Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Masters of Voice in Stand Up Comedy

I'd like to think that I know as much about stand up comedy as Cole knows about hockey. Since I can't contribute with a sports list, here we go with great stand up comedians who perform vocal gymnastics, whether it's by singing, doing impressions, or throwing their voice.

5. Kevin Pollak
You may recognize this guy from any of several movies. He's been in a ton. But I know him as the guy who does a side splitting, perfect Christopher Walken impression. He also does an amazing William Shatner and Peter Faulk. Although he doesn't have a massive collection of celebrity impressions, the few he does are hilarious and flawless.

What to check out? Like I said ... Walken impression. He does a great bit in The Aristocrats, and YouTube him for more goodness. His radio show appearances made me laugh so hard I nearly threw up.

4. André-Philippe Gagnon
Canada's own impressionist/singer/entertainer extraordinaire. Growing up I always saw this guy on television, especially on reruns of Just For Laughs. His vocal range for imitating various singers, man or woman, is unmatched still. While his humour sometimes falls on the side of "corny", which is the biggest issue I have with most impressionist comics, he doesn't fail to entertain.

What to check out? He does a great human saxophone routine, and is probably best known for his one man rendition of "We are the World". It's impressive to say the least.

3. Jeff Dunham
Probably the most entertaining ventriloquist there is. When most people think of ventriloquists, they think of lame wads in checkered suits with hideous-as-sin dolls on their knee telling jokes so boring and dumb you want to cry, and then trying to sing and drink water at the same time. Well Jeff Dunham makes the whole routine look so easy, you really buy into the deranged characters he wheels out. Each character is unique, and his material feels classic and modern at the same time. Even when his jokes are lame, they are funny because it's such a committed performance. And you can't help but be impressed when he does a routine with 3-4 characters simultaneously.

What to check out? He's been doing comedy for nearly 20 years, but only recently has he gained more popularity with some TV specials. I recommend watching Spark of Insanity, if anything for the first appearance of Achmed, the dead terrorist. It's great stuff.

2. Frank Caliendo
This guy does so many different impressions, it defies reason. When performing, he'll jump around from voice to voice with ease and keep you in stitches. I remember watching him years ago when he was a part of the cast of MadTV, and that's pretty much where his career took off. His most recognizable impression has got to be John Madden, but he does so many others like Jay Leno, Dr. Phil, Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Rod Roddy, Jack Nicholson, George W. Bush, Rick Moranis ... you name it, he does it.

What to check out? Anything you can find would be worth watching, but I'm most impressed with his routine imitating the cast of Seinfeld, and his awesome Al Pacino. "Liar, liar ... pants on FIRE!!!"

1. Pablo Francisco
An amazing impressionist, yet I wouldn't say he fits so neatly into that genre of stand up. He's like a comic who just happens to be able to combine his jokes with impressions, sound effects, and beat boxing to create a strange alter-reality of characters and situations. He does a huge variety of characters and celebrity voices in his energetic performances: Droopy Dog, Jackie Chan, Keanu Reeves, Chris Rock, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Gary Busey, Danny Glover, Jerry Springer, Dennis Hopper, Michael J. Fox. The list goes on and on.

Many impressionists can be boring for following a predictable pattern of delivery. "Here's an impression of Bill Clinton" (Does Clinton bit). "Okay, now here's Bob Hope" But Pablo Francisco integrates the voices into his stories and makes the whole thing more engaging. His material is erratic, but utterly hilarious. He can pull off spot on impressions, and before you know what hit you, he's on to something else. An incredible performer and vocal talent.

What to check out? His best bits usually involve doing the voice of the movie trailer guy (Don LaFontaine), and it's gut busting. If anything, watch his stand up special, Ouch! You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Completely Overrated Frontmen

In the realm of rock & roll, a lot of bands get along just fine without a lead singer that possesses a dynamic stage presence. As long as they're talented musicians who make good music and the singer's talent is at least equal to that of the others and his or her voice fits the music well, a definitive "frontman" isn't required. And there are plenty of vocalists who don't really have that reputation but I certainly believe to be plenty dynamic and have lots of stage presence.

