Monday, November 29, 2010

Better Late than Never -- Testermix – Fall ‘10

Thanksgiving has come and gone, and now it's a regular ol' weekend. The weekend is not without merit, though; I'm visiting my Jordyn and Nicole's place in Helena, had an excellent DIY Thanksgiving dinner, and got to see Tangled (spoiler alert: it's good). Now I'm watching Star Wars Episode II: Attack and the Clones, and contemplating writing something. Unfortunately, now's not the best time for insightful posting—the movie is distracting me from cohesive thought, and I'm not sure if my opinions on my new media experiences are fully-formed enough to make for a worthwhile post.

This however, doesn't mean that the bit of text you're looking at now is entirely without merit. Old-school readers will remember my vow to share my occasional mix-CDs with the world, and my lapse in compelling original material gives me a grand opportunity to share the exceptionally belated Fall '10 edition of my Testermix series. True, I originally made this mix around early/mid-October, but it's new to you, right?!

This was created at a time when I was rediscovering 80's rock tunes at a mean rate, due in part to the classic rock station that we listen to here in Helena (it's the most consistent of the radio stations around here). We also hit up some old haunts, with some artists making their third appearance in my series (Lady GaGa and Ke$ha have three so far, and Hey Monday come back for another go; Taylor Swift makes an official appearance, in contrast to the inclusion of Thug Story on the Summer Starter mix).

The Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series continues to loan me playlist suggestions (The Suicide Machines and Goldfinger made an appearance on THPS1 for the Playstation), and a few songs from my "Chuck"-watching phase (Huey Lewis & the News and Rush). The novelty songs that were merely side story in previous mixes get a full-on chapter in this entry, with South Park, The Geto Boys, and The Talking Heads all getting their turn. I also didn't know how to end this one, so I thought a little Frank Sinatra would cap things off nicely.

1. Life on Repeat – "Party in the USA"

For a few years now, I have been a fan of wack song covers. That is, I enjoy songs when they are covered by bands that are not necessarily the most appropriate choices (the Punk Goes... series of compilations is a good example of this, though not necessarily with good results). I discovered this song when I was on YouTube looking for some wack cover or other (probably a melodic hardcore version of "Heartless" by Kanye West or something). Life on Repeat is a great juxtaposition of pop punk melodic tendencies and hardcore instrumentations (think Four Year Strong, but simultaneously softer and harder), and "Party in the USA" brings back pleasant memories from my last year of college..

2. Antoine Dodson – "Bed Intruder Song"

What can be said about this song that hasn't already? This odd but deliriously catchy entry in the Autotune The News canon was first brought to my attention by someone who I follow on Twitter, and I listened to it 7 or 8 times the first day I heard it. RiDICulous.

3. Lady GaGa and Beyonce – "Telephone"

This song is actually a quasi-leftover from my Summer '10 mix; I wasn't sure which Lady GaGa song to put on the mix, and ended up coin-flipping it ("Alejandro" ended up making that one, which was more reflected of its chart presence anyways). "Telephone" still gets me energized to this day; something about the driving rhythms and stuttered "Me-e-e-e" chorus just grabs my ear and refuses to let go.

4. Hey Monday – "Wondergirl"

My love affair with Hey Monday has been well documented, and this one is my favorite track from their new EP, Beneath It All. As I mentioned in my entry on it, I find the lyrical themes to be really interesting and pertinent with some of my life experiences, and the fact that this sucker is a catchy son-of-a-gun is a great other-reason to like it.

5. Taylor Swift – "Better Than Revenge"

Oh boy. This little number was first introduced to me by my friend Jordyn, whose more-than-passing interest in Taylor Swift has also been well-documented. She was pumped about the pre-release of her new album, Speak Now, and sneaking listens of some songs that had been leaked to YouTube. I'm not sure if she was playing them at random or what the deal was, but she ended up playing this county-by-way-of-pop-punk gem. And what happened then? Well, in Helena they say that Jordyn's music e-cock grew three sizes that day, for I was immediately crushing on this song (pretensions to being cool be damned, this is one catchy ditty).

6. .38 Special – "Caught Up In You"

Speaking of wack covers, this song was recently covered by We The Kings on the newest Punk Goes... compilation, Punk Goes Classic Rock. This comp features covers that, while faithful, are rather unimaginative and bland, causing one to ask why they don't listen to the regular one in the first place (in fact, the only worthwhile cover is Pierce The Veil's harder, more-aggressive cover of "Don't Fear The Reaper"). This is exactly what happened with me, and I discovered that I liked the .38 Special version more, if only because it brings back fuzzy memories of my classic rock-loving roommate from my junior year.

7. The Outfield – "Your Love"

This song is also featured on the underwhelming comp from above. My first experience with this classic, though, comes only a scant four years ago. You see, as I keep telling you, I was a child of the 90's, and I listened to 90's music. Or rather, I would have if I actually liked it. But I didn't. Oh no. I had absolutely no affinity for Pearl Jam, Boyz 2 Men, Wreckx-n-Effect, or any of that junk, so I stayed away from dabbling into very much music (seriously). When I came to college, though, I remember being at rehearsal for a play, and the cast singing along to songs clearly well-known by them and clearly un-well-known by me; one of these ended up being "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey and the other was "Your Love." I'm glad I'm more cultured nowadays, if only I don't have to suffer another "you've never heard this before?!" brand of ignorance on that scale.

