About Ellen Wernecke

Ellen Wernecke fell into online media by accident but has been quite happy here. Her writing has appeared in The Providence Journal, Publishers Weekly and (improbably) Men's Health, and she is a founding participant of the A.V. Club's book club, Wrapped Up In Books. A Wisconsin native, she now lives in New York City and can often be found people-watching in coffeeshops, watching Better Off Dead for the 300th time and teaching middle-schoolers how to use the word "awesome."

21 Things I Learned From Listening To Eight Straight Hours Of Top-40 Music in 2011

1. Andy Grammer (“Keep Your Head Up”) is not only musically redundant, but in possession of an infuriating last name.
2. Mick Jagger would not like “Moves Like Jagger.” This is a man who does not whistle.
3. Jason DeRulo has other songs besides his Imogen Heap-sampling “Whatcha Say,” and that’s not all bad.
4. Bad Meets Evil is one of the dumbest band names I have ever heard, and yet “Lighters” is a sweet little nostalgia ditty. That said, I wonder if The Kids Of Today know what its title refers to – at a concert in 2011, “A Sky Full of iPhones” would be the more appropriate refrain.
5. No one I have heard singing Kevin Rudolf’s “Let It Rock” has been doing it correctly.
6. The nation can rekindle its love affair (of sorts, as explored on “Saturday Night Live” recently) with Adele by taking all of her songs off the radio for a month, and then returning to them again. Voice of a damn angel.
7. Gym Class Heroes can only be helped by confusion with Cobra Starship as I have been doing for about five years now.
8. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look better with the lights off” is 2011’s “I’m trying to find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful (sexy bitch)” or, if you prefer, “I’m not trying to be rude, but tonight I’m fucking you.”
9. After just 2 hours of the hits of today, 2010’s “California Gurls” improves a little. This will now be known as Max Martin Stockholm Syndrome.
10. It’s unfair to grade LMFAO on a curve just because they’re Berry Gordy’s son and grandson, and not a bunch of obnoxious white frat boys.
11. Bruno Mars and Pink will eventually converge into one singer.
12. The songs from Lady Gaga’s “The Fame”/”The Fame Monster” sound remarkably stylistically uniform now compared with those from “Born This Way,” and it took me this long to realize it because I never hear more than one of her singles sequentially.15. “Na na na na na, every day, like my iPod’s stuck on replay” is the new “All I want to do is… [gunshots] and take your money.”
13. The tyrannical grip of Kings of Leon is loosening upon this vale of tears.
14. Katy Perry’s not-even-slant rhymes attempted in “Firework” are desperate enough (sliding on rhyming “Oh” and “Sky”?) but her pairing of “park” and  “dark” with “menage a trois” in “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is debatably worse, because it’s pretentious as well as incorrect. The Swedish song machine is breaking down! Whatever happened to the organization that came up with Shelleyisms like “Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache/ Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake/ I never wanna hear you say/ I want it that way.”
15. Gaga’s “Yoü and I” makes more sense when you discover that it was coproduced by Mutt “Formerly Mr. Shania Twain” Lange (oh my God, this should have been obvious).
16. Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around… Comes Around” may be the oldest song I’ve heard all day. It was released as a single in 2007. Repeat: Justin Timberlake has not released an album since 2006. You know what’s not cool?
17. Here I figured this endeavor would mean eight straight hours of “Party Rock Anthem” and we’re only getting to it now after six hours. I assume the hamsters borrowed the tapes.
18. Kelly Rowland‘s “Motivation,” is so beloved of the soundtrackers at the gym that I can only conclude a robot pulls that programming together because this song? Is not about motivating yourself to work out.
19. See #13, but for Train’s “Hey Soul Sister.”
20. As dumb as “after dark/ then we had a menage a trois” is, I think K. Perry has been trumped by the lyric “Love you like a love song.”  (Selena Gomez and the Scene) Roland Barthes’ head just exploded.
21. If you think Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” is truly the worst thing to happen to music this year, take my pop challenge and find out for yourself.

Roger Ebert: Life Itself: A Memoir

We met Roger Ebert through his reviews, but we grew to love him as he took up blogging and tweeting in the wake of cancer that left him speechless. Speechless, but with a thousand stories to tell, about playing outside all summer, necking in the back seat as a frat boy at the University of Illinois, meeting his wife Chaz and his time in Alcoholics Anonymous. His memoir Life Itself evokes a nostalgic richness without sparing young Roger of his mistakes along the way. However narrow the path to becoming a national treasure, the view is breathtaking.

On That Day We Watched: Some Movies That Remind Us Of Sept. 11

Despite the fact that we were all watching the same terrifying news-channel images, everyone’s memory of September 11, 2011 is different, which is why on this day we ask each other: Where were you when you found out? as if our experiences combined could form one seamless picture of where we were back then. So too do opinions of movies, books and pieces of art that take on 9/11 wildly diverge. Slate’s grandiose claim to find four brilliant overlooked 9/11 films turns out to be more like one writer’s backward glance of movies that came out in 2001, were made before 9/11 but somehow resonated with him in their thematic material.

Perhaps it’s too soon to crown the One 9/11 Movie Above All, but here are a few that in their approaches reflected our memories of that day without depicting or referencing it outright:

The Big Budget Superhero Approach: The Dark Knight explored the challenges of fighting a group without territory or common nationality, loyal only to itself — but also honored the nobility of a city forced to hold itself together against an unpredictable threat. There’s also some questionable moral territory as our hero nails the terrorist bad guy with illegal wiretapping, though it’s doubtful that Chris Nolan is a big Dick Cheney supporter.

The Military Approach: The lost cadets of Jarhead running a Gulf War mission whose purpose is unclear to them, goofing off in the desert, represented the enactment of a pact signed on 9/11 whose implications U.S. defense is still feeling today. (Their counterparts in The Hurt Locker, in a post-9/11 Iraq, may have a lot to say to them over some beers.)

The Back-Office Approach: The casual approach to truth taken by the young hotshot journalist in Shattered Glass and the indignant way he tries to protect his lies reflects the callow disdain of an administration who did too little, too late and in the wake of 9/11 too much, too fast. (Stephen Glass’ real-life editor would later be killed while an embedded journalist in Iraq.)

