Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare Re-Read #4)

I'm just throwing this out here right now: the fifth act of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" has a case as the funniest scene in the Shakespearean canon, and also weirdly, the most funny to our modern sensibilities.   It would've been easy enough to just have the three couples sit in dumbstruck silence as Bottom and company went through their terrible performance, but Shakespeare literally has the couples go all Statler & Waldorf on this shitty performance.  Mystery Science Theatre 3000 owes its entire existence to the fifth act.  Demetrius chirping Snout's performance as the Wall is a legit laugh-out-loud moment and there's even a callback later in the scene.  Unintentional comedy, callbacks, chirping…it's like Shakespeare invented the DVD commentary track centuries beforehand. 

The fifth act (and really, the entire Bottom subplot) is the highlight of a play that isn't quite tossed-off, but yet seems intentionally tossed-off.  As Puck says in the closing lines, if you don't like it, just pretend it was all a dream -- which, of course, is a joke unto itself since the play isn't "real" by any stretch.  AMND is Shakespeare at his most frivolous, having people fall in and out of love at the drop of a hat and/or a droplet of magic potion, sending up the entire comedy convention of a happy ending wedding and literally wrapping the main story up early so the entire climactic fifth act is simply an add-on of pure comedy.

The problem with being intentionally frivolous, however, is that it tends to makes a piece easy to dismiss.  In reading AMND, I was so taken with the Bottom subplot that the actual story (the two couples and the fairy gods and Puck and whatnot) was really just kinda there.  Like a fairy itself, all the mythological stuff between Theseus, Hippolyta, Titania and Oberon more or less flew over my head.  It's almost as if Shakespeare *really* wanted to write a straight send-up of theatrical performances* but didn't have enough material to pad out the basic "these guys want to put on a show/they don't know what they're doing/the show is terrible" idea so he just built the entire AMND plot around it. 

* = Dollars to doughnuts that Bottom, Quince, etc. were thinly- or not-so-thinly-disguised spoofs of actual actors from Shakespeare's day.  Or, maybe in keeping with the modern theme, maybe the guy playing Bottom actually played Bottom himself, thus making the whole thing an in-joke like Patrick Stewart or Kate Winslet playing themselves on Extras.  Damn, did Shakespeare invent the self-deprecating cameo too?

This was just my impression in reading the play, however.  As I noted in my write-up of The Comedy Of Errors, Shakespearean comedies really need to be seen to be appreciated*, so I had a much better impression of the Lysander/Helena/Hermia/Demetrius love quadrangle after seeing AMND performed as part of Toronto's Shakespeare in the Park series.  (Fortunately, a bird didn't take a dump on my head this time.)  Still, compared to other instances of Shakespeare setting up a story of lovers kept apart by circumstance and their eventual triumph/failure, AMND's situation is pretty thin, and purposefully so.  Puck's magic love-besotting potion might as well be Shakespeare's pen --- the playwright, after all, is the one who decides which character loves whom, and what the easiest route is to dramatic conflict.  Oberon decides to use the magic potion in the first place to hook up Demetrius and Helena why, exactly?  Because he just likes the cut of Helena's gib**, or because Oberon just wants to take the piss out of Demetrius? 

* = By the way, I think I have to see the 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream simply based on the cast alone.  Kevin Kline?  Anna Friel?  Christian Bale?!  McNulty?!  THE GUY WHO PLAYED WILLY ON "ALF"?!  Take all my money!

** = Helena is the most well-realized character of the four, and is a genuinely funny neurotic mess.  I would definitely watch a sitcom about Helena as a single woman looking for love while trying to have it all in her career as well, this fall on ABC.  I guess this makes it all ironic that Calista Flockhart played Helena in the movie since while I'd watch a Helena sitcom, I sure didn't want to watch Ally McBeal. 

It's Demetrius, if you think about it, who really kind of gets the shaft here; he is literally entranced into marrying a woman he doesn't love.  Bit of a dark twist there for a comedy but then again, hilarious asides about Snout/Wall aside, Demetrius comes off as a bit of a dick anyway.  His attitude of "Hey Hermia, you may not love me NOW, but don't worry, you'll come around.  After all, your dad thinks we're a great match!" doth not a sympathetic character make.  Well, at least not a sympathetic character by 2012 standards; 400 years ago, he might've been seen to have a valid point. 

