Friday, March 26, 2004

DVD: The choice of a 'Seinfeld' generation

—Originally published 3.26.04

I'm in love, and its initials are D-V-D.

Seriously, what's not to like about these little discs? This is the best invention since frozen pizza.

Although they debuted in 1997, I didn't buy my DVD player until 2001 -- and it's already out of date. Nevertheless, when wandering the movie aisles at Best Buy, I can't help myself. In less than three years, I own more DVDs than I could hope to watch in any reasonable amount of time. Several on the shelf aren't even unwrapped; even more were opened simply to check out the packaging but have yet to actually make it into the player.

Still, it's nice knowing they're there.

For those of you (like one of my unfortunate colleagues) who haven't yet seen the light, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? You can buy a player now for $30. Thirty bucks! For the cost of a nice meal, you can open the door to a realm of unparalleled home theater delight. Plus, the price of individual discs is dropping all the time, as stores use them as loss-leaders to sucker you into buying other things like surround-sound systems (a must) and widescreen televisions. It's to the point where I'd rather buy a DVD than rent one (hence the unwatched movies).

Besides the obvious high quality picture and sound DVDs provide, several other bonus features are essential for any film fan. Most important are the audio commentaries, which typically allow any mix of directors, producers, writers and actors to discuss their film while watching it, then lay that track over top of the film's dialogue.

I can't remember ever watching a movie all the way through with the commentary on. However, I constantly flip over to the track when I come to a point in a film I don't understand; usually, there's an explanation.

For instance, while watching "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" a couple months ago, I backed the movie up after it ended to catch the screenwriters' thoughts on the final few scenes. I was pleasantly surprised to listen as they continued to talk well on into the credits about all the back story they came up with in their heads that obviously didn't make it into the movie. It provided yet another reason why "Pirates" was a rare Hollywood creature -- an action/adventure movie with character depth.

Thus I am drooling over the insights to be gained from the eventual DVD release of television's greatest sitcom -- "Seinfeld," of course. Can you imagine what those tracks would sound like, provided the finicky cast actually records a few?

Now that the original "Star Wars" trilogy is slated to hit DVD this fall, I would argue "Seinfeld" is the most-anticipated release in the entire industry without an official in-store date. (There is an online DVD petition -- if you'd like to add your name to the 34,000 already on the list, go to

The last I heard, talk about "Seinfeld" on DVD was still nebulous, sometime before Christmas this year. There's no official word, though, which doesn't surprise me considering how anal Jerry probably is about the entire procedure. Plus, Jason Alexander (who played George Costanza) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine Benes) said they may not participate because they're unhappy with their slice of the merchandising pie. I just hope it doesn't take 10 years to get nine seasons out on DVD.

When/if they do hit the shelves, here's a few features I'm hoping to see:

• Audio commentaries, obviously, for at least a few of the best episodes. I don't see them discussing every show, like the cast and crew of "The Simpsons" did for the first three seasons of that glorious series.

• A gag reel. If you've seen the highlight shows, at the end there are just a few bloopers and they are hysterical. I could watch an entire disc of outtakes, but that's probably outside the realm of possibilities.

• Deleted/alternate scenes. By now, I know the shows so well, it would be nice to see what wasn't included.

Speaking of, that's another great example of why I'm dying for "Seinfeld" on DVD: I cannot stand watching the episodes in syndication. Have you ever noticed the shows are trimmed? In order to jam in a few more commercials, several lines/jokes are edited out of each and every episode. My tapes from the initial NBC airings are wearing out, so I need the originals preserved for posterity.

(Another plus for DVD owners, by the way -- durability. As long as you don't treat them like drink coasters, these discs will last a long, long, long time.)

For those (like me) with an impatient hankering for "Seinfeld" on DVD, I offer up the next best thing: The first season of Larry David's "Curb your Enthusiasm," available in a Best Buy near you. David is the co-creator of "Seinfeld" who left after Season 8 (much to the show's detriment). He now has a show on HBO.

The series follows David, playing himself, as he loafs from one bad situation into another -- usually caused by his big mouth. The show is mostly improvisation, and it really does feel like a really, really funny documentary of the oddball's life.

While not as good as "Seinfeld" (some of the setups are a tad too predictable), "Enthusiasm" has several spots of absolute hilarity. David just can't help being funny -- to look at him is to laugh. Plus, there are "Seinfeld" references all over the place, including a guest spot by Louis-Dreyfus.

