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Archive for June, 2008

100 Years, 66 Villains: #3. Jerry Lundergaard in Fargo

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 29, 2008

Now that 100 Years, 100 Villains has gotten to the very bottom of the barrel, the abbreviated write-ups that have populated these lists so far are simply unsifficient. Stay tuned this week as we count down the top six in proper fashion.

I’d like to say that Jerry Lundergaard in Fargo was the part that William H. Macy was born to play. The morally bankrupt, constantly panicking and yet severely unthreatening Jerry is, after all, a part as suited to Macy’s strengths as an actor as is humanly possible. Yet, take a second to look over Macy’s resume. Little Bill in Boogie Nights. George Parker in Pleasantville. Bernie Lut zin The Cooler. Quiz Kid Donnie Smith in Magnolia. Edmond in Edmond. Point is–has William H. Macy ever once played a character that he wasn’t born to play? In fact, with the possible exception of fellow loser occasional castmate Philip Seymour Hoffman, has there ever been an actor more suited to his filmography than Macy? Maybe it’s not so much that Jerry was the part Macy was born to play, as Macy was the actor the Coen Brothers were born to write Jerry for–probably the most pathetic character ever portrayed in film.

Jerry isn’t a pure villain the way some characters are on this list, and in fact, I wouldn’t even go so far as to call him evil–he’s not a good guy, but he’s not a sociopath either, and he generally (I mean really, really generally) means well. And what’s more, he’s almost compulsively relateable–in most other movies he’d be the good guy, the little guy who got pushed too far by his bullying, unsympathetic father-in-law and decides to get some revenge on him. But Fargo is pretty fucking far from most movies, and Jerry still might be more despicable than any other character on this list, because of his unbelievably thoughtless selfishness, his lack of foresight bordering on sheer idiocy, and his almost sickening weakness of character.

The plot of the movie, on paper, is a fairly standard sort of neo-noir skeleton–businessman in debt pays some thugs to kidnap his wife to extort some money from his rich, incompassionate father-in-law. But there’s nothing about Fargo that falls under such easy classification, and least of all Jerry’s character–the movie is taken far too much from his perspective and has too many other legitimate Bad Guys prowling the perimeter to qualify him as a straight villain, but he’s not heroic enough to even qualify as any sort of anti-hero. He just sets the plans in motion on their disastrous course, and then just stands back, too ineffectual to do anything to correct them, and acts shocked when things go horribly awry.

Take the scene where Jerry’s supposed to deliver father-in-law Wade’s (Harve Presnell) hostage payoff to Carl (Steve Buscemi), the last part of a plan that should have ended in Jerry and Carl splitting the money, Jerry’s wife Jean (Kristin Rudrud) returning home safely, and all going back to normal. Wade, aging alpha male, gets it into his head (and not without justification) that Jerry’s going to fuck it up if he makes the drop, so despite Carl’s “instructions” that Jerry had to be the one to do so, Wade decides to make the drop himself. If Wade does this, the chances of the plans working out pretty much drop to 0, and Jerry has to know this. Yet, aside from some minor protesting, he lets Wade have his way, leading to the death of pretty much everyone in question and resulting in Jerry getting stuck with nothing. Not only does his carelessness and weakness result in tragedy, but he’s too stupid to even put himself in a position to take advantage of it.

And oh yeah, there’s the whole letting-murderous-thugs-kidnap-his-wife thing. It seems like Jerry doesn’t even see at all how this could turn out to be a big deal, how even if his wife somehow came back from the experience physically unscathed, spending a few weeks tied and gagged with a couple psychopaths might not be such a negligible experience. Not to mention the effect it might have on his poor, poor son Scotty (Tony Denman), who as a result of Jerry’s actions, ends the movie with a murdered mother, a murdered grandfather, and a disgraced father on the lam. You can see the surprise in Jerry’s face the first scene he spends with an emotionally distraught Scotty after Jean is kidnapped, as if he really wants to ask him “Wow, you mean you actually care about Mom that much? I never would’ve thought!”

The final shot of Jerry, poorly shaven and in his underwear, trying to escape the cops by crawling out his hotel room window, is the most perfectly disgusting way to summarize his character as possible. He’s like all four Yellow Brick Road travelers in one–cowardly, stupid, heartless, and completely out of his element. His cringe-worthy arrest scene is exactly how his character’s arc should have ended, since even being chopped up in a woodchipper is a cooler fate than Jerry deserves.

66. Ian / Ray (Tim Robbins), High Fidelity
65. Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), The Last Picture Show
64. Jesus’s Entourage (Bill Nunn, Rosario Dawson, Arthur J. Nascarella), He Got Game
63. Sarah Mitchell (Bridget Fonda), A Simple Plan
62. Agents Big Johnson and Little Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush), Die Hard
61. Taylor Vaughn (Jodi Lynn O’Keefe), She’s All That
60. Coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), Varsity Blues
59. Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), Pretty Woman
58. Mrs. Chasen (Vivien Pickles), Harold and Maude
57. Officer Coffey and Officer Graham (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson and Kirk Kinder), Boyz n the Hood
56. Oliver Slocumb (Ryan Philippe), Igby Goes Down
55. Rick Spector (Michael Bowen), Magnolia
54. Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), This Is Spinal Tap
53. Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), The Cooler
52. Muriel Lang (Rosie Perez), It Could Happen to You
51. Zachary “Sack” Lodge (Bradley Cooper), Wedding Crashers
50. Bert Jones (George C. Scott), The Hustler
49. Little Bill’s Wife (Nina Hartley), Boogie Nights
48. Amber (Elisa Donovan), Clueless
47. Warden (Patrick McGoohan), Escape From Alcatraz
46. Various Game Ruiners (Clifton James, Michael Lerner, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Rooker, Richard Edson, Kevin Tighe, John Anderson, Don Harvey), Eight Men Out
45. Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), The Craft
44. Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), The Ice Storm
43. George Willis Jr. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Scent of a Woman
42. David Bedford (John Laroquette), Blind Date
41. Ronny and Donny Blume (Ronnie & Keith McCowley), Rushmore
40. Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg), Searching for Bobby Fischer
39. Bernie and Joan (Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins), …About Last Night
38. Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), Kramer Vs. Kramer
37. Principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
36. Bill Houston (David Morse), Dancer in the Dark
35. Sid (Voice of John Morris), Toy Story
34. Mike (Joe Mantegna), House of Games
33. Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle), Monsters’ Ball
32. Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels), The Purple Rose of Cairo
31. Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), Donnie Darko
30. Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), Office Space
29. Mitch Hiller (Billy Campbell), Enough
28. Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner), The Virgin Suicides
27. Rose Chasseur (Glynis Johns), The Ref
26. Cobra Kai Dojo (William Zabka, Martin Kove, others), The Karate Kid
25. Heathers (Shannon Doherty, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk), Heathers
24. Cal Hockley (Billy Zane, Titanic
23. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
22. Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald, Happy Gilmore
21. Jo (Gretchen Mol), Rounders
20. Ruth Folwer (Sissy Spacek), In the Bedroom
19. Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavettes), Rosemary’s Baby
18. Earline and the Rest of the Fitzgerald Clan (Margo Martindale, Others), Million Dollar Baby
17. Coach Jack Reilly (Lane Smith), The Mighty Ducks
16. Jack Lopate (Thomas Hayden Church), Sideways
15. Walter Peck (William Atherton), Ghostbusters
14. Stephen Glass (Hayden Christiensen), Shattered Glass
13. Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore), Ordinary People
12. Professor Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear), Loser
11. O’Bannion, Darla & Clint (Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Nicky Katt), Dazed and Confused
10. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), Election
9. Troy (Ethan Hawke), Reality Bites
8. Regina George (Rachel McAdams), Mean Girls
7. Steff (James Spader), Pretty in Pink
6. Biff Tannen (Michael F. Wilson), Back to the Future trilogy
5. Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith), Dead Poets Society
4. The Egan Sisters (Nicole Gelbard, Mia Weinberg, Julie Hermelin, Karen Hermelin, Lisa Spector, Hazel Mailloux and Mary Lynn Rajskub), Punch-Drunk Love
3. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), Fargo

