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Archive for April, 2007

Time of the Season: S1 of The Wire (’02)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 30, 2007

“It’s all in the game…”

Why it took me so long to start up with the show that’s been hailed as the best on TV for nearly a half-decade now is not really the issue right now. The answer to that one is obvious–I’m an idiot that was probably too busy watching Law & Order: SVU reruns. The more pressing question at this point would have to be why oh why did I decide to pick the last two weeks of school, the time I should be spending studying for finals, looking up job opportunities, or at the very least being ass-drunk 85% of the time, to start watching it? I’ve got a million things I should be doing, and all I wanna do is watch this fucking show (don’t worry though, Mom, I’ll find a half-hour or so a day to squeeze in all that other stuff)

Needless to say, as usual, everyone was right on the money. The Wire may or may not be the best show on TV right now (and given its tendency to change up every season, I should really only say it may or may not have been the best show on TV in 2002), but it’s definitely a top ranker. And it also somewhat inadvertently proves that I was probably smart to hold off on getting into it, since back when it debuted I don’t think I was a patient enough TV watcher to keep up with The Wire‘s enormous, starless ensemble cast, its labyrinthine story arcs and slow, meticulous pacing.

There are two immediate reference points that jumped out at me when watching The Wire. The first is the obvious and probably facile comparison to HBO’s other morally ambiguous, ambitiously structured and obsessively pawed over crime epic, The Sopranos. The main difference between the two as I see it, aside from the change in setting (Baltimore, which like Jersey, makes for a surprisingly rich backdrop) and the focus on both cops and robbers, is that I feel like The Sopranos has aspirations to grand drama, even tragedy, that the relatively humble Wire lacks.

The Wire has a feeling of near-objectivity to it, achieved through the lack of non-diagetic background music, self-conscious camera work or disproportionate character focus. Though The Sopranos will sometimes spend most of a whole episode tracing a minor character’s personal arc, often propelling the show’s main plot little if at all, The Wire keeps things incredibly taut, allowing even the greatest of digressions to make up a fraction of an episode. Which isn’t to say that the personal lives and struggles of these characters isn’t important to the show, but creator David Simon never loses track of the plot for too long, and as a consequence, episodes only really make sense in their function as part of the whole season–like chapters in a book, as Simon has put it.

The other main point of comparison is with the Michael Mann-penned ’95 action classic Heat, the first major work I can think of in film or TV to focus with equal attention and care on both the good guys and the bad guys (and to show us that, yeah, deep down the two groups might not be so different). Like Heat, The Wire sets out to prove that concepts like “good” and “evil” don’t exist in their purest forms, as the good guys are often shown to be self-serving, incompetent and lazy (often very, very fucking lazy) and even the worst dudes are shown to have soft spots, some of which end up costing them dearly.

This idea is hardly much of a revelation (it wasn’t even before Heat), and the reason The Wire‘s first season works is because it doesn’t simply rely on these tropes to give their characters scope and humanity–instead, we get some of the richest characterization ever seen in the crime drama form. Take Omar (played by Michael K. Williams), unquestionably the show’s most memorable character. Omar is the so-called Robin Hood of the projects, sticking up drug dealers for the stash and the cash, and distributing the goods to people in his neighborhood. Omar is also gay, and openly so, a characteristic which most lesser shows would use to define the character, making him either hopelessly flamboyant or comically macho in compensation. The Wire (and Williams) does neither, crafting a believably homosexual character that’s also intelligent, charismatic, and downright badass (so much that the cops barely try to stop or reprimand his vigilante efforts, Officer McNulty even harboring an extremely obvious non-sexual crush on the thug).

“Lesson learned, B. You come at the king, you best not miss.”

Or take what is probably the show’s second best character, drug ring second-in-command Stringer Bell, played by Idris Elba. Stringer shows business and management capabilities beyond the garden variety criminal far before halfway through the first season, when the cops trail him to a class he’s taking at the Baltimore Community College. Once again, most shows would use this aspiration to higher education in one of two ways–to posit Stringer as a nerdy intellectual, in opposition to his position, as well as his intimidating voice and physical build, or to show him as being intellectually way out of his league, constantly dispensing misinterpreted, unwanted advice to his cohorts and unknowingly dropping malapropisms left and right, a technique on which The Sopranos has become uncomfortably reliant. Rather, Stringer is just shown as being a smart dude, giving good advice to his boss and much-needed mentoring to his underlings, and occasionally dropping his college vocab when the situation warrants.

Or you could even take the closest character the show has to a protagonist, hard-luck Irish cop Jimmy McNulty. Played by Dominic West, McNulty is mostly the kind of Cop you’d expect to anchor a show like The Wire–tough and smart, but too reckless and insubordinate for his own good. But rather than leave the character as the lovable anti-hero, The Wire shows the man to actually be a pretty huge asshole, especially in his personal life. Estranged from his wife, he often neglects his kids and even uses them to help follow and tag Bell in one episode, actually losing them in the pursuit. Meanwhile he still sleeps around with DA Rhonda Pearlman, who he essentially treats as his whore, showing up drunk at her place to fuck and insulting and tossing her aside in the morning. It’s subtle enough that the character is still likable, but it’s clear that even though he might be the best, most honest cop in Baltimore, he’s still no innocent.

