Saturday, December 12, 2009

Portland Drivers in the Snow

I love Portland. I really do. But something was brought to my attention last night that I have to share. Having lived in Boston the past two years and in Pennsylvania my entire life before, I've weathered my fair share of winter storms. I was in PA for three of the five storms listed here. The winter before I left for Boston, Harrisburg didn't have enough money to do a quality job of clearing the streets, so they became sheets of ice (it didn't help that we mostly got ice fall instead of snow).

I'm not trying to start a pissing contest of "our weather is worse than yours," but after seeing the videos below, I couldn't help but laugh at the people who aren't used to this stuff. In Portland's defense, the city isn't built to handle much snow at all (one of the reasons I wanted to come here was to get away from the snow). This post is really for my East Coast friends, or anyone who comes from an area that gets a fair amount of snowy weather.

I know not all Portland drivers are like this and that people do stupid stuff like this all over the place. It's just way funny this way.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Code of the West

The recent High Noon discussion at Sunday Screenings (I’m such a whore) reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for some time. Until the summer of 2008, I had very little use for the Western film genre. I’d seen a few Westerns that I enjoyed, but that was it. The old, classic John Ford/John Wayne films held little interest to me. Part of this is because I really don’t care for John Wayne as an actor (and less as a person the more I find out about him). Even when I as in Boston University’s Film Studies program, I was reluctant to embrace the genre, and that’s a time that I should have been the most open to new film experiences. After all, the Western was integral in the establishment of genre theory.

Anyway, on a long flight back from Australia in the aforementioned summer ‘08, I decided not to waste time sleeping and spend as many or the thirteen or so hours watching movies from their considerable selection. One of these films was Howard Hawks’ (and Arthur Rosson) Red River, which aside from the “Yee-Haw” scene referenced in City Slickers, I knew little about. However, with it starring John Wayne, I had low expectations. How wrong I was! It was the first time I’d ever been impressed by Wayne (John Ford famously stated, “I never knew the big son-of-a-bitch could act!”). Thus began an effort to catch up on many of the classic Westerns I’d missed out in. Helping things was getting the teacher’s assistant position for the John Ford/Sam Peckinpah class.

During the catching up effort, I started to notice something particularly peculiar about the way the old West operated (or at least the way it operated in film). Insulting a man’s honor is strictly verboten, but it’s ok for you and four of your buddies to beat the crap out of that same guy, whether he can defend himself or not. You can never shoot someone in the back, but can certainly sneak up on him, and once again, beat him to a pulp. There is no “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” mentality. If you get arrest a man for killing four innocent people and send him to get hanged, the criminal’s brother has every justification to seek vengeance on you for doing your job. Townsfolk are outspoken, yet spineless and ultimately content with whoever is in charge, as long as it’s not them. At least, for the most part (High Noon excluded), you know who your friends are and they’ll stick by you until the end.

There’s a ton of conflicting ideals in Western, and I think the reason I didn’t take to them a few years ago is because I was watching them in the wrong way. It’s the irrationality of the West as it’s depicted that makes the Western so interesting. The plots are all pretty similar, so you really have to dive into the nuances and the complex motives of each film. Issues of pride, honor, duty, and loyalty are constantly being addressed and challenged in very interesting ways. If you are like I once was, I highly encourage you to give the Western a second chance. My recommendation is to start with John Ford then move to Peckinpah, or Sergio Leone, who may be may favorite Western director.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Still Debasin', 20 Years Later

There are some concerts that you come back from feeling you've experienced something particularly unique and special. Seeing the Pixies last month at New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom during their 20-year anniversary tour celebrating Doolittle, their second (and best) album, was one such concert for me. In the tradition of self-indulgence Nate alluded to in an earlier post, I'll narrate my experience of it below.

The night started when I took off work early and waited in line for about two hours—totally worth it, as I made it to the front row. The opening band, Black Gold, had a lot of energy but unfortunately played songs that all sounded extremely derivative, which is slightly ironic considering the band they were opening for is known especially for their originality. When Black Gold's lead singer, about twenty minutes into the half-hour set, announced, "We've got a couple more songs for you," a number of people to the left of me were very audibly dismayed with this news. He fittingly responded, "Fuck you, you fucking hecklers!", then hastily added, "I'm just fucking with you." Gotta love audience-band tension.

When it was time for the Pixies to take the stage, a huge screen behind the stage started playing a seven-minute montage of scenes from the 1929 silent film Un Chien Andalou, the topic of the first song off Doolittle, "Debaser". Scenes of breast-fondling and bovine eye-slicing set to some creepy ambient music put everyone in the right mood. The Pixies appeared as soon as the film ended, and the roar from the crowd, which had already been pretty loud from all the anticipatory yelling, got really deafening. They first played some B-sides, then dove into Doolittle and played the entire album straight through. Here's a video of them performing "Debaser" that night (note the gaggle of photographers in front of the stage):

Besides some minor vocal variations, the performed songs sounded exactly as they do on the album. Kim Deal provided some brief, amusing banter in between songs (like announcing at what point in the set the songs would have reached the end of Side 1 on the vinyl record), but the band was pretty focused on just playing the songs, which suited everyone just fine.  The performance put on by Deal, Black Francis, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering was flawless and intense from start to finish. They came back on for two encores, during which the fog machine produced so much fog that, at one point, I could barely see the hands in front of me for several minutes.

Also, that screen behind them displayed some of the most bizarre and disturbing imagery I've seen at a concert. At times, it was a bit distracting, since the images were often interesting enough to simply watch by themselves. Regardless, it was an added bonus for an audience that probably would have been thrilled if the Pixies had come on stage and just talked about tax returns for 90 minutes.

And I think that's the main reason why the concert was such a great experience: the reaction from the fans, both young and old(er), was so ecstatic and personal. Granted, I can't say I've been at a concert where everybody was booing; the audience members were there because they wanted to be there, after all. But because the Pixies are alternative-rock legends, coupled with the fact that they put on such a thrilling show playing such good songs, the night had a distinctive feel to it. There was an almost surreal feeling of connectedness with the band, like no time had passed since the late 1980s and now (not that as a child I had any idea who they were back then, of course). Hard to put it into words, but maybe others have felt this with established bands they really like.

Speaking of which—when/where/what was the best (or one of the best) concert(s) you've been to? I'd love to hear other's experiences.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Top Film for Each Year of My Life – 2002

About A Boy

“No. No, you're not a bad mother. You're just a barking lunatic.”

2002 was a weird year for movies for me. Not since my ’88 entry have a felt less attached to my number one movie for the year. As I look over the rest of my top ten, I really don’t see any options I’d be happier about. Certainly, Punch-Drunk Love is great and Das Experiment is insane in all the best ways, but I’ve never felt compelled to watch them repeatedly. Even the great Wilco documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, has the feeling that I already know as much as possible about the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, so I don’t need to revisit it much. That leaves me with About a Boy, which is an immensely enjoyable film.

Largely, I’m not a fan of Hugh Grant. It’s not that I don’t like him or his performances; I just don’t think he chooses particularly interesting roles. However, he plays slightly off-type, here, and it’s particularly refreshing. He’s smug and shallow and a delight to watch. He’s the buddy/romantic comedy (because it really is both of those genres) equivalent of an antihero. For many people, I’m sure this is how they thought Grant was in real life.

Here, I must confess to being a Nick Hornby enthusiast. I’ve read nearly all of his books and, with one exception, loved them all. The man knows how to write. With strong source material, it would have been difficult to screw up an adaptation. What’s remarkable is that many believe the Weitz’ brothers (one of whom, Chris, directed the most recent Twilight film) surpassed the source material. I’m not so sure about that, but it definitely doesn’t feel as dated as elements of the novel.

Much like High Fidelity, the film rises above its genre and actually has something to say about life. Both films use some form of narration, which I typically dislike, but it fits right in with Hornby’s writing style. Especially since so many of Hornby’s best passages are inner monologues and would feel forced trying to turn them into dialogue.

I’d say my only issue with About a Boy is that it goes the heavily trafficked route of having a performance as the grand finale for which Grant has to run out on stage to help save the night. It mostly works in the film, but I’m sick and tired of movies with set pieces like these (perhaps there will be a blog about it one day). Fortunately, it’s nowhere near as grating as the similar scene in Little Miss Sunshine.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent soundtrack by Badly Drawn Boy. His voice perfectly compliments the tone of the film. (Oddly, whenever I think of Nick Hornby and music, I always think of Danny Boyle and music).

Unfortunately, 2002 wasn’t a scintillating film year, though I’ve yet to see Sex y Lucia and Y Tu Mama Tambien, which could challenge the top spot. Until then, no one ever said the best movie of the year couldn’t simply be the most enjoyable.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

It's Only One Play

This is probably a little late to the discussion, but after week of listening to sportswriters/talking heads tear apart or support Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th and 2, I feel compelled to point out a point of view that I haven't heard expressed. The breaking point for me responsible for this post was Bill Simmons' diatribe against the play.

I used to really like Bill Simmons. I always found his perspective interesting and enjoyed the pop culture-laced articles. However, ever since the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and the rest of the ensuing success of Boston sports, his writing has gone downhill. It's like he goes out of his way to ignore the rational to voice an alternative, usually unsupportable argument based on his observations of certain "looks" in player's eyes and the like (never mind that things like "clutch-ness" have been rejected as any sort of sustainable trait). He makes a few good points in the article, but they are hidden amongst ridiculous assertions. Simmons is using this ONE play as his reason for losing his trust in Belichick's decision making.

Which brings me to my point. How can you blame this play for the Patriots' loss? They had a 17-point lead earlier in the game. If the team would have executed and not let the game get within one touchdown, then this play wouldn't have come up. If something like this happens in the second quarter, sure it will be questioned, but no one will react like the coach was replaced by some alien clone.

This happens all the time in sports, where people focus on the most glaring element but forget to include the thousands of little things that led up to that point. Any time a pitcher gives up a game winning homerun, it was the wrong pitch or the manager should have used a different pitcher. In reality, it boils down to execution. In the case of the Patriot's, the were averaging over 6-yards a play during the game. 2-yards is not a lot to ask. So, they fell a little short. The game didn't end there. The defense still had to hold the Colts.

People view sports with tunnel vision. It's just easier to pick out the most egregious example of why they lost instead of viewing the game as a whole. With all of the interesting statistical work being done in sports, it's disheartening to see that, as fans, we aren't coming along for the ride and viewing the games rationally.

Monday, November 16, 2009

I Feel So Betrayed!

Those of us who are passionate about the things we enjoy (some may say overly-passionate) feel a bond with the creators of those things, be it music, film, painting, or wicker furniture. They are making it for US. Speaking to US. We soar with them as they achieve greatness. We pat ourselves on the back for have such great taste. There is an unspoken contract between creator and supporter: we’ll always be there to buy your product as long as you keep producing it at the highest quality. This is why we take it so personally when those we admire release something that falls short of our expectations. We don’t want them to stay the same from project to project, but don’t regress (this is a pretty unfair to the artist and history has shown that some of these “regressions” were critical divergences in propelling the artist to new and fantastic places).

