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Archive for August, 2008

VG O.D.: The Drowning Music in Sonic the Hedgehog

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 29, 2008

I don’t write much about non-music synchronization video games on this blog, and for good reason–I don’t know shit about ’em. My parents wouldn’t let me own a VG system until my Bar Mitzvah (going so far as to strip me of a Nintendo I bought with my own money when I was 9, the parental decision I recently cited to them as the least defensible they ever made), and by then it was too late–permanently a step or two behind my nerd friends, I never quite had the energy to catch up, and though I always enjoyed video games, I’ve been missing that pure sort of Gamer gene my entire life. Consequently, my VG knowledge mostly extends to classics on GameBoy (the compromise system my parents allowed me in my pre-teens), the multi-player N-64 games I played with my friends through middle school and high school, the Guitar Hero/Rock Band family, and Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic belonged to that special group of early-90s video games in my Dark Ages that I frequently had access to outside of the house–I could play NBA Jam when I went to the local kids’ nice clothing store, I could play Mortal Kombat when I was at my older neighbor Alan’s place (who also showed me my first porn, though it was mostly of fecalphilia, which probably put me off porn for at least a few years) and I could play Sonic when I was at my family friends’ meetups in New York for a weekend or so. If I’d had my way, that’s all I would’ve done when I was there–while the rest of the kids were off playing with fake instruments or putting on Disney re-enactments, I would sneak back upstairs and try to get through the third stage of the Spring Yard Zone, until my mom invariably came upstairs and made me feel bad for being so anti-social.

It made me the outcast of these family get-togethers for years, but I regret nothing. Sonic was a game that blew my mind in ways no game had before or really has since. Everything about it was poetry in motion to me, from the way Sonic bounced around the heavens in the bonus levels, to the way the fire would creep up at Sonic in the Marble Zone, to the vwwong sound it made when Sonic broke a Shield box.  And I loved the way every level had its own feel, its own rhythm, even its own sense of video game logic–every time you advanced to the next level, it felt like you were opening up a brand new game. The whole thing was stunningly imaginative, and breathtakingly immaculate. I’ve gotten more mileage out of a couple other games since, but if you put Sonic #1 on the list of the greatest video games of all-time, you’d get no argument from me.

My favorite part of the game, and definitely the part that most stayed with me, was probably the music. It ranged from the invigorating (Green Hill Zone) to the tense (Scrap Brain), to the fire and brimstone (Dr. Robotnik’s Theme) to the impossibly funky (Spring Yard Zone) and the blissfully serene (Special Stage), and it was all as addictive as 8-bit instrumental J-Pop could possibly be. Hearing the opening notes to any of the level themes puts a smile on my face like no band outside of The Raspberries or LFO can, and instantly takes me back to being eight years old in my family friends’ attic again. I mean yeah, the Tetris music was great and all, but how was I supposed to go back to my Game Boy after hearing all this?

Maybe the best piece of music in the whole thing, though, wasn’t any sort of theme, but rather, the super-panicked music that played whenever Sonic was in danger of drowning. For a game that starts with such childlike wonder in the green fields and sparkling colors of the Green Hill Zone, Sonic gets kinda scary as it goes along. This really first becomes evident in the Labyrinth Zone, the game’s fourth level, where Sonic is forced to spend much of the level underwater. He gets occasional breath refills by sucking on piles of organically growing air bubbles (which I guess is how I thought SCUBA diving worked for most of my young life), but go too long without downing one, and the “Gasping for Air” music starts to play. And from there, you know shit is about to go down.

The Labyrinth Zone music is generally pretty genial–maybe a little less of an enthusiastic rush than some of the early musics, with a slightly dark undertone in its heavily syncopated rhythms, but mostly harmless. But when the music is interrupted by the sounds of “Gasping for Air,” you are snapped immediately to attention. That brutal, piercing DUN-DA, DUN-DA, DUN-DA, DUN-DA just comes out of nowhere, and instantly your heart begins racing and you panic over how to get out of this predicament. But unless you find quick relief, the music just gets faster, more intense (DUNDADUNDA-DUNDADUNDA), until you can’t remember which button does what on the SEGA controller (even though there are only three, and I think they all do pretty much the same thing). I was almost always too struck with fear to properly get myself either out of the water or to a bubble repository, and had to resort to a lot of cheap continues as a result.

If you’d given me a couple years with the Sonic series for my VG fandom to properly blossom, I might be writing about Centipede and Dig Dug instead of Journey and Squeeze these days. As it is, I’m doomed to a lifetime of smiling and nodding while my nerd friends discuss the latest Final Fantasy. And Mom and Dad, you guys still owe me $10 for that Nintendo.

Posted in VG O.D. | 3 Comments »

In a Perfect World: “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin'” Would Be the Definitive Journey Power Ballad

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 28, 2008

Tearin’ me apart, every day

I saw Journey on a State Fair bill with Cheap Trick and Heart this past weekend. I had shit seats and Journey was on their third post-Perry vocalist (Arnel Pineda, who both sounds and looks almost exactly like him, except slightly more Mexican), but within seconds of launching into “Only the Young,” this mattered little. I still can’t figure out whether pop culture’s recent re-appropriation of Journey (and more specifically, flagship anthem “Don’t Stop Believin'”) is a good or bad thing for the band; surely they deserve it, but ironists should never be trusted in the canonization process for such matters, and the divide between those who still show up to Journey concerts wearing their shirts and those who continue to use DSB as their last-call karaoke standard is too great for Journey to simply be treated as a Great Band. Point is, Journey are a hell of a band, and even their new songs at the gig were practically indistinguishable from their barrage of classics, minus the fact that signficantly fewer people were singing along.