The Suddenness Approach: In Cloverfield, a group of twenty-somethings grappling with the everyday issues of love and work discover that they are ill-prepared for real adversity when a 250-foot monster runs rampant through New York City. There are several metaphorical ties to the real world during and after 9/11, including the incredibly sudden and horrifying attack, the instances of staggering grief and loss and the quiet realizations that life has become infinitely more complicated. Even the momentary acts of heroism are obviously inspired by the efforts of those who searched and came to the aid of their fellow Americans in the aftermath, and Hud’s brief moment of bravado when the monster seems to have been defeated by a massive military strike–only to see it rear its head once again–can be seen as a direct jab at President Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech. In the end, the nameless, mysterious monster has taken lives, our best attempts to stop it have failed and just like in reality, we’re left guessing as to where things might go from that point forward.

The Good Versus Evil Approach: Although J.R.R. Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings nearly half a century before September 2001, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Two Towers (released a year later in 2002) not only carried that evocative title but thanks to some reworking, also found a certain relevance as Middle-earth itself becomes a rapidly-changing place at the hands of unimaginable evil. The resolve of men is put to the test as forces infringe and attack in unprecedented fashion, and the need for hope is crucial to Frodo’s quest. When things are at their darkest, Sam’s speech about recognizing that there is good in the world and that it’s worth fighting for speaks to our own fears and doubts about how we could possibly move forward when it seems that only darkness lay ahead of us. Tolkien undoubtedly intended to draw correlations to World War II and the potential horrors of the atomic age, but for a world that had since moved on, the events of 9/11 were just as traumatic and The Two Towers provided a bit of unexpected solace for all of us.

The Irresistible Spectacle Approach: Re-imagining such a staple of sci-fi as War Of The Worlds is no simple task, but in light of how the world witnessed and reacted to 9/11, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version made it more relevant than ever. The arrival of the aliens is an unusually magnetic event, recalling the rush of emergency personnel towards Ground Zero despite obvious danger, and the ensuing reveal and attack that leaves only a few survivors covered in dust and ash is probably a bit too close for comfort, but its sense of chaos and disorientation is clearly inspired by the devastating video footage from that day. When Ray Ferrier and his children manage to get clear of danger, the anger, frustration and paranoia that follow are allusions to the attitudes that many felt in the years following 9/11. Such an unprovoked, merciless attack seemed beyond the realm of possibility, but once it became a reality, the call for war–and theoretically, justice–reached all new heights. What War of the Worlds focuses on, however, is not war itself but the effects on those of us who could only stand by and watch helplessly as our world literally fell to pieces.

The Political Violence Approach: Released less than six months after War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s Munich was the second shot of his double barreled 9/11 response. But where War of the Worlds was a highly accessible and commercial film about humankind confronting and triumphantly overcoming unthinkable tragedy, Munich was a difficult, challenging meditation on the ramifications of political violence. The Mossad agents tracking down the network behind the brutal murders of the 1972 Israeli Olympic team start out as nationalistic heroes, but are slowly consumed by an intelligence underworld filled with spies and terrorists without loyalties. The complexity of Munich is often overlooked. It’s not an anti-war film; it’s about the the murky moral territory where justified military action crosses the line into something else, a message that hit as the war in Iraq reached its most intense levels. Commercially, it made only slightly more than notorious flops 1941 and Always. Artistically, it’s the high point in Spielberg’s most productive decade since the 1970’s.

The Repeating Footage Approach: Transformers: Dark Of The Moon‘s hyperrealistic destruction of the high floors of a skyscraper complete with the soundtrack of crunching, breaking steel, shown off like a supermodel’s chassis in the trailer, may have offended viewers even more than the existence of the sequel in the first place.

The Overwhelming Soundtrack Approach: Critics dinged Watchmen for its excessive use of period-appropriate music to (unsuccessfully) queue in viewers whose minds were wandering from its convoluted plot, but the linking of 9/11 to patriotic standards old and new never ended – making some of them too emotionally burdened to bear. Who can bear to hear “Proud To Be An American” despite its bold sentimentalism, linked as it is now with images of towers falling?

The Empty Seat Approach: Images of Ralph Fiennes mourning his wife Rachel Weisz while trying to dig deeper into her final days on earth in The Constant Gardener stand in for survivors everywhere whose drive to know ended in heroic retelling, or in just a handful of ashes, or of less.

Fountains of Wayne: Sky Full of Holes

  • Yep Roc Records
  • Available August 2
  • Download from iTunes | Amazon

It speaks volumes both about the economy and the modern music scene that the band Fountains of Wayne has, with their fifth album Sky Full Of Holes, officially outlived its namesake, an outdoor furnishings store in Wayne, New Jersey (it closed in 2009). At a recent sold-out show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, the crowd was less dad-rock and more wrinkling-uncle rock, and singer Chris Collingwood (once blond, now white-haired) struggled to hit the old highest notes in his register; but his and cofounder Adam Schlesinger’s little college project, despite still being known as “That ‘Stacey’s Mom’ Band,” deliver another album of sweet yearning with a tinge of middle-aged regret.

Sky Full Of Holes alternates between “story” songs and catchy-for-catchy’s-sake tunes. In a departure from 2007’s Traffic And Weather, which pushed Cars comparisons to a cold synthy extreme, many of Collingwood and Schlesinger’s new tunes display empathy for their lovelorn or hapless subjects: The singer of “Acela” whiles away his time on the train as he realizes his girlfriend hasn’t boarded, the knuckleheads in “Richie and Ruben” continue to aggressively pursue failure, and the Joni Mitchell plaintiveness of “Action Hero” is a paean to the ordinary suburban dad. At the same time, Collingwood and Schlesinger are less tentative about dipping into new genres with the country-inflected ballads “Firelight Waltz” and “Cemetery Guns” (with its arresting portrait of “the blue war widow in the green raincoat” at a military funeral). “Radio Bar” and “Road Song” even draw on the band’s own history to scratch that nostalgic itch, with their chronicles of West Village bartop songwriting and the drudgery of life on tour. Even in its sweetness it’s still not the same as the driving “Welcome Interstate Managers,” but in the end, staying together isn’t all that bad.

