Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What I’m Checking Out This Month (July 2011)

Here are the various entertainment things I’m listening to, watching or reading this month.


Bad Teacher: Based on the title and premise from the previews (Cameron Diaz plays a teacher who is only there to find a rich husband so she can lounge away the rest of her life.), I was hoping this would be a schoolroom equivalent of Bad Santa. It was. It’s a little less anarchic than “Santa” but it goes down a little smoother. To sum up the tone and spirit of the film, I’ll quote Diaz’ character who says, “I thought I was getting into [teaching] for the right reasons- shorter hours, summers off and no accountability.”

Captain America: I really liked this movie. Yes, it is another comic book movie and it isn’t as deep or complex of a plot as X-Men: First Class and the visual effects are more low key than those in Green Lantern and Thor but Captain America is more sincere and earnest. The movie doesn’t just giving the appearance of nobility and do-gooding, it believes what it is saying. There are some basic human standards of behavior and if you don’t meet them, you’ll pay the price. Maybe a costumed superhero won’t be there but karma will. A couple friends have complained that the movie was too slow. The reason it might feel that way is because it goes more into exposition and character motivation than other comic movies have. This is more of a comic book drama and less of an action movie but there are several good action scenes towards the end. I’ll admit I wanted a few more myself but for a movie that is already two hours long, I can see why some things got downplayed.

As for the performers, both Chris Evans and Hugo Weaving take their roles seriously and do a good job acting and the secondary people did great also (Stanley Tucci, Haley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones). I would like to see a sequel to this (and I don’t mean the Avengers movie next year) with all the same people involved, particularly Chris Evans and the director, Joe Johnston. It doesn’t have to be a period piece, though I did enjoy that element of it. In fact it might make a better picture to juxtapose Captain America/Steve Roger’s 1940’s ideals with modern day greed and self-involvement. Either way, more Cap!

Cowboys & Aliens: I’m tempted to just review this movie by saying it’s about cowboys and aliens, because it is and because the plot is not much more complex than it sounds. There is more to the movie though. For instance, the title is at once simple and clever. It boils the movie down to an easily understandable framework while also ridiculing movies that go through tons of marketing studies to find the “perfect” title to appeal to an audience. It’s like Snakes On A Plane. The title describes the movie while also telling the audience “This is what we are about. Come see it if that appeals to you.”

They do hedge their bets a little because the cast has Daniel Craig (James Bond!) and Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones!) in it, just to expand their potential audience. Who wouldn’t want to see these two go after aliens, which they do, and rumble with each other, which they do, in a Jason Bourne meets True Grit sort of way? Both actors commit to their roles. Craig is excellent as the dangerous loner who tries to work through his amnesia and figure out why he has an alien gun attached to his wrist. He scared me sometimes, he was that edgy. I also wondered what his workout routine was because he was ripped to the point he flirted with being gaunt. Harrison Ford is amazing as well- he drops the laconic attitude he sometimes has and plays a balls-out hardcase. Not a lovable grumpy old man like in Morning Glory or Hollywood Homicide but an angry, complex, demanding, conflicted, domineering and dangerous hombre. You aren’t sure whether he is the bad guy in the movie or the aliens. Eventually you see the human behind the nutso rancher but it takes awhile.

I enjoyed seeing Ford loosen up so much and play a bit contrary to type. The director, Jon Favreau of Iron Man fame, also does a good job- the fights/gun fights are staged well, the dramatic moments evoke emotion and the parts with aliens had tension and didn’t look ludicrous. He did a great job shooting a western and an okay job making a science fiction movie. The picture itself worked the same way- great western, good sci-fi movie. I hope it does really good business- not because I want to see a sequel (which would be called what? More Cowboys and More Aliens?), but because I want to see Craig and Ford get some more roles that let them stretch and show us a different side to their talents.

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part 2: Strangely, I liked part one better even though this had much more action. This was the Return Of The King of the Harry Potter movies and Part 1 was the Fellowship Of The Ring of the split movie based on the last Harry Potter book. The last book was better than either movie but the two-parter is one of the better Potter movies. I won’t bother to summarize the movies or the books because if you don’t know about Harry Potter already, there is no point in discussing it with you now. As always, the books in the series should be where you start and then watch the movie just to see how the visuals bring the plot to life.

