a hissy fit and didn't start his set until like 4 in the morning. If I was there and I was amped on seeing Kanye, sure I would have been annoyed but I would have also adopted the attitude of what Red Sox nation used to say about Manny Ramirez: it really is just Kanye being Kanye. Here's what gets lost in all this though, and I will qualify this by saying that I am sure that Kanye probably could have handled this in a better manner, yes, he probably could have. But here is why he is annoyed, and this is taking his massive ego into consideration, I kind of get why he was annoyed. And now reading this it seems like, okay, he asked for a later slot (which I also get because he's is better than Pearl Jam, not fact just opinion) he needed it later for his lightshow. But it was Pearl Jam that went late and then it took a while for him to set up for his show. And thats why people were so mad!? I misunderstood this situation and it is stupider than I thought. Sure I would have been annoyed, and maybe he could have toned down his stage show, but him being asked to play Bonnaroo during this tour, they knew that he was going to bring his whole stage and do his whole spiel, and thats what they wanted. People might have been mad at Kanye but it sounded like they could have saved some vitriol for the organizers. Or how about Pearl Jam for going over? It sounds like Kanye being whiney about them going over was really only about a third of the problem but takes the brunt of the criticism. Just saying, I bet if, say Pearl Jam did the same thing they would be cut much more slack. Also, shut up Robert Randolph.

By the way, this was his show at the time, during the Glow In The Dark tour. I am not even sure if this really all that illustrative of what the show was really like:

I saw the Glow In The Dark tour (this video was actually from the show I was at) and in a weird way it made me like Kanye more. It showed pretty much how nuts he was and I loved him for it. It was truly weird and audacious. I mean, he had this whole narrative going on that he would slot his songs into, where he is traveling across the universe in a spaceship with only a sentient robot as a companion. Its truly weird, and it was amazing to see live. So I felt a little bit of responsibility after having seen that then urging people to go see him at Bonnaroo and was disappointed that people were so upset with him. But I shouldn't have been surprised he seems to be always pissing off someone, but I feel like, for the most part the anger thats reserved for him is usually out of proportion to what he actually did. And I feel like, even what I read about Bonnaroo it was the same thing, with a great many people just waiting to hate on him.

I guess, though, that Kanye doesn't need me to defend him, dude probably sleeps on top of a pile of money each night. Want to know what prompted me even thinking about this? Well, even better than an acapella jam from him was this story about the tail end of the CMJ fest in New York at like 2 in the morning at the Brooklyn Bowl. He just comes out to this packed place and does a couple songs. Honestly, that would have been enough, but then The GZA comes out and does "Liquid Swords" and "Shimmy Shimmy Ya". Yeah my head would have exploded. It looks so great, one of those times for me personally I wish I had stumbled onto this show and been able to experience this live. But it also made me think: I like Kanye, I think it's funny when people get SO angry at him, and I honestly am excited to hear his new album. I guess this is all a long winded way of saying that.

Lastly, have you ever seen this, from, obviously the time of Katrina. The guys that made it area actually from New Orleans and its really good:

(Also, his Twitter feed is comedy gold, too)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

All of Alfred Hitchcock's Cameos

You may or may not know this, but Alfred Hitchcock used to insert himself into his films as a sort of early kind of Easter egg. Usually it was subtle, sometimes it wasn't (i.e. in To Catch A Thief). Its always sort of a fun game to try and look for him Hitchcock fans and cinephiles alike.

Here are all of them:


Due Date (2010)

Listen, making a big-budget, studio comedy is hard. Comedy is also very subjective. Some people love Todd Phillips' comedies. I mean, The Hangover was huge. I thought it was really overrated. I liked Old School, and to a certain extent, Road Trip. And now, here's Due Date. It's especially hard to make a road trip comedy, where two different people are thrust together, people who usually hate eachother, and somehow have to learn to get along to get to their eventual destination. Due Date tries hard to shake up this formula. Both Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianiakis are pretty equally unlikeable at the start, but manage to gain that sort of likeability, somewhat, towards eachother by the end. Here's the thing: uniformly everyone in this is pretty good. Personally, I find Zach Galifiniakis is really funny, and he does a good job here being both annoying and insane, and able to find some heart, eventually for his character. Robert Downey Jr. gets to be the uber-high strung guy in the relationship, and he's good at the too. This keeps coming up, so the best way I can say this is: I think this movie is definitely a likeable one, there is a lot of good here, but its just not particularly funny. It definitely has its moments, no doubt, its not like I DIDN'T laugh, but it wasn't funniest comedy of 2010 either. I will say this though: big ups to a couple of quick, supporting cameos too: the RZA and Danny McBride, as per usual, were awesome. And I really enjoyed the resurrection of Ice Cube's "Check Yo'Self" on the soundtrack. Oh, I forgot too, for a comedy, this movie really looks good. I never notice these things usually as far as comedies go but there are a couple great looking scenes here, particular one  near the end set at the Grand Canyon.

