March 30, 2009

Netflix: Our Longest Rentals 2001-2008

The New York Times published one of their cultural anecdotal news stories today about couples whose Netflix queue causes strife. The article highlights a common Netflix problem: you add a movie to your list, but once you receive it, you never watch it. Weeks and months go by, but you and/or your spouse just let it sit there. In my experience, this happens most often with serious dramas. In fact, this morning, I logged onto Netflix.com, clicked My Account, and viewed my complete rental history from the day I joined in 2001 through 2008. The report lists the ship and return dates for all the DVDs. For your edification, here's the titles we kept out the longest:
  1. Children Of Men: 208 days - The irony is rich: I received Children Of Men in April 2007, but I didn't watch it until November. It turns out it was one of the best movies I saw that year. Regardless of its quality, Children Of Men is Netflix Kryptonite: a movie which is notoriously depressing, it took me over six months to work up the courage to watch it. The good news is, I loved it.
  2. The TV Set: 105 days-- I like "Inside Hollywood" movies, and this feature film about the making of a sitcom pilot has some good parts, but this 88 minute dud was missing a third act and was wayyy underbaked. I think it took 105 days to watch it because my wife and I both wanted to see it, but never at the same time?
  3. Freaks & Geeks Disc 2: 91 days -- I watched the episodes on disc 1, but I wasn't overwhelmed by them. As a result, when Disc 2 arrived, I had zero motivation to watch more.
  4. Charlie Wilson's War: 90 days -- This movie felt like it was going to taste like medicine, and it did. That's why I sat on this animated history lesson for 3 months. The most memorable part is Julia Roberts in a bikini for the first time ever.
  5. American Splendor: 77 days -- I don't know what took so long? I guess I didn't know what to expect from this movie, but it had been recommended to me. I ended up liking it very much.
  6. After that there's eleven DVDs we kept out between 40 and 70 days, including downers like Munich (56 days) and American Gangster (55 days); plus subtitled films Nine Queens (53 days) and With A Friend Like Harry (42 days).
What have I learned from these experiences which I may pass along to you, my fellow Netflix users?
  • Load up your Queue with comedies
  • Don't put more than one disc of a TV show in your Queue unless you know you like it already
  • Subtitled films are hard to watch at home, because you can't read the Sunday paper while watching. They demand your attention!
  • If your subscription sends you more than 1 movie at a time, alternate comedies with those Important dramas, so at least you can continue to receive DVDs while Gandhi or The English Patient gathers dust next to the TV.
  • Don't wait for your wife- watch those movies without them!

March 27, 2009

I Love You, Man

A funny and heartfelt movie which explores uncharted territory with subtlety and grace: how do adult men make new friends?

Paul Rudd is Peter, an L.A. metrosexual with zero serious male friendships. He has tons of friendships with women, but his only best friends have been his mother, and his fiancee. He's friendly, smart, and charming, but he becomes an awkward mess when he attempts to be chummy and casual with men.iloveyouman

Peter meets Sidney, a man-child free spirit who lives in a "man cave" on Venice Beach (next door to Mark Harmon's character in Summer School, both geographically and metaphorically).

The rest of the story is your classic romantic comedy, except it's the hetero love between two straight men, including the "falling in love" montage, the breakup in the third act, then the reconciliation and declaration of "I love you, man" at the end, during a wedding, no less.

The movie is a graceful balance of classic chuck flick humor (vomit jokes, poop jokes, gay jokes) and an honest character portrait.

Other highlights: a great supporting cast, including J.K. Simmons, Andy Samberg, Jamie Pressly, and Thomas Lennon. Two great "prick" roles: Jon Favreau as Jaime Pressly's husband, the classic "husband who hates being dragged out to social events", and a breakout performance by Rob Huebel as Peter's work rival.

