Friday, August 31, 2012

Cleaner Than Usual

Some regulars on Johnny Carson could always be relied upon to get the audience going.  One of them was today's birthday boy, Buddy Hackett.

I've been telling his jokes for years, but he does them best.

Rocker Roberts

Happy birthday, Rick Roberts, one of the Flying Burrito Brothers and co-founder of soft-rock band Firefall.  Firefall's biggest hit was "You Are The Woman":

But I preferred this one:

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Half A Dick Is Better Than None

I just read Dick Van Dyke's My Lucky Life In And Out Of Show Business.  It's a charming enough memoir, but it has a problem that often happens in the world of entertainment--the best part of his career was short.  About five years, I'd say, from his star-making Broadway lead in Bye Bye Birdie to The Dick Van Dyke Show (creator Carl Reiner chose the name to make his little-known star better-known) which came immediately afterwards, during which he also made Mary Poppins. All the TV, movie and stage work that followed--though some was decent--doesn't compare.

The early years aren't bad, and there are plenty, since Van Dyke didn't hit it big till he was 35.  But the second half of the book, after his best work is behind him (and perhaps he knew that--Reiner was the one who decided to end the Van Dyke show), is almost by necessity a letdown.  He talks about a lot of lesser projects as well as his personal problems--with drinking and with his marriage--but that's not why I read the book.  I would have much preferred another chapter on Bye Bye Birdie, and several more on his sitcom, even if they already get more pages than almost anything else.

Overall, Van Dyke comes across as a very decent everyman who just happened to be amazingly talented.  In fact, I don't think his all-around work on The Dick Van Dyke Show has ever been topped in the medium.

Father's Day

Happy birthday, John Phillips.  John Phillips was a bit of a screw-up.  In the 1990s, after a transplant, he was caught drinking in a bar, and he said he was just breaking in his new liver. But he was the leader and main songwriter of The Mamas And The Papas, and for that he should be celebrated.  (He could also wear a fur hat like nobody's business.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Worked Over

Here's the headline from the LA Times: "Rick Santorum repeats inaccurate welfare attack on Obama"

From the article:

Sen. Rick Santorum accused President Obama of creating a “nightmare of dependency” and undermining welfare reform [....] [H]is reprise of an inaccurate Romney campaign attack on Obama over welfare [...] gave Santorum’s speech its hardest edge.

“This summer he showed us once again he believes in government handouts and dependency by waiving the work requirement for welfare,” Santorum said, referring to Obama.

“I helped write the welfare reform bill; we made the law crystal-clear: No president can waive the work requirement. [....]

In fact, Obama did not waive the work requirement.

His administration in July issued a letter to state governments saying that the Department of Health and Human Services would consider requests from states to experiment with new ways to fulfill the work requirements. The letter said that in order to receive waivers to carry out the experiments, states would have to show that their plans would move more welfare recipients into jobs than existing policies.

In other words, President Obama waived the work requirement.

Remember, this was a news report.  I do wish the LA Times would put its editorials on the proper page.

Cable Television

After he directed The Wild Bunch, a landmark of the violent Western genre, Sam Peckinpah stepped back and made The Ballad Of Cable Hogue (1970), which I recently caught on  TV.  It's a Western, yes, but a comedy with very little violence.  The film went way over budget and flopped, hurting his reputation in Hollywood--so he went to England to make another classic essay in violence, Straw Dogs.

The plot is not what you expect in a Western.  Jason Robards, as the title character, is left to die in the desert.  He discovers water, buys the land and develops the area as a stop for stagecoaches and others.  Meanwhile, he goes into town occasionally and romances a prostitute (Stella Stevens).  He also works with an itinerant preacher (David Warner) whose specialty is sex with his female flock.

The movie is fairly episodic though there is a vague structure, with Cable building up his place and waiting for the return of the former partners who left him for dead. There's a clear ending, though one that mostly comes out of nowhere.  It also has certain bad habits, maybe because comedy wasn't Peckinpah's forte.  He'll give the women's bodies leering close-ups, for instance, and he often resorts to fast motion for a comic pick-up.

But with all its problems, the film has aged well. It's charming, especially Jason Robards.  I can see why it wasn't a hit at the time, but I also think it's one of Peckinpah's best, better than a lot of his more notable titles.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What's Up DO'C?

Happy birthday, Donald O'Connor.  He grew up in Vaudeville as a dancer and singer.  He was in movies while still a teen, and took a real step up in class to star with Gene Kelly in Singin' In The Rain.

Is This The End?

At Zimbio, Joe Robberson lists the ten greatest surprise movie endings:

10. Unbreakable
9. Brick
8.  Fight Club
7. Mulholland Drive
6.  Dark City
5.  The Usual Suspects
4.  Barton Fink
3.  Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
2.  Memento
1. The Shawshank Redemption

I suppose when it comes to surprise endings, we need to remember how we first felt about them, since they can't surprise you a second time.  This may be one of the reasons surprise endings are looked down upon--once the shock wears off they can reveal themselves to be pretty shallow.

My first problem with the list, as so often happens, is it's all modern films.  There's nothing made before the 90s.  Is there really no surprise up through the 80s worth mentioning?  Are those just "old" film where Robberson already knew the ending before he saw it?

Anyway, let's start with Unbreakable.  I'm not a huge fan of M. Night Shyamalan and his surprise endings, but you've got to be perverse not to pick his most famous--The Sixth SenseUnbreakable, by comparison, has a surprise at the end that has some fans but has more often been derided as silly.

Brick isn't that well-remembered.  It's essentially a modern teen version of a film noir, including the surprise discoveries of who's been doing what to whom at the end.  The film is an interesting balancing act, but I wouldn't call the ending so memorable--it didn't make me go wow so much as recognize yep, they're continuing with the parody of a certain style all the way to the end.

Fight Club does have a major twist, no question.  It's not the only film to employ such a twist, but is one of the best-known.  I've always thought it was a bit absurd, but I can at least see it being on the list.

I wouldn't say Mulholland Drive--easily the best film on this list--has a "surprise ending" so much as a bewildering final act, where everything is turned on its head.  Though not everything is made clear, it does change your perspective on all that came before.

Dark City has a decent secret lurking beneath, even if the film wasn't that celebrated (though it was Roger Ebert's favorite movie of the year).  Still, it all comes rather suddenly and is resolved too easily.

The Usual Suspects is considered a classic surprise ending, but not by me.  I've always felt it was absurd, not only making a hash of everything we've seen, but going against what little we can garner of the character of Keyser Soze.

Barton Fink doesn't have a surprise ending, does it?  I guess in the final act we learn a bit about John Goodman that may be unexpected, but that's not the ending.  The ending, as Robberson describes, isn't surprising so much as confusing. (Not unlike some other Coen films.)

I had to try to remember if I was surprised by Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.  Like other Charlie Kaufman scripts, the story is labyrinthine, but if you could follow what was happening, I don't think the ending is surprising.  A bit depressing maybe (or hopeful, if you're an optimist), but if we pay attention we sort of know what's been going on.

Memento is a classic surprise ending, especially in that the ending shows us how everything started.  Christopher Nolan's logical unfolding can keep us at arm's length, but he keeps it basic enough here--even with all the twists--that it means something.

The Shawshank Redemption has a surprise ending?  I guess it's a bit unexpected how Andy Dufresne finally gets out, but is it a surprise?  We're expecting something to happen, and his escape, lovingly described after the fact, isn't a surprise so much as a satisfying plot development.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Other Coltrane

Born in Detroit, Alice McLeod was a jazz musician who met and married John Coltrane in the 1960s.  She played in his band up until his death in 1967, but continued to make beautiful music long after that.  Happy brithday, Alice Coltrane.

Mother Of Mercy

Last week's Breaking Bad ended with Walt saying "Everybody Wins." We know when Walt says that, something bad is about to happen.  And it happened with a surprising swiftness in this week's episode "Say My Name."

