Sunday, January 30, 2011

It's on Like Donkey Kong -- Tyler Perry Series Kickoff

As she mentioned in her accompanying post, my good friend Jordyn as a Class III Loathe Entirely for Nicholas Sparks. Of course, the guy is friggin’ everywhere these days, with six movies adapted from his novels and a seventh in the works, proving any hack with a sob story can gross a kajillion dollars if the teenagers and housewives like it. I’ve been dying for Jordyn to watch all of them for some time, partially because I want to see the poison pen ass-whupping she would give them, but mostly because I know the after-effect these movies will have on her.

However, I am not entirely without my sense of fairness, and am well aware that I would need to do something equally as awful in order for there to be balance in the universe (it’s either that or I pick up her bar tab forever until one of us croaks, and that’s not going to happen any time soon). As such, I’ve been searching for a film series I find equally abhorrent to watch, in the hopes that my reaction will mirror the one she will likely have.

Of course, this was monumentally easier said than done; there are certainly movies that I don’t like, and the whimpering eight-year-old inside of me doesn’t care for movie gore, but the goal was to find something I’m thematically opposed to. It’s not enough that the movie must be bad—to truly make this equal, I would need to find movies of the same series, a series whose most basic conceptual structure would make the marrow freeze in my bones, and whose very presence in a Wal-Mart DVD section would elicit an emotional response. Things were looking bleak, and I was convinced that Jordyn’s Sparks-athon would be relegated to the Wouldn’t It Be Funny If section of discussions. Until last week.

Last week, we were scouring the various retail stores in Helena for cheap movies (a successful venture that netted me Highlander and The Warriors). I was trying to decide which Austin Powers movie I should consider getting on high-def, when I saw it:

Something clicked, dear readers, and I knew that I had met my match.

Tyler Perry, famed playwright, director, and actor, has long been a thorn in my side. He has attained stratospheric popularity, despite turning out plays and movies that are all largely the same (not to mention misuse their admittedly-talented casts). As a match for Nicholas Sparks movies, this is perfect, and let’s breakdown why:

1) They have both attained fame by, essentially, recycling elements that made them initially successful. For Sparks, it’s love in the wake of ham-fisted tragedy. For Perry, it’s equally ham-fisted African American dramas jarringly interrupted by Martin Laurence’s character from Big Momma’s House.

2) They both seem to have equal antipathy for their characters. Sparks’ movies often involve some spoiled white chick sodden in first-world problems, and who can only achieve fulfillment and satisfaction through her knight in shining armor. Perry’s movies often involve some Minstrel Show-level of black stereotypes, replete with “Oh no she di’in’t,” “Praise Jesus”-talking junkie prostitutes, and they all demonize successful, educated black men.

3) They both have six movies currently available on Netflix.

So yes, dear readers, Jordyn and I will be putting ourselves through the wringer, all in the hopes that you will enjoy the accompanied wailing and gnashing of teeth. Check back to Diversion 2.0 as I cover:

1) Diary of a Mad Black Woman

2) Madea's Family Reunion

3) Meet the Browns

4) Madea Goes to Jail

5) I Can Do Bad All By Myself

6) Madea's Big Happy Family

Jordyn, over at Popped Density, will be covering:

1) Message in a Bottle

2) A Walk to Remember

3) The Notebook

4) Nights in Rodanthe

5) Dear John

6) The Last Song

Check back often, and bring your galoshes—it’s gonna be a s@$# storm.


PS - Here is the best way to describe Tyler Perry, as interpreted by The Boondocks.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Book on Tape -- Wizard People, Dear Reader

Every once in a while, fanbase and popularity permitting, a film will take on a life outside of its original creator’s intent. Whether it’s stoners who made the Reese’s connection of getting The Wizard of Oz in their Pink Floyd and Pink Floyd in their The Wizard of Oz, or the inexplicable crowd that will dress in drag and throw crap at the screen of that one Tim Curry movie from the 80’s 70’s (thanks Jordyn!), fans will sometimes take an already-existing movie and add to it, making, in essence, an entirely different product. One of my favorite entries in this admittedly-specific category of films is Wizard People, Dear Reader.

Wizard People is a fan-dub of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, written and performed by comic book artist Brad Neely (Neely was also responsible for that awesome George Washington video from a couple years ago). Rather than a straight Mystery Science Theater 3000-style lampooning of the film, Neely instead narrates the movie as an audiobook, adding his own name fudgings and plot alterations while still telling a (mostly) coherent story.

"But lo-ho-ho, dear readers! It is a cloak. A cloak with a cloaking device!"

