Baseball Toaster Western Homes
Monthly archives: December 2006


The "Whale of a Good Time" Tour 2007
2006-12-29 22:08
by Mark T.R. Donohue

As I mentioned over on Bad Altitude, I'm going on tour this January. I wasn't expecting to do this, but I'm fortunate enough that at the present time I don't have any responsibilities that can't be shirked for two weeks' time to go ride around in a van and sleep on people's floors.

I was in a band for a while called Subcity Six. We broke up, but back before that we shared a practice space with a group called teamAWESOME!. I went to see them a bunch of times and I always thought they were good. I don't think they had the same lineup any two times I went to one of their shows, but that was always part of their appeal. Their songs are simple, childlike even, but never childish, if you know what I mean. The band uses a lot of nonstandard instrumentation -- if you come out to one of the shows on this tour, you'll see us use harmonica, violin, and glockenspiel in addition to guitar, bass, and drums -- and they're also dedicated to making music that's earnestly positive instead of the naked self-pity that passes for mature emoting in most of today's young bands. That's the reason that when team captain Chuck called me at the last possible minute and asked me to help out on their tour, I said sure thing. That and the fact that the people in the band are really nice, and I thought spending a fortnight making music with them would be a really neat way to begin my 2007.

I know a lot of Toaster readers are west coast-based, so there's a good chance that teamAWESOME! might be coming through your city in a few weeks. We're really counting on getting good crowds so we can sell a few CDs and earn a few bucks for gas and food. If you think you might be interested, there are some songs at the band's MySpace page to which you can listen. Even if you live on the opposite coast or in another country, I encourage you to head over to YouTube to check out the teamAWESOME! video for "Robot," because it's a brilliant piece of filmmaking.

The tour dates for the "Whale of a Good Time" Tour are as follows:

January 1st: Laramie, Wyoming- The Manor
January 2nd: Salt Lake City, Utah- Monk's House of Jazz
January 3rd: Boise, Idaho- Neurolux
January 4th: Spokane, Washington- Mootsy's
January 5th: Seattle, Washington- The Wild Rose
January 6th: Seattle, Washington- The Wizard House
January 7th: Portland, Oregon- The Mississippi Pizza Pub
January 8th: San Francisco, CA- Blondie's Bar and No Grill
January 10th: Santa Barbara, CA- Biko Co-op
January 11th: Los Angeles, CA- The Mint
January 12th: San Diego, CA- Ché Cafe
January 18th: Boulder, CO- Trilogy

So, come out and see us, if you can. Say hello to yours truly. You can't miss me. I'll be the tall, skinny one wearing some kind of sports jersey and mostly faking it on the electric bass. If you really want to help an impoverished band out, you could find some place in Northern California for us to play on the 9th, but that might just be too much for which to ask.

Late Night TiVo Theater Presents...
2006-12-13 23:33
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I'm a TV guy, not a movie guy. I always have been. The buildup for movies, blitzes of television commercials, full-page newspaper ads, the whole act of actually going out and going to the theater and shelling out for ludicrously priced tickets and concessions, almost always ends in disappointment for me. Reflecting today, I remember exactly when I packed it in as far as being a movie fan was concerned: The Matrix Reloaded. I drove miles out of my way to see the damn thing in Imax, and 45 minutes in I was saying to myself "This is it? This is what all the wait was for? I could be watching 'The Simpsons' right now and it wouldn't have cost eleven dollars and half a tank of gas." I never even went to see the third Matrix movie. I still haven't seen it. (And for what it's worth, I never even saw the first one in the theater -- my first glimpse of Neo and Morpheus came on an illegally downloaded version displayed on one of my sophomore year roommates' computer.)