I notice they were very careful not to play that last verse. Of course, they didn't need to, but still.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

My Last Halloween-related post (For Now)

I kept meaning to put up this post since about Sunday night, when it was actually still Halloween, but I was not only still tired from the Halloween party the night before, but also, you know, lazy. Then I meant to do it yesterday...and yadda yadda yadda. Fascinating to peak into my mind for a few moments, I'm sure. I did end up cramming in a few more horror movies this weekend, I didn't write about them because, for the most part, I had already seen them. But what they got me thinking about was horror movies, in particular horror movies from the aughts, the last ten years. People that are into horror are pretty much like people that are into anything else, they are quick to point out that horror movies from the old days were much better than modern/contemporary horror movies. I mean, to an extent they are right, most horror movies, but then again most movies, aren't really great. But, like I always say, just like any other human endeavor there is always good nestled with the bad. Unfortunately a lot of times the bad is what makes more money. I originally was going to do a general rundown of my favorite horror movies, but thats been done to death. So then I figured I would just do a top ten of my favorite horror movies of the 00's or the aughts, just to narrow it down a bit. Here they are:

10) American Psycho (2000)
This is one of those grey areas where I am not sure what is considered horror or not. Because this could just as easily be seen as pitch black comedy, and you would probably be right. But, to me, it seems as much a horror movie about an insane yuppie from the eighties, as a social commentary about the mad pursuit of wealth and status in the same time period. Whatever you want to call it, it's good, one of the few times a movie is better than the book, and Christian Bale (who apparently based his performance on Tom Cruise!) is awesome. 

9) [Rec] (2007)
Ultra-creepy Spanish horror movie (It was remade as Quarantine in the U.S.-but stick with the original). It takes the handheld approach that would be co-opted by Cloverfield a year later. It revolves around a zombie outbreak that is basically contained in one big apartment building. Its really creepy in its simplicity, using the handheld home video camera approach to maximum effect.

8) Session 9 (2001)
A creepy little haunted house movie thats set here in Massachusetts at the old Danvers State Mental Institution. Here we have some men trying to complete an asbestos removal job quickly for extra money, as the old demons of the Institution start popping up, figuratively and literally, and start driving the men a little nutty. Good, atmospheric stuff.

7) The Strangers (2008)
This is one of the movies I watched again this weekend. Saturday night actually as I put my costume together for our party. I have to admit, upon rewatching it, the first hour is a bit better then the rest, just because the characters start doing too much stupid horror character stuff, if that makes sense. But it's still good. And just the idea that people would screw with people just because they happened to be around, randomly, makes it even more unsettling to me.

6) The Ring (2002)
Now this one horror hit that actually delivers the goods. Man, its unsettling. And there is one of the all-time great one shot shock cuts stuck right there in the beginning. I also like the fact that its also partially a detective story as well. 

5) The Devil's Rejects (2005)
If you had ever told me before that a Rob Zombie movie would ever make it on a list like this I would have told you you were nuts. But here we are. A completely sleazy throwback to 70's exploitation movies about a family of serial killers. I have no idea what it is about it, but this is some good sleaze. Roger Ebert agrees with me. It opens and closes with two pretty amazing musical setpieces, even though I hate one of the songs used, it's used to good effect here.
And the opening, which I couldn't embed is amazing. (Here it is in Spanish!)

4) Dawn Of The Dead (2004)
Usually remakes aren't supposed to be this good. And while it does away with (sort of) a lot of the social commentary of the original Dawn Of The Dead it still retains a certain power, and the idea of people in this situation trying to survive together. I have to admit there is some really good stuff there. This also has another one of the best credits-opening sequences, probably of the aughts. I think it's really good:

3) Joshua (2007)
I don't feel like anyone has seen this. But they should! It's a portrait of a family thats falling apart and really the son that is instrumental in hastening that falling apart. I don't know about you, but sometimes kids can be creepy. And whats creepy here, slight spoiler, is that the kid in question, the eldest son Joshua, isn't haunted or possessed, he's a smart kid who seems to have picked up a sociopathic gene or two from somewhere. And what do you do with that? Sam Rockwell is really good here.

2) 28 Days Later (2002)
I'm not sure which came first, The Walking Dead graphic novels or 28 Days Later because they both use the same device: protagonist goes into a coma and wakes up in a zombie-infested world. That scene where Cillian Murphy wakes up to a deserted London is just amazing. 

(A small aside: the first episode of The Walking Dead is also really good.)

1) The Descent (2005)
I just wrote about this, so I won't bore you again. Any movie that's this unnerving before the monsters even shows up is doing something right, though.

The Best in Horror-Comedy:
Honestly, a genre not usually done very well, but, like anything else, when it's good, it's really good. Here are two fine examples:

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
What's even nuttier than the a story that posits that Elvis is still alive, and battling an undead demon with a black man who claims to be John F. Kennedy, in an East Texas nursing home. Is that even with all that crazy is that there is some pretty poignant commentary here about aging and getting older.

Shaun Of The Dead (2004)
It was quite the zombie-filled weekend this weekend. The reigning champ of funny zombie movies (Sorry Zombieland, besides the awesome opening credits and the Bill Murray cameo, it just doesn't stack up) But I mean who could with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright?