Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Big Pimpin’

I’ve decided to take a moment and push the things that make me happy.  Since I can’t think of why anyone wouldn’t blindly love what I do, here’s the list:
LOST – Far and away the most impressive ensemble show I’ve ever seen.  Been hooked from day 1 and haven’t lost one bit of enthusiasm.  I can’t emphasize enough how strong and deep this cast is – and I doubt it’s a coincidence that the few weak acting links have been the ones killed off.  I can appreciate that jumping into a show like this midstream may be difficult, but that makes this an ideal candidate for Netflix.
The Shield – Speaking of, this is the latest show to completely take over my Netflix que.  I almost wish I didn’t watch the first disc with the wife, cause I’d be pouring through this show in a week’s time if I didn’t have to wait for her to join in the watching.  I’d always been wary of FX original programming, but geez.  Televised heroin.
Flecktones – Two of my favorite musicians, Victor Wooten and Bela Fleck, make up half of this quartet that’s dropping a new album Hidden Land, releasing Feb 14th.  Best way to sample this group for the first time is to check out their Live at the Quick DVD.  And the best way to do that is through…(all together now!)…
Arrested Development – In a final f-you to the show and its fans, FOX will air the remaining four shows of the series Feb 10.  Doesn’t sound bad until you realize they put it up against the Olympics Opening Ceremony.  I’m somewhat surprised they didn’t just bury it under the Super Bowl.  The good news is both ABC and Showtime have put in bids to take over the show.  While I’m a little hopeful for a Family Guy-esque revival, chances are this will put off the inevitable for another 13 episodes.  Indulge in the DVDs if you haven’t already, and tune into the finale block.  Honestly, is it that much more attractive to watch the US team get booed as they enter the stadium with a faux-Cirque de Soleil backdrop?  
Apple – Maybe I should simply rename that to read: anything that gets you away from microsoft and windows.  Especially on the heels of Sony’s despicable move to include spyware and malware as “copy protection” on its music CDs, I find myself more and more happy that the wife is a mac girl.  Apple platforms thus far have been immune to disc copy protections and the problems plaguing dual discs.  On top of that, iTunes now features TV shows and music videos, again proving itself to be the innovator Rio and Sony wish they could be.  
Foozer Videos – For the longest time, I’ve said that nothing would be better than a release of Foo Fighters and Weezer video collections on DVD.  You have live bands, you have studio bands, so I guess I’d call these two video bands.  From the Buddy Holly Happy Days video to the Big Me “Footos” spoof, no one does it better.  Well, Weezer did release a DVD in 2004 that somehow slipped under my radar: “Video Capture Device” that gets you caught up all the way through the Muppets Gone Fishin’ video.  Foo has now followed suit to a degree, by releasing their video collection onto iTunes (entire pack: $12).  I highly recommend.
Mike & Mike – I’ve mentioned them before, but will happily plug away again.  Fantastic sports talk without getting arrogant, stuffy, dramatic, sensationalized, or the rest.  It’s like hanging out with guys that know what they’re talking about but not being snide about it.  Laidback, funny, and not forced.  The opposite of what a show featuring Colin Herdsworth and Screamin A Smith would be, I suppose.  I highly recommend using tivo/dvr to your advantage to skim through the newsroom updates, commercials, and the Dana Jacobsen pleas to save her abominable Cold Pizza.    
VH1 Classic – For pure “there’s nothing else on” spills and chills, hit up this channel if you have it.  It’s astounding to watch the ‘Metal Mania’ blocks and see endless bands channel Spinal Tap seriously.  You never know when you might fall across a video gem like Metal Savatage’s Hall of the Mountain King (an unintentionally horrifying cross between Tap’s Stonehenge and Zeppelin’s Battle of Evermore).  Then there’s David Lee Roth prancing in leotards and effectively making the Safety Dance video look butch.  Highly amusing.    
MS150 – Sorry, but I have to keep this up until I raise enough.  Two options now: through the official site or send it via paypal to the account  If you have any hesitations about that, keep in mind that paypal is very good at nailing wire fraud over the internet.  You can also shoot an email to the address to talk about it.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Kobe: MVP?