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Posted in 100 Years 66 Villains | 3 Comments »

Listeria: Top Ten Garbage Lines from Heist (2001)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 28, 2008

“I tried to imagine a blogger smarter than myself. Then I tried to think, ‘what would he write?'”

I do love movies primarily consisting of the characters talking at each other. Heist is a heist movie where the heist itself is about as creative, interesting and thought-provoking as the movie’s title. I’ve seen it probably close to a half-dozen times (at least five times more than was necessary, of course) and I couldn’t tell you what happens in the slightest–there’s some gold, there’s some tension between youthful arrogance and the wisdom of experience, and there are even more double crosses than there are uses of the word “fuck.” No matter, in a David Mamet movie the plot isn’t nearly as important as the tough-guy gibberish the characters spew in each other’s directions, lines that don’t mean much of anything, and bear no resemblance to the way people actually talk, but sure sound pretty/hilarious. Here are ten exchanges real-life criminals probably wish they were witty and verbose enough to come up with on their own. Or maybe they don’t.

10. “Ain’t you a piece of work?”
“Yeah, I came all the way from China in a matchbox.”

9. “Where’s the gold?”
“You know, I’m reluctant to tell you.”
“When we put it to you…you know when we put it to you, you’re going to be telling us the gross national product of Bolivia! You’re going to be telling us the area codes of Luxembourg and Belgium!”

8. “No one lives forever.”
“Frank Sinatra gave it a shot.”

7. “The other thing, the Swiss thing, if I was a publisher, I’d publish the plans.”
“Why don’t you publish the plans?”
“Yeah, no, I said that’s what I’d do if I was a publisher. Unfortunately, I’m a thief, so I have to do that thing.”

6. “Don’t you wanna hear my last words?”
“I just did.” (Shoots in face)

5. “So, is he going to be cool?”
“My motherfucker’s so cool that when he goes to bed, sheep count him.”

4. “Makes the world go ’round.”
“What’s that?”
“Gold.”
“Some people say love.”
“Well, they’re right too. It is love. Love of gold!”

3. “You know why the chicken crossed the road? Because the road crossed the chicken!”

2. “Hey, I’m as quiet as an ant pissing on cotton.”
“I don’t want as quiet as an ant pissing on cotton. I want you as quiet as an ant not even thinking about pissing on cotton!”

1. “Everybody needs money! That’s why they call it MONEY!”

Posted in Listeria | 2 Comments »

100 Years, 66 Villains: #4. The Sisters in Punch-Drunk Love

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 27, 2008

Now that 100 Years, 100 Villains has gotten to the very bottom of the barrel, the abbreviated write-ups that have populated these lists so far are simply unsifficient. Stay tuned this week as we count down the top six in proper fashion.

There are black comedies, like American Beauty. Then there are Black comedies, like Madea’s Family Reunion. Then there are black comedies, like Punch-Drunk Love. The kind of movie where you get nauseated by your own laughter, the kind of movie where there’s no real separation between the parts that are hilarious and the parts that are eye-wideningly disturbing. It’s a rare breed of movie, and as a matter of fact, the only other concrete example I can think of is the movie or next villain comes from, so I’ll refrain from talking about that for the moment. But suffice to say, the hilarity of Punch-Drunk Love–and it is hilarious, one of the funniest movies this decade–comes from a dark, dark place. More specifically, it comes from a bunch of evil big sisters.

The truly ingenious thing about Punch-Drunk Love, I think, is Adam Sandler–not his performance, necessarily, although that is quite good, but the way it uses his pre-existing character type in a way no one really had the balls to do before. With a handful of exceptions, Adam Sandler has generally played the same character his entire career, that of the loveable loser man-child with a distaste for authority and a passion for 80s arena rock. It’s certainly not a heroic character type, but Sandler always surrounded himself with enough selfish, manipulative assholes that there was no doubt that he was the good guy, and thus we celebrated his immature tendencies as exemplary of an admirable joie de vivre and a sort of naive integrity, both of which his enemies roundly lacked.

What Punch-Drunk Love did was basically to show what the Sandler character would actually be like in the real world. Barry Egan is as emotionally stunted and generally well-meaning as Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, and has the same quick, violent temper as those characters as well. But rather than translating as goofy and adorable, Barry is just really, really sad. I guess it might be more accurate to say that Barry is Happy or Billy after a few more years, having lost his confidence after realizing that no one’s digging his  grown-ass middle-schooler schtick anymore, and realizing his life might not just find direction on its own. Fact of the matter is, most dudes in arrested development around 30 don’t luck into pro golf or football careers, or stand to inherit hundreds of millions from benevolent benefactors. Some of them just lead lonely lives in boring jobs from which they try to escape through phone sex and pudding.

But lest we forget, Barry has another very, very good reason to have no self-confidence, which we see all throughout the movie in the abuse he gets from his older sisters–a whopping seven of them, led by high-strung juggernaut Elizabeth (the usually loveable Mary-Lynn Rajskub). To say that these sisters are overbearing feels woefully insufficient to me, since it seems that a lot of the time when you’re talking about an “overbearing” family member, it’s someone who just cares too much to know when they should back off a little. But there is no love whatsoever in Barry’s sisters’ treatment of him–rather, their interest in his affairs seems divided between being meddling in his life as a personal pet project and reflexively using him as an emotional punching bag.

