Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sign Of The Times

Not far from where I live (just down the block from the Museum Of Death) there's a 24-hour ATM Bank Dispenser. Written on it (as part of the professionally prepared sign, not in handwriting) is "Smile Your On ATM Camera."

I'd send a note to the sign company: "Your fired."

Higher And Higher

There's an argument that evolution naturally leads to higher intelligence. It's not widely accepted in the scientific community, but it's popular outside it. One of the problems with the argument is its chauvinism. It can only be made on planets where higher intelligence has evolved.

There's a strong, near undeniable need for people to fit their metaphysical beliefs to whatever science they happen to accept. (Perhaps this is better than the other direction, where they reject well-grounded science.) But there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in their philosophy.

Conway Morris, the "heretical" biologist from the linked article, believes

Darwin’s idea that the brain secretes mind as the liver secretes bile doesn’t work. The roots of intelligence go much deeper than we realise, and go beyond animals. Slime moulds have something we can fairly call memory.

More chauvinism? After all, don't the slime moulds, and all the stages in between them and us, argue against him?

We may marvel at our intelligence and self-awareness (and sure, it's pretty special), but if you could talk to a dog, I bet he'd be more impressed with the magic of smell. He might even say evolution was designed to bring it about.

Finally Broke

Los Angeles makes you a weather wimp. I grew up with four seasons, including a strenuous winter, but since I moved here, if it gets too hot or cold, I can't take it.

That's why this past summer has been tough. The great thing about LA is it's always warm, but never too warm, and, this being the desert, it's a dry heat. Even better, it always cools down at night.

But the last month or two has been unusually hot and muggy. Lately things seem to be getting back to normal, but will it last? I just hope the Santa Ana Winds aren't too bad.

Mercy!

Hard to believe Pretty Woman came out 19 years ago. I saw it on TV last week for the first time since then. I didn't think much of it originally, but I figured I'd give it another chance. (This time around, I recognized a lot of the LA landmarks.) There's no question the film had something, since it was a gigantic worldwide hit, and made Julia Roberts a star.

Roberts is what it mostly has. A lot of women turned down the role, yet it's hard to imagine the film would have worked without her. It's surprising how little plot there is. Rich businessman Richard Gere picks up prostitute Julia Roberts, pays her to hang out with him for a week, and they fall in love as they learn from each other. The only thing that really keeps it going is the charm of Roberts.

The original script by J. F. Lawton was a lot darker--from what I understand, he picks her up from the gutter, uses her, then throws her back in the gutter. Director Garry Marshall and his producers at Disney turned it into a fairy tale, closely following Pygmalion. The sideplot of Gere going from corporate raider to caring human being is so pro forma, and so predictable, that the scenes could be cut by 90% and it wouldn't make any difference (though it is fun to see Jason Alexander, on the cusp of fame in Seinfeld, playing the evil lawyer). For that matter, the third act, when Gere and Roberts finally get together after some tiresome complications, is pointless as well.

So all you've got is Julia Roberts bouncing around, and some chemistry with Gere (who underplays and is reasonably effective). There's also some great supporting work by Marshall regular Hector Elizondo as the hotel manager. But what I think made the film such a blockbuster is it plays so well into female fantasies. I know a story about a beautiful hooker sounds like a male fantasy, but it's told from her point of view. And when you break it down, it's not about her being a prostitute. It's about a woman in a lowly circumstance being saved by a mysterious, handsome, sweet, rich man who gives her everything she wants.

The money scenes are her experience on Rodeo Drive. Gere puts her up at the Beverly Wilshire and gives her dough to go buy some decent clothes. (By the way, there's a big scene where she bargains with him until he agrees to pay $3000 for six days of her services. She acts like she's made the best deal ever. I know this is a decent chunk of change, but even taking inflation into account, isn't this a bit low rent?) She marches out to a swanky shop on Rodeo, wearing a skanky outfit. Two snooty saleswomen take one look at her and make it clear she's not welcome. Later, Richard Gere takes her to another store (where Larry Miller does some good work as the sycophantic employee), makes it clear they better bow and scrape, and lets Roberts go wild. She then returns to the snooty store and shows them the commissions they lost. These are the moments, more than any other, that sold the film. Yet, they don't really make much sense. When she walks into the first store, young and stunning, she may be dressed like a tramp, but so were a lot of Madonna fans back then. This is Beverly Hills. The saleswomen would figure she's some girl with daddy's credit card.

As you can probably tell, I didn't change my mind about the quality of the film. But I think I can see, with its wish fulfillment, and a charming central performance, why it hit so big.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Oh Happy Days

I just discovered the Happy Days house is a few blocks from where I live. What an exciting place, Los Angeles.

Other exciting houses not too far away: the Nightmare On Elm Street house, the Halloween house and, over in the Valley, The Brady Bunch house.

Also, if I drive down to Pasadena, there's stately Wayne Manor.

Four Hundred And Forty First Episode Ever!

Here's the plot of The Simpsons season 21 premiere: Comic Book Guy creates a hot new superhero comic which is bought by Hollywood. Homer is chosen to be the lead in the movie so he goes into training. Ultimately, though, his weigh problems guarantee a flop.

Let's see: A character creates a hot new comic. They already did that. Hollywood types invade Springfield. Done more than once. A Simpson appears in a movie. Done. Homer interacts with Hollywood. Done more than once. A citizen of Springfield is chosen to star in a comic book superhero movie. Done. Homer gains or loses weight, and gets in or out of shape. Done many times. Homer's involvement in a high-profile show biz project fails. Done. Weird editing in the final product shows something is wrong. Done.

The Simpsons is still a good show, but it hasn't been essential watching in years. Most sitcoms can't go for more than four or five years without feelings a little stale, so what can you say about a show that's produced well over 400 episodes?

Really?

Someone sent me this. At first I thought it was a parody. But apparently the guy (a college professor--love to catch one of his classes) is serious:

First Big Business, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Lou Dobbs, the Religious Right, the Wall Street Journal, Mitch McConnell, and Karl Rove came for ACORN, and the Democrats did not speak out -- because they were not ACORN.

[Then all the same names came after every other organization beloved on the left.]

Then Big Business, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Lou Dobbs, the Religious Right, the Wall Street Journal, Mitch McConnell, and Karl Rove came for the Democrats -- and there was no one left to speak out for the Democrats.

PS I realize it's a parody, if that's the right word, of this, but the point I'm making is he's not mocking paranoia and self-righteousness, he's partaking in it.

Quite A BM

What I found interesting about The Baader Meinhoff Complex, a fairly faithful recreation (as far as I can tell) of the actions of the Red Army Faction in Germany from the late 60s to the late 70s, is how radical things got over there compared to here.

Sure, there were student protests in the U.S. (aided, I'd think, by the threat of the draft), but the attempt to "bring the war home" from some on the left was fairly minor in comparison. If the Weather Underground was able to get anywhere near the sympathy the German militants got, it makes you wonder how large they might have grown, how many people they might have killed, and how American history would have changed. (Though Nixon would still have been President--he ran on law and order as it was.)

Monday, September 28, 2009

As Long As Your Computer's On

Have a thoughful Yom Kippur.

All messages today were composed before sunset yesterday.

Counting Your Eggs Before They're Laid

Republicans are already talking about the 2012 presidential election. This is sort of weird since it's too early to even talk about the 2010 congressional elections. I mean, if Congress were up for a vote this November, the Dems would have plenty of reason to be nervous, but with over a year to go, that's enough time to come back, fall again, and come back one more time.

I admit highly controversial or unpopular votes, such as for health care reform or cap-and-trade, will be remembered, but there are other factors, such as the economy, not to mention unknowable things, like wars or terrorist attacks, that are likely to have more influence by late 2010.

