Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Beat It

The DeFranco Family had a few hits in the 1970s then disappeared from the charts.  Their lead singer was Tony DeFranco.  Happy birthday, Tony.

The song they're remembered for, if they're remembered at all, was their top ten hit "Heartbeat, It's A Lovebeat." Sort of the "MMMBop" of its day.

Flipping Out

After having recently discussed Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, it was interesting to watch another film of his about kids in the 50s, Flipped (2010).  The comparison wasn't good for Reiner.

The movie is based on a young adult novel.  Reiner, who co-wrote the screenplay, kept the plot but moved it from contemporary times to a period he felt more comfortable with.  This was a mistake--the 1950s means about as much to today's kids as the 1850s. (The film was only budgeted at $14 million but didn't even gross $2 million.  No doubt insiders referred to it as "Flopped.")

Anyway, I don't think the graft takes.  Some of the situations and language feel anachronistic, and though the nostalgic settings look nice, and we get to hear yet another 50s soundtrack, it all adds nothing to the story. (Speaking of the settings, the film was shot in and around Ann Arbor.  A lot of films are set in Michigan now that they're offering major tax breaks.)

It's a simple story of pre-teen romance, as we follow the relationship between Bryce (yeah, a lot of boys were named Bryce in the 50s) and Juli from second grade to junior high.  The twist is we see each section of the story from Bryce's point of view and then we go over the same territory from Juli's. 

The biggest flaw is the narration.  I'm not against a little narration, but it's wall-to-wall here.  And the characters regularly describe feelings that Reiner doesn't show.  They're also too self-aware.  This might have worked in the novel, but doesn't play well on screen.

I suppose the story, which is mostly Juli pining for a boy who hardly notices her, goes by painlessly enough.  But the action never cuts too deep, and the secondary characters, especially the adults (played by names--Rebecca De Mornay, Aidan Quinn, John Mahoney, Anthony Edwards and Penelope Ann Miller) are one-dimensional.  However, the girl, played by Madeline Carroll (born 90 years after the Hitchcock actress Madeleine Carroll), is pretty good.  If she can make the transition to adult roles, she'll go places.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Photo Op

Here's something pretty cool: gigapixel panorama photography. Click on the link to see a picture--made up of 216 photos--of tens of thousands of Vancouver Canucks fans.  It shows a street that's packed for a couple blocks, but you can burrow in and recognize individual faces.  (I think it's cool, but maybe some people will find the whole thing kind of creepy.)

After Math

There's still some play left in a handful of movies, but I don't think it's too early to look back at the summer grosses and see how the Box Office Mojo predictions did.  Here's what they expected (all grosses domestic):

1. Harry Potter - $350 million
2. Transformers - $320 million
3. Kung Fu Panda - $285 million
4. Cars - $270 million
5. Hangover - $255 million
6. Pirates Of The Caribbean - $230 million
7. Captain America - $200 million
8. Thor - $180 million
9. Super 8 - $180 million
10. Zookeeper - $170 million
11. X-Men - $155 million
12. Green Lantern - $130 million
13. Bridesmaids - $125 million
14. Planet Of The Apes - $125 million
15. Smurfs - $120 million
16. Cowboys & Aliens - $95 million

Not bad, I'd says.  Some mistakes, but that's inevitable.  Let's start at the top.

Harry Potter was number one, doing a bit better than expected--looks like it'll end up at around $375 million.  Transformers also over-performed, and should end up at approximately $350 million.

But Mojo gets in trouble with a couple of cartoon sequels. I can understand, with Shrek and Ice Age parts 2 doing better than the originals, to figure new Cars and Kung Fu Panda would go through the roof, but in fact both were disappointments (though they no doubt made money, and both had huge foreign)--Cars 2 made $187 million and Kung Fu Panda 2 was even lower at $164 million.

They pretty much called The Hangover 2 on the nose.  Close on Pirates, too, which made around $240 million.

They expected Captain America to be the big superhero film of the summer, but it didn't quite make it.  Looks like Thor, which they called perfectly, will be on top, while the Cap ends up several million lower.

Super 8 was the big question mark of the summer.  And the answer is it's not quite as big as some thought it would be.  It only managed $126 million, not $180 million.

Zookeeper was the biggest miscall.  I guess they (and Hollywood) figured Kevin James in a big, family-friendly movie?  With funny animals?  How can it fail?  Well, it can if it's unwatchable.  Zookeeper ended up with $77 million.

Another big question was how would the X-Men re-launch go.  It did okay, though maybe not quite as well as expected, finishing with $146 million.

Everyone seemed to sense Green Lantern was the superhero film people didn't want to see.  The name certainly doesn't have the cache of the greater Marvel titles.  The film did even worse than expected, with about $116 million in the coffers.

Bridesmaids was--until a couple weeks ago--the sleeper hit of the summer.  When Mojo made its list, some of these films were already out, but even if anyone could see Bridesmaids was a hit, they couldn't predict its amazing legs.  It ended up with $168 million, bigger than any film directed by Judd Apatow.  I smell sequel.

Planet Of The Apes was a late-summer surprise, getting great reviews and over-performing.  It's still got plenty of play and will finish well above $150 million, through how much above we'll have to see.

Good call by Mojo on Smurfs versus Cowboys & Aliens.  I sure thought the latter would do better, but the blue guys are already over $125 million and have more to come, while C&A looks like it won't even make it to $100 million.

And how is the rest of the field?  Horrible Bosses was a surprise, and should end up around $115 million--it opened against Zookeeper and took it down.  Bad Teacher, another R-rated comedy, ended up just short of $100 million.

There are an awful lot of also-rans, of course.  Some, like Crazy, Stupid, Love, will make a decent amount but come nowhere near the century mark. And let's not forget Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris, his first domestic grosser to make over $50 million.

But the surprise of the summer is The Help.  It's just at $100 million and will be making plenty more  A small, character-based woman's film, backed by a bestselling novel, it's probably the biggest crowdpleaser of the season.  It's already out-performend similarly situated material like Julie & Julia and Eat Pray Love.  For that matter, of all the big summer films, it seems the most likely Oscar material.  Will it start a trend?  Doubtful--there's no superhero in it.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Goodnight, Irene

We've got a bunch of Guys who were in the path of Irene.  Do they have any stories to tell?

Sterling Character

Today is the day we celebrate Sterling Morrison, Velvet Underground guitarist. Why?  Because he was born on an August 28th and died on an August 30th.

Is It Safe?

"Problem Dog" is the seventh out of thirteen episodes in this season's Breaking Bad.  And things seem to be finally heating up.  The net is tightening, everyone's on edge, and the situation is ready to explode.  At the same time, a lot of callbacks to previous incidents.

The season so far has had some fine moments, but too often seemed to be churning.  Sometimes it made sense.  Walt wants to kill Gus before he himself is killed, but he's not ready and his early attempts are easily rebuffed.  But why did Jesse's hell house last three episodes?  How long did Hank moon around?  And just how tough should it be for Skyler to buy that damn car wash?  But now the pieces are in place.

We start with Jesse holding a fake gun, playing a video game.  It brings him flashbacks of Gale. For a guy who died last season, it's amazing how often that actor keeps popping up.  Vince Gilligan must like him.  Jesse, with his new sobriety and position, seems to be dealing with his problem, even if he's hardly cured.

At the car wash, Skyler tells Walt to bring Junior's Challenger back to the car lot.  Walt isn't thrilled with being bossed around and, being the nuevo-jerk, decides to go out to an empty parking--looks like the one where he taught Junior to drive (sure is a lot of empty space in New Mexico)--and do some donuts.  He gets the car stuck on a parking curb.  In the first season, he saw a rich jerk and blew up his car.  Now he's the rich jerk so he'll blow up his own car.

