Monday, July 15, 2013

The Heat is Undeniably Cool

The Heat, starring Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, is one of the coolest movies released by a major studio in quite some time. I am not a buddy cop kind of person, but with these two stars I was drawn to see The Heat, and am I so glad that I did.

Bullock plays straight-laced FBI agent Ashburn, who is sent to Boston where she must work on a case with a brash, foul-mouthed detective named Mullins, played by McCarthy. Bullock is a gifted comedian in her own right but she expertly plays the straight man to McCarthy's wild-eyed brazenness. Mullins nor Ashburn have any strong relationships, familial or otherwise, so working with each other presents quite a challenge. While some of the film's humor comes from Mullins' incredibly filthy language, the real humor lies in the stars' ability to play off of each other. Some of the biggest laughs come when Mullins aims a simple zinger directly at Ashburn . For instance, when Mullins learns that Ashburn was briefly married the first words out of her mouth are "Was he a hearing man?" McCarthy and Bullock are also wonderful physical comedians and the scenes in a night club and a seedy bar are ripe with  pratfalls, awkward dance moves, and hilarious facial expressions.

Since The Heat is a cop comedy, there is a secondary plot line involving taking down a drug lord. But the plot is surprisingly easy to follow and while there are a couple moments that feel a little too convenient, the cop storyline did not detract from the evolution of Ashburn and Mullins' relationship and did not leave me puzzled as to what the creators were trying to accomplish, a huge bonus in a buddy cop movie. Credit must be given to the film's writer Katie Dippold and its' director Paul Feig. The pair have created a movie that is well-paced and toes the line of shock humor without going over it.

Given that The Heat is a comedy starring two women, much has been written about its' success and the fact that it helps prove that female stars can carry a movie and female audiences will pay to see a movie in a theater. The same was said after Bridesmaids and many movies before that; the argument will be made again and again. However, focusing on the supposed surprise that women can carry a successful movie only gives the impression that The Heat is a flash in the pan, a fluke, so we will not discuss that here. Rather, watch the trailer and go to Fandango to buy your tickets to the next showing.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Singing and Dancing All Through the Night

Is there anything better than a good song and dance routine? I would argue that a song or a dance that pops up unexpectedly is the crème de la crème. If you’ve read any previous posts on this blog, and if you are reading this now then you probably have, it goes without saying that musicals and movie musicals are my favorite forms of entertainment. Even non-traditional types of musical movies are right in my wheelhouse. Here I am referring to the Pitch Perfect-type movies that are not musicals but rely heavily on song and dance as a part of the plot. Side note, if you have not seen Pitch Perfect, get on board, I haven’t actually watched it in weeks but I have one of the numbers stuck in my head right now.
But what’s even better than a movie revolving around music is when a musical number springs forth when you least expect it. The examples are numerous. Elf wouldn’t be the same without the residents of New York City gathering together and singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” to spread Christmas cheer and power Santa’s sleigh. Another scene I can watch over and over is the Barry The Cuda's scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding. This is of course the scene in which Julia Roberts’ dining partners, and eventually the entire restaurant, break out into “I Say A Little Prayer.”  Both of these examples are cases in which joy is spread through song. Music does not exclusively express happiness. For example, take Steve Carell’s beautiful, if a touch off pitch, rendition of “Let My Love Open the Door” in Dan in Real Life. Carell radiates a contradictory mix of pent up sorrow and new-found bliss that is heartbreaking and life affirming at the same time.
When actors perform the songs it feels like a special treat, but song breaks that are paired with the endlessly popular montage sequence are also irresistible. Who doesn’t love the montage set to “Runaround Sue” in the family classic Little Big League? I love it, and if you haven’t seen it you will love it, too. The musical montage technique is popular for a dress shopping or a ‘show off the wardrobe’ scene, and numerous films have featured actors twirling in front of a mirror while a sidekick stands nearby giving an opinion that we all know will not matter in the end. 27 Dresses comes to mind, not a great movie, but the scene in which the main character shows off all of the bridesmaids dresses she has worn serves to illustrate my point.
Why are these types of scenes so appealing? Because music is universal. You do not need to speak the same language or even understand the lyrics, but when an up-tempo song starts playing, the average person reacts by tapping their feet or letting their lips curl into a smile.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Staying Power

