Monday, October 31, 2011

Who Has A Motive?

Today, at the Staples Center, they're holding an all-day Get Motivated!* seminar.  Quite a few big names will be speaking:  Bill Cosby, Joe Montana, Laura Bush, Lou Holtz, Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani and others.  They will appear in person and, one assumes, get the audience motivated.

Here are some of the motivations they may be giving attendees:

•How to Have the Commitment and Passion of Champions
•The Seven Secrets of Persuasion
•Ways to Stay On Task Until You Reach Your Goal
•The Vital Ingredients to Building Your Winning Team
•Increase Performance in Tough Times with Inexpensive Yet Effective Incentives
•How to Develop Mental Toughness
•How to Turn Setbacks into Comebacks

Sounds like people will be getting their money's worth. At least those who like seeing big names live giving speeches to motivate them.

I don't think I've ever attended a motivational speech (it's possible I went to one and didn't notice), so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.  But it seems to me if there was no such thing as a motivational speaker, nothing would change except we'd save the money that goes into these events.

Who was the first motivational speaker to make a living at it?  Brilliant idea.  But a whole industry built around the concept?  In fact, this side of books teaching you how to write a screenplay, is there any industry less necessary?

PS  The ad I linked to claims tickets are as low as $1.95 but notes tickets at the door are $225.  That's quite a penalty for not ordering in advance.

*Pajama Guy is not an official representative of Get Motivated! nor does it claim to speak for Get Motivated! in any way.

Lone Splendour

Happy birthday, John Keats.  No one could write an ode like you.

In his mid-20s, he got tuberculosis and, after receiving the best medical care available in the early 1800s, died in no time.  The following is his last great work, and shows he wasn't too shabby at sonnets either:

Sunday, October 30, 2011

And The Food Tasted Better, Too

Another Woe Is Me And Woe Is Movies piece, this time from Jon Podhoretz.  He's lamenting how films don't matter like they did in the 70s.  Which is funny, since I'm pretty sure people were lamenting how bad movies had become back then, too.

When I first became interested in them, in the 1970s, they seemed to matter very much indeed. [....S]mall-scale movies that today would be consigned to art houses and tiny grosses and limited runs—M*A*S*H, American Graffiti, Midnight Cowboy, Shampoo, Network, Coming Home, Kramer vs. Kramer, even The Graduate—not only provoked general conversation among the chattering classes but became major popular successes.

That doesn’t happen any longer. [....] Consider The Hurt Locker, which won the 2009 Oscar for best picture. Without question, this piece of highly kinetic and suspenseful filmmaking on the literally incendiary topic of an American bomb-defusing squad in Iraq would have been a huge hit in the 1970s. Even in the mid-1980s, Oliver Stone’s disgustingly pernicious though admittedly exciting Vietnam melodrama Platoon made $138.5 million. But The Hurt Locker earned an astonishingly paltry total of $17 million.

Actually, most of the quirky, intense little films made in the 60s and 70s were not big hits.  And if they had no stars, like The Hurt Locker, they had even less chance of scoring. And a good portion of the hits back then were, like today, dismissed by serious critics as being mindless fun.

Meanwhile, if you get to pick and choose, like Podhoretz is doing, the past 15 years or so (I'm assuming Podhoretz laments back that far) offer plenty of  movies that "mattered"--that provoked discussion and were still hits. (BTW, I'd say that Network and Coming Home weren't huge hits in their day.)

Such as?  Well, let's eliminate wild comedies, though there have been some great ones.  Let's forget intelligent, well-done, but conventional action films. Let's cross off documentaries, though we've had some surprising hits in that area. Let's ignore animation, though for the past generation we've been living through a golden age, far superior to what was available in the 60s and 70s.  Let's even toss out hundreds of art house hits that made a decent profit but not tens of millions or more.  We've still got titles like:

The King's Speech, Black Swan, Inglourious Basterds, Inception, Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, Titanic, Juno, American Beauty, The Pursuit Of Happyness, Pulp Fiction, Apollo 13, Jerry Maguire, The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost In Translation, Saving Private Ryan, The English Patient, As Good As It Gets, Good Will Hunting, The Truman Show, Shakespeare In Love, Brokeback Mountain, Gran Torino, The Blind Side, Million Dollar Baby, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Catch Me If You Can, A Beautiful Mind, The Sixth Sense, The Departed, Sideways, No Country For Old Men, Traffic, The Help and Erin Brockovich.

You may not like all these films.  You may even think some are jokes.  I agree.  The point is there are still plenty of big hit movies--and some of these were blockbusters--that excite discussion and win critics awards.

I admit things have changed. Back in the 70s, cinemas were the only place you could easily see movies, and the studios had smaller openings and longer plays (since, for one thing, there was no rush to get them out to home video).  Now we can watch them any time, anywhere.  In that way, they're arguably a bigger part of our lives, but as they become more everyday things, we lose some of the romance and mystery.

Also, TV has taken over much of the great middle.  In fact, drama on TV (as Podhoretz notes but tries to dismiss) has done some amazing things in the past decade or so. Meanwhile, movies technology has improved which has meant, sometimes, an emphasis on special effects over dialogue (which is what TV is for).  And with TV, not movies, being the dominant form of entertainment, studios spend more time trying to serve the younger demographic that loves to go out over the older people usually stay home (and who wait for weeks to see something and only then after several friends have recommended it).

But things change.  Always have.   Podhoheretz ends his piece saying movies were better than.  This is not analysis, this is wallowing in nostalgia.

PS  Interesting special pleading here:

One mark of a work’s pop-culture influence is whether the names of its characters move from the screen into the real world, when the young people who loved it have children of their own. Thus, when the TV show Dynasty became popular, thousands of babies came to be named “Krystle” after its lead character. A chart on the website BabyCenter.com indicates that the name Luke was barely in use before Star Wars and then took a vertiginous climb into the top 50, where it has remained ever since.

But what of Avatar? Its heroine is named Neytiri—gorgeous, lithe, sexy, brave, noble, though with blue skin and a tail. The name sounds fun and exotic, and given Avatar’s astounding box-office take, should have made the same transition from screen to Social Security baby list as Krystle and Luke. It didn’t. According to Baby Center, Neytiri was the 25,501st most popular name for girls in the United States last year.

Really?  And how many kids do you know name Han or Leia?  Or Obi-wan?

The First Weird Al

Happy birthday, Allan Sherman.  In the early 60s, he was an immensely successful (and immense) song parodist.  He didn't write his own tunes, didn't play an instrument, and could barely sing, but he struck a chord.  His first three albums, My Son, The Folk Singer, My Son, The Celebrity and My Son, The Nut all hit #1.  And that last album included the single "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" went to #2.



The Beatles took over the American charts in 1964 and Sherman was never quite as big. I wonder if that explains this number:

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Skydog

Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident 40 years ago today.  If he'd lived, he be celebrating his 65th birthday this year.  He got a lot done in a short time.





Not A Silly Love Song

Happy birthday, Denny Laine.  Formerly of The Moody Blues, he's best known as the main sideman in Wings.

Wings At The Speed Of Sound isn't a bad album, and I think Laine wrote the best song on it:

Friday, October 28, 2011

Star Wars Wars

I've been enjoying David S. Cohen's book on the stories behind 25 different screenplays, but was stopped short by this paragraph in the chapter on The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy:

In that battle of the 2005 space-opera debuts, then, George Lucas got the last laugh.  Revenge Of The Sith was hailed as probably the second best of all the Star Wars movies, behind only The Empire Strikes Back, and while it didn't gross as much as some of its predecessors, it probably dropped nine figures' worth of profit into Lucas's coffers.

Who was doing this hailing?  Sith is generally considered to be the best of the prequel trilogy, but I don't know a single person who thinks it's the second-best of all the Star Wars film.  Just about everyone agrees the first two made are the best (though they battle over the order--odd Cohen just assumes it's Empire).  For that matter, I think the general feeling is the third of the original trilogy, Return Of The Jedi, is better than the prequels.

PS  Now that Lucas is tinkering with Return, maybe it will drop lower in fans' estimation.

Twice Upon A Time

I caught pilot of Once Upon A Time.  I had to watch it if for no other reason it was created by Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. The show was intriguing, but maybe more because I have no idea where it's going than anything else.

