Friday, April 30, 2004

'Jones' isn't genius, but it's worth a shot

—Originally published 4.30.04

While filming "The Passion of the Christ," Jim Caviezel was accidentally whipped, suffered a separated shoulder and was struck by lightning.

No wonder he didn't feel like doing another movie right away.

But after reading about legendary golfer Bobby Jones, he decided it was time to come down from the cross and hit the links.

It was the right choice.

Caviezel's humble charm shines through in the title role of "Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius," a biopic of the only golfer to win all four major tournaments in the same year for a Grand Slam -- as an amateur, no less.

Although lacking in overall star power, "Bobby Jones" is reminiscent of last year's Oscar-nominated "Seabiscuit" in both subject matter and style. Like the famous Depression-era horse, Jones was a sickly youth who, growing up in the early 20th century, no one expected would be strong enough for any kind of athletic competition.

The film unfolds in essentially chronological order, starting with Jones as a boy who, too weak to play baseball, falls in love with golf and goes on to shock the world with his skill.

There is, of course, a lot of golf in this movie, and it's done convincingly. Before a screening earlier this month in Augusta, Caviezel (who played college basketball at Washington State) noted how much he hates sports movies where the actors' athletic flaws are painfully obvious. There is no such problem with Caviezel's performance.

But the gentleman's game almost takes a backseat to the real heart of the movie -- Jones himself. It's easy to portray a legend as the all-conquering, lovable, infallible hero (and usually the mark of a bad movie). However, director/writer Rowdy Herrington wisely does not shy away from Jones' hot temper and propensity to follow bad shots with strings of profanity. Herrington also gives glimpses into the legend's inner turmoil, namely a fear and downright panic of failure and disappointing others, or his use of alcohol to numb the pain of a brittle body suffering from syringomyelia, a spinal disorder.

"Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius" doesn't do anything new or revolutionary -- it probably won't make your jaw drop. But much like "Seabiscuit," "Jones" is a refreshingly solid film suited for families but lacking Hollywood's typical pandering to that demographic. The dialogue rings true for the most part, the characters are well-developed and the cast makes their roles come alive and transcend a typical sports flick (especially Claire Forlani as Jones' wife, Mary, and Jeremy Northam's turn as flamboyant professional player Walter Hagen).

Maybe it was the magic of watching this film only a few miles away from the course Bobby Jones built, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Grade: B+

Entertainers don't (usually) rock my vote

—Originally published 4.30.04

"Don't hate the player, hate the game," the annoying phrase goes.

When it comes to mixing politics and art, it's hard to figure out exactly where to draw that line.

The first decade of the 21st century is going down as one of the most politically polarizing times in our nation's history, and that divisiveness spills over into the entertainment industry.

Granted, this is nothing new; politics and popular art have a long history together, touching on everything from the Vietnam War to apartheid to abortion to the AIDS epidemic.

Some people are willing to gulp down whatever political stance their favorite actor or musician or writer throws out there and, worse yet, adopt positions based solely on what those megastars put forth.

Others, upon hearing, say, the Dixie Chicks criticize President Bush, boycott all material relating to said artist.

This conundrum crops up all the time. Just 10 days ago, several punk bands got together to release "Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1," a highly-critical compilation of new and unreleased songs from several highly-regarded groups such as Alkaline Trio, Social Distortion and The Ataris. I'm sure there were those who, sporting their "Anybody But Bush Again" T-shirts, ran out to buy the album ASAP, while some Bush supporters probably broke their Sum 41 CDs in half (not missing much there, though).

I've struggled with this issue since I was old enough to understand both artistic content and politics. There is no easy answer, but I find both ends of this spectrum (the slurpers vs. the stoics) unjustified.

It basically comes down to how important a given issue is to you and/or how serious you take your entertainment. I obviously take music, film, etc., very seriously, so I hold the artists I like to very high standards.

As long as those people are producing meaningful work, rarely does an artist's personal life factor into my appreciation (except for your occasional child molester or devil worshipper). It's impossible to know everything about everyone, so I try to balance what comes through the work with what appears on screen or on an album. It's impossible to completely vet every artist -- I'd never watch a movie or listen to a song.

Politics, for me, is not a deal-breaker. No matter who I vote for in November, that person is still a politician and they're all compromised if not downright crooked. My faith in statesmanship at the highest levels is about nil. Instead I'm left looking for the candidate who isn't quite as bad as the other, and that's a sad state of affairs.