However, in the moment, we do feel betrayed. From the announcement of a new project (which can easily be as long as a year), we anticipate. We gobble up every new bit of news. If it’s a new album, we check out leaked tracks. A movie, we watch the trailer and clips. By the time the full product comes out, we are ready to fully immerse ourselves in it. Our anticipation is palpable and when the product doesn’t live up to expectations, it’s more than a little depressing. The following is a list of groups and people I’ve been disappointed by in the recent past in no particular order. I still look forward to what they produce, but I’m a bit more cautious about it.

My Morning Jacket

From The Tennessee Fire in ‘99 to Okonokos in ’06, My Morning Jacket could do no wrong. The music was impeccable, their arrangements were getting tighter, their jamming was exploring new avenues, and their live shows were astounding. Then came Evil Urges in ’08. While not a horrible album, it is severely lacking. Jim James substitutes his falsetto for one that emulates Prince. The music is less inclined to rock and more inclined to, well, just sit there. That’s not to say it’s a horrible album, it just feels like they abandoned what made them great for no reason. That’s what side projects are for. At least the live shows are still epic.

Ben Folds

This situation is about the opposite of what happened with My Morning Jacket (except for the live shows, because Folds is a great showman). Way to Normal feels like Folds is stagnating, hints of which could be sensed in his previous release, Songs for Silverman. He’s gotten a lot of mileage alternating between his silly, adolescent romps and his melodramatic tales of loss and love, but it just feels stale by Way to Normal. When Ben Folds Five folded and he went solo, he made the excellent Rockin’ the Suburbs, so maybe he just needs to shake things up again.


There is something off about Grandaddy’s last release Just Like the Fambly Cat and I’m not really sure what it is. It’s not drastically different from their other output and it’s not the same. It just feels inconsequential. It feels like they new the band was ending and just went on cruise control to finish the album. Fortunately, Jason Lytle released his first solo album Yours Truly, the Commuter is a return to form, even if it sound exactly like a Grandaddy album (isn’t that what we really wanted anyway?).

Danny Boyle

Boyle is one of my favorite directors working. I’ll defend A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach (which I feel is maligned due to the proximity to the Leo/Titanic hooplah). And I’ve spoken of my love of Sunshine despite its troublesome ending to many people. But I’m just not on board with Slumdog Millionaire. The opening chase through the slums is riveting (no one shoots a foot chase as well as Boyle), but the rest is pretty clichéd as far as love stories go and has the pointless Who Wants to Be a Millon-aire backdrop to connect the vignettes. It won a lot of awards and people loved it, but Boyle’s much better than that.

David Fincher

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was one of my most anticipated films of 2008. All year long, I pined for the chance to see it, especially since it followed up the fantastic Zodiac. Not only was Button a let down, it was one of the worst film I saw that year. Unlike most let downs on this list, I struggle to find any redeeming quality to the film (OK, maybe the guy who constantly gets struck by lightning, which was already done in The Great Outdoors, so points deducted).

Tim Burton

It’s popular among the cinephile elite to right off Burton as a stylist with no substance, but his output from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure through Sleepy Hollow is damn entertaining. However, once the new century hit, Burton has been in a slump with only the great Big Fish standing out (The Corpse Bride is decent, too). He’s on some bizarre remake kick that must be stopped. And for the love of god, someone get this man some practical effects! Say what you will about Planet of the Apes (and please, say a lot of bad things) at least the costumes and sets were amazing.

Terry Gilliam

Of all the people on this list, I probably try hardest to rationalize Gilliam the most. This is probably because he has the longest history for me. I’ve loved Monty Python since I got Life of Brian when I was about 12. His movies are one of the bright spots of the 80s (along with Joe Dante’s output). Much like Burton, something happened at the turn of the century. The Brother’s Grimm is OK, if I’m feeling generous, but had potential to be so much more. I haven’t seen Tideland or Dr. Parnassus, but reviews aren’t encouraging. And much like Burton, he needs to revisit practical effects. They make films feel more intimate and tangible. I take solace in the fact that Ebert hated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Baron Munchausen bombed at the box office, because those films a fantastic. Maybe I just like rooting for the underdog.

Mitch Hurwitz

I feel awful saying anything that criticizes the man who brought us the Brilliance (yes, capital “B”) of Arrested Development, but Sit Down, Shut Up isn’t… good. There are moments that are hysterical, but they maybe come once an episode and the rest is filled with overly meta joke (am I the only one getting a little tired of the constant blatant use of meta-ness?). The characters are completely one-dimensional and the considerable voice talent can only take them so far. The show has improved a little, though I bet no one even knew that it had a second season out.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Do We Hate the Music We Hate?

Before I get started, I'd like to thank John and Paul for contributing to Creamy Nougat. They are great writers and, better yet, great people, so check out their stuff. Now, if I could only find a George and a Ringo (or a Jones, or a Pope), I'd be set. I'm going to have to watch my self-indulgences with them around, or hope that they bring their self-indulgences up to my level. Either works.

Now, onward to the meat and potatoes!

