Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscars 2009 Opinion Dump

So I'm just going to get this over with and move on with my life. I'm going to Pixar tomorrow, for goodness sake.

The Oscar show was bizarre this year, with Hugh Jackman pulling out his "song and dance man" shctick and turning an event that is already described as "the gay Super Bowl" 250% gayer, complete with a new sparkle-centric set and a "the musical is back!" medley led by Jackman and Beyonce, and featuring appearances from the "High School Musical" kids, all of it choreographed by Baz Luhrmann. At least Jackman's opening number featured references to the fact "The Dark Knight" richly deserved a best picture nod and that nobody bothered to see "The Reader," even though Kate Winslet won a best actress statue for her performance in the Nazi romance. 

"Slumdog Millionaire," a movie I do love for its jolts of life positivity and good feelingness that it injected into my person, swept most of the awards as it was vaulted into the annals of "overrated best picture winners," as the sweet yet slightly shallow fairy tale beat out better, richer, and more interesting films like "Milk" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." "Button" was a film I loved dearly, yet many people seem to have responded to coldly. It's not as good as director David Fincher's masterpiece, "Zodiac" (which was completely snubbed by the Academy last year,) but "Button" is a gorgeous, moody, and heartbreaking film about life, love, and mortality. Though Fincher and Van Sant deserved it more for their movies this year (and Christopher Nolan deserved it most,) it is pretty cool that we can all now say the phrase "Oscar Winning Director Danny Boyle." Now that the slightly demented mind behind "Trainspotting," "28 Days Later," and the totally on crack "A Life Less Ordinary" has won an Oscar, maybe it means the Academy is getting a bit younger and hipper. Or maybe the old voters who refuse to die just liked the story of young kids falling in love through the dramatic use of a game show and have not bothered to watch Boyle's previous work.

Sean Penn won a richly deserved Best Actor award for his work as Harvey Milk, beating comeback kid Mickey Rourke for his very good work in "The Wrestler." Mickey was great as Randy The Ram, giving a physical performance made the more poignant because of the troubled actor's own personal history; but Penn embodied Harvey in every way, showing his heroism, charisma, and flaws and shedding light onto an undertold story of an American civil rights hero. Rourke is terrific and nothing should be taken away for him for his performance... but Penn is nothing short of brilliant in "Milk," and the best actor category is one of the few that the Academy has gotten right two years in a row.  I was also glad to see Dustin Lance Black pick up "Milk's" other win, for best original screenplay.

Penelope Cruz's win for her electrifying work in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" was nice, especially since it was for her work in the first truly great Woody Allen movie in nearly a decade. Heath Ledger's posthumous win for his work as The Joker in "The Dark Knight" felt like the evening's most inevitable award, but it was also moving to see his family accept it for him... and it was richly deserved. Ledger was brilliant in the film, and the performance will be his enduring legacy. It was wonderful to see the endlessly imaginative Andrew Stanton take home another Oscar to Pixar's offices in Emeryville for "Wall*E," vindication for a kid's movie that was part art movie, part speculative science fiction, part satire, part love story, and part silent comedy.I agree with the criticism that the film doesn't completely work in its second half; but when you take risks that large, they are not always going to pay off. Thank god the Academy rewarded experimentation and ambition again, even if Pixar has won more than a few times (they continue to do the best work in their medium, so there is no reason for them to stop beating Dreamworks every year.) 

Staying on the subject of the robot that won America's heart, one of the night's true injustices was that Ben Burtt was shutout of the two sound awards. Burtt gave Wall*E (and the rest of the movie's menagerie of robots) his voice, and he used sound in brilliant, inventive, and inspiring ways. Stanton appeared at ComicCon nearly two years ago to preview the film, and he introduced Burtt, (who did the sound work for the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" movies,) as one of his most important collaborators, giving characters who do not speak a unique language of their own. Did Burtt deserve to win the sound awards? Not only that, but it could be argued that the man should have been nominated in another category as well... best performance by an actor in a leading role. 

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Conan O'Brien Bids "Late Night" Farewell

16 years ago, Lorne Michaels tapped (in Conan's own words) "a completely unknown writer with no television experience and bad skin" to take over as host of "Late Night" when David Letterman departed for CBS. Despite his gawky 6'4'' frame and "shock of red hair," his lack of name recognition, and his often bizarre and very outside the mainstream sense of humor (with bits that included masturbating bears, "In the year 2000," and the legendary "Innapropriate!" bit,) Conan became an American comedy institution.