In the end, I reconcile my love for musicians on the absolute opposite political rainbow from me with this mentality: Better they're passionate about something than nothing at all. Matter of fact, they better be passionate about something other than just lining their pockets, or I probably won't pay attention in the first place.

Looking at it another way, would I stop being friends with someone just because we differ politically? No. I should want to learn more about their views and try to understand where those friends are coming from. We can agree to disagree but still enjoy each other's company.

Thus, I typically don't go in for these "boycotts" that crop up every once in a while. I skip past "Bushleaguer" -- an inane anti-Bush rant on Pearl Jam's latest album, "Riot Act" -- but count "You Are" a few tracks back as one of the group's most powerful songs. One does not disqualify the other.

I have a problem, though, when artists present their opinions in ways that are beneath their talent. If you have a strong point of view, that's good -- present it with some class and I'll respect you in the morning.

But I get annoyed when Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder assaults a rubber Bush mask onstage or Michael Moore shouts like a fool from the Oscar podium or Toby Keith writes a chest-beating post-9/11 "anthem" or Susan Sarandon screams like a banshee at a pro-choice rally.

That's just moronic, pandering behavior and serves little purpose other than placating sycophants. These are, supposedly, intelligent people, and they should act like it.

To his credit, though, Vedder proved quite prophetic during a show in Seattle on Nov. 6, 2000, just hours before polls opened for the presidential election pitting Bush against then-Vice President Al Gore (with some Ralph Nader thrown in on the side).

"We'll see you at the voting booth tomorrow," he told the rabid crowd that night. "If you don't vote, let that be your epitaph."

Twenty-four hours later, I'm sure there were a lot of people wishing they'd followed that advice.

Friday, April 23, 2004

ClearPlay: Censorhip for the brainless

—Originally published 4.23.04

As a general rule, I don't watch movies aired on television unless it's 4 a.m. and I can't sleep. I can't stand to see a film "edited for content" or chopped up to squeeze in a few more commercials.

Case in point, a few weeks ago some cable station (it may have been USA, but I can't remember now), showed Kevin Smith's "Mallrats." Not his best work, no doubt, but still amusing -- and, of course, full of profanity. Like it or not, cursing is one of Smith's trademarks.

I watched about a half hour, just to see the first scene with lovable foul-mouthed loafs Jay and Silent Bob. After two lines of Jason Mewes' (Jay) dialogue, I promptly turned off the set in utter frustration.

You see, Jay utters so many curse words throughout "Mallrats" (as well as "Clerks," "Dogma," etc.) bleeping him would have left a gaping hole in the soundtrack. So they got some dope to do a horrible Jay impression and overdubbed the dialogue. It was painful.

For this reason, I won't be watching "Sex and the City" in June when reruns of HBO's landmark comedy series start playing on TBS.

I don't know how much of the original "Sex" will make it on to the "superstation," but it certainly won't be everything, even though cable networks like Comedy Central and FX have been stretching the profanity limit for years with series like "South Park," "The Shield" and, more recently, "Chappelle's Show" and "Nip/Tuck." They get away with it because cable is technically a pay-per-view service, but the "decency" lines will be snapped taut quite soon if the FCC has its way.

By no means does this mean profanity = humor. It can get really tiring, especially when writers think cursing is funny in its own right. When used correctly, though, profanity can be powerful -- be it powerfully funny ("The Big Lebowski," "Sex and the City") or powerfully dramatic (if the characters in "Boyz N the Hood" said "shoot" and "fudge" for two hours, that movie would have lost all its authenticity and, thus, meaning).

That's why I was so troubled earlier this month by an Associated Press story about ClearPlay, a company selling DVD players with built-in censor chips that block out "objectionable" material. Viewers can pick from four different categories: violence; sex and nudity; language and "other," which includes explicit drug use. So parents can theoretically pick their particular problem areas and they just -- poof! -- disappear. The DVDs have already been screened by ClearPlay employees who, in their obviously infinite wisdom, mark "objectionable" content and then the players are programmed to match. (Updates are available on a subscription basis from the company's Web site as new DVDs hit the market.)

You can probably guess where these DVD players debuted: Yep, Wal-Mart, morality watchdog of the world. The Wonderful World of Wally maintains one of the most hypocritical policies I've ever encountered with its "edited" CD department: How can a company claim the "moral" highground when it comes to music, then sell R-rated movies one aisle over and posters of scantily-clad supermodels an aisle next to that?

