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Archive for June, 2008

Don’t You Forget About Me: Loleatta Holloway’s “Love Sensation,” Jocelyn Brown’s “Love’s Gonna Get You” and the Diva House That Ensued

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 10, 2008

And time won’t take my love away….

One of my favorite things about the cannibalistic nature of both and dance and hip-hop culture–or, to be more accurate I suppose, just DJ culture in general–is how the songs most frequently drawn from are so often songs that barely anyone outside the culture would recognize heard on their own. The songs that essentially form the base of these sample-based genres, songs like Kraftwerk’s “Numbers,” Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Further,” and Bob James’ “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” get used in so many different ways by so many different hit songs, yet as songs they’re all completely anonymous to the general public. You’d think that these core tracks would have to some pretty hot shit on their own. Yet such, I suppose, is often the challenge of a good DJ–to take that which is unremarkable and make it so.

Even still, I’m always blown away when I listen to “Love Sensation” and “Love’s Gonna Get You.” I’ll forever associate the two together, for a number of reasons. Both are sung by artists who were probably relatively farmiliar to anyone on the club scene in the 80s that was in the know, but largely unknown elsewhere. Both are extremely soulful ballads at the core, maintaining my position that both bliss and heartache always sound more compelling at over 120 bpm. And without either, diva house (hi-NRG dance with shouty chick vocals; C&C Music Factory, Deee-Lite, “Vogue”) would probably not exist as we know it–not only because of how influential the two songs most likely were, but in the fact that so many of the signature hits of the diva house era were basically carved out of already-existing chunks of those two songs–five of the 90s’ bigger and better dance hits, in fact. Yet–I hadn’t heard of either before, had you?

If you recognize Loleatta Holloway’s name, it’s likely from her appearance on Marky Mark + the Funky Bunch’s 1991 #1 hit “Good Vibrations,” in which Loleatta sang the chorus hook. This is taken straight from a couple of pieced together sections in “Love Sensation,” in which it appears as one line in a sort of off-the-cuff verse section. Loleatta was given credit from her sampled vocals out of respect from the Bunch, partly because “Love Sensation” had been blatantly ripped from a year or two earlier when Black Box used a whole bunch of different sections of her vocal in this song on their UK smash “Ride on Time,” but did not credit her for them (and started a long and controversial trend of getting a hot model chick to lip synch the fat diva lady’s parts in the video). Then, a few years later, Moby took yet another different section of the vocal hook in his “Move (You Make Me Feel So Good).” Apparently Samantha Fox’s “I Wanna Have Some Fun” uses some part of it too, but it’s definitely not the “S-S-S-S-SAMANTHA FOX!” part so I don’t really care about that.

The resume of Jocelyn Brown’s “Love’s Gonna Get You” isn’t quite so vast (to my knowledge, anyway), but is no less striking. Immediately, even by the song’s title, you might get the hint that this song had something to do with Bizarre Inc’s ecstatic mid-90s dance classic “I’m Gonna Get You” (easily one of my ten favorite dance songs of the whole decade), and indeed, the song sources both the “I’m gonna get you yesss I am!!!” and the “WHY WASTE YOUR TIME?? YOU KNOW YOU’RE GONNA BE MINE!” hooks. But even more of a treat is to be found at the 3:00 minute mark, when the clarion call–well, maybe just the backup clarion call, since C&C Music Factory are nowhere to be found here–of all diva house is heard in its original form–“I’VE GOT THE POW-AH!

And I guess the question is, why doesn’t anyone know about these two songs? And i guess the answer is–these two songs just aren’t nearly as good as the half-dozen or so they helped spawn. I listen through them and I only perk up for the parts I’ve already mentally underlined, and when I try to think of how they go, the only parts that run through my head are those. Still, there are worse fates than being the under-recognized architects, accidentally or not, of nearly an entire subgenre of music. Especially when you’ve got nerds like me to discover you ever now an dthen and fawn over your innovations.

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Posted in Don't You Forget About Me | 3 Comments »

Commercial Break: Goodbye, Wizard

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 9, 2008

Verizon, you’ve left us with no choice

My mother e-mailed me recently with news that Verizon had finally bought out Alltel to become by far the largest cellular conglomerate in the biz today. She considered that maybe this was the reason why my 15 minutes of Reality TV Villainy had not been extended to a round half-hour with a second WSOPC season, as Alltel was the primary sponsor. My brother had a more pressing point on the matter, however–that this meant that now Chad from Alltel (real name Chad Brokaw, apparently a comedian of some sort) and the “Can You Hear Me Now” guy from Verizon (real name Paul Marcarelli, who is apparently a respected theater guy, incredibly) could now form a lethal advertising tagteam. Me, I’m mostly concerned that this could be the end of the odyssey of Chad & the Wizard, quickly developing into one of the great commercial arcs on modern TV.

Now I’ve previously expressed a hardline stance against cellphone commercials of all stripes, and I’m certainly not going to go back on it here. But every once in a while you get one which, while still at least slightly abhorrent, is compelling enough in its ridiculousness to become captivating after a certain number of repeated viewings. The Chad arc of the Alltel commercials started out as not even that–just another Paint The Competition As Jealous Idiots And Your Own Figurehead As Christ-Like campaign, along the lines of the deplorable Hertz “They came and got her!” ads (starring Kevin Farley, younger brother of the late great Chris, which I just found out but probably should have known all along). The most notable feature was that one of the competition guys–the AT&T one–looked a lot like Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock.