I love the way the movie Hogwarts looks, from the exterior shots to the hallway scenes and the dinners in the Great Hall. I will add that aside from Richard Harris as Dumbledore, my favorite thing about the whole film series has been watching Alan Rickman play Severus Snape. He has been a joy to watch and to hiss at. He gives his role a depth equal to the books, unlike the other actors who merely mime their literary counterparts. Once I first saw him in the first movie, I pictured him as Snape in all the subsequent books I read.

Grown Ups (DVD): An Adam Sandler movie in the vein of Big Daddy or Remote rather than Billy Madison or Don’t Mess With The Zohan. A group of former childhood friends gathers at the lake for a week-long get-together to catch up and try to reconnect with their own families. The kids are typical spoiled brats who are into their own lives and their electronic gadgets and ignore their parents completely. Eventually they learn the pleasure of family activities and the great outdoors. The best part of this was the huge number of what must have been spontaneous one-liners, not surprising considering the cast includes Sandler, David Spade, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider and Kevin James.

Horrible Bosses: This is the black comedy version of Office Space. Well, the grey comedy. It’s kind of funny and kind of interesting but not as much of either as it should have been. Definitely worth a watch on DVD though. The standouts here are Charlie Day as the hapless and put-upon victim of his boss’s sexual harassment, Colin Ferrell as the comb-over drug-addled boss’s son and Kevin Spacey as the evil nexus of the movie. You can see why Day, Jason Bateman and Jason Sedakis plot, ineptly, to kill their bosses. I was extremely surprised though that halfway through the movie I had no idea how the movie could possibly end happily. Yes, it was a dark comedy but the tone was still light enough you knew it wouldn’t have a Heathers type ending. (Did you know that Heathers made less than a million dollars at the box office? Even for the time it came out, a million bucks in grosses meant it was a major box office failure. That surprised me when I saw that.) It took a third act twist to point the way to the exit and I guarantee you the twist is not one you are expecting. Between this and Bad Teacher, movies got a welcome little dose of nihilism. I like this trend.

Killers (DVD): Have you seen Mr. & Mrs. Smith with Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie? Knight & Day with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz? The Tourist with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie? If so, watch them again instead of this weak re-tread with Katherine Heigl as the clueless spouse/stranger who gets sucked up against her will into a world of espionage and danger by secret agent Ashton Kutcher (no, really- he plays a spy!) and has to learn to adapt, quickly and humorously, or die. If you haven’t seen those others, watch them now and skip this. Plus there is a plot point in the ending that is so ridiculous it ruins what enjoyment I’d gotten previously. You can thank me later.

TV Shows:

Platinum Hit: This is a show on Bravo (?) (Lifetime?) that focuses on songwriting. Contestants have a theme each week and have to write song hooks in thirty minutes and then the winning hook writers select their team from the other contestants and then have two hours to write a whole song. The judges, including Kara DioGardio from American Idol, decide the losing team and who gets booted from the losing team. I like this show because I like seeing songwriters get their due. Singers are only as good as their songs so glorifying someone who sings but doesn’t write songs is a bit misguided. In the echelon of musical acclaim, songwriters should be more valued than guitar players, drummers and singers who don’t write. But they aren’t, which is why no one is watching this show.

The Voice: This was a fun show. It was a bit like American Idol but it was based on vocal talent, not looks, because the judges didn’t see the contestants until after they chose them to move forward. I liked the idea of pitting contestants against each other, like American Gladiator, but I think it should have been one judge pitting his person against another judge’s person, instead of two of the same judge’s people duking it out. That way it would be have more of a strategy element to it and really continue the theme of battling judges. The judges were interesting too- Adam Levine is actually not an idiot, Cee Lo Green was pretty cool and apparently just as talented as DangerMouse, something I hadn’t realized before. Christina Aguilera was sane and Blake Shelton seemed like a good guy who knew his stuff. I didn’t actually watch the last three shows so I don’t know who won.

USA Channel’s Shows- It’s summertime so there is a whole crop of fun shows with new episodes. I watch all their series because they are all interesting in their own way. Whether it is the espionage element of Covert Affairs and Burn Notice, the criminal hijinks on White Collar, the family bonding amidst house calls on Royal Pains, the frothy shrink dramedy Necessary Roughness or the legal machinations of Suits, every show delivers what you want it to. In fact, I’m getting quite fond of Suits, which actually seems to have more real-life legal elements than many of the “serious” lawyer shows. Necessary Roughness is a bit light-weight right now although the main actress, Callie Thorne, does a good job. I’m also looking forward to the buddy detective hijinks on Psych, which doesn’t arrive until October but is being extensively previewed now so I feel like I’m already watching it.

