Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Capital Idea

I haven't seen Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist but the reviews make me very reluctant to go.  It seems to be yet another one of those films about how bigoted America is.  And, as an added attraction, it's at least the hundredth film to compare capitalism with crime and violence.  (There are bad ideas, then there are boring, bad ideas.) Here's a bit from Dana Stevens in the Slate review:

But, like [the protagaonist's] disturbing reaction to the televised destruction of the towers, this facile analogy (is financial rapaciousness, however destructive, really comparable to the slaughter of innocent people?) gets glossed over too quickly on the way to a bet-hedging and dramatically unsatisfying ending.

Here's capitalism, which has done more good for more people than almost anything else, but rather than completely laugh off this tiresome analogy, Stevens admits how rapacious and destructive it can be, and in defense can only state (via a rhetorical question) "hey, it's not that bad." So I asked myself how long would it take in the comment section for someone to answer that rhetorical question, saying capitalism is a form of terrorism, or worse.

It was the first comment.  No doubt from someone who enjoys the fruits of capitalism (since everyone does) but feels morally good for criticizing it. (At least you can criticize capitalism safely--if you criticize other things in other cultures you may not get off so easily.) And it was hardly the only such comment, along with many others happily claiming America deserves to be despised.  Alas, these comments are even more predictable than movies that compare capitalism to anything bad you can think of.

Real Steel

Happy birthday, Johnny Farina, brother of Santo Farina.  Together, they made up Santo & Johnny, the duo with the steel guitar sound.  They didn't have a lot of chart success, but they went to #1 in 1959 with one of the dreamiest instrumentals ever, "Sleepwalk."






Monday, April 29, 2013

Na Na Na Na Na Na Na-Na

They say it's my birthday, so I'll just take it easy today.  Until I'm back, enjoy some production music.





Sunday, April 28, 2013

Really Someone

I recently saw the French film In The House (French title Dans La Maison) and was describing it to a friend.  When I mentioned the lead character's profession, I had to catch myself.  He teaches literature and composition in high school, and I almost called him an English Teacher. But that's not what he does, right?  And I don't think I can call him a French teacher.  (Is that even an expression in France?)

Of course, translators have these problems all the time.  And sometimes you pick up on the choices they make.  For instance, this movie featured some discussion of grades, but while the subtitles read "A" and "B" and so on, they were saying numbers.  Do they have letter grades at the lycee?

The most obvious difference I ever saw (and hear) between what's on screen and what's at the bottom was in The Diving Bell And The Butterfly.  In that film, the protagonist has a stroke and can only communicate by blinking his eye while an assistant goes along the letters of the alphabet.  So as he's spelling out French words letter by letter, the translator has him spelling out English words letter by letter.  We make allowances, of course, but even the best subtitles take you out of the film a bit--these kept reminding you you were watching a film.

More Great Kate

Yesterday's selection of Kate Pierson songs with The B-52's only whetted my appetite.






Saturday, April 27, 2013

Got Him Pegged

Peggy Noonan is at it again.  In her latest column, about the opening of the George W. Bush library, she notes:

This week something changed. George W. Bush is back [...] His numbers are dramatically up. You know why? Because he's the farthest thing from Barack Obama. Obama fatigue has opened the way to Bush affection.

We've got Obama fatigue?  How fatigued can we be? Didn't we just reelect him?

She goes on:

Mr. Obama was elected because he wasn't Bush.

Mr. Bush is popular now because he's not Obama.

The wheel turns, doesn't it?

It certainly does for Peggy.  Here's what she was writing four and a half years ago:

Before the election:

[Obama's] victory would provide a fresh start in a nation in which a fresh start would come as a national relief. [...] He is steady, calm, and, in terms of the execution of his political ascent, still the primary and almost only area in which his executive abilities can be discerned, he shows good judgment in terms of whom to hire and consult, what steps to take and moves to make.

[...H]is freedom in office will be limited. Mr. Obama is out of money [...] so what might be assumed to be [his] worst impulses [...] -- big spender -- [...] will be circumscribed by reality.

After the election:

[Obama] is moving forward with what looks like a high, if ad hoc, awareness of the delicacy of the situation. He can't seem presumptuous or aggressive [....] The White House exhibits chastened generosity, refusing to snipe, mock or attempt to undermine.

She was quite taken by him.  Then it slowly dawned on her that he was a solid liberal and she also remembered that she wasn't.  Now that it's too late for it to mean anything, she once again follows the conventional wisdom and suggests maybe he's not as amazing as once thought.

Even then she's wrong about Bush.  If he's getting more popular it's not because people are tired of Obama but because he'd bottomed out and after years of overdone abuse, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Am I right, or is Peggy?  Who knows, but at least I recognized Obama for what he was four and a half years ago, so I think you should trust me on this one.

KP Duty

Believe it or not, Kate Pierson of The B-52's turns 65 today.  But I'm sure she's still got a lot of miles left.






Friday, April 26, 2013

Not So Crazy

If  Hollywood is going to adapt Broadway musicals, they might as well be classic Broadway musicals.  And you can't get much more classic than Guys And Dolls.  So this is interesting news at Deadline Hollywood:

At long last, 20th Century Fox has closed the movie rights to Guys And Dolls, and the studio will soon start the process of developing a remake of the stage and movie classic for what Fox hopes will be a killer pairing of Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the roles made famous by Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. There is no writer or director yet, but those guys are interested.

