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Intermission January 8, 2010

Posted by monty in comedy, Nonsense.
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The next time you’re tempted to claim there’s nothing of value on the Internet, just remember that it gave us this:

Wow!  Whoa!  Wow!

*****

Current listening:

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (2009)

Last movie seen:

Daybreakers (2009; The Spierig Brothers, dirs.)

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When Goodness Falls January 7, 2010

Posted by monty in TV.
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Poor Conan.  TMZ is reporting that because Jay Leno’s ratings at 10:00 have been so unrelentingly terrible he’s going to get his old 11:30 time slot back.

On the one hand, I’m pleased as punch to see NBC’s 10:00 experiment fail – and fail so unequivocally – but man, Conan’s clearly going to get the short end of the stick with this deal.  And that’s too bad, because even though I don’t really watch his show anymore, I tuned into it at 12:30 for a lot of years.  It was great fun to see him refine his skills and gain confidence as a host.  Even if he loses The Tonight Show, I’m sure he’ll land on his feet, but still – he deserves better.

New York Entertainment (1/7/10): Conan Out, Leno in at 11:30?

Fade to Black January 7, 2010

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It’s sort of impressive that it took me seven movies to reach the first Stephen King adaptation to unequivocally suck.  Children of the Corn (1984) is so bad, though, that one suspects director Fritz Kiersch was trying to make up for lost time.  To be fair, memory tells me that King’s novels make better movies than his short stories.  When I think of his movies that I consider to be sub-par, the ones based on short stories are the ones that leap to mind first.  I don’t remember much of the “Children of the Corn” story, but if the movie’s anything to go by, it must have been the very definition of flimsy.

The movie opens in the small town of Gatlin, Nebraska, and the first thing we hear is voiceover narration courtesy of Job, a plucky little kid who’s out on the town (after church, I think) with his father.  They swing by the local café, where Dad makes a phone call to his wife, and Job gets a milkshake because he’s a plucky little kid and that’s what plucky little kids do.  While all this small-towniness is going on – much coffee is drunk and many slices of pie are eaten – Job notices a creepy-looking kid (who, with his wide-brimmed hat appears to be Amish) peering in the front window.  He seems to be making eye contact with a second creepy-looking kid (this one with red hair and a serious overbite) playing pinball in the back of the café.  An unspoken signal is passed between them, and a third kid locks the door to the café.  It’s only then that all the children turn on their elders, poisoning the coffee, slicing their throats with knives and sickles, and being generally antisocial.

Cut to three years later.  The town has been taken over by the children, led by Isaac (the creepy Amish kid) and kept in line by Malachai (the redhead in need of orthodontia).  We learn from Job’s plucky narration that not all the kids are on board with Isaac, and we see Job and his sister Sarah attempt to help another boy escape.  He dashes into the cornfield, only to be killed by someone wielding an especially pointy knife.

It’s only now that we meet Vicky (a pre-Terminator Linda Hamilton) and Burt (a pre-Thirtysomething Peter Horton).  They’re driving cross-country for Burt to take a medical internship, and as they pass through the Nebraska cornfields, they accidentally run over the escapee, who’s been tossed in the road by his murderer.  Vicky and Burt throw him in the trunk, and then, with a troubling lack of urgency, tool around the country backroads in search of a hospital.  They finally end up in – you guessed it – Gatlin, and discover that the town is deserted and covered in cornstalks.

As it turns out, Isaac makes ritual sacrifices (of the kids once they reach their eighteenth birthday, as well as any adults unfortunate enough to stumble upon the town) to some unseen creature referred to only as He Who Walks Behind the Rows (it tunnels under the cornfield, so maybe it’s a big worm like in Tremors).  It’s unclear what these sacrifices are achieving since all the kids dress like extras from Witness and technology has apparently been outlawed.  Logical incoherence notwithstanding, once Isaac and Malachai discover there’s fresh meat in town, the rest of the movie involves a lot of running and chasing and hiding.  Vicky is eventually captured, taken to the middle of the cornfield, and – in a symbolic act as subtle as a punch to the nads – is hoisted up, J.C.-style, on a crucifix made of cornstalks.

The climax of the movie, such as it is, involves Burt preaching to the kids that a religion not based in love is a rotten, no-good, really bad thing.  And then they blow up He Who Walks Behind the Rows with gasohol.