But today's list is based on those vocalists who are always described by the aforementioned label. Except this list isn't going to single out those frontmen who definitely deserve their titles and reputations - a great frontman who comes to mind is Queen's Freddie Mercury - no, this list is going to point out those who fall far, far short of the mark someone like Mr. Mercury established and yet have developed reputations as stellar frontmen anyway. It's time to take them down a notch and there's no one better for the job than I.

5. Mick Jagger, The Rolling Stones

Don't worry, I'm not going to pick on him too much. I realize that Mick is a good frontman and has done the job quite well for a long time. He makes this list simply because he is so often referred to as the ultimate frontman and I just can't buy into that. I know he struts around and has a signature style that has been imitated many, many times over the years. I know that even at his advanced age, he still displays a wild energy on stage that truly comes from his love of music and performing. I know the clothes he wears for concerts suit him well and have only sometimes strayed into the territory of ridiculous, which is quite impressive considering he performed throughout the seventies and eighties. I know all this and I am not trying to argue that he isn't a good frontman. I can only state that he is an overrated frontman whose style only really works because of the kind of music the Stones make.

I see the trappings in a statement such as that - of course it's the Stones' music that his style should fit. I only mean that it really wouldn't work outside of the band's repertoire. Again, who the hell should care? They're THE ROLLING STONES not some lame cover band. I get that. So it's funny. It looks like all I've done here is made an argument for why he should be considered a great frontman. All I can say is he's not that great. If you're smart, you'll agree.

4. Bono, U2
I've never been into U2 and I've never understood their collosal fame, really. I've listened to The Joshua Tree and it's never blown my mind. I don't think it ever will. But anyway, on to Bono. He's such an egomaniac that not only is he one of those annoying rock stars who wants to be only known by one name as if he's a unique and beautiful snowflake amongst this mass of humanity that makes up the rest of us lame, normal people, he's also given himself a name that translates into "good voice". Well, bravo.

As far as stage presence goes, I will make the shocking and radical claim that Bono actually possesses NONE. Not only am I calling him overrated as a frontman, I am saying he is subpar. Although it's true he doesn't make any huge effort to stand out from the other members on the band and that's something I respect, I also will contend that if he tried to, he would fail miserably. There's really nothing that memorable about the man when he performs. No trademark moves or habits. Again I feel the very best frontmen don't need such gimmicks but in Bono's case, maybe a gimmick or two wouldn't hurt. As far as his "good voice" goes, I can take it or leave it. He's never sang a line that sent shivers up my spine.

3. Chris Martin, Coldplay
For years I've considered Coldplay to be a pretty good band. I simply thought of them as yet another 4-piece group with a lead vocalist that would ocassionally strap on a guitar or sit in front of a piano. These parts were always simple and it was understood his job was foremost to sing. And he sings well enough.

But somewhere over the past few years as Coldplay's fame has grown and grown to the point that they are riduclously huge, Martin started to buy into some of that hype and perhaps believe he was the major reason for the group's success. That Coldplay was essentially Chris Martin. The other members were replaceable but take away Chris Martin and there is no Coldplay. He might even be right about that.

But another curious thing that happened as the band's fame mounted was that he started to earn the reputation of a dynamic frontman. And once again, he bought into it. Suddenly he was wandering all over the place during performances, sometimes leaving the stage to allow his adoring fans to put their hands on him as he sang - something a lot of rock stars have done and will continue to do. But is it just me who thinks this doesn't suit Martin at all? I even saw him do this once during a TODAY SHOW PERFORMANCE which was on some street at about eleven in the morning. He must have been disappointed that no one was waving lighters.

Coldplay are an alright band and Chris Martin is an alright vocalist but a frontman he is not.

2. Steven Tyler, Aerosmith

A lot of the reasons I have for criticizing Jagger as a frontman also apply to Tyler. But he's higher on the list because in many ways he is less unique, even imitating Jagger in some ways. Like Jagger, Tyler's vocal style and stage presence work well with the type of music his band makes but if you drop him outside of that, he's quite silly. A lot of people thought it was really cool when Aerosmith produced a version of "Walk This Way" featuring Run/DMC and while I'll admit it sounds pretty good, the video for it is one of the stupidest things I've ever seen. It's pretty bad when Tyler's movements look dated and lame in 1987. What about nowadays?