What Was Your Shameful First Album Purchase?

It started as it usually does, with some healthy skepticism. Scott pointed to a Pitchfork Q&A with the indie band Cults in which singer Madeline Follin says the first album she ever bought was the unassailable London Calling by The Clash“YEAH SURE London Calling was the first record you bought, girl from Cults,” quipped he. “Was Apocalypse Now the first movie you saw?” We can’t know for sure if Follin was burnishing her rock credentials or if she simply had someone to steer her into good taste, but for most of us, our listening history contains a fair amount of potholes, railing breaks, even sinkholes of bad taste.

How much more do our shameful and regrettable purchases say about us than that one time we sailed into Other Music and got the clerk’s nod? (And how much more fitting Follin’s cohort Brian Oblivion – talk about improving your image there!! – and his answer of Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP, undoubtedly grumbling through many a suburban boy’s CD wallet still?) The Sodapop Journal staff reaches deep down into its subconscious to highlight the musical moments they’d much rather forget. Group therapy’s on the house.

Scott: When I’m asked what the first album I bought was, I have a quick go-to answer: Stone Temple Pilots’ Purple. Pretty good, eh? Stone Temple Pilots were often mocked in their time as cheap, glammy SoCal imitations of dour, humorless Seattle bands like Pearl Jam, but today I don’t think there’s a person on Earth who’d rather listen to “Jeremy” over “Interstate Love Song”. Purple definitely belongs in the top tier of 90’s alt-rock behemoths with In Utero, Siamese Dream and  Superunknown; only 3 or 4 tracks are skippers, and the singles are all radio classics (along with “Interstate”, there’s “Big Empty” and “Vasoline”).

But while that’s truly the first album I bought, the first album I ever asked for and got was a cassette of The Simpsons Sing The Blues, the heavily-hyped novelty record wrapped around the Michael Jackson-penned “Do The Bartman”. Historically, a lot of kids’ first records are novelties, like The Archies and The Monkees. Sadly, there are no “Sugar Sugars” or “I’m A Believers” to be had on this thing, though if you’d like to hear a Chuck Berry song performed by Bart Simpson, Buster Poindexter and Joe Walsh, this is currently the only way to do so.

The second album I ever bought was also a weird novelty: The Flintstones: Music From Bedrock, the soundtrack to that dumb Flintstones movie that “Steven Spielrock” produced. God knows why I wanted this hunk of junk, anchored by the great B-52s slumming it as “The BC-52s”, but the tracklisting reads like a compilation of a marketing department’s most desperate attempts to cram the word “rock” or “stone” into songs that have nothing to do with The Flintstones. I only remember it now for being my roundabout introduction to The Sex Pistols via Green Jelly’s cover of “Anarchy In The U.K.”, which lazily changes the lyrics to stuff like “I wanna beeee… Fred Flintstone!” and “Anarchy iiinnnn Bedrock!” and “Wanna destroy Mr. Slate!” When I heard the real song for the first time many years later, I was like “Wait, how old was that Green Jelly song that The Sex Pistols could cover it in the 70’s?”

The concert front wasn’t much cooler for me. In third grade, my mom took me for my first concert: NELSON (ridiculously and officially to be spelled in all caps), the Aryan-looking hair metal sons of Ricky Nelson known for “After The Rain” and “(I Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection”. NELSON sprayed the crowd with Super Soakers, which at that time was the most advanced water gun technology available to consumers. A few years after NELSON, I saw Hootie and the Blowfish at the height of their popularity, when the obvious singles from Cracked Rear View had reached critical mass and they were forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel for “I Only Wanna Be With You”, which features the immortal lyric, “I’m such a baby, yeah the dolphins make me cry.” Like The Flintstones soundtrack, the Hootie and the Blowfish concert sucked in retrospect (let the record state that this is the first time in history such a thing has ever been written), but it introduced me to something great when Hootie bellowed “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” from Tom Waits’ 1973 sad bastard classic Closing Time.

Paul: The worst part about my totally sincere purchase of DC Talk’s 1992 album Free At Last was my wholehearted embrace of the thesis of the album’s second track, “That Kinda Girl,” in which Michael Tait, Toby McKeehan, and Kevin Max Smith sing (and rap, because we mustn’t forget our hip-hop roots, now) about the sort of woman they will one day be involved with―respectfully and chastely, of course, at least prior to marriage. I bought the schtick lock, stock, and barrel, in retrospect mostly because embracing the doctrines of abstinence provided a convenient narrative by which I could explain away my total and most assuredly non-voluntary celibacy throughout college. My DC Talk phase was relatively brief (okay, okay, I bought Jesus Freak, too, god damn me) but its effects rippled forward through half a decade of brow-furrowing efforts to hang onto a faith that had never served me particularly well. And though I am now a wild-eyed atheist of the worst kind, I can never un-buy Free At Last, nor un-sing the awkward singalongs in which I absolutely participated in a certain minivan on the way to summer bible camp in the summer of let’s say 1994. I can, however, feel a deep and abiding shame over these things. And I do.

Ellen: In time I’ve learned to forgive myself for being swept up in the ‘90s popular currents that brought us bands like 311. Sure, I taped that Reel Big Fish song off the radio onto a cassette. Absolutely I thought the song “Crash” was uniquely relevant to my feelings, never mind that it has now been used as the substitute for emotions for thousands, nay millions of bros the world wide. When in doubt I can always point to the fact that I didn’t have access to everything “the kids these days” had at their disposal to discover new music. I didn’t burn my first CD until I was a junior in high school, and without a decent record store in walking distance of my house, I had nowhere to turn when I wanted to learn what good taste was.

By the time I bought my shameful album, though, I had recourse; I knew better. I knew I would regret it as soon as I took off the shrink wrap, but years later I am still one of the over two million purchasers of Eiffel 65’s Europop. Bought on a Target run with some friends, one of whom had just gotten her driver’s license the day before, I felt the urge to purchase something just to mark the trip. I didn’t even like the song that much, it just felt so ubiquitous that I had no choice. Then we listened to it in the Mazda minivan that would be the bane of my friend’s existence till senior year when her brother wrecked it. We listened to it on repeat in my driveway, even though it was probably on the radio at the same time. Need I even mention that we weren’t on drugs?