But there was still much fault to be found with the gig–namely, the omissions. It’s understandable that Journey would a) pimp as much of their new album as they felt they could without their audience inciting to riot and b) mostly stick to the crowd-pleaser power ballads and scorching rockers for the majority of their set, and they didn’t have as much time to work with as they probably needed for a three/four-decade catalogue. Still, it disturbed me a little how much they stayed away from any of their mid-tempo, ambiguously anthemic classics–not just unjustly forgotten second tier hits like “Walks Like a Lady” or “The Party’s Over (Hopelessly in Love),” but legitimate chart-busters like “The Girl Can’t Help It” and “Who’s Crying Now?” Those weird middle ground songs are a huge part of the reason I love Journey as much as I do, providing substantial evidence against them being the sole intellectual property of either arena rock meatheads or cheese-fixated retro fetishists. Still, their absence was understandable, even excusable.
Less, so, however, was the lack of the song I had waited for all night. I was sure they would play it at the end of their encore (after returning with a resounding “Any Way You Want It,” and when they even referenced its title, I geared for the high point of the evening. And then they just walked away.

Journey did not play “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin'”.

I was afraid I was going to be the only one devestated by this, but a quick check with a couple of the friends I saw the show with and the ladies on line for the port-a-potties afterwards confirmed that they were similarly busted up by it. “Send Her My Love” doesn’t really bring home the bacon in live settings, fine. But “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin'”?!?? That song begs for the live treatment. Amidst a catalogue of songs written practically with the express purpose of making them as stadium-chant-ready as possible,
“Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin'” reigns supreme as the song you’d most want to be singing along with the band and 50,000 of their closest friends to. And without it, the entire concert was practically ruined for me.

I wrote recently about another Southern Soul song written by quintessential white dudes. That’s all well and good, but compared to “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’, Squeeze is about as soulful as Laurie Anderson. LTS is Steve Perry’s vocal masterwork, a song built on the escalating drama of his voice, constantly getting higher, more agressive and more passionate before exploding into the song’s finale, which, despite my recent re-appreciation of “Hey Jude,” gets my vote for the best multi-minute “na-na-na-na” outro in classic rock. I always pictured it as being in a Sam Cooke sort of mold–maybe slightly more bitter, but the title and concept (a tale of blissful schadenfraude about the satisfaction of watching your cheating ex-lover get stepped out on herself) are both very sort of classic soul, and I’m sure Sam would’ve had a blast with reaching for those high notes.

Really, to call it my favorite Journey song is almost a discredit to the band, since it stands out so awkwardly from the rest of their power ballad repertoire. Usually, the JPB falls into one of two categories: The street-level, heavily romantic fist-pumper (“Wheel in the Sky,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Stone in Love”) and the unguarded, tender weepfest (“When You Love a Woman,” “Open Amrs,” “Faithfully”), but the only one of these that has much in common with LTS is “Lights,” which I thought was a Bob Seger song for a number of years due to its soulfully deliberate pacing and nostalgic sentimentality (despite the geography being all wrong). Journey are still rockers in the classic sense at their core, and that’s probably for the best.

Take the moment, though, which marks my favorite part of the song. Perry has finished detailing how his ex will invariably see karma come back to her in the form of her new man’s abandonment, and now it’s time for him to rub it in a little. He lays down the final taunt–“Now it’s your turn girl to cry!“–and drummer Steve Smith quickly pounds the drums as the song briefly goes silent, right before Perry’s “na-na-na-na”s kick in and the song goes into overdrive. It’s just a moment, probably meant to mark the halfway point in the anthem (akin to Paul’s “better-better-BETTER-BETTER-WAHHHHH!!!!” moment in “Hey Jude”), but the punctuation it puts on the song’s first half (which somehow turned from gooey self-pity to vengeful boasting while you weren’t really listening) and the excitement it builds for an extremely satisfying musical coda is absolutley perfect. They might not have had much practice with this kind of power ballad, but it looks like they nailed it on the first trial run.

It probably won’t ever replace DSB as the go-to Journey song, and that’s probably not without reason–DSB is an inarguably great song to begin with (one of these days I’ll actually write why I think that is), and it has a certain cultural cachet (and a more visceral emotional reaction) that LTS probably never will. Still, I’d like to hope that they never shut it out from live gigs again–Journey might have fucked themselves by writing too many great power ballads, sure, but this was probably the best of the bunch, and setlists need be adjusted accordingly.

Posted in In a Perfect World | 2 Comments »

Schadenfraude: The Return of Chicken Little

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 26, 2008

The hearts of a million little old ladies, instantly dashed

Yet another unfortuante by-product of watching too much ESPN this summer is getting straight-up assaulted by previews for College, the latest cinematic perpetuation of the myth that if you have a miserable high school experience, you will be rewarded with unlimited beer, pussy and irresponsibility within 15 minutes of your arrival on university campus. Fair enough, but the movie looks absolutely dreadful, like yet another entry in the Van Wilder series without even the benefit of Ryan Reynolds (and/or Kal Penn) star power. Apparently it stars the guy from Drake & Josh (guess which one!), although having never seen a lick of the series that means relatively little to me. However, I recognized one face in the preview, a face that rang all sorts of bells in the very recesses of my subconscious. I couldn’t quite place it, but I know I had seen it before. Those glasses. Those beady little eyes. That pale skin. That protruding forehead. That nervous little twitch. Where had I seen it? Then I wiki’d it, and it was so obvious. Of course:

Covais.

