Saturday, November 29, 2008

To Thine Own Self

Good movies, like good people, tend to have a true sense of self. They know who, or what they are, and as long as they stay true to that, they'll do fine.

Take Role Models. It's subject is fairly juvenile, two guys who need to become big brothers and thereby avoid jail time. Of course, in the end, they will have matured through their sympathetic mentoring of two freaks. In weaker hands, it could go several ways. It can get too maudlin in the end and ring false. It can also be too raunchy and lose all sense of character and plot. But in the hands of Paul Rudd and others, Role Models achieves incredible laughs brought to you by real characters with real depth. Rudd and Seann William Scott are note perfect as two guys going nowhere, one happy about it, one less so. Their wards, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the awkward teen who embraces his Middle Age fantasies and Bobb'e J. Thompson as a foul-mouthed Gary Colemanesque tot with a serious boob and butt obsession are wonders. With Elizabeth Banks, who seems to be in every movie out and every preview, and Jane Lynch as the insane head of Sturdy Wings are perfect in limited roles. Lynch steals the show. Role Models is one of those movies that we are all conditioned to expect the worst from - smart-mouthed kids, nerds, man-children who need maturity, blah, blah, blah. But you'll leave smiling.

Hancock is like a trip to the bathroom that goes horribly wrong. It starts out solid but ends up all over the place. The first 45 minutes are very strong. Will Smith as a miserable superhero provides both action and humor in that Smithian way he does so well. Jason Bateman, is smart and funny as a PR consultant. Bateman has it all, cute kid and knockout wife (Charlize Theron). All is going well for the viewer until the three adults have dinner. It's a good scene. We get some background on Bateman and Smith and Theron cries. It's at this moment that it all falls apart. It's as if during the rushes some studio exec said, "Hey, there's no chemistry between Bateman and Theron. Let's get Smith and Theron connected somehow." I imagine a cigar sticking out of the corner of his mouth, but I don't think studio brass do that anymore.
Spoiler alert, although it's hard to spoil this piece of rotten fruit. Turns out Theron and Smith have spent eons together and the film goes for the next hour or so with a ridiculous plot line, hyperkinetic action, and the complete elimination of the humor that marked the first part of the movie. My wife and I kept looking at each other, stunned that things had taken such a terrible turn. In the end it was a quite awful experience and not even worth my average $1.57 per Netflix rental.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Two of My Favorite Things

I've always had a fondness for the simian world. It must have begun when I saw Planet of the Apes when I was a wee lad. I also have a memory, dim and possibly false, of a chimp in a pet shop window on Rockaway Parkway in Brooklyn, near where I got my first pair of glasses. All of this led me to a fervent, but unrequited, desire to have a chimpanzee as a pet. I could just see the hairy little fella, most likely named Bimbo or Bongo or anything ending in a -o (a -y name like Zippy would also do nicely) riding his trike around and around in circles for my amusement. The thought of the diapering process and possible feces flinging put that fantasy in its proper place. Still, the monkey obsession lives.

I also have had a healthy, but not devoted, interest in comics, especially Marvel heroes. Read some comic books as a kid, saw the movies as they came out, nothing more. All of my sons have various comic favorites, so comic shops have been added to record stores as things to be on the look out for in any city we may visit, from New York to Vancouver. So, how excited was I to see a new comic, the second in a four part series entitled Marvel Apes? Well, you can imagine the giggles.

Marvel Apes is the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of the comic world. These two great tastes are deliciously combined in the first three issues. If you can just imagine a silver back in a Captain America costume, Spider-Monkey or Thor-angutan, well, you'll begin to howl also. And you don't have to imagine it all! Just pop over to your neighborhood graphic novel emporium and pick one up yourself. You'll be glad you did.

As for my discovery, it was, as Dr. Zaius would say, "my destiny."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"I'm Not the Oneonta, I'm Not the One You Need"

What is it about Bob Dylan that makes every detail of his person and performance so intriguing? Is there any one else who can get up on stage, stand behind a rinky-dink keyboard and croak semi-intelligible lyrics for two hours and have the crowd go mad?

Last night, Dylan held a quickly setup show at Oneonta State College. The school paper noted that the campus activity board only shelled out a little over $12K to get Bob, with the promoter, JAM Productions, footing the rest of the tab. Perhaps the haste in setting up the show added to the palpable buzz that permeated the field house crowdwd. Fortuitously, Dylan is on the cover of Rolling Stone this week, adding to the general excitement.

I won't go tune by tune, but hit the highlights instead. Dylan approached center stage for his second song, It Ain't Me Babe. Standing sideways to the audience, facing stage right, Dylan was a would-be crooner, while he played harmonica and pranced around. He was part-Jerry Vale, part-Scatman Crothers. High Water, in its live incarnation, sounds like Shot of Love with new lyrics. For Workingman's Blues #2, as apt a song for this economic collapse as any, the black backdrop was illuminated with celestial white stars. The static curtain constellation was answered by a plethora of moving lights, cellphones in the audience swaying in time. Some atavistic holdouts held lighters. It was a moving moment.