I think I listened to Europop all the way through once, out of obligation. But I didn’t have the heart to give it away in subsequent years when I packed up jewel boxes stamped with radio-station logos or bearing the non-UPC backing common to CDs from the BMG Music Club (joined behind my parents’ back, and now apparently disbanded). There will always be another shitty novelty single on the horizon, but today’s music buyers won’t be pressed to buy the album, and erasing humiliation is just an iTunes click away.

Robert: First things first: Carmen Electra’s Carmen Electra is not the first album I ever purchased. That one I’m not so ashamed of, but after going through my music collection from over the last 25 years, this lump of coal from 1992 immediately leaped out at me. Secondly, I have never considered this a good album. It’s sleazy, campy, awkward and uninspired, and although I’m admittedly ashamed of ever having purchased it, it’s still tucked away in my CD collection only because of who was the driving force behind it.

As Prince fans know, the early ‘90s were a turbulent time for the purple one and his Paisley Park stable, and looking back on it now, this album is evidence of just how disjointed the creative forces in that big white mansion had become. It also goes to show just how devoted Prince fans can be—devoted enough to blindly buy an album by yet another protege and somehow convince themselves that it was a worthwhile purchase despite every instinct telling them otherwise—because while there are traces of Prince’s musical influence throughout, it’s largely a mish-mash of groan-inducing lyrics laid over stale ‘90s urban pop. Listening to it today, I imagine the only place it’d go over would be a seedy downtown strip joint—in 1992.

The one single that managed to find some traction was “Everybody Get On Up” with its Monie Love-penned lyrics and Prince-ly rhythm section, but as I remember it, the album quickly vanished from the radar after that. And even though a few of the tracks (“Go-Go Dancer”, “Fun”, “Just a Little Lovin’”) are stylistically in line with what Prince and the New Power Generation were doing at the time in Diamonds and Pearls and the Love Symbol album (on which Electra first appeared in “The Continental”), the album ultimately feels like leftovers rather than prime cuts. Not to mention that, as much as she was positioned as a dancer, singer/rapper and all-around hottie, Carmen Electra likely shuddered at the harsh reality of the world outside the Paisley Park bubble. The fact that she went on to notoriety in other avenues that were decidedly not music-related says it all really.

Then again, maybe she was just ahead of her time. In a short promo attached to Prince’s 1992 Sexy M.F. video single, a voice proclaimed “This is our future” and “She is inevitable” (and, I shit you not, “To listen to her music on a loud system is to come a thousand times.”). It sounded just as ridiculous then, of course, because the idea of a super-sexy pop vixen seemed to fly in the face of where music was headed at the time, but imagine my amusement when, over fifteen years later, the likes of Fergie, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj — essentially more-perfected iterations of what Carmen Electra was intended to be–now reign the charts. And yet, it’s just as vapid and adolescent now as it was then. I suppose the only difference now is that I know better than to waste money on it.

The Hour

  • BBC America
  • Premieres August 17
The new series The Hour has at least one thing that will please Mad Men fans in withdrawal, in its definitive establishment that there is no man like Don Draper. Instead, this 1950s British media drama wisely splits the ambitious up-and-comer and the suave womanizer and allows them, if previews of future episodes are to be believed, to butt heads over the future of TV news. It’s Draper vs. Draper! The pilot introduces Freddie (Ben Whishaw of the thousand faces) and Bel (the less-famous-than-deserved Romola Garai), working together on a dusty newsreel and sneaking out for interviews at a new program called The Hour, headed up by the debonair Hector Madden (Dominic West). It takes a third of an episode for West to make his unassuming appearance, but his quiet charisma and casual attitude toward his marriage set him up as an interest for Bel and foil for Freddie, whose flash of temper is tempered some after a debutante points him toward a very suspicious murder. There are a lot of questions and too much saxophone on the soundtrack, but those missing their weekly visits to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will want to invest themselves now.

In Which We Ditch Our Dates For “Date Night”

Note: Here be spoilers! But by now if you wanted to see this movie, you probably did already.

Ellen: I had high hopes for this thing, because Tina Fey and Steve Carell are two of my favorite funny people. And as the reviews leaked out I frantically calibrated those to medium hopes, remembering other movies featuring Fey and Carell that didn’t necessarily play to their strengths. But even after doing that, I was pretty disappointed in this movie. It seemed to be having an identity crisis about whether it wanted to be an action movie with a little funny business, or a comedy with some improbable action. But mostly, I didn’t laugh enough, and when a movie is sold as a comedy that’s a major malfunction. How about you — did you laugh enough?

Zoe: I did! I mean, I went in with wildly low expectations, having never seen a trailer or read a review. In fact, I didn’t even know the movie was about a married couple. I would call myself “entertained above my expectations” which ultimately translates to “this movie was delightfully mediocre”. Though I’m surprised to hear you didn’t think you laughed enough, since that Kindle bit cracked you up for easily five minutes. But I totally agree about the action/comedy axis being wildly missed. Action comedy is a hard genre to nail (just ask Bruce Willis about Hudson Hawk…) and ultimately this film did not nail it. Maybe because they neglected to have even a single action movie actor in it? I mean, come on! The Rock could have been in here somewhere.

Ellen: I am a sucker for a good Kindle joke, and this one was a great one. But my point is, that was one of the only jokes that I remembered enough to tell people “Okay, it was really funny when…” That’s one of my barometers for a great comedy — I think I remember more of the gags from “Hot Tub Time Machine,” which I had seen the week before “Date Night.” I mean, Kristen Wiig is in this movie, and she’s not funny! How do you do that?

Mark Wahlberg has been in some action movies, but his function in “Date Night” is to sit there and look pretty. Not only am I okay with that, I appreciated the neat inversion of the classic “husband drooling after hot chick” scenario — Steve Carell becomes increasingly uncomfortable that his wife is attracted to and making conversation with a buff shirtless guy, yet they need him in order to protect themselves.