And it’s that kind of believability that propels The Wire through its first season. When shit goes down–lesbian undercover cop Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) getting gunned down in a sting op gone wrong probably being the biggest “oh shit” moment of the season–it feels like the show’s really earned it, as if they wouldn’t dare present it were it not a totally plausible and possible occurrence. It makes you really want to learn what happens to these characters, because it makes you think that it’s exactly what would happen in real life.

And it makes it really fucking hard for me to start gearing up for my Lit final when I’ve got season two on the backburner. Dammit, dammit, dammit.

Posted in Time of the Season | 4 Comments »

HOT ONEs Alert: The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump” and Queens of the Stone Age’s “Sick, Sick, Sick”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 29, 2007

“Dark, hard and electrical, sort of like a construction worker…”

I think there are more parallels between these guys than most people (including myself) ever really realized. Both groups come from culty, regionalized backgrounds traced through several other earlier groups, both tend to pal around with famous collaborators, both briefly courted mainstream success with a pair of high-profile, critically acclaimed albums with accompanying radio-ready hits with cool, MTV-ready videos, and both blew more or less blew their commercial prospects with the lead singles off their latest albums (even though I think both–“Blue Orchid” and “Little Sister,” respectively–were fucking awesome).

And now, both are back. A few years (relatively) out of the limelight appears to have done both groups some good–with expectations lower than they’ve been for about a half decade, both bands feel considerably more relaxed and confident. And with commercial prospects effectively out the window (and believe me, if they weren’t already, dudes are done on the pop charts after these bad boys), both groups are free to really let loose, and they sound harder, faster and louder than they have in ages.

Icky Thump” probably rates as the less conventional of the two. Without a chorus to speak of, Jack spends most of the song either in blues preacher mode ranting about God knows what (“You can’t be a pimp and a prostitute too” sure to end up the song’s most quoted line) or slamming on some mad old school-sounding organ (is there any other kind? Seriously though, think “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”) while Meg does her rudimentary best, working that kick drum and riding the cymbals when necessary. To find a song in the Stripes catalogue this bluesy and gritty, you have to go way past 2005’s mostly neutered Get Behind Me Satan, all the way back to De Stijl or maybe even the s/t, fans of which Jack promises the new album (of the same name) will please greatly. Not something I thought I’d like to hear, but damned if it doesn’t work on this song at least.

Meanwhile, “Sick, Sick, Sick” sees the QOTSA sound more streamlined than ever, and considering how streamlined they were before, that’s sort of saying something. Supposedly Trent Reznor is a collaborator on album Era Vulgaris, and I feel like there’s something of a Nine Inch Nails influence on this track, too–it feels almost industrial in its slick, metallic grind. Josh Homme said he wanted the EV to sound “dark, hard and electrical, sort of like a construction worker,” and based on this track at least, that description’s basically right on. It’s by far the heaviest single I’ve heard from these guys yet, but it doesn’t desert the perverse, damnation-drenched sense of groove they acquired over the last few albums. This is what Avenged Sevenfold should sound like, or at least what their videos should be set to.

Between these two and Grinderman’s “No Pussy Blues” (which might’ve gotten the HOT ONE distinction itself had it not let me down by actually yelling “I’ve got the no pussy blues!” at the end of it, ruining a perfectly great song title), 2007 is gearing up to be a banner year for dirty, depraved, funky-ass garage rock singles.

Posted in Hot One | 1 Comment »

In a Perfect World: Next Would Be Based on TV Show

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 28, 2007

“Will Nicolas go for Julianne? / Or will he tell her he’d rather move to Sudan?”

Why are thrillers these days always about being able to predict the future? I mean c’mon, is shit really so desperate that now we have now have no choice to rely on clairvoyance to get ourselves out of the big messes? And why do they all have to be so fucking literally titled? First Deja Vu (as in, Denzel Washington has Deja Vu about a ship blowing up or something), then Premonition (as in, Sandra Bullock has a Premonition that her husband’s gonna die or something), and now, Next (as in Nicolas Cage better figure out what the fuck is gonna happen Next or else the world is gonna blow up or something). Jesus.

This wouldn’t be so bad, I suppose, if there weren’t a wealth of other film possibilities being unexplored here. And Next is probably the biggest wasted opportunity of them all. You’ve got Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, and Jessica Biel, directed by the dude behind the underrated Die Another Day and the super-underrated XXX2: State of the Union, and you’ve got the title “Next.” How the fuck are you going to not have it be based on the MTV show?