There are two interrelated stories.  First, in the magical fantasy world, we've got all the denizens of fairy tales.  At the center are Snow White and Prince Charming, but we also see Rumplestiltskin, Tinkerbell, Pinocchio and others.  All are happy at the White-Charming wedding until the Evil Queen breaks it up and puts a curse on the land.  They'll be transported to a horrible place where time has stopped and they won't know who they are. (If they don't know, how can they know they're being tormented?)

Snow and Prince are able to get their newborn child away (didn't they just get married?) and sent to another place.  Which brings us to the relatively realistic, or at least modern, part of the story.  Hot bounty hunter Emma Swan--the baby who escaped the curse, now grown up--is all alone on her 28th birthday when she's met by Henry, the boy who claims to be the son she gave away ten years ago.   She brings him back to the place he ran away from, Storybrooke. This is where the Evil Queen banished all the fairy tale characters, who live as townfolk, unaware of their situation.  The Queen herself is the one who raised Henry.

Henry is the only one "good" character who knows the truth about Storybrooke.  He's brought back Emma because she's fated to save the town and undo the curse.  Emma, who has the ability to tell if people are lying or not, notes something is strange.  She decides to stay a week.  And that's where we end the first hour.

Kind of interesting, but I don't get it.  First, what is Emma going to do?  Will she believe Henry's claims?  And if she does, what is there to do?  Will it be everyday problems in the town she solves?  Will she have to figure out what's really going on, and will that be the whole series?  How can she undo the curse even if she understands what's happening?

Also, even though it seems to me we should be done with fairy tale land, it looks like we might have regular flashbacks to stories there.  I realize the producers worked on Lost, but that show was special.  We were dying to find out where those mysterious characters on the Island came from, so regular flashbacks with intriguing stories were a great idea, and even then that concept ran out of steam after the second or third go around.  Seeing what life used to be in the old days sound like moments guaranteed to stop the story momentum.

It's interesting to see House mainstay Jennifer Morrison as (blonde) Emma.  Jared Gilmore as Henry was okay, but a little precociousness can go a long way.  I was less impressed with Ginnifer Goodwin's Snow White, both the fairy tale and modern edition.  And Joshua Dallas as Prince Charming was bland (but aren't they always?).  The nasty charactersPromising more fun are

The evil characters--Lane Parrilla as the Evil Queen and Robert Carlyle as Rumplestiltskin--look like they could be fun, though, once again, aside from keeping everyone in the dark and making the town an unpleasant place to be, just what are they doing there?

To be continued.  But for how long?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bite the Wax Tadpole

I guess I am on a BBC articles on China theme. The BBC has an article on Chinglish which is the language resulting unintentional often hilarious results when mandarin is attempted to be translated into English (by non-familiar speakers apparently). I do like the "Deformed Man's Toilet" sign for handicap restroom though it seems cruel. Also the transliteration for"No Trespassing" seems far more meaningful and effective than the English words.

Of course it goes the other way too, I recall various international aid organizations had abbreviations that meant sex parts in various places. I think Exxon was so named because its previous brand name for gas, Esso [from S.O. for Standard Oil], meant "piss" somewhere. The Chevy Nova meant "no go" in Spanish speaking countries (maybe just truth in advertising). And Pepsi promised ("Come Alive with Pepsi !"TM) to bring peoples' ancestors back from the grave in I think Central Africa.

Drink And Think

Vegas buffets used to let you get your own drinks.  Then, some years ago, they decided to have waiters bring you the drinks. I assume they figured people getting drinks in addition to food was too messy.

Ironically, as this was happening, a lot of franchise restaurants started letting people get their own drinks while they got you your food.  I'm guessing the public prefers this, since it let's make your own mix. (And why get a big drink when you can refill your cup?)

Now I've noticed (in 7-11 and elsewhere) the soda dispensers are getting complex.  They not only have the ice and the drinks, they let you add in flavoring like cherry or lemon or lime.

It sounds like the simple activity of getting a drink is becoming more complex.  Will it slow down business as people figure out which of the thousands of permutations they want?  Maybe they'll once again have to take it out of the hands of the customer.

Staying On Message

Politician Martin Frost hates George Clooney's Ides Of March.  Why?  Because it makes politicians look immoral, which could lead to cynicism and lower voter turnout.  In the film (spoiler), Clooney is involved in a sex scandal and gets blackmailed by a staff member.  I somewhat agree with Frost--there are so many better reasons to be cynical about politicians than their sex lives.  Let's concentrate on what counts.

Frost hopes "the public will see this movie and not think any worse of the politicians who are actively trying to make this a better country." I don't know. It the politicians working hardest to make this country better who are usually the ones that frighten me most.

And maybe Democrat Frost didn't notice it because he's so used to thinking this way, but the film simply assumes Democrat ideas are better than Republican ideas, and that Democrats are more moral than Republicans.  Is that cynicism or idealism?

Elsewhere, Todd VanDerWerff reviews the latest Homeland. (He's impressed that the show jumped ahead three weeks to get to the interesting stuff, as if the action happens independently of the writing and the writers have to wisely choose what days to pick for each episode.) Anyway, he can't help but muse about how we treat our soldiers:

...as a society, we’re always far more eager to send kids off to war than welcome them home. When they come home, it’s impossible to relate to them, so we put them in the “hero” box and assume that’s good enough. But it rarely is.

I understand no one ever got in trouble for saying we need to treat our veterans better, but is this true?  We're "always far more eager" to send people off to war than welcome them home?  Seems to me there's a pretty good argument we see sending soldiers to war a sad duty at best.  And that's just for the war's supporters.  On the other hand, we all celebrate when they come home.

As for it being impossible to relate to them--really?  I know some veterans and they may have a past I don't fully understand, but that hardly mean it's impossible to relate to them.  There are lots of veterans and, statistically speaking, some will have problems, but I'd like to see evidence that they have a harder time adjusting to civilian life than any other group.  In fact, the one place I see them regularly have trouble adjusting is in popular entertainment, not real life.  The vet who goes nuts may make for good drama, but it's a tiresome cliche.

Politics, check.  War, check.  Let's talk about the economy.  Margin Call is a small film with a big cast that's all about the crash of 2008.  The film turns the actions of one firm in one day into a microcosm of the whole problem.  It (almost out of necessity) has to be simplistic, and a few times when the characters speechify it gets annoying since they treat capitalism as if it were some sort of scam. Still, I thought it was well done.

One thing I noticed is some characters smoked.  Fine with me.  People smoke, and this was a tense situation. But there was a line in the credits notiug no consideration was accepted from any tobacco companies or their lobbyists.  I see.  So rather than making these companies poorer, they were helping them for free.

David Denby, a critic who's made clear in his reviews he understands exactly what caused the financial meltdown and probably could have stopped it if he were in charge, notes at the end of his review:

If Wall Street executives find themselves at a loss to understand what the protesters outside are getting at, they could do worse than watch this movie for a few clues.

If you've been following the Occupy Wall Street movement, you may have noticed their message is all over the place.  Denby--one in a long line of liberals who projects his policy prescriptions onto the protesters (excuse the excessive alliteration)--should have suggested they watch the movie so they can at least have a coherent argument.

Meanwhile, at the LA Weekly, where unlike Denby they see the film as too sympathetic to Wall Street, we get an odd thumbs down for political reasons from Melissa Anderson.

Sure to be drowned out by the drum circles at Occupy Wall Street, writer-director J.C. Chandor's lifeless Margin Call depicts roughly 36 hours at an unnamed Manhattan investment firm at the dawn of the 2008 financial freak-out. [....I]ts thin origin story about how the economy went to hell released three years after the fact and against the roar of the real-life "99 percent" seems like an out-of-touch exercise in hand-wringing.

It's touching to see normally cynical critics with stars in their eyes about a political movement.  But it seems to me a decent drama about an issue still fresh in our minds can be relevant, whether or not people are out on the streets complaining about a related issue.

(She also notes there are "many time-lapse shots of the New York skyline." Maybe I missed it, but I don't recall a single one.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wonder What They Think in Beijing of LA Guy's Media Reviews?

Coinciding with "with a bout of national hand-wringing over a perceived decline in public morality," the Chinese Government have decided to limit the amount of "overly entertaining" programming satellite channels can provide during prime time. Instead, such channels must provide programming which promotes traditional core values (which here of course happen to be socialist but I think the emphasis is more them just being "not fun").

I recently read and enjoyed Albert Brooks' 2030 where, among other various prognostications, he envisions the Chinese executive in charge of China's stepping in to rebuild an earthquake-damaged California (since the senior-burdened bankrupt American government can't afford it) being the front runner for American presidential election. With this move it seems like the Chinese are getting a jump on things and making a bid for the "he's not a conservative" anti-Mitt voters in the upcoming Republican contest.