I don’t think the movie needed more action actors, although it might have helped. I’m going to toss in a word often used by one of my favorite movie podcasts, Filmspotting, to denote whether a movie works or not: Their ex-host especially emphasized how a movie has to have “stakes” in order to work. I think we’re supposed to believe that the married couple in “Date Night” are in real danger, but I never fully bought it even when they were being chased in super grainy footage around Central Park — and I definitely didn’t buy it when we knew that they were up against Awful Plastic Surgery Ray Liotta and Goofy William Fichtner. But by that point, even if those roles had been taken by Robert DeNiro and Ed Harris, I still wouldn’t have felt like everything wasn’t going to end up okay. What “Date Night” needed to do for me was either to lower the stakes or raise them substantially.

Also, I have heard tell of the amazing crapitude of “Hudson Hawk.” Worth seeing, in your opinion?

Zoe: This is true! I did not even realize that was Kristen Wiig, that is how unfunny they made her. And I will agree that the Kindle joke and the terribly unfunny stripper dancing scene were the only two I really remember, which is a depressing barometer.

You know what it comes down to, ultimately? I really enjoyed the movie when it was just about Tina Fey and Steve Carell being a boring, but sort of adorable, married couple. When they goofed around at the restaurant, it was charming and relatable. When they were boringly going through the motions it was nice. Moreover, I was pleased that there was a movie that didn’t try to make clearly middle-aged actors on the prowl for dates and not a shrill married couple. So why couldn’t they have just created a reasonable, minor problem (preferably one that still involved Mark Wahlberg and James Franco) without trying to get us to believe that Common (Common!) is a total scary badass.

I mean, I love Jimmi Simpson with all my heart, but he’s not a threatening bad guy and they didn’t even let him be that funny. It was frustrating the way they kept wasting their comedy cast in favor of bad action.

There were some OK bits in this movie, but they were mostly about (to me) things that I like when movies address: I like when Tina/Steve (we’re on a first name basis, you know, and God knows I don’t remember their character names) talked about their marriage issues. I mean, the actual scene was bo-ring, but I liked that it wasn’t some HUGE CONFLICT RAH and that she wanted alone time and he wanted to feel like a grown up. I liked your previously mentioned Wahlberg reversal. I liked that Will.i.am mercifully had no lines. But all of that stuff is an intellectual like, whereas my actual opinion of this as a movie is: it’s worth a rental, probably! Watch it on your next flight!

Hudson Hawk is one of my oldest friends favorite movies. I watched it when I was sort of sleepy. It’s not as bad as it’s reputation deserves. It’s sort of charming at moments, to me. I would put it in the Southland Tales category of movies.

Ellen: I would probably also put this movie in the “watch on a plane” category, but that may say more about the distress of being on a plane than the quality. I mean, I even watched “Bride Wars” on a plane. (I couldn’t sleep. Cut me some slack.)

I completely agree with your point about Fey/Carell being watchable as a married couple. In fact, I would go several steps further and say if they made several co-starring movies together a la modern Hepburn and Tracy, I would gladly pay money to see all of them in theaters.  (NBC, I bet you would like this too?)

I thought Fey/Carell were very relatable; their problems in the relationship seemed to be pretty normal and they actually talked about them in a way that seemed like a very toned-down sitcom. If “The King Of Queens” covered the same territory, it would be all about her withholding sex from him and him being too lazy. Instead, it was “Why don’t you let me help you?” I thought that was a reasonable conflict, and having girded myself for Fey playing a Shrewish Mom type, I was pleasantly surprised.

So it’s not that I regret seeing it. It’s just that the material, in my opinion, wasn’t up to their usual. For one thing, the pacing of “Date Night” is unbearable — that last half-hour felt like an hour, when that should have been the most exciting part of the movie. When you’re looking fondly back at James Franco’s “Heat” joke in the middle of a car chase, the car chase is not riveting enough. It takes forever to get started, then it was fun for a while, then it started slipping.

I could have used more Franco, actually. His and Mila Kunis’ troubled-lovers-on-the-run bit was, now that I look back on it, pretty damn funny. More funny than watching Tina Fey abandon her inhibitions for 10 minutes.

Zoe: I once watched High School Musical 3 on a plane. But, in fairness, I might have eventually seen that movie anyways.

I am so with you on the Fey/Carell movie dream team. They were incredibly watchable, but I think, as we type it out, the inherent problem in the movie is that: they are really cute together, it would be hard to make a movie where they were not cute together and, in fact, they were shrill and horrible. Plus I feel like that both (OK, at least Fey) have a somewhat vested interest in deconstructing/changing the way marriage/women/the intersection of those two things is portrayed. Which ties back into the wonderful way they had a conflict but, man, that would be a dull film.

I guess what I am saying is, I am starting to see why this wacky, terrible action plot was foisted on this film. Because “adorable married couple deals reasonably with expected problems” just doesn’t have much bite to it.

The James Franco/Mila Kunis couple was so good that I would have rather watched a movie where they move in next door to the Fey’s (seriously, what were their characters’ names!?) and then wacky neighborly hijinks ensue. Which means I guess I would have rather watched a remake of Deck the Halls with this cast than deal with the stripper dance scene.

Which, since we’re on it, let’s discuss! Namely, I think it’s really indicative of a (in my view, valid) critique of Tina Fey. Namely that her brand of feminism is sort of the brand of feminism that dislikes some sorts of women. Namely, women we could call “Bombshell McGee” or who do something crazy like strip! But more importantly, the bit where Steve liked her boobs was endearing enough that I was willing to forgive the first fifteen seconds of some of the least funny “comedy” dancing I have ever seen. But not the next four minutes.

Ellen: I have read about this critique of Tina Fey (Tiger Beatdown’s “13 Ways of Looking at Liz Lemon” is required reading), but I think it’s important to separate criticism of Fey from her character on “30 Rock.” Even though Tina Fey stars in and produces the show, she’d be the first to say that Liz Lemon is not her in several respects. (For instance, I don’t think her rocky relationships with the other women in the office are necessarily meant to put down other women, but rather to refute the TV stereotype that women who work together are automatic BFFs. Buuut I digress.)

