Monday, August 31, 2015

To Be Blunt

I've watched the first two episodes of Blunt Talk, a new comedy on Starz. The channel doesn't have the cachet of HBO or Showtime, but it did produce one of my favorite shows, Party Down (which was a total flop), so who knows?

It stars Patrick Stewart as Walter Blunt, an outspoken British newscaster working at the fictional UBS network headquartered in Los Angeles.  The first episode has him drunk driving and getting caught in his car with a transsexual prostitute.  He fights the cops and it blows up into a national scandal, threatening to derail his career.  He decides to interview himself on his own show about the incident, and collapses on air after taking too many drugs.  The second episode has him missing a flight to Galveston to cover a hurricane, so he pretends to be there via green screen, utilizing a local porn studio.

You get the idea.  Blunt is an outrageous but loveable character--not uncommon on TV these days--who gets involved in outrageous storylines.  He's got a staff for his TV show--one of them played by Jacki Weaver--each with their own quirks, as well as a long-suffering boss Bob (Romany Malco) and his valet Harry (Adrian Scarborough) who takes care of all his personal (sometimes kinky) needs and who served with him in the Falklands.  He also has complex fantasies while high which we get to see.

I was reminded of a few other recent cable comedies with a lot of allegedly outrageous activity but mostly mirthless results, including House Of Lies and HAPPYish.  Above all, though, it reminded me of Bored To Death, an HBO comedy starring Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson and Zack Galifianakis.  The concept was quite different--a novelist living in Brooklyn who's a private investigator in his spare time.  But, like Blunt Talk, it was a fine cast with a fairly open premise, and lots of dialogue that's supposed to sound clever, or even witty, but keeps falling short.

So I wasn't too surprised to discover the creator and writer of Blunt Talk is Jonathan Ames, who was behind Bored To Death.  Maybe this show will improve as it goes along, but it'll have to get a lot better to keep me watching.

If anything holds the show together so far, it's Patrick Stewart lively performance.  He does well with the material he's given. He's not especially known for comedy, though thanks to people like Ricky Gervais and Seth MacFarlane, he's shown his comic chops in the past few years.  In fact, MacFarlane has signed on as executive producer of the show. But, like House Of Lies and HAPPYish, it takes more than a charismatic lead to make a show work.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A, B, C

Z For Zachariah, which opened this weekend, has quite a cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine.  The thing is, that's it.  There's no one else in the movie unless you count the dog.

It's one of those end-of-the-world stories, where these three may be the only people left on Earth. (And from what I understand, the original novel has only two character, so I guess we should be happy to get three. But then, Hollywood has always loved triangles.)

But here's the thing. In the credits, under "Casting By," there are three names listed--Kerry Barden, Allison Estrin and Paul Schnee.  Are you telling me it took three people to cast this film? There are only three actors, and they're all relatively well-known.  Was one person assigned to find the best actor for each role?

Seems to me the director could have cast this film sitting at home in a chair with his eyes closed.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker died when he was 34.  If he'd stayed alive, he'd be 95 today.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Bill W

I just read Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel.  It's written by his son, William Wellman, Jr., who grew up to be an actor, but nowhere near as famous as his director father. Wellman was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood history, but was he any good?  At the very least, he was a workhorse, who knew how to turn out features at a regular clip--he made over 80 in his career, ones that tended to make money, and sometimes were more than just hits.

Wellman had quite a life before getting into movies.  Born on Leap Year in 1896, he grew up a juvenile delinquent, and then became a great flier in WWI, winning the Croix De Guerre.  His war experience helped him not only as an action director, but as someone who knew how to control a set--he was more than willing to bully people to get his way.

In the 1920s he found himself in Hollywood, and his fame as a pilot helped him meet people.  Douglas Fairbanks, maybe the biggest star of them all, hired him as an actor. He soon discovered he wanted to be on the other side of the camera, and in a few years worked his way up from messenger boy to director. It helped he was hardworking and talented, and also that he had connections--when the studio heads saw him talking to General Black Jack Pershing they were impressed.

Wellman started turning out cheap, profitable pictures, often Westerns. He did have trouble getting along with the suits, and sometimes even got into fights.  He also had trouble with women.  He married  five, finally hitting the jackpot in 1934 with Dorothy Coonan.  They stayed married until his death in 1975, and had seven kids.

Late in the silent era, Paramount decided to do a huge action picture about flying, called Wings.  Rather than use one of their A-directors, they took a chance with the guy who actually knew about flying.  The film was tremendously expensive, and a hard shoot, but Wellman delivered, and Wings, released in 1927, became one of the biggest hits of the decade--the Star Wars of its day.  It also won the first Best Picture Oscar.

Oddly, Wellman was then sent back to churning out smaller pictures, rarely having his choice of assignment.  He left Paramount for Warner Brothers, where he worked with Darryl Zanuck, who virtually ran the place.  Here he made another classic of its genre, The Public Enemy (1931).  It's maybe the greatest gangster picture.  As soon as Jimmy Cagney shoved a grapefruit in his girl's face, he became a star.  He was originally cast in the best friend role, but Wellman and Zanuck soon switched the parts when they saw his work.

Wellman made some other fascinating pictures at WB, such as Night Nurse, Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys Of The Road.  He liked to try every genre, and it can be hard to tell his style, except it's mostly no-nonsense, with the story always moving ahead (Zanuck had some say about that) and solid but generally not distracting camera work.

He made The Call Of The Wild at MGM, with Clark Gable and Loretta Young, and then started working with independent producer David O. Selznick.  Out of this collaboration came two well-remembered films, both in glorious Technicolor at a time when black and white was the norm--A Star Is Born (the first version, and many think the best) and Nothing Sacred (a comedy with the queen of screwball, Carole Lombard).  He also helped out for an uncredited day or two on Selznick's greatest production, Gone With The Wind.

In 1939, he went to work at the big studios again.  At Paramount he made Beau Geste starring Gary Cooper--probably the best version of the story.  At Twentieth Century Fox he made the Ginger Rogers comedy Roxie Hart--based on the hit play Chicago which would eventually be the hit musical Chicago.  He also made The Ox-Bow Incident there, a "serious" Western starring Henry Fonda. He went on in the mid to late 1940s to create some highly regarded war films, including The Story Of G.I. Joe at United Artists, and Battleground at MGM.