If you missed the 5th season of American Idol, you have no real reason to know who this person is, and more power to you for it (my advice would be to skip College, though as an IITS reader I’d imagine you’d have sense enough for that anyway). I personally didn’t even watch the whole thing–I had gotten hooked with S4 because my roommate Freshman year was super into it (Joey and Leno, his other two televisual vices, didn’t quite take), and without his enthusiasm feeding the process, I only made it about halfway through five before getting fed up with the patter, the filler episodes, and the lack of Bo Bice (I got your back now and always, Bo-seph–keep rocking those Badlands ballads and laughing at that loser Constantine Maroulis).

But Kevin Covais was one of the dramatic lynchpins of those early S5 episodes. In each Idol season, there tended to have one candidate that didn’t quite seem to fit–too young, too physically and/or socially awkward, too generally LOL-worthy. You imagined (s)he appealed to some sort of niche audience, some oppressed minority that wanted to make sure their representative got all the support they needed. Then you found out it was just that shadowy internet cabal Vote for the Worst was behind the whole thing, and a little of the magic was lost. Still, there was definitely some truth to the idea that, as Simon often so derisively suggested, the then-16 year old pipsqueak Covais (nicknamed “Chicken Little” due to his physicaly similarity to the title character of the then-hit Disney flick) appealed to Idol‘s nursing-home contingent with his nasally vibrato and interminably pinchable cheeks. Whatever the cause, it was enough to somehow get Covais into the top 12, at which point he became not long for this world. He was voted off shortly thereafter, and that was the last we ever heard of Kevin Covais.

Until now. Chicken Little plays one of the three friends visiting the titular educational phase on a weekend’s orientation, with craziness ensuing–something of the Christopher Mintz-Plasse to Drake’s Michael Cera and the fat kid’s Jonah Hill, I presume. Except compared to Covais, even McLovin himself is practically Zac Efron–there is no part of this kid that shouldn’t bring out the inner Revenge of the Nerds-era Ted McGinley in all of us. Don’t you just feel your fists balling up looking at him? It’s a rare talent, truly, but one that should only be reserved for when absolutely necessary. College is definitely not absolutely necessary.

Hopefully the film debuts of Sanjaya Malakar and Scott Savol will be far more auspicious.

(IITS might be taking something of a hiatus for the next week or so, as we move westward to sunny California for the last of our summer soujurns, possibly with an aching in our hearts)

Posted in Schadenfreude | 1 Comment »

O-Watcher: “I GOT ATE BY A MOTHERFUCKIN’ SHARK!!!”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 24, 2008

“First, we’re going to–“

Deep Blue Sea is an exceptionally mediocre movie. The cast is mostly bland, the suspense is fairly minimal, and the plot can be most easily described as “Jaws meets Alzheimer’s Disease.” It’s a movie that’s barely even worth watching on USA at 1:00 on a Sunday afternoon. However, the movie endures at least as a pop culture historical footnote, primarily for three reasons:

  1. It proves that there was in fact a time when actor Thomas Jane was considered leading man material.
  2. Along with Jane’s character, it is the sassy, religious ship cook played by LL Cool J that stands as the last survivng cast member, not the record-breakingly worthless female lead played by Saffron Burrows (who I thought was Rachel Weisz for some reason).
  3. Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by a mothefucking shark.

So what, you may ask. After all, it’s a movie in which the primary action involves sharks (super-smart ones, no less) eating people, and by any approximation of a One-Cast-Member-Picked-Off-At-A-Time movie rulebook, SLJ’s relatively ansillary character (some sort of corporate executive) would have to be one of the first ones to go. But you probably wouldn’t really ask that, because if you’re reading this blog, I’d like to think the the chances are pretty good that your mind has been blown by this scene as much as mine has. And you know that it’s not just that Sammy J goes down, or even that he goes down so early (2nd to go, after Stellen Skarsgaard)–it’s that he goes down in a way that, for such an otherwise by-the-book movie, is incomprehensibly (and rather impressively) unexpected.

Watch the scene above, if you’ve somehow managed to avoid doing so in life thusfar. Now imagine that the scene comes barely halfway into the movie. Jackson starts to give The Inspirational Speech–a cliche relatively familiar to OCMPOAAT enthusiasts, in which the protagonist makes his or her leadership and control of the situation known to the rest of the cast (this is, of course, not to be confused with The Fuck You Guys i’m Outta Here Speech, which results in death for its pontificator on average of 40 seconds within its delivery). All the trademarks are there–the slowly-evolving close ups, the swelling majestic music in the background, the gradually increasing intensity of SLJ’s vocal cadence. This should be the turning point in the movie, in which the crew starts to think clearly and work together under Jackson’s leadership, until it eventually comes down to Sam and the final shark in the movie’s grand finale.

