Friday, February 27, 2009

Best of MPF 2008: Bonus Tracks

Every year I put out a "best of" list. And every year, starting a day or two after the release, I remember things I wished I'd put in there, or categories from previous years I left out. With this new blog technology, I can now create an addendum, instead of sending out five followup emails to say "Ooh! One more I forgot!"

Worst song (pop): Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl." Metallic, droning, uninteresting, unmusical, and far inferior to the 1994 Jill Sobule song she ripped off.

Best no-hitter watched: Big Z. We started watching in the 2nd inning, and midway through the game TM commented, hey, Z hasn't given up a hit yet. So often you catch the final out or two of a no-hitter, when a national sports network cuts in. Rarely do you see a game like that essentially from the beginning. (Sept. 14)

Best opening act: Alejandro Escovedo, opening for Old 97's at the XRT Free Fourth of July concert. Technically, the 97's were an opener too, for Gomez. But everybody left after their set. I'm sorry, but to celebrate American independence from Britain, you simply DO NOT book a British band for the holiday concert.

Technology I think is stupid and unnecessary and thus I'll probably be using in three years: Facebook. In five years: Twitter. (If this category existed three years ago the winner would have been "blogging.")

Most humane moment: Marketa Irglova, with Glen Hansard, won the Oscar for their fantastic song "Falling Slowly." But as she approached the microphone, she was cut off by outro music. After a commercial break, host Jon Stewart invited her back on stage to finish her thank-yous. According to this article, it was the EP and not Stewart who made the decision to bring her back. No matter. Stewart handled the situation with class and grace. (Feb. 24)

This was nice.

Best taunt of a rival: In August, UCLA's athletic department bought this full-page ad in the LA Times. Keep in mind, Neuheisel's UCLA record at the time was 0-0.

Someone in the USC Internet world created this:

Oh, and how about Best T-shirt, seen at the Notre Dame-Michigan game:

OK, fine, so I didn't technically see that shirt at the game. But I did see this one:

And who would wear such a thing? This fine gentleman.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

More LOLcats

More bad news today: the Rocky Mountain News is shutting down, which means three of my friends from Omaha (John, Mac and Glav) are out of work tomorrow (Friday).

So from a coping mechanism perspective, you know what that means: a lotta this and more LOLcats.

First off, here are some I built of our favorite Internet superstar kitty.

Which caption do you like better, this:

or this?

(Credit to Sarah O for taking and sharing this pic.)

Two things I love about the I Can Has Cheezburger site. One, random people can leave captions for any pictures made public. For example, I wrote this caption:

Thought it was pretty funny. Until I saw this submission:

from a random person on the Internet whom I do not know.

And two, you can find great pictures that just make you laugh. It's tax season for us right now, so in recognition:


1000 Words: When Tina Is Away

(that's her side of the bed)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Things I'm Thinking About Today

The day is almost over, but I'll probably be thinking about these things tomorrow too:
  • Why isn't Memphis pronounced like Memp-Hiss (rhyme with hemp-hiss)? Doesn't that sound better?
  • If I wrote a non-fiction book, what would it be about?
  • Can I write something so witty and clever that Sarah Borges will leave a comment on the blog?
A ceiling tile from the Broken Singles' tour of Europe.

  • Why did the Others want Jack, Kate, Hurley and Sawyer? Is it because they are the four biggest characters? And why did they want Hurley specifically if they were just going to let him go?
  • How can you put on an exhibit about Edvard Munch and not have his most famous painting?
  • When Molly and I are the last two people not on Facebook, will we talk to each other while the rest of the world updates their Facebook status?
  • Is this the funniest one-second commercial in television history?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Musta Got Lost

It is a strange quirk of the human brain that when the unknown is made known, the newly known appears common. I'm talking specifically about meeting someone new in a large but finite population, such as an employee at your office or parishoner at your church. You are introduced to a new person who works in a different department or on a different floor. Suddenly, you see this person all over: in the hallways, in the cafeteria, at the company-wide town hall meetings. Of course, you aren't really seeing this new person everywhere: it's just that you now recognize as a friend this formerly anonymous face.