8. Scorpions – No One Like You

Scorpions have been familiar to me for some time now, though mostly in passing familiarity; Guitar Hero III had "Rock You Like a Hurricane" on it, and SSX: On Tour had "Dynamite." My real exposure to this song came from the classic rock station I mentioned above, during the Greg Kihn Show, which has the best repository of Getting High In A Van songs this side of the Mississippi (Queen. Ba dump tish). Scorpions scratch a musical itch that most hair metal scratches for me--music that is patently ridiculous, but it played with such a straight face that I can't help but appreciate it.

9. Dio – "Holy Diver"

This is the other side of the Ridiculous Metal coin. Scorpions play huge songs that are unabashedly about having sex. Dio (RIP) plays songs about... well, I don't even know; lyrics such as "Ride the tiger / you can see his stripes, but you know he's clean / Oh, don't you see what I mean" are about as indicative to the song's meaning as cloud-shapes are to the decision-making processes of the Carter Administration. But doggonit I love this song. My fire for it reached an all-time high when I rented this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad, and exceptionally homoerotic movie called The Land of Faraway, which I only rented because the VHS case looked absolutely hilarious and like something out of Brütal Legend. Hence my metal connection: I thought it was going to look like "Holy Diver" sounded. No dice.

10. The Suicide Machines – "New Girl"

This track has a bit of history behind it--not only is it one of my favorite jams from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, it also was a part of one of my first mix CDs. That's right, ten years later, I'm still rocking the suicide machines on my compilations. The last time it graced a mix, it was because I asked my friend Regi to download it from Napster (along with several other songs), and I listened to the CD while playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. Still good after all these years.

11. Goldfinger – "Superman"

This one came right after The Suicide Machines on Tony Hawk. It was similarly positioned in my old mix. Not much more to say =/

12. The Geto Boys – "Still"

You may remember this as the song that plays during the movie Office Space while Peter, Michael, and Samir beat up the copying machine. "Still" is so incredibly over-the-top in its violent subject matter that, coupled with the aforementioned machine-beating images, it comes off as more a hilarious novelty that also works as music (The Lonely Island does something similar, though in less ironic).

13. Rush – "Tom Sawyer"

My first taste of this, like so many other classic rock songs, came from Rock Band (an "As made famous by" version, no less). It came back into my life during my recent "Chuck"-watching stint, with its placement in the season two episode "Chuck Versus Tom Sawyer." What can I say, besides "Dana nana nana, naaa nanana nana."

14. Ke$ha – "Stephen"

Out of all the Ke$ha songs that I enjoy, this one is the biggest head-scratcher. It has an off-kilter, sing-song beat, and the lyrics are the stuff that evil girls are made of, but it's nothing terribly special. I think the appeal is this: my middle name is Stephen (with the "ph" and everything), so it's more of the novelty of being name-checked than anything else.

15 The Ready Set – "Love Like Woe"

Two things I enjoy finally come together: pop punk and that JR guy who produced Jason Derulo's "Whatcha Say." The rest is history, or at least less interesting to read about than it would seem.

16. Shakira – "She Wolf"

My main memory of this song was when my friend Jeff threw Regi a margaria-themed birthday party, complete with Latin music. I prefer the English mix, hence it's inclusion on this CD. I like the "Ah-oooo" chorus, and the straight-forward dance beat.

17. Huey Lewis & The News – "Do You Believe In Love"

'Nother "Chuck" song; this one popped up in some episode from season 2, though I can't remember which one at the mo'. I likes me some Huey Lewis, and the falsetto "Do you believe in love" in the chorus is pleasing enough. This one was a pain to sequence, but I think it works fine here.

18. Trey Parker & Matt Stone – "Let's Fighting Love"

Novelty song #3. Can't quite remember what brought it to this one, but I do know that my affect for J-pop makes this song awesome. The lyrics are smatterings of English and out-of-context Japanese one-off phrases (there's a toast and "It's okay" thrown in there somewhere).

19. Michael Jackson – "Smooth Criminal (Telemetry Remix)"

Occasionally I run across some sweet remixes in the wild, such as this gem that I found out about at the Bar IX in Bozeman. I was a fan of the Alien Ant Farm cover back in the 8th grade, and the original holds my interest just fine now a days. Pay attention to the killer synth during the chorus.

20. We Are the In Crowd – "Lights Out"

I first heard about these guys through the Warped Tour 2010 comp. The duet thing is a bit odd, but I like their energy and Tay Jardine's voice (she's a quite a looker, too). This is one of the better ones from their debut Guaranteed to Disagree.