Now, I’m not saying it should be taken from the show directly. You couldn’t have the cutesy formatting, the stupid fucking rhymes, the canned dialogue, none of that stuff. This is the big screen we’re talking about now, and that shit don’t fly. As a matter of fact, I think the movie would be most effective if it was approached as a beginnings-of flick, showing how NEXT came to be. Here’s how I see it:

Nicolas Cage plays a down-on-his-luck lawyer who still hasn’t gotten over losing Julianne Moore ever since she left him because his job was taking up too much of his time. After months of sulking and lazing around, to the detriment of his work, father figure / boss Peter Falk (no shit, he’s actually in the real movie) encourages him to get back out on the scene, saying to him “You still got your whole life ahead of you…but before you figure that out, you have to find out what’s NEXT.”

This gives Cage an idea. His firm has a new big case, one that’s going to take up most of his time, so he decides to try to find his new love by doingf the only thing he has time for–a succession of truncated, accelerated dates. He puts an ad in the local paper and even gets a spot on the local news advertising for girls to try out and see if they’re “what’s NEXT for him,” and his heartbreaking story and nice-guy demeanor inspires dozens of ready and willing applicants.

He tries out the great majority of these dates in a hilarious montage set to “I’m Into Something Good,” but all are disasters, until he meets Biel, who despite her relative youth seems like the best match he’s likely to have. However, just before he’s about to offer Biel a second date, he notices that there’s just one participant left–Moore, who having noticed that Cage (whose lack of focus on the firm’s big case has gotten him demoted) has finally gotten his priorities straight, and wants him back. Ultimately, Cage cannot choose Biel, and offers Moore the second date. “So am I your NEXT?” she asks. “No,” he answers. “You were the right one all along.”

You could probably even get late-90s R&B pariahs Next to do the soundtrack. I can’t imagine they’ve got much else to do these days.

Posted in In a Perfect World | 1 Comment »

Time of the Season: S1 of 30 Rock

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 27, 2007

“For God’s sake, Lemon, we’d all like to flee to the Cleve, and club up and down in the Flats, and have lunch with Little Richard. But we fight those urges…”

About half a year ago, America was presented with two TV shows with a fairly similar premise–the behind-the-stage workings at a fictional sketch comedy show. One of them was engineered by Sports Nite and West Wing mastermind Aaron Sorkin and featured seasoned TV vets like Bradley Whitford, Timothy Busfield and Steven Weber. The other (premiering a few weeks later) was penned by and starring mostly SNL alums, one of whom was Rachel Dratch, and featured Alec Baldwin in a leading, comedic role.

If you had asked 100 people back in September which show was going to end up a cancelled flop, and which was going to be an award-winning cult success, at least 90 of them probably would’ve gotten it wrong, including myself. Really, though. From the first episode of Studio 60, it looked like we had the next great TV show on our hands–smart, tight writing with good characters played by good actors. But it turned out Sorkin didn’t quite have the stomach to take on TV, for whatever reason–instead of the backstage seaminess and drama everyone would expect from a show about the medium, we got a lot of preachiness and unrealistic moral dilemmas, played out by characters who just seemed to like each other too much.

On the other hand, the odds on 30 Rock not completely sucking were so very, very low. The commercials looked awful, it was the brainchild of SNL people (which might sound like a good thing to some people, but me, not so much) and after the initially promising debut of Studio 60, it just seemed totally pointless. But the show’s growing buzz, combined with that great Thursday night NBC timeslot, finally persuaded me to give it a shot.

And goddamn if it didn’t turn out to be quite possibly the funniest show on TV right now. 30 Rock actually inspires genuine laughter–not just reflexive “oh, I recognize that as being funny” chuckles, but the hearty guffaws I usually reserve for animated classics like The Simpsons and prime Adult Swim. It’s refreshing, to say the least, and when paired with The Office and My Name is Earl, shows which at their best can easily encourage similar emissions, it makes for the most enjoyable TV block since The O.C. was partnered with North Shore on Thursday nights (hey, I liked it!)

It’s mostly due to the actors. The core of the show is in the relationship between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy, played of course by Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, and TV critics smarter than myself have compared their rapport to that of Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore. It’s a good comparison–the relationship is driven by the same sort of frustration and tempered affection, mixed with just the right amount of sexual tension–not so much that you could ever see them impulsively throwing down on Jack’s desk, but enough that a misguided hook-up is always a possibility, however slight.

And the actors get their parts just right–Tina Fey does have that sort of “She’s gonna make it after all!” sympathy behind her performance, and she plays the quirky, frazzled Lemon right to the point of irritation without ever quite passing it (her karaoke performance of Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” while supposedly trying to pick up dudes at a bar was an early clincher in the series for me). And Alec Baldwin deserved his Golden Globe for playing the eccentic, intimidating, and frequently childlike multi-millionaire–he’s got the perfect command of the character’s ridiculousness, and more importantly, how he expects everyone else to be on his ridiculous level of thinking. When Liz asks Jack why he’s dressed up if the benefit she thought she was prepping for for tonight actually isn’t for months, his incredulous response of “It’s after 6:00! What am I, a farmer?” could’ve gotten him the award on its own.