It’s pretty bad.  I remember bits and pieces of it from when I watched it as a kid, and it certainly hasn’t held up well.  It’s obvious that the two leads would eventually be headed to bigger and better things (for Hamilton, The Terminator would be released later the same year, and Horton would have to wait three years for the debut of Thirtysomething), and while they make the most of a severely crappy acting situation, even they can’t save Children of the Corn.  The dialogue is laughable, even by horror movie standards, and it’s hard to feel any sort of suspense when Linda Hamilton looks like she could mop the floor with these twerpy little kids.  Some movies are bad, but just miss being passable.  Children of the Corn, however, is a failure on pretty much every conceivable level.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Cujo, 1983 (11/30/09)

The Dead Zone, 1983 (12/11/09)

Christine, 1983 (1/3/10)

Next up: Firestarter (1984)

*****

Current listening:

Arctic Monkeys – Humbug (2009)

Intermission January 6, 2010

Posted by monty in comedy.
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Not to get into the habit of posting a video from The Daily Show on a regular basis, but on last night’s show, Jon Stewart and Aasif Manvi had a terrific conversation about the supposed persecution of Christians.  It’s a nice little follow-up to my recent columns about Brit Hume’s attempted religious conversion of Tiger Woods.  The entire video is worth a watch (hell, it’s only 4:40), but if you’re crunched for time, fast-forward to 2:35 for the key bit.

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That’s When My Headaches Begin January 6, 2010

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The battle against terrorism has been a brutal one, and no one has successfully figured out how to win it.  Until now.  Turns out after all this time, Republican Pete King (NY) has the secret to getting rid of terror: just the say the word more often. This latest bit of Republican lunacy comes courtesy of today’s Good Morning America:

‘You are saying someone should be held accountable. Name one other specific recommendation the president could implement right now to fix this,’ host George Stephanopoulos said to King.

‘I think one main thing would be to — just himself to use the word terrorism more often,’ said King, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee.

They always say it’s the simple solutions that elude us, and it turns out that’s really the case.  I wonder if this works in other situations.  After all, if just saying “terrorism” makes it go away, I think I’ll start working the word “calories” into idle conversation.  And if you suddenly find me talking about Twilight a lot more, well, now you’ll know why.

Why am I still surprised by this stuff?  This is yet another example of the Republicans – apparently bereft of ideas of their own – deciding they’ll just repeat things often enough in the hope that repetition equals truth.  We’ve seen it with accusations of Obama’s socialism, the repeated suspicions about his nationality, the introduction of the death panel (thanks, Sarah Palin!), and now the claim that Obama doesn’t use the word “terror” often enough.  George W. Bush’s bumper sticker school of politics is still alive and well in the Republican party.  And yet people still take them seriously.  Unbelievable.

*****

Current listening:

Florence + The Machine – Lungs (2009)

Perfect Movie Moment #1 January 5, 2010

Posted by monty in movies.
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I’m unveiling a new semi-regular feature on Three Seconds of Dead Air: Perfect Movie Moments.  Occasionally I’m struck by how some movie scenes are exactly right – there’s a convergence of character, of music, of script, of set design, of lighting, of any combination of these things – and the scene’s perfection resonates with me for a variety of reasons.  These won’t be organized or presented in any way other than how they come to me, based on memory or whatever I’m watching at the moment.  I fully realize they might not mean anything to anyone but me, but my guess is some of these will be favorites of yours, as well.

Perfect Movie Moment #1:

From Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, Gwyneth Paltrow (as Margot Tenenbaum) descends from the Green Line Bus to the sublime strains of Nico’s “These Days.”

Rulers, Ruling All Things January 5, 2010

Posted by monty in news, TV.
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I suppose it was only a matter of time.  Last night I posted the video of Brit Hume telling Tiger Woods – on a news show, no less – that what he needed to do was renounce his Buddhist faith and embrace Christianity.  I wasn’t alone in feeling that A) if you want to consider yourself a legitimate news outlet, your Senior Political Analyst can’t proselytize, and B) it’s ignorant and insensitive to dismiss an entire religion in front of a Fox News audience whose knowledge of Buddhism extends exactly as far as the statuary at their favorite Chinese restaurant.

But, just like clockwork, rather than admitting it wasn’t his place to give religious advice to Tiger Woods, Hume went on The O’Reilly Factor last night to complain about how he’s the one being persecuted.