While he does all this, we get to here The Pretenders.  They've always got fun music on this show:



Anyway, better call Saul.  When you're Heisenberg, you can't worry about little things like losing a car.  Saul cleans up the problem, keeping it out of the system, and all it costs is a paltry mid-five figures.  Not that Walt/Heisenberg is grateful.  That's what he pays Saul for, don't bore him with the details. (Good to see Saul back.  I missed him.  And though he's still a little spooked by Mike, it seems to be back to business as usual.)

He gives Saul the money, and we see it go in the safe full of cold cash.  Meanwhile, Walt brings up Gus again.  Walt still knows he'll be killed eventually.  I like this--it makes Walt a bit less of a jerk, and makes it easier to excuse his foolish excess.  Jesse (who's been seeing Saul as well) is right--Gus can't do it now when he needs Walt so much.  But the question is still when, not if.  Walt knows the full frontal assault won't work, so he talks hit man with Saul.  Saul lays it on the line.  It won't work for a number of reasons (most ending with the word "Mike") but hey, doesn't he know an inside man by the name of Pinkman?

Good idea.  Walt goes to Jesse, who's repainting--a sign that he's cleaning up his life?  The two still have a relationship.  Walt keeps noting all the things Gus has done (hey, just plotting to kill them is enough) and saying there's no way that Jesse is so stupid as to believe in the syrup he's spreading.  Jesse doesn't need the sales pitch.  He's still with Walt enough to agree to kill Gus when he gets the chance.  Good to know.  These two have the central relationship in the show and I'd hate to think Gus turned his head so easily. (We've had a number of scenes where these two discuss killing a third party.  They're generally better at talking about it than doing it.)

Back at the car wash, Marie looks around.  Skyler asks about Hank.  Hank is much better (now that Heisenberg is back in his life).  Skyler is probably concerned, but perhaps wants to know if Hank is on the trail that could lead to Walt.  Then Walt walks in with a hand cart full of pop cans.  The two kiss, unconvincingly, and go into the office.  Hidden among the cans are $274,000 in fifties--might have been more if he didn't have to pay Saul to take care of the car.  So we get another shot of a ton of money going into a safe.  Walt will drop off same every two weeks.  That means Walt makes $7.5 million a year (and that's after he and Jesse split it down the middle).  Skyler had no idea.  She can't launder all that--especially in 50s--so quickly.  I think Walt is actually pretty happy to give her a problem she has to deal with because he makes so much.  Anyway, sounds like a high class problem to me. (Skyler should find a place to hid the cash--safe deposit boxes?--and launder it for years and years.)

At the lab, the camera now follows Walt around.  He goes into the other room and does some cooking of his own.  Guess he's teaching Gus a lesson.  He's making his favorite recipe, ricin.  Kills in a few days, looks like a natural death, can't be traced. He hands it over to Jesse (at Jesse's place--Walt is only so reckless), who hides it in a cigarette pack. Jesse will carry it and wait for the right moment.  (Gunplay would get Jesse killed.)

Meanwhile, Hank and Walt Jr. drop by Los Pollos Hermanos.  (It's a franchise, but everyone goes to the same place.) Is this a coincidence?  Anyway, Junior talks about his Challenger being returned.  Will Hank get suspicious?  I guess not with his blind spot for Walt (and all that gambling money).

Manager Gus Fring walks over and says hello, all smiles.  They know each other from the past, of course.  But is Hank suspicious?  He knows there's a general connection.  Has he done more research?  Hank asks for a refill on his diet Coke and that's when I knew he was going for fingerprints.  Sure enough he bags the cup back in the car. (Did we need this information?) Hank is officially back in the game.

Mike is driving Jesse to a big event.  They've got a veggie tray--almost too good an opportunity.  They're out at Gus's meeting place.  No doubt this is the sitdown with the cartel.  Once inside, Jesse's asked to make coffee.  An even better opportunity.  He doesn't take advantage of it. Is he scared?  Does he not fully get the chance?  Is he reconsidering, enjoying his new position?  Mike interrupts him and hands him a loaded gun. Wow!  Is this still part of the game, or do they really trust him?

Jesse waits outside, eyes open, mouth shut, while the sitdown takes place.  The cartel doesn't seem to send a major player. They're not showing Gus any respect.  He may have taken over the meth production and distribution north of the border, but they don't think he can keep it up.  At the meeting, Gus offers $50 million flat to be left alone.  The guy sweeps the offer aside and simply asks Gus Yes or No, no negotiation.  They've got nothing but contempt for Gus, it would appear.

The meeting ends and there only seems to be violence in the future.  Meanwhile, as the car drives away, Jesse has an easy head shot, but won't take it (not that we'd expect him to).  But is he starting to side with Gus, even knowing it's a game?  Mike and Jesse drive away and Mike explains (still part of the game?) that what Gus saw in Jesse was loyalty--maybe to the wrong person, but loyalty.  Hey, Victor was the most loyal of all.  How far did that get him?  Jesse's wondering which way to turn--maybe he should remember that the only guy who actually put something on the line for him, more than once, was that stupid, annoying genius Walt.

Jesse returns to the meth addiction group.  A bit strange, but he needs to talk.  He tells the story of how he killed Gale. In code, of course.  He says he killed a dog--a problem dog, ahem. (Reminds me a bit of the intervention in The Sopranos.) Jere Burns, who heads the group, doesn't believe in judging, but his group sure does.  And Jesse says he only joined the group at first to sell meth, now will you judge that? Jesse is clearly at a crossroads, though it's not clear where he's going next.

At the lab, impatient jerk Walt quietly asks Jesse what's going on--how come he hasn't killed Gus yet, he's had a week. Jesse lies and says he hasn't been near him.  This isn't good.  (Some fans are suggesting there'll be a showdown between Jesse and Walt.  I don't like how that sounds, but who knows?)

Walt is back at DEA HQ, with Gomie (who's going places) and the chief.  He presents his latest research.  Gale got murdered.  He also was a major meth cook.  And there's a connection with the chicken place.  He's also tracked some of the fancy equipment that Gale signed for but no one seemed to pay for. (Would have been interesting if Walt signed for it--does Hank even suspect anything on that end yet? That's another showdown waiting to happen). It also ties in, in a roundabout way, to the chicken place.  So maybe, just maybe, Gus Fring, that benevolent, police-loving community leader, is the mastermind behind the blue stuff.

The guys think he's nuts.  But then Hank pulls out his piece de resistance--the print they pulled from Gale's apartment matches Gus's on the cup.

So things are closing in, but especially on Gus. The cool guy who's got it all under control has maybe bit off more than he can chew.  People who work with Walt tend to die, though it's more than that.  Walt wants to kill him. Jesse may want to kill him.  The play against the cartel isn't exactly working out.  And now bulldog Hank is on his trail.  He doesn't have too many outs. Maybe he'll have to take advantage of Saul's witness relocation program.

A fine episode, one of the best of the season.  And it looks like the show is back on track.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Soul Singer

Hey, it's the birthday of David Soul, actor/singer/wife beater.  Singing may have been a sideline, but this song went to #1:

Don't Go Changing

I just saw The Change-Up at a sub-run theatre.  It's not worth it at any price.  The film is as bad as the critics suggest and though the cast is charming they can't stop it from being a flop.

There are a lot of things wrong with it (like the disgusting baby poo jokes they hit you with just as you're sitting down with your popcorn), but I'd like to concentrate on one aspect.  This is one of those body-switching films--a tired concept, but an easy opportunity for comedy writers to have fun.  The trouble is, as with so many such films, as soon as the characters switch bodies, they seem to leave their brains behind.

In The Change-Up, Ryan Reynolds, the goofy slacker, is friends with Jason Bateman, the responsible family man. (See, they have important lessons they can learn from each other--one is too serious, the other doesn't take life seriously enough.  It's enough to keep you out of movie theatres just fearing you might walk into one showing this movie by mistake.)