Anyway. For those of you who haven’t seen “Date Night,” Tina and Steve (you’re right, Zoe, their characters’ names have been completely wiped from my memory if they were ever there) have to infiltrate the Mafia-owned strip club where the squeaky-clean D.A. is known to party with strippers. Now that I write that out, is that an Eliot Spitzer reference, or do I just see Spitzer everywhere? In any case, the only way they can get to him in VIP is by catching his eye and dancing for him in the private room. This could be funny; instead, it’s endless. Tina Fey’s hotness is revealed and remarked upon, and the fact that Carell is pretty much uselessly distracted is a nice touch. Because she is! But the dancing isn’t funny, and the plot is advanced within 30 seconds because we have all seen this scene before, and Fichtner has to carry it in split-second reaction shots. At some point, the joke shifts into embarrassed-for-your-parents territory; I get the feeling that director Shawn Levy intended this scene as a centerpiece, but it is a disaster. Ironically, Levy is responsible for one of the best dance sequences of all time in the humorless mess that is the Steve Martin-Beyoncé “Pink Panther” — did he lose all his mojo?

You know who could have done this movie better? Team Apatow. I didn’t like “Funny People” but if this movie had taken after “Pineapple Express” a little more, I would have been much happier. And it’s definitely in line with the Apatow supposedly-retrogressive agenda — the married couple stays together throughout the adventure, and she even tells him she had never thought of leaving him.

Zoe: Thank you linking the critique when I forgot to! And yes, I think it’s important to separate the character from the writer, however based off her recent SNL stint (where “Bombshell McGee” comes from) and the character she was playing was…herself, it’s harder to say where the distinction is. I think it’s safe to say that Tina Fey’s flaws RE: some ladies are just part of feminism’s flaws, and that doesn’t make her a bad person or anything. It just makes for really, really, unfunny stripper dancing scenes.

(By the way, I looked up the names: Phil and Claire. Are Phil and Claire the new “pleasant, but generic” names for middle class white families? Is there some cultural thing I’m not getting here because I am not an aging Gen Xer?)

I agree that this seems up Team Apatow’s alley, except…too much ladyness! The woman isn’t a buzzkill, they’re both buzzkills (or equal levels of funny). Plus no one smokes pot. I agree that they probably would have ditched the not as good action stuff, but I feel like we would have had to have Jonah Hill has the maitre’d/wacky neighbor/instead of James Franco.

You know, thinking about it, what killed the movie for me more than anything is at the end when the Lady Cop is like “boy, you’ve had a long night, need a ride anywhere?” Because that is what cops do when people have been involved in 1) several crimes and as 2) witnesses to several more crimes. They totally let them go home without talking to anyone at all. Also, hooray warrantless wiretaps? I guess that is more accurate to how cops operate. I mean, I know this was an “action comedy” and expecting realism is, if this dialogue has shown anything, a ludicrous goal. But still. STILL. Make my disbelief less mid air, please.

That said, I did like that the end was just them making out. Whooo smooching!

Ellen: YES! It was a good ending. I don’t know that Carell and Fey had crazy chemistry so much as that they were believable as a couple who has been together a long time and is sticking it out for the long haul. And the extended take on the lawn was very funny.

I think James Franco may have still been able to squeeze into my imaginary Apatow “Date Night.” It could even have been his character from “Pineapple Express” in the apartment for a little Apatovian world-building. (Oh yeah, I went there.) He might not have cast Tina Fey, though, and putting a Katherine Heigl in there would be neither funny nor believable. I’m not saying there is a scarcity of funny ladies in Hollywood but I’m struggling with who would play the Fey role if not for Fey. My first thought is Amy Poehler, which only proves I’m not looking far enough outside the box.

I think the only thing that would have made the stripper sequence worse would be that Tina Fey was actually an excellent pole dancer and had been hiding that fact from her husband all these years. Look, you can have your Madonna/whore complex in one lady! (Although I did like that to goad her into the VIP area, Steve Carell reminds her that she is the mother of his children. Thought it was cute. I’m sure all the married people reading this have passed out by now at my naïveté.)

Finally, I’m tickled that you were focused enough on the plot by the end to be bothered by the Lady Cop. Isn’t that how every action comedy movie ends, with some slim justification for the heroes to go home and return to their normal lives? I don’t see many; so what was the last great action movie you saw? (Or action comedy, if you like.) I remember really enjoying “Tropic Thunder,” although that was much more comedy than action.

Zoe: I mean, I know that is how action movies are. I do! Because I mostly only watch action movies. But I guess that 1) it always annoys me and 2) in action movies I have explosions and shit to distract me and convince me this is Totally Normal and here I had nothing.

Also, because I don’t think we have mentioned it yet, the dance seen that we are going on and on about being unfunny? That was basically the funniest thing that the rest of the audience had ever seen ever. They laughed the entire way through. It was the highlight of the film for the rest of the theater. Meanwhile Ellen and I looked at each other and made “guh?” faces.

Anyways, to veer in a completely different direction: part of the reason we saw this movie for Lady Bits was because we wanted to discuss a Rom Com. And while Sex and the City 2 has clearly become the front runner for actually doing that, I’m going to posit something here. Date Night is not a romantic comedy, but it’s also girly enough. As in, it might actually, despite all the flaws noted above, be a good movie to see for an actual date.

By which I mean, of course, an actual date in Stereotype Land where women hate action movies and men hate kissing and never the twain shall meet. In that land…well, this movie doesn’t actually satisfy too much of either group. But it bridges the gap by being a goofy spring comedy. In the sense of: a movie that two people, with slightly differing taste, might see together romantically, this film works pretty well. Neither a chick flick, per se, nor a guy flick, per se, it sort of manages to be both? Because comedy! And yea, flawed, but that’s still a pretty good feat to pull off.

Ellen: I definitely have plans to drag you to “Sex and the City 2″ now, after discovering that you had not seen the first one and had really no desire to see the sequel. (Dear Robert, Scott and Paul, please do not kill yourselves. We’ll make it funny.)