I try to be patient with this kind of stuff, but it irritates me on multiple levels.  The problem that I have with Brit Hume has nothing to do with the Christian faith and everything to do with Christians.  There’s a huge difference between the two, and to continue I’m going to have to ask people to forget for a moment that Tiger Woods is a philandering douchebag.  He is, I’m aware he is, but I’ve got bigger to fish to fry than a pro golfer who can’t keep it in his pants.

It’s so pompous and sanctimonious of Hume to talk down to Tiger – and by extension, all Buddhists – and claim that in times of strife, Christ is the only way to go.  I always thought Christians were supposed to be humble, but what we see time and again is this smug superiority, this sense that they, and only they, know how life is supposed to be lived, and anyone who hasn’t drunk their particular brand of Kool-Aid is automatically inferior.  I’ll say it again: I have no problem with Christianity as a belief system.  But too often its practitioners need to mind their own damn business.

The cries of persecution honestly baffle me.  The main problem seems to be a failure to recognize that criticism is not the same thing as persecution.  I’m not saying Brit Hume can’t be a Christian, can’t think Christianity is great, can’t practice his faith, can’t talk about it publicly, and can’t try to convert oodles of people on his own time.  That would be persecution.  What I’m saying (and what others have said) is that Tiger Woods’ religious faith is none of your business, and it’s supremely inappropriate to use your position as a news correspondent to talk seriously about religious conversion.  This isn’t religious persecution.  It’s honest criticism of your journalistic ethics.

To get a better idea of what I mean, imagine, if you will, that Tiger Woods was a Christian and The Today Show‘s Al Roker was a Muslim.  What do you think would happen (especially at Fox News) if Al did the weather report and then said, “I think the only way for Tiger to overcome his marital infidelities is to read the Qu’ran and convert to Islam”?  Fox would throw a shit fit about the liberal media, Christian fundamentalists across the country would burn Al in effigy, and all those people gathered outside the windows at 30 Rock each morning would bear picket signs.  And of course, on a professional level, Al would be dead wrong.

Tiger Woods has exactly one person to answer to, and that’s his wife.  Maybe his religious faith enters into that transaction, but that’s none of our business.  I believe, as I always have, that religious faith is a personal thing.  I talk about my religious skepticism on here, but I don’t for a second believe I’m necessarily right, or that I have all the answers.  I don’t even want to convince anyone to see things my way.  Christianity would be much more palatable to me if the Brit Humes of the world started to realize that you can live your faith and you can practice your faith, but as soon as you start to impose it on others, you’re a nuisance and a pompous twat.

*****

Current listening:

The Pogues – Just Look Them Straight in the Eye and Say … Pogue Mahone!! (2008)

How and Why Our Dads Lost the War January 5, 2010

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As usual, the Daily Show hits it out of the park.  In last night’s episode, Jon Stewart said everything I was trying to say in last night’s post … only, you know, funnier and more intelligently.  Fast-forward to 6:10 to hear more about one thing I only touched on briefly in my own post: the right-wing’s hypocritical attacks on Obama, which conveniently manage to forget everything they said in the last eight years regarding terrorism.Vodpod videos no longer available.

Intermission January 4, 2010

Posted by monty in news.
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Any time Fox News claims it’s a legitimate news channel, just remind yourself of this video:

We Are the Roman Empire January 4, 2010

Posted by monty in politics.
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In the last few days I’ve attempted to write about the attempted bombing of the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit approximately a dozen times.  Specifically, I wanted to write about the GOP’s predictably panicky spaz attack about the incident, and what it means for our own convenience when we travel.  Each time I gave up after a sentence or two because my frustration with virtually every Republican who opens his/her mouth to the media has reached the point where I want to stick my head in a blender whenever I turn on the TV.  I feel like I need to write about it, but the act might very well kill me.

But I’ll give it a try.

The right wing’s response to the Underpants Bomber (and could there be any purer articulation of this guy’s ineptness than the nickname he’s been given?) has been this:

1) Obama sucks!

2) We need to profile people, and we especially need to profile black males!

3) Obama sucks!