Roamin' Roman

Famed director Roman Polanski was arrested in Zurich and is being held for possible extradition to the US. He lives in France, which won't extradite him, and flew to Switzerland to attend a film festival. Do we really need this? I'm not saying what he did was okay, but the crime was commtted over 30 years ago, and the victim has asked for the whole thing to be over. (Furthermore, I believe the reason he fled to begin with was the judge reneged on a deal.)

I suppose the prosecutors (from California, by the way) claim this shows no one, not even a celebrity, is above the law, but I'd guess if anything he's being treated worse because this is such a high-profile case. I feel safe in assuming most Americans, to the extent they notice, will say "good." I'm more intrigued to see how this will play in Europe--as a case of justice finally being done, or a cultural scandal created by a too-powerful, philistine United States?

SNL: WTF?

My response to the first SNL of this season is the same as always--why was this episode so weak? For some reason, SNL premiers are rarely the best the show has to offer. You'd think the writers could do better with a whole summer to come up with great sketches. (The staff is now so big if just one in three had something good, the show would be amazing.)

There's a minor controversy. In one of the weaker sketches (which takes some doing) one of the actors (a new one, replacing the perfectly acceptable old ones) said the F-word. Has any cast member ever been fired after one show?



It looks like a mistake--the sketch was premised on the women saying "frickin'" over and over, after all. I certainly hope this doesn't blow up into some sort of Janet Jackson scandal where people are claiming the republic is threatened. I doubt it will on a late-night show that's meant to be edgy, but you never know.

According to the article I linked, "Other SNL castmembers to swear on-air include Norm MacDonald, who received a verbal warning for saying the F-word on-air, and Charles Rocket, who dropped the F-bomb in 1981."

They're leaving out the original F-bomb from Paul Shaffer in 1980. It was a similar circumstance to the present-day case. In the Shaffer sketch, they were parodying an obscure underground tape of the Zombies in the recording studio, except they set it in olden days, and everyone was saying "floggin'" all the time.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pie Eating Contest

One of the more surreal moments on recent TV came when Jay Leno interviewed Rush Limbaugh. In particular, this line:

LENO: I watch Wall Street, and I go, "Okay, you can make a million, or two million a year. Okay, you can make ten million a year." Eight hundred, $900 million, some of these people made, a billion dollars. At some point, I mean, how much pie can you possibly eat? I mean, where did it go? Somewhere it went wrong 'cause when I was a kid, Howard Hughes was the richest man in the world with $3.2 billion dollars. Now people have hundreds of billions of dollars, and other people have absolutely nothing.

Now there are a lot of things wrong with this statement economically, but that wasn't my first thought when I read it. (Yes, I read it, didn't see the show. I'd heard about this and checked it for myself.)

Sources claim Leno makes $30 to $40 million a year (perhaps more) for his NBC show alone. I don't begrudge him a penny, but is he really the right guy to be asking this? Is he aware that 99%+ of Americans make under $500,000 a year, and the vast majority make less than $100,000? Very few make as much money in their lives as he makes in a month or two. How much pie you eating, Jay?

They Might Be Scientists

Here's an interesting number from They Might Be Giants. It shouldn't be controversial.

Office Management

It used to be a big leap from TV to movies. Studios figured who'd pay to see someone you could see every week for free? Eventually they figured an actor appearing on TV gets your movie a lot of free publicity.

So now it's not unusual for TV actors to star in movies in their free time. And The Office, though not a huge hit, has thrown a lot of its cast onto the big screen lately. Let's look at how they're doing.

Steve Carrell, who plays the lead, Michael Scott, has carved out a pretty successful movie career: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine, Dan In Real Life, Get Smart and others. I'm almost surprised he's stuck with the show.

John Krasinski (Jim Halpert), with his sly charm and offbeat looks, has had his shot, but so far keeps coming up with duds. After three major appearances, License To Wed, Leatherheads and Away We Go, is it three strikes and you're out?

Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute) has done a lot of supporting work, but when he got to be the lead--The Rocker--the film disappeared pretty quickly. He'll keep working, but I'm guessing no one will be betting a major film on him any time soon.

Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly) is pretty cute, but after The Brothers Solomon and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, she could use a hit.

B.J. Novak (Ryan Howard) is also a writer on the show, and though he hasn't broken out in movies yet, did okay in a small part in Inglourious Basterds.

But the big surprise is Ed Helms (Andy Bernard), front and center in The Hangover, one of the biggest comedy hits ever. It may be a one-off, but I'm guessing people all over town are sending him scripts right now.

Homecoming

Michigan beat Indiana. That used to be a given. Anyway, it was quite a game. A lot of big plays and a back and forth lead. When the dust cleared, Michigan won 36-33.

1) Michigan already has a guaranteed better record this season than last season.

2) It was another close game against a so-so team.

3) It's no fun to watch Michigan without a defense. The offense can't be counted on to score 50+ every game. What'll happen when Michigan faces a great offense? They'll score 70 points.

4) There was a silver lining in the defense. Indiana got in the red zone 5 times and ended up with 4 field goals and one touchdown. One more touchdown and they win.

5) The game was handed to Michigan by a questionable turnover late in the game. I'd rather have it been called Indiana's way just so there's no cloud, but Michigan did come back twice and Indiana had plenty of chances, so it's still their fault.

6) It's fun to have quarterbacks who can scramble. Until they're hurt.

7) Michigan may have scored a lot of points, but they were incredibly sloppy and uneven. Bad snaps, dropped balls, stupid penalties. And the offense simply stopped in the third quarter. They needed a great fourth quarter to win. A position you don't want to be in against any team.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Done

Don't tell me it's George Gerswhin's birthday already.

Reunion

I caught a bit of the season 2 opener of Dollhouse. I don't really watch the show, but it was interesting to see a faceoff between Helo and Apollo. And rumors are Colonel Tigh will be dropping in soon.

End Of A Quiet Week

Tonight will be the first new Prairie Home Companion in quite a while. That's usually a cause for celebration, but this time there's also a bit of trepidation, as Garrison Keillor recently suffered a stroke.

Keillor is a great humorist, and his weekly monologues have been part of the American scene for decades. He says he's fine, but we haven't heard him since. He's been so good at what he does for so long that it's easy to take him for granted. I hope, at least, this will help us appreciate what he does even more.

New Community

The second episode of Community wasn't bad. Not Must See TV, but worth watching if you're home. There's often a big lag between when the pilot was shot and everything after, so the second episode often gives you a better idea of what the series is about.

The biggest change was they've introduced Ken Jeong (a very hot actor) in what I assume is a regular role as the Spanish professor. Does that mean they've dropped the other actor who played the professor/old friend/enemy of the protagonist?

America's Creepiest Home Videos

It's easy to make too much of this video, as some are, but I find it fascinating, and disturbing:



For the record, here are the lyrics:

Song 1:
Mm, mmm, mm
Barack Hussein Obama

He said that all must lend a hand
To make this country strong again
Mmm, mmm, mm
Barack Hussein Obama

He said we must be fair today
Equal work means equal pay
Mmm, mmm, mm
Barack Hussein Obama


He said we must take a stand
To make sure everyone gets a chance
Mmm, mmm, mm
Barack Hussein Obama

He said red, yellow, black or white
All are equal in his sight
Mmm, mmm, mm
Barack Hussein Obama

Yes!
Mmm, mmm, mm
Barack Hussein Obama


Song 2:
Hello, Mr. President we honor you today
For all your great accomplishments, we all doth say "hooray"

Hooray, Mr. President, You are number one
The first black American to lead this great nation

Hooray, Mr. President we honor your great plans
To make this country's economy number one again


Hooray Mr. President, we're really proud of you
And we stand for all Americans under the great Red, White, and Blue

So continue, Mr. President we know you'll do the trick
So here's a hearty hip hooray,
[unclear] for President

Hip, hip hooray!
Hip, hip hooray!
Hip, hip hooray!