The additions are pretty sophomoric, to be sure. Name changes range from mostly similar (Hagrid becomes “Hagar The Horrible”) to bat-guano loco (Madam Hooch becomes “Professor Catface Meowmers”). Character changes are equally ridiculous; Harry is a nigh-omnipotent wizard, Hermione (“The Wretched Harmony”) is constantly referred to as being hideous, and Ron (referred to as “Ronnie the Bear,” or sometimes just “The Effin’ Bear”) has 20 brothers and 12 sisters, all of whom are either Gryffindor students, alumni, or faculty members

The movie has a quirky, anarchic sense of humor that extends beyond the typical “It’s funny because it’s different” laughs. Minor characters undergo several name changes within the span of a single scene; Uncle Vernon has at least twelve swine-related names (Uncle Piggums, Uncle Gigglesnort, etc), and Marcus Flint of the Slytherin Quidditch team has a few as well that reflect on his excellent dentistry (Joey Lumbermouth, Woodpile, etc). Neely also gives his narrator some excellent similes (“Jeepers! Ed Vanders rushes into Harry’s view, like a scarecrow’s carcass.”), and characters often use hilariously toothless interjections along with the frequent swears (“Willikers!” “Crumbs and carrots!”).

"'And look! It's a bat! Sweet mustache! Willikers!'"

Elements of the plot are frequently changed—Professor Snape (Professor Snake) is made a woman, and Voldermort (Val-Mart) is made Harry’s father (“The man that killed your mama is your dada”). There are also places where, during uneventful scenes, the narration breaks from describing the movie and begins talking about a daydream being had by Harry (during his retrieval of the flying key, Neely goes off about how Harry imagines himself as a Spanish conquistador, discovering America and integrating himself with the natives).

Then there’s Neely’s performance. After secondhand-listening to way too many dull audiobooks, I only wish I could have one recorded like this. Far from simply “reading” what’s going on, Neely acts out the dialogue, and frequently responds to what’s happening onscreen (his reaction to when Quirrel removes his turban is especially epic). The voice he uses is like a mixture of Ross Perot and Peewee Herman, and it only adds to the humor of Wizard People.

"'The gig is up! There were kids! Kids, in the adult books!'"

It’s not perfect, though. It’s a bit of a slow starter, and the movie only really starts to ramp up when Hagrid comes to get Harry from the Dursley’s. That said, there are also a few places during the second half (almost the entire part dealing with the Mirror of Erised, for instance) that crawl by as well. Taken as a whole, though, the small, less noteworthy sections are well worth eating through in order to get to the good stuff.

Of course, you have to actually gather the materials needed to watch Wizard People, which can be a bit tricky. You need a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and you’ll also need to download the audio; Wizard People was recorded as a two-parter, and you’ll need both parts to get the whole movie. From there, you need to watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with the sound off and play the two Wizard People audio files one after another (this can be done by playing from your iPod or burning it to a CD).

The whole process can be a bit of work, but the experience is a rewarding one. Whether you’ve read all the books multiple times or simply thought the first movie was pretty neat, Wizard People, Dear Reader is an absolute treat for Potter fans.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (10/50) -- The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Back in 2003, Disney was facing a sudden and very rude awakening: Dreamworks and Pixar were creating CG movies that were grossing incredible sums of money, while its own crop of films were ranging anywhere from mildly successful (The Emperor’s New Groove) to utterly disastrous (Treasure Planet). Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner then famously declared that Disney would be leaving the realm of 2D hand-drawn animation forever, and instead be focusing on creating CG animated films to compete with the likes of Woody and Shrek (Eisner, for those keeping score at home, also suggested that Disney would not benefit in any way, shape or form, from acquiring Pixar; in short, he was an addle-brained git). Fortunately, Eisner was soon ousted from the house that Walt built in a rather public coup by Roy E. Disney (Walt’s nephew), and John Lasseter of Pixar was made Senor Big-Shot of Feature Animation.

Lasseter’s first act, in addition to tweaking the in-development Meet the Robinsons and Bolt, was get back to what Disney was good at: fairy tales. He commissioned Ron Clements and John Musker (co-directors of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules) to come up with a treatment of “The Frog Princess,” and gave them the option to make it in either CG or hand-drawn animation. They chose hand-drawn, and in the winter of 2009, the public received The Princess and the Frog.

I remember waiting for this movie to come out, mostly because the pedigree of talent (great directors, all of Disney’s best animators, an animation medium I love, etc.) made it seem like this movie was going to be the second coming of Christ, and the film’s initial trailer certainly didn’t do anything to snap me out of that mindset. I never got to see the film in theaters, though, because I was unavailable on the one night my friends all went to see it, and I didn’t manage to catch it during the Christmas break. My initial viewing came from Redbox, and the decision that yes, doggonit, I was finally going to see this movie. The Princess and the Frog is not the best that Disney has to offer, but it certainly is an excellent return to form after several years in the wilderness.