It works the same way with songs. I noticed it during one of the great "name that tune" games in Dan Renaldo's office. It was me vs. Dan (as usual) with Zach and Stan also playing. Stan is about 10 years older than I am. Dan played a live song with a spoken intro. He seemed stunned that I didn't recognize it. Stan said, oh, this is J. Geils Band. The only J. Geils Band I knew was "Centerfold" . . . like I said, I was a little too young for them. Stan went on to identify the tune as Musta Got Lost, which I'd never heard before. Now, of course, I know the song and hear it "everywhere."

This post is about neither people nor songs, but I think it's a pretty cool title for the post, because it's about "Lost." This is a fascinating television series, now available in its entirety on the Internet. I enjoy it because it is a richly told complex tale of the survivors of a plane crash.

I'm sure that thousands of words and billions of pixels have been spilled over this show, since there are multiple subtexts and mysteries involved. But I wanted to talk about the themes of what brought these people to the flight (Sydney to Los Angeles) that crashed. I noticed that almost everyone was either on a mission, or was facing life and death issues. If it's been a while since you watched Season 1, or you have been preoccupied with moving to Madison or something, I've put together a chart. See below:

Why Were They On Oceanic 815?
CharacterReason for LA to SydneyReason for Sydney to LA
JackDEATH--retrieve the body of his father who died in AustraliaDEATH--bring the body back to the U.S.
KateLIFE--she was running for her life from authoritiesLIFE--the sentence she would receive?
LockeLIFE-CHANGING MISSION to do an Outback walkaboutWas he successful? Did he find his destiny?
HurleyMISSION to find the story behind the numbersWas he successful? I guess so??
Jin and Sun?? I have no idea. If they said why they were on that flight, I missed it.
Michael and WaltDEATH--Michael goes to get Walt in Australia after his mother died. LIFE--beginning a new life together in America.
SayidLIFE--must trick his friend to find the love of his life. LIFE and DEATH--the death of his friend, the chance at a new life.
BooneMISSION to retrieve Shannon from her abusive Australian boyfriendSuccessful? Yes.
ShannonUnknown so far--last I knew she was heading to New York.LIFE--I assuming she's getting a new lease on life with Boone.
Rosemouse over to see this Season 2 info. Successful? No.
SawyerDEATH--to kill Frank Duckett, the "real" Sawyer.Successful? Yes ... and no.
CharlieMISSION to convince his brother to restart Drive Shaft.Successful? No.
ClaireN/A--resident of Sydney.LIFE --to give the baby up for adoption.

If you're curious what all the talk is about, check it out at ABC's website. I will alert you that I kept getting error messages using the viewer in IE, and Firefox worked better for me.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Things I'm Not Paying Attention To

Some people start a blog to inform the world what they ate for breakfast and what they think about crap like Mentos*. Some people start a blog to praise their favorite band or something else they care deeply about. Few blogs will discuss what's currently being ignored...

Things I'm not paying attention to, February 2009 edition.

The Oscars. Despite my recently documented passion for movies, I could care less about the Oscars. I like to restrict my Oscar paying-attention-to to decade-old Dennis Miller monologues. In a few weeks someone will win, someone will lose, and a few weeks after that no one will give a shit or even remember who won.

The economic stimulus package. Being out of work, it is possible that I should care. However, the size and scope of the plan has been changing constantly over the past couple weeks. I've been a fan of Obama since the last time I wasn't paying attention, but I just can't muster attention here. This is the federal government we're talking about. It will be months before they get to the projects funded by the stimulus, and it appears to be mostly infrastructure: building roads, bridges, schools. Admirable projects, but I don't want to build a bridge this fall, I want to get to work now.

PRESIDENT Obama. It's been a few weeks, and it is still pretty mindblowing to hear those words.