And of course, the show’s always got an ace up its sleeve in the form of unpredictably manic and heavily medicated TGS star Tracy Jordan (not to be confused with Tracy Morgan, who plays him). Even if recent morning TV interviews suggest that the difference between actor and character might not be so different after all, Tracy is hilarious, and the episode with his medicine-related meltdown leading up to his appearance on Conan O’Brien is probably the show’s highlight thusfar. And at the very least, Tracy offers 30 Rock an opportunity to come up with a ton of hilarious fictional movies for Tracy to star in, including Who Dat Ninja? and Fat Bitch (the poster for which makes me crack up every time).

And they’ve got a strong supporting cast at their back. Jane Krakowski doesn’t have too much to do as show bombshell Jenna, but she plays up the dumb blonde angle well enough to make a worthy foil for Liz (and her misguided projects outside of 30 Rock are usually similarly hysterical, especially Con Air! The Musical), and Rachel Dratch…well, let’s just say the show’s learned enough to use her more sparingly, and in less obvious caricatures, thank God. But then there’s Judah Friedlander as trucker hat-wearing loser Frank (a table describing his hats’ colors and messages per week can be found here, for some reason), Scott Adsit as down-to-earth miserablist Pete, and especially, Jack McBrayer as overenthusiastic and effeminate page Kenneth (who has definite breakout potential, which I hope they don’t exploit too much next season).

Then there’s the cameos–from LL Cool J as rapper Ridikolous (who I really hope they bring back at least once more–his non-chalant command to one of his goons “Yo, go get my nose back” after Kenneth “steals” it is a Top 5er for the show, easy), to Isabella Rossellini as Jack’s similarly cutthroat ex-wife to Chris Parnell as Tracy’s (I imagine soon to become recurring) nutso physician, Dr. Spaceman (pronounced Spah-chey-man, unbeknwondst to Tracy). Even Ghostface Killah shows up a couple times.

As with similar broadcast TV high point Friday Night Lights, the future of 30 Rock is far from secure–it consistently ranks in the 70s ratings-wise, despite critical acclaim and plum positioning. But I think the word of mouth is really spreading on the show, and hopefully viewers who were as skeptical as I was at the start of the first season will start to tune in. I mean, c’mon, people–Ghostface!

Posted in Time of the Season | 3 Comments »

Charts on Fire: 04-26-07

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 26, 2007

“I think about you all the time / you’re so addictive”

Lordy. Avril claims her rightful throne as the motherfuckin’ princess this week, as her insta-classic “Girlfriend” ascends to the #1 spot, unseating Timbaland’s “Give it to Me” (and making for one of the best 1-2 combos the chart’s seen in quite some time). This marks Avril’s first ever #1 (previous best was #2 for “Complicated”), and the first pure pop song to top the charts in ages. In addition, Avril’s new album, The Best Damn Thing, enters the charts at #1. Anyone know if it’s any good? AMG sure seems to like it.

Lower in the top ten, there are advancers from T-Pain (7-5) and Bone Thugz n Harmony f/ Akon (35-7), the latter of which gives the Senegalese sensation three top ten hits this week, thus making him the most popular possible child molester in the country. Pink also gets her first top ten hit in what I assume is probably a couple of years with the fairly awful “U + Ur Hand” (11-9). Just outside the top ten this week is Carrie Underwood’s “Before She Cheats” (15-11), which after a whopping 34 weeks on the charts looks finally poised to break the Billboard front page. She’s got moxie, I’ll give her that.

Elswehere, big gains for Huey (23-15), Daughtry (31-23), Lloyd (36-27), DJ Khaled (45-36) and Ne-Yo (47-39). Handful of new entries to the top 50, with Martina McBride’s “Anyway” (starts out like “All By Myself” but quickly gets inspirational, too bad, 64-32), Justin Timberlake’s “Summer Love” (feel like there must be songs left from FS/LS stronger than this, 74-34) and Rascal Flatts’ “Stand” (I think a country cover of the R.E.M. song might’ve been cool, but fuck it, 54-50). In addition, Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” is the highest debut on the chart, landing at #41 (keeps getting closer and closer to genuine humanity, you’ll get there one day Fergie).

In the bottom half of the chart, Bucky Covington becomes like the 7th contestant in the last month from last year’s Idol to chart some forgettable single (this one sounds more like Tim McGraw than Live, at least) with “A Different World” (#63), and some dudes name the Party Boys come up with “Party Like a Rock Star” (don’t remember how this one goes yet, #80). Top debut on the hip-hop charts is T.I.’s highly acceptable “Big Shit Poppin‘” (#39), unfortunately the two new ons to the Modern Rock top twenty (RHCP’s “Hump de Bump” and The Used’s “The Bird and the Worm“) are among the worst songs of the year/decade/post-punk era. Gotta compensate for “Lazy Eye” somehow cracking the top five, I suppose. Oh, and Ozzy’s got a pretty all right new song, “I Don’t Wanna Stop,” at #5 on the Mainstream Rock charts this week. Every year this guy stays alive, I figure someone must be losing a bet.