From the very first teaser footage of this film, I was incredibly jacked about it.

The Princess and the Frog begins in 1910’s New Orleans, with a young Tiana (Elizabeth M. Dampier) being read to by her mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey). The story is “The Frog Prince,” and Eudora reads while simultaneously sewing a dress for Tiana’s best friend Charlotte LaBouff (Breanna Brooks). Once the dress is finished, Tiana and her mother leave the fabulously wealthy LaBouff estate and journey home to their more modest home, where Tiana cooks gumbo for her father (Terrance Howard) and the whole neighborhood. Tiana’s father tells her that she needs to work hard in order to achieve her dream of having a restaurant, saying that “[wishing stars] can only take you part of the way.”

Flash forward several years, where Tiana is working several jobs to save up money for her restaurant; her daddy’s passed away, but her dream is as strong as ever. Charlotte tells Tiana that Prince Naveen of Maldonia (a far-off country that is never quite topographically defined) is visiting New Orleans, and that she wants him to fall in love with her at a party she is throwing that night. Tiana whips up a special batch of beignets for enticing the prince (“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”), but, later at the party, a mishap with a dog makes a mess of Tiana’s clothes.

While changing into one of Charlotte’s spare dresses, Tiana spots a frog sitting on the balcony with her. Much to her surprise, the frog speaks, revealing that he is Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) and that he was transformed into his more Kermit-esque appearance by Dr. Facilier (Keith David, who positively oozes into the role), a voodoo master. Thinking her to be a princess, Naveen begs Tiana to kiss him and transform him back into a human. Reluctantly, Tiana agrees. Unfortunately, this only causes Tiana to become a frog as well, and since frogs are not especially welcome at a gala event like this one, Tiana and Naveen are forced to make a break for it and find a way to become human again.

Tiana and Naveen's journey is filled with songs, comic side-characters, and self-discovery, just the way mama used to make it.

Just about everything in this movie has an old-but-new approach to it (which makes for a great companion piece to Tangled’s new-but-old approach). The comic timing, character archetypes, and general attitude of the movie feels straight out of the Disney Renaissance; in terms of looks and tone, it feels like a spiritual sequel to Aladdin, or perhaps Hercules.

However, the movie also seems determined to reinvent itself as something new: the songs are much more Randy Newman-sounding than Alan Menkin-y, the story adds in several wrinkles that would not necessarily have been at home during the twilight years of the first Bush administration (Tiana’s focus on working hard and earning things for herself being the largest one), and the setting feels more differentiated from other Disney films (even other pictures set in the United States like The Rescuers or Oliver & Company never felt this distinctly romantic about their swamps/New York/etc.).

I have no idea what sort of fantastic jiggery-pokery was used to create the backgrounds in this picture, but brother it works.

This adds up to a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, I really like the film’s spirit of rekindling the spirit of the Disney’s 90’s heyday, and appreciate the small things it does to differentiate itself from the current crop of animated films (Roger Ebert sums it up better than I ever can in his 2009 review: “This is what classic animation once was like! No 3-D! No glasses! No extra ticket charge! No frantic frenzies of meaningless action! And . . . good gravy! A story! Characters! A plot! It's set in a particular time and place!”). However, for my money, there’s always some slight disconnect between the Renaissance-style visuals and the newer, more up-to-date sensibilities; it’s as if the movie never goes far enough to capture the 90’s nostalgia, and settles into a sort of uneven compromise.

My favorite scenes in The Princess and the Frog are the ones that eschew convention entirely and cut their own path. Early in the movie, during a song where Tiana sings about her future restaurant (“Almost There,” the best song in the movie), the animation style shifts to a more flat, art deco look; the stylization is eye-catching, and differentiates itself from the regular (though still quite pretty) animation style of the film. During the ending portion of the movie, Dr. Facilier entices Tiana with a vision of owning the restaurant, showing her images of a swanky, ballroom setting and herself in nice clothes, giving the whole scene a Last Temptation of Christ feel to it.

Princess retreads old ground just fine, but its best moments are when it's at its most inventive.

The best thing the movie has going for it is the animation. As I mentioned earlier, this movie had the cream of Disney animator crop: Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, and many others responsible for some of Disney’s most iconic characters were all gathered under one roof to kick some ass, and boy did they deliver. Characters are expressive and full of human emotion, and the backgrounds draw the viewer into the world like few I’ve ever seen.

Sonically, The Princess and the Frog is not one of my favorites, and the place where it loses the most ground as a Return To Classic exercise. Princess’s songs and score were written by Randy Newman, whom you may know as, among other things, the chief musical dude from lots of early Pixar movies. Newman has his fans, but I don’t count myself as one; while he does have a folksy appeal, his material lacks the showmanship and flair of Alan Menkin’s work from the 90’s (which the animation so desperately tries to imitate). I will acquiesce, though, that they’re perfectly fine if you enjoy Newman’s work, and don’t necessarily detract from my enjoyment of the film.