Commercials are going to be the death of me. Not just because they are largely annoying (have you seen the new Miracle Whip ad campaign?) and interrupt the shows I’m watching, but because I block them out. You may ask, “Isn’t it good to block out the stuff that annoys you?” and you’d be right, except you’re not. By ignoring the commercials, I let my guard down and things bleed into my subconscious. The background noises, typically music, seep past the actual ad and into my ears. The next thing I know, I start bobbing my head around and tapping my feet. Sometimes this is a good thing, like the T-Mobile commercial that uses an Architecture in Helsinki song or the Buick commercial that uses a Black Mountain song. Other times, though, I’m horrified to discover I’m dancing along to an atrocious Mary J. Blige autotuned (or do they still try to say it’s a vocoder?) piece of garbage. Or that’s what I tell myself.

I guess the issue at hand is: what dictates our “liking” something. Clearly, on the basest level, if I find myself subconsciously affected by the music and that transfers to physical movement, there must be something about it that I like before I have a chance to acknowledge that it’s something that I do not (or should not) like. It’s like an instinctual reaction. This kind of scares me, because I REALLY don’t like the song in that commercial. But why? Is it the perception of others I care about? Do I have some image I need to uphold? Probably.

Another time this happened to me was watching the Doug Pray documentary “Scratch.” I’ve never been one for hip-hop or scratching, but a good documentary can make any subject enthralling (and it is a good documentary). However, I still came out of it not caring much for scratching, except I found myself moving along to the rhythm once again. These moments of cognitive dissonance are profoundly confusing to me. It’s like a fight between body and mind. Why can’t I just give myself over to the music? I won’t say it calls into question everything I know, but it calls into question the things I think I know, if that makes any sense.

Maybe I do like Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, and Beyonce. Hell, maybe I like Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and Nickelback (I got a little nauseous typing that last one, so I think I’m safe there). I’ll never know because I’ll never investigate further than what I hear on TV or the radio. I’ll almost definitely never admit to it even if the artist is critically acclaimed.

There is one thing I can always fall back on. A happy place to go to re-center and find myself once again. Something so steadfast and true that I could build a religion around it. My security blanket… Journey sucks.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The House of the Devil

Howdy. I'm John, who got to know the creator of the Nougat through a mutual friend, a certain Mr. Aaron S. Margolis, during college. Nate graciously offered the blogless bum that I am a place on his own turf to guest post, and, well, one thing led to another, and here we are.

Now, on to talking about movies. Upon Nate’s recommendation, I checked out 2008’s Let the Right One In this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. I haven't seen many horror movies from the 2000s, but Let the Right One In has to be one of the very best, if not the best, of the decade.

I mention this film because when watching The House of the Devil, out in limited release now, I was immediately reminded of a similar, or what some critics have called an “old-school” (I just call it good) approach to horror filmmaking: an understated style based on continually building tension by focusing on mundane details and leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. It’s undoubtedly the signature element of Devil and one of its best qualities.

Where the movie goes wrong, however, is that it spends so much time building tension that it’s forced to cram an incredible amount of horror toward the end of the movie. The result is that the climax feels decidedly rushed, contrived in places, and oddly out-of-place, like it’s been spliced from a reel belonging to a different, more over-the-top horror film.

It’s regrettable that the ending is so disappointing, because pretty much everything that comes before it is so good. It's held together by a combination of the aforementioned dread-inducing style, and the strength of the few performances in the film, which are all stellar. Greta Gerwig, Tom Noonan, and Mary Woronov give highly engaging supporting work, but it’s Jocelin Donahue whose skillful, naturalistic performance drives the film. Most of the movie consists of following her around doing everyday things, but she does it so absolutely well that you simply don’t mind. Paired with director Ti West’s style, Donahue is really the reason to watch this film.

(And yes, she is pretty, but that's besides the point.)

Aside from the finale, the only other inherent problem to Devil is that the opening title screen unbelievably spells out the film’s subject matter. Why West chose to do this baffles me. It’s totally unnecessary and undercuts practically all of the mystery. In fact, I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen this movie to not read the words that appear before the film starts (which I know is kind of tricky).

Basically, the movie is an excellent suspense film with a clumsily tacked-on horror-movie ending. If the two elements were integrated better, this could’ve been an outstanding film. But despite the fact it mishandles its most crucial moments, The House of the Devil is effective, absorbing and worth seeing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Top Film for Each Year of My Life – 1978 (The Prequels)

By: Paul Toohey

When Nate first started doing this series of posts, I mentioned to him that I liked the idea and I might one day steal it for my own blog. Then he offered to let me guest post on his blog and I thought, what better way to use his idea then as a guest poster on his blog? So that’s what this is. If you don’t know me already, my name is Paul Toohey and I’m a friend of Nate’s. We met through Allen and Becky, who are two of Nate’s grad school friends (I went to UT with Allen, where we both got our BS in RTF, if you’re keeping a scorecard). Nate and I are currently working on a project together that we should be sharing with you all soon, so hopefully this will be a good opportunity to get to know me a little before that happens.