21. Talking Heads – "Once In a Lifetime"

"Chuck" song #3 (also on "Hot Tub Time Machine"). The Talking Heads song that I usually listen to is "Psycho Killer," but this one will do in a pinch. Listen to the sweet melody contrasts during the chorus.

22. Frank Sinatra – "I've Got You Under My Skin"

...because I can.

Stay tuned for other entries, as a few recent single- and album-purchases have given me a few ideas for next time (next drive to Helena, I think).


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Our Feature Presentation (5/49) -- The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

After a bit of a reprieve, we're hopping right back on the Disney wagon with another entry in Our Feature Presentation. Today's film is another of my childhood staples: 1986's The Great Mouse Detective. Unlike The Lion King, this movie hasn’t aged quite as gracefully as it could have, and isn’t as transcendent of age as, say, Up or Beauty and the Beast. That said, The Great Mouse Detective is still pretty good and never tries to be more than what it is (a fun animated movie for audiences who enjoy fun animated movies), and if it doesn’t hit the heights of the best of Disney and Pixar, it’s only because its aspirations were never there in the first place.

This movie is unique in that plays on my affection for Sherlock Holmes and characters inspired by him (I’ve enjoyed the few episodes of “Psyche” that I’ve seen, and the only reason I haven’t dived into “House” yet is because I know that I’d be compelled to watch all six seasons back-to-back, something I simply don’t have time to do). The Great Mouse Detective is a decent movie for any audience, but its appeal greatly increases proportional to your understanding of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous sleuth.

The Great Mouse Detective takes places in England in 1897, when Oscar Wilde was churning out “The Picture of Dorian Grey” and Jack the Ripper was making life difficult for Victorian hookers. The story opens outside of Flaversham’s Toy Shop, where toymaker Mr. Flaversham (voiced by Alan Young in full Uncle Scrooge effect) is presenting his daughter Olivia with a doll for her birthday. All of a sudden, a mysterious figure breaks into the toy shop and kidnaps Mr. Flaversham, leaving Olivia alone and fatherless (presentless too, poor girl).

Child characters are pretty easy to bollocks-up, but Olivia's not so bad.

We then cut to our Watson-type, Dr. David Q. Dawson (voiced by Val Bettin, who you may remember as The Sultan from Aladdin), who hears Olivia crying inside an old boot. Olivia is trying to find Basil of Baker Street, and though he don’t know nothing’ ‘bout findin’ no Basil, Dawson takes her to Baker Street. They find Basil’s living quarters and are met by Mrs. Judson (our Mrs. Hudson-type), who ushers them in and tells them to wait for Basil to return.

Basil (voiced by Barrie Ingham, and undoubtedly named after Holmes-actor Basil Rathbone) eventually turns up, and is initially disinterested in Olivia’s problem until she mentions her father’s kidnapper: a peg-legged bat with a crippled wing. Basil is familiar with this bat, named Fidget, and knows that he is under the payroll of his rival, the evil Professor Ratigan (our Moriarty-type—Basil even describes him as “The Napoleon of crime,” something Holmes referred to Moriarty as).

From there, the movie focuses on Basil’s efforts to track down Ratigan and Fidget (our Jar Jar-type), and stop his fiendish plot. The story follows a nice, well-worn Holmes-esque structure, with several scenes of Basil making deductions based on clues, and an exciting third act.

As far as Holmes-inspired material goes, it's not a bad execution at all.

One thing The Great Mouse Detective has going for is a cast of excellent characters. Basil is a great Holmes-type, hitting most the requisite checkboxes (moody, brilliant, a total douche to Mrs. Hudson), and Dawson follows in the Nigel Bruce mold of bumbling, loyal Watsons that have been around since the 40’s. Ratigan (voiced by Vincent Price in allegedly one of his favorite roles) is a fantastic villain, oozing with personality and absolutely chewing the scenery during every instance he’s onstage. Olivia, in a change from the child hero norm, is not only slightly annoying (though the running gag of no one being able to pronounce her last name gets a bit old). The only weak spot is Fidget, whose slapstick antics and unintelligible speech pattern makes him endearing for all of five seconds, until you realize that he will have almost as much screentime as Ratigan himself.

The animation definitely looks like something from the xerography period of Disney animation, an epoch where, in the name of cutting corners and saving money, drawings were transferred to filmable cels by a Xerox machine instead of by hand. It is definitely one of the prettier xerography films (if you want an example of how cheap this process can look, check out Robin Hood), but still appears a bit rough in places. The exception comes in the climactic sequence inside of Big Ben, with shadows, lighting, and character movement that suggest most of the budget went into this part of the film. There’s also a wee bit of flouncing in some of the more low-key sequences (the sensation that the characters are moving underwater), but these moments are few and far between.

The movie's clock tower ending is an outstanding display of light, shadow, and some seriously sweet camera movements.