What can I say? Having huge lips and tying a bandanna around every part of your body and your mic stand does not translate into being a great frontman.

1. Scott Weiland, Stone Temple Pilots, Revolver
I can't begin to tell you just how sick I am of reading about and hearing about how amazing Weiland is as a frontman. He's there on all the lists in Spin and Rolling Stone or on MuchMoreMusic or VH1. And they're wrong. Plain and simple.

Weiland is so convinced that he is unique, powerful and sexy that he's created a whole stage persona based on it. And a lot of people buy it for some reason. All I see is an emaciated fool trying to rip off the likes of Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop while performing music that ranges from mediocre to damn awful. The guy spends almost as much time shirtless as Anthony Kiedis and constantly insists on wearing leather pants despite the fact that very, very few frontmen have actually pulled that off well over the decades. Jim Morrison and maybe one or two others. But Jim Morrison he is not, even if he did get to play around with surviving members of The Doors on a few occasions (and shame on them for encouraging him).

I love rock and roll and there are many iconic images associated with rock and roll that remain forever burned in my brain. But a dead-eyed drug-addict flouncing around with a pink feather boa around his neck while he whines out cookie-cutter rock songs is one I only conjur up to fuel my outrage as I write this list.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Best Annoucements of E3 2009

It's been a long while since I've done a list for this glorious site of unhampered deliciousness, but my hiatus must end, and with that I give you a list of the top 5 news explosions that came out of the Electronics Entertainment Expo this year. Before you read on, bring lube and beer.

Fried chicken would also be nice.

5. Metal Gear Solid: Rising
To be honest, I had a hard time giving this a slot. The truth of it is, however, that I eagerly anticipated Kojima speaking during Microsoft's showcase just to learn about this game. If Kojima is nothing else he is amazing at teasing audiences.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, for about a month before E3, Kojima Productions' website hosted a teaser page called "Next". It started as just a lightning storm with a timer. Then when that timer ran out it changed ever so slightly. A lightning bolt would strike and either a letter S or a number 5 would show up on the screen. Another timer had started at this point as well, and when it ran down... more enigmatic letters. There was what appeared to be an e, an E, a 3 and the S/5. Another timer in place this eventually lead to more letters being added. Then after another timer we got an image of Raiden (in his Ninja duds, one eye covered) and an image of what could have been Solid Snake or Big Boss (aka Naked Snake). It turned out to be the latter. After the fifth and final countdown E3 came and it was announced that MGS: Rising, a new title from Kojima would be released for the X-Box 360. Much like MGS2, however, this game will feature Raiden as the main character.

Why did I have a hard time giving this game a slot? Well... I love Metal Gear as much as the next guy, but announcing another Metal Gear game isn't exactly pure insanity. It gets points, however, because he created that hateful little teaser site (which I frequented far too much) and announcing the game for X-Box 360 created a windfall of rumours to the effect that the game would not cross platforms. This was debunked during Sony's day at the conference where it was announced for PS3, as well as another project called Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker for the PSP. Peace Walker involves Big Boss/Naked Snake in the 70s just before the creation of Outer Heaven.

I'm sure both games will cause many a nut to be busted and with all the hype, MGS: Rising just had to make the list, even if there were other announcements that caused me much more excitement.

4. Untitled Legend of Zelda Wii Project
Nintendo had a myriad of exciting announcements this year. Of course they had just as many ridiculous ones as counterbalance (Wii Vitality Sensor... really?). That being said, one little teaser that caused quite the stir was that Shigeru Miyamoto (whom I affectionately like to call Shiggy Pop) was working on a new Zelda game built from the ground up for the Nintendo Wii.

This came out of left field because one of the games heavily pimped at the show was a The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks for the DS. Shiggy wasn't at liberty to talk much on this new untitled Wii game, but only showed one image, a concept art drawing for the new title, and oh did it please.