He worked steadily in the 1950s, including a number of films starring John Wayne, such as Islands In The Sky and The High And The Mighty.  (He got three Oscar nominations as director for A Star Is Born, Battleground and The High And The Mighty, only winning a shared Oscar for the original story of A Star Is Born.)  His last film, released in 1958, was another flying picture, Lafayette Escadrille.

The book isn't that well written--perhaps we should expect that from his son, who shares inside information, but sometimes too much of minor mishaps and practical jokes that aren't as interesting as Wellman's film career.  But it gets the job done.

As for Wellman the director, it's hard to know what to think of him. I think many of his "classics"--A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred, The Ox-Bow Incident, The High And The Might and others--are overrated.  But if he made a fair number of middling features, and not that many great films, he made more than his share of decent titles.  He'll be remembered.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


Great TV shows tend to have a voice from the start.  They may improve over time, but titles like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad let you know right away they were different and they were special.

Most shows, however, just remind you of other shows, and you only hope that they're entertaining enough to pass the time.  Even by this standard, it doesn't look like TNT's new drama Public Morals is going to make it.  Created by and starring Edward Burns, it's another show featuring cops and gangsters--where would TV be without them?

It's a period piece, set in New York in the 1960s.  The look isn't as dazzling as, say, Boardwalk Empire, or even Magic City, but that's not nearly as important as solid characters and compelling conflict.  We mostly follow the cops in the public morals division.  (This is one reason why it has to be period--a lot of what was "vice" then is legal now.) Burns is Officer Terry Muldoon and Michael Rappaport plays his partner Charlie Bullman.  We also get to know some of the other cops in the unit, as well as Muldoon's wife and kids.  The pilot also features Timothy Hutton (who's looked better) as a major hood.

The cops have a pretty good deal. Their detail isn't that hard and allows them plenty of opportunity for graft.  It also allows plenty of chances for us to see the seamy side of life--gambling, prostitution and so on--which means the guys get to show how tough they are every now and then.

What the pilot doesn't offer is anything new.  The dialogue is fairly cliched and the situations--dealing with a hooker, infiltrating the hoods, worry about a hell-raising kid--we've seen before.  Unless the show can distinguish itself in the next episode or two, I don't see much reason to stick around.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Hold Your Head High

It was 95 years ago today the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was made law.  There are people alive today who lived when women couldn't vote (though not many remember it). It's pretty simple, as most good Amendments are.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

I always wonder what would happen if they didn't put in that last sentence. Wouldn't the Necessary and Proper Clause handle it?

In honor of this event, today is also Women's Equality Day, proclaimed by Congress in 1971.

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States; and

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex;

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated August 26, the anniversary date of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights: and

WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that August 26 of each year is designated as "Women's Equality Day," and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women's rights took place.

A little wordier and less poetic.

Then there's Go Topless Day, celebrated on the Sunday nearest Women's Equality Day (it was the 23rd this year). It was invented in 2007 and designed to promote equality.  Make of it what you will.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Summer Sums

They summer movie season is essentially over, so let's look back and see how the major titles performed.  The following are judgment calls, but at worst any title will be is one category off.


Tomorrowland -- this had to be a giant franchise or nothing, and the audience just didn't cotton to it.

Pixels --the end of Adam Sandler as a star?

Vacation -- if it were just halfway decent it would have been a hit

Fantastic Four -- yet another FF flameout

Entourage  -- no one cared any more

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. -- with no stars, the title meant nothing

Aloha  -- misbegotten from the start

Ricki And The Flash -- seeing Meryl as an old rock star excited no one

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl -- not every YA title with a dying girl sells

Irrational Man --  more tired Woody

Hitman: Agent 47 -- late summer action with no want-to-see factor

American Ultra -- odd concept doesn't draw


Spy  --  will make money, but significantly down from last two Feig/McCarthy films, which cost a lot less

Terminator: Genisys --  not enough to keep this franchise going, probably

Ted 2 -- going to the well a second time gets less than half the result

Magic Mike: XXL  --  cheap enough to show a profit, but the bloom is off the rose

Max  --  had to do better

Paper Towns  -- even YA from John Green is no guarantee

Ex Machina  -- wasn't quite the breakout it looked like it might be

Dope  --  very low budget, so profitable, but not really getting the buzz it needed


Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation -- a pretty steady franchise

Ant-Man  -- low for a Marvel movie, but high for Ant-Man

San Andreas -- Dwayne Johnson is now as bankable as anyone out there

Mad Max: Fury Road  --  Arguably a disappointment, but solid enough to keep going

Straight Outta Compton -- considering the budget, and how uncertain the studios were, this could almost be called a blockbuster

Trainwreck -- Schumer was no guarantee, and Apatow hadn't had a hit in a while, so this must feel nice

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 -- no one expected much, so they have to be satisfied


Jurassic World  -- if it made half as much would still be a blockbuster

Avengers: Age Of Ultron -- a can't miss blockbuster

Furious 7 -- (released in April, but summer is starting earlier these days) the best franchise around, considering it almost died a few numbers ago

Inside Out -- Pixar is the most reliable thing that exists in movies

Minions -- pretty amazing when you do an off-brand Despicable Me, which is already low-budget animation, and gross almost a billion worldwide.

Bonus category 

Studio of the year (so far) goes to Universal, churning out major hits such as Jurassic World, Furious 7, Minions, Pitch Perfect 2, Fifty Shades Of Grey, Straight Outta Compton and Trainwreck.  Even a disappointment like Ted 2 will probably make money.

Monday, August 24, 2015

You May Say I'm A Dreamer

Megan McArdle, a friend (well, acquaintance), has a piece on how Democracy works, and she's not thrilled.  Things are never perfect, so voters demand change, over and over, figuring if they could just get the right guy in office, everything would be okay. Hence, Donald Trump .