Wal-Mart's appeal to "families" is nauseating. If you don't want subject yourself to the profanity, sex, nudity, violence and generally disreputable human beings in "The Sopranos," THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. If you don't want to listen to 50 Cent because he raps about killing people and abusing women, that's fine, too.

But when Wal-Mart cracks down on music under the banner of "good old American values," but leaves Hollywood essentially alone, that's disingenuous -- the entire thing is better off left to police itself and let buyer beware. If you're going to make Nirvana change a song title on the back cover before stocking what turned out to be a landmark album ("In Utero"), then you should demand David Chase change scenes in his landmark television show before you sell it on DVD.

Well, mission: accomplished, I guess, because now the store offers a DVD player that can do that, too.

Wal-Mart's censorship is really just a tangential subject, however; this whole issue comes back to personal choices -- by both the artists and the consumers. I won't watch edited versions of "The Big Lebowski" or "Sex and the City" or "Boyz N the Hood" because the deletions ruin the overall intentions, impressions and impact of the works. Filmmakers worth a salt don't spend years of their lives painstakingly editing each and every second of a two-hour piece just so people can throw pieces away arbitrarily.

I don't understand people who think it's OK to watch these hacked versions but not the originals. If you don't like the work or the people behind it, fine -- but the message doesn't change with omissions.

If parents want to protect their kids from what they perceive to be harmful material, then they should watch the movies for themselves and decide for themselves if they want to fast-forward through a sex scene or a stabbing or whatever when watching the DVDs with their kids (what a concept).

There is definitely a difference between the content of a 50 Cent album and an episode of "The Sopranos," and it has nothing to do with curse words. Cleaning them out is just pandering to people who are too lazy to engage our culture with their own brains and find the message for themselves.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Nick & Jessica's variety hour: 60 minutes of pain

—Originally published 4.16.04

Thank goodness for VCRs -- especially the fast-forward button.

I knew last Sunday's "The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour" was probably going to be a cringe-fest, but I wanted to give it a fair shot. Hence the tape, so I could skip the more excruciating parts I was sure were coming.

I ended up watching as much as I could stand the next night with a buddy of mine (much to his chagrin). What follows is essentially my running mental commentary while enduring this ... experience.


-- All right, here we go: "The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour," starring Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson's cleavage.

-- Nick has about as much improv skill as I do. He is seriously riding his wife's coattails.

-- Thirty seconds in, and I want desperately to turn this off. Maybe it's because I grew up in the '80s and '90s instead of the '60s and '70s, but I just don't get this whole "variety show" premise.

-- First punch of the fast-forward button to get through this interminable P.I. sketch.

-- WHOA! Push Play! It's Mr. T!

-- Apparently, these days Mr. T will do anything for money. I pity this poor fool.

-- Now we have Jessica and Jewel on-stage together. Is the host mocking her guest? Surely this can't be Ms. Simpson's idea of "serious" delivery?

-- There are way too many audience members voicing their approval. Who are these people?

-- There's K.I.T.T., another of my childhood heroes, cool.

-- Wait, that is not K.I.T.T.'s real voice! This is so pathetic.

-- As Nick and Jessica sing along with K.I.T.T., my buddy repeatedly beats his head with a pillow. "It's less painful," he tells me.

-- Ugh. "The Mickey Mouse Club" bit is even worse. I will never have the last three minutes of my life back.

-- OK, hitting Nick in the head with a bottle over and over is pretty funny.

-- AAAAGGGHHHHHH! Somebody put his shirt back on!!!!

-- Mr. T is back for "10 seconds of awkwardness." I think the total's more like 1,800 at this point.

-- Jessica Simpson is the LAST person who should be taking shots at President Bush for being dumb.

-- Jessica as Dolly Parton: Cleavage-to-the-max outfit No. ... Never mind, I've lost count.

-- It occurs to me Jessica may actually think Kenny Rogers is Nick in disguise. This is now officially the "Revive My Career Variety Show."

-- It takes a special talent, I guess, to be outclassed, outwitted and upstaged by Muppets.

-- Nick in a bunny suit: He, too, will apparently do anything for money. (And what is this "Works Hard for the Money" bit, anyway?)

-- My buddy, a Cincinnati Reds fan, is contemplating a shift in allegiance after Johnny Bench makes an appearance.

-- Jessica's singing "Take My Breath Away," and we have the first appearance of my "corny goosebumps" (you know, when something happens that's so incredibly stupid/cheesy/awful that it causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand on end). Reaching for the fast-forward button ...