On the comment boards here, I've bragged(?) a couple of times about the fact that I've been to the movies exactly three times in 2006. The year is almost over, and there isn't a single in film in theaters I am even remotely interested in seeing, so it looks like three will be the final tally. It's pretty amazing. I used to sneak out of high school early on Fridays to be the first person in my clique to see whatever that weekend's big opening was. In college I would take the BART to the Metreon theater, buy a ticket to whatever the first thing showing that day was, and theater-hop through four or five movies in a single day. I'm always an early adopter, but I can't be the first to realize that the twin spectres of broadband access and HDTV are going to change the movie industry as we know it in the next decade. Why should I go to the movies? I've got better picture and sound right here in my living room, and I don't have to miss anything or climb over anyone if I need to go to the bathroom. And Diet Cokes, sunflower seeds, and Mike & Ikes are cheap and plentiful.

I do end up seeing most things, but in a random and haphazard fashion. Mostly I wait for things to show up on the premium channels, and then I TiVo them and watch them at my leisure. I have some bad habits in this area. For example, if I have Monster's Ball, Mystic River, and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle all queued up on the DVR, I am going to watch Harold and Kumar first every single time. I have seen RoboCop 2 something like 25 times and I still haven't made it all the way through Brokeback Mountain. I'm only human! (Besides, RoboCop 2 is a highly underrated movie. Also, Blade Trinity.) Once in a great while if I feel particularly inspired I will rent something, but it doesn't happen often.

Wally Shawn and Silent Bob. I was curious enough to rent Clerks II last week, and I've really struggled to find a way of expressing how I feel about it. I didn't dislike the movie completely. Like every Kevin Smith film, there were a couple of parts that were completely misguided and unwatchable (like the completely arbitrary go-kart sequence). Like every Kevin Smith film (except Jersey Girl), there were some inspired dialogue passages. I find it a little unsettling that despite being married with a daughter Smith is if anything more completely clueless as to how to write believable female characters. Rosario Dawson's character in Clerks II is just a boy with breasts, and the movie treats its only other female role (played, weirdly, by Kevin Smith's wife) as such a plot convenience that she even wears a T-shirt announcing it. If Smith had any guts at all he wouldn't use Dawson as a go-between, he'd just have Randal and Dante go ahead and start making out at the climax. But that would offend the core audience of 15-year-old boys and 15-year-old boys-at-heart who are the only folks still caring about Smith and his characters at this point.

Clerks II has a weird tone. On the "technical commentary" (the very existence of which, if you're familiar with Smith's work, is pretty funny) Smith and Scott Mosier discuss how they wanted the film to have a grainy, washed-out look like Spike Lee's 25th Hour, of all movies. It does indeed have a bleak undertone of characters moving forward simply by ceasing to complain about the lack of direction in their lives. It's surpisingly mean-spirited, compared to the relentlessly stupid but entirely harmless Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which is sadly one of Smith's better films. Clerks II isn't just sexist and homophobic, but it's also racist and religiously intolerant. Look at the angry black people! Laugh at the Christian kid getting his morals corrupted! Smith seems to think that just using these devices in such an over-the-top way somehow absolves him of any guilt. "This is so obviously racist that it clearly can't be read as racist" is not an acceptable defense.

But, still. I've seen films in much more questionable taste (even the much-hyped donkey show scene, when it rolls around, is pretty tame) that managed to justify their transgressions by making the audience face old issues in new ways. Clerks II is if anything a surrender. At the end, its heroes realize that all they want to do is keep working at the Quick Stop and the video store for the rest of their lives. Having been justly raked over the coals for trying to branch out with the direly formulaic Jersey Girl, Smith so much as announces with this movie that for the rest of his career he's going to just do minor variations on the same theme. Why not? That's where the money is.