She has a point.  Many people believe the reason politicians don't get the results the public wants is because they're beholden to special interests, or just don't have the will to face down the threat.  It's hard to accept that the problems themselves are very complex and impossible to fully solve, and that people disagree on what they want and so (especially in a democracy) the solutions we do get are almost always filled with compromise.

But does she go too far in condemning those demanding change?

Faced with the unhappy reality that their desired outcomes are simply not achievable in the current political landscape, they embrace extreme, destructive measures that have no chance of succeeding. The only thing that can be said for many of these ideas is that they haven't been tried yet. The same can be said for picking up this fork I happen to have sitting next to me and jamming it into my brain stem.

She's mostly right, but is she missing something?

It's true even radical politicians in power can only do so much.  (Who's radical? Well, among our Presidents, both Reagan and Obama were fairly radical compared to the political landscape of their time, though even they were able to operate within the normal constraints of the system and achieve success before becoming top man.)  And even when they get what they want, they can only change things so much.  On the other hand, slight changes, like compound interest, can create massive change over time.

But that's politicians. What about the radical ideas?  It's true, most of the out-there concepts you hear--from Donald Trump among others--are not only not achievable, but dangerous if attempted.  On the other hand, almost everything we now believe was at one time considered radical, or nutty.  The tremendous successes of the Civil Rights movement for African-Americans turned around the very assumptions of the average citizen in this country.  Yes, it took a slow, steady and generally serious and rational manner of argument to effect this change (how much radical action helped along the way is a matter of debate).

Another modern example is gun rights.  Not that long ago, the idea that the Second Amendment conferred individual rights was not taken seriously by the courts, but that's completely turned around.  Or gay rights.  A couple generations ago, homosexuality was criminal and considered a mental illness.  That changed, but even a generation ago, same-sex marriage seemed like a pipe dream.  Now it's a guaranteed right.  (Note I'm discussing ideas that don't break the laws of physics, or even economics--that's a different class of nutty idea.)

But how do you tell the difference between crackpots and dreamers with true vision.  I don't suppose you can, but a good rule of thumb is they're usually crackpots. (And sometimes they get their way, which is not a good thing.)

Robert F. Kennedy famously said: "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"

A fine line, but we should remember he's paraphrasing Shaw, who put that line in the Serpent's mouth in the Garden Of Eden.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Now And Then

I just watched the first episode of Documentary Now!, a new series on IFC.  It's the perfect sort of show for IFC, being comedic and highly niche.  It's created by and starring SNL's Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers.  (They're so busy with other projects I'm surprised they have the time, but then you also see Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig and doing small projects between big movies.)

Each week, the show will feature a fake documentary.  The show starts with an excellent parody of the titles for a PBS show, followed by a straightforward introduction by Helen Mirren. I wonder if anyone is fooled at this point into thinking this is a classic show that's been running for decades.  The parody goes far enough that there's a break for fundraising.

The first episode is called "Sandy Passage," which is a pretty straightforward parody of Grey Gardens the classic documentary from the Maysles. (Spoiler: With the ending, it's about 80% Grey Gardens, 20% Blair Witch Project.) With only slight comic exaggeration, Armisen and Hader portray Big Edie and Little Edie of the original. I enjoyed the episode, though I'm not sure what people who haven't seen the original will make of it.

As for the overall show, it's hard to review, since it's an anthology.  It appears each episode will be a different subject and a different style.  They may be based on other documentaries, though I doubt they'll stick too close to the source.

Anyway, worth checking out.  And this season only features six episodes, so if one doesn't work you could try another--not a big commitment.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Registering A Complaint

It's happened to me a number of times in the past few weeks. I'm buying something in a store and the cashier says "that'll be $8.45..." or however much.

Why the future tense?

I feel like responding "Yes, but how much is it now?"

Or maybe "Great, I'll pay you when I get the cash."

To be fair, the payment is in the future--the immediate future--but really, she's talking about the price in the present.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Post Mortyem

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how I'd started watching Rick And Morty in its second season.  I liked it.  Since then, I've caught up on most of the first season and watched a few more season 2 episodes, and it's even better than I thought at first.

Maybe that isn't surprising, since one of the two creators is Dan Harmon, who created my favorite sitcom of the past few years, Community Rick And Morty may be an animated, sci-fi sitcom, but both shows have something in common--they're both willing to try outrageous situations and even mess with the format.

R&M is funny, but one of the most impressive things are its ingenious plots.  I'm afraid I'm going to have to describe a few, which means pretty big spoilers. You'll still like the shows after you know where it's going, but half the fun is not knowing what to expect.

One of my favorites episodes from season one, for instance, is in "Meeseeks And Destroy." To get the family off his back, Rick gives them a Meeseeks box, out of which will pop a Mr. Meeseeks to solve your problem.  He exists only until your problem is solved, after which he pops out of existence.  What could go wrong?

Jerry, Beth and Summer each get their own Meeseeks.  Summer asks to be popular at school, Beth wants help with her marriage and Jerry wants two strokes off his golf game.  Surprisingly, Mr. Meeseeks solved the first two problems without too much trouble and then disappeared, but Jerry just can't take Meeseeks' advice about squaring his shoulders, so Meeseeks uses the box to get another Meeseeks.  This leads to numerous Meeseeks, who are all in agony, since they all wish to die, but can't until their task is finished.  Before the problem is resolved they're taking hostages and threatening to kill people.

Or how about last week's "Total Rickall." The episode starts with the family, sans Rick, sitting around the breakfast table having a good time with beloved Uncle Steve. Except we've never seen this character before.  Rick comes in and shoots him.  He's figured out he's a type of parasitic alien telepath who implants memories in your brain which allows them to materialize.  Eventually this can take over the world.

Rick shuts down the house, closing the blast doors (which he has installed for who knows how many potential disasters).  Until they know the parasite is gone, no one can leave.  But the family keeps having fond memories of fantasy characters they never knew, who soon fill up the house.  Rick knows he can't trust his memory, so starts to go on the warpath.  The others take his gun and Morty has him taken out to the garage to kill him.