No wonder Jon Huntsman's jokes are suppressed.

Never The Twain

Wil Ferrell's a reasonably funny guy who's had a pretty successful career, but does he deserve the Mark Twain Prize for American humor? Like Tina Fey last year, maybe they should wait another couple decades with so many more deserving in front of him.  (Or is the whole thing designed to create a TV show that younger people will watch?  Or is it based on availability, and Charlie Sheen was busy?)

Here are the previous winners:

1998 – Richard Pryor
1999 – Jonathan Winters
2000 – Carl Reiner
2001 – Whoopi Goldberg
2002 – Bob Newhart
2003 – Lily Tomlin
2004 – Lorne Michaels
2005 – Steve Martin
2006 – Neil Simon
2007 – Billy Crystal
2008 – George Carlin
2009 – Bill Cosby
2010 – Tina Fey

Except for Fey, all these people had lengthy careers (over half their lives) doing great and even cutting edge work and succeeding in different media.  Should Ferrell be getting this while, say, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks go empty-handed. (Okay, maybe Woody wouldn't show up, but Mel would be tough to get off the stage.)  How about Carol Burnett?  You want to go younger--i.e., not of retirement age--how about Jerry Seinfeld or Robin Williams?  You want to go with Ferrell's age group?  How about Ben Stiller or Louis C.K. or Chris Rock or Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who just conquered Broadway)?

Or how about something different, like a cartoonist, or a novelist?  Or New Vaudevillians (is that phrase still used?) like Bill Irwin or Penn and Teller?  Even among SNL people what would be wrong with Bill Murray or Eddie Murphy?

I understand they've got to pick somebody, and at least Ferrell has done good work. But maybe they should have thought about it a bit longer.

Landing Home

Homeland, Showtime's new series, didn't sound like it'd be my cup of tea, but some friends recommended it so I've watched the first few episodes. It's not bad, if not quite as good as the critics are saying.  And it turns out while it is set in the modern-day war on terror (which it takes quite seriously), it's closer to a Manchurian Candidate sort of plot.

Claire Danes plays a CIA operative who worked in Iraq and is now suspicious of a marine officer (Damian Lewis), once thought dead, who's just returned home after years in captivity. She believes he's linked to high-level Al Qaeda member Abu Nazir, but since the Marine is a national hero she has to go rogue within the Agency to investigate.

Her mentor is played by Mandy Patinkin. and their relationship seems to be the central one in the series.  But there's another axis, which is the Marine's homelife, with his wife (Morena Baccarin), son and daughter, not to mention an old friend and Marine captain who was ready to marry his wife before he was found.

Though we've seen this kind of stuff before--a protagonist who can't play by the book and has to fight the politics of the situation to do what's right--it still plays pretty well.  When Homeland sticks to that, it's well worth watching.  I'm less enamored of the domestic drama, though perhaps if it can be incorporated into the intrigue it'll play better. Also tiresome are the many flashbacks the Marine has. I don't care if they show us how he's motivated--we accept he's back and on a new path, no matter how he got that way.

I like Danes and Patinkin, and it's always nice to see Morena Baccarin (especially in a show that allows nudity), but I don't think much of Damian Lewis.  Maybe it's the role, but he's a bit of a downer.

Will uncovering the Marine and getting his connections be the main action of the season, or is it the entire series?  It would seem once Danes gets serious evidence that he's turned, the CIA would have to back her and a lot of the suspense would be lost.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Meet The New Boss

I caught Kelsey Grammer's new show Boss.  They've only run the pilot, but Starz has already ordered a second season. (Wish they were so generous with Party Down.) I'm not sure if it's there yet, but it's good enough to keep watching.

Grammer plays Tom Kane, mayor of Chicago.  He's a tough operator (and since this is premium cable, he can swear--and we get nudity, too!), but he does seem to believe in what he does.  After the first hour there are enough political subplots to last the season.  In addition, he's got a marriage of convenience, an estranged daughter, and, to top it off, he's just been disagnosed with a degenarative neurological disease.

I really don't know if they needed that last bit, since it weighs down everything else.  Did the show's creator, Farhad Safinia, worry (or was told) that just a hard-hitting show on politics wasn't enough.  I realize Breaking Bad started with the protagonist finding out he's got a terminal disease, but that's what motivated him to do everything else--Tom Kane is already living inside a drama.

The pilot was directed ably by Gus Van Sant, though it seems like another case (such as Scorsese and Boardwalk Empire) where you bring aboard a big name to launch the pilot.  The cast is pretty good.  Grammer, beloved as Fraser (though I preferred him as a supporting character on Cheers rather than the lead on his own show), shows his dramatic chops.  His wife is played by Connie Nielsen, who I still think of as a romantic lead, but I guess now that she's in her mid-40s she's been kicked upstairs to wife roles.  I especially liked Kathleen Robertson as his personal aide (I've always liked her--I'm surprised she hasn't been big in movies) and Martin Donovan as his advisor--though it does seem every political drama these days has a female aide who's both hot and extremely efficient, plus a fixer who can do whatever is required.

If the show has a problem, in addition to piling on with the illness, it's that it seems to feel that since this isn't about cops or organized crime, it has to show how tough it is anyway.  Maybe they're right--maybe the audience would find the ins and out of running a city too soft otherwise.  But really, Kane's doctor, who shows no indication of breaking her patient's confidentiality, has to be leaned on, and have a syringe stuck in her?  And some political underling who goes off the reservation has to have his ears cut off?  Yes, I know Chicago is a place where they play hardball, but this is a bit much.  I guess if I watch the show I'll have to get used to this level of reality.

I'm not sure if Kane is based on any actual mayor (like the original Mayor Daley, or his son, or Harold Washington, or Rahm Emanuel.  The only one who gets a name check in the pilot is good old Mayor Cermak.) I've lived in Chicago, and probably know it better than any other city, even Los Angeles. I used to pass the city government building on my way to work.  I know how ugly local politics could get and I wanted as little to do with it as possible.  But watching it on TV is a different matter.

Wonder What They'll Play At His Funeral

You probably never heard of Paul Leka, the songwriter/producer who just died, but you probably know some of his hits.  The biggest one he wrote was tossed off as quickie B-side to complete a single, but disc jockeys perferred it and it went to #1 in 1969.  Only after the song became a hit was the band Steam formed to tour and support it.



The song later got picked up by sports teams and can still be heard in stadiums across the nation. The official title is "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" though no one sings that.

Leka worked with many artists as a songwriter and producer. I think my favorite song of his was another #1 hit for another one-hit wonder, "Green Tambourine" for the Lemon Pipers. You might call it bubblegum psychedelia, which was just right for 1967.



The song cracks me up, because I try to imagine some guy on the streets demanding people pay him to play a tambourine. He'd probably do better if he demanded money not to play it. "Any song you want I'll gladly play." And how can we tell the difference?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Of Elephants And Gorillas

More than once I've heard the phrase "the 800 pound gorilla in the room."

People, people, it's not that hard.

First, you've got the 800 pound gorilla.  That means something so powerful or in charge it needn't worry what others do or think.

Then you've got the elephant in the room.  It refers to something that can't be ignored, even though people may try not to talk about it.

They're both fine metaphors.  No need to mix them.

Debriefing Breaking

Breaking Bad's fourth season was its biggest yet. More watched than ever and its fans are the most involved.  And yet, I thought season four was its weakest.  In the first three seasons, Walt and Jesse, even as they went up the chain, were small-timers. They operated below the radar, so whenever they'd try something bigger, it was likely they'd get their heads cut off.

This meant slow progress, but it also meant quick payoffs.  They need a big meth distributor, so Jesse gets a meeting with Tuco.  He gets beat up by the psycho so bad he's put in the hospital.  Walter responds by getting his own meeting and blowing up Tuco's place (utilizing his mad chemistry skills). They start working with Tuco, who kills an employee (by mistake--compare to Gus, who does nothing by chance) in front of them.  Then he gets paranoid (even more than usual) and kidnaps the two.  So they have an intense confrontation out in the desert where Tuco doesn't make it and the two esacape.  All that Tuco action took four episodes.  Because that's how it works.  Even if Walt has a long-range plan, violence pops up quickly.