Enter the Wizard. Summoned by one of the guys that isn’t Jack McBrayer to banish Chad or something, the Wizard is quickly seduced away from their control by Chad’s My Circle promises, and even accidentally dematerializes one of the other representatives (as pictured above), though I suppose he gets better by future commercials. The next time the Wizard appears, he’s already sick of being summoned by the competition, and is pal enough with Chad to make fun of the other guys with him. The third, somehow not up on YouTube, the Wizard no longer even comes when beckoned by the rival companies (“We’ve been summoning you for hours!“), presumably because he’s too busy eating dinner with Chad and his family.

I find this all fascinating for a number of reasons. First, why is Alltel taking this plot line so far? Did the Wizard, who I can only imagine was designed to be a commercial one-off character, test so well with audiences that the company decided he was something of a breakout? The whole thing was surreal enough to begin with, but the fact that they just keep going with it makes it even stranger. Second, what kind of relationship is implied between Chad and the Wizard by the fact that they’re now eating dinner together? Lovers? Friends of the family? Honorary Wizard Status for Chad? And perhaps most importantly–if these cell phone respresentatives have the powers of wizard summoning, couldn’t they just ask him for better and/or less thankful jobs, rather than futilly use him to compete with the allure of Chad and his My Circle plan?

Important questions, all, and it’s sort of sad that we likely won’t get to see their denouement. Then again, I suppose it’s possible perhaps both will team up with Mr. Marcarelli–in which case, God help us all.

Posted in Commercial Break | Leave a Comment »

Take Five: Wyclef Jean Loving Them Old White Guys

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 8, 2008

Lauryn Hill: Less equivocal in her affections

I’m not sure why exactly, but sometime around the recording of his 1997 solo debut, The Carnival, Wyclef Jean decided that he was going to be hip-hop’s patron saint of old white dudes. I can probably count the number of Wyclef songs I know that don’t feature, quote or in some way give props to caucasian fogies on one hand. Of course at the time this was probably considered a career booster for these guys–lest we forget, it was not all that long ago that Wyclef Jean was considered a serious and relevant recording artist–and as his career has regressed, it’s possible that the whities are giving Mr. Jean a bigger lift than he is them. In any event, the culture clash is never less than fascinating, and here are five of the better/funnier/less seamless examples.

  • We Trying to Stay Alive” (Bee Gees). For Wyclef’s very first solo hit, he opted to update The Bee-Boys’ 1977 classic “Staying Alive” for the post-Fugee era. He even got his Saturday Night Fever on in the video, though the turn it takes into “Beat It” territory half-way through I never quite understood. Song has actually held up pretty well, and set a worthwhile precedent later to be followed by Snoop Dogg (“Ups and Downs” samples the Gees’ “Love You Inside Out”) and DJ Khaled (“Brown Paper Bag” works the string break from “If I Can’t Have You”–technically Yvonne Elliman, but close enough)
  • Gone Till November” (Bob Dylan). Ordinarily, a simple lyrical reference to an old white guy (“So I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door, like I’m Bob Dylan”) wouldn’t be enough to be included on this list, but somehow Wyclef convinced Dylan to make an appearance in the song’s video as well, pictured above. The truly amazing thing is that Dylan’s cameo is literally just the duration of that line–most of the time, you figure if you’ve got one of rock music’s all-time legends for your video, you might want to get a little more mileage out of it than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it walk-on. I guess Dylan had some time on his hands after winning all those Time Out of Mind Grammys, and it would probably take a couple more years for his PR people realize what a joke Wyclef was. (For some reason, I can’t find the video version of this on mp3–surely it must be out there somewhere?)
  • “To All the Girls” (Willie Nelson). The completely forgotten final single from The Carnival–I didn’t remember a thing about it aside from the title–is a very half-hearted spin off of Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson’s 1983 duet “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” with that rascally Wyclef hipping it up by making it “to all the girls I’ve cheated on” instead. You could argue it’s more of an Iglesias tribute–it’s his voice that Wyclef mimmicks early in the song, after all–but it’s Willie who gets the shoutout by name, and no doubt Willie for whom Wyclef has the deeper appreciation. By the way, the original was one of those songs I’d always heard about but never actually heard, and after listening, I know why–kinda sucks, doesn’t it?
  • Kenny Rogers – Pharoahe Monch Dub” (Rogers, Obv.) Wyclef had actually already done a mini “Gambler” tribute when he sang a few bars of it in The Fugees’ excellent “Cowboys,” but I suppose it was only a matter of time before he went the distance with a full-song revision. He even gets The Gambler himself to sing the chorus, changing the gambling metaphor to be something nonsensical about turntables or some such. Also co-opting parts of Monch’s “Simon Says,” the song is really a  pretty big mess–maybe Wyclef should have just left the Rogers quotes to brother-in-arms Pras, whose sole hit “Ghetto Superstar” ripped the chorus to Kenny and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream,” and far more successfully.
  • Fast Car” (Paul Simon). The most recent example, and the one that inspired this thread. It’s great to hear Simon’s voice on a pop song again–no one else sounds quite like him, for better or worse–and the song itself is actually far less embarrassing than you’d expect from Wyclef in 2008. Still, you gotta wonder how these collabs even get started, exactly–do Simon and Wyclef have mutual friends? Did they meet at a Gordon Lightfoot concert? Do they belong to the same country club? Meanwhile, what about all the old black guys out there that could use a leg up from Wyclef–what are they, chopped liver? How long do you think Al Green waited for Wyclef to call before he settled for ?uestlove to engineer his comeback? Joe Tex? El DeBarge? C’mon, ‘Clef–diversify a little.