I didn't really put my finger on how uncomfortable Clerks II made me until a few nights later, when I was watching My Dinner with Andre for the first time. I'd heard about the famous Louis Malle film many times, and while paging through the TiVo movie listings a week or so ago, I figured I'd give it a try. I ended up loving it. You've heard the old aphorism, the way to critique a film is by making another film, right? I don't know if Kevin Smith has seen My Dinner with Andre (his tastes usually run to more mainstream fare, unless it's an indie film helmed by a cute lesbian), but he ought to take a look at it. Dinner is a movie about two guys talking, like most of Smith's movies. Smith points the camera and has his actors run lines. Malle directs. The timing of his cuts, pull-ins, and reaction shots don't just serve to keep the action from becoming static, but they somehow provide the missing ingredient in visualizing Andre Gregory's rambling flower-power shaggy dog stories and, just as tangibly, Wallace Shawn's politely exasperated confusion. (Roger Ebert makes this point much more elegantly than I in his Great Movies piece on Andre.) My Dinner with Andre is a sharp rebuke to people who say well, what more can Smith do, it's the limitations of his style. You can make an exciting and compelling movie about two people talking. You can shoot a film in a studio that's set in a restaurant and actually make it look sort of like a real restaurant. The fast-food joint in Clerks II must be the least labor-intensive burger place in cinematic history.

What's more, Wally and Andre are questioning their lives and values at every turn. Dante and Randal are still hung up on which is better, Empire or Jedi?

It's a wicked life, but what the hell. I used to love The Last Waltz. Sure, it's a little dated, some of the guest performers are as random as they come (Neil Diamond???), and the band member interviews establish a standard for banality that Spinal Tap clearly channeled, but for my money there's no more emotional musical performance captured on film than the version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" Levon Helm sings in it. Well, heaven help me, I needed to know more, and after reading Helm's autobiography (This Wheel's on Fire) I went back to watch the thing again and now it's pretty much ruined.

Helm claims (and there's a lot of evidence to support it) that Robbie Roberton broke up The Band because shady album credits had given him a hugely disproportionate chunk of the group's royalties. With a big chunk of coin in the bank, Robertson was perfectly happy to settle down in Hollywood for a life of ease getting loaded with his new buddy Martin Scorsese. Indeed, Scorsese's camera lingers on Robertson lovingly for the whole film, all but ignoring Richard Manuel (The Band's heart and soul) and Garth Hudson (the group's best musician by a wide margin, easily crushing the overrated Robertson, who spent months of his life painstakingly re-recording all of his solos for the movie). Watching The Last Waltz from Helm's perspective, a lot of the joy was drained right out of the film. After "the end" of The Band the remaining four members toured to ever-decreasing audiences until the stress of the road killed first Manuel and then Rick Danko. And the Neil Diamond question is answered in Helm's book too. Robertson had just produced Diamond's new album and figured giving Neil a spot in The Last Waltz would goose its sales. Boy, what a putz.

Scare tactics. It's not technically a movie, but the point I want to make about last week's episode of "Supernatural," "Croatoan," ties in to the big-screen theme. I'm a horror buff. I like being scared, and if there's anything I've learned watching literally hundreds of low- to no-budget 70's and 80's horror movies, it's that what the imagination can conceive is always, always, always scarier than what can be accomplished with practical effects and CGI. That's why every "X-Files" episode is always scary up until the point where you actually see the monster and seldom after. In any event, horror movies despite a run in popularity have started to suck beyond the telling of it in recent years. There is no longer any surprise or tension whatsoever in these gore-porn films like Hostel, the Saw trilogy, and The Passion of the Christ. They're not scary, they're just gross. There's a huge difference.

Anyway, back on television, where standards and practices haven't quite devolved to the point where you can show naked minors taking turns dismembering each other (yet), a little show called "Supernatural" has picked up the neglected flag of psychological horror and is running with it. The show leaned a little bit too heavily on very standard horror devices in its first season, but it's improved by leaps and bounds in Season Two (helped along by a large infusion of former "X-Files" talent on both the writing and production departments). I don't want to say too much about "Croatoan" because really you ought to be able to see it the way I did, just knowing it was a "Supernatural" episode and not much else. Oh man, I was scared. A few times I had to remind myself to breathe. Almost wanting to turn it off but not being able to, being acutely aware of my heightened pulse and the suddenly oppressive tension of the air around me -- now that's good horror. It was one of the last holdouts, comedy, drama, and science fiction having moved over a long time ago, but now the standout horror storytelling lives on the small screen as well.