Last night was Conan's last of 2,725 broadcasts as the host of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." In a couple months, he takes the big job at "The Tonight Show," taking over for Jay Leno and taking a seat once legendarily filled by the great Johnny Carson. American tastes have changed to the point that someone as alternative, edgy and (let's just say it,) weird as Conan can host The Tonight Show. Some fans are worried Conan will have to tone his schtick down to fit his earlier time slot and retain Leno's audience, many of which are older Americans looking for inoffensive comedy before they fall asleep.

Frankly, I don't for a minute expect Conan to change to appease Leno's fans. He earned his job as the new host of "The Tonight Show" by crafting his own unique persona and creating a voice in comedy unlike anybody else on television... the NBC brass gave him his big promotion because of who he is, not because they want him to be anybody else. We're going to see a Maturbating Bear at 11:30 on weekenights, and if he turns any prudish Leno fans off, he's going to win a lot more people over with his risk taking, weird, and totally authentic sense of humor.

Conan has earned his new job after sixteen unique, surprising, and laugh out loud funny years on "Late Night." It was sad to see his show come to an end, but it's going to be exciting to see Conan take on his new challenge with the bigger audience that comes with it. 

Below are a couple great clips from Conan's last "Late Night" show.

Conan's personal all time favorite bit from the show: 

Conan's emotional last words to close the show (and his promise to never grow up just because he's hosting "The Tonight Show":)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Inevitable Morrissey Post

Anybody who knows me, I mean really knows me, had to know this post was coming the day that "Years of Refusal" was released in stores. Morrissey is the music equivalent of Woody Allen to me... a polarizing artist who some people loathe for the same reasons others love him, who mines his own strange personality, world view, and neurosis in each and every one of his songs, who refuses to change his style or lyrical content with the trends of his medium, and whose output of music and strange, cryptic interviews I can't enough of. Also, he's a pretty fucking funny dude for all the times he's been accused of being a "miserabilist" or the "pope of mope."
Morrissey has a new album out. It's pretty fucking good, with flashes of great.

Here's my review, track by track:

1. Something is Squeezing My Skull:
A fast and punky song that opens the album with a nice kick. The lyrics find Morrissey in typical defiance of his critics and those who have wronged him (this would be an annoying tendency of his if he wasn't generally right.) The song ends in a fast breakdown where Moz pleads with someone to "Please don't gimme anymore" in an attacking vocal style that nearly becomes a yodel. It's a great album kick off that declares that Morrissey means business on this new album.
MOST MEMORABLE LYRIC: It's a tie between "I know by now you think I should have straightened myself out/ Thank you, drop dead" and the positively randy (for a man who once was the most famous celibate in the world outside the pope:)  "The motion of taxis excites me/ When you peel it back and bite me."

A strangely upbeat song about a strange Oedipal obsession with the narrator's mama, who was driven to some unspeakable act by "uncivil servants" and "priggish money men" in a song that mixes Morrissey's Manchester working class past with his artistic obsession with murder ("I will slit their throats for you.") A catchy tune that hides some bizarre and dark lyrics. 
MOST MEMORABLE LYRIC: "And we will be safe and sheltered in our graves." (because it's just so Morrissey, isn't it?)

A middle of the road Moz song about one of the themes that gave him his miserabilist rep: unrequited love. It's nothing we haven't heard before... but nobody does this schtick as well as Morrissey, and his vocals shine through over a a pleasing enough arena rock bombast with some catchy Spanish style guitar strumming in the middle. Ultimately, one of the weaker tracks on the album.
MOST MEMORABLE LYRIC: "I can choke myself to please you/ and I can sink much lower than usual/ but there's nothing I can do to make you mine."

The album's first single, and a good choice at that. The tune sounds a bit like Moz's jangly old B-Side, "Such A Little Thing Makes Such A Big Difference," which is a good thing (that song is pretty much a gem.) The themes are pretty standard issue Morrissey, with lyrics about the absence of "love" and "human touch," until Morrissey decides to do as the title of the song implies. Instead of being a lament of heartbreak, our boy is sounds defiant and triumphant, even though "only stone and steel" accept his love. The catchiest of Morrissey's recent visits to famous European cities (though not nearly as gorgeous as his walk through Rome in the Ennio Morricone arranged "Dear God Please Help Me.") 
MOST MEMORABLE LYRIC: "I'm throwing my arms around/ around Paris because/ only stone and steel accept my love."