1.  Casting is always the big question.  Do you go with names or Broadway stars who are known quantities when it comes to singing and dancing?  Generally, the answer is names.  Sometimes they can sing and dance, too, though I'm not sure about Tatum and Gordon-Levitt.  Actually, they don't need to be all that great if they can handle the acting (another open question), since the part of Nathan Detroit was created for Sam Levene, who couldn't dance and sang even worse (so they gave his numbers to his henchmen), while Sky Masterson has to sing but not really dance, suiting original lead Robert Alda.

2.  The headline and first paragraph seem to imply Tatum is up for Sinatra's role of Nathan Detroit and Gordon-Levitt is up for Brando's role of Sky Masterson, but that can't be right.  Masterson is the hunky romantic lead, Detroit is the jittery comic lead.  (Guys And Dolls is a rare show where two main couples share equally in the spotlight.) Certainly Tatum will play Masterson if he plays anything.

3.  "Roles made famous by Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando"? More accurate would be "roles made famous by a huge Broadway hit and almost destroyed in a so-so movie by Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, especially Frank Sinatra."

4. Okay, so we got the guys.  Now let's get some dolls who can really sing--there are already names like Anne Hathaway or Anna Kendrick who have proved themselves.

Two Ladies And A Count

Lotsa big birthday's today.  First, there's Count Basie:



Next, Carol Burnett turns 80:



Finally, there's Stevie Nicks, still mystical at 65:


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bjorn Born

Happy birthday, Bjorn Ulvaeus, one of the B's in ABBA. The band was immensely popular in Europe and fairly popular in the US.  Bjorn didn't just sing, he helped compose most of their hits.





Sunday Stories

Sunday has become go-to night for TV, as we've got--for a couple of months anyway--both new Mad Men and Game Of Thrones. (Yep, spoilers ahead.)

Some have been complaining about Mad Men's slow start.  They said we're just doing the same things, and nothing is happening. If that's so, they should have been pleased by "To Have And To Hold," where a lot was going on, and a bunch of characters were thrown in the mix.

Don continues with his affair, but also plays the offended husband when his wife has a love scene on her soap opera.  More interesting, the writer/star couple of the show are swingers, and there's not a foursome in the world that wouldn't be improved if Don and Megan joined in.  Meanwhile, we get to see Joan at home and at play, still fighting for respect even though she's a partner.  More surprising, Harry makes his play in a ham-handed way (especially his put-down of Joan--was that necessary?--you usually insult her without being aware of it) and shows surprising guts in demanding what's his.  I've always felt Harry was one of those guys who didn't have many natural gifts but would keep falling up by being in the right place at the right time.  We also see Ken worried that he's not getting respect, though I'm not sure if Pete would ever let him be a partner.  We also get what was inevitable--a showdown between Don and Peggy. They both lose, and Stan loses bigger.  The biggest surprise of all is we get a little background on Dawn, and the troubles she faces. (And she understands everyone's got problems, with the women in the agency always crying while the men drink themselves into a stupor.) There was no Betty--fine by me--and a lot of 1968, including Vietnam, Napalm, Joe Namath and the Electric Circus.

But I have to admit, I look forward to Game Of Thrones even more.  "And Now His Watch Is Ended" was a big episode, at least as far as game-changers are concerned.

The show is modular, with so many separate stories that each week we have an MIA list.  For instance, this week, no Snow, Mance, Ygritte, Osha, Bronn, Shae, Hodor, Littlefinger, Rob, Davos, Stannis or Melisandre.  But what was left was plenty.  Varys comes back big, explaining his past to Tyrion, pumping Ros for info, and making alliances with Olenna regarding Sansa.  Margaery follows through and it looks like Sansa may enjoy (if that's the word) marriage with Loras.  Meanwhile, Mags also plays Joffrey like a fiddle, bringing consternation to Cersei, who goes to dad and demands he do something about the young King. Looks like he will.  And that's just in King's Landing.  Up North, Bran is still having his (tiresome) dreams and Theon is led in a big circle back to his torturers, after having given up yet more info (he still sees Ned Stark as his father but was never really part of the clan). Then there's Arya, Gendry and the Hound taken to the cave where the Brotherhood without Banners hangs out.  Turns out they're followers of this new Lord of Light, and Beric from season one will be fighting Clegane to see who's right.

Now onto the biggest stories.  First, beyond the Wall, we get the Crows, starving and unhappy.  They forget about any vows they ever made and kill Craster. If that's not enough, they kill Commander Mormont.  In the bloodshed and confusion, Samwell runs off with Gilly and her baby.

Then there's Brienne and the recently behanded Jaime.  Locke and his men taunt and hurt him, and he seems to have lost the will to live. (Locke is pretty calm about this--he needs Jaime alive.)  But Brienne has a new-found respect for the Kingslayer, as he saved her life when he didn't need to.  I have to believe the two will turn the tables on Locke, but there sure is a lot of pain on the way.

Finally, in the big story, Daenerys finally makes her move in Astapor.  We all saw it coming, but it was still pretty glorious.  She trades her dragon for the Unsullied, except a Dragon isn't a slave to be traded. Instead, she uses her soldiers to bring down the slaving city and the dragon to burn Kraznys. (And by the way, she can speak Valyrian.) After the carnage, she offers the slaves their freedom, but really, what are they gonna do but follow her?  So she's got two of the best advisors around, Jorah and Barristan. She's got three dragons, the atomic bombs of the day.  And she's got 8000 powerful, devoted soliders.  Just give her the Iron Throne now.

