Tuesday, October 28, 2008

This Week in Mormons in the Media

Why does this always happen? Yet again, a movie theater chain in Utah has decided they know better than the rest of us and chosen not to show the new Kevin Smith film, Zack and Miri Make a Porno. They've saved Utahns the trouble of making such moral judgements on their own and went ahead and made it for you. Thank goodness Utahn's have the morality police to help keep them on the straight and narrow.

Now, honestly, I get where they're coming from, even if I disagree with their methods. My question is, why announce it? Not every cineplex features every film out there. So, maybe this particular chain just doesn't carry it and doesn't make such a stink about it. Why do you have to alert the world of your supposed moral superiority? These decisions never go over well (like when Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller decided Brokeback Mountain was too gay to be shown in his theaters) and only serve to draw more negative attention to Utah and it's perceived uptight attitudes.

Yes, the film isn't for everyone and it may not even be artistically or culturally relevant. But, it isn't an actual porno and is only R rated. Just let some other chain show it and shut up about it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Book Wrap Up (Steroid Edition)

Mention the word “steroids” to me 6 months ago and the first word that comes to mind is “cheater”. As sure as I am that it permeates all professional sports, I have such a love and respect for the game of baseball that that is where most of my frustration lies. We’ve gotten to the point in our culture where if anyone does anything special athletically we assume they’ve been juicing and, sadly, most of the time they have. Professional sports today are as close in reality to what we know pro wrestling to be then ever before. It is my fear that if the veil was truly drawn to show the masses what the inner workings look like, we’d be disgusted to find out how gullible we are and that we’ve been taken for a ride for a very long time.

Jose Canseco states, unapologetically, that the line between sports and entertainment is so fuzzy that performance enhancing drugs are absolutely necessary in order for an athlete to reach their true potential and for a fan to get the most bang for their buck. Critics have lashed out against Jose calling him an opportunist and a fame whore by writing the book that “named names” and gave credence to the bubbling steroid suspicion. According to him, and this was written in 2003 before we knew what we know now, most of the league, including all of the people who’ve been accused (McGwire, Sosa, Giambi, Palmeiro) are unequivocally juiced, most of them by Jose himself. What is painfully obvious while reading the book is the assurance that Canseco is telling the truth, something many critics just don’t want to believe. He’s so candid how could he not be? So, either he’s telling the truth and this book is a must read, or he’s lying and it’s total trash. I agree with the former.

One reason why few believe him or like him is because of some of the problems he’s had in the past around domestic abuse and self promotion. Both are addressed very honestly and you come away feeling like the guy got a raw deal. You position yourself as a larger than life personality, which he was in spite of his inherent shyness, then you invite others to knock you down. His claim, and this one I’m not sure I agree with, is that baseball largely shut him out because he was Cuban and they’d rather promote an American, homegrown hero. I’m not aware of a lot of Cuban prejudice in this country, let alone baseball, so I’m not totally buying that. He does make strong arguments that guys like Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez are just as slimy as all the rest, but they play the media better so they make them icons, which is a role they’re happy to take on.

He also touches on his well publicized relationship with Madonna (not as juicy as you’d hope, but does paint a picture of her that you know had to come from first hand experience), the (now) shocking declaration that the one player who he never saw cheat on his wife was Roger Clemens (which we now know to be completely untrue), the owners (including George W. Bush), managers, and commissioners complicity with what was going on, and, what he feels is his subsequent blackballing from baseball (which appears to be true since Barry Bonds is also currently unemployed). The one thing he doesn’t say is whether he’s still on roids today. This was not answered until I watched the A&E special on him this week “Jose Canseco: Last Shot” which shows the aftermath of his career and his book, which is pretty desperate. On the verge of bankruptcy and with his house foreclosed, Jose is seen working with doctors to get off the juice and regretting that he ever wrote the book that blew the lid off this problem. So, what he praised in the book has now come back to bite him. It’s a sad tale of a man who traded in the rest of his life for 10 or so years of wealth and fame. But, how many of us might have done the same thing?

