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May 30, 2010

Please Give

Please Give

As an antidote to the opening of Sex and the City 2 on Thursday night, I went to see Nicole Holofcener's latest movie Please Give. The two movies have a lot in common: both are about women in New York City trying to make a living, find love, and get a pair of jeans that makes their butt look good (at least, you know, in concept.) But while all the lightness and sass of the first few seasons of "Sex and the City" have been sucked out of the movies, leaving what A.O. Scott describes as "the ugly smell of unexamined privilege", Please Give is a totally different story.

Catherine Keener is the star of every Nicole Holofcener movie, and she's always phenomenally great. Here she plays a woman uneasily living with the ugly smell of examined privilege. She and her husband Oliver Platt are waiting for the elderly woman next door to die so they can expand into her apartment, and they run a vintage furniture shop that relies on the willingness of children of dead people to part with their parents' beautiful old stuff so they can resell it with a huge markup.

Neither of these things are necessarily morally wrong, but she's so consumed with guilt that she tries to compensate in increasingly awkward ways: she gives twenties to people on the street, tries to gives leftovers to an older black man she incorrectly assumes is homeless, and offers to volunteer at a center for disabled kids, but is asked to leave when she starts crying while watching them play basketball. She's a really deeply flawed character and the source of most of her own misery. But the way Keener plays her, I felt like I could relate to her--after all, what thinking person doesn't feel some guilt about the poverty you see everyday in this city and want to do the right thing in response? The characters in this movie do the wrong thing a lot of the time, but they're so well written and acted that I still feel for them.

Oh, also, it's funny. The rest of the cast includes my girlfriend Rebecca Hall as a sweet, lonely mammogram technician who puts up with her nasty grandmother with a lot more patience than her sister, Amanda Peet. She plays a selfish bitchy pretty girl like she has in many movies, but this character is a lot more credible and sympathetic than her characters in Igby Goes Down or Saving Silverman. Representing the older and younger generations, there's the delightfully abrasive Ann Guilbert who plays the insufferable grandmother with genius comic timing, and Sarah Steele as Catherine Keener's teenage daughter who spends the whole movie mortified by her looks, until the last scene when she walks out of a dressing room wearing the coveted pair of flattering jeans absolutely glowing, and you realize she's a really good actress.

This movie could have easily been a repellently vapid story about neurotic upper middle class people and how hard it is to live a privileged life, but instead it's subtle, funny, and sometimes uncomfortably relatable. And it's so good to see a movie about women who are fully imagined people rather than plot devices. Roger Ebert's review is great: "Nicole Holofcener pays close attention to women. She doesn't define them by their relationships with men. In a Holofcener movie, women actually have their own reasons for doing things — and these are even allowed to be bad reasons, and funny ones. The movie is about imperfect characters in a difficult world, who mostly do the best they can under the circumstances, but not always. Do you realize what a revolutionary approach that is for a movie these days?"

May 26, 2010

Series finale of a show I don't watch anymore: Law & Order

Van Buren on the final episode of Law & Order

"Law & Order" is one of my favorite shows of all time, but I stopped watching it during Dennis Farina's first season. Maybe it's that there wasn't much point watching the show without Jerry Orbach, maybe it's that you can watch reruns of the older, better ones pretty much whenever you want.

But I did see the series finale, or, actually, the last episode they happened to produce which was never intended to be the last one ever, but that's the way it goes.

It was an uncharacteristically action-packed episode, featuring a shootout with a rampaging public school teacher in a school library, with kids getting shot and everything. You can watch that scene here, though the episode's very last sequence was even better.

Lt. Van Buren (above) is in the midst of a cancer scare, and at a party at a bar the other cops throw to raise money for her, she gets a call from her doctor with test results. We only see the back of her head while she listens and reacts emotionally to what she hears over the phone, and it's an incredibly tense, moving moment. It's not until she sighs and says "thank you thank you!" that we know she got good news.

S. Epatha Merkerson had already given her notice, so even if the show had another season, this was it for her. "Law & Order" hardly ever goes into the private lives of its characters, but the rare personal moments like this are amazingly understated and subtle. This scene was one of the best quietly emotional moments I've ever seen on the show, and I'm kind of happy that, of all the big, dramatic TV finales lately, it was this one that got me a little teary.

There's a rumor that NBC will go for at least another few episodes or a 2-hour movie to close the series out properly. Considering that they're making the boneheaded move of canceling this 20-season show in order to create a new L&O in LA (for crying out loud!) they clearly have some money they could use for the original instead. If this really was it for "Law & Order", I like that it ended its long run by slipping quietly out the back door.

May 25, 2010

24 series finale: Shut it down

Chloe shoots Kiefer on 24

So this damn show that's been running on fumes for the past 3 or 4 (or 7) years is finally over. 24 is the only TV show that I've seen every single episode of, and while it feels a little weird now that it's finally out of my life forever, at least I won't have to keep quietly wondering if I'm still watching it out of some misguided sense of one-sided loyalty.

