Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Not very interesting.

Whew. I'm still coming out of the spell cast on me this evening by a certain man's hypnotic rhetoric that borders on childlike in its naive underpinnings and dichotomies (i.e. good v evil, democracy v tyranny, christian v islam, america v other, moral v immoral, blah, blah, blah). I react carrying certain personal opinions about the man and his beliefs, but truly, these State of the Union speeches are always the same regardless of the speaker. Who are they even for? Am I supposed to believe that there are people out there looking on this public address to figure out how we are doing and where we are headed as "a people" (a phrase and connotation I despise by the way)? Sheesh. The whole play is a farce. I understand that political rhetoric like the sort displayed tonight is a standard and successful MO. It is all very deliberate and a fundamental characteristic of politics in general. But it is annoying nonetheless. Then you have the endless clapping-standing-sitting that turns into some playground game (again childlike comes to mind) between the red side of the room vs the blue side. They are all a bunch of ninnies. I don't know why I even watch this sort of thing. I guess because I was expecting to watch Scrubs and maybe even Law & Order, but alas...

I apologize for ranting in a political vein. I understand that no one wants to read this kind of shit here but then again I didn't intend this blog to be purely in a superficial pop-culture mold. I'm pretty much operating in that genre now but I originally meant this to be just a forum for me to write whatever happens to be on my mind. Most of the time that involves music and/or movies, and often my dogs, but sometimes politics will just sneak in. So that's that.

Moving on to more substantive issues, the Oscar nominations were announced this morning. Nothing especially surprising but I should say that I'm more impressed than usual with the choices in the main categories. But since I'm already sick of year-end awards by this time, I'll just do a quick obligatory Oscar prediction right now and be done with it. This is who I think will win, not necessarily who I want to win:

Best Original Screenplay: Haggis, Moresco - Crash
Best Adapted Screenplay: Futterman - Capote
Best Supporting Actor: Paul Giamatti - Cinderella Man
Best Supporting Actress: Rachel Weisz - The Constant Gardener
Best Actor: Heath Ledger - Brokeback Mountain
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon - Walk the Line
Best Director: Ang Lee - Brokeback Mountain
Best Picture: Brokeback Mountain

Per Pitchfork, the final (and real) line-up for Coachella 2006 was released today. There's no way I'll make it out there but it does get me excited for the upcoming festival season. As always, we'll be attending the Austin City Limits Music Festival in September and Coachella is often a decent hint to some of the bands on showcase at ACL fest later in the year. Here's hoping this year that ACL trumps Coachella and snags Radiohead for its headliner!!

Friday, January 20, 2006

Podcasts, etc.

FYI, I have added a new feature to the sidebar titled "Upcoming Releases." Check it out for listings of upcoming music and movie releases that I deem worthy of mention. I'll try to keep this up-to-date as I hear about more releases and definitive dates.

I'm late to hop on the bandwagon of the latest online trend that is podcasts, but consider me a convert. Relax, relax...I'm not going to start broadcasting my smart-ass voice on this site. I prefer to write, not cast. But I must say that on-demand is a fantastic concept. Cable on-demand has become my preferred option to catch up on the latest episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Rome and other beloved HBO shows. Likewise, the appeal of on-demand radio is equally satistying. So I'm not sure why it has taken me this long to explore the huge selection of podcasts now available online. I suppose the abundance of material is probably what has kept me at a safe distance up until recently. Anyone can now be a DJ or radio show host, so you have to assume a large portion of the content is niche-oriented and a bit amateur. Obviously the same is true about blogs, if not more so (what you are reading more than qualifies). Of course, don't get me wrong here. I'm all for the proliferation of blogs, podcasts, photos, music and movies online. The internet has truly become an equalizing force in media creation and distribution and I think this is a wonderful, powerful thing. However, the downside is wading through the ocean of crap out there, which is more often than not, truly crap.