Posted in Take Five | 4 Comments »

I Sez: Ain’t Nothing Like the Real “I Kissed a Girl”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 7, 2008

I think we can do better

What is it with all these modern hits sharing titles with old, semi-classic pop songs, anyways? It’s bad enough that no one besides American Idol contestants has hits with covers anymore, now pop artists are cruelly teasing us pop nerds like this? I’ll let Sara Bareilles’s “Love Song” go for not being a Cure cover–that’s an ambiguous enough title that it could even be purely incidental. And Natasha Bedingfield’s “Love Like This” not being a revival of Faith Evans’s underrated 90s R&B hit, I guess that’s forgivable too. Rihanna calling a song “Take a Bow” when it has nothing to do with the Madonna’s biggest chart hit, though, that I have a little more trouble dealing with. And now new it girl Katy Perry titling her hit “I Kissed a Girl,” without so much as referencing Jill Sobule’s glorious 1995 relic of the same title–that just about deserves an all-purpose shun in my book.

Jill Sobule, for thus of us who don’t remember or were not around for the Buzz Bin era, was a singer/songwriter with a respectable cult and Wiki comparisons to Randy Newman and Warren Zevon. Unlike those two, her albums have not quite endured past her prime decade, but like those two, she managed to eke out a couple hit novelty singles before fading from the limelight. The better remembered of these might be “Supermodel” (“I don’t care what my teachers say / I’m gonna be a supermodel….”), which due to its use in Amy Heckerling’s immortal teen flick Clueless, became an anthem for young girls that likely had little awareness of the song’s satirical bent (much like how Lakers fans and PA operators seem blissfully oblivious to any sarcasm apparent in Newman’s “I Love L.A”).

However, Sobule had only one legitimate chart hit in the 90s, and that was the gentle, almost folky “I Kissed a Girl.” The song is like a much less tragic version of the Julianne Moore plot in The Hours, in which Sobule welcomes a female neighbor into her abode, discusses with her the relationship issues both are having, and ultimately realizes the neighbor might be more her speed after all. Predating If These Walls Could Talk and Ellen coming out of the closet, “I Kissed a Girl” was one of the first examples of explicit, non-exploitative female homosexuality to break into the mainstream, writing large what was frequently implicit in hit songs by artists like Melissa Ethridge, K.D. Lang and the Indigo Girls. Just as memorable as the song was its gleefully cartoonish, VMA-nominated video, which even seemed to recognize what a timestamp of the 90s the song was inevitably going to become by casting decade icon and senior citizen fantasy Fabio in the lead role.

The song was a hit, but not a big one, peaking at #67 and eventually getting lost in the sinews of time. 13 years later, here comes Miss Katy Perry, already a phenom of sorts thanks to her Madonna-approved underground hit “UR So Gay.” Apparently not satisfied with one alternative-sexuality-themed song, Perry follows it up with “I Kissed a Girl,” a song which bears much thematic similarity to Sobule’s hit (same basic conceit–straight girl tries making out with a chick, kinda digs it) but has much less in common with Sobule’s musically or attitudinally. Perry’s version is a smash right out of the gate, thanks to a little help from Gossip Girl and a flirty, Moulin Rouge-looking music video, and has already catapulted to #5 on the pop charts, invariably displacing the Sobule song from public memory for good.

Needless to say, this will not do. I’m not going to say that it’s really at all surprising that Perry’s song is a hit, or even that it’s already a much bigger one than Sobule’s. Perry’s song is a jam, for certain–working a Schaffel stomp (think Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” or almost any Goldfrapp song) to maximal pop-release, the song smacks you in the brain upon first listen and has a nasty habit of getting stuck in your head long afterwardes. And the same thing that made Sobule’s song so memorable–how slightly ahead of its time it seemed–is what may have ultimately damned its commercial fortunes, as it was met with a fair share of controversy, which Perry’s version seems to have avoided thusfar.

To me, however, it’s a much shallower and far less ingratiating song. Sobule’s version, whether satirical or not (and to me it seems more satirical of basic male-female relationships than it does of gay ones), whether legitimately first person or not (and I have no idea what Sobule’s actual sexuality is), seems to me a perfectly innocent story of a girl realizing there might be more to her sexual preference than her garden variety Fabio romances. It’s cute, it’s charming, it’s novel, it’s unassuming, and it’s got a decent 90s-style guitar solo. In other words, it’s absolutely everything that a forgotten one-or-two-hit wonder should be. I hadn’t even heard it all the way through in probably close to a decade before the Perry song brought it back to my attention, but it sure did put a smile on my face once I listened to it again.

The Perry song does not illicit such a reaction from me. I hate to get all feminist critical theory in here, since God knows I hated when my professors did while I was just trying to enjoy Alien, but Perry’s story of her lesbian flirtaiton seems designed only to attract dudes (the male gaze, if you will), as is made abundantly clear by the song’s video. It’s hott, yeah, maybe, sort of (although I maintain that without that weird, Princess Leia-ish bob thing, Sobule would probably have been more attractive than Perry), but much more so, it’s just annoying–in this song, Perry willingly plays the part of the hipster-ish girl you know that constantly mentions the one time she hooked up with a girl because she thinks it makes her look experimental and wild, and knows mentioning it will turn the heads of every guy in the room. Maybe it’s intriguing the first time, but after a while, the tackiness and arrogance just becomes too much.

Sobule’s song could be interpreted to be similarly trend-hopping, I suppose, but in her version it seems  more like the experiences detailed are a genuine revelation as opposed to one night’s revelry. Perry even takes great pains in her song to express that this is not what she’s normally about–references to becoming brave after getting drunk, calling her paramour “my experimental game,” and including the qualification “don’t mean I’m in love tonight” in the chorus. And the musical tones of the songs speak volumes, too–the understated way Sobule almost whispers the song’s title, as if embarrassed but gleeful nonetheless, and gets more and more comfortable with it as the song goes on, compared to how Perry shouts pretty much the whole thing, practically boasting, because she knows that once she sobers up, this’ll just be a distant memory, and it’ll be back to a steady diet of dudes.