There are scenes that strike more fear into my heart than any horror movie since Dawn of the Dead. Like the scene where Elizabeth first brings Lena (Emily Watson) to meet Barry, and he balks at asking her out, partly because she embarrasses him in front of her by mentioning his crying problem. After she comforts a confused Lena, mostly by insulting Barry, she storms back to reprimand Barry with a look in her eye that just says I am going to make you regret this decision for the rest of your life. Then later in the movie, Barry spontaneously flies to Hawaii to see Lena, but not knowing where she’s staying, he’s forced to call Elizabeth to ask for her help. She holds the information hostage, forcing him to admit that he likes her first–not in an affectionate, teasing, sibling way, but more in an “admit it, I know what’s good for you so much better than you do” way.

But all pales in comparison to the party scene, the only scene in the movie where we get an onslaught of all seven sisters at once. The first shot says it all–Barry opens the door, overhears his sisters getting nostalgic about how they used to call him “gay boy,” and reflexively begins to back out, hoping maybe to escape the horrors to follow. Once he makes the fateful decision to enter, he’s quickly barraged by each of his sisters in their own unique, subtle way–one makes fun of his suit, one teases him about his sexuality (“are you gay now??”), one negates the gift he brought (“We [already] have a cake”), one nags him about a shampoo they bought for him, one mocks an excuse he used to get off the phone earlier in the movie, and Elizabeth of course chastises him for not wanting to meet Lena. And it just gets worse from there.

It’s a perfect scene, one that’s brilliantly designed to feel just like your average family gathering (scattered activity, characters entering and leaving, basic pleasanteries exchanged), but with a violence deeply imbued in the family dynamic, so ingrained that you feel like no one else in the movie probably even notices it. It’s positively chilling, and when Barry finally snaps as a result, kicking and punching in a couple of the house’s glass doors, it comes to the viewer as pure relief that the scene’s aggression has finally been brought into the forefront. But perhaps most disturbingly, Barry’s sisters do not seem at all concerned by this rather extreme outburst, nor do they seem particularly surprised by it, just using it as an opportunity to him some more (“WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM???” “YOU FUCKING RETARD, BARRY!!”) The scariest thing about this scene is the past that it implies–30+ years of holidays, family trips and other parties, likely not all that different from this one.

I guess you could say that Mr. Perry deserves to be higher than the Egan Sisters, since Barry eventually escapes his siblings’ tyranny, while Perry’s familial oppression ultimately proves fatal for son Neil. But much as I love cartoonish over-dramatizing, it’s the stuff that feels all too real that truly gets under my skin. And for that, Nicole Gelbard, Mia Weinberg, Julie Hermelin, Karen Hermelin, Lisa Spector, Hazel Mailloux and Mary Lynn Rajskub, I salute you with the #4 slot on this list.

(Here’s the list so far, for those of you just tuning in, all of which can be read about in detail from here:

66. Ian / Ray (Tim Robbins), High Fidelity
65. Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), The Last Picture Show
64. Jesus’s Entourage (Bill Nunn, Rosario Dawson, Arthur J. Nascarella), He Got Game
63. Sarah Mitchell (Bridget Fonda), A Simple Plan
62. Agents Big Johnson and Little Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush), Die Hard
61. Taylor Vaughn (Jodi Lynn O’Keefe), She’s All That
60. Coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), Varsity Blues
59. Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), Pretty Woman
58. Mrs. Chasen (Vivien Pickles), Harold and Maude
57. Officer Coffey and Officer Graham (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson and Kirk Kinder), Boyz n the Hood
56. Oliver Slocumb (Ryan Philippe), Igby Goes Down
55. Rick Spector (Michael Bowen), Magnolia
54. Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), This Is Spinal Tap
53. Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), The Cooler
52. Muriel Lang (Rosie Perez), It Could Happen to You
51. Zachary “Sack” Lodge (Bradley Cooper), Wedding Crashers
50. Bert Jones (George C. Scott), The Hustler
49. Little Bill’s Wife (Nina Hartley), Boogie Nights
48. Amber (Elisa Donovan), Clueless
47. Warden (Patrick McGoohan), Escape From Alcatraz
46. Various Game Ruiners (Clifton James, Michael Lerner, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Rooker, Richard Edson, Kevin Tighe, John Anderson, Don Harvey), Eight Men Out
45. Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), The Craft
44. Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), The Ice Storm
43. George Willis Jr. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Scent of a Woman
42. David Bedford (John Laroquette), Blind Date
41. Ronny and Donny Blume (Ronnie & Keith McCowley), Rushmore
40. Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg), Searching for Bobby Fischer
39. Bernie and Joan (Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins), …About Last Night
38. Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), Kramer Vs. Kramer
37. Principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
36. Bill Houston (David Morse), Dancer in the Dark
35. Sid (Voice of John Morris), Toy Story
34. Mike (Joe Mantegna), House of Games
33. Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle), Monsters’ Ball
32. Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels), The Purple Rose of Cairo
31. Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), Donnie Darko
30. Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), Office Space
29. Mitch Hiller (Billy Campbell), Enough
28. Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner), The Virgin Suicides
27. Rose Chasseur (Glynis Johns), The Ref
26. Cobra Kai Dojo (William Zabka, Martin Kove, others), The Karate Kid
25. Heathers (Shannon Doherty, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk), Heathers
24. Cal Hockley (Billy Zane, Titanic
23. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
22. Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald, Happy Gilmore
21. Jo (Gretchen Mol), Rounders
20. Ruth Folwer (Sissy Spacek), In the Bedroom
19. Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavettes), Rosemary’s Baby
18. Earline and the Rest of the Fitzgerald Clan (Margo Martindale, Others), Million Dollar Baby
17. Coach Jack Reilly (Lane Smith), The Mighty Ducks
16. Jack Lopate (Thomas Hayden Church), Sideways
15. Walter Peck (William Atherton), Ghostbusters
14. Stephen Glass (Hayden Christiensen), Shattered Glass
13. Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore), Ordinary People
12. Professor Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear), Loser
11. O’Bannion, Darla & Clint (Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Nicky Katt), Dazed and Confused
10. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), Election
9. Troy (Ethan Hawke), Reality Bites
8. Regina George (Rachel McAdams), Mean Girls
7. Steff (James Spader), Pretty in Pink
6. Biff Tannen (Michael F. Wilson), Back to the Future trilogy
5. Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith), Dead Poets Society
4. The Egan Sisters (Nicole Gelbard, Mia Weinberg, Julie Hermelin, Karen Hermelin, Lisa Spector, Hazel Mailloux and Mary Lynn Rajskub), Punch-Drunk Love

Posted in 100 Years 66 Villains | 2 Comments »

Seen Your Video: Josh Homme Heatin’ Up

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 27, 2008

Do you believe it in your head?