Oh, I also checked out the latest Once Upon A Time.  It wants to be Lost, but it's turned into Heroes.  The backstory is so complicated no one can follow it, including the writers, so the characters turn on a dime to fit whatever is required of them in the scene, no matter how stupid this means they act.  And whenever there's a plot problem, the producers just pluck a new character from the world of public domain fiction.  This week was Robin Hood (who lives in the same forest with the Seven Dwarfs--can't say I like that).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Divine

Well this is sad.  Chrissy Amphlett, lead singer of the Divinyls, has died.  She was only 53.  She'd been battling multiple sclerosis and breast cancer for years.

The band, which lasted through the 80s and part of the 90s, started in Sydney.  They were much bigger in Australia than anywhere else, but there was one song that was an international hit, and quite a song it was:



They had one other hit in America, even though it didn't chart in Australia:

Have A Reasonable Day

Happy birthday, Captain Sensible, born Raymond Ian Burns. He meant nothing to America but in the early 80s was a fairly successful act in England.






Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A.J.--Another Job

I think it important we keep up with the latest.  Here's an important story from North Dakota:



Some people feel sorry for the guy, who was fired after this broadcast.  But hey, he started at a nowhere station and in just one day became one of the best known anchors in America.

No One Could Sing As Good As You

It's Roy Orbison's birthday. He left us just as he was making a comeback.  I don't know if rock has ever had such a thrilling tenor.






Monday, April 22, 2013

Return To Normalcy

The GLAAD media awards are out. (Is it that time of year already?)

Advocate for Change Award goes to Bill Clinton. Fine, he's publicly changed his mind on gay issues and who wouldn't want a former President at the ceremony?

Outstanding Film goes to The Perks Of Being A Wallflower.  Hey, it made my top ten, so I'm not complaining.

Outstanding Comedy Series, The New Normal.  Now wait a second.  I watched the first two episodes and decided to jump off that train.  The critics haven't treated it too kindly, either.  I have a number of sitcom writer friends who consider it one of the worst shows on TV.

I think what we've got here is a symptom of awards from groups with a specific focus.  GLAAD advocates for LGBT issues, so a series like The New Normal, about a gay couple and their surrogate mom, is right up their alley.  But isn't there any place for quality here? Perhaps the show has gotten better since I stopped watching, but shouldn't the "outstanding" award go to a show that's actually good, and not just on point?

Who's Yehudi?

Happy birthday, Yehudi Menuhin, one of the top violinists of the 20th century.  Let's try him out with some Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.






Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Pound Of Cure

Happy birthday, Robert Smith, lead singer and songwriter of The Cure.

The band started in the late 70s with a quirky punk sound. I admit this is when I liked them best, but in the 80s and 90s they graduated to a lusher and far more popular sound that wasn't bad.





May In April

Happy birthday, Elaine May.  As an actor, writer and director, she's been one of the leading lights of comedy for over fifty years.

She came to fame in 1960 as half of the comedy team Nichols and May, whose smart and sophisticated work was a hit on Broadway and then across America. Though partner Mike Nichols went on to great success as a stage and film director, I've always felt it was May who was the more talented one.

In addition to further stage work, May would go on to direct the films A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid, Mikey And Nicky and Ishtar--I like them all, even the last one. She also worked as a writer on impressive titles such as Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Tootsie and The Birdcage. She also did fine work acting in her New Leaf as well as California Split and Small Time Crooks.





Saturday, April 20, 2013

I Was Walking Down The Street One Day

I was walking down a local street when I was accosted by people requesting I sign their petitions.  They actually talk to you as you pass, begging you to do the right thing.

One was to require all genetically modified foods be labeled.  Since there's nothing specially wrong with genetically modified foods--indeed, they represent a way of feeding more people for less--this is simply a scare tactic by misguided people to try to get food manufacturers to stop doing something that's a net positive.  No thanks.

One was to stop bullying in high schools.  I favor common sense, case-by-case rules aginst bullying, but the anti-bullying movement is closer to a zero-tolerance program that shuts down basic freedom of movement for anyone daring to step outside the present-day orthodoxy.  No thanks.

One had something to do with stray animals or something like that, but by that point I wasn't paying attention.

I'm not a petition signer by nature, but come on, at least give me something to work with.

Love From Luther

Happy birthday, Luther Vandross, perhaps the most popular R&B singer of the 80s and 90s.  You left us too soon.






Friday, April 19, 2013

Lockdown Blues

I was at home (in Massachusetts Monday was a holiday) during the bombings at the Boston Marathon and was off (its school vacation week) for two days after.  I went in yesterday to my office which is a few blocks away from the police perimeter.  I visited the designated memorial area and some shops and restaurants were broadcasting the President's nearby speech at the interfaith service.   but things seemed to be getting slowly back to normal.  Apart from physical proximity, I have little to add. I'm glad nobody asked to search my briefcase on the commuter train but I guess old farts in suits aren't exactly the profile.     While Back Bay was shut down on Tuesday, other areas were open.  Our family went to the Theater District to see Book of Mormon [which was a really tough ticket here so I guess we're lucky they didn't cancel it] and except for a cursory bag search of my wife's purse, nothing seemed really out of the ordinary. 

