Sunday, March 29, 2009

Patrick Chewing

All I've got are two questions. How awesome is the above commercial and how did I not see it until just recently? As a fan of Hall of Fame Knick centers, I found this to be as satisfying as any Snickers bar. Sure the sweet flat-top fade is obviously a wig, his less than stellar physique certainly seems to indicate he's been having more than his share of "Patrick Chewings", and if he was going to jam on a goofy white guy I would have preferred it to have been Rik Smits; but in the end it was just a pleasant surprise to see the big guy in action again.

On a related note. At one point did the entire marketing and advertising community agree that candy commercials should be disturbing and surreal? Between Skittles' nightmarescapes and the absurdist fare of Starbursts the emphasis seems to have switched from sweet and delicious to creepy and unsettling. Compared to those Daliesque experiments, those quirky Mentos commercials look like cinéma vérité. Call me old fashioned, but I wouldn't mind a wholesome old Werther's commercial every now and then.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Previous Hour

So what has Victor been doing for the previous hour?

Reviewing the complicated tax code materials for his Trusts and Estates class?

Clearing out all the leftover dirty dishes and cups from his room?

Putting in more applications for summer employment?

Or crudely Photoshopping bad puns and American English idioms into a comic he found on the internet mocking the intro to "CSI Miami"?

Thursday, March 19, 2009


For all those who are completely oblivious to the national sports scene, that sudden decline in attention and productivity within your office/school/factory/etc. can probably be attributed to the start of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament and all the wagering and bracket projecting that it entails. It's a yearly national phenomenon, kind of like the Super Bowl stretched out over weeks. Even if you have little to no connection to college basketball, chances are if you've got friends, you've filled out a bracket or two. While pundits, professional gamblers, sports experts, and Joe Lundari would like to have you believe that there is some sort of advanced science to making accurate bracket predictions, in the end it's just as random as picking lottery numbers.

That's one of the big reasons it has such wide appeal. Anyone can participate, even if you have no idea how the game of basketball is played. All you have to do is make binary decisions that narrow a field of 64 down to 1. Of course a little bit of research and knowledge of the particulars can only help when those decisions, but more often then not it seems like the sports illiterate secretary or the guy in class who doesn't watch TV, or someones 8 year old is the one coming out ahead in a large pool full of fans and experts.

So of course what better way for a president to endear himself to populist sentiment then to do his own bracket as well. Maybe it's because we have a young, hip, basketball loving president, but I can't recall news stories any of the prior presidents making their own March Madness sheets. While writing up your own sheet as the President may seem like an innocuous bit of positive publicity, I think it's nothing but trouble:
  • The biggest drawback of having a public bracket is that right off the bat you are snubbing 63 out of 64 schools. When the President makes a Super Bowl prediction, he'll obviously alienate the hometown fans of one city over another. With the NCAA tournament, you can only pick one out of 64. Just as soon as the bracket was announced, Duke's Coach K immediately announced is displeasure. In the words of another prominent Illinois Commander in Chief:“You can’t please all of the people all of the time".
  • Just one look at the President's brackets seem to indicate a fairly by the numbers, chalk heavy approach to his selections. There are very few upsets or surprises here. For a candidate who ran on a platform of change and bold new thinking for this country, it certainly isn't reflected in his selections. It looks like standard Washington bracketing as usual. The last thing you want is for people to be calling your brackets conservative.
  • In addition, apparently Obama originally picked Pitt and Louisville in the national title game with Louisville winning but then quickly scratched it out and replaced Pitt with UNC and had the Tar Heels winning it all. This bit of publicized indecision is not the image you want to reflect as the President. If you're going to pick, pick boldly.
  • Perhaps it's not the best move for Obama to align himself with an activity that is inherently driven by billions in illegal gambling and is associated with workplace unproductiveness, especially in this economic climate. You want to project that you're working day and night to solve the credit crisis, not working on the office pool.
  • Obama picked, UNC, probably the second most polarizing college basketball team. The only worse team he could have chosen would have been Duke. He should have gone with a more neutral favorite like Pitt or Louisville or maybe a trendy upstart like Wake Forrest or Syracuse. Atleast he can't be accused of rampant homerism by taking overrated Illionis deep into the tournament.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Gold Digging, part 4: Pop Treasures

I have to admit things have been a bit slow around here lately (lousy obligations of the real world). So I figure what better way to break up this recent posting drought then to start the second half of my ongoing A.M. Gold mining expedition. We're cracking open a whole new three CD set, "Radio Hits '69-'74". It's a curiously specific title considering this collection's usually ambiguous and ill defined categorizing. However, fans of unspecific musical compiling, will still be satisfactorily left in the dark by the first CD from the set "Pop Treasures". I'm going to assume it's some sort combination of types of songs found in the previously reviewed "Pop Classics" CD and "Top 40 Treasures" CD, all apparently within the boundaries of 1969 to 1974.