The thing is, as implausible and absurd as the storyline was this year, again, the show still has some outstanding moments. Last week's episode when Kiefer put on body armor, complete with some sort of Kevlar Darth Vader robot helmet, and single-handedly mowed down an entire secret service detail before kidnapping a former President--it's scenes like that that 24 knows how to do.

I also liked Kiefer forcing Chloe to shoot him in last night's episode (above). It was a tense but sweet scene. Only a show like this could have one character show another how much she loves him by blasting him through-and-through, so the bullet didn't hit any bone or major organs.

The plot about President Taylor sliding into corruption to get her peace treaty signed stopped being interesting about 3 months ago, no matter how many times she pounded her fists and demanded that this peace treaty was the single most important political event! ever! to happen! in history! But I liked last night's shot of her watching Kiefer's video and slowly crumbling under the relentless velvetiness of the Sutherland Bedroom Whisper, which brought her back to righteousness and made her resign.

But plot was never what made the show good. Kiefer himself said, when the series was coming to a close, "It's a very, very difficult show to write." Which is probably why it was at its best when no one was talking.

As usual, the action went right up to the last minutes of the season. The final scene of Kiefer telling Chloe, the only person who's stood by him through everything and not gotten killed, how much she means to him was a genuine and tender moment, even if he was speaking into a drone's video feed. Right up until the end, he was by far the best thing about the show.

I can't say I'm looking forward to the movie.

If you really want to watch this show, you can see all the episodes here.

May 24, 2010

Lost finale: over-promise, under-deliver

Shannon and Sayid make out on Lost

Something I've learned from years of bar trivia is that when trying to answer a tricky question, you should follow your first instinct. After crossing out the first answer that came to mind and writing in some last-minute reconsideration, only to find out that you were right the first time, you eventually figure out that you should always go with your first answer.

So during Season 1 when the whole world theorized that the characters on "Lost" were all dead, only to come up with many wilder ideas later on, well, I guess we all should have just stuck with our first guess.

OK, I know, "they're all dead" isn't really what was happening for the narrative arc of the show. The producers decided to go with an emotional resolution to the series, pretty much abandoning the mythology of the island in favor of a mystical sci-fi soap opera where everybody hugs in slow-motion. I think the whole reason they created this season's flash-sideways storyline, which turned out to be an extended vision of the afterlife, was to distract viewers who might otherwise have been dissatisfied by the narrative ending of the show, which left a ton of plot points unresolved and all the characters scattered all over the place. They're all together and happy when they're dead, so quit complaining, you ingrate fans!

The series finale wasn't terrible, but the show's producers and cast spent the last six months wildly overselling it. They claimed the ending would be satisfying and bring real resolution and closure for the fans. Not like "The Sopranos"! They over-promised. All that did was set them up for failure if fans were less than totally satisfied, which any fan that thought the show was more than just a character study probably is.

I can think of lots of important things that weren't resolved. Like, can anyone tell me why there was time travel on this show? I really liked last season when some of the cast skipped through time like a needle on a scratched record, but now it just seems like a contrived plot device that had nothing to do with the idea that the island is some kind of energy source for life in the universe.

On "Jimmy Kimmel Live" after the show was over, Jimmy chatted with the cast members on what it was like to be part of the show and what they thought of the ending. When he got to Alan Dale, who played Charles Widmore, and asked him what it was like to play such a scary character, there was this awkward pause, and Alan Dale admitted that he actually never figured out if his character was supposed to be a good guy or a bad guy. Yeah, you and me both, Alan Dale. I don't think Widmore was anything like a good guy, but his motivations in the last season were a total mystery, and his death felt more like a box getting checked than part of a good/evil showdown. Very unsatisfying.

Still, I liked how the island narrative of the show ended without full resolution. It was just like how a lot of seasons ended: some characters get off the island, some are still stuck there, some are dead. I didn't really need the afterlife storyline to make me feel like it all comes out OK in the end. Those flash-sideways love reunions got a little tedious after the fourth or fifth identical sequence, but at least we got to see the show's hottest couple, Sayid and Shannon (above), start making out 4 seconds after finding each other again.

May 21, 2010

"What if the bachelorette party theme is sluts?"

Jenna Maroney having a rage stroke

I wasn't always so wild about this season of 30 Rock, which ended last night. But Jenna's line about Liz's hypothetical bachelorette party, during her brief engagement to Wesley Snipes, killed me. (Here's the episode.) Actually, let's think about some other highlights of the season:

From the Christmas episode ("Secret Santa"):
Danny: [Sings "Danny Boy"] I'm sorry, is your nose bleeding?
Jenna: Yes. Because I'm so happy for you. It's definitely not a rage stroke.

