Archive for December, 2009

29
Dec
09

The best TV shows this decade had to offer

5. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central, 2005 – present)

Stephen Colbert's persistent and overwhelming fear of bears is one of the show's many long-running gags.

When I first saw some of this show’s pre-launch advertisements, it seemed like nothing more than a “Daily Show” spin-off. I tried to reserve my judgment for the debut itself, and I remember being pleasantly surprised by a veritable circus of riotous satire, laugh-a-minute sight gags, and subtextual humor.

“The Colbert Show” debuted not as a lesser “Daily Show,” but as a perfect complement to Jon Stewart’s acerbic, biting commentary on daily newsmakers and producers.

Colbert presents himself as a conservative talk show host; it was fairly clear from the get-go that it was an act, but that never made it any less hilarious.

The show’s format is inspired by that of “The O’Reilly Factor,” Fox News bigwig Bill O’Reilly’s nightly commentary show. But Colbert takes O’Reilly to task by sarcastically mimicking his buffoonish delivery and obnoxious tendencies toward self-aggrandizement and vitriol. I only wonder what would happen if Colbert ever adopted Glenn Beck’s style. (Episodes available free on hulu.com)

4.  Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000 – present)

Larry David (right) as himself with agent Jeff Greene (played by Jeff Garlin). The Seinfeld co-creator and producer still knows how to make 'em laugh.

Larry David, co-creator and producer of “Seinfeld,” stars as himself in this outrageous look into the life of a rich and influential TV veteran. Turns out, though, Larry’s as much the self-centered misanthrope as “Seinfeld’s” George Costanza, his self-inspired character.

But like George, half the time you can’t blame Larry for his idiosyncrasies; he’s routinely victimized by social convention, and finds himself in embarrassing and awkward scenarios even when his intentions are good (and they usually are).

Half of what makes this show funny is its self-referential nature. David has proven, in Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works,” that he’s not an actor. He’s clearly playing himself in “Curb,” and the show repeatedly (though not excessively) hearkens back to old “Seinfeld” bits, whether implicitly or explicitly.

Some have described “Curb” as a more risqué version of “Seinfeld,” and that’s not entirely off the mark. One thing’s for sure, though. It’s damn funny. (Available on DVD)

3. The Office (BBC, 2001 – 2003)

If you like NBC's "The Office," be sure to check out the source material. Ricky Gervais plays the lovably awkward, sardonic boss David Brent with inimitable style.

This appropriately short-lived series, which inspired NBC’s popular remake starring Steve Carrell, was better in every way.

I’ve got nothing against the American version of “The Office.” I find it regularly entertaining and often uproariously funny. Their problem, though, is that they don’t know when to quit. Ricky Gervais and the BBC “Office” did.

Gervais better captured the awkward, rude, base but ultimately sympathetic boss character in David Brent than Carrell ever has with Michael Scott, whom I rarely feel sorry for.

Gervais and co-producer Stephen Merchant knew how to couple the comedic embarrassment inherent to the “mockumentary” production style with an almost palpable dramatic tension— not just in Brent’s development as a character but in the romantic interest between Tim and Dawn (Jim and Pam in the NBC version).

I said the series was appropriately short-lived because it ended when Tim and Dawn finally got together, thus resolving the plot’s central dramatic conflict.

It also helped that the characters were actually believable and not just stilted caricatures of themselves. (Available on DVD)

2. Arrested Development (Fox, 2003 – 2006)

Jeffrey Tambor plays family patriarch George Bluth in Fox's sinfully short-lived character-driven comedy "Arrested Development."

Leave it to Fox to take the funniest show of the decade off television before its hilarity even begins to wane.

“Arrested Development,” in the words of the opening narration, is “the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.”

Michael Bluth is probably the only sane person in his family. His father, a wealthy real estate developer, is jailed amid accusations of shady accounting practices and, later, dealings with Saddam Hussein.