Posted in Charts on Fire | Leave a Comment »

100 Years, 100 Songs: #92. Rush – “YYZ”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 25, 2007


Most critics hate Jam Bands. Rather, they would hate Jam Bands if they cared enough about them, but lucky for critics, the Jam Band genre differs from other critically-maligned genres such as pop-punk, nu-metal and adult contemporary, in that it is exceptionally easy to avoid–stay out of coffee shops and away from festivals that sound like they’re named after a tree and generally, you’re pretty safe. I am, of course no different from most critics here–I couldn’t give a shit about Jam Bands, and the one time I borrowed a bunch of Dead bootlegs from my hippie-ish friend, I was fairly unimpressed (it did help me get some sleep that week I was sick Junior year, so I guess props for that). It’s a phobia I’m not terribly proud of, but one I’ve yet to hear too convincing an argument against, aside from the fact that Phish covers whole albums live on Halloween, which at the very least is awesome in theory.

Rush are not really a jam band, in that they’re far too dark and aggressive (not that that’s saying much), they sound too nerdy to do drugs with any seriousness, and they actually have songs that non-jam band fans like, ones that y’know, were actual hits, and get played on the radio and whatnot. But then again, they sort of are–write Rush out on paper and they sound exactly like a jam band. Three dudes, all of whom are at the highest level of viruosity on their respective instruments, playing songs with complex solos (on every instrument, no less!), trippy lyrics and long-ass running times. Yet their music is highly palatable and often, especially in the case of super-instrumetnal “YYZ,” rather trasncendent, because even though it’s loopy and solo-heavy, it’s also tight, hooky, and cool as fucking shit.

“YYZ” has, by my count, six sections of roughly equivalent length, including a total of at least a half-dozen solos. Usually, in prog-rock instrumental terms, this’d add up to a song that would run at least eleven minutes (think “Shine on You Crazy Diamond“), but Rush manage to stick the landing under the four and a half minute marker. The result is one of the fastest-running, most jam-packed (no pun intended) rock instrumentals in history, a jaw-dropper the first time through and still at least a “wow” every time after.

The structuring of the thing is fucking brilliant. You’ve got the intro, with all three instruments playing the same syncopated rhythm, which as I’m sure everyone north of Michigan knows is the morse code for YYZ (itself the code for Toronto’s Peabody International Airport, apparently the band’s favorite). It sounds harsh and dark and awesome, and ends with a photo finish at the lead-in to the song’s main hook, which is similarly jagged and wonderful. Then it’s the song’s bridge, which means it’s solo time.

The song’s solos progress in a way that reminds me of when I was in Jazz Band in middle school. During the song’s solo section, while everyone else is playing in the background, one instrumentalist steps forward and plays into the mic for eight or sixteen bars, then everyone claps and he goes back to the fold (maybe all jazz works like this? I hope not). That’s what “YYZ” feels like, except bassist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart only get about one or two measures at a time, and they both sound a hundred times better than anyone in our fucking band did. Anyway, the mini-solos are great–so compact that it builds up tremendous tension, before finally guitarist Alex Leifson gets some breathing room for his 16-bar solo, presented as the song’s breathtaking climax.

It explodes into the song’s instrumental break, which provides the perfect respite from the almost seizure-inducing first three sections. Waves of slow-rolling synth wash over Leifson’s extended final note, and you can almost hear the band catching their breath before jumping back into the song’s main hook (playing the song on Guitar Hero II the hundreds of times I have really drive this point home). The final hook is almost an anti-climax, but it’s good to bring it back to the beginning, especially with the song’s last section, a hook which repeats the “YYZ” intro, before winding the song down with an almost punchline-like descending four-note riff.

Despite the million things happening in “YYZ,” despite the lack of vocals, despite the jamminess of the whole thing, it still feels like a regular rock/pop song. I don’t understand why more rock instrumentals don’t sound like this.

Posted in 100 Years 100 Songs | 1 Comment »

Popcorn Love: Jeff Goldblum in Deep Cover (1992)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 24, 2007


Deep Cover is a fairly underappreciated movie in general. I don’t know if I’d say underrated, necessarily, ‘coz it’s a pretty ridiculous movie on the whole, but no more so than New Jack City, of which this movie is more or less the West Coast equivalent. It’s got Lawrence Fishburne, fresh from Boyz n the Hood, as the undercover cop coming dangerously close to flipping sides, Charles Martin Smith as his asshole superior, and classic That Guy Clarence Williams III as a religious cop trying to redeem Fishburne’s soul, as well as all-time classic That Guy Bill Duke in one of his first times behind the camera. And lest we forget, it also features the titular Dr. Dre & Snoop Doggy Dogg theme, the first solo cut by either and one of the great rap songs of the 90s.

But the best reason to love Deep Cover is still definitely Jeff Goldblum. The man’s great in just about everything he’s ever been in, ranging all the way back to his immortal one-line performance in Annie Hall (“I forgot my mantra”). Nine times out of ten, however, his manic mumblings and off-kilter facial expressions get translated by directors as mere nerdiness (resulting in his career-defining roles in The Big Chill, Independence Day and Jurassic Park, among dozens of others) rather than outright psychosis.