I only have a few complaints: Peter's fiancee's friends include an underwritten "desparate and single" friend, who adds nothing to the movie. Also, Sidney is unique, entertaining, and memorable, but most of his backstory must have been cut out, because his history, job, etc, is a cipher.

My grade would have been a B+, but it gets bumped to an A-minus for fantastic costume design, and Rush makes a concert appearance, playing "Limelight"!

(AMC Boston Common, Screen 18, with Phil and Adam)

March 23, 2009

The Worst Movies 1998-2016

I have seen a lot of bad movies over the years, but making a list- a short list- was a challenge. While reviewing every post in this blog, these were my criteria:
  • We're not looking for BAD movies, we're looking for movies I hated. I have enjoyed plenty of bad movies but I have hated many good movies.
  • I had to see the movie in the theater. Therefore, movies I hated on TV (Napoleon Dynamite, The Break Up) don't make the list.
  • They have to be memorable- movies I saw and have since forgotten completely (Hexed, Eve Of Destruction) don't make the list.
I decided to limit myself to more recent history. This eliminates my free-spending, reckless youth. My discretion in moviegoing has improved...slightly. The good news is, I'm not a snob or a boor- this list includes big dumb action movies and artsy independent movies:

  • Meet Joe Black "Long, unnecessary, interminable, boring nothingness..."
  • The Big Lebowski "the meandering self-indulgence is maddening."
  • Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back "How did these two become so interesting?"
  • View From The Top "It was if no human hand was involved in the creation of this abomination."
  • Beyond The Sea "It simply doesn't hold together."
  • The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou "The quirks of Wes Anderson have worn me down to the nub."
  • The Island "...directed without flair, intelligence, or accomplishment."
  • Wanted "I endured a sadistic, ridiculous, and joyless grind-fest."
  • You Don't Mess With The Zohan "A novel and promising comedic premise, totally squandered."
  • The Invention of Lying "The movie needed a fresh perspective."
  • Killing Them Softly "A self-indulgent, smug, talky gangster movie."
  • Friends With Kids "The plot decomposes into a rote When Harry Got Sally Pregnant rewrite."
  • Nature Calls "The end result is a unfocused mishmash of maudlin "last camping trip with Dad" sentimentality, pre-adolescent camping humor, and the kind of boorish shouting you'd expect from Rob Riggle and Johnny Knoxville at their least restrained."

March 19, 2009

Easy Rockers of the 1970s

In a prior life, I was a radio DJ at a series of radio stations in Maine and New Hampshire. The gig I'm talking about today was Portland's 93.1 WMGX. I was the overnight DJ at WMGX starting in 1996. When I joined WMGX, the music format was what we now jokingly call "Yacht Rock" or "Easy Rock". It was heavy on the early- to mid-seventies pop-rock. We played some contemporary music too, but the most memorable music we played was the Yacht Rock.

Back when I was a DJ, radio studios had special cassette decks which were wired to record only when the announcer's microphone was on. I could record all my "breaks" over a six-hour shift onto one side of a 60 minute tape. I have literally dozens of "aircheck" tapes of my nights on WMGX. I have listened to a few of these tapes recently, which has brought back a lot of memories of that line of work, and my life in the mid 1990s.

I had fun talking on the radio, and I actually liked the music we played. Deejaying can be a lot of fun, during the daytime, anyway, when the building is full of people. Overnights, however, is a lonely and boring shift. I basically played the music, read magazines, and killed time, between the spots where I actually talked. This was before there was free and easy Internet, so I couldn't sit and browse the Web, update my Facebook, and blog about how bored I was. If I have ever shared with you a mind-bendingly obscure bit of music trivia (did you know Melissa Etheridge is from Leavenworth, Kansas? Did you know Linda Rondstadt sings backup on "Heart of Gold"?), I know this stuff because I literally read every liner note, every music trivia book, and The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits cover to fucking cover.