For music, The Great Mouse Detective has perfectly serviceable score (by Harry Mancini, of all people), becoming exciting, dramatic, and triumphant where it needs to be, but not leaving much of an impression. There are also a few songs thrown in for good measure, though this movie isn’t quite a musical. Like the score, they’re good enough, but nothing terribly amazing; “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” is a decent villain song, “Let Me Be Good to You” is one of the more titillating songs to be found in a children’s movie (and certainly the most Burlesque that I can think of), and “Goodbye So Soon” is… well, it’s incidental music.

The Great Mouse Detective isn’t the greatest entry in the Disney canon, but it’s fairly entertaining, especially for fans of Sherlock Holmes. While by no means an essential addition to anyone’s movie library, it’s a fun way to spend 81 minutes, and sometimes that’s all a movie needs to be.

Top Three Songs:

  1. “Let Me be Good to You”
  2. “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind”
  3. “Goodbye So Soon”

Favorite Scene:

  • The ending with Big Ben

Favorite Character:

  • Basil

The Jar-Jar:

  • Fidget

How I Watched It

After five entries, we’ve finally run into it: the conundrum of multiple releases. I received this movie as a birthday present from my friend Abi about two years ago, and since then there’s been a new version that’s been released (dubbed “Mystery in the Mist” edition). The colors in my version are a bit muted and washed out, and look rather strange compared to memories of my old VHS copy. MitM edition receives a new transfer, and is supposed to have better and more saturated colors according to

Extras are not plentiful, but there are a few things of note. First is a small making-of featurette that acts mostly as a cheerleading section for the movie (it was created back during the film’s original production, so it was more than likely made to sell the movie, rather than really get into the creative process). Still, it goes into detail about the use of computers in the movie, and there’s a fair bit of time spent on the voice cast, which is always good for my money. There are also two classic Disney shorts: “Clock Cleaners,” a Mickey Mouse short from 1937 about Mickey and Donald having trouble with a large bird roosting in a clock, and “Donald’s Crime” from 1945, a Donald short about him stealing from his nephew’s piggy bank. As someone who used to watch this junk all the time on the Disney Channel, I was rather satisfied with their inclusion.

MitM edition, while containing the making-of featurette, is bereft of the shorts (it’s also lacking a photo gallery, but I could usually give two bits about those). Seeing as how the old one is out of print now (and the shorts in question are on YouTube), I would go with MitM edition; the important extras are on the new one, and I’d much rather have the bump in picture quality.

Friday, November 19, 2010

And I Want to Paint it Black -- Call of Duty: Black Ops

It’s that time of year again: Activision has released a new Call of Duty game! That time when gamers come together, shoot each other for XP over Xbox Live, and swear loudly in one voice at that cheating douche who keeps using the noob tube. Some find time for the single player campaign, but those people seem to falling by the wayside in favor of twelve-year-olds that shoot you in the face and call you all kinds of bigot-y names. It is a joyous time indeed.

Anyways, this year’s entry in the Epic 2010 FPS Sweepstakes is Call of Duty: Black Ops. Developed by Treyarch (who, apart from Call of Duty, also makes Activision’s Spider-Man games), Black Ops takes place in the 60’s, and involves many of the conflicts during the era of JFK and The Who. You’ll invade Cuba during the Bay of Pigs, battle against the Russians in almost every corner of the globe, and you bet your sweet ass you’ll listen to CCR’s “Fortunate Son” while landing a helicopter in Vietnam (it’s exactly as clichéd as it sounds). They didn’t manage to work in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that’s neither here nor there.

Every Nam movie ever? Eh, sorta.

Rather than retelling major battles (although there are a few of those), Black Ops spins an original narrative about conspiracy, subterfuge, and about everything else you would expect thematically from a game called “Black Ops.” The plot concerns Alex Mason (Sam Worthington, in his Sam Worthington-iest), a soldier who wakes up in an interrogation room and is grilled about a series of numbers. Alex doesn’t know anything about the numbers, and has to relive several of his past missions in order to make sense of everything. As a plot device to trigger the game’s playable sequences, it’s not a bad concept. Unfortunately, most of the game’s between-mission scenes generally end up playing out something like this:

DEEP VOICE: Tell us about the numbers, Mason!

MASON: F@$# you! I don’t know any f@$#ing think about any f@$#ing numbers!

DEEP VOICE: We know you know about the numbers, Mason!

MASON: The numbers don’t make any f@$#ing sense! I don’t f@$#ing know!

DEEP VOICE: Tell us about that one time you infiltrated that one place!

MASON: That one time at that one place…

[play some mission somewhere]

Seriously. The story would have been more interesting if it weren’t presented in such a monotonous manner. Many reviewers have taken the time to point to the mystery in this campaign and compare it favorably to the “disorganized and confused mess” that was the Modern Warfare 2 single-player (conveniently forgetting all of the praise they had heaped on it a year before). By the time the end rolled around for me, however, I found I didn’t care about the numbers, Mason’s character, or much else that was going on in the story. Good in theory, meh in execution.

This is where most of the story takes place, accompanied by Bourne Supremacy-esque seizure flashbacks. It's riveting.