Pop culture staying power. Does it even exist? The term pop culture implies that it, whatever the ‘it’ may be, is popular at a point in time – a fad. Popularity fades. So while there may be very few things that are deemed timeless by the collective people - Saturday Night Live, "Don't Stop Believin'," the mullet - there are things that are timeless to each of us.
Anne Brummel as Elphaba
When this topic popped into my mind, the first thing that hit the nail on the head was Wicked. Wicked is my favorite Broadway musical by a mile. I now suffer from PWD (post-Wicked disorder), which is an affliction that strikes when I am sitting in a theater watching a great show but wishing all the while that the show was Wicked instead. One reason Wicked sticks is because it takes place in another world and therefore does not age the way the shows that rely on current events for plots and punch lines do (Spamalot comes to mind). And yet, even though the show is set in a fantasy world, the emotions and motivations of all of the characters are rooted in reality and wholly identifiable. Wicked is a show that is in my life for good.

John McCutcheon
Photo: Walter Hansen

Tastes change throughout our lives, but I have loved folk music my entire life and there is no sign of that ever changing. I grew up listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary and John McCutcheon primarily, but musicians such as Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton were also in heavy rotation. Even years later, I would jump at the chance to hear new music from any one of them or see them perform live. My affinity for folk music led me to another musician that I will listen to forever: Josh Ritter. The instant I discovered him on NPR I was hooked. While I may not listen to him and his incredible band exclusively the way I once did, I will follow his every musical move as long as he is writing and performing. See him live if you ever have a chance. The tickets will likely be reasonably priced because he is still a well-kept secret, and you’ll have a blast and be a fan for life.

Some people may not consider food to be in the realm of popular culture, but I disagree. And though Jell-O has moved way beyond its’ heyday, there is a Jell-O salad at all of my family’s gatherings. I went through a phase some time ago where I was consuming 2 boxes of Jell-O every week – sugar free of course, so just delicious gelatinous water. There is one other food that will always be a staple: cereal. I love cereal, everything about it, all varieties. Cheerios, Life, Honey Bunches of Oats, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Waffle Crisp, I love them all. I actually eat Fiber One Original everyday (not necessarily because it’s a favorite…) mixed with something that does not taste like cardboard. My affinity for cereal only increased during college, also known as cereal heaven. What’s for dinner? A fajita with a side of Cracklin’ Oat Bran? Sounds wonderful! I sometimes ate cereal at every meal, and if it weren’t for the rock solid self-restraint I have developed, I still would.

The list could go on and on. And it doesn't mean I avoid new opportunities, but some things just hit the sweet spot. I mean, I love the new varieties of Cheerios General Mills has been chugging out. 

So what has staying power for you?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Chicago: Not Just for Blustery Politicians

Of late I’ve been replaying Season Four of Top Chef. And because I'm known for my intuitiveness, I know what you are thinking, “Who watches a season of Top Chef  for a second time?” What can I say, I love cooking challenge shows and Top Chef is pretty much the gold standard. Anyway…Season Four was set in Chicago and I love that the producers included Chicago themes in several of the challenges. From Top Chef my mind instantly jumped to other entertainment that hails from or is set in Chicago.

Roxanne Roberts, Mo Rocca, and Poundstone

One of the first things that jumped to my mind is the number one reason to be in Chicago on a Thursday night: to catch a taping of the radio show Wait…Wait…Don’t Tell Me. If you have not heard of Wait…Wait you are missing out. The weekly show, produced by Chicago Public Radio, bills itself as a news quiz show but is so much more. Where else will you find a crop of comedians acting as panelists constantly quipping one-liners and guests ranging from Bill Clinton to Kevin Bacon and Leonard Nimoy. From the “Not my job” segment with the always willing celebrity guests to the “bluff the listener challenge” Wait…Wait offers the most consistent laughs in radio since Car Talk. All of the past shows are in their archives, and I challenge you not to laugh through Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings’ spot as the “not my job” guest. The same goes for the exchange between panelist and Hostess Cupcake enthusiast Paula Poundstone and the “not my job” guest Michael Pollan. I can’t believe I’ve never put my name in the pool for a chance to play and win Carl Kasell’s voice on my home answering machine.