Nope. Instead, some screenwriter apparently had a brilliant revelation while smoking pot and cursing the fact that he had to write this shitty fucking movie, and asked “hey, wouldn’t it be awesome if while he’s giving the lame-ass speech, the shark just jumped up and ate him?” And under some miraculous confluence of the Cable Movie Gods, no one ever shot the idea down, and sure enough, Jackson’s exit from Deep Blue Sea doesn’t even get to finish his final sentence before one of the Super-Sharks rudely interrupts him. Now, there is mild foreshadowing of this–a few minutes prior, one of the crew members cautions him about standing too close to the tank, but he ignores it, and you figure hey, he’s Samuel L. Jackson, fuck does he need to worry about that? If you saw actually this one coming, good for you, though it doubtless means you have never seen a terrible horror movie before.

It’s funnier, scarier, and more jaw-droppingly how the hell did they get away with this than all of Snakes on a Plane, and I just gotta watch it when it’s on. After that, it’s straight to the remote, of course, but the scene is basically enough to buy Deep Blue sea 20 years’ worth of re-run worthiness.

Posted in O-Watcher | 5 Comments »

Songs We Take For Granted: Squeeze – “Tempted” (1981)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 23, 2008

The truth is discovered

If “Tempted” is the only, or one of the only two or three Squeeze songs you know, you’ve probably heard it from people more reliable than me–it’s not Squeeze’s best song, nor is it even particularly representative of the band’s catalogue at large. But what you might not know already is that “Tempted,” despite being the song that is by far the most associated with the band, was not the band’s biggest hit upon its original release–in fact, it topped out at a paltry #49 on the US pop charts, and was far outclassed by later hits “Hourglass” and “853-5937.” If you’ve never even heard of those two songs, don’t feel too bad–“Hourglass” was mostly a hit due to its nifty trompe l’oeil video, Squeeze masterminds Glen Tilbrook and Chris Difford loathe “853-5937,” and neither is featured on the band’s most popular hits comp, Singles (.45s and Under). But it shows that the continued pop culture presence of “Tempted” isn’t chalkable to simple 80s nostalgia–more people really like the song than you might think.

That said, it’s true that “Tempted” is not Squeeze’s best song–“Cool for Cats,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Up the Junction” and even second-most-well-remembered Squeeze song “Black Coffee in Bed” are all much better and much more interesting. Nor is it particularly represenative of the band on the whole–Squeeze were never the edgiest of new wave bands, but “Tempted” practically puts them in Michael McDonald territory, which while not a bad thing in itself, does discredit to the quirky, nervy energy of the majority of their singles discography. But I also don’t think it deserves to be relegated to “stupid hit that the band’s real fans can’t stand” status, either–it’s a simple, immaculate little pop song that deserves exactly the place in pop history that it currently occupies.

I guess what was the stumbling block with me and “Tempted” for so long is how un-new wave (and really, un-80s) it sounds. Because it’s not a new wave song, it’s a blue-eyed soul song to the very core, and a beaut of one at that. Squeeze are such a bunch of goofy white guys by nature (seriously, check that “Hourglass” vid if you have any doubt) that I didn’t realize until very recently just how close to Stax/Volt “Tempted” and “Black Coffee” are. But if you slowed ’em down a bit, put a little grit in the rhythm section and got someone not quite so British to sing the lead vocal, you’d have an Otis Redding record on your hands. The rest of the ingredients are there–the grooving organ lines, the heavenly backing vocals, and the simple, plaintive melodies. Think Al Green doing “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and you’re pretty much all the way there.

And the lyrics, which I previously thought were kind of banal–well, yeah, they are sort of banal, but in a much more charming way than I realized. The song was written in the least ambitious of circumstances–Tilbrook jotted down the main ideas based on what he saw passing in a cab once–and it’s reflected in the mundanity of the lyrics, which provide a perfect base for straying once the song gets to the more satisfying Temptation of the chorus. Plus, there are certainly clever lines to be had (“I said to my reflection, ‘let’s get out of this place'” is a wonderfully basic and imagistic way to express a feeling everyone has had in a place they didn’t belong), and hearing producer Elvis Costello (who, possibly inspired, would suit up for a similar crossover soul excursion a few years later with “Every Day I Write The Book”) baritone his part of the second verse is a definite treat.

Of course, it’s the chorus that keeps the people coming back. You remember all the commercials, of course–Burger King, Fruit of the Loom (especially bad with the punniness) and most recently, Heineken, all trading on the fact that the song is probably the pop song most simply associated with the casual joy and guilt of temptation. And that’s the key–the song doesn’t pass any sort of judgement on the act of temptation, with temp singer Paul Carrack (who is something like the Forrest Gump of MOR British pop) sounding equally excited, conscience-racked and bored by the concept (and none too much of each). It’s a relatively blank slate of a pop song, allowing listeners to project what tone they will on it.

It doesn’t make it the most scintillating of listens, which is why it’s at least understandable for Squeeze fans to be somewhat resentful of the song’s overinflated place in the band’s catalogue. But really, the travesty isn’t that “Tempted” remains as popular as it does, it’s that the rest of the band’s singles don’t. Viewed instead in the context of all of 80s pop music, “Tempted” doesn’t pretend to be any more or less than it is–a sweet, transmutable little song with a hell of a chorus. May it be used in Levi’s and Dairy Queen commercials for the next 20 years to come.