With a few exceptions, the songs in Princess just don't quite do it for me.

On the voice work front, however, Princess is much stronger. Anika Noni Rose is charming and beautiful as Tiana, and Bruno Campos’ Naveen has an absolutely gutbusting timing about him through the entire film. Gunning for the spot of top villain is Keith David, who has done stellar work in other Disney roles, and completely nails Dr. Facilier; equal parts suave and dangerous, Facilier belongs up there with some of the Disney greats. The supporting characters alternate between being fitfully charming (Mama Odie, Louis) and pants-on-head aggravating (Ray, Charlotte).

The Princess and the Frog is not the dramatic, “The Boys Are Back in Town”-style comeback that I expected, but it’s still quite a worthy film. Many of my quibbles amount to personal bias, and Princess seems on track to be a slow burn Disney classic, revealing its charms and strengths through multiple viewings, which I will take hands-down over a seen-it-once-seen-it-a-million-times movie like Robin Hood. It’s not the return to form many of us hoped for, but it’s a nice reminder that somewhere in the Disney Corporation, they finally know what they’re doing again.

Top Three Songs:

  1. “Almost There”
  2. “Never Knew I Needed”
  3. “Friends on the Other Side”

Favorite Scene:

  • Tiana and Dr. Facilier’s Last Temptation of Christ moment.

Favorite Character:

  • Naveen (Facilier is a sweet villain, but Naveen’s quips and general affability made him a top pick for me)

The Jar Jar:

  • Ray (even though he somewhat redeems himself at the end, I still get cheesed with his Funny Antics throughout the movie, which is what the Jar Jar does)


How I Watched It

The Princess and the Frog doesn’t look quite as eye-bleedingly gorgeous on Blu-ray as Beauty and the Beast, but it’s still a total feast for the eyes. The backgrounds I mentioned above suck the viewer in like some sort of Technicolor vortex, and the colors pop something fierce in hi-def.

Disney has been notoriously light on bonus features for its current-release movies (Bolt had next to nothing on it), but Princess scrapes together a surprisingly decent collection of supplemental material (though it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as the two-disc Atlantis release). Included on the Blu-ray is a general making-of doc that lightly covers the main bases (history going into the project, animators who worked on it, songs, etc.), which is pretty entertaining and reasonably brief. There are also several nitty-gritty features, like pencil tests, art galleries, and small featurettes on different aspects of the movie, like the history of the Disney princess. While not super deep, there’s enough bonus material on the Princess Blu-ray to satisfy the casual fan.


Next up: Lady and the Tramp

Monday, January 17, 2011

Testermix - Winter '10

It's that time again! Here's another list of songs that I'm compiled during the twilight months of 2010 (hence the title), painstakingly analyzed, or at least written about between episodes of GameInformer.com's Replay. Enjoy!

1) The Flock of Seagulls - I Ran (So Far Away)

A poster child for song peer pressure, "I Ran" was brought to my attention for three reasons:

a) It was featured in a commercial for an 80’s compilation CD that you would get by subscribing to Entertainment Weekly. This commercial ran CONSTANTLY during the Toonami block of Cartoon Network, so I was able to get a passing familiarity with the title of the song.

b) A few years later, it was featured in a sweet ad for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which helped establish a much better impression than "it exists"

c) Back in July, I played it on Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80's.

It's been lolling around in my head ever since, and I finally took the plunge and got it on iTunes. No regrets.

2) Ke$ha - We R Who We R

As I mentioned in several entries, I likes me some Ke$ha. As Wikipedia informs us, “We R Who We R” debuted at back in October at number 1, which means that I would have, if nothing else, seen it on iTunes under the Top Downloads list. I never fully tried out the song, though, until later that month when my friend Jordyn and I accidentally took a trip to Great Falls (it’s a rich tapestry). In the car, I was able to take advantage of the Amazon MP3 Store from my phone, and, what with boredom setting in, decided to give the song a whirl. The rest is history.

Musically, it’s more Ke$ha, which can hardly be a bad thing. “We R” maintains Ke$ha’s penchant for sweet synth and hilarious, tongue-in-cheek song writing. That the song was written in response to an actual tragedy but doesn’t come off preachy or high and mighty (unlike some other songs) makes it that much more of an accomplishment.

3) Hit The Lights - Drop the Girl

As a pop punk junkie, I try to stay up on newer, scene-breaking bands, so Hit The Lights has been on my list for a while now (thanks in large part to the Madden ’07 soundtrack). Unfortunately, Hit The Lights has been mostly promise with only some execution, never quite rising to the level with the Fall Out Boys and Hey Mondays of the power pop world; nasally vocals and same-sounding songs aside, they never have had the inventiveness to back up their admittedly-high energy.