Not that every episode was bulging with action.  But even a "Gray Matter" or "Peekaboo" or "I.F.T." has plenty to think about, and decent payoffs.  Walt and are trying to build something, but it's a house of cards that can fall any second.

But season four was one single chess match between Walt and Gus, with Walt outmatched most of the way.  Even this could work, except now Walt and Jesse were playing at the top, and everything was out in the open.  No one's flying below the radar any more.  Worse, after the great season 3 finale, all the cards were on the table.  Gus was going to kill Walt as soon as he could, but until then, Walt had to keep working for him.  (And you also had to wonder just how much was Gus going to put up with.  Was it that hard to find an acceptable cook:?) It's hard to keep the show as taut when everyone knows too much.  (It's comparable, in an odd way, to Battlestar Galactica.  When the cylons were scary, unknown figures who could kill the humans any second, the series had momentum, but the more familar they got, the less exciting the show was.)

Also, since Jesse and Walt were now in the big leagues, the action had to get bigger--at least that's how Vince Gilligan played it.  Before, things were usually improvised.  Walt figures out on the spot how to kill Emilio, or Jesse and Walt try their best to take care of Tuco after they've been kidnaped.  When Gus is turning on the heat in season three, Walt killing the street dealers comes as a shock, as does the final plan to take out Gale.  But Walt versus Gus is an episc, season-long struggle, and Gus has to be made into an almost omniscient villain (or hero--some rooted for him), while Walt eventually has to fight back with equal bravery, foresight and intelligence.  The bigger the action gets, the less a human element is in it, and the harder it can be to relate to.

Don't get me wrong. I still love the show. Probably the best thing on TV.  And season four was amazing in how dark it was willing to get.  But in getting too big, even with all the action and violence, the show has lost some of its power.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

PB Helps Get The Lead Out

Happy birthday Pauline Black.  Back during the first ska revival, of all the big groups--The Specials, The English Beat, etc.--I thought her band, The Selecter, was the best and most danceable.

My favorite of theirs was this:



But there were plenty of other fine numbers:



Sing Your Song Already

Recently, while promoting Sing Your Song, an HBO special about his life, Harry Belafonte fell asleep.  I can understand.  I almost did the same thing while watching the documentary.

Not that it was poorly done.  It was put together well, and had a lot of interesting old footage.  But it concentrated on his activism, not his show biz career.  I undertsand he's a brave and noble man who's been on the front lines of civil rights struggles for years.  But I didn't need to see almost two hours of the man recounting every cause he fought for.

Okay, that's what the show is about, and I can take it or leave it. But let's face it, his performing career is more entertaining.  And with the man himself supplying most of the narration, going on and on about the great things he's done, after a while it starts seeming like a voyage in self-righteousness. Belafonte deserves to be spoken of as a great entertainer and a guy who put himself on the line when he didn't have to.  But that doesn't mean he's the one who should be doing the speaking.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Reverend Jim Sings

Happy birthday, Christopher Lloyd.  He's best known for his TV work (especially Jim on Taxi) and movie roles (especially Doc Brown in Back To The Future), but he also did Broadway.

Happily, there's video of Lloyd doing Weill and Brecht's "Bilbao Song" from Happy End in the 1977 production that also featured Meryl Streep.  As you can see, he's on crutches.  He'd hurt his leg and even missed opening night.

It's a nice number, but I prefer it in German.

Express Yourself

The editorial in the LA Times starts "This newspaper ardently supports the right to free speech, even when that speech is controversial, hateful or ignorant." Except when it's too controversial, hateful and ignorant.
They support the dismissal of Patricia McAllister, a substitute teacher whose ugly anti-Zionist views expressed at the Los Angeles anti-Wall Street protests got her fired.

...even if she's been the soul of discretion on the job, as well as kind and evenhanded with all her students, by making herself a public symbol of intolerance, McAllister no longer can serve effectively as a teacher.

So you're allowed to hold hateful views as long as you don't express them.

As execrable as her comments were, it might be a different matter if McAllister were, say, a Department of Motor Vehicles clerk. There, she would be dealing with adults who could hold their own, and would have little direct authority over them. It also might be different if she had expressed a controversial opinion that was not an inflammatory attack on a particular ethnic or religious group.

So people with controversial views can work with adults, but not kids. (Are kids more aware of these views than adults?) It seems to me as long as you keep the views out of your work, it's not the state's business what you say otherwise. Yes, it may disturb the community, but freedom of speech means nothing if it doesn't protect the unpopular.

And now the LA Times finds some inflammatory speech is acceptable?  So if she had only said bankers homosexuals shouldn't be allowed to marry. Or marijuana should be legalized.  Or abortion doctors should go to jail.  Or punishment for child pornography should be lightened. Or hundreds of other things where the LA Times is apparently willing to look the other way.

Only ethnic or religious attacks rise to the level of a firing offense.  Really what the Times is saying is everyday "controversial" speech is no big deal, only speech that the times (and the Times) finds deeply offensive shouldn't be protected.  Years ago, supporting communism would have been considered offensive, and likely gotten you fired (while supporting segregation might not), but no longer, I guess.  Presumably, the Times back then would have editorialized "hey, we like free speech, but not for communists."

We're reluctant to restrict anyone's ability to express even the most loathsome views openly and publicly. But when a teacher trumpets hateful opinions that could intimidate the impressionable young people she's supposed to be serving, that's not just free speech — it's a performance issue. In speaking out so intemperately, McAllister's ability to do her job was fatally compromised.

How does it change her performance?  Either you do your job properly or not. The government shouldn't be in the business of measuring how offensive you are in your free time. If those views get in the way of how you do your job (whether you work with kids or adults), that's when they should take action.

I don't know if kids will be intimidated by a teacher who does her job.  But I know now that teachers who believe they have radical views should feel intimidated.  I have no doubt plenty of teahcers hold views that, if known, could make their charges feels uncomfortable.  That bankers have screwed up the country and deserve to go to jail.  That Republicans are nasty and don't care if schools fail.  That everyone should become Christian.  That males oppress females.  That Hollywood is a purveyor of filth and people who work in that industry are destroying children.  That Scientology is the way to go.  But now they know to stay tight-lipped. Don't protest in public, don't write letters to the editor, don't leave signed comments on blogs.  Because you never know who'll be watching.

Friday, October 21, 2011

House Music

When I used to watch Weeds, I hated its theme, "Tiny Boxes." Hearing new artists perform it each week didn't improve the dumb song.  However, even though I grew disenchanted with the show, I did like how they dumped the song and replaced it with quicker, smart titles.

My experience with House is the opposite.  Each episode used to start with a prologue that showed how the POTW (patient of the week) got sick, followed by a 30-second credit sequence with Massive Attack's "Teardrop" that told you "sit back, relax, we're about to present you with some fine drama."

Now they have a short sting as they skip from prologue to main story, and it doesn't feel nearly as satisfying. Bring back "Teardrop."  (Or whatever else you listen to in your precinct.)

Your Disobedient Servant

I saw some pundits on TV talking about the Occupy Wall Street movement, and one of them said civil disobedience (whether or not that's what the movement is doing) was what America is all about.

Really? I'm not denying we've got a tradition of civil disobedience, but is that what defines America?  Sure, Thoreau famously wrote about it (and Emerson dealt with it, too), but I'm not sure that's how the Founding Fathers wanted it (in general).

I think they saw the essence of the country as a place where the people can deal legally with their problems and so don't need to resort to breaking the law.  That we allow our citizens to speak, to vote, to amend the Constitution, to petition government for redress of grievances.  We also protect the basic freedoms of the minority.  And people can even leave--their city, state or country--if they're not happy.

The essence of Thoreau's argument, remember, was anti-democratic.   That governments can't be trusted and one's conscience should trump the will of the majority.  These are understandable arguments, but (as Socrates argued) shouldn't a citizen have enough allegiance to the place he lives that he should bow to its rules? You may not like them, but then it's your jobs to try to win over others to your side, not to refuse to follow them.
 
The greater the perceived wrong, the tougher the argument against civil disobedience.  Worse, if your voice is being systematically shut out, then you have no chance to have your problems dealt with.  But isn't that the point of the Constitution, and the many pro-democracy amendments that followed?  To make sure all had a voice?

So when people commit civil disobedience--break the law--aren't they just sore losers? They lost the argument and now they don't want to play the game any more.  Hey, we all oppose a lot of things the the government does, but we recognize we often don't get our way.