Michael takes over as CEO of the Bluth Company and struggles to keep it afloat while his ethically-challenged family lies around and regularly dips into the family coffer.

There are just too many memorable characters to aptly summarize: Michael Cera as the lovably timid teen son; Will Arnett as brother Gob, the typical trust-fund loser, a wannabe magician and playboy; Henry Winkler (Happy Days’ Fonzie) as the horribly inept family attorney; David Cross as the sexually confused brother-in-law, a psychiatrist who’s trying (and failing) to become an actor.

These and other uniquely memorable characters bandy wicked banter in this brilliantly-written, in-joke-loaded sitcom which was cancelled way before its time. (Episodes available on DVD or free on hulu.com)

1. The Wire (HBO, 2002 – 2008)

The fourth season of “The Wire” focuses on an inner-city Baltimore school, its students, and the social forces that push young city denizens to crime.

I know what some of you are probably asking yourselves at this point: “Does this guy watch anything but comedy TV?” Well, no. Not really. But “The Wire” was a rare exception.

This ambitious, uncompromising exploration of crime, labor, the drug trade, politics, education, and journalism in a major American city (Baltimore) revolves, more or less, around several central characters in the police force— and several more major characters in the city’s drug underworld.

The deep, intricate plot unwraps over five long seasons like a classical drama. Characters’ lives cross paths and intertwine in myriad ways. Violence, corruption, and infighting are portrayed to the highest degree of realism imaginable without sacrificing dramatic suspense.

The whole thing feels like a morality play— oftentimes the drug lieutenants display as much sense and ethicality as their counterparts in the police department, and the backwards, politically-charged nature of city police work is examined in depth.

Viewers get an incisive critical analysis of  the police department, the drug trade, a widely corrupt political system, a cash-strapped school, a dirty stevedore union, and a struggling metro newspaper. We get to see the problems most major American cities face, albeit dramatized, from an inside perspective. (Available on DVD)

Advertisements
22
Dec
09

The top video games of 2000-2009 by category

As the end of the first decade of the new millenium draws to a close, I am more and more asking myself, “What the hell happened to the past ten years?”

The simple answer, of course, is that they were wheedled away in the wee hours of the morning, sore thumbs mashing plastic buttons, trigger finger blazing, glazed eyes absorbing each plot twist, each grisly death, each dramatic cutscene with relish.

Perhaps the most controversial form of new media, video games are demonized by some for their often violent nature and dark themes. They’re praised by others (I am among them) for  revolutionizing the way we entertain ourselves.

Rarely do they ascend to the plateau of high art, but they don’t need to; there’s no denying the intrinsic value of just sitting back and letting oneself drift into a alternate reality, if only for a few hours.

It’s uncontestable that the past ten years have seen a revolution in the form. We’ve gone from the relatively low-res 3D graphics of Nintendo 64 and the first Playstation to near-photorealism with the newest and most advanced systems. Storylines are growing deeper, gameplay is becoming more intuitive, and generally speaking, video games have become so engrossing that the best ones are often hard to put down, much like well-penned suspense novels.

Following are my top picks of the decade across five comon categories. I’ll submit that any list such as this is highly subjective, and I welcome your feedback and opinions.

First-person shooter: “Half-Life 2” (Valve, 2004)

Of all game types, the market for first-person shooters is probably the most saturated, and for every good one there are probably ten bad ones.
But every now and then an FPS comes along that everyone can agree on, a game that has some surprises in store for even the most jaded gamers. Half-Life 2 was one of those games.
Though the original Half-Life was a tough act to follow, the sequel broke new ground in graphical realism, in-game physics, and innovative combat and weaponry. Breakneck shooting action is countered by relatively complex physical puzzles. The story of Gordon Freeman, a research-scientist-turned-zombie-killing-badass, is one all video game nerds can relate to on some fantastical level.
Runners-up: Halo: Combat Evolved; Resistance: Fall of Man; Bioshock

