Pop Culture Diary: Indiana Jones 4

May 28, 2008

Required reading: Kris Tapley’s hateful review of IJ, Part IV. Pull quote: “Truly, there isn’t one thing I liked about “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” I could fill this space for days with items on the other side of that fence, however.”

Anticipation is a dangerous emotion when it comes to pop culture, I think, and it’s hard to imagine a film that has been longer anticipated than the fourth Indiana Jones. Perhaps it’s a challenge George Lucas enjoys, since the last comparable movie could be his fourth edition to the Star Wars series, the disastrous “Phantom Menace.” If it’s a challenge he’s enjoying, it’s also a challenge he should stop undertaking.

My review of the “Crystal Skull” can’t hardly be as negative as Tapley’s, but it should serve as far from a recommendation. This is a movie that, as much as it looks like Indiana Jones, as much as it sounds like Indiana Jones, it never truly feels like a film belonging of the name. This has never been a series, I don’t think, that took itself particularly seriously, but surely it should have paid a bit more attention to seriousness than … this.

In an attempt to make the fourth shine, Steven Spielberg added two pretty supporting characters to the film: Cate Blanchett cast as the enemy, as Stalin’s right-hand woman Irina Spalko and Shia LaBeouf as, well, a young sidekick for an aged Indy. Blanchett does a nice job, but it’s not exactly a well-developed or sensible character. LaBeouf isn’t very likable in a performance that needed to be very on the mark to work.

If those two are Spielberg’s addition to the film, the venture into science fiction is clearly George Lucas’. While surely the previous three films have contained elements of science fiction, Lucas introduces Roswell to us early in the film and does not let it go. His own fascination with the great unknown is thrust into this series, and for that, I’m sincerely sorry.

The good news is that it’s unquestionably funny in the most Indiana Jones ways. It’s unrealistic in the most brilliant, lovable way, with Indy dodging as many bullets as ever before. It has comic breaks when it needs to, and if nothing else, you can always laugh at the movie’s ridiculousness. Yesterday I talked about how “Lars and the Real Girl” was wrongly positioned as a comedy when it wasn’t; well today I’ll say “Indiana Jones” is a comedy that wants to be an action movie.

For many of us, Harrison Ford is Han Solo, for others he’s Indiana Jones. He’s Colonel Lucas, he’s Rick Deckard, he’s Dr. Richard Kimble, he’s Preisdent James Marshall. And, at 68, he’s all grown up, and that’s just about as hard to watch as seeing the Indiana Jones series reduced to … this.


Pop Culture Diary: Lars and the Real Girl

May 27, 2008

For lack of a better idea on consistent posting in this space, but armed with the desire to do so, today commences my pop culture diary. Basically, I am going to attempt to, semi-daily, write up my personal interactions with pop culture, whatever they may be. This site was designed to yearn more opinions than news, anyway.

I’m a bit of a sap when it comes to the movies, that much I freely admit. The “feel good” genre almost entirely aims at me as their intended audience, so we have a nice, cohesive relationship. So, when I heard the premise of “Lars and the Real Girl”, I held out hope when others did not. Fellow friends and fans of Ryan Gosling were appalled by the decision, far more happy when he teamed up with Anthony Hopkins for “Fracture”.

After suffering through 2007 without seeing the movie, but staying convinced that it was for me, the movie faced my high expectations yesterday. And it met them. It’s an absolutely beautiful story about the human spirit, about mental illness, and ultimately, about love. Where “Juno” saw a screenplay yearn far more praise than it deserved thanks to an ensemble cast, “Lars” is a screenplay that needs very little. It’s the story, it’s the belief that makes us fall in love.

If you haven’t heard the plot by now, a quick run-through: Lars (Gosling) is a hopelessly quiet, unsatisfied twentysomething trapped in a garage while his brother and sister-in-law live in the family house inherited by the brothers. He is much loved, be it by the sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) or a co-worker with a long-standing crush (an incredibly cute Kelli Garner). To fill the void of a female companion in his life, Gosling delusions a sex doll into a real girlfriend.

That’s the plot, but the heart of the story is the town’s embrace of Lars and his “girlfriend”, Bianca. They go beyond not passing judgment, and go as far to accepting Bianca as a real person — treating her as Lars does. For many people in the town, Bianca becomes something just as she has with Lars. What begins as a way to help a peer cope becomes something larger for everyone, and it’s through them that Lars is eventually able to return himself to normalcy.

The problem with the movie, for me, is that it’s packaged as a comedy. It’s not that at all; for me, the comedic elements fail almost entirely. Silences that are supposed to garner laughter actually made me uncomfortable, and the cheap laughs always seemed too cheap for the premise. The acting in the movie outside of Gosling and Garner is questionable, as well.

But I don’t see why the failure to conform to an assigned genre should yield a negative review, and I won’t let it here. “Lars and the Real Girl” is a feel-good movie about the possibilities of dealing with mental health and the possibilities of acceptance. I’m not sure if it’s a movie telling us what could be, or a movie telling us what lies deep, down and within towns across America. But either way, it’s a movie that inspires, it’s a movie that believes in the sensitivity of the human spirit. For Oliver’s script to make so many believe, from director Craig Gillespie to this ensemble to, ultimately us, is the true symbol of its genius.