Before he does, Rick launches a barrage of abuse at Morty.  Morty then shoots the two characters holding Rick, as he's figured out that the parasites can only implant pleasant memories, whereas he has lots of ugly memories of Rick.  Armed with this knowledge, and fancy guns, the two are able to distinguish between parasites, whom they love, and family member, who've done so many rotten things to them. The plot may sound complex, but it's fast-moving, easy enough to follow, and very funny.

"Total Rickall" is vaguely like the classic Community episode "Paradigms Of Human Memory" in that both are clip shows with fake clips. But it's also its own creature--this isn't a copy of Community.  It may be due to the animation, the characters, or the existence of co-creator and main voice actor Justin Roiland.  Either way, I've got a new favorite sitcom.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Glenn Reads The Guys

Boston, LA, Denver, Detroit, Columbus (but no Chicago)- they're all there:

Glenn Beck Names 15 Cities ‘to Avoid Like the Plague’

If this gets around, he'll be polling third in Iowa

A Little Learning Is A Scary Thing

A friend who suggested I read A Walk In The Woods just suggested I check out another Bill Bryson book, A Short History Of Nearly Everything.  In about 500 pages the author attempts to explain for the average reader the science behind the Earth, the solar system and the universe, that's all.  I should add Bryson must be pretty popular, since the book cover (seen at Amazon) prominently features his name whereas you can barely make out the title.

Unless you're already a specialist in certain fields, you'll find it highly informative, or at least clarifying.  Bryson looks at it all--chemistry, astronomy, physics, biology, geology and so on--and how they explain the Big Bang, evolution, plate tectonics, radiation, hurricanes, etc.  And being a journalist who knows how to keep the reader's attention, he includes numerous anecdotes about the many peculiar men (they're almost all men) behind this knowledge.  He's also quite good at analogies, which is a useful, even necessary skill when you're discussing the immensity of the universe, or the infinitesimal size of sub-atomic particles.

As a kid, Bryson says he was excited by the idea of finding the answers to basic questions, but the texts he read were impenetrable.  Thus, this is his attempt to make the story of discovery compelling. (It must be nice to be a bestselling author and know your readers will follow you wherever you go, so long as you make it interesting.)

A Short History Of Nearly Everything is also pretty scary.  It makes you realize how lucky the human race is to still be around.  He examines the threats we face from earthquakes, weather changes, viruses, volcanoes, meteors, etc.  Some of these things will eventually wipe out quite a few of us, maybe all, unless we significantly improve our ability to respond to threats far larger than world wars, or figure out how to live on other planets..  Of course, many of these threats work on a different time scale, so we're probably safe in the short run.  On the other hand, I live in Los Angeles, where a terrible earthquake is overdue (and still won't be as bad as the threat in Seattle, or Tokyo--not to mention the rarer but more serious events out east in America), so these may be famous last words.

Anyway, if you don't mind being a little frightened, you might want to check it out.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Willing Billing

I recently received a bill in the mail and had some questions about it.  So I called the number they gave me and after hitting all the buttons necessary to speak to a person, was informed by a computer voice that there were 40 people in front of me and it would take about half an hour to speak to someone.

I did a quick calculus. Is it worth it?  Should I just give up?  Should I call later?  I hung up and immediately regretted it. I called again, and this time someone picked up and was happy to answer my questions.

Is this any way to run a billing department?

PS  I received another bill in the mail to renew a subscription.  The cost was twice as much as last year.  They've pulled this on me before, so I called and threatened to cancel, and they gave me the old price. The whole process is pretty tiresome.

I always pay these people with a check, because I think if I gave them a credit card number, they'd just renew at the higher rate and figure I wouldn't notice.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Yes They Said Yes They Will Yes

When I picked up The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle For James Joyce's Ulysses, I feared it would be rough going (like the novel itself).  Written by academic Kevin Birmingham, and with over fifty pages of notes, it could easily have been a dry exercise.  It turned out to be one of the most compelling stories I've read in a while.

At the center, as you'd expect, is Joyce himself.  Leaving Dublin in the early 1900s, he lived, with his wife and family, in Trieste, Zurich (during WWI) and Paris.  He was a true artist, not just in his output, but in his commitment.  He wrote what he wanted how he wanted, and nothing was going to get in his way.  One of the biggest obstacles, we discover, was terrible eye pain, mostly caused by iritis, itself caused by syphilis (in an age without penicillin).  He would sometimes collapse from the pain, and required numerous surgeries over the years.

It was a time of revolution--in politics and the arts--and there was a small but growing group of people who recognized Joyce, with Dubliners and then The Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man, as the voice of modernism.  This is the group that helped sustain him through the years of Ulysses.

Among them were patrons who sent money to keep him going. Not that Joyce always appreciated it, artist that he was.  In fact, he could be a bit of a spendthrift, going out on sprees, and then ask them for more. (Through the years he received the equivalent of over a million dollars).

Then there were the small booksellers and magazine publishers who encouraged him and sold his work.  And when no one could find a printer for his "obscene" work, they were the ones who stepped forward.

As it must, Birmingham's book spends a lot of time with the censors, both American and British. It was a different time, when being called a censor was no insult--indeed, these people, dedicated to suppressing vice, happily attended book burnings, proud of their service to the public.

Ulysses, a massive work that tries to encompass all of humanity into one day in Dublin, was published in 1922.  The novel caused a sensation, declared a masterpiece by some, the vilest piece of filth by others.  (And, working its magic, some who only saw the pornography at first would come around.) Whereas previously authors drew a curtain on certain parts of life, Joyce felt he had to include it all, and that was the problem.  Indeed, even before the book was published, excerpts that appeared in magazines had been declared obscene in America.

Published in Paris by one of Joyce's patrons who had no experience with such things, it was smuggled into America by the thousands.  There was strong demand--at least by the standards of a challenging modernist work.  Anybody who was anyone had to have a copy, even though (because?) it was contraband.  Many copies were intercepted at the border, of course, and the burning began. (If it was printed in America, they would also have taken the plates and destroyed them.)

The threat of censorship was no joke.  It didn't just mean the book wasn't easily available. It meant anyone who published, distributed or sold it could spend years in prison.  And the censors didn't even stop there, but fought to prevent even public discussion of the book on the radio or in university lectures.