Anyway, I say all this as preface to my discovery of an absolutely hysterical podcast, The Ricky Gervais Show. Well, "discovery" is not the best word, since it is probably one of the most popular podcasts yet produced. You are probably familiar with Mr. Gervais, most recently acclaimed as the creator and star of BBC's The Office and HBO's Extras. That being the case, he doesn't exactly need my support. I wish I'd discovered some brilliantly subversive, underground podcast to share with you, but no. Gervais is one of the biggest celebrities in England, a stand-up comedian, star of television and radio, he has even written an episode of The Simpsons. We're talking a famous dude featured in a slickly produced radio program. The show is a 12 part comedy series in which Ricky and his lesser known creative partner Stephen Merchant sit around and ridicule the other member of the trio, Karl Pilkington. Not the best description, but believe me, it is funny as shit. If you have iTunes, it is available on there or if not, here's the link to the podcast so you can catch up on the 7 half-hour episodes released to date. Enjoy the engaging discussions about Chinese homeless people, Karl's perfectly round head and monkey news.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

JTM's Best of 2005, Part III

Out of the hundreds of movies released in 2005, I likely saw a total of 30. I missed out on many of the year's highest grossing pictures. Harry Potter? Didn't see it. Chronicles of Narnia? Nope. Hitch? Hell no. I also never had the chance to catch several of the most critically lauded: Good Night, and Good Luck? Notta. The Squid & the Whale? Missed it. Cinderella Man? Ugh. And entirely out of my control, there are those films that have not yet been released except for in LA and NY, several of which would probably have a good shot at a list like this (e.g. Match Point, The New World, Cache, Why We Fight). I guess I'm just saying that this is far from an exhaustive and comprehensive list.

So what did I see this year?

Here are a few I saw that did not make the cut. Some decent films. None of these are complete stinkers, except the one featuring an annoying, scrawny blonde-haired kid who, in a dramatic turn of events, ends up having the voice of James Earl Jones.
Star Wars:Episode III, War of the Worlds, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, In Good Company, The Family Stone, King Kong, The Jacket, Fever Pitch, Wedding Crashers.

In the next tier, a few more films that came close but eventually fell short. Each of these, I still strongly recommend.
Layer Cake, Munich, Gunner Palace, Walk the Line.

And what remains are the 10 films that make up my Best of 2005. An impressive range of filmmaking, most of the independent variety. Obviously I'm of the opinion that none of these movies should be missed. If you haven't seen one of 'em, quickly run to a theater near you or place it at No. 1 in your Netflix queue. Though I will warn you, depression may follow.

10. Batman Begins
The only popcorn movie in the bunch, Christopher Nolan's Batman epic is here for many reasons, but most of all for bringing an entirely new mood and realism to the comic-book genre. Not an easy feat.

9. Crash
Although far from subtle, this ensemble melodrama in the vein of Altman and Anderson is a hell of a debut for a director. Featuring an excellent cast (especially Cheadle and Dillon) this film about all types of racial tension succeeds in making even the most naively innocent among us feel implicated.

8. Syriana
This is not an easy film. I couldn't explain the plot or half the characters if I tried. That being said, the true main character here is Oil and the corruption that follows in its wake. "Syriana" is a word Washington think tanks use to describe a hypothetical Middle East, reborn in the image of the West. And although some aspects of the plot may be ambiguous and border on conspiracy theory, the film's message is clear and hard to deny.

7. Grizzly Man
Werner Herzog's documentary tells the story of Alaska's self-proclaimed protector of the grizzly bears, Timothy Treadwell. Most of the film is taken directly from Tim's own footage shot during his summer treks living with the very bears that eventually kill him and his girlfriend. Startling in its depiction of one man's passion that is both sincere and foolishly misguided.

6. Last Days
Inspired by the last days of Kurt Cobain, this film is so sparse in dialogue and action that it borders on hypnosis. Doesn't sound like a recommendation but I mean it as one. The atmosphere is eerie as you voyeuristically watch one man's last daze in drug addiction.