What will be interesting to me, though, is what the song will come to represent sociologically now that it has become such a gigantic, somehow contoversy-free, megahit. Are drunk girls going to be screaming along to the chorus to this in clubs and in concert, and what, if anything, will that mean? Is this going to inspire an “I Kissed a Boy” response song? Is the long overdue t.A.t.U. revival finally on the horizon? It’s all more thought-provoking (and has far greater possibilties) than say, your average Ray J top ten hit, and that’s always appreciated. I just wish it could’ve hapened with Sobule’s song instead. Or at least a decent cover of it.

Posted in I Sez | 1 Comment »

Clap Clap ClapClapClap: Baseball Prospectus 2008 Predictions, ~3/8 Through Season

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 4, 2008

2008 Detroit Tigers: Only 714 runs to go

My Dad officially indoctrinated me into the world of baseball geekdom by buying me a copy of Baseball Prospectus 2008. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, as I was until then, Baseball Prospectus is a Sabremetric mixture of Encyclopedia and Prophecy–in other words, it’s a breakdown of every potential statistic you could want to know about a particular player or team (and plenty you probably don’t want to know), organized in order to predict what that player or team’s performance will most likely be like in the upcoming season. Breakdowns of the players’ last three seasons are included, as well as projections for the player’s 2008 stat lines, and a paragraph’s worth of explanation. It’s not for the faint of heart, certainly, but it never got too dry, and it provided me about a month’s worth of quality subway reading material, which is always appreciated.

However, with all this statistical analysis comes an accountability the likes of which most sports prognosticators will never quite be held to. The criticism of Baseball Prospectus, and often of Sabremetrics in general, is that it attempts to reduce baseball to a statistical science, when professional baseball is far too human a system to be treated or analyzed so clinically. So to counter this argument, the Prospectus pretty much has to be right, if not 100% of the time, at least with a healthy majority of its predictions–since if not even the think tank of baseball geeks behind this tome can accurately predict baseball, clearly the doubters are right. And indeed, the book’s back cover brags about a number of predictions it got correct in the 2007 edition, including the ascendance of Fausto Carmona into the SP elite, the breakout rookie seasons of Troy Tulowitzki and Tim Lincecum, and even the Phillies’ NL East title, which they must’ve been sweating down the stretch almost as much as Jimmy Rollins.

But what of this year’s predictions? Well, there are far too many in the book–thousands, literally–to break down conclusively. So instead we’ll work with the sample size of the six predictions/statements made on the book’s front cover, and see how they’ve held up over the first 60 or so games of the season.

  • Clay Buchholz: Better Than Joba [Chamberlain]. Perhaps I took this one a little too much to heart, drafting Buchholz as essentially my #2 starter on the Ottawa Obfuscators, but I probably would have anyway (how many SPs can you name that pitched a no-hitter before they even technically qualified for ROTY status?) In any event, Clay’s 2008 has been a disappointing one thusfar, going 2-3 with a 5.53 ERA before going on the DL, and now that he’s been sent back down to Triple A, it doesn’t look like it’s going to rebound anytime soon. Meanwhile, Joba hasn’t been quite as electric as he was last year, his first-ever start for the Yankees was kind of a bust, and he drew a lot of crap for some disproportionate celebrating, but he’s still got a 2.42 ERA and a  .185 Batting Average Against, which barring a titanic downaward slump, still puts him in kinder standing than the Sox wunderkind.

    Prediction Correct?: Almost definitely not.

  • Dontrelle Willis: Detroit Defense Will Help. Meaning that the D-Train would most likely see a downturn in his ERA, which was a dangerously high 5.17 last year, due to the superior defense of his new team, the veteran-stuffed Detroit Tigers, over his old team, the young and leaky Florida Marlins. This may or may not be true, however, since apparently no one warned the former 20-game winner about the slippery mounds at Tiger Stadium, we’ve yet to find out–Willis went on the DL in his second start for the Tigers after slipping and hyperextending his knee, and has only pitched five innings since. I can’t say for certain how good Detroit’s D has been in his absence, but with even Placido Polanco breaking his errorless streak a few weeks into the season, I’d imagine it’s been going about as well as the rest of their season.
    Prediction Correct?: Inconclusive, but unlikely.
  • Geovany Soto: One of NL’s Best Backstops: Amidst stiff competition from Paul Bako, Brian Schneider and two of the Molina brothers, this one has held up pretty well. In what looks to be his first full season with the Chicago Cubs, Soto is hitting .293 with 10 home runs and a .944 OPS, with only Atlanta’s Brian McCann posting superior numbers among regular starting catchers. Soto even currently his a staggering lead over the second-place McCann in NL All-Star Voting, although with Ryan Theriot managing a fourth-place standing in a stacked NL Shortstop field, I think it’s safe to say that Cubs fans have lost objectivity a little. By the way, this seems like as good a place as any to start the IITS grass roots “Vote Chris ‘The 32 Year Old Rookie’ Coste as a Write-In NL Catcher!” campagin. C’mon, .327 average, 6 homers and 17 RBIs as a middle-aged backup? Who’s with me?

    Prediction Correct?: Yeah, probably.