We start where we left off.  Walt's plan, not that far off from what we expected, was to take over the rival gang. They'll be his distributors, but it's his business.  Mike and Jesse ride out to the desert with Walt for the meet where he throws out this proposition. (Mike has 24 hours with no tails thanks to Saul's TRO.)  The other leader says why not just kill you here?  And we get the full-bore Heisenberg.  No methylamine, I'm in charge, you're product is a joke, I make the best stuff, I killed Gus Fring, etc.  Walter White isn't thinking about his wife, his kids, his cancer or anything--he's Heisenberg, living the life he was always meant to live. (I question the meth math, though--will 35% of the new take be as big as they'd make on their own inferior product but with no blue meth competition?) Heisenberg can be a convincing fellow and it appears the new crew accepts.  But not before they say his name, as he demands.

So they hand over $5 million to pay off Mike for what amounts to a finder's fee.  Can Mike truly be out?  No one gets to leave with Heisenberg around.  Not alive, anyway.  Jesse says he's out too, but Walt doesn't seem done with him (whereas he was finding Mike annoying).

Back at HQ, Mike says goodbye.  He'll never see Jesse again--when you're out, you're out.  He'll take his money and pay the legacy costs.  He also reminds Walt to take care of the bug before the DEA does a sweep. (Thus answering a question that's bothered many fans--I guess the bug was only meant to be there a few days when they needed to know what was going on.  I admit I generally don't like these kind of scenes where something is discussed that must be done.  It sets up the need for the scene where either the plan works, so there's no dramatic point, or something fails, which is no fun.  Turns out the scene goes in a direction I didn't expect.  Good for them.)

The car wash is closed.  Skyler lets Walt in. So that's where he hid the methylamine. (Some guess it filled his pool.)  Smart.  Jesse drive in the pest truck to pick it up.  He and Mrs. White now know each other a bit better, but their meeting is still ticklish.  She wants to know what's going on but Walt/Heisenberg isn't going to tell his wife what's going on.  Not her business.  (It is true the less she knows the better for her, but she's in now, and doesn't like the uncertainty--it's good to know if someone wants to kill you for something.)  Jesse observes Walt freezing her out.  He's in the same position.

Next scene, a guy we're not sure of walks into a place of business and gives a woman we don't know some cookies.  Turns out he's Mike's lawyer, the one we saw in a previous episode representing the nine crew members..  She works for the bank and opens up the safe deposit boxes.  So here's where the money changes hands.  I had guessed out of the $5 million, $2 million goes to Mike's granddaughter and the rest is split among the Nine.  So about, say, a quarter mill per once expenses are removed?  Anyway, as far as I could tell, the lawyer puts $15,000 per box (not including Kaylee's--shouldn't Mike have to pay a gift tax?).  He goes to the parking lot and gets in Mike's car.  These are drops.  The families comes by to pick up the money.

Next we see Mike listening in on Hank with his laptop.  The TRO is done, they've got a search warrant.   Mike drops the laptop and a bunch of guns down an old, abandoned well.  (He knows all these great drops.)  Then he goes to the airport and has a car ready with money in the trunk and a key nearby.  (I recognized the airport area since I was there recently.  I also drove by the car wash.) Mike is making good use of his free day.

Back home, the DEA knocks, but unlike Walt knocking, this doesn't scare Mike.  Big boss Hank serves the warrant personally, but, of course, there's nothing to be found.

Jesse drops by to see Walt, who's thrilled to start cooking again. Jesse reminds him he's out, and they have a big talk, where Walt used every trick he's got.  He brings up the dead kid, and how he's broken up about it, though Jesse finds it hard to believe.   He brings up the trail of dead they've left behind.  He brings up the many millions Jesse'll make.  He also asks Jesse what would he do if he had the money now and walked away--videogames, go karts, drugs? (Just like back in season two, when a more caring Walt said If I give you think money, you'll be dead within the week.) I think Walt likes Jesse, and he certainly needs a good cook--says he cooks as good as anyone, and offers him his own kitchen.  But even if he doesn't care about Jesse any more, Walt's invested a lot in training and he wants to get going.  Ultimately, it ends with Walt shouting he won't pay him and Jesse walking away. (It's possible Mike could leave the show this way, but never Jesse.)

At a high-level DEA meeting, Hank can't concentrate.  He still wants to finish up the Fring investigation. He's dressed down by his boss.  Fring is done, move on, you've got other work to do.  Certainly no more surveillance of Mike.  Gomie comes in and says no one in Fring's crew is talking.  So either they're impossibly loyal, or still being paid off.  They can't follow Mike, but the Nine have all got the same lawyer--let's follow him, no one told them he was off limits.  Mike has been one step ahead, but Hank knows what he's doing.

At the latest cook, Walt has a new partner.  To no one's surprise, it's Todd.  He doesn't know much, but he's a hard worker. (Though a loose cannon.) Anyway, if Walt could turn Jesse into a great cook, he can probably do it to Todd, who truly wants to be a gangsta.  The CC says "Jazz" starts playing, but it's the Monkees' "Goin' Down."

The lawyer comes in for his latest drop, but the lady he brings candy to is in an odd mood.  She knows something.  He starts making the drop and there's Gomie and the gang.  They've got him.  Will he flip?

Dinner at the White's.  Walt talks like it's all normal--breaking in this new kid--while Skyler just wants to drink and go to bed.  Next scene, Walt is pulling the crying game in Hank's office again.  Suggests Hank go out to get him coffee, and here comes the moment where he pulls out the bugs. It actually works fine, but it's also a chance for Walt to overheard Gomie and Hank confer about getting the lawyer, and after sweating him how he's flipped.

Meanwhile, Mike is doing his favorite thing--watching his granddaughter at the park. Gets a call from his lawyer, who wants to meet.  The lawyer asks for his location.  Strange. Next thing, Mike gets a call from a harried Walt--they're coming for you. The cops pull up and Mike is hiding behind a tree.  What should he do?  Can he abandon Kaylee?

Next thing, we're in Saul's office.  That'll teach Mike to hire a hack, he exclaims.  Jesse and Walt are there.  No time for recriminations.  They're screwed.  If they catch Mike, he may flip. And if he doesn't, his crew is still around, and their pay has been confiscated yet again.  The Nine will tell what they know, and all roads lead to Walt and Jesse, don't they?  Just then, Mike calls.  He's in hiding.  He doesn't think he can get close to his go-bag at the airport with everyone looking for him.  Jesse offers to do it, but Mike, who likes him, says no, and Saul notes he himself can't since the DEA is probably sitting on him.  Walt says Jesse is out anyway, I'll do it.  (Walt is the one guy in this show no one suspects of anything.) He gets to the car, looks in the bag and sees a gun on top of the money.  Hmm.

Walt meets Mike and before he hands over the bag says he needs to know the names of the Nine.  (I'm thinking don't ask Mike, ask Lydia.) Mike won't even consider it. The only thing left for them to do is disappear.  Walt, leading the life he wants, won't consider that deal.  (Will he have to later, according to the first scene this season?)

Before they leave, Mike tells off Walt about how he screwed it all up  They had a good deal with Fring, but Walt got above his station.  This is a bit simplistic, since it started in some ways with Jesse's problems, but it's essentially correct.

Mike goes back to his car to look in the bag.  The gun is out  of the holster.  Walt walks up and shoots at him. (Not the first time Mike's been shot at a car about to make a getaway.) It's point blank, but Mike drives away.  He slams into a rock.  Walt runs over and Mike is out of the vehicle.  Where is he?  Is this Pine Barrens all over?

Walt walks down an incline toward a river and sees Mike sitting there, fatally injured.  Even Walt is shocked by the audacity of what he did.  He also chooses this moment to remember that he could have gone to Lydia.  Mike could have disappeared from his life and everything would have been fine.  Mike tells Walt to "shut the fuck up, let me die in peace."  It's a beautiful setting for a shocking ending.

Vince Gilligan said Walt would do something this season no one could forgive him for.  This was it.  It was impetuous and, ultimately, unnecessary.  It was also chilling.  Even if you saw it coming, it was hard to believe.  Walt has been killing from the start of the show, and has found it easier and easier.  But we've never seen a major character taken out this way.  Yes, last season ended with Gus's death, but that was a long-term cat-and-mouse game and most fans, I believe, were still rooting for Walt.  Anyway, you can argue that was in self-defense, as were his other killings.  This was shooting a beloved character--maybe the most beloved the show's ever had--because he wouldn't help Walt kill others.