Roberts and Mulroney on the Chicago River
And what about movies set in Chicago? My Best Friend’s Wedding, in rotation on the tube lately, is one of my favorites because it turned the romantic comedy formula on its’ head. Sure, you know a Julia Roberts film will employ a certain tone but (spoiler alert!) the fact that she doesn’t get the guy makes it all the more relatable. And not only does it take place in Chicago but it also shows off the city with visits to Comiskey Park, Union Station, and the Drake Hotel. Not to mention the bread truck race down Michigan Avenue.

I also caught Chicago-set Vice Versa this morning and was reminded that Fred Savage and Judge Reinhold should be national treasures. You wouldn’t think that an adolescent Fred Savage sipping a martini and cursing like a sailor would be the makings of a great movie, but you would be wrong (okay, “great” may be stretching). This comedy did body switching before body switching was cool. Admittedly, Chicago does not play as big a part in Vice Versa as in other movies, but who can pass up the chance for a Judge Reinhold shout out?

Image:David Greedy/Getty Images 
And let’s not forget that one of the biggest pop culture icons calls Chicago his home: President Barack Obama. He may not be a Chi-town native, but he has adopted the city as his own. Though it does seem strange to put a sitting president in the category of pop culture icon, there is no denying that he is as popular as any performer or entertainer in a traditional sense. Obama’s image alone has been the impetus for art and design in a way that no other president has in the past. Not to mention the fact that, no matter the politics, he has captured the attention of the United States and the world.

Despite the message of this post, this is not an advertisement for the city of Chicago. Heck, I don't even live there or work there so I'll reap no benefit if you decide to make the trip, but there is no denying that Chicago is a pop culture powerhouse.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Love the One You're With

To give you a little perspective on my attendance at Thursday's Crosby, Stills and Nash concert, held at Kansas City's Starlight Theatre, CSN released their first album fifteen years before I was born. That being said, I have always preferred the music of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s so I decided that even though I am not a huge CSN fan that I should not pass up the opportunity to see the classic rock act.

Unfortunately, between buying the tickets and the actual date of the concert I happened to catch a television broadcast of a relatively recent CSN concert and then I regretted having purchased the $58 ticket. The CSN of today did not sound like the CSN of yore. My excitement for the concert plummeted.

The crowd at the outdoor theater was of a certain age, but you wouldn't have known it by the enthusiasm gushing from most everyone. Surely the alcohol flowing freely did not play a part! CSN's first set was filled with rocking, up tempo hits, including their most well known song, "Love the One You're With." The crowd greeted every song with cheers and showed appreciation with mini ovations at the end of each song. After a short break, the group took to the stage for a more somber second set that could have used a little editing. The crowd was there to rock not slumber. I overheard a woman remark that she started to doze off during the second set - agreed. But they finished on a high note with a double encore and ended the night with a tried and true crowd pleaser, "Teach Your Children."

Given what I had seen on the broadcast of their concert, David Crosby and Graham Nash performed remarkably well. As the eldest member of the group at 70+, Crosby sang very clear and had control over his voice. Nash was also very well tuned and neither seemed to tire during the nearly three hour show. 