  • Travis Hafner: Will He Bounce Back?: OK, this might not really be a prediction, but it’s an obscenely easy-to-answer question. So far at least, the answer would have to be a resounding “no”–after hitting 42 HRs with a .308 BA only two seasons ago, Pronk is hitting .217 with a paltry four dingers, and is currently on the 15-day DL for a right shoulder strain. Compared to this season, even his ’07 (.266, 24 longballs) is practically MVP-worthy. ESPN’s Buster Olney seems to think Travis’s problems can be traced back to when he got pronked himself by a Ron Mahay pitch last April, but in any event, his bounce-back has been somewhat underwhelming.

    Prediction Correct?: Hard to say from the front cover, although his write-up (“Concerned about Hafner’s huge drop in production last year? You should be”) makes it clear that they saw this coming. so yes.

  • Yovani Gallardo: Brew Crew’s New Ace: Once again, hard to say, since after three excellent starts (all no decisions, but a combined 13 Ks with only six walks and a 1.80 ERA), Gallardo tore his ACL and is most likely out for the season. The only explanation, of course, is some sort of karmic curse brought on by Ben “Mr. Glass” Sheets, who has been more or less the picture of health this year, and is putting up ace-like numbers himself (6-1, 2.73 ERA, an almost 5-1 K/BB ratio). Ironically, the Prospectus‘s one concern about Gallardo’s 2008 was that manager Ned Yost would overwork his arm, so at least he doged that bullet I suppose.

    Prediction Correct?: Tell you next year. Maybe.

  • David Wright: The Best is Yet to Come: Possibly, but unlike peer (in steady growth if not age) Chase Utley, his ’08 numbers aren’t quite reflecting it yet the way fans would probably hope. Wright is hitting .294 with 11 HRs and eight stolen bases–above average numbers to be certain, especially on this year’s underachieving Mets, but none of which are on pace to match his ’07, where he hit .324 and joined the 30/30 club. However, there is reason to be optimistic, as Wright performed far better in May than he did in April, and has a fairly promising start to his June (.417 BA, handful of RBIs). So this one might be the most interesting to come back to later in the season.

    Prediction Correct?: Not yet, but I wouldn’t bet on it staying wrong for too much longer.

Posted in Clap Clap ClapClapClap | 3 Comments »

The Good Dr.’s Reasons Why Not: True Stories

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 4, 2008

I got somethin’ new to tell ya

I love the Talking Heads. Not a hardcore fan by any means, especially considering that I’m not even particularly big on their most beloved album (Remain in Light), and that might be the only Heads album I’ve even heard from top to bottom. But they notch all-time top tenners for me in songs (“Once in a Lifetime,” which astounds me more the 137th time I hear it than the 136th), live albums (The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, the two-disc edition especially) and music films (Stop Making Sense, which manages to do a better job at visually capturing the band’s appeal than all of their classic music videos). Add to that another dozen New Wave classics or so, and you’ve got a band that would be an IITS first-ballot Hall of Famer, easy.

So when I say that True Stories is quite arguably my least favorite movie of all-time, rivalled only by Brazil, understand I mean the band no disrespect. Frankly, I can barely comprehend how a band I otherwise have such fondness for can be involved in a movie that feels so unbelievably wrong to me. The only explanation I really have is that while I am a Heads fan, I’m not so much a fan of David Byrne on his own–once the band gets to around the Little Creatures era and start feeling less like a cohesive unit and more like David Byrne and His Fabulous Flames, I sort of check out interest-wise, and I’ve never heard anything of his solo work to make me think like I’m missing much there. Without the band’s nervy, rubbery energy to provide context for his semi-maniacal ravings, Byrne’s eccentricities don’t excite me all that much.

Still, as I watched True Stories for the second time tonight–one of my experimental poet roommate’s favorite movies, and surprisingly big among his circle of female acolytes as well–it continued to stun me just how much I hated this fucking movie. And I’m not even saying it’s a bad movie, per se, and God knows enough smart people seem to love it that there’s clearly something there. But it’s just on a completely different wavelength than I am. Part of it is the movie’s tone, which I still can’t get a read on at all. Is it supposed to be meant as satire? Slice of life? Docudrama? Vorshtein? It seems like a mix of all of these, but isn’t satisfying in any of them–it just makes for an exceedingly awkward mixture that leaves my jaw agape in incomprehension.

The visual feel of the movie is even weirder. For a movie that seems like it wants to be about good ol’ folks and old-fashioned charm and down-hominess, it feels muted, distant, and somewhat surreal–like a David Lynch movie that never gets to the really disturbing parts, and is somehow even more disturbing as a result. Meanwhile, the cinematography is positively creepy–the way it moves, subtle and silent, to keep tabs on the characters and sets as they’re on the move, feels shadowy and almost voyeuristic. More than anything, the movie feels like a later Stanley Kubrick movie, the way his camera used to feel like it was monitoring the events of his movies more than simply capturing them. And that’s pretty weird for a movie that usually seems to get billed as a comedy.

And then there’s the acting. Nobody in this movie acts even remotely human–John Goodman comes the closest, but he’s already a cartoon character to begin with, and he projects accordingly. It’s unbelievably hard for me to tell what Byrne is trying to show with these characters’ ridiculousness–if he’s trying to show empathy for them, if he’s making some sort of value statement about them, or if he’s just trying to say “hey, look at all these kooky people”! It’s possible the ambiguity is purposeful, but since I certainly don’t enjoy the movie at face value, I need some sort of guidance to help guide me through it, and it doesn’t provide that for me at all. Meanwhile, Byrne helps matters little by doing his narrator “I’m talking slowly and dispassionately, so you’ll never be able to tell how sincere I’m being” thing. It just feels sort of patronizing to me–either to its subjuects or to its audiences, I’m not quite sure.