-- "I Got You Babe" duet brings the corny goosebumps right back as the show, mercifully, clunks to a close. I'll take the "Beavis & Butt-head" version any day.

-- I never saw "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," but I can't believe it was as bad as this. Bono's probably rolling in his grave.


I know these tidbits are resoundingly negative, but they came right off the pad I had next to me while watching this show. I tried to find something good, but it just wasn't there.

And it's not like I don't know who these people are -- I've seen most of the couple's "Newlyweds" episodes and find them at least amusing, if not genuinely funny.

But let's be honest -- Nick and Jessica are dumb (or at least pretend to be), and it's easy for dumb people to be humorous on TV just by being their own dumb selves. Take Spike TV's "Most Extreme Elimination Challenge," for example (new season starts April 22, woohoo!).

In scripted sketches, however, which require real acting chops to pull off, Nick and Jessica are unwatchable. And yet 11.5 million people tuned in Sunday night, anyway.

Much more disturbing, though, are the 15 million people who last week watched Fox's disgusting new reality show "The Swan," which provides "ugly ducklings" with plastic surgery and then has them compete in a beauty contest. I refused to watch this inhumane garbage just from seeing the commercials. I wish more people had done the same.

Television -- and, evidently, its audience -- are in really, really bad shape.

Friday, April 09, 2004

'The Matrix': How the mighty series has fallen

—Originally published 4.9.04

Five years ago, I swallowed the red pill. Now I almost wish I'd taken the blue one, instead.

What in this artificial world happened to "The Matrix" franchise? (Hint: That last word may be the answer.)

"The Matrix" was released to mild fanfare in the spring of 1999, but became a worldwide phenomenon based on tremendous word-of-mouth. The first must-have DVD, it is a revolutionary piece of filmmaking (sci-fi or otherwise), that includes the fabulous "bullet time" technology, now one of the most copied techniques in Hollywood.

When I saw "The Matrix" for the first time, I didn't know Nos. 2 and 3 were even in the works -- nor did I think such things were necessary. When Neo (Keanu Reeves) takes off at the end and Rage Against the Machine's "Wake Up" explodes through the speakers, what could be a better conclusion? Neo says he will free the world's people from the machines, and who am I not to believe him? He's flying, after all.

If the "Matrix" movies prove anything, it's this: Some stories are better left to the imagination.

Brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, who wrote and directed the entire trilogy, bit off more than they could chew -- or more than the public was willing to swallow, anyway -- with the sequels.

"The Matrix Reloaded" (May 2003) and "The Matrix Revolutions" (November 2003 and out this week on DVD) have more of the cool clothes, bullets and bullet time, but none of the qualities that made the original such a charmer -- wit, humor and fun. Unfortunately, there is much, much more of what seemed a little excessive in the first one -- corny dialogue, bad acting and too much philosophizing.

Some of the latter was necessary in "The Matrix" to set up the story. But there's so much talking in "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" -- it goes on, and on, and on with no other purpose than pure exposition to explain the Wachowskis' "deep" (or convoluted) mythology. At some points, I wondered how the actors could say their lines with a straight face as they introduced yet another character from seemingly out of nowhere. When they talked like actual humans, it was almost shocking.

The visuals in the two sequels are excellent, of course. But it's the story and script that are lacking. If I wanted to watch Neo fight Agent Smith over and over, I would just pop the original into my DVD player. The sequels do resolve the story, sort of, but by the time I got to the end of No. 3, I didn't care anymore.

My loudest complaint with the re-loads, however, is they have screwed with my love for "The Matrix." I'm reminded of "High Fidelity," where Jack Black wonders, "Is it, in fact, unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter-day sins?"

In this case, absolutely.

Unfortunately, this happens too often in all forms of entertainment, be it an athlete who hangs around too long (Michael Jordan, some would argue), a TV show that outlives its creativity ("The X-Files" without Fox Mulder? Hello!), or musicians that should have packed it in a long time ago (Aerosmith onstage with Britney Spears at the Super Bowl comes to mind).

The "Matrix" sequels, though, don't just tarnish their predecessor -- they make it COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT. The first -- and best -- movie, as explained in the following chapters, was nothing more than a predetermined programming glitch. Whoopee.

I know we live in the real world (at least I hope I do, after watching these three flicks), and in the real world people do things to make money. The Wachowskis certainly made the right financial move with "Reloaded" and "Revolutions," which grossed more than $420 million in the U.S. alone. ("Revolutions" was the least successful of the trilogy, however, at $139.2 million.)