So apparently Josh Homme was upset at some people throwing things at him in Northern Europe, and drew heat from some corners for his arguably homophobic remarks and from other corners for his inarguably idiotic remarks. I’m a week or so behind on this one (surprise), but I can’t let an exemplary musician on-stage rant like this go without making at least a couple of notes:

  • I guess it says something for the progress of sexuality equality that even Oslo isn’t far away enough for potential bigots to get away with publicly calling someone a “faggot”. Soon enough, homophobia is going to be like smoking pot, with wanna-be bigots like Isaiah Washington and Tim Hardaway having to go to specific corners of distant continents to be able to practice in public without fear of reprisal.
  • I do think it is somewhat ironic, however, that a guy that named his band “Queens of the Stone Age” specifically because the name “Kings” sounded too masculine should come under fire for homophobia. I mean, it doesn’t exactly make him as bulletproof as if he had regularly made out with Dave Grohl on stage, but for a metal band, I’d have to say that that the name thing alone already pegs him as a fairly progressive dude.
  • By referring to himself as “Mr. Missundastood” in his apology / letter of defense, is Homme trying to curry favor by referring to one of the funniest-titled albums in history? If so, cheers, but everyone knows that it’s spelled with an exclamation mark instead of an “i” and a “z” instead of a third “s.” C’mon Josh, do your homework.
  • I think what’s underrated in this rant here is the foresight Homme shows by specifically pointing out how sick he is (102 degrees–pretty sick!) while he’s making his rant. “I had a fever” is generally a better excuse for irrationally asshole-ish behavior than “I was drunk”–it puts things more out of your hands, and doesn’t make you seem like a deranged alcoholic in the process. And saying you’re sick while in the process of ranting means it doesn’t sound like a shabby after-the-fact explanation afterwards. If Mel Gibson had just said “I’m coming down with the flu, sugartits!” his situation would’ve been a lot more sympathetic, no?
  • Apparently the last time Homme landed in hot water, for getting into a bar fight with Dwarves lead singer Blag Dahlia (possibly over the “Takeover”-worthy lyric: “This one goes out to Queens of the Trust-Fund, you slept on my floor, now I’m sleeping through your motherfuckin’ records”), Homme got a reduced sentence by letting the LAPD use “Feel Good Hit of the Fall” in anti-drunk driving films. So does that mean that Afroman (it all comes back to Afroman) essentially has a get-out-of-jail-free card in case he ever gets busted for anything? Pretty sweet deal.
  • So does everyone speak English in Norway, then? Is it possible that the audience just thought Homme was making some empty “WHO WANTS TO GET ROKKKKED?!?!??!” type stage banter? Or do they just think that “GET YOUR FUCKING ASS UP HERE! YOU’RE SO STUPID THAT YOU’LL ACTUALLY COME UP HERE!!!! LIFT HIM UP SO I CAN KICK HIM IN THE FUCKING FACE!!” is what passes for stage banter in these crude United States? Cultural studies potential.
  • “Little Sister.” that was a pretty good song, huh?

Posted in I Sez, Seen Your Video | 5 Comments »

TV O.D.: I Love the New Millennium, 2000-2007

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 26, 2008

Why the fuck are there two n’s in this word

Well, that was quick. Four nights, eight episodes, and we’re already done with I Love the New Millennium, the latest installment in VH1’s standard-setting nostalgic clip show series. This one was much like the others, the same mix of reverence and snark for the decade’s most representative events in music, movies, television, sports and other miscellaneous world affairs, delivered by the people that have become VH1’s standard wrecking crew–Loni Love, Hal Sparks, Bill Dwyer, Modern Humorist (now known simply as Aboud and Colton), and of course, the Dorothy Parker of VH1’s Round Table, Michael Ian Black. Even with the absence of ex-regular Mo Rocca, it was your standard I Love The ___ affair. Except, of course, for one thing–all this shit just happened like two seconds ago.

Well, sort of. Fact of the matter is, a lot of stuff covered in these shows really does feel like it happened in an entirely different decade. I hadn’t thought of the Free Winona movement in at least a half-decade. I thought Joe Millionaire might have actually happened in the 90s, despite that making no sense whatsoever. “Who Let the Dogs Out?” felt like it happened an eternity ago as soon as I first went a month without hearing it. To VH-1’s credit, they do a pretty good job of choosing a good deal of things to talk about that were big for a minute, then disappeared and went virtually undected on the pop culture radar for the rest of the decade. Big Mouth Billy Bass, Ken Jennings, Andrew W.K., Dude, Where’s My Car?, the XFL, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Roy getting mauled by the tiger, Fat Actress, The Darkness, Trucker Hats…the list goes on. Yeah, nobody’s going to have forgotten about these things entirely already, but they already kind of have that been-a-while haze surrounding them, and that’s generally all the show needs.

When the show starts to lose its way is when it takes on items that are still very present on the pop culture landscape, or when it tries to get a little too ambitious with its topic selection. Talking about Spiderman, 50 Cent, YouTube or CSI–it’s just sort of wasteful, an issue which becomes more and more problematic as the show gets closer to 2008 (although even in the 2007 show, certain items–like crazy astronaut Lisa Nowak and the Plain White T’s’ “Hey There Delilah”–already set off that “awwwww” nostalgic twinge). And then the show missteps a little by doing something the shows have wisely mostly avoided before now, spending time on super-serious historical items like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina and trying to put a light, pop culture spin on them. I remember 90s Part Deux tried this with the Biggie and Tupac murders and it just came off as totally tasteless–this isn’t quite so gauche, but it still feels a little cheap giving Hurricane Katrina the same treatment as the Fauxhawk.

But of course, with or without picking at the particulars, the question continues to linger–why the hell didn’t they just wait a couple years? Well, the immediate answer is that VH1 had exhausted all the other decades, didn’t trust kids to care about once they’d yet to cover, and couldn’t bear to go another summer without an I Love the ___ series. But you know what? I don’t know if I necessarily even agree that the nostalgia has to be there for these shows to be effective. Too often people automatically make the assumption that if you’re saluting the pop culture of the past that you’re just operating on affection for your younger days, an assumption never made about AFI countdowns or Rolling Stone lists or whatever. Pop culture isn’t worth remembering because it happened a long time ago, pop cutlure is worth remembering because pop culture is awesome. And say what you will about them besides, but no one remembers pop culture as well as VH1.

Should they have waited at least until the end of the decade anyway, at the very least to have a full decade to work with? Yeah. Were there times when I rolled my eyes and thought “man, why the hell am I wasting my time with this?” Sure. Am I pissed off that they didn’t talk about Afroman, Eamon, Crazytown or Soulja Boy? You better fuckin’ believe it. Would I watch The I Love the 00s Supremacy if it debuted next week? Well, I’d try to tape it at least. It’s summer television! Hooray summer television!

Posted in TV O.D. | Leave a Comment »

100 Years, 66 Villains: #5. Mr. Perry from Dead Poets Society

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 26, 2008

Now that 100 Years, 100 Villains has gotten to the very bottom of the barrel, the abbreviated write-ups that have populated these lists so far are simply unsifficient. Stay tuned this week as we count down the top six in proper fashion.