My wife and I went out to college alumni event in the city last night  .About 10 minutes after we got home, I heard there were reports of a shooting on the MIT campus which developed into a series of carjackings, shootouts and explosions overnight which killed one criminal and one police officer and basically now the City and surrounding suburbs are shut down while they hunt down the remaining the remaining killer- a 19 year old Chechen who has lived in Cambridge (and received private school scholarships) for around a decade they say- is hiding out somewhere in Watertown.   The dead guy was the fugitive's older brother apparently.

I am a couple towns away from the action but bordering communities have been told to "shelter in place"  There is no public transportation and they seem to want folks to stay out of the city until the situation is resolved.    I don't know the bombers' motivations or politics and frankly hope never to know.  The bombers seem kind of nihilistic to me but their views really deserve no consideration. That's my great insight from in front of nonstop tired TV announcers  - eliminate any payoff.  

Couldn't Help Himself

As I've noted before, David Denby often turns his column as film critic at The New Yorker into a soapbox.  So I approached his review of 42--the story of Jackie Robinson--with trepidation.

He can't help but discuss the politics of those days in his thumbs up, but he mostly keeps his partisan passions down.  Then you get this finish:

Sixty-six years later, when a black man holds the Presidency, equality may still be, for some, unbearable, but Robinson abruptly moved America forward. “42,” however limited at times, lays out the tortured early days of that advance with clarity and force.

What was that?  Some find equality "unbearable"?  Who, David?  Could you come up with specific examples?

America is fairly united in believing that we shouldn't go back to legalized segregation and that everyone should be equal before the law.  But Denby finds this discredited group worth mentioning. I guess in his world, there are millions of these "some" hiding under his bed, ready to pop out and criticize President Obama at any time.

Tuneful Tunick

Happy birthday, Jonathan Tunick.  Who he?  The least famous EGOT winner, that's for sure.  Tunick is a composer, but better known as an orchestrator, especially Stephen Sondheim's orchestrator.  So when you hear those original cast albums, he may not have written the songs, but he helped create the sound.





Thursday, April 18, 2013

This Means War

Disney has announced Star Wars VII, VIII and IX will be released 2015, 2017 and 2019.  George Lucas used to take three years, but he wasn't a faceless, gigantic corporation.  These films are huge question marks, and I have to wonder if the first doesn't work, will they take it back in the shop and start again?

Also, as if three new Star Wars in five years isn't enough, spinoff films will come out the years in between.  No word if there'll be a Christmas special.

In even more astounding news, the plot of the first sequel has been revealed:


Brown Break

Happy birthday, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a rockin' bluesman.  They called him Gatemouth because when he was a kid a high school teacher said he had a voice like a gate.  Still not sure if I get that.





Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Under The Knife

The first Broadway revival of Clifford Odets' 1940s Hollywood drama The Big Knife just opened, and the reviews aren't great.  The cast, including Bobby Cannavale, Richard Kind, Marin Ireland, Joey Slotnick and Chip Zien don't seem to be able to bring the piece to life.

I'm not surprised.  Even on his best day Odets' isn't a great playwright, and this is definitely second-tier work.  The original production, starring John Garfield, wasn't much of a hit either.  (The movie version, starring Jack Palance and Rod Steiger, has some fans, but not me.)  So why was it revived?

When it comes to movies, I don't like remaking great films--they still exist so why do it again and do it worse.  I belive in remaking good by flawed films, and fixing them.  But that's not how it works.  Movies cost a lot, so if you're going to redo a title, it better be a special one.

In the theatre, however, old productions are long gone, and new productions give new actors and others another shot.  So I favor revivals of fine work to see what can be wrought from the text, as well as giving new generations their own production.  Seriously flawed played have less reason to be done.

But I guess directors and producers like to "rediscver" work.  Take old, almost forgotten titles and see if they can't breathe new life into them--that's what revival means, after all.  Well, maybe, but The Big Knife is mostly slow and obvious.  I don't think there's a better play lurking inside.  And I'm guessing there won't be another Broadway revival any time soon.

LP's LPs

Happy birthday, Liz Phair.  Everyone's favorite indie rock girl of the 90s, it's good to know she's still plugging away.





Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Late Breaking News

I'm finding this out more than a decade after the fact, but Cirals' House Of Tiki has closed.  It was one of those places, like the Woodlawn Tap and Valois (pronounced vuh-LOYS) "See Your Food" Restaurant, that made life at the University of Chicago bearable.

The House of Tiki had, as you might expect, a Polynesian theme, with netting, wicker and puffed fish all over the place.  It also had, in addition to the bar drinks and surprisingly good bar food, tropical drinks and a pseudo-Polynesian menu.  The place included a jukebox filled with classic soul and R&B, and a low-lit atmosphere where you could talk for hours--partly because the place stayed open till 4 a.m., partly because it took them forever to get you your check.

If you want to see what the interior looked like, you can rent the forgettable 1989 thriller The Package, or the forgettable 1997 romance Love Jones, both of which have scenes shot there.  I personally wrote my own memorial to the place in a couplet from our third-year law school show, where a Harvard professor was being seduced into coming to Chicago (sung to the tune of "Road to Morocco"):

"Cambridge has so many things for everyone to do/
Not as good as Cirals' House Of Tiki after two"

The House Of Tiki had been there long before I came to Hyde Park, and I always assumed it would remain as a neighborhood favorite, but time marches on.  So tonight, pour yourself a large tropical glass of whatever libation you prefer, and make a toast to a touch of the South Seas on the South Side.

The Polish Prince

Today's birthday boy, Bobby Vinton, was a hugely popular singer in the early 60s, even continuing with major hits after the Beatles conquered America.  Ironically, this most wholesome of singers is closely assocated with one of David Lynch's creepiest films, tbanks to one of his biggest hits.