I tried out their then-new album Skip School, Start Fights back in 2008 (and if that title doesn’t give you an idea of the age group of their fanbase, I don’t know what will), and it underwhelmed me with so-so songs and a complete lack of originality (not to mention severely disappointed me by treating one of my favorite 80’s songs to a flaccid cover). However, one song managed to jump out at me and actually stay in my head (something no Hit The Lights song had done to date). Granted, it doesn’t vary much from the standard HTL book of tricks (big hooks and “wo-oah”s during the chorus), but it just does it better than most of the other songs, and that deserves a spot on the mix.

4) The Lonely Island feat. Akon - I Just Had Sex

Occasionally, I get input of songs to think about including on my mixes. One suggestion for this go around was “I’m On A Boat,” that Grammy-nominated­ dedication to contemplating your Naval (ba dump tish). I played around with the song a bit, and it very nearly made the list, but “Boat” is a bit more March 2009 (when my friends and I played the HELL out of Incredibad) than Winter ’10.

Lo and behold, that very same weekend, The Lonely Island debuted their new Digital Short and lead single for their upcoming album. And just like its predecessor, it had a guest spot from major hip-hop star, featured crude and sometimes juvenile lyrics, and was CATCHY AS S#%@. The thing that constantly impresses me about The Lonely Island is both how legit their production style is (insert different words, and this becomes a top-shelf Akon single) and how funny their lyrics are, with one never overshadowing the other. The new album can’t come soon enough.

5) Every Avenue - Where Were You

Every Avenue is another pop-punk band that I considered getting into, but their sound often feels too slick and lacking in energy (All Time Low has experienced something similar). That does not mean, however, that they lack any sort of Andrew-redeeming material. On the contrary, even the most “eh” of bands can occasionally turn up something noteworthy.

“Where Were You” isn’t some revolution in power-pop (if it was, I would have slapped it on a mix much sooner), but it is damn catchy. I’m not sure if I’d want to listen to an entire album of this sort of 30-weight motor oil slickness, but a little lube every now and then isn’t so bad.

6) Steve Miller Band - Fly Like an Eagle

Only six tracks in, and we’ve already stumbled on our first It Came From Rock Band song. Of course, I’ve been familiar with this song for a while now (aside from “The Joker,” it’s the de facto Steve Miller Band song), but I had to hear it in conjunction with the sound of clicking plastic instruments in order to truly appreciate it (plus, playing the keyboard part helped me hear how well it complements the rest of the song; I didn’t even know it had a keyboard part prior to playing it).

7) Cartel – Honestly

This may well be the Generic Pop-Punk edition of Testermix, because here’s another track from an Eh Overall band (and by the way, Eh Overall would be a pretty good name for a group like this). Easy melodies (this time on the verse for once!) and a good sense of energy make this one a keeper. Heck, I may even check out their new album because of it (maybe).

8) Forever the Sickest Kids - Whoa Oh! (Me Vs. Everyone)

Here we go again. And trust me, if you want a great example of Bands With Only One Truly Stellar Song, Forever the Sickest Kids is a pretty good one (them and The Rembrandts. Yeesh). I originally heard this song on our local hits station and decided, you know, I think I’ll give this band a try by impulse-buying their CD. After all, there’s got to be like nine other at least pretty good songs on the album, right? Right? Oh boy.

Anyways, you know the drill by this point in the mix. Good hooks (extra points for “wo-oah”s) and energetic delivery will make an okay band sound decent, and FTSK really does create a genuinely good slice of power pop with this one. That said, I’m not sure if I’ll venture into their newer stuff any time soon.

9) Story of the Year - Until the Day I Die

Out of all of the songs in “Winter ’10,” this is the one that I’m most familiar with, having been introduced to Story of the Year in late 2003 with their debut album Page Avenue (still their best one, IMHO, because they sound their hungriest on it). Of all of their singles, this one has always seemed the most effortless, with a huge melody and unbound energy in tow. While their other songs have sounded like they’re trying too hard to be catchy, “Until the Day I Die” has always soared the highest and rocked the hardest. The likelihood of Story reverting back to a Page Avenue style of sound is rather slim (bands grow up and become new bands, unless they’re AC/DC), but I still find myself sampling their new material whenever I get rumbling of another album, if only to hope that they find their energy again.

10) Paul McCartney - Band on the Run

This song was a bit of a slow burn for me, but I eventually found my way back to it. In truth, I had forgotten about it being a three-part track, with the first two minutes or so sounding much more Steve Miller than the bouncy, happy song it turns into later (“Live and Let Die” has a stylistic transition that’s similarly jarring). Still, I’ve grown to like the opening build, and, after the 2:07, it’s all musical gravy from there.