But the world was changing.  There had been much repression during and after World War I in America, with a major red scare and laws to back it up. In fact, this was the era when, for the first time, the Supreme Court started hearing cases about the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment.  Before then, it had essentially existed only as a federal warning about prior restraint.  But even under new interpretations, it was thought to only cover political speech. No one believed pornography or blasphemy were protected.

Even without a First Amendment argument, though, the idea of what is obscene and what isn't was being challenged. Whereas the older test was simply (and arbitrarily) anything a judge might think would lead to the corruption of the weakest-minded reader, some now thought a better standard would take into account the literary value of a work.  It took years, but finally in 1933 a judge declared it legal to publish Ulysses in the United State, and Great Britain soon followed.

Even after its revolutionary changes have been absorbed into the mainstream, Ulysses still holds its power. It's also sold millions of copies.  Joyce would go on to complete one more major work, Finnegans Wake, even more complex (and less popular) than Ulysses, before dying at 58.

A pretty exciting story, with many colorful characters.  I wonder if it'll be turned into a movie?

Monday, August 17, 2015

No Way Amy

The critics have generally liked the weekend's big hit, Straight Outta Compton.  But not Amy Nicholson in the LA Weekly.  She say it's not political enough.

Seemed plenty political to me. Sure, it wasn't all about politics, but then, neither was N.W.A.  With three protagonists and a lot of story to tell, it would be a mistake to let the politics dominate.  If anything, the movie gives short shrift to the creation of the music. After a few early feints in that direction, it's just understood that they're masters of rap and can make great stuff whenever they want.

Of course, if the film were more political, it probably would have sounded like all the mindless stuff you can read in so many reviews, including Nicholson's:

How grim is it to watch [the Rodney King beating] in 2015 and admit that, long after N.W.A.'s brave feud with the FBI, things have actually gotten worse?  Now we even have more cameras--yet the victims so often are dead. Meanwhile, in last year's Ride Along, Ice Cube played a cop who fires guns at unarmed civilians, falsely accused a kid of assaulting a police officer and brags that his Wi-Fi password is "SuspectShot23."

I'll ignore the last sentence--I only put it in to show how silly Nicholson is.  As for the rest, this is the sign of someone who doesn't want to think beyond slogans.  Race relations are a very complex issue, and the part the police play, as well as whether or not the situation has improved in the last few decades, should not be treated with reflexive responses.  And as long as this attitude wins the day, it's likely the situation won't get better as quickly as it might.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Lowering The Boom

It's a bit odd that Boom Town has so little reputation.  Considering it was the biggest hit of 1940, starring four major stars--Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert (imported from Paramount) and Hedy Lamarr--you'd think more people would remember it fondly.

I'd had many chances to see it but never caught more than a bit here and there.  Last week I finally watched it all the way through.  And the question I now have is how was this such a big hit in the first place?  Sure, it has the stars, and the MGM production value, but there's not much here.  Compare it to the second biggest MGM hit in 1940--The Philadelphia Story--meant for Gable and Tracy but ending up with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, a film still as fresh and delightful as it was 75 years ago.

Boom Town is about two rugged wildcatters, Clark and Spencer, who spend half the film as friends and half as foes, and who strike it rich--together or individually--three separate times, only to lose it all three times.  And whenever the one who's up offers something to the one who's down, the offer is refused.  Kind of monotonous.  There's also an antitrust trial at the end that's about as exciting as a real antitrust trial.

Then there's the women, though the real love affair here is between the two men (who even get to meet cute while walking opposite ways on a plank path surrounded by mud). Claudette Colbert is the main female, though she's pretty much Gable's from the start. She comes to town to see Tracy, but before she can, Gable sweeps her off her feet. They're married that night (because of the Code, I'm guessing--today, they'd just sleep together without the nuptials).

Gable and Colbert had shown great chemistry in their previous film It Happened One Night--as great as chemistry gets in the movies, actually--but the spark is missing, thanks to a so-so script by John Lee Mahin and pedestrian direction by Jack Conway.  In fact, this time around, it can be hard to figure what he sees in her, considering how impulsive she is.  Not only does she turn her back on Tracy and marry Gable almost immediately, but she's ready to dump her husband at the first hint of trouble, and then runs back to him when he's ruined. (She's odd that way--seems to like him better when he has no money. Only in Hollywood).  Tracy, meanwhile, may moon after Colbert a bit but doesn't even get a girl in the movie.

Hedy Lamarr seems almost an afterthought.  She doesn't appear until the film is half over.  She's introduced to be a threat to Colbert.  It's hard to buy, but by this point, we don't even care.

The film was one of those big MGM productions, like the two previous Gable and Tracy films, San Francisco and Test Pilot (which I wouldn't call classics, but I think have bigger reputations).  This was the last film they made together, since Tracy was a big enough now to stop playing second banana, and Gable would soon leave for the war anyway.

The film also features Frank Morgan in the Frank Morgan role (who at least brings a little life to the film, even if he's essentially a stooge) and Lionel Atwill in the Lionel Atwill role.  There's also some very minor comic relief from Chill Wills.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Warm Winter

It's Saturday, so sit back and enjoy some easy listening from today's birthday boy Hugo Winterhalter.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Fourth Time Is The Charm

It's hard to overstate the importance of the Fantastic Four in comic book history.  They were Stan Lee's new superhero team, introduced in 1961, helping to create a whole new style of realism (well, relative realism) that would sweep through comics. So with Marvel characters making billions in the movies these days--as well as some good films along the way--why hasn't anyone made a good FF movie yet?

That's what I was thinking as I watched the new documentary Doomed!: The Untold Story Of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four.  It turns out a little over twenty years ago, low-budget impresario Corman helped produce an extremely cheap film version.  The people who worked on it tried their best, but it was never to be released (except on bootleg).  Apparently what happened was Constantin Films, the owner of the copyright, had to make something quick before the rights reverted back.  When Marvel saw (or just heard about) the result they were willing to pay the producers a solid profit to never release it, so it could be done right at a later date. Or something like that.

Next came the 2005 Fantastic Four.  Still pretty bad, but without the excuse of no money.  No one was particularly proud of it, but it did enough business to merit a sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer.  This one cost more, grossed less and was even worse.