A New Leaf with Wireless Controllers
2006-12-05 19:14
by Mark T.R. Donohue

My PlayStation 2 stopped working last week. Well, it didn't completely shut down, you could still use the browser and edit the files on your memory cards, if you wanted to for some reason, but it stopped recognizing games and no amount of lens cleaning seemed to make a difference. This was my second PS2. The first one stopped working in the exact same manner. I can't remember what possessed me to buy a second one, but that's enough of that. Fool me once, Sony, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

It doesn't seem to have dissuaded the dozen or so people who lined up in front of the local Target the day before the PlayStation 3 came out, but the PS2's established record of fragility and my profound annoyance at having a second system break only hours into Final Fantasy XII was enough to get me to go out and buy an XBox 360 that very minute. I packed up my PS2, several dozen games, my old XBox, and since I was getting into the spirit of things my seldom-used Gamecube as well and hauled them down to Electronics Boutique. Thanks to my pack rat tendencies I had cases and manuals and in most cases the original twisty-ties for everything from the Game Boy Player to PS2 controller extension cables to the GC/GBA link cable I used exactly once to play Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. I think tallying up what the trade-in value for all of this crap was severely taxed the patience of the EB clerk, but eventually I walked out with an XBox 360 premium bundle, a second wireless controller, rechargeable battery packs, Call of Duty 2, FIFA Soccer '07, and Gears of War. Besides an entire generation's worth of accumulated gaming hardware, all it cost me was $21.

The XBox 360 is great. It's just a very sleek consumer device, taking advantage of Microsoft's superior engineering corps and the lessons they learned from their first console (no more giant-sized controllers). I've barely scratched the surface of its online functionality, noting only that you can download movies, TV shows, and old games including Lumines and the original DOOM. I didn't play a lot online with my old XBox, because I'm not a very competitive person and being trashed-talked by foul-mouthed 12-year-olds isn't exactly my idea of a good time, but even so one of the major selling points of the 360 is Microsoft's incredibly well-designed and functional XBox Live service. The 360 is designed from top to bottom with Live in mind; there's a dashboard button right on the controller so you can send and receive messages from friends even when you are playing single-player games. The way Microsoft forces its brand into every bit of every game, even third-party tiles, is insidious and reminiscent of how Windows tries to force you to use Word, Internet Explorer, and Media Player. For a video game console, however, the enforced uniformity is largely a good development. It's neat that every game has a set of "achievements" which automatically get posted to your gamer profile and even the XBox web site. Of course, now that my crummy skills are a matter of public record, all claims I ever might have had to being a real hardcore gamer are lost and gone forever.

I identify with hardcore gamers because almost all of my circle of friends in high school were those kind of guys. I don't play first-person shooters with their reflexive ease, sadly, because most of the time they spent fragging, I spent practicing the guitar, which in terms of eventual college hookup currency was definitely the right choice. Nonetheless I wish I was hardcore, and I realized trading in all of those old PS2, Gamecube, and XBox games that I have been buying games for many years as if I was. A lot of those games I traded in I barely played. They turned out to be too difficult, or too time-consuming, and I went right back to playing franchise mode in FIFA. And practicing the guitar more.

Well, I still want to be a gamer, but this changeover of systems presents a good opportunity for me to be realistic about what kind of gamer I am. From now on, I'm not buying any games except for ones I know I'm going to play backwards and forwards (again, FIFA). For the rest, well, I signed up for Gamefly and I am going to make an effort to play major new games and record my thoroughly non-hardcore perspective here in this space. I might be a few months behind the curve, but at least I won't be pretending I'm something I'm not. And I'll definitely save a lot of money.