Also, in regards to the Lysander/Hermia story, once everything is resolved, the two of them are surprisingly cool with Egeus given his previously-stated threat to kill Lysander and have Hermia more or less enslaved if she didn't follow his wishes.  How big of them.  I guess it's all just a funny story for the kids a few years down the road, about how Grandpa was all set to murder Dad.  We should all also be glad that dukes or similar modern-day authorities no longer have the power to command marriages.  Would you really want Rob Ford to have the final say on who you marry?

When it comes to an overall ranking, I have to give AMND a solid grade simply because everything involving the theatrical troupe was so funny.  I'm sure it won't be near the top of the table once all 38 plays have been read, and really, if you don't like my rankings, just pretend they're all an illusionary dream anyway.  You're asleep right now, as often happens when people read my posts.


4. Coriolanus
3. The Comedy Of Errors
2. A Midsummer Night's Dream
1. Othello

Two of my New Year's resolutions were to lose 38 pounds and to re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) all 38 of William Shakespeare's plays.  At least one of these resolutions will come true.  And, since in these modern times it's impossible to undertake a personal project without blogging about it, here is the first of a series of reviews/personal observances I'll make about the plays.  Well, 'reviews' is a bit of a stretch.  It's William goddamn Shakespeare.  What am I going to tell you, "Don't bother reading this one, folks!  What a stinker!  Ol' Mark doesn't like it, so you should definitely believe ME over 400 years of dramatic criticism!"

It's better that you read these instead of waiting for a weight-loss blog, since brother, that ain't happening.  The 'before' picture alone would break the internet.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Other People's Writing (Grantland edition)

Here are some gems from the last few months on Grantland....

* Coastal Carolina University hires a retired CEO as its football coach, by Michael Weinreb. In the wake of the Penn State tragedy, Joe Moglia's seeming total lack of qualification to adequately run a college football program doesn't really seem so bad, does it?  So the guy has little experience and talks in nothing but aphorisms….better that than a coach who engages in massive coverups of horrible crimes.  Good old-fashioned incompetence seems quaint, eh?

* Extolling the virtues of My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless" album, by Steven Hyden.  I really have no excuse for not diving headfirst into MBV's discography.  My friend Kyle recommended them to me almost four years ago during our 'best albums of our lives' series and yet here I am in 2012, still a MBV newbie and even worse, always moaning about wanting to find new bands.

* Bob Nastanovich of Pavement discusses his former bands and, mostly, his love of horses, by Alex Pappademas.  I knew nothing about Nastanovich, know little about his bands and know little about horse racing, yet this was an oddly interesting interview. 

* Profile of neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee and her work to identify and treat sports-related (mostly football-related) brain trauma, by Jane Leavy.  Fascinating look at probably the biggest issue facing not just the NFL, but all levels of football, and really all levels of all contact sports.  I'm not sure if I've ever had an official concussion, but I've come close twice --- once in a high school pro-wrestling style match when I absorbed about seven DDTs in a 20-minute span, and the other during a friendly football game in university when my own teammate ran delivered a skull-to-skull hit to me while attempting to block a defender trying to tackle me.  This defender, btw, wasn't exactly a Ray Lewis-esque threat so geez Dan, you could've dialled it back a few notches.

"Mark, what's the point of this story?"
I like stories.

* Oral history of WFAN radio, by Alex French and Howie Kahn.  I love oral….histories!  The format is irresistible, the topics are usually fascinating (I guess given the amount of work that has to go into compiling an oral history, the subject deserves to be 'worth it') and it's perfect for quick-hit anecdotes.  For instance, this oral history of the WFAN all-sports talk station is boosted by links to the various shows and personalities featured.  The Pete Franklin rant is what killed me….can you imagine driving down the street and hearing that on your radio?  I would've been laughing so hard I would've swerved into a fire hydrant.  Perhaps this is why New York traffic is so terrible.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Baby, You Got A Stew Going!