Time for a third attempt. The reboot, Fantastic Four, is on display in cinemas now.  Catch it soon, it won't be around long.  Fans hate it even more than the 2005 version.  Even more than the 1994 version, in fact.  I'm guessing the planned sequel won't materialize.

So what to do?  Well, aren't there four members of the group?  Why not give it a fourth shot?  Sooner or later something's got to work. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Never The Twain

I recommend Andrew Levy's Huck Fin's America, though it's a bit of a mess.  It's less than 200 pages of text (throw in the notes, bibliography and index and it's around 340 pages), yet here are some of the subjects it covers:

--Mark Twain's childhood

--how Twain developed as a writer

--Twain's stage presence

--How Huck Finn was written

--the story of the minstrel show in the 19th century

--the post-Civil War world of America, and what concerned citizens of the day, may of which echo today's concerns

--the failure of Reconstruction

--Twain's promotional lecture tour for Huck Finn, "Twins Of Genius," where he shared the stage with George Washington Cable, a writer almost as famous and controversial as Twain at the time

--the history of "bad boy" books in the 1800s

--the reception of Huck Finn when published

--Twain's relationship with his wife and daughters

--Twain's evolving views on race

--different prescriptions for how to raise children

--the success and controversy of Huck Finn in the 20th and 21st century

and quite a few other subject, many of which deserved books of their own.

Of course, Huck Finn is, as Levy notes, a hodge podge itself.  Perhaps the most-read novel today that was published before 1900, it contains many different styles (not unlike a minstrel show, which Levy believes influenced Twain).  There's out and out jokes and funny dialogue.  Parodies of Shakespeare and other parody.  Set pieces of great power.  Kitchen sink realism.  Farcical scenes and characters.  Numerous deaths.  Philology.  Anthropology.  Reflective passages of breathtaking beauty.  A coming of age story.  A moral narrative.  And a youthful protagonist who smokes, swears and avoids school at all costs.

It also contains the "N-word." A whole lot.  This wasn't why it was controversial at first, but it sure is now, even if that's how a Huck Finn would have spoken in his day, and Twain sometimes uses it to make a point.

One thing I found fascinating was the description of his lecture tour.  Huck Finn was not yet out, but Twain was a famous author and an accomplished speaker.  He performed mostly older pieces, and chose one section from his new book--a dialogue between Jim and Huck about King Solomon and why the French speak French.  (Though it's early in the book, Levy notes it was literally the last part of it that Twain wrote.) In recent times, critics have bemoaned this chapter, where Twain drops everything to do, in essence, a minstrel routine.   But leaving aside its literary value (which I think has been unfairly downgraded), Twain knew he had comedy gold, and it played well.  (Later in the tour he read some of the final sections of the book, where Tom Sawyer gets involved--Twain loved the fun, but modern critics feel the books falls apart here.)

This was of special interest to me because when I was in high school I did forensics, a competition where you'd gives speeches. (I considered it debate for lazy people.) I usually did "humorous interp," where contestants would read comic passages.  Most of my competition picked basic stuff, like columns by Dave Barry or Erma Bombeck, but I tried for something deeper.  My two favorite readings were a trial scene from Catch-22 (trials are good--you want plenty of dialogue), and sure enough, the very part of Huck Finn that Twain thought worked best in front of an audience.

I should add that Huck used the "N-word" in this selection.  I performed it, sometimes in front of African-Americans.  I wasn't embarrassed because I knew that was how Huck would talk in those days, and, more important, the word is being used ironically.  Huck is losing the argument with Jim, and is exasperated, and so uses the word that signifies white supremacy when it fits even less than usual (not that it ever fits).  It's all but unimaginable this could happen today. I don't consider that progress.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


The plan is to replace Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill.  Forget that he was a Founder who helped set up our economic system, he's got the wrong genitalia and must go.

So the Treasury is casting about for a woman to put on the bill.  And the leading name in the latest poll, with 27%, is Eleanor Roosevelt.  Really? I think we can do better than that.  The main thing she did, after all, was marry a guy.

Second place is Harriet Tubman with 17%. Not a bad choice.  She's no Hamilton, but she did something great against tough odds.

Third is Sacagawea with 13%. This is just stupid.  She's already on our money, let's find someone new.

Next is Susan B. Anthony, with 11%.  See Sacagawea.

Fifth place is Sandra Day O'Connor with 4%.  As the first female Supreme Court Justice, this is the best suggestion yet.  The strongest argument against her is she's still alive, and maybe we should only honor those who have left us. On the other hand, she can show up at the launching ceremony.  And it would be neat to get footage of her spending herself.

There are other names we might consider, but maybe we should wait a couple years so we can choose the newly-elected President Clinton.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Mel's Rock Pile

Mel Taylor died nine years ago today.  He was drummer for The Ventures.  They may be best remembered for their guitars, but you need that beat underneath to make it work.

Monday, August 10, 2015

I was expecting better art to accompany the story

Old Holmes Week

I predict "Mr Holmes" will make it into LAGuy's annual film review.

That ought to up my average.

ColumbusGal and I enjoyed "Mr. Holmes" quite a bit. Just a sweet little movie, but at least it wasn't a Trainwreck.

Kurt Blurt

As long as we're talking about Kurt Vonnegut, let me refer you to this delightful interview he gave to the Paris Review about his life and his writing.  Actually, it's not an interview.  As Vonnegut admits, it's four interviews patched together and then rewritten--questions and all--by Vonnegut himself.  It's essentially a piece by Vonnegut disguised as an interview (a form, incidentally, he uses in one of his short stories in a book discussed yesterday, While Mortals Sleep).

Here's an excerpts where he talks about his trade.

If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.

Can you give an example?

The Gothic novel. Dozens of the things are published every year, and they all sell. My friend Borden Deal recently wrote a Gothic novel for the fun of it, and I asked him what the plot was, and he said, “A young woman takes a job in an old house and gets the pants scared off her.”

Some more examples?