Monday, April 15, 2013

Many Happy Returns

Welcome to the Ides of April, better known as Tax Day.  If you're reading this and haven't filled out your taxes, do it now!

Tax Day used to be on March 1st, then March 15th.  In 1955 it was extended to April 15th.  I'm not sure why these changed were made, though I suppose it might have something to do with the increasing complexity of the system.

Tax Day is not to be confused with Tax Freedom Day, which, based on the overall tax burden, is the day we stop working for the government and start working for ourselves.  A century ago, Tax Freedom day would be in January, but it's worked out now that it lands around April 17th.

I've got an idea for a Constitutional amendment.  How about declaring that Tax Day will fall on April 15th, and Tax Freedom Day may never fall any later than Tax Day?

Mad Libs

Mad Men tries so hard to get period detail right, which is why I've been annoyed the four or five times I've heard someone in it say "waiting on" rather than "waiting for." In the 60s, I don't think any well spoken person in New York would say "waiting on" outside a restaurant.

In the latest episode, "The Collaborators," set in 1968, one of the characters uses another phrase I doubt was in common parlance back then--"taking meetings." It's used so often today no one thinks twice, but there was a time not that long ago when the idiom would have just confused people. How do you "take" a meeting? You schedule them, or hold them, or attend them.

Yes, it was definitely in use in the 70s--enough so that Woody Allen mocked it in Annie Hall (1977): "All the good meetings are taken." But that was the point--this hip new term sounds ridiculous.  In general, that section of the movie was Allen's examination of the sorry culture of Southern California, where every allegedly cutting edge thing people did seemed foreign and absurd to a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker.

But I'm guessing it was fairly new when Woody noticed it.  Why attack something that had been used in New York for at least a decade?  I suppose it's possible Madison Avenue was ahead of the curve, but I don't recall ever seeing any movie or TV show before the 1970s that used the phrase.  I'd assume Mad Men does its research, but maybe this one slipped by.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

You Got Me

There aren't too many new shows I like to watch on Monday. Or Tuesday, for that matter.  Which is why it's nice to get MeTV.  Here's their schedule every weeknight:

7:00 - M*A*S*H
7:30 - M*A*S*H
8:00 - Bewitched
8:30 - I Dream Of Jeannie
9:00 - The Mary Tyler Moore Show
9:30 - The Bob Newhart Show
10:00 - The Odd Couple
10:30 - The Dick Van Dyke Show
11:00 - The Twilight Zone

I've seen just about every episode of these shows, but it's nice to know I've got, for the most part, classic back-up any hour during prime time.

On the other hand, do I really need yet another excuse to watch more TV?

Sounds Good

Happy birthday, Sir John Gielgud.  He had perhaps the most beautiful speaking voice of the 20th century.





Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Reverend

Happy birthday Al Green, one of the greatest singers of all.  In addition, his records had a sound that sets them apart (and above) almost all other soul music of his era.






Dead Again

I recently saw Penn & Teller Get Killed in a movie theatre for the first time since it was originally released.  The film has a cult, but it flopped originally. It pretty much had to.  No one knew the stars and no one want to see a movie about two weird guys messing with each other.

It's directed by Arthur Penn, who'd done The Miracle Worker, Bonnie And Clyde and Alice's Restaurant.  Admittedly, he wasn't quite so big a name in the late 80s when they made the film.  Still, he must have seen something in the script--which happened to be by Penn and Teller.  (I've seen Teller in person talk about how much he learned from Arthur Penn.)

In case you haven't seen the movie (and you probably haven't) I don't want to give away too much. Penn and Teller essentially play a version of themselves.  They appear on a talk show and Penn says he wishes someone were trying to kill him, so he'd feel more alive.  From that point on, there are attempts on his life, though it's not clear if they're serious or not.  It all leads to a big confrontation.

I think they were commenting on both violence and the celebrity culture, but doing it in their odd way.  I wouldn't call the film a classic, but I can't say there's anything like it.  It's certainly never boring.  And Teller--who, as in their act, almost never speaks--has an intriguing presence.  I wish it had been a hit, because I'd like to know how they'd follow it up.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Name Blame

Funny how we often like or hate names based on people we know.  If the first Jenny or Megan or Wendy you met was really cute, that's probably how you'll think of that name.  Or if some bully was Frank or Jason or Matt you probably wouldn't name your kid that.

Which got me thinking--what's the biggest loser name I could think of?  I decided it was Ralph.  Now I personally didn't know any Ralphs growing up, so the name makes me think of....

Ralph Bellamy, perennial also-ran in moves...

Ralph Kramden, lovable loser from Bensonhurst...

Ralph Branca, the pitcher who threw the ball that became the Shot Heard 'Round The World...

Ralph Malph, the second-biggest nerd on Happy Days (#1 being Potsie, and no parents name their kid Potsie).

Oh yeah, to "ralph" also means to vomit.

PS  After I wrote this I decided to look up famous Ralphs I hadn't thought of.  There's Ralph Lauren, but I don't care that much about fashion.  There's Ralph Fiennes, but it's not pronounced like the America Ralph so it doesn't count.  There's Ralph Nader, who was sort of cool at one time but has edged closer to being a crackpot.  There's Ralph Macchio, but I'm not a big fan of The Karate Kid movies. There's Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I think it's the Waldo that makes that name.

So Ralph as loser stays.