Think about the general impression that comes to mind when someone mentions Dead Poets Society. A couple of famous scenes probably immediately jump to mind–Mr. Keating instructing his students to rip a passage about grading poetry out of a textbook, Keating teaching his disciples to carpe diem, and of course the movie’s finale, in which Keatings students salute him by standing on their desks and shouting “O Captain, My Captain!,” the Walt Whitman-inspired sobriquet he adopted at the beginning of the movie. In addition to those dramatic, much-parodied scenes, you probably instantly picture the flamboyant, Oscar-nominated performance of Robin Williams as inspirational English instructor Mr. Keating–an archetype he would return to, with diminishing returns, over the rest of his career. Throw in a couple touching coming-of-age subplots, and you’ve got a movie that, despite a spate of Oscar nominations at the time, has become probably come to be synonymous in your mind with overdramatic, sentimental, lowest common denominator pap.

And it’s all true–that is, until the last third of the movie. At that point, it stops being an inspirational, feel-good story about boys learning to think and feel outside the boxes provided for them by the various authority figures in their lives, and starts being a movie about how, try as we might to fight it, those authority figures always have ultimate say in the end, and we better start putting some nice wallpaper on our boxes because they’re not going away anytime soon. It becomes, without a doubt, the most cynical movie ever made about Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. And the blame for that soul-crushing lesson in moral pragmatism can be lied almost solely at the hands of one man–Mr. Perry, played by the irrepressible Kurtwood Smith.

Let’s go over the events of the movie for a minute, to properly get a sense of the plot’s trajectory. Mr. Keating is the new English teacher at Welton academy, a private boarding school back in the 50s known for its prestigious history, strenuous cirriculum and efficient production of upstanding young men. Keating’s unconventional lesson plan rocks the worlds of his students, as Charlie (Gale Hansen) has his rebellious streak sparked, Knox (Josh Charles) is inspired to chase a girl at a nearby school, Todd (Ethan Hawke) comes out of his nervous shell, and Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) begins to pursue a passion in acting, while all the boys participate in a the titular secret society. A few feathers are ruffled when at first one of Charlie’s pranks goes too far, but the hubbub dies down and the boys are set back amongst their merry, free-thinking ways.

Enter Mr. Perry, Neil’s father. Perry has decided that his son will be most happy and successful pursuing a career in medicine, and has strictly forbade any thoughts his son may have to the contrary. Neil declines to mention to his father when he tries out for the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a move which backfires when Perry shows up at one of the final rehearsals and demands that Neil pull out from his involvement in the show. Neil fakes the move, but decides to disobey his father and appear in the show anyway, in which he performs brilliantly. Unmoved, Perry announces that Neil’s betrayal has forced him to remove him from Welton and enroll him in military school, where he will then proceed to Harvard and a career in medicine. Neil starts to tell his father about his real passion for acting, but is dissuaded by his dismissiveness, and instaed just murmurs to his meek mother and himself “I was good tonight…I was really good.”

Then Neil takes a walk outside with his dad’s revolver. While I was watching this the first time, I literally did not believe what I was seeing. When Neil grabs the revolver, I don’t know what I thought he would do, but it certainly wasn’t that. When I heard the shot, I still refrained from jumping to conclusions. Even in that later scene when Todd goes running and yelling and crying in the snow, I managed to believe that there must be some other explanation. You’re trying to tell me that in this piece of overdramatic, sentimental, lowest common denominator pap….that the teen protagonist kills himself? No overcoming adversity, no making his father understand what’s really important in life, no touching final embrace with Mr. Keating–nothing but a goddamn SUICIDE?? I’ve seen a couple movies before–this is not how this movie was supposed to end.

And guess what? That’s not even the most depressing part. The most depressing part, the part that really sticks in my craw, the part that ultimately convinced me that the primary moral of Dead Poets’ Society is that humanity = shit is that Mr. and Mrs. Perry get to completely pass the buck on the blame for Neil’s death. Well, let’s see, we have a kid who kills himself directly after his father embarrasses him in front of all his friends, makes plans to send him off to a school where he’s guaranteed to be miserable, and crushes his dreams in no uncertain terms (“Tell me what you feel! What is it? Is it more of this, this ACTING business? Because you can forget about that!”), and who’s to blame? Well, it’s gotta be that nutty teacher who put all those fruity acting/thinking ideas in his head in the first place, right? Sure enough, it’s Keating and not Perry that gets cited for investigation in the matter.

At this point, after watching student after student sell out Keating by signing an untrue confession effectively blaming him for everything, I was just praying that something would come along to redeem the events of the movie–something that would show hope for the future of humanity after all. And thus we come to the movie’s consolation prize, the legendary “O Captain My Captain!” scene, where all the students proclaim their allegiance to the departing Keating despite their new instructor’s threats of discipline. I won’t lie, when I first saw it, it just about did the trick–I don’t think I cried, but I came pretty close, and I forgot about all the horrors that came before. But when you have a second to think about it, is anything really accomplished by this? OK, so the students aren’t completely dead inside, but what do you think happens after Keating walks out of the room? A few weeks’ worth of doing dishes, a series of paddlings, and whatever other punitive measures the school will enforce for this final disobedience will likely quash thoughts of any future rebellions. In the meantime, Neil is still dead, Mr. Keating is still unemployed, and Mr. Perry gets off responsibility and guilt-free (if maybe not quite grief-free) for his part in Neil’s death.

No one could have predicted this upon the movie’s release in 1989, but to really understand how and why this character is so villainous, you sort of have to be familiar with the the future role that Kurtwood Smith would come to be most well-known for–that of Red Forman, father of protagonist Eric Forman, in That 70s Show. Red was definitely cut from the Archie Bunker cloth but with a (possibly unintentional) twist–whereas Archie Bunker was seen as something of a relic, ultimately lovingly tolerated by his kinder, less reactionary family, Red was surrounded by such a cast of unlikeable idiots (simpering wife Kitty, slutty daughter Laurie, space cadet son Eric and his moron stoner friends) that his crotchety way of thinking seemed the show’s most acceptable viewpoint. When he chewed out Eric or accidentally insulted Kitty, you didn’t think “dear lord, what a dick,” you thought “man, how does Red ever put up with all these losers?” quickly followed by “goddamn it, is That fucking 70s Show really the best thing on TV right now?”

Mr. Perry is Red, having learned all the wrong lessons and enforced all his worst suspicions from his experiences on That 70s Show, and now too set in his ways to extend any sort of lifeline to son Neil, who desperately needs one. And the sad thing is that unlike Eric, who just sort of freeloaded and complained a lot for EIGHT SEASONS, Neil is actually a talented, ambitious guy, who just asked for the slightest bit of understanding and compassion from his parents–which, apparently, was simply far too much to ask for. And though the bravery of Dead Poets Society has been called into question, the final scene seeming to try to let the movie off the hook, Mr. and Mrs. Perry are given no redemption, no chance for explanation. As another young man tried to teach us in the late 80s, sometimes parents just don’t understand. And sometimes their children kill themselves as a result.

