Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Nacho Libre - Reviewed by the Five Paragraph Bitter Film Critic

It's hard to be bitter about a movie if, after watching it, you're not bitter. Perplexed. Bewildered...I don't know. Definitely not bitter, but not joyous. For the purposes of this review, I am the Five Paragraph Confused Film Critic.

Nacho Libre is a movie that simply refuses to be classified. It's fussy, like a toddler fussing about eating brussel sprouts. It's not a Napoleon Dynamite clone, though you can definitely tell that both films come from the demented mind of Jared Hess. It's not a Rocky clone, though it has elements from Sly Stallone's classic film. It might have a smidge of Rushmore and even a dab of the old spaghetti westerns.

The film follows Nacho (Jack Black), a friar who works as a cook at a Mexican orphanage, and his adventures in local wrestling. He teams up with Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), a 110-pound, dripping wet street youth with a disdain for orphans and religion, to form a highly-unlikely wrestling tag team. Nacho uses the money to buy better food for the orphans, and sharper clothes, all the better to woo the endearing Sister Encarnacion (Ana de La Reguera). Shame those pesky vows of celibacy get in the way of a budding romance.

Much like Jim Carrey in the 1990s, Jack Black is the 2000s wild comedy guy. He will do anything for a laugh, from wearing children's sized sweatpants to flinging himself around in ridiculous poses. He sings, he talks like Ricardo Montalban, he gets his ass beat by midgets. He shows off his wildly untoned body off at any time. He ain't Brad Pitt in Fight Club, but more like Meatloaf in Fight Club. He is the star of the movie, with Jimenez playing a great supporting role, but the rest of the cast basically looks stupified and tries to stay out of Black's way. He is Nacho, and it's hard to imagine any actor other than Will Ferrell or an Ace Ventura-era Jim Carrey pull this roll off. (And don't mention Chris Farley, because, while he would have been fine, he's,

Nacho Libre is exactly like Napoleon Dynamite in one way - you either laughed hysterically at it, or you scratched your head and wondered if you're suddenly too old for teen movies. Similarly, you're either a Jack Black fan, or you're not. Unwittingly, you will find yourself saying one of the lines from the film, or talking like Nacho. The film shows a Mexico that is dusty, dirty, pretty, poor, and where most people are funny-looking. The movie *IS* entertaining, but I can't tell if it's good. It is wildly unique, and for that, Hess and Black deserve credit, but, this might be one of those films that require a substance addiction to really enjoy.

6 out of 12 Whammies! I was entertained (1 Whammy!), I laughed many times (2), I got a kick out of the Mexican orphans (3), the soundtrack was fun (4), I like Jack Black (5) and the nun was hot (6). I didn't give Whammies! for Jack Black being a little TOO Jack Black (1), the "too weirdness" of it all (2), the dust and dirt everywhere on the screen made me want to take a bath (3), rather mean depiction of Mexicans (4), rather mean description of Catholics (5), rather strained story (6) and the guilt I felt for looking at a hot nun (7). The Five Paragraph Bitter Film Critic went to Catholic school for too long to avoid that guilt. Nuns ain't supposed to be hot.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Blue Line Wegman's?


Courtesy of the fine Washington Post, this article about upscale developmentin Prince George's County, Maryland, contains good news for all foodies in the District, Annapolis and Alexandria.

In May, the county signed a deal with the high-end Wegmans Food Markets to anchor the Woodmore Towne Centre in Landover, a billion-dollar project that will include homes and more than 750,000 square feet of shopping space and is expected to open in summer 2008.

This would be the closest Wegman's to DC and a short distance from the Largo Town Center Metro stop. Currently, there are two Wegman's in Northern Virginia, one in Fairfax and the other near Dulles. A lease has been signed for a Wegman's in Gambrills, in Anne Arundel County, but with no firm opening date. The newest Wegman's in the region is in Baltimore County's Hunt Valley. When it opened in 2005, people were actually camped outside of it to be the first inside, like a campout for U2 tickets!

Why such excitement? Would only bored suburbanites go bonkers over a bloody grocery store? Hardly. Wegman's is a New York-based chain of megamarkets that caters to people who truly love their food. They have all the trappings of a regular market - bonus club cards, bulk food section, shopping carts - but they do it in a store about the size of a Smithsonian, with a friendly, knowledgeable staff. With all that space, they have the room to include pretty much anything you need for a gourmet meal made from scratch, or made by real chefs that can easily be passed off as your own. A fantastic butcher shop, fresh seafood, a great wine selection (Virginia stores only, at this point), a jaw-dropping prepared food section, deli, a cafe', coffee shop, pizza parlor, pasta bar, olive bar, sushi bar, kitchen equipment, stemware, bakery, cheese shop, organic market, regional and international food sections, cooking classes, and a produce area that could inspire poetry...PLUS they have a little choo-choo train that runs around the dairy section. This ain't your grandma's supermarket, unless your granny was Julia Child.