But I don’t think this would be a good date movie. To clarify, Gentle Readers, Zoe and I saw this movie together, and celebrate the fact that when women go to the movies we can just say “we went to the movies” instead of “we’re having a bromance” or “we’re on a man-date.” We got nothing to fear! Except heteronormativity!

“Date Night” may look and sound from the title like a movie that will be good for our non-specific Man and Woman on Date to see together, and it’s probably a better option than a lot of movies out there. I am no expert at picking the targets of such outings (one word: Seabiscuit) but I think you could do better in Stereotype Land. Maybe Iron Man 2? Because I, woman, actually looked forward to that in a minor way.

The premise of Date Night is built around a couple whose relationship has slumped into mundanity to the extent that not only do they eat at the same place every time they go out, they order the same foods. I did not wish to know that your taste buds actually can be KILLED DEAD by monogamy! Even if this is true, it’s not something to go home and cuddle with.

Certainly, Fey and Carell share some tender moments, but those come after nearly an hour of “Oh ha ha, we are the most boring married couple ever, we never get out.” On a first date, that’s a cue to think “Do I ever want to be in a relationship, ever? Because there might be boring stuff happening in it.” On the other hand, maybe a couple who had been together for a while might appreciate the nod to realistic depiction — or feel superior because they aren’t as boring, as a couple, as these fictional characters. But if there’s a differential in humor between you at the end of the night, that could be awkward. I guess you run that risk with seeing any comedy in a romantic situation, though Lord knows it doesn’t stop us from trying.

Something else I wanted to bring up that has nothing to do with dates: Did you think it was odd that both of our protagonists are briefly depicted in jobs that seem rather realistic, and not at all exaggerated in the typical movie way? Fey is a real-estate agent biting her tongue over a potential lowball offer (and later, looking for former client Wahlberg), and Carell is an accountant vainly struggling to get his clients to make better choices. These are each brief scenes — maybe 2 minutes each — but it struck me that neither of them would have glamorous jobs, would they? That’s the kind of mundanity I actually like at the movies, proof that not everyone in the world is either a magazine editor or Jeremy Piven for a living.

Zoe: You make valid points. I mean, my threshold for a “date movie” is “do we both want to see it?” Because, frankly, if we don’t, why bother? We both have friends we could see non-desired movies with. This might seem like unwillingness to appreciate others tastes, but it is largely me protecting people from my own taste. Not everyone wants to see Step Up 3D and I respect that.

I actually thing the soul-crushing mundanity (this is a word that i am using, deal with it, spell-checker!) is actually one of the better and more subversive elements of the film, though it certainly makes it dull to watch. I mean, yea, after a while relationships get sleepy and apparently the only food you ever desire is the same steak every week. It’s, like the afore-mentioned dull jobs, is not glamorizing this not demonizing this–it’s just sort of matter of fact. And it ties back into something else we both liked about the film: that the problems weren’t OH MY GOD DRAMA I WANT TO SLEEP WITH THE POOL BOY, but rather, hey, being middle aged sometimes means you’re boring? Let’s try and have fun! It’s nice that the problem is understated, but I also think this understated element is what lead to them thinking they had to add car chases.

Ellen: Is Mark Wahlberg the pool boy in this analogy?

In Which We “Telephone” Beyoncé and Lady Gaga

As the first two women to join the SPJ line-up, Zoe and Ellen are conscious that their take on the cultural trends of the moment may be slightly different from that of their esteemed counterparts. (Just like Eve in the Ruff Ryders, only Midwestern and with slightly different tattoos.) Lady Bits is their collaborative pop culture soapbox and dissection theater.

In this premiere edition, Zoe and Ellen become the last people on the Internet to weigh in on the Lady Gaga-Beyoncé event video “Telephone.”

Zoe: I feel like I should mention something right off the bat, which is that while I adore pop music, I abhor the sort of thing that is meant to be read as “edgy” but that is actually sort of boring, at least to me. Like, I get that Gaga is all about shock! and fashion! and queers! but it just seems like, slow down lady, you might be trying to hard. I don’t need to be beaten over the head with the message. I’m not saying it doesn’t shock anyone, I am just saying those people are Midwestern parents and they don’t really use YouTube anyways.

But that’s who Gaga is, I suppose. Meanwhile, I can’t help but feel that Beyonce must have felt super awkward the whole time, because absolutely none of that is her bag.

Ellen: I have to say I agree with you about the shock value for shock value’s sake, and that’s probably the main reason I didn’t listen to much Gaga until this past fall when my gym started putting her songs on repeat. I think they’re catchy if not groundbreaking, and if you listen to several of them at once (say, at a bar that does that sort of thing) they tend to unspool into one long “We’re beautiful, dirty and rich at this club just dancing” single.

It’s funny that you mention Beyoncé because not only is she stranded in the World of Gaga, we don’t even get to see both of them dance together until several minutes into this clip. It’s like the diner scene in “Heat” for pop music fans! Then again, we have already seen Beyoncé’s world thanks to the video she and Gaga did for her song “Video Phone,” which reverses several characteristics of this one: There’s no plot, most of the running time is devoted to dancing and the lyrics stress the availability of the singer. (But they both owe royalties to Quentin Tarantino.)

“Telephone” the song isn’t catchy but I guess that is beside the point; there’s an unauthorized video edit going around of just the song and none of the plot around it, which can help your short attention span but emphasizes how much like every other Gaga song it is. But it’s been a while since an “event” music video, if my old brain is remembering properly. Is there even any point to a nearly-10-minute music video when hardly any channels show them and online viewers are unlikely to sit all the way through? My edit, for example, would consist solely of the “Let’s Make A Sandwich” sequence.

Zoe: See, I actually like the actual song because, well, I like pop music and my roommates play it and it’s fun to dance to and it’s catchy. I generally have no greater reasons than that for my musical taste, so that’s not the greatest defense in the world. I’m just saying, I have no qualms with the song as is. I have qualms with excessively long videos that make me not be able to listen to said song, and that also seem to be more about “shiny shiny scene cut shiny!” than even the vaguest of plots.

