Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mad Hatter math

Another trailer for Tim Burton's interpretation of "Alice in Wonderland" has been released. It has the potential to be another masterpiece for Burton, but what I really want to discuss is Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter. Specifically, this equation:

Madonna +

Elijah Wood = 

Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter

Tell me I'm wrong.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Best of the Aughts: Top 10 TV shows

Admittedly, I'm still catching up on some of the great TV series of the decade (I've yet to watch "The Sopranos," "The Wire" and "Mad Men," for starters), but of the shows I did watch, here are the top 10.

(Note: Shows listed in chronological order)

The Daily Show (1996-present)
I will always remember the 2000 presidential election for two reasons: 1. the "too close to call" race and the weeks of fallout and 2. Indecision 2000 coverage on "The Daily Show." The day after the election, the first thing host Jon Stewart said was, "I know we called it Indecision 2000, but we were joking!" Nine years later, Stewart and his brilliant team of writers and "reporters" are still bringing us the news of the day in a way no one else can. Like it or not, they have become a voice of a generation who is skeptical of the mainstream media, and that's just fine with me.

South Park (1997-present)
Long gone are the days of Mr. Hanky and Chef. In their stead, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone use their foul-mouthed fourth-graders to skewer everything imaginable: Scientology, Bono, "Family Guy," Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, Nintendo Wii, and on and on. There are no sacred cows. And because their animation is so bare-bones and each episode takes relatively little time to produce, their gags are timely and rarely miss the hilarity mark. In a word, the show and its creators are audacious. P.S. is brilliant.

The Office (BBC version, 2001-2003; NBC version, 2005-present)
The age of awkward is upon us, and Ricky Gervais is king (I guess that makes Steve Carell a prince?). The fake documentary of a paper company and its buffoon boss helped make cringe-worthy, squirm-in-your-seat awkwardness insanely hilarious. The NBC version has come into its own, too, relying more and more on its stellar ensemble cast while still allowing Carell to do what he does best.

The Shield (2002-2008)
I'm only three seasons into this series, and already I can say this is one of the best shows ever, and not just of the aughts. It's as if the creators took every other cop drama and cranked the volume up to a Spinal Tap-esque 11. All of the characters are compelling, the storylines are as gritty as they come, and rarely does it fall into the comfort of procedural drama cliches. I can't wait to see what happens to Vic Mackey and Co. because my sources tell me the series finale is quite satisfying.

Arrested Development (2003-2006)
Oh, Bluth family, you left us far too soon. Thankfully, you gave us 43 episodes to watch over and over again, gleaning new nuggets of humor each time. Best. TV comedy. Ever.

Lost (2004-present)
The story of plane crash castaways turned into a real sci-fi mind-bender, which caused some fans of the early seasons to head for the hills. But despite its trippy time-travel element, the show has been a study in how to develop characters. We know where they've come from, we know what drives them, and yet, they still manage to drive us crazy with their decisions. As the final season approaches, there are so many questions yet to be answered. I have no idea how it's going to end, but I've certainly enjoyed the ride.

Project Runway (2004-present)
Bravo brought us reality TV at its finest: Contestants with actual talent, high-tension challenges, cattiness galore and the always amazing Tim Gunn. It has given the world a bevy of made-for-TV personalities (i.e. Austin Scarlett, Santino Rice, Christian Siriano and Chris March), catchphrases ("make it work!" "fierce!") and Heidi Klum outfits.  Sure, the series has had its low points (season 5, anyone?), but whether or not you know anything about fashion, it's a joy to watch the designers put outfits together in such a short amount of time. Here's hoping that for season 7, which begins airing in January, the producers will bring back the reunion show. Pure gold.

Friday Night Lights (2006-present)
And yet again, no Emmy or Golden Globe love for this high school football series that isn't really about high school football. Seriously, coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tammy (Connie Britton) are the most realistic married couple on TV, hands down. Throw in the cavalcade of extremely attractive and talented young stars (though, most are nowhere near high school age anymore), dynamite writing and a whole lot of heart, and you have a championship-caliber team, er, show.