First it the announcement that the movie was finally happening.  Then it was the announcement of a 10-episode TV series leading up to said movie, detailing what each member of the Bluth family had been doing for the last decade.  And then it was a recent statement from David Cross saying that the series might end up being 13-14 episodes since Mitch Hurwitz just has so much material to cover. 

By this point, who knows how far-reaching this new Arrested Development project will go.  A 22-episode season?  Fifty-three new episodes?  Three three-hour movies, directed by Peter Jackson?  A 24-hour Arrested Development cable network that shows nothing but new episodes, old episodes, the movie, Mr. Banana Grabber cartoons and Cornballer infomercials?  The sky is the limit!

Saturday, August 25, 2012


You know what's weird?  Bruce Springsteen has never heard outright applause from an audience.  No matter how well he performs, a good chunk of the crowd will always be chanting "Bruuuuuuuuuce," so it sounds vaguely like booing.  Maybe this is why Bruce is always working so hard in his concerts -- he hopes that one day, he'll finally hear a unanimous wall of pure cheering from the fans.  Surely that will be enough to finally his father's approval, ISN'T THAT RIGHT, PAPA SPRINGSTEEN?!

If ever a concert deserved such complete, not-even-sounds-like-a-boo praise, it's the mammoth that Bruce and the E Street Band dropped on Toronto last night.  Good lord, what a show.  Three and a half hours of pure music.  I will repeat that, three and a half hours!  210 minutes!  From a band largely comprised of men in their sixties!  I never have been, and never will be, in as good a shape as Springsteen is at age 62, all running around the big stage and singing his heart out for the length of that epic show.  Incredibly, at 210 minutes, this is actually one of the *shorter* shows of Bruce's current tour.  These guys are machines.  I'm starting to think that Roy Bittan's "professor" nickname is actually fact, and he's injecting these guys with some Armstrong-quality drugs before every show.

It was my third Bruce concert and my first at the Rogers Centre, rather than the ACC.  It was another of those perfect outdoor concerts that the venue can provide --- great weather, full house and just a crazy-good band giving everything they had.  While my previous two E Street Band shows (in 2002 and 2007) were great, this one was a cut above.  I'd have to think about it a bit more but as of this moment, I'll state that Friday night's Springsteen show was the single best concert I've ever seen in my life.  Even better than Sharon, Lois & Bram at Alumni Hall when I was five years old.  THAT good.

My concert-going companion was my friend Dan, who, if anything, is an even bigger Boss fan than I.  It was Dan's third Springsteen show as well, but he's seen Bruce play in Buffalo -- if you cross a border to see an act, that gives you more street cred.  Dan stands out amongst my friends as the guy who's arguably the most enthusiastic about music in general.  The first time I met him was at a school newspaper social back in university and Weezer's "Pinkerton" album happened to be playing, and thus I was treated to Dan giving drunken and FIRED UP commentary about every song on the record and how great they all were.  As good an album as Pinkerton is by itself, Dan's play-by-play made it even better.  Perhaps that's another sign of Bruce's form on this night, as Dan spent most of it just in seemingly awed silence about just how goddamn good this concert was.

Dan particularly dug the setlist, which checked a number of tunes off his E Street Band live bucket list and was just about the closest thing possible to an ideal Springsteen set.  It had live-favourite album tracks, some very deep cuts, a nice selection of new stuff from Bruce's latest record and then a jaw-dropping string of his biggest hits during an encore that just wouldn't end.  Seriously, the lights at the building came on at 11 PM but Bruce kept going for 40 more minutes!  You could see the ever-growing crowd of maintenance and clean-up crews in their orange jackets just milling about, waiting to get started.  Springsteen, a true friend of the working man, earned those guys a lot of overtime pay.

Here's the full list of songs, several of which ran 10-15 minutes in length.  I think the cover of "Twist & Shout" that Bruce provided during the encore was, in fact, longer than the Isley Brothers' entire career.  Though some of these tracks are pretty rare, I couldn't help but notice that some of the deeper cuts (Thundercrack, Darlington County and Candy's Room) also showed up during the 2007 Toronto show, thus making me one of a relatively small group of E Street fans who've seen "Thundercrack" performed live TWICE in the 21st century.  Also, I'm not sure "Rosalita" really counts as a sign request --- that's not exactly a rarity that the band will be stumped to remember.  Still, nothing beats the random nature of Springsteen setlists.  One of the highlights of the night was the momentary gulp/gasp/cheer of the fans when "Spirit In The Night" started up, as everyone simultaneously seemed have a "holy crow, they're playing this?!" reaction.  It was that kind of evening.