Whole lot of buzz over Kobe these days, and rightfully so.  The man is on a mind-boggling tear this season, racking up over 40 points in almost a third of his games so far and a scary 45.5 PPG average in January.  This now has him firmly placed in all MVP talk, despite the Lakers’ 22-19 record (11th in the league).  Moreso than any other MVP candidate, this has made Bryant a galvanizing topic amongst fans; either he’s the best player in the NBA or he’s a selfish show-off that can’t play team-ball.  George W may have competition as a divider.

I won’t try to pretend that I’m of two minds on this.  I don’t feel that he should be MVP, even if he continues this offensive display.  Now let me immediately temper that before I get labeled as a hater.  What Kobe is doing is nothing short of earth-shattering.  I strongly doubt any other player today could do what he’s doing even with a concerted all-out effort, and can’t make up my mind if Jordan could (80’s Jordan did go after things like this).  Shaq might have been able to do so in his prime if he ever bothered trying to reach his max potential as a player. If I were designing NBA 2k7, obviously I’d build Kobe with the highest rating in the game, even above the vast majority of the Hall of Famers.

Here’s the rub: I don’t think that he qualifies as the most valuable player in the NBA.  In the NFL, if a running back chases after a 2200-yard season and gives you not one but two 300-yard games, he’s MVP without thinking about it.  Peyton Manning ran away with it last year after putting amazing numbers at QB.  If you crank out 65+ homers and/or 130+ RBIs in MLB, you’re a cinch even if the club misses the playoffs.  In those two sports, individual stats directly indicate contributions to team success.  A 5-touchdown game from Shaun Alexander can’t be anything but positive for Seattle.  Experts don’t accuse Johan Santana of putting himself over the Twins for his 238 strike outs. The trick is, the NBA doesn’t work like that.  In basketball, an individual can overplay his role and upset team production, chemistry, and success.  No individual in the history of the game won championships by being the whole show.  Success in this league comes when the sum is greater than the parts.  Look at the league-terrorizing Pistons and then at the Lakers to see my point, or Memphis versus the seemingly-more talented Knicks.

To be MVP, I believe that recipient must lead his team to be one of the top in the league.  With all due respect to Kobe, can we truly say that this Laker team is playing at as high level as it possibly could?  Consider Steve Nash last year – he won the MVP award by driving his Suns teammates to play above themselves and race to the best record in the league.  Replace Nash on that team with anyone else in the league and it doesn’t happen.  Can the same be said about Bryant?  If LeBron replaced him on the roster, would the squad be worse off?  Would Odom still be nursing his second worst scoring average of his career?  I have an awfully hard time believing that Lakers wouldn’t be more of a team and be at least a game or two better off.  That’s my litmus test.  Kobe doesn’t pass, in my opinion.

I find it fitting that the only person brought up regularly in regards to the 81-point game is Chamberlain.  Wilt had a lot in common with Kobe: he had both adoring and despising fan bases, and took a lot of heat from critics for allegedly being more concerned about person glory and stats than team success.  Wilt got two rings, one in 67 (Philly over the Dynasty Celtics) and another in 72 (also against the Celtics).  In both cases, it’s been widely reported that he had to be heavily leaned on by strong-willed coaches and players (Alex Hannum , Bill Sharman, Jerry West) to lay off the scoring and focus on defense, rebounding, and passing.  It’s not much of a coincidence that each time he got a ring, it coincided with a new career-low in scoring.  For many purists, he’s best remembered as the most dominant player in history, but not the best player in history.  It’s a distinction that Kobe shares, in the minds of those like myself.    

Another couple of players that act as historical examples or Elgin Baylor and Dominique Wilkins.  Both were perennial All-Stars and spectacular league-topping scorers that were worth the four times the price of admission.  Neither managed a championship, and in the season following Baylor’s retirement, the Lakers won their first title in 17 years.  