I have the fortune of being born a bit earlier then Nate, and right in the heart of a really good string of cinema. Now I’m not trying to say that all the movies in and around 1978 were great. There were some great film there was also Convoy (film) (or the many rip-offs). I was born one year too early for Star Wars, but the same year that The Star Wars Holiday Special was released on the masses. 1978’s Best Picture Oscar was awarded to The Deer Hunter, which is a deserving film (and one of the only nominees that I can actually recognize as a film I’ve heard about). Ok, so it was also the year of Jaws 2. Piranha (1978 film), Every Which Way but Loose (film), and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan. But to me, of all the films from 1978, one stood head and shoulders above the rest. And that masterpiece is George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

“When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”
No, I did not see Dawn of the Dead in 1978. At least I hope I didn’t, I would really have a problem with my parents taking infant me to a zombie movie (although I did once see a mother change her infants diaper during Mimic in a theater I used to hang out at). I am not really sure when I first saw it, but I remember it vividly. The movie spoke to me. I was young enough to envision me and my brothers taking over a shopping mall and bunkering down like Flyboy and the gang. Making it our playground. Running around, having fun. You see, at the time I didn’t quite understand what the movie was trying to tell us. At a later viewing the message of the film crept up on me (get it, like a zombie…who creeps, but never runs). The Romero zombie films, like all great movies, tell more of a story with their subtext then is actually present in the text. This was Romero’s commentary on the consumerification of America.

Francine Parker: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

Even before the over indulgence of the upcoming 80s Romero could sense where we were headed, and he wanted to warn us against being zombies and focusing on materialistism and consumerism.

Monday Night Football

It not being baseball season anymore, I figure I should write one obligatory football post. Don’t worry, though, I’ll probably still throw in a bunch of baseball references because that’s just the way I roll. In actuality, this post is more about announcers than football because most announcers in all sports are terrible. The issue at hand is: why the hell do Monday Night Football announcers treat Monday Night Football records like they actually mean something?

Everyone likes to that his or her moment is significant even when it’s an anomaly in a small sample size. Baseball (there it is) announcers love to do this. “David Eckstein is batting .415 with runners in scoring position and 2 outs after the 7th inning with a 2-2 count. I wouldn’t want anyone else up in this situation, and that includes A-Rod, Pujols, Babe Ruth, and God.” But the difference is, I don’t think anyone actually believes that that stat is in any way meaningful. On Monday Night Football, they keep their own stats that are separate from the games played on Sundays by the rest of the league, like there is some atmospheric condition that makes playing football on Monday an entirely different experience. has a database of every MNF winner AND notes about those games. “Hey, basketball, I only care about who won every game played on Thursday’s in your history, so if you could get them to me… What? No! The rest of the games don’t matter. I just want to know who has the record for most rebounds on a Thursday.” It’s ridiculous to treat MNF like it’s special. It’s nice that the teams get to play a game without the distraction of other games, but that’s about it.

Does it really matter that Bo Jackson has the MNF rushing record of 221 yards when Adrian Peterson’s NFL record of 296 yards shatters that? Of course not. In fact, you could argue that single game records don’t really mean anything at all. Sure, some great players have set some of these records, but so have some mediocre players. To return to baseball, the list of players who have hit four homeruns in one game includes: Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, and Mike Schmidt. It also includes Mark Whiten, Shawn Green, and some guy named Pat Seerey. Does that mean all of these guys are of equal skill. I think we all understand that sustainable performance is what matters. So why does MNF insist on treating itself as separate from normal football operations? The same players don’t even play from week to week. It’s all just fun with small sample sizes, which, truth be told, isn’t really all that fun.

Monday, November 9, 2009

My New Favorite Video

Some of you may have seen this posted on my Facebook page, but I'm not done with it yet. There is so much to love and I can't bottle it in. If you haven't seen it yet, watch it before reading. It's short and incredible.

I think what makes it work completely is the costume. The tight, black spandex makes it look like he should be in front of a black backdrop and just a floating pumpkin head, but he's not. He's this absurd, pumpkin-headed, leotarded, human-handed freak. That the pumpkin mask maintains the same stoned and content expression throughout the dance, regardless of energy, and is slightly too small for the guy's head just makes it that much better.

The dramatic strains we all recognize as the intro the the Ghostbusters theme accompanied by the ever-spreading limbs builds amazing tension as to what he's going to do when the song kicks in and it doesn't disappoint. Pumpkinhead (really Pumpkinface) breaks out in this astounding Andy Kaufman-esque dance. The slight lack of coordination makes it all the more endearing. I'd be happy to watch him do this for the whole video, but no. He has other things in store for us. He busts out the tornado, which reminds me of the Steve Buscemi SNL sketch where he's in court and breaks out the same move (I may be the only person reminded of this sketch).

I can't really describe my feelings about his dance when the lyrics come in. It's like this giant, fat, graceless snake decided to dance. Epic. And holy god! "Who ya gonna call?" Pumpkinhead shrugs... "Ghostbusters!" I never thought that the shouting of "Ghostbusters" needed any miming to go along with it, but I know now that it was missing a crucial element: air punching.

The rest of the video is essentially epileptic dancing with a little vogue-ing and some Egyptian moves. A special shout out to the moments before the first, "I ain't afraid of no ghosts" (is Ray Parker Jr. saying he is afraid of ghosts?). I don't know what Pumpkinhead is doing, but he is really into it. I say good for him.

There are other videos featuring what appears to be a different Pumpkin-headed individual, on for Christmas and one for Valentine's Day (featuring "Don't Stop Believing"... had hit the mute button for that one). Those aren't nearly as good, save for the ridiculousness of associating a Jack-o-lantern with those holidays, which actually is pretty amusing. The Halloween video is perfection. Now someone give this guy a TV show!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Some Thoughts on Baseball Payrolls

One of the biggest complaints people have about baseball (aside from the somewhat non-issue, in my opinion, of steroids) is the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots. In light of the recent New York Yankees World Series victory (I still haven’t see footage of them winning, so I could be wrong about this), I looked up the league payrolls as I had several questions I wanted to answer.