And here's how the school responded

Response to Unauthorized Video of Class Activity
September 24, 2009

Today we became aware of a video that was placed on the internet which has been reported in the media. The video is of a class of students singing a song about President Obama. The activity took place during Black History Month in 2009, which is recognized each February to honor the contributions of African Americans to our country. Our curriculum studies, honors and recognizes those who serve our country. The recording and distribution of the class activity were unauthorized.

Anyway, a much better song is the East German National Anthem:

Friday, September 25, 2009

Latest Flash

I caught the debut of FlashForward. The whole world blacks out for a couple minutes and has visions of events six months from now. Better than The Nine, but nowhere near Lost--not yet, anyway. None of the characters seem that memorable. Also, if the plot turns out to be trying to avoid the future, isn't it another Heroes? (And what'll they do for a second season?) I'll check it out next week, but I still need to be convinced.

A few notes:

1) What's Desmond's wife doing cheating on him?

2) What's Seth MacFarlane doing on a serious show?

3) Yay Detroit! Some activity at the Tiger's game.

4) They're jumping ahead to April 29th. I already know what I'll be doing April 29th--celebrating my birthday.

Update: FlashForward had good numbers, beating Survivor in the demos (and of course beating the NBC comedy lineup).

Taking Sides

There have been a lot of shameful speeches made at the UN in the last couple days. There was a good one, though, by Benjamin Netanyahu. He notes there's a battle going on that "does not pit faith against faith nor civilization against civilization. It pits civilization against barbarism."

It doesn't speak well of the UN that so many of its members seem to favor the latter.

From The Office To The Home

I caught a bit of the new ABC sitcom Modern Family. It seems to be getting decent reviews, but all I noticed is it's done in a mock documentary style. Why? Shaky cameras don't make things funny, and characters commenting directly on the action while talking to the camera is a cheap device. It makes me feel the writers weren't good enough to come up with a regular show.

PS I'm surprised to report the show got good ratings. It's been a while since viewers tuned into ABC for their sitcom fix.

Mama's Gettin' Hot

A movie or TV show you share with countless others, but theatre is special. Only a chosen few will see what you're seeing.

Even so, I like a show that only varies a little between performances. I don't mind the actors exploring a bit, but I want the enterprise to be professional. Still, every now and then, you get something unusual.

I once saw Lily Tomlin in The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe when her body mike broke. They stopped the show and put on another. She said "I bet you think this makes the play better." And I'm sure for many in the audience, it did. They not only got to see the show, they saw something special.

It makes me wonder what people thought when they saw Patti LuPone earlier this year lose it during her show-stopping "Rose's Turn" in Gypsy:

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Another Layer

In the weekly side-paper known as Brand X, put out (as far as I can tell) by the LA Times, we get this in a mini-profile:

"I just moved here from Grand Rapids to purse acting. [...] But trying to find an internship that pays is really hard, so right now I'm just looking for a job."

I got a good job for you. I think Brand X could use an intern to check all the copy before it goes out.

Sing Out

I recently watched I Never Sang For My Father, a film from 1970 starring Gene Hackman. It was reasonably well-respected in its time, nominated for a few Oscars, but it's not well-remembered today. Except by sitcom writers.

What do I mean? Actually I'm referring to the early 90s, when I read an awful lot of sitcom spec scripts. There was just something so evocative about that title, it proved irresistible. I swear I saw at least five scripts that parodied it--"I Never Ate With My Father," "I Never Sang For My Brother," that sort of thing.

I suppose it's been long enough that they've stopped doing that. Have no idea what the new/old title everyone wants to use is these days.

Heroic Struggle

I finally caught the opening two hours of this season's Heroes. It's being repeated on the G4 Channel. (They're also starting the first repeats of Lost, season 5. It'll be fun to catch it again before the final season starts, this time knowing what's happening. In the first show when Richard aids the wounded Locke, we're as confused as Locke is.)

Anyway, it wasn't great, but it wasn't as bad as I feared. I have to admit, as weak as the show is, I enjoyed seeing many of the characters again. I probably shouldn't get too attached since I can't see it lasting beyond this season.

Claire is in college. I'm not quite sure where her story is going, though it seems to be separated from the rest of the show. She's also got a sidekick to help her solve crimes. I don't suppose they'll continue with the Nancy Drew arc. (Claire falls out of a building to test a theory. She looks around, but forgets to look up. She's spotted. Yep.)

Noah is still a company man, though a lot more conflicted. He seems to be drawing closer to Tracy, who was a little more interesting than last year. (Most Heroes fans can't stand Niki/Tracy, but I've always been willing to put up with her characters just to watch Ali Larter.)

The show still had Danko, who should have been killed a long time ago. Happily, he was dispatched before the episode was over. It's not the first time Hero has buried one of its mistakes.

Worse, the show still has the awful--and central--Nathan/Sylar plot, which is causing trouble, but which I wish didn't even exist. And while we're at it, Parkman is also seeing an imaginary Sylar. We've had imaginary characters before, we don't need any more. (I've always been of the opinion that, as popular as he is, Sylar should have bought it in the season one finale. It's true they've never introduced a successful new villain (or hero) since, but it was time to move on.)

Also, it seemed that Parkman's marriage may be in trouble. Is that possible? After going to so much trouble to reconcile him with his wife (which they shouldn't have done) would they dare break them up again?

Hiro, who went from being the most popular Hero to being the most tiresome, is still pretty annoying with his latest too-conscious venture into being a hero. Then we find out he's dying, which is more than this comic book show can take.

Peter is his usual boring self. He's trying to stay away from being a big hero--he just wants to be a little hero. (Actually, that's the theme of this season so far--everyone wants to return to normal life, so we'll waste some episodes until they're all drawn into a larger plot.) Noah brings Peter into an adventure, and they scuffle with one of the new villains. An excellent example of how bad the plotting is on this show is how they handle this. Noah hires Peter because he knows (through Tracy seeing Danko killed--Tracy tries to kill Noah but then decides not too without much reason, and then decides to kill Danko and decides not to) that these new bad guys are out to get something. The new guy (superfast with knives) kills someone in front of their eyes, but Peter fights him off and he runs away. What he wants is a compass. Later, Peter and Noah part, and Noah keeps the compass. Huh? He's in just as much danger now as he was while getting the compass, so unless he can keep Peter or someone by his side, he can expect with near certainty the guy will be back. (The guy was already coming back when he met them the first time.) So of course he attacks Noah (off screen) and takes the compass. Noah is saved by Peter, but certainly he could have had a better plan. Or any plan.

By the way, no Mohinder in the first two hours, not even narration. I can't even remember if he has any powers left over from last season. Maybe his new power is speechlessness.

Fascinating "Fascist"

I met Charles Johnson several years ago at a panel discussion, but I never regularly read his highly popular blog Little Green Footballs. I knew, though, for years that he was attacked by many (including some friends of mine) in print and pixel for being a racist because, they claimed, he was so relentlessly anti-Muslim. I believe he thought he was just against Islamofascists, and was willing to use rough language and call it as he saw it.

Now, apparently, he's changed, and he spends a lot of blog time calling his former friends on the right "fascists." This fascinates me--someone doing a political 180. Sure, you change your views over time, but it's a gradual process. Johnson (seemingly) turned on a dime. He's not the only blogger/journalist/pundit this has ever happened to, but it's a strange phenomenon. What makes a person do this? It makes you wonder how deeply he held his views before, and how deeply he holds them now. (It also makes you wonder other things about his personality.)