It’s in the latter mindset where Goldblum really shines. The Fly is the most obvious example, as you gradually watch this geeky Jewish guy turn into a genuinely terrifying monster, but his performance as gangster David Jason in Deep Cover is just as emblematic. He starts out the film mild-mannered enough, just a shady lawyer with some other biz on the side, but after getting pushed too far by crime boss Felix Barbosa, he makes the transition into Scarface territory in fairly impressive timing.

Basically, I love Goldblum in Deep Cover because there’s a real lacking of Jewish gangsters in the movie world. I think Robert DeNiro and James Woods might technically have been Jewish in Once Upon a Time in America, and no one who’s ever seen it will be able to forget Sean Penn’s wildly ridiculous (and jewfro’d) turn as Jewish lawyer Alan Kleinfeld in Carlito’s Way, but these guys weren’t believably Jewish in any way (and Hesh on The Sopranos barely even counts as a gangster, more just the show’s resident Wise Old Jewish Guy). Goldblum is the real deal, however, and though it’s probably a bit disturbing for me to think so, it’s good to see an actual Jew repping in the cinema mob world.

And Goldblum is a great candidate for the actor to do so, because even though he’s a believable nutso killer cokehead in Deep Cover, there’s still that nebbishy Woody Allen quality evidently at work in the character. It shows through in his insecurity around Lawrence Fishburne’s character, how he keeps trying to impress him with his clothes and his sexual escapades, desperate for his partner’s approval, as well as in his general timidness when it comes to doing the dirty work, generally willing to let Fishburne take the lead and just chime in when necessary.

David Jason might not have been quite slick enough to reach Nino Brown status in pop culture history, and that’s probably because Jeff Goldblum at his most badass is still Jeff Goldblum. Still, you gotta love it when one Jewish ganster sarcastically promises “Yeah, we’ll have shrimp” to another just before kicking him out of his (moving) car. Too cool for Kashrut.

Posted in Popcorn Love | 2 Comments »

Blog Hiatus: 04/21 – 04/23

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 21, 2007

Blog on hiatus for the weekend and Monday as I finish my second-most important pop culture embarking of the year, the national pop culture trivia tournament (“TRASHionals”) in Maryland, and finish up some of that pesky finals business. See you guys on Tuesday.

(Edited for Monday. Be back tomorrow, or blog is history.)

Posted in Blog Hiatus | Leave a Comment »

Mixed Emotions: Reality Bites

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 20, 2007

And I thought what I felt was simple…

Take a look at that poster up there. Normally, I try to avoid posting movie poster pics for my blog, because I usually think actual screenshots from the flick are more memorable and more revealing, but in the case of Reality Bites, the poster really says it all. Ben Stiller is staring at Winona Ryder, deeply in love, while Ethan Hawke is doing a too cool quarter turn away from Ryder, pretending not to notice her presence. And Winona, she’s too busy trying to deal with her emotions to look at either of them. In the background, words like “jobs,” “relationships,” “credit cards,” and most tellingly, “movie poster” hang around, while the tagline–“A comedy about love in the 90s”–drives the point home, just in case.

So there you have it–Reality Bites in 500 pixels or less. Stiller loves Ryder and isn’t afraid to show it, Hawke loves Ryder and is deathly afraid to show it, and Ryder doesn’t have a clue what to do about either guy. Meanwhile, everything else going around in the movie is trying hard–real, real hard–to be the definitive portrait of a generation, to show exactly how every member of it feels about things like jobs, relationships and credit cards. And as for that tagline, well, the first five words of it are basically redundant–“The 90s” would’ve worked just fine as a tagline, teaser, or even a plot summary of Reality Bites.

To put it reductively, Reality Bites is a bad movie. The characters are all roundly dislikable in one way or another, the direction is light and fluffy most of the flick but turns deathly over-serious at all the wrong moments, the soundtrack is largely terrible (with a few key exceptions, which I’ll get to later), the dialogue is contrived and absolutely nothing about the movie feels genuine, including the characters’ supposed distaste for genuineness. Really, even The Cable Guy was a step up for Ben Stiller.

However, that’s not to say that it’s not interesting. Despite my distaste for just about everything about Reality Bites, I watch it just about whenever I see it on TV (including on Bravo last night, the obvious inspiration for this blog entry)–I can think of few movies offhand that I find quite as fasincating. The two main themes of the movie–the love triangle between Stiller, Ryder and Hawke, and the summation of the Gen X experience–are utterly ridiculous, and impossible to take seriously, yet I think it’d take me a senior thesis-length essay to properly explain way (but I’ll see if I can’t do it with a few thousand less words anyway).

