Movies: Chicago

After nearly thirty-two continual years of football apathy, I decided that, this year, I was going to take Not Giving A Rat’s-Ass About The Superbowl to the whole next level. Instead of simply not watching the Big Game, I was going to seek out and engage in some activity that no true SuperBowl fan would even dream of undertaking.

So, last Sunday, I went to see Chicago.

(I later discovered that my father had trumped me by spending Sunday at — this is true — “The Superbowl of Poetry VI“. He’s always trying to one-up me, that dad o’ mine.)

I’ll admit to having a second motive as well. I will almost always go to see a movie in a cataegory that I fear is on the brink of extinction: Old Fashioned Murder Mysteries (Gosford Park), Animated Movies Made For Adult Audiences (Spirited Away), Contemporary Comedies That Don’t Involve Flatulence (drawing a blank, here), and the like. I often go into these films more out of a sense of duty than out of any expectation of quality. This often leads to disappointment (did I mention Gosford Park?), but can also lead to pleasant surprise when a movie turns out to be more than just a excellent example of a particular genre. Such is the case with Chicago, which went well beyond the realm of Great Musical into Damned Fine Motion Picture territory.

Based on a play of the same name, Chicago tells the tale of three publicity hounds living in an era when even double-homicide only earns you six minutes of fame. That’s bad news for those who make a living on the stage or aspire to one day make it big, because attracting and keeping the public’s attention has become a Herculean feat. Fortunately for Velma (Cathrine Zeta-Jones) and Roxy (Renee Zellweger), they have more than just their good-looks and long legs to keep them in the spotlight, they also have several counts of murder between them. And their efforts to dodge execution bring in yet another Fame Attractor, defense attorney Bill Flynn (Richard Gere) who is one-third lawyer and five-fourths showman.

Chicago is two movies, show in parallel. The bulk of the story unfolds on death row, where Velma and Roxy navigate prison life and dream of using their publicity as a springboard for superstardom. But the scenes advancing the plot alternate with song-and-dance numbers which take place in a vaudeville setting. When Roxy meets the prison matron (Queen Latifah), for example, we first see the wardeness laying out the law in harsh, spoken-language, but the scene then abruptly switches to a cabaret, where Latifah, now decked out in a sequined gown and singing on-stage to a crowded nightclub, belts out a showtune entitled “When You’re Good To Mamma, Mamma’s Good To You”. This very clever method of segregating the plot for the singing avoids what often annoys me the most about musicals — the premise that, in real life, people are prone to breaking out into arias in the middle of everyday situations.

Furthermore, everyone gets a song — this isn’t just the Gere, Zellweger, Zeta-Jones show. The ladies accompanying Velma and Roxy on death row get to tell their tales in “Cell Block Tango,” and even John C. Reilly gets to do a little soft-shoe. For a movie about folks jockeying for the limelight, Chicago does an admirable job of making sure no one actor dominates.

Throughout most of 2002 (until Das Experiment, anyway) I was bitchin’ and moanin’ about how few good movies I had seen that year. Now here we are, less than a month into 2003, and I’ve already seen two that would have made last year’s Top Five list. Having gone to see Chicago just to avoid watching football, I certainly hadn’t expected to enjoy myself to such a degree, but I can’t deny that I came out of the theater feeling more energized and elated than I have after any movie in recent memory. Indeed, it looks as though I have no choice but to describe Chicago with the most unSuperBowlie of superlatives: absolutely fabulous.

Astute-like Observation

I love how the media is describing “Sapphire” as a “virus-like worm”.

For future reference, “virus-like worm” = “We didn’t know if it was a virus or a worm, so we asked our IT department to explain the difference between the two and couldn’t understand a damned thing they said, so we’re just going to call it both.”

Locke Jaw

Hey Washingtonians! How about that Governor Gary Locke, huh? Did he give a great Democratic response speech or what?

No seriously, I am asking you: did he give a great Democratic response speech? Because I have no idea. The Queen and I watched it, but we were able to hear very little over our own, compulsive editorializing.

Announcer: Ladies and Gentleman, the Democratic Nation Party’s official response to the State of the Union Address.