Am I suggesting that Kobe is one-dimensional?  Absolutely not.  I look at him as the Anakin Skywalker of the NBA.  Potential and ability far beyond anyone around him, but he loses the big picture and focuses said ability on empty accomplishments.    Hopefully Kobe comes around and embraces a team concept again rather than shun any and everyone that might compete for his limelight.  I think deep down, most people want to see him finish his career winning championships and dominating the game.  Only that he do so with the Lakers, not as the Lakers.

Cukoo for Psycho

     I’m happy I never saw Psycho until I was in college, because as a child I would have hated it and never thought twice about it again.  Stick it right next to Citizen Kane as movies that everyone loves and I would never know why.  Fortunately, my penchant for rooting out gimme courses at William & Mary (Sports Literature, The History of Popular Music, you do what you have to do at a Public Ivy) led me to Film Study.  It’s a little like taking a course in physics, hearing that your favorite uncle had an affair, or reading about all the dirty pool played in politics; you never see things the same way afterwards.
     You see, Psycho isn’t one of top 3 movies of all-time because it’s such a frightening movie, despite the hype.  Honestly, I feel it’s more of a suspense/thriller than the mother of the modern horror genre; that I would leave to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Psycho’s true achievement is its depth due to the finest level of directing possible.  It is the masterpiece of one of the greatest directors in the history of film.  I’ll discuss some of the aspects of the film that I most enjoy.
Hitchcock’s Theme
     Throughout Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock shapes the film in a way to drive home a simple point: everyone, including you, is a blend of good and evil.  He wants to dispel the He-Man vs. Skeletor world society looks for, and his message is that we may all be far more similar to those we jeer than we realize.  While it is mostly attributed to slipping the bloody scenes past the censors, I understand this is a big reason the movie was shot in black and white.  The contrasting horizontal and vertical bars that deliver the opening credits would seem to play on this emphasis on black and white contrast.  
Moral Ambiguity
      In Psycho, the various characters are all a mixed bag, if not walking contradictions.  Marion is our heroine of sorts, yet she’s no Mary Bailey; she’s shamefully involved in an illicit relationship, can’t look at her dead mother’s portrait, and commits grand larceny.  She’s seen both in white and, after her fateful decision, black braziers, furthering the duality message.  Norman covers up two murders with disturbing complicity, but he is also sympathetic with a childlike innocence.  
     Another powerful technique Hitch employs is imagery to suggest similarity between opposing characters as well as dualism within each character.  The four primary characters are set up as pairs: Marion and Lila (sisters); Norman and Sam.  This invites the viewer to consider how the same person may end up walking different paths in life, depending on circumstances.  Bizzaro Spock and Seinfeld understand what I’m talking about.  
     As for dualism within a person, take notice of how many times a character is seen with a reflection, be it by mirror or window.  This symbolizes the character’s two opposing personalities, and often takes place while that character is engaged in a duplicitous act.  Another way of displaying this same symbolism is by casting a shadow on only one side of a character’s face (Norman at the swamp).
First-Person POV Camera Angles
     Throughout the film, voyeurism is on full display: the birds “watching” down on the Norman and Marion office scene, the policeman staring down Marion through his shades during her flight, Arbogast the “private eye,” the shower drain, Mrs. Bates tormenting Norman by watching over him from the house, Norman removing a painting of The Rape of Lucretia to peer at Marion, “The laughing, and the tears, and those cruel eyes studying you,” the list goes on.  More interestingly though, is how often Hitchcock employes the camera angles to give the viewer the perception that they are witnessing the action as the characters themselves.  He went so far as to film the movie using a 50-mm lens on 35-mm cameras because this best replicates actual human vision.  The best examples of this occur while Marion leaves Phoenix: “we” see her boss recognize Marion in the car, “we” struggle behind the wheel of the car as bright headlights and pouring rain make the drive unbearable, “we” wake up in the car to see the policeman staring down at us.  We explain away and accept her actions, feel her paranoia, and want to get away, making us accomplices of sorts.  This is Hitch’s intent: This is you; all of these people could be you.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Karaoke Rules