The central love story of Reality Bites seems to be more at odds with itself than any movie since Andie and Blaine ultimately ended up leaving Duckie holding the bag at the end of Pretty in Pink. Essentially, the beautiful, confused Lelaina Pierce (Ryder) has herself a choice between two sutiors, Michael (Stiller) and Troy (Hawke). Michael is an up-and-coming exec at a hip, youth and music-oriented TV station (NO IT’S NOT MTV WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT) who meets Lelaina when she causes a car accident in between the two. Instantly enchanted, he courts Lelaina for the rest of the movie, making out with her to Peter Frampton and eventually taking her video project (about her friends and youth in general in the 90s, more on that later) to the brass at Non-MTV, who love it and want to buy it immediately. He believes in her, he calls her from the road, he forgives her for breaking his Dr. Zaius doll and spends much of the movie apologizing for stuff that he never really did wrong. Michael is what you would coloquially refer to as a nice guy.

Troy is not a nice guy. In fact, you could probably count the amount of things that Troy does over the course of Reality Bites that would even register him as human on one hand, even if you were Mordecai “Three-Fingered” Brown. He shows no apparent romantic interest in Laine until she starts to date Michael, at which point he decides its finally time to make his big move (after she gets fired from her John Mahoney-hosted talk show, for maximum vulnerability potential). When she rejects him, he immediately switches into “I Can’t” mode, shutting out her sincere pleas for friendship and generally just pouting a lot. Then, once things aren’t going so well with Michael, he’s back in to rescue her, but abandons her the morning after. But then when Michael shows up to win her back…you get the idea.

The best (or at least, most memorable) scene in Reality Bites is when Troy is waiting up for Laine after her Frampton makeout with Michael, and she demands to know why he’s suddenly acting so jealous. He gets up from his seat, walks over to her, puts his hand on her cheek, and says with total brown-eyed sincerity: “I am really in love with you.” And for a second, Laine just melts–her eyes drop, her lips quiver, and her previously indignant and pissed-off attitude instantly vanishes. With that one line, you can tell that Troy is, at the absolute most, two moves away from the boudoir. But then his straight face cracks into a smile, and he bursts the bubble: “Is that what you want to hear? Is it? Well…don’t flatter yourself.” It’s a greater act of cruelty from one human being to another than anything I saw in Schindler’s List (well, arguably anyway), especially because from her one-second reaction, it was clear that in fact that was exactly what Laine wanted to hear. But rather than save both of them a lot of time and effort by sinking the pink right then and there, Troy opts for the more immediately self-satisfying taunt approach instead. Like I said, Troy is not a nice guy.

The choice between these two individuals would for most people seem like an easy one, even despite the fact that Michael looks like Ben Stiller and Troy looks like Ethan Hawke. But ultimately, despite having spent the last two hours making her feel as much like shit as humanly possible, it’s Troy who wins out for Lelaina’s heart in the end, without her even giving Michael so much as a goodbye. She realizes her love for Troy to the strains of U2’s “All I Want is You,” he shows up at her doorstep, and the deal is sealed–a happy ending, supposedly.

But the most ridiculous thing about the ending is that despite it being frustrating, illogical and just inately wrong, it’s actually the only way the movie could’ve ended. There’s no way Lelaina could’ve ended up with Michael, because the whole movie it’s obvious that she doesn’t give a damn about him, and that’s because he gives way too much of a damn about her. The entire movie, Laine is fucking things up for Michael–causing him to crash his car, breaking his Dr. Zaius doll, storming out of the Non-MTV meeting after he stuck his neck out for her, and of course, eventually cheating on him with Troy–and most of the time, it’s Michael who ends up apologizing. He loves her enough to let her walk all over him and not ask why, and that’s not something Laine can respect or really even understand. It’s Troy that knows how to put her in her place, and that’s what she responds to (something that Michael could never understand, as evidenced the Non-MTV flick of his shown halfway through the credits with a mock-Troy spurning a mock-Laine because she doesn’t understand his music)

Pretty black stuff, but Chuck Klosterman had another theory about the ending (from Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs), one which ties into the movie’s other main theme–that the ending of Laine ending up with Troy was a quintessentially 90s way of appoaching love. Gen Xers, sez Klosterman, were the first generation to be brought up to think that they could do it differently–differently than their parents did, different from the normal way of doing things, and different from what was expected of them. They were willing to risk their future on a life that wasn’t safe or predictable. And so, Laine ends up with Troy–far from safe, not the predictable option, someone who might very well destroy her in the end, but someone for whom she genuinely cares and for whom she’s willing to take a chance. I’m also positive that the fact that Troy shows up at her doorstep sans goatee for the first time in the movie has something to do with this, but I’m not sure exactly what yet.

Solid point, and it especially makes sense because every single other thing about the film basically exists for the sole purpose of making the official Gen X spokesmovie. Reality Bites might be the first movie ever made to actively attempt to sum up a generation–some movies have done it incidentally, probably, but no other flick had tried quite so hard. Even Singles, another quintessentially 90s romantic comedy, one even set in the definitively 90s location of grunge-era Seattle, felt more like a movie that just happened to strike in the right place at the right time. Reality Bites was made with the absolute intention of people being able to point it out to their kids ten or twenty years down the line and say “That movie–THAT is what the 90s were like

And, strangely and sadly enough, it basically succeeded. Watching it today, Reality Bites looks more dated than Sixteen Candles and Teen Wolf combined. The clothes, the facial hair, the coffee shops, the television–there’s barely an image in this movie that isn’t explicitly reminding you of when it was filmed. Then there’s the script, splattered with 90s dialogue (even the title, yikes), the appropriately cutesy 70s nostalgia that was so pervasive in the 90s, and of course, the soudntrack–just look at some of the artists: Julianna Hatfield, Me Phi Me, Big Mountain–would these guys even have existed without Reality Bites? Hard to say.