I would say that my favourite LoZ game is Ocarina of Time. This is in part due to the fact that I have only just recently begun playing A Link To The Past in earnest (Shane... please don't kill me!), which many call the greatest Zelda game to date, if not one of the best games ever created. I personally played Ocarina of Time first and it was such a great experience. I anticipated the release of Twilight Princess, a cross-platform titled that was built for both the Wii and the Gamecube, and as such didn't quite use all of the Wii's potential. I enjoyed the game enough, but it didn't draw me in nearly as well as Ocarina of Time did and as such I'd hoped (like many) that another fully Wii Zelda game would come to pass.

Enter Shiggy Pop and his little teaser image and woe to you, o' earth and sea, fanboys the world over did cream their jeans (why do I keep making ejaculation references?). The concept drawings showed two figures. One is clearly Link. However, unlike any game before this, Link appears older. Possibly in his mid- to late-20s. Also, he has a shield, but the Master Sword (or any sword, for that matter) is mysteriously absent. In front of him appears to be a female figure, possibly a Zora, which really didn't cause that much of a stir. An all new Zelda game featuring an older, grittier looking Link though. Ohhh BUDDAY!

3. Final Fantasy XIV: Online
This may only appeal to the hardcore gamers the world over but I think we can all agree any announcement by Square Enix these days is a big deal. Everyone expected there to be lots of information on its upcoming franchise monster, Final Fantasy XIII, but I don't think anyone was prepared for the announcement of Final Fantasy XIV, much less a full trailer for the game, and the news that it would be another entry into their online universe.

Again, this may only carry weight with individuals that either really love them some Square Enix or those that play MMORPGs. I, myself, played Final Fantasy XI and World of Warcraft. Although the storyline and world of FFXI interested me, I didn't like the gameplay. You're forced to group-up in the game, which is a constant hassle. You go onto the game looking to get a few hours in and you have to wait an hour just to find people that are your level to group with. World of Warcraft, although I have some issues with, at least sports single player content.

I know what you're thinking. Why would you want to play an online game by yourself? I want to have the option to group up occasionally, with my (and I chagrin using this term) real life friends mostly. I do not want to have to at all times. FFXIV will allow me to do that. It will contain Final Fantasy-based gameplay, story and characters as well as allow me to play online by myself, or in a group, should I so choose.

I am, however, still weary of MMOs. I have had fun playing them occasionally, but I find them geared toward the truly hardcore gamer; the man or woman that can play for 18 hours in one sitting, eat a burrito, take a dump, and head back to the computer for another 18-hour bout. It appears that Square Enix is doing things right, however, and making this game accessible to the Joe Blow that wants to pop on for a few hours here and there. That excites me.

2. Metroid: Other M
Those that know me would probably know that I am a casual fan of Metroid. I have played Super Metroid almost all the way through on various occasions, I loved Metroid: Zero Mission for the GBA (basically an update to the original with all new content) and I own Metroid Prime for the Gamecube. I have played lots of Prime, but I took a break for a bit, lost where I was, and haven't been able to get back into it. I love the gameplay; an entirely open world, lots of weapon upgrades and several distinct environments, but I've just never been obsessed with the franchise, probably due in part to the fact that I didn't play the original NES title until many years after the the SNES was out, and only once or twice had the opportunity to play Super Metroid on the SNES. I ended up downloading it for the Wii Virtual Console.

Why does this game make my list, and why is it so high? Metroid: Other M is being produced by, none other than, Team FUCKING Ninja. Okay, it's just Team Ninja. Now, much like I stated above, those that know me would also know that I haven't played much of the Dead or Alive games nor the next-gen versions of Ninja Gaiden, which were produced by Tomonobu Itagaki's Team Ninja (he was the team leader and lead designer, having worked with Tecmo since 1992. He created Team Ninja in 1995 but recently parted with the team, and Tecmo, over legal reasons, creating a new team with some former Team Ninja members). So why should I give a shit what they work on? This is a team created under the philosophy that games should be as interactive as possible, and run on highly innovative hardware. They created games based almost entirely about huge, bouncing breasts (alright, maybe not about) or with a main protagonist who is, quite possibly, the most bad ass ninja EVER in video game history (a close second to Shadow of FFVI fame). They make games that feature a superhero ninja, a destructive forces of nature no less, and games that feature women with huge breasts that have the option, I shit you not, to turn on or off "bouncing breasts". These guys are going to make the new Metroid game. Do I really have to say anything else?