“Game Of Shadows” by SF Chronicle sports writers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams is a much different read. Where “Juiced” was obviously the writing of an athlete, GoS is academic in it’s reporting of BALCO and the athletes linked to the place. Barry Bonds (who has to be one of the least likable people ever to walk the earth and that’s putting it kindly) isn’t the only one, though he’s the most focused on. Marion Jones comes away blemished for life, as are a handful of other Olympic athletes. What the book reports, and it’s confirmed by the immortal words of BALCO founder Victor Conte, “it isn’t cheating if everyone is doing it”. Pretty much the entire book can be summarized in the five segments of Conte's appearance on 20/20.

Expanding beyond the corruption in baseball, the writers paint a picture of a body of Olympians completely overrun with cheaters from the top down. I have to think the only way you’ll get busted for cheating is if you’re caught because it looks like everyone is on something and everyone knows it, but put on a face for the media. The most common excuse given by those in the know as to why the cheating is that “it’s entertainment”. My feeling on that is, if you leveled the playing field back to normal, the viewer may be even more aroused by seeing talents on display that could be just barely out of their own grasp. There will always be the athletic aberration, the one who breaks the records and sets a new bar, but drugs accelerate that process rather than letting it happen naturally. The result is not just, as the best movie of the year so far has said, “bigger, stronger, faster” athletes, it’s everything all at once right now. That’s the world we live in today, I guess, so maybe sports just mirror the global attitude.

So, I’m left with an understanding of steroids that I didn’t have before. I know why they’re used, and I can’t say I blame anyone for it anymore. It’s unfortunate but it’s like with Canseco, trade in respectability and long term success for buckets of fame now. So, I say either allow it across the board and let sports become the rigged freakshow it probably already is, or implement stronger testing and stiffer penalties for cheating. By now, however, the problem is likely out of hand and going to have to fix itself. Notice the way numbers in baseball have gone way down the last couple years. It’s because either roids are finding their way out of the sport, or the players know how to mask what they do better.

The writers of both books deserve too be commended for their reporting. Think of these books as the "All The Presidents Men" of sports literature. The way you can assess their value is that most everything they've said has come true.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

2008: It Was A Very Bad Year (For Movies)

This has to be the worst year for movies that I can remember. Usually, at this point in the year I’ve seen a handful of shows that I can’t stop talking about. Ones that really moved me and that I want others to experience. In previous years, I’d seen Once and Murderball and Little Miss Sunshine and Waitress and Knocked Up and Wedding Crashers and Capturing the Friedman’s and Fever Pitch by now. So far this year, I’ve seen ONE movie that I would highly recommend to everyone and it’s the documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster. That’s all! I guess that shouldn’t surprise me since docs are usually more satisfying than studio films. But, I’m depressed that my trips to the theater have come up short consistently for 10 ½ straight months.

The best theatrical release I saw this year was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and that was actually released in 2007! Sure Iron Man exceeded my expectations and was great fun, the Dark Knight came up a little short for me, but was still an extremely well-made piece of comic pulp, and The Visitor and Frozen River have sustained (barely) my faith and interest in independent films, but that’s all. Week after week I venture out with my best intentions and end up trudging through middling offerings like Ghost Town, Flash of Genius, and Burn After Reading. Of the 50 films currently in wide release, according to metacritic.com, only ten (20%) show mostly positive reviews and of those ten, only two are considered universally praised and both came out in the summer (Dark Knight and Wall-E). Meanwhile, 16 of the 50, have received largely negative reviews.

The fall Oscar season can’t get here quick enough. Hopefully, it comes through in a big way because we need some quality in the marketplace. It’s getting really deflating to get my hopes up week after week, only to see the new releases being panned by critics (Miracle at St. Anna, Body of Lies, How to Lose Friends…, Blindness, W, the list keeps going). I guess there are some pluses to having the economy in the toilet. No money to spend on crappy movies anyway.

Friday, October 17, 2008

An Amazing Race To The Bottom

What was once one of the most exciting and even educational shows on television, the Amazing Race has now devolved into cheap entertainment tactics and even cheaper casting.

In seasons past, while the most endearing couple almost never won (thank you Uchenna and Joyce for bucking that trend), you could at least find people to root for. Sure, there were beautiful young couples with perfect bodies that look great shirtless, but there were also a couple of middle-aged married couples and maybe a couple sibling pairings and best friends as well. This all made for a well-balanced experience and provided teams worth investing in. The last couple seasons, especially the current one, have been a parade of young, hot couples, many of them “newly dating” which really chaps me beyond anything, none of whom are married and some are barely together.