Locke: Good evening. I’m Gary Locke, the Governor of —

Queen: Oh my god! Look at his hair!

Me: How can I not?

Locke: My grandfather came to this country from China nearly a century ago, and worked —

Queen: Is it a toupee? Is he wearing a toupee?

Me: Why would he wear a toupee when he has a perfectly good head of hair?

Queen: Then what idiot styled it to look exactly like a toupee?

Both: [Laughter]

Locke: We also support the President in working with our allies and the United Nations to eliminate —

Me: Why is he doing the head-waggle?

Locke: Together, we can meet these global challenges —

Me: Check that out: he’s totally doing the head-waggle. Who coached him on this speech, Leslie Miller? He delivers every line with the Leslie Miller / barn owl / “ain’t no man of mine gonna call me no skank” head-waggle. It’s like watching the Democratic response given by a bobblehead doll.

Locke: Our plan provides over a hundred billion dollars in tax relief —

Queen: Why is he smiling? Who told him to smile? He looks ridiculous when he smiles. I’ve never seen him smile during a speech before.

Me: Well, that’s because the only time he gives speeches is after some initiative he supported gets voted down five-to-one.

Queen: True.

Locke: To strengthen America at home, there’s much more to do —

Me: You can tell that he’s forcing himself to smile. He frowns while talking and then gives with the smile at the end of every paragraph. He goes, like, “[Frown] Our parents shouldn’t be forced to give up their doctor [Smile!]. [Frown] That won’t save Medicare [Smile!], [frown] it would privatize it [Smile!].”

Both: [Laughter]

Locke: Environmental protection has been a tremendous bipartisan success —

Queen: Can’t. Stop. Looking. At the hair.

Locke: Yes, the Republican Party now controls the executive branch —

Queen: The combination of the smile, the hair and the glasses make him look like a big nerd.

Me: I keep waiting for some bully to come on-screen and push him.

Queen: People from other states are going to stop us on the streets and say “My governor can beat up your governor.”

Both: [Laughter]

Locke: That’s the vision of the Democratic Party –

Me: You know what would have been great?

Queen: What?

Me: If the Announcer Guy was, like,”Ladies and Gentlemen, the Governor of Washington State” and then they cut to Locke looking all somber and serious, and then he suddenly started flailing around and yelling “Bats! Bats in my hair! Get ’em off me! Bats in my hair!!”

Both: [Long Laughter]

Locke: Thank you for listening, and God Bless America.

Queen: What, it’s over already?

Me: Yeah, but keep watching: I heard that Tim Eyman will be giving a rebuttal to the rebuttal.

Both: [Laughter]

Me and The Queen, we have a good time.

Armed and Dangerous

Until recently, the only thing I ever did at the gym was run on the treadmill. Then, about three weeks ago, I started using the elliptical trainer — that’s the doohummer where you push and pull the handles that are connected to the pedals. Working out my arms is a new thing for me. The last time I did upper-body work was pushing bowls of oatmeal off my high-chair tray.

So yesterday I’m admiring myself in the mirror, as I do every day from 7:00 – 8:15 PM, and notice what appears to be a boil on my upper arm. Upon closer inspection, however, it turns out to be an honest-to-god muscle — not a gargantuan Basedow-league muscle or anything, but more like a training muscle, like a Fisher Price “My First Muscle™”. Not that this comes as a total surprise. Just the other day I noticed that I could pick up the cat for three, sometimes four, minutes in a stretch before getting winded. Also, I’ve been able to press the buttons on my Playstation controller a lot harder.

Anyhow, now I’m trying to figure out what to do with this thing. Lift some heavy stuff, I guess, or go to the carnival and play Hit-the-Lever-With-the-Sledgehammer. One thing’s for sure, though: no one is going to fuck with Matthew Baldwin now that he has a muscle. People will say to me “It’s cool that you have so much self-confidence that you don’t even try to brush your hair in the morning,” and I’ll be all like “That’s a good one … but not as good as this!” and roll up my sleeve and they’ll get all quiet and respectful and run off to fetch me root beer. And when my boss calls me up and says “Matthew, your failure to come in to work for the last four days is unacceptable!” I’ll say “don’t you mean un-biceps-able?!” and hold my muscle up to the phone and then he’ll promote me. Everything’s going to change now that I have a muscle. I’m like a nuclearized North Korea.

defective yeti ¢ent $aver Tip!