1. Working on the Highway
2. Hungry Heart
3. Sherry Darling (sign request)
4. We Take Care of Our Own
5. Wrecking Ball
6. Death to My Hometown
7. My City of Ruins
8. Spirit in the Night
9. Thundercrack (sign request)
10. Jack of All Trades
11. Murder Incorporated
12. Prove It All Night
13. Candy's Room
14. She's the One
15. Darlington County
16. Shackled and Drawn
17. Waitin' on a Sunny Day
18. Incident on 57th Street
19. The Rising
20. Badlands
21. Land of Hope and Dreams

22. We Are Alive
23. Thunder Road
24. Born to Run
25. Rosalita (sign request)
26. Dancing in the Dark
27. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
28. Twist and Shout
29. Glory Days

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"Homeland" Trailer

Taking a page from one of the best movie trailers ever, the second season of Homeland is previewed via a Scala & Kolancy Brothers cover song.  Frankly, it's almost unfair.  Scala/Kolancy music would make anything seem amazing.  You could add their cover of, say, With Or Without You behind scenes from friggin' "Whitney" and it would make that show seem like a heartbreaking mediation on modern relationships rather than, y'know, bullshit.

From my TV Year In Review piece....Most descriptions of Homeland just refer to it as "a thinking man's 24," which isn't quite right; the British series MI5 is the real thinking man's 24 since it has the action but is only half as ludicrous.  There's relatively little action in Homeland which is what makes it so interesting -- the tension came from not really understanding what plot was really afoot, and the feeling of foreboding dread (you knew an attack was coming, but when and from where) added extra importance to everything.  I also have no idea where the series will go for Season 2 or if this premise is really suited to a longer-form series, but if nothing else, Homeland can rest on having at least one superb year.  Great performances from Mandy Patinkin, Damian Lewis (a dead ringer for my friend Greg, btw) and especially Claire Danes in a career-high performance.  Danes deserves every plaudit in the world for her work and should be the hands-down Emmy winner… watch this, it'll probably go to Mariska Hargitay or some shit.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Baby Got Back

God bless the internet.  The sheer variety of films used in this video elevates it from good to great.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Take This Waltz (a.k.a. Take This Litmus Test)

"Take This Waltz" is a difficult movie to objectively review, since it's the kind of film that an audience can't help but watch through the lens of their own personal baggage about infidelity.  My overall impression is that it isn't a very good movie* but I'm perfectly willing to admit that I was influenced by my own views on monogamy.  As a fan of Sarah Polley and all the actors involved, I certainly wanted to enjoy this film going in, but it just left me feeling blah.  Maybe the title was a bad omen --- I like everything about Leonard Cohen on paper except for actually listening to his terrible music.

* = Howard Hawks once said that the key to making a good movie is just to have three good scenes and no bad scenes.  Well, "Take This Waltz" has two glaringly bad scenes.  The entire film is almost sunk in the first five minutes by Margot and Daniel's idiotically cutesy dialogue on the plane; we're supposed to believe these two are soulmates based on THAT?  The second bad scene is Geraldine's relapse, wherein Sarah Silverman takes the "hey, Silverman is really good in this role" vibe and decides to morph her performance into a grade school VIP program presentation about the dangers of alcoholism.

Just to get it out of the way quickly, here's my own baggage.  Infidelity: I'm against it!  (I'll pause for a moment while you all gasp at my controversial stance.)  Infidelity is a generally a selfish and petty thing to do to the person you're in the relationship with, and if you're really that unsatisfied, about 75% of the time there's no good reason you couldn't have just ended the relationship altogether first instead of being a cheating dickhead.  There are, of course, sometimes extenuating circumstances behind cheats, but in the large majority of cases, I disapprove.