Timely

It's the birthday of singer Tiny Tim.  Even among novelty acts he was an oddity.  He was an strange-looking man with long hair and pal makeup who played ukulele and sang oldies in a falsetto voice.  Somehow, he became popular.  It was mostly through exposure on the #1 hit show Rowan And Martin's Laugh-In.  Then he got married in front of tens of millions on The Tonight Show.

His first album sold well, but it wasn't long before the novelty wore off.  He spent his last few decades banging out a career by trading in on his former fame. It's a living, I guess.

You can't really call his music great. Or good.  But it's something.






Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hidden Men

Mad Men season six has started as smoothly as ever, and we're right back in the world of Don Draper and gang.  Creator Matt Weiner has always been secretive about the show, so when he sent a screener to critics it came with a note asking them not to reveal certain aspects of the plot. TV critic Tim Goodman thinks Weiner is overdoing it and discusses these demands in The Hollywood Reporter.  What did Weiner say was out of bounds?

1. The year the season begins
2  The status of Don and Megan's relationship
3. Whether the agency has expanded to an additional floor
4. New characters
5. New relationships or partnerships.

I think this list is quite reasonable, but listen to what Goodman thinks about #3:

"Whether the agency has expanded to an additional floor." Really? Of the five demands, this is the most baffling. I admire Weiner as much or more than most people in the business but, honestly, nobody cares. And if they do care, they need a hobby outside of watching Mad Men. This is, categorically, not a spoiler of any relevance.

Really?  Some critics like to pretend this show is all about the characters and their interactions, and not about an ad agency, but they're wrong. (Goodman: "Believe it or not, there are people who actually think Mad Men is about advertising.") Plot may matter less on Mad Men, but it's still the engine that drives the show, and the success or failure of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is a central element. SCDP spent much of last season teetering on the brink, so knowing ahead of time if the agency successfully expanded is a major plot point.

In fact, I'm happy Weiner is so paranoid.  I like to watch shows not having any idea what's about to happen. I can watch it again if it holds up, but give me that virgin experience first.

Here's another bit from Goodman's piece regarding the screener: "I was just happy that existentialism--the hallmark of the series--was being addressed so aggressively this year."

Hmm.  The characters' existential crises have always been part of the show, but they work best as subtext. The last thing Mad Men needs to do is address the issue aggressively.

Berry Berry

Happy birthday, Richard Berry. Not nearly as famous as Chuck (no relation), he was a rock and roll singer and songwriter in the 50s.  In fact, he might be forgotten today, except he wrote one song that guarantees him immortality.  It's been recorded over a thousand times.  Here are the most notable early versions:





Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Don't It Feel Good

Happy birthday, Katrina Leskanich, leader of Katrina And The Waves. The band has some success in the 80s and their name was often brought up years later in reference to Hurricane Katrina.



Keep It To Yourself

In the latest New Yorker, David Denby reviews Robert Redford's The Company You Keep.  The movie (which I haven't seen), an earnest work on an earnest subject--60s radicals today--is the kind of middlebrow, classy film that critics often go for, but not this time.  In general, it's been getting thumbs down

But Denby smiles.  Why?

In our youth-fixated media culture, the appearance of something as wrinkled as Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep” is a bit of a surprise. The crow’s-feet—you can’t help noticing them—defiantly flock together in a movie that features, among others, Redford, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins, and Sam Elliott. Made by someone else, “The Company You Keep” might have provided an occasion for nasty wisecracks, but Redford’s patient earnestness—not always a virtue in his earlier work as a director—produces something honorable and absorbing.

Yep, it's earnest, no question.  Maybe even honorable.  But is it good?  The plot is about a former Weather Underground member (Sarandon) giving herself up to the FBI, which puts a reporter (Shia LeBeouf) on the trail of another member (Redford).

...this film, with its prickly characters and its complicated plot, rips along with tension and power. [...]Redford [...] has a particularly testy relationship with LeBeouf’s reporter, whom the old radical taunts as being an amoral careerist. What about the values embedded in the story he’s reporting? Doesn’t a movement committed to ending a war matter? Sarandon’s Sharon Solarz says pretty much the same thing, and we realize that the two liberal actors are addressing the audience directly. Cocky Ben Shepard is obviously meant to stand in for a generation. Redford and Sarandon want to know why bright young people aren’t angrier about social inequality and two pointless wars. They express the sore chagrin of a movement looking for heirs and finding none.

Let me get this straight.  This movie's about old leftists--the actors, not the characters--accusing the audience of not living up to their ideals?  Where I can get tickets?  (And it's actually pretty easy to answer the challenges that Denby lists above, but I guess LeBeouf's character is too busy being an amoral careerist to bother, which is just as well, since I don't think Redford or Denby want to hear any backtalk--this is a lecture, not a discussion.)

Here's the end of the piece:

[The older cast members] are all, as actors, proud of their age and of their persistence, and their fierce stubbornness and pleasure in performing should face down the jeers from the right that the movie will inevitably provoke.

I'm not sure how a performance, even one that's pleasurable for the actor, could face down a political complaint, but then, I don't care about political complaints against movies.  The question is does it entertain. If it fails to do that, nothing else matters.  That Denby feels it necessary to emphasize the specter of right-wing resistance suggests a preemptive strike in defense of what smells like an unpleasant two hours at the cinema.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Zinger Singer

Happy birthday, Tom Lehrer.  He's best known for his humorous lyrics, but the music isn't bad either.





Annette!