Just remember, however, this is HBO, not NBC. There are no euphemisms like "master of his domain" -- "Enthusiasm" is definitely TV-MA. The first season is relatively tame on the whole, but one episode ("Porno Gil") relishes a little too much in the pay-cable network's "artistic freedom."

Consider yourself warned.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Britney is hazardous to your (musical) health

—Originally published 3.19.04

Please don't tell anyone, but I kinda, sorta think that Britney Spears song "Toxic" is, well ... catchy.

Then again, why shouldn't I? It's essentially a commercial jingle, only instead of shilling Pepsi, Spears is trying to resuscitate a flagging career. Ms. (or is it Mrs.?) I'm a Woman grabs headlines these days just for being Britney Spears (kissing Madonna, getting married, having sex, etc.) -- which have nothing to do with anything she's actually produced.

Thus it's disturbing "Toxic" hit No. 9 this week on Billboard's Hot 100. If this is what passes for tops of the pops, who in the world are we going to induct into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25 years from now?

It's probably inaccurate to even label "Toxic" a Spears song, though, because she had very little -- if anything -- to do with its creation. The list of "collaborators" on her latest album, "In the Zone," is a mile long. And while Spears talks all the time about her "writing," I wonder how much of her actual input ends up in the final product. (In a Rolling Stone interview last year, she couldn't remember the working title for a song Moby contributed to her album.)

And beyond that, Spears just flat-out cannot sing. Think back to all her hits you've heard: Can you remember what her real voice sounds like? No. The aforementioned army of producers (intelligently) buries her mediocre vocals behind layers of backup singers and techno wizardry. Elvis Presley and The Beatles are the two most overrated pop acts of all time, but at least they could sing.

I'm going to stop the Spears rant here, because far be it from me to keep a young woman from selling her body -- I mean, soul -- no, wait, I mean voice -- to make a buck. More power to her, but I'm not buying.

Just to show I'm not a total curmudgeon, however, I scanned through my CDs and picked out some of my favorite female artists for your listening pleasure:

• PJ Harvey -- Unquestionably my all-time favorite, Ms. Polly Jean rocks out like no other woman I've ever heard. Her voice shifts from beautiful to powerful to ear-splitting at a moment's notice, and her minimalist guitar riffs are a perfect complement. She is without question the best rock artist you've never heard of. Recommended listening: 2000's "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea."

• Janis Joplin -- Speaking of hall of famers, everyone knows this tragic story. Drug abuse led to her untimely death, but while she lasted, Joplin was fabulous. Recommended listening: Any of her "essential" or "greatest hits" collections are a good starting point.

• Meg White -- She's not a great singer and definitely not a great drummer, but without her, there would be no White Stripes. Her beats, though simple, really aren't bad and they balance out bandmate Jack White's frantic guitar to form one of my favorite bands. Recommended listening: 2003's "Elephant" is her best work yet behind the set. Plus, she takes the mic for "In the Cold, Cold, Night."

-- Sleater-Kinney -- I was late to this party, just coming across the female punk trio last summer when they opened for Pearl Jam. I now have all but one of their albums. S-K's piercing vocals usually makes this a love-'em-or-hate-'em situation. Recommended listening: Although it's the critics' least favorite, 2000's "All Hands on the Bad One" is the most "mainstream" of the group's albums and a good place to start.

-- Lucinda Williams -- This phenomenal talent provides a mix of rock, blues and country that coalesces into simply stellar work. Get rid of your Sheryl Crow CDs and start listening to a far superior artist of the same ilk. Recommended listening: The 1998 classic "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."

• Macy Gray -- History may judge her a one-hit wonder, but there's a lot more to this soul singer with the sandpaper voice than "I Try." She refreshingly blends hip-hop with Motown to create a sound unlike anything else you'll hear in the genre. Recommended listening: Her 1997 debut "On How Life Is."

• Beyonce -- A pop star with actual talent. You may be sick of hearing her on the radio and seeing her on TV (that I can't imagine), but she's everything Spears pretends to be and more. It's still too poppy for my taste, but Beyonce's the best of the bunch, hands down. Recommended listening: Last year's "Dangerously in Love," for the five people that don't own it already.