Morrissey has been playing this song since he was touring in support of his last album, "Ringleader of the Tormentors," and (along with "That's How People Grow Up,") it appeared on his recent, slapdash (and very debatably titled) "Greatest Hits" album... but I've been a huge fan of the song since I first heard it performed live a few years ago.  I've used the word "defiant" to describe a few of the songs on this album so far, but this is the one that deserves that description the most... it's a fast paced, snarling rock missile aimed right at his critics. Morrissey croons "you hiss and groan and you constantly moan but you/ don't ever go away and that's because all you need is me" and it ends up with him telling his detractors that "You don't like me but you love me/ either way, you're wrong/ you're gonna miss me when I'm gone." He's always been one of the most spot on, self reflexive pop lyricists, analyzing and defining his place in music history within his own songs (see The Smiths' "Rubber Ring,") and this rocker is one of his most direct and mocking examples of that lyrical dexterity. This one is a fist pumper.
MOST MEMORABLE LYRIC (out of many choices): "There's a naked man standing laughing in your dreams/ you know who it is/ but you don't like what it means."

Morrissey tips his hat to his large (and much analyzed) Mexican fan base with this Mariachi tinged barn burner about the rejection of an admirer he can't pretend he feels love for... (a reversal of roles from the usual Moz formula.) It's a sadly regretful and slightly haunting tune about a lost person who he did not have the ability to help... and the musicianship is as interesting as the lyrics and vocals (which is not always the case on much of Moz's  solo work.)
MOST MEMORABLE LYRIC: "I've hammered a smile across this pasty face of mine/ since the day I was born in 1975."

A catchy and funny song about being resigned to loneliness (yes, most other artists don't make songs about this subject either catchy or funny,) with Morrissey lamenting that looking for love his whole life has been a waste of time. Not much to say about this other than that I dig the ghostly moaning girl during the opening seconds of the song.
MOST MEMORABLE LYRIC: "I was driving my car/ I crashed and broke my spine/ so, yes, there are things worse in life than never being/ someone's sweetie."

Morrissey advises a lover or a friend that they are going to be abandoned by the one they love... in typically funny fashion as "the smiling children tell you that you smell," while leaving room to be self deprecating as well ("just look at me- a savage beast-/ I've got nothing to sell.") Those mariachi horns come in again, and the song is pleasingly propulsive. This one should sound pretty good live.
MOST MEMORABLE LYRIC: "Always be careful when you abuse the one you love."

The triumphant centerpiece of the album. The song oscillates wildly (Smiths fans, did you see what I did there?) between what starts out as a sentimental love song to an angry lover's tirade to a psychosexual battle. The musicianship on the song is great and more inventive than usual for a Morrissey solo song as well, as the band switches modes from slow ballad to loud and angry rocker as they work hard to keep up with their famous frontman. This is one of my favorite Morrissey songs in a long time... and his vocal performance ties it all together beautifully. Great stuff. 
MOST MEMORABLE LYRIC: "All of the gifts that they gave can't compare in any way/ to the love I am now giving you right here and right now/ on the floor."

A slow dirge with a tinkling piano and smoky late night lounge feel addressed to an artist who time has passed.... or is Moz singing about himself in another one of those self reflexive moments? After the witty, angry, and altogether alive "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore" just one track prior, in which Morrissey proves he's as vital and relevant as ever, this slower song (with its long, spooky outro, similar to the intro of The Smiths' "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,") shows he's ready as ready to accept the fact that the spotlight will move off of him eventually, even as it shines on him for another album. And of course, the dying of that light is death in our morbidly funny Morrissey's strange brain. It's a strange and haunting little tune.
MOST MEMORABLE LYRIC: "Are you aware wherever you are/ that you have just died?"

This one is kind of filler... Morrissey mocks the very idea of an apology from someone who has wronged him, in typically melodramatic fashion. The closest thing the album gets to a "skipper." 
MOST MEMORABLE LYRIC: "Sorry will not bring my teen years back to me (any time soon.)"