Role-playing: “Fallout 3” (Bethesda, 2008)

Role-playing games are generally reserved for the most hardcore gamers, and Fallout 3 is no exception. You could easily put 40, 50, 60 hours overall into this game, and you’re almost guaranteed to lose track of time during each session.
The story revolves around an unnamed survivor of a worldwide nuclear conflict, who escapes from a protected “vault” only to be thrust into a chain of event that can only be described as earth-shattering.
The player wanders through a post-apocalyptic morass in and around former Washington. D.C. (now known simply as “The Capital Wasteland”). Enemies include ruthless raiders, nightmarish, mutated creatures, and warped superhumans armed with chain-guns and sledgehammers. Good luck.
Players must exercise thrift and cunning to survive as they scavenge for food and conserve ammunition. The game is largely open-ended, meaning players can either act as saviors or renegades and choose between good and evil— and see their choices reflected in-game.
Runners-up: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic; Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion; Fable

Action/adventure: “Resident Evil 4” (Capcom, 2005)

Special agent Leon Kennedy has been commissioned to rescue the president’s daughter, but he has no idea what he’s getting himself into.
She’s been kidnapped by a cult group somewhere in Europe, and Leon must overcome an unflagging lineup of dangerous enemies, puzzles and stopping blocks to finally bring her home safe.
The dense plot unfolds slowly and dramatically as Leon snakes his way through three main worlds wrought with enemies wielding all kinds of deadly weapons. Gargantuan boss creatures dot the landscape, as do vendors offering special weapons, upgrades, and healing agents.
This game incorporates elements of shooters, RPGs, and survival horror games. Leon must manage his money, ammo, and limited inventory economically, but he also has to be ready to face a constant onslaught of intelligent and somewhat unpredictable enemies.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this game is its replay value; run-throughs unlock new mini-games and advanced weapons, encouraging and rewarding repeated play.
Runners-up: God of War I and II; Devil May Cry; Ninja Gaiden

Platformer: “Super Mario Galaxy” (Nintendo, 2007)

Now, this one might be more biased since I played most of this game half-stoned on pain meds after getting my wisdom teeth pulled.
That being said, I’ve never had so much honest, unadulterated fun playing a game, and I’ve played a few (if you hadn’t already guessed).
This game is similar to all Mario games in that it involves fighting Bowser and rescuing Princess Peach, but it utilizes the Wii’s motion-control to its fullest extent. It’s simple enough to beat in only several hours, but gets deep and challenging enough to justify a sustained effort to collect all the Power Stars.
Pure innovation, and pure fun.
Runner-up: Little Big Planet

Multiplayer experience: “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” (Infinity Ward, 2007)

COD4’s online community is not the easiest to get accustomed to; thousands of players have the skill to pick you off with sniper rifles twenty times before you even get near their perch, and there are plenty of plain old dirty cheaters.
But once you get past all that and have the moxie to score a few kills each round, the multiplayer mode of this game becomes very rewarding, indeed.
Kills earn you higher and higher ranks, and every few levels, players enjoy new perks, weapons, and upgrades. Multiple gametypes, a high degree of realism, and a burgeoning online community make this shooter the best multiplayer game of the decade.
Runner-up: World of Warcraft

16
Dec
09

This decade’s top five albums you might’ve missed

Well, it’s here, folks: The end of the decade.  Some say 2012 will be the year our species is annhilated, whether we’re decimated by a hostile alien race, killed off by a meteor collision, thrust underground by a nuclear holocaust to die slowly of radiation poisoning, and so on and so forth.

At any rate, this may be the last time we all get treated to any biased, over-general “Best of the Decade” lists. I’ll be submitting my own over the next few weeks. This week: the five best pop albums released between 2000 and 2009. Christmas Eve I’ll reveal my video game faves, and New Years Eve we’ll reminisce about the best television had to offer this decade.
Bear in mind any “best of” list is highly subjective, and I certainly welcome your thoughts on any omissions or opinions on my choices.