     I should just go ahead and state the obvious: I dig karaoke.  Don’t get a chance to do it very often, maybe twice a year, but that’s more because it’s not going to be on Miller’s ‘Guys Night Out’ campaign anytime soon.  There’s a stigma attached to it, and most people are terrified of even going into a club despite never checking it out firsthand.  Makes gathering a group kind of tough.  
     With that in mind, I’d like to point out ways to help embarrassment-proof a first time.  To dismiss the myths that drive most fears: you don’t need much of a voice to do well.  You don’t need super-confidence to entertain the crowd.  And keep in mind: once you’ve had a good experience, it can be a fantastic high and addicting.  
     What’s the trick?  Your choice of song can do it all for you.  Seriously.  The pick is no less than two-thirds of the game.  It’s huge.  Here’re the ropes:
  1. Your favorite song isn’t likely your best.
Counter-intuitive, but important to consider.  Just because you like it doesn’t mean it’s within your vocal range.  Rather, lean more to what would get everyone else in the room excited.  
  1. A slow love song for your girl/boyfriend is suicide.
This is a cardinal rule.  First, nothing’s less likely to keep your nerves down.  Second, if a slow song does one thing well, it puts you out there with nowhere to hide.  Missing a note happens to everyone, but faster songs let you skip on past the mistake while these songs force you to hold it in humility.    
  1. With the right pick, vocals won’t matter at all.
I swear it’s true.  Tons of good picks stay in the vocal range of speaking.  And don’t forget, there’s a fantastic cheater’s trick in karaoke songs: go with an easy laugh.  (Ex. Ice Ice Baby, Baby Got Back, Don’t Cry Out Loud {maybe that’s just my love for Drop Dead Gorgeous talking}, My Heart Will Go On – {guys-only}{watch out for that last verse, it’s a doozy!}, Evenflow {best of luck to you if you’re going to try and get the lyrics right, it’s better off if you just play with it}, I Touch Myself, Somewhere Out There)
  1. Don’t read, have fun.
Hopefully you picked a song that you’re somewhat familiar with, and to have the best time, get your eyes off the prompter once in a while.  Move around a little.  Make like you’re in front of a mirror.  Make like Seal, get a little crazy.  Trust me, it’s far more entertaining for the audience than watching a sight-reading.
  1. Sing asap
Tip that doesn’t get out enough: hanging out in a room full of smoke while downing shots and beers doesn’t help you out with the high notes.  Unless you want an unhappy surprise at a high note, get your song in and done with quick as possible.  Have a shot or two of liquid courage, but don’t waste time.  Additionally, the longer you wait, the more you might get nervous.
  1. You don’t have to sing if you don’t want to.  
Best way to get out of singing when your friends are pressuring you?  Fill out a card for a song, go up to the DJ, and ask him to throw it away for you.  Or pocket it, or turn it in with made up gibberish on it.  When the friends want to know what happened to it, shrug and wonder along, or go up to the DJ to “check.”  But the reality is, most people will respect your sitting out.
  1. Etiquette: only one or two a night, and encourage everyone else
Maybe this is more important after your first time, but both are important.  Even if you’re good, no one appreciates an attention hog.  You may want to show off the concerts you perform during long car drives, but let everyone else have a crack.  Plus, don’t be the jack that makes voices when someone else hits a bad note or struggles through a song.  When you’re up there, you’ll never miss a mean reaction and it’s painful.  Try and help maintain a light and enjoyable atmosphere for the night.  Almost everyone is going out on a limb; don’t be an ass and turn it into the gong show.

Songs to avoid (or ones to talk your drunk friends into later in the evening):
More than a Feeling
Living on a Prayer – for your consideration: Jon Bon Jovi can’t hit those notes anymore in concert.  
Unchained Melody
Angel - Aerosmith
Mr Jones

Songs so popular, no one will hear you as they loudly sing along
You Can Call Me Al
Bohemian Rhapsody
If I had a Million Dollars
You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling

The rest is getting past stage fright.  If you’re a normal person, you’ll get it, even after you’ve done karaoke a few times.  It’s fine.  Just don’t let it take over.  It’s like asking out someone for the first time; you just need to let go ahead and throw it out there.  Besides, if you bring your good friends with you, they’ll be supportive even if you do have a rough try.  That or you need new friends.