• And for some local flavor, go see Lives of Reily tonight at 6:30 in The Alley. Brooke Lundy Reily and her husband, Gavin, have real rock and roll chops. Recommended listening: Their 2003 self-titled debut album, recorded in the living room of their Aiken home.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Don't let 'Alias' slip by unnoticed

—Originally published 3.12.04

Give yourself a treat and watch ABC's "Alias" for the rest of this season.

The network is running new episodes every Sunday at 9 p.m. through May, so for the unfortunate uninitiated, there won't be a better time to catch up with one of television's best series.

A lot of you probably don't even know what "Alias" is, though, since ABC has done such a horrendous job of marketing what it fails to see as its best product. Compared to promos for ridiculous shows like "The Bachelor" or "Threat Matrix," "Alias" gets little or no publicity, despite effervescent reviews from TV critics nationwide.

ABC has botched its handling of the show, starting with last year's post-Super Bowl episode. This turning point in the series was one of the best hours of television I've ever seen -- unfortunately, no one else did because it didn't start until 11 p.m., 45 minutes after an unbearably boring game.

And don't get me started on the DVDs -- releasing seasons 1 and 2 within a few months of each other last fall was not the most brilliant of moves. Instead of releasing both during the third season, ABC should have followed Fox's game plan with "24." By releasing the first season of that groundbreaking show on disc only a few months after it wrapped in May 2002, newbies had a chance to catch up before Season 2.

As a result, "24" saw a huge ratings bump that fall.

At this rate, ABC seems to care little about its best program, and I'll be surprised if "Alias" lasts beyond next season.

Why, then, should you bother? Oh, let me count the ways.

First off, "Alias" stars the resplendent Jennifer Garner, who's turned into an Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated superstar because of her ability to showcase action and emotional depth, making both look convincing. She plays Special Agent Sydney Bristow, who began her career with the CIA working as a double-agent inside a terrorist organization called The Alliance -- and all the while going to grad school.

Working with her despondent father, Jack Bristow (Victor Garber, the class of a fine cast), also a CIA double-agent, her handler/lover, CIA agent Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), and her mother Irina Derevko (played with exquisite intensity by Lena Olin), a former Russian terrorist who turned herself into the CIA, Sydney finally brought down the Alliance during the aforementioned Super Bowl episode.

Unfortunately for Sydney, all her efforts only helped the one man she hates the most -- Arvin Sloane (a perfectly smarmy Ron Rivkin), who murdered Sydney's fiancé -- accomplish his nefarious plans. He allowed Syd to destroy the Alliance just so he could pick up the pieces and become the world's most powerful terrorist. Ms. Bristow spent the remainder of Season 2 battling him, only to be shot and nearly killed in a spectacular two-hour finale.

When she woke up, at the beginning of Season 3, it was two years later. Sloane, apparently, turned over a new leaf and became a humanitarian, her mother went back into hiding, and Vaughn married NSC agent Lauren Reed (Melissa George). Reed, we recently discovered, is a double-agent for The Covenant, the new terrorist power in the world that held Syd captive for those missing two years.

So, you got all that? Don't worry, it's not required to enjoy this show.

As you can glean from this synopsis, "Alias" is as complicated as anything you'll ever see on TV. (I haven't even mentioned the Rimbaldi mythology, which serves as the series' overarching thematic glue.) But series creator/writer J.J. Abrams probably learned from other conspiracy-theory shows -- namely "The X-Files" -- and doesn't allow a ton of plotlines to dangle around for long, choosing instead to deliver payoff after payoff. Sure, the story is far-fetched, but the actors take the material seriously, making "Alias" way better than the typical James Bond movie. Every answer leads to another (usually bigger) question, but at least you feel like you're getting somewhere.

Which brings us back to the next two months. "Alias" provides high-quality entertainment week in and week out -- an anomaly these days -- and over the past two and a half years, the show has offered up some of the best individual episodes I've ever seen anywhere on the dial. There's no reason to believe the next several weeks won't knock my socks off again.

So tape "The Sopranos" and watch "Alias" a few weeks -- you won't be disappointed.

For an "Alias" episode guide, visit

Friday, March 05, 2004

'Passion' sheds light on Hollywood, media bias

—Originally published 3.5.04

My father's been telling me about this for years, but over the last week, just a month shy of my 25th birthday, I finally experienced the rampant anti-Christian bias in Hollywood and much of the mainstream media.