Women’s World Cup: It just started the last week of June so the big matches are yet to come but it will be a good tournament because all my favorites are there- the U.S., Sweden and Norway, with Australia, Germany and Brazil thrown in just to make it interesting. From the looks of things so far, Norway won’t get far, so I’ll be rooting for the U.S.A. and Sweden but basically anyone but Brazil or Germany. So now it’s a few days later and the round-robin part is done. USA lost to Sweden in that phase which means they will play Brazil instead of the less dangerous Australia. Talking to my Mom on the phone the day of the Brazil/USA game, my Mom said that she hadn’t realized that Sweden was in the tournament and asked me who else was a Cup contender now that the USA lost.

I had slept in really late today, like until 1:00 PM, and I knew the game had started earlier in the day so I set the recorder to tape it. Now Mom just told me that the U.S. lost! What a bummer. When I finally do make my way to living room, I see that game is on TV so they must be doing a replay of it. I decide to watch the replay since I already knew the outcome and by watching from the overtime period right now, I’d keep myself from wasting time watching the earlier part that I’d taped. The score is two-to-one in favor of Brazil and it’s nearing the end of overtime so I can see why the U.S. lost- they are not getting any breaks and Brazil is wasting time. In fact, a player just fell down on the field acting like she was shot and when she was finally taken off the field on a stretcher, she waited until the stretcher got to the sidelines and then hopped right off and walked away easily. She was deliberately wasting time.

This added another four minutes to the overtime period but to what avail. Here comes a final push by the U.S.… there is a cross and Abby Wambach goes up for it… and it’s in the net. She tied the game in the final seconds of overtime! Impressively done! I guess they lose in penalty kicks then. Hope Solo is in the goal for the USA and I know Briana Scurry is conflicted about wanting her to do well after the criticism Hope leveled after the last World Cup. Wait- Solo stopped one of the goals so the U.S. is up a PK. How on earth do we lose this? Okay now it’s down to the last USA kick so I guess this gets stopped and we lose in extra kicks. Wait- it went in. what? No- that would mean we win. But Mom said we lose! WTF? I flipped over to ESPN and they reported the same thing.

Later, I find out that Mom meant the U.S. lost to Sweden in round-robin play. She was talking about a game earlier in the week, not the one going on today. Who cares about the old game? That makes the win even more amazing, considering I thought they had lost. That is a sports experience I haven’t had yet. The following game is France and the same thing happens in that one- a last minute header to win the game. Who were those people talking about Wambach’s dry spell? I am hyped about this Cup- it has been very exciting. The only thing that diminishes my enthusiasm is that Sweden lost so I won’t get my dream match-up of a Sweden/USA final. That would have been a win-win scenario for me because those are my two favorite teams. I wouldn’t feel bad about either one winning. At least the stats are on our side- The U.S. has never lost to Japan in 22 games and Japan has never been to a World Cup semi-final, much less won the whole thing. They are on a roll so this bodes well, right? From playing poker, I know stats are always accurate indicators of success. Always. Except if I’m in the hand. Or it is a day of the week ending in “-day”.

So now it is the game against Japan. The USA misses a shot at goal in the first minute of the game. They are really pressing! By half-time there have been 5 or 6 shots for us and nothing for Japan. Still, there are no goals. That’s disconcerting. In the second half, we get a goal! Yay us! Yay U.S.! Japan tries to counter attack but we get to the ball and clear it. No, we push it back across the face of the goal. Get it out of there! Whew- another U.S. defender gets to it and clears it away. No, they kick it right at the Japanese player’s feet and she calmly tucks it past Hope Solo. Are you kidding me? Two defenders get to the ball and they best they can do is pass it to someone standing right in front of the goal?