Now, the flip side of that.  It's very easy to me to look down on cheaters from my high horse since I've never been in a serious relationship.  You'll notice all the "hey ladies, I'm single" jokes on the blog over the years never stopped for any significant period of time, did they?  As such, I have no direct experience in dealing with the pressures of a marriage or even a long-term relationship so essentially, who the fuck am I to judge?  I've never cheated or been cheated on, but by that same token I've never really gotten to the point where either of us would be Cheating On This Relationship since that would imply that there's a proper relationship there to begin with.  By that token I'm probably not the ideal audience for "Take This Waltz" -- my black/white view of infidelity basically means I can just interpret this film on a surface level, whereas those who are in marriages (or have been through situations similar to this) can no doubt relate to the movie in a much deeper way.

But, to quote Principal Skinner at the 4-H Club, am I so out of touch?!  I mean, Margot and Daniel are pretty unlikable characters, right?  Michelle Williams (an excellent actress) is given the thankless task of trying to breathe life into a character who is unsatisfied with her seemingly lovely life and yet seems to be just "unsatisfied" in some airy, obscure way.  Which, admittedly, seems to be the point, as sometimes relationships just run out of steam and whatever magical It Factor was keeping you together just isn't there anymore.  This is all well and good but it's harder to generate sympathy for Margot when not only does she not have anything to be dissatisfied about, she doesn't even have enough personality to bring this dissatisfaction to life in an interesting way.  I can't tell if this is a failing of Williams' performance or Polley's script.

Then you have Daniel, a REAL douche who just keeps on interacting with Margot despite knowing that she's married.  This might be another baggage moment for me, since if I met a woman on an airplane and really hit it off, only to have her mention that she's married at close to the last minute, I'd take it in stride.  "Losing a no-hitter in the late innings," as I believe Bill Simmons once referred to such situations.  But learning that my dream woman lived literally 50 yards away from me?  I'm sorry, but then it'd go from tragedy to comedy.  The sheer absurdity would overwhelm me and I'd just laugh it all off and probably go on to be great platonic friends with dream woman and her husband.  Hell, I'd probably even tell the husband about it in a "hey dude, funny story, so when I first met Margot, I really dug her…"  Lou seems like he'd be cool with that.  It's a Seth Rogen character, so I can only presume he's as laid-back as it gets.

Not Daniel, though.  Daniel just keeps pining away for Margot throughout his Toronto hipster stereotype existence as an amateur artist/rickshaw driver.*  As I noted earlier, Margot is pretty unsympathetic but at least she has the argument that the spark is gone from her marriage.  Daniel, on the other hand, is straight-up pursuing a married woman.  Dick move, bro.  This instantly lowers my opinion of him and lowers my opinion of Margot for falling for this clown.

* = And also seemingly the greatest athlete in the world.  "Take This Waltz" is filmed and set in Toronto though it takes some very liberal usage of T.O. geography.  For instance, Daniel and Margot go for a walk at one point that apparently takes them from one end of the city to the other, with even a stopover at Toronto Island.  Daniel is also able to carry passengers enormous distances in his rickshaw while barely being out of breath.  Daniel should give up the rickshaw and join Canada's long-distance track squad.

That aforementioned terrible scene of Margot and Daniel was a real failing of the script since that was essentially their only dialogue together before they get into the montage of meaningful glances as they walk out of the airport and share a cab back to the neighbourhood.  Mark's Baggage #3: I don't believe in love at first sight.  Lust at first sight, hell yes*, but not true love.  You're not discovering your soulmate the first time you stare deeply into their eyes or such hogwash.  I especially don't believe it as a storytelling device, since in my eyes, Margot and Daniel went from having no chemistry to sitting in a restaurant 30 minutes of screentime later talking each other off.  That's a big leap.

* = I myself probably had lust at first sight about six times in the last 24 hours alone.  Why do so many attractive women live in Toronto?!  It's like some beautiful curse!