Annette Funicello has died. She'd had MS for over two decades, and in recent years had been very ill, so the announcment was not entirely a surprise.

Funicello rose to fame as a Mouseketeer and then became queen of the surf in a bunch of beach movies.  I've long been a fan, and have noted her birthday in the past.  She stopped making public appearances a few years back, just around the time YouTube allowed us to see her in her glory days any time we wanted.










Monday, April 08, 2013

Warped

I was recently going through Anthony Lane's collection of New Yorker movie reviews and other essays, Nobody's Perfect.  Part of being a New Yorker critic (and being Anthony Lane) is to make sport of most commercial Hollywood product--even if well done, you still condescend to it.  This includes filling your piece with little jokes to signal you're above such fluff.

Thus at the end of his negative take on Star Trek: First Contact (the best of the Next Generation films--not saying much) he writes of the villains "...if you thought the Borg* were bad, just wait till you meet the McEnroe."

It's bad enough Lane's gag goes where many have gone before.  Worse, the same joke is made in the film--did he not notice?  Lily Sloane, played by Alfre Woodard, hears about the bad guys and says "Borg? Sounds Swedish."

The difference, I guess, is that Star Trek's version is more subtle.  When Star Trek is more subtle than you, maybe you should cut the line.

*I assume my readers know the following, but just in case: the Borg are an alien race who exist as a single, extended organism. They go around the galaxy "assimilating" other races and saying things like "resistance is futile."

The State Of Virginia

Happy birthday, Virginia O'Brien.  She was rarely the star in her films, but her moments on screen were memorable.  She pretty much cornered the market on deadpan rhythm, if nothing else.






Sunday, April 07, 2013

Gallo Humor

One of the fun things about cable is the chance to see movies that weren't deemed worthy of release in theatres.  Sometimes they're too odd or slight, so it was better to put them out on video rather than the trouble of theatrical.  These films can still be fun.  Other times, they're just no good.

Mostly in the latter category is Get Well Soon (2001).  It's got a decent cast, including Courteney Cox, Jeffrey Tambor, Tate Donovan, Elina Lowensohn and Anne Meara.  It's also got a decent plot--a romantic comedy about a famous talk show host who has a nervous breakdown on air and goes on a quest to find his old girlfriend.  The one aspect of the film that definitely tanks it is lead Vincent Gallo.

It makes you wonder what names they tried to get and couldn't.  I'm guessing just about everyone this side of Charles Manson.  Gallo can be a compelling screen presence, but he puts out a violent, dangerous vibe.  It's impossible to buy him as Bobby Bishop, beloved TV figure whom America invites into its homes every night.  When he has his "breakdown" its indistinguishable from any other moment.  And when he chases after Cox, the only reason you can imagine she's attracted is his money.

Would the film have worked with someone more suited to the role?  It would have been interesting to find out.

Endgame

It's now clear how The Office is going to end.  The show is moving toward the unveiling of the documentary that has been shooting the entire time.  In the latest episode, "Promos," the workers watch internet ads for this upcoming show.  And they don't like what they see. Only now do they realize the filmmakers have caught all sorts of secret and unsavory moments.

As I've noted before, the whole idea that anyone is shooting a documentary is an embarrassing fiction.  Characters leave the office, go to private places, and there are still three or four cameras following them. Is a government funding this project?  Best to just ignore the whole documentary angle, which other shows such as Parks And Recreation and Modern Family have figured out. Instead, The Office has decided to rub our faces in it. I can't help but think this absurd plot turn will only take away from the comedy and the heart that they're hoping to deliver.

Meanwhile, there's also what must be the final episodes of Community unspooling.  This year, without creator Dan Harmon, has been a huge disappointment.  The characters have changed just enough to miss the magic of what they once were.  The latest episode, "Herstory Of Dance," was better than usual, but still fell short.  For example, Britta, in political opposition to the Sadie Hawkins dance, offers her own Sophie B. Hawkins dance (in the same auditorium).  She meant to say Susan B. Anthony but got it wrong, and won't back down.

In the past, Britta has been politically correct, and made plenty of mistakes, but she wasn't an idiot. And, as far as not backing down, that's more Jeff's character.  I'm not saying the show isn't fun, but it's never masterful, as it often was in the past.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Left Turn On La Brea

For years when I go south from Hollywood, I take Highland--probably the best of the north-south roads. (Not saying much in Los Angeles traffic.)

But recently I went down La Brea, which is usually pretty slow.  And when I hit 4th Street what did I see but a giant chrome head of Lenin.

The piece is entitled "Miss Mao Trying to poise Herself at the Top of Lenin's Head"--if you look closely (and few do) it's got a small figure atop Lenin with a balancing stick.  The work was created by Chinese brothers Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang, and was apparently causing an uproar elsewhere before it found its present location.

I'm sure the artists can explain the meaning of their work, but all I can say is it's creepy.  I don't need to see a giant head of Lenin when I'm driving.  I don't need to see the giant head of anyone, but especially not of some ruthless dictator.

Black Day

Happy birthday, Black Francis, aka Frank Black, aka Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV.  He's the musician who, above all (sorry Frank), was the main singer and songwriter for the Pixies.





Friday, April 05, 2013

One Of Those Days

I generally do my musical birthday tributes one at a time, but some days you're just not sure who to celebrate.  For instance, today, should I choose something from the Sugar Man, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine?



Or what about Allan Clarke, voice of the Hollies?



