With founding frontman Jon Anderson seemingly out of the picture permanently, it's about time for an anthological assessment of the classic Yes years, i.e. the groundbreaking British band's 18-year tenure on Atco/Atlantic. Towards that end, we have The Studio Albums: 1969-1987. As the group that, in many people's eyes, defines prog rock, Yes never did anything small -- their fusion of rock, classical, folk, and jazz was writ large across their entire discography. On their very first album, they expanded Beatles and Byrds songs into outsized, psychedelia-tinged epic blowouts, and milestone outings like Close to the Edge found them crafting their own prog-rock mini-symphonies. 1973's Tales from Topographic Oceans was one of rock's first double-length concept albums, a single suite that initially stretched across four sides of vinyl.
Accordingly, the only way to do right by the Yes catalog in presenting it as a box set is to completely eschew moderation and go all-out. That's why this 13-disc collection is the biggest, most comprehensive Yes release ever assembled. Not only does it allow fans to follow the trajectory of the band's career from one ambitious album to the next through a multitude of evolutionary phases, each album has been given a vivid remastering, and some fetching bonus cuts are appended to each original album (all the records are packaged with original artwork in individual digipak format). And let's face it, if you're the sort who's after the whole megillah instead of just a few select reissues, you want that bonus material.
As you might expect, it's a kick to hear the band's creative process come into focus via items like a working version of Going for the One's epic fan favorite "Awaken," or to hear tunes seemingly intended for the perennially underrated Drama album that didn't see the light of day for decades. But it's just as much fun to immerse yourself in the innovation and luxuriousness of classic albums like Fragile and Relayer in optimum fidelity, as part of an aesthetic continuum. The Yes story didn't end where this set leaves off, but only a fool would argue the fact that this box is comprised of the tale's most important chapters.
I am never not surprised by how much I enjoy Happy Endings. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, that I’d come to expect this caliber of quality delivered by the show so consistently. But it’s not the mere fact that Happy Endings is great, nor how great it is. It’s the fact that it manages to be so great at accomplishing something that, these days, especially in the eye of cynical television critics like myself, all but demands mediocrity.
Happy Endings can and will be compared to the likes of Community, 30 Rock, and Arrested Development in the with and pacing of its comedy. But where such shows enjoy far-reaching concepts, complicated storylines, and formulas yet untested by the television medium, Happy Endings instead opts for a very different approach. In essence, the show is highly pre-postmodern. Anyone who’s seen a sitcom or two in his or her day won’t feel too unfamiliar with the storylines presented in this week’s Happy Endings:
One: Alex and Dave take ill-fated effort to recharge the romance in their relationship — a trope that has withstood the small screen comedy genre since the days of I Love Lucy.
After being prompted by self-proclaimed relationship everything expert Jane to take further steps in spicing up their routine, both Alex and Dave take some misguided steps to prove to one another how invested they are in bolstering the energy between them. Alex, attempting to seduce Dave with a playful house-painting scenario (are people into house-painting?), inadvertently flings a wad of toxic paint into his eyes. Later on, Dave tries to coax Alex to an evening in faux-Paris — an open air café set up in Jane’s backyard, made to resemble Alex’s second favorite travel destination (the first being Smurfland), but accidentally sends her rushing off to the airport… and getting apprehended by O’Hare security. The two end up sharing a tender moment while handcuffed in front of the Chicago airport, so all is hunky dory.
Two: Brad teams up with Max in a business partnership, only to outshine and inevitably stab his friend in the back in the name of glory and pride — another sitcom mainstay. This exact plotline, almost to a T, happened on a Season 5 episode of The Brady Bunch.
Max surprises and impresses his friends with his prowess as a Bar Mitzvah hype man, bringing his old pal Brad, a promising young squire in the art of B.M.H., in on the act… with one rule: only Max does the Human Dreidel dance move. But soon enough, Brad cannot resist the glory — he goes for the gold, and then sells out his friend after a prospective client wants to hire Brad alone to entertain at his son’s Bar Mitzvah. Full calamity is achieved when Max crashes the party, engaging in a ferocious battle of hype with Brad until both of them are ousted by the celebrated young man’s parents. Immediate reconciliation follows.
Three: Penny finds herself the unwitting object of a slew of 13-year-old Jewish boys’ sexual desires … okay, that story archetype is not as well-tread territory as the other two, but I’m sure it happened once on Diff’rent Strokes, or something.