It’s as if the casting directors were replaced by the team behind the Real World. No one is a person, they are characters with manufactured backgrounds that represent the fringes of the various demographics. The couples who are married are either really old or separated. Is it below the Amazing Race to give America an example of a strong couple that actually succeeds under the pressure? Does extreme goodness have no inherent entertainment value? And, if I hear one more couple using the million dollar prize purse as the final obstacle between them and actually getting married, I’m going to scream. Gay couples are always stereotypical and so are the devout Christians. This season’s Southern Belles are, of course, dumb blondes. The two sets of male best friends are two of the more lovable contestants, but, of course, both pairs are largely frumpy and nerdy, or at least that’s how the show has determined they need to be “packaged”. And, finally, and probably most noticeably, where are the minorities? Is one black or Hispanic team every season all they’re willing to muster? Couldn’t there be more, maybe even a team of friends where one is white and one is black and have it not played out like Amos and Andy?

(Don’t even get my started on the Biggest Loser. I’ve watched that show for only two seasons now and both times the black couple was kicked off straightaway, first this year and second last time. They need to have like six black couples next time and see how the fat white folks like being sent packing. But, could that show even exist anywhere but MTV? Probably not. For racially diverse entertainment cable may be your only hope and then, talk about people being characters! Dreadful.)

Frankly, I’m not sure how Phil the host can continue to do this job and not lash out at everyone every time they step on the mat. “Brad and Angelina, you’re team Number One! Now bend over, I’m going to stick this tribesman’s spear where the sun don’t shine if I have to look at either of you one more time on this trip! Does anyone have Probst’s number or know the status of his contract? I don’t know much about food or fashion, but can someone get me a meeting with Bravo? Who wants to get drunk? I’m outta here, to hell with all you narcissistic brats!” That would rule. I’d forgive him entirely.

Sadly, I can’t detach myself from the show, no matter how infuriating it is. I guess I hold out for the hope of seeing some honest to goodness human nature that doesn’t seem the product of creative editing

Speaking of opportunistic reality TV show stars, I was recently watching one of those 80s sex comedies you used to see on USA's Up All Night called Weekend Pass. One of the leads was a skinny black guy I knew I had seen somewhere before. After digging around the interweb, I finally found out that it was Chip, the big, burly black guy that won of the early Amazing Race seasons. Just goes to show that some people just want to be on camera

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Lost Gem of the 80s #13: Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder - st (1985)

Consider the year, 1985. The Human League were one of the hottest bands in the world with several top 10 hits under their belt and were pioneers of the synth-pop sound that epitomized the early 80s. One would think that a collaboration between lead singer Philip Oakey and legendary disco architect Giorgio Moroder (producer for Donna Summer, Oscar winner for Flashdance and Midnight Express) would birth some cutting edge dance and club music. Instead, it produced a good, lost Human League album.

There is virtually no difference in style between this self-titled cd and the hits the League were churning out at the time. The only remotely noticeable one is the absence of HL back-up singers Susan and Joanne. However, some songs on the album do feature female backing vocals that could easily be interchangeable with theirs. One noticeable voice on “Be My Lover Now” is the unmistakable E.G. Daly. You’d know her from acting in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Valley Girl, and also the soundtracks to Breakfast Club and Better Off Dead (she’s the singer at the school dance). Philip’s baritone is at its usual peak. What a cool, strange instrument that voice is. Dare I say, it sounds a little like if Johnny Cash were British and used synthesizers?

This album sparked no hits at the time and has been out of print and long forgotten until a few months ago when it was reissued with bonus tracks in a new cleaned up mix. If it is known at all, it’s for being the home of “(Together In) Electric Dreams” from the film of the same name, a sort of cult classic and the song the League close out every live show with. It appears on most HL greatest hits packages, even though it is not “officially” an HL track, so it’s easy to assume it was theirs all along. It’s a great song that endures to this day.

Human League are like the Hall & Oates of synth pop. There is no mistaking their pop sensibility and the hits from back in the day are still beloved and strong. The question is whether listeners discount them as being relics of the past, or momentary genius’s that added much to the pop canon. I tend to be one of the latter and love them both more today than ever. While Phil and Giorgio’s collabo isn’t essential, it is a much appreciated missing piece for those with a soft spot for the HL sound. The songs are great and familiar, just as all great pop music should be. If you have an ear that's tuned to synth-pop and are adventurous enough to look beyond the hits, you'll love it.