From the Liz Lemon party episode ("Khonani"):
Liz: You think when I was a kid I dreamed of someday spending $1,200 on a karaoke machine to impress a bunch of pasty losers?
Jenna: And a professional singer, who's beautiful ... but doesn't know it!

From the environmentalism episode
("Sun Tea"):
Kenneth: I've been put in charge of reducing TGS's carbon footprint. And everyone has to chip in.
Jenna: Kenneth, I once took a low-volume shower with Ed Begley, Jr. What more can I do?

Jenna really got some of the best lines this season.

Get ready for next week's TV apocalypse, when Law and Order, 24, and Lost all end forever. Maybe Sam Waterston, Kiefer, and Michael Emerson can all create a new reality show about going to auditions.

May 20, 2010

Who's Fatter?™

The Hooters waitress who was put on probation at work for being too fat has been getting a lot of attention today. The women's rights crusaders at Fox News did an indignant piece in which they use national height/weight tables to show that poor 20 year-old Cassie Smith, at 5' 8" and 132 pounds, is well within healthy guidelines. Cassie claims that two women from company headquarters told her that unless she used a free gym membership to lose some weight, she's out.

But we'd like to use this opportunity to ensure that American women maintain an appropriately pathological mindset about their weight with another fun round of Who's Fatter?™

To play Who's Fatter?™, consider the two women below, and decide which one you think is fattest.

Who's Fatter?

Hooters girl vs. Beyonce

The Hooters Girl or Beyoncé?

This is a tricky one, because public reports of Beyoncé's weight vary depending on which movie she was most recently in: Dreamgirls (when she lost some weight) or Cadillac Records (when she gained weight to play Etta James.) She's the same height as Hooters girl. But all evidence point to this.

Answer: Beyoncé is fatter!

Beyoncé allegedly weighs 143 on an average day. She got down to the high 120's for Dreamgirls, and back when she was in Destiny's Child, she self-reported 135. Cha Cha has provided answers ranging from 135-150, and puts her height at either 5' 7" or 5' 8".

So forget about that gym membership, Cassie! All that's going to get you is more crappy tips for slinging wings and Bud Light in sneakers and orange shorts. Hire a stylist and start wearing leotards and heels.

Previously: Who's Fatter™?: Nicole Richie or Dakota Fanning?

May 18, 2010

Cuddle up a little closer, big oil

Bigs from BP at a Senate hearing

Today's Senate hearings about the BP oil well blowout featured Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who got all kinds of accusations about the "coziness" in the relationship between oil companies and the government regulators that are supposed to keep things like this from happening. Salazar admitted that his department had gotten lax, saying "there's obviously things that are inappropriate" going on at Minerals Management Service, the agency in question, and that we need to "clean up that house."

Let's remember the subtext of what Salazar is talking about here. Aside from MMS not being very good regulators, there have also been all kinds of corrupt shenanigans going on there for years now. A report by the Department of the Interior from a year and a half ago found that government regulators were literally in bed with the oil companies they were supposedly regulating.

Some MMS staffers were having sex with their oil reps, while others were accepting the usual illegal free stuff like ski trips, football games, and Toby Keith concerts, as well as smoking pot and using cocaine at oil industry parties. That's on top of more run-of-the-mill corruption like funneling oil contract money to friends and letting oil companies underpay on their contracts.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said at the hearing, "It is long past time to drain the safety and environmental swamp that is MMS. This agency has been in denial about safety problems for years." The problems probably started during the boozy golf outing days of the Bush administration, when the guy in charge of the MMS royalties program was sleeping with his secretary and buying cocaine from her boyfriend. But the people running the show there now should have gotten their act together.

May 17, 2010

RIP Ronnie James Dio. \m/

Ronnie James Dio, devil horns

Over the weekend, master metal screamer Ronnie James Dio died of stomach cancer. Dio was unbelievably great. Sure, he was diminutive, cartoonish, and outrageous, but if aliens landed on earth and you had to show them one video clip to explain what metal was all about, all you'd have to do is pull up some Dio, such as "Die Young" by Black Sabbath or "Holy Diver" by Dio.

Here's a brief obituary on Pitchfork, which says Dio "represented heavy metal at its most over-the-top, ridiculous, and fun." The respectful and thorough Times obit credits Dio with popularizing the international symbol for metal, the devil horns gesture, and provides a brief how-to for Times readers who are just getting into hard rock. It also mentions a Dio fact I never knew: he was born in Portsmouth, NH!

I found out about Ronnie James Dio through a spoken word piece by Henry Rollins called "Breaking Up is Hard To Do", which offers advice how to cope with getting dumped. It's the funniest thing I've ever heard from Henry Rollins by far. His advice involves fashioning a cape out of a towel, putting on a record featuring Ronnie James Dio on vocals (who Rollins describes as "this little evil gnome") and selecting any one of his many songs with an "Evil Woman, Look Out!" theme to sing along to.