(Here’s the list so far, for those of you just tuning in, all of which can be read about in detail from here:

66. Ian / Ray (Tim Robbins), High Fidelity
65. Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), The Last Picture Show
64. Jesus’s Entourage (Bill Nunn, Rosario Dawson, Arthur J. Nascarella), He Got Game
63. Sarah Mitchell (Bridget Fonda), A Simple Plan
62. Agents Big Johnson and Little Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush), Die Hard
61. Taylor Vaughn (Jodi Lynn O’Keefe), She’s All That
60. Coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), Varsity Blues
59. Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), Pretty Woman
58. Mrs. Chasen (Vivien Pickles), Harold and Maude
57. Officer Coffey and Officer Graham (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson and Kirk Kinder), Boyz n the Hood
56. Oliver Slocumb (Ryan Philippe), Igby Goes Down
55. Rick Spector (Michael Bowen), Magnolia
54. Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), This Is Spinal Tap
53. Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), The Cooler
52. Muriel Lang (Rosie Perez), It Could Happen to You
51. Zachary “Sack” Lodge (Bradley Cooper), Wedding Crashers
50. Bert Jones (George C. Scott), The Hustler
49. Little Bill’s Wife (Nina Hartley), Boogie Nights
48. Amber (Elisa Donovan), Clueless
47. Warden (Patrick McGoohan), Escape From Alcatraz
46. Various Game Ruiners (Clifton James, Michael Lerner, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Rooker, Richard Edson, Kevin Tighe, John Anderson, Don Harvey), Eight Men Out
45. Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), The Craft
44. Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), The Ice Storm
43. George Willis Jr. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Scent of a Woman
42. David Bedford (John Laroquette), Blind Date
41. Ronny and Donny Blume (Ronnie & Keith McCowley), Rushmore
40. Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg), Searching for Bobby Fischer
39. Bernie and Joan (Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins), …About Last Night
38. Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), Kramer Vs. Kramer
37. Principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
36. Bill Houston (David Morse), Dancer in the Dark
35. Sid (Voice of John Morris), Toy Story
34. Mike (Joe Mantegna), House of Games
33. Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle), Monsters’ Ball
32. Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels), The Purple Rose of Cairo
31. Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), Donnie Darko
30. Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), Office Space
29. Mitch Hiller (Billy Campbell), Enough
28. Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner), The Virgin Suicides
27. Rose Chasseur (Glynis Johns), The Ref
26. Cobra Kai Dojo (William Zabka, Martin Kove, others), The Karate Kid
25. Heathers (Shannon Doherty, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk), Heathers
24. Cal Hockley (Billy Zane, Titanic
23. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
22. Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald, Happy Gilmore
21. Jo (Gretchen Mol), Rounders
20. Ruth Folwer (Sissy Spacek), In the Bedroom
19. Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavettes), Rosemary’s Baby
18. Earline and the Rest of the Fitzgerald Clan (Margo Martindale, Others), Million Dollar Baby
17. Coach Jack Reilly (Lane Smith), The Mighty Ducks
16. Jack Lopate (Thomas Hayden Church), Sideways
15. Walter Peck (William Atherton), Ghostbusters
14. Stephen Glass (Hayden Christiensen), Shattered Glass
13. Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore), Ordinary People
12. Professor Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear), Loser
11. O’Bannion, Darla & Clint (Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Nicky Katt), Dazed and Confused
10. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), Election
9. Troy (Ethan Hawke), Reality Bites
8. Regina George (Rachel McAdams), Mean Girls
7. Steff (James Spader), Pretty in Pink
6. Biff Tannen (Michael F. Wilson), Back to the Future trilogy
5. Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith), Dead Poets’ Society

Posted in 100 Years 66 Villains | 7 Comments »

Schadenfreude: The Love Guru & Katy Perry, Pt. 2 (Results)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 25, 2008

“Hey, Obama won the primary and “American Boy” finally made the top 40, so things are looking bright all over for our country. A #3 or lower debut for The Love Guru and a sub-gold status for Katy Perry don’t seem all that unreasonable to ask for.”

“Get Smart, starring Steve Carell as title character Maxwell Smart, took in $38.68 million over the weekend, well above estimates by box-office predictors and Warner Bros., the studio that released it, according to final figures released Monday by Media by Numbers. The only other film to open wide, Paramount’s The Love Guru, starring Mike Myers, found little love among moviegoers as it debuted in fourth place with just $13.91 million. Meanwhile, the second week of Universal’s The Incredible Hulk slipped to second place with $22.14 million, while Kung Fu Panda, produced by DreamWorks Animation and distributed by Paramount, brought in $21.93 million in its third week. Meanwhile, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull returned to the top of the international box office for the third week with $25 million. The film has now taken in $392 million overseas versus $291 million at home. The top ten films over the weekend, according to final figures compiled by Media by Numbers (figures in parentheses represent total gross to date):1. Get Smart, Warner Bros., $38,683,480, (New); 2. The Incredible Hulk, Universal, $22,136,060, 2 Wks. ($97,055,430); 3. Kung Fu Panda, Paramount, $21,934,716, 3 Wks. ($155,830,875); 4. The Love Guru, Paramount, $13,907,130, (New); 5. The Happening, 20th Century Fox, $10,482,146, 2 Wks. ($50,749,495); 6. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Paramount, $8,540,313, 5 Wks. ($290,961,044); 7. You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Sony, $7,453,215, 3 Wks. ($84,308,418); 8. Sex and the City: The Movie, Warner Bros, $6,532,394, 4 Wks. ($132,452,769); 9. Iron Man, Paramount, $4,030,272, 8 Wks. ($304,816,141); 10. The Strangers, Universal, $2,122,410, 4 Wks. ($49,759,735).”

*********

“As expected, Coldplay tops The Billboard 200 with “Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends,” which shifted a whopping 721,000 first-week U.S. copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The Capitol effort sold nearly as many copies as the band’s other chart-topper, 2005’s “X&Y,” which moved 737,000. Only one other rock band has had a 700,000-plus week since the release of that effort. Last November, the Eagles‘ “Long Road Out of Eden” began at No. 1 with 711,000.

[…]

With a 69% sales decrease, “Tha Carter III” (Cash Money/Universal) slips 1-2 with 309,000 units. The soundtrack to the Disney Channel film “Camp Rock,” featuring the Jonas Brothers, debuts at No. 3 with 188,000. The movie premiered on June 20 and averaged 8.9 million total viewers according to Nielsen, making it the network’s second-most-watched original movie after 2007’s “High School Musical 2.” The multi-label “Now 28” compilation continues its decline 3-4 with 81,000 (39%), while Plies‘ “Definition of Real” (Big Gates/Slip-N-Slide) falls 2-5 with 68,000 (-68%). Selling 65,000, Usher‘s LaFace/Zomba set “Here I Stand” descends 5-6 with a 36% sales decrease. Flying up the chart 124-7, Rihanna’s “Good Girl Gone Bad” (SRP/Def Jam) experiences a 930% sales jump to 63,000; a re-issue of the 2007 album hit shelves with three additional tracks. Disturbed’s former chart-topping Warner Bros. set “Indestructible” declines 4-8 with 59,000 (-42%).