I’m not going to get into the attacks on Obama.  They say he’s soft on terrorism, that he dropped the ball, that he’s got a pre-9/11 mentality.  Whatever.  By this point, it should be clear to anyone with even rudimentary intelligence that the GOP will attack him no matter what he does.  The profiling bit frustrates me, though, because of the lack of cultural understanding it represents.  The right-wing soft-peddles its racism by saying we need to profile Muslims.  But they do understand that not all Muslims look alike, right?  There are African Muslims, Middle Eastern Muslims, Mediterranean Muslims, Eastern European Muslims, even – whisper it – American Muslims. So how exactly do they propose we profile Muslims?  It’ll be based, just like the guy above says, on skin color.  And that, friends and neighbors, is racial prejudice.  Welcome to the Republican Party, circa 2010.  Looks a lot like 1910, doesn’t it?

But here’s why this shit fit about the Underpants Bomber is completely unwarranted:

1) Accidents happen.  We can tighten security all we want, but airport security depends on humans (at the moment, of course, because I’m not ruling out some sort of science-fictiony invention that renders us irrelevant), and where there’s humans, there’s human error.  No one is perfect.  No system works 100% of the time.  Of course we want to make things as secure as we can, but it’s foolhardy to think we can ever be completely safe.  It’s just not that world anymore.  And when an accident does happen, all the hyperbolic finger-pointing in the world isn’t going to change anything.

2) The best argument against the GOP’s crybaby antics, however, relies on sheer numbers and not on my (or anyone else’s) cynical criticism.  Statistician Nate Silver wrote a terrific piece where he simply crunches the numbers based on official figures from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.  Here’s the most most salient part of his article:

Over the past decade, according to BTS, there have been 99,320,309 commercial airline departures that either originated or landed within the United States. Dividing by six, we get one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 departures.

These departures flew a collective 69,415,786,000 miles. That means there has been one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 mles flown. This distance is equivalent to 1,459,664 trips around the diameter of the Earth, 24,218 round trips to the Moon, or two round trips to Neptune.

Assuming an average airborne speed of 425 miles per hour, these airplanes were aloft for a total of 163,331,261 hours. Therefore, there has been one terrorist incident per 27,221,877 hours airborne. This can also be expressed as one incident per 1,134,245 days airborne, or one incident per 3,105 years airborne.

There were a total of 674 passengers, not counting crew or the terrorists themselves, on the flights on which these incidents occurred. By contrast, there have been 7,015,630,000 passenger enplanements over the past decade. Therefore, the odds of being on a given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.

Or, as Bob Cesca pointed out this morning, 45,000 Americans died last year due to a lack of health insurance.  Where’s the outrage there?  Perhaps the teabaggers would find their time better spent protesting lightning or ordering the strip-search of health insurance executives.

*****

Current listening:

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Henry’s Dream

Last movie seen:

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009; Stephen Sommers, dir.)

Cinema Sunday (1/3/10) January 3, 2010

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Maybe it’s the premise.  Maybe it’s the profoundly sucky latter stages of John Carpenter’s career.  Maybe it’s my ailing memory.  Whatever the reason, I went into Christine (1983; my sixth Stephen King adaptation) with the assumption that it sucked.  I was wrong.

One thing I hadn’t considered is that Christine is embedded firmly in director Carpenter’s golden age.  Check this track record, from 1974 to 1986: Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China. I mean, yeah, The Fog kinda sucked (as can be expected of a movie about zombie pirates), but that list contains at least four stone-cold classics, as well as a couple of bona fide cult favorites.  Christine slots confidently into this fertile period, and is astonishingly good.

The movie is, of course, about a haunted car.  It’s ridiculous and preposterous, and the fact that it works at all is credit to Carpenter and the cast he’s assembled.  It all hinges on the role of Arnie Cunningham, the high school nebbish (played by actor turned director Keith Gordon) who purchases the titular ’58 Plymouth Fury and finds himself possessed by its malevolent spirit.  Arnie finds himself inexplicably drawn to the car, buys it against his parents’ wishes, and gradually sees it transform him from a glasses-wearing dweeb into an arrogant and callous stud muffin.

Even before Arnie buys it, though, we know all is not right with Christine.  In an opening sequence set in the 50’s, we see Christine on the assembly line, and it’s here that it (she?) slams its (her?) hood on a worker’s hand, and later kills another worker who thoughtlessly flicked his cigar ash on her pristine seat.  When Arnie buys the car, we learn that its previous owner killed himself in Christine, and his 5-year-old daughter choked to death in her.  So we know from the get-go that Christine is bad news, and Arnie’s best friend – Dennis, the popular jock (played by John Stockwell, another actor turned director) – seems to sense this and tries to talk Arnie out of the purchase.  It’s all for nought, though, and soon Arnie is storing Christine at a local garage and fixing her up in his spare time.