5. Capote
Philip Seymour Hoffman. Is there any other actor who could have pulled off Truman Capote without coming off as a caricature of the notoriously flamboyant and arrogant writer? Not only did he nail the part, but this is a rare biopic that actually gets at what is going on inside the subject's mind while speaking to themes beyond the context of his story. And how does that happen? I say again, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

4. The Constant Gardner
Could have been a standard political thriller and it definitely excels in that genre...but what makes this movie stand out from others of similar ilk is the emotional weight of the relationship between Ralph Fiennes' character and his murdered wife played by Rachel Weisz. This is the second film from City of God director Fernando Meirelles and I can now say he is one of a few number of directors whose name alone will bring me into a theater.

3. 2046
I saw this just a week ago and I've been thinking about it ever since. I wish I could go back and see it on the big screen, because it contains the most beautiful images I've seen in any movie this year. Wong Kar-Wai is already a legendary director but I can't see how this masterpiece could be topped. It is a scenic tour of love lost and remembered, personified by various women through the eyes of one lonely dude. For my money, I'll take the perfect performance by Ziyi Zhang. This movie is an amazing combination of form and content. Amazing to look at, listen to, and feel.

2. Brokeback Mountain
I said my piece on Brokeback in my 12/19 posting, but placing this at #2 on my list should reemphasize how great a film this is and how it is so much more than a "gay cowboy" movie. If you're having doubts, get over it. Go see it. That is unless you're lucky enough to live in Salt Lake City, where the film has suddenly been pulled from theaters.

1. A History of Violence
Well this one came out of nowhere for me but it definitely deserves its place at the top. David Cronenberg directs this noirish little tale about a small-town hero whose violent actions spread like a virus to everyone around him. At first glance, this seems like a fun little thriller starring Aragorn and an excellent supporting cast (see Maria Bello, Ed Harris and William Hurt). When this film really starts to kick you in the gut is when it becomes an allegory about violence itself and how it quickly escalates in various forms throughout our safe, civilized society. As the story unfolds and you watch things unravel violently out of control, you start to realize that your very own reaction to the displays of violence depicted on screen (sometimes horrific, sometimes humorous, sometimes sexual) is exactly what Cronenberg is wanting us to question. And there is no easy answer, except that this is one hell of a good movie.

And my individual awards go to:
Best Actor: Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
Best Supporting Actor: William Hurt, A History of Violence
Best Actress: Ziyi Zhang, 2046
Best Supporting Actress: Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
Best Screenplay: Josh Olson, A History of Violence
Best Director: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A New Year

QUICK UPDATE: I've been slowly working on my Best of 2005, Part III which will sum up the year in film. But honestly, I've been dragging this "Best of" topic on long enough so Part III will wrap up the year officially for me.

Seriously people, how could I post without acknowledging the Longhorns' national championship victory over USC in the Rose Bowl?! It has been a longtime coming for UT after years (34) of endless potential and opportunity, resulting in inevitable disappointment. But enough of that...it was simply an amazing game, from the lackluster beginning to heart-attack-inducing end. I've never seen anything like it, especially in the performance of Vince Young. The BCS lived up to its hype this year. Hook 'em Horns!!

In the meantime...

The holidays are over and 2006 is upon us. I hate this time of year. Winter is just settling in, the days are dreadfully short and holidays are few and far between. Seasonal depression encourages sloth-like behavior. Computer and television screens become the most intimate of companions. If you live in Minnesota, you haven't seen the sun in weeks.

That being said, a trip to the equator is sure to break up the monotony. I promised more info. on the upcoming Kenya trip. The dates are now set: Feb 11 - 27th. It is coming up fast and we're painfully excited. As I mentioned, the first week or so will be a working trip for me, though without a doubt the best business travel I could ever comprehend. And on the upside, this means all expenses are paid for my portion. While I'm toiling through hard, physical labor at Kenya Medical Research Institute, Annie will be flying solo, bravely embark on the first exploring of the region (the urban areas of Nairobi and Kisumu). Once I'm done with University business, we are hoping to head on over to the Kenyan coast on the Indian Ocean and go on a safari tour. All of these details remain pending. I'll probably be starting up another blog just for this trip: to post pictures, describe experiences and report terrorist movements within the region. So stay tuned.