11) Ludacris - Get Back

This is the only single I can think of from Ludacris’ 2005 album Red Light District, and it was reasonably popular at the time, but you may be more familiar with it as the song that plays during the ending credits of Tropic Thunder. Like many things Ludacris, it’s clever, silly, and has a good beat to it. What’s not to like?

12) Panic! At the Disco - The Only Difference

I’ve mercifully abridged the song title, because Panic! At the Disco drips with the kind of “hip” pretentiousness that turns me off to self-aware movies, music, and books (like most of what Ellen Paige had to say in Juno, and most indie music, period). That said, “The Only Difference” is a pretty infectious piece of pop, with a driving melody, and great gushers of energy peppered liberally throughout the song. The lyrics are typical Panic! fair, but I find ‘em pretty easy to tune out, which is all the better to enjoy this nice slice of Decaydance sweetness.

13) Blue Oyster Cult – Godzilla

This one goes all the way back to the original Guitar Hero for me; I have rather vivid memories of playing this song during my freshman year of college, feet propped up on the mini-fridge and doing my best to nail the solo on Medium. Times have changed, but Blue Oyster Cult seems to hold up pretty well, and their ode to Godzooky’s uncle is one of my favorites from them. Led by a big, stomp-y sort of riff, “Godzilla” makes almost no sense from a songwriting perspective (at least, it never satisfactorily answers the question of why the song is), but is pretty damn fun nonetheless.

14) Elton John - Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting

For those who grew up in the 90’s (and were na├»ve to any form of music older than 1989), Elton John was famous for two reasons: co-writing The Lion King’s music with Tim Rice, and writing that one “Candle in the Wind” song, which received a resurgence when Princess Diana passed away in 1997. Given that, it’s safe to say that I was pretty ignorant of Elton John’s actual fame-acquiring career during my formative years. Rock Band 3 was able to show me what I missed, though, and I’m all the better for it.

“Saturday Night” is the anti-Elton John song for me. Rather than a slow, pretty love song, it’s loud, brash, and packing a memorable, uber-distorted guitar riff. It legitimately rocks, and it’s a pretty sweet song for the times when, damn it, you just wanna throw all inhibitions out the window and take the town by storm. “Don’t give us none of your aggravation,” the chorus shouts, “we’ve had it with your discipline.” Over 30 years later, the message rings as loud, brash, and fun as ever.

15) Fall Out Boy - Don't You Know Who I Think I Am?

I’ve been a fan of Fall Out Boy ever since I accidentally ran across them on some sampler I got from the 2004 Warped Tour, and their third major studio album, Infinity on High, was one of the bigger releases during my second semester of college. It had a great collection of tracks, from the dance-y “This Ain’t A Scene” to the just-go-with-it “Thanks for the Memories,” but the CD’s sleeper hit was this baby. Hooky, melodic, and packing some serious energy (Andy Hurley is one of the most underrated drummers in the music industry, and a great example of how a great drummer can push a good band into excellence), “Don’t You Know” is one of those songs I like to play when I feel like car dancing.

16) The Police - Message in a Bottle

Like Elton John, my relationship to The Police has been fraught with misunderstandings and flat-out “Huh?” moments. The Police has long been known by me for their song “Every Breath You Take,” that wonderful stalker anthem that has been humorously included on many-a romantic mixtape since its release in the 80’s. My mom bought their greatest hits when I was 13, though, and I was gradually able to discover some of their better material (including one song that many will remember was reimagined in Moulin Rouge).

“Message” is probably my favorite, though. The driving melody, active drum part, and ending chorus of “Sending out an S.O.S.” has been the stuff that my pop dreams are made of for the better part of a decade, and its inclusion on Guitar Hero II could only make my infatuation grow.

17) Quietdrive – Jessica

Quietdrive was brought to my attention through a free sampler distributed by Hot Topic in the early parts of 2007, and included in the mix was a song from a certain small, Minneapolis band. I liked what I heard, so I picked up their album and promptly fell in middle school crush with them, and, while I haven’t dug their recent material as much as their first CD, they’ve been a fairly reliable source a power-pop goodness over the years. This entry from their Open Your Eyes EP is basic, lead single material, but that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to like it. Heck, it’s my list, so I’ll do it anyway!

18) Bloc Party – Banquet

One of my favorite video game franchises has been the SSX series of snowboarding games. SSX 3 made my list, so I was incredibly stoked for its 2005 follow-up, SSX On Tour. Unfortunately, the game eschewed many of the design decisions that I loved in 3, and replaced its quirky, electronic vibe with Brit rock sensibilities and Napoleon Dynamite-style art directions. The gameplay was good, but most of the game was better on paper than it was in practice. From On Tour, though, came a stellar, interesting soundtrack, including this gem from London-based Bloc Party. I’ll be honest: I really don’t care what is said in this song, not for much of the verse structure. I like this song because of the awesome guitar line—it was so in 2005, and it’s so well into 2011.