My alter-ego, the Five Paragraph Bitter Food Critic, will be doing reviews of the major chain markets in the area, plus some of the neighborhood markets and specialty stores. Without giving away too much from the reviews, the FPBFC is a big fan of Wegman's, and will be a bigger fan of one that's Metro-accessible.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Capital Q - Reviewed By the Five Paragraph Bitter Food Critic


Apparently the Five Paragraph Bitter Food Critic is prone to the powers of suggestion. Just as a mere reference to Mary Prankster makes me crave a Baltimore crabcake, the picture of the gooey, sauce-soaked ribs from the Chicago RibFest pointed me towards some local barbecue. Capital Q in the not-terribly-Chinese-anymore Chinatown has received all sorts of glowing press for the quality of its meats, most notably on Al Roker's Food Network show. Since Al knows BBQ like Bo knows football, I was eager to sample owner Nick Fontana's Austin, Texas-inspired chow. I have eaten at the `Q once before, but it was right before closing time before a holiday - I'm not going to dare judge any place in that kind of circumstance. I may be bitter, but I am fair.

And while I am no Chev Yaneev with advanced culinary training and the cool poofy hat, I am a barbecue junkie and a good man to have in a smoke pit. I've worked for a few barbecue places and steakhouses, and, like Al Roker, I too have traveled the country eating at barbecue places. I worked as a radio deejay and comedian for a while, and nothing beats roadside barbecue stands on the way to the next gig. Unlike Roker, though, I exercised, and didn't wuss out and get the gastric bypass surgery.

So, a sunny Monday afternoon with barbecue and margaritas seemed like a great way to start a week, and the 3 meat platter at Capital Q was practically throwing itself at me like a drunk girl at Rumours. 3 meats, 2 sides...fair enough. I selected the ribs, the turkey and brisket, along with corn and mashed potatoes. Seventeen bucks is a little high, but, it's cheaper than airfare to Texas.

I shoulda checked for a round-trip to San Antonio instead. The brisket was tasty, but incredibly overcooked. Brisket should not be gray, but more medium-rare with a noticeable smoke ring. The Q's brisket lacked that distinctive mark of true Texas barbecue. However overcooked, it was good, and the Q's sauce really made this meat shine. There were two turkey breasts available for the meat cutter to chop my selection from, and instead of the juicy, fresh bird, he chose the dried-out end piece that looked like it sat around under a heat lamp since last week's lunch rush. This turkey had nothing in common with the exemplary smoked bird served at Rudy's BBQ throughout Texas and Oklahoma.

The kicker, though, was the rib. And I don't mean like the kicker at a casino or on a football team, but the kick-in-the-a$$. The meat cutter took a third of a rack of ribs in his tongs, and sliced off *one rib.* ONE mutha-farkin' rib. It's like Chris Rock and Isaac Hayes in "I'm Gonna Get You Sucka" but in reverse! The cutter then sliced off the rib's side trim (the fatty part of the rack removed from most restaurants) from the back of the rib rack and plopped that on my plate. There is more meat on Nicole Ritchie than on a rib trim, and I had to work to get more than two bites out of the charred, substandard cut. Apparently the Texas Hospitality displayed through the generous portions found at places like Coopers, Stubb's and The Salt Lick didn't make it to this side of the Mississippi.
6 out of 17 Whammies! A Whammy! was awarded for each Cuervo margarita I drank, the killer potatoes, the really good sauce and the flavorful brisket. The Q lost Whammies! because of the high price, lousy cuts of meat and the fact that I damned near had to quote Chris Rock - "How much for an order of ribs? About how many ribs do you get with that?" I won't be going back to the Q again - though I wish I had asked if they had change for a hundred...

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Conversion is Complete

So, I finally decided to stop paying lip service to XM and actually pony up the dough and become a subscriber. I have been touting the company's product for a couple of years now, basically praising vicariously through snippets gleaned from listening to other people's XM radios. When my mom bought her new car last year, and it came with a free three month subscription to XM, I was hooked. There's simply no comparison to the the musical choice on a satellite service compared to regular terrestrial radio, and, between XM and Sirius, XM has better music choices. Plus, they're a local company that hired a few of my old radio pals. They seemed like the logical choice.