The right wing of the internet has turned its back on him, but at least now that he's using his relentless hatred to attack Americans, generally Christians, the left wing will get off his back.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Oh Boy

Some people have lately been featuring a video from 2008 of Jimmy Carter--the scourge of imaginary racists--referring to Barack Obama as a "black boy."

There's obviously no racist intent in what he's saying. (Obvious to me, anyway.) It's his underlying message I find disturbing. He was making the fairly common argument back then that just nominating or electing a black man would have positive effects in America and, indeed, the world.

This kind of racially based thinking is troubling. Perhaps it's nice to note another racial barrier coming down (it's the last major political one I can think of), but after that ten seconds of pleasure, what counts are the programs and policies the politician supports. Concentrating on his race rather than his ideas moves us in the wrong direction.

It Was Never Kramer

Happy 50th, Jason Alexander. He's a fine all-around actor--even a good song and dance man. But the role that made him famous was also the best reason to watch TV in the 90s: Seinfeld's George Costanza.





Free Is Free

This is fascinating. Two months from now, on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Dawin's Origin Of Species, Kirk Cameron and his pals will be handing out thousands of free copies of the book on campuses across the nation. The difference is their copies will include a special 50-page introduction with stuff about Darwin's racism, his connection to Hitler and the many flaws in the theory of evolution.

I might go out to UCLA or USC--my old copy is falling apart and I could use a new one.

Praying In Vain For A Savior To Rise From These Streets

Here's the story behind Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run, his make-or-break moment. I like the album, but I think the article makes too big a deal of it.

It was the mid-70s, and everyone was looking for the next big thing. Elvis in the 50s, The Beatles in the 60s--rock and roll's latest savior was overdue. The press thought they'd found it in Springsteen, and tried to cram him down the public's throat. He was barely known and yet appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek simultaneously.

He did become a star from Born To Run, but in terms of sales he wasn't a superstar until the 1980s and Born In The USA. For that matter, Born To Run didn't change the face of rock--it wasn't even a particularly new sound. Punk (which wasn't popular in America for quite a while) changed things more--if there was a Next Big Thing in rock and roll back then, that was it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Big Six

I sometimes check out Poker After Dark. Every week they have a new set of players. This week features Doyle Brunson, Chris Ferguson, Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey, Howard Lederer and Daniel Negreanu. I only mention this because it's such a powerhouse lineup. If you took a poll on who are the six biggest names in poker, it'd probably be them.

The Stars Come Out

Hello, autumnal equinox.

Thicket

So now that the TV season is finally starting, I'm actually having to make choices. Last night, Heroes, House and The Big Bang Theory were all on at the same time.

Not that long ago, it would have meant watch one, tape one, wait for the rerun on the third. But now that it's so easy to watch any show any time you want, it makes me wonder why I watch anything during prime time.

By the way, I watched House. Too bad it wasn't an episode of House, but rather a two-hour movie called House In The Boobie Hatch. They try to mix things up on the show, but there was nothing wrong with the old direction, which I hope they'll soon return to.

Sticky Wicket


Fans of Mad Men sometimes complain the show is too moody and internal. Critics say it's just a glossy period soap. Well, the latest episode, "Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency," gave them both more than they bargained for.

One of the things that made The Sopranos so popular was the mix of domestic drama and mafia violence. Mad Men, created by Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, gave its audience a little splatter, and a further dollop of black humor.

I thought it was a fine episode, but what bothered me was not the blood, but a small bit of dialogue about Vietnam. The previous episode dealt tangentially with the civil rights movement. The show is presently set in 1963, and I supposed these things must come up. But as it moves further ahead into the decade, and these issues come to the fore, I'm not sure if Mad Men can withstand the weight. I suppose an overall theme of the show is the sequestered lifestyle the firm saw in 1960 cannot be maintained--the world is going to interfere. But if the politics gets too heavy, and things go from the personal to the polemical, the show will lose its balance.

Better Luck Next Time

The latest MacArthur "genius" grants have been announced, and yet again nothing for Pajama Guy. How long can this go on?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Bill Is Due

It's Bill Murray's birthday.

Happy birthday to yoooou
Happy birthday to yoooou
Happy birthday Mr. First-sub-on-Saturday-Night-Live-who-became-a-huge-movie-comedy-star-and-successfully-transitioned-into-a-respected-actor
Happy birthday to yoooou

Now get out of here, you knucklehead.

Emmy Emmy

Not much to say about the Emmys. It seemed like a rerun--unlike the Oscars, Tony, Grammys, etc., TV shows keep running so the same things keep winning year after year.

As for the broadcast itself, it wasn't great but it moved reasonably fast. They didn't take themselves too seriously, but I don't know if I like that. Maybe MTV awards are a joke, but this is allegedly the best TV has to offer. A little pomposity might be in order.

PS I wonder how Kristen Wiig felt when they announced the winner for best supporting actress in a comedy show was Kristin Chenoweth?

Taxing Situation

Sweden is cutting its taxes:

"The coalition government has agreed on reforms for jobs and entrepreneurialism that will increase employment in the long-term. It has to be more profitable to work and more companies should be able to hire employees,” the government [?] said.

Perhaps there are things we could learn from Europe.

IK Is OK

Here's an interesting remembrance of Irving Kristol from Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens disagreed quite a bit with Kristol (who didn't?), but there's no denying Kristol was one of the most lively public intellectuals of the past 60 years. He also was a symbol of a large group of people who moved from the left to the right because they'd been, as Kristol put it, "mugged by reality."

We also have Kristol to thank for the once-useful term "neoconservative." He didn't create it, but he accepted it, and even wore it with pride.

I often wonder how much effect people like Kristol actually have. There's one model where intellectuals come up with important ideas and eventually see them spread out, generally vulgarized, to the masses. The other model is the feelings are already out there, the best intellectuals can do is crystallize (or Kristolize) them, express them so well that they can more easily be rallied around. Kristol was emblematic of that tension. Kristol grew to distrust the intellectual elite, which suggests that one must look elsewhere for the right ideas and people to run society. But he was also a Straussian, who may have supported the people, and democracy, but believed there was a necessary creme de la creme to keep intellectual values alive.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Special License

I usually list my favorite license plates at the beginning of the month, but I saw one I loved so much yesterday I couldn't wait:

28 IF

If you don't get it, check the link.

Marv

The most interesting thing about The Informant! might be its bouncy, old-style Marvin Hamlisch music. In fact, there were moment I thought he was stealing from himself. In particular, the Bananas theme that starts about 50 seconds into this video:

EMU? What Is That, Some Sort Of Bird?

Eastern Michigan traveled a few miles by bus to get whomped by Michigan yesterday, 45-17. It sounds like a blowout, but it was close at halftime. Michigan needs to play a lot better than this if they want to be a top ten team.

Of course, they're not a top ten team, and that's the problem. And the problem is becoming more evident each game--defense. Michigan's offense can put it together, but we don't seem to be able to stop even weak teams from getting touchdowns.

Less Is Moore

Michael Moore's latest opens in a few days. Here's a promotional paragraph :

In Capitalism: A Love Story, filmmaker Michael Moore (Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, Roger & Me) tackles an issue he has been examining throughout his career: the disastrous impact of corporate dominance on the everyday lives of Americans (and by default, the rest of the world). Moore explores the root causes of the global economic meltdown and takes a comical look at the corporate and political shenanigans that culminated in what he has described as the biggest robbery in the history of this country—the massive transfer of U.S. taxpayer money to private financial institutions.

Okay.

1) I could have sworn having corporate-dominated everyday lives in America and the rest of the world has helped lead to the highest standard of living for the most people the human race has ever known.

2) A corporation is a very useful way to set up a business. Corporations (just like other businesses, and just like people) can do bad things, and they should certainly be punished when that happens. But if you want to see true misery, go to a country that's banned corporations.

3) If we're going to blame corporate shenanigans for recessions, shouldn't we give them some credit for the good times?