Which is a shame, because the missions themselves present several interesting scenarios. In one you command an SR-71 Blackbird to guide troops through a snowstorm, and then switch perspectives to the troops on the ground. In another, you pilot a gunboat while working your way though Vietnam. My favorite has you escaping from a Russian POW camp; with its gradual progression in guiding the player from hunted to hunter, it shows a sense of pacing and payoff that many of the missions later on in the campaign lack.

It’s this lack of pacing that ultimately hamstrings my enjoyment of the campaigns. For all Modern Warfare 2’s narrative quirks (I am a rather large fan of the MW2 campaign and all of its huge, why-is-this-happening-who-cares-it’s-awesome moments), it had a taught, super-fast pace that kept the player racing along from one enormous set piece moment to the next. Black Ops wants to have those moments, but doesn’t make them big enough. There are a couple cool spots (that I won’t spoil), but most of the time you’ll be going down a linear corridor (your allies are helpfully marked “Follow,” as though you had a choice in the matter), shooting everything that moves; none of the huge moments ever seem awesome enough to justify some of the poor level- and gameplay-design decisions that must be worked through to get to them.

There are a few water-cooler moments, like this chopper-piloting bit, but they're few and far between.

Which brings me to the biggest gaffe in the Call of Duty: Black Ops campaign: the return of the infinitely-spawning enemies. This design was eliminated in Modern Warfare 2, but is now back with a vengeance. I’ll illustrate this point with a story. There’s a mission where you play through the Battle of Khe Sanh. During the level, I took command of a stationary machine gun as I attempted to fend-off Charlie. My allies were hunkered down beside me, taking an occasional shot and shouting directions: “Up there by the trench line! Beside those barrels! Three o’clock!” All the while, the enemy kept pouring down the hillside toward me. No matter how many I shot, there were more to be found, and my squad’s incessant calls of “By the trench line!” were starting to grate at my nerves. After five minutes of shooting dudes, I realized that

a) There would be no end to this limitless supply of enemies,

b) The enemies would only stop spawning when I crossed some pre-determined line in the level, and

c) This is really, really stupid.

So I did the only thing I could do: I charged the hill and tried to hide until the game would stop spawning foot soldiers. From there on out, I lost any trust I had in the game’s campaign. I was no longer interested in planting myself in cover, clearing the enemy out one-by-one, and moving forward only when I felt safe; I knew that I would find myself in a position like Khe Sanh, where my efforts of playing smart would only result in wasted ammo and 15 extra minutes I would throw away before my inevitable respawn. In a way, it’s probably my own fault that I didn’t enjoy the campaign as much as I did, but my hatred of clown-car enemy-generation is so great that I refused to buy into the game’s fiction.

There's a calliope playing around here somewhere, I just know it.

I did enjoy my time with the multiplayer component, however. Black Ops takes everything that made Modern Warfare 2’s multiplayer such a hit and adds a few of its own special herbs and spices (it also fixes many of the glitches and balancing issues from MW2; I’ll have to take the internet’s word for it, because my time with that game was relatively glitch- and exploit-free). In place of a traditional Level Up And Unlock Some Junk progression system is a system where players earn currency called Call Of Duty Points, or COD Points (no word if TROUT and HALIBUT Points are coming in a future DLC release). COD Points are used to buy guns, scopes, and camouflage once the player is at a certain level, adding a degree of customization to progression; rather than unlocking a new sniper rifle that you may not ever use, you can choose to only purchase gear that will be useful to you.

Black Ops also lets players spend COD Points to customize their characters in myriad different ways, from creating a personal emblem (built in a robust graphic editor), to choosing a new targeting reticule for a gun’s scope, to marking weapons with clan tags. Just about every facet of Black Ops’ multiplayer can be personalized, and many will while away the evening customizing their avatars for maximum cool factor and sex appeal.

You can tweak just about everything in the multiplayer.

All of the old game modes return from Modern Warfare 2, along with a few new ones in the form of Wager Matches. Wager Matches are on-the-side modes different from the regular games of Headquarters and Team Deathmatch—players wager COD Points that they will be in the top three, adding a gambling appeal to the content. Players can compete in four different match types: Sticks and Stones (which gives the players a crossbow, throwing knife, and tomahawk), Sharpshooter (which cycles through weapons on a set time interval), One in the Chamber (each person has a gun with one bullet, and subsequent kills give more bullets), and Gun Game (players start with a handgun and climb their way through 20 weapons with each kill). I spent most of my Wager Match time with Gun Game, and though I don’t think it’ll become my primary way to play, it was a fun diversion from the main game.

Where Black Ops’ multiplayer shines the brightest is in its map design. I enjoyed the crap out of Modern Warfare 1 and 2’s multiplayer, but there were always a handful of maps that I felt were just plain bad. I never got that feeling from Black Ops; there were definitely a few maps I was less skilled at, but there were absolutely none that made my blood boil the way Bloc or Estate did.

My favorite map: Nuketown. Think that one place in the fourth Indy movie, sans fridge.

