Friday, April 30, 2010

I Love You to Death: Dead is Right

Back when I wrote up my 60 funniest comedies of all time, somebody posted a comment noting that I was doing a great disservice by not including I Love You to Death from 1990.

Well, I hate to say I was right, but I was right. Kevin Kline (who studied in Indiana's theater program with my dad) is almost always solid, especially in A Fish Called Wanda and Life as a House, and he is probably the most likable aspect of this movie too.

But folks, that's not saying much. Tracy Ullman is ridiculously harmless as the wife who discovers Kline is a playboy of monstrous proportions. River Phoenix has a pointless role as a spiritual pizza-joint employee with a crush on Ullman. Joan Plowright is the one-trick and annoying mother-in-law. Keanu Reeves and William Hurt hit all-time lows as the unfunny hitmen hired to kill Kline for his adultery. The best part was the short cameo by the unimaginably beautiful Phoebe Cates, who happens to be Kline's real-life wife.

This movie is painful to watch all the way through. Needless to say, I Love You to Death isn't going anywhere near my top 60 comedies of all time.

*1/2 out of ***** stars

Music Reviews In 3 Words or Less: Volume 19

The Bird and the Bee - Interpreting the Masters Vol. 1 - A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates (2010)
Flawless, classic reworkings
Touchstones: Burt Bacharach meets Bee Gees
***** out of ***** stars

Dr. Dog - Shame, Shame (2010)
Bouncing country indie
Touchstones: Wilco meets Wings
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Black Francis - NonStopErotik (2010)
Intimidating, hooky screamo
Touchstones: Pixies meet Frank Black
**** out of ***** stars

The Apples in Stereo - Travellers in Space and Time (2010)
Overproduced sun-space pop
Touchstones: Beulah meets Grandaddy
**** out of ***** stars

Paul McCartney - McCartney (1970)
Out to pasture
Touchstones: Pink Floyd meets Wings
***1/2 out of ***** stars

Adam and the Ants - Stand and Deliver (1981)
Fruity sex wave
Touchstones: Bow Wow Wow meets the The Killers
**1/2 out of ***** stars

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Should We Do About Oil Spills?

I'm now writing a weekly column on the environment for the exciting media start-up NetGreen News. You can see all my columns (this is only my second) here.

Over the past week, nearly 600,000 gallons of oil (pictured) have flowed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible oil rig.

Even though that sounds bad, and the photos and videos look awful, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the worst spills in history. Considering that this spill could eventually spread to the size of Rhode Island, that gives us an idea of just how bad other spills have been.

Five-hundred and twenty million gallons seeped into the Arab Gulf when Iraqi troops dumped oil to keep U.S. Marines from attacking by sea. That was the worst spill in history, and there have been another 32 - get that, 32 - spills before one gets to the famed 1989 Exxon Valdez in the rankings! (The Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons in Alaska.)

So what can we do about the continuous flow of oil into our water? It surely isn't good for anyone. The Deepwater Horizon spill will cripple the amount of oysters and shrimp we have to eat and will reduce tourism revenue in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.

It will be interesting to see how the spill (along with the recent catastrophe on the sensitive and endangered Great Barrier Reef) affects the Obama Administration's plans to expand domestic offshore drilling. The images we're soon to see of controlled burns on the gulf will be reminiscent of the bad old days, before we had an Earth Day, when the Cuyahoga River cooked outside of Cleveland and oil poured into a bird habitat off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

Let's hope the news coverage of these ecological disasters, which keep happening with little repercussions for the oil companies (unless you consider the further destruction of their images), will result in stricter prevention policies both domestically and internationally. The best time for Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to combat future spills would be now, while the public is attentive and crews set the gulf aflame, puncture holes in the destroyed well, and build a dome to capture oil and pump it to ships on the water's surface.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Blogwatch: The Meat Puppets Continue to Surprise

Because there are so many great blogs out there like Pop Culture Lunch Box, this is a new regular feature that will give these unheralded journalism enterprises a little love.