Who's coming to town (musically speaking). This is due to being low on money, and this is sad. I've already missed Kathleen Edwards, Rhett Miller and a road trip to Southgate House. I just can't pay attention to who else I'll miss.

The rules of the Grammys. How can a record released in 2007 win best album in 2009? I mean, I guess they have their rationale, but it's bullshit to me. If you're going to call it an award for 2008, make it for albums released in 2008.

Darwin's birthday. I guess he's 200 years old or something. Not sure why people care. Did he ever free the slaves? No. What's he famous for anyway? He wrote some book about fruit: Oranges and Peaches. Big deal. I've read the book of Genesis, and I didn't see his name once.

The Allman Brothers don't know from oranges, but they do have some advice for Mr. Darwin.

Oh, and a late-breaking thing to not pay attention to: Brett Farve, Favruh, whatever. Can this guy just quit, please, and mean it?


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

How to Tell a Good Movie: Part II

In Part I, we discussed the seven key attributes of good movies. To complete the list, here are the three optional traits. These are not required for a good movie, they just simply add to an already good movie, or potentially redeem a not-so-good movie.

Swearing. A few curse words used for effect can enliven a movie and increase the realism. Take The Big Lebowski or Superbad. These movies are funny on their own, but the well-timed/frequent swearing makes it all the more enjoyable. The absence example could be Napoleon Dynamite. This movie wasn’t good at all, despite the hype, but it wasn’t due to the lack of swearing. Geez! Gyosh! Likewise, swearing alone won’t make a bad movie good: I’m looking at you, Phone Booth and Snatch.

Boobs. Let’s face it, everybody loves beautiful women—even straight women. And while boobs alone can’t make a bad movie suddenly good, they are nice to look at. Boobs can make a sexy movie like Damage sexier, a funny movie like Caddyshack even funnier, or a just plain weird movie like Mulholland Drive a little easier to watch.

Stuff blowing up. Now, this may seem to contradict what I said about big-budget action blockbusters, where they replace dialogue with stuff blowing up. It’s important to understand that explosions are a supplement, not a requirement. In a movie like Independence Day or Speed, there is action and pacing and plot (however thin) that propels the movie. In a movie like Elizabethtown, well, maybe that could’ve used some stuff blowing up.

So now we’ve got the seven main and three optional elements. Several all-time greats, plus a handful of others, are scored according to my system in the spreadsheet. (Keep in mind the tally is directional, not purely numerical. A “7” isn’t automatically better than a “6”.)

Click here to view the MPF Good Movie System in action. If that's not working, try this non-graphic version. Commentaries on the best ones:

The Blues Brothers: Clearly a good movie because it contains seven of the 10 traits, including the rare trifecta of music, Chicago and Nazis. (Joliet Jake hates Illinois Nazis.) In addition, things blow up (a phone booth, Elwood’s hotel) and they swear in front of a nun.

Being on a mission from God could qualify as a moral theme of right and wrong.

The Godfather: A sweeping epic with an understated score, that haunting theme that echoes throughout. It’s got moral conflict (Michael shooting the cop), boobs (Appalonia) and mobsters(recognized as Nazis under the Mafia Corollary).

Oooh, and it's got cannolis. We loved getting cannolis in Little Italy, down by Chinatown.

The Sting: Set in Chicago, Robert Redford seeks out Paul Newman to get revenge on a mobster-type who killed his friend. Funny dialogue, occasional swearing, and Scott Joplin ragtime music.

Almost Famous: Aside from the fantastic music (at least three dozen great songs) and storytelling, it contains probably the best scene in cinema this decade. The decade is only 91% complete but I feel safe in calling it.

Clear and Present Danger: Great moral themes, great tension and superbly drawn characters. And stuff blows up.

The Fugitive: Take the best of C&PD, the best of The Sting, throw in Inspector Javert from Les Miserables, and you’ve got a movie much stronger than its “6” score.