The trailer shown at E3 speaks to the change in gameplay as well. One thing I didn't really enjoy about Metroid Prime was the first-person perspective. Well this game features a third-person perspective, with a smattering of first-person (which I assume is for aiming) and shows a gritty, dark Samus whipping some Ridley ass! Pumped MUCH!? I mean, shit, they're called TEAM FUCKING NINJA!

1. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
This game was actually teased at last years E3 under the title Lords of Shadow. Right off the hop many gamers noticed some possible links to the Castlevania series, and queried as to whether or not this was going to be the big next/current-gen title for the Castlevania series. Well at this year's E3, Konami came to the rescue and let the fanboy public know that this was, indeed, the newest title in the Castlevania library.

I'm a big Castlevania fan. Ever since Symphony of the Night I've been hooked. I love the 2-D style gameplay, which rips off the best parts of Metroid (fully open world) and combines it with old school action-RPG elements. The alchemy of the two is something to behold, and since that time I've done whatever I could to play all the games that followed this style of play.

Konami, however, struck out on several occasions in attempting to create a 3-D Castlevania game. This goes all the way back to the N64 with Castlevania "64", which was followed up almost immediately with Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness, the same game essentially, but upgraded slightly in hopes to save some face. Subsequently there was Castlevania: Lament of Innocence on the PS2. I have played this game, and I found it obscenely boring. It had some of the open-world aspects of the newer Castlevania titles, but was pretty much button-mashing. Then Konami made Castlevania: Curse of Darkness again for the PS2, which had a solid combat system and looked great, but again sported monotonous levels. As you can tell, I was never pleased with the 3-D Castlevania fare.

It appears that this is all about to change, and thanks to one man... Hideo Kojima. That's RIGHT! The production team behind Castlevania: Lord of Shadow? Kojima Productions. In all the years Konami has been developing Castlevania games, with Hideo Kojima in their back pocket, only now have they thought to bring these two worlds together.

The trailer sports all in-game graphics, and shows a totally bad ass character, named Gabriel, kicking undead ass with a chain whip wreathed in flame. I will say that the gameplay, at this point, looks like some kind of God of War rip-off. However, the game looks beautiful, shows what appears to be engaging third-person 3-D gameplay (this will be the first Castlevania game not on a handheld since 2005) and is going to be developed by industry giants Kojima Productions. All I can think is WIN-WIN, people.

As the kids say today, epic amounts of WIN.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Family Films of the 80's That Will Likely Scare Kids

Hopefully the title itself explains what I'm aiming for, but for the sake of clarity, these are movies from the 80's - live action only - that are geared towards children yet have elements or scenes that may be especially frightening for kids. Nowadays a lot of kids are probably desensitized to what these films have to offer, but I'm hoping those of you who grew up watching them can confirm being freaked out a bit.

As much as films like Gremlins and Ghostbusters seem to fit into this list, I feel they are more horror/comedies that are aimed at adults, and so they didn't make the cut.

5. The Dark Crystal (1982)
I knew one of Jim Henson's films had to appear here, and it was either this or Labyrinth. As scary as David Bowie's outfits were Dark Crystal is the creepiest of the two.

Overall the whole film is dark and foreboding, but what makes the movie particularly scary for kids are the Skeksis. A cruel, evil, grotesque race of creatures that look like a cross between a vulture, a raptor, and a corpse. The movie even kicks off (pun intended!) with one of them dying in bed; rotting and crumbling to dust.

In fact, almost all the creatures and characters in the movie (even some of the apparently "good" ones) seem freakish, menacing, or gross. It's a movie that is depressing and frightening, so it's bound to depress or scare children.