The others aren’t that much fun to describe: somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way; a virtuous person is falsely accused of sin; a sinful person is believed to be virtuous; a person faces a challenge bravely, and succeeds or fails; a person lies, a person steals, a person kills, a person commits fornication.

If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.
I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—

And what they want.

Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.


Trade. Carpenters build houses. Storytellers use a reader’s leisure time in such a way that the reader will not feel that his time has been wasted. Mechanics fix automobiles.

Surely talent is required?

In all those fields. I was a Saab dealer on Cape Cod for a while, and I enrolled in their mechanic’s school, and they threw me out of their mechanic’s school. No talent.

Sunday, August 09, 2015


I think it does not mean what you think it means. It should be:

Curt Kurt

Kurt Vonnegut is best known as a novelist, but he started as a short story writer.  Not surprising, since it was how many writers from the World War II era broke in.  Indeed, he made a decent living at it (and almost went broke when the market crashed). This was an age, after all, just before TV took over--when people would sit down with the latest magazine and spend an hour or so lost in another world.

And Vonnegut's writing from this age is highly entertaining--as it had to be if he wanted to break into the slicks.  There are solid plots with well-drawn characters who have clear motivations, and often a surprise ending.

The collection of his best stories is Welcome To The Monkey House.  Vonnegut would have been the first to tell you these pieces don't have the depth or meaning of his novels, but as far as keeping you enthralled, they're hard to beat.

Some years later, someone finally collected his uncollected stories and published Bagombo Snuff Box.  Not bad, but you can see why they didn't make the original cut.

Vonnegut died in 2007 but his books still sold.  With no new material coming out, two collections of his unpublished short stories were released, Look At The Birdie and While Mortals Sleep.  These books, which I've just read, give readers the chance to see a young author struggling with themes he'd revisit and working on a style he'd perfect.

These are writings which someone--Vonnegut or publishers--didn't quite think had it.  They were right.  They're not hopeless, and are even entertaining, but while reading them one can hear the faint sound of a barrel bottom being scraped.

So if you've read everything else, go ahead. Otherwise, there's much better Vonnegut to discover. (How's that for a review without actually going into any of the material?)

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Uverse and Uporn

More serendipity. Drudge teases that Youporn is going with the immersive porn virtual experience--news from 1979?--while AT&T markets, "How To Keep a Virtual Eye On Your Babysitter." Funny, my babysitters tended to be 60 year old women.

Camille and John, sittin' in a tree

"Kasich is a mensch in a party of parakeets"

That pretty much leaves me balked. I love Camille, who doesn't, but I'll have to work on that one awhile. When I get time.

Three Score

Ali Score turns 60 today.  Why should you care?  Because he's the drummer for A Flock Of Seagulls.  A life well lived.

Friday, August 07, 2015

We love Kim! We love Kim!

He isn’t the culmination of the new conservative movement; he’s its wrecking ball. 

Update: How does the Ohio paper put it? "No Trump-bashing from Kasich at GOP debate"

Pretty good, when your mission is to get the name "Kasich" into the headline.

Who can go the distance? We'll find out.

Looking at this, the only ones I see that seem plausible are Bush, Cruz, Walker, and, can it be, Kasich? I'd like to think Perry but I'm afraid that's hope over experience, and I don't see the others managing it. I suppose most think Rubio and Christie are plausible, but I don't see it.

I refuse to believe Bush will be president, just as I refuse to believe Clinton will. Ain't gonna happen.

On the other hand, I look at this photo and the two things that stand out are (a) Christie needs a tailor or he's going to look short, in addition to looking like a fat guy who lost a lot of weight, and (b) boy, is Kasich a slouch.

If You've Got The Spacetime

I missed the first season of Rick And Morty, but I heard good things.  I actually first saw them when their show took over the couch gag in a Simpsons earlier this year.  I've been watching episodes since its second season started a few weeks ago--and have been catching up On Demand with older episodes.  I'm enjoying it quite a bit.

Airing on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, the basic concept is simple--Rick is a sociopathic, alcoholic, mad genius capable of inter-dimensional travel.  Morty is his goodhearted teenage grandson.  They live with Morty's parents, Jerry--a loser--and Beth--a horse surgeon--as well as Summer, his older sister, a superficial teenager.  Domestic drama is mixed with sci-fi adventure.

The main conflict centers on Rick's condescension and abuse versus Morty's purity and cluelessness as they travel through space and time.  The plots are fairly complex, such as the season opener.  The last season had ended with Rick stopping time so his grandkids could clean up the house before their parents returned.  When he started time again, however, it split into 2, then 4, then up to 64 different timelines, all shown simultaneously, until they were able to put things back together.

If the show is reminiscent of anything, it would be Futurama--another animated sci-fi sitcom.  But Rick and Morty feels lighter.  And, oddly, considering how hateful these characters might seem on paper, I find them generally more sympathetic.  Morty is quite sweet and his grandfather, for all the insults, seems to really care about him.

The show is created by Justin Roiland--it started as a short he made--and Dan Harmon, who came up with Community.  Roiland supplies the voices of the title characters and Harmon, I assume, is on board to ensure professional writing standards. However they do it, it works.  It's not as good as Community, or The Simpsons at their best, but it's nice to have a new comedy around worth checking out.

Thursday, August 06, 2015


Her almost daunting intelligence

Has there ever been a dear more doomed to live so wholly divorced from reality? (After Evgenia Peretz, I mean)

Robert Wreck

Robert Reich has some analysis of the opposition against the "ruling class" as symbolized by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  Don't worry about it, it's not that different from what you've been hearing elsewhere, if more than usually loaded with bias.

What fascinates me is how he expresses his bias.  I'll ignore his historical analysis (basically he says the public is mad because the government hasn't been leftist enough) and focus on thes unhappiness with our leaders, which he notes "has taken two quite different forms."

First there's the right:

On the right are the wreckers. The Tea Party, which emerged soon after the Wall Street bailout, has been intent on stopping government in its tracks and overthrowing a ruling class it sees as rotten to the core.

So Trump is the Tea Party candidate?  News to me.  And Republicans (Democrats too) have been running anti-Washington campaigns for a lot longer than the Tea Party's been around, but Reich claims this time it's somehow different.