Well, time to dig in!:

1. "Little Willy" - Sweet (1973) #3
Sweet is definitely up there in my personal list of historic bands I would have liked to have been a part of. Mixing the funnest parts of glam rock and bubble gum pop with a dash of early heavy metal, these guys always looked like they were having a good time racking up hits on both sides of the ocean and never taking themselves too seriously. "Little Willy" is a classic A.M. Gold rocker with all the proper ingredients: big hooks, crunchy riffs, and a catchy sing-a-long chorus. Is it just me or is this whole song an extended metaphor for someone trying to keep down an erection ("Little Willy, Willy won't go home")? It seems pretty blatant to me.

2. "Come and Get Your Love" - Redbone (1974) #5
While I admire the fact that "Come and Get Your Love" by the rare Native American band Redbone is the biggest Native American related billboard hit aside from Paul Revere & the Raiders' classic 1971 chart topper (and Victor karaoke classic) "Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)", I still am not a fan of the song. It's just an unamendable oil and water situation. I think it all goes back to the traumatizing childhood experience of listening to my sister play her Real McCoy album which included their awful Eurotrash dance cover day and night. Hearing that first before the original just turned me off to the song all together. Perhaps in another life the situation will be reversed and I'll be down with the bone.

3. "Precious and Few" - Climax (1972) #3
It's a decent song but found it overall to be a bit too soft for my tastes. The beginning of this song inexplicably reminds me of the beginning of "Cherish" by the Association. They also share a similar mellow theme of adoring the receiver of the lyrics. This similarity however works against "Precious and Few" since it always causes it to be unfairly compared with the superior "Cherish". Overall not a bad effort, but the Climax I prefer will still be with a K, Y, and two XXes.

4. "Don't Pull Your Love Out" - Hamilton, Joe Frank, and Reynolds (1971) #4
This was definitely a bona fide, straight up A.M. Gold discovery for me! I couldn't get it out my head for a week; pure 24 carat A.M. Gold from the slick production to the snappy rolling chorus! Kudos to the hi making law firm of Hamilton, Joe Frank, and Reynolds. My theory is that the best pop songs about heartbreak fit in two distinct categories: they can either be over-the-top, totally bombastic, epic tragedies (a la "The Worst That Could Happen") or, as with this case, perplexingly upbeat songs with tones completely opposite from their subject matter. The protagonist of the sing is begging for the woman not to leave him and crumble his entire world, yet it's delivered with a good time, easy vibe. Awesome!

5. "Last Song" - Edward Bear (1972) #3
Had the technology existed in 1972 for people to make personal mix compilations for each other, I suspect there would have been many a break up mixes with "Last Song" as the literal last song on the mix. There's a soft, weepy, sappy melancholy in it, but it actually keeps a open a sliver of hope by mentioning that they still love the person. It's another quality A.M. Gold track and an exemplary example of its genre. The only thing that could improve its standing would if the band Edward Bear actually had a real life bear member, had a pet bear, or at the very least had some sort of bear costume/image thing going like Teddybears.

6. "Sylvia's Mother" - Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show (1972) #5
I really can't decide how to read "Sylvia's Mother". There's no question that's it's an awful song. However, it straddles an incredibly tenuous line between just plain awful and so awful that it actually becomes interesting; and I can't determine which side of the line it falls under. While nowhere near great, it does fit that deliciously tragic and overblown part of my great pop heartbreak song dichotomy; the stakes are high enough and the whole song is sung in this outrageous, irritating whine. However even at its most bombastic moments you have that ridiculous interjection by the telephone operator asking for more money for the call that makes me wonder if this whole song is just some bad joke or parody. Given the fact that it was written by quirky, poet, writer, and general Renaissance man Shel Silverstein, I have my reservations.