Did you ever have a dream that disturbed you in its otherworldly banality? I had a dream the other night that centered around the announcement of the retirement of Gary Payton, star point guard for the Seattle SuperSonics in the 90s. Never mind that I have no memory of Gary Payton’s years playing, that I have absolutely no conception of what he even looks like, or that he actually already retired a year or two ago–something about him stuck in my subconscious that night, and I apparently considered this a dream-worthy subject. When I woke up I was furious with myself for wasting a dream on this. After all, with a good dream, you wake up with a positive feeling for the day, with a nightmare, you wake up feeling safe and life-affirmed, but with one of these surreally pointless dreams–ones that almost feel logical, but actually lack any sort of sense or meaning–all you can do is hope that your brain forgets about having it as soon as possible.

And that’s True Stories for me–a surreally pointless dream of a movie. You can say that I just don’t get it, and you’d be absolutely right. But I’m not wasting any more of my conscious hours trying to understand it. Rather, I’m just going to hope that my brain can forget about seeing it again as soon as possible.

Posted in Reasons Why Not | 3 Comments »

100 Years, 66 Villains: #18 – #12

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 3, 2008

Quintuple-overtime edition

#18.

Earline and the Rest of the Fitzgerald Clan, Million Dollar Baby

Played By: Margo Martindale, Others

M.O.: I originally had Clubber Lang from Rocky III slotted for this spot, but Clubb’s a bit too bad-ass to be strictly despicable. So I went with another villain from a boxing movie instead–Maggie’s (Hillary Swank) family in Million Dollar Baby, maybe the least supportive family in movie history. When Maggie, freshly flush from her boxing winnings, buys her momma a house, all she can do is complain about the ramifications to her welfare, and express deep shame at having a chick pugilist as her progeny. Fair enough, there are plenty of movie parents that just didn’t understand, but once Maggie goes down for the count in a very real-life sense, you’d think they’d maybe have a little more sympathy to dispense. Not so–rather, not only does Momma make it abundantly clear that she’s only visiting Maggie to get her to sign an agreement giving the family all her shit, not only does she not attempt to disguise the fact that she took the family to Disneyworld before visitng her dying daughter, she calls Maggie a loser for not winning her last fight! Never mind that she lost on an extremely illegal cheap shot that almost certainly should have won her the fight by disqualification–Momma’s seeing her daughter for maybe the last time, and she still can’t even fake a little enthusiasm? That’s just bad business.

Partner-in-Villainy: That crazy-eyed evil boxer, Billie “The Blue Bear”. Made scarier–and she was already scarier than all but maybe one or two male boxing villains in film history–by the fact that she’s played by a real-life boxer, Lucia Rijker, who seems like the part wasn’t all that much of a stretch.

#17.


Coach Jack Reilly, The Mighty Ducks

Played By: Lane Smith

M.O.: Martin Kove might have laid the groundwork in The Karate Kid, but it was Lane Smith’s work in The Mighty Ducks that truly set the standard for evil kids sports coaches for years and years to come. At least in The Karate Kid the competitors were already in high school, but in Pee Wee hockey, the ruthlessness becomes even more bone-chilling. Constantly deriding student-turned-rival Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) for missing his big shot in the championship game way way back and then quitting hockey after his dad died, Coach Reilly really lets his villainy be known by calling for his only little leg-sweep of an illegal play, having his enforcer sideline the prodigious Duck defector Adam (the regrettably forgotten Vincent Larusso) in the final minutes of the big game. “What’d you do??” a horrified teammate shouts at the enforcer. “My job,” he coldly responds. And a future Reilly/Belichick/Popovich is born.

Modern-Day Equivalent: Robert Duvall’s character in Kicking & Screaming, who similarly demeans and condescends to his protegee (or in this case, son)-turned-rival Will Ferrell like he’s the Bear Bryant of elementary school soccer. He might turn out to be a good guy after all though, I can’t remember how the movie ends.

#16.


Jack Lopate, Sideways

Played By: Thomas Hayden Church

M.O.: Might get some weird looks for this one, since not only is Jack not a villain in the conventional sense, but a lot of people probably don’t even think he’s such a bad dude. But THC (heh) turned my stomach repeatedly in this one–really, I can’t think of too many film characters generally attribtuable as “the friend” that are more selfish, insensitive, and just all-around despicable as Jack. Let’s see–he uses a road trip with Miles (Paul Giamatti), supposed to be a bonding experience between the two before Jack gets married, as an opportunity to nail Stephanie (Sandra Oh), which he frequently ditches Miles to pursue. Then after making Miles lie to new squeeze Maya (Virginia Madsen) about the wedding, and after she breaks up with him as a result (and Stephanie very violently breaks up with Jack), he ditches Miles again for a fat waitress. Then after he leaves his wallet and wedding band at the waitress’s house and realizes what a mistake he made cheating on his fiancee, he makes Miles go back, break into the house and steal his stuff back. Then, to top it all off, he crashes Miles’ car, without asking, with Miles inside, in order to explain to his fiancee the broken nose Stephanie gave him. This is supposed to be friendship?

Sure, he gets Miles laid, which eventually helps him get over his ex-wife, and he deserves points for that, yeah. But does anyone actually think his assistance actually came from the goodness of his heart and a desire to see his buddy happy, rather than because he just hoped it would make Miles stop whining for long enough that he can continue his affair with Stephanie? And even after Miles gets with Maya, and he’s happy for the first time in ages, when he doesn’t immediately cop to it to Jack, what’s his conclusion? “You’re a homo!” If this is what friendship–real friendship–is supposed to be all about, then the second I get engaged, I’m cutting all non-sexual and non-familial relationships out of my life forever.