From the wonderful and "barely coherent" ramblings of the Minnesota-based blog Lost Forest After Dark, it's good to see that the Meat Puppets (celebrating 30 years as a band!) are still a force of fun lunacy to be contended with on the world's rock stage.

From a review of the band's recent show at the 400 Bar, we learn that the desert-fried 80s legends "can still throw down." Along with their many classics off great albums like Up on the Sun and Forbidden Places, the Puppets threw in a handful of covers, including the Christian hymn "How Great Thou Art" (also later covered by Elvis) and the gospel tune "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."

And to really localize the show, former Husker Du bassist Greg Norton and his handlebar mustache made an appearance on the The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows."

Photo courtesy of Lost Forest After Dark

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Case of the Crazies ... Minus the Crazies

The new horror flick The Crazies looked intriguing, so I decided to check out the 1973 original. Well, they're going to have to do a doozy of a job with the remake to save this stinker from the heap.

The movie is, in all fairness, kind of fixating. But with the expectations of it being a George Romero film (writer and director of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and The Silence of the Lambs), this one feels mostly like a misstep.

For a film called The Crazies, there needs to be lots of psychological mayhem, and there is hardly any. There is a cool ex-Green Beret who battles his way through a Pennsylvania town where the water supply has been badly contaminated by a military mistake. Residents are rounded up amid numerous shoot-outs against B-movie (or maybe C-movie) stormtroopers.

The anti-climactic ending is just another groan-inducing moment. Cinema goers stayed away when this stinker first hit the movies, and you should do the same thing now.

** out of ***** stars

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Movie to Celebrate Earth Day's 40th Anniversary

I'm now writing a weekly column on the environment for the exciting Web start-up NetGreen News. You can see my first blog post directly here. Also check out the site's cool home page and Twitter feed.

Sting, Jimmy Cliff, and Passion Pit will lead the musical portion of this year's 40th anniversary of Earth Day on the Mall in Washington DC. Although that should be a pretty good show, and potentially an historic event, whether or not I attend may depend on what my 2-year-old son wants to do that day.

But hopefully others will feel the passion for Mother Earth that was evident all those years ago, when Harvard grad student Dennis Hayes led the beginning of a massive movement to make the first Earth Day, in 1970, a raging success. It led to the first environmental policies in the U.S., cleaner skies over Manhattan, and a reduction in the use of hazardous agricultural chemicals, as detailed in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

So even if I don't make it to the rally on the Mall on Sunday (Earth Day is actually tomorrow, Thursday), at least I had my own little celebration by watching a captivating two-hour documentary on PBS entitled Earth Days. It features the story of the environmental movement and is narrated by major players like Hayes, former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, and former Merry Prankster and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand.

The real star of this film, however, is the creepy archival footage. After World War II, Americans set out on a destructive course of consumerism. Everyone wanted to get rich or at least fool their neighbors into thinking they were. The way most people set about doing this was by eating space-age TV dinners, dousing their kids in chemical repellents, buying automobiles to use on the massive new interstates, adding fallout shelters to their basements, and loading up their refrigerators as full as possible. All the while, people in this footage have smiles glued a mile wide on their faces. Our oblivious downward spiral into creating this greenhouse mess for ourselves is shocking to see, even if we've already been told the story of the environmental movement numerous times.

The film also succeeds at asking what will become of the environmental movement. It made lots of missteps along the way and has often found itself at odds with common people and big companies that both want to protect their livelihoods.

Definitely a thought-provoking and quality film that just about anybody should enjoy.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Monday, April 19, 2010

Will Ferrell Writes the History Book on George W.

It's not often that I would recommend a movie that is little more than a 2-hour stand-up comedy act. But with You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W Bush, SNL alum Will Ferrell pretty much knocks it out of the park playing W. in full kiss-off mode.