All in all, Black Ops was a worthy rental, though I’m not sure if I’ll make the conversion and purchase it. The multiplayer was fun enough, but the single player wasn’t quite up to snuff for me; a few design issues and an uninteresting story dampened the impact that it could have had. Fans of the Call of Duty series may want to look into Black Ops for its balanced and satisfying Xbox Live play, but those looking for a quality, replayable solo experience may want to test the waters before fully taking the plunge.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

You are hairy! Like animal! -- Ke$ha - Animal

Dear readers, I have a confession to make. I have a guilty pleasure. A pleasure I enjoy only when no one is home, and when I know I can never be discovered. Sometimes, I turn off the lights to make myself feel better about it. Yes, it is shameful to admit, but I still enjoy it all the same. I am talking, of course, about “Sailor Moon.” It’s probably a nostalgia thing, as I grew up watching it, but even though it’s not really meant for boys, there’s something about that show that just entertains me. However, “Sailor Moon” is not related in any way, shape or form, to today’s entry, except perhaps that they both have blond hair.

That’s right, we’re talking about Ke$ha! Ke$ha, that patron saint of holding your hair back while you puke. Her music is flighty, shallow, and ridiculously catchy; if you’re looking for an anthem for a night of hard drinkin’ and making duck-lips, there’s a good chance she’s got a song for you. You would think that 14 tracks of bratty white-girl would get monotonous, not to mention lower your IQ about 15 points, but Animal manages to surpass my expectations. Granted, there will be some necessary brain-powering-down to do at the door (or do what I do, and plant your tongue firmly in your cheek), but there’s a surprisingly good time here, if only because I’m surprised it’s not terrible.

You know. Duck-lips.

Animal is largely a dance-y affair, which you may already be familiar with from songs like “Tik Tok” and “Your Love is My Drug.” Most of the songs are mid-tempo, high energy tracks that are to a basement party what Lady Gaga is to a posh nightclub. Thematically, the album could conceivably be vignettes from one long night of partying, with tracks about hitting on dudes (and being hit on in return), causing minor drama, and gettin’ your drank on. Occasionally the album slows up, and, in a surprising change from the norm for singers that hang their hat on club tracks, the record doesn’t suffer for it; I think it’s because the songs are thematically similar to others on the disc (partying, but these songs are about coming down from the night’s highs), and they end up making the album feel cohesive instead of stopping the party dead.

I did not have high hopes for Animal. In fact, I would probably have never generated the interest to look into Ke$ha’s catalog of music if it hadn’t been for an episode of “The Simpsons.” This particular episode eschews the traditional ‘Round Springfield intro in favor of the cast lip-synching and dancing to, of all things, “Tik Tok.” Maybe it was the image of Lisa Simpson putting on Stunna Shades and singing “Wake up in the mornin’ feelin’ like P. Diddy,” but my interest was piqued enough to go back and listen to that sugary, infectious single. The rest is history.

Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack.

While there is nothing on Animal that matches the heedless fun of “Tik Tok,” there are a few winners. “Your Love is My Drug” is a catchy, fun track with some cool-by-way-of-wack lines (“My steez is gonna be affected if I keep it up like a love-sick crack head”), “Blah Blah” is great for a club setting with its dialtone synthesizers and imitable chorus (“ta-ta-ta-talkin’ ‘bout…”) that even a guest appearance by 3OH!3 can’t ruin, and “Take It Off” is a thumping dance track with a sing-song melody and odd snatches of acid techno. There are also a few songs that I ended up warming up to, like the low-key and self-explanatory “Boots and Boys,” and the snotty, but still-appealing, “Kiss and Tell.”

There are also a few songs that give me pause. “Party at a Rich Dude’s House” seems like a Weird Al style-parody of a Ke$ha song, but it ultimately ends up sounding hollow, as if it were just going through the motions. “Blind” is a slower song that for some reason just didn’t catch my fancy; perhaps there wasn’t enough pawrty in the lyrics. Finally, there’s “Dinosaur,” which I find HILARIOUS, but only in the sense that it’s being sold as legit music (“D.I.N.O.S.A. you are a dinosaur! D.I.N.O.S.A. you are a dinosaur! O.L.D.M.A.N. you’re just an old man! hittin’ on me whaaaaaat?! You need a cat scan!”).

D.I.N.O.S.A. you are a dinosaur!

So far, this sounds like a regular dance-pop record from the late 2000’s, and you’re not terribly wrong to think so. However, there are a couple things that stand out to me about Ke$ha. First and foremost is her writing style. Rather than making thematically-general songs, she makes songs that sound exactly like they were written by a bratty white chick in her early 20’s; throughout the album, she drinks heavily, macks on guys, and hits up every skeezy party in town. Compare this with her pop diva contemporary (and supposed homegirl) Katy Perry. Katy Perry writes songs that sound as though they could be sung by anyone (song about California, song about on-and-off relationship, etc). Ke$ha’s subject matter is rather specific, and is much more interesting to listen to as a result.