I actually spent a lot of time making mix tapes in the studio down the hall- I would use my own CDs from home + CDs I borrowed from the enormous collection in the studio. I would start a song in the main studio, leave the studio doors ajar, and crank up the speakers. While working on a mix tape down the hall, I would half-listen to the music from the main studio. When a song I was playing over the air wound down, I would hustle back and press START on the next track, then back to the tape!

I also pilfered a ton of LPs from the station's old vinyl collection, which was literally packed away in a storage closet. I had zero guilt about taking home stacks of LPs that would never be used again, or, in a lot of cases, had never been used in the first place.

So working overnights paralyzed my social life, and crippled my weekends too- I never had a problem sleeping during the day, but on the weekends, I would attempt to switch back to a regular schedule, so I could spend time with my girlfriend, but I ended up staggering about in a zombie-like haze, trying to stay conscious during daylight hours.

Last but not least, all DJs are paid peanuts. If you don't like the pay, there's a dozen people happy to take less to do your job.

Here's a representative sampling of the "easy rockers" I played every night on WMGX, in no particular order.

NOTE: When in the following list I say we played "lots of" or "plenty of" an artist, that means we played the same few songs every day, NOT that we played a wide variety of their songs. I would guess we played no more than 6 or 7 songs by each of these artists, but we played all of these acts at least 4 or 6 times a day.

  • Lots of Van Morrison, including "Moondance" and "Brown-Eyed Girl" (of course), but also "Wavelength", a song I have never heard anywhere else.
  • I think the Program Director had a crush on Rod Stewart, because we played him constantly, including "Reason To Believe", "The First Cut is the Deepest", "Tonight's The Night", and "You're In My Heart".
  • Lots of Jackson Browne, including "The Pretender", "In The Shape Of A Heart", "You Love The Thunder" and "Running On Empty"
  • Lots of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, including "Southern Cross", "Carry On", and the ultimate bathroom break song, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes".
  • Billy Joel: Lots of the Piano Man, including "It's Still Rock n Roll To Me", "You May Be Right", and "Movin Out"
  • Lots and lots of Elton John, mostly "Levon", "Tiny Dancer", "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me", and "Someone Saved My Life Tonight"
  • Plenty of James Taylor, but the least timeless of these songs has to be "Your Smiling Face".
  • All of The Eagles Greatest Hits Volume 1.
  • "Baker Street" and "Right Down The Line", by Gerry Rafferty
  • Classic one-hit wonder "Romeo's Tune", by Steve Forbert
  • "Crazy Love" by Poco
  • After voluntarily listening to Jimmy Buffett for the first time in a decade, I was struck how he is a mediocre singer, and his songs are all midtempo and dull. How is the Margaritaville myth so strong that "parrotheads" pay big bucks to see him every summer? We played lots of "Margaritaville", "Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes", "Cheeseburger In Paradise", and so on.
  • Pure Prairie League, "Amie"
  • "Dreamweaver" by Gary Wright
  • "Nights In White Satin" by The Moody Blues
  • The Doobie Brothers, "Black Water"
  • I think "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold" were the only two Neil Young songs we played. Trust me, I wanted to play "Cinnamon Girl", "Needle & The Damage Done", or "Rockin In The Free World" instead.
  • Plenty of Steely Dan, including "Do It Again" and "Reelin In The Years"
Coming soon: a sampler of the contemporary pop-rock I played back then.