After a week of listening to all sorts of indie rock on XMU, post club electronica on Chill, great modern rock on the Verge, Fred and Ethel (I love the names of the stations!), unedited comedy on the laugh channels, sports talk and the complete and utter lack of annoying commercials, XM decided to *REALLY* impress me last night. Driving back to Northern Virginia from Southern Maryland, I took a break from XMU to catch a traffic report on WTOP, 103.5 FM in DC. "A traffic report on a Sunday night at 10pm?" Welcome to the harsh driving reality of DC - with the new Wilson Bridge opening for business and a multi-billion dollar reconstruction of the Beltway and 395 about 5 miles from my rental, middle of the night weekend traffic jams are to be expected. WTOP does "Traffic and Weather Together on the Eights" - every ten minutes, 24 hours a day, you can get an updated traffic report.

If the traffic was light, I wanted to check out the new bridge. I pay taxes; that sucker is 1/7,534,835th mine, I figure. I want my share.

The young lady mentioned a small accident in Northern Virginia, a couple of road closures in the District, and one accident in Montgomery County. No mention of anything on the Beltway. I stuck through WTOP to catch 10 minutes of news as well, get caught up on the world. I caught a second traffic report. Everything seemed smooth.

As I pulled from MD Route 4 to 495, I looked at four lanes of parking lot. Nobody on the Beltway was moving towards Virginia. Fortunately, the 4/495 interchange is a cloverleaf, and upon seeing the several mile backup, I could simply drive around the cloverleaf to get back to MD 4 and head into DC on Pennsylvania Avenue. 103.5's third traffic report once again did not mention what looked to be a Really Big Delay on the biggest road in the region.

I decided to see what XM was playing again, and saw the full time Weather/Traffic station for Washington. I gave it a chance - the announcer mentioned that there was a delay on the Beltway from Pennsylvania Avenue (where I was) all the way around to the Wilson Bridge - basically, a ten+ mile backup. Average speed, about 5mph.

I would have gotten home sometime around the next Presidential Administration.

One of terrestrial radio's selling points is "locality." They sell it to advertisers, convince potential listeners on the idea that they present the local viewpoint, get local shoppers to hear your message, to expose your locality to the world.

Yet, the ultimate local news station was trumped by the cold, souless satelitte broadcaster...noting ironically that the XM studios are 10 miles closer to the traffic backup than WTOPs.

TECHIE NOTE - I bought the Tao XM2Go portable on sale at Target. It stores 5 hours of XM programming, and can be used to receive live programming in the car, home, or while walking around. It's a bit bigger than an iPod, but also comes with a slightly cumbersome external antenna. It has a built-in FM transmitter to make for a wireless connection to your car or home stereo.

For the price point, I'm not mad about the device, but I'm thinking I should have gone with the new Pioneer Inno which stores a gig of mp3s AND is a live XM receiver AND is a lot smaller. It's a couple hundred dollars more than the Tao, but probably would have been the smarter buy.

Still...I can't complain when I've head better music with one week of XM than I have on commercial radio all year.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Over the Hedge - Reviewed by the Five Paragraph Bitter Film Critic

The Five Paragraph Bitter Film Critic will start with a confession - I have a soft spot for adult movies disguised as kid's movies. Now, I'm not saying I love adult jokes thrown into an otherwise pure family fare, like the playful flirting between the winking parents on "Dennis the Menace" or one of Charles Grodin's scowls in "Beethoven." That's esay, cheap humor and a couple of token laughs for the adults forced to watch most children's dreck isn't enough to keep me enthralled. I'm talking about movies that you can freely admit you like as a solidly-in-your-30s adult. You know, like "Shrek."

This is where "Over the Hedge" fills a solid void - this is a fine movie with plenty of thought-provoking adult themes and cute cuddly widdle animals and sight gags to keep the kids distracted. This is also a movie that pretty much openly attacks the ridiculousness of most its viewing audience - suburbanites.