My first inquiry was into the payrolls of all the teams that made the playoffs this year. It turns out that five of the teams are in the top nine for spending: the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Angels, the Phillies, and the Dodgers. We were a one game playoff away from six of the eight spots being in the top nine in payroll. The Championship Series didn’t feature any team with a payroll below $100 million. Clearly, money plays a very important part of success in baseball. Sure, small market teams get a shot every now and then, like last year with the Rays, but the odds of them repeating their runs is pretty low.

Of course, it isn’t enough to have money to spend. The Mets and the Cubs (2nd and 3rd in payroll, respectively) showed us that you have to be moderately well run for success. The Twins and the A’s have shown us that a well run small market team can succeed to some degree, though neither have made it to the World Series in the past 15-20 years. Just making the playoffs is little consolation. The A’s are particularly unlucky because they lost whatever edge they had when the Moneyball philosophy was adopted by the big market teams.

Large market teams won seven of the last ten World Series with the Red Sox and Yankees repeating.

Now, this next part of my discussion is going to seem like Yankees bashing, and in a way, it is. I’m a Red Sox fan, so it really can’t come across any other way. Using the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry and the fact that these are probably to two most-hated teams in baseball, I’m going to put on a little math lesson (the Sox are 4th in payroll this year, but I don’t want to use the Cubs or Mets because they shit the bed so badly this year).

The payroll difference between the Yankees and Red Sox is roughly $80 million dollars. The payroll difference between the Red Sox and team with the lowest payroll, the Marlins, is roughly $85 million. The Marlins are also the lowest payroll by about $7 million. There are 25 teams between the Marlins and Red Sox and two between the Yankees and Red Sox.

What does this tell us? As discussed above, there is a huge gap in the amount of success with large market teams and small market teams. The Red Sox may be an “evil” large market team that has the ability to sign any high-priced free agent (and they are), but compared to the Yankees, they are just another small market team. I’m not saying this to gain sympathy from teams the legitimately struggle to compete, but to illustrate any Yankees success should be viewed through this lens. Yes, they have great players, most of whom deserve to be revered in their sport, but the success is hollow. They should never NOT win the World Series. Or at least make it there. It’s also why the schadenfreude is so great when they fail.

There are a few counterpoints I should address before wrapping up. I have to acknowledge that the value of a dollar lessons the higher the payrolls go, so the difference between the Yankees and Red Sox isn’t quite as pronounced as the difference between the Red Sox and Marlins. The numbers just aren’t as cut-and-dry as one would assume. Also, the lack of success for small to medium market success isn’t just a matter of the money they spend, but also a matter of the money they don’t spend. Some owners are stingy, though they can afford more. They don’t see that hiring better office people or spending more on talent could bring in more revenue. But we only have the product we see, so that’s what we have to go on.

So, congrats to the Yankees and all their fans. You won the World Series with a $200 million dollar payroll. It must feel good (dammit, I know it does…).

Monday, November 2, 2009

Irrational Fear of Horror Movies

I used to be terrified to walk down the horror movie aisle at Blockbuster video. This may come as a surprise to those who know me as a horror movie obsessive, but it’s true. Unfortunately, the sports bloopers tapes shared space with the horror films, so there were times that I couldn’t avoid the section altogether. I’d find any excuse to avert my eyes, but it didn’t work. I’m still mildly scarred by the box cover of The Dead Next Door and Night of the Demons. This fear was responsible for one of my most terrifying dreams in which my bedroom was stocked with horror movies (I definitely remember Hellraiser being among the collection, and as my eyes pan across them from across the room, I see a man at the end of the row who turns around and looks at me. His face oozing and dripping flesh and I can see the exposed bone. It’s one of two times in my life that I woke up in the cliché, “sit straight up panting and sweating” manner that is so often depicted in TV and movies. Fortunately, I later discovered that I was not the only one afraid of the horror section.
A few years after I got over my fear of horror movies and had a few of the classics under my belt, I’d still freak myself out at night trying to sleep. I convinced myself that the central air in my room sounded exactly like the breathing heard from Michael Myers in Halloween. This fear is responsible for why I don’t yell at characters for being stupid when going off alone because I did all sorts of solo investigating into dark corners of my room (and house, in general). The mind would rather believe it’s nothing than accept that there is a killer in the house.
Probably the most ridiculous fear regarding horror movies is that what you saw in the movie is going to happen to you, but only after you see the movie. It’s almost absurd how irrational this fear is. Millions of people watch these movies and only a very few ended up getting hacked to death or haunted in the ensuing hours, and generally due to forces unrelated to the movie. While this hasn’t happened to me in years, I’m embarrassed to admit that years is actually three years and doubly embarrassed to admit that the culprit was pretty terrible The Grudge 2: Grudgier (subtitle may or may not be accurate). If there is one the Grudge movies do well, though, is creating creepy as hell ghosts. The day after I saw the movie, my job took me to upstate New York where I was alone in a hotel room. The unfamiliarity of the situation and bizarre sounds of the room freaked me out. I got about four hours of sleep max that night.

Fortunately, horror movies don’t really get under my skin anymore. I’ve probably watched more in the past three years than the rest of my life combined. Maybe I’m just desensitized or I’ve gotten used to the conventions. It’s probably more related to my increased knowledge in how movies are made that lessons the impact. There is still one lingering fright in my life. About once a month, I have a dream that always has different subject matter, but features a familiar character: Freddy Krueger. They never fail to scare me and I always have trouble going back to sleep, but I take consolation that since I haven’t woken up dead yet, either it is just a dream or Freddy isn’t interested in killing me. I can live with either.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A New Rule for Sport Fans

With the World Series underway, I feel now is an appropriate time to address a topic that’s been on my mind for a while, now. Fans are only allowed to take credit for championships during times that they were actually fans of the team and actively rooting and living the season with them. Cub fans don’t go around saying, “at least we won the World Series in 1908!” That’s no consolation because they weren’t around to experience the excitement.