Those who support civil disobedience should at least admit that part of it is recognizing you have to pay the price.  The idea that, even though you believe you're right, you have to accept the punishment given to you.  (Which is why no one should say civil disobedience, because it's a good thing, shouldn't be punished.)

I guess the real test regarding how you feel about civil disobedience is what you say about people who practice it on behalf of something you despise.  Let's say you strongly back unions, so you support a protest designed to block politicians who are about to cut state pensions.  Not that impressive. But if you support the right to an abortion, then see protestors blocking the way into a clinic, would you then say of such people "that's what America's about."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Beating The Rush

Buddy Jones was doing Western swing back in the 30s and 40s.  He died exactly 55 years ago at a fairly young age. What's really cool is he sang about "rock and roll" in 1939.

Petty Petty Good

Happy birthday, Tom Petty.  On of the things that's impressive about him is he's never strayed too far from basic rock and roll, yet has managed to stay interesting during his long career.

You're Not So Bad Yourself

Though she tried to keep her birthdate a secret, it's now known Margaret Dumont, the Marx Brothers' great straight woman, was born this day in 1882. She usually cut seven years or so off her age, even fooling obituary writers.  The truth is by the time she started working with the team on Broadway in the 20s, she'd been around show biz a while, and was old enough to play the dowager.

She felt that appearing in seven movies with the Marxes typecast her.  She may be right--most of her other roles have her playing the social matron opposite other comedians--but who knows if she would have had a film career at all otherwise.  Anyway, I can't imagine doing better than playing a central part in the Marx Brothers' oeuvre.

In later years, Groucho claimed she never got any of the jokes.  This is nonsense.  Maybe she missed the occasional innuendo, but her work, as anyone can see, required a true understanding of comedy.

She's best known for her scenes with Groucho, but she worked with all four of the boys.  Here's one of my favorite bits from Animal Crackers. (Just before this moment Harpo has been punching Dumont in the stomach--the most physical bit she ever did with them):



Here she is in a more familiar situation, receiving serial insults from Groucho:



Her last professional appearance, about a week before she died, was in 1965 on the TV show Hollywood Palace. Groucho was hosting. He and Dumont did the famous Captain Spaulding scene (updated) that they'd created almost four decades earlier.  That's how you want to go out.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Piece Of The Pie

Here's a quiz on the economic situation from New York Magazine.  It was given to 50 people also busy occupying Wall Street, so you can compare. (Though I can't tell if the questions were open--giving us the pie chart responses makes it multiple choice.)

Any reasonably informed person should do pretty well.  How did the Occupiers do?  A majority got the right answer 2 out of 9 times.  Of course, there were a bunch of times "don't know" won, so at least they're being honest. (And one question just asks for an opinion.)

Most predictably, a majority believed the highest earners paid taxes at a low rate, and the military is the biggest expenditure in our budget.

Double Shrug

I thought no one could make a movie of Atlas Shrugged.  Then, earlier this year, some filmmaker put out a version and proved me right.  Now it looks like there'll be an Atlas Shrugged: Part 2.  I'm a little surprised, considering how the first one flopped--not even grossing $5 million. 
Alas, it'll be by the same people who made the first one.  They plan to open it in late 2012.  If they're trying to take advantage of the political season, sure, why not.  If they hope to affect the election...well, let's just say if Obama loses I hope they don't take any credit.

They'll need to expand their audience if they want to make money. Not easy, but not unheard of for sequels.  My suggestion would be to get a bigger budget and some stars, but I guess that's off the table.So instead let me suggest they rethink their approach.  Capture the spirit of the novel, don't slavishly recreate it (even if Rand fans grumble).  Yes, keep the general outline, the major plot points, but feel free to move things around for dramatic purposes.  And rewrite the novels dialogue with a free hand--what's read is different from what's spoken.

More important, make the plot suspenseful.  Give the characters recognizable human emotions, and motivations, then put them in honest jeopardy, with difficult odds to overcome.  Slowly reveal secrets, and when the big one comes (which I assume is in Part 2) do it with a sense of wonder.  But then, I should know better than to tell Rand acolytes how to do their job.

Review Of A Review Of A Reviewer By A Reviewer

Todd McCarthy reviews Brian Kellow's biography of Pauline Kael in The Hollywood Reporter.  I admit I've blown hot and cold and Kael.  She's a vibrant writer, but with significant flaws.  I don't always love her mix of slanginess and erudition, and grow tired of her assertions presented with the the assumption that we must agree.  Also, while she could be amazingly receptive, she had significant blind spots, championing certain artists beyond what they deserved, and resisting many solid entertainments (and sometimes even being a bit suspicious of art).  But better too opinionated than not enough.  And better vibrant and wrong than predictable and tiresome.

Her life as a critic is well known, but she didn't really make any waves until she was into her forties.  This book will fill in her early years (which she sometimes would mention in reviews, but was mostly hidden)--a young, small Jewish girl raised on a chicken farm out west who hangs out with gay, artistic types, is rejected by the New York intellectual scene, and forced to raise a daughter alone after her second failed marriage.  With so many strikes against her, she still rose to the top of her profession (which was barely a profession before she made it one) by the force of her will.  All along her love for movies (which might have replaced love for others) came across more powerfully than with almost any other critic.

Then there were the battles she had in print, especially with auteurist Andrew Sarris.  In fact, some of her early, caustic essays, before she got her perch on The New Yorker, were her best work.  (Throughout her career she seemed surprised when people too her reviews personally.  Of course, she got plenty of tongue lashings herself and always seemed to take them with equanimity.) Later, when she gained power, she could be exciting, and make you look at certain works differently, but it also seemed that she played favorites (without giving full disclosure), and for that matter could be sweet-talked by certain filmmakers.

I've reread a lot of her stuff, and it doesn't all hold up. (Few regular critics do.) But as McCarthy notes, film critics are noted for how they react to others' work, so it's surprising that one should get a bio. But Kael, who was in her own way as big as the movies she reviewed, deserves one if anybody does.

PS  Here's a decent essay on Kael from--where else--The New Yorker.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Man

Chuck Berry turns 85 today. It should be a national holiday. As John Lennon said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'."





Article We Never Finished Reading

Adam Gopnick has a piece in The New Yorker about the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth.  This was one of my favorite books when I was a kid, so I wanted to see what he had to say.  It starts thus:

Our cult of decade anniversaries—the tenth of 9/11, the twentieth of “Nevermind”—are for the most part mere accidents of our fingers: because we’ve got five on each hand, we count things out in tens and hundreds. And yet the fifty-year birthday of a good children’s book marks a real passage, since it means that the book hasn’t been passed just from parent to child but from parent to child and on to child again. A book that has crossed that three-generation barrier has a good chance at permanence. So to note the fiftieth birthday of the closest thing that American literature has to an “Alice in Wonderland” of its own, Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth”—with illustrations, by Jules Feiffer, that are as perfectly matched to Juster’s text as Tenniel’s were to Carroll’s—is to mark an anniversary that matters.

It's true, anniversaries are arbitrary, even pointless.  So why have a makeweight arguent to pretend the fiftieth for The Phantom Tollbooth is any different?  I know you've got to have a point of entry into your essay, but this one seems so weak that it was tough for me to continue.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Gapster

Happy birthday, Gary Puckett.  As the first part of Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, he had a distinctive voice that defined the band's sound in the 60s.



Rough Weekend

Wasn't that long ago I was giddy at the prospects of my favorite Michigan teams.  So what just happened?

First, the Wolverines lose to the hated Spartans, drop out of the top ten, and reveal themselves as the so-so team we always knew they were.

Next, the Tigers, already behind the eight ball, blow a small lead and lose big to the Rangers, falling just short of the World Series after a glorious season. (Most of the games against the Rangers were close.  It would have been so exciting to have the series go seven games.)

Then, my last hope, the Lions--not that I've ever been so enamored of the team--play listlessly and drop one to the 49ers.

In one fell swoop, I've lost interest in sports.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Nicolina!

I was recently watching La Dolce Vita and up pops Nico, playing a character named Nico.  The young model had been standing around the set and Fellini saw her and put her in the movie.  She's a real face of 60s, and today's her birthday.



What she's best known for today, beyond her beauty, is her work with the Velvet Underground, particularly on their first album, appropriately titled The Velvet Underground & Nico.  The band didn't like Andy Warhol forcing the chanteuse on them, but they went along.  Her deep Teutonic voice and glamorous looks definitely added something.  And for whatever reason, I think their first album is their best.