The Tony-nominated play works seamlessly as a movie. It is exactly like sitting through a lewd and highly offensive performance in a theater. But Bush was such a ripe character for ridicule by the end of his eight-year presidency that this is really a can't-fail enterprise for Ferrell, who is simply mesmerizing as the guy who seems to have completely gone silent since leaving the White House 15 months ago.

The top three highlights of the film:
-- The segment when Ferrell give nicknames to audience members based on their first names and occupations. When one woman reports that she's a Shakespearean scholar, Bush calls her "Scholar of Unnecessary Topics."
-- When W. dwells on his body parts that nobody should ever have to see, it is complete shock and awe.
-- Relating a story when the Bush family is stuck in a mine, Ferrell, as H.W., asks why W. is the only member of the family with a Texas accent.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Reality TV and Alfred Hitchcock

This is the fourth part in a series about Chuck Klosterman's new book Eating the Dinosaur.

Klosterman taps into why Alfred Hitchcock's movies were so brilliant. The director was a reality-show producer long before the era of reality TV. Vertigo and Rear Window relied on voyeurism to build suspense and characters we cared about. But Hitchcock was a genius because he didn't tell us too much. He left some of the mystery in voyeurism.

That's why Klosterman was able to stay intrigued by the woman who lived across from him in Fargo, North Dakota. Their windows faced each other so that when they were both watching TV, they were essentially looking right at each other. Sometimes Klosterman would be watching reality TV while real reality unfolded just beyond his TV and out the window across the way.

He writes: "My boring neighbor felt infinitely more watchable, regardless of how little she did. So why was that? I think it was because I knew less. There was always the possibility she might do everything."

This might explain why I stopped watching Survivor after about two seasons. I never really went back to any reality TV after that. I had seen all I needed to see of an entertainment - "voyeurism" - that was processed through a network filter. "Voyeurism's titillation comes from the utter chaos of noncontextual information. It's closer to a narrative that ignores all the conventional rules of storytelling; it's more [David] Lynchian than Hitchcockian."

In the end, voyeurism can partly take us into another person's world. But even more, it could make us remember or realize that we ourselves are so very disconnected to the rest of the world, even the people who may be only a few feet from our living room windows.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pop Culture in an Unusual Spot: Jersey City

I don't usually write a lot about food here at the Box. But my family recently lucked out on a tasty little Mexican pop-culture trove, hole-in-wall restaurant while passing through Jersey City, New Jersey on our trip to catch Wilco in concert.

Taqueria Downtown is apparently known for its brusque service, but we had an altogether pleasant experience, even with Jackson being his usual wacky 2-year-old self. We ordered delicious and authentic fish and pork tacos.

But the real reason I'm mentioning this seemingly mundane experience was the excellent collection of rock and 1980s collectibles in the place. Note the AC/DC barstools in the photo. There were also Three's Company cast photos, a mock Eddie Van Halen guitar, and other random nods to the likes of Charlie's Angels and The Bee Gees.

Definitely stop by for lunch if you're ever in Jersey City, which is right across the Hudson River from South Manhattan.

Novel, Part #6

Here's a tiny bit of Chapter 3 leftover from yesterday's post, which details the founding of our protagonist's hometown, Papersville, New York. Read the entire beginning of my as-yet-unnamed novel here.

The rest of the people who lived in my hometown came in the 1940s, when music was moving from the front porch to the big-time. Sheets’ sons took most of the credit for this. They had both attended Yale and took regular trips into Manhattan and even one vacation down south, where they saw the blues movement unfolding. They wisely saw the need for record albums – or what were then referred to as “disc records” – to be more widely available, or rather, available. Sammy and Larry made their senior thesis a proposal to the executives at Universal/Decca Records and pitched it to them in person, without an appointment, on a sunny day high above the streets of Manhattan in a skyscraper office that secretly boggled the minds of the two young entrepreneurs. They didn’t flinch and before three months had passed, ground was being broken on a plant that would supply millions of great songs to generations of young groovers.