This weakness at the heart of the Margot/Daniel relationship sours the whole thing for me, which is interesting since technically, they do nothing wrong.  If a friend came to me and said she had severe feelings for another man and that she wasn't into her marriage anymore, I'd probably advise her to be honest with her husband and then probably split up.  Which, as it happens, is exactly what Margot does with Lou.  There's no actual cheating between Margot and Dan, not in the physical sense (though there's a boatload in the emotional sense, which is probably worse).  Margot is visibly torn between her feelings for both Dan and Lou.  Daniel even takes a momentary trip on the high road when he moves out the neighbourhood out of guilt.  Really, Margot approaches this in the theoretical "nicest" way that I could imagine, and yet it still left me feeling sour.

Mark's Baggage #4: I am easily bored by other people, which is probably a projection of an inherent fear that people will find me boring.  Ergo, Lou's situation is a real worst case scenario for me.  Lou is comfortably settled into what he thinks is a stable married life with the woman he loves, misguidedly confident enough in their bond that he is totally cool with he and Margot barely talking during their fifth anniversary dinner, interpreting that as a sign of how comfortable they are with other.  Little does he know that she is all-in with the rickshaw driver down the street.  I really enjoyed how Polley presented the "Margot tells Lou" scene, cutting it down to just two minutes of Rogen reaction takes and dealing with that key sequence efficiently without short-changing its importance.

It's probably no surprise that I sympathize with the affable galoot Seth Rogen character, being an affable galoot myself.  Lou's greatest crime seems to be that he gets into a rut and doesn't realize he's in a rut.  That's all it took.  That scares me even further since hey, I'd hate to be five years into a marriage without realizing I'm suddenly dull as dishwater.  Perhaps I should endeavour to be as openly boring as possible so any potential wife knows what she's getting into with me.  This tactic can't possi-blye fail!

And then the ending.  Margot and Daniel seem happy as clams in their (assuredly overpriced) loft space, banging each other silly and even having a couple of threeways with randoms, since, uh, okay, sure, why not.  Then Margot heads over to Lou's house to deal with Geraldine's poorly-acted relapse, feels sorry for leaving and then returns to her apartment to stare forlornly into the stove, seemingly unsatisfied again.  I'm not sure if the ending was supposed to mean…

a) "Any relationship, no matter how perfect, has tough moments where you wonder if you're doing the right thing."


b) "Geez, this Margot is one flaky idiot."

…but guess which letter I chose.  Actually, I guess the third option would be that Margot is looking into the stove since she really misses Lou's chicken dishes.  Surely some cook has already created a chicken recipe book called "Tastes Like Chicken" in real life, right?  That's too much of a slam-dunk to not have already happened.

Ultimately I've got to go thumbs-down on "Take This Waltz" at this point in my life.  Give it ten years and at least one failed marriage and I might think the film is completely bang-on about the state of modern relationships.  If nothing else, Sarah Polley has at least created probably the single greatest dating trap in cinematic history.  Take all these issues I've discussed in this post and imagine them being discussed by an actual couple who's leaving the theatre and unwittingly lighting the powder keg by asking each other, "So, what'd you think?"  That innocent question could very easily lead to a relationship-ending fight.  If your significant other keeps begging you to go see this movie, beware, it might be a ploy.  You might end up forlornly eating chicken on your front porch, watching your spouse/girlfriend/boyfriend going down the road in a rickshaw pulled by some homewrecker.

Incidentally, "Take This, Waltz!" is also what Woody Harrelson (upset over the results of the 2009 Supporting Actor Oscar race) drunkenly yells before tossing a shoe at his television during a screening of Inglourious Basterds.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Beck's DIY Album

Beck is in that "like some of their songs, but can't be bothered to own any of their records" category of musicians for me, a decision that has been completely paid off by this little news item.  In a story that sounds 100 percent like an Onion headline and yet is somehow true, Beck's new album is going to be released as nothing but sheet music.  If you want to listen to the songs, you'll have to play them yourself.  It doesn't specify whether the sheet music is for guitar, piano or what, but I presume different versions will be made available for different instruments. 

Then again, I probably shouldn't presume even that level of user-friendliness, since this is already the least practical idea in the history of music.  Suppose you're a big Beck fan and have been eagerly awaiting his first new studio album in four years.  Suppose, also, that you don't know how to play any instruments.  Ergo, you're SOL.  According to Rolling Stone via that Gawker link, some versions of the songs will be posted online, but performed by fans, not necessarily by Beck and his band themselves.