Posted in Songs We Take for Granted | 12 Comments »

One Moment in Time: Marvin Gaye Gets Loose With the National Anthem (1983)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 21, 2008

How sweet it is

What a difference a drum machine makes. If you’ve been keeping even the loosest of tabs on our 29th Olympics (and if you haven’t, lemme sum up: Usain Bolt = Fast, Michael Phelps = Aqueous, Doubles Table-Tennis = Ridiculous), you’ve no doubt seen the commercials featuring team USA training, practicing, and generally being communal to the tune and split visuals of a particularly soulful individual’s rendering of “The Star Spangled Banner.” That man is of course Marvin Gaye, and the song is from the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, one of his last televised appearances. And evidently, it’s having the same effect on our Redeem Team that Whitney Houston’s hit rendition had on the 1990 New York Giants, since Team USA is so far undefeated and a mere two games away from claiming the Gold they somehow failed to score the last couple times out.

No surprise there, really. I’m not sure if it’s the best version of the Star Spangled Banner I’ve ever heard, but it’s certainly one that makes me wonder why more musicians aren’t musically adventurous like this when it comes to performing our nation’s bland and somewhat badly dated theme song (when was the last time you watched ramparts, much less gallantly streaming ones?). The minimal and largely unobtrusive drum track the song is built on isn’t particularly interesting in itself, but it takes enough of the pressure off of the vocal (usually expected to make up the entire song) that Gaye can afford to stretch out a little bit. And really, there’s nothing more smooth and sweet-sounding than Gaye getting loose, even with a song as tired as our National Anthem. It’s enough that I’m always hoping for the full-length version of the commercial when it airs:

Two games to go, fellers. Don’t make us resort to “Sexual Healing.”

Posted in One Moment in Time | 2 Comments »

Say Anything: Pineapple Express

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 20, 2008

Only 13 days late this time

I was relieved when I first saw that a couple negative reviews for Pineapple Express were beginning to trickle in pre-release to balance out what were sure to be the dozens of glowing “Comedy of the summer” / “Apatow and company do it again” / “Best movie named after a Hawaiian weather phenomenon” type reviews for which the movie seemed destined. From the previews, I had gotten the sneaking suspicion that this was going to be one of those Borat type movies where if you didn’t think it was unfailingly hilarious, you may as well have branded yourself as a porn-hating, V8-drinking, McCain-voting Josh Groban fanatic in the eyes of many* (naturally I thought Borat was only sporadically funny, so). And basically, Pineapple Express lived up to my expectations–funny, but not that funny, and probably not deserving of placement in the upper echelon of stoner flicks. That’s the sum up, but obviously I gotta get a little more specific, so time to break out the bullet points…

  • Seth Rogen: Is this really the guy we want representing our generation’s quarter-life loserdom? I mean, I guess he’s as good as anybody, but I feel like I like him less with each movie I see him in. I guess it’s more the redundancy of the roles he plays than anything he does himself. Let’s have him play a Wall Street broker or an eccentric NBA team owner or something before he plays another barely-employed, hard-luck schlub like Dale here again.
  • Speaking of which, from the previews for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (dear lord), it appears that Michael Cera has most thoroughly neglected to take my career advice. Mikey, I love ya, but when you inevitably stop looking 16 and your shy, perpetually-nervous schtick ceases to look adorable and starts to look kind of sad, don’t expect me to loan you money for your Yoo-Hoo habit.
  • James Franco, on the other hand, looks like he finally got to play the role he’s been gearing for his entire career. He was always going to be more sellable as a loveable puppy dog than a brooding tough guy (watching him seething alone in his mansion while sipping a glass of red wine in the Spidey series never failed to bring the LOLs), and Saul, his super-stoner character here, is as perfect a Daniel DeSario 10 Years Later update as you could hope for. My personal favorite stoner moment in the movie: When Saul looks up at the night sky and just mutters “Space…” Best, most subtle filmic recreation of intoxication since that scene in Dazed and Confused where a drunk, woozy Cole Hauser gets up out of his chair, re-considers for a second, and plops back down again.
  • The action scenes: kind of boring, no? I mean, that first fight between the two protagonists and Danny McBride’s mid-level dealer Red had its moments, but the rest seemed like director David Gordon Green couldn’t choose a tone between basic action satire, fights between dudes who have never been in a fight before realism, and straight-up slapstick. Between this and the somewhat overrated Hot Fuzz, I guess I just prefer action movies with either clever, Bruce Willis-style quipping or straight-faced, Arnie-style OTTness than actual attempts at action / comedy hybrids.
  • Gary Cole and Rosie Perez: What a waste. Much love I have for both, but neither got a character worth a damn to work with. Same goes for Daryl from The Office (much better used in his Knocked Up cameo) and Ray Liotta’s brother in Goodfellas (much better used as the creepy guy in Superbad). Actually, aside from the admittedly pretty great Danny McBride (fine, I’ll torrent The Foot Fist Way or something), the only one of the movie’s That Guy-stacked cast actually given a half-decent role is Bill Hader, in the movie’s solid First-Stoner-in-History flashback opening. Bummer.
  • The least funny recurring element of the movie: Saul and Dale’s constant unintentional (OR IS IT?!?!) homoeroticism. Every Apatow outing (no pun intended, seriously) has at least a little bit of this, but nothing’ll make you nostalgic for Rogen and Paul Rudd’s arguably classic “You know how I know you’re gay?” bantering in 40 Year-Old Virgin like Rogen and Franco unconsciously miming gay sex while trying to escape captivity. As the friend I saw it with succinctly put it, “We get it. Dudes are kinda gay.”
  • The other least funny recurring element of the movie: All the Asians cursing and saying wacky Caucasian shit in subtitled foreign languages. I mean…really?
  • Movie gets mostly positive tallies for the soundtrack–use of BBD’s “Poison” and Bone Thugs’ “Tha Crossroads” not particularly inspired, but it’s still “Poison” and “Tha Crossroads,” and it’s hard to find too much fault with any movie that starts rolling (in both ways) with “Electric Avenue.” Bonus points of course as well for the Huey Lewis theme song over the closing credits. Only real fault to find here is that “Paper Planes”–currently the #5 song in the nation thanks to the exposure of being used in PE’s previews–is nowhere to be found in the actual movie. Disappointing, considering I’m finally able to stand the song again.
  • Props to the movie’s final scene, which strikes the “Uhhh did all that stuff really just happen? Huh, cool” vibe that I kind of wished the movie had done a better job of keeping the entire time. Extra points for the fakeout of Dale becoming a successful radio DJ, of no one really learning any sort of meaningful lesson, and for the movie just kind of forgetting about female lead Amber Heard, whose presence in the movie was pointless even by Apatow buddy movie standards.
  • Considering how much Rogen and Apatow have cited his True Romance character as inspiration for the movie, anyone else think the movie was badly missing a Brad Pitt walk-on?