7. "Sweet Mary" - Wadsworth Mansion (1971) #7
This is just a fun, breezy, slice of pop gold. I can just imagine what life must have been like, driving around early 70's America in your giant, domestic automobile with the top down, the turbulence of Vietnam and the 60s rolling to an end and the disillusionment of the Watergate scandal a distant few years away. This song has a total Three Dog Night quality to it with the harmonies and the slight gospel inspired set up. It is almost as though Wadsworth Mansion broke into their recording studio and grabbed the first hit they could find. It is definately a smart move on the part of the band to emulate the sounds of the greatest A.M. Gold band of all time at the height of their powers. Unfortunately, while Three Dog Night managed to squeeze out a dozen or so gold albums and even more top 40 hits, Wadsworth Mansion faded away into the great A.M. Gold either,

8. "Garden Party" - Ricky Nelson (1972) #6
Ricky Nelson's final big hit coincided with Chuck Berry's #1 for "My Ding-a-Ling" as songs by previously forgotten 50's artists that suddenly became top ten hits in 1972. I like the smooth, country flavored, story song quality of "Garden Party". It sounds like a shorter version of "American Pie" in that it seems to have the same kind of dense metaphors and personal references. Interestingly enough, the titular garden party refers to a bad experience at a concert he gave at Madison Square Garden; it really adds a lot of context to the song. Despite all the introspective subject matter I still immaturely construe the line in the chorus, "you can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself" as dirty.

9. "Signs" - Five Man Electrical Band (1971) #3
Now "Signs" is a textbook example of a song being so thoroughly in the awful territory that it actually becomes a good song. The ridiculous self righteousness oozing out of every pore of this song, despite the best intentions of its creators, can never be taken seriously. Taken without its important "message" and in this non-serious context, the song become quite fun. It definitely makes for a entertaining sing-a-long with everyone trying to sound more righteously indignant than the other. I also think that, despite the date of its release, this song still has a more 60s (albeit fake and hollow 60s) protest feel to it, so I wouldn't personally categorize it in the A.M. Gold genre.

10. "Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?" - Hurricane Smith (1972) #3
This is totally one of those "only in the 70s" kind of hits. You got this lifelong British sound engineer who in his late 40s decides to start recording his own music under the pseudonym, Hurricane Smith, and suddenly he's got a transatlantic hit with a song that sounds like a 30's standard. Did I also mention his voice sounds like a Muppet and he looks like a slightly less unattractive Jim Croce? It's an amazing triumph. At first I was totally turned off by this odd little tune but against all odds, much like its original unlikely climb up the charts, it totally won me over, little by little, listening after listening. It also looks like two tons of fun to do on the karaoke machine.

11. "Everything is Beautiful" - Ray Stevens (1970) #1
It's interesting to note that this is actually the first number one single on the album thus far. Compared to the three other #1 loaded compilations I've reviewed this is quite a change indeed. That being said, this song straight up sucks. Ray Stevens strays away from his quirky, novelty bread and butter and makes a lame hamfisted "message" song and is somehow rewarded with one of the biggest hits of his career. While any song with a child chorus is almost always a deal breaker for me, the worst part of the song for me is the subtle condescending feeling I get from the lyrics. I know it's all about tolerance and seeing the beauty of all things, but the "everything is beautiful in its own way" just comes off a bit smug in my book. It sounds like "yeah X is beautiful but by their own inferior standards rather than in my own eyes". I don't know, I'm probably reading way too much into it. You definately wouldn't get this sort of ambiguity with "The Streak"

12. "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" - Steam (1969) #1
The selection of this apt closer seems to indicate that perhaps there might have been some attention paid to the arrangement of these tracks this album! We can only dream! As for the song itself, it's good but at one point I might have liked it more. It's overuse as a stadium crowd pleaser and official tauting anthem of departing individuals has sort of taken a lot of the sheen of the song. It's not longer a song, it's a Jock Jam, whose ubiquity puts it into a whole different category of music and standards by which it should be judged. As for the above album cover? Just about the gayest thing this side of Orleans.

I must say "Pop Treasures" was quite a departure from what I've been used to from the previous A.M. Gold set. It was definitely a more varied and deeper catalog of hits, with less chart toppers and more classic hidden gems. Perhaps they should have gone with "Pop Gems". The track listing was generally strong and the small handful of disappointments were made up by the new quality finds. I'm looking forward to all the other potential hits from 1969 to 1974, the "Golden Age" of A.M. Gold.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Double Feature

One of the minor fringe benefits of watching a movie on its opening weekend is the fact that in addition to the poppin' fresh feature, you get to see the latest poppin' fresh previews. It's a minor thing, but I really do notice the difference when I go to a film that's been in the theaters for a month or two and see nothing but outdated trailers of currently running features. For some people, the preview is sometimes reason enough to go into a particular movie. I remember a few years back, a significant number of die hard fans paid the full fare to see the forgettable "Dreamcatcher" just to see the first previews for the Matrix sequel and walk out. It might have even won its weekend because of it.