Classic Villain Quote: “Listen, man. You’re my friend, and I know you care about me. And I know you disapprove, and I respect that. But there are some things that I have to do that you don’t understand. You understand literature, movies, wine… but you don’t understand my plight.” (Before leaving to fuck the fat waitress)

#15.


Walter Peck, Ghostbusters

Played By: William Atherton

M.O.: Yuppiedom must’ve been so pervasive in the 80s that anyone who wasn’t actively seeking to be part of the establishment feared that such people had no purpose in life except to destroy any possible threat from the non-squares to the status quo and thus, their Yuppie lifestyle. And so we got William Atherton. Choosing just one movie to represent his wide ouevre of thoughtless, condescending, simpering villainy in the 80s (and to a lesser extent, 90s) is a difficult task, but Ghostbusters will probably do. The guy shuts down the Ghosbusting enterprise seemingly out of resentment for not being one of the cool kids, nearly bringing New York City to the brink of collpase in the process. For his efforts, Atherton earned a lifetime association with the adjective “dickless,” and that seems fair enough.

Impressive Resume: Real Genius? Die Hard 1 & 2? BIO-DOME? This guy’s own mother probably couldn’t look him in the eye by the end of the century.

#14.


Stephen Glass, Shattered Glass

Played By: Hayden Christiensen

M.O.: Anakin Skywalker could never be half this creepy. I don’t even know what it is, really–there are far greater crimes in my book than journalistic fraud, and Glass’s villainy isn’t really at the expense of anyone (besides JOURNALISTIC ETHICS I guess but who cares). It’s just something about his false humility, about the he uses his own poutiness and the sympathy of his female co-workers to hide from any sort of criticism, and the way he’s willing to lie to protect his story no matter how unreasonable the lie and how flimsy the story. And it’s about his glasses–ordinary, everyday glasses to be sure, but ones that somehow add that extra level of skin-crawling smirk to his overall persona, combined with his downright evil-looking smile. It’s amazing that Peter Saarsagard’s character made it out of the movie alive.

Small-Screen Equivalent: David Simon more or less ripped this one wholesale for the Scotty Templeton subplot in S5 of The Wire. The principal difference was that Templeton used his hair, not his ocular wear, to visually symbolize his patheticness.

#13.


Beth Jarrett, Ordinary People

Played By: Mary Tyler Moore

M.O.: Who can turn the world off with a frosty, withering glare? There’ve been a whole bunch of Cold Moms on this list, but Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People puts them all to shame. “Playing against type” doesn’t even begin to cover it–if you’d never heard of Mary Tyler Moore before, this’d still be an Oscar-worthy performance, but if you’re familiar with the show, we’re starting to talk All-Time here. There is absolutely no compassion in this woman–you look for it to inevitably crack a little in her face, in her voice, somewhere, but it’s nowhere to be found. While her marriage begins to crumple and her son reaches the verge of suicide, she stays completely expressionless, unmoved. It’s your mom giving you the silent treatment for the rest of your life, for something that wasn’t even your fault. And it chills.

(My main problem with the movie, though: When Donald Sutherland eventually does break up with her, couldn’t he have slipped something in there like “I’m sorry, Beth…I just don’t think we’re going to make it after all“?)

Sympathetic Reading: Smiling so much on the MTM show for seven years must’ve gotten pretty exhausting. I’d pretty much want to do the exact opposite after that, too.

Posted in 100 Years 66 Villains | Leave a Comment »

I Sez: About Time for “I Love the New Millennium”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 1, 2008

No country for old nostalgia

In my last few minutes backstage in my VH1 sojourn, I was talking with either WSOPC exec producer Michael Davies or someone else who worked directly for the station, I can’t remember. I made an insinuation that when the channel got around to doing I Love the 00s, they should call me and the other two TMers to be commentators. “Well, I’m not sure if we’re going to be doing one of those…” the guy insisted. “Oh, come on,” I responded, “you know you guys aren’t going to be able to resist.”

Well, doesn’t seem like they followed my commentator advice, but at least I had them dead on in their  nostalgic clip show impatience. VH-1 announced recently that later this month, they will be debuting their latest entry in the I Love the ______ series, and sure enough, it’s I Love the New Millennium, looking back with rose-colored glasses on the last eight years in pop culture. According to the press release, topics will include My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl, and Sisqo’s “The Thong Song,” among many other PC relics and relics-to-be. The show will take place from June 23rd to the 27th, done two episodes a night like all the others.

It’s rare–well, maybe not that rare, but yeah–to see satirical punchlines so openly embraced by those satirized, but with characteristic aplomb and shamelessness, VH1 has responded to criticism and jokes about them bottling nostalgia for events almost instantaneously upon their occurence by doing just that. Hey guys, remember when Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run? Or when police and medical procedurals ruled the airwaves? Or when that Flo Rida guy had a #1 hit? I know, it feels like it was just last year!!
And oh man, what about those GEICO Cavemen commercials, or when Dick Cheney shot that guy? Hell, I must’ve only been, like…20 when that happened!

It’s understandable, of course. The I Love the ____ series is about as reliable a bread-and-butter show as VH1 has in their arsenal, and they’ve just about exhausted all their other decade options–two 70s, three 80s and two 90s, so unless they wanted to resort to talking about Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Living in a Box and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, they were probably going to have to find some new material to cover. They might’ve been able to get away with doing the 60s if they had started with them six years ago, but now they’re more or less committed to the Decade Under the Influence and onwards, so that doesn’t leave much left but the double-0s. And to their credit, culture is so accelerated these days that it really does feel like a pretty long time since the Yanks-Sox ALCS, or when “Vote for Pedro” shirts swept the nation, or when I was forced to learn what the word “Uggs” signified.