The DEA probably won't be surprised to find Mike's corpse (or that he's disappeared).  Getting shot is an occupational hazard in the drug business. (In a different time, perhaps Hank and Mike, two great cops, could have been friends.)  Walt can probably pretend to Jesse that Mike has simply gone.  But how will the fans take it?  Earlier in the show, Walt told Jesse that if he believes in hell, they've both done enough to send them there. Maybe, maybe not, but this was a new line Walt crossed.  There's only one more episode before the show goes on hiatus, but everything that follows will feel different, and this is a new Walt.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

On And On With Leon

If you saw Leon Redbone perform in the 70s, you'd have to ask yourself about the future of such an eccentric act.  But his concerts are still packed today.  So, happy birthday, Leon.

You're Not The Boss Of Me Now

I didn't think too much of the first season of Boss, but I figured I'd give it another chance now that it's starting up again.  After two episodes, however, the second season seems worse than the first.

The basic concept--the hardball mayor of Chicago dealing with his allies and enemies--could have been fun.  But they went way too far.  This mayor thnks nothing of having others hurt or kidnaped or even murdered.  Maybe the producers thought this was Shakespearean, but it just ends up being silly.  Worse, the mayor's been diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disease that will eventually kill him.  This doesn't complicate the plot so much as stop it cold every now and then when we want things to move forward but he's too busy with the shakes.

This season, it's only gotten worse.  Now he's hallucinating on a regular basis.  No fun.  This is like a pain in the side you want to ignore but can't.  Alas, the main action isn't that much better, with still plenty of violence and over-the-top melodrama (that is also somehow slow-moving).

Kelsey Grammer is actually pretty good as MayorTom Kane. There is something to this tough-as-nails character in his more realistic moments.  And Kathleen Robertson, as Kitty O'Neill, Kane's former aide, doesn't have much to play but is one of the sexiest women on TV.  The show is on Starz and the ratings aren't much.  I suppose it will be put out of its misery before the Mayor is.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


In The Chronicle Of Higher Education, UCLA professor of history Russell Jacoby reviews David Gelerntner's latest on how left-wing academics are dismantling our culture.  I had no plans to read the book, but the title of the review, "Dreaming of a World With No Intellectuals," sounded like it might be a fascinating examination of the anti-intellectualism of the Right.

I was wrong.  In place of analysis, Jacoby uses sarcasm.  It's so obvious to him that modern-day conservatives, as exemplified by Gelerntner, are nutty that he figures all he has to do is give a cursory explanation of their positions, add a little sneer, and he's done.

Too bad, as it only confirms what conservatives already believe--that academics are know-it-alls who actually know very little. (Not that conservatives necessarily read the Chronicle. In fact, that's another sign of the problem--Jacoby knows his audience so doesn't feel he has to prove much.)

This claim about conservatives is not exactly new--it's been around for decades.  But there's an argument the phenomenon is getting worse.  For some reason, many conservatives these days openly and proudly reject the authority of the academic world.  And not just in the social sciences, but the hard sciences, too.

Why they do I can't say.  I suppose, in part, it takes two to tango.  Our universities have essentially been taken over by the left, so why wouldn't the right be suspicious?  But which came first, and is the conservative response an overreaction?

I'd like to see a discussion of this some day, but apparently it won't be coming from Russell Jacoby.

Frank Discussion

At the AV Club they discuss the best way to get into Frank Zappa's music. It's a hopeless task.  In his short life Zappa released more stuff than any other rock artist I can think of, and he did it in numerous genres--R&B, fusion jazz, guitar solos, modern music, even spoken word.  There is no single type of music that defines him.

Still, you can do worse than what they suggest.  For the early days, with old-style rock and modern experimentation, you could try Freak Out!, though Absolutely Free and especially We're Only In It For The Money have better music. For jazzy stuff, Hot Rats is probably his most popular title, though I prefer Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich.  For more strictly commercial doings, you probably can't beat Apostrophe, though Over-Nite Sensation opened it up first.

For his later years, it's catch as catch can, and you can dive in where you want, based on your reaction to the earlier stuff.  On the other hand, if you can't get into anything from his first decade, you might as well give up.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Look Who's Talking

I was raised in the suburbs of Detroit and went to college at the University of Michigan, so I thought it was pretty rude when students from other states made fun of my accent. First, I didn't have one.  Second, even if I did, it was like making fun of an Irish brogue in Ireland.

They said I said "car" like "caaaaaar" with a very flat "a." (For some reason "car" was the word they noticed--once again, if anyone knows how to pronounce that word, it's Detroiters.) I didn't hear it--I hear myself say "cahhhr"--and sometimes thought they said something closer to "core."

Anyway, turns out there is a big regional dialect around the Great Lakes, as Rob Mifsud notes in Slate.  It's called the NCS--Northern Cities Shift--even though it's spread beyond cities. He goes on to explain how it started and how the vowels are changing.  He also talks about research that shows those who speak in NCS don't even recognize it. (Though I find it hard to believe I wouldn't know the difference between "cat" and "cot.")

I admit when I go back home I don't really notice it, though occasionally when I'm in Chicago the people on the street do sound a bit like the SNL  Bears' fan parody.

Don't Quote Me

The action comedy Hit & Run opens today. It stars Dax Shepard and his wife Kristen Bell, and is also written and directed by Shepard.  I have no idea if it's any good, though often the dogs of summer are released in late August.

Anyway, last week I was in the cinema and I saw a cardboard stand-up for the film.  It had a very positive quote at the top, calling it the funniest film of the year, or something like that.  Now there's a very easy way to tell the critical consensus.  Just look at who the critic works for (this works better when there are several, but one critics will do).  If the critic is employed by a major paper or magazine, that means the film could pick and choose from the raves.  The smaller, or lesser-known the source, the harder the producers had to look to find something positive.

So I checked and this review was from a guy on Myspace.  Not even Facebook.  That can't be a good sign.  I've never actually been to Myspace, but I don't believe it's considered a center of great film criticism.

PS  I just went to Myspace.  The front page offered a piece on the film, but they spelled Dax Shepard with two P's.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Nicotine Slave

It's the birthday of Tex Williams, whose specialty was Western swing, often with a comedic edge.  His biggest hit was "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)."

He Got Egot

The passing of Marvin Hamlisch got me thinking about the EGOT--winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.  It's not an official thing, of course, but that only makes it cooler.  The word was coined by Philip Michael Thomas of Miami Vice semi-fame.  He expected to have quite a career, picking up each one of these.  He didn't even get nominated for any, but he did win a People's Choice Award.  The EGOT has become much better known as a punchline on 30 Rock.  But there it is.

Hamlisch, as I noted, was only one of eleven EGOTers.  The others, in chronological order, are Richard Rodgers, Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Marvin, Jonathan Tunick, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg and Scott Rudin.  Three others--Barbra Streisand, Liza Minelli and James Earl Jones--won three of the awards and picked up the fourth as special or honorary.  They're not real EGOT people--the whole point is to make this as exclusive as possible.  For that matter, Whoopi's Emmy was a daytime one, and I'm not sure if that should count.

By my count, the eleven are two composers, five actors, two directors, one arranger and one producer. (Many of them do more than one thing, but I'm picking their primary talent.)

Artists who flourished in the first half of the 20th century don't have much chance, since the Tonys and Emmys didn't start until the late 40s, and the Grammys in the late 50s.  Of course, a lot of it is luck--being in the right place at the right time.  For that matter, some of it is about spreading yourself around.

For years, Rita Moreno was the special name, since she wasn't that big a star, yet was one of only three with the EGOT.  Few would guess she even won one of these awards. Now arranger Jonathan Tunick may be the odd man out, since not many people (outside Broadway) have even heard of him.