During my recent opening day trek out to see "Watchmen", I got to observe the latest and greatest features Hollywood had lined up in its pipeline. While I have nothing amazing to report from my glimpse of the future, the above pictured, upcoming Seth Rogen vehicle "Observe and Report" did catch my attention for different reasons. These reasons may become more obvious after viewing the recent trailer for yourself. Notice anything familiar?:
  • A large mall setting?
  • Doughy mall cop protagonist with a comically over inflated sense of duty and importance?
  • Attractive female mall employee love interest?
  • A sudden opportunity for said mall cop protagonist to become a hero?
  • Slapstick physical comedy?
  • Condescending law enforcement officials that look down on said mall cop?
  • Plenty of comical shots of said mall cop cruising around in a personal transport?
  • Fat guys falling down?
Looks an awful lot like another recent film.

It appears indeed that the ever unpredictable Hollywood movie machine has inexplicably cranked out two "Mall Cop Hero Comedies" in the same year! Despite modern technology providing endless avenues of expression via the cinematic medium and the infinite amount of stories to be told of the human condition, we find ourselves with two films coincidentally following the incredibly narrow topic of "Mall Cop Hero Comedy". While this may seem like a once in a life time cosmic event, like a sort of cinematic syzygy; it's actually more common then you think.

Just three years ago we had a double Victorian era magic act with vastly superior "The Prestige" trumping the "The Illusionist". Only about four years ago we experienced two biopics about Truman Capote ("Captote" and the criminally underrated "Infamous" coming out in about a one year span). The year before that we had the dueling first daughter romantic comedies "Chasing Liberty" and "First Daughter". In 2000, we experienced two separate unsuccessful manned voyages to mars in "Mission to Mars" and "Red Planet". Even a seemingly unique and creative concept like "The Truman Show" had an eerie thematic doppelganger in "EDtv" in 1999. There was the CGI showdown between "A Bug's Life" and "Antz" between 1998 and 1999. An even more unlikely duo of biopics about 70s long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine ("Prefontaine" and "Without Limits") came out between 1997 and 1998 (to this day I still confuse Jared Leto and Billy Crudup movies). Also in 1998, summer asteroid films Deep Impact and Armageddon hit theatres within two months of each other. That double dose of disaster stuck while we were trying to recover from havoc released the previous year when Dante's Peak and it's flashier, less scientifically accurate brother Volcano erupted within months of each other.

Unavoidable coincidences based on the large number of yearly mainstream movie releases? Or just an indication of Hollywood's creative bankruptcy? You can draw your own conclusions on that. One thing I noticed about these twin billings is that in nearly all cases, one film is usually vastly superior to the other (Forrest Whitaker's direction in "First Daughter" clearly gives it the edge). While we're all aware about my (and America's) inexplicable affection for "Paul Blart", the trailer has given me zero indication that "Observe and Protect" will even be a watchable film let alone the superior picture. The film seems to have taken the Blart story and sucked out all the likability and charm. Where as Kevin James' character had a sympathetic, everyman quality to him, Seth Rogen's mall cop seems downright cruel and sadistic. I find his personal monologue in the trailer, creepy and unsettling rather than funny. Both characters seem to find themselves unexpectedly thrusted into a heroic situation but while Blart does his best to save the day, Rogen's just seems all about manipulating the situation for his own unscrupulous gains. Even the casting of the always delightfully bubbly Anna Faris fails add enough for me to want to see this film, even on a lark. I didn't recall anyone laughing at any point in the trailer which is always a bad sign. Perhaps we're just about approaching critical mass in our tolerance of Seth Rogen and his unchanging schlubby stoner persona. In any case, it'll be interesting to see who comes out on top in this twin rivalry and goes down in history as THE definitive "Mall Cop Comedy".

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Victor Watches the Watchmen. But Who Watches Lee Iacocca?

The other day I got around to watching the "Watchmen." The fact that it was on opening day itself was significant enough. The last time I saw a movie on opening day was "Rush Hour 2" (which was also the last movie before "The Dark Knight" where I actually got excited watching the trailer) during the tail end of my legendary pre-freshman year of college Summer of Victor where I somehow managed an unexpected streak of catching the number one box office film for about four or five straight weeks.