Nico continued recording and acting, though she never hit the same heights.  (Some heights--an album no one bought.)  Alas, she didn't make it to 50.  Just a few months before that landmark, she suffered a minor heart attack and hit her head when she fell off her bicycle.  She later died of a cerebral hemorrhage.



What's The Good Word

"Remedial Chaos Theory" is the first great episode of Community this season--an instant classic.  The complex plot should have been hard to pull off in 20 minutes of screentime, but it all clicked.

The idea is the gang comes to a housewarming party for Troy and Abed's new pad.  Jeff tosses a die to determine who goes downstairs to pick up the pizza. In doing so, as Abed notes, Jeff is creating six different timelines, and messing with their world.  Actually, there's a seventh timeline, where Abed catches the die to prevent chaos and makes Jeff get the pizza.

We get to see all seven timelines.  The same things often happen (Jeff hits his head on the fan, the Indiana Jones rock is let loose, Pierce makes a joke about sex with Eartha Kitt), but with telling variations, showing what happens when you remove one member of the group.

What's most interesting is when Jeff is gone. He's the leader of the group, not to mention the nominal lead of the ensemble cast.  Yet we see he's poison.  His mocking ways, and control over others, often makes them feel bad and prevents them from showing their true feelings.  So with him out for just a little while, everyone is happiest. (Meanwhile, when Troy--the sweetest, most trusting member--is gone, there's complete disaster.)

Of course, Abed, the meta character on the show, is the only one to recognize the different timelines.  In fact, in the Troy timeline, where everything falls apart, Abed decides the group should grow goatees and become evil versions of themselves, get back to the prime timeline, kill their doppelgangers, and take over.

Actually, I wasn't planning to write about the episode, but there was something odd I noticed on the closed captioning.  There's a moment when the gang is shouting imprecations at Jeff.  We see all the lines faithfully reproduced on screen...until I read "asshole" but didn't hear anyone say it.  I even replayed the scene and couldn't catch it.

I'm never sure if the captioner just listens and write what she hears, or if she's given a script to follow.  But I like the idea of someone at the keyboard just fed up with Jeff and throwing in an "asshole" of her own.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Citizen Cain

Herman Cain is surging in the polls.  He's practically pulled even with Mitt Romney.  A lot of this is simply conservatives casting about for an alternative.  Mitt is popular with establishment Republicans, but a lot of others are uneasy and would like to see a serious opponent. At first it looked like it might be Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, and now they're moving toward Cain, whose lively style has distinguished him in debates.

I'll admit he's pretty interesting, and even fun, and doesn't back down at cheap attacks.  And who knows, maybe he'd make a fine president.  But Cain's essentially unknown.  Sure, he's got the gimmicky 9-9-9 deal (which does sounds like a pizza promotion), but as a man who's been a private citizen all his life, he has practically no record to run on.

We know he can run a business, but that tells us next to nothing about how he'd run the country.  Business experience is helpful, but government is simply a different animal.  It's hard enough to guess what his economic policy would be, much less his foreign policy. So I wonder if his appeals isn't unlike Obama's four years ago--supporters can imagine he'd support whatever they believe in.

PS  A friend noted with all the attacks on Cain for not being an "authentic" black man, maybe he should take on a hip hop nickname just to throw it back in their face.

I suggested "M.C. Cain," except the Republicans ran him four years ago and lost.

He Is A Carpenter

Richard Carpenter turns 65 today.  Kid sister Karen was the face and voice of the Carpenters, but Richard was the brains, producing, arranging and sometimes writing their tunes.

While the Carpenters' sound was never far from easy listening, Richard still was able to do some fun things on their records.





Friday, October 14, 2011

Dolby Sound

Happy birthday, Thomas Dolby.  He was big in the early 80s, but faded soon after.  His best known number fits his mad scientist persona:



I've always had a fondness for his score to Howard The Duck, especially the theme song he wrote with George Clinton:

Weak In, Weak Out

Here's an interesting piece from the A.V. Club about bad episodes of good shows. Some of the shows--Firefly, Friday Night Lights, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Big Love--I don't really watch so I have no opinion.  But by and large, the choices from the staff made sense.

I'm glad to see someone else hates "The Fly" from Breaking Bad.  It's not that I mind bottle episodes--"Four Days Out" works pretty well, but when the plotline doesn't move forward, and the characters aren't even put in danger, what's the point.  The only moment of interest on the show is when it looks like Walt may reveal what he did to Jane.  Aside from that, no tension, a lot of stupidity.

But I strongly disagree with picking the "Murray In  Love" for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  It's one of my favorites of their more dramatic episodes.  (You can see I chose it for my MTM tribute.)  Yes, I know Mary could never go with Murray, but having him finally admit something which had been bubbling underneath for years, and having her let him down gently, was one of the most powerful and brave things the show ever did. Besides, I could name plenty of episodes that are a lot weaker, especially in the first season when they don't always have the characters down. Or many others, such as the one that's essentially a pilot for a Bill Daily show that never happened.

Good call on "The Summer Man" from Mad Men.  There are a lot of thing wrong with this episode, but above all, we should never be privy to Don's inner thoughts (even if he's lying to himself)--that's the central mystery of the show, or at the very least its subtext which shouldn't be made text.

"The Puerto Rican Day" is a pretty weak Seinfeld, but the weakest?  At least it had enough nerve to be pulled from the rerun schedule.  Anyway, the final season without Larry David was pretty stale in general.

It's sort of ridiculous picking the worst Simpsons episode.  There's over 400 to choose from, and no matter how good the show, they'd have to have at least 50 or so that don't quite cut it. "The Principal And The Pauper" is a controversial episode since outing Seymour Skinner as an impostor is ridiculous and goes against the character.  But really, who cares?  The show is fairly funny and they've made plenty of meta-jokes about how the series starts fresh each week no matter what outrage occurred last time.  It's silly to get stuck on this episode from 1997, when the show was still at its height, considering the last decade has been filled with uninspired episodes.

"The Day The Spores Landed" is a good choice for The Cosby Show.  Sometimes off-series experiments are fun, but for a show so grounded in reality, having Cliff dream about men giving birth is more creepy than funny.

It's hard to pick out a bad episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, since the worse the movie, the better the show.  But if I had to complain about anything, it'd be their reliance on Japanese monster movies.  They're too easy and after a while they started to feel the same.  I preferred when they picked on quirkier subjects.

I'm already on record as saying the live 30 Rock episode was a success, so attacking it for the very thing that makes it work--seeing the cast play to an audience--misses the point.

I don't quite agree on the episode chosen for The Dick Van Dyke Show.  There are a number of episodes that have the sexual politics of the time that may make us cringe today (even while the racial politics are progressive).  But that doesn't make the episodes all bad (though "Washington Vs. The Bunny" isn't great).  Why not pick a clunker like something that deals with Sally's failed romance (which also has odd sexual politics but is extra-boring).

Picking on Twin Peaks is too easy.  The second season pretty much went off the rails and while there are some good moments, anything after Laura Palmer's murder is solved is fair game.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Enlighten Me

Premium cable can take chances with their original programming.  It pays off with a lot of their hours, but rarely with their half-hours.  Sure, I'm a fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm and I loved Party Down, but almost every other title in this category is fair to poor.

Add to that sad list Enlightened, a new comedy (I believe) on HBO starring Laura Dern.  She created it with Mike White, who also wrote and directed the pilot.  The concept, such as it is, is executive Amy Jellicoe has a nervous breakdown, goes to rehab, and returns believing she's better, though many former acquaintances aren't too pleased with her reappearance. It also features Diana Ladd, Luke Wilson and Amy Hill.

The situation could work, I suppose, both dramatically and comedically, but, so far, Dern's character is just annoying, and the rest don't add up to much.  Not sure if I'll give it another chance.

A Game Of Chicken

They just finished the Chick-fil-A on the corner of Sunset and Highland.  It's the only Chick-fil-A around, and whenever I drive by I can see both drive-thrus are crowded, with the traffic backed up into the street. There's also plenty of foot traffic. Maybe things will calm down as people get used to the new franchise, but if it doesn't, will the city of Los Angeles do something about this state of affairs, where a side street will become permanently unnavigable?

A friend wanted to try it out, so we went there a few days ago. Even though we had plenty of cars in front of us, I'll admit the service was reasonably fast.  It is now, anyway.  Will the servers become jaded in a few weeks?