Richard Rodgers completed the first EGOT in 1962 (pretty fast since the earliest EGOT possible was 1959) and then we had to wait fifteen years for Helen Hayes, quickly followed by Moreno. Up until 1991, that was it.  Then we had a whole bunch over the next decade, stopping with Whoopi in 2002, until Scott Rudin started things up again when he got a Grammy this year.

There's a list of 75 people with three of the awards--the 3GOT.  About a third are dead, so that's that.  Of those left, it's interesting to see what they're missing.  For instance, those without a Tony.  Some you figure just haven't been on Broadway, but actually Julie Andrews, Burt Bacharach and Barbra Streisand are on this list--people who triumphed on the Great White Way.  Hard to believe not a single Tony between them.  There's also Peter Ustinov and Robin Williams, big names who occasionally appeared on Broadway--bad luck they never got the big prize.

The biggest missing award is the Grammy.  Not exactly surprising. It's true they give out so many you might find one in a garbage can, but before you get one you've got to record something.  Most of the Grammys are for musical people, so actors and others who aren't in that category may get stiffed.  And in fact, this category is mostly classy actors--though it also includes Liza Minelli, whom you might figure would have gotten a competitive Grammy at some point.

The smallest category is those missing Emmys, which makes sense since they give those out like candy on Halloween.  As you might guess, it's mostly composers who did little or no TV.  Still, occasionally you'd have a piece on the Tube from Oscar Hammerstein II or Stephen Sondheim--Emmy voters love big names so I'm surprised they didn't slip them one.

Then there are those without Oscars. Like a Tony, this is an award with some distinction, and even the best actors don't get the right role in the right year to take these.  Still, would it have been that hard, at some point, for someone like Leonard Bernstein, Julie Harris, James Earl Jones, Lily Tomlin or even Dick Van Dyke to pick up one of these?

I don't know if anyone has actually ever gone for an EGOT.  But if anyone wants to, here's some advice. Martin Scorsese--produce a Broadway play (maybe a musicalization of Goodfellas).  Jeremy Irons or Maggie Smith--do some classy spoken-word records that will impress the Grammy voters (roll your r's, whatever it takes).  Elton John or Andrew Lloyd Webber, write some crap for TV--they'll be so thrilled you condescended to do anything for the medium they'll give you something.  And Matt Stone, Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman--keep doing movies with funny songs.  You already deserved an Oscar for "Blame Canada" and sooner or later the Academy will get hip to it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Official Ending

Executive producer Greg Daniels has announced the upcoming season of The Office, its ninth, will be its last. At least two seasons too late, I'd say. The show has always had flaws, but after lead Michael Scott left there was no reason to continue.

Daniels also says the show will answer a lot of plot questions as it goes out.  No thanks.  This isn't Lost.  Just be as funny as you can.  He's also promised to reveal more about the documentary crew--even though the whole documentary conceit has been silly from the start and is best ignored.

As has been announced, the Dwight Schrute character will be spun off into his own show.  This also sounds like a bad idea.  He's such an extreme character that it'll be tough to make a show work where he's at the center unless he's watered down.

Where Do I Begin

I enjoyed Peter Bart's memoir about his years at Paramount, Infamous Players, even though the book is incredibly sloppy at times. It's an improbable story, but then, so many Hollywood stories are.  Vulgarian businessman Charles Bluhdorn buys Paramount for its glitz in the 60s and then names Robert Evans, who can barely get a film produced, head of the studio.  Evans brings along Bart--who'd written the New York Times article on Evans that got him noticed--as his right-hand man.

Bart is at least humble enough to admit he didn't make all those films he helped greenlight.  He even admits to mistakes.  Still, with 20/20 hindsight, he usually sees flops coming and recognizes potential hits before others.

It was a time of transition in Hollywood--the studio system was dead and the old stars and styles were falling out of favor, and no one was sure what worked.  At least Evans and Bart recognized if they were going to strike out, they wanted to strike out with something new.

Evans had plenty of misfires, but with hits such as Rosemary's Baby, Love Story, Chinatown and The Godfather, he--and Bart--were able to bring Paramount back from the dead and turn it into the most profitable studio. Bart recounts the stories of these famous films, even though we've heard them before.  In fact, what I preferred was stuff about the suits--Bluhdorn, Frank Yablans, Martin Davis, Stanley Jaffe, Sidney Korshak, Howard W. Koch, etc.--because that you don't hear so much about.

Rather than telling his story chronologically, Bart shoots back and forth, sometimes telling the same story from a different angle, sometimes talking about people and films he seems to have only had tangential relations with.  This also leads to bizarre errors, where he refers to someone working on one film going on to another that was actually made earlier.  I realize this is a personal memoir, not an offical history, but if someone had just run through the dates on the IMDb, it would have prevented a lot of mistakes.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Three Down

Lot of celebrity deaths lately.  The big shocker is well-regarded director Tony Scott committing suicide.  He was known for his big action films like Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Man On Fire.  I always found him a bit over the top, but when he had a good script (like True Romance) he knew how to deliver.

Then there's Phyllis Diller.  In the 50s, she developed her character as a housewife full of one-liners about her bizarre life, often bringing up never-seen husband "Fang." She started appearing on TV, such as Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life and the The Jack Paar Tonight Show, and, with her distinct looks and laugh, soon became one of the top comics in the business.  Her material was often self-deprecating--a common source of material for early female stand-ups--but that didn't stop her from being a great inspiration for modern female comedians.

And let's not forget William Windom, a great character actor who appeared in hundreds of TV shows from the 50's until a few years ago.  He won an Emmy for his lead role in the Thurberesque My World And Welcome To It and was a regular on Murder, She Wrote.  But I think he may be best-remembered as Commodore Matt Decker in the Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine."

You Break It, You Buy It

So we're already on the sixth episode of Breaking Bad's half-season, only two left to go.  The question now is what sort of cliff hanger or jaw dropper will they leave us with. This week's episode, "Buyout," struck me as sort of an in-betweener--setting up things for the next two hours, and sometimes being a bit too obvious in doing  it.  (It's odd that after five A minuses in a row, A.V. Club chose this episode for the first straight out A.)  Creator Vince Gilligan said Walt will do something unforgivable before these eight shows are over, and while I don't think we've seen it yet, he has been pretty awful so far, and I think he rose to new heights of jerkiness in "Buyout."

It starts with a wordless sequence where the team disposes of the bike and body of the kid they shot last week. (I'm a bit surprised they didn't leave the body somewhere far away from the site to be discovered, but I guess they'd rather not have a murder investigation.  Still, no doubt there'll be a search for the missing kid, which means I guess they're removing all evidence of the tanks and so forth?)

Walt, Mike and the new boy and shooter Todd, do the work while shaken Jesse smokes outside.  When it's done Todd joins him and is surprisingly cavalier about the murder, which leads to Jesse punching him--on the nose, not unlike the scene: I don't think Todd feels so bad about what he did, but he should be sensitive enough to leave the subject alone.  Jesse is the least hardened of the three amigos, and we know nothing sets him off like dead kids.

After the work is done, Todd explains why he did what he did.  He feels justified.  (He also calls Walt "Mr. White"!) Jesse is disgusted.  Walt has Todd leave the room.  Todd mentions he cares about the business and even has prison connections.  How will this play out later?

After he's out, Walt tries to calm down Jesse.  They have three options.  Fire Todd (and pay for his silence), kill him, or keep him on.  Really they have no choice, and he stays. (Not that Walt minds in the least.)  Mike tells him he's still in and then shoves him against the wall telling him never to take a gun to a job without clearing it first.  Todd goes back in his car and looks at the glass jar with the spider the kid caught.  Odd.

Cut to the DEA surveilling someone.  It's Mike in the park with his granddaughter.  He leaves a note behind.  Is this a dead drop?  Gomie checks it out.  (Surveillance without Hank must be boring.)  Mike's written "Fuck You." A bit like Tio, and also, once again, a bit obvious.  Mike knows he's being watched, but does he have to let them know?  I guess there is an excuse in that it gets them talking at the office, which Mike can follow through the bug.  Hank talks about continuing the surveillance 24/7 (when he's not talking about the difference between mayonnaise and Miracle Whip).