Unfortunately, many will remember the 00’s as the years of the Spears, Cyruses, Jonases, and Lil Jons. We saw mainstream rock devolve into pseudo-intellectual emo-trash and/or half-constipated Pearl Jam aping. Popular hip-hop degraded into hook-driven, contrived studio slickness, Auto-Tuned vocal melodies, and emotionally vacuous, self-obsessed lyrical posturing.

But of course, as was the case in any Dark Age of pop music’s history, life was teeming just below the surface. Most of these groups have since had a day (or two) in the sun, and some old dogs turned out solid albums to keep the torch burning.
In my opinion, these were the five best recordings of popular music (with runners-up) of 2000 -2009. The list is rock-heavy as my hip-hop, country, and pop knowledge (and interest) is limited at best, so sue me.

5. Tom Waits: Real Gone (2004)

I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for just about anything the man does. His music is not for everyone by any strech of the imagination, but if you find yourself wanting something a little (or a lot) different, this record delivers.
“Real Gone” oozes Waitsian flourish. For every brutal, bristling minor-key blues arrangement there’s a heartfelt, evocative ballad, and there are even a few weirdos thrown into the mix for good measure.  And  Waits’ signature howl is the spine behind them all.
Overall, this is dark, alarming stuff, and it’s not the most readily-accessible record in the world. But I submit that Waits is among the last truly singular voices left in American music.
Standout cuts: “Hoist that Rag,” “Trampled Rose,” “Make It Rain”

Radiohead: Kid A (2000)

Many would contend that the true measure of a great musical act is its ability to evolve over time, to never make the same record twice.
The challenge most bands face lies in finding a new sound without compromising the qualities which made them great in the first place. And English alt-rock quartet Radiohead set a remarkably high standard in 1997 with “OK Computer,” an album widely regarded by critics and fans alike as their opus.
“Kid A” was a paradigm shift for the band; instead of repeating the success they achieved with standard rock instrumentation on “OK Computer,” they branched out and experiemented more liberally with synthesizers, computers, strings, and brass; they allowed influences from jazz, classical, and electronica to seep into their work.
This is bionic rock for the computer age, babbling, cascading electronic noise standing in stark counterpoint against pop sensibility and an  indefagitable sense of warmth and humanity.
Standout cuts: “Everything In Its Right Place,” “Idioteque,” “Kid A”

3. Interpol: Turn On the Bright Lights (2002)

It’s a crying shame this four-piece NYC post-punk revival group never doubled down and made another album like this one. Though they’ve relased two records since, neither has come close to clearing the high bar set by “Turn on the Bright Lights.”
From the opening track, chiding, tremolo-picked guitar notes sink right into the deep, complex grooves held down by a competent rhythm section. Singer Paul Banks’ dramatic baritone peals out over it all, evoking in the listener memories Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. The overarching effect is swooning, emotional, but driving rock music dense with lush instrumentation.
This record will keep you up at night. Don’t miss it.
Standout cuts: “Obstacle One,” “NYC,” “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down”

2. Aesop Rock: Labor Days (2001)

This is the only hip-hop album on this list, and for good reason. If it weren’t for “Labor Days,” I’d have never gotten into the genre.
The thing that caught my attention about this artist was his lyrical flow; Ace spits at 100 miles a minute, but he still sounds calm, in control, humble.
To say nothing of this record’s unparalleled production savvy, Aesop Rock’s raps are not self-aggrandizing, nor are they petty; Ace possesses a vocabulary the most literate English speakers should envy, and he snakes it through a dense urban narrative with ease.
If this album doesn’t sell you on hip-hop, nothing will.
Standout cuts: “Daylight,” “No Regrets,” “Labor”

1. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

No band this decade  strode with such competence the fine line between abstraction and accessibility, between subtle nuance and solid, down-home rock and roll know-how.
This is a fragmented, haphazard work. The tone drifts between alt-country grooves, understated rock riffs and meandering explorations of what is ultimately a digestible soundscape.
Wilco have made plenty of good albums, but “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is their crowning achievement. This is an album to enjoy in any company, under any circumstances, under the influence of any emotion.
Standout cuts: “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” “Kamera,” “Reservations”

09
Dec
09

CN Column 12/11/09: Keep government away from newspapers

When I decided to pursue a degree in journalism and a low-paying, high-stress career in the news business, I knew what I was getting into. I wasn’t quite old enough to fully comprehend them, but the drawbacks were tucked away into the dustier recesses of my mind, to be recalled only after enjoying four years in the relative comfort of a liberal, American college education.

What I didn’t know (or chose to ignore) at the outset was that the field is unstable, volatile, and heavily reliant on a foundational business model which the Internet has all but proven irrelevant.

News producers are at a crossroads, and I, as an entirely green journalist, was deservedly thrust onto their collective chessboard as a pawn. I just hope I can work my way to the other side of the board without being eaten alive.

And last week’s news that Uncle Sam may provide the news business with a helping hand had many asking the big, rather abstract questions about the role of a free press as a watchdog of the institution.

Generally speaking, the print media proper has been floundering for years, and various “solutions” are now being bandied about among policymakers.

Among these are tax breaks, alterations to certain antitrust laws, and provisions for nonprofit, public-and-foundation-supported models.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., wants the federal government to lend a helping hand to struggling newspapers

“Eventually government is going to have to be responsible to help and resolve these issues,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said at a Federal Trade Commission conference last week.

As one would expect, the right-wing blogs were soon in an uproar, invoking the First Amendment and claiming aid in any form would cede control to the government. And a federally-controlled media, they argued, equates to repression of free speech.

And on one of the rare occasions of my young adult life, I agree wholeheartedly with the conservative camp.

It’s worth noting that, with the exception of Reuters (a wire service), only conservative blogs and news outlets reported this story—though the accuracy and fairness of these reports varied widely.

The conclusion that a government subsidization (or outright bailout) of the press would sway editorial decision-making in a pro-government direction is patently obvious. But if you need proof, an October study of four Argentine newspapers by Harvard’s Rafael Di Tella and Northwestern’s Ignacio Franceschelli on behalf of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab found “a strong correlation between [the papers’] willingness to cover government scandal and the amount of money they received from government coffers.”

This is my biggest objection to government intervention in the free press. If awarded special treatment by the government, reporters and editors will less and less endeavor to bite the hand that feeds them, and will eventually sink into an inescapable rut of tepid, wet-blanket, pro-government pseudo-journalism. A sweeping prediction? Admittedly, yes.

But what attracted me to this field in the first place was not the opportunity to receive special treatment from the institution; rather, it was the opportunity to hold that institution accountable in service of the public good.

And I could paint the picture in even broader brushstrokes, and the grandiose claim has certainly been made before: A true democracy cannot exist without an incisive independent press. We require clear, honest, and accountable reporting to make fair evaluations of political candidates up for general election, and we need to know quite candidly their behavior while in office.

All broad generalizations aside, there are many reasons to fault Waxman and company (and even the president, who has said he’s “open to” press-supporting legislation) for their “solutions” to the print media’s crisis.

I’d like to say “Well, their intentions are good, but …”— but I can’t say that in good conscience. I don’t know their intentions, and they may well be onerous. They might be seeking influence for political gain or outright control, or they may be genuinely interested in lending a hand to a struggling industry. There’s really no telling, but the whole thing reeks to me.

Waxman, et al.’s comments are, not surprisingly, consistent with the coddling bailout culture we now tolerate in the United States. Instead of forcing foundering institutions to either innovate their way out of the red or go out of business (“Too big to fail!”), our leaders now haphazardly bat about billions in (borrowed) government cash with few (almost no) strings attached, in effect subsidizing failed business models, instead of encouraging forward progress.