Dexter (2006-present)
Watching an episode of "Dexter" is a lot of work. Why? Because you're constantly faced with moral conundrums and intense situations. Is it right to be rooting for a serial killer? Man, I hope he doesn't get caught! But the work is worth it; it's the kind of show that keeps you coming back for more.

30 Rock (2006-present)
Tina Fey is my idol. Alec Baldwin has only gotten better with age. Jack McBrayer is a comic genius (talk about another snub; can we get some awards-show love for Kenneth the Page?). Endlessly quotable, self-aware and irreverent, it's the best comedy on TV today. Oh, and it gave us "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" -- need I say more?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

War of the Worlds

For about the 10th time this weekend, Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" is on TNT. I know it has Scientology-era Tom Cruise in it, and I know it's not the greatest movie of all time, but seeing it in the theater was a great movie-going experience. I recall literally being on the edge of my seat and completely distraught during the scene where Ray (Cruise) and his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) get into an altercation with a mob of pedestrians who want to take their minivan -- all while daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is trapped in the back seat. So intense. And man, can Dakota Fanning scream.

Speaking of Justin Chatwin, I'm surprised that kid's career didn't take off after this movie. He was in one episode of "Lost" (a John Locke flashback episode, "Further Instructions," from season three) and had a starring role in the fantasy thriller "The Invisible," but otherwise hasn't done much. And according to IMDb, he's studying commerce at the University of British Columbia. Good on you, buddy.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Speaking of "Deathly Hallows" ...

The first teaser trailer for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" is out there. It can be found at the end of a short featurette on the "Half-Blood Prince" DVD/Blu-ray, which was released today, or you can watch it right here.

Best of the Aughts: Top 10 books

(Note: Books listed in chronological order)

"Me Talk Pretty One Day," David Sedaris (2000)
No one tells a better personal anecdote than David Sedaris. Perhaps that's because he has so many outrageous personal anecdotes to tell -- from tales of his midget guitar teacher to his often strange places of employment and ultimately his move to Paris and struggle to learn French. The only thing better than reading the book is listening to the audiobook, narrated by Sedaris in his distinctively funny voice (as often heard on NPR).

"The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference," Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
Gladwell examines the idea of "social epidemics," i.e. how fashion trends start or how new products grow in popularity. It begs the question: Are you a connector, a maven or a salesman? (I'm a maven, FYI.) It's not just a book for business-minded folk, it's a fascinating look at how we interact with each other to make the world go 'round.

"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," J.K. Rowling (2000)
The fourth book completely changed the game for the Harry Potter series. Clocking in almost 300 pages longer than "Prisoner of Azkaban," it is also much darker -- the boy wizard is dealing with Death Eaters and witnessing a murder -- and provides more character depth than its predecessors. With "Goblet of Fire," the series officially made the transition from being called "children's books" to just "books."

"The DaVinci Code," Dan Brown (2003)
Say what you will about the subject matter, but this novel is a freaking page-turner. And it captivated the world while spending more than two years on the New York Times best-seller list. I'm not embarrassed to say that I own one of the 80 million copies sold.

"The Kite Runner," Khaled Hosseini (2003)
"You will cry," my friend told me when she lent me this book. I made it all the way to the end of this heart-wrenching novel about boyhood friends from two different social classes in Kabul without a tear. But when I finished it, I closed the book and sobbed for about 10 minutes (on a plane, no less). It's an educational account of Afghanistan's political turmoil, but it's also a story of regret, of redemption and of hope, with characters so real that sometimes it's easy to forget that it's a work of fiction.

"Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs," Chuck Klosterman (2003)
I kneel at the church of pop culture, and Chuck Klosterman is my messiah. Whether he's breaking down Zack Morris' relationship with Kelly Kapowski or Pamela Anderson's relationship with America, Klosterman's witty, engaging style will keep you laughing and thinking. And whether or not you agree with his take on Lloyd Dobler, you will most certainly agree that it's a blast to even have a take on Lloyd Dobler.

"America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction," Jon Stewart (2004)
The fake-news brains behind "The Daily Show" brought us this fake text book, complete with discussion questions and classroom activities aimed at skewering American politics. It hits solidly below the belt with its spot-on irreverence and cheekiness. Here's hoping they put together "America: The Sequel."

"The Road," Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Grim, dark and stripped down in both its subject matter and writing style, this is a post-apocalyptic tale of a man's journey with his son over a desecrated landscape. If you're looking for a happy ending, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a book to help you change the way you think about the future and about mankind, read "The Road."

"One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding," Rebecca Mead (2007)
The American wedding is a multi-billion dollar industry. Why? And how did it get that way? Rebecca Mead examines it by going far and wide -- to a dress factory in China, to a wedding planner conference in New York, to the wedding capitol of the south (Gatlinburg, Tenn.) -- to find some answers. What she discovers is astounding. My husband actually gave me this book after we got engaged and told me to read it while planning our wedding. It helped shape some of the things we did and didn't do for our "one perfect day." It's a must-read for anyone who is getting married.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," J.K. Rowling (2007)
I literally cannot remember being so excited to read a book. The final installment of Rowling's literary masterpiece (seriously, won't there be college courses dedicated to it?) ties everything together in a most satisfactory way. It lived up to the hype, which itself is an incredible feat.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Best of the Aughts: Top 10 albums

While compiling this list, I realized just how far removed I am from "album culture." What I mean is, it's become increasingly rare that I will listen to an album from beginning to end and enjoy just about every song on it -- and then continue listening to it all the way through. With that in mind, I give you my top 10 of the 2000s (listed in chronological order):

"Discovery," Daft Punk (2001)
Oddly enough, the first time I heard a cut from this album was in an Old Navy. True story. And then I had "One More Time" stuck in my head for about a week until I figured out the band's name (hey, it was 2001, and I wasn't nearly as Internet savvy). It was techno, but it wasn't. It was dance music like I'd never heard before, with some slower, grooving tracks mixed in to give listeners a breather. And years later, Kanye West collaborated with Daft Punk on "Stronger," thus reestablishing interest in the duo's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and reminding me how well the album has held up.

"Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," The Flaming Lips (2002)
All at once bizarre and beautiful, there's never been another album quite like this one. Just look at the name -- and the two title songs (here's "Part 1," which I prefer to "Part 2"). Though perhaps overproduced at times, these 11 songs fit together and make for easy re-listening. And despite its commercialization and over-use in cheesy movies, "Do You Realize??" still strikes an emotional chord.

"A Rush of Blood to the Head," Coldplay (2002)
Part of me is embarrassed to admit how much I really love this one. It has become unpopular to like Coldplay simply because, well, they're so popular. But top to bottom, "A Rush of Blood to the Head" has few weak spots. The omnipresent "Clocks" convinced me to buy the album, but it's not even the best track. The pounding beat of "Politik" had me hooked from the opening note, "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face" keeps my toes tapping, "The Scientist" evokes feelings of yearning, and the title track falls somewhere in between.

"Franz Ferdinand," Franz Ferdinand (2004)
It usually doesn't bode well for a band when its best song is the song that made it famous. But even though "Take Me Out" remains Franz Ferdinand's magnum opus (with a kick-ass video, to boot), the rest of their eponymous debut is really damn good, too. Surf guitar-esque riffs, playful lyrics and toe-tapping beats populate nearly every track. Alex Kapranos is a stellar front man with an often soothing voice and dynamic guitar work, best on display in "40' " and "Come on Home." About my only complaint about this album is its brevity: 11 songs and only 38 minutes. But in this case, less certainly is more.
Note: When I bought this album from iTunes in September 2004, the track "This Fffire" did not come with it. About two months later, I was listening to the album in a friend's car, and that song came on and I was quite perplexed. I went back to iTunes and discovered the song had been added. I still don't know what was up with that.