But the Wachowskis cloak themselves in their "art." These boys claim to be above self-serving, moneymaking notions like press interviews, audio commentaries on the DVDs, and, I would assume, sequels for the box office's sake.

By those same standards, then, "Matrix" Nos. 2 and 3 are two of the most disappointing movies I've ever seen.

Artistically, I wish they'd left well enough alone.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Ten years gone: The legacy of Kurt Cobain

—Originally published 4.2.04

On April 5, 1994, Nirvana lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, at just 27 years old, shot a bullet through his head. His body was found three days later in his Seattle home.

It didn't matter much to me at the time, but a decade after his death, I'm wondering what might have been.


When Cobain committed suicide, all objectivity regarding his band's place in history went out the window. Right or wrong, he immediately assumed rock god status, right next to Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, John Bonham, Keith Moon, and any number of others who let their addictions get the best of them. "It's better to burn out than to fade away," Neil Young wrote in "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" -- in the judgment of history, that definitely applies to a rock-and-roll resume.

Nirvana is another of my "most overrated bands of all time." They were so posthumously praised, starting with the wall-to-wall coverage following the discovery of Cobain's body, it's nearly impossible for anyone to honestly assess the band's career.

Here's my criteria for being overrated: When asked, "What are the five best albums in rock history," whichever five albums pop into your head without thinking about it, those five artists are overrated.

Two of those albums were probably recorded by The Beatles, who are (of course) No. 1 on Rolling Stone Magazine's new list of "Immortals: The Fifty Greatest Artists of All Time," joined by the likes of other overrated acts likes The Rolling Stones, Elvis, Hendrix and, yes, Nirvana at No. 27. (Cobain's picture is on the issue's cover, on newsstands now.) This is just the latest in a long, long, long list of rock and roll "best of" lists. I hate them all, because all the same people are always in all the same slots.

This is not -- let me repeat, NOT -- to say those bands aren't among the greatest ever. In no way am I demeaning the accomplishments of The Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, etc. It simply means their greatness has been so drilled into our heads by five decades of music critics, we can't possibly -- heaven forbid -- pick anyone else for these stupid lists without feeling a twinge of guilt.

I'm just like you: Included in my all-time top five are Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen and U2, all of whom made the "Immortals" list and are also considered overrated by many.

But, sick as it may be, those that die dramatically are at another level. Most weren't around long enough to have what would be considered a full career. They burned so intensely for such a short time, though, they wash away criticism. (Go back and read Rolling Stone's review for Nirvana's landmark 1991 album "Nevermind," which received a meager three stars.)

I've rewritten my own history with Nirvana, too. I shied away from the band in its heyday, due to the overwhelming press of media hype combined with my friends' devotion. I don't remember when I first listened all the way through "Nevermind," but it was only a few years ago. Returning again to the Nirvana catalog the past few weeks, I realize we're in dire need of another Kurt Cobain -- someone with that perfect (and hard to find) mix of talent, indie sensibilities and mainstream appeal.

When Cobain died, the Seattle invasion was soon to follow. Pearl Jam remains one of the few survivors from a group that also included Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, among others. Now Billboard's Top 10 Modern/Alternative Rock tracks include bands like Nickelback, 3 Doors Down and Puddle of Mudd -- all Seattle-sound hacks. Nirvana and Pearl Jam may have shunned the popularity they experienced in the early '90s, but at least people were listening to good music on the rock airwaves again.

In the late '70s, punks like The Sex Pistols, Ramones and The Clash put the hurt on bloated bands like Kansas and Boston, and a revolution was born. In the same way, the Seattle sound from the early '90s put '80s rockers like Motley Crue, Poison and their copycats out to pasture.

Ten years after Cobain's death, we seem to be back at the cycle's low end. As a result, several stations nationwide are changing their formats to "classic alternative," meaning essentially mixing in cuts from the Seattle bands with some of today's better songs that don't get played on mainstream radio.

I take it as a bad sign the music I listened to as a 13 year old is already being called upon to salvage the airwaves. I thought the so-called "garage rock" of the past few years may be the answer, but I don't know if that movement will leave any lasting impressions. Much as I love The White Stripes, the bands who really make a difference seem to take elements from the past and move forward into something new; the Stripes, Hives, Vines, Strokes, etc., may have revived a great genre -- and done so splendidly -- but we should be looking ahead, not back.

Hopefully there's some kid out there right now, sitting in his room, banging out lyrics and hooks that will turn the music world on its ear once again.

And hopefully he'll live to see his 28th birthday.