Time Pieces
2006-12-02 13:14
by Mark T.R. Donohue

On the all-time list of movies that people often automatically name-check without even having seen, Rashomon ranks pretty highly, due to its innovative use of flashback structure. I have seen Rashomon. Like a lot of other films that have entered the pantheon due to using some sort of pioneering technique that is now commonplace, it comes across as a little bit underwhelming -- call it the Citizen Kane effect. If you feel you need to see one and only one Kurosawa film, my vote goes for Yojimbo. But you can see why Rashomon references persist fify years after the movie was made. From a critic's perspective, "Rashomon-like" sounds a lot better than "like that one 'X-Files' where Luke Wilson and the kid from The Sandlot are vampires." And movies and television continue to use structures that depart from linear chronological storytelling like it was going out of style, which it obviously isn't.

Three episodes of series television broadcast just this week had me thinking about Rashomon, yet again, and exactly what it is about the flashback that makes it so irresistible for screenwriters. After Pulp Fiction, random time-juggles have been used all over film and TV, and too often, they're merely a way of making up for the lack of a strong plot, not enhancing an already solid one. On the rapidly declining "Lost," the writers' addiction to flashbacks gives them an easy way of avoiding having to give the audience much (or any) new information every week. How many times do we need to sit through boring riffs on already-established material like Jack's perfectionism, Locke's longing for family, or Jin and Sun's marriage-as-a-microcosm for Korean class war? Not to mention how much of a huge cheat it feels like when the writers do their best one week to get us emotionally invested in lame characters like Shannon and Ana Lucia and then kill them the next. For some reason the "Lost" showrunners continue to adhere to the first-season template of "every episode must be built around a flashback," which made sense then and feels stifling now. Whether they wise up and realize they can change this like they've changed everything else on the show will go a long way towards determining whether "Lost" emerges from its present malaise.

But "Lost" is on hiatus; that's not even one of the shows I was talking about. I wanted to address three shows from this week -- actually, they were all on back-to-back-to-back on Monday night -- that used time skips. Two of them, "Heroes" and "How I Met Your Mother," justified the departure from linear storytelling with clever and original twists on the style. One of them, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," cheaply and lazily used flashbacks as a way of trying to inject some drama and portent into a dull script which didn't have any real conflicts or surprises.

"Six Months Ago" wasn't the most exciting episode of the reliably thrilling "Heroes" to go over NBC's air, but it made sense given the schedule. With only two shows left before an extended holiday break, a beat to fill in important background information and save the major revelations and inevitable cliffhanger for the half-season finale next week made sense. To be sure, a lot of the things we learned from going back to right before the time the series began weren't surprising. The major hook of this "Heroes" was seeing the origin story of superpowered serial killer Sylar, but most of what we saw could have been inferred from past episodes' dialogue. (What's more, dressing the character up in Elijah Wood's haircut and glasses from Sin City, speaking of movies that jump around on their internal timeline for no good reason, gave away what little surprise might have remained.) None of our glimpses into Claire, Matt, Niki, and Peter and Nathan's backstories were particularly enlightening, but the more screen time given Nora Zehetner's Eden, the better.

What was really special about "Six Months Ago" was what makes a lot of "Heroes" episodes great -- the scenes involving Masi Oka's Hiro. Other writers than I have pegged Oka as the breakout star of the "Heroes" cast, and they're not wrong. It's almost impossible not to fall in love with Hiro's enthusiasm and spirit. "Six Months," appropriately, gave Oka a romantic storyline, but it also did it in a clever and mind-bending way. While the scenes featuring the rest of the cast all were set six months in the past, as the title suggests, the Hiro we follow in the episode is actually the present-day Hiro, having travelled back in time to try and save the life of Jayma Mays' Charlie, murdered by Sylar back in the series' present. This kept the whole episode from feeling too much like an uninformative placeholder. It even moves the story forward, since the lesson absorbed by Hiro at the hour's close is one that's certainly going to be relevant for all of the "Heroes." Oka has been at the emotional heart of every episode he's been in, starting with the pilot, and "Six Months Ago" is the most he's yet been asked to do, since he's the only character we see in the episode who's aware of all of the chaos that's to come. His performance, smart writing, and a few beautiful moments of pure cinema (a diner filled with hanging paper cranes, a vertical shot of exercisers on an inexplicably green-grassed Tokyo rooftop) turned "Six Months Ago" from what on paper should have been a bland bit of dramatic thumb-twiddling into yet another plank in the ever more convincing argument that "Heroes" is truly something special.