The Big Lebowski: I didn’t realize how much I loved this movie til I got it for Christmas. It comes so close to scoring on Character Development (Walter, MAYBE) and Nazis.

Donny: Are these the Nazis, Walter?
Walter Sobchak: No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there's nothing to be afraid of.

The Dude abides with a score of 5.5.

Say Anything: Basically, it's Almost Famous, set in Seattle, no boobs.

Mystic River: Stunning, dark character tale of three friends in Boston. A murder brings back old scars from childhood. Great plot, great dialogue, great themes of right and wrong.

The Sound of Music: Make fun of this for being cheesy if you dare, but check out the scores: music, Nazis and right & wrong give it a solid 6.

And by request, The Cutting Edge: A movie about ice skating. I recall nothing special about it: it scores a “2” for plot (it had one) and character development (the ice queen thaws at the end).

It’s been a while since I’ve seen many of these, so if there’s a factual error, leave it in the comments. Please feel free to use this rating system when you’re trying to decide what to watch/rent. Happy screenings!

Monday, February 02, 2009

How to Tell a Good Movie

Let's clear up a misconception. People often say to me: “You don’t like movies.” This is not true. I think it is more accurate to say: “I don’t like spending money on the empty Hollywood productions that do not contribute anything to society.” After all, I bet I’ve seen more movies at independent/arthouse venues in this town (Music Box, Facets, Gene Siskel) than you have. At least I’m not as dismissive as the poet Rivers Cuomo who said: “Movies are as bad as eating chocolate ice cream: they only sicken me.”

Look at it this way. The section of the newspaper where movie listings are found is called “Arts and Entertainment,” or something similar. Too many modern movies are missing the “art,” and usually fail badly in their attempt at “entertainment” as well. I want to watch movies that are enjoyable and hopefully have some lasting impact on culture.

But where to start? There were almost 1000 movies released last year—not even dedicated cinephiles can see all of them. Luckily, I’m here to help. I’m pleased to present (“an MPF004 Production of a post”) the second in my “How To Tell” series: How to Tell a Good Movie. Just look for a movie that contains most or all of the characteristics listed below.

A quick word on terminology: Example supports my point. Absence example shows how bad movies lack the trait in question and bolsters my point. Counterexample challenges my theory with good movies lacking the trait. Rebuttal lists bad movies with the trait. And a note: These are guidelines, not ironclad rules. The presence of attributes does not guarantee a good movie; absence does not guarantee it’ll suck. However, if you find a good movie absent most or all of these traits, I’d love to know about it.

Does True Grit = Truly Great in the MPF system?

Plot. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many movies don’t have one, and how many potentially good movies are hampered by lame ones.

Example: Malice, The Usual Suspects. Malice has a nice setup: the lives of an ordinary New England couple, trying to get pregnant, are upset when a surgeon they know operates on the woman after a car accident. Then things get dicey from there. Similarly, Usual Suspects weaves information into the plot that keeps the viewer guessing until the very end.
Absence example: Dude Where’s My Car. This movie has no plot and is not a good movie.
Counterexample: You could make an argument that documentaries don’t have a plot per se. But their topic is the plot, in a sense. Plus good documentaries like Wordplay find a way to generate plot amid the most mundane of topics.

Dialogue. I’m talking intelligent dialogue here, conversations that reveal character details, further the plot or provoke emotion. (This became more important when the “talkies” were introduced in the 1920s.)

Example: Anything by John Sayles, especially Lone Star. The characters’ conversations with each other drive the movie and force you to reconsider each one’s motivations. (I saw John Sayles on a cable movie channel once and he introduced the film this way: “I’m John Sayles, you’re going to watch my movie Lone Star. It’s about {pauses, thinking} people who have more in common with each other than they realize.”) Others: Ed Burns’ first two movies, Last Days of Disco.
Absence example: Snakes on a Plane-type blockbusters and slasher flicks. Generally these movies are driven by hype and star power, and contain nothing worth hearing. And they usually aren’t good movies.
Counterexample: Cast Away. Haven’t seen it, but apparently Tom Hanks goes hours and hours without talking, and people liked it.