At the drive-thru, not only do you talk to someone, you get to see her on a monitor.  And she can see you.  I'm not there for face time.  After the order, she said something like "follow that white van in front of you to the window." Maybe that was showing off, but it felt Orwellian.  They also ask for your name, but is there any chance for confusion?  They can follow me and my car all the way, even with two drive-thrus going to one window.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lonely No More

Happy birthday to Pat DiNizio, who formed the Smithereens.  The group rocks, but they can be pretty good when they're quiet, too.

Giving Them The Business

Like most others, I was sad to see Steve Jobs go.  He was a great innovator. (And it's also instructive, if not always mentioned, how often he failed.) But then, a lot of entrepeneurs were innovators, yet they don't get the same send-off.  Since Jobs' death, I've seen quite a few tributes, and think pieces, on the meaning of his life.  You didn't see the same with, say, Sam Walton.  Now admittedly, Sam didn't die quite so young.  But the techniques he introduced into retail, particularly througth Wal-Mart, revolutionized our world as well. (And he made more money than Jobs.)

As I've noted before, it's odd how some businesses are beloved by a certain crowd while other businesses are hated.  People I know tend to love Apple, but they hate Microsoft.  Steve Jobs is a hero, and Bill Gates is the devil.  Are they really that different?

They don't like Wal-Mart or Target either, though I'm not entirely sure why. Their heroes are people who protest such stores, and make sure they don't open nearby. (I personally was quite pleased when a local Target opened.) Sure, these stores put pressure on smaller businesses, but so does Apple.

And they hate Starbucks.  But they don't hate Coffee Bean, at least not so as I've noticed. I'm no expert, but is there any serious difference between the two? They hate KFC and love Chick-fil-A.  They hate McDonald's and love In-N-Out.  And so on.

But they can be fickle.  They used to love Whole Foods, yet they may be turning.  But they still love Trader Joe's.  I think they still like Google, but I'm not that sure now that it seems to be taking over (mostly because it offers better products), like Microsoft once did.  But I guess it's better to have loved a business and lost than never to have loved at all.

PS A friend notes some companies actually advertise about how they're cool so you should love them, such as Chipotle Grill and Fresh & Easy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Totally 80s

A Rolling Stone poll asked readers for the worst songs of the 80s, and here are the results:

1.  Starship - "We Built This City"
2.  Europe - "The Final Countdown"
3.  Chris de Burgh - "The Lady In Red"
4.  Wham! - "Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go)"
5.  Men Without Hates - "The Safety Dance"
6.  Falco - "Rock Me Amadeus"
7.  Bobby McFerrin - "Don't Worry Be Happy"
8.  Toni Basil - "Mickey"
9.  Taco - "Puttin' On The Ritz"
10. Rick Astley - "Never Gonne Give You Up"

I like most of these.  They're not classics, but they're still sort of fun.  I can think of quite a few worse songs from the era.  Looking only at #1 hits of the 80s, here are some titles (in chronological order):

"Sailing" by Christopher Cross, "Lady" by Kenny Rogers, "I Love A Rainy Night" by Eddie Rabbit, "Keep On Loving You" by REO Speedwagon (anything by REO Speedwagon), "Truly" by Lionel Richie, "Africa" by Toto, "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" by Bonnie Tyler, "Islands In The Stream" by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins, "Caibbean Queen" by Billy Ocean, "Oh Sheila" by Ready For The World, "Broken Wings" by Mr. Mister, "That's What Friends Are For" by Dionne & Friends, "Glory Of Love" by Peter Cetera, "Amanda" by Boston, "Head To Toe" by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, "Didn't We Almost Have It All" by Whitney Houston, "Hold On To The Nights" by Richard Marx, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" by Poison, "When I'm With You" by Sheriff and "Baby Don't Forget My Number" by Milli Vanilli.

Pronounced Chick-o

Chico Marx died 50 years ago today.  I finally got around to reading his daughter Maxine's book Growing Up With Chico--probably the only book on the Marx Brothers I hadn't read.

She wrote the book to respond to recent things Groucho had said about her dad, years after Chico had died.  Groucho, who couldn't help but insult people, said some nasty thing which had been used in a book, and Maxine wanted to show the father she adored.

Not that she whitewashes him.  It's still the Chico we've all heard about--feckless with money and faithless with women.  Though this time, we hear about it from below, seeing how it hurts his wife and family.

Maxine was born in 1918, the first child of any Marx Brother.  Luckily for us, she concentrates on the Brothers' greatest era--the 20s, when they conquered Broadway, and the 30s, when they conquered Hollywood. (A nice corrective to Harpo's book.) Some of the stories she no doubt reconstructed through speaking to others, but plenty of it is what life was like as the child of a star.  She also talks about dealing with Uncles Groucho and Harpo.

One thing she gets across is how important Chico was to the team.  He was actually the last of the main three to join their stage act.  As the oldest son, he'd been out on his own, in a piano act, while his mother Minnie put her other boys on the stage.  They were doing better than Chico, but once he came aboard, he saw how good they were and realized their potential.  He took over management of the group and at every step of the way made the connections that took them to the next level.  They became headliners in Vaudeville, but when that seemed to be over, he convinced them they could make it on Broadway and met the man who'd finance their show.  When movies beckoned, he met with Adolph Zukor and convinced Paramount to pay them more than their original asking price.  When they needed to find a new studio, Chico made a connection with Irving Thalberg, head producer at MGM with whom he played bridge, and the Brothers became bigger than ever.

Chico was perfect for this role.  Not only was he optimistic and canny, he was also more outgoing than Harpo and more charming than Groucho.  We may never have heard of the team if he hadn't pushed them.

As far as a performer, he was also perfect for his brothers.  Both Harpo and Groucho demanded attention, and Chico was willing to support them on stage and on screen.  In fact, half of Harpo's scenes are only possible with Chico.  And the Groucho-Chico routines are some of the most beloved comedy bits they ever did.  Then there was his piano-playing, where he got to shine on his own.  Groucho may have affected to hate it, but the audiences then--and today--love it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cheaper Than Food, Not Good Enough For NYT

Ann Arbor Guy sends word that The New York Times has a 36-hours-in-Ann-Arbor piece.  It hits a lot of the spots you'd expect: Nickels Arcade (which I always saw as a shortcut more than a place to shop), the Diag, Moe's, Dominick's, Hill, The Ark, Angelo's, Zingerman's, the Arb and so on.

But former Ann Arborite Ann Althouse (A-squared from A-squared) notes something is missing.  (Okay, there's a lot missing, but it's just 36 hours).  Sure, she used to hang out at Dominick's, but she worked at Krazy Jim's

I remember when Jim used to grind up a huge vat of meat and we stood around in the walk-in refrigerator using ice cream scoops to transform it into those meatballs. Krazy Jim's didn't make it into the NYT's recommended 36 hours. Who knows why? Some kind of rule against greasy food?

She's probably right.  The Times must have figured it didn't need all those nasty letters from the wine and cheese crowd complaining of gastronomical distress.  But I think for most discriminating palates, a Blimpy Burger is still de rigueur.

Full Heisenberg

"Stay Out Of My Territory!" Heisenberg said that some time ago, but that was still the message, loud and clear, in "Face Off," the finale of this season's Breaking Bad. Hard to believe things flew by so quickly.

I had certain problems with this season, more than with the previous three, and maybe I'll write about them some day.  But for now, let's just enjoy what's become the best show on TV.  And for a season finale, "Face Off" was very satisfying, even if in some ways it was ridiculous.

Last week we had Jesse and Walt both in danger as Gus realized he had to take action.  Furthermore, they seemed united against Gus for the first time in quite a while.  Walt tried to kill Gus with a car bomb, but Gus, who realized something was off from his talk with Jesse, avoided it.  So now Walt retrieves the bomb and goes to Jesse, still waiting in the hospital.

They have a talk.  Gus is on to them.  Before they can discuss how to get to Gus, the cops want to talk to Jesse. (I was thinking last week Jesse will tell Walt about Tio and Walt will put the bomb at the home, which Tio will operate with his bell. This turned out to be 100% correct.  Too bad I didn't write it down anywhere so people would believe me.) I was waiting for the cops to show up--Jesse brought up ricin poisoning, which is something surprisingly specific.  They just want to talk, of course, but Jesse's been through this before.  He justs wants to call Saul.  But Saul is out these days, since the heat is on.

In fact, his secretary is busy shredding documents.  Walt bursts in and soon realizes he'll need a lot of money to bribe her so she'll cough up Saul's whereabouts.  So he goes back home to pick up what's left. (Really? Isn't that the one place he has to stay away from?)