Anyway, when they switch, Reynolds is told by Bateman that's he's been working on a big merger for months, so Reynolds (in Bateman's body) has to attend the meeting and not mess things up.  So what does Reynolds do?  He comes into the meeting wearing casual clothes, carrying a bunch of free food he grabbed from the firm's kitchen, screws around adjusting his chair and swears like a sailor.  Why is he acting like such a jerk, doing things he was specifically told not to do?

I can see how the writers figured they needed both guys to fail completely in their first day in new bodies just so they had somewhere to go, but it's still a mistake.  This is farce territory, of course, and there's always a temptation for writers to have everyone in a farce act like idiots, since that makes the twists and turns, not to mention the gags, easier to pull off.  But this temptation should be resisted.

In the late 80s there were a series of body-switching films--Like Father Like Son, Vice Versa, 18 Again and Big.  Only Big, the last one released, was a hit.  In the others, as soon as the switch occurs, the characters immediately act like fools, screwing around in their new bodies.  In Big, once the character realizes the situation he's in, he tries as hard as he can to solve it.

For both story and comedy purposes, it's much more satisfying to have character working at the top of their intelligence, no matter how ridiculous the situation.  Then, whether they succeed or fail, it means a lot more, and the gags pay off better.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Veepstakes

I don't know who'll be the Republican nominee for President, but let me predict the running mate--Marco Rubio. They'd have to be nuts not to choose him.

He's a young, attractive candidate who seems destined for the national game.  His politics are popular with the conservative base but probably won't be too scary for independents.  No one, as far as I know, is questioning his competence or intelligence.  And he's popular in Florida, a state the Republicans need to win.

Above all, he'll help in the outreach to Latinos.  It's very possible the 2012 election will be decided by this group, and if Rubio can bring just a small percentage over to the GOP, it could make the difference.

Maybe the bigger question is will he accept.

Namely

Shirley Ellis turns 70 this year.  I can't find the exact birthdate, so let's say it's today.  She's best known for her novelty songs, particularly "The Name Game" and "The Clapping Song."  The former was especially exciting to kids of the era since they could imagine names that would create swear words.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Bangin'

Catching up on last season's Big Bang Theory before the new season starts, I watched "The Agreement Dissection." A long-time running gag has been the roommate agreement which Sheldon made Leonard sign before he moved in.  It's absurdly detailed and includes many fanciful scenarios.

Anyway, in this episode Sheldon tried to invoke the agreement.  However, Leonard now has a girlfriend, Priya, who's a lawyer.  She was able to find loopholes in the contract and got her "client" off, much to the consternation of Sheldon.  So he decides to play rough, and threatens to inform Priya's parents, who still live in India, of her relationship with a white American if Leonard doesn't immediately sign a new agreement Sheldon has drawn up.

Okay, it's a sitcom, but for a show that works so hard to get the physics right, they must know this contract won't hold up.  Even lay people are aware that a contract signed under duress isn't enforceable.

PS  Generally, the illustrations I choose for my posts about TV episodes are generic, but this one is taken directly from "The Agreement Dissection" and is in fact one of the agreement infractions that Sheldon brings up.

Head Winds

I first saw Head in college.  I thought it was disappointing.  I've seen it several times since.  I still wouldn't call it a great, or even good, film, but it's a fascinating one.

By 1968, the Monkees felt straitjacketed by their TV show.  Head was their attempt (after the show had left the air) not only to move onto the big screen, but to be considered hip.  It was directed by their producer Bob Rafelson, who also wanted to be taken seriously.  Hey, it was the late 60s--they wanted to show they were "authentic" and political, not just kiddy-fare.

So Head, while using some of the techniques developed on the TV show, is a conscious attempt to destroy the Monkees' pre-fab image.  Not a great idea, when you think of it.  Sure, they were manufactured, but they were manufactured so well.  Four charming actors who were also decent musicians, backed by a lot of other talent, especially great songwriters.

Head was written by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, with input from the boys themselves (and a lot of drugs).  It's plotless, made up of vignettes and songs, some with fairly straight punchlines, others more surrealistic. There are also a lot of guest stars (Frank Zappa--who also appeared on the TV show--Sonny Liston, Victor Mature, Annette Funicello) used for their names, not their acting--this is the Monkees' show all the way.  The bits vary greatly in quality and coherence, but considering how poorly a lot of 60s pyschedelia looks today, the film holds up pretty well.

For that matter, while the whole may not be satisfying, it's surprising how many memorable moments--some funny, some even unnerving--there are: the factory tour, the black-and-white dance, adventures in the john, stuck in a box, the studio canteen and several others.  Mixed in with these, however, is a lot of gimcrack surrealism, not to mention the all-too-predictable takes on consumer culture, Vietnam, etc.  Still, the movie generally knows how to keep things moving--it might have speeches about the nature of reality, but it also knows enough to laugh at those speeches.

The biggest problem may be the songs.  They're not up to the level they established on TV.  While I've grown to like some of the numbers, I can't go along with fans who claim it's their best stuff, or even near it.

The film was an utter flop.  Even the album flopped (after their first five went gold--tougher to sell music when millions aren't watching you each week). I'm surprised they couldn't figure out that would happen, even in the late 60s.  It seems to be made for the arty crowd, who'd never see anything starring the Monkees.  It certainly doesn't reach out to the mainstream, and dumps on the Monkees' already-fading core audience of teenyboppers

Rafelson and Nicholson would be taken seriously soon after, with Nicholson breaking through in Easy Rider and then starring in Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces. Alas, the boys would not make the trip with them.  To this day, they're seen as a 60s nostalgia act.  But Head has become a cult item and their TV show is still fun.  There are worse ways to be remembered.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Rhythmically And Melodically Admired

Well, it's that time of year again, the birthday of Elvis Costello.  Kind of a jerk, but he makes good music.





The Shining

I just read All Things Shining and I'm not sure what to make of it.  The subtitle gives a better indication of its content: "Reading The Western Classics To Find Meaning In A Secular Age." Actually, it's more a whirlwind tour of Western thought, concentrating on a handful of classics, to show us how we got to where we are, and to suggest certain ways we might fight against today's nihilism.

The book is written by two philosophy professors, though it's done in popular style.  They look at a modern writer, David Foster Wallace (who killed himself) and see despair, even as his work seems to be a fight against it.  So they go back to the beginning of the West to discover out how we got here.

They start with Homer (naturally).  He was writing (or singing) in a polytheistic world, and human actions were outward directed.  People could give themselves over to whichever god (symbolic of a type of feeling) prevailed at the moment.   Centuries later, there was Aeschylus, who saw the gods differently--in fact, the Oresteia is the story of a clash of the gods.  The old gods, like the Furies, who represent the emotions that take over people, and the new Appollonian gods who represent higher, more rational thought. Ultimately, Athena solves the problem by honoring the old gods while making way for the new, which leads to a patriotic celebration of Athens.

The next big change, of course, is Monotheism, which Christianity brings into the system.  Human lives are still outward directed, but in a different way.  Augustine tries to adapt Plato to Christianity and helps create a view of what humans should desire.  Then Aristotle is reintroduced to the world and Aquinas adapts him to Christianity.  This worldview is explicated by Dante, where everything and everyone has its place, and our job is to avoid the false and wicked urges.  In such a world, autonomy is a danger--we must learn not to replace our duties with our own wants and desires.

Then comes Descartes (the authors see him as influential in his own way as Jesus) who brings back our inner state as the center of who we are and should be.  Now we create meaning.  Kant then makes our own autonomy the center of morality.  Nietzsche sees that we no longer believe that outer sources control our world, or morality, and that we must use our new freedom to move forward.  But the loss of the gods (or just one) can leave humans adrift, and fearful that there is no ultimate meaning, as Melville demonstrates.  A quick trip through Heidegger and we're back to David Foster Wallace.