Want to “rap” with your friends for two hours, but don’t want to pay for a full-price movie ticket? Here’s a defective yeti ¢ent $aver Tip: many theaters offer “matinee” showings earlier in the day at a reduced cost, allowing you to talk with your buddies for as little as $5. You could even rent a movie and chat in the comfort of your very own home.

And although it’s not widely known, it’s even possible to carry on a two-hour conversation without a movie playing in the background! Next time, try going to a Starbucks or strolling through a local park and talking there –not only will you save the eight dollars you would have spent on a ticket to Chicago, but you’ll also spare me the trouble of having to glare at you every ten minutes, you fucking jackass!

Now that’s an idea that makes ¢ents!

‘Axies’ Fever Sweeps Globe

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holds Iran’s Axie aloft during his acceptance speech at the 2002 State of the Union Address.

"Axies" Fever is sweeping the globe, as leaders and citizens around the world eagerly anticipate tomorrow's announcement of the 2003 "Axis of Evil" inductees.

The Axis of Evil Awards -- or "Axies," as they have come to be called -- are the brainchild of US President George Bush, who distributed the first four awards during the 2002 State of the Union address. Intended to "recognize those nations who have gone the extra, evil mile," the Axies have since become one of the most coveted awards a country can receive.

World leaders have spent billions in recent months to call attention to their evil deeds, some taking out full-page ads in The New York Times, others sending videotapes of atrocities directly to the White House. In an unusual move, a top Nigerian official has sent unsolicited email to millions of people documenting his nation's practice of "setting up companies and awarding themselves contracts which were grossly over-invoiced."

But despite the fervor, not everyone is looking forward to the event. "The Axies are nothing but a big anti-popularity contest," groused Bashar al-Assad, leader of Syria, whose nation is expected to be passed over again this year. "We are way more evil than Iraq, but just because they tried to assassinate Bush's father they got the award. Suck-ups." Others have insinuated that the entire selection process is rife with corruption. "The voting is totally rigged," says Jean Chr


I will be appearing on the NPR radio show Rewind this weekend as one of their resident Know-It-Alls. So if you’ve ever wanted to hear the yeti howl, this is your big chance. You can also listen to it online — my schtick begins approximately 28 minutes in.

The question I responded to was:

High school student and basketball phenom LeBron James is skipping college entirely and going straight to the NBA. And why shouldn’t he? What does college offer that fame and fortune does not?

My reply:

As I see it, college has two distinct advantages over fame.

First, in college you can wholeheartedly believe any stupid idea that comes along and no one will fault you for it. People assume that whatever crazy doctrine you currently subscribe too, you’ll soon take another class or read another book that will send you off in new philosophical direction. After reading “On Walden Pond” you honestly believe that, upon graduation, you are going to renounce all your worldly possessions (except for your Phish CDs, obviously) and move to a remote cabin by a lake. And you tell your friends and family this, and they’re, like, “That’s a beautiful dream! We support you!” But inside they’re thinking “Oh well, no need to worry. Next semester he’ll take economics and be all like ‘Greed is good! Invisible hand, yo!’.”

You can’t get away with that when you’re famous. If you announce that you deeply committed to some position or another people will hold you to it forever. How many college kids, back in 2000, said they were going to move out of the country if Bush won the election? All of them, that’s how many. But no one asks them why they’re still around. Alec Baldwin, on the other hand — that poor chump is still getting grief making such threats. Unlike college students, he can’t just brush it off with a “Oh dude, whatever: I was totally stoned when I said that.” And look at Trent Lott. If he were attending a university he could have just said “Oh yeah, I was way into segregation a few weeks ago? But this semester I’m, you know, taking a class in African American history? And now I think diversity is, like, awesome!”