Well, anyway, I wasn’t interested in working at the paper mills, and my dad was very understanding of this. It seems he secretly harnessed a grudge against his father-in-law for giving him this life, even though this is something he never would have told us. He allowed me to take my first jobs as a lawn mower and helped me get my first few jobs by doing yard work for several of his mill co-workers. One day I happened to notice a sign on the road outside of the record plant that they were hiring a junior grass cutter. I applied, got the job, and, I suppose, this is where our story begins.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Music Reviews in 3 Words or Less: Volume 18

Serge Gainsbourg - Histoire De Melody Nelson (1971)
Lunatic lounge groove
Touchstones - Luna meets White Stripes
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Josh Rouse - 1972 (2003)
Country pop groove
Touchstones: Brett Dennen meets Ryan Adams
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Spoon - Transference (2010)
Super-cool rock cats
Touchstones: The Beatles meet The Libertines
**** out of ***** stars

Tegan & Sara - If It Was You (2002)
Catchy relationship wave
Touchstones: Joan Jett meets Elastica
**** out of ***** stars

Sparklehorse - Sparklehorse (1995)
Brooding, psych wave
Touchstones: Grandaddy meets Ween
**** out of ***** stars

Thurston Moore - Psychic Hearts (1995)
Unusually lacking hooks
Touchstones: Early Sonic Youth meets Velvet Monkeys
**1/2 out of ***** stars

Novel, Part #5

Apologies again for the long interval. Life has been a little busy since resuming normality post my Dominican vacation. To remember where last we were, our protagonist editor of Rolling Earwax magazine was catching up with old acquaintances at the end of the funeral for his long-time friend, rock star Rory Cocksure.

Chapter 3

Like I said, I was 13 in 1973. My ancestors on my mom’s side had come from England in the 1700s and most of them had spread out around the New York City area. My grandfather, already dead by then from years of hard work on the paper line, had moved to Papersville with his father and began working in one of the many mills when he was six. Or so the story goes. He probably walked there barefoot down the railroad tracks in the snow as well. But joking aside, he reportedly did work very hard for not much incentive.

My grandfather was my mother’s dad. He got my dad, John Andrews, a job at his paper mill, and my mom, Anna, stayed home to take care of me and my dad.

Papersville is at the southern end of the Adirondack State Park. Its proximity to the trees was the perfect setting for a half dozen or so paper mills. The trees would come in and, by the time Paperville got done with them, there were trucks headed out far and wide to distribute the stock. About a third of all the paper used in the country mid-century came from our little burg. And nearly all the paper used in the Northeast was from Papersville, a fitting name, you might say. This is no longer the case. There is one small mill left and I don’t think any of it goes beyond the borders of New York State, and maybe not beyond the borders of Fulton County.

Legend has it that the first mill was founded by a man named Samuel Sheets. I’m not kidding about the name, but you’ve got to realize that this was a man who knew what he wanted and didn’t stop until he was the richest man in the county. He had apparently walked from Canada after arriving there from Europe in the late 1800s. He made up his name and used other creative methods for a man with zero power or money to start Top Notch Tree and Paper Company. Why he walked all the way to the southern end of the Adirondacks instead of settling way up on the northern end is a bit of a town mystery. People like to say he had so much initiative and energy that he simply wasn’t ready to stop walking. Only when he realized the forest had ended many miles back and there wouldn’t be such prime land for many miles more did he turn back around to the edge of the tree line and start chopping and hammering to build his mill single-handedly. Sheets didn’t stop at one mill. He continued building and, by the 1920s, out-of-work people flocked to the recently named Papersville to escape the depression that gripped the rest of the U.S. at the time. He created a bustling town that numbered nearly 20,000 people at its height, nearly all of whom worked in the paper biz. And they knew and revered Sheets.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

U2, Zeppelin, White Stripes Trade Guitar Stories, Riffs

U2's The Edge is a tech gadget whiz. Jack White is a blues madman. And Jimmy Page is a master of great pop-rock hooks. The three play a few songs together and chat about their journeys on the guitar in the 2008 film It Might Get Loud.