At his place, there's a vehicle waiting, so he calls the local lady with his key and has her check out the place--putting her life in danger, but if you want to make omelette you gotta break a few eggs. Anyway, this flushes out the killers.  He retrieves his money and beats a hasty retreat before they can kill him. (Dangerous, seems to me.  Can't he just promise the secretary bribe money?  He's good for it.  Or threaten her a la Heisenberg?)

Jesse is still being questioned when Saul comes in.  A great moment. Nice to have him back.  His life may be in danger, but you get the feeling Saul loves his job.  He can't get Jesse out easily--the word "ricin" comes up and the FBI starts to get interested.  At least, Saul notes, Jesse is safe where he is.  And Jesse has the chance to pass on the info about Tio Salamanca.

Saul meets Walt at a non-descript location to talk about Hector.  Not helpful until Walt understands Tio and Gus are enemies. That he can use.  He pays a visit to the home and makes a deal with the guy who'd like to kill him.  The exact deal we're not sure of, but Tio communicates to his nurse he wants to talk to the DEA.

This sounds weird, because we know Tio is old-school.  He saw his nephew die and wouldn't talk.  He saw his sons die and wouldn't talk.  Tio is willing to die himself, but he'd never talk to the DEA. (For a guy who can't talk and can hardly move, Mark Margolis as Tio has gotten a lot of face time in the series, and has done a great job.)

Meanwhile, a frantic Junior and Marie call Walt, insisting he come to the safety of Hank's place, rather than worry about the damn car wash. (Speaking of which, who's minding the place?  It's a big investment, and when the boss is away, are they taking the coins in the cars and that sort of stuff?) Skyler can't be bothered to talk to Walt, of course.  She knows he has things to do.

Gomie drops by Hank's.  Hank has figured out a lot about the laundry--too much wattage, for one thing--but it seems doubtful he'll convince anyone to go there again.  Anyway, there's news.  Hector Salamanca wants to talk, but only if Hank is there. (Seemed a bit odd if he won't say anything, but I assume it's to make sure Gus is paying attention.) Marie says absolutely not--it's a ruse to draw him away.  But Hank would probably rather be shot than not go to find out what's happening.  He's on the trail.  Marie puts her foot down.

Cut to the DEA, where the interrogation with Hank is about to begin. (A gag similar to Marie convincing Hank to leave the hospital last season.) Anyway, Hector just swears with his bell at them till they return him home.  He's ready to get Gus, but he's no informer.  As he's taken from the DEA, Gus gets word there may be Tio trouble.

Tio's brought back to his room, his nurse disgusted.  Walt is waiting to set up whatever it is they'll set up (you know, the stuff I predicted would happen). Meanwhile, Gus sends out Tyrus to check the place for bugs and the like. Walt is hiding outside, waiting for Tyrus to leave. (Did Walt expect Tyrus first, before Gus. If so, good call.)

Meanwhile, Jesse's let go.  Tox screen showed no ricin. (Which makes sense.  I thought ricin killed differently anyway.)  Jesse leaves and the first thing he should do is hide, you'd think, since he knows he's either on a hit list or a shit list.  But no, he's tased and tossed in a van.  To do what with?

Gus gets the call.  Jesse has been taken.  Also, Tyrus says no surveillance at Hector's place.  Gus says he's coming in.  Tyrus wonders if he should bother, but there's no way Gus will allow anyone else to end Hector, the man he's been toying with for years.  This makes sense.  Walt is using Gus's one blind spot--his need for revenge.

Gus shows up and he and Tyrus go into the room.  (Good thing Hector's got a room to himself.) Gus is disgusted that he would talk to the DEA.  Does he want to be remembered as a rat?  As Gus leans in to give Hector the syringe shot that will kill him, he starts thinking and Hector starts ringing.  Gus figures it out too late and the bomb goes off.

The door is blown off its hinges.  Then Gus walks out. Huh?  We get a full shot and see half his face is blown off (hence the title). We've seen this CGI before, and it's a bit cheap, but it's such a satisfying moment we can forgive the show.

Walt waits in a parking lot, listening to the radio. Big news--an explosion at a home, and three people may have been killed.  The message is clear.  Don't mess with Heisenberg.

We have a commercial to think about things.  The head has been cut off, so what happenes to the operation?  Is it a Wizard Of Oz sort of thing, where everyone's happy to be let free?  Does someone step into the vacuum?  (And don't forget the Cartel's head has been chopped off, too.) I don't know. Guess we'll find out next year.

Return from commercial and, somewhat to our surprise, Jesse is cooking.  I guess no matter what, the roads must roll.  Jesse has a tough new overseer making sure he doesn't screw around. Just considering fighting back could get him in trouble. (I thought maybe Jesse should try Walt's old trick--put on the gas mask and lets the deadly vapors flow.) The elevator buzzer sounds and the henchman handcuffs Jesses to pole.  He goes to the elevator and who should walk out but Heisenberg, gun a-blazin'.  He tells Jesse Gus is dead, then says "we've got work to do."

Sure do.  It's only a matter of time now before the DEA comes to investigate.  Must destroy the lab.  But where will they cook? I sure hope Jesse has millions left, since Walts' blown most of his dough.  Anyway, the boys destroy the lab. (Walt is good at creating things, but he's even better at destroying them.) Upstair, Walt shouts "Vamonos!," not that the workers need to be told when they hear the explosion.

At the hospital, Jesse brings good news to Walt--Brock will make it. And it wasn't ricin.  (How could it be?)  It was "Lily Of The Valley," poisonous red berries that little kids often eat. So Gus didn't do it, according to Jesse. (How does Jesse know that? Could be any sort of poison, couldn't it? The main thing was to steal the cigarette and convince Jesse it was ricin.) Anyway, Jesse says, Gus had to go. I guess that's right, even if he was being groomed to be the top cook, and Gus was sort of fond of him. (Around this point we get a faraway shot of Jesse and Walt, as if there's surveillance, but it seems to be a false alarm. With this show, you're always tense.)

Walt calls Skyler, who's watching the news with the whole gang. Uncle Hank was right! With Tio and Gus going out together, even the DEA can figure it out.  Skyler wants to know what happened.  Walter says it's over, we're safe, I won. Heisenberg rules. Never doubt a chemist.

Ah, but what other things do chemists know?  Walt drives out of the hospital, passing Gus's Hermanos car, which will be there for quite a while.  Whoever drives it out will have to pay maximum, that's for sure.

Then we get a nice, slow shot (by the way, the episodes written and directed by Vince Gilligan) of the White's back yard.  We slowly move in on a plant.  Sure looks like a Lily Of The Valley.

Many fans had been speculating Walt was behind the poisoning.  Okay, he was, but it's a little hard to buy.  Not that long ago he was tased, hooded and brought to the desert where Gus told him to get out of the way or he'd kill his whole family.  Frantic, Walt warns Hank (which will get his family killed) and then plans to go underground, except Skyler spent the money so he can't afford it.

So what does he do? Though scared out of his wits, expecting to be surveilled, and waiting to die, he comes up with a plot.  He'll pull some handy-dandy poison he happens to have growing in his backyard, go visit Andrea and Brock--whom he doesn't know, and who may be surveilled themselves--somehow drop some berries in the kid's oatmeal, then return home. Meanwhile, he'll also get Saul to go along with the complex scheme by having him call Jesse and demanding he come over (to receive money) and when he does, get Huell, Saul's bodyguard, to search Jesse, remove the ricin cigarette (which has to be there), then return it to his jacket.  Then Walt has to wait while Jesse figues it's ricin poisoning because of the missing cigarette (no guarantee), and then puts two and two together and figures Walt did the poisoning.  Then Jesse has to come to Walt's place to kill him (rather than call Gus and say it's now alright to kill Walt), and not kill him. Instead, he's got to pick up Walt's gun and ask Walt to explain, and then have Walt convince him the Gus was behind it all.

We're far away from the simple plans in earlier seasons, where a phone call here, a deadly gas there ("yeah, science!") solved the problems.  This is a plan I don't think even Gus could pull off.  But you know what? It led to a "happy" ending, so I'll accept it.

And now we wait a year for season five.  Who's in charge now?  And where is Mike? (I thought he might come back but now I figure Vince Gilligan just wanted him out of the way so Gus'd be shorthanded when he needed his best man.)  Do Jesse and Walt have to start from scratch?  Or will Walt just retire on that good car wash money?

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