Character development. In good movies, the characters learn from their mistakes, go through a transformation, understand how the world works or just grow up as human beings in general.

Example: You Can Count On Me, Superbad. Mark Ruffalo’s wounded, brooding character learns to let go of pain through his dealings with his sister (Laura Linney) and nephew (Rory Culkin). Likewise, the Superbad kids learn a little about life and women and come out better for it.
Absence example: Rain Man. The Rain Man character is exactly the same person at the end of the movie as the beginning. Therefore, this is not a good movie. (This is a joke.)
Counterexample: Ummm, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America? That was pretty funny, and nobody evolves or learns anything.

Well, *I* thought it was funny.

Nazis. Everybody hates the Nazis. They were the biggest threat to civilization in the 20th century. And nothing, not the Russkies during the Cold War or Arab terrorists post-Cold War, can fill the role of enemy in a good film quite like a batch of goose-stepping Nazis.

Example: Casablanca, Schindler’s List, The Sound of Music, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Absence example: Drillbit Taylor. No Nazis, not a good movie.
Counterexample: Shaft. John Shaft is a bad (shut your mouth), and Bumpy is a gangster. No Nazis but still pretty awesome. Although I should mention here the Mafia Corollary, which states mobsters have a similar tendency to make a good film.
Rebuttal: Is it possible to make a not-great movie with Nazis in it? I didn’t see Valkyrie, but it had Nazis, heard it was only fair.

Music. Saying one art form is necessary in another art form sounds like using meat as a condiment on meat. But it’s true: the right music at the right time can transport a movie from good to great.

Example: Almost Famous, West Side Story, movies about bands (like I Am Trying to Break Your Heart or Stop Making Sense). Everyone knows how incredible the boombox scene is from Say Anything or the “Tiny Dancer” scene from Almost Famous. I could go on and on here.
Absence example: Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle. Didn’t see it, but there was no memorable music. Not a good movie.
Counterexample: Swimming Pool. This movie had no music to speak of, and it was good. It did have other key attributes, however.
Rebuttal: The only bad movie with good music I can think of is Empire Records. Great tunes, worthless film. I'm Not There wasn't awful, but a movie with all Dylan songs should be better than it was.

Chicago. New York greatest city blah blah spare me. You want real film action, you come here. Some of cinema’s most memorable movies made their home right here in the Windy City.

Example: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the Sting, the el chase scene in The French Connection.
Absence example: Sex in the City. Not set in Chicago. Didn’t see it, guessing it was set in Manhattan.
Counterexample: Forrest Gump. A very good movie, set in rural Alabama and the worldly places Gump visits. Chicago not on the list.
Rebuttal: What Women Want. Being set in Chicago was about the only noteworthy thing about this film where Mel Gibson can read women's minds.

A good excuse to run the picture of Steve McCroskey.

Strong moral themes of right and wrong. You can have a movie about a dog or a tornado or whatever, but if you want to go for greatness, you need characters tested by big fat universal choices of good vs. evil.

Example: Most any Harrison Ford movie will do (especially Clear and Present Danger but also Frantic and the third Indiana Jones); The Limey. This overlooked indie gem stars Terence Stamp as a ex-con who travels to Los Angeles to find out who killed his adult daughter. Unrelated but very cool: the director used clips from Stamp’s films in the 1960s to portray the character as a younger man in flashbacks.
Absence example: Helvetica. This 2007 documentary about the ubiquitous font contains no moral themes. Helvetica just ... is. (I'm not saying it was an awful film--but it was a documentary about a font, after all.)

There are your seven key traits. In Part II, I’ll discuss the three optional attributes, and we’ll run some of the best films I know through the gauntlet to find some truly great movies.

Anybody think this will make the list?