Second is her production style. Many of Ke$ha’s songs use the sung melody and synth line in an overlapping sort of way that helps one complement the other; it’s as though the two melodies team up to create a weird Venn Diagram of sound. Let’s use one of K.P.’s songs as an example: “California Gurls” vs. “Tik Tok.” Both are in the same key, use the same chord progression, have the same tempo, and utilize similar-sounding melodies. For my money, though, “Gurls” sounds way too busy, with not many elements sonically standing out to me (I’m also not a fan of her breathy singing style, but that’s neither here nor there). “Tik Tok” seems to subscribe to the Keep It Simple Stupid school of song design: there’s a bass line, an uncomplicated drum track, a simple-but-wicked synth line, and a mostly-rapped and mostly-sang-on-one-note vocal performance. Ke$ha simply does more with less, and this odd lack of the kitchen sink (especially for a record in 2010) is strangely endearing to me.

Bottom line: if you didn’t like “Tik Tok” or the other Ke$ha singles that have been released, give Animal a wide berth; there’s nothing here that will change your mind. However, if you don’t mind a bit of shallow, drunk b@%#$ music, and can listen to your tunes ironically, give it a shot—there’s definitely some fun to be had, and if you ever find yourself in a place where you need some melodies to make some duck-lips to, you’ll be covered.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Our Feature Presentation (4/49) -- Bolt (2008)

Bolt Poster

In the 90’s, Disney dominated the animation market with an iron fist. In general, anyone who stepped up to compete in the animated film arena (20th Century Fox, Universal Studios, and even the Bluthinator himself) was promptly cut down. Disney wrote the rules of the modern animated family feature, and no one could match their efforts in quality.

Unfortunately, by the time the early 2000’s rolled around, audiences had grown a bit numb to the by then well-worn Disney formula (read: musical comedies with broad follow-you-dreams stories and Broadway showtunes). It was at this time that a surly, green ogre crawled its way out of its swamp and stole the crown from the once-mighty champion. Audiences found that they liked the rapid-fire pop culture references, and the newfound, slightly cynical approach to the movie’s fairy tale source material was a welcome change to the naivety and boundless optimism of Disney’s stable of films. The film was also accompanied by a stylistic change in animation—rather than drawn on paper, the entire movie was created in CG, similar to what Pixar had done six years earlier with Toy Story. The new look and new attitude became the new vogue for the industry, and it would take Disney several years before it could launch a CG counter-offensive.

This entry is not about that movie. Nor is this entry a soapbox on how the movie industry learned the wrong lessons from The Little Ogre that Could’s success (for all of its cynicism and audience-winking, Shrek is a movie that has quite a bit of heart, an element that is present in every notable Disney flick; its contemporaries, not so much). Instead, it’s on Disney’s 48th animated feature, and fourth venture into the CG arena, Bolt.

Just sayin'

Bolt starts in Silver Lake Animal Shelter, where a small puppy is playing with a squeezy toy that is shaped like a carrot. A young girl, Penny (Miley Cyrus) enters the shop and buys the puppy. The film then enters movie trailer mode (“5 Years Later,” the dramatic, futuristic text tells us). We learn that Penny’s father has been kidnapped by an evil genius enigmatically known as The Green-Eyed Man, and that Bolt (the puppy from earlier) has been given super powers by Penny’s father in order to protect her. We witness Bolt evade henchmen, dodge missiles, and vault helicopters (in slow motion) in a surprisingly well-choreographed action sequence. The sequence is also surprisingly well-punctuated by humor; in one moment, a helicopter explodes, and then we cut to a soda cup on the opposite side of a lake lightly wiffing over from the shockwave. The sequence ends with Bolt performing his pièce de résistance, the Superbark, and single-handedly (-pawedly?) defeating an entire legion of goons.

The movie then changes gears entirely and we cut to a movie studio, where a television producer patiently explains to a TV executive (“Mindy, from the network” her refers to her as) that the whole show is made as “real” as possible so that Bolt, thinking it’s real, can perform levels of method acting that would make even Daniel Day-Lewis jealous (Robert Downey Jr.’s character from Tropic Thunder comes to mind).

One of these two is not a lead-farmer

Mindy From The Network says that the program needs to change up its formula and get higher ratings, or the whole show gets shut down. The next episode is arranged as a cliff-hanger, where Penny is kidnapped by The Green-Eyed Man. Unfortunately, Bolt still thinks the program is real, and promptly tries to escape the studio. One thing leads to another, and Bolt finds himself in New York City, unaware that his whole life is a shame, and that things don't sporadically burst into flames if he stares at them really hard.

The rest of the film has Bolt making his way cross-country, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey-style, learning that he’s just a regular dog, but knowing that he still loves Penny. Along the way, he meets up with alley cat Mittens (Susie Essman) and hamster Rhino (Mark Walton, a story artist for the film whose storyboard performance for the character was so well-liked that he was hired to voice the character for the main film). Meanwhile, Penny tries to deal with the loss of Bolt as best she can.

I remember seeing the trailer for this one when I went to see Wall-E back in 2008. I remember being rather unimpressed; the movie looked like an uninspired CG cash-in, and the fact that it primary cast consisted of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus did nothing to assuage my fears (my dislike of celebrity stunt-casting is deep-seated). Imagine my surprise, when all was said and done, that I ended up liking this movie quite a bit.