Morrissey's theme of defiance comes back in this album closer, which builds to an absolutely monstrous conclusion as screams NOOOO! over and over again with his band absolutely rocking out as he tells an old flame he just doesn't need them. In his wise old age, the man who has spent years writing songs about how loneliness has made him miserable finally has the maturity to realize (post some sort of breakup, it seems,) that he really is okay by himself. It's entirely possible that he's talking about his solo career in the song as well. His feelings towards his former band mates is often debated (a debate which is constantly renewed every year with new rumors that The Smiths are reuniting, always quickly denied.) Morrissey has been a solo artist for more than twenty years now, yet to this day he is best known as the "former lead singer of The Smiths." His former band's legend lives on, but Morrissey is doing just fine on his own as a solo artist... and this album of sometimes angry, sometimes resigned, and almost all energized and funny songs proves that once again. 
MOST MEMORABLE LYRIC: "This might make you throw up in your bed: /I'M OK BY MYSELF!"

You just haven't earned it yet, baby.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Early Woody Allen Geniusosity

I love Woody Allen.
This is not a particularly popular opinion these days, but the man is one of my all time cinematic heros. "Manhattan" and "Annie Hall" rank among my ten favorite movies of all time, and a very high percentage of his 10,000 or so films are nearly as good. His recent output has not been quite as inspiring (though I did love "Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona,") but his body of work is undeniably amazing. "Take the Money and Run," "Bananas," "Sleeper," "Love and Death," "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Hannah and her Sisters," "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Husbands and Wives," "Bullets Over Broadway," "Manhattan Murder Mystery," "Everyone Says I Love You," "Deconstructing Harry," "Sweet and Lowdown," and now "Vicky Cristina," are all films any writer or director would be proud to have on their filmography, yet somehow Woody doesn't get much respect or attention these days.
The problem many people have with the Woodster is twofold... some people find his persona more than a little annoying (I don't, but I am a neurotic and sometimes whiny Jew myself, so I can relate,) but more commonly, people find the person Woody Allen to be reprehensible. We all know what happened in the early 90s... Woody married his adopted daughter. Yes, it's gross, and can't really be justified (though their seemingly dysfunctional relationship has endured since it first caused a media scandal, bizarrely enough.) But the public's discomfort with the man himself should not make them stay away from his work... I don't want to get into one of those "you have to separate the art from the artist" things, but... well, you really do. And this is one artist who is an American film and humor genius, and has been doing his thing with pretty astounding consistency for about four decades now.
This whole post has been a long winded way of setting up this gem of an interview I discovered (on comedy genius duo Bob and David's site, actually,) from early in Woody's film career when he was making straight forward comedies. Some people who like Woody say that his "early, funny pictures" are his best, which I disagree with as his films got richer and more rewarding over the next decade... but this is proof that nobody can deliver a dry one liner that mixes highbrow wit with goofy, silly, and nonsensical humor quite like Woody. Anyway, it's a long form interview in four parts, but it's worth watching the whole thing... I was laughing out loud, alone in my apartment, causing my dog to give me some strange looks.

"In New York you can't be Puerto Rican unless you have to pass a written examination and an eye test. And those who pass the eye test are allowed to be Purto Rican."

Two Kings Of Meta Comedy Put Their Own Spin On A Giant Meta Moment

The audio recording of Christian Bale's freakout on the set of "Terminator: Who Still Cares" has become one of those spiraling out of control internet moments, leading to mass conversations about Batman's emotional stability and the meaning of privacy for celebrities in our over mediated age, remixes and animated parodies hitting the interwebs within hours of its leak, and more hits on TMZ than on the release date of the latest Paris Hilton sex tape. It's a cultural moment that has gained such steam that none other than meta-comics Stephen Colbert and Steve Martin have crafted their own parody of the entire fiasco on a recent "Colbert Report." Hopefully we can now all move on to some other national discussion... (did you dudes know we have a new president?) Here's the video:

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Best Of The Super Bowl Ads

Well, the game ended in a disappointment as the Arizona Cardinals failed to pull off the Cinderella season everyone at my party hoped they would... but at least The Boss rocked and we had some quality ads to watch. Here are a few of my favorites from this year's big game:

Former Trojan Troy Polamalu spoofs the classic "Mean Joe Green" Coke Ad:

Conan's "Swedish" Bud Light Ad (Vroom Vrom, Party Starter:)

Denny's "Thugs" (With their "Free Grand Slam" offer... I'll be at Denny's on Tuesday for some shitty free food.)

Alec Baldwin being a national treasure as he pimps out for Hulu.Com:

And then there's this, one of the saddest displays I've ever seen. A cheesy company like Cash4Gold is using the Super Bowl to get the word out to about their shady business by featuring broke former stars. Just depressing, and it ends with Ed McMahon saying "goodbye old friend" to a gold toilet.