I dunno. I feel like Pineapple Express tries to be all things to all stoners, but it doesn’t match the situational hilarity of Harold & Kumar, the gleeful absurdism of Dude, Where’s My Car?, the hazy brilliance of The Big Lebowski or the infectious enthusiasm of Half-Baked. I don’t even see it becoming much of a basic-cable classic, unless Comedy Central does a particularly inspired job with the censoring. It’s probably still be one of the better Summer comedy options out there, but if Apatow is the John Hughes of the 00s, then he’s moving out of Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink territory and solidly towards the Some Kind of Wonderful / Uncle Buck phase of his career.

*For the record, no hating on V8 from me. Delicious stuff.

Posted in Say Anything | 1 Comment »

Popcorn Love: Steve Buscemi in Con Air (1997)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 18, 2008

“Define Irony…”

Despite being more in my wheelhouse (late-90s Bruckheimer-fleeced action flick starring Nicolas Cage + who’s who That Guy supporting cast) than just about any other movie in existence, I’m not actually sure when the last time I saw Con Air was. Truth is, I never really considered it the equal of Broken Arrow, Face/Off or The Rock, to name just a few of its classic peers, so I’ve been slacking on watching its reruns on TNT and USA and the like. Anyway, watching it for the first time in however long, I had forgotten about a lot of things. How awful Nicolas Cage’s southern accent was, for instance. Or what a high percentage of the movie John Cusack seems to spend jumping out of the way of things (or how most of the rest of the time, he’s got an “I’m just as surprised as you that I’m in this movie” look on his face). Or how unbelievably ridiculous some of the one-liners are, as when a disgraced felon pleads for his life with John Malkovich’s character Cyrus “The Virus” Girssom, begging “Cy–,” and Grissom finishes his thought, “-annora,” lighting him on fire.

One thing I remembered perfectly, however, was how creepy and hilarious Steve Buscemi is in this movie as mass-murderer Garland Greene. For a relatively big star (at least compared to perpetually knife-wielding badass Mexican Danny Trejo and perpetually-mustachioed badass MC Gainey), he doesn’t get too many on-screen minutes–that clip above compiles all of ’em, and it’s barely five and a half minutes long. But even amidst a collection of some of the baddest dudes in film history (besides Malkovich, Trejo and Gainey, there’s Ving Rhames, Nick Chinlund, and, uh, Dave Chappelle), it’s the un-muscled, facial hair-devoid Buscemi who is the villain that makes the strongest impression. Not bad for a performance where he never really does anything all that villainous.

Garland Greene is introduced at first like the most dangerous man on the planet, dressed in full restraints, handled by guards like a glass case full of plutonium and given a kind of hushed-whisper respect to make Hannibal Lecter jealous.  Cameron Poe, Cage’s character, learns via Bubba from Forrest Gump that Greene’s rep is built on his 30-person murdering spree, diced about in fashion that “makes the Manson Family look like the Partridge Family.” Poe isn’t too impressed, but definitely at least slightly unnerved to be sitting not all that far from Greene on the prisoner transfer flight. Later, after the prisoners take over the plane and turn it into the titular airline, Grissom (the de facto flight captain) demands Greene’s release, professing to be a “love [his] work.”

As Greene’s restraints are removed, he settles into a seat next to Poe, quipping at him in the sarcastic, overly talkative way we’re used to seeing from Buscemi, just with a slightly more psychotic bent. He’s not scary, per se–even Cage’s demeanor while listening to him is more along the lines of passenger irritaiton at being seated next to a big gabber than it is of cowering fear–but the props he’s been given from Grissom and the cops makes his relatively calm demeanor seem somewhat unnerving. It’s obvious that it’s only going to be a matter of time before we see what exactly it is that makes Garland such a certifiable bad dude.

When the plane lands to attempt to find new transportation, it seems like we’re finally going to see Greene in his purest form. As he wanders away from the troupe, he finds a young girl playing with her dolls and tea set, and in the audience, you’re thinking here we go. As the two’s conversation becomes increasingly ominous (“Are you sick?” “…I am sick.” “Do you take medicine?” “There is no medicine for what I have”), you’re just waiting for him to reach across the table and start bashing her head in, or worse. Then, when it seems things couldn’t get any tenser, the girl persuades Garland to sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”–already one of the creepiest songs in history–with her, as the background music gets darker and the camera angles become more askance.