From a distance, Happy Endings doesn’t seem to be setting up to impress. It consistently utilizes standard sitcom stories — with standard, self-contained sitcom conflicts and sitcom solutions — week after week, never really nudging the status quo, challenging its characters, or working toward any larger goals. In its most deliberate efforts, the show will call attention to and comically deconstruct the very tropes it is upholding, but usually from a platform that doesn’t greatly interfere with their playing out to completion. Happy Endings is fully aware of what it is, and is quite pleased with being just that: it’s a sitcom. A traditional sitcom. Of the sort that has earned scathing critique ever since TV became self-aware. Of the sort that would now, by your regular breed of cynical television critics, be considered a lazy grab at something far past its expiration date.
And this in mind, Happy Endings never ceases to shock. For, even as someone who prefers the biting, self-directed satire of shows like Community, 30 Rock, Arrested Development and so on to that of the casual comedies that occupy the majority of the airwaves without contributing much in the new, I find Happy Endings to be one of the most indelibly perfect programs running this season. In a world where the likes of the Three’s Company and Family Matters motifs no longer works, Happy Endings energetically suggests that they most certainly do. To reiterate, it’s a sitcom, cut from the mold of comedies from The Honeymooners to The Odd Couple to What’s Happening!! to Perfect Strangers to Full House to, perhaps most of all, Friends. And how exactly can the show get away with this in a time when the traditional sitcom is all but taboo to we uptight, elitist cynical television critics? Honestly, it’s just that funny.
[Photo Credit: ABC(2)]
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After being cursed by delays The Wolfman Hollywood’s latest spin on the popular werewolf myth finally bares its ugly fangs in theaters this week. Predictably the film is a train wreck of a debacle -- one would expect nothing less from a notoriously troubled production that saw its original director Mark Romanek abandon ship just two weeks before the start of shooting -- but The Wolfman’s problems stem less from the late-game addition of helmer Joe Johnston who at the very least delivered a terrific looking film (its gorgeously eerie Victorian aesthetic evoking a palpable exquisite sense of dread is by far its best feature) than from the misguided efforts of its producer and star Benicio Del Toro.
The Wolfman is the brainchild of Del Toro an ardent horror fan who conceived the film as an homage of sorts to the low-budget “monster movies” from the ‘30s and ‘40s that he loved dearly as a child. It’s fashioned as a loose remake of 1941’s The Wolf Man a film that both established Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as the definitive take on the character and introduced aspects of the werewolf legend now considered sacrosanct. The notion that a werewolf can be felled by an item made from silver for example owes its origin to The Wolf Man.
But Del Toro feels all wrong in the role of Lawrence Talbot the prodigal son of a 19th-century English aristocrat whose fateful encounter with a bloodthirsty lycan the same creature that brutally murdered his brother just days prior triggers his unwitting initiation into the accursed tribe of feral man-beasts. Del Toro's resume of low-key understated performances marked by a muttering often imperceptible delivery in films like Traffic and The Usual Suspects suggests a skill set better suited to playing another famous movie monster one significantly less loquacious than his character in this movie. Seriously -- the guy should have remade Frankenstein instead.
Playing an American-bred (but English-born we’re told) character in an 1890 setting looking uncomfortable in period attire surrounded by such “proper” British actors as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt and fully annunciating all of his line readings for the first time that I can recall Del Toro appears hopelessly out of place in The Wolfman.
Things only get worse unfortunately when Del Toro’s character transforms into the dreaded werewolf. Each time the moon is full the film transitions with increasing ridiculousness from a somber Victorian drama into a hard-core horror flick replete with grisly shots of torn flesh exposed spines and severed limbs. The first overly gruesome attack triggers a kind of nervous laugh more from the shock than anything else. The second invites an amused uneasy chuckle which soon snowballs into an outright belly laugh. And the effect soon spreads to the dialogue the outrageous gore rendering the film's mannered melodrama strangely hysterical.
Of all the Wolfman players only Hopkins seems to get the joke reveling in his manipulative mischief as Talbot's inappropriately glib stoutly aloof father. If only he'd let his castmates in on it.
"Almost Reel is one of the decade's best columns!"