AI: No Tweeny Revolution

May 22, 2008

I vowed before last night’s show that if David Archuleta won American Idol, I would never watch the show again. From the beginning, I’ve never declared that Archuleta was not good. In fact, if AI is strictly a singing competition, he wins. It’s almost robotic how perfect his pitch can be.

But, my faith in the American TV public was restored last night, as David Cook beat his teenage nemesis by 12 million votes. If Archuleta has better pitch, Cook has more versatility, radio appeal and potential.

My approach to American Idol from the very beginning was to attempt to find the contestants that would resonate the most with the American public. The show exists to contribute stars to the pop culture scene, and I think the show is most effective when the biggest star doubles as the winner. Jordin Sparks over Blake Lewis, for example, is a big point in the show’s corner.

If you ask for the top five performances from the season, I think Cook scores three: “Always Be My Baby”, “Hello” and “Billie Jean”. It’s an eclectic mix, but an interesting one, as Cook has shown that his ability to spin the pop single into an emo rock vibe is his true strength. While he’s faltered some with true rock singles, I do believe he’ll be a force in the recording studio.

As for Archuleta, surely a contract with Disney looms on the horizon. The Jonas Brothers sang at the finale last night, and it’s hardly a stretch to see Archuleta on stage with them in concert, with Miley Cyrus waiting in the wings. I still am not sure how Archuleta will work on the radio, but with a little more like the Elton John single he sang on Tuesday, his tweeny fanbase might give him some lasting value.

This season was an interesting one for American Idol, billed from the beginning as the best season yet, or more specifically, the most talented. I would now vehemently disagree with that, as it did boast the weakest female crop in the show’s seven seasons, as I think Syesha’s Broadway potential represents all we might see from the collective. However, there’s nothing wrong with top-heavy, and this season was exactly that, as we knew from at least the Top 11 that a David vs. David finale was where we were headed. Maybe it didn’t make for 10 weeks of exciting TV, but it did make for an exciting Wednesday night.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but American Idol: I’ll see you next January.

American Idol: Top 2

May 21, 2008

In the opening minutes of last night’s American Idol singing finale, David Cook made a telling remark: “To me, the competition is over,” said Cook, providing the antithesis to numerous boxing videos suggesting that Season 7’s penultimate showdown — between a whitebread crooner and an early-peaking rocker, mind you — was some type of Ali vs. Foreman affair. (The Thrilla of Vanilla, perhaps?) . “We’re just out here having fun,” he continued. And he wasn’t kidding.

Over the next hour, David Cook turned in three worst performances of his Idol career. The odds were already stacked against him: we knew the night’s “inspirational” song was David Archuleta’s bread and butter, and we knew his sappy take on “Imagine” would be hard to top. But what was supposed to be a classic David versus David battle quickly turned into David versus Goliath, with the little and likeable kid slingshotting the rocking beast well past his prime.

That said, it’s not absolutely impossible for David Cook to walk away with tonight’s final vote. Crazier things have happened during the Idol finale — look no further than Taylor Hicks taking the crown from Katharine McPhee for proof of that. But really, the Cookster provided about as much of an argument for himself as R. Kelly will in his impending child pornography trial.

But if you still want to see how it all went down, click through for a song-by-song analysis on three levels: first, for the track hand-selection by ever-aging and less-relevant-each-year record exec Clive Davis; second, for the inspirational track handpicked by the contestants from ten choices; and third, for the contestant’s personal choices. I’ve forgone a final prediction this week because I think it’s clear where I stand: my heart is with Cook, my money’s on Archuleta.

Read the rest of this entry »

AmIdol: Top 3

May 13, 2008

For fans of music … no, not reality TV, not Mariah Carey, not musicals … than the format of tonight’s episode was easily the most accessible of the season. We got to see the three contestants from three angles: how the judge’s wanted to see them, how the producers did, and how they wanted to see themselves. This made for, of course, a bevy of odd song choices, good song choices, and unexpected song choices.

We decided not to liveblog tonight’s episode, and actually try to digest some of it. Here are my post-episode thoughts:

David Archuleta
“And So It Goes” by Billy Joel.
“With You” by Chris Brown.
“Longer” by Dan Fogelberg.

Randy said exactly what I was thinking after the “With You” performance — can anything be stranger than David Archuleta signing “ooh little mama, ooh you a stunner”? I understand what David was doing, and I actually applaud it. But, of course, the end result proved why David isn’t good for this competition: he’s not in the slightest contemporary. The performance was awkward and very forced. Of course, he juxtaposed that with a real good choice by Paula, if a predictable one.  David’s going to cruise, of course, but it wasn’t his best night as he didn’t truly connect on any song.

