Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bridesmaids Fits Easily Into Best Comedy Movies of All-Time

Bridesmaids fits easily into my list of "top 60 funniest movies" of all time, all of which are five-star classics.

The thing that stands out about it is that a buddy-girl film like this has never been attempted, or at least has never worked. Kristen Wiig shines with all the promise she has displayed in recent years on Saturday Night Live, but never fully captured at the box office.

Wiig plays the maid of honor who just isn't very good at wedding planning. The best scenes happen when the girls disgustingly pick out their wedding dresses, take a messy flight to their Vegas bachelorette party, and are entertained at Maya Rudolph's wedding by a certain female trio from the 90s.

Melissa McCarthy as Megan is a highlight as the chunky and spunky sister of the groom. She's full of bad ideas, like when she flirts in flight with an air marshall (played by her real-life husband). Jon Hamm, Mad Men's Don Draper, is also delectable in a different kind of sleazy way from his TV character.

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

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Beginning of Summer in Photos

I haven't been blogging as much as normal. And since a picture tells a few words, perhaps it's easiest to give you an update of how my summer is starting off with a few shots.

It's already somehow been three weeks since the family returned from our annual pilgrimage to Emerald Isle in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. Jackson had a great time this year getting to meet his cousins from Nashville: 3-year-old Andrew (pictured, watching Jackson ride his bike in front of our beach house, the same one we've rented out for the past three years) and 5-year-old Alexander.

Last week featured a lot of America's Pastime. My St. Louis Cardinals were in town. Unfortunately, the Washington Nationals were in the midst of a rare hot streak and swept the three-game series. Good thing I'm a Nats' fan as well. The Tuesday night game I saw with my friend Jeff included the return of Ryan Zimmerman to the Nationals' lineup after a lengthy injury. It didn't seem like it was going to make much a difference when the Cardinals were up 6-1 after homers from Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman. But the Nats rallied for an 8-6 win. It was one of the most exciting games I've ever seen. Luckily I skipped Wednesday's 10-0 game. I returned with Jeff again, as well as Rachel, Jackson, Theo, and others from Rachel's work crowd, for a thrilling walk-off win by the Nationals. And, as you can see in this photo, Jackson was happy to have met Screech and try his first cotton candy, which gave him plenty of energy to stay up well past the time when we got home, after 11 p.m.

And finally, I just returned from a quick trip to the Ohio office of The Nature Conservancy in Dublin, outside of Columbus. I didn't have time to explore the city (Ohio's largest), but did have some pretty good pad thai and ice cream in the 'burbs. We're exploring starting a public-education campaign on climate change in that state, which is experiencing more extreme drought conditions around its crown jewel, Lake Erie.

Hope everyone is having an equally busy and entertaining start to your summers.

Jackson's First Song: "Scorpions on the Farm"

Well, Jackson is 3-and-a-half. So it's time he starts writing songs, right?

He supplied me with these lyrics. Perhaps he's a burgeoning Flaming Lips fan. I combined that surreal-ness with the pep of an '80s TV sitcom theme.

Perhaps this will be a song that makes our first Hall and Oates-like album of duet soft rock ...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Top 10 List: The Best Monkees Songs

Although I would strongly and vulnerably offer that the Monkees music is nowhere near as strong across the board as the Archies, but these two are definitely kings of the bubblegum genre. And they harken back to a time that set the pop-culture template for much of what would follow.

By recently exploring more deeply into their library than I did when I was kid, I found that the Monkees have tons of mediocre-at-best tunes, but they definitely have enough great songs to make up a 5-star collection. My top 10:

10. Hard to Believe
9. Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)
8. A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
7. She
6. I Wanna Be Free
5. Last Train to Clarksville
4. Pleasant Valley Sunday
3. Daydream Believer
2. I'm a Believer (see the perfect video above)
1. (Theme From) The Monkees

What do you think about the Monkees? Do you agree with me that they were very influential and have a handful of pure-pop-perfection gems? Are you going to catch them on their reunion tour this summer?

Hey Hey We're the Monkees: Some Music Purists Missing Boat on Made-for-TV Band

In Monkey Business: The Revolutionary Made-for-TV Band, the Monkees are described just as I remember from all the after-school TV-watching of my youth: "a kind of visual LSD for the Kool-Aid set."

The author, Eric Lefcowitz, interestingly describes how he forgot about the band throughout the 1970s. But at the start of the next decade, he heard "a bizarre cover" of "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone" by the Sex Pistols. Despite being a fan of dark and political acts like Joy Division, The Clash, Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag, Lefcowitz found himself a few days later buying a Monkees album.

I similarly feel that there will always be some "music purists who never get the Monkees, who don't care that the Beatles, themselves, were fans." Or that some of the Monkees' songs were penned by legends like Harry Nilsson, Neil Diamond, and Carole King. Or that their TV show used "cutting-edge techniques" and band member Michael Nesmith, "for all intents and purposes [along with the Beatles' movie A Hard Day's Night], invented the revolutionary music video format that would later become MTV."

Other interesting tidbids from this book about a space in time that endlessly fascinates me:
- Urban legend has it that mass-murderer Charles Manson auditioned for the band, but that was later proven false.
- Stephen Stills, later of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, actually did audition, but he lost out "due to a receding hairline and a recessed tooth."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Now This is Americana! The World's Largest Catsup Bottle

This 5-minute video is awesome, especially for those of us who spent our youth passing from my hometown of Edwardsville, Illinois through Collinsville, and into Fairview Heights, where the mall was located.

The World's Largest Catsup Bottle rested along that path. It was always completely natural to the landscape. It never seemed out of place and we never questioned it. Who knew there wasn't one of these creative and colorful water towers every 50 miles or so along the highways and byways of America?