Skyler visits Marie and clings on to Holly for dear life.  She tells Marie she worries about the kids' safety, and she's got problems that she can't even talk about, they're so horrible.  We start to wonder if Skyler will actually talk (and thus put Marie in trouble), but Marie let's slip that Walt told her all about the affair with Ted.  So he's gone that low, Skyler thinks, but she's not going to say what the real trouble is.

On a break at the latest cook, Jesse watches the news regarding the search for the missing kid.  Walt says how bad he feels too, but they've got to keep cooking for another year or so, make their hundred million, and move on.  After that, they'll have time to feel bad.  He lets Jesse off, saying he'll finish the cook. As Jesse leaves, he can hear Walt whistling. Once again, a bit obvious.  Even if Walt wants to whistle while he works, wouldn't he make sure Jesse is gone first?  Jesse gets a call.  Some new business going down?

When Walt returns to HQ, Mike and Jesse are waiting for him.  Mike notes he's being tailed by the DEA, which makes Walt explode in the classic condescending style he perfected while working with Jesse in the early days.  Walt says this can't go on and Mike says you're right, I'm out.  Walt accepts and says Jesse will take over distribution. (Really?) Jesse says he's out, too.  He didn't sign up for kid-killing.  He's retiring.  Walt can't understand.  They almost "killed" themselves stealing that methylamine.  Mike says they can sell it to a connection he knows for $15 million and walk away with a third each.  It's unthinkable to Walt to sell out, even as Jesse asks if they're in the money business or the meth business.

And though this is consistent for Walt's character now, it's also the latest (and last?) in a long line of moments he can walk away.  He always could, but it's never been so clear, except for maybe in the first season when Gray Matter promised to take care of him.  He doesn't know how much longer he has to live, but the original idea--that he should make enough to take help his family if he's gone--is taken care of.  They've got the car wash up and running to launder any money and now he'll have $5 million, more than enough. But Walt can't even consider it.

Mike and Jesse meet the connection out in the desert.  They're willing to sell their two-thirds of the methylamine for $10 million but the guy says he wants it all. Not just for cooking, but to get rid of Gus Fring's blue meth as competition. (I'm almost surprised this late in the game we see so casually a competitor on the American side of any size--in the past, Fring seemed to control the Southwest on this side of the border.) So the two sensible amigos understand they've got to convince their crazy partner to sell out.

Walt gets a call at home from Jesse.  He invites him over.  Really?  From the start, the house has been off limits to Jesse, but Walt doesn't care any more.  Time to let it all hang out.

They have a discussion.  Jesse tries to explain the situation and once more give Walt a chance to do the right thing (without resorting to Mike's hardcore style of negotiation).  No one knows more about Walt's plans.  When he started, making $5 million and walking away would have been beyond his dreams.  A good speech, but, once again, a bit on the nose. We already get this, don't need it spelled out.  And then Walt has a nice monologue, but also on the nose.  He talks about his past with Gray Matter, confirming what we already know if we paid attention.  He helped found the company but due to personal reasons (he doesn't spell it out but I assume it's because one the male partner stole the female partner away from him) sold his share for $5000.  The company is now worth over $2 billion and it still eats at him.

Walt won't let that happen again.  He's building an empire and nothing will stop him, not even Jesse noting a meth empire is nothing to be proud of.  Then, in a great moment, Skyler enters.  Early on in the series Skyler confronted Jesse (whom she thought was selling her husband marijuana) and since then they've stayed away from each other. Skyler only knows about him as having some connection to all these problems since his run-in with Hank.  But Walt has nothing to hide (or nothing left to lose) and invites Jesse to dinner.  Skyler, depressed and defeated, doesn't object.

It's a great scene. At dinner, as husband and wife glower at each other, Jesse tries to keep the conversation going, reverting to the old, dopey, former student Jesse, talking about how great the green beans are and how bad frozen food usually is.  He then tries to compliment Mrs. White, and she brings up her affair with Ted.  Then she takes her wine and leaves.

Walt turns to Jesse and tells him about how his kids are gone and his wife is waiting for him to die.  So all he has left is his business, and Jesse wants to take it away. Once again, too on the nose.  And why didn't Jesse slap him and say You idiot, here's your chance to get it all back.  Empire? Even if everything works out you could be dead in a few months.  Here's your ticket to be rich, be safe and win everyone and everything back before you're gone.  I know Walt is too far gone to listen, but why does he think his speech will move Jesse rather than disgust him?

Later that night, Walt goes to protect his methylamine.  Mike is waiting for him, figuring he'd make this bonehead move.  He informs Walt the sale--of all of it--is a done deal.  He holds him at gunpoint all night.  Last time he did that they were waiting for Gus Fring to come in and maybe kill him.  Now he actually has to force the guy to accept $5 million.

As the sun comes up, Mike has a meeting to go to so he ties Walt to the radiator.  Walt manages to escape by chewing on some wire and burning his hand.  Mike's meeting, by the way, is with Hank and Gomie.  He's represented by Saul Goodman.  Always nice to see Saul.  I hope we get more of him.  Saul says stop this harassment, and he's got a TRO on the DEA.  He knows it won't hold up for more than a day, but Mike figures that's time enough to take care of the final transaction and move on.

But when he gets back, the methylamine (I keep wanting to type "meth" for short but that won't work) is gone.  He goes into the office, ready to shoot Walt to get the information. But Walt has called Jesse in and Jesse (once again this season) intercedes on Walt's behalf.  Mr. White has already convinced Jesse of his new plan, which will get Mike his money.  "Everybody wins," Walt says.

I doubt it, but we'll have to wait until next week to learn what the plan is.  Yet another reason this episode feels like an in-betweeners.  I should add that I'm a bit surprised how Jesse has let go of the dead kid.  Sure, it made him walk away, but he hasn't gone nuts, he's not trying to kill anyone (yet) and he seems to be over it, ready to try on Walt's latest scheme.

Two to go, and the show always goes out crazy.  In fact, usually it's the next-to-last episode where the wildest stuff happen--Jane dies, Walt runs over a couple guys, etc.  I can hardly wait.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Can I Google It?

They'll ask you crazy questions on job interviews: How many golf balls would it take to fill a school bus?  How much would you charge to wash every window in Seattle? What would you do if you were an inch tall and thrown into a blender about to start in sixty seconds?  How would you plan the evacuation of San Francisco?  Could you fit a stack of pennies as tall as the Empire State Building into a room in the Empire State Building?*

I've never faced anything like this, but according to William Poundstone's book Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google?, these kinds of challenges are becoming more and more common  And not just at Google--in a tough economy, lots of companies want to test your knowledge, your originality, your thought process and your performance under pressure.

The book goes into the history of such testing (which is of questionable value) but is as much a puzzle book as anything else, each chapter ending with a series of questions with answers at the back.  In fact, the Answers section is half the book.

As a fan of puzzles, and Poundstone, I highly recommend the book.  I don't necessarily recommend trying to get a job at Google though, if this is the sort of stuff they put your through.

PS  Poundstone mentions the famous Missionaries and Cannibals puzzle (which has been updated to the more politically correct People and Lions).  I was taught it as a kid, and I guess I learned a more complex variation, since Poundstone's version, where you can dump a lion on the shore from your boat where there's already another lion there, and they won't eat you, seems like cheating to me.

*Sorry, I'm not giving the answers. Either figure them out yourself of buy/borrow Poundstone's book. Okay, I'll answer the last, since it's pretty easy. There can't be many more than 100 stories in the Empire State Building, and let's say even a small room in the building has a ceiling half the height of one of the floors. That would mean you'd have to put at most around 200 stacks of pennies, which is barely more than 14x14 stacks.  Even a closet would fit a stack of 14x14 pennies.

Late Breaking News

For reasons beyond my control, my regularly scheduled Breaking Bad discussion, this time for season five's sixth episode, "Buyout," will not appear until tomorrow.  Since most Pajama Guy readers don't watch the show--so either don't care or avoid these recaps for fear of spoilers--this probably means nothing to you.