And then there’s the performances. The thing that most grounds this movie in 1994 for me is that with the possible exception of Winona Ryder, none of these actors would ever play characters like the ones they play in Reality Bites again. This is the only movie I can think of with Ethan Hawke where he’s even slightly unlikeable, let alone the embodiement of pure evil–yeah, maybe his character was kind of ambiguous in Tape, and maybe he turned out to actually be a murderer in Taking Lives (my god why did I see that movie), but even if those movies, he just generally seems like such an amicable, sympathetic guy. Meanwhile, Janeane Garofalo gets to play the slut sidekick, instead of the homely girl jealous of the slut sidekick that she would subsequently (and far more logically) get cast as for the remainder of the decade. Ben Stiller plays a pressured, not very bright, well-meaning guy, whereas for the rest of his career he’d play pressured, moderately bright, well-meaning guys. And Steve Zahn–he’s actually quiet for most of the movie. It feels like an alternate film universe, one in which John Lovitz might play a mild-mannered physics teacher if he showed up.

It’s ironic how a movie as obviously inorganic as Reality Bites could end up feeling so definitive. Partly it’s because I don’t think Stiller succeeded quite in the way he meant to–I doubt he quite meant for the movie to call attention to its generation-definining quite as often as it did, he probably just assumed people would make the connection on their own without even necessarily realizing it. But what Stiller probably doesn’t understand is that the movie obviously wanting people to realize what an epochal moment in popular culture it was is possibly what gives the movie it’s greatest legacy–Reality Bites was the beginning of instant-nostalgia culture, the first movie to reflect on its own standing in PC history as it was being made. It’s a self-consciousness that simply wouldn’t have been possible the previous decade, and one that predates the InstaPC of VH1 shows like Best Week Ever and I Love the _______s by a decade itself.

Few movies have been made that are more artificial than Reality Bites, and it’s an artifice that screams at you for the whole movie. Yet it was that artifice itself that made Reality Bites so fascinating, that artifice that keeps me and plenty of other 90s survivors coming back to the movie, despite our better judgement. Classic movie? Definitely not. Important movie? Yeah, probably. At the very least, I don’t see any 00s filmmakers trying to canonize Gen Y so succinctly. Or maybe they already have, and we just won’t notice until ten years from now. Here’s hoping.

(Also, because I’d feel extremely fucking remiss if I went a whole blog entry on Reality Bites without once mentioning Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You),” just gotta say–best song ever, why the fuck does the movie hold it until the second half of the end credits?)

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Charts on Fire: 04-19-07

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 19, 2007

Week two for superman Timbo on top. More excitingly, Avril’s advanced to the #3 position with HOT ONE girlfriend, thus making it her biggest hit since “Complicated” back in ’01. Cool beans. T-Pain (10-7) and Diddy (11-10) are the only other advancers in a relatively unexciting top ten. The lower stretches of the top 40 make room for Pink (14-11), R. Kelly (15-12), Carrie Underwood (22-15), Huey (30-23), Daughtry (43-31), Bow Wow (39-32), Hinder (40-33) and Lloyd (44-36).

Only two new ons to the top 50, but both are fairly noteworthy. One is “I Tried,” featuring Akon, the first Bone Thugs n Harmony single to make the top 40 since the super-shitty “If I Could Teach the World” hit #27 a whole decade ago (what can I say, it’s good, but it’s definitely no “Tha Crossroads,” 78-35). The other is DJ Khaled featuring T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Lil’ Wayne, and once again Akon (meaning that the A man is on six singles in the top 50 this week, which must be some sort of incredibly depressing record) with “We Taking Over,” definitely one of the hottest cuts of the year thusfar (63-45).

Several debuts in the bottom half of the list as well, the highest of which comes from Fall Out Boy, who hit #67 with their PRML FCKNG SCRM-styled “Thanks Fr the Mmrs“–OK, but sort of underwhelming in the wake of “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race” (especially when considering that they still have “I’m Like a Lawyer With the Way I’m Always Trying to Get You Off” in the can). Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake gets to #74 with “Summer Love” (JT by numbers), someone named Brandi Carlisle appears at #75 with “The Story,” and pop superpower Bjork debuts at #84 with the pretty-cool “Earth Intruders,” thus marking her all-time biggest appearance on the pop charts (“Big Time Sensuality” hit a whopping #88 in 1994).

NOW holds its iron clasp on the top of the album charts, while Bright Eyes manages a would’ve-been-impressive-four-years-ago #4 appearance. Seems like every indie rock Johnny-Come-Lately can make the top five these days.

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