I’ll admit right out of the gate that this springs from the Yankees return to the World Series and having friends who are fans of them. Don’t get me wrong, though. Having my roots in Pennsylvania, I experienced this phenomenon with the recent success of the Pittsburgh Steelers (“One for the thumb”), as well. There is never a time that it isn’t annoying, regardless of the team.

Yankee fans are calling for their 27th title, but how many people are still alive that were fans for all of them? And you can call it sour grapes if you want (I am a Red Sox fan, after all), but even if you look at the past fifteen years the Yankees still have the most titles. They still have bragging rights! But if I run into an 8-year old Yankees fan, you better believe I’m going to dangle his title-less existence over his or her head while I flaunt my two championships. It’s just the way it’s gotta be.

Fans really view themselves as a part of the team. If this is true (and there is a strong argument that they are more a part of the team than the actual players), then they shouldn’t get the glory of the team from before they signed on. If I joined the Red Sox now, they aren’t going to give me a ring for 2007. The best part of this new rule is that it rewards longtime fandom. You can’t just hop on a bandwagon and the longer you root, the more title chances you get.

It’s time to stop living in the past.

But because I was alive for this (and yes, I see the irony with the prior sentence):

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Much has been made of Paranormal Activity’s similarity to The Blair Witch Project, what with the low-budget, (mostly) hand-held look. Even the marketing is comparable, letting word-of-mouth and a unique, audience-assisted distribution technique driving interest. Clearly, it’s worked. The film grossed $9.1 million in its first week showing in less than 200 theaters. As it’s expanded, the numbers have shot up to the top of the box office. I finally got around to seeing it and with all the good I’ve been hearing about it, my expectations were pretty high.

The first thing I noticed was that, aside from aesthetic, Paranormal Activity owes a lot more to the 1981 demon haunting story starring Barbara Hershey than it did to Blair Witch (I highly recommend checking out The Entity, but watch it with a group. I’ll tantalize you with a four-word description: heavy metal demon rape). Also, since I saw Drag Me to Hell earlier this year, I couldn’t shake the similarities even though Paranormal Activity was made earlier. It’s not fair, but I couldn’t help it. Fortunately, the films have completely different approaches to similar material, so it didn’t feel I’d already seen the movie this year.

Now, maybe I watch too many horror movies (and I probably do), but by the time stuff really started to happen in Paranormal Activity, I was completely bored and restless. I appreciate that the film took its time building up the suspense and the different emotional states the characters went through, but I simply didn’t care for the characters. I blame part of this on myself. I get intensely uncomfortable watching those cutesy moments of relationships depicted. The times where people act silly and playful with each other but they are the only ones who would find what they are doing amusing. I know I do it, too, but I don’t want anyone to have to see it. This is how the characters are introduced to the audience, though, so instead of caring for them, I disconnected.
My other issue that I have to cop to is that I don’t like watching irrational fighting. Sure, you could say all fighting is irrational, but what I mean is I don’t like watching a problem that can easily be solved become a huge deal because one party is being stubborn. In the case of Paranormal Activity, the girlfriend (Katie) repeatedly asks her boyfriend (Micah) to turn the camera and increasingly gets upset. Of course, if the boyfriend stops filming, then there is not movie, so he has to continue. I’m certain most people will overlook this, and probably should, but it really bugs me. The genre of the horror mockumentary is filled with contrived reasons to continue filming beyond the point that is reasonably acceptable. Generally, it’s dealt with by having a character say, “Film everything!” Here, it’s done to seemingly antagonize a freaked out girlfriend for no reason (same deal with the Ouiji board. Again, all of this fighting and stupidity takes me out of the intended experience of the movie.

Since Paranormal Activity is deliberate, and I’m essentially alienated from the film, there’s a lot of down time in which to grow restless. The mystery is enough to drive the story initially, though. It’s creepy to see the minor things that start out the incident, but again, it’s always the same set piece slightly tweaked each time, so even that got a little dull. The film telegraphs every moment of potential scares by having a low drone start just before something happens. Sure, it may build suspense, but it doesn’t really get under your skin like a subtler approach would.

Quick aside: we’re meant to believe that the police gave this footage to the filmmaker to edit together. For all intents and purposes, the events of the film are real. Yet, the filmmaker decided to add this score to every paranormal event. How exploitative is that? Instead of presenting things as they happened, the director is saying, “Hey… check THIS out.” End aside.

It’s not that Paranormal Activity is bad. Hell, the only other people at my screening applauded after it ended. And I don’t think my expectations had anything to do with my disappointment. In the end, it probably is that I’ve seen too many horror movies. I’ve seen the material before and I’ve seen it done much better. If you want to see a horror mockumentary that really gets under your skin, be sure to catch Lake Mungo when it eventually gets released. In terms of tone, the films are quite similar, but the suspense is done very differently.

Monday, October 26, 2009

At the Concession Stand

Throughout my high school years, also known as the years I should have been working so I’d have varied job experiences to call back to when I need to instead of being lazy, I rejected the idea of working in a movie theater. The hours sucked, it could get incredibly busy, and you had to deal with all sorts of obnoxious people. In short, I was above the job (much like I was above working at Blockbuster). In retrospect, high school was the perfect time to work at a theater. It would have given me valuable experience in the field that I want to pursue and what did I care what my classmates thought?