 4. Little Monsters (1989)
Not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but this isn't a list of the best family films. Yet what makes it scary? Was it Howie Mandel's annoying performance as a loud-mouthed, unfunny monster? No. Was it the scene where a fat bully drinks a bottle of piss? Gross, but no.

It's all about the villain of the film, named Boy. The leader of the underworld of monsters, this pale dude in a school boy's uniform steals the show in his few scenes. His human form turns out to be a poor disguise when he is burned by light, and ends up peeling off his own face to reveal a bug-eyed demon that is a thing of nightmares. It's bloodshot eyes will pierce your soul!

3. The Goonies (1985)
If your child is bothered by things like skeletons and decomposed bodies, then this film might be one to avoid. And, hey! What family flick would be complete without a giant deformed freak chained up in the cellar?

2. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Maybe this is a surprising choice, but before we even address what happens in the movie, just look at E.T.. Look at him! Her! It! That thing is undeniably freaky. Sure this character is adored and recognized the world over, but we've had 27 years to get a good look and get used to it. But for a kid seeing him for the first time ... it's a bit of a shock.

The scenes where Elliott first make contact with E.T. were particularly frightening to me as a kid. We get to see things from Elliott's perspective as he pushes his way through the dark cornfield with nothing but a flashlight and suddenly comes face to face with a squealing wrinkled frog-pig! I don't care what age you are, if that was you in his shoes, you'd shit your pants. (Note: I recently watched the 20th anniversary edition of the movie, and was really annoyed to find that Spielberg had tinkered with the movie, including using CG to completely ruin this scene. Isn't it funny how film-makers feel the need to "fix" their critically acclaimed and beloved films? Apparently the world loving his movie isn't enough to convince Spielberg that he did it right the first time.)

So as the movie rolls on we learn to like E.T. and care for him. He becomes our friend. So isn't it equally traumatizing to see him die? The final third of the movie is riddled with haunting imagery: Michael finding E.T.'s pale lifeless body in the river, faceless government goons in spacesuits storming into Elliott's home, a drawn out death scene where everyone frantically tries to revive E.T. and the children look on in horror weeping. Of course we get our happy ending, but that's intense stuff for some kids.

While being perhaps the greatest family film ever made, it does have its fair share of creepy, startling, and scary moments.

1. Return to Oz (1985)
One of my personal favourites from my childhood, this film is one of the strangest sequels ever made. If you're expecting more songs, dance, and Dorothy cheerfully skipping down the yellow brick road ... think again.

Where to begin? Well, the movie starts with Dorothy back in Kansas and we find that her stories of Oz seem to be concerning those around her. So Aunt Em whisks her off to a nightmarish mental hospital to have the memories of Oz burnt out of her mind with the wonders of electricity! The hospital is filled with creepy doctors and orderlies, and when the power goes out in the middle of the procedure, the place fills with wailing and moaning. I swear it's like something out of Silent Hill.

When Dorothy does arrive in Oz (via flood), she finds the yellow brick road destroyed and the Emerald city in ruins and then we get introduced to a mess of terrifying characters. Who can forget the Wheelers? These gangly masked madmen with wheels for hands and feet may look like Cirque du Soleil rejects now, but as a child they made me squirm. Just the sound of their squeaking wheels and deranged laughing is scary enough without seeing them.

The Gnome King and his shifting rock minions are scary as well, especially when he becomes angry, but the character that takes the cake is Mombi, the new queen of Oz. Mombi is some sort of witch who can remove and switch her head as she pleases, and keeps a collection of heads in a hall of glass cases. She locks Dorothy in the attic, in order to harvest her head once she's older. When Dorothy hatches a plan to escape it requires her to sneak into Mombi's quarters at night and steal her powder of life, which is kept in a case with Mombi's disembodied head. This scene is goddamn horrifying! So much so, that I present you with a link to watch it for yourself.

Return to Oz is not just a surprisingly dark film for children, it seems to take every opportunity to terrify its young audience. With crazed villains, scary creatures, haunting settings, and suspenseful encounters, it pushed the limit of what a children's movie can get away with.