I mean, the majority of my music video watching happened in the mid 90s and the early 00s, which were very different eras. I mean, sure, Hype Williams style videos dominated the 90s scene, but people seem to forget that they were also plot heavy. There’s a Biggie video that’s about seven minutes long and includes a helicopter chase that—hand to God—was remixed at some point. But that’s the thing—they made a coherent product first and then made it extra long, tacking on plot as opposed to throwing ideas at the wall. What I am saying is: I could not agree with your “Let’s Make a Sandwich” idea more.

Of course, part of the reason people stopped making those videos is that they largely confirmed what we already knew: rappers and singers do not great actors make. And while I’ve seen a lot of heat on Beyonce for her (admittedly) terrible acting in this video, I see less on Gaga. Which: are we watching the same video? I know that Gaga’s style is inherently more mannered because we need to draw attention to the artifice because we’re artistes, but it’s still atrocious and at least Beyonce brings it with the dancing which…Gaga does less so.

As to your point about what channel would show this: none, but I don’t think it was ever intended to be shown anywhere but the internet. Which is why the world premiere happened on YouTube and not…whatever show MTV uses to show 30 seconds of videos these days. The internet is far more important and Gaga is nothing is not an excellent marketer.

Ellen: It’s funny that you mention Hype Williams because he directed the “Video Phone” video, although it doesn’t have a story beyond “Beyonce and Lady Gaga are hot and like to dance!” I vaguely remember that helicopter moment, though, from back when (not to beat this drum any harder) we all watched music videos on TV because there wasn’t any other way to see them.

You are correct that Gaga can’t act, and the idea of her “playing” a character is not so much artifice is that she appears to be widening her eyes in Drew Barrymore-style emoting and it’s not a great look. For more in substandard Gaga acting, I suggest the very early-’90s-looking video for “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say).” I found her much more watchable in “Bad Romance,” and just to cut into your defense of pop music, I have to say I don’t hate all of it, but find that song much catchier than “Telephone.” The dancing in its video is also not the greatest, very knock-off Britney at best, but between the paper-mache eggs and the hoof shoes and that final shot of the charred skeleton, I was thoroughly entertained.

Sure, it’s Pretentious, but I vastly prefer it to Shocking Prison Lady Romance, about which: Really? In 2010, we’re looking for something shocking, and it’s girl-on-girl prison action? I expected more from La Gaga, and that she continues to bring up the vagueness of her and Beyonce’s “characters'” relationship in the video in interviews suggests to me that she believes this was an edgy direction in which to go. I realize we live in a world where Adam Lambert still shocks people, but this felt like a very male-gaze-oriented cliche.

Zoe: It’s funny, because I feel like a lot of the core Gaga supporters are, like, well educated in film theory people (such as a friend of mine, who made very smart references to German cinema re: this video that I am less able to counter). And that makes me wonder two things: if I was less of a TV person, would I like this more? And: what does the general pop music loving public think about this? I mean, I can read blogs about it until the cows come home, but I would love to go to a mall and ask some 15 year old girls what they think about this, because maybe it is just edgy and shocking enough for them. Maybe it’s the exact kind of not-so-edgy-or-shocking that appeals to slightly angsty teenagers? Which isn’t bad at all! I mean, isn’t that where many great musical acts core audience comes from? But that’s a harder group to find out about, because they use Tumblr or something.

Indie Soundtracks These Days Ain’t Got Nuthin’ At All


To set the tone for his latest directorial effort, “Away We Go,” Sam Mendes turned to Scottish folkie Alexi Murdoch for an acoustic soundtrack that’s either appropriately melancholy or the world’s longest emo song. Perhaps it’s fitting that as expectant couple Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) visits different households across the country and judges them variously unsuitable in which to raise a child, the sonic scenery never changes for the audience.

Murdoch has cultivated a certain following, and it’s not his fault that at a critical moment in the film he’s bumped from his place by a much older song which also appears on the soundtrack. It’s not even new to soundtracks, popping up within the sonic collage of Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity”; but whether audience members are familiar with the Velvet Underground or not, they won’t be able to forget the Montreal bar scene featuring “Oh, Sweet Nuthin'”. It’s the truest scene of a movie which punches its ticket on a falsehood; it’s the moment where Burt and Verona finally hit something about which they can’t just make a sheepish joke.

“Away We Go” is just the latest indie soundtrack to shoot itself in the foot this way, by ribboning its scenes with forgettable folk tunes and then pulling from the back catalog when it needs to pack a real emotional punch. Anyone else want Juno to stay in that dark room listening to “All The Young Dudes” instead of jamming brainlessly to The Moldy Peaches? On the international tip, Best Foreign Film nominee “Waltz With Bashir” may as well not have a soundtrack at all besides its electrifying Zeev Tene tune “Beirut,” an Israeli cover of the 1994 Cake song “I Bombed Korea.” The device is even trickling down to less well regarded films; the otherwise forgettable Daniel Craig drama “Flashbacks of a Fool” needs Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something” so badly, its ending features a character reading its lyrics in a note from another character and then crying meaningfully. The movie is unsalvageable, but somewhere a lovelorn 12-year-old bought “If There Is Something” from iTunes and cried herself to sleep.

This scrapbook approach may operate on the individual level, as well as introducing a new generation to Lou Reed, but it devalues the work of composers who actually take the time to put together soundtracks that don’t need the baggage of a classic hit to complete themselves emotionally. Of all the imitators Zach Braff has wrought upon the modern indie soundtrack, at least his own “Garden State” deep cut, Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy In New York,” seamlessly integrates with the Zero 7, Frou Frou and the Shins that cover more meaningful moments. Thomas Newman’s soundtrack for “Wall*E” incorporates show tunes, Peter Gabriel and “La vie en rose” without losing step; more recently, Nathan Johnson’s whimsical Brionesque work on brother Rian’s con man caper “The Brothers Bloom” gently tugs its themes along without ever becoming intrusive. A memorable original tune couldn’t have pushed the bewildered parents-to-be of “Away We Go” into a revelation that rang true — and more’s the pity — but Mendes should have known better than to mix real and canned emotions in the same dish.