"Funeral," The Arcade Fire (2004)
Admittedly, I was a little late to the party on this album. But better late than never, right? The title was derived as many of the band members lost family members while they were recording; accordingly, the songs bare a somber tone both in their lyrics and arrangements. But ultimately, rather than feeling sad, the songs give me a feeling of hope, of empowerment, a feeling that while things could be bad now, they're going to get better. And yet again, I'm amazed by the power of music.

"Alright, Still," Lily Allen (2006)
Lily Allen gave pop music a punch in the face with her cheeky, playful debut release and her what-you-see-is-what-you-get attitude. (She drops F-bombs so naturally in her adorable British voice that half the time you don't notice the cuss words are there.) Allen's music falls somewhere between Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears, and I just can't help but love it. From the first single ("Smile") to a snarky ode to her hometown ("LDN") to a tribute to her pot-smoking baby brother ("Alfie"), the beats keep your head bobbing and the lyrics put a devilish grin on your face.

"Emotionalism," The Avett Brothers (2007)
My first taste of the brilliant brothers from North Carolina was at a live show in Newport, Ky., in May 2007, about two weeks after this album was released. What an introduction! Their sound is derived from soaring vocal harmonies by brothers Seth and Scott Avett -- who also primarily play guitar and banjo, respectively -- plucky upright bass lines and violin arrangements. Their rockin' bluegrass style is infectious and unique, and "Emotionalism" combines upbeat and dance-worthy tracks ("Paranoia in B Major," "Will You Return?" and "Pretty Girl from San Diego") with some of their most heartfelt ballads ("The Weight of Lies," "Ballad of Love and Hate" and "Living of Love").
Note: Notice the date of the embedded video: May 13, 2007, about two weeks before my first Avett show and the week "Emotionalism" was released. Great find!

"Once," Original Motional Picture Soundtrack (2007)
Does this count? Well, it's my list and I say it does. And while most of the songs are even better when taken in as part of this extraordinary film, they stand up on their own perfectly well, too. Glen Hansard's style of songwriting, singing and guitar-playing feel so personal that it's as if he's singing directly to you. Combined with the irresistible adorability of Marketa Irglova (they have since formed the group the Swell Season), we're hit with an unstoppable force of musical nature. The duo won an Oscar for "Falling Slowly," but basically every song on here is Oscar-worthy (or at least, far better than the usual Disney-flick fare paraded in front of Academy voters each year). You want heartbreaking? Try "Lies." You want catchy-cute? Here's "Fallen from the Sky." You want crescendo? Listen to "When Your Mind's Made Up." And after you listen to this album, perhaps, like me, you'll see that it's much more than a movie soundtrack.

"Dwell," The Envy Corps (2008)
Likely the one album and band on this list that you've never heard of. They're a quartet from Ames, Iowa (I'd compare their sound to Radiohead or Modest Mouse), and "Dwell" was their first major label release, though the album is populated with songs from previous EPs and their indie-label release, "Soviet Reunion" (which, according to Wikipedia, is really rare, so I'd better hang on tight to my copy). The Envy Corps gives us an upbeat song about Sylvia Plath ("Sylvia [The Beekeeper]"), catchy bass lines ("Story Problem," embedded above) and memorable guitar chords ("Wires & Wool"). I keep waiting for this band to blow up (as the kids are saying these days), but somehow they keep flying under the radar. They have spent a lot of time touring and recording in Europe, while always returning to the states for shows at places like the Iowa State Fair and the Vaudeville Mews in Des Moines, where I first saw them perform a five-song set in 2005.
Other fun facts: The Envy Corps opened for the Killers on a few of their 2006 tour dates, their song "Story Problem" was on the "Run Fatboy Run" soundtrack, and my husband and I used the song "Rhinemaidens" in our wedding slideshow. 