I'm not going to throw around such words of praise with regard to "How I Met Your Mother," but after a wobbly fall start the second-year sitcom has regained its momentum with the best stretch of episodes it's ever boasted. I didn't think they would be able to match the guffaws the Canada-bashing "Slap Bet" induced, and indeed "Single Stamina" wasn't quite that funny. It made up for it with a clever ending that had me asking myself if I'd ever seen such a device in a sitcom before. "Mother" uses flashbacks pretty liberally, most notably in the first season's memorable "The Pineapple Incident," where Ted relied on the recollections of his various friends to reconstruct the events of a forgotten bender the evening before. As the cast has grown in confidence the comedy's reliance on its initial premise has happily been reduced, but of course the whole series is being in told in flashback by Ted to his children. "Single Stamina" however closed with a flash forward, about nine months from the series' present-day. I can't remember another example of a show of this type jumping forward in its time scale to a point so close in the future. Barring catastrophe "How I Met Your Mother" will still be on in nine months' time, and the show gave us a nervy little glimpse into what the characters' lives will be like when we get there. Lily and Marshall will indeed be getting married, no shock there. But if you caught the episode, note the ambiguous way Ted and Robin get up to dance -- could they still be a couple this far ahead? Stay tuned!

"Single Stamina" demonstrated good writing in so many ways. The flash-forward gave the episode's story its natural emotional conclusion, with Barney accepting his brother's decision to get married by bonding with his baby nephew. It also addressed a practical real-world concern. There's no way to be sure that guest star Wayne Brady will be available to appear again in a year's time, so why not go ahead and get his arc covered all in one episode? Not that there's anything preventing the "Mother" producers from bringing him back, or even covering his character's wedding again from a different perspective when it rolls around again in real time. They'll just have to watch the old tape and make sure the outfits and haircuts match. (Maybe the best thing about this episode is that it confirms that Alyson Hannigan will be remaining a brunette for at least the forseeable future. I can dig it.) Revisiting the series' early episodes on the recently released DVDs, you can already find continuity errors if you're the sort of person who keeps up with that kind of thing. But that's part of the fun of "How I Met Your Mother," and of course the whole thing is a tale being told by Bob Saget, and we know how unreliable he is, so...well, you should tune in. Reports of the traditional sitcom's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

The "Studio 60" offering "B-12," following on the heels of "Heroes," had big shoes to fill, and although I'm not as down on the Aaron Sorkin drama as some others, this episode was an outright loser. Each and every time "Studio 60" suggests to me that it's finding its path, it does a stinker like this one and I wonder what I was thinking recommending the pilot so highly. A bunch of half-baked ideas about a hostage situation, Jordan's job security, an outbreak of illness among the cast, and the defection of most of the writing staff, "B-12" had no payoff, so it tried to create artificial momentum by chopping the story up into unintuitive flashbacks. There wasn't any reason to do so, and the seams showed badly. A few repeated scenes that were supposed to play much more dramatic the second time through with additional information available just felt like the TiVo skipping. Anyone with half a brain who'd watched a TV drama could see where they were going, and I'm not giving any sort of extra credit merely for not taking the most obvious path. The linear path is the most obvious one for a reason. If you're not going to provide some sort of dramatic justification for your decision to go all Rashomon on the viewer, don't bother. It's been done.