Dylan was less growly than usual. Is this guttural Bob-voice the real vocalizing of an old man, or just another Dylan style? I've wondered often about it. Dylan's voice, which netted him the #7 spot in the top 100 rock singer poll in the aforementioned Rolling Stone issue, has gone through enough conscious change that there's no reason not to think the froggy Bob is not an affectation.

Now that Dylan plays keyboards, often stork like with one leg seriously bent, the sight of him strapping on a guitar is, for most die-hards, a thing of memory. So when he turned around, picked up a guitar and strapped it on, it was a transcendent moment for the screaming throng. He ended the show playing guitar, looking like a mariachi in his gleaming outfit with wide side stripes and a flat topped white hat.

When he introduced the band, he began by addressing the crowd with "Thanks friends." On a night when Bob Dylan was extremely playful and seemingly having fun, it sounded like he just may have meant it.

On Tuesday I wrote a post about Joe Lieberman comparing him to Fredo Corleone. I took great pride last night when I heard Jon Stewart do the same on The Daily Show. Beat him to it!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Greatest Musician You've Never Heard Of

I was General Manager of Slipped Disc, the record store at SUNY-Binghamton (now the loftier and more athletically high end Binghamton University) during my junior and senior years. The best part in holding that position, besides whiling away the hours talking music with fellow students such as Paul Lukas ( and Uni Watch -
and David Bolotsky (creator of Uncommon Goods -, was that in lieu of a cash stipend, managers received free records. My wise predecessors created an elaborate point system, different list prices having different point values, which maximized the take. So, after my junior year, my needs were pretty much satiated in the pop/rock/new wave genres.

Where to turn? Classical was, and still is, something I avoid with great determination. Why not go for some jazz? We had a cutout bin, the home for cheaper albums, so a handful of discs would give me a nice starting sampler, while not draining any of my precious points. I can still remember what I started with - a double Art Blakey set on Blue Note, a Chick Corea LP (which I hated) and Freddie Hubbard's Ready for Freddie. From this humble beginning a jazz fan was born.

Out of college, working on Wall St., a group of co-workers milled about, beers in hand, around the South Street Seaport. This must have been in the summer of '85. Talk turned to music and one person, went on about the greatest saxophone player ever. I was just a year or so out of school, so I was ready for a talk like that, having been long removed from chats at Slipped Disc. Who would he name - Sonny Rollins (my favorite), John Coltrane. Maybe he would be more of an alto guy - Charlie Parker, Art Pepper. None of the above. The greatest sax player of all time was, wait for it, Clarence Clemons of Springsteen's E Street Band. It took years for my jaw to return to its proper alignment. I tried to explain the relative suckiness of The Big Man in comparison to the aforementioned geniuses. I got nowhere.

Now to the topic at hand. The greatest player out there today is Canadian pianist John Stetch. It's not Billy Joel or Elton John. Stetch, who began playing piano at the advanced age of 18, teaching himself to play TV theme songs, has an impressive pedigree. Prix du Jazz winner at the Montreal Jazz Festival, Stetch has played at the top festivals in the world - Monterey and Paris JVC to name but two. He put out a solo piano trilogy that will blow you away. The three discs, Ukrainianism, Standards and Exponentially Monk may be the best collective jazz set of the last 20 years. After the solo project, Stetch returned to a trio format with Bruxin', a collection of originals that drew comparisons to the great Bill Evans trios of the 1960's.

Now, Stetch returns to his original primer, the TV theme. His latest disc TV Trio is an amazing tour de force of musical originality and rhythmic creation with all the comfort and familiarity of a warm blanket. His takes on Star Trek, Love Boat and Rocky and Bullwinkle are startling in their newness and will leave the listen awestruck. Each cut on the CD is a gem and well worth the listen.

John Stetch - the greatest musician you've never heard of. But don't worry, that can be corrected simply by buying his latest CD. You won't regret it and you'll end up being the hippest person in the office. Your ears and your brain will thank you.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Take Him Fishing

When Sonny Corleone rashly speaks his own mind, his father Vito, the Don himself, gently scolds him in public, then rebukes him more harshly when alone. Just a pointed reminder not to transgress. But when Fredo actively works to take shots against his younger brother and new Godfather Michael, he is given the kiss of death and eventually whacked in the middle of a lake. One can go to far, you know.
So with Joe Lieberman. Here's a guy, who actively and determinedly, day after friggin' campaign day, set his sights on Obama, doggedly determined to take him down. This was no one-off, shoot from the hip remark. It was a contract job, and he, like Fredo, missed the mark. There should be repercussions.
Instead of a weak-assed slap on the wrist, the Democratic leadership should have told Ol' Joe to get his pole and get on the boat.