"Incredibad," The Lonely Island (2009)
I probably could have included this on my top five comedy album list, but it's not stand-up and most of the songs are incredibly catchy in addition to being incredibly hilarious. While Andy Samberg is the most well-known of the comic trio, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone bring plenty to the table, most notably with their work on "We Like Sportz" (a follow up to the "Just 2 Guyz" video they made before "SNL" rocketed them to fame). Don't forget that "Lazy Sunday," "D--k in a Box," and "I'm on a Boat" became three of the most talked-about viral videos since the advent of Youtube for a reason.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Best of the Aughts: Top 5 comedy albums

(Note: Albums listed in chronological order. Also, some of these clips are NSFW, so throw on some headphones.)

"Killin' Them Softly," Dave Chappelle (2000)
OK, right off the bat, there could be some controversy because this technically was an HBO special. However, I feel morally obligated to include it because that's just how hilarious and influential it was/is. It was the precursor to the comedian's groundbreaking and unfortunately short-lived "Chappelle's Show" and helped launch him into the ranks of other superstar black comics like Chris Rock.
Featured clip: Dave speaks the truth on what "Sesame Street" is really teaching our children.

"Shut Up You F'ing Baby," David Cross (2002)
You get not one but two discs of ranting, raving and ridiculous anecdotes from half of the "Mr. Show" braintrust and the man who brought Tobias Funke to life. He spends a solid chunk of time talking about New York City, and specifically what it was like in NYC in the days and weeks immediately following 9/11. Believe me when I say that you won't even feel bad about laughing about post-9/11 jokes because his stories come from a genuine place and seem to hit on every chord.
Featured clip: David lets us know how he feels about morning radio DJs.

"Conversations with Inanimate Objects," Gary Gulman (2004)
In 2004, I went to see a "Tourgasm" stop in Ames, Iowa. (Yeah, yeah, don't judge.) The headliner was Dane Cook, but his opener, a 6-foot-6 Jewish dude who some people might remember from "Last Comic Standing," absolutely blew the doors off Stephens Auditorium. The next day, I ordered this CD online and began spreading it to the masses. I think he cusses once in the entire 60 minutes -- a rare feat these days -- and riffs on sugar cookies, Pepsi and walruses, among others. Also, Gary Gulman is single-handedly responsible for my obsession with anthropomorphizing everything in sight.
Featured clip: Gary picks a fight with sugar cookies.

"Feelin' Kinda Patton," Patton Oswalt (2004)
Before he voiced Remy in "Ratatouille," Oswalt voiced his opinions on G.W. Bush and Stella Dora Breakfast Treats in this acidically addictive set. Hands down, he comes up with the best analogies of any comedian -- most of which are definitely NSFW.
Featured clip: Patton drops some midget knowledge.

"My Secret Public Journal Live," Mike Birbiglia (2007)
He's pudgy and awkward -- or pawkward, as he says -- and the man knows how to tell a good story. He named this CD after his blog, Mike Birbiglia's Secret Public Journal, which itself is must-read material. A follow-up to the also hilarious "Two Drink Mike," Birbiglia seems to have come into his own as a storyteller with this set that details anecdotes ranging from his childhood to his burgeoning stand-up career.
Featured clip: Mike takes us on a trip down memory lane to Old Mill Pond.

Best of the Aughts (?)

With only 29 days left in 2009, I've got some work to do. Because in addition to the usual year-end "best of" lists, I need to put together "best of" lists for the decade with no set name. (Is it the Aughts? The 2000s? A little help, please.)

In the coming weeks, I'm going to attempt to put together various and sundry "best of" lists, pertaining to movies, music, TV, etc. And with that, I shall retire to my study with only a monocle, IMDb, Maggie's Master Movie List and a bag of Sun Chips to guide me. Wish me luck.