The reviews for "Watchmen" thus far seem to run the gambit from bloated, melodramatic drivel to a remarkable, next level, achievement in the comic book movie genre, and everything in between. As for me, on the whole I found it to be generally positive. Of course, I have to add the fact that I went into the movie with a fairly low standard of expectations. My one genuine bit of praise for director Zack Snyder, it that at least he was ambitious. He was ambitious to even attempt to affix such an iconic, sprawling, difficult, story into film. There's a reason co-creator Alan Moore still considers the story unfilmable. Not only do you have to some how tell this dense, multi-layered, chaotically presented story in one feature length film, but you have to walk this impossibly fine line between satisfying the cult fan base by maintaining fidelity to the original material while trying to make a unique piece of cinema that isn't just a rote motion comic. It was bound for disappointment.

Given this unwinnable situation, it looks like the filmmakers relied more on the path of least resistance and stayed conservatively true to the material. At points during the film, I could literally recall the specific panels from the comic, as if they just exclusively worked off them as the storyboards. There were obviously some variations from the source material but, like the excising of the whole pirate story, it seemed more out of the constraints of keeping the film under 3 hours than really for any original artistic merit. Is all this necessarily a bad thing? Not really. Given the unfair situation, falling back on the material seems like a prudent choice given the high quality of the original material. Speaking of the source material, one of the other major reasons against making a "Watchmen" film now is that it is just not as relevant as it was in 1986. The whole nihilistic Cold War destruction themes just don't have the power in today's new world order. For the people of 1986 the spectre of Nuclear holocaust was a legitimate one, where as the concept of global thermonuclear war for my generation and beyond is as unreal as Dr. Manhattan's giant CGI dong. Given that, the "Watchmen" (much like with Iron Maiden's "Two Minutes to Midnight") loses a lot of its power.

Oh yeah and the film's music SUUUCCCKKKEEED. It was just a baffling collection of pop music (with one too many Leonard Cohen tunes) injected into the film at the worst times with the subtly of a punch to the face.

Despite these drawbacks, however, I still think the good outweighed the bad and in the end it kept me enthralled for the nearly 3 hour run time (definitely not an easy task for any film). It was still a fascinating, commendably ambitious exercise in storytelling. As just a guy who's not usually into comics who read the "Watchmen" and enjoyed it, just a hybrid of the fanatical comic book lover and the complete neophyte, it was satisfying.

Having said my two cents about the film, I also wanted to mention the above, bizarre Lee Iacocca impersonator cameo in the film. Given his status as one of the great icons of business and industry in the 1980s, it was a nifty piece of artistic license to include him within the rich tableau of the alternate 1985 created for the film. I noticed the film had a noticeably large cast of famous impersonators ranging from the prominent character of 1980s Richard Nixon to a faux McLaughlin Group panel (finally an opportunity that one Eleanor Clift impersonator to shine!). The sweeping title sequence to the film (which was actually quite an ingenious way to cover the enormous back story and efficiently provide context for the present plot; hands down the best part of the entire movie) itself employs almost half a century worth of famous faces and figures.

The interesting thing about the Lee Iacocca impersonator was how, in stark contrast to reality, he ends up meeting a grisly end by getting caught in the crossfire during an unsuccessful assassination attempt on one of the Watchman, Ozymandias. It was a bit jarring to see the lovable Chryster pitchman and former "Lee of the Month" winner on my long running facebook group, get one right between the eyes (apparently Lee wasn't a fan of his alternate dimise as well). It also made me think if there were any other films out there where impersonators of real life, living public figures were killed on screen.

There have been plenty of movies with alternate histories where certain figures were implied to have lived or died (like Hitler or JFK). But I really couldn't think of too many movies off the top of my head where a then currently living figure was killed on screen. In fact the only movie I could think of was "Hot Shots: Part Deux" where Lloyd Bridges dispatches a ridiculously fictionalized version of the then living Saddam Hussein. Leslie Nielson delivers a comically severe beat down on numerous world leaders in the first "Naked Gun" movie, but none of it appears to be fatal. If it weren't for the fact that public figures have a much higher standard for defamation, you'd think they'd have some case for their reputation being hurt by being shown to be killed or beat up on screen.

Anyone else have any examples of famous fictional film deaths?