Stephen Stills was a different story. On the songs that featured his voice alone rather than as part of a harmony, it was apparent that he has lost his ability to sing. At times, it appeared he was suffering from some sort of an ailment. Stills stumbled on the lyrics and pronounced words in a way that sounded as if he had a mouth full of marshmallows. The electric guitar was his saving grace, and he can still shred with the best of them. Props to the production manager who wisely kept him off stage for some of the songs that did not require his picking prowess.
Stills' voice aside, the group transported the audience back in time and put on a great show.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I've Got a Fever

Olympic fever that is. Everything about the Olympics is exciting. From the pomp of the opening ceremonies to the repetition of John Williams’ Olympic theme to the amazing feats of strength, I love it all. I even enjoy the vignettes about hardscrabble athletes that rise from adversity to become champions. Many people grumble that the vignettes are just filler, but they serve to remind me that the athletes are just like me, albeit ten years younger and about one hundred times more talented. Surely if my parents had given me the opportunity there would be a heavy gold medal on my mantel right now.

While I love everything about the Olympics, that love does not spread to all sports. My interest lies mostly with the big-ticket contests that receive the majority of the television coverage. Bring on the swimming, diving, and gymnastics. No matter how hard I try I cannot feign interest in beach volleyball, cycling, or sailing.

Gabby Douglas
Diving and gymnastics impress me in large part because neither is simply a contest of speed or strength, but rather a test of combining those basics with body manipulation. I mean, how do they get their bodies to twist and turn like that? I can’t even touch my toes let alone jump in the air and do three and a half twists.

This year the hometown favorite in gymnastics is Gabby Douglas. And though she is not originally from the area, she now lives and trains here in Des Moines at Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute. And like previous hometown favorite and Chow's alumna Shawn Johnson, Douglas is a serious medal contender and our state is definitely rooting for her. Aside from Gabby, my gymnastics interest has shifted to the men’s competition. The height that the competitors get on the high bar is absolutely incredible and that event alone is reason enough to watch.
Danell Leyva

While it is understood that the Olympics is largely a cash cow with some political undercurrents, I choose to enjoy it for what it is at its’ very simplest: an opportunity for athletes who have trained for years to get the opportunity to prove that they are among the best in the world.

Get ready for some serious Olympic action because the opening ceremonies are July 27th. I know where I'll be that night.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

If You're Not Enjoying the Show, You're Wrong

So said Steve Martin when he joined collaborators the Steep Canyon Rangers for a show at the Civic Center Saturday night. Martin has found himself a pretty good gig. It is clear that he still loves to make a crowd erupt with laughter and he obviously loves playing the banjo, so now he gets to hop on stage and play some music and tell some jokes without the pressure of making the audience laugh for an entire set.

The draw for the sold out show was Martin, which he himself recognizes as an odd proposition; he likened it to seeing an ad for Jerry Seinfeld performing original music for the bassoon and deciding you can’t miss it. But the Rangers deserve just as much credit for the success of the show as Martin.

The band includes Mike Guggino on mandolin, Charles Humphrey on bass, Woody Platt on guitar, Graham Sharp on banjo, and Nicky Sanders on fiddle. These are clearly life-long musicians who somehow manage to make playing a million miles an hour look easy. Compliments to the Rangers takes nothing away from Martin, who is a fabulous picker in his own right.

The set included several pieces from their joint albums such as “Daddy Played the Banjo,” “Me and Paul Revere” and “Go Away. Stop. Turnaround. Come Back.” The good-bye and good riddance anthem “Jubilation Day” was met with uproarious laughter and cheers. But the show was not all fast and furious. “Best Love” and “The Great Remember” the latter of which Martin performed solo, proved that bluegrass can be moving and reserved.

Martin spent a couple of numbers off-stage wherein the Rangers showcased their crisp, clear voices on the a capella “I Can’t Sit Down.” Following that hymn was the hilarious “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.” Even if you don’t count yourself among them you will still enjoy it. As the clip reveals, Martin is not the natural singer that the Rangers are, but on other numbers he proves he can carry a tune.

The encore was the marathon “Auden’s Train” which Martin wrote using W.H. Auden poetry. The piece features fiddler Sanders tearing up the floor and displaying an adeptness that must be nearly unmatched in the bluegrass world.

The Rangers and Martin put on a very good show. The shtick  - Martin as the buffoon that the Rangers put up with – works and the music is fantastic. Let’s hope that they continue to collaborate and present great bluegrass music for years to come.