The Nugget - "Goodbye Bad Times". Of all the singles, it holds up the best.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Live In Concert: James 10/02/08

At this stage of my life, it’s rare that I see a band for the first time whose catalog I am intimately familiar with. After James broke up seven years ago, I assumed I would never have the chance to catch the energy of this great band in a live setting. Until, that is, I saw that they reformed, released a new (really good) album, and hit the road. Good things don’t just come in small packages, they come in surprising and unsuspecting ones too.

I have always heard that James write their songs in a jam setting. Much like the Grateful Dead, though sounding nothing like them, members just start banging away at a groove and lead singer Tim Booth provides the words, often stream of consciously. From these jams come songs that run the gamut from darkly subtle and dense to all out anthems. Seeing them live gives you the feeling of what it must be like to be in the room when their magic is flowing. The songs don’t jam endlessly at all, in fact they’re very tight, but the energy that was there at creation is obvious.

The band also did an excellent job at momentum management, a major pet peeve of mine. They started the show slowly, almost too slowly, playing three of their moodier songs including “Dream Thrum”. Just when you thought you might be lulled to sleep, out come the big guns, the James most of us are pining for. The slow songs are wonderful, but what makes James a great band is how deftly they do moody and bombastic and mix the two on an album. Too much at either speed severely off-sets the balance. The truly mind blowing thing, and let this be a lesson to every other veteran band out there, it was the new songs that got the party started. If only bands realized that if they want to sell us the new stuff, they need to present it in a package that feels lived in and also exciting. James rocked to “Oh My Heart” and “Waterfall”, both off the new album, Hey Ma, back to back. It takes major skill and cajones to get the crowd to actually increase the decibels for the new tracks instead of hitting the bathroom. Well done.

From there the show did what most shows do, jump all over the catalog for the career highlights (“Ring The Bells”, “Sit Down”, and “Out To Get You”) while sprinkling in additional new songs. The band was on fire, just as you would hope/expect, and Tim Booth’s divine voice hasn’t lost a speck of clarity. Seriously, is there a more gorgeous voice in all of rock? Possibly even better suited for the theater, it is one of rock’s tragically underrated miracles. Those in attendance uncovered another of his hidden talents, the guy gyrates like a maniac. It was funny and endearing at the same time.

I went with four friends, all of whom didn’t know each other before the night started. We chose to stand near the back behind the sound board where there was a set list. Much to my broken heart, my favorite James song, and one of my top 5 all-time, “Born Of Frustration”, was not on the list. I consoled myself by saying maybe they forgot it or the rest would be so good, I wouldn’t notice. “BoF” was a single, not some forgotten album track, so I’m confused why it wouldn’t be on there. This almost ruined the night for me. Until….

With five songs left, Tim said the beautiful words, “We’ve hit you with a lot of new stuff tonight. Let’s get back to the songs you know” and then tore into ‘Sound”, my second fave James track. It was epic, complete with bullhorn and everything. Then, like manna from heaven, I heard what I had paid for, the opening keyboard plunks of “Born” and my night was certified perfect. God had heard my prayers and magically included it even if it didn’t appear on the set list. This was followed by Tim climbing into the crowd and singing “Say Something” a few feet away from us. Then came “Sometimes” and the capper of all cappers, “Laid”. Just what you’d expect. The perfect show-ending touch was them inviting about 50 concert goers to come up on stage and get their ya-ya’s out for “Laid”, arguably their most anthemic of all the James barnburners.

(One note of interest to almost nobody. Anyone who's been around me much, knows that I wear my yellow Trashcan Sinatra's t-shirt all the time. One of the guy's who jumped on stage was wearing that same shirt, the only other time I've ever seen it anywhere. Another weird thing is that I had been wearing my shirt all day and planned to wear it to the show, but then wore it to the gym instead. Interesting little coincidence or boring tidbit?)

Being able to cross James off my list of bands to see before I die is pretty major. Any fan had to question whether the day would ever come again. Like I said, God must have been hearing my prayers.