The author's solution is to find excellence all around us--shining things.  We must get beyond our own selves, consciously investigating what we're doing, and become a part of the new activity. (For example, you may work on a great golf swing, and when you get it, it can be an amazing feeling--but if you think too much about it you may lose it.) We have to beware of the scylla and charybdis of being too rational that we never feel anything higher than ourselves, and giving into moods that can sweep over us from outside, which may be nice at a baseball game, or a Martin Luther King speech, but not at a fascist rally.

I have no idea if any of their analysis, much less their solution, is sound.  The odd thing to me is for a book about the West, their ideas end up seeming pretty Eastern.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sock It To 'Em Jay Beeber

My friend Jay Beeber has been fighting red light cameras in Los Angeles.  Here's a video explaining how it's going.:

Extra Edition: Extradition

With Libya changing, I see that some are calling for the extradition of the Lockerbie bomber.  It made me look back to what I wrote two years ago about Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi.

Even back then I'd heard rumors he wasn't actually terminal, that it was some sort of secret deal.  My argument, of course, was based on the official explanation being true (and also based on believing he was guilty, even though some claim he isn't). Since we can now see it was either a lie or a faulty diagnosis, I'm in favor of extradition to any country that will lock him up.  I'd be glad he lived long enough to see it happen.

Sad Words From The Tongue Of Penn

Quoted in The New Yorker, Sean Penn isn't thrilled about his appearance in Terence Malick's Tree Of Life:

I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.

Richard Brody at The New Yorker is rather dismissive of a mere actor questioning an auteur like Malick:

“The Tree of Life” is a marvel, Penn is very good in it—but Malick wasn’t shooting it for the pleasure or the benefit of the actors. What Penn conveys in his performance (as the adult protagonist whose memories, in flashback, provide most of the film’s action) is his very stardom, his charisma, his emotional intensity. Malick’s methods don’t let the actor employ much of his accustomed technique, but this doesn’t at all lessen the beauty and the impact of his performance. [....]Penn brings an acid yellow to the glass-and-metal grays of his scenes, and it adds something important to the film; but he doesn’t get to do the kind of showy and theatrical performance for which Oscars are won.

I haven't read the script so I can't even guess if doing the film more conventionally would have worked, but otherwise I'm with Penn.  Brody is stretching to help Malick.

Penn is at the service of a framing device, as the grown-up son from the Texas suburban family who muses on his past and attempts to come to terms with it.  Most critics agree his scenes are the weakest portion of the film.  He works in a cold, modern building, and doesn't have much to play against except his memories.  I didn't think the film used his "stardom" or "charisma" very well.  Besides, if it needed those two qualities, it already had Brad Pitt, who spends a lot of time (thanks to his role, one assumes) hiding these qualities to play an actual human being.

Malick does things his way.  The story is told impressionistically, along with touches of surrealism and cosmic consciousness. While I can see what he was going for with Penn (even if he didn't communicate it well to the actor), perhaps he should have realized it wasn't quite working.  He's been known to vastly change his films in post. If he couldn't cut out Penn entirely, maybe he could have minimized his appearances.  Actually, Penn is not in the movie that much--maybe Malick already did that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Quakelines

Monitoring the twitter feed

1. Christie jumped into the race
2. It's Obama's fault
3. Drink specials tonight- martinis shaken not stirred
4. Picture of the devastation
5. This will be a good tune-up for this weekend's hurricane


Give us a break, we don't get this much out here in the East. For the record, though its claimed it was felt here, I noticed nothing. No excuse even not to go back to work.

Nick Of Team

Wow, big day for half of great songwriting teams dying.  So long, Nick Ashford.



I've always loved the line "ain't no valley low enough." Really? Low valleys make it tough to get to someone?

The Kid's Alright or He's Been Dead Since 1978

My all time favorite drummer Keith Moon would have been 65 today, but with his lifestyle, it's amazing he made it past 30.

He's now been dead longer than he lived. But the beat goes on.





Last month we had Martha And The Vandellas lip sync to it, so let's watch The Who do the same--Keith drum syncs, of course.

More Words

In the Reagan era, the FCC got rid of the Fairness Doctrine rule, thank goodness. It had been used by both parties to lean on broadcasters they didn't like. It effectively shut down lively political discussion on the airwaves, and was a poke in the eye of the First Amendment.  As FCC chairman Mark Fowler put it back then, the FCC shouldn't be regulating content--TV is just "a toaster with pictures."

But it wasn't until yesterday that the FCC officially erased the rule from the Federal Registry.  Hear, hear.

No More Words

Let's say goodbye to half of one of the greatest songwriting teams of our age.  Jerry Leiber has died, and it's hard to imagine rock and roll without him.





Monday, August 22, 2011

A Shot Of JLH

It's the birthday of blues artist John Lee Hooker.  He hit it big in Detroit in the 40s and kept it going till his death a decade ago.  His style was deceptively simple--amazing how much he could get out of one chord.



Simmering

A rather self-conscious Breaking Bad this week, dealing directly with questions fans had last week. "Cornered" also shows Walt remains the jerk he's been proving himself to be all season.

We start with a puff of smoke against a black background, just like we did a couple weeks ago--and a million fans wonder if they're watching a repeat.  Nope, it's two guy--neither Mike--protected a refrigerated Los Hermanos Pollos truck.  (Do all these trucks have guys.  Even if it's just the meth delivery trucks, it must mean a lot of people.)  Like last time, the truck is stopped, but the Cartel has learned.  They kill the driver and send exhaust into the back.  No one's going to survive this time.  Then they enter the truck and take out just one cannister. Just one? (Are they going to destroy the truck?  Leaving it around, mightn't that cause suspicious with the cops about everything?) By the way, does no one ever drive by these roads where they stop the truck and offer a hand?

Back at the White residence, it's the day after last week's dinner party, and Walt is sleeping it off.  Skyler is checking on the Gale person.  As I noted last week, that blows her image of Walt being in a safe profession.  (I read a lot of websites and didn't see anyone else nothing this.) She's also now suspicious, as I thought she might be last week, about that phone call he made.

Skyler wakes up Walt and we have another great confrontation scene between the two.  They both give away their characters with each line.  Walt, if he weren't such a jerk, could reassure his wife--saying he loves her and reassuring her how safe the family is--but instead he's prickly and not helpful.  If you're gonna lie, why not make things better?  Skyler wasn't kidding--if there's danger, let's go to the cops. It's still better than the other choice. (She doesn't know about Saul's choice of a relocation expert).  Then she brings up the point many wondered about last week--was Walt telling Hank he wants to be caught.  Walt treats this like pop psychology and I agree--I think it's his pride.  But once again, he acts like a jerk.

She says he's in over his head.  Admit you're in danger and lets proceed from there.  Now Walt must know he's in danger--Gus tried to kill him and still wants to--but he can't admit to himself, much less Skyler, that he's not the powerful badass he imagines himself to be.  If he wants Hank to know who Heisenberg is, he's not gonna be easier on his wife.  He's the Man.  The organization that would fall apart without him makes more money than most major corporations!  He's not in danger, he's the guy who puts other people in danger (which is actually true).  It's a great speech, and one sure to tell the audience that Walt has gone too far.  Telling Gretchen off is one thing, but believing you're the guy everyone is afraid of is quite another.

He takes a shower and even he thinks better of what he said.  He wants to talk to Skyler but she's taken off.  He's got to go to the car wash to pick up the keys from Bogdan. Bogdan talks about being the boss, and even baits Walt a little, but he doesn't really rise to the bait.  He probably sees himself as so far above Bogdan that he can't be bothered. But to show himself how cool he is, he won't let Bogdan take away the framed first dollar, and after the former owner leaves, he break it open and buys a Coke with it.  Walt the badass, showing how tough he is, or delusional.

At a dark diner, Mike is still babysitting Jesse.  He seems to be warming to his young charge, and Jesse is finding a new father figure.  (Walt cared about Jesse, but even in the best of times he spent a lot of time insulting the former student's intellect.) Mike is also overseeing Jesse's withdrawal.  He's probably done that before. (The first time out, Walt did it, but no longer.)