4) There has been and continues to be a massive transfer of taxpayer money to various institutions. I've got plenty of problems with this, too. The way to stop it is to change how the government operates.

5) Corporate-dominated society has offered Michael Moore tremendous money and power, which he has no trouble enjoying.

6) Government has never been able to make everyone rich, but has shown an ability to make everyone poor.

7) Moore would like to see more wealth "redistributed" to create a fairer society. Alright, but just one thing--where do you think that wealth came from? If you believe it's simply lying around, and somehow a group called the rich figured out how to steal it, then you'll probably love Moore. But if you believe capitalism, with all its inequality, was the engine that helped generate the wealth, I hope you'd be a bit worried about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Are They Not Men?

Last month Steely Dan was in town, playing full, classic albums in concert. Now another great band from the 70s has announced they'll be playing their albums in concert--Devo. The tour starts in LA in early November.

I missed the Dan. Hope I can make this one.

Down The Tube

YouTube has recently changed its structure for showing comments. Formerly, you could check back as far you wanted in segments of ten. Now you dive down further while keeping the more recent comments. I don't understand why YouTube thinks this is preferable. This makes checking older comments a much bigger hassle.

Oh Bother

One the eve of the Emmys, here's a fun list of the most annoying moments from Lost. A few comments:

Not coming from the show, I don't think The Lost Experience should count.

As to Charlie's death, I assume the writers had a good reason why he locked the door. I guess he had to close the door to prevent the whole station from falling apart and killing Desmond, and it could only lock from the inside? There's got to be some reason. Could just be Charlie knew he had to die, and wasn't thinking fast enough.

Also, I wouldn't say Locke trusts Ben so much as he often has no one else to turn to. He did lock up Ben in a room when he had the chance. He only let him go when he had valuable information to pass on.

Not In Lone Splendour

The LA Weekly's review of Bright Star, Jane Campion's film about John Keats' love affair, has critic J. Hoberman reaching for the literary firmament:

Bright Star, which might have been adapted from the Jane Austen novel that Emily Brontë never wrote, creates its own hermetic world.

I'm sure he knows what he means.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Child's Play

So the French don't think that much of Julia Child. How dare some bourgeois American translate French cooking for her even duller American audience? Somehow, I'd be disappointed if it were any other way.

BC--Before Clinton

In an interview with Bill Cosby on the 25th anniversary of The Cosby Show, we get this question:

The political backdrop of The Cosby Show was the last of Reaganomics and the beginning of the Clinton years. How much were politics forced upon you, and how much did you seek it out?

Why do people ask silly questions like this? Really it's the prologue which bothers me most, as it wants to be some sort of stab at relevance, while it's actually meaningless and has nothing to do with the question. While popular culture can reflect the climate of the times, it's usually silly to try to tie movies or TV shows into some alleged general tone set by the President.

I might add The Cosby Show was on from 1984 to 1992, which means four years of Reagan and four years of Bush. So the show was created and most popular during Reagan's most successful years, and ended before Clinton was elected. In fact, at the time its last episode aired, it looked possible Bill Clinton would finish third. But from the way the question is asked, you'd figure the show aired during the last gasp of Reaganomics (for convenience' sake I'm assuming Reaganomics ended when Reagan left office) and when a new breeze from Clinton was changing the nation.

You Don't Say

I've already noted have many politicians have had amazing reversals when it comes to their attitudes toward protest, so I'll ignore it in discussing Nancy "fan of disruptors" Pelosi, who teared up at the fear that anti-Obama rhetoric may lead to violence. But even then, these words of hers got to me: "this balance between freedom and safety is one that we have to carefully balance."

No, it's not the redundancy. I just get the willies when politicians talk about balancing our freedom with some other concern. And when it comes to freedom of speech in particular, I question if politicians are the best ones to strike that balance.

How Time Flies

Can you believe it? Frankie Avalon is 70 today.

When The Lies Go Down

For years, film critic Pauline Kael has been quoted as saying she was shocked when Nixon beat McGovern because no one she knew voted for him. This allegedly epitomized the out-of-touch Eastern-liberal establishment, or just liberals in general.

It never made sense to me. Kael would sometimes discuss politics in her essays, but it was hard to pin her down. There was her Eastern-liberal side, but sometimes you'd also her Western-libertarian don't-tread-on-me side. In fact, sometimes she mocked the Left for its sanctimoniousness, and even its false view of human nature.

So I'm pleased to finally read a comment (years old, recently linked by Instapundit) about the story. Apparently, Kael was aware of the misquote, and it bothered her. She was asked about the election in The New York Times and actually said this:

I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them.

Okay, maybe she lives in a cocoon, but at least she's aware of it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is Mr. Rooney Behind This?

When I wrote about the John Hughes ouevre, I noted he was the poet laureate of the upper middle class North Side of Chicago. Now one of its great landmarks, the Highland Park home displayed so well in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, is in danger of demolition (or alteration).

Save the house, Ferris. If you reteam with Sloane and Cameron, you can do anything.

Finally

The NBC Thursday comedy lineup (sans 30 Rock) has fresh shows tonight. It may be good, it may not, but at least no more reruns. There are other new shows starting, such as Fringe, but I didn't get into it last season, and don't know if I'm ready to jump in again.

Henry Gibson

Henry Gibson has died. That's a surprise. A bigger surprise is finding out in his obit he took his name as a pun on Henrik Ibsen. Wow, a 40-year+ joke no one got.

Gibson, short, meek-looking, was best known as the resident poet on the #1 hit show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Late in life, he found new fame as a recurring character on Boston Legal, the troubled Judge Clark Brown. But outside those years, he kept working, appearing in countless TV shows and a quite a few movies, including memorable turns as fairly tough guys in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and Nashville.



It's Better To Have Loved The First Season Of Lost

Lost won the Emmy for best drama in its first season, and hasn't won since. (We'll see what happens this Sunday). While I think it should have won for all five seasons so far, if you watch the first season, you can understand how stunning and special it must have seemed then.

So let me add a few things I left out yesterday.

Season one is the most human. Later years are more caught up in the magic of the island, and so things rush headlong as we add new characters, uncover the mythology and answer questions.

Season one, as exciting as it is, was the slowest moving. It takes the whole season to discover and open the hatch (and not even go inside). It takes the whole season for the castaways to finally try to leave the island. Whole episodes would go by where the arc didn't move forward. But you don't notice because of all the revelations about the characters. And though fans complained the show never paid off anything (it was only the first chapter of a novel, after all), there are plenty of big reveals on the island--Sun speaking English in front of Jin (or just Michael), Kate's fugitive status, Locke telling Sayid he knocked him out, Sawyer telling Jack he met his father, and so on.

Later seasons tend to end each episode with a jolt, where the codas in the first season are often soft, fade-out style.

There were some dead ends and false moves. Early on getting food is a big deal, but they drop that pretty soon. A central conflict in the first season is should the castaways live in the caves or on the beach. This simply means nothing in the long run. Then there are moments like Hurley saying he used to be considered something of a warrior? Really? Who thought that?

Boy is Locke cool. Super cool. Locke 1.0 may be the coolest character ever on TV. There are occasional hints that he may be a madman, and some moments (not even including his flashbacks) where he seems pathetic, but overall, he's the sage of the island, quietly dispensing wisdom to all and gathering followers.

Just about every character is enjoyable, even those who'd have to go soon. Boone and Shannon have their moments, as do Michael and Walt, and Charlie and Claire. I can see how Cuse and Lindeloff loved all these characters and had reason to believe every subplot would work.

Mary Mary

I've done a tribute to Peter and Paul, and was eagerly awaiting November 9th to put up something for Mary Traver's birthday. Now she's gone.