For its opening-day coverage of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," The Associated Press used this quotation from some genius in Charlotte: "It sort of felt like you were coming to watch an execution."

No, really?

The article went on to quote leaders from both the Anti-Defamation League and the Black Panthers, but included no strong comments from the Christian community, which championed the film.

Here is the story's sole "positive" statement regarding "The Passion," if you define "positive" as "not completely and utterly negative":

"It's a little bit more brutal than you would think," said a sobbing Kim Galbreath, 29, in the Dallas suburb of Plano. "I mean, there were times when you felt like it was too much. But I dare anybody not to believe after watching it."

And that was just one story. Go check out, which tracks critics' reactions to films, and look up "The Passion." It received a middling 54 percent rating to qualify as "rotten;" apparently, only Roger Ebert and I gave the film its deserved four stars.

By comparison, Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill: Vol. 1," also a blood-fest, received an 83 percent "fresh" rating when it was released last year. Why the difference? Simple: Most national critics refuse to meet Gibson, a devout Catholic, at the same artistic plateau they meet Tarantino, a video store clerk-turned-auteur.

In his review of "The Passion," Ebert said he judges movies based on what he believes the filmmakers are attempting to do, and thus gave Gibson a top rating for making "graphic and inescapable the price that Jesus paid (as Christians believe) when he died for our sins." Ebert also gave Tarantino four stars for accomplishing his own goal with "Kill Bill": Elevating pulp titillation to an artistic level.

By and large, critics agreed with the latter. Go read the quotations on -- most of the positive reviews go something like, "Yes, 'Kill Bill' is extremely violent, but it's done so well, who cares?"

Looking deeper into Tarantino's resume, I would put the basement rape in 1994's "Pulp Fiction" on the list of all-time top five disturbing scenes; that film was nevertheless nominated for an Academy Award despite a healthy dose of violence and gore. I doubt "Passion" will receive the same treatment.

And speaking of the Academy, Charlize Theron just won an Oscar for playing a serial killer in "Monster," a performance praised on high by critics across the board. You hear few complaints about her accurate portrayal of brutal violence. Again, look no further than the glowing remarks on

As to "The Passion's" -- and Gibson's -- supposed anti-Semitism: Jews don't come off looking bad in this movie, politicians do. The anti-Semitic "caricatures" trotted out by most pundits were members of the Sanhedrin, the high priests of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus' crucifixion.

What the critics don't mention is the one member of the council who is ousted for calling the proceedings the sham they were. Nor do they talk about Simon, a Jew, who carries Jesus' cross to Golgotha. Nor do they talk about Mary, a Jew, who stands by her son throughout, or the many other Jewish people pictured weeping at Jesus' torture and death. The criticisms were already piled high well before anyone ever saw "The Passion," and these people simply looked for instances to fill in their blanks, rather than evaluating the entire picture.

Case in point, the critics rail against the filmmaker's treatment of Pontius Pilate, claiming Gibson gave the Roman governor more depth and sympathy than the Jewish leaders.

On the contrary, Pilate comes off looking worse than the Sanhedrin.

The Jewish priests were responding to what they believed to be Jesus' blasphemy. Everything they held dear was being shaken to its foundation by this son of a carpenter claiming to be God and man at the same time.

Pilate, on the other hand, condemned a man to death purely for political reasons. When it meant standing up for what he knew to be right, he first tried appeasement (the flogging), then cowardice. As Gibson said in a recent interview, Pilate chose evil in the face of good. There is no sympathy in the filmmaker's treatment.

And in a final example of hypocrisy, "Passion" is the type of independent film celebrated in Hollywood as the end-all-be-all. Gibson had to fight, scratch and claw for its existence and his film may end up as the greatest indie hit of all time, bypassing movies like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "The Blair Witch Project." If "The Passion" had someone other than a devout Catholic at the helm -- say, Michael Moore, for example -- the Sundance/Cannes film festival crowd would be all over this movie.

Instead, Gibson, a celebrated member of Hollywood for two decades, was turned on in a New York minute -- and all he did was finally stand up for his Christian beliefs.

But at the end of the day, Christians stuck it to Hollywood right where Tinseltown felt it the most -- at the box office, to the tune of $125.2 million in just five days.

And counting.