Now, I’m working in two theaters and assisting a coworker’s (directorial) stage debut. Essentially, I’m doing the job I thought I was too good for, but I’m doing it for free and over ten years later. I can’t help but think I made a mistake somewhere along the line. The consolation is that the places I’m working at now aren’t part of a giant corporation, but are small and locally run. In the case of the Hollywood Theater, it’s not for profit, so that’s nice.

However, I was reminded of some aspects of human nature I’d forgotten about upon entry into this new world. Things that laid dormant in the two plus years since I left Neato Burrito. I’d forgotten how incredibly lazy and stupid people are, in general. I don’t think they are like this all the time, just when they leave the house and have to talk to people.

I don’t know how much time we spend at counters to order food, be it fast food or a roadside trailer or a concession stand, but it’s enough that we should have learned by now how to approach this scenario. I can’t believe how many people make it to the counter without having a decision made. It’s not like the theaters in which I’m working have all sorts of other options like nachos, slushies, and other such stuff. We have candy, popcorn, and drinks all in plain view. To make matters worse, there’s a not insignificant number of people when asked, “what size popcorn would you like?” respond with, “what sizes do you have?” You’re not in a Starbucks, buddy. It’s small, medium, or large, the same measurements nearly everything else in the world uses.

The longer you are in line, the less excuse you have for not knowing what you want. There’s plenty of time to prepare for this (and I know this territory has been covered extensively by comedians, but it’s a whole different thing to live it regularly). I can understand approaching the counter and having to think a little, but even then, stand back and let others jump in so you don’t hold things up. And as a side note, don’t give me your trash to throw out. It’s a movie theater. There are trashcans everywhere.

But working at the concession stand isn’t so bad. The most obnoxious thing is cleaning up the theater after the crowd leaves. It’s like people lose all concept of cleaning up after themselves. It’s the ultimate in irony that people complain about theaters having sticky floors when the only reason the floors get sticky is because they make a mess of it all. Spilling popcorn is going to happen, because for some reason, popcorn is nearly impossible to handle if you pick up more than one piece at a time (seriously, it’s like it has an aversion to being eaten). But I’m legitimately shocked at how many half full (what can I say? I’m an optimist) bags of popcorn and bottles of soda that get left behind. Why even by concessions? Surely you’ve learned to gauge how hungry/thirsty you are at this point. And since we only serve bottles of soda at the Hollywood, why not take it with you? It has a lid for a reason.

I know that people don’t like to hold their trash longer than necessary (hence why people litter), but is it really so hard to pick up your wrappers and napkins (oh god, the PILES of napkins just lying around is astounding. It’s like they grow on trees or something) and such? I’ll clean up the popcorn and spilled M&Ms, after all, I need something to do, but I don’t have that much room in my little sweeper thing.

It’s not really such a big deal and I’m kind of a curmudgeon anyway, but I’m trying to think or what other places people go that they just leave trash behind. I think it’s just something people do when they go to be entertained. Some people describe going to the movies so they can “turn their mind off” for a few hours. That has never seemed so appropriate to me as it does now.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Top Film for Each Year of My Life – 2001

Wet Hot American Summer

“Well, no, why don't we say 9:30, and then make it your beeswax to be here by 9:30? I mean, we'll all be in our late 20s by then. I just don't see any reason why we can't be places on time.”

“You taste like a burger. I don't like you anymore.”

This was really a no-brainer. The only serious competition for this spot was The Royal Tenenbaums and Monsters Inc., and while they are both terrific, Wet Hot is about 100 times more rewatchable. It ranked number two on my Top Ten Comedies of the Past Ten Years list. Even though the film was shot during a wet, cold Pennsylvania spring, the performances don’t show it. Energy and joy pour off the screen.
Wet Hot is an ode to summer camp movies, but also a loving deconstruction of them, mocking the genre tropes and adding its own surreal flourishes. While I never attended overnight summer camp, I feel an intense nostalgia to be a counselor based on this movie. There’s an inherent appeal to nostalgia in all camp movies (well, maybe not Friday the 13th or Sleepaway Camp), but only Wet Hot, a parody, makes me want to work at one. Actually, I don’t want to work at summer camp. I want to live in this movie.

The cast is largely made up of members of The State whose reputation in sketch comedy is well established. Much like Monty Python, they excel at smart silliness, and Wet Hot oozes it, like when Neil (on a motorcycle) is chasing Victor (running) down a long road only to not catch up to him due to a stray bail of hay in the road. Brilliantly goofy.
In addition to the members of The State (who are great, as always) as Elizabeth Banks, Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Christopher Meloni, Bradley Cooper, Amy Pohler, Molly Shannon, and Paul Rudd throwing the all-time greatest temper tantrum in film history. With such a huge cast, one might think a few would get lost in the shuffle, but the episodic nature of the Wet Hot (all of which takes place on the last day of camp) allows for moments for everyone to shine. It helps that David Wain and Michael Showalter wrote a great script and gave everyone defined personalities.

I’d go ahead and list my favorite moments, but I’d be better served posting the script or trying to embed the whole film here. One of my favorite aspects of it, though, is that it’s so authentic that if you aren’t prepared for the over-the-top parody of it, you might just end up confused (as a friend of mine recently did). Throw this in with Freaks and Geeks and maybe the 80s weren’t so bad after all (what am I saying?).