Nevertheless, in its place, I present the Breaking Bad credits done a la The Office and Malcolm In The Middle.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Beat Goes On

Happy birthday, Ginger Baker.  He was one of the top drummers of the late 60s, working for Cream and Blind Faith.

Simpsons, Meet The Simpsons

It's poorly edited with some sloppy writing and research, but John Ortved's The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History is probably the best book available on the subject.  Most of it is an oral history, with Ortved interjecting here and there to fill in the gaps, but it really gets into the subject, answering all the questions a Simpsonphile could ask.

The book was published in 2009, when The Simpsons was twenty years old, but most of it deals with the first five or six years.  This is as it should be.  The development of the show and its early burst as a revolution, followed by a few years of evolution, are when it mattered most. By the late 90s, after a couple hundred episodes, while it was still entertaining, it was rarely surprising, and sometimes seemed to slip into routine.

The three men responsible for making it what it was are in the opening credits of every episode--Matt Groening, James L. Brooks and Sam Simon.  Groening is the name most tied to the show but may actually be the least important.  He did create the Simpsons for The Tracey Ullman Show (he created them since he didn't want to give up the rights and merchandising to his own Life In Hell comic strip characters), and was there to help develop the show as a sitcom.  But without James L. Brooks' clout--he was a huge name in TV and movies in the late 80s--it's doubtful Fox would have been willing to take a chance on a prime time cartoon about a weird family.  Brooks also protected the show from too much network interference.  And Sam Simon, who'd previously worked on shows like Taxi and Cheers, might be the most important of all.  He ran the show in its early years, hiring the writers, bringing in the scripts (Groening helped but he wasn't always around, and certainly had no experience in writing sitcoms), filling in the community of Springfield and setting the tone for what the show could be.  Groening, however, was a good front man for the show--the story of an alternative comics guy who lucked out was irresistible to the media, and it can be understood, based on the early publicity, if the public thought he wrote all the shows, and drew them, too.  Eventually Simon had a falling out with the other two, and was off the show.  (Later Brooks and Groening had a falling out, too.)  But all of them made many millions of dollars on the show.

In fact, the book talks a lot about how much money the show made, and how some got a lot, others not so much.  It also has in-depth profiles of names like Richard Sakai, Conan O'Brien, George Meyer and John Swartzwelder, not to mention various showrunners and their different styles, such as David Mirkin, Al Jean, Mike Reiss and Mike Scully (a friend of mine). In general, the book concentrates on the writers (many of whom seemed to be social misfits) which makes sense. There's the animation, there's the voice talent and a number of other aspects, but what set the show apart from the beginning was the smart writing. 

The show was an immediate phenomenon, headed by break-out character Bart Simpsons.  After a few years, it shifted emphasis to Homer, who got dumber and dumber and has held center stage ever since.  The style also changed in the early years. It started with fairly realistic stories but got wilder as it went along.  There were fights over this, but it was probably necessary to prevent the show from becoming stale.  Also, it took advantage of the medium, since animation lets you go anywhere you want and have as many characters as you desire.  I think, in fact, by the fourth season, the show had reached its peak, with great (and wild) episodes like "Homer The Heretic," "Mr. Plow," "Marge vs. The Monorail" and "Last Exit To Springfield." In some later seasons, the joke density (already high) increased, but it's not just the number of jokes--the sense of discovery was gone.

So here we are, 500+ episodes down the road, and no end in sight. (When Bill Cosby's show ended, Bart and Homer watched and Bart said if he ever got a show he'd make sure to run it into the ground.) The ratings aren't so great any more, but the demos are pretty good and its a worldwide phenomenon.  I still watch, but it's no longer the viewing highlight of the week.  This isn't so shocking. Almost any show gets tired after five or six years. That it's still entertaining at this point is impressive.  Maybe some day it will go off the air, but it seems to have a momentum of its own, and as long as money can be made, Bart, Homer, Lisa, Marge and the rest will go on.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Applause, Applause

I recently attended a play and at the end we all whooped and applauded as the actors bowed.  It got me thinking--why are we doing this? I didn't think the show was that great, but even if I did, do I need to reward the actors with my applause?  They're not doing me a favor, I paid to see this. In fact, I paid a fair amount--quite a bit more (even at half price) than I would to see a movie with a $100 million budget*.  Meanwhile, the actors are getting money to do this. I should be grateful?  It's a simple transaction--I give you money, you put on a show.  Unless something is exceptional, why make a big deal out of it?

I don't think I've ever sent my compliments to the chef, and only a few times have I sent a letter to an author (usually to send a correction).  Is it only actors who are so needy that, in addition to paying them, I've got to applaud when they're done?

*Even stranger is applause for a movie.  It happens occasionally and I always wonder who are they doing it for?

Everybody Into The Pool

The late night talk show game is dog eat dog, where everyone fights for the best guests.  Luckily, the two biggest names, Jay Leno and David Letterman, work on different coasts so they don't compete for the same names at the same time.

Still, you occasionally get weird face-offs.  A couple night ago I noticed Letterman had Dana Vollmer on at the exact same time Leno had Missy Franklin.  If you don't recognize those names, they're both multiple gold medal-winning Olympic swimmers. In fact, they swam together on the same relay team.

I didn't really care and changed the channel, but I started thinking what if I were mad for women's Olympic swimming.  What if my world revolved around it. I finally get a chance to see a medalist on a major talk show and suddenly I've gotto choose which one.  The only thing worse would have been if Jimmy Kimmel was featuring Allison Schmitt.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Clever Hans

Happy birthday, Hans Vandenburg. Never heard of him?  He's the leader of Gruppo Sportivo. Never heard of them?  They're a fun Dutch band (who sang in English) that did their best work in the 70s and 80s.

Your Belinda

Happy birthday, Belinda Carlisle.  She's the lead singer of the Go-Go's, but you already knew that.

Their big hit was "We Got The Beat" from their debut Beauty And The Beat, but I always preferred the other hit from that album:

While we're at it, here's another of my favorites:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Out Of The Building, Still In Our Hearts

Elvis died exactly 35 years ago.  For all we know, if he'd stayed away from those fried banana sandwiches he'd still be around.

Strange Brew

As someone who has attacked Ayn Rand for both her writing and philosophy, I'm always amazed at how her enemies still manage to make her look good.  For instance, in The New Republic, Simon van Zuylen-Wood has a piece on "The Ten Strangest Things About Objectivism."  You don't have to agree with Rand's beliefs to see many of these items aren't that strange, though Zuylen-Wood's misunderstanding of them is:

1. Greed good; altruism evil

Objectivists believe rationality is the highest form of morality. Because it’s rational to be self-interested, selfishness is thus a mark of high ethics. Q.E.D. Put another way, Objectivism is a self-fulfilling rationale for life’s injustices: Winners deserve to be winners because they are winners.

How can this be "strange" when it's widely understood to be the whole point of objectivism. Rand recognizes that it turns conventional morality on its head.  That's what's supposed to wake you up. You might as well call Marxism strange because Marx didn't believe in private property.

As for its effects, she's arguing that if you live for someone else, you're giving up your own life. This doesn't mean you can't do things for others, it just means you should because you want to. It also means you can't demand others live for you, nor can you initiate violence against them.  It isn't about winners deserving to be winners--it's about everyone getting a shot at living a full life, and recognizing that happiness is within their reach, even their birthright, if they only understand they control their own lives. Rand believes she is freeing humanity of cant and false guilt, and her philosophy will ultimately build a better world--one where even "lesser" beings will live better lives. 

I might add there's long been a philosophical claim that most beliefs are self-interested.  After all, even the most altruistic religions often promise a significant reward.

2. The rich are being exploited by the poor

In her 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s hero John Galt grows tired of the leeching workers that live off the business acumen of others, so he leads an upper-class strike that leaves industry decimated. Rand’s point is that without economic supermen, the country would collapse. She of course ignores the fact that the same outcome would result if every working stiff in the country up and quit too.