Anyway, got it, Republicans want to stop government and overthrow the ruling class.

And the left? 

On the left are the rebuilders. The Occupy movement, which also emerged from the Wall Street bailout, was intent on displacing the ruling class and rebuilding our political-economic system from the ground up.

Ah, the sweet, reasonable left, as symbolized by the Occupy movement, only wishing to displace the ruling class and rebuild our system.  Who could be against that?

Remind me, please, how you rebuild "from the ground up"?  I'm pretty sure it starts by purchasing a wrecking ball.

So don't forget, when the Right wants a new government, it's to burn everything down.   When the Left wants a new government, it's hope and change, it's fundamental transformation, it's sweetness and light, but never, ever call it destructive.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

That's quite a back order

The Hope To Run Out Of Steam

Sorta bad, sorta expected news: Community's sixth season was its last.  At least, that's what star Joel McHale says.

[Yahoo] wanted to. But all of our contracts were up after six years. All the actors on the show, almost without exception — their stock has risen significantly and it’s out of the pay rate that is affordable to make the show. So you’re not going to be able to get Alison Brie or Gillian Jacobs at a normal television salary anymore. There is just not enough money to be able to pay for the show

Not surprising.  I wasn't aware of the economics of the show at Yahoo (where it spent its sixth season), but with an already fractured cast, it seemed they couldn't afford to lose even one more of the original Study Group Seven.  Yahoo will not confirm it's over, but I find it hard to believe this is just a negotiating tactic.

I'm not that disappointed.  For one thing, the show ran longer than anyone had a right to expect. If it had been canceled after year one it wouldn't have been a surprise.  Furthermore, as I've explained, the real Community lasted only three seasons.  Everything after that, even when it was good, was only a partial version of the show.

Not that this is the end.  The rallying cry of fans has long been Six Seasons And A Movie.  And I get the feeling the cast and creator Dan Harmon are game for that movie.  The only question is will anyone put up the money.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Star Talk

Ever since the shooting at a theatre playing Trainwreck, star Amy Schumer (who is, indeed, related to Chuck Schumer) has spoken out about guns.

"I’m not sure why this man chose my movie to end those two lives and injure nine others, but it was very personal for me,” Amy Schumer said. “We always find out how the shooter got their gun and it’s always something that never should have happened in the first place.”

She backs a law designed to make it harder for violent criminals and the mentally ill to get guns.  Schumer is far from done speaking out.

These are my first public comments on the issue of gun violence, but I promise you they will not be my last.

I wish they were.  The shooter did a horrible thing, but it would have been no less horrible if he shot up the theatre playing Pixels, in which case, I suppose, we might today be discussing the gun views of Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Josh Gad or Peter Dinklage.

Schumer is certainly free, as a citizen, to speak on any issue she wants.  But her tangential relation to the shooting gives her no special insight or power.  Reporters are not obliged to report on what she says, and we're certainly not obliged to listen.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Old Person's Holmes

I recently posted something about the career of writer-director Billy Wilder.  Many see a demarcation between his earlier films written with Charles Brackett and his later written with I.A.L. Diamond.  This is fair, as far as it goes, but while many pick Brackett as the superior collaborator, I'd say Wilder made great films with both, as well as some great stuff without either.

But there's another line you can draw--a major turning point is his "late" films, that just don't have the zing of his earlier stuff.  Some have made a case for these later films (auteurists love it when directors slow down and revisit old themes), but at the very least he'd lost the zeitgeist.  When a popular artist no longer makes hits, there's a good chance something is missing.

All of this is prologue to seeing one of his later films--The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes--in a theatre recently.   I consider it his first "late" film.  Seeing it on TV years ago, I was not impressed.  Have my impressions (or have I) changed?

A little.

It's no classic--whereas the last of his old-style films, The Fortune Cookie (1966), is a near-classic--but it does have its charms.  Of course, what we're seeing is a hacked-up version of Wilder's intentions.  The original was planned as a three-hour epic but, afraid they had a white elephant, United Artists chopped it to pieces.

The main story deals with a mysterious woman showing up at 221B Baker Street, not knowing who she is or what she's doing there.  Holmes and Watson unravel her story, which takes them into Scotland and a fairly complex plot.

The film is different for Wilder in that, for once, he's not using big names.  His Hollywood career is studded with major stars, and there was talk early on of Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers for Holmes and Watson, but Wilder went with Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely.  I think this is a mistake--there's a reason these two never went on to become big names.

He's also going more for beauty than usual.  He was always a good director with memorable visuals, but he was also efficient, trying to serve the story.  In Sherlock Holmes, there's a lot of location shooting which doesn't add much--may even slow things down a bit.

Above all, of course, there's the writing.  Wilder always wrote clear, forward-moving plots, but he never quite gets his footing in this non-American period piece. He can't help but be entertaining, and even funny occasionally, but it's not the witty, sophisticated, clockwork mystery we expect from Holmes and Watson.

Also, I think Wilder--and Diamond--miscalculated.  Holmes keeps running into his condescending brother, Mycroft (Christopher Lee, biggest name in the cast).  Fine.  But then, as we get near the climax, Mycroft invites Holmes over and explains everything to him. We're here to see Holmes solve the mystery--and be in danger while doing so--not have it handed to him on a silver platter, especially after he's been too stupid to see what's under his nose.

The film was an expensive flop.  Wilder would go on to direct four more films, none of them well-received, none of them major hits.  Perhaps it was the end of the Production Code that did him in.  He'd always been pushing the envelope, so when the envelope disappeared, he seemed more an old man trying to be with it.  Compare Sherlock Holmes to Wilder's Irma La Douce in 1963.  Both are colorful and lengthy, but Irma was Wilder's biggest money maker. It's not a great film, but it's bouncy and fun and deals with a naughty subject--prostitution--that wasn't everyday Hollywood product of the time.  But Holmes comes out in an age of Bonnie And Clyde and Easy Rider, so intimations of drug use and homosexuality didn't titillate as they once might have.

Still--perhaps because of low expectations--I did enjoy it. The film moves along pretty smoothly and goes down easy.  Don't listen to those calling it a lost classic, but you could do a lot worse.

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