-- Harlan Sanders, The Silver Spring Post-Dispatch
"When I read last week's Almost Reel I laughed, I cried. It was better than Cats."
-- Lew Lautin, National Internet Review
A couple of weeks ago, Columbia Pictures (part of the evil Sony empire) admitted that they'd been using a fictitious movie reviewer, "David Manning," to supply some of the glowing phrases that we see attached to each and every film that comes out of Tinseltown.
"Manning" heaped praise upon such unworthy fare as A Knight's Tale, The Animal and Hollow Man.
If you're anything like me--and if you are, those Air Supply albums are still a guilty pleasure--you're not at all shocked or surprised. Hollywood employs some of the slickest marketing professionals this side of big tobacco, another bastion of corporate responsibility.
There are a few small thoughts that come immediately to mind that should mitigate any sense of outrage we the public may feel at this duplicity.
1. Movie studios are in the business of "pretend." The one product movie studios manufacture is, well, movies, which more often than not are made up. Is it so much of a stretch to us that the studios would make up their own glowing reviews?
Look at it this way: were any of us really shocked that Mike Tyson took a bite out of Evander Holyfield's ear? Sure, there are rules in boxing, but the primary goal of the sport is to turn your opponent's face into a bloody pulp. Mike decided to use his teeth instead of his fists. The means may have changed, but the ends remained the same.
I think you can see how the parallel applies to movies, only with a lot less ear-biting and blood. (Assuming, of course, you're not the producer of three high-profile bombs in a row. If so, watch out--I hear Michael Eisner has sharp teeth.)
2. Movie studios lie all the time. Do bears, bare? Do bees, be? Of course, they do. (Apologies to David Addison.)
Not every movie the studios put out can actually be worth your hard-earned eight bucks, yet the studios only make money if you buy a ticket. In fact, movie studios rank right up there (or is it down there?) with the used car industry on level of truthfulness.
3. Movie studios often pay lots of money for blurbmeisters from all over the country to come to lavish junkets, all for the sake of a nice review. The studios often wine, dine, and give away free movie merchandise (which sometimes means expensive luggage and perfume) to reviewers as part of these junkets.
We the public are just not as attuned to the commonly used euphemisms that those reviewers employ. Although by now I think everyone knows that if a film is plastered with quotes such as "One of the year's/decade's/century's best movies" or "a nonstop roller coaster ride" avoid it like the plague.
Other words that are a real clue to a movie's suckiness include "triumphant," "glorious," "mesmerizing" and "this year's insert movie title here."
So studios tried to cut out the middleman and write their own over-the-top reviews for mediocre movies. Who are we to quibble?
After all, it's the assumption of the movie studios that in this great society we've created the public at large is simply a repository for disposable income, controlled by insect-sized intellect. The public can't possibly discern the difference between the review of a veteran movie screener and the review of my 4-year-old niece.
Astute members of the American citizenry have actually proved that point rather nicely for the studios. Ten (ten--as if one wouldn't have been enough to get the point across) class-action lawsuits have been filed alleging that some of the public has been duped by movie reviews from critics who have been richly wined and dined on studio-paid press junkets.
One of the quotes cited by the attorney representing the plaintiffs compared the John Travolta dud Battlefield Earth favorably to Star Wars. Another review raved that The Perfect Storm is "one of the best movies of all time."
Who are these people that believed those reviews, and where do they live? I have some property in Florida that I'd like to sell them. These rubes are a Wall Street cold-caller's dream.
"Hello Mrs. Smithee? I have a stock that's this year's AOL! It's a triumphant stock, with a glorious upside. It's just going up, up, up and will be one of the year's ten best performers! You say you want 1,000 shares? I'll put you down for 2,000."
Of course, one has to wonder why Columbia Pictures execs thought they had to make up anything. As Washington Post movie critic Desson Howe put it, "This country is overpopulated with helium-filled movie critics who like anything."
Personally, I don't like just anything. There has to be some gratuitous violence.
As for the marketing geniuses at Columbia, don't cry for them.
The two-man brain-trust that made up these phony blurbs e.g., calling A Knight's Tale's Heath Ledger "this year's hottest new star," have returned to work after a 30-day unpaid suspension, presumably to bigger offices and bigger paychecks.
All right, you pressured me into it. I admit it, I wrote those reviews at the top of the column myself. Columbia Pictures here I come!