I expected this to be more of an extended jam, but much of the film is simply a documentary about the three individual legend's lives. This works well because all three are fascinating people, especially Page and White.

There is great footage of Headley Grange, an English country mansion where much of Led Zeppelin's best music was composed and recorded. White talks about growing up in a poor and predominantly black Detroit neighborhood where it was "uncool" to play an instrument and where people were into hip-hop and not rock and blues. The Edge discusses his youthful inspirations from the late-70s punk explosion, which allows for some good footage from the likes of The Jam, Buzzcocks, and The Clash.

Setting the anticipation of the movie-ending guitar summit and telling great stories along the way is a great recipe for a rock documentary, rather than simple concert footage. And if you're still unconvinced you should spend 100 minutes with this film, at least watch the three jam at the end on Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dying."

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Garden State Version of Wilco

It seems like the only band Rachel and I have been seeing lately is Wilco. Not a terribly bad thing since the Chicago-via-Belleville, Illinois band is our favorite current group.

This time we traveled to Montclair, New Jersey to catch them at the fairly new Wellmont Theater, a place similar to DC's 9:30 Club in that it's a converted old theater that holds about 2,500 people.

After meeting up with my brother's friends Rick and Debbie, we left Jackson with Debbie and their kids and headed with Rick to the theater. The sound was not perfect (a bit of an echo) but the 3+-hour set pulled out all the right stops, with two great Big Star covers highlighting the end of the night. It was very fitting for the band to play such loud, power pop versions of "In the Street (That 70's Show theme)" and "Thank You Friends." It was also touching since Big Star leader Alex Chilton suddenly passed away last month.

The other highlights were too many to mention, and the acoustic set in the middle was a nice touch. The (mostly) full review and set list are here.

We finished the night by walking from the concert with Rachel's friends Jon and Katie back to their apartment a few blocks away to catch up. Then we headed back to Rick and Debbie's house to grab Jackson, who of course had stayed up too late having fun with their 11-year-old daughter Rachel.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

One Final Jump From the Dominican

And in the category of unfinished business, I never really gave the final word on how excellent our Dominican Republic vacation was. Here are some key photos (courtesy of our friend Maarten from Belgium). For a guy who doesn't like heights, these were some major jumps at the highly recommended Damajaqua Cascades 27 Waterfalls.

Also, for a guy who doesn't like snakes, this was a mighty big boa constrictor who initially looked to be asleep, but quickly sprang into action and hissed at us, sending us scrambling away through the jungle.

Finally, for a guy who doesn't like earthquakes, I forgot to mention that we cluelessly enjoyed a 4.9 Richter earthquake one night while dining on street food. Our hotel manager, Carl, said the water splashed up in the pool.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Sharks Can Be Downright Unfriendly

Telling the true story of a couple left behind by their scuba tour boat at the Great Barrier Reef, Open Water moves the story to the Caribbean and is a must-see for anyone as compelled by the mystery of sharks as I am.

Unknown actors Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan, a poor-man's Greg Kinnear and Charlize Theron, do a great job as an American couple trying to work out their problems by leaving their busy careers behind for a short vacation. Apparently, the two spent many hours floating in the ocean with real sharks during the filming of this 2004 indie film.

Open Water is short, punchy, suspenseful, and heart-breaking. The low-budget camerawork is a little unsettling at first, but when the couple enters the water, it is perfectly fitting and provides many mesmerizing underwater and half-underwater angles.

People who don't like to think of the terrifying beasts that sometimes lurk just beneath our swimming feet will not want to see this disturbing movie. Fans of Jaws absolutely can't avoid it any longer.

**** out of ***** stars