19) Kanye West feat. Rihanna - All of the Lights

Kanye West’s The College Dropout is one of my favorite albums, so I always hype myself up for a new ‘Ye release (I find that ignoring his real life jackassery and enjoying his music in a vacuum makes for a much better listening experience overall). I’m not sure if he’ll ever make an album like that again, however; it was a single-producer album, made in a time before his head had swollen to Universal globe proportions. All the same, I enjoyed his newest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (whose songs, like its name, suffer from being overlong), and “All of the Lights” contains some of West’s most exciting production to date, particularly the percussion.

20) Nicki Minaj feat. will.i.am - Check it Out

The second-to-last spot is where I like to hide my fly-by-night, guilty pleasure tracks, and this Mix is no different. will.i.am’s bite-tastic sampling of a certain song from The Buggles is as catchy as it is shallow, and there’s something that grabs me about Minaj’s line, “Haters, you can kill yourself.” Of course, I think it’s a bit rich for i.am to declare during the chorus, “I can’t believe it / This beat is bangin,’” (he made the beat; bit self-congratulatory for my taste), but this is a song where I don’t mind to swallowing any pockets of pop rap-isms and just going with it.

21) Acceptance - Take Cover

A small flash in the music industry pan, Acceptance broke up shortly after I found out about them, but their album-opening “Take Cover” still lives on in my heart. I like their blend of piano and power pop, and the driving melody makes for an exciting, rewarding listen.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (9/50) -- Dinoasaur (2000)

It’s been 10 years and three separate viewings, and I still don’t know what to make of Dinosaur. An unusual movie with an unusual history, Dinosaur was an Event Movie for Disney back in 2000, combining live action backgrounds and bleeding-edge (for the time) CG imagery. It was supposed to kick open the door for forward-thinking artistry and new technology for the Walt Disney Company. Instead, the public met it with a resounding “meh,” and rightly so, in my opinion.

Dinosaur starts off in the nesting grounds of a group (flock?) of Iguanodon, where a mother tends to her newly-laid eggs. A large, meat-eating Carnotaurus then appears and, deciding that this herd of lumbering T-bone steaks has gone uneaten for far too long, kick starts a chain of events that leads to the egg being swept away and eventually deposited waaayyyy away from its original nest (this sequence was also featured as a “preview” of the movie on certain Disney VHS around the time of its release).

I think this preview was in theaters too. It looked way more epic than the final product, kinda like 300.

The egg winds up in a family of lemurs, hatching almost as soon as it’s discovered. The lemurs decide it’s too cute to dispose of, and instead raise it as their own. Given the name Aladar, the young dino soon blooms into a fully-grown young adult (voiced by D.B. Sweeny). After a prolonged, uninteresting, and largely non-plot-related interlude where the tribe of lemurs mate (all except our hero, and his anachronistic, annoying compadre named Zini), the lemur home island is destroyed by a series of meteor showers, leaving Aladar and his surrogate family to wander in search of a home.

The movie then turns into a CG version of The Land Before Time (which it was doing a pretty good job non-explicitly aping up until now): a young herbivore, aided by an unlikely team of ragtag outsiders, goes in search of a Zion-esque promise land of green food and cushy living, interrupted occasionally by predators and internal strife. Outside of the superficial comparisons, the film even packs in several small LBT touches, like the carnivores not speaking, or the main villain being dispatched by rocks and a long fall (though, since the movie has two main carnivores, the means of disposal is split between them both).

Here's the Sharptoo-- er, Carnotaurs.

I gotta tell you, even though I am a big dinosaur fan, I was profoundly uninterested in this movie. Even without the Land Before Time parallels, I felt the story was tedious and dull, and, even at 82 minutes, the film kinda crawled along. It wasn’t bad or unpleasant, just the exact right shade of boredom that makes time seem to go by slower than usual.

On a surface level, the movie looks pretty good. The backgrounds at 100% real, with the CG dinosaurs superimposed over the top. It makes for an eerie effect sometimes, but CG animation is some of the fastest-dating artwork in cinema, and there are many instances where the dinosaurs seem to float "on top" of the backgrounds instead of inhabit them. Also, the visuals and details take a nose dive during long shots with many dinos onscreen. Lastly, I’m not sure if paleontologists have proposed that dinosaurs were colored like speckled Easter eggs, but someone was clearly in Don Bluth’s paint kit for this movie, because the characters are all colored with some of the nastiest pastels this side of those effing puppies in All Dogs Go to Heaven.