“If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys
“Hit Me Up” by Gia Farrell

The problem with this season is that — outside the How Long will Kristy Lee last subplot — it’s been a very predictable season. We knew Brooke was going to lose, we knew David was going to lose, and now, we kind of now Syesha is going to lose. We know this because from pretty early this season, this was the David vs. David battle. I think the judges sort of convinced themselves of that before the episode, because Syesha didn’t get nearly enough credit for a pretty good night. Alicia Keys was a horribly predictable choice, and “Fever” was merely chosen for its sexified potential. But for not a great choice, I thought Syesha knocked “Hit Me Up” out of the park, showing us some legitimate potential.

David Cook
“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack.
“Dare You to Move” by Switchfoot
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith

When I saw the Roberta Flack choice, I was utterly shocked. But Simon was onto something, as the song allowed David to show off his vocal chops, which will be important in a heads-up battle with Archuleta. Of course, the Switchfoot song was not very good, which raises an important question — why isn’t David hitting on the songs he should be, like Switchfoot and Our Lady Peace? That’s going to be his home base, so he needs to be doing better than that. The third song was predictably very good. Randy called it predictable, but I think that shouldn’t be considered an insult. The point is that we knew when David started the song that he would be fantastic, and he was. Unquestionably the best left.

But the biggest shocker, of course, was Simon putting “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” in the canon as one of the greatest songs of all-time.

WHAP Reviews: The Black Keys, Attack & Release

May 11, 2008

So here’s the story behind Attack & Release, the sixth Black Keys disc in just as many years: originally, it was penned by the band and studio wizard Danger Mouse as a comeback album for R&B legend Ike Turner. But late last year, Turner died before he could lend his voice to the project; so instead of scrapping the album, the Keys recorded the thing themselves in all of two short months. And now, six weeks after its release, Attack stands as much a better tribute to Ike than the best obituary. If he’s rolling over in his grave, it’s ’cause he can’t shake the groove.

For proof, look no further than “Remember When (Side B)” — a chorusless, four-chord stomp that fits thirty seconds of menacing guitar solo into two minutes. It’s the CD’s centerpiece, and the boldest statement that the “attack” side of this album has to offer: “The winter wind smacks you on your cheeks again,” sings Dan Auerbach to a former lover, “Well it stings!”

Ever-prolific and still critically beloved, the Black Keys (made up of just Auerback and drummer Patrick Carney) have now perfected a blue-banner brand of blues so dark and murky that our country’s only other blues duo might as well be called the Whitebread Stripes. Attack & Release is their opus: lyrically inventive, funky and rocking at once, and helmed with just enough of Danger Mouse’s sonic invention that it stands above the rest of their impressive back catalogue — even 2006’s superb Rubber Factory. Just take a listen to standout “So He Won’t Break,” which roughly approximates Cream covering Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.” On its own, the grimy riff isn’t far removed from the Key’s own “All Hands Against His Own” (also from ’06) — but Danger Mouse layers on violinic guitar sweeps and and an eel-slick bassline to turn it into something quite majestic.

Other highlights benefit equally from Danger Mouse’s production and an impressive bound in songwriting skill from Auerbach and Carney. “Psychotic Girl,” a mind-meld of banjo, plucked piano and an eery guitar loop, details a girl whom Don Henley might euphemize as a witchy woman. The one-two punch of “I Got Mine” and “Strange Times,” meanwhile, boasts the swampiest guitar riffs on the album — with “Strange Times” borrowing half from Collective Soul’s “Gel” and half from Black Sabbath. Even “Same Old Thing,” a track that despite its title sounds like nothing the Keys have even tried before, doesn’t seem out of place with its handclaps, pipe flute and tribal percussion. Danger Mouse is smart to paint his production pallette with every color, but smarter still not to overshadow the blues.

Attack & Release‘s softer side, on the other hand, provides some of the prettiest tracks we’ve heard from the Keys yet. Opener “All You Ever Wanted” approaches country western until its final third, when the whole thing collapses into organ-assisted carnival funk. And “Lies,” which finds Auerbach at his most contemplative, is bare-bone blues aided only by a crew of backround singers working their graveyard shift. “I wanna die,” sings Auerbach, clever to pause before delivering the second half of the couplet: “…without pain.” It’s a simple, heartfelt message, and yet another reminder that you don’t need a broken heart to sing the blues — but it sure helps.

So while I’m not one to downcast the Key’s future potential, Attack & Release might very well be the best forty minutes of their career. It’s the only disc you can truly tell apart from the rest of their output, and thank Danger Mouse’s subtle instrumentation for that. So when Auerbach sings the titular line on album closer “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be,” we’re left thinking that maybe that ain’t so bad.


What WHAP’s Listening To

May 9, 2008

Song: “Viva La Vida”
Band: Coldplay
Album: Viva La Vida, or Death And All His Friends (out 6/17 on EMI)

Okay, so we’re not exactly revolutionary here; “Viva” is already a top-ten iTunes download and quickly making its way onto radio playlists everywhere. But the (potential) lead single from Coldplay’s new disc — preceded possibly by “Violet Hill, which more than 2 million fans downloaded for free last week — is a fantastic song. Incessant strings, pulsating drums and a spare piano part make up the Brian Eno-helmed track, and lyrics about ruling the world or something top it all off. I’m also loving the song-ending, U2-esque call and response yells.