Back at the White's, Walt and Jr. eat breakfast.  Mom is still gone.  Before, Walt was the guy who took off, but it's her turn.  Junior thinks it's about the gambling, but Walt doesn't like it--he bristles at anything that makes him look weak, even from his son.  He's proud of what he did, even if he can't tell Junior what it is.

He drives him to work, and it's clear he's not moving in, like mom said he would.  Last season Walt wanted so much to go home, but now he can but can't stand the idea of Skyler (or anyone) being in charge of him.  Walt detours to a used car lot, but his son says if you want to buy me off, it better be a sleek new car.  Walt obliges.  This is insane. It'll raise comment and draw the IRS. Skyler won't like it either, but he wants to help his son and show what a great provider he is.

Jesse and Walt meet outside work.  They have a talk about Jesse's missions with Mike.  Walt is suspicious.  Jesse explains Gus figured he needed a babysitter but then he proved his worth by saving Mike's skin.  Rather self-consciously, Walt (who admittedly can be pretty smart when looking at a situation) doesn't believe the deal was real.  Gus set it up.  Gus hates how he needs Walt and is driving a wedge between them.  Walt concludes it's all about him.  He's right, but being incredibly obnoxious and furthering Gus's goals.

In the lab, during clean up, Jesse is called away again.  Walt is pissed.  He goes upstairs and asks some of the Latinas to help with the cleaning.  Is he insane?  This is a secret meth lab.  The cleaners upstairs know to keep their mouth shut and not asking any questions, but you don't tempt fate.  How much does Walt have to do before Gus gets tired and takes him out?  He gives them money and brings them down in the lab. Then toasts the camera, smiling.  And, just as with the jerky Walt drinking his Coke, we go to commercial.

Sklyer is driving across the desert.  She's got Holly.  She stops at (the deserted) Four Corners, where you an stand on Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico at once.  I think here is where we get the episode's title (she's cornered in general, of course). She throws up a coin.  Apparently not for head or tails, but to see what state it lands in.  Colorado.  She flips it again.  Colorado again. (Not adjusting for wind?)  She pulls the coin back to New Mexico.  Guess she's not leaving.  It does raise a question, though.  Walts in the lab, she's out on a joy ride--who's running the car wash?

Mike and Jesse stake out a cheap house with meth heads who have a bunch of the blue stuff.  Enough they're selling it, and they shouldn't have it at all.  How?  Mike, the old PI, is willing to wait as long as it takes for them to peak out, but Jesse wants a full frontal assasult.  He refuses to sit back, and Mike (somewhat oddly) doesn't stop him.  First he goes to buy, and is sent away. Then he gets the shovel out of the trunk and starts digging in the yard.  (We see something I've never seen before--a shovel's POV shot.) This intrigues one of the meth heads, who starts digging himself.  Jesse enters and tries to talk to the other meth head who happend to have a shotgun.  Seems like a stupid plan that could easily end in his death--Mike was right.  But it's still a meth head, no smarter than Spooge, and Jesse knocks him out before too long.  Mike enters, having seen yard boy, and they find (as they were meant to) the cannister with the blue meth and a message in Spanish--"ready to talk?"   (As I've noted earlier, when we first met Mike, he seemed to be a guy Saul regularly used.  As for Gus, Saul knew a guy (presumably Mike) who knew a guy who knew a guy (presumably Gus).  Later, when Mike talked to Gus, he might mention "the lawyer." Now Mike's main job is simply doing Gus's bidding, and it seems to be full-time.)  (By the way, this episode--Saul-less. No Hank and Marie either, but we've had plenty of them lately.)

Walt leads out the three Latinas.  Tyrus intercepts them and puts them on a bus back to Honduras.  Well, he says it's the bus to Honduras.  Who knows what it means.  All we know is Gus isn't happy with Walt's latest antics, but also can't kill him.  Yet.

Back at the dark diner, Jesse and Mike enjoy a repast.  Gus enters.  (Guess that's why they picked this dark place.)  Jesse leaves so the other two can have a pow-wow. They discuss the Cartel's hit, and how they handed off the cannister.  Mike wants to hit them back hard, but Gus isn't ready yet.  He wants the war to stay cold.  Cold?  Maybe inside the cab, but people are dying.  Gus will parley with them, though.

Outside, Gus passes through and passes on Mike's compliments.  Jesse wants to know why him, and Gus (lying?) says he thinks he can spot talent.  Gotta make Jesse feel good.  This is the guy which Gus suggested Walt drop not so long ago.

Walt and Junior are having dinner when Skyler returns.  She sees the car in the driveway. Junior promises he'll be safe with it.  He leaves to drive it around the block, and Skyler makes it clear they'll have to give the car back.  This is just the sort of stuff that'll blow up their plans.  Walt says he's trying to protect the family, and she says she's trying to protect the family from him.  And we're done.

This season is defintely slower than any other so far.  I know we had the Gus/Victor scene, but even that isn't quite the same as what we've had earlier.  The first season started with a bunch of high tension scenes where Walt and Jesse had to deal with Emilio and Krazy 8.  Season two early on had the the boys kidnapped by Tuco.  Season three arguably started a little slower, but by episode six ened with the amazing showdown where you had Jesse and Walt in the van and Hank trying to get in.  (The next episode ended with Hank and the Mexican brothers.)  "Cornered" is episode six of season four.  While the show is never less than entertaining, it makes you wonder when things are going to heat up.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Land Of Lost

Hey, 52 years ago Hawaii became our 50th state.  So put on your grass skirt and celebrate.





Wake Up

In dicussing the new Andrew Niccol film at Big Hollywood, we get this:

It’s been six years since Andrew Niccol seated himself in a director’s chair; after the powerful Gattaca (1997), misfire S1m0ne (2002), and sleeper Lord of War (2005), the inventive writer is headed back to the big screen with another original sci-fi concept, In Time.

"Sleeper" is a great term, let's not misuse it.  It means something no one expects much of, generally something that operates in obscurity for a while, and then, surprising everyone, turns into a hit. Lord Of War was a $50 million film that grossed $24 million domestically.  That's a flop, not a sleeper.  Yet for some reason people want to use sleeper to mean something boring.  Stop it.  We're losing a cool word.

She Can Crow

Happy birthday, Carolyn Leigh.  After Dorothy Fields, she was the best female lyricist around.





PS  Here's Lucille Ball doing "Hey Look Me Over." The production of Wildcat was troubled, but the song survives.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

No Friend Of Mine

John Sayles has a new film out, Amigo.  It's about America's adventures in the Philippines.  Sayles is a good filmmaker who's at his worst when he gets didactic, so I was already wary of the subject.

But then I looked at the ad in the LA Weekly. They quoted from J. Hoberman's reivew: "Engrossing...intelligently rip-roaring, a thoughful action film...a teachable moment."

Amigo is a teachable moment?  Thanks for the warning. One less film I need to check out.

Mr. Monotony

It's Robert Plant's birthday.  He was the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, but also had a solo career.  In fact, I recently heard on the radio his "In The Mood" (not the Glenn Miller song), which was a very small hit in the 80s.  It's was so bad I almost enjoyed it.  Here's a guy singing "I'm in the mood for a melody" but he doesn't come anywhere close to one.  Is that the point?



By the way, is it possible to build a decent melody around the same note. Here are a couple examples:



Friday, August 19, 2011

Good PR

There's talk of Paul Ryan running for President.  He should be announcing his decision soon, and I think it'll be no.  It takes a lot to run for Prez and he's got other things on his mind.  Besides, at 41, there'll be plenty of other elections.

My guess is Obama would love to run against him.  Ryan may be an impressive candidate in many ways, but he's also part of Congress--the only thing less popular right now than the President.  It would allow Obama to say "you may not always love what I've done, but here's the guy who really screwed up everything." Plus he'll claim Ryan wants to steal your money by gutting social programs.