This will be on the test

Something to keep in mind: this movie is not necessarily an innovative take on the "everything you know on TV is wrong" genre of film-making (of which there are a surprising number of participants). It hits most of the major stops on the way: delusions that the whole thing is real, the cognitive dissonance of finding that s@$# is fake, growing and moving past it, etc. What really differentiates Bolt from being a toothless (though still particularly safe) entry in the Disney canon are its little touches. There are a host of small "aha" moments and small gags peppered throughout the film that contribute to its level of humor, though nothing that takes away from the basic emotional appeal of the movie at large. True, it doesn't take any huge risks, but it aims to please rather than challenge, and there are a fair few things to be pleased about with Bolt.

The one thing that really caught my attention in this movie is how profound an understanding it has of the behind-the-scenes aspect of movie-making and show biz. The TV producer and Mindy From The Network’s discussion of focus groups and 18-35 year-old demographics is a hoot, and the movie shows a lot of insight into the goings-on of a successful television program; small things like a cast member referring to a makeup artist by their first name or cueing up a special effects shot make the production seem a lot less slapdash than most films about TV shows, which usually amount to a director yelling things through a megaphone. No one exemplifies the small ways Bolt understands the biz better than Penny’s agent, who is an absolute toolbox, with his smarmy, slightly-condescending mannerisms wrapped in an oily rag of upbeat, faux-cheerfulness (he also has a Bluetooth headset permanently attached to his head. Toolbox).

A sleazy Hollywood agent?  How original!

Home Depot.

Bolt’s art style falls somewhere between Shrek’s uber-realistic look and Despicable Me’s over-the-top caricatures (i.e., some characters are more cartoony than others). I was impressed by the small details in the way the animals were animated, like the slightly-unnerving twitches from the pigeon characters (it looks EXACTLY like real pigeons) and the pads on Bolt’s paws. Another interesting and cool-looking choice was the backgrounds; there are several points during the movie where the background appears to be an oil-painted canvas, which gave the landscapes a nice warm look.

I think my most pleasant surprise can from the voice work. As I mentioned before, the two primary cast members are John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, and their names are on the bloody movie poster. When all is said and done, though, everyone in the cast does a great job bringing their characters to life. The best thing I can say for Travolta’s performance is that I never felt like I was watching John Travolta voice an animated dog; he injects his performance with humor, emotion, and general enthusiasm, and I was too caught up in the character to think who really was voicing him. Penny’s casting smells of Disney cross-brand marketing (indeed, Penny was originally voiced by Hit-Girl, and she allegedly recorded lines for the entire movie before Cyrus was brought on-board), but Cyrus does an excellent job of keeping her character expressive. Essman, whom you may remember as the foul-mouthed wife of Larry David’s manager on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, is sarcastic and sympathetic, and gives her character lots of depth. Walton is an absolute riot. All of this is helped along with some great facial animation, helping turn the actors’ lines into stellar performances.

Bolt has a number of little touches that help add up to be more than the sum of their parts. What could have been a pretty ordinary movie (and sort of is, in terms of story progression) is instead a fun, well-rounded road movie that finds a fine balance between quippy humor, real excitement, and, yes, a whole lot of heart.

Top Three Songs:

  • N/A

Favorite Scene:

  • The climactic rescue on the soundstage

Favorite Character:

  • Bolt

The Jar-Jar:

  • Rhino (I liked him, but I imagine there will be some who will be off-put by his fanboyisms, over-enthusiasm, and liberal usage of the word “awesome”)

How I Watched It:

Bolt is not only the first CG film we’ve covered on Our Feature Presentation, it’s also the first Blu-ray as well! This one was bought from Movie Gallery in Belgrade’s going-out-of-business sale, and, unfortunately, did not come with the advertised DVD and digital copy of the film. I also needed to find an extra Blu-ray case for it, as it came in a regular DVD case (yeah, I really didn’t think it through much at the time). Fortunately, I was able to jack my roommate’s case to his largely unwatched copy Constantine, so I was able to make things alright in the end.

Fortunately, the disc itself is excellent. Blu-ray makes the picture positively pop out of the screen, with long blades of grass and the fur on Bolt and Rhino looking especially cool. The disc also has a host of extras, but unfortunately nothing of too much substance; there’s a neat bit on the in-the-studio stuff with the voice actors (something that I’m all-too-happy to watch), but both other Behind The Scenes docs are between four and six minutes long (the movie’s history was supposedly a difficult one, so I suppose I can see why it may have been glossed-over for promotional purposes (see, not condone, though)). There’s also a short film with Rhino, a music video for the ending song, “I Thought I’d Lost You.”

Unfortunately, Bolt was released on Blu-ray at a time when the technology was younger, and there are significantly more and longer loading times on the disc than other Disney Blu-rays (or other newer Blu-rays in general). Not a deal-breaker, but something to note.