You can hear the whole bit on YouTube. Actually, it not only offers some good advice for dealing with getting dumped or any other personal tragedy, but it's also a serviceable primer on fronting your new charismatic and defiantly non-ironic hard rock band.

May 5, 2010

Machete trailer

The trailer that became a movie has become a trailer again: a new trailer for the full-length Machete is out!

It's been a rough time for Robert Rodriguez since he teamed up with Quentin Tarantino to do Grindhouse. He left his wife and 5 children to take up with his leading lady Rose McGowan, which, incredibly, did not work out. Also, Grindhouse was a flop, for reasons I still can't figure out.

At least something good is coming out of it. Machete was originally a fake trailer shown between the two short movies that made up Grindhouse (here's the video). Now it's a wonderfully pulpy looking full-length movie coming out in September, featuring the incredibly prolific extra turned character actor turned movie star Danny Trejo. Here's The A.V. Club's great recent interview with him.

There's also Robert DeNiro as an anti-immigrant Senator advocating a law that's pretty much exactly like the real one in Arizona ("every time an illegal dances across our border, it is an overt act of terrorism!") which is a total gift to this movie's marketing plan. And Jessica Alba and a one-eyed Michelle Rodriguez as tough freedom fighters, and Cheech Marin as a double-barreled priest.

Oh, and Lindsay Lohan in her first real movie in 3 years.

And Don Johnson.

This movie is like holy absolution for every actor who's noticed the phone doesn't ring as much as it used to.

May 3, 2010

Music videos are back

Lady Gage Poison TV

Back in the early days of shows like "Friday Night Videos", music videos were a fun, goofy diversion. They usually looked like they cost about $25 to make and served as a novel way to experience the songs you heard on the radio, and as a new resource for looking at girls and guys in sexy outfits. Examples: Olivia Newton-John's "Physical", Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra".

Then videos became both big business and sometimes actual art. You've got every video from "Thriller", a-ha's "Take On Me", and Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More". People often cared more about the video than the song, and videos became the perfect marketing device: ads that people wanted to watch. Pretty soon David Fincher is directing Paula Abdul's best videos and Madonna's "Express Yourself", Michael Jackson makes "Scream" for $7 million, and Aerosmith does an Alicia Silverstone video trilogy ("Cryin'", "Crazy", and the one I always forget, "Amazing".)

I'd love to see a graph comparing the declining number of videos aired per day on MTV and shrinking record sales. Maybe downloading had already taken hold, so MTV decided to stop running video-ads for singles and albums that no one was buying anymore. Or maybe MTV's lack of interest in videos and growing devotion to reality shows actually contributed in some small way to the crash of the music industry. Either way, record companies don't have the marketing budgets that they used to, and the last five years or so have been terrible for the music video.

In New York magazine, there's a great article called "Internet Killed the MTV Star", which says that even if they're not on TV anymore, videos are back. There's nothing in this piece that comes as much of a surprise, but it nicely articulates a few things that you've probably been noticing over the past few years:

  • Videos are popular again because of YouTube
  • YouTube has slowly shifted focus from accidentally popular amateur videos to intentionally popular music videos
  • Lady Gaga is the biggest thing to happen to music videos since MTV, Madonna, and Tawny Kitaen.

Gaga's videos have over 1 billion views, and she's one of few current artists to have truly massive album sales ("The Fame" hit 10 million in February), so it seems that people do still actually want to buy a record when they like the videos.

Gaga's videos are also money makers in themselves, through a little bit of revenue from internet ads, and from far more lucrative product placement, which glaringly saturates the "Telephone" video. The CEO of video service Vevo (which is owned by Sony and Universal) says, "There was a time when music videos were purely promotional, and that was fine when people were buying music. Now they're no longer promotional. We sell advertising in and around them at a premium. Instead of being a marketing expense, videos can be a profit center."

One of the best things about the resurgence of music videos as something record companies will actually invest in again is that the most exciting directors that really know how to make great videos can get back into it. The director of Gaga's current trilogy, Jonas Akerlund, did a lot of Roxette videos and that notorious Prodigy one for "Smack My Bitch Up". Spike Jonze has just done a new one for LCD Soundsystem's "Drunk Girls". Michel Gondry, who did tons of great videos for Bjork and the White Stripes, but hasn't been doing much lately, says, "now I feel like it's coming back to early MTV, before the big-budget cranes, when it was creative and fun."

Videos might be creative and fun again because we're going to see a whole lot of Virgin Mobile ads in them, but on the whole, it's probably a better experience than watching MTV circa 1999 when you pretty much just saw the same Smash Mouth and Limp Bizkit videos every day.

[Thanks, That Fuzzy Bastarrd!]

About May 2010

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