If you're such a non-musically inclined Beck fan, you'll just have to wait for Beck to play these songs live in order to a) hear them played as Beck intended or b) just to hear them whatsoever, since I'll be damned if I'd go online just to see a YouTube video of some yokel "covering" a song I'd never heard in the first place.  Covers are fine after the fact, but they can't at all match the excitement of that first time listening to a new album from your favourite band.  Beck may just be trying to build a communal experience between he and his audience but it comes off as both a gimmick or a way of potentially just hiding a crappy record.  I find it hard to believe that Beck doesn't have some sense of craftsmanship when it comes to his music, so this "music is for all of us, man, this is the best way of experiencing these songs in our own personal way" idea falls flat.  As someone who owns more than a few books of U2 songs arranged for piano, for as much as I enjoy recreating the tunes myself, I don't like it as much as actually hearing Bono and company play them in the first place.  If I shoot hoops in my driveway, I wouldn't get lost in the communal experience and suddenly not want to watch the NBA Finals.

On the bright side, the Flaming Lips are officially off the hook as making the most needlessly-complex concept album of all time.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Mr. Echo

A short tribute to my beloved Toyota Echo, which was officially traded in two days ago and then presumably instantly crushed into a cube.  After 12 years, 228K+ kilometres, countless trips between London and Toronto, a few noticeable rust spots, a half-bottle of red nail polish that leaked under the front seat during the filming of a vampire movie for film class, and about a billion jokes about the car phone*, the Echo is no more. 

* = Yup, a car phone.  Frankly, it was a great little device, as back when I delivered pizzas, I could talk and drive at the same time via the little microphone attached to the roof.  Of course, practicality quickly gave way to, "Wait, it's 2012, who has a car phone?"  I legitimately thought about having the phone kept and installed in my new car as a running joke.   

Of course, the Echo brand itself has been defunct since 2004 when Toyota essentially just merged it with its Yaris line.  So for the last eight years I've literally been driving an antique.  Instead of a trade-in, maybe I should've called up Jay Leno and inquired if he would take my Echo off his hands.  Jay seems like a nice guy (uh, unless you're a rival talk show host) so maybe I could've at least gotten an appearance on The Tonight Show out of it.  It's always been my dream to appear on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson With Conan O'Brien With Jay Leno. 

I'm admittedly not a car guy.  While I appreciate a nice vehicle, I see cars as just ways to get from A to B with as little fuss as possible.  As such, the Echo was perfect for my needs.  Good on gas, small and maneuverable through Toronto's traffic (the word 'zippy' was used more than once to describe it) and though small, was still pretty spacious on the inside.  I'm not going to tell you what the record was for most people fit inside the Echo at one time, but let's just say that if you're thinking of a clown car, you aren't wrong.  Sure, the Echo's small size led to the occasional problem, like kinda shaking when I drove on the highway during very windy days, but really, what car owner hasn't experienced the common fear of worrying that their vehicle will literally be blown off the road?  Plus, I always figured that driving a small car served as subtle advertising.  You know how when you see a guy with a big fancy car, you wonder if he's over-compensating?  Well, by that logic, a guy who drives a small car…

My new vehicle is a Hyundai Accent and while somewhat Echo-ish, it certainly represents an upgrade.  If all goes well I'll have this car for at least a decade as well, so I have ten years to figure out the proper pronunciation of the make.  (Is it Hun-dye, or Hie-un-dye?)  It passed the first test, as I drove from London to Toronto yesterday and not once was threatened by getting dragged along in the airstream of a passing transport truck.  Also, AIR CONDITIONING.  Oh god, the Echo's AC hasn't worked for three years, so now I can finally drive around without getting a sweat stain on my shirt from the seatbelt strap.

If you're looking for a car, I guess my first recommendation would be the Accent, but you can't go wrong with a Yaris.  It's a fine automobile and a worthy successor to the Echo's legacy of….um, let's just say greatness.  By the end, my Echo might've looked like the Smoke Monster had tossed it into a few trees, but I thoroughly enjoyed that car.  I'll pour one out in your honour, Echo, which was ironic since despite all the other technical problems, you never leaked anything out.  Strong pipes, my friend.  Strong pipes.