The plot is easy enough for the kids to understand, and with plenty of layers of subtext to keep the adults glued. RJ the crafty raccoon (voiced by Bruce Willis) has destroyed the food and goodies stash of a mean old bear Vincent (voiced by Nick Nolte), and needs to replace the stash, or get crushed. RJ heads towards a new suburban development that will be instantly familar to anybody living within a 50 mile radius of any major city. The `burb, chock full of American excess, has been built next to a small patch of woods where a group of animals, like Verne the Turtle (Garry Shandling) and Hammy the Squirrel (Steve Carrel) have been hibernating all winter. They wake up to find a massive hedge (a type of plant unknown to them before the winter's nap) blocking most of their forest, severely cutting into their ability to forage for the next winter. Enter RJ, armed with a golf bag full of fishing poles, boomerangs, expertise on the human species and opposable thumbs. He shows the interspecies family how to navigate through suburbia's pitfalls, such as garden gnomes, roller bladers, SUVs, and home owners' associations hellbent on preserving their property values.

The movie manages to be cute, entertaining, funny, educational AND thought-provoking, without ever really getting boring or heavy-handed. It's a deft balancing job, but the Dreamworks crew manages to pull it off. The soundtrack is made mostly of Ben Folds songs, and he's a hipper Randy Newman. The voice casting was nearly a grand slam, with great vocal performances by Shandling, Carell, William Shatner, Catherine O' Hara, Allison Janney, Thomas Hayden Church, Wanda Sykes and Eugene Levy. Only a sub-par effort by Willis (who peaked at voice work in "Guess Who's Talking Now) mars the voice work. It's obvious the producers wanted to have another big name voice RJ, as both Jim Carrey and Bill Murray were considered for the role. Shame, too. There are dozens of voice actors who would have done a better job than Willis, and cheaper, too.

But that's not a major concern. What sets "Over the Hedge" apart is the keen, laser-guided attack on American culture, especially of those who seek comfort in living in planned communities with cul-de-sacs and manicured lawns. The movie targets our obsession with junk food, our desire for large vehicles, our craving for entertainment and the overinflated sense of self-importance more than a few of us carry. The depiction of the stereotypical suburban power mom is so spot-on that many of the stereotypical suburban power moms in the audience may miss their own on-screen skewering. You've got to love a movie willing to bite, chomp and gnaw on the hand that feeds it.

9 out of 11 Whammies! Over the Hedge would earn a perfect Whammy! score if not for Bruce Willis' phoned-in performance and the fact that no actual suburbanites were harmed in the making of this film.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Jane Says They're Throwing HFS Under the Bridge

From the J. Freedom Du Lac music chat on The Washington Post's site, from Wednesday, 5-31-2006 available here

I'm a fan of JFDL's columns in the Post, but his chats really crack me up. He's pretty much a hoot. He also posed a great question - if you could program radio for a day, what band or artist would you ban from your airwaves?

Of course, current singer-songwriter/critics' target James Blunt, bubble-gum pop princesses who grew up to be barefoot and preggers, and the artist formerly known as vital, Rod Stewart, got plenty of vitrol. However, one surprising band, the sort of White Stripes-esque critical darlings of their era, Jane's Addiction made the list. All courtesy of my old haunt, WHFS...

Radio King for a Day: Jane's Addiction, no question. I don't need to hear anything about "been caught stealing" ever again in my entire life. This is probably a Rob Tim problem, as WHFS used to play that song (in many different remixes) every single day, and WRNR, where RT now works, plays it frequently too.

J. Freedom du Lac: Rob, you've been called out.

Radio King for a Day nailed it. WHFS played this song, conservatively speaking, about 25 times a day when it first came out, and then roughly5 times a day in the year following. It achieved "recurring" status at that point, which earned it about 3 to 7 spins a week in the years that followed.

Even though WHFS is now a 1/2 rock, 1/2 talk station, they still play this song damned near every day. Now that Rob Timm is over at WRNR, that station plays far too much Jane's Addiction, too. However, the correct person to blame is Bob Waugh...he's the old music director/APD at WHFS and I think he has similar duties at WRNR.

HFS: They killed "Jane Says" too. They played the original everyday and it only got worse when that damn steel drum Tahitian version came out.

J. Freedom du Lac: Hey, easy there - some of my best friends are steel drummers.

This song was overplayed when it came out. The steel drum version did not help things.

Here's the thing - it's not a horrible song. Now, Perry Farrell's voice can be hit-or-miss, but he's just whiny enough in this song. The problem is that WHFS played this song AT THE WORST TIME POSSIBLE - dead smack in the middle of the morning show. Morning radio is supposed to be light, peppy, wake-yer-ass-up kind of stuff. Playing a six-minute whiny tropical dirge does NOT wake people up...and it also dragged the air talent's energy level down to near sloth-like levels. WHFS used to do it guaranteed once a week; WRNR is following suit.

God bless new methods of getting music to people, `cause it seems radio ain't got a damned clue.