Mary was the magic ingredient who transformed two otherwise nondescript folk artists into one of the best and biggest acts of the 60s. (That may sound harsh, and there's no question the guys had talent, but how far do you think the act of Peter & Paul would have gone?) I've read she was shy and didn't like to perform, but you could have fooled me. A rare combination of beauty and talent.





Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jay-2

After watching Jay Leno's second effort, I heartily endorse and amplify LA Guy's critical review- dreadful. Its evocative of David Letterman's short-lived morning show (1980?) and Chevy Chase's short-lived late night talk show (1993?). Lots of awkwardness and unfunny bits. The "uninvited guest" piece is the worst sort of night club comic ("hey , doesn't it suck the way, you can't park n the dropoff area at the airport"- thats the whole joke) and his "Ten at Ten" segment (meant to suggest Letterman's Top Ten?) with live feeds of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz was beneath even NBC's Today Show banality and Jay seemed to be deliberately ignoring the (admittedly feeble) laugh lines the two were trying to give him. Whats with the shout-outs from the crew and audience?- some attempt to connect somehow to the Great Heckling Incident of 2009?

Of course the fact that I think its horrible doesn't mean that they won't stick with -My tastes are clearly not the viewership's (i.e. I still don't get reality TV and why anyone would care) and something about about a dedicated small audience together with the low production cost might make financially attractive for NBC, but I'm guessing this won't make it. Four days a week, then three days a week, then the occasional special then gone, I'm thinking.

Alternate Title

England, when it comes to musical taste, is like an alternate universe where everything is almost the same but not quite. Certain bands, like Oasis and Radiohead, are much bigger. But what intrigues me more is when they like an artist about the same but for different reasons.

Take Frank Zappa. He was reasonably popular there, but by far his biggest album in the UK--the only one to go top ten--was Hot Rats. In the USA, it didn't even make the top 100.

Or R.E.M. Out Of Time was their breakthrough album in America, and they never topped it on the charts. For some reason, their subsequent album, Automatic For The People, is more highly respected in England.

So I guess shouldn't be surprised, with The Beatles CDs remastered and back on the charts, to find the slight differences in taste between England and America still out there. In the US, their biggest album is Abbey Road, and, once again, with everything else available, it outsells all the others. While in Britain, Sgt. Pepper is their bestseller, and remains so over the past week. How do the people know which one they're supposed to but more of?

When There's A Will, There's A Way

Look like there's going to be a sequel to Hancock. I thought the movie was passable, but what would be the point of another? The original plot is how a superhero discovers who he is. Well, now he knows. A sequel would just allow him, along with his counterpart and a PR man, to fight a new battle. Big deal.

I'm A Believer

This research is a few years old, but I think it still applies:

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll.

Many would shake their heads at this, but, in some ways, I admire the respondents' honesty. Deeply held beliefs (and not just religious ones) are fairly resistant to fact-based arguments.

On the other hand, I wonder if these people truly understood the question. I think many of them have already heard of scientific claims that go against their beliefs, and have accepted the (often atrocious) arguments against these claims. I think a follow-up is in order for those who say they'd hold on to their religious views. Something like "this isn't a claim that a scientist is making that you believe can be disproved, this is evidence so compelling that you are convinced it's correct."

Something's Lost And Something's Gained

Rewatching Lost's first season, there's no question it has a different tone from later years. It would have to. Every show's first season seems odd in retrospect. No one's sure how the characters will turn out. And since the Lost creators didn't even know who'd live and die, they were especially in the dark.

I don't know, as great as later seasons are, if the show has ever recaptured the magical feeling of season one. The Island is there, and mysterious, but we're not too far into its mystery--we're still hugging the shore. The Others are a vague threat (no Ben or Juliet in sight), there's no Desmond, no freighter folk, no time travel, nothing. In recent seasons, there's so much plot (and a third less episodes) they can barely fit things in. In the first season, it's all about exploring these wonderful new characters. Every episode is a revelation, as the characters deal with each other, and we discover who they are.

Also, later seasons split the characters apart. In the first season, we're often on the beach, where everyone is in the same place. You never know who will pop up in the plot.

This is the mildest of spoilers, but, lately, there's been talk that the last season will reintroduce some of the first season siutations and characters. I have no idea if this is true or not, but if they somehow keep the plot moving forward, while exploring the first season in a new way, they may have found the perfect way to end the show.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What's Their Excuse?

Joe Wilson shouting "You lie!" during President Obama's speech to Congress was idiotic and shameful. (And for those of you who don't care about that, it wasn't even good strategy.) The only good thing I can say about it is he recognized what a jerk he was and apologized immediately.

But before I could put up a post about the issue, his opponents have been driving against him so hard that they're doing what I thought was impossible--they're making me feel sorry for him. The President accepted his apology, but that's not enough for the House Dems, who are demanding he rent his garment in front of them. Then there was Maureen Dowd, who, in her fevered imagination, heard "You lie, boy!"

Wilson's outburt was stupid, but it was spontaneous. These people have had time to think about what they're saying.

PS Speaking of outbursts, President Obama allegedly called Kanye West a "jackass." (The outburst I'm referring to is West's, not Obama's.) The President's statement was off the record, and I believe he really meant it to be off the record, even if there's near 100% agreement among voters. If I didn't believe that, I'd say he's doing a soft Souljah on us.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The latest New Yorker has an essay by Caleb Crain on the effect of the Depression on culture. It's a good subject, but the piece has a strange start:

"I want to find out why I’m working,” Cary Grant tells Katharine Hepburn in “Holiday.” Grant’s character, a grocer’s son who put himself through Harvard, wants to take time off from a promising business career, and Grant makes the proposal sound at once existential and lighthearted—as if he wants to investigate not because he’s especially troubled or especially gifted but because this is the sort of thing human beings like to know, and he happens to have the means to try to find out. [...]

“Holiday” was released in 1938. It might seem nervy of Hollywood to give an audience slogging through the Great Depression a story about rich people wondering how, why, or even whether they should work, but doubts about the culture of work were then widespread.

Is Crain right? Were doubts about the culture of work widespread? I'm not sure how you'd measure that. In fact, Holiday, though considered a classic today, performed disappointingly. It's hard to know why. It could be it seemed a bit stagey. It could be that it came out during Hepburn's "box office poison" period. But some feel it's because people, especially during the Depression, weren't thrilled to see Cary Grant turn down a great opportunity just so he could find himself. Audiences loved fantasy worlds where rich people never thought about money, and they made a big hit of My Man Godfrey (referenced elsewhere in the piece) where former rich idler William Powell learns self-respect through hard work, but I can't think of that many films where people cheered someone throwing away a big chance for an existential crisis. Picking love over money was always popular, as was claiming the best things in life are free, but laziness was never in, and a plot where the lead just wants to take a break rather than take advantage of an opportunity may have been rubbing the audience's nose in it.

In any case, I'd say at the time it wasn't that "nervy" to release such a film because, in fact, it was a remake. The first film version of Holiday came out in 1930, itself a remake of a Philip Barry Broadway hit that opened in 1928, the year before the Depression struck. I guess that was a good time and place for this particular plot.

PS Later in the essay:

In Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels” (1942), Joel McCrea plays a director who thinks he should shoot a grim social epic instead of a sequel to “Ants in Your Pants of 1939,” his recent popular movie musical. [...] The fictional “Ants in Your Pants of 1939” was no doubt a reference to the actual “Gold Diggers of 1933,” a Busby Berkeley musical that was no less pertinent to its historical moment.

1) What's with the vaunted New Yorker fact-checking department? Sullivan's Travels is a 1941 film. Also, Joel McCrea's director didn't make Ants In Your Pants of 1939, he made Ants In Your Plants Of 1939 (along with Hey Hey In The Hayloft).

2) Isn't a 1941 (much less 1942) film getting a little late to talk about Depression culture?