This idea is strange?  Is Zuylen-Wood claiming only the poor can be exploited?  Rand's argument, good or bad, is simple enough: the "rich" in a capitalist society have generally gotten that way by making themselves valuable, helping or pleasing others enough that they've voluntarily given their money for the goods and services these entrepeneurs provide.  So even before anything else, the "rich" are essential to the well-being of society.  But on top of that, they pay most of the taxes, which represent a large portion of their income, because of laws passed by politicians who are serving groups of people who demand the wealth created by others be redistributed to them.

And noting the country would collapse if every working stiff quit misses the point.  Once again, Rand is playing off the conventional view.  Strikes are generally called by workers who claim they are being exploited by the wealthy--she turns this on its head and asks what if the wealthy decided to strike. Furthermore, workers, as valuable as they are, are still pretty easy to replace (if the law allows it).  Rand's point is the people who end up rich, far from being the exploiters, are the innovators--they're not so easy to replace and not only keep society humming along, but also guarantee it progresses.

3. No public schools

Asked if she believed in a right to education, Rand replied that the Founders enumerated a “right to the pursuit of happiness—not of the right to happiness.”

4. No social services

Rand compared Medicare, which she reportedly received, to “a ‘hoodlum’ who robs and kills to acquire a yacht and champange."

6. Negative rights only

The sole purpose of an Objectivist state is to prevent individuals from impinging on each other’s freedom. In other words, Objectivists accept the need for police, courts, a standing army, and nothing else.

These three go together.  Apparently Zuylen-Wood believes the leviathan that is modern liberal society is so obviously the only rational option that questioning it makes you weird.  But even the liberal world is built on a foundation of freedom, and any impingement on that must be justified.  It's certainly not strange to believe that big government programs go far beyond what they should be doing.

There are strong arguments for public education and social services, but Rand is simply saying that the right to private property is central.  There can be no "right" that puts another person's hand into your pocket.  She also believes that weakening property rights weakens a society--for instance, if your labor isn't yours, you won't fight to innovate, and society in the long run will be much poorer.  Education will be worse, medical care will be worse, and so on.

As far as her receiving Medicare, it's a cheap shot.  She paid for it against her will.  The least she deserved is getting some of it back.

9. Atheism

Objectivists reject religion because it isn’t “rational,” and because many faiths preach compassion for the needy.

A philosophy that's atheist is "strange"?  I'd call it mainstream.  And as we've noted before, Rand's central point is that altruism denies your central being, so any philosophy that says you must give your life up to another being or concept she would naturally oppose.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Man Who Left The Cake Out In The Rain

Jimmy Webb turns 66 today.  Which must mean he was barely out of his teens when his songs were all over the charts in the 1960s: "Up, Up And Away," "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," "The Worst That Could Happen," "MacArthur Park" and others.

He kept composing in later years, but never (chart-wise, certainly) reached those heights again.

Bad Arguments

It's been painful, this season of Breaking Bad. Not the show, but the three commentators on Slate who are charged with discussing each episode.  Week in week out they have complaints that are either missing the point or just odd.

For instance, this week's "Dead Freight" brings up certain objections that seem to be easily disposed of. (Spoilers ahead.)  First, Emily Bazelon comments:

The Three Musketeers find out their bug works and test Lydia’s explanation for the tracker on the barrel of methylamine. Only Jesse believes Lydia, and he’s right. But for some reason (not a plausible one I could think of), it’s Walt who questions Lydia about how they could tap into the ocean of methylamine she says could replace their boosted barrels.

Why would Jesse's belief--which all now share--have anything to do with who talks to her next?  Walt is the master chef and it makes sense that he'd be the one to interrogate Lydia on all things chemical.  It made sense to me, but Bazelon can't even come up with a "plausible" explanation.

Her commentary is followed by June Thomas:

One thing that kind of bothered me about this episode was everyone’s sudden acquisition of extraordinarily specific skills. Jesse is now well-versed in wireless wiretapping technology? [....] Jesse and Todd suddenly know how to do all that coupling and uncoupling in incredibly stressful conditions?

Let's forget these guys are now hardened criminals who have pulled off heists and so on.  Just what was Jesse's wiretapping knowlege?  Walt tapped Hank's office and Jesse listens to the results on his laptop, like any ten-year-old could.  As for the train job, two guys were required and it made sense to get the two youngest, most vigorous ones available.  The skill set asked for, which they no doubt practiced, was screwing and unscrewing things, for the most part.

Thomas isn't done:

Oh, and to return to Walt’s bugging of Hank’s office for a moment: Surely that was a bad idea? It did—miraculously—clue them in that Lydia wasn’t responsible for planting the tracking devices on the barrels, but the bugs are bound to be found at some point. The DEA might not be able to pin it on Walt—presumably Hank will have other visitors—but it’s another clue that Hank is still being targeted, and it should encourage them to maintain their vigilance.

The main reason they bugged Hank, apparently, was to find out about Lydia's story.  In fact, it saved them a lot of trouble discovering all the barrels were tapped. It wasn't "miraculous" they discovered this information. It was the outcome of a detailed plan that included kidnaping Lydia and having her make a phone call to the DEA.  Why are the bugs bound to be found?  Does the DEA normally have bug sweeps?  One is behind a photo of Marie and the other looks like a normal part of a computer connection.  Perhaps they'll be found eventually, but there's no reason they'll be found any time soon (though it could be an interesting plot point), and if they are they're not certain to be able to trace them.  In any case, Walt's band has to temporize to get things done and, at least for a while, they can track the DEA's moves, which is highly valuable to them, and, if necessary, Walt can return and figure out how to remove the bugs.

Next we get Matthew Yglesias, moonlighting on entertainment, discussing the big moment in the show, shooting the kid, which will no doubt have major reverberations:

A kid disappearing is going to raise a lot more law enforcement eyebrows than a kid’s uncorroborated and implausible story about what he saw out in the desert.

Let's leave aside that it was a spur of the moment thing from a gangster who'd been told to leave no witnesses. THE KID SAW THE OPERATION. Yes, he didn't know what they were doing, but he saw something that he can blab to anyone, including the specific place where huge tanks are buried--that's what's known as corroboration--which also happens to be the same place where a train was stopped for a while.  Yes, the kid's disappearance will raise questions, but not regarding the theft of methylamine.  They can handle (physically) the disappearance of the kid quite easily--dump his body many miles from where he was shot in a place where he'll be discovered. What they cannot handle is people discovering anything about the train heist.  Perhaps they could have dealt with the kid better, but as Mike noted, the only heists that work are those that leave no witnesses.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Streets Ahead

In a few months we'll have new Community.  It'll be on Friday, alas, and perhaps only 13 episodes and out, but I'll take it.

Until then, the third season DVD comes out today--a chance to own "Remedial Chaos Theory," "Regional Holiday Music," "Basic Lupine Urology," "Curriculum Unavailable" and so many others.

Overlooked Film

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining will be playing theatres in Britain this Halloween.  It'll be the U.S. version, 24 minutes longer that what they've seen before. In the Hollywood Reporter piece announcing the rerelease, we get this:

Based on Stephen King's bestselling novel, Kubrick’s tale of a family man and would-be writer ([Jack] Nicholson) going mad as winter caretaker of the cursed Overlook Hotel is a seminal work of the genre. Kubrick’s film has been described as a masterpiece of modern horror and is widely considered to be one of the most terrifying movies ever made.

Really?  Remember, this is a news article, not a press release.

When the film was released in 1980, the general feeling was one of disappointment.  There had been great anticipation--a Kubrick film was an event--but the reviews were mixed.  The film made a profit, but it wasn't a huge hit.  Stephen King publicly expressed his disappointment over the adaptation.

Many felt the film didn't capture the supernatural horror of the book. They also felt the pacing was slow.  The biggest complaint was about Jack Nicholson.  In the novel, the protagonist goes mad (or is driven mad) whereas Jack starts out pretty nuts and doesn't have far to go. Shelley Duvall as the hysterical wife also got a lot of brickbats.

I'll admit the film has aged reasonably well--it's got a look and style that sets it apart from a conventional horror film (or a conventional anything), and once you know not to expect the sorts of payoffs any other adaptation would have provided, it's easier to concentrate on what Kubrick is going for.