It doesn’t take long for Christine to show her true colors.  Leigh, Arnie’s new girlfriend, nearly chokes to death while they’re at a drive-in movie, and when Christine gets trashed by a group of juvenile delinquents who torment Arnie at school, she systematically wipes them out.  At the same time, Arnie himself becomes crueler and more dismissive of the people around him, choosing instead to spend all his time with his car.  It’s at this point that Dennis and Leigh realize what’s happening, and decide they need to destroy Christine before the car destroys their friend.

As I said at the top, it’s a dopey premise, and Christine was never one of my favorite King books.  I don’t care how gullible you are, a haunted car will never be scary, so for the movie to work, there had to be some other appeal.  The appeal in this case is the uniformly excellent cast, and Carpenter’s direction of it.  As I watched the fun and funny opening scenes – set in high school and introducing the main characters – I found myself wishing Carpenter would try his hand at a straightforward high school movie.  The hallway banter between the characters (even the minor players) was loose and believable, and it effectively created the sort of reality that would be necessary for the rest of the plot to work.

Gordon, especially, is impressive.  Most people will know him from the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School (1986), but in Christine he has to run the emotional gamut, starting out as a completely powerless, perpetually victimized nerd and ending as a raving lunatic, in thrall to an obsession that everyone else sees but him.  The movie can’t be taken seriously in good conscience, but Gordon goes all-in, playing Arnie with a straight face as a real person.  He initially wants to buy Christine because it would be the lone thing in his life over which he’d have any control.  When you think about Arnie in those terms – and I think we all know at least one Arnie in our lives –   it’s sort of profoundly sad to see what eventually happens to him.  The dude just wanted to fit in. (Interesting side note: Gordon, as I mentioned earlier, became a director.  Among his films are excellent adaptations of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night.  His standout, though, is a World War II flick called A Midnight Clear, which I think is a brilliant film.  Seek it out.)

The rest of the movie is exactly as good as a movie about a haunted car can be.  As we see Christine start to hunt down Arnie’s tormentors, it’s mildly spooky to see this giant metal predator silently tail them, and the way Carpenter has shot these sequences, it works to not know yet whether Arnie is behind the wheel.  The one bravura scene happens after Christine blows up a gas station (don’t worry – the ridiculousness of that sentence doesn’t escape me; you just have to go with it) and goes careening down a darkened street in a ball of flame, chasing down one more victim.

There’s some other ancillary stuff (the reliably great Harry Dean Stanton shows up as a detective investigating the sudden rash of murders; Arnie and Leigh break up once she realizes he’s become a deranged nutbag), but really, the whole thing is building up to the final showdown between Christine and Dennis driving a bulldozer.

As that last sentence indicates, the movie is, in some ways, review-proof.  Criticism is almost beside the point, because Christine really has no hope of ever being anything other than dumb fun.  But damn it all if it doesn’t come close.  Carpenter somehow makes it work, and the reason, of course, is that, despite what I wrote at the beginning, he’s made a movie that isn’t really about a haunted car.  The car is on the poster, but at its heart, the movie is about one man’s descent into madness, and the friends who try to save him.  It’s less frightening than you’d hope, but deeper than you expect.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Cujo, 1983 (11/30/09)

The Dead Zone, 1983 (12/11/09)

Next up: Children of the Corn (1984)

*****

Current listening:

Warm Jets – Future Signs (1997)

Resignation Studies January 2, 2010

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I wish I could take credit for this, but I’m not feeling nearly inventive enough.  Dan Schneider at DanWarp has compiled a list of phrases it’s time to retire.  Again, I didn’t come up with the list, but I agree with its contents, which is really the important thing, isn’t it?