3) Crain is surprisingly confident the Ants title is a nod to Gold Diggers Of 1933. Why? That film was already 8 years old. Wouldn't it just as likely refer to Gold Diggers Of 1935, or Gold Diggers of 1937? Or for that matter, Broadway Melody of 1936, Broadway Melody of 1938 and Broadway Melody of 1940. Or maybe the series at Paramount--Sturges' home --The Big Broadcast of 1936, The Big Broadcast of 1937 and The Big Broadcast of 1938.

By Any Other Name

I watched the premiere of the Jay Leno Show (i.e., The End Of Prime Time As We Know It). Dreadful.

It's essentially Jay's Tonight Show, which itself I didn't consider worth watching. The only thing that worked was they lucked out and had Kanye West scheduled to perform, and so got to interview him over his recent controversy.

We'll see how the numbers shake out, but the show will have to continue without me.

Greatest Hits

So Derek Jeter now has the Yankee record for most hits, 2722, surpassing Lou Gehrig. This is shocking. With all those famous Yankee players--Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Mattingly, etc.--none of them were even close to the 3000 hit club.

(Actually, the record is only for games played as a Yankee. Otherwise, plenty have made the list--Boggs, Henderson and Winfield, for example.)

Patrick Swayze

I don't have much to say about Patrick Swayze. He was on the verge of stardom with movies like The Outsiders and Red Dawn, reached it with Dirty Dancing, and hit the top with Ghost (which I wrote about earlier this year.) It's worth noting both Dancing and Ghost were hits that came out of nowhere.

But if you want to honor Swayze, watch his best film, Road House. And remember, Pain Don't Hurt.

Monday, September 14, 2009

People Who Died

Jim Carroll, singer, poet and one-time heavy drug user, passed away.

His big hit (see title) was one of my favorite songs in high school- I think mainly because one morning, an old crusty sports guy on the radio (I think the Pittsburgh rock station was trying to mainstream by adding old familiar news and sports voices to its morning show) was so outraged that the he ripped it off the turntable (maybe it was a stunt- I know he did it to "Rock Lobster" too) therefore turning it into an instant classic for me at least.


I liked "Catholic Boy"- bouncy upbeat nihilism (along with the hit, the title track and "Three Sisters" are particularly memorable ), unfortunately the follow up albums didn't quite cut it. From my suburban perch, I couldn't quite identify with his biography and never saw Leonardo DiCaprio's "Basketball Diaries" but wanted to write because the song evoked an era.

Your Best Entertainment Value

Over the weekend, I saw two movies, both indies, White On Rice and Big Fan. They're very different stories, though they both feature guys who are not so young any more having trouble adjusting. (Perhaps I'll write more on the films later, but the first is about a guy living temporarily with his sister and her older husband and their young son, and the other about an obsessed sports fan with a dead-end job who lives with his mother. Note how highly both are rated at IMDb.) This being LA, both showings were followed by the director coming out with the cast and taking questions.

One point that both made is movies should be seen in theatres. It's tough enough for independent films to get shown--don't wait for the DVD to come out. There's nothing that compares with seeing something on a big screen, in the dark, with a crowd.

So I don't know if these films will be playing in your town--I'd guess Big Fan has a better shot--but if you get a chance, you might consider checking them out. Who knows, maybe the director will come out after and say hello.

A Smith Who Stands Out

Is it just me, or was having Yeardley Smith pop up for a second as a nurse in this week's Mad Men distracting?

Her face is distinctive enough, but that voice. It may be unfair, but it's gotten impossible to listen to her without thinking of Lisa Simpson.

Command Performance

I was watching the 1945 version of that old warhorse, Brewster's Millions, where some guy has to get rid of a million bucks to receive an even larger inheritance. The joke is he tries to toss his money away but keeps making more no matter what he does. But one line really took me aback.

Brewster invests in a horrible Broadway show. His financial advisors close the show against his will, so he hires the cast to perform on a boat trip.

Advisor: Do you realize how much this trip is costing you? A--the ship, 30,000 a month, B--the cast, 35,000 a week!

Brewster: 70,000. I doubled their salary.

Advisor: No, it's still 35, the War Labor Board wouldn't grant the raise

Bewseter: Even the government is against me!

It's a gag line, and I suppose during WWII it seemed natural for the government to control every aspect of the economy. But it's been years since government tried to impose wage and price controls. That would never happen again, would it?

Except, of course, in health care, where--to help competition, mind you--plenty in the government believe they can tell private insurers not only what services they must provide, but how much they can charge for them.

Like An Angel

The other night, while driving into a drugstore parking lot, there was a pink sports car coming out. Could it be? It had to be! Yes, it was local celebrity Angelyne, putting up her hand to block my light.

By the way, her license plate read ANGELNN.

You Make The Call

Major revivals of plays in living memory are a chance to see if they still hold up. Here's what David Finkle has to say about a recent performance of That Championship Season:

Every once in a while a much-lauded work is revived that seems as cogent, if not more so, than when it first appeared. Jason Miller's 1973 play, That Championship Season, now being given a superior production by Mark Lamos at the Westport Country Playhouse, is one of those plays -- and even one that audience members might wish would somehow seem out of step with the times.

Here's Frank Rizzo in Variety:

When Jason Miller's "That Championship Season" bowed in 1972, it won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award and a slew of other trophies. But that championship season seems as distant and out-of-touch with the times as the quartet of high school basketball players who reunite 25 years later to reminisce about their winning game. The dated deficits in this macho sudser can be offset by some fancy footwork with a great ensemble cast or even a star turn or two, but neither are in evidence in this Westport production, helmed by new artistic director Mark Lamos.

Wow, these guys can't even agree on the year of the play. (Variety's right on the date, by the way. They're the show biz bible--they better be.)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug has died. One of the most significant people of the 20th century, yet hardly known. Without his research, it's likely many millions would have starved to death.

When you consider all the second-rate blowhard politicians taking up space in the news--even the science news--it's worth taking out a little time to learn about a true great like Borlaug.

Early Emmys, Prelim Palin, Fey Feted

They have so many Emmys to award, they have to hand out the minor ones a week early. But Tina Fey getting one for her impersonation of Sarah Palin is one of the most deserved ever.

The TV Academy may be a bit nutty over 30 Rock, nominating it for everything imaginable, but Fey's outside work as Palin was one of the most memorable stints ever on SNL, bringing a notoriety and currency to the show it hadn't had in years.

What In Creation Is This?

Here's a story I don't get. The claim is a film about Darwin can't find a distributor in America because the subject is too controversial.

If this is true, it's an embarrassment. But I honestly don't understand it. First, for all the crazy anti-Darwin feeling in this country, there are still plenty of people who understand Darwin, and plenty of others who at least aren't offended.

What's doubly strange is if the film is that controversial, couldn't that be used as a selling point?

Hail Yes!

Quite a game. Michigan looked really sloppy, and its defense was shredded, but somehow it managed to put together a win, 38-34. And beating Notre Dame makes it twice as sweet.

A few weeks ago, the question was could Michigan field a decent team. Now it looks likely we'll have a winning season, and maybe even manage to avoid losing more than two or three times. The Wolverines are not a top ten team, but they might even finish ranked.

From the start Notre Dame seemed more powerful, but Michigan managed to finish the first quarter ahead 14-3. Could they hold on?

No, it seemed. By the end of the half, they were behind 20-17. But they held off Notre Dame in the third quarter and with 14 minutes to go were somehow ahead 31-20. If they could just stop the Notre Dame offense once, they'd probably win.

But Notre Dame, once again, had no trouble running and (especially) passing against the Wolverines, and within 10 minutes they were ahead again, 34-31. (Michigan dropped an easy interception which should have put the game away).

