Thursday, May 22, 2008

Scarlett Johansson’s debut CD is a dud

This has been a depressing couple of weeks. Scarlett Johansson has broken my heart twice.
First came word that she is engaged to “Van Wilder” star Ryan Reynolds, making her even more unattainable than she was before.

It doesn’t help that I’ll always think of Reynolds as Billy, the clueless hanger-on who mostly annoyed the older teens on the Nickelodeon soap opera “Fifteen.” (Now you know my guilty-pleasure viewing back when I was in college.)

Now comes the release of her first — and, with any luck, last — album, a collection of Tom Waits covers titled “Anywhere I Lay My Head.” And while it isn’t an embarrassment on the order of Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time” or Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat,” it pretty much confirms my theory that singers have an easier time becoming actors than actors have becoming singers. (For the record, I dispute the notion that Jennifer Lopez is either.)

The compact disc arrived in stores Tuesday, but anyone who has already heard streaming audio of it online knows the bad news.

It isn’t that Johansson can’t sing, although she can’t. Waits isn’t exactly known for his vocal range, either. A music critic once colorfully described Waits’ voice as “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” So, Johansson’s breathy delivery — she sounds like she’s been downing bottles of cheap scotch and smoking menthols since she was 7 — should be up to the task.

It’s that everything around her sounds worse than she does. Either this is the most overproduced Tom Waits album in history or it’s the most underproduced pop album. In any case, the end result sounds like Johansson singing karaoke in that bar in “Lost in Translation.” That’s fine for a movie role, but terrible for an actual album you expect people to buy.

Wired.com Listening Post blogger Eliot Van Buskirk compares Johansson’s effort to the Cocteau Twins. Yeah, I could see that. If, of course, the Cocteau Twins recorded all of their albums while doped up on Valium. If there is one word that sums up “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” that word is “lazy.”

The blame rests squarely with the album’s producer, TV on the Radio’s David Sitek, who lays on the syrup so think that even Johansson’s backing musicians get stuck. Seriously, I’m not sure any producer has ruined an album like this since Phil Spector got his hands on “Let It Be” or David Bowie took the edge off The Stooges’ “Raw Power.”

Speaking of Bowie, he shows up on “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” too, although his backing vocals at least don’t make matters worse.

Ultimately, Sitek’s approach fails to live up to the material because the combination of Johansson’s voice and Waits’ jaded, jazzy lyrics should work. If Ben Folds can make William Shatner sound good, then anything is possible.

If there is any saving grace to “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” it’s that no song is so campy that it’ll end up on a Dr. Demento compilation CD. And with any luck, Johansson had gotten the singing bug out of her system so she can go back to doing what she is good at — making movies.

Speaking of which, Johansson is starring in yet another Woody Allen movie, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. It’s scheduled to open in late summer, and it better be worth the wait.

I don’t think I can take Scarlett breaking my heart again.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dr. House offers his diagnosis for the human condition

What makes Dr. Gregory House the best character on television isn’t his medical knowledge. It isn’t even his ruthless wit. It’s that he gets — really gets — human nature.

OK. Maybe I’m just as cynical as the title character of Fox’s hit medical drama “House.” After all, one of House’s key insights is “everybody lies.” But I prefer to think I’m a realist.
So, what is it about human behavior that House (Hugh Laurie) gets? First, he understands that people respond to incentives.

This is basic Economics 101, which means it’s a hard truth that most people would prefer not to believe. But anyone who has ever had to deal with a job-for-life government employee knows it’s true. Zero threat of losing your job equals zero incentive to do your job well. Car salesmen, on the other hand, get paid on commission. That means they have a powerful incentive to sell you a car — whether you want one or not — tempered only by their incentive not to alienate you as a future customer.

House understands this and even cites a classic example of behavioral economics.

In a recent episode, “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” House offers up this bit of wisdom about how people respond to incentives: “You want people to drive safer? Take out air bags and replace them with machetes pointed at their necks. Nobody would drive over three miles per hour.”

I first came across that argument in Steven Landsburg’s 1993 book “The Armchair Economist.” Landsburg uses it to show that seat belts and air bags don’t actually save lives. People willingly accept a certain amount of risk. So, when you make vehicles safer, people drive more recklessly — just as they would drive more carefully if you made cars more dangerous.