Obama will do this no matter who he runs against, of course, but it's a lot easier to do it to a representative than a governor.

I'm Confessin'

I just saw I Confess, a Hitchcock film that's not especially well-remembered though it has a cult (as many Hitchcock films do).  The central situation isn't bad--a priest receives the confession of a murderer, and later is tried for that murder.  His vow doesn't allow him to exonerate himself.

Montgomery Clift sleepwalks through the role.  Hitchcock loved movie stars, who brought their persona, and their glamor, to the screen.  Clift was a star, but he was a method actor, who didn't really fit the mechanical demands of the director.

Not that another actor would have made the film work. I think it was done in by the Production Code. Back then, no Hollywood film could mock religion.  So the priest has to make the right move every step of the way.  There's no question he won't break the confidence of the confessional.  But also, Clift's character is involved with Anne Baxter's character, providing a motive for the murder.  Except he's not allowed to do anything wrong in their relationship.  It happened before he found his calling, and even when he returns (before he's a priest) after the war and sees her, he doesn't know she's married.  (Not that they do anything.)

The other problem is under the Code the good must be rewarded and the bad punished, so the priest ultimately gets off while the bad guy (and even his wife, who helped him but ultimately turns around) must die in the end.

I wasn't surprised to discover in the original play, the priest is executed.  Furthermore, he has a lover and an illegitmate child.

By the way, I doubt this situation has ever come up, but if it did, somehow I think the Church would allow the priest to at least explain that someone confessed the murder to him.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Don't Toy With Me

Happy birthday, Barbara Harris. No, not that one.  Not that one either.  I'm talking about the lead singer of The Toys.  They had a few hits, but by far their biggest was "A Lover's Concerto." It went to #2 in 1965, but the Bach melody is timeless.

Put That In Your Pipe

Tobacco companies are suing to prevent the FDA from forcing them to put graphic images on cigarette packs, claiming such regulations violate their free speech rights.  Seems to me that's correct.

It's tough enough to justify any warnings on tobacco, but at least you could say the government is requiring sellers to put out consumer information, just like many other companies must. (Not that that it ends that argument, just that it's been found constitutional so far.) But requiring what's hoped to be powerfully anti-tobacco images on packs goes beyond informing the consumer and into forcing manufacturers to put out government propaganda.

Tobacco companies are very unpopular, but they're still selling a legal product, and there should be limits to what the government can do.

Oh, Beautiful?

Good Morning America has voted Michigan's Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes the "most beautiful place in America." I'm from Michigan and I've been to the Dunes. Very nice, but the top spot in America?  I'm not sure if I'd call it the most beautiful in the state.

Off the top of my head I can think of places I've been in Utah, South Dakota, Northern California, Vermont and Florida that I prefer. I realize it's all subjective, but was there ballot box stuffing here?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On A Role

Larry David has traveled to New York in the latest Curb Your Enthusiasm, "The Hero." The show could use a change of scene, so I'm looking forward to this playing out. (Larry did spend a little time in NYC when he was starring in The Producers on the show, but not most of the season.)

One interesting thing about the show is Larry plays himself (or a version of himself) and certain people, like Richard Lewis and Ted Danson, play themselves as well.  Yet Larry employs a lot of comedians and comic actors, fairly well known ones, to play fictional characters.  In "The Hero," we're introduced to Ricky Gervais as Ricky Gervais, who's at a restaurant with Chris Parnell.  Except he's not playing Chris Parnell, he's playing the husband of Ricky's co-star in a fictional Broadway show. If Parnell didn't know already, he now understands he's not the name that Ricky Gervais is.  You really know how you rate on this show.

PS  In the closed captioning, when Larry said "Rodgers and Hammerstein" it was written "Rogers and Hammerstein." A common mistake.

Boys And Girl

I watched The Fabulous Baker Boys for the first time since it was out in the theatres.  It's not much of a story.  A two-brother lounge act is getting worse bookings so they take on a female singer.  The act revives, but the three personalities clash, splitting them apart.

But the film isn't really about story, it's a three-person character study.  Luckily, the actors are up to it.  Beau Bridges is the older, more conventional brother, who runs the business side and doesn't mind the corny music they play.  Jeff Bridges is the moody brother who's drifting through life, wasting his talent.  Michelle Pfeiffer is the hot chanteuse who a bit inexperienced in show biz but doesn't put up with any crap.

Jeff Bridges does a fine job of being sullen, though he's so deadpan (only occasionally letting his real feelings out) that he needs others to play against or the film will sink into his darkness.  Brother Beau, who wasn't the star his brother was when the movie was made, carries much of the comedy, and also the plot.  The film may be about the more glamorous couple of Jeff and  Michele, but Beau is the normal family guy through whom we can enter the film.

Michelle Pfeiffer is the revelation here.  A bit of a tart, a bit of a smart-ass, and someone who's been burned as much as the Bridges character, she's a live wire who adds a spark to the film just like she brightens up the Baker Boys' act.  When the film was shot, she was a star on her way up, and this part, for which she got an Oscar nomination, showed she'd arrived.

A word about the music.  I know there are lots of lounge acts out there.  Not as many as there were when the film was made, and even back then it was dying out.  But man is their two-piano sound muzaky.  I don't know how people could stand it.  With Pfeiffer, at least you've got something to look at.  Speaking of Pfeiffer, she actually started in musical, her first starring role being in Grease 2, and a few years ago doing Hairspray.  She's not a great singer, but good enough for the purposes of the film--we're not talking about a top national act, after all.  And she's certainly at the height of her sexinesss.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

To BE

Happy birthday Bill Evans, on of the top jazz pianists.  He died at only 51, after years of poor health and drug use.  But in his time, he created a sound that many aspired to but few could reach.  As Miles Davis put it, he had a "quiet fire."

His best known playing has to be on Davis's Kind Of Blue, the top selling jazz album.  Evans is co-composer on some of the tunes, and wrote the liner notes, but playing with Miles represented only a small portion of his career.

Perhaps his most admired composition is "Waltz For Debby." (Debby was his niece.)



PS Here's a YouTube comment:

I will never forget this dream I had about a year ago. It was in black and white and I was in the middle of this round stage where the Bill Evans trio was playing Waltz for Debby and when the drums kicked in my body suddenly lost all it's weight and I was floating in the air to the music filled with pure ecstasy which lasted well on through to the next waking day.

Stood By Me

At The House Next Door, in one of their nostalgic looks at an old movie, Matthew Cheney writes about Stand By Me (1986). The film was Rob Reiner's third, and there aren't many directors who had such a great start: Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing and SBM.  I loved all three, and the last put him in the big time.  He'd make other good films (and some bad ones) but I don't think he ever topped that original trilogy.

Stand By Me still holds up. Cheney thinks so too, though he's not as enamored of the film as he was when he was a kid.  Fine, but then we get this:

The last words of Stand By Me appear in silence on the computer screen: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?"

The moment is presented with extraordinary restraint: the words alone, no music, no sound at all. The truth is in the text. Richard Dreyfuss then turns off the computer and walks out the door of his study, off to take kids swimming.

So that's what he takes with him?  The ending? It's probably the worst thing in the film.  The whole framing device is weak, but those final words seem absurd.  I recall John Simon's review, where he noted it showed the infantilism of American film.  I basically agree.  Yes, childhood memories are special, but I don't recall the friendships I had then being deeper than any other.  In fact, the friends that have meant the most to me are generally people I met in college or since.  That sentence on the computer struck me as simplistic, even false--something designed to wrap the story in a bow, rather than let it speak for itself.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Direct Hit

Here's a pretty amusing piece--"The 30 Harshest Filmmaker-on-Filmmaker Insults In History." My only complaint is four of the thirty are from Vincent Gallo.  Who cares what he thinks?  But the rest are fun.  It's nice to see big names like Antonioni and Godard taken down a notch.  Though where's the anti-Bergman stuff--he gets off three insults and no one has anything nasty to say about him?