But really, why should I even have to make excuses for VH-1? Regardless of the era covered, it’s still an I Love the ____s clip show, and that means I’m going to be watching. After all, it was the original I Love the 80s and I Love the 70s series that first got me thinking about pop culture in canonical terms, when I first realized that there was just as much to the history and timeliness of popular entertainment as there was of the critically acclaimed music and movies I was digesting almost exclusively at that time. And more importantly, they made me realize just how much fun pop culture, and the discussion of pop culture, could be, how engaging it was, and how much greater the possibilities of reviving such items were than evoking shallow nostalgia.

These shows, for better or worse, helped make me who I am right now. So even if I Love the New Millennium asks me to feel nostalgic about stuff that feels like it happened a couple hours ago, I’ll still be watching it opening night, a smooth drink in my hand, clicking my tongue and rhapsodizing “Ah yes, I remember it well…

Posted in I Sez | 7 Comments »

Popcorn Love: Deja Vu

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 1, 2008

Baby I swear

What if you had to tell someone about the most underrated action movie of the last few years, but you knew they’d never believe you? I’m not sure that the reception for Deja Vu was particulary negative–it has a 59 on Metacritic and grossed 64 mil on an 80 budget, neither of which is particularly commendable, but neither of which is quite disastrous either. In any event, I don’t think the term “thinking man’s action movie” was used in too many reviews, and I don’t see too many sequels coming down the horizon. Yet in recent memory, I can’t think of another mainstream action flick that was as engaging, suspenseful, or thought-provoking (in an entirely unthreatening and non-challenging way, of course) as this one.

The previews didn’t help, of course. Between the rough, sun-drenched Bad Boys-II style cinematography, the countless satellite surveillancve shots and the gratuitious car-flip shots–even if he was directing a Jane Austen adaptation, I’m pretty sure Tony Scott would still find room for a flipped car or two–viewers had no real reason to expect anything but Enemy of the State II: Blender’s Revenge. Not to say that Deja Vu was too far beyond that–this was definitely still a Tony Scott movie, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing–but it was just interesting enough, just different enough too stand apart a little. And it was helped by one brilliant action sequence and the solidification of one of the great actor evolutions of the new millenium.

First off, who had any idea going into this that the movie had anything whatsoever to do with time travel? The trailer briefly alludes to it, and I guess the title maybe should’ve been a tip-off, but for the most part, it just looked like it would be another random murder resulting in Denzel doing his typical badass cop routine. And for the first half-hour, that’s all the movie looks like it’s going to be, until he meets up in that weird room with Val Kilmer, Adam Goldberg and the quiet, murderous dude from The Butterfly Effect
(either the most inspired supporting cast in Scott’s repertoire, or the most wasteful) and realizes he can do a little time-jumping. The time paradoxes subsequently created are a little more garbled than those of the first two Terminators, but a little bit less outlandish than Frequency or Back to the Future, and ultimately, surprisingly complex for a movie that seems such a throwaway. And though it’s hardly an innovative sort of action conceit, you never really get that yeah-I-know-where-this-is-going feeling that you do with most other basic cable-ready action flicks, which is fairly refreshing.

The movie buys a lot of goodwill for its time-travel rule-bending with the action sequence midway through the movie, in which Denzel goes racing down the turnpike in pursuit of the movie’s killer, with the major obstacle being that he’s chasing someone from over four days ago. Denzel needs to keep tabs both on chasing the guy from four days ago and not getting into any accidents on modern-day traffic, though he definitely de-prioritizes the latter responsibility. I’m always a sucker for multi-layered action sequences, and this one stacks on layers in a way I’ve never quite seen in an action movie before. Plus, it makes the way for some amazingly pointless carnage and destruction, as Denzel drives against oncoming traffic, even stopping dead in the middle of the road at one point to contemplate the gravity of the situation. Casually commanding Kilmer, Goldberg and company to “send a Medic to [location]” is all the compassion or concertn Denzel can manage for the multiple pile-ups he instigates while in time-spanning pursuit. (Naturally, this future-classic is nowhere to be found on YouTube).

And Denzel, by the way, is the main reason to watch this movie. Wasn’t going to get him too many Oscar and Golden Globe nods–hell, I think he even got snubbed for an MTV Movie Award nom for this one–but it’s one of the most important performances in the Washington ouevre, because it officially marks his transition into the Shouty Al Pacino phase of his career. Makes sense–this happened to Pacino shortly after his Oscar-winning, against-type performance in Scent of a Woman, and this is something Denzel’s been working up to since his Oscar-winning, against-type performance in Training Day. Subtlety and character depth are no longer the name of the game for the man arguable as the country’s most universaslly revered actor–now it’s all about playing authority figures that are perpetually convinced that they are the smartest, best-looking and most badass dude in the room.

And to Denzel’s credit, it’s almost always true, so it’s usually a joy to watch him in Alpha Male control-freak mode. Deja Vu is the apex–the dude spends most of the movie just mentally overpowering a room full of brainiacs, extracting the truth from their bullshit like a verbal grape stomper, without a moment’s doubt whatsoever. He’s constantly using ultra-technological equipment before he has the slightes grasp of how to operate it, he repeatedly breaches the space-time continuum without considering the risks or asking “May I?,” and he plows through cars and personal effects like a man with absolutely no regard for property damage. It started with Training Day, and it’s moved up through Man on Fire, The Inside Man and American Gangster, but now he’s probably Badgery Denzel Washington for the rest of his career.

Works for me.

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