Now we have to go to over-time. At least it isn’t golden goal anymore. I hated that. Wait- we just scored. Maybe it should be golden goal. Can we just top now and be declared the winner? Okay, fine. It doesn’t matter anyway. We are going to bunker up and keep Japan out of our half of the field until time runs out. That’s what all the Asian teams used to do to us, so turnabout is fair play. I guess that isn’t the strategy because we are still moving a lot of people downfield. An awful lot. Okay another goal would clinch it so let’s get that goal. Um, I’m still waiting for that goal. Still waiting…

Now there is only five minutes left in the game. Let’s start bunkering. Come on, let’s do it. Why aren’t you running out the clock? Pull a Brazil and waste tons of time. Get the ball to mid-field and start passing it back and forth. Pretend it is that episode of The Simpsons. Oh come on, stupid clock. Great. There’s the Japan goal. It’s tied again so now we are going to penalty kicks. That’s fine- we do good at these. It’s how we won our last Women’s World Cup Title. Our first shot is blocked but the second shot sails through the uprights. Or it would if this was football. Unfortunately, this is soccer so the kick missed the goal by a mile. Japan made their shot. The next U.S. shot is…blocked. This is making it kind of hard to win here, gals. Japan gets a shot blocked. Yes, that means we are still in it. Our next shot is blocked. Again? This wasn’t a replay? So we are 0-3 versus 2-3? Solo has to block two more and we have to make all three of ours to go to extra kicks? Easy.

Actually, blocking a kick because isn’t an easy thing to do. In five kicks, you are happy to get one block, like Solo did. Getting, two, like Japan, is a monstrous advantage. That’s why you can’t bang them way over the goal like Carly Lloyd did. That’s the same as giving away a save. Expecting Solo to stop all the rest is expecting a miracle. As with most miracles, it doesn’t happen. We lose the World Cup again. This time it wasn’t to Norway, or some other powerhouse team. It was to Japan, a country who had never been to the finals before. And we had led the whole way going into the Penalty kick phase. The U.S. just couldn’t put away their numerous goal opportunities. They gave up their leads through poor defensive work. They could have won. That’s the killer- after getting past the teams that were supposed to take them out they were ahead twice in the game. They had it won and gave it away. I’m so bummed out right now. This is three days after the game and I’m still bummed.


Burn Notice- The Reformed (By Tod Goldberg): This is like watching an in-depth episode of the show. Since I like the show, I like the book.

I would have read more this month but I’ve been consumed with the Scrabble app on my iPhone and have been playing that before going to sleep instead of reading. It might even help me get to sleep sooner actually because I’ll be staring at the screen trying to find a way to play a word that gives me more than 12 points and eventually my eyes start to glaze over and I go to sleep. I don’t get caught up in the excitement of a computer Scrabble game and stay up late like I would reading a good book. Plus I learned a bunch of new two letter words.


Dennis DeYoung (w/ Pat Benatar): I already posted a set list earlier along with some comments. This was a great show even the Pat Benatar part (which is good, since she was the headliner). What I most enjoyed was how hard some of the songs rocked during DeYoung’s part. Blue Collar Man, Renegade and Rocking The Paradise are rockers, sure, but somehow they cranked up the energy for them this time. I really felt them and usually I don’t get very excited when Blue Collar Man gets played. This time I was riveted. Even though this wasn’t a Styx show, it felt like it because Dennis was his usual cornball, lovable self and in fine vocal form, especially for a 64 year-old man, and the band was great. Plus the guitarists and co-vocalists looked just like JY and Tommy Shaw. I mean down to the scraggly beard and weird pants (JY) and the vest and fly-away long hair (Tommy).

I think either they were hired because they looked and played like their counterparts in Styx or else Dennis got some really good musicians and “suggested” that they cultivate a look similar to JY and Tommy. It was a better Styx show than the last (non-Dennis) Styx show. Plus Dennis had no problem doing songs Tommy Shaw wrote (or co-wrote) whereas the current Styx avoids songs exclusively written by Dennis DeYoung, which means two-third of their catalog. (And before the show we went to the Baltimore Aquarium, which was fun. I hadn’t been in awhile. It wasn’t quite as good as I remembered so now I’m stuck- I have no favorite aquarium. I think an ideal one would be something I pieced together from all the ones I’ve been to.)


Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti- Before Today: I heard a song on Sirius by these garage rockers and liked it. The album had been sitting on my buy list for a long time and when Amazon had it as a $5 digital download, I got it. It wasn’t quite worth $5 so I’m glad I bought it digitally instead of as a regular priced CD. It wasn’t bad but there was nothing interesting about it. I’d much rather get something by Spoon, who sound like a struggling garage band even though they aren’t (not anymore.)