Still, I wasn't aware it's reached classic status.  And terrifying?  It's creepy, it's ominous, it's brooding, but I wouldn't say there's a lot of terror.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Game Over Man

I saw the trailer for Disney's Wreck-It Ralph last night and something bothered me.

In the arcade game, it looks like when Wreck-It Ralph is tossed off the roof and hits the ground, the game is over.  This makes no sense.  Ralph is the bad guy, so when he gets tossed off the roof it's a sign of success, which means Fix-It Felix should be going on to the next level.

Now if Felix got tossed off the roof, that should be a sign you're done.

The Great Train Robbery

"Dead Freight" is the kind of dark episode of Breaking Bad that makes the show both compelling and hard to watch.  It opens with a scene of a young guy driving his motorbike through the desert.  He stops, chances upon a tarantula and puts it in a glass jar.  That's it.  Didn't seem to mean anything, but about halfway through it starts to dawn on us where this is heading, and there's nothing we can do to stop it. (After the credits we get a ton of commercials. Didn't the show used to go right back into the program?)

At the DEA, Hank is in his new A.S.A.C. office and he has a surprise visitor--Walt.  Hank notes Walt's nice new watch--he's an observant cop, but he still believes Walt is the milquetoast genius brother-in-law.  And he'll continue to believe that with Walt the psycopath playing the hurt husband--his wife doesn't love him, he's lost her, etc.  We figure he's manipulating Hank to try to get Skyler on his side again.  And a bunch of fans are thinking didn't we spend all last week dealing with domestic issues?  Let's get back to the meth.  But Walt is more subtle. He starts crying, sure to drive Hank out of the office--claiming to get coffee--while Walt composes himself.  As soon as Hank is gone, Walt attaches a bug to Hank's computer and another behind a photo of  Marie so he can hear what goes on in the office.  It's a bit of a callback to Hank having him attach a tracker to Gus's car last season.  In fact, this episode has a lot of callbacks, which allow us to see how things have changed.

Meanwhile, Mike has captured Lydia, and the Three Amigos are deciding what to do with her.  (Where's Saul.  Is he completely cut out now?  I guess he's happy to leave them alone and collect his percentage.) Mike gives her a script and has her call Hank to tell him about the GPS on the methylamine barrel.  They're trying to discover if she put it there or the DEA.  After the call, their bug tells them Hank is surprised.  So Lydia must have done it, though she protests her innocence.  However, before Mike can kill her they hear another call from Hank to the Houston office (where Madrigal is) and Hank discovers they clumsily put trackers on all the barrels.  So Lydia didn't do it. (I'm shocked.  I assumed Mike was right last week.)

Unfortunately, it also mean her supply is being tracked so they have no source.  But, as Walt explained last week, the roads must roll, and the production can't be stopped.  Mike still wants to kill Lydia, because, even if she did save them, she's a loose cannon who will turn them in--after all, she put a hit out on Mike.  Lydia promises she can get them a supply of methylamine, an ocean of the stuff.

While Mike and Jesse wait outside, chemistry experts Walt and Lydia have a little talk.  She wants a guarantee of safety, but she doesn't have much leverage.  Walt is truly in his element here--being a drug boss and a chem expert, it's really what he's always wanted.  She explains why she order the hit--all those guys who know so much, and how Mike wants to keep paying them to shut them up.  A good point for Lydia, since Walt would probably rather they be killed, too.

So they decide to let her talk some more.  She knows about a train that travels with a supply of 24,000 gallons.  There's a remote stretch where no one can track things.  (It's all a bit convenient, but at least she's the expert who'd know about something like this.) But these guys, as imaginative and hungry as they are, aren't Jesse James.  (Not too long ago, Mike told Walter just because you shot Jesse James doesn't make you Jesse James.) As Mike explains, the only way to pull it off is to kill the crew--two innocent men.  That's not what they do (not Jesse and Mike, anyway--I bet Walt would).  Lydia is almost  disgusted at how they'd kill her but not a couple of other guys.

At the Schraders, Hank and Marie enjoy Holly, though "Emo McGee" mopes around. I get it, though--he's been through a tough time and on one ever explains why.  And he's back to being called Flynn.

Three Amigos discuss their options.  Mike figures the train robbery is out, so time for a pseudo-cook, which disgusts Walt.  Piddly, much less money, different sort of cook, etc.  Mike and Walt have another go-round on legacy costs, but Jesse--the new smart guy--has an answer.  Let's take the methylamine without them knowing.  Yeah, Jesse!

So they scout the area (by now we see how this all will end) and Jesse's plan is pretty brilliant.  They set up an area under a bridge not far from a road, which is where they'll hide waiting for the train to stop.  They dig out an area nearby and put in two tanks.  An empty one for the 1000 gallons they'll steal, and another to hold water which they'll replace it with so no one notices the weight change. (The company will blame the Chinese for watering down the product.) They explain this all happily to Todd--the smart boy from the pest company--who they'll need to pull it off.  Obvious exposition, but fun.

Back at the White's, Flynn has returned.  Hey, he's got a car, you stop him.  Walt comes in and lays down the law to his son without telling him anything.  Junior has been whining about this for about three seasons, but what else would he do?

Once he's gone, Walt and Skyler have a talk.  He can't sweet-talk her.  She hates him and considers herself not a wife, but a hostage.  But she'll go along with everything as long as the kids are protected.  And part of that is keeping them away from Casa Blanca.  Walt doesn't fight any more.  Is the relationship at a standstill and Walt doesn't care, or will we be getting more out of it?

At night, we see Lydia getting the information and passing it on.  (She wants to be paid for this.  She's got a lot of nerve.)  So everything's set for the great train robbery.  One of Saul's A-team stalls a truck on the road and he flags down the train. The guys on it try to help him (and they can't push the truck out of the way) and his job is to keep them there until Mike gives the all-clear sign. (So Mike is there--I'm almost surprised he's not at Lydia's place, ready to kill her if anything goes wrong.)

Jesse gets under the train and opens the spigot. Walt is by the tanks, counting the gallons, running the operation. Todd runs up top to replace the Methylamine with H20.  It's all working until a good Samaritan drives along the road and offers to push the truck out of the way.  So there's a nerve-wracking but exhilarating sequence where Jesse and Todd just manage to pull out as the train rides away.  The whole thing is a bit of a call-back to the first season, when Jesse and Walt, much more inexperienced and small-time, stole their first barrel of methylamine.

So they guys high-five.  The audience also does, though we're celebrating a criminal act which will lead to many more criminal acts and destruction of life.  Funny how that works.

But the celebration is cut short when they see the kid from the opening scene.  He came across a spider which he captured, and now they've come across him.  There's no option, or is there? Up to now, for all the horrible things they've done, they've never gone so far as to kill an innocent child.  In fact, much of the trouble of the entire fourth season was incited by the killing of a kid.

Todd doesn't hesitate.  He pulls out a gun and and shoots the kid dead.  Jesse is horrified, of course, though I'm almost surprised it wasn't Walt who did it.  He sure seems capable.  Are they saving his worst deeds for the final eight?  Are they afraid Jesse wouldn't stand for it from him?  Either way, it's a sickening but somehow inevitable end to the episode.

Todd looks like he has a future with the organization.  Walt, if he ever pulls a Victor, might just pick him to be someone's replacement.

I should add that though fans seem to hate hysterical Lydia, I have a lot of sympathy for her.  Maybe that's because I can imagine knowing someone like here.  A successful executive who figures she can make millions by being a chemical connection, and who's suddenly scared out of her wits that she'll go to jail or even be killed.  Walt, Mike, even Jesse are hardened criminals by now.  She's just a person caught up in something beyond her control. Yes, it's her fault, but her reactions are closer to how a normal person might feel.

Only three episodes more until the first half of the season ends and we wait another year.  This season they're at the top and have to start everything again, so getting momentum going is a bit trickier (compared to trying to make it, or killing Gus), but there's so much going on you're never bored.  There's also a lot more left to do--makes you wonder how far they'll go in this half-season.

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