March 7, 2009

121: More Records Than The KGB

I still think she looks incredibly sexy
(if a bit intense!) in this photo.
Mix 121 is named for a lyric from the song "Paper Planes" by M.I.A., which I also just bought as my new default mobile ringtone!
  1. "A Venture", from The Yes Album, their debut LP. I bought this entire album on MP3 from the Amazon.com MP3 store for a dollar!
  2. Paul McCartney wrote "Wings of a Nightingale" for The Everly Brothers' "comeback" album EB'84. I had heard OF this song for 25 years before I finally acquired a used copy of the LP and heard it for the first time. It's quite nice, but unexciting.
  3. "The Frown Song" Ben Folds
  4. "Looking Over My Shoulder" is from 'til tuesday's debut album Voices Carry. When I was a teenager, I borrowed the LP from the Topsfield Public Library, and I have had a crush on Aimee Mann ever since. 
  5. I am a big fan of Squeeze. The only album of theirs which I hadn't listened to was 1985's Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti. A few months ago at a used record fair in Providence, R.I., I bought two 12-inch singles from that album: "King George Street" and "Last Time Forever". The 12-inch remixes were nothing special, but they inspired me to include the LP version of "King George Street" on this mix.
  6. I first heard "Paper Planes" by M.I.A. in the awesome trailer for Pineapple Express. Since I don't listen to music on the radio, I didn't hear it again until I saw the railroad montage in Slumdog Millionaire.
  7. "Crackin' Up" Bo Diddley
  8. "Slippery Hips" is from the debut album by actresses Shawnee Smith & Missi Pyle. Smith is best known for the TV show Becker, and the five Saw movies. Pyle was in Galaxy Quest, Bringing Down The House, and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. I bought the album because I met Missi Pyle at the stage door of the Broadway show Boeing Boeing, and now I must do anything she tells me to!
  9. "Creature From The Black Lagoon" Dave Edmunds
  10. "Radiation Vibe" We just saw Fountains of Wayne at the Paradise Rock Club, on a all-acoustic, 'we're still working on the new album' tour. They played ALL the songs we wanted to hear, including this one. We left that night 100% satisfied.
  11. "Flaming Pie" This silly two and a half minute Paul McCartney piano boogie is infectious. I listened to it in the car three times in a row the other day.
  12. "Function At The Junction" Shorty Long
  13. "The Makings Of You" Curtis Mayfield
  14. "Queen of the Supermarket" This might be the prettiest Bruce Springsteen song ever, and maybe the most romantic. Also, I can't recall another Springsteen song where he drops the F-bomb?
  15. "It's All My Fault" John Wesley Harding
  16. "Strange Overtones" David Byrne & Brian Eno
  17. "15 Step" Radiohead
  18. "Love Comes Tumbling" This is a b-side from U2's "Pride" 12-inch single. I put it on the mix because it reminds me of an old high school friend of mine who helped turn me into a diehard U2 fan. I already liked the song "Pride", and I had already seen the "Sunday Bloody Sunday" video, but she showed me why they were awesome! Meredith, this one's for YOU!