The camera cuts away, the action shifts elsewhere, and you assume that director Simon West just didn’t have the heart to show you the deplorable acts of evil Greene performed on the little girl, but that you’ll somehow be informed of it later. Yet, as Con Air takes off for a second time, out trots the little girl, perfectly unharmed, to wave goodbye at Greene as he flies away. He gets one more line while on board, commenting about the irony of the convicts dancing to “Sweet Home Alabama” in flight when much of Skynyrd died in a plane crash. The lat time you see him is the last thing you see in the whole movie, indeed, Buscemi gets the movie’s last line, answering that yes, he does feel lucky [to have been the one convict besides Poe to survive the ordeal].

What’s really remarkable about this performance is that Steve Buscemi achieves a truly enviable level of skin-crawling weirdness by basically just acting like Steve Buscemi. Despite all the badass-ness attributed to him throughout the movie, he never actually does much of anything, and at the end, the movie basically winks at him, like “oh Garland, you loveable child-murdering scamp.” Even when he talks about wearing a girl’s head as a hat, he doesn’t really sound much different from Carl Showalter talking about pancakes in Fargo. Any creepiness that actually emerges from his character is attributable almost entirely to Buscemi himself–his gaunt, pale figure and sullen blue eyes, his seemingly meek but clearly somewhat unbalanced demeanor, and the credit he had gained by playing a lifetime’s worth of lowlifes prior to Con Air.

Notably, Buscemi would go on to play a character with a somewhat reversed trajectory as Rockhound in Armageddon, Bruckheimer’s next blockbuster. In that one, he starts out as a probably creepy but generally genial guy, and turns into a psychotic, near-murderer by the end. Less creepy, just as funny.

Posted in Popcorn Love | 3 Comments »

Take Five: Celebs Only Remembered By Their Simpsons References

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 18, 2008

Smashing Pumpkins: Still technically too relevant to qualify

Long before Family Guy was noting their own obscure Karen Black references, The Simpsons was rejuvenating the careers of ancient celebs left and right with their tossed-off allusions. Given that The Simpsons is one of the few shows–maybe the only show–that just about anyone (any white males, certainly) currently between the ages of 20 and 35 can be expected to be able to quote just about every line from every episode, a mention in the show gives you a certain newfound cultural capital not experienced anywhere else outside of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Consequently, there are many pop culture figures of yesteryear remembered by a new generation not for their myriads of artistic accomplishments, but because they were mentioned once in a cartoon. So let’s take a look at what five of these lost souls were actually once famous for:


Rory Calhoun

A Hollywood Walk-of-Fame recipient for his decades of roles in Westerns and Musicals, as well as a notable story for his rags-to-riches rise (he was a juvenile thief, spending three years in prison before meeting Alan “Shane” Ladd and being introduced to film). He starred with Shirley Temple, dated Lana Turner, and was sold out by his agent to the press to help protect the career-wrecking secret of fellow client Rock Hudson. Yet for those of us not around for the 40s and 50s, we can only assume that Calhoun was famous solely for his standing and walking, a perception held by Mr. Burns and understood at least by Smithers in the episode Two Dozen and One Greyhounds. From what I can tell, Calhoun was not especially known as a celebrity who is “always standing up and walking,” but I guess he wasn’t particularly famous for sitting down, either, so who knows.


Joey Heatherton

Back in the 60s, Joey Heatherton appears to have been a legitimate star of sorts, hanging with both the Rat Pack and Bob Hope, starring in countless potboiler dramas and nearly getting cast as the title character in Lolita, and even earning a rep with Northern Soul collectors for her limited musical releases. Nonetheless, the only times I’ve ever heard of her are the triple whammy of references she gets on The Simpsons–losing out to an ironed shirt as Moe’s ultimate fantasy, being begged to put some pants on by a square Sgt. Skinner, and being compared to a recently buffed-out Marge by a dismayed Homer. To current hotties like Jessica Biel and Megan Fox, there’s a lesson to be learned here–if you don’t make at least one half-decent movie worth remembering, the only people who’ll remember you past your prime are nerdy, middle-aged cartoon writers.


Gabby Hayes

“That Milhouse is going to be big! Gabby Hayes big!” This one actually makes a little bit of sense, since as the Fallout Boy to Rainier Wolfcastle’s Radioactive Man, Milhouse was placing himself in the sidekick paradigm that Mr. hayes apparently owned for he first half of the 20th century. He was cast as John Wayne’s sidekick in 20 different movies, was Hopalong Cassidy’s second banana for five years, and did dozens of movies with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Perhaps even more strikingly, he has a Memorial Fishing Tournament named after and/or dedicated to him every year in Philadelphia. But when “Radioactive Man” appears in reruns from now until forever, that line is going to continue to inspire a whole lot of confused looks.


Bill “Ray J. Johnson” Saluga

Of all the outdated references on the show, this is probably the one I’m most glad I never really got–it sounds like Ray J. Johnson (alternate identity of Cosby regular Bill Saluga) really was just famous based on this one lousy, annoying “You can call me…” routine. Still, it apparently stuck in the craws of Simpsons writers enough for him to also join the exclusive Simpsons triple-reference club, with Krusty complaining about having him for a guest, Homer explaining his schtick to an unimpressed Lisa, and with Saluga himself appearing as a washed-up performer in Branson. Nonetheless, this time at least the Simpsons aren’t alone in this department–a singer/songwriter you might’ve heard of named Bob Dylan included a reference to RJJ in “Gotta Serve Somebody,” the only well-remembered song from Zimmy’s ill-fated gospel period.