Phrases That Aren’t as Cool or Funny as They Once Were:

  1. “Not so much,” and its even more tired cousin, “Eh, not so much.”
  2. “Too much information!”
  3. “And by [that] I mean [this].”
  4. “I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.”
  5. “Good times.”
  6. “Did I say that out loud?”
  7. “_____ much?” (e.g., “Jealous much?” “Angry much?”)
  8. “Hey, stop eating my dinner, Eatie McEaterson!” (or any similar phrase that ends in Blank-y McBlankerson)
  9. Really?!
  10. “It’s like a party in my mouth.” (in reference to food or drink that tastes good)
  11. “Hey, don’t go there!”
  12. “Burn!” (spoken after someone has delivered an insult)
  13. “Alrighty then.”
  14. “Ya THINK?”
  15. “Thanks for sharing.”
  16. “Best.  _____.  Ever.”
  17. “Oh, snap!”
  18. “Business.” (as in referring to one’s personal body parts as your, his, or her “business”)

Phrases That Aren’t Attempting to Be Funny, but Still Need to Be Retired:

  1. “At the end of the day.”
  2. “It is what it is.”
  3. “It’s all good.”
  4. “Just sayin’.”
  5. “Epic win” and “epic fail.”
  6. “Pics or it didn’t happen.”
  7. “That’s how I roll” or “That’s how we roll.”
  8. “I’m not gonna lie…”

Leave a comment with your own additions to the list.

*****

Current listening:

The Clientele – Suburban Light (2000)

Last movie seen:

Ginger Snaps (2000; John Fawcett, dir.)

Apologies to Insect Life January 1, 2010

Posted by monty in news, politics.
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Somehow I’ll have to overlook the fact that 2009 took John Hughes and Patrick Swayze (by all accounts, two of the kindest, most good-hearted men in show business) from us, but left Rush Limbaugh alive and kicking.  What I can’t overlook, though, is the statement he made about his recent hospitalization: “I don’t think there’s one thing wrong with the American health care system.  It is working just fine.”

This arrogance perfectly encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the position held by the opponents of health care reform.  They think that because their health care is just hunky-dory, that means it’s working for everyone else.  Let’s keep in mind that Limbaugh makes, depending on whom you ask, somewhere between $28 and $34 million a year, just from his broadcasting contract with Clear Channel.  So of course the health care system works just fine.  He could probably buy the hospital that treated him.

The important question to ask him, though, is this:

Rush, if you made $30,000 a year and didn’t have employer health insurance or weren’t wealthy enough to pay out of pocket, how well would you think the health care system is working?  If you were suddenly faced with a hospital bill that totaled more than you make in a year, would you think we have the best system in the world?

This is why a strong public option (or, dare I say it, a single-payer system) is vital: to protect those who can’t protect themselves.  But the GOP doesn’t see it this way.  Their health care bills are covered, and their salaries are healthy enough to bear the brunt of anything not covered.  The rest of the great unwashed, as far as the Republicans are concerned, can go fuck themselves.

And I don’t know if this is a piece of the puzzle or not, but I can’t help but wonder to what degree Limbaugh’s chest pains can be attributed to the fact that he’s a morbidly obese, cigar-smoking, ex-drug addict who peddles manufactured rage.  Shouldn’t these dangerous lifestyle choices somehow disqualify him from insurance coverage?

I know, I know.  In a perfect world.

*****

Current listening:

The Clash – Combat Rock (1982)

Melodies Haunt You January 1, 2010

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One thing my two-week-plus absence robbed me of is the chance to launch a bilious screed against 2009.  It was tempting in the last few days to recap the year that was, or to point out how the right wing’s predictably nasty, conveniently amnesiac response to the failed Christmas Day bomb plot (and can we please stop calling him the Underwear Bomber?) was just one more kick in the nads to a year that was already battered and bleeding.  As succulent as it would be to tell 2009 what I really thought of it, at this point I think it would be redundant.  We all know it was a shitty year; there’s no need to belabor the point, especially now that it’s 2010, which means personal jet packs should be just around the corner.

So, instead of looking back in anger, I’ll take a gentler tack.  Even though I resist the notion that 2009 marks the end of the decade (Year One, people – come on), I was a good little sheep and compiled my list of the best albums of the last ten years.  It was, I think, a pretty good decade for music, as evidenced by the fact that there were quite a few tough calls on this list, and at least a couple albums that would probably show up on my all-time Top Ten.  I didn’t adhere to any particular rules – I allowed myself more than one album per artist, and I didn’t feel particularly obligated to include a token hip-hop act (or electronic or polka or whatever).  These are simply the fifty albums that resonated the most with me from January 1, 2000 to December 31, 2009.  The list, then, with a little commentary on the top ten:

50. The Decemberists – Picaresque (2005)

49. Ted Leo + Pharmacists – Hearts of Oak (2003)

48. The Coral – Self-titled (2002)

47. Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour of Bewilderbeast (2000)

46. The Mountain Goats – The Sunset Tree (2005)

45. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – No More Shall We Part (2001)

44. Secret Machines – Now Here is Nowhere (2004)

43. Guided by Voices – Isolation Drills (2001)

42. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell (2003)

41. Eels – Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (2005)

40. The Libertines – Up the Bracket (2002)

39. Muse – Origin of Symmetry (2001)

38. Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism (2003)

37. Art Brut – Bang Bang Rock and Roll (2005)

36. The Streets – Original Pirate Material (2002)

35. Richard Hawley – Coles Corner (2005)

34. Ballboy – A Guide for the Daylight Hours (2003)

33. Cloud Cult – Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes) (2008)

32. Explosions in the Sky – The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003)

31. Doves – Lost Souls (2000)

30. U2 – No Line on the Horizon (2009)

29. Regina Spektor – Soviet Kitsch (2004)

28. Editors – The Back Room (2005)

27. The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters (2007)

26. Ash – Free All Angels (2001)

25. Idlewild – The Remote Part (2002)

24. Elbow – Leaders of the Free World (2005)

23. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)

22. Rainer Maria – A Better Version of Me (2001)

21. Franz Ferdinand – Self-titled (2004)

20. Primal Scream – XTRMNTR (2000)

19. The Mountain Goats – We Shall All Be Healed (2004)

18. Spiritualized – Songs in A & E (2008)

17. Modest Mouse – The Moon and Antarctica (2000)

16. Ryan Adams – Gold (2001)

15. Bloc Party – Silent Alarm (2005)

14. Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)

13. Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)

12. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004)

11. The Delgados – The Great Eastern

10. Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump (2000) Unfairly pegged as a poor man’s Flaming Lips, Grandaddy’s sophomore album is every bit as prescient at Radiohead’s OK Computer, and twice as melodic.  The songs here occasionally burst forth with joyous keyboards (see “The Crystal Lake,” one of my all-time favorite songs) or buoyant guitars, but they are, by and large, wistful and melancholic things, anchored by Jason Lytle’s plaintive voice and an undercurrent of foreboding.  The fact that it remains an exciting listen on subsequent spins is a testament to the superior songcraft within.

9. The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday (2005) I love new bands featuring young whippersnappers who are hungry for success and adoration.  Their vitality and exuberance keeps rock music alive from generation to generation, and it’s important to see the torch get passed to a younger generation.  At the same time, though, it’s just as thrilling to see a band like The Hold Steady – grizzled veterans in their 40’s who just know how to rock like a bunch of crazy mofos.  This album is a perfect distillation of singer-guitarist Craig Finn’s literate story-songs (see “My Little Hoodrat Friend”) and the rest of the band’s bluesy, quasi-bar-band crunch.  I get the Springsteen comparisons, but to me they’re a modern-day Replacements, which is one of the highest honors I can bestow.

8. Mercury Rev – All Is Dream (2001) It’s the rare album whose songs could just as easily soundtrack your pleasant dreams as well as your nightmares.  Mercury Rev’s fifth album is that rare beast, and it’s the pinnacle of their woozy, psychedelic art.  It’s an album that’s weird and beautiful and unsettling and majestic (sometimes in the span of one song, as in lead-off track “The Dark Is Rising”).  Vocalist Jonathan Donahue has never sounded quite as fragile, and the rest of the band has never sounded quite as inspired.  At some point during the course of the album you realize you’re listening to a rock band metamorphose into something far more bizarre and wonderful, and it’s exciting to watch it take flight.  They would try to replicate the success of this album on subsequent collections, but have never again come close to the exquisite delirium of All Is Dream.

7. The Strokes – Is This It (2001) Depending on what day of the week you ask me, this album might make an even higher appearance on the list.  The Strokes’ debut is, hands down, the most exciting first album I can think of from this decade, each song sounding like the greatest single you’ve ever heard bursting from your speakers (see the live version of “Someday” for evidence).  It hits the ground running with the title track and then careens breathlessly through ten more spiky, live-wire numbers.  It’s not innovative or envelope-pushing or genre-busting; it’s simply guitar music at its best, and its unfortunate that the last eight years have dulled the shot of adrenaline this album gave to an otherwise moribund music scene.

6. Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights (2002) Interpol’s debut album is all the evidence you need that a band need not be original to be brilliant.  More than a little reminiscent of U.K. post-punk mainstays Joy Division and The Chameleons, Interpol confidently cast its lot with the black-clad crowd, offering up gloomy, atmospheric tunes tailor-made for listening in the wee hours of the morning.  What often gets overlooked, though, is the band’s muscle (see “Obstacle 1,” recorded live for Jimmy Kimmel’s show, for proof).  They don’t simply ape their predecessors; they take the best bits of their influences and transmute them into something relevant, vital, and fresh.  And yeah, I know they generally suck as a live band, but with a debut this confident and powerful, I’ll forgive them just about anything.

5. Sigur Ros – ( ) (2002) Can beauty punch you in the gut?  That’s always sort of the way I feel after listening to this album – like I’ve just heard something intensely wonderful, but in the process the album took me out back and beat the crap out of me.  ( ) is a monster of an album, each song mostly instrumental and almost invariably building to a swelling, majestic crescendo that crashes over you like a cresting wave.  What’s more remarkable is the fact that when there are vocals, they’re sung in a made-up language that their singer calls “Hopelandish” (see “Untitled 4”).  Maybe it’s pretentious; maybe it’s genius.  But it’s convincing evidence that the emotional language of music transcends what we can consciously understand.

4. The National – Alligator (2005) This band has been probably the most significant “grower” on my list.  Their first two albums were nice enough, but with Alligator and 2007’s Boxer, The National has become a force to be reckoned with.  The band mines a similar vein as Tindersticks, baritone singer Matt Berninger spinning out literate late-night tales as the band lays down an expansive, anthemic backing (see “Secret Meeting,” the album’s lead-off track).  The band truly comes to life in a live setting – their set at 2008’s Coachella is one of my favorite memories from the festival – and it’s in concert that album standouts like “Lit Up” and “Mr. November” take on a completely new character.  Most exciting of all is that one gets the feeling that this is still a band on the way up, and that their best days are still ahead of them.

3. Doves – The Last Broadcast (2002) I thought Doves had no chance of topping their beautiful, melancholic debut, 2000’s Lost Souls. Then I heard their sophomore album, and realized there was no limit to what this band could do.  Where the band had previously only hinted at its widescreen tendencies, here they present a clutch of songs that are simultaneously euphoric, anthemic, and life-affirming (see the live version of “There Goes the Fear”).  Taken as a whole, the album – and that’s really how you have to take it; not as a shuffled songs on an iPod – is an embarrassment of riches, bursting at the seams with glorious choruses and a sense of joy and passion that puts the cynical to shame.

2. Radiohead – Kid A (2000) I’m not sure I would have made it through my first year in grad school without this album.  While I loved the band’s previous work, this is the first of their albums that I truly connected with on a personal level (which is odd since it’s the one that was supposedly their difficult, inaccessible album).  Capturing the band at its most experimental, the densely layered songs see Radiohead embracing experimentation with stirring results.  They largely eschew traditional “rock” tropes, processing the vocals and guitars beyond recognition, and throwing in, at various times, cacophonous brass, glitchy electronica, and sweeping strings.  It’s an uneasy balance between the sterile and the organic, and somehow it all works (see the live version of “Idioteque”). We desperately need bands like Radiohead, who flirt with the mainstream while challenging and subverting what’s acceptable and popular.

1. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid (2008) A week ago this album was #2.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I really can’t underestimate or overstate just what this album (and the band’s live performances) has meant to me during the last two years.  I love music, but it’s the rare album that always makes me feel better, that always reveals new things to me each listen, and that never fails to make me believe in the beauty of the world.  And that’s why it’s my favorite album of the decade.  Singer Guy Garvey is the kind of boozy, affable romantic that I’d love to be in another life, and the rest of the band manages to be sentimental and atmospheric without being mawkish or hokey.  It’s an astonishing album that I suspect will only get better with age.  The two songs included below are required viewing: recorded live with the BBC Concert Orchestra, they capture two facets of this very special band.

*****

Current listening:

Memory Tapes – Seek Magic (2009)

Current reading:

Heidi Julavits – “The Miniaturist” (in McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, ed. by Michael Chabon, 2004)

Last movie seen:

It’s Complicated (2009; Nancy Meyers, dir.)