Watchmen

The unfilmable graphic novel WATCHMEN has been filmed, and all my questions have been answered. If my main question is "how do you make a feature film out of such a big, dense, multilayered story", the answer is: you make it by stripping out everything which makes it worth watching.
A novel which would have made a brilliant 4 or 6 hour miniseries has been stripped down to a breakneck 2 hours and 45 minutes. Screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have accomplished the thankless task of crafting a feature film whose plot makes sense. It's New York City 1985, and costumed heroes are real, in a loose confederacy called The Watchmen. When The Comedian is murdered, his fellow crime fighter Rorschach suspects a conspiracy: is someone targeting superheroes? Is there a plot to trigger World War III? Making a movie script out of this brilliant novel is thankless because they've managed to retain the plot and characterizations, while losing the heart and soul. The ending has been changed, it's true, but I didn't have a huge problem with this. Some compromises had to be made to make a comprehensible movie, and the essence of the finale remains the same.
I am more disappointed how the movie totally misses the point of the story. The major theme of the novel is to explore what masked heroes would really be like as people. What kind of person dresses up and fights crime? What would they look like in tights? The answer is- sociopaths, psychopaths put on masks and fight crime. Bruce Wayne was probably impotent when he wasn't dressing up and saving lives. Wonder Woman and her ridiculous clothes would be the laughingstock of every criminal fraternity. Even the most talented acrobat or martial artist can't fly through the air or throw a man across the room. Watchmen set out to illustrate this reality. The Watchmen movie amps up the action and fight sequences from the novel and obliterates this distinction. Every fistfight in the novel is now twice as long and twice as impossible. The masked adventurers, who have no special powers, can now crash through rooftops without a scratch, kick and punch people across a room, and by the way, look totally cool in their costumes, with no tights in sight. We're supposed to be watching ordinary people and their aberrant behavior, not actual superheroes.
Director Zack Snyder must have seemed like a perfect choice to direct this project. He certainly was in the right place at the right time- Snyder successfully made a hit action movie out of the graphic novel 300. In the wake of that success, the suits who controlled the fate of Watchmen must have figured this red-hot director has the right sensibility to make a successful movie out of another graphic novel. As for Snyder's motivation, you can't blame him for leveraging his momentum at the right moment. After 300, Snyder could write his own ticket. If he wanted to make an all-CGI feature of James Joyce's Ulysses starring meerkats, we'd be knee-deep in a meerkat burrow right now.
When Snyder was announced as the director ("the visionary behind 300"), fans of the graphic novel were concerned and excited at the same time. Clearly Snyder is a fanboy like the rest of us (I have read Watchmen maybe 5 or 10 times since 1988), but some were worried his slo-mo action sequences were less of a style choice and more of a crutch. We asked, did Snyder have the finesse this project required?
Unfortunately, what we should have been worried about was his pornographic obsession with ultraviolence. Watchmen is a violent novel, no doubt, but every scene of violence has been amplified to unnecessary extremes. I'm not talking about the action sequences (although those are disappointing for other reasons)- I am talking about the guns, knives, and rotary saws.
In one scene in the novel, a convict has his throat slit, but we don't even see it on the page. In the movie, the convict's arms are sawed off, in explicit detail.
In another scene in the novel, one person gets shot in the gut during an assassination attempt. In the movie, six people get shot, including one directly in the face.
And finally, in the novel, Rorschach kills a kidnapper/murderer by cuffing him to a stove and setting his house on fire. In the movie, Rorschach hacks his head in two with a meat cleaver.
The point I am trying to make is, Snyder has deliberately amped up the gore for its own sake. I am not normally squeamish when it comes to violence in movies- I love the chopping, hacking, and decapitating in Lord of the Rings and Braveheart, but the violence in Watchmen was unwatchable even for me. Who did Snyder think would enjoy this? Was he making this movie for the Hostel/Saw V crowd? Does he have a "tin ear" for style?
The Characters
  • The Comedian looks, sounds, and acts just the way I had hoped. Nice work!
  • Dr. Manhattan looks perfect, but is a little too whispering Buddha- he needs more of the lecturing pedant. Also, the totally-naked Dr. Manhattan prompted giggles every time his glowing blue penis appeared onscreen- our friend Scott counted "12 or 15 times" we saw it onscreen. Including the blue penis is faithful to the book, but I think the distraction was too much. I would have kept him in his thong throughout the movie.
  • Rorschach is perfect. Jackie Earl Haley is the perfect mug, the voice is spot on. The mask isn't quite right, but I didn't mind it too much.
  • Nite Owl: Patrick Wilson is just the right balance of pudgy, over-the-hill, with enough of the old muscle to make his fights plausible.
  • Silk Spectre II: Poor Malin Ackerman can't act at all. She looks the part, but she's supposed to be about 35, and she looks 25.
  • Ozymandias: I was imagining a blonde Spock- logical, unemotional, self-involved genius. Instead I get a sinister egomaniac who's also ten years too young for the part.
  • Silk Spectre I: Carla Gugino is perfect as the young Silk Spectre in the 1940s and 1950s. She has that real old-fashioned beauty and the balls to play this role. Her old age makeup doesn't work too well.
(Regal Stadium Cinema 13, screen 11, with Emily, Jon, Bobbi, Adam, George, Mandy, Scott, Jess)
My brother and I at the screening March 7