Eudora Welty

An esteemed photographer for the Works Progress Administration, an acclaimed short story writer, and of course, a Nobel Prize winner for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter, I can’t help but wonder what Eudora Welty thought of the fact that in the last few years of her life, most people probably knew her just for her legendary belching abilities. At the ripe age of 86 when “A Star is Burns” first aired, Welty probably had at least six years to enjoy people coming up to her on the street and asking her to confirm Jay Sherman’s proclomations about her burping superiority. She doesn’t really look like a person who’d have a sense of humor about these things–in fact, maybe it’s a long-belated revenge from one of the Simpsons writers for having to read one of her books in American Lit II or something. Or maybe “Why I Live at the P.O.” just has some gas-passing subplot that’s not mentioned on her Wiki page.

Posted in Take Five, Underrated Simpsons Moment | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

What the World Needs Now: A Vin Diesel Comeback

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 16, 2008

“The things I’m gonna do for my country…”

So that preview up there…it doesn’t look too great, does it? I mean, sure, it’s got the Requiem for a Dream music, but that’s quickly joining the ranks of Sia’s “Breathe Me” and Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” of music so emotionally manipulative that using it to sell a sub-par product is just straight up cheating. And while admittedly the plot skeletons of just about all sci-fi movies sound ridiculous when written out, observe the Wiki summary:

In the near future, Toorop (Vin Diesel) is a mercenary who takes the job of escorting a woman from Eastern Europe to New York. While he thinks this is just an ordinary mission, he gradually finds out that his guest is carrying an organism that has the potential to become the next Messiah — and everybody wants to get their hands on it.

Hachi machi. Plus, it doesn’t really seem like Vinny’s heart is in it, does it? Especially in that exchange guaranteed to be an classic ’08 preview quote along the lines of 21‘s “Don’t call me dude!”:

Chick: “Are you a killer, Mr. Toorop?”
Dees: “Yes. Now please. Get in the car.”

Scintilating!

Actually, it’s been a while since there was anything involving Vin Diesel that was really worth getting excited about, and to me, that’s really sort of a shame. He started out promisingly enough a decade ago, with his scene-stealing roles in Saving Private Ryan and Boiler Room, but truly came into his own a few years later as an action hero in The Fast and the Furious and XXX. The movies were far from critically acclaimed, but they were commercial blockbusters, and more importantly, they felt like something new in a relatively stagnant genre–high-octane, street-level action; socially rebellious (key line from XXX: “Dude, you have a bazooka. Stop thinking Prague Police and start thinking Playstation. Blow shit up!“) but not socially irresponsible (The Dees doesn’t smoke, drink or do drugs on screen). Working with director Rob Cohen on both flicks, the combo looked like they could go on to be the Schwarzeneggar and Cameron (or at least Schwarz/McTiernan) for a new generation.

But something got lost along the golden path. Despite his clear limitations as an actor outside a very narrow subset of film types, Diesel appeared bothered by the idea of typecasting, and turned down roles in franchise sequels 2 Fast 2 Furious and XXX: State of the Union. However, he did think it wise to reprise his Pitch Black role in The Chronicles of Riddick, which would go on to be one of the least successful movies  of the decade. He’d rebound commercially with kiddie comedy The Pacifier, but his cred was ruined, and by the time of his attempted Serious Breakthrough in Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty, no one was particularly interested (the movie was confusingly uncompelling, anyway).

In the meantime, no one’s really stepped up to carry the torch as Action Star of the Decade. Jason Statham certainly has the resume to lay claim to being the closest thing (The Italian Job, The Bank Job, Crank, Transporters 1 &2, Cellular, even certain scenes in bizarro drama London), and is a certified film badass if ever there was one, but he doesn’t have the kind of marquee star power, that ability to sell a movie based solely on his presence, that Dees could’ve had if he had stayed on the straight and narrow. Instead, most of the great action movies of recent years have been turned over to more everyman types like Matt Damon and Colin Farrell, actors who certainly serve their roles and movies well, but just don’t have that kind of singular brute force awesomeness to them.

We need him back. Sure, he’s starting to get on in years a bit, but he’s still younger than Arnie was when he made Total Recall and T2, and the good thing about most true action heroes is that since they were never particularly good looking to begin with, they just look tougher and less forgiving as they get older. I don’t think Babylon A.D. is going to be the movie to do it, but at least Vinny seems to have finally come to the realization that being Pacino just isn’t in the cards for him. Even more encouragingly, Vin’s announced plans to appear in yet another The Fast and the Furious installment, simply called Fast and Furious, as a sequel to the first movie but a prequel to the Dees-less 2 Fast–also featuring return appearances from Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, and even the relatively useless Jordanna Brewster for good measure. The world is once again ready, and the return seems imminent.

It better be, anyway–the clock is ticking on the 00s, and if he doesn’t make it back by the time the decade runs out, I think he’s more or less doomed to permanent relic status. C’mon, Vinny, do you want to be Lil’ Wayne, or do you want to be Lil’ Romeo? The time is now.

Posted in What the World Needs Now | 2 Comments »