Capitol pop newcomer Katy Perry has a No. 9 start with her debut album, “One of the Boys,” which sold 47,000. The single “I Kissed a Girl” has been climbing its way up the Hot 100 and sits currently at the No. 2 spot, behind Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.””

I WIN AGAIN MOTHERFUCKERS.

Posted in Schadenfreude | 2 Comments »

Red Letter Day: Pixies and Weezer on Rock Band

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 24, 2008

How’s this for arts and crafts?

Yeah, I know, it’s pretty boring to make a big deal when something new gets released to Rock Band, considering something new comes out every week and it’s probably irrelevant to anyone reading that doesn’t own the game (although I would like to think that at least a healthy chunk of my readers would have enough sense to get it by now). Still, this is one I’ve been looking forward to for a long, long time–the full-album release of The Pixies’ 1989 alt-rock landmark, Doolittle. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Rock Band deities decided to throw in a couple songs off Weezer’s Red to boot. So it’ll give me an excuse to talk about both bands a little, if nothing else.

I always thought there was a kinship of sorts between these two bands. Nirvana gets the most credit for successfully ripping off The Pixies (by their own admission, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a rip-off of Trompe Le Monde‘s “U-Mass,” so much that they almost discarded the song entirely), and they’re certainly far from the only other band to have done so, but for my money, it’s Weezer that really continued The Pixies’ good works after the latter band’s dissolution in the early 90s. Doolittle is the album where the connection is most pronounced. There’s the obvious stuff–the shiny guitar sound, the loping bass lines, the loud/quiet dynamic switches, the way that the hooks are equally constructed around all four mumbers. Listen a bunch of times, though and all sorts of additional small moments of musical foreshadowing start to emerge–the roots of “Only in Dreams” in the bass line to “I Bleed,” the oceanic oblivion of “Surf Wax America” in the lyrics to “Wave of Mutilation,” and the twangy riffage of “Say It Ain’t So” in the hook to “Hey!”

But what links the bands more than these little creative tics are the way both feel. Much is made of what a violent album Doolittle is–the mortality chic in “Dead,” the casual firepower on display in “There Goes My Gun,” and of course the ocular carvings in “Debaser,” among countless other examples–but unlike Nirvana, The Pixies never seemed to be particularly angry. In fact, it sounds like the band is having a blast, playing it loose and willing to throw whatever against the wall to see what sticks. Kim singing a Spaghetti Western ballad? Sure. Letting the drummer bust out his inner Dean Martin? Why not? Goofy mid-song interjections? Tempo changes? Ending the album with your most propulsive song? All good ideas.

It’s an attitude that Weezer would mostly take to heart in their first couple albums, and has thankfully started to do far more of again recently. If The Pixies had stayed around a little longer, I don’t doubt that Frank Black’s goofier ambitions would have eventually steered him in the direction of songs like “Dreamin'” and “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived,” two of the three songs from Red included in this week’s downloadable content and my personal two favorite songs off the album. This was the problem that I and many others had with Green, which I’ve since come around to but still find it difficult to compare with Weezer’s other work–not only did it feel like the band wasn’t the same group of loveable emo nerds that bared it all, sometimes uncomfortably but always anthemically, in songs like “In the Garage” and “Butterfly,” but it didn’t feel like the same band that goofed off in songs like “Undone” and “El Scorcho.” It didn’t seem like they were having fun anymore. Rivers has since gone completely insane, of course, but he seems like he’s enjoying himself in his lunacy, at least.

Doolittle isn’t my favorite Pixies album–Surfer Rosa was my first love of theirs, Bossanova I feel is their most misunderstood, and Trompe Le Monde is probably the one I ultimately dig the most. But it is their truest classic, in the conventional sense, and not undeservedly so. It’s got the hits, for one, with “Wave of Mutilation,” “Debaser,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” “Here Comes Your Man,” “Hey!” and “Gouge Away” all ranking among the band’s most well-loved songs. And it just feels like the band’s biggest record, in sound and stature–credit producer Gil Norton for honing in on the band’s unbelievable pop potential without costing them too much of their edge, and creating what for many is probably the definitive college rock album, if such a genre even exists. And besides, deciding between Pixies albums has about as much potential for downside as the Bulls have in choosing between Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley.

A combined 18 great songs out there today–well, maybe only 17, since I think “Crackity Jones” and “Mr. Grieves” only add up to about one great song–repping for two of the best and most enjoybale bands in the history of alternative rock. You’d be foolish not to find a friend with a copy and persuade him or her to shell out about $20 for the chance to re-enact ’em. Sing with me now! “Got me a movie, oh ho ho ho…

Posted in Red Letter Day | 2 Comments »

Tradition: 22 for 22

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 23, 2008

It’s not so bad to stay at home

So it’s my birthday today, and while I’m partying by myself because I’m such a special guy, you can either read about the best birthday-related song in music history or dig on the following underrated songs from 1990:

The Field Mice – “So Said Kay”
Bell Biv DeVoe – “B.B.D. (I Thought It Was Me)”
Ice MC – “Cinema”
Swervedriver – “Kill the Superhoeroes”
The House of Love – “The Beatles and the Stones”

Here’s to another year of quality blog posting and minor self-indulgence.

Posted in Tradition | 1 Comment »

100 Years, 66 Villians: #6. Biff Tannen

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 22, 2008

Now that 100 Years, 100 Villains has gotten to the very bottom of the barrel, the abbreviated write-ups are simply unsifficient. Stay tuned this week as we count down the top six in proper fashion.

How many film trilogies can you think of that only needed one real villain? Star Wars had the double-whammy of Darth Vader and The Emperor, Alien always had at least one man on the inside that was usually just as despicable, and Lord of the Rings had more villains than I could count, keep track of, or stand to watch consistently for three hours at a time. But aside from the mild antagonism of the stern, unsupportive Principal Strickland (James Tolkan), and some back-up villainy from the Pips of 80s teen villainy, Match, Skinhead & 3-D (IITS-approved villain Billy Zane, Jeffrey Jay Cohen, and Casey “Young Guns” Siemaszko), the evil of the Back to the Future trilogy is the solo reign of one Biff Tannen.