Spoon- A Series Of Sneaks: This is an Austin band focused around main songwriter/singer Brit Daniels. They are very lo-fi. It sounds like everyone is sitting around a chunky, old-fashioned microphone in a ramshackle studio. It always takes me several listens to get into one of their albums because there isn’t lots of overdubs and heavy production to immediately wow me so I have to scale my expectations down to really listening to the guitar or the lyrics or a drum sound. All of these are distinctly noticeable, due to the lack of layering, unlike a Britney Spears song where you can’t tell if a sound is a distorted guitar, a keyboard sound effect or an auto-tuned vocal. This album is an early one from the group that I got since it was a $5 special and it has several gems on it, like Metal School, Quincy Punk Episode (which sounds like Nirvana and Pixies simultaneously), Laffitte Don’t Fail Me and the Minor Tough, which has a nice little guitar sound towards the end.

Was (Not Was): Boo- I like W(NW) and have a couple greatest hits collections but this album was after all most of their greatest hits albums came out so there was hopefully a lot of new and interesting stuff on it. Well, to paraphrase the best song on the album (Semi-Interesting Week), “it was a semi-interesting album.” Nothing blew my socks off except that song, which was the only thing that I already had on a G.H. album. There was no wacky stuff like I Blew Up The United States or any funky, wacky stuff like Walk The Dinosaur or Freaks Come Out At Night. Just reasonable, so-so R&B based pop-rock. Get an earlier album or hits collection and skip this. Even if you are a fan of W(NW).

Airborne Toxic Event (self-titled)- Same story as Ariel Pink. Heard a song on Sirius, liked it, bought the album used, except this wasn’t $5. More like $7 and also not worth it. I liked a couple songs on it, particularly “Does This Mean You're Moving” but I wished I had waited just a little longer because there new album is out now and I really like the song “Changing”. That would almost have been worth $7, maybe even just for that one song.

Adele- 21: Just when I’m about to go off on a rant about the need for getting whole CDs instead of cherry-picking singles, an album like this comes along. The whole album is okay but the only songs worth a second listen are Rumour Has It and Rolling In The Deep. To be fair, I gave the whole CD several listens over a period of several weeks but still didn’t get into any other songs. Rumour will be a good radio song but the reason I got suckered into buying the CD, which is a certified worldwide smash, was because Rolling In The Deep is such a phenomenal song. I heard it late last year but decided to hold off on buying an MP3 because if that was the lead-off single, then album must be fantastic. Wrong. That song is the fluke- a powerful, moving tremendous song with a massive vocal performance. It has an interesting flow to it; it’s not just a ballad- it throws in some 60’s girl group moves too. Whenever it comes on the radio, I turn off the station because I don’t want to hear the song so often that it loses its’ impact. I’m putting this on my end of the year mix CD because everyone should hear this song without having to buy the album.

Aloe Blacc- Good Things: A relative stranger I was talking to mentioned this artist and I had never heard of them. That’s kind of rare- an artist I have never even heard OF, much heard stuff BY them. I filed the name I the back of my head and a couple months later I started hearing this song lyric “I need a dollar, a dollar, a dollar is what I need” in a commercial and thought it had a nice sound. Turns out it was Blacc. When I saw the digital download for $5, I got it and it was definitely worth it. This is an old-school R&B artist, in the vein of Al Green or Marvin Gaye. Although some songs blend together into a pleasant pastiche, there are several standouts that will keep you humming all day- I Need A Dollar, Loving You Is Killing Me and Green Light. Definitely a good thing.

Amy Winehouse- One thing I definitely am not listening to is Amy Winehouse. Not because she died this weekend of a likely drug overdose & joined the 27 Club ( Not because she only had two albums- one really good album (Back To Black) and her first mediocre album (Frank), lending credence to the thought that she was a great singer but her successful second album was the result of a great producer, not her singing or songwriting. Considering she hasn’t done anything of note since then, except do drugs and walk around half-naked, I’m not that surprised or upset by her death. Sure, I don’t wish death on anyone but if someone courts death by abusing themselves, I’m not going to get heart-broken when it inevitably happens, especially if they haven’t really left any significant legacy. The real reason that I’m not listening to her though is because none of the radio stations seem to be playing her stuff. She only had one hit but there were several good songs on her good album (Back To Black, Rehab, You Know I'm No Good, Tears Dry On Their Own) so I don’t know why they aren’t getting any play. If they were, I’d listen but I wouldn’t shed any tears.