Of course, most people don’t understand that.

On an automotive Web site, I found an article that said, “Surprisingly, that grim crash fatality statistic (40,000 deaths per year) has held steady for the past two decades — even as cars have become more crashworthy and sophisticated safety features more widely available.”

Here is what House would say to that article’s author: “You’re an idiot.” There’s nothing surprising about it if you understand incentives the way House does.

House also understands another subject that makes lots of people uncomfortable — evolution.
In the same episode, House is convinced that a patient’s extreme niceness must be a symptom of some underlying disease. Why? Because being nice with no expectation of getting something in return isn’t natural.

House explains: “Three cavemen see a stranger running toward them with a spear. One fights, one flees, one smiles and invites him over for fondue. That last guy didn’t last long enough to procreate.”

Evolutionary psychology holds that just as plants and animals pass down physical traits to future generations, people pass down behavioral traits. So, just as it does with physical traits, natural selection weeds out some behavioral traits — like extreme, na├»ve niceness — because the people who have them tend to die before passing them on.

This is the sort of evolution that upsets most liberals just as much as it upsets conservatives. It’s one thing to say that people’s physical characteristics are the product of millions of years of natural selection. But behavior? Lots of liberals hate that idea because if behavior is largely biologically driven, you can’t make people behave differently just by forcing them into sensitivity training.

But, as John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things.” They’re still facts whether you believe them are not.

That’s why all of the other characters on “House” think Dr. House is a jerk. He’s armed with more facts than anyone else on TV. And facts don’t necessarily play nice.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Iron Man to power Marvel movies through 2011

Thank you, sir. May I have another?

And just like that, Marvel Enterprises said, “Yes, you may have another.”
With “Iron Man” raking in more than $200 million worldwide last weekend, Marvel announced Monday that its next in-house film production will be “Iron Man 2,” set for release April 30, 2010.

The near two-year break between “Iron Man 2” and Marvel’s next self-financed movie, “The Incredible Hulk,” which opens June 13, is the result of the recent screenwriters strike. But Fox will release “Wolverine,” starring Hugh Jackman, next year under its pre-existing deal with Marvel.

“Iron Man” vindicates Marvel’s new strategy of producing movies in-house and using the major movie studios — in this case, Paramount — just for distribution. The big Hollywood studios have managed to produce huge hits based on Marvel’s most popular characters, Spider-Man (Sony) and the X-Men (Fox). But they’ve stumbled with many of the company’s lesser-known characters: Daredevil, Elektra, the Punisher and, most recently, Ghost Rider.

Now, Iron Man has been my favorite superhero since I was 5 years old. But he was hardly a household name, at least until last week. Still, Marvel was able to turn the character’s big-screen debut into 2008’s first blockbuster. It will probably finish as one of the year’s top-five grossing films. And in a year with highly anticipated Indiana Jones and Batman sequels, that’s no small feat.

Give Marvel credit for taking chances the big studios might not take, like casting Robert Downey Jr. as the film’s lead. The 43-year-old actor, who has found his greatest success in small films and supporting roles, isn’t the sort of actor most Hollywood executives would cast as the star of a big-budget action flick.

But Downey makes billionaire industrialist Tony Stark the most watchable superhero since — well, since ever. It’s the sort of performance that critics will be comparing to Johnny Depp’s turn as Capt. Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.

“Iron Man” moves along at a supersonic clip, and gives its cast a chance to shine as much as the special effects. Now that is how you make a superhero movie.

Fans will argue about whether “Iron Man” is the best comic book/superhero movie yet made. I think it is, and the film’s 94 percent “fresh” rating at RottenTomatoes.com backs me up. But I don’t think there is any arguing that it’s the most fun superhero movie so far.

In or out of his high-tech armor, Stark handles his demons like an adult. There’s no Spider-Man angst or Batman brooding anywhere in sight. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the occasional brooding Bat.) And that makes for an enjoyable romp. Not like Peter “Spider-Man” Parker fretting about how he’s going to pay for his Aunt May’s cataract surgery and other such soap-opera dreariness.

If you stay through the closing credits of “Iron Man,” you’ll get a teaser for what Marvel Entertainment has planned for the future. But in case you can’t hold your bladder in check that long, Marvel has announced its other projects for 2010 and 2011.