Some of my favorites. (It's so easy to write a post by quoting others):

Jacques Rivette on James Cameron:
Cameron isn’t evil, he’s not an asshole like Spielberg. He wants to be the new De Mille. Unfortunately, he can’t direct his way out of a paper bag.

Werner Herzog on Jean-Luc Godard:
Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung-fu film.

David Gordon Green on Kevin Smith (though making fun of Kevin Smith as a director is too easy):
He kind of created a Special Olympics for film. They just kind of lowered the standard.

David Cronenberg on M. Night Shymalan:
I HATE that guy! Next question.

The Turn

Vince Gilligan has said Breaking Bad is about a man who makes a bad decision and spirals downward.  Walter White may have had his flaws, but he started the show as a basically decent family man in a tough spot.  Along the way, it hasn't always been pretty. Lately, though, some fans have been saying they no longer sympathize with Walt.  I think this week's episode, "Shotgun," may have been where he turned the corner for me. Almost everything he did was jerky.

We start where we left off.  Walt has just learned that Jesse is missing and he's rushing through traffic to do something.  He calls Saul to make sure his wife gets all the money. (Hey, it's against the law to talk on your cell while weaving in and out of traffic like a madman.  BTW, no Saul this episode.) Next he calls his wife but can't quite tell her what's happening and just says he loves her.  Then he pulls into the chicken man's parking lot.

He has a gun.  Gus (who seems to be there) won't see him.  Now think about this.  Walter may be brilliant in many ways, but he's not street smart and lets his emotions get the better of him. First, there's no way Gus would agree to see him, even if Walt were frisked.  Gus knows Walt might make a move.  Second, if Walt made a move, he'd almost certainly end up dead.  Third, Gus's whole style (and it's what makes him the professional that Walt isn't) is to hide in plain sight, so having a big altercation with Walt is a disaster for both. (He has met Walt in public before, but the connection made sense so no one minded.) In fact, if Walt makes a big enough nuisance of himself (even assuming Gus knows he won't blow their cover) Gus might cut his losses and kill him.  He killed Victor because he was seen at the scene of a crime, after all.  Gus needs Walt to cook, and he can't quickly replace him, but he'd drop it all at the threat of losing everything.

Mike (no doubt called by Gus, who saw Walt on the store cameras) calls Walt and lets him know he has Jesse, who's okay, now go back to the lab and start cooking.  Meanwhile, is Gus calling in some boys to take care of Walt? (He wouldn't call the cops, presumably, but the store's manager might call security.)  Walt, continuing his dumb-ass move, marches behind the counter and into Gus's office.  Gus is long gone.  Lucky for Walt.

Meanwhile, Mike is still driving Jesse. (Jesse's driving shotgun, where part of the title comes from.) They're going out to the middle of the desert.  Jesse's been through this before with Tuco, and it wasn't pretty.  Mike doesn't explain what's going on.  Jesse pulls out his keys.  Good. I doubt he could fight off Mike, but at least it shows he cares again.  They stop and get out.  Mike gets a shovel from the trunk--the old dig-your-own-grave bit?  He walks past Jesse, not even trying to defend himself, as if Jesse is beneath contempt.  Mike digs up a money bag.  It's a drop.  This is part of his job. (When we first met Mike, he seemed like an independent PI who worked a lot for Saul.  I think once the show realized he was a great character, they turned him into Gus's right-hand man.  What doesn't he do for the guy?) Mike puts the money and shovel in his trunk and gets back in the car.  He asks Jesse if he's coming, since they've got six more pick-ups to make.

At Hank's place, his cop friend on the murder case drops by.  Hank tells him what he can--including the names of Badger and Jesse.  Hank notes he and Jesse have a history.  He also says that Jesse didn't strike him as the kind of guy who'd shoot someone.  He's right.  The friend has a composite of the person of interest spotted at the scene--Victor, of course.  No one's gonna be finding him.  There are also some prints.  I still think they're Gus's.  Anyway, Hank begs off the case.  With Heisenberg gone, the quest is over.

Another drop.  Jesse waits outside, guarding Mike's car. Mike is dismissive.  Jesse says I'm a back-up, shouldn't I have a gun.  Does he really think they'd give him a gun?  Mike acts disgusted.  Also won't let him smoke (the ultimate insult to Jesse).  (Gus is still coughing a little--does he have a problem?) We get a fancily shot montage of the pickups.  They keep driving and Jesse runs off at the mouth about how bored he is.  Jesse is reminded of the old dead drops he had with his crew.  He's coming back to life, which seems to be at least part of the plan.  Finally Mike has had enough and pulls off the road.  He tells Jesse he's not part of any plan of his, that he had a back-up (Victor, one assumes), but Jesse can't do it and Mike is just following orders.

At the lab, Walt is working the two-man job by himself. His watch-alarm goes off.  The cook has started so no need to stick around for a while.  He goes home where he and Skyler are officially signing the car wash deed.  (Some find the Skyler subplot dull, but I think how she's getting involved and how Walt reacts to be one of the better subplots this season.)

Skyler has doubts signing, and apparently it's not just an act to make the whole thing seem authentic.  She really feels like she's starting a new business.  She is, I guess, but not a legitimate one.

When the two are alone after they've bought the place, they talk. (We get a profile of the actress who looks pregnant, though her character supposedly dropped a baby not that long ago.) Skyler says they need total honesty now to make this thing work.  She's always insisted on this, of course, and Walt's done nothing but lie. He's still lying.  He can't or won't tell her that his life is in danger, that Jesse's life is in danger, that he can't even protect Skyler and Junior if it came down to it.

They celebrate with a drink and Skyler checks the phone machine.  I figured she'd have heard it already, but I guess not. It's the harried Walt about to say he might be dead soon but chickening out and saying he loves her. (The entire show started with Walt confessing certain things into a video camera in case there was trouble.) There's a pause.  Will Skyler see through the call and know that Walt is continuing to lie?  No, she's touched, and next thing you know they're going at it.  It's definitely been a while.

Walter, Jr. comes home and realizes what's happening.  Skyler suggests Walt move back in.  The odd thing is Walt has done so much to get her back, but now that she offers, he doesn't seem to want to say yes (though he doesn't say no). This is Walt, once again, being a jerk.  What is preventing him from coming back.  He wants to keep his distance?  He's tired of her car wash stuff and would rather imagine he's super-villain Heisenberg?  Whatever is it, it makes him less sympathetic.  Anyway, before the conversation can get too heavy, Walter's alarm goes off and he's got to get off to the lab.  So it turns out the original alarm was to notify him of his shot at a nooner.

Back at the lab, he finds it's hard to work without Jesse doing some of the heavy (fork)lifting.  He complains to the cameras, which is his only way to communicate these days.  He starts a sit-down strike until Jesse returns.  A bit later, New Victor drops in to help.  What does this mean? Is he going to learn the process?  Will this make Jesse unnecessary?  Will Walt go along with this for much longer?  Either way, time to make the donuts.

It's dark, and Mike wheels in for the last drop.  He leave Jesse alone in the car--we know something's going to happen, and it does.  A guy comes from behind with a shotgun. (There's the title again.) Could it be the cartel? Has someone said too much? Either way, Mike has left the keys in the car and Jesse backs up, slamming into the other car, and drives away, keeping the booty safe.  Mike comes out and watches him fly away.  Mike seems surprisingly calm at someone try to kill him at a drop (even though it wouldn't be the first time) and at Jesse driving off.  While I was watching, I felt it was a set-up.

Mike calls from a nearby cafe to be picked up when Jesse pulls up.  He's got quite a story to tell, and Mike seems proud. Even let's him smoke.

At the White's, Walt and Junior have a nice talk in the morning.  Junior drinks coffee now. Junior is glad he's back.  Walter is being the old decent guy we used to know.  Then Junior mentions mom said he's coming back home on Tuesday.  Walt seems almost amused at Skyler's presumption.  Meanwhile, he watches Junior drink from a Beneke mug.  Is he still mad about Skyler and Ted?  Anyway, Walt is being a jerk again.