The Wheel Goes Round and Round

Talk of bailing out the auto industry is, or should be, the number one point of media attention. Sadly, the Hillary for Secretary of State tumult vies, and seemingly wins, the most scrutiny. Don't want to get into that, although, while I believe Clinton is smart and capable (not much of a praise-heavy word, capable), I'm waiting for someone to explain to me exactly why she would make a great Secretary of State.
Oops, almost fell into the trap of having the non-important dominate my mind. As to the car companies, in a time of economic collapse, allowing the jobs of millions to be ended by letting the Big 3 fall, seems an untenable position. Here's a simplistic take on it. Unlike the big bailout, which had no strings attached (like making the banks lend out the money they received rather than hoarding it), the possible auto funding could be an opportunity to reshape the industry. Let's make the money, in part, contingent on the companies manufacturing only cars over 35 MPG and hybrid or electric. Then, we give Americans tax credits for buying those exact models. We would build a market through incentive, and force the companies to produce in order to get the government funding.
As to the Republicans standing on "principle" in favor of the free market, let's call it for the bullshit it is. Michigan as a Democratic stronghold, is of no use to the GOP.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Very Small Comfort

Quantum of Solace, the latest in the James Bond oeuvre, is most certainly playing at a theater near you.
Solace is nowhere to be found in the evening's entertainment. It's rather grim, and, while Daniel Craig is fine as the none-too-pretty modern version of the formerly suave spy, the angst-ridden 007 is no fun to be around. Thereby lies the problem with the new Bond flicks, a problem inadvertently pointed out by my youngest son.
During one of the many blistering action sequences, this scene one of the hand to hand fighting variety, Joey mentioned it was like a Bourne movie. Aha! The light went on. What's been sticking in my craw (Not claw, craw!) is that the two recent Bond films are Bond in name only. Like it or lump it, and there are plenty of lumps to go around, the James Bond character is handsome, witty, constantly bedding beautiful women, and, if the occasional wife is shot in the head (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), so be it. He might think about it now and then, but there's really too much to do to dwell on the past.
The Craig Bond movies are loads of fun, dizzily action-packed (there's always a danger of Pokemon-induced convulsions for the viewer), well-acted and superbly written. But they could be Bourne movies or any character for that matter.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

When Good Qualities Go Bad

Paul McCartney's effortless ability to write catchy melodies caught up with him with 1971's Wild Life. That LP, Wings' first, was marked by memorable hooks and inane lyrics. John Lennon bottomed out the following year with Sometime in New York City. Lennon's passion for causes reached an extreme with tunes like Attica State and Luck of the Irish, tuneful but weak entries to his canon. Hardly singalongs.

I appreciate Barack Obama's post-partisan stance but, while admirable, it contains a whiff of weakness. I seemed to stand alone on my view of his race speech. It seemed all exposition, which, though important, didn't go very deep. A note - I was, and remain, very supportive of our President - elect. He is the most quintessentially American person to have run for the highest office of the land. Self-made, stable family, healthy amount of ambition - he really has a lot going for him. Unlike W., Obama is the one I would actually want to have a beer with. Unlike Clinton, he has all the smarts without the mishegas.

But I do have a nagging fear. In not holding Joe Lieberman;s feet to the fire, one might say Obama is above the fray and not looking back. OK, maybe. But isn't there a slight problem in letting people get away with outrageous behavior without repercussions? A theme of this election cycle was accountability.

The idea that the nation is "center-right" and that Obama needs to "govern from the center" in order to appease the party just trounced by the electorate, is patently false. We just bore witness to how fraudulent that claim is. Yet, Obama seems to have a tendency to make nice, even with those whose actions deserve something quite different. It worries me.

Back to John and Paul. Even at their weakest, I still bought their albums. They were, even at their worst, a cut above the rest. So for Obama.

Giving the scorpion a ride

There's a fable involving a turtle, a scorpion and a rising flood. A scorpion sits nervously at the shore as the raging river rises. He sees his demise, and the highlights of his scorpion life begin to flash before his eyes. Then, he spots a turtle out of the corner of his eye. Approaching the turtle, he pleads for transportation across the water. The turtle, with a healthy amount of suspicion, demurs, stating the obvious - the scorpion will sting him. The scorpion, tucking his stinger behind him, says, "Oh no, I would never sting you if you gave me a ride." The hard-shelled one remains suspicious, but endless coaxing by the scorpion finally hits the mark and the turtle caves in. Arriving on the other side of the river, the scorpion dismounts and, on his way off, stings the turtle, injecting his poison. The turtle yelps, "Why did you sting me? You promised you wouldn't." The scorpion replies, "You knew I was a scorpion when you gave me a ride."
OK children, the moral of this story is timeless. Beware helping those who are innately dedicated to hurting you. With the flood waters of the election still at the crest, I have heard a troubling meme the last few days. Arianna Hufington, speaking on The Rachel Maddow Show, said she believes in the two party system and we need the Republicans to survive. Frank Rich in today's New York Times spouts the same nonsense. In this time of trouble, he pines, we need a healthy second party.
All this may be so. My personal favorite future involves a four party system. That's just me. But we do need a two party system. However, that does not necessarily mean the second party is the Republican Party as constituted today. We've had other major parties come and go - Democratic - Republicans, Whigs, Know-Nothings. Who knows what will arise from the ashes of the present day GOP, but the idea that we all need to chip in and help them off their feet is insane.
Beware the scorpion.