How’s that for the American Way?

I’ve always thought that maybe, just maybe, I’d reconsider my stance on government bailouts of the private sector when the Fed decides to pay me a lump sum to shore up the considerable debt I incurred to pay for four years of “higher education.”

Then again, I guess I’m small enough to fail.

02
Dec
09

CN Column 12/04/09: Remember your roots, fantasy geeks

In writer-director Kevin Smith’s surprisingly adequate sequel to the dense, verbose indie hit “Clerks,” Randall Graves, a listless 30-something register-jockey teases coworker and momma’s-boy Elias about his adulation of “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy.

“There’s only one Return,” Graves says, “and it’s of the Jedi.”

I recalled this scene last week, when throngs of insatiable teenagers, agog over the impending release of “New Moon,” the newest installment in “The Twilight Saga,” flooded cinemas and netted Summit Entertainment $140.7 million on the opening weekend alone.

For the sake of transparency, I’ll submit I don’t know the first thing about the series or the film, nor do I care to. I think it has something to do with vampires. Or werewolves. Or something.

Beside my obvious removal from the target demographic, part of me is afraid my unrequited (and probably inappropriate) crush on Kristen Stewart would allow the films to become guilty pleasures. And if that happened, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.

Be that as it may, fantasy series, which were traditionally reserved for the “Dungeons and Dragons” set, are a dime a dozen these days.

There was “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in 2001-03, which stimulated a revival of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel and perhaps the genre in general.

Harry Potter was making his film debut around the same time, and the wizard now has five additional films to his credit with another two on the way.

Disney has since tried to translate New Line’s success with “The Lord of the Rings” to the work of one of Tolkien’s contemporaries, C.S. Lewis. “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a seven-part series of children’s novels, has inspired two major film releases so far, one in 2005 and another in 2008. The blatantly Christian message expounded in Lewis’s work was in keeping with the wholesome image Disney projects.

New Line tried its hand with slightly less-popular (and more atheistic) source material when it attempted to adapt the first novel in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” fantasy series. That film was a considerably expensive flop, and it’s unclear whether sequels will follow.

All things considered, I’d say it’s about time the nerds had their day in the sun.

And I’m certainly not about to suggest that I’m not among them. I am a lifelong “Star Wars” geek, a Tolkien fanboy, an obsessive gamer. I am bespectacled and overweight. I own Pocket Protectors. I play “Magic: The Gathering,” for crying out loud.

I was born four years after the last installment of the original “Star Wars” series, “Return of the Jedi.” My youngest brother was born 14 years after it hit theaters.

But despite our chronological distance from the pop culture phenomenon, we both nurtured an unhealthy obsession with the films in our formative years. I played every “Star Wars” computer game I could get my hands on; I owned Star Wars Monopoly, subscribed to Star Wars Insider (a quarterly periodical), and watched the films hundreds of times. Even now, I don’t go much longer than a year without watching the whole trilogy at least once.

And I think that 1999, the year the first prequel, “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was released, was the year the bitterness and cynicism with which I regard life in general took root. I blame George Lucas.

Anyway, even though the original “Star Wars” was produced a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (the ‘70s—God help us), it had enough staying power to speak to pre-adolescents 10, 20, even 30 years later.

And that power resonates to this day. A “Star Wars” cartoon series is still being made, and franchise-themed video games crop up every couple years and typically generate good sales. Novels based on the fictional universe abound, and the films are always running on television, especially around this time of year.

My point here is this: Randall Graves was right. There is only one sci-fi/fantasy film trilogy that has ever mattered. Sure, “The Lord of the Rings” enjoyed a brief explosion of popularity (though there’s no denying the timelessness of Tolkien’s epic novel), and the “Harry Potter” series may claim a similar—but secondary—status to “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi.”

But will another series so singular, so transformational, and so fundamentally appealing ever be born? We’ll see. But I’m willing to bet it won’t be “Twilight.”