He goes to work and gets another surprise.  Jesse there bright and early. And eager! He's working with Mike now, and feels useful and wanted.  Over at Los Pollos Hermanos, Gus takes out the trash and there's a car waiting.  Nope, it's not Walt with a gun, it's Mike, telling Gus (and us) that it all went according to plan.  Gus has always said he'd rather have people's loyalty than fear, and apparently he's been able to turn Jesse around.  He should be a counselor.  My guess is Mike had other ways of "taking care" of Jesse, but he doesn't question orders.

Now we're at the promised dinner with the Schraders.  Skyler talks eagerly about the car wash while moody asshole Walt seats next to her slurping up wine.  He goes to the kitchen, pissed, to get more.  He's the genius here, he's the mastermind, and all anyone can talk about is that damn car wash.  That's Skyler's deal, not his.

Walt comes back to the table and Hank talks about Gale at Junior's urging.  His man has been caught, so he's out.  He almost eulogizes Gale, saying that the guy, for all the bad he did, was a genius.  If only he'd used his brain for good.  This is too much for Walt.  Not that he could have applied his brains for good, but that someone else is getting credit.  This has always been Walt's main flaw.  He couldn't take money from Elliott and Gretchen because he felt they stole his work and profited unfairly from it and he refused to be paid off.  In fact, though he got Gretchen involved with his lies, he told her off pretty harshly.  He couldn't stand when Skyler thought the money he made was coming to them through charity at a website Junior set up.  And when Jesse cooked, Walt told him that his stuff was no good. Walt's always had a chip on his shoulder regarding the world's failure to recognize his genius. And now that he's finally worked his way up to the top of the game in the meth world, creating the greatest product ever, it drives him crazy that Gale should be thought of as Heisenberg, even though it means Hank has been thrown off the scent.

So idiot Walt has to voice his opinion. He read the lab notes and wasn't impressed.  Gale was not a thinker, or deducer, he was just copying by rote, and the genius is probably still out there.  This is the kind of scene that Breaking Bad does so well.  You've got Marie and Junior, fairly oblivious, perhaps seeing Walt's words as jealousy, or a reasonable understanding, or maybe barely listening.  Then there's Hank, who's actually a smart cop but has a blind spot regarding his family, listening to a man he considers brilliant telling him that Moby Dick is still out there. Then there's Walt, so full of pride that he's willing to screw himself over even though to anyone else Hank saying he's off the case would be a cause to celebrate.  Then there's Sklyer, who's learning Walt has been lying since it turns out top meth chefs get murdered, and she probably wants to stab Walt in the heart as he digs himself in deeper by letting Hank know Heisenberg is still out there.

Sure enough, in the next scene, Hank is back on it.  He's not only looking, he's found something.  Why would a Vegan have a Los Pollos Hermanos wrapper at his place?  That's something worth checking out.  And if they find the Fringerprints, Gus's problems are a lot bigger than some crazy cook gunning for him.

PS  AMC just announced they've ordered a fifth and final 16-episode Breaking Bad season--to be shown in two separate parts.  Good. Some had worried the negotiations would break down.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cain Query

These days they let regular folks get in the occasional question during Presidential debates.  I don't know what I'd say to most of the candidates, but I've got something I definitely want to ask Herman Cain.

Years ago I tried Godfather's Pizza and there was a layer of cheese on top of everything.  I haven't been back since.  Have you changed that?  I mean, why would you put cheese on top?  They're called "toppings."  I don't want to have to bite through a whole crusty level of cheese to be surprised by what's underneath. Until you fix that, why would you expect my business?  Thank you.

Double Down

I noticed both seasons of Party Down were on sale at Amazon.  I was about to order when I wondered if it wasn't on sale everywhere.  So I went to my local Target and sure enough the double set was available for $15.  I scooped it up and have been watching it over the weekend.

It holds up--not that it shouldn't, since it was on only a few years ago. I've written about it before, but to repeat, the show is a sitcom built around a catering crew, all of whom would rather be somewhere else.  Each week the plot is built around the event they cater.

I forgot what a bunch of losers these guys are.  The characters range from bitter to delusional to stupid to cynical.  Watching the episodes in chronological order, I could see how it takes a show or two to develop their rhythm, but they figure it out pretty quickly.  (They better, with only 20 episodes.)

They lost Jane Lynch in season 1 and replaced her with Megan Mullally in season 2, which actually improved the show.  The weak link, if I have to call him that, is Ryan Hansen as the handsome but dim actor.  Feels like we've seen this done before, and done better.  But why complain, the show is great.  And now that it's cheap, there's no excuse not to own it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Godfathers Of Punk Rock

I just heard a Standells record the other day.  It was "Dirty Water," or course.  That was their only hit.  Went to #11 in 1966.  They were one of the top L.A. garage rock bands then, and in 1999 they reformed and are still touring.  Rock and roll never forgets.

They were in a number of movies and TV shows, but my favorite appearance by far is when they were on The Munsters:

Shearing Two Birds

Before Stevie Wonder, before Ray Charles, the most famous blind keyboard player was George Shearing.  He died earlier this year, but today is his birthday.

He recorded over a hundred albums, but his most famous piece is his own "Lullaby Of Birdland."



Here's a Sarah Vaughan cover that includes the words (which Shearing didn't write--not that they're much to be proud of.)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Advise Or

Sensing 2012 is no lock, Democrat pundits are starting to give Obama advice on how to win the election.  I have no idea what Obama should do, but if I could tell him anything, it'd be to ignore the pundits. For instance, look at Jonathan Chait's latest in The New Republic.  He identifies with his side so strongly that he seems to believe that merely reminding voters which one on the ballot is a Republican will have them running into Obama's arms.

He's especially funny in his outrage at Obama's most likely opponent--"Here is an important fact about Romney that nobody ever mentions: He does not have an economic plan." Yes, and we all remember Obama's deeply detailed plan.  I believe it went "Hope and Change and I'm whatever you think I am."

The Musical Man

I just read Musical!: A Grand Tour by Denny Martin Flinn.  It reads more like two books on the same topic, smushed together.

The first two-thirds of the book start with early influences on musicals--and I mean early, like the Ancient Greeks--and takes us up to modern times with The Black Crook, George M. Cohan and the Princess musicals, and finally through major shows such as Show Boat, Porgy And Bess, Oklahoma!, West Side Story and A Chorus Line.  After that, as far as Flinn is concerned, the musical goes to hell.

Then, in the final third of the book, he once again goes through the "Golden Age"of musicals, piecemeal, concentrating in different chapters on directors and choreographers, lyricists, bookwriters, and composers with some detours investigating black musicals, British musicals, rock musicals, off-Broadway musicals and classic musicals.  Then he goes on to the most recent awful years (which go up to the mid-90s, when the book was written).

The odd effect of this is to go over certain careers, such as, say, Alan Jay Lerner's, three or four times in some detail.  It doesn't make much sense.  Furthermore, the book--or editing--sometimes gets sloppy. Examples: "Please Hello!" is called a Gilbert and Sullivan parody when that's ony a portion of it; "Just One Of Those Things" is called a bouncing refrain of cheerfulness; My Fair Lady at one point is called a 1955 show; Alice Faye is misspelledl; it's claimed Fred Astaire sings the title song in Blue Skies; even the index has mistakes.

But the book is still fun, and obviously written by a guy who loves musicals.  Despite the odd mistake he's knows his stuff and, in his chatty and catty way, has no trouble calling it as he sees it.  He'll say something is the greatest in one sentence, and say some big name stinks in the next.  I don't always agree (though I usually do), but it's good to see even popular artists and productions condemned for not living up to Flinn's standard.  It's a worthwhile volume to add to your library, but perhaps shouldn't be used as objective research.

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