Michigan got the ball and blew their plays, and had to kick. Luckily, they had three time-outs left and a (too timid?) Notre Dame offense gave them the ball back with about two minutes. Suddenly, this too-young, untested team looked like pros, and put it in the end zone with 11 seconds left.

If you look at the final stats it was a close game with Michigan only slightly outplayed. But the point is they did what they had to do, and with all the screw-ups, they didn't get rattled. (Notre Dame screwed up plenty too. Michigan can't count on all those dropped passes from better teams.)

Best of all, it looks like Michigan finally has a quarterback. Freshman Tate Forcier. 22 for 33, and he also ran for 70 yards. And not a bad punter, as it turns out.

For the first time in over a year, I feel hope for the Michigan program. I wonder how Coach Rod feels?

The Nimble Tread

I was glancing through Peter J. Levinson's posthumously published biography of Fred Astaire, Puttin' On The Ritz, and saw this:

[Astaire missed the opportunity to work with Rodgers and Hart.] Hart did include his name, however, in the lyrics to "Do It The Hard Way" in the 1940s Broadway musical Pal Joey, which launched Gene Kelly to stardom: "Fred Astaire once worked so hard/ He often lost his breath/ And now he taps all others to death/"

Wrong. It goes "Fred Astaire once worked so hard/ he often lost his breath/ and now he taps all other chaps to death."

It may seem a small change, but that internal rhyme gives the line its zip.

It is ironic that Astaire had shows written for him by all the top songwriters of the day--Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Kern--except for the team of Rodgers and Hart, who were probably the most suited to him. As noted above, there was an attempt to put together a project, but it didn't happen. Rodgers and Hart then took their idea and turned it into a 1936 Broadway hit, On Your Toes, starring Ray Bolger.

The title number has this line, by the way:

They climb the clouds/ To come through with airmail/ The dancing crowds/ Look up to some rare male/ Like that Astaire male.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Double Feature

I haven't yet checked out the new cast of At The Movies, but with two real critics, A. O. Scott and Michael Phillips, it's got to be an improvement over the two Bens.

I feel even better after reading in the LA Times that when asked to name films they saw as kids that changed their lives, Scott chose Annie Hall and and Phillips Horse Feathers. Those films changed my life, too.

Friday Night Blight

In one of his first major decisions on trade policy, President Obama opted Friday to impose a tariff on tires imported from China, a move that risks angering the nation's second-largest trading partner.

It's not just about the anger, it's about the policy--tariffs are like a tax no matter who they target.

A lot of people saw this sort of thing coming. President Bush had enough trouble being a free marketer, so what can we expect from the Obama administration?

Hilarious

From two reviews of the latest episode of Mad Men, "The Arrangements":

I've read some complaints this season about the commercial breaks popping up seemingly at random. Watching the episodes on screeners, I have to admit that there often doesn't seem an obvious "act-out" moment to lead into an ad, but this episode had a hilarious one: After Don takes away the Prussian helmet, Gene shows Bobby a woman's fan, smiles, and says, "There was this girl..." Cut to black.

--The New Jersey Star-Ledger

Two things that have become almost hilarious this season: The choices of where to insert ad breaks have come to seem almost arbitrary (to the point where one in this episode – after Gene says, “There was this girl …” – seemed to cut a scene off before it was finished) ...

--The House Next Door

For the record, the Star-Ledger gets it right. That's a curtain line if I ever heard one.

Larry Gelbart

I saw Larry Gelbart speak at a couple panels, but never met him personally. I always thought in the back of my mind I would. Now I never will.

He was unquestionably one of the top comedy writers of the last 60 years. And he was able to succeed at the highest level in more than one field.

He started in radio and TV, a successful gag writer while still a teen. By the mid-50s he was writing, like so many other greats, for Sid Caesar. At the end of the decade, still fairly young, he was known as one of the fastest, funniet writers--and people--in show biz.

Then in 1961, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, which he wrote with Burt Shevelove, songs by Stephen Sondheim, opened on Broadway. It was a Tony-winning smash, and one of the most perfect farces ever created--superior, I'd say, to the works of Plautus it was based on. He and Shevelove met for years, over weekends, working to get the structure just right. (And then they had a horrible time out of town trying to make it play.) The script also manages to be funny without ever stooping to anachronism.

He would have other shows on Broadway, including his adaptation of Jonson's Volpone, Sly Fox, his Washington satire, Mastergate, and a book for another Tony-winning musical, City Of Angels, a knowing look at Hollywood and film noir. But most of his writing after Forum was for the screen, both big and small.

He's by far best known as the creator of the TV sensation M*A*S*H. There had been a novel, and a smash movie in 1970, but Gelbart made it his. He managed to make it more than another service sitcom, but, just as important, he never let the message bury the comedy. He won an Emmy for the show and was nominated for many more. After four seasons, he left, burned out. Many date the downfall of the show from this moment.

In the late 70s, he turned to screenwriting, working on Oh, God! (Oscar nomination) and the underrated salute to old Hollywood, Movie Movie. He got his second Oscar nomination for being one of the many writers (and probably the most important) who worked on the blockbuster Tootsie.

On those panels where I saw him, which generally included quite a few writing luminaries, he struck me as the wittiest, and the best with an impromptu gag. It seemed to just come naturally to him. Comedy requires hard work, but if it's not in your bones, it doesn't matter.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Am I Mad?

I enjoy Mad Men, but sometimes I wonder why. The show seems to specialize in uncomfortable and embarrassing situations. Why would I want to watch that every week?

Competition

Lee Daniel's Precious, which cleaned up at Sundance, will be in theatres soon. What's next?

There are other projects in the offing, including the possibility of a musical. He's writing something for Oprah, and working on developing a prequel to "Huckleberry Finn."

A Huck Finn prequel? I could swear Mark Twain already took care of that.

Biological Query

I was just thinking: bugs go around on their feet. Makes sense. So why is it when they die they end up with their feet in the air? (I just checked and someone asked this question years ago, but didn't get a definitive answer.)

Remembrance Of Things Past

The Egyptian theatre is having a tribute this weekend to Peter Bogdanovich. This being Hollywood, the man will be there himself.

New, young directors blossomed in the Hollywood of the early 70s. One of the hottest at the time was Bogdanovich. He started off the decade with three critically-favored hits, The Last Picture Show (1971), Paper Moon (1972) and What's Up, Doc? (1973). There was some question about his style, since he loved old movies so much he seemed to be copying them.

Then he made a trio of flops--Daisy Miller (1974), At Long Last Love (1975) and Nickelodeon (1976). Projects became infrequent, usually low budget, and he was never taken as seriously again.

So Nickelodeon, which I saw recently, and which shows tonight in a director's cut, was his last hurrah, even if he didn't know it at the time. It's a love letter to the movie pioneers. The ones who moved out to California (partly to avoid the Patent Trust who tried to shut down small filmmakers) and would simply go out every day and shoot footage in a catch-as-catch-can manner. The climax of the story is when they see D. W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation and realize their world has changed forever.

It's a great concept for a comedy, it's a great concept for a drama. The early filmmakers were outsized personalities who made up the rules as they went along. I wish I could say Bogdanovich's film is a lost masterpiece, but it just doesn't work. Bogdanovich claims Columbia forced a lot of changes on him, and perhaps his cut is better, but the problem goes deeper. The milieu works, but little else does. Ryan O'Neal and Burt Reynolds could be charming actors, but their characters aren't shown here to good advantage. Worse, the tone of the film is, for the most part, farce, and pretty dopey farce at that.

Bogdanovich is one of the best film historians around, and he was trying to give the audience of taste of the joy and excitement that was going on in the early 1900s. Too bad he can't make the film again. The film is about a lost era, and now that the 70s are a lost era too, he probably has a better sense of perspective.

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