Sound-wise, Dinosaur isn’t bad. James Newton Howard (James Cameron’s go-to composer) was smack in the middle of his three-film deal for Disney with this movie (Atlantis and Treasure Planet were the others), and Dinosaur’s score is… serviceable. Not memorable, but not nearly as pedestrian as Robin Hood, the soundtrack just kinda is, with its biggest sin being Howard’s tendency to PUNCTUATE. EVERYTHING. IN SOME SORT OF. STACCATO, making the movie occasionally very same-sounding. The voice cast gets the job done, with Sweeny being as reasonably charming as you could hope for a thirty-ton lizard, and the supporting cast providing adequate emotion (though the effect of a Triceratops being voiced by Della Reese from ”Touched by an Angel” is just plain weird). The main offender for the cast is undoubtedly Zini, whose “lady’s man” persona gets old approximately 13.2 seconds before it’s introduced.

He even looks obnoxious.

Jar Jar here actually bring to mind my strangest beef with this movie: the copious amounts of anachronistic dialogue. To be clear, I’m not of the mindset that pop culture references or modern vernacular is the Great Evil of contemporary animation (Aladdin is one of my favorite movies, period), but there’s something about a hyper-real CG lemur climbing onto a hyper-real CG dinosaur on a photo-realistic background and saying “I believe you requested a wake-up call for the dawn of time” that raises a few flags. Piddley things like:

a) What does this joke have to do with the plot?

b) How does he know about the term “dawn of time,” considering that they are well past it, but still many hundreds of millions of years away from the term being coined?

c) Exactly how does a prehistoric lemur know about the practices of the modern hotel chain? Certainly one of the characters from Road to Perdition couldn’t have told you what a wake-up call is.

It’s a bit self-defeating to look for elements of realism in an animated film meant for children, but this train of thought is derailed by the movie’s insistence on how real it looks. There’s a marked difference between a Starbucks sight gag in Shrek 2 (medieval fairy tale) and the term “Jerkasaurus” used by a character in Dinosaur (“Walking With Dinosaurs”-esque pseudo-documentary). The technology behind the movie is undermined so badly by the writing, it’s as though Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone for the express purpose of making crank calls.

And while we’re picking nits, let’s chat about the tacked-on, under-developed romance between Aladar and Neera (Julianna Margulies). Neera (who is colored pink for our convenience) belongs to the school of female love interests who have a rather limited amount of screen time, and who contributes to the story even less. They meet by bumping into each other when Aladar first finds the herd, and they share all of two Significant Moments together; the rest of the time, she simply stands around. I’m not normally frustrated by half-baked movie romances, but the setup and payoff for Aladar and Neera’s relationship is seriously only one step ahead of that female crow who shows up at the very end of The Secret of NIMH.

Neera also had a scent out at the time of this movie's release. It was called "Obligatory."

But I digress. The movie has its share of exciting parts (especially a scene in a cave where Aladar attempts to fend-off two predators), and there are several moments where the beautiful backgrounds and the character models click, making for one pretty picture. Unfortunately, the movie is both uneven and kinda dull, an unhealthy combination for those who watch movies in order to unwind.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. N/A
  2. N/A
  3. N/A

Favorite scene:

  • Aladar negotiating the Carnotaurs in the cave

Favorite character:

  • Aladar (Kron, the Samuel E. Wright-voiced leader of the herd, almost made it, if only for the novelty of Sebastian playing a villain, but the writers went overboard in making him a toolbox)

The Jar Jar:

  • Zini

How I Watched It

This may be the only time you’ll hear me say it, but I think Dinosaur would play out better in SD. As I mentioned earlier, the film hasn’t aged particularly well, and the hi-def treatment makes it all the easier to spot imperfections (my previous viewing was eight months ago on VHS, and I didn’t notice many of the visual gaffes I picked up on this time around). The image quality is merely pretty good, which is not something you want from a movie case that touts the experience as “Beyond High Definition.” The colors pop reasonably well, but it is painfully apparent that Dinosaur was one of the first Blu-rays put out by the company.

Not only is the picture merely so-so, but the extras are absolutely anemic. Included are an audio commentary (not too bad; it includes the two co-directors and two VFX supervisors), a four-minute look at the meteor shower scene, and a short film called “Blu-Scape,” an unrelated, six-minute feature which consists entirely of pretty-looking scenery. In short, it’s something that you’re supposed to put on to impress your friends who don’t have an HDTV (which was fine in 2006, but now you have better options for that, like Star Trek). It also includes a short index of scenes that are supposed to “showcase the ultimate in high definition picture and sound.” Glorified scene-selector? Why yes it is.

Heck, it doesn’t even have a main menu. A main menu! The movie just kinda starts, VHS-style, and then loops back to the beginning once you’re done with the credits! If you must own this film, do yourself a less-expensive favor and opt for the DVD version.


Next up: The Princess and the Frog