Quick question, does anyone know where to buy a car phone?

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Greatest Films Ever Made

Every ten years, Sight & Sound magazine polls critics -- and, for the last two instalments, directors -- to determine their choices as the ten greatest films of all time.  I'm not going to lie, adding the directors to the poll kind of splits the news.  The big headline from this year is that Vertigo finally ousted Citizen Kane from the top of the critics' poll, though the directors voted another film (Tokyo Story) as the best.  I guess the critics' poll still has history on its side so it's considered 'the' authority but still, way to dilute your rankings, Sight & Sound.

The critics' choices….
1. Vertigo
2. Citizen Kane
3. Tokyo Story
4. The Rules Of The Game
5. Sunrise
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
7. The Searchers
8. Man With A Movie Camera
9. The Passion of Joan Of Arc
10. 8 1/2

The directors' choices….
1. Tokyo Story
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
3. Citizen Kane
4. 8 1/2
5. Taxi Driver
6. Apocalypse Now
7(tie). The Godfather
7(tie). Vertigo
9. Mirror
10. Bicycle Thieves

I heartily endorse visiting the BFI website to check their index of past results, including a searchable index of what films have appeared on what critics' and directors' lists over the years.  You will find an astonishing array of "wait, they picked THAT as one of the TEN BEST MOVIES EVER?!" selections that will blow your mind.  The British Film Institute's website is down at the moment or else I'd provide a link, but to give you an example, one guy actually had Artificial Intelligence on his list.  Words fail me.  You can see the all-time top 10 results in quick-and-dirty fashion on Sight & Sound's Wikipedia page and it's fascinating to see what movies have fallen in and out of favour with voters over the years.

So the natural question is, what would I have voted for if I'd been asked about the 10 greatest movies in the history of cinema?  I'm glad you asked, hypothetical straw man!  That term 'greatest' is a pretty loaded term that seems to carry more weight than simply listing five favourites.  That said, if I enjoy watching someone like Back To The Future over and over again and it never gets old, is that not the mark of a really great film?

Here are my choices.  Since I'm going by Sight & Sound rules, I'm not allowed to consider certain films and sequels as a single piece.  For instance, The Godfather I & II were counted as a single entry in past editions of the poll, and thus made the list on a couple of occasions.  This year, however, it was ruled that the films had to be separated, which may explain why Godfather fell off the critics' list.  I bring this up just because if we were allowed to vote for 'combined' films, I'd vote for Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy as a whole.  So that one gets the jury prize.  

Honourable mentions…
Ikiru, Rear Window, A Streetcar Named Desire, American Graffiti, The General, The Big Lebowski, A Fish Called Wanda, Back To The Future, City Lights, Mary Poppins, Bonnie & Clyde, Do The Right Thing, Goodfellas, Duck Soup, Pan's Labyrinth, High Noon

My votes….
10. Memento
9. Casablanca
8. Chinatown
7. Dr. Strangelove
6. Taxi Driver
5. Fargo
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
3. Rashomon
2. Pulp Fiction
1. Citizen Kane

It seems almost a cliche to put Citizen Kane atop any 'best films' list and yet there it is.  Kane has been described as essentially a summary of film techniques from the beginning of cinema to 1941 and (thanks to its use of deep focus cinematography, unique editing and story structure) beyond.  Beyond the technical stuff, it's a hell of a story, topped off by a phenomenal performance by Orson Welles, arguably the most single all-around talented person in film history.  To summarize, Welles directed, co-wrote and starred in maybe the best film ever made….when he was TWENTY-SIX YEARS OLD.  If that doesn't spur on your quarter-life crisis, I don't know what will.

As a bonus, here's my list of the ten greatest directors of all time, which is a somewhat lesser-known Sight & Sound poll.
10. Alfred Hitchcock
9. Steven Spielberg
8. Quentin Tarantino
7. Orson Welles
6. Billy Wilder
5. Buster Keaton
4. Ethan & Joel Coen
3. Charlie Chaplin
2. Martin Scorsese
1. Akira Kurosawa