And a historic villainy it is. Biff haunts Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his family for three whole generations, bullying patriarch George (Crispin Glover) and sexually harrassing mom Lorraine (Lea Thompson) as a teenager in the 50s, taking advantage of now-employee George in the 80s, and stealing and abusing Marty and Doc Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) in the 2010’s. His villainy is as such that it even dates back to the family’s ancestors, as Biff’s 1880s predecessor Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen terrorized not only then-McFlys Seamus (also Fox, though I thought it was Eric Stolz until very recently) and Maggie (Thompson again), but the entire Hill Valley area, robbing, looting and pillaging at will. And as if all that wasn’t enough, we find out that he’s even more evil in the film’s alternate timeline, when once mad with money and power, he almost single-handedly ruins the whole future, starting a toxic waste company, getting Richard Nixon elected to five staight terms, and even enabling the Vietnam War to run another decade. Not so good, Al.


Sleazy billionaire Biff of 1985-A

Even compared to other 80s teen villains, Biff’s brand of villainy was exceedingly straightforward. He wasn’t conniving or monetarily corrupt like Steff in Pretty in Pink, he wasn’t under the influence of an even more demonic role model like Johnny in The Karate Kid, and he didn’t even have the technical justification of an unfaithful girlfriend like the jerky dude from the rival school in Teen Wolf had for hating on Wolfie. He wasn’t socioeconomically motivated, he wasn’t trying to achieve anything purposeful, and he wasn’t acting on a higher calling. He was just a bully, uncomplicated and unrepentant. There is no explanation or justification for Biff’s actions besides the simple fact that there were people who got in the way of what Biff wanted, and he didn’t look unfavorably upon using violence to fix that. And often, those are the most chilling villains of all.

And yet–there’s something unmistakably human about Biff, isn’t there? The film makes no apologies for him, certainly, and never tries to really portray him in any kind of sympathetic light. But even with all of his misdeeds, it’s still hard not to feel like he’s kind of a sad character. The fact that he’s too stupid to ever consistently outsmart Marty has a lot to do with it–sure, he’s significantly bigger than Marty, but aside from that, it’s not ever really that fair a fight, and whenever the two end up tangoing, it’s always Biff that crashes into the large quantities of horseshit. His predilection for mixed metaphors and malapropisms (“Why don’t you make like a tree…and get the hell out of here“) only enforces this pitiable lack of any sort of cunning.

Also, despite his position of power, he’s kind of a lonely guy, never having much in the way of friends and permanently on the losing end in love. Sure, he’s got Match, Skinhead and 3-D, but he doesn’t seem to like them or care about their well-being very much, and they don’t seem to think of him as anything but a cruel master (and their Wiki page seems to suggest that they only do Biff’s bidding because he’s the sole member of the group with a car, an assertion that says interesting things about the nature of High School serfdom in the 1980s). And of course, he remains permanently unrequited in his love for Lorraine, who roundly spurs his affections. He definitely doesn’t deserve her, of course, a point driven home by his attempted rape of Lorraine in the first movie, but watch the scene in II after she rejects his forceful invitation to the Enchatnment Under the Sea dance, and he yells after her “SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE MY WIFE!!”–c’mon, you gotta feel for the guy at least a little bit, even despite the fact that in II’s alternate timeline, his prediction actually turns out to be accurate.

It’s not surprising that the only real live action role of note that Thomas F. Wilson would have after Back to the Future is as a vaguely Biff-like (although significantly better-meaning) high school gym teacher in Freaks & Geeks. Some roles are iconic to the point of being totally uneclipseable, and despite stiff competition from the O’Bannions and Regina Georges of the world, Biff is deservedly almost without question the most iconic bully in film history.

(Here’s the list so far, for those of you just tuning in, all of which can be read about in detail from here:

66. Ian / Ray (Tim Robbins), High Fidelity
65. Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), The Last Picture Show
64. Jesus’s Entourage (Bill Nunn, Rosario Dawson, Arthur J. Nascarella), He Got Game
63. Sarah Mitchell (Bridget Fonda), A Simple Plan
62. Agents Big Johnson and Little Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush), Die Hard
61. Taylor Vaughn (Jodi Lynn O’Keefe), She’s All That
60. Coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), Varsity Blues
59. Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), Pretty Woman
58. Mrs. Chasen (Vivien Pickles), Harold and Maude
57. Officer Coffey and Officer Graham (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson and Kirk Kinder), Boyz n the Hood
56. Oliver Slocumb (Ryan Philippe), Igby Goes Down
55. Rick Spector (Michael Bowen), Magnolia
54. Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), This Is Spinal Tap
53. Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), The Cooler
52. Muriel Lang (Rosie Perez), It Could Happen to You
51. Zachary “Sack” Lodge (Bradley Cooper), Wedding Crashers
50. Bert Jones (George C. Scott), The Hustler
49. Little Bill’s Wife (Nina Hartley), Boogie Nights
48. Amber (Elisa Donovan), Clueless
47. Warden (Patrick McGoohan), Escape From Alcatraz
46. Various Game Ruiners (Clifton James, Michael Lerner, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Rooker, Richard Edson, Kevin Tighe, John Anderson, Don Harvey), Eight Men Out
45. Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), The Craft
44. Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), The Ice Storm
43. George Willis Jr. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Scent of a Woman
42. David Bedford (John Laroquette), Blind Date
41. Ronny and Donny Blume (Ronnie & Keith McCowley), Rushmore
40. Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg), Searching for Bobby Fischer
39. Bernie and Joan (Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins), …About Last Night
38. Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), Kramer Vs. Kramer
37. Principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
36. Bill Houston (David Morse), Dancer in the Dark
35. Sid (Voice of John Morris), Toy Story
34. Mike (Joe Mantegna), House of Games
33. Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle), Monsters’ Ball
32. Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels), The Purple Rose of Cairo
31. Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), Donnie Darko
30. Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), Office Space
29. Mitch Hiller (Billy Campbell), Enough
28. Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner), The Virgin Suicides
27. Rose Chasseur (Glynis Johns), The Ref
26. Cobra Kai Dojo (William Zabka, Martin Kove, others), The Karate Kid
25. Heathers (Shannon Doherty, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk), Heathers
24. Cal Hockley (Billy Zane, Titanic
23. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
22. Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald, Happy Gilmore
21. Jo (Gretchen Mol), Rounders
20. Ruth Folwer (Sissy Spacek), In the Bedroom
19. Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavettes), Rosemary’s Baby
18. Earline and the Rest of the Fitzgerald Clan (Margo Martindale, Others), Million Dollar Baby
17. Coach Jack Reilly (Lane Smith), The Mighty Ducks
16. Jack Lopate (Thomas Hayden Church), Sideways
15. Walter Peck (William Atherton), Ghostbusters
14. Stephen Glass (Hayden Christiensen), Shattered Glass
13. Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore), Ordinary People
12. Professor Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear), Loser
11. O’Bannion, Darla & Clint (Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Nicky Katt), Dazed and Confused
10. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), Election
9. Troy (Ethan Hawke), Reality Bites
8. Regina George (Rachel McAdams), Mean Girls
7. Steff (James Spader), Pretty in Pink
6. Biff Tannen (Michael F. Wilson), Back to the Future trilogy

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