For that matter, what's wrong with the vocal stylings of Wall Of Voodoo's Stan Ridgway?



Guess I'll figure out next year which one to pick.

The Balcony Is Closed

I've often mocked film critic Roger Ebert for his taste, his politics and the errors he made in his reviews, but I never questioned his enthusiasm for movies, nor his positive overall effect.  He has been the best-known film critic in the world for decades, and his promotion of films, old and new, started a millions conversations and set many on a path to find out more about the works in question.

Now that he's died, we can look back on a life well-lived.  He landed the slot of film reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 when he was in the mid-20s.  At the time, it wasn't considered a great position, but Roger made it a perch of prominence.  He also wrote the script for Russ Meyers' Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls in 1970, a film that, while trashy, some have ranked with the greatest of the decade. (In fact, he wanted to know who listed the film so highly and I sent him a letter with that information.  He wrote back thanking me.)

In 1975, only 33, he became the first film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize.  His style was lively and personal--maybe too personal, as he'd give his emotional response, sometimes clouding objective analysis.  But he couldn't help it.  Movies excited him.  He also was, at least compared to most major critics, an easy grader. But then, Roger said he tried to take each movie on its own terms.

What truly made him famous was teaming up in 1975 with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel for Sneak Previews, a TV show looking at current releases.  They changed the name of the show through the years, but it was always Roger and Gene giving thumbs up or down, until Siskel died in 1999.

Roger continued with other critics filling Gene's seat, even if it was never quite the same. And in the internet age, now there were thousands of voices to compete with, but Roger's was still one of the loudest.

He not only saw and wrote about almost every major commerial film released in this country, he also published quite a few books, some on particular subjects (like Scorsese, though not all his books were about film), some collections of reviews and essays, some looks at classic movies and in 2011, a heartfelt memoir, Life Itself.

For the past decade, however, he had serious health problems, starting with thyroid cancer followed by a series of not-always successful operations.  The man whose careeer was based on speaking about films lost his jaw and the ability to speak. But he kept working when he could, and never lost his love of movies. More than anything else, that sense of passion about the cinema is what he leaves behind.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Bring It On Home

Happy birthday to composer and orchestra leader Peter van Steeden. He wrote and had a big hit with the lovely "Home."


Mstake

I recently watched Love On The Run, a forgettable 1936 comedy starring Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone.  It's sort of a warmed over It Happened One Night with a spy caper wedged in.  MGM's grand, stolid style was generally not the place for screwball.  Gable had to go to cheaper, grittier Columbia to truly show his comedy chops.

More memorable than the plot is the closed captioning. Crawford plays a spoiled heiress--there seemed to be an epidemic of them in the 1930s--named Sally Parker.  Throughout the movie she's referred to as Miss Parker. Yet every time someone says that, the CC has it as "MS. PARKER."

Even if you want to believe Joan Crawford was a proto-feminist, it's silly, even jarring, to use a term that wasn't in common parlance until decades later.  Was the CC writer trying to give a retroactive boost to womankind?

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Leftover Vanity Plates Of The Month

On a really cool-looking Bugatti:  BIJAN.  Ordinarily, I'd guess a social climber, but as this car was parked on Rodeo Drive, it was probably the man himself.

ALX SKA.  I assume this is some version of Alaska, though it might be that Alex likes ska.

3SONSI[Heart symbol].  Is this Fred MacMurray's car?

MDM SEC.  Maybe just two people, but is this about medium security? Or the Madame in charge of the SEC?

CRAZIAN.  That's more crazy than crazier.

All In The Game

Game Of Thrones has returned, and after watching "Valar Dohaeris" all I can say is it's good to be back in Westeros.  I don't know if I'll be doing recaps for each episode (ditto for next week's Mad Men), but I know I'll be watching.  As always, the hour ended too soon.

The premiere mostly set the scene for future action, but then, this show is as much about people planning as it is about cutting off heads.  So what happened (spoilers)?

Well, Jon Snow gets to meet Mance Rayder and live, the Night's Watch retreats in preparation for the big fight, Tywin Lannister is rather cold to his son Tyrion's request for almost anything, Margaery is promising to be more First Lady than Queen, Joffrey seems to have settled down a bit, Ser Davos is still alive and after making his way back to brooding Stannis insults Melisandre and gets tossed in a dungeon, Littlefinger offers Sansa a way out of King's Landing, Robb Stark comes to an empty Harrenhal and has his mom put under house arrest, and Daenerys considers buying a slave-army while avoiding an assassination attempt.

If that sounds like a lot, don't forget we didn't even see Theon, Arya, Brienne, Jaime, Bran, Osha, Varys or the Hound.  I suppose that'll be next week.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

EH

Emmylou Harris turns 66 today.  Good for you, girl.





The Ramone

Phil Ramone has died.  He was one of the most important and successful record producers in the rock era.

He worked with acts such as Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Billy Joel, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder and hundreds of others.  I hardly know where to start when it comes to sampling his work, so let's just look at a few pieces on albums for which he won Grammys.






Monday, April 01, 2013

Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually

April is National Guitar Month (no fooling). So tune up, everyone.


Vanity Plates Of The Month

JOSEF GB:  I don't care what this guy's name is, it reminds you of Goebbels.

SABRIC2.  Was the letter "F" taken?

ELLA777.  A fan of the singer?

TRVLG.  Keep your travelogue to your self.

HPYYGRL.  So happy she has an extra Y.

BRBLOLZ,  This is bad enough on a computer.

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