After “Iron Man 2,” “Thor” hits theaters June 4, 2010. Then in 2011, expect a Captain America movie (working title, “The First Avenger: Captain America”) on May 6, followed by what could be the superhero movie to beat all superhero movies, “The Avengers,” in July.

Like the comic book, “The Avengers” promises to team-up Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and Captain America to face some menace none of them can tackle alone.

So, if “The Avengers” can lock in Downey as Iron Man, “Incredible Hulk” star Edward Norton and whoever stars in “Thor” and “Captain America,” it’ll be the most star-studded comic book movie ever.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Miley’s Vanity Fair pics stir moral panic

A thousand words apparently aren’t enough for at least one picture. Not if it’s a picture of Miley Cyrus. So, here are about 700 more.

The 15-year-old Disney starlet, better known as her TV character, Hannah Montana, posed for Vanity Fair magazine and famed celebrity photographer Anne Leibovitz. But before the May issue of Vanity Fair hit newsstands Wednesday, the photos were everywhere, after Cyrus and her Disney caretakers issued press releases basically claiming that Leibovitz had tricked her into posing for a sexually provocative shot.

The photo in question shows Cyrus topless but holding up a sheet so that only her back is exposed. Now, I’m probably not a good judge of how sexual the photo is. You’d be better off asking someone who is into 15-year-old girls and will actually admit to it — like, you know, a 16-year-old boy. But what I get from Leibovitz’s now infamous shot of Cyrus is vulnerability, which is what Leibovitz does, and does well. Her photos of the rich and famous are known for laying their subjects bare. And I mean that in the figurative sense.

The idea that Cyrus was tricked is a bit silly. She and her handlers signed off on the photo shoot. Her father, country music star Billy Ray Cyrus, was part of it. Everyone knew the score.

So, Miley changes her mind and says she is now “embarrassed” by the photo, either because she really is or thinks it will damage her reputation. She is a 15-year-old girl, so she probably changes her mind a lot. That’s fine. But Disney is in spin cycle. After all, it has been less than a year since another Disney star, Vanessa Hudgens of “High School Musical,” had to apologize when a nude photo of her — intended to be private — hit the Internet. And at least she was 18 at the time and not jailbait. But Disney’s public relations department is obviously in overdrive, making sure no one thinks its most profitable contract player is auditioning to be the next Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton.

’Cause you know, one minute you’re posing for Vanity Fair, and the next you’re out partying, drinking, crashing your car, flashing your crotch and shaving your head. From there, the only thing left is an extended stay at the Betty Ford Center.

Everyone involved in the Vanity Fair affair seems to have an agenda. So, it’s hardly a surprise that the usual suspects are in attack mode.

On his radio show Monday, Mike Gallagher — the poor man’s Rush Limbaugh — went into a truly disgusting rant that focused on the fact that Leibovitz is a lesbian, and worse yet, a liberal activist. He went on to describe Cyrus’ expression in the photo as a “come hither” look and the photo itself as “soft-core pornography.”

All that tells me is that Gallagher has never actually experienced a come-hither look, or thinks that every woman who smiles in his general direction is saying, “Come and get it,” nor has he ever seen any real soft-core pornography.

While the photo fiasco is much ado about nothing, it’s still symbolic of modern society’s latest moral panic — a generalized hysteria about sexualizing “children,” meaning teens. We’re all supposed to pretend that teenagers aren’t sexual. But 200,000 years of Homo sapiens biology and 6,000 years of human civilization beg to differ.

Until the Industrial Revolution, people in their teens were expected to go out and start families of their own. They were expected to be adults. Now when teenagers do “adult” things like flaunt their sexuality, it’s a national crisis. But a century ago, it was life.

It’s fine for parents to want to protect their children as long as they can, but it’s no use pretending that teenagers aren’t sexual beings.

Yes, teenagers today probably aren’t as responsible as teens of centuries past, if for no other reason than they don’t have to be. And, yes, that means it’s a bad idea for teens to have sex. But nobody in the media — especially not Anne Leibovitz — has to sexualize them. They’re sexualized already.
Maybe that’s why some people see “come hither” where it doesn’t exist.