College is like a big roleplaying game: three times a year you get a Course Catalog and have the opportunity to completely reinvent your personality. “Okay,” you say, “I’m going to start this year with Ecology and Renaissance Literature and Nutrition,” and you’re essentially deciding, in advance, that for the next three months you’re going to be a tree-hugging Eurocentric health-nazi. You take a class on Jean-Paul Satre, mope around for a season while listening to The Smiths and declaiming about the pointlessness of life, and your buddies just shrug their shoulders and gently suggest that, next quarter, you might skip “Existentialism 102” and take Microbiology instead.

Famous people don’t have that luxury. We have these platonic ideals of celebrities — Barbara Streisand is liberal and Charlton Heston is a gun-lover and Shirley MacLaine is a nut — and we don’t like anyone messin’ with those, not even the celebrity in question. But in college you can mix ‘n’ match opinions and beliefs like Geranimals, and no one thinks twice. Bruce Willis is doomed to be Bruce Willis forever, but, in college, you can be anyone you want to be, one month at a time.

The second great thing about college is the free condoms.

Movies: Spirited Away

Standing in line to see Spirited Away at the dollar theater last night, I skimmed a Seattle P-I review posted in the box office window. “Japan’s ‘Spirited Away’ has the makings of a breakthrough” read the headline, with the critic later wondering “Will [this] be the spearhead of the long-expected anime breakthrough in mainstream America?”

Apparently not. If you look at international 2002 box office grosses, Spirited Away comes in fourth, due, no doubt, to the fact that it’s the biggest hit of all-time in Japan. But I can’t even find it on the domestic lists — not even this one which bottoms-out at #150 (but not before listing Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, Juwanna Mann, Jason X, and Sorority Boys).

Which is too bad, because, if ever a film was going to bring about “the long-expected anime breakthrough in mainstream America,” this would have been it. Spirited Away has an engaging storyline, a seamless blend of traditional and computer animation, excellent voice work, and not a single goddamned pony or jet-powered skateboard in sight.

Furthermore, the film opens with what could be easily mistaken for a typical American family: they are recklessly cruising along in their SUV, the father boasts about his “cash and credit cards,” and the daughter comes across as sullen and whiny. They are en route to a new home, but take a wrong turn along the way and quickly [fall down the rabbit hole / travel through the wardrobe / get carried off by a Kansasian twister] and find themselves in [Wonderland / Narnia / Oz].

So, yeah, the premise isn’t the most original we’ve seen. But once the protagonists wind up in the Otherworld, the similarities to traditional Western “through the looking glass” tales evaporate. The parents are soon transformed into hogs. The young girl, Chihiro, is besieged by specters and seeks sanctuary in a bath-house. It soon becomes clear that we have passed into a land populated almost exclusively by spirits, and where humans are as rare as they are disliked. And then the real weirdness begins.

It’s important to realize that, despite the sometimes cartoony nature of the animation and the presence of a 10-year old girl in the lead role, Spirited is decidedly not a children’s movie. For starters, it’s long: two hours of story, with no songs or dance numbers to pass the time. It’s also, at times, frightening, disgusting, and bizarre enough to ensure that your kid has months of nightmares featuring giant, walking, obese turnips. That’s bad news for the many Americans who automatically equate animated films with “kid’s stuff” (pity the poor chump who brought his daughter to this expecting a sequel to Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron), but a godsend to those of us who don’t immediately dismiss the concept of “mature fantasy” as oxymoronic.

Daveigh Chase, the young woman who provides the English voice for Chihiro, is fabulous; this is the first time I’ve ever watched an animated movie and thought to myself “Wow, the person doing the voice work for this character is a damned fine actor.” The music is also superb. And while the foreground animation is of the traditional “big eyes, small mouth” anime style, the backgrounds (landscapes and parallax shifts) are breathtaking. All this makes for a movie that should be seen by anyone who enjoys a good story well told. If I had caught this a month ago, it would have easily made it into my “Top Five For 2002”. As it stands, 2003 will have to be a helluva cinematic year to keep Spirited Away off the top of this year’s list.