I kind of feel the same way about Edwardsville as alt-country rocker Chris Mills feels about his hometown of Collinsville. This is what he said at one of my favorite music sites, Magnet.
Mills: I used to talk a lot of trash about my hometown. But Collinsville, Ill., isn’t actually all that bad. It’s relatively safe. The friends I still have there and people I still know are all pretty awesome. The school system wasn’t that great, but it got me where I am today. I’m sure that its proportion of less-than-progressive gun-toters is not that far above or below the national average for towns of its size and general geographic location. But regardless of my feelings about growing up there, Collinsville does have one amazing, magical thing that no place else in the world has: The World’s Largest Catsup Bottle. It was built in 1949 as a water tower for the Brooks Catsup factory, and for the majority of my youth, it was just a rusty, dilapidated shadow of what I imagined it once might have been. But in 1995, the local community rallied together to stave off the tower’s impending demolition and managed to restore the giant condiment container to its former glory. I think it has even been declared a historic landmark or something.

Friday, June 10, 2011

My Wiener Sausage Co-Writer "Comes Out"

My Wiener Sausage: The Musical! co-creator Dan Sullivan made his Woolly Mammoth stage premiere last week in SpeakeasyDC's excellent production of Don't Ask, Do Tell (Stories About Coming Out, Coming Clean, and Just Plain Coming).

It was basically a stand-up, improv show, with 12 individuals telling their own stories of the process of becoming openly gay, lesbian, or trans-gendered.

Dan (in the center on the photo to the right) of course stole the show, with his dry wit and all-around loveable-ness and impossible-to-not-like-ness. He was 19 and working his job as a flagpole-raiser at the U.S. Capitol (a job that entails a complete fabrication by the U.S. government upon clueless patriotic flag-buyers everywhere). His straight, pink-haired buddy Charlie protected Dan's Private Idaho every step of the way from their redneck co-worker Larry, who fumed all summer that someone had left an issue of the Washington Blade in the Capitol break room.

Other standout storytellers in the show included Andrew Korfhage (telling perhaps the dirtiest tale of the night about his education on sex words in sign language and how he was busted using such language by his boss at the non-profit Co-op America), Regie Cabico (a manic poetry slammer who is big in Canada and had some wild times in his college dorm room) and MC and co-director John Kevin Boggs. All the other performers were either funny or at least had compelling stories to share, which was a pretty impressive feat for the production.

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

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Is Jonathan Franzen Truly the Great American Novelist?

I always wanted to like famed author Jonathan Franzen, but something about his upturned-nose style of writing has bugged me. He, like I, is from St. Louis, so I kind of enjoyed his first novel, 1988's The Twenty-Seventh City. It's about people from India in that city, the corrupt police force, and St. Louis' fall from having been the country's "fourth city" in the 1870s.

But I progressively liked his writings for The New Yorker less and less over the years, so much so that I refused to even read his much-acclaimed novel, The Corrections. Franzen drew me back in when I heard his latest, Freedom, featured a protagonist employed by The Nature Conservancy, where I've now worked for the past 11 months.

Walter Berglund is that character. Walter loves birds so much that it eventually drives him significantly cuckoo. It doesn't necessarily paint TNC in the greatest of lights, in that Walter seems to truly love animals more than people, not something the Conservancy seeks as its image. Luckily, there is enough love of people (mainly his wife Patty and his eventual mistress Lalitha) in Walter's life, that the animal part arguably doesn't win out. But it's close, and much of the novel's suspense teeters upon that line in the sand between bliss and madness. The Economist even calls the book a modern-day Paradise Lost.

Walter and Patty have two kids. Joey is a handsome wealthy young Republican, which drives Walter batty. Jessica is a good kid who tries to help her parents from killing each other. The wildcard in the novel is Richard Katz, a rock star who learned quite a bit of what he knows from Walter when the two were college roommates. Patty learns a lot from Richard too, and it drives a wedge into their marriage.

The scope of the novel is epic, and Franzen really nails it. His ability to build character and compelling dialogue nearly matches one of my favorite (yet less heralded) writers, Ethan Canin. It's a true page-turner, understandably an Oprah-endorsed modern classic, and there isn't a boring part within the tome (although the section in which Patty tries to help divide her father's estate between her spoiled siblings seems to get in the way a bit at the end).

I don't know if Franzen quite lives up to Time Magazine's claim as "the great American novelist," but he's close enough and I'm going to try to like him more after reading Freedom. His tone is still a little condescending and cloyingly intellectual, but he has definitely worked hard to improve himself in that category over the years.

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

Saturday, June 4, 2011

United Airlines Offers a Great Example of How NOT to Do PR

When Canadian musician Dave Carroll looked out the window of his United jet to see the workers flinging his guitar across the tarmac, he knew there was going to be some damage. Sure enough there was. But after months of being given the runaround, he realized his only weapon would be to write a song about it.

"United Breaks Guitars" was the result and, even better, the video went viral on You Tube. But even that wasn't enough to get the lumbering behemoth of United's PR department moving into action.

The excellent book, Real-Time Marketing and PR, details Dave's situation, commending him for his PR knack. He eventually got real-world results when United changed its customer-service policies, but not before the company's stock fell 10 percent in the week after the song was released.

Further, Carroll owned a Taylor Guitar, and the owner of that company gave Carroll two new guitars. The company was adept at jumping in when the iron was hot to get a little positive PR of its own.

The song hit number 1 in the iTunes store. Carroll went on to become a hot item on the public-speaking circuit about customer service. (On one of his trips, United lost his luggage.)

The whole point of the book, by David Meerman Scott, is that, in today's world, companies need to be ready at any moment to seize positive PR opportunities. Crisis communications can truly be the difference between a